Carolyn Hax Live: "Sometimes, being upset is bad for the moment but good for the person"

Jan 06, 2017

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax chats live every Friday at noon to answer any questions you might have about this strange train we call life.

Carolyn's recent columns

Glossary of frequently-used chat terms

Want answers now? Search past Carolyn Hax live chats and find answers to your questions even if she is offline by clicking here.

Hi everybody, hope your holidays went well.

I will not be chatting next Friday thanks to another hockey tournament. This is the last one for a while, though.


Dear Carolyn, My daughter and son-in-law live about an hour from us and we meet once a month or so at a mid-point restaurant for dinner. I always enjoyed this time and thought it was a nice custom. Over the holidays I caught my son-in-law talking to our waiter, giving him an extra tip and said something about how sorry he was for the table and low tip. I told my husband on the way home, and the next day I called my daughter to see what that was all about, because my husband and I have very hurt feelings over the exchange. She told me that she doesn't think my husband and I realize it, but our restaurant habits are not very thoughtful. I demanded specifics, and she told me that we split an entree and order water only, so the bill is really low. She also said that we are demanding of the wait staff, which is especially bad because we aren't giving the establishment much money to make up for it. I am insulted by this, I don't see how splitting an entree is rude. I also don't see why I shouldn't as a restaurant to do what I want, that's the entire point of a restaurant, to serve their customers. The customer is always right. She also told me that 20% is a standard tip. My husband and I tip 10% for normal service and 15% for good, maybe 20% if they washed our car while we were eating or something. My daughter said that she is sorry I overheard the exchange, but they didn't know what else to do. My husband and I don't feel like we are dining incorrectly and that it's rude for my daughter and son-in-law to correct our behavior behind our backs. This doesn't make me want to meet up for dinner with them anymore and I can't get over my bad feelings about all of this. Where do we all go from here?

You act like grownups and push through the awkwardness, go back to your once-a-month dinners, order as you see fit but leave a minimum tip of 15 percent, 20 percent for a skilled and friendly server. They make next to nothing per hour and so their livelihoods are in tips, and 10 percent is seriously outdated. 

And: On these and other visits to restaurants, be mindful of the price points and service levels of the places you choose before making requests/demands of the staff. You can send back an order that was botched somehow at any level, from Mickey D's on up, but you don't fuss over the garnish on a $7.99 entree. 

And I suggest that, instead of harrumphing over this couple's "rudeness," you take a moment to appreciate their sensitivity both to the staff and to your feelings.

I think you would learn a lot from my colleague Tom Sietsema, who is our restaurant critic and who also hosts a chat that covers a lot of dining-out etiquette.


Here is the link to the next Ask Tom: LINK TO THE NEXT ASK TOM

And here's a link to Tom's page so you can cruise the archives: LINK TO TOM'S PAGE

Carolyn, you once said there should be an 'it gets better' campaign for parents of small children. Smart. Profound, even. When? When does it get better? I have 5-year-old and an 18-month-old highly active (!!!) boys and I'm completely overwhelmed. Caring for them in their ever-changing states of development is itself a full time job. Add to that a husband, two large dogs, a home and a good, flexible job and I'm overwhelmed. I take full advantage of the flexibility I'm offered at work, still meet demands and deadlines but the overwhelm just won't abate. This is about more than a date night or having a babysitter more. When does it get better? I need a light at the end of the tunnel, not just a temporary fix.

I do so feel your pain. I can't be in any parent's place but my own, so take this for what it's worth, but I think a lot of the overwhelming nature of your experience comes from the "highly active" part. We used to have play dates with kids--toddler age, mind you--who would plop down on the floor and stack blocks for 20 min. Meanwhile, mine were ignoring all toys (except perhaps to break them) climbing not in the play structure but on top of it--all the better for imperiling leaps from the top--and abandoning even that after 5 minutes to run to the next thing, a process repeated on a 5-minute cycle from daybreak to evening collapse (ours and theirs). 

I would just stare at the contented block-stacking child and wonder where those came from.

So with this in mind I agree that a temporary fix isn't going to do it.

I disagree, though, that "having a babysitter more" is a throwaway or temporary fix. On the contrary, I think the way to get through the exhaustion is to delegate the workload--both physical and emotional--as much as you possibly can and as responsibly as you can. That means more babysitting (not ad hoc, but as a standing appointment X days per week), more care via child-care center or preschool, more conversation with your spouse about whether the labor has been distributed evenly between you, more reliance on paid dog-walking, more *standing, scheduled* appointments with yourself for alone time away from the family so you can catch your breath, and for your husband, too. You both need ways to recharge.

These solutions generally aren't cheap, though you can find ways to economize (e.g. neighbor kid vs. professional dog-walker). But this immediate pressing need will pass and you can get out from under these extra expenses relatively soon, so as long as you can swing them with minimal or no deficit spending, do so without guilt. It's about bringing your best self to the job of raising your kids, which means getting through as safely and calmly as you can. 

You do mean the last tournament for a while, not the last chat for a while, I hope? Please?

Sorry--last tournament for a while. 


When I was in college I worked as a waitress. There was one couple and they were not alone in this who made me jump through many hoops. There was a lot of food waste because of their fiddling with things. “oh wait did I say French? I mean thousand island.” That had to be thrown out. “I don’t want sweetened tea after all, bring me unsweetened.” Thrown out. On and on. I worked myself dizzy catering to their odd ideas of what dining out was like .Finally one day the woman said to me “You’re good but you’re not great.” And I thought okay guys. And when you mention service level you are correct. This was a place that was like an Ihop basically. And I learned there are people who are sort of sadistically pleased to make servers run themselves ragged for their idea of “good service” which really isn’t that at all. Just almost bullying on someone who has no power to fight back. And they are always always always horrible tippers.

Hi Carolyn - I've been trying to get pregnant for over a year, with many doctors visits along the way. We are finally heading in the right direction but this has really taken a toll on me, both physically and mentally. Do you or the 'nuts have any suggestions for getting through each "hurry up then wait for weeks" cycle and for dealing with feelings of failure and frustration when many of my closest friends are getting pregnant very quickly. My husband is very supportive but I just don't think he really understands. I'm looking into therapy, but any other tips and tricks would be really welcome.

I'm sorry it has been a struggle for you to get pregnant. Fertility struggles are particularly difficult because your hormones are getting tweaked, your ideas of yourself and your future are in flux, and you have no shortage of visual reminders that fairness has no bearing on the outcome.

If you haven't checked out Resolve, I suggest you do--there's a lot of good support available to help you through the waiting cycle. LINK TO RESOLVE

I'm also reminded by your letter of a conversation I had years ago with a stranger that really stuck with me. It was about something completely different--she was a restaurateur, owner of my favorite breakfast joint--but she had an attitude that I've applied often in my life in completely unrelated ways. She was opening a second restaurant and in the process had run into lease and permit problems that were causing huge and expensive delays, serious enough to bankrupt her. I expressed sympathy of some some "Oh, no" variety and she smiled and said it would either happen or it wouldn't and she'd manage from there. 

It's in my nature to wake up in cold terror at 3 a.m. over suspenseful situations that could end painfully for me or people I love. I found it inspiring and useful that she could look at getting financially wiped out as merely one of several possible outcomes.

A friend of mine also was able to bring that kind of equanimity to my mother's coming death--it all passes, he pointed out, even life, even grief.

Human resiliency is a mighty thing to behold, if you step back a moment to consider it. 

I hope you have some good news coming to you soon.

I have moved to city in which my ex of 10 years lives. We divorced 3 years ago amicably. His ex and mother of now adult I helped raise has moved here too. Their son recently married and I adore him and his wife. I want to develop a relationship with them as a couple but also be respectful of the relationship they are developing with his parents. How do I love and support them but also make it easy for them to relate to all of their parents? I admit I wish I was the only "mother" in the picture.

I admit I had to read this twice to get all the connections, but it might not be important after all, because the first thing you need to do to make your relationship with the couple work is let go of the preference for only-momhood. That just opens you up to all of the corrosive behaviors in the emotional closet, like competitiveness, bean-counting, jealousy, insecurity, possessiveness. You are not the only parent in your stepson's life, whether that's a good or bad thing--so why not push yourself to see it as a good one? More people to love him and his wife. More people to support him and his marriage. More people he can lean on in a crisis, or learn from on an ongoing basis.

We can quibble about whether it's good for you, but if you all play nicely then it's great for him, so show your love for him by doing your part to play nicely.

And you know what? It can be good for you, too. My years of doing this (and the number of times I've moved as an adult) have taught me that making friends among adults is not always easy, and one of the things that makes it work is having a common interest. You have this young man and his wife as a common interest with your ex and your ex's ex, and while exiness is not typically seen as the beginning of beautiful friendships, it really can be--if you bring the right spirit to it and if the others do the same. 

So please start your life in your new city with your heart open to this family-of-awkward-origin.

With a good attitude in place, it's easier to be mindful of boundaries and flexible in the face of everyone's needs, which is what being respectful mostly entails.

Regarding your column from this week about the childless neighbors complaining about hearing the single mom yelling at their kid, could we just have a moratorium on people without kids commenting about parenting? If you don't have children you have zero basis for knowing what this single mom is going through and zero room for judgment. Sorry, but childless people don't know squat when it comes to raising kids.

There's a line here, certainly, but you and I don't draw it in the same place. 

To say that a childless person has no standing to be concerned when a parent is swearing at a kid is just hostile to people without kids. They have eyes and ears and brains, and they've all been kids themselves.

In fact, a segment of the no-kids population made that choice deliberately so as not to risk repeating the mistakes of their own abusive parents. Are you really going to say these people of conscience can't accurately or responsibly identify child abuse--and identify with a child being abused-- because they chose not to become parents?

If we're talking about a decision to serve Bugles vs. carrot sticks to the kids at the park, okay, then I'm all for telling bystanders where they can stuff their opinions. And certainly getting a quick glimpse of something amiss is not proof of anything, and a veteran parent is probably in a better position to envision a bigger picture than a non-parent would be. But if a villager witnesses enough to conclude reasonably that a child might be in trouble, then I'll stand by that villager's right to intervene without regard for demographics.

And since we're on the subject: There was an unusual level or misunderstanding about the purpose of Childhelp. A lot of people took it as a CPS-type place to report abuse, but that's not the case. It's a resource for guidance on children in trouble, which means it's a good--anonymous--place to ask what to do next when you witness something that might suggest a child is at risk but you're not sure. I.e., it's perfect for the people who freeze and then feel haunted for having frozen.

Remember. You have about zero control over this. Yes, you really want it, yes you are working hard towards a goal and that's supposed to produce an outcome. BUT you don't have control of that outcome. As Carolyn said, it will happen or it won't. That is terrible advice, yes, when you are trying to get through it. but...maybe look at other ways to create a family. look at other ways to become involved in children's lives (family or otherwise). you have control over what *you* can do (something I have learned from Carolyn over the years). But not over the outcome.

This gives me warm fuzzies, thanks.

Hi Carolyn, How do I tell my friend/roommate that I want to spend less time together? I'd like to try just being roommates for the rest of our lease (a few more months) but she's been having a hard time and I don't want to upset her further. Our friendship feels toxic and one-sided but I'm not sure what to say that I won't be manipulated out of. I've helped her through a lot the past few years but it seems like there's always a new crisis and never a dull moment. I'm worried that if I sit her down and actually explain why I don't want to be her friend anymore, she'll spiral, lash out, and we'll both be even more miserable then we are now. Help? Stressed Froomie

It's on her that she's manipulative, but on you that her attempts are successful.

This is the answer to a different question from the one you asked, but it sounds as if the best thing you can do now is work on your own emotional fortitude. That means learning to say no; learning to say something because it's true or honest vs. because it's what someone else want to hear; learning to accept consequences for the previous two as a bummer or awkward but not the end of the world; learning that getting involved with people's dramas isn't the only definition of "help."

Sometimes, upsetting people is the natural consequence of being true to yourself.

Sometimes, being upset is bad for the moment but good for the person.

Sometimes, the most helpful thing to say is, "I'm sorry to hear that. What do you think you're going to do about it?"--as opposed to volunteering yourself to propose or execute a solution.

I've recommended this book a lot lately as a primer on boundaries, and it sounds as if it could help you here, too: "Life Skills for Adult Children" by Janet Woititz. Your roommate, too, but one psyche at a time.

Carolyn, your answer was spot on for immediate abatement. In response to when does it really start to get easier, I'd like to add that 2 is better than 18 months, 2.5 is better than 2, and 3 is freaking awesome for active kids. I am at my lowest with an 18 month old. Mine were EXTREMELY active and curious, but not at all aware of their own safety or limits. My second boy was even harder at that age because he also had an older brother to watch and emulate. He climbed everything, and jumped off of anything. I was the parent who desperately wanted my child to get into screen time because I just needed to sit for a dang second. Now, at 3 and 5, I outsource chores to them. They dress themselves, make their beds (messily), set the table, and buckle themselves into carseats (mostly). I can walk away from them for a few minutes to cook dinner, go the bathroom, take a shower, read a book while they wrestle in front of me, etc. I can direct the endless energy to feeding the dogs, running around with the dogs in the backyard, and doing chores with me. It gets easier. I promise.

My point of exhale was when the youngest turned 5, but that could be a consequence of any number of things, including having a third shelf-climber and socket-tester or just ;being too high strung. 

I forgot to add another thing that really helped: clearing everything off every table, including lamps (each one a cord just begging to be pulled) and creating containment areas with about 7 baby gates. I described it then as living in an indoor steeplechase, but it worked.

When did a 10% tip become too little?

I don't have a transition date for you, but at present it is too little. Way. It is seen as a monetary complaint that the service was substandard. Any less than 10 percent and you're indicating that you are so displeased that your better move would be to talk to a manager on the spot.

Ask Mr. Google if you'd like further guidance on U.S. restaurant tipping customs. Various sources are unusually consistent on 15 percent as a minimum for competent service and 20 as the norm. 

Hi Carolyn, I am an expectant father who wants to help out with childcare for all the feminist reasons-- that childcare/home maintenance should not simply default to being a mother's responsibility, and that I want to do more at home than what I saw my father do growing up (I had a stay-at-home mom for much of my childhood). I occasionally flirt with the idea of trying to switch to 2/3 time work, since my current "full time" work involves a lot of evenings and some weekend time (I do have some flexibility during the day. However, every time I mention this to my spouse, she says that she would like to work less too, but that we both need to keep working full time since a baby also brings a lot of expenses for a family where both parents work. (We are on a waitlist for daycare, and that just feels like the beginning of the additional expenses). We are on her health insurance and are doing okay right now but I worry about managing everything once the baby arrives. Thoughts? Advice? Perspective? Maybe I can't plan out all the 3am wakeups and diaper changes, but we both moved to a city where our parents (the future grandparents) aren't within a day's drive... Anxious dad-to-be

You both have a good point, and you both don't know yet which is the better point because the baby's not here yet.

If it turns out that you're paying more for care than you're earning in that 1/3-time you think you can drop, then it might make sense to cut back--but only if it doesn't make *more* sense for your spouse to cut back. Among the advantages of shedding gender roles is that you can do cost-benefit analyses that involve all possible options instead of a narrowed few.

The down side is that sometimes it comes out even and both of you want to assume the bigger share of child care and you have to decide on one or the other. But that, again, is a planetary alignment you're not facing just yet.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you can change the formula along the way--full-time now, 2/3 later, full-time again, home full-time for a while, etc.

Ideally your day-care choice will have flexibility too. Stay on that waiting list, but also (if you haven't already done so) shop around to see if there are different options available that better suit your schedule quirks.


Hi Carolyn. I am in my mid-thirties and have been with my boyfriend for almost four years. I let him know a few days ago that I was ready for us to figure out our future - not an ultimatum for marriage because I'm not really sure either - but that I wanted us to make a concerted effort to decide if we want to move forward. I always thought I would get married and have children and while I know I probably still have time, it's a bit more limited if it won't be with him. What should we do to figure out if we're "forever" partners? Can you recommend questions we should be asking ourselves, books we can read, etc?

It seems odd to recommend a book here, because the answer is in you. Plus you have four years of experience with him to inform you.

Do you like the life you have together? Are you yourself with him? Do you like who you are when you're with him? When you're away from him for any length of time, do you experience a sense of release and then revert to a prior form, or do you carry on pretty much as you do when he's there? How about for him--is there a lot he chooses not to do because you're around?

People who work hard to get along often wear each other down. Look for ease (but not enabling) in conversation, habits, style. 

The right person is the person you'd choose even if marriage and kids weren't an option--something else to keep in mind.

I'm typing all of this with the thought in the back of my mind that if you're still so unsure then it's probably not the right fit, but at the same time I do think it's important to be somewhat analytical when choosing the course of your life.

Swimming lessons! Nothing wears out a kid more than swimming.

Or, ah, ice skating.

Dear Carolyn, I'm introverted and can be a little socially awkward generally. My parents are the same, so this is partially my personality and partially that a lot of social customs weren't modeled for me. I have a group of friends from college and they are usually pretty great with this. A few months ago, one of them had a baby girl who died at 5 days in the NICU. I sent a personal email immediately saying how sorry I was. A mutual friend told me about the wake and funeral, but my friend didn't invite me. I knew my friend and her husband have large families, and I'm not great with big groups of strangers, so I didn't go. Afterwards a few mutual friends asked where I was and I gave my reasons. They basically said that it was really important that I attend the funeral and our friend was hurt I didn't go. I asked them why they didn't tell me it was that important. They responded that they didn't think they had to. Ever since then it's been a little chilly between us all, and I think they are phasing me out of the group. I'm really hurt because I feel like I made one mistake and now I'm being kicked out. I like these girls a lot and I'm sorry I hurt my friend, but expectations were not clear to me and I never intended to hurt anybody. This situation is really distressing to me, and I don't know how to apologize and get back on track. I also was wondering if you have any resources for people who don't know much about social skills.

Terrible situation, I'm sorry.

It was really important that you attend, of course, but it's also understandable that you didn't know the rules here. You don't have to be invited--a funeral home usually publishes the details on a service and the people close to the bereaved help out by notifying others of the arrangements. So, you were told in the proper way about the funeral, but as a socially awkward child of socially awkward people, you weren't taught this the way people are taught this, through community experience.

I think your best avenue for repairing things is to talk to the friend you're closest to. Explain that you're clueless about these things, you're heartbroken that you did the wrong thing without intending to, and ask if this friend would be willing to help you out in the future with social cues. 

Compassionate Friends is a group that supports parents who have lost a child, and there's also information for people in your position of having a friend who is in mourning. This is addressed to coworkers but a lot of it is apt: LINK

That's it for today. Thanks all, and see you on the 20th.

In This Chat
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.

Carolyn's Columns
Past Chats
Way Past ChatsHax Philes Discussions
Recent Chats
  • Next: