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Nicknaming awesomeness: Carolyn Hax Live (September 8)

Sep 08, 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.

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Hi everybody, happy Friday. Hope all of you in the Southeastern chapter of the nutterati are tucked away safe somewhere.

My mother moved to be closer to us when we had a baby. I would love to hand over the baby for free babysitting but she's not responsible with him, now 2 years old. She makes bad decisions and gives him anything he points to and grunts. Just in the past month, this has included a lighter ("he doesn't know how to use it"), garden shears, the lime from her rum & coke, soda, hard mints, the hose, and anything else that catches his eye. I know that his company is the bright spot in her otherwise lonely, depressed days but I am more exhausted after bringing him to her than I am just watching him myself. I have to constantly say 'no' to the toddler *and* the mother who is just as impulsive. I have to repeat myself to the point of frustration to get her to follow basic rules about health/safety and spoiling. She claims she should be able to spoil him since she's the grandmother and she doesn't get to see him much (she sees him at least once a week). Cutting off contact isn't right but I have another on the way and the thought of dealing with all 3 of them makes me want to cry. She's not malicious but she honestly doesn't think through what she does. How do you teach someone to be a smart, careful person? - Exasperated Mom to Two Toddlers

Coincidentally, I had three actual toddlers for a while myself, and the best advice I can give you is to expect from them exactly what they've proven they're capable of giving. By that I mean, expect your two toddlers to be impulsive, self-absorbed, moody, capable of following only the simplest instructions, and occasionally so frustrating that you want to scream. 

Just because one of your toddlers is over 50 years old doesn't change the fundamental nature of what you expect.

In fact, at difficult times like this, it's often hoping for better that is the enemy of contentment. If you hold out hope that your mother will one day get it and realize that handing a lighter to a 2-year-old is a bad idea (that might be a new high point of some kind, by the way), then you will be disappointed and frustrated on a regular basis.

If instead you go into it expecting your mother to hand your child enough destructive objects to supply a remake of the Gashlycrumb Tinies, then you will find yourself delighted by every visit in which she doesn't.

Maybe reframing is having more of a moment than it deserves right now, but I still suggest you try it, because there really  is something to it.


The other aspect of this advice--to treat toddlers as toddlers--is that it's okay to give up on fixing this now and to let time fix it for you eventually. 

In other words, while your kids are little-little, they need extra supervision. That's just a fact of life with little-little kids--parents can do things on the margins to make things easier, like childproof the house and hire babysitters for respite care, but you're still on little kid duty until your kids start developing some judgment.

The only thing different in your scenario is that you add a big little kid to the mix. It's okay to address that problem on the margins, too (childproof the house, or move your visits with this grandma to child-friendly places like play gyms or children's museums), and wait for the bulk of it to be solved by your kids' eventually being old enough to handle a lighter responsibly.

Last thing, keep an eye out for deterioration. The lighter thing, especially in the context of your mother's other dangerous self-indulgences, hint at possible cognitive decline (on top of the emotional issues driving the neediness).

Hi Carolyn, Thank you for all you do here - I've learned more from you than my parents ever taught me! I'm positive that last year I came across an article you had written 10 or 15 years ago, about holiday expectations. It was about 6 pages long and I can picture the WAPO format as clear as anything. What I can't seem to do is find it again. Do you have a link to the one I remember or has my obsession with you turned into the Mandela effect?

Good news! You've just lost an essay, not your mind. 

I did write that. It was in The Post's Sunday magazine, and it precipitated the holiday Hoot tradition. 

I'm cutting corners for speed (or my poor facsimile of it) and sending you to that first chat with this LINK because it refers to the magazine piece. 

I haven't read that in years. 

My spouse and I rarely "celebrate" anything and it seems to bother everyone. We recently had an anniversary and all our close family called to congratulate us and then everyone asked "what are you doing to celebrate". These people know we wouldn't be celebrating! And when we tell them "nothing" they all seem disappointed for us and try to change our minds. It's starting to get insulting. Why would they do this? Why is it so hard for people to accept that other's don't always live the way they do? What should be do about this? It's like this for other events, too (bdays, house warming parties, college graduations, etc).

My "why" for you:

Why do you keep answering them the same way, knowing the result irritates you? Especially when there are so many pointed but not mean-spirited options:

"How are you going to celebrate?"

"We're going on a cruise in the Greek islands."


"No. I'm just making stuff up."


"How are you going to celebrate?"

"We were thinking we might watch TV by candlelight."


"How are you going to celebrate?"

"It's a surprise."

"Really? You can tell me."

"I actually can't. I'm surprising myself."


"How are you going to celebrate?"

"We were hoping you'd plan something."


"How are you going to celebrate?"

"By not answering questions about how we're going to celebrate."


At some point you ought to express your frustration to family members you care enough about to improve your relationship with them--maybe, "You ask this every time. Is there a reason for that? Because I'm starting to get insulted by it, as if you think I'm bad at marriage or something." But if these questions keep coming from people who are emotionally peripheral to your life and you're fine with their staying that way, then playful smart-assery is your friend.

Maybe you could enroll your toddler in a course like Music Together or Gymboree and have your mother be the one to take him, or at least participate in the class with him (if you don't trust her to drive). That will give you a break when you have the new baby, but your toddler will be in a setting where the danger level is very low. A bonus: it will demonstrate to your mom good ways to interact with your child.

Yes, even more useful than my child-friendly-places suggestion, thanks.

A parent who has to drive them there can even spend an hour at a nearby coffee shop while baby and Grandma enjoy the class.

I have been with my partner for 6 years and have just graduated from college. I love my partner and could see myself happily married to them for the long haul. However, I am beginning to feel wistful about never having dated anyone else (or kissed anyone else for that matter) and if I feel this way now at 22 I fear that by the time I'm 30 or 35 I'll go mad and uproot my life at an even worse time. Yet, I can't imagine going through the pain of breaking up with the perfect partner just because of a stupid 7 year itch. We are long distance, if that makes a difference. How do I make sense of these feelings? It's hard because I tell my partner everything and hiding this feeling is suffocating, but I would never want to hurt them, and I know this would devastate them. I feel too young to be this seriously committed but obviously unwilling to dump someone I think could be right for marriage in 10 years. I thought I'd made up my mind to break up, but then I saw them and my mind was completely unmade because I love them so much. But how can I love them and still be interested in exploring other things? I could use some perspective.

Stop hiding this feeling.

The relationship *might* not be able to withstand your telling this truth, but it *will* not be able to withstand your hiding it.

Trust that. 

And have a little more respect for your feelings. It's not a "stupid 7 year itch," it's a legitimate point in your development as a person. What you do with it won't be "smart" or "stupid," either--there are only "honest" and "dishonest." Stop thinking outcomes altogether, in fact, and just operate from a place of respect.

Your partner might feel the same way, by the way.

Getting out of an outcome mind set should include a hard look at your vocabulary. You're going to have a tough time figuring yourself out if you see this in terms of having to "dump" someone you obviously love. Whether he stays with you or leaves can be up to him, too, no? And your part can be to say what you're thinking and feeling.

Often I advise people to figure out what they want out of a conversation before they go into it, to help them focus, but it's also okay not to know what you want out of something besides the intimacy of sharing. You probably can't know what you want, in this case, until you bring yourself to a place of integrity.

You can do this. 

...can someone post a link that teaches us how to embed links into our text in this format? Thanks!

There's no way! Sorry. Producers like me exist to turn the plain text links you send into pretty embedded links.

Can we search the archives for keywords?? Like, to try and find similar Q&A's to something we might be dealing with now?? I'm not computer illiterate, but I can't seem to figure this one out.. :(

We have this resource:

You can search there by keyword. The search works well, but one of the things that I've discovered playing with that tool is that it is sort of hard to match queries with previous answers just because people ask similar questions in different ways or different questions with similar words (think about searching mother-in-law and the range of possible responses you could get). But give it a try!

Hi Carolyn, My mother in law "Linda" has been calling my daughter Tootsie as a nickname since the day she was born. I have no idea where this nickname came from but it drives me crazy. I have asked her to call her by her given name so she is not confused as she grows older and to avoid possible ridicule from classmates down the road. She tried to catch herself at first but now continues to call her Tootsie even with gentle reminders. We see her about once a week, plenty of chances to correct herself but she continues with this nickname and sometimes even comes up with other crazy ones that are really bizarre. How do I get her to stop and what is the best way to approach this without causing too much tension? -Not a fan of Tootsie

OMG. Let the woman call her grandchild what she wants.

"[S]o she is not confused as she grows older"? You can't have typed that with a straight face. 

I'm not sure there's a person in the roiling 7 billion who didn't have a nickname or two as a kid, and I'm reasonably confident all of them know their given names. And if there are some pet-nameless, they probably wished they'd had one because nicknaming is one of the universal currencies of affection.

Unless of course it's an obvious platform for ridicule, which Tootsie is not.

Were it not for your confusion point, I'd have spent the preceding paragraph on your "avoid possible ridicule by classmates" point, which was only a couple of degrees less acute on the see-my-own-brain scale. 

When your daughter is old enough to feel the sting of classmate ridicule--or just to have classmates--she can tell Grandma herself that she doesn't like the nickname. If for some reason she feels she can't take on Grandma on this issue, she can ask you to.

So please let's just call this what it is: You don't like Linda.


The best way to approach that is not, not, not to impose yourself on her relationship to your daughter or to micromanage a minor nuisance as if it's a matter of grave consequence. It is to accept that even a grandma you don't like much yourself can be a gift to your child. 

Let them have their own bond. It's a crucial step, if not THE step, in accepting that your daughter is a fully realized person, as opposed to a mini extension of you.

If "Linda" does something that actually, objectively puts your daughter at risk, then you can step in. But the power of the Linda-resentment vibe I'm getting suggests you need an objective third party to help you differentiate real risks to your daughter from perceived threats to you that you spin into justifications to "protect" your daughter. This is where friends who aren't yes-friends are so valuable. They're the ones willing to tell you to chill.


We don't celebrate such occasions either, other than perhaps a good meal (either at a restaurant or at home) plus a cake. May I suggest that OP and spouse consider turning off their phones so the busy-bodies can't contact them before/during the anniversary, birthday, holiday, etc.? That way the relatives are unable to inflict their unwanted judgmental comments on the non-celebrants.

Genuine text exchange with my friend: "It's our wedding anniversary tomorrow." "Happy Anniversary! How are you going to celebrate?" "Well, probably I'll tell him happy anniversary when we get up in the morning. And maybe when we get home from work we'll say it again." "LOL."

You've been with them since you were 16! You've been with them over a quarter of your life! SO much changes between 16 and 22, you SHOULD be feeling this way!

Thanks. And:

Speaking as someone who's been with the same (and only) person since age 15 (now pushing 50), "seeing what's out there" is very overrated. I've watched friends and siblings have many, many relationships and still "uproot themselves" at 35. Sampling is not the road to finding your perfect mate. If that was the case, there'd be no divorce. It's natural to think about other people sometimes, but life is about choices. If you and your partner are authentically kind and loving to each other that's what makes life great. With that being said, everyone is wired differently so what was right for me may not be for everyone else for sure.

... and this is why knowing oneself is the only advice anyone needs. 


I have two teenage sons, and I trust them less with a lighter now than I did when they were 2 years old. Just saying.

Amended: know oneself and know one's teenagers.


I am a teacher at a large high school, and typically only interact with those in my wing of the school. Last year on the first day we returned from break in January, I bumped into "Polly" while signing in and cheerfully asked "How was your holidays?" She glared at me and stomped away. I'm sure I gave her a frown in return at the perceived rudeness. A week or so later, I remembered the incident and looked her up on Facebook. We were friends, but I had muted her postings since she posted quite frequently. I then discovered that she suffered a late (7 months in) miscarriage on Christmas Eve. She had many detailed posts of her anguish. I felt TERRIBLE that I may have triggered this reaction from her. Since then, we occasionally run into her at school and she is friendly but distant. My question is, is it worth bringing up now to apologize? And what is my responsibility to be aware of people's personal issues if we are social media friends but I do not actually pay attention to their posts?

You have zero obligation to be aware of what people post on social media. 

Think about it--you can't take a break from Facebook over a holiday? What if the algorithm filters out someone because you unwittingly went for a certain period of time not liking or commenting on someone's posts, or just missed them as a matter of timing. That's your fault?

There's no logical thread you can follow here that takes you to the point of obligation. You're going to miss some news sometimes. That's it.

So if Polly has distanced herself as a way to punish you for your faux pas, then Polly is in the wrong. 

Polly was also, I think we can agree, grieving and hormonal after a horrific loss, so she gets a complete pass on reacting emotionally. And it would have been a compassionate gesture on your part to say to her, "I only just learned of your loss--I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to be insensitive." Particularly if you had put it in a condolence card or note, so she could respond to it in the privacy of her home.

So much time has passed now that I don't think you can mention it without calling attention to the fact that you now owe two apologies, one for the unintentional ignorance and another for the non-response once you found out that your friend was in mourning. 

Better, I think, just to recognize that you and Polly were friends once but you pulled away for a reason, and this friendly-but-distance place is more or less where you belong.


But, for a change of pace for the chat, it's a good one! We have separate banking accounts: every month I pay the mortgage and he pays the utilities and groceries. He doesn't know that for a long time, I've been paying an extra $150 every month toward the mortgage. And now, instead of having four years left, we are about to be done and own our house free and clear. I'm telling him tonight, but I'm so excited, I'm telling you all now :).

You saucy minx. Way to go.

An advance thanks for your nicknaming awesomeness:

My mom used to call me Booger while growing up. I never thought much of it. It's just what she called me. I'm now pushing 30 and Booger has evolved to Poog, which she still calls me. Worth noting, she called me this in front of people on numerous occasions, including my friends in high school. Honestly, it was never anything more than something to laugh about. "You think your nickname's bad? Wait to you hear what my mom calls me!"

My grandfather called me WooWoo. Only my most beloved now call me WooWoo. She is a lucky girl to have a special name from a special grandparent. Everyone should be so lucky.

For the record, I call one of my children "Sugar Bear." Hasn't hurt us yet.

When you love a little child it's hard not to call them all sorts of adorable names. The other day I said "hi cutie pie" to my 5 y.o. Granddaughter who promptly responded "I'm not a pie." Loved it. I'll probably call her cutie pie again.

I can picture the grandma getting together with her grandma buddies and telling them her daughter in law won't let her call the kid Tootsie. And the general eye rolling and snort-laughing and martini nose spraying that would ensue.

Can we build a club around martini nose spraying? Asking for a friend.

My kid is on the autism spectrum and she has never been confused enough to think her name is either "pumpkin pie" or "sweetie pie pumpkin bread" or even "sweet pea." And I probably call her pumpkin pie at least once a day. Maybe once a week is just a little too much of Linda's company for you? Let her babysit while you go shopping, take a shower, or go get a beer or something. Tootsie will be fine and maybe Linda won't get on your nerves so much. You might even come to be grateful unless she starts giving her lighters or tequila shots like that other bad babysitting grandma.

You think that's a crazy nickname? My Poppop called me Princess Canoodles Fricky and my best friend's family called me Niecey-Nicey-Nosser-Noo and I thought they were great! Can any of the nutterati beat those?

Please, nutterati, do try.

"We figured we'd try a new fetish in the bedroom tonight."

I like your style.

I was Punkin. Still am, and I'm 43 years old, married, have a dog and a career (in that order). I was also Ellie, and my childhood friends still call me that, much to the confusion of my adulthood friends because I started using my given name when I moved to DC after college some 20+ years ago. The only time (and I mean only) time I wondered about my name was that time when my Mom called me the dog's name. I really did wonder about my place in the world after that. No, not really. It's just a term of endearment.

What if you name your kid after his grandparents' first dog? Is that bad? Asking for a friend.

"If you and your partner are authentically kind and loving to each other that's what makes life great." I love your column except for those times when I have to remove my hand from my throat. Oh brother.

Better than having to remove it from someone else's. 

Dear Carolyn, One of my cousins "Kathy" is really into lineage, she submitted samples to determine her genetic makeup and is finding all sorts of connections online. Through this, Kathy discovered that her eldest brother "Bill" had a different father than her and the rest of her siblings. Both of Kathy and Bill's parents are deceased. My mother, Kathy's mother's sister, is in an assisted living home. Kathy wants me to accompany her to visit my mother and ask her what she knows about Bill's father. Chances are pretty good my mother knows something, my mother and my aunt were only 2 years apart and friends the entire time I knew them. I am a little concerned with asking my mother, though. She is generally a private person. If she wanted us to know this I'm sure she would have volunteered the information. Bill doesn't care about who his biological father is and has shown no interest in unraveling this mystery. Unless Bill's biological father submits his DNA for a match on this website, the last chance anybody has of uncovering his identity is my mother. I can't shake the feeling that asking her will disrupt my mother and this is mostly Bill's business, not ours. I believe Kathy will eventually corner my mother herself to ask for this information because she shows no sign of stopping this at all. I wonder if going with Kathy might help, at least maybe I could intervene if my mother is upset. On the other hand, I don't feel any desire to get this information myself, going with my just add an unnecessary complication. What do you suggest? Additionally, I think Kathy is really wrapped up in this and I can see her being disappointed if my mother doesn't give her information or if she does a ton of legwork to locate Bill's father and Bill doesn't care.

Your mother can speak for herself, Kathy can speak for herself, and Bill can speak for himself. 

You know how you clap your hands to remove loose flour when you're baking? That's the literal version of what I advise you to do figuratively. You have no stake in this. Let it play out without you.

Not to overthink this but hard mints can be EXTREMELY dangerous to a 2-year-old in very little time, correct? As in, by the time mom realizes what grandma's done the kid could be, you know...

Yes, there are safety, emotional and cognitive issues. You're not overthinking.

So, safe, child-secured spaces only, and direct supervision--which is what you give toddlers anyway.

Some have asked why cutting the mother off isn't an option, and of course it is, but step 1 is to see if there's a work-around. Expecting the mother to know better and/or change her ways is, to my mind, the first option to rule out.

That's it for today. Thanks all for stopping by, thanks to Jess for pinch-producing (wait--that doesn't sound like something you thank a person for), and see you here next week.

So. Yes or no to more nickname stories?

--Chatty McChatterkins

I'm a 37 year old female and my best friend and I call each other "Kevin." Her grandmother doesn't even know my real name. It's an inside joke from high school and it confuses people to no end and we love it.

My uncle gave every one of his nieces and nephews a nickname - all 32 of us - and we all turned out knowing our own names just fine. - Smidgen

My dad called me Messy Bessy Knucklehead. I call one of my cats Knuckles but his name is Pablo. Knuckle-y Knuckles.

Mine from my mom's teen brothers/my uncles were Head, Turkey Lurkey and Ma-ma. Nobody at school ever knew this and I was never confused about what my name was.

Yes she has blonde hair and curls as a toddler - but really it came from her tendency to never be happy with anything. This one's too small, this one's too big - and we never got to "just right"... She's a teenager - still true in certain circumstances - but she has no idea.

I was called by my initials, A. M., which evolved into Am, which got "bop" added to it, which got extended to "bopple", which was amplified by a repetitive sound, which got used on its own. I still have a tag from a present addressed "To Schmopples dear, with love and kisses."

OK - my dad gave me a nickname for my nickname. My 'first' nickname was Dodie, which morphed into "Dode the Toad", which my dad just morphed into Toad. I admit it was better than my mom, who, unironically, just called me DohDoh

We're a sarcastic and gross family who embraces potty humor. My daughter is 10 and I still call her Crap Monkey and Princess Farty Pants. IN PUBLIC. Just sayin.

My mother calls me Josita-Boquita-Carmalita (the i is a long e). I'm 49.

My grandmother, born in the 1890s, would call my sister and me "older sister' and "younger sister" . . . we were her only grandchildren.

But did she ever mix you up?

I was Tulola Loop-Loop Leaky-Bottom Bacon. [Bacon being our actual surname, "Leaky Bottom" because, well, that's obvious, right? Potty training wasn't my thing.] And I'm gonna be the oddball who says it was NOT a great nickname and I didn't find it funny until I was at least 30. I'm 30.5 now.

Mine: Elroy My brother's: Gronkmeyer

My best friend's mom called me String-beaner-weiner. It's stuck for more than 40-some years.

I'm a plain old "Kathy" even on the birth certificate, and I never really had a nickname from friends or family or boyfriends, and I've always wondered if there was something wrong with me that I never got one - maybe I'm too serious?

I dunno--"Plain Old Kathy" has potential.

And it can morph into POK, then Pockey/Pocks/The Pockster, which can become Hockey Puck, and if you become Aunt Hockey Puck in our house you'd be the favorite auntie of all, amid some stiff competition. 

So don't lose hope.

My husband calls our daughter "Spark Plug." She knows she is not a car part.

The last word if I've ever seen one. 

Thanks everybubbly. 

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.

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