Carolyn Hax Live: I don't want to be "that" mother in law (Friday, Sept. 5)

Sep 05, 2014

Carolyn was online 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.

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Hello everybody, happy Friday.

Just as I was about to hit "send," I noticed that I had typed, "Hell everybody, happy Friday," which I guess also would have been fine. 

Hi Carolyn, welcome back. I'm sure you'll get tons of posts about "bronies" or guys who like My Little Pony. It's a thing! this boy just needs to find his own tribe.

Yes, the bronies have made themselves heard.

And yes to just needing to find one's tribe, but boy can there be some pain lurking in that simple concept and phrasing. I think a good general rule, with kids' social lives, is not to get more worried/upset than the children themselves are, but the even the most self-assured kids and parents are going to be stumped sometimes by the specifics.

Hi, Carolyn. I work from home, which I very much enjoy, but I find that people think it means I'm available to them for things they'd never ask of someone who works in an office. A neighbor wants me to be around whenever her repairman comes by to let him in, an acquaintance feels he can stop by during the day and I'll drop what I'm doing to chat with him, etc. My schedule actually isn't very flexible -- I'm at home but I'm often on calls that I simply can't put on hold, even for just a minute. Any advice on getting this message through to people?

Neighbor: "I wish I could help, but I'm not able to wait for a repairman."

Acquaintance: When you're unable to chat, don't answer the door. You can even follow up afterward: "I saw you dropped by--I couldn't answer the door, I was on a call."


In other words, do your work as your work requires. If people don't get the message, that's their problem.


Online, I signed up for a book club that meets at a local coffee shop. There is a meeting scheduled for today to discuss a book I read recently. At this point, my membership has not been accepted (or rejected). Would it be weird if I showed up anyway? If someone else's membership was accepted since I signed up, do I take that as a de facto rejection?

Wait till you're a member. So you miss one discussion, not a huge sacrifice.

Since last month he is separated (not divorced yet) from his wife (with whom I am friendly). Every day I am hearing about the women he's meeting on Tinder, or the date he's taking to a concert, or what should he wear to a date at X bar... It all makes me extremely uncomfortable. Is there a good way to tell your boss you don't want to hear about their personal life?

I get that you're uncomfortable and why, and I'd be interested to read an answer from someone with workplace expertise (Karla, you out there?), but my instinct says to just ignore this as a problem that will solve itself. 

People who find themselves in radically new circumstances--a separation, a move, a layoff, a diagnosis, a first step out of the closet--often over-talk their way through the scary early phases. Try putting yourself in a position of deliberate compassion and see whether it still bothers you as much. For example, when he starts in on Tinder and date-wear, have a line ready to repeat in your mind: "This is a huge adjustment for him."

Need help on how to address the idea of how demeaning the idea of "leagues" is with someone... a friend, male, 50-ish, single, is constantly talking about dating women "out of his league" and how lucky he is to be able to get dates with "A level women" and doesn't have to "settle." He is, of course, judging them entirely on looks. He truly thinks he's an enlightened guy but ends up wondering why these relationships never amount to anything. I've suggested a "B list" woman might be a better long term partner (which is what he says he is looking for). Do I even try to tell him his attitude is cuasing him to miss out on getting to know quality women? And that seeing women as some sort of prize would repel most reasonable women? Or should I give up to save all the nice "B list" women from having to deal with someone who would see them as "settling?"

"Did you really use the term 'A-level women'? Good thing I didn't just eat." Any further discussion dignifies the inane.

Hi Carolyn-- I know that my daughter in law reads your columns, so I thought I'd try this route. I've upset her deeply, but am not sure exactly why. My daughter is a stay-at-home mom. For my husband's birthday (my son's father), she kindly offered to watch their sixteen month old son for the long weekend while they went on a special father-son hike. I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for just us girls to spend time together. I also don't drive much and don't love being home alone when my husband is gone. For these reasons, I suggested that I also drive up with my husband (about 8 hours) and help her out. In no uncertain terms, she said that would "not be the best thing" and gave a few reasons why it probably wouldn't work out. I considered them and thought I could deal with some of the things she pointed out (a few health issues I have). Well, I surprised my son and daughter in law by coming up anyway. Much to my dismay, when my daughter in law saw me, she burst into tears and ran out of the room. My son wasn't pleased with me nor was my husband who "thought I had worked it all out." My daughter in law ended up pulling it together and was cordial, but distant for the duration of the long weekend. I enjoyed seeing my grandson, but I left feeling very unwanted and unloved when all I wanted to do was see my grandson and be close to my family. What exactly did I do that was so bad? How do I remedy a situation when I don't know exactly what the issue is? I don't want to be "that" mother in law. Thank you

The issue is that you crossed a huge boundary when you showed up unannounced, and showed zero respect for your daughter-in-law's wishes. She wanted to be alone with her child for the weekend. That was her choice to make, and certainly there can be a thousand reasons for it that had nothing to do with you. Maybe she just wanted to live by her own rhythms for a couple of days. Maybe she had some girl time planned with friends. Maybe she and your son has been going through a rough patch and she just wanted to clear her head for a couple of days.

Instead, she had to host you, something she distinctly said she didn't want. If she didn't have any problem with you before, she certainly did after this.

Yes, she gave you reasons to stay home that you thought were surmountable, but (a) they were her reasons, so it wasn't your place to decide whether they were valid or not; and (b) maybe they were just polite, made-up reasons because she wasn't ready or able to share what the real reasons were. And, (c) you didn't even allow her any say in your Plan B!

Regardless of the specifics on her end--and, as I said, the possible explanations are almost endless, so mine are just a few examples--you decided that your wants and needs were the only things that mattered and just steamrolled her wants and needs completely, as if it was (and remains) amazing to you that she actually might have them. 

And -that- is what you have to apologize for, fully , immediately and without anything resembling a defense of what you did, which means no "but I thought ..." constructions.

In fact, your violation was so complete that I think you have to go beyond an apology and offer to make it up to her somehow:

"I see now that I imposed myself on you unforgivably, so I'd like to give you a makeup weekend somehow--we'll watch the baby while you and Son get away, or we'll treat you to a weekend away for the three of you." If you can't manage the trip or afford the gift, then send a gift card to a restaurant they like. Something, anything tangible. ASAP.

When my husband first moved in with me while we were dating, he was a weekend laundry guy. I work from home and like having my weekends free for play, so I offered to do his laundry for him when I do mine. At first, he was immensely grateful and was OK with my occasional bad habit of forgetting the last load in the dryer. Now, almost 10 years later, he'll be getting ready for work and growl about how such-and-such shirt is missing and I end up getting it from the dryer downstairs. I've told him that he may want to check the dryer when he gets home on laundry days to see if there's anything that needs to come upstairs, but his response has been that since I have volunteered to take on laundry, it's all my responsibility. Does that sound as awful to you as it does to me? It sounds like he's trying to teach his child a lesson rather than help me out when I'm doing him a favor.

Yes, it sounds as awful to me as it does to you.

"You're right. But since I volunteered for laundry 10 years ago, I think it's time for another look at the division of labor around the house."

That has to go both ways, though, where you both look objectively at what the other contributes. Make lists, be open-minded, resist the impulse to minimize one chore vs another, and concentrate on matching the chore with the person who minds doing it least.

Just contact the club to ask. Too many people take inaction as slights when really it's just lack of organization on someone else's part.

Eh--maybe, but allow time for the process first. One person's rational follow-up is another's nuisance. 

As an organizer and participant of the type of group you're referring to, don't go. There can be some weird algorithms that go into achieving a critical mass for the right kind of discussion without overwhelming the host/venue. And showing up unannounced/uninvited isn't going to endear you to the organizer(s). Maybe it's a disorganized group and you'd be adding to the chaos by just showing up. Maybe they like to do some due diligence with prospective members and you should wait to be accepted or contacted. Whatever the case, disregarding their membership guidelines is a faux pas. TL/DR: Having online access to a group/person doesn't give you in-person access. If a meatspace invitation isn't granted, move on.

Or this. Thanks.

Stay tuned--just got locked out of the Q I was answering ...

Hi Carolyn - I have a 11 year old son who is absolutely wonderful. He is happy, well-behaved, active, independent and funny as can be. He is athletic, has friends, and does well in school. My concern is that he is very small for his age. He is much shorter than many neighborhood kids who are much younger than he is. I worry that he is getting teased in school and/or feeling really down on himself about it - he is not a big talker and doesn't share things with me or my husband. I recently instituted a "Best/Worst" conversation at dinnertime where we each talk about the best and worst part of the day. I also ask him if there are bullies at school or anybody who is mean to the other kids. He never admits to there being any issues at all. I tell him problems I had when I was his age, and still, nothing.  I don't want to introduce a concern that is mine and not his ("Do people say anything to you about being short?"). But I don't want to be naive and pretend this isn't an issue. Certainly, it will become an even greater issue in the coming years and I worry about how this will impact him. I even briefly considered starting him on those growth hormone shots when he was younger, but my husband adamantly refused to go there. How would you handle this? Thanks so much!

If I'm reading this correctly, than you're the only one currently concerned about his height--so I'm going with "your issue," with an asterisk.

Please back off it, even the tentative steps you've taken to this point. (Except the Best/Worst, since that's generic enough for him to guide the topic.) While it's fine to ask your child whether there are bullies at school--though even then I'd watch the lingo, since labeling is a key ingredient of bully culture--it makes sense only if it's part of a full menu of conversation topics. Kids are quick to pick up on the fact that Mom asked about bullies and then talked about her problems when she was my age so she must think I'm being picked on.

The asterisk: Certainly you want to keep talking about his growth with his pediatrician; I'm not saying you should drop the issue entirely. You just need to stop poking around for information from your kid. Even if he starts to show signs of being picked on, I suggest taking it up with his teacher(s) before even gently interrogating him.

And, finally, part of his ability to accept whatever comes, whether it's teasing about his height or any number of other hurdles ...actually, I'll change that to most of his ability, will arise from your accepting him as he is. That includes accepting his height, whatever it may be, of course--but possibly even more important, it means accepting that he's not a big talker. You're going to have to look for the truth the way he naturally tells it, which might be in his demeanor, his actions, his schoolwork, etc., and let that be your guide.

I enjoy my engagement ring very much. I didn't pick it out, or even talk about what I wanted; my husband got me what he wanted me to have. But I get a lot of comments and am at a loss for how to respond. I always thought the only comment for something like this was to the effect of "that's a beautiful ring." But people say everything from, "Wow, he must have spent a lot," "He did good" and the worse, "How much did he spend" and "how many carats is it?" How do I shut down the rudeness and still get to wear my ring?

Well, you can control whether you wear your ring, but shutting down rudeness is not up to you. (Though if you figure out how to shut it down, let us know; maybe there's some cosmic switch, like for turning off a circuit panel.)

Responding to rudeness is up to you, should you choose to do that. I don't know; sometimes it sounds a lot more tiring to engage people in any back and forth when someone crosses a line. Changing the subject, even abruptly, raised eyebrow optional, would say all you need to say. 

I'm always so in awe of how oblivious some people can be. This wasn't some hidden message. The daughter-in-law said no; mother-in-law showed up anyway and then was hurt that she wasn't welcomed with open arms. To the OP; if I tell you not to stick your finger up my nose, don't go ahead and jam it up there anyway, no matter how much you think it needs a good pickin'. Thanks!

No no--thank you.

Please tell that mom to watch American Ninja Warrior. A lot of those guys grew up small and discovered that they were super talented at gymnastics, parkour, etc. They are now competing on national TV, seem to be surrounded by lots of friends, etc. Kids have an amazing way of finding their talents if we don't get in the way of telling them their obstacles

I like this so much I feel like I can just skip watching ANW. Ahem.


Dear Carolyn, I was wondering if you had any feelings about stepchildren getting some alone time with their original parents. For the past ten years, I've had very little time with my dad on his own, and now he's moved very far away so I've asked if we could do get-togethers with just us (brother and me - 30 and 28) once per year. He doesn't want to hurt stepmom's feelings but I really want this. Thoughts?

I always have thoughts, but they're not always relevant.

I happen to be with you on this, that sometimes people with an old bond enjoy seeing each other without partners acquired after the fact. This can apply not just with families of origin, but also buddies from childhood, school, military, camp, especially anything that involves immersion in a particular experience.

I also think it's a mistake to bring hurt feelings into it. It's not that you don't like or care about [person added later]; there's just a different chemistry to gatherings of just the old group vs. old group plus current entourages.

But this is where relevance comes in: If your dad doesn't agree with me/us on this, then what can you do? Nothing unilateral, that much we know. You can try spelling out that you like Stepmom just fine, you merely want a little original-family-only immersion. You can make sure you schedule, say, three visits that include Stepmom for every one that doesn't; you can make the just-family time a smaller part of a group visit; you can even enlist Stepmom as an ally, since she no doubt has moments where she too wants to be just with her group of origin. (Now, will she admit that in a case where doing so goes against her own immediate interests? Dunno--depends on her integrity.)

Those are my thoughts. Good luck.



I have been in a relationship for over 18 months with my girlfriend. We were invited to my friend's wedding that I am in the wedding party. She has met some but not all of my friends, including the bride and groom. She isn't someone that likes interaction with new people and the idea of coming to the wedding (out of town but not too far) and rehearsal dinner make her uncomfortable. I want her to come and meet the people that are important to me so that she feels comfortable with them in the future. Is there a way to strike a balance?

About 80. But none of them applies unless you and she both want to strike a balance and both agree on what that balance looks like.

I thought I'd get at least one question in where my thoughts would be relevant, but no luck.

I do hope you're taking carefully into account whether you will ever be comfortable with someone who is not comfortable around new people. If you're outgoing, and if blending your romantic life with your important friendships is something you value, then you need to say that to her, and own it. Bending on one wedding is not a big deal, of course, but it sounds like you're looking at a fundamental difference in your natural social states.

In that case, then you and she really ought to talk beyond this one wedding and tackle the question of a fair balance in general. Then, play it out using the example of the wedding. She comes for a while and leaves when she's tired? And you leave with her/stay as late as you want? Or, she skips this wedding and sticks to meeting your important-to-me people one-on-one? Or ...?

Just please don't throw a Band-aid on this; deal with it now. It might just be that you go a few years without a situation like it coming up again, which would allow you to kid yourselves that it's not an issue when in fact it's destined to be one if you stay together.  

The My Little Pony boy question was also asked to Ask Amy... the exact same question. Do you see this often?

More than you might think. I don't care, though. Once I've filed a column (which is usually when I find out a question is appearing somewhere else), I'm not pulling it back. Certainly not to replace a column I've thought out and written carefully with something I'd be slamming together to make a deadline. 

If I could stop people from submitting to more than one column, I would, but I can't.

My husband and I have always lived pretty close to the bone -- living in a rundown apartment, sharing one used car -- and as a result have been able to save up quite a bit of money. We're about to use it for a down payment on what is frankly a pretty swanky house. My working-class, social justice-oriented family frequently makes snide comments on "the people who can afford $XX dollar houses" -- and, hey, now I'm about to be one of them. Should I have any kind of preamble discussion? Or just invite everyone for Thanksgiving and let the chips fall where they may?

(b), definitely. And serve organic chips.

Recline or no?

That's what the seats do! I don't always use it, but, if the button is there, then the permission is, too.

I think this wedding isn't necessarily representative of future instances of meeting new people, because OP is in the wedding party and Girlfriend isn't. Under normal social circumstances, the more outgoing half of the couple can help the shyer half through the process - introducing her to people, staying at her side and facilitating conversation until she's comfortable with the room, etc. But in this case, OP will be doing wedding party duties, leaving GF by herself. Depending how things are organized, OP might not have an opportunity to introduce GF to people until well into the reception, GF might be stuck sitting around like a fifth wheel while the wedding party takes pictures, and they might not even be seated at the same table for the reception. That's far more challenging for a shy person than if they were both regular guests at a wedding where she doesn't know anyone, and it's not really representative of most social situations in which we find ourselves.

Good point, thanks--and a reminder of why I so dislike the practice of segregated head tables. 

But just because I'm difficult, I could argue the other side, too: The times when OP is in the wedding party are the times most likely to have a concentration of people who matter most to OP, out-of-towners in particular, so skipping those would mean skipping out on a chance to meet a particular, valued crowd.

Either way, I still think they'd be wise to ask the larger question of what each would regard was meeting halfway--especially since the willingness to compromise is usually at its peak around this point in a relationship (they're 18 months in, right?).

My fiancee and I are like this couple. I get anxiety meeting new people and he's extremely social. We've made it work because we both want to, but it isn't always easy. One thing that's worked well for us is planning small gatherings with a *few* of the people that will be in attendance in advance. This way when the event (like a wedding) comes around I don't feel overwhelmed with new people. I have also conceded to going to a lot of events that make me *somewhat* uncomfortable because I know how happy it makes him. He acknowledges that by minimizing those events and picking the more significant ones to include me in (wedding, but no rehearsal dinner, for example). We've found the balance, but we've both actively worked to achieve it (with growing pains :-))

Useful perspective, thanks.

Because of my schedule and my partner's travel I often do laundry. I will sort her laundry but not put it away because we differ in how we organize and fold. One day she complained about having to put away SO MUCH laundry and I said, deadpan, "you're right. It sucks to come home to clean laundry." She's not complained since.

Well done.

This was followed in my queue by this:

If household chores are split evenly, is it crazy to think that if you take responsibility for X chore, you take full responsibility? For example, I do all the cooking, but it would feel strange to say: "If you want a vegetable you can cook it yourself." Maybe those aren't complete parallels, but I could see that if I were pulling my weight completely, that finishing something up to 90% would be frustrating. (Did I just out myself as awful??)

Well, I won't say awful, but you are on a different side of an old argument I used to have that taught me there were two schools of thought on this.

School 1: If someone's doing you a favor, then you don't quibble about the way it's done.

School 2: When someone agrees to do you a favor, they're agreeing to do it right/follow through.

Obviously I am in the former (and embrace its corollary, that if you want something done right, then do it yourself), and it seems you're in the latter. 

Part of the reason I lean this way is that it reduces, even erases tension over whatever labors are being divided. If I'm particular about X, then I handle X. If I'm not particular about Y, then I delegate Y, be grateful not to have to do Y myself, and shaddup if/when Y isn't handled to absolute perfection. And if I'm particular about W, X, Y and Z to the point that I can't delegate without getting upset about the results, then I either need to chill, or figure out what I'm really so torqued about, or just find someone better suited to me. 

My 3rd grader is an incredibly wonderful -- and quirky -- boy. I had concerns about him getting picked on, so last year I talked to his teacher. She confirmed that he IS quirky and different than the other kids, and the best way for him to keep from getting picked on is to own it and make no apologies for being different. That's his nature anyway, so we encourage that whenever we can. So far, so good. BTW, I remember when I was in middle school (we called it Junior High in the olden days) and there was a group of boys who were smaller than the other boys. I don't remember them being picked on in a mean way, but no one pretended that they were giants either. It just... was. And those boys, who matured later, are now handsome in their 40s. They look young and vibrant -- I think it's a benefit to that particular developmental timeline. So try to take the long view, if you can.

Always worth a try, thanks.

A good friend of mine, "Lori", lives out of town. We don't see each other much anymore (she's super busy with school so visits are few and far between), but we keep in touch. My wedding is coming up, and though it seems pretty large (over 100 people), 95% of those invited were close family members and so we had to make hard decisions about which close friends to invite. Lori texted me the other day asking if she could bring her new boyfriend (of a month) to the wedding, though she was not given a plus-one on the invitation. I'm in the unfortunate position of knowing how all of her past relationships have ended (badly, with much bridge burning) and I feel uncomfortable having a stranger at my wedding. Other friends she knows will be attending so it's not a question of making her feel more comfortable by having a friend there. I'm torn because I've always had a "the more the merrier" mentality, but taken aback by the request. My fiance has left the decision up to me, but said he's not so sure he likes the idea of spending our wedding fund on someone he doesn't know who could be completely out of our lives the week afterwards, for all we know. What do you think?

I am completely sympathetic--to the annoyance with a requested plus-1; to the misfortune of knowing too much; to the frustration at being asked to host a stranger when intimates have been turned away; to bristling at the money involved. 

But I'm not so sure the answer is in those bullet points. Instead I think it's in your friendship with Lori. Is this a person, a bond, you want to serve? Has she been above and beyond in your life, to the extent that above and beyond makes sense here? Or has she always required a high level of maintenance that you've long questioned providing, and her distance from your life lately seems like an opening? 

If you decide it's the latter and you're ready to deal with the consequences of saying no, then of course you say no. Explain that you had to exclude several people who are very dear to you and you can't in good conscience include someone you don't know. 

If you make it at all about the fact that she barely knows him, btw, then I suspect that'll be the beginning of the end of you and Lori. Not so much from what you said here as from similar stories over the years.

Carolyn, I really like my co-workers, and I consider some of them personal friends outside the office, but when we go out after work to grab a drink as a group, the conversation inevitably turns into a session in which they complain about other co-workers, our supervisors, our clients, etc. After a long day at the office, the last thing I want to do is talk about work, especially negatively. I try to steer the conversation to lighter, more enjoyable topics but am overruled. Any advice?

Shock collars?

You try to change the subject and are overruled. So, you either go out with them and talk about work or decline the invitations to go out after work. Or I guess the middle option, where you stay until the inevitable turn occurs, then you say, "Eh, work talk, I'm outta here," and you go home. Or just the less in-your-face, "Well, goodnight everyone, I'm heading out."

I have a mother in law like this (details are different enough I don't think it actually is MY mother in law though, we have much older kids for one thing). But anyway: my MIL has in the past made me feel smothered. Over the years I have realized that she is pretty much acting on "do unto others as you would have them to do unto you"--that is, she is a huge extrovert, hates being alone, and would love family dropping in to see her, lots of people around, someone throwing a surprise party for her. Unfortunately, what she doesn't realize that I don't love those things. I am pretty sure she has never realized that I am an introvert and like alone time a LOT (and particularly treasure it now that I am a mom), and also she may possibly not even know that such things as introverts exist. She means well but is utterly exhausting to deal with. If the DIL is reading this: this behavior may not be a plot to drive you insane. Some people really have a very hard time understanding personality types that are very different from their own.

This is a good point about the boundary-oblivious MIL, but it also applies to the couple with different social preferences and energies: If it's going to work, then you have to know, accept, embrace the reality of different personality types. 

Or body types, or gender expressions, or approaches to chores, or seat-reclining preferences, if we're going to go out on a giant, inter-Hax chat-column thread tie: If you're stuck on One Right Way of Being, then you're picking the steepest of uphill paths through life.



But maybe that's just me.

I was discussing with a contractor friend how I would love to redesign my laundry room so that I could have 1 basket for color clothes, one for whites, and one for heavy towels etc. I was saying that I try and divide out my loads, while my husband just throws all of his stuff in one massive load and presses start. My MIL was sitting with us and the shock looked on her face was undeniable. At first I thought it was out of fear the machine would break (with that huge load) and I started to tell her we had an very good machine, but before I could, she turned to me and asked "why is he doing his laundry; why aren't you doing it for him?" Needless to say I was taken aback, however the contractor stepped in and replied "gosh I didn't realize that your husband/son was an invalid confined to his bed" I laughed, my MIL did not.

And on that note:


Bye, thanks, have a week/weekend that's not just great, but your specific definition of great, and hope to see you back here next week. You know, if that's what you want.

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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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