Carolyn Hax Live: Advice columnist tackles your problems (Friday, May 10)

May 10, 2013

In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Carolyn was online Friday, May 10, at Noon ET, taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

E-mail Carolyn at

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's forum, home of the Hax-Philes and Hax fans. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

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Hi everybody. Just some advance notice, I won't be chatting Friday May 31. If you think you might have a problem then, try preempting it in the May 24 chat, which will be happening but has to happen earlier in the day (11 sound okay, Haley?) due to a school event for one of the dudes.



Sounds good, Carolyn. Recap:

- May 24 chat is at 11 a.m. ET

- There will be no May 31 chat

I recently read "The Gift of Fear," and was discussing it online with some other readers. I was really bothered when some people said they felt that Gavin De Becker is a victim blamer (specifically in regards to the fact that victims of domestic violence do have a choice of what action to take after being harmed). I had actually agreed with him on that, and thought it was a freeing way to think about the fact that you're never trapped - that you're not stuck as a victim forever. I'm not sure if I was agreeing with misogyny by accident, or if I was just being taken in by keyboard justice warriors with nothing better to police. I wanted your opinion, since I know you recommend the book so frequently.

I've certainly heard (and received) criticism along those lines, but I agree with you that the information de Becker gives is intended to empower people to get out of these bad situations, or ideally prevent them from happening.

To equate that to victim-blaming strikes me as unfair, and also counterproductive, though I can see why some people do it. Where the equation breaks down is in connecting the availability of ways out to blaming people who don't avail themselves of those opportunities. If it were a given that everyone knew and understood what certain danger signs looked like, none of us would miss them. If we all knew where these exit opportunities were or how to take advantage of them, then everyone would get out--and de Becker and his book would have no purpose. He'd just be stating the obvious.

The response to TGoF was and still is huge because people in these situations, or heading into them, tend not to recognize the warning signs and tend not to jump on opportunities to get out--not because they're dumb or self-destructive or addicted to drama or whatever else, but for two simple, external reasons: the way we are socialized, and the skill of abusers at reeling people in.



Is it ever OK to veto one of your SO's friendships? My boyfriend is thinking of getting back in touch with a friend of his who was an alcoholic who self-destructed and refused help-- at which point my boyfriend ended his friendship with him. I do not want an alcoholic in my life, I can't see how this is a good idea, and I'm not comfortable with this at all.

Er, major piece of information missing: Has the friend since gotten sober, or he still abusing?

Be careful, too, how you throw those judgments around. "I do not want an alcoholic in my life" is the kind of thing that inspires people to say, "I do not want judgmental people in my life." Someone who gets and stays sober is still an alcoholic; is that person also unworthy of you?

Hi Carolyn, Long-time reader here...thanks for all the wisdom you've imparted over the years. I'm getting married soon, and I need help dealing with my mother. She has a lot of good qualities, but she also tends to be pretty negative (she's already let me know she doesn't like my wedding dress), criticizes when it's too late to change something, and reacts badly when she feels affronted, which is often (for example, she screamed at and then hung up on me when she found out a wedding detail from a cousin instead of from me and then gave me two days of the silent treatment when I tried to apologize). Of course, when she does these things, it makes me feel awful. I do want to share my wedding day with my mother, but I'm terrified that she's going to act in a way that really hurts me right before I walk down the aisle. Is there any way I can set behavioral expectations ahead of time (in a way that won't make her angry) or should I just grin and bear whatever she throws at me?

I'm going to go with (c) Develop a better understanding of, and emotional resilience with, your mother. There's no "of course" here, and it's not inevitable that she "makes me feel awful." To see it that way is to give her power over you when you can claim that power yourself. It's to take it personally when your mom takes these shots at you, when in fact none of them is about you.

Instead, they're all pathetic announcements about herself. Who lets a bride-to-be know she doesn't like her dress? Someone who is too emotionally stunted to even be happy for her own daughter. Really, that's  some sorry stuff (translation: If you're the center of attention, then *gasp* she can't be!!). As too is the screaming about learning details from a cousin (translation: "Everyone must think I'm out of the loop for the wedding plans, how embarrassing!!!"), as too is criticizing when it's too late to change something (translation: She gets the last word).

So, you say you're "terrified that she's going to act in a way that really hurts me right before I walk down the aisle." Try looking at it through the lens I'm offering, and see what you see.



From here I see:

1. You can count on her to try to undermine you right as you head down the aisle. She has to do it. It's where she is,  emotionally.

2. It will be lousy for you, since who wants that kind of crud pie from their own mother, but ultimately it will be even lousier for her. She is unable to find joy in the places we humans reliably find it; all get gets is insecurity and anxiety. Would you want to be in her place?

3. Her need to tear you down to build herself up is an inevitability you can plan for. You can adopt a mantra, for example--"She does this because she's needy, and it's not about me." You can talk to a good family therapist. You can develop responses that deflect barbs that used to wound you. (A cheery, "There you go again!" or even "Thanks, Mom!" will not only deny her the impact she seeks, but also might confuse her. And it'll keep the tone cheerful, which is probably something your exchanges haven't been for a while.

Whatever you do, don't get caught up in the business of trying to preempt her attacks. That will just frustrate you and, worse, invest you in preventing the attacks (which puts her in control) instead of brushing them off (which puts you in control). Congrats, good luck and have fun with the rest of this unusual phase of life. 

Your column today resonated with me as I've had much the same thing happen on both ends, where I was going through a rough patch for a few months and not maintaining friendships well and then had one of my then-closest friends decide this was grounds for abruptly and completely cutting off communication. Fast forward to now, 5 years later when I got a surprise voicemail from them. I may or may not be interested in resuming the friendship. If I understand you correctly, are you saying that the most important thing is to make sure to hash out what happened and set terms before doing so, along with if those terms end up not being met to explain why you appreciated getting back in touch but that it's not going to be possible to be friends?

Thanks for the Q. I wouldn't advise the same thing in your situation that I did today because there was a distinct difference in the details. The rough-patch friend in today's column dropped off the face of the earth twice, not once as each of you did, and the rough patch lasted for years, not months as yours did. I think these matter.

The advice that isn't dependent on details is to listen carefully to what your friend says; combine that with what she has done and decide how you want to proceed based on these; and be clear about that with your friend.


My new friend is in her early twenties and lost her mother some years ago. We see each other many times a week and usually talk freely about our lives, feelings, etc., but I don't know what (if anything) to say about Mother's Day. I'd like to acknowledge her loss in some way, but only if it won't make things worse! What should I say or do?

Saying something that stirs up someone's tears doesn't "make things worse," it just brings just-as-bad-as-always temporarily to the surface. In fact, I'd say that unless you're going to mock her or treat her as radioactive, there aren't many ways you can "make things worse."

Since you talk freely about your lives and feelings, just do that. "Do you have a way that you like to handle Mother's Day? I imagine it's tough for you."

Hi Carolyn, I do not like my father-in-law. He's rude, crass, obnoxious, argumentative and prone to flying into a rage over inconsequential matters. He also hugs me a bit too close and too long and has been caught looking at porn on our family computer. I haven't shared my feelings with my husband because 1) saying "I don't like your dad" just seems mean and 2) he's aware of his dad's faults and works hard to make sure he never repeats them. My question is, how do I deal with my feelings during the inevitable family get togethers this summer?

Share only what needs family action. "I don't like your dad" is not useful information to exchange, because, what's your husband going to do about that?

Apparently, though, you need to keep him off the family computer--just for example. So, approach your husband about that. If the hugs are more than just a semiannual nuisance, then say you're uncomfortable with them because of X, and you'd like his opinion on how to deal with them. 

This will not only avoid adding to your husband's existing dad-burden, but it will also help if/when you need to take a real stand on dad's behavior. If you've already made it his problem that his dad is merely obnoxious, then you're not likely to get as much of your husband's support, or benefit from it as much, if the dad ever crosses a more serious line.  


Hi Carolyn--one of my friends had a terrible experience this spring that resulted in the sudden death of her full term unborn baby. It has been a really hellish time for them but they (and we) have been getting through it together and things are better than they were at this time a few months ago. My question is about Mother's Day. I imagine it's especially painful since they fully expected to be enjoying their first one, and TV, internet, etc is full of nothing but reminders of how wonderful moms are. As a close friend, should I say anything? Wishing her Happy Mother's Day seems a bit cruel almost and I worry about how to convey the right tone, but not mentioning it seems to ignore her daughter and my friend's real role as her mom. How would you handle this? Thank you

That's awful, I'm so sorry.

I think some flowers and a note, or just a note. She found out in the cruelest way possible what it means to be a mother, and how much strength it takes. Knowing a friend understands that might help her deal with the barrage of M-Day reminders. Even just, "Thinking of you today" is better than crickets.


Why can't people just accept the "it's not you, it's me" explanation for friendship interruptions? "I'm sorry, I need to work this through by myself, and I'll be back in touch when I get my head above water." What's so terrible and hurtful about that?

I got the impression the "I'm sorry, I need to work this through by myself, and I'll be back in touch when I get my head above water" message never got sent, and instead the friend was treated to the kind of silence that sends one checking the obits. In that case, "terrible and hurtful" fits.

For what it's worth, in cases where someone is too depressed to write even a measly  "I'm sorry, I need to work this through by myself, and I'll be back in touch when I get my head above water" email, an after-the-fact delivery of same works for me.  

No. the only thing it is OK to do is to remove yourself from situations you don't want to be in. You cannot control anything another person does/says/thinks. I believe this is Rule #1 of Hax. And to quote Monty Python, Rule 2, same as Rule 1.

Yep, that, thanks.

You do have the right, in exceptional situations, to object strenuously (reference to a different kind of comedy) and ask that an SO end a friendship. The classic example is someone your SO cheated on you with, or someone else who deliberately tried to harm you or the relationship. If you are not personally injured by this objectionable friend, then I see the bar as pretty high--abuse, for example. Child pornography. Animal cruelty. 

Of course, when you get to any of these points, you're often right back to "remove yourself from situations you don't want to be in."

There is NO Rule no. 6.

I think a good rule to follow is this: if your friend is trying to reestablish a friendship or doesn't realize something is wrong or is going through life without realizing you've already checked out and there's nothing Friend can do about it, then it's a good thing to say something. I had a close friend abruptly turn hostile and I truly had (have) no idea why. It was confusing and hurtful and an explanation would have been welcome, if difficult to hear. But if, on the other hand, friends simply grow apart or a friend doesn't seem to notice when you start to pull away, then there's really no need for a big formal breakup or "demotion."

Right, thanks--the grow-apart, drift-away and mutual-neglect finales don't need to be announced.

Also, the writer says, "I do not want an alcoholic in my life". Well, just because her boyfriend is going to see his former friend, doesn't mean she needs to. Do they not ever socialize apart?

True. If experience tells her, though, that an innocent-sounding "going to see his former friend" will quickly morph into receiving wee-hours phones calls to bail out a still-drinking alcoholic friend, then I think a little leeway on this is fair.

Dear Carolyn, I have three children under the age of 8 and two nieces and a nephew who are a bit older, ages 8-15. Last summer, my niece and nephew both participated in travel sports, which meant that nearly every weekend from about now until July (depending on if they made the finals) their family was on the road for these sports. I know that each family should do what is best for them, but this kind of involvement affects our entire family. Our parents are getting older and really cherish time spent with all of us together. This weekend I tried to put together a Mother's Day brunch, but it was the first tournament of the year for both kids and the family will be gone from Friday to late Sunday night. Our parents 55th wedding anniversary is in June, and my sister already said they cannot celebrate it on a weekend, and the best they could do is a family dinner on a Tuesday (the anniversary is on a Sunday). I wish I could explain to my sister that health, fitness, and sports are important, but she is encouraging her kids to sacrifice family time to participate. My own kids are in sports, too, but they are not nearly to this level of crazed involvement. My parents would never say anything to her, but it is hard for me to bite my tongue every time she talks about an "awesome" job her kids did at a tournament. What should I do? Discuss this issue with her, or try my best to let it go? How much should I visit my parents to make up for her absence?

Please stop making this about your sister's priorities or the way she's raising her kids. That's not your business, and judging her will only make a superficial scheduling problem into a much deeper, more hurtful feud.

Besides, taking that on will pretty much guarantee one of your now-little kids will blossom into a surprising talent at some Time Consuming Pursuit, and you will be snacking on your current outrage until your own 55th.

Instead, tell your sister that you'd like to set a time for the two of you, calendars in hand/on screen, to figure out a time that would work for the whole famiy to get together. Even if no one's kids are travel athletes, it's typical for three separate families to have a hard time getting their free time to line up just so, and that gives you two choices. You can hold fast to your special dates and open yourself to all kinds of frustration, or you can embrace the idea that sometimes Christmas will be in January and your parents' anniversary will come a month or two early or late. You, after all, in a way are sacrificing family time by insisting that you honor your mother on Mother's Day instead of putting together your brunch on a day when everyone can be there. 

having a PBJ emergency, back in 5 ...

Do you still feel that the way a person handles their dog is a good indicator of what kind of parent they'll be? Because if that's true my kids are going to be kitten-throttling serial killers. The dogs have too many toys, I plan most vacations so I can bring them along, and I have a habit of praising them for existing. If I'm reading a book on the couch and one of them comes over all waggy, I'll put down my book in a heartbeat to lavish unearned adoration on them. This means my kids are going to be entitled, self-centered, unsympathetic, instant-gratification-focused nightmares, right? And they probably won't run the vacuum, either.

I do still think that.

And if you plan to treat any children the exact same way you treat your dogs, then, yes, your kids will be messed up, assuming CPS doesn't take them away after your neighbor reports you for letting them outside to poop in the yard.

Treating your dogs in a way that's right for dogs, though, usually means you'll treat kids in a way that's right for kids, so it's a fine indicator.



If Mother is inevitably going to sabotage you right as you go down the aisle the clear thing to do would be to avoid talking to her right before you walk down the aisle. A wedding is a very busy day, so there should be some way to give her a role of importance that would let her get some attention, and pull her focus off you. Put her in charge of greeting the minister, or ensuring elderly relatives get to their assigned seats, and then tell her that you want her to have 'the best view' from in front. Or, if you are having your parents escort you down the aisle, add a bit where they come in from the sides, escorted by an usher or young relative and meet you at the top of the aisle.

A lovely gift for the bride, thank you.

I lost my mother young and was raised not to celebrate Mother's or Father's Day (my dad thought they were too commercialized). So I have no associations with them other than as a day to avoid restaurants. For some of us, it's just another Sunday.

Right--same as in my childhood home. And that's how you can respond to the query I proposed. In the interest of showing you appreciate that your friend is trying to understand you better, you can also then say which days or situations do tend to matter to you.

Carolyn, I know how you feel about ultimatums, and I agree with you. But what's the alternative when one partner proposes something to which the other is strongly opposed? My husband is proposing that he go on vacation solo (not with friends, etc.--just alone for the hell of it) for two weeks this summer. I think it's an incredibly selfish idea for two reasons: one, we have zero dollars in the bank, so he would be charging it to our credit card and thus making our precarious financial position even more so; two, it would be leaving me alone with our two children (ages one and two-and-a-half)... for the third time in twelve months (the other trips were semi-business, semi-pleasure). He feels entitled to the vacation because I wanted children more than he did and because he is the sole breadwinner. (For the record, he is a loving and attentive father, albeit one who almost never changes a diaper.) How do I convey to him what a complete (glass bowl) this idea makes him without actually threatening to leave him?

Whatever he decides to do about the two weeks, it won't change the fact that he's looking out for himself, not you or the kids or the marriage; reckless about money; blind to the hard work it takes to be around young children ... I could go on now but I'm sure you get the point.

This is a seriously precarious position for you to be in, with two littles and no income.

So my primary advice is for you to look past the vacation for a moment, and start thinking of how you can get yourself on more solid footing. It's common for parents to complain that working would mean most of their income goes to child care, and that does certainly happen, but looking at it that way fails to account for the value of workplace continuity. Another issue is the quality of that care; that's a legitimate deal-breaker (and a shame on our society --a devastating story at this link)

Making sure you can support yourself should that need arise is important for everyone, male/female/parent/non-parent, but given your combo--0 savings, entitled spouse--means you need a five-year plan. Heck, a one-year plan.


Now, how you deal with the vacation is a matter of what your limits are. If he goes, will you want to leave the marriage? Then make it clear you find this idea of his dismissive of the hard work you do with the kids, financially reckless, and all about him when he's the one who chose to be a husband and a father.

If he starts making reservations anyway, then ask him to move out. (See "one-year plan," above.)

If instead you'll be very angry but not enough to divorce him, then that's what you spell out--that his focusing on  himself vs. you and the family will likely do permanent damage. ... meaning you'll still need to give some thought to a possible future without him down the road, since unaddressed anger rarely dissipates.

It's also time to start taking some equivalent time for you. He's the sole breadwinner, sure, but you're essentially the sole caregiver. Say he does take his two weeks. You can skip the [glass bowl] avenue and respond by saying, okay, you're going to take your two weeks off, too, in 4-hour increments every Sunday morning. It'll give you a needed break; over the course of a year, it'll still be less than he took, hour-by-hour, which should satisfy his sense of primacy; and, most important, it'll put him on diaper duty, fer poop's sake. I reject the idea that someone who leaves the stinky stuff for the co-parent can be a good parent. Parents who are only superficially involved usually turn out to be only superficially invested (as you know all too well).


Although I suspect the OP was being facetious, I do think it is worth noting that in my experience, not disciplining/training your dog can translate to not setting boundaries for your kids. Personally, I don't think there is anything more annoying than a dog/child (of a certain age) that is spoiled rotten and does whatever they want - be it jumping on people and eating off of people plates or interrupting every conversation to say "look at me" and eating while jumping on the couch. Both groups benefit from (and want) some boundaries/discipline. [saying this while sitting in my own pile of furry felines and canines]

That was the point of my original, long-ago comment--thanks for bringing it up. Short version, I was connecting a willingness to train one's pets to a willingness to set boundaries for eventual kids. 

But it really ends up meaning that one family essentially controls the dates because they are SO booked (the LW's sister was booked from now through July!).. We specifically keep a few weekends free to catch up on errands, relax, etc., but my family member gets annoyed when we don't jump at the few days (hours) his family is actually available outside of their sports commitments. Frustrating!

Sure, the busier people do tend to drive the schedule, but the problem I see here isn't that--that's just life, and the bigger person doesn't bean-count.

Think about it--some pursuits are more time-consuming than others. Is that cause for judging? Some families have more kids than others, and logically have more stuff on their calendars. Is that cause for judging? Some people enjoy being busy on weekends more than they do "catch[ing] up on errands and relax[ing]." Is that cause for judging?

It's no-win, so I strongly advise no-play. 

The problem here is that the busy family gets annoyed when others don't jump. That's their bigger-person prescription, and they're not taking it. 

Still, the response to that is to say, "Hey, we all do what we can--we'll make it work next time." Never pass up a chance to pass up a chance at a pissing contest.


Sure, I see how "Don't do X or I will leave you" is an ultimatum, and if you aren't prepared to leave when he inevitably does X, then setting forth the ultimatum was a bad idea. But what about this - Honestly informing your husband that if he goes on this vacation, your faith in him as a husband, father, and provider (the one thing of the three that he seems not to be 100% terrible and useless at) will be shaken to the core, and you're unsure of how said faith will recover, if it ever does, from this sickeningly selfish display isn't an ultimatum. It's the truth. I'm not sure whether I'd recommend parenting classes + marriage counseling first, lawyer second, or lawyer first, nothing second because of just how completely selfish, self centered, and practically purposely clueless this guy seems from the letter.

I see your point, and I agree with almost all of it. The reason I advise strongly against ultimatums is one you didn't include, though you gave good examples to illustrate it. "Honestly informing your husband that if he goes on this vacation, your faith in him as a husband, father, and provider (the one thing of the three that he seems not to be 100% terrible and useless at) will be shaken to the core, and you're unsure of how said faith will recover, if it ever does, from this sickeningly selfish display isn't an ultimatum." Yes, that's correct, as is, ""Don't do X or I will leave you" is an ultimatum."

When you include the "or I will leave you," then you set a process in motion that denies you extremely valuable information. Your non-ultimatum version says you will lose soemthing crucial if the other person makes a particular choice, but the ultimatum version says he stands to lose something crucial. Laying out the first way will then show you whether your feelings and needs mean anything to the other person. All you get from the ultimatum version is that he doesn't want to lose out in the deal. So, in essence, you could end up with him abandoning the vacation because he doesn't want the hassle of a divorce, which doesn't seem to be much of a prize.

Alternate suggestions coming:

Well, I'm paranoid for obvious reasons but insisting on solo vacations (because he deserved it), including semi-business ones, happened before I found out my (now ex) was cheating on me. Not going into gory details.

I think she should let him go. Who knows what is going on inside his head, maybe he's about to snap. Right or wrong this guy sounds like he is seriously in a situation he doesn't want to be in. The statement about her (and not him) wanting the children is the scary part. Three solo vacations in a year, this is not normal. Give him the relief and when he gets back figure out how to resolve this (even if that means separating or divorcing). I feel like she is describing a situation where something horrible happens and then in hindsight people say they should've known this person was in over his head. He sounds like he wants out and forcing someone to stay in by calling them a glassbowl sounds beyond stupid to me.

My husband is the same way, the only difference is I work. He was so into himself and his need for time - time for the gym, time to golf, time to fish... Ultimately, I laid it all out for him - how hard I work, how stressed I was, and how I needed time to myself as well. And he got it. His weeklong golf vacation became my Christmas gift to him. I no longer harbor resentment since I know it's what he wants, and it is my gift to him. This summer, its two weeks on a motorcycle ride. But with these gifts comes the understanding that I too, need my time. Last year my birthday gift from him was a trip to my sisters, time of my choosing - he knew it was what I wanted. My advice is find a way to convey that you understand his need for alone time, but you deserve some as well.

Carolyn, I can see your point about making family get-togethers a priority and working around people with difficult schedules so the entire family can be together. My problem with this is that the LW's sister is always making everyone schedule around her because of her kids' sports. Once in awhile is understandable, but if you're always having to adhere to one person's schedule to the detriment of your own, how is that fair? I hate to say it, but tournament sports are not the end-all, be-all of existence and children should be able to miss a game once in awhile to attend important family gatherings. Case in point: my brother and his family missed my wedding (and told me they were skipping it 2 days before the big day) because his daughter had to play soccer out of town. You can imagine the stress it put on a bride to find out that 5 people weren't coming. His excuse was that "family is important" and he "needed to be there for his daughter." It's fine to try to compromise, but I think it's up to parents to teach their kids that family is important and sometimes we make (minor) sacrifices to be with our families.

The example you give is so extreme--five people ditching a wedding  two days prior when only one has a tournament?!--that its plot point is off the graph paper and onto the kichen chair.

It's not fair when you're "always having to adhere to one person's schedule to the detriment of your own," yes, so you just have a few events without the busy people sometimes. I'm merely saying that if it's important to you (as it was the original LW) to get the whole family together, then you sit down with that family's calendar-keeper and pick those dates that way. 

Other than my family I don't have any life-long relationships. To be fair I would consider my sister as my best friend. I have had best friends over different periods of time and I've had loves but never married. I thought I was normal but now I am wondering if I am odd for not having anyone that has been with me through everything. Or are most people able to sustain these lifetime relationships? I'm 35 if it matters.

My oldest active friendship dates to high school--so, if you're odd, then I'm odd, too. (Wait, I am odd.)

If you have other reasons to doubt your ability to sustain a friendship, then I'm happy to have another look, or you could just skip the middle-chick and find a good therapist to run it by..

Whoa, time got away from me. That's it for today. Thanks for coming, and hope to see you here next week. 

Lotsa good comments today--if I get a chance I'll post some in a note on FB (link) and on the Hax Forum page. Speaking of which, there's a great reader-initiated roundup of favorite YA lit, off the column from earlier this week (link).


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Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997 as a weekly feature for The Washington Post, accompanied by the work of "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis. The column has since gone daily and into syndication, where it appears in over 200 newspapers. Carolyn joined The Post in 1992 as a copy editor in Style, and became a news editor before turning to writing full-time. She is the author of "Tell Me About It" (Miramax, 2001), and the host of a live online discussion on Fridays at noon on She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.

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