Carolyn Hax Live: "A flexibility of mind"

Feb 09, 2018

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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Hello everybody, happy Friday.

My sister-in-law, “Mary” has always been a mess. She has 2 kids with two different men who never see them, don’t pay child support and she doesn’t work, and has been mooching off my mother-in-law, “Kate” for years. Mary and her children lived with Kate until Kate moved into a 55-plus community and told Mary she was on her own. Mary has been living with her boyfriend since then and turning to us for financial help with the kids. A few weeks ago, Mary unexpectedly dumped the kids (a girl age 5 and a boy age 3) on my husband, “Dan”, and me saying she was going on a trip with a girlfriend. This isn’t the first time that she’s showed up with the children and left us no choice but to take them in. They are sweet but energetic and we always have to scramble to make childcare arrangements for them. This week she texted us that she’s staying where she is (a plane ride away) and we should send the kids to live with her mom. Kate, of course, can’t take them where she lives and has had it with Mary and her problems anyway. Now Dan is talking about us assuming permanent custody of our niece and nephew. The children love it here since they have a yard and stability and Mary will jump at the chance to get rid of them so this could happen pretty quickly. I know these little ones need us but this is not how I saw us building our family and it will delay our ability to have our own children so while I am trying to be supportive and do the right thing I am crying inside about my dreams of family and children being crushed. If I turn these children away I’ll feel like a monster but if I do take them in I’ll feel like a martyr. What to do?

If you're writing this knowing you'll take the kids in and you just want sympathy for the vision of life that you have to give up on to do it, then this will be an unsatisfying answer, for which I apologize upfront. I am sympathetic, completely, and know exactly how hard it is when something you've counted on, even lived for, is not going to happen. It's a kind of grief. 

But I disagree that your only choices here are monster or martyr. And I also have come to see "how I saw us ______," whether it's "building our family" or "starting our careers" or "living our lives together" or anything we envision as a false promise at best. We can want and dream and envision and plan but life always gets its say. Always. 

And so the path to happiness, to my mind, is not a series of milestones we strive for but instead a flexibility of mind that opens us to the opportunities, even beauty, in what we actually have.  

So, to apply that mindset here: You say this "will delay our ability to have our own children," but I say these are (or soon will be) your own children, and therefore this has accelerated things for you. These kids need you and are attached to you already and they "love it here," and the chance for kids to grow up in a loving and safe environment isn't just a gift for them. It's a gift for you. It will get you outside of yourself, it will give you sharply illuminated purpose, it will produce two humans who are planets to your sun--at least until they are independent enough to launch their own independent lives, which is also a gift to you in the form of a sense of accomplishment.

Will it be easy? No. These kids have had a tough go of it and there's no way it won't be without some emotional fallout. But everything worth doing takes a piece out of us--that's what makes it so, the investment of an essential part of you.

[more]

Absolutely do go cry it out with friends or a therapist even, someone you trust to keep your confidence--but when you're ready, please prepare yourself to be patient and open yourself to the ways life may have just given you a gift.

I have two best friends . They can happily hang out together in a group but aren't close friends themselves. Well, Friend X got married and that night Friend Y slept with X's younger brother. I know because Y told me. I also know it would really upset X, and she has asked me if I know anything as she has her suspicions. I feel like being a best friend requires loyalty and honesty. I want to keep Y's secret, but I don't want to lie or keep secrets from X. I can't see a way to stay out of it or not seem like I'm picking sides. Help?!

Best friendship also requires knowing when something is not your business.

X: "Do you know anything?"

You: "I know that if anything happened, then it's between Y and your brother."

If X presses you, then you hang on. "Seriously--you're talking to me when you need to talk to your brother or X."

I mean Y. Uhhhh

Valentine’s Day is coming and once again my husband will do nothing for me because he said after we got married four years ago that he shouldn’t “have to” anymore. This was a huge shock since when we were dating and engaged he would take me out to dinner, send flowers, and he never indicated that romance was such a chore for him. I still bought him a card and a small gift but last year he said that he hoped I wasn’t doing it to guilt him into reciprocating so this year I plan to do nothing. I try to accept his attitude but it really hurts since my dad still sends flowers to my mom and even buys her jewelry some years and my sister got married two years ago and her husband pulls out all the stops and I know on Thursday she will post pictures of their gifts to each other and their night out. My husband is a good man who loves me and is excited about becoming a dad (we’re trying right now) so I know I should get over this but every year when I see the fuss on social media and the whole world seems to be celebrating I feel so left out and despondent. What can I do?

If this were a column I might dedicate some time to buff(er)ing and polishing, but this is chat speed, so my advice is:

Take it or leave it.

Meaning: If this is the marriage you want, then I urge/beg you to accept the Massacre of Valentine's Day as a minor price to pay for the life companionship of this man.

If instead this is not the marriage you want, and if his MVD is a symbol of everything you don't get out of the marriage--romance, open-mindedness, spontaneity, superficial indulgence just because he likes you see you happy--and/or a symbol of everything you do get out of it--disappointment, frustration, pedantry fatigue, Facebook envy--then please recognize this as much bigger than a dozen roses and start the work of dissolving the marriage, or at least dissecting it under the supervision of a skilled therapist (just you to start, not as a couple).

And if it's (b) or if you're not sure whether it's (a) or (b), then please stop the "trying right now" for children. Immediately.

"[S]houldn't 'have to' anymore"? "[D]oing it to guilt him"? For what it's worth: I have a really hard time squaring these with "really good man who loves me." If he is and has always been kind of formal/rigid/emotionally clueless but means well, then that would ...maybe not square, but square-ish--but then your hopes of his being otherwise wouldn't square, because he'd just be acting as he always has.

Which really brings us back to the main question: Is he, while acting as he always has, the husband you want? As-is?

I mostly want to have a baby; my fiance mostly does not. I'm in my late thirties and have school-age kids; he doesn't have and never planned to have kids. Deciding to have or not to have a baby seems like too enormous a decision for mere mortals. It's tempting to just stop using birth control, or reduce our use of it, and leave it up to chance. How stupid would that be?

Catastrophically stupid.

You don't deliberately ambush a person unsure about children with a child. That would be so breathtakingly selfish. I can't even get my mind around it.*

You can say you would like a decision from him on children one way or the other in the near future. When you hear his decision, or when the near future comes and goes without a decision, then you can revisit your decision to marry him. That's the only play you have left in the decency playbook. 

Actually, there are two. The other is just to accept you're not having any more kids.

 

*For his part, if he's sure he doesn't want children, then he needs to get a vasectomy and stop resting his reproductive choice on his partner's use of birth control.

Carolyn, I have this friend who lives close but I haven't seen in months. No one in our group of friends has seen her recently. Every time we make plans she cancels, saying she is too sad or has been crying all day. I'm really worried. She moved here more than a year ago to be closer to people she knows but has been unable to get out of the apartment consistently. We live in a big city, there's lots to do. But it all seems to scare her. I've mentioned therapy but she doesn't want to go. And I don't know how hard to push her to see a professional. I don't know whether to just drop by her place and say hi or if she is looking for me to insist she come out when she cancels. Sometimes I think maybe I'm being dense and she is ghosting me, but our other friends are having the same experience. What is the best way to help her?

She sounds dangerously depressed. If any of you has contact information for her family, then please call ASAP and alert them to what you've experienced with her lately. 

Also, yes, drop by her apartment. Be prepared to be rebuffed--but also be prepared to make an appointment for her to get medical attention, and to take her to that appointment yourself. Depression can be paralyzing and sometimes it takes someone willing to walk her to a source of help, literally. 

And: Rally your group of friends to reach out to her in a non-intrusive way on a daily basis. Coordinate it as you would visits to a person in the hospital. Whether it's to leave a voice mail, send a text, post something where you know she's likely to see it,make sure it's a reminder that you care and it doesn't come with any obligation for her to do anything. 

So, for example, send/post a photo of something: "Hey, I just saw this and I thought of you. Miss you! No need to write back." These little lifelines push back against the voices of depression. Depression tells people they're unlovable, that no one cares, that no one would miss them if they were gone--all kinds of awful lies that feed and deepen the depression. Friends who check in and ask nothing are an essential counterargument that your friend probably needs to hear.

Read "Hyperbole and a Half" by Allie Brosh to understand that aspect of depression. She really nails it.

Hi Carolyn, What responsibility does a wife have to push her husband to be a decent friend? For years, my husband was close with a few guys from grad school. As they got married and started families, the frequency of their get-togethers died down and the friendships have understandably cooled, but they are still the people my husband calls friends. One lost his mother last week and asked my husband to come to the viewing. For nebulous reasons, my husband wavered and then backed out at the last minute. This week, there's another opportunity to support the same friend (helping him clean out his late mother's garage, which a few other guys are gathering to do with him), and my husband is again starting to spin together some flimsy excuses. He's not too busy, he'd just rather not, which I think is appalling considering the length of the friendship. Do I need to do anything here, or do I stay out of it and let my husband's friendships take whatever shape they will over the next several decades?

I think this warrants an exception to the leave-him-to-it rule. A well-placed "Get your butt over there and be a friend" can be a friendship saver, as well as a gift to your husband given that the chances he comes home regretting that he helped are probably verging on 0.

Just in general, I think the occasional butt-kick is in the job description of close friends and family--and that avoiding it in every single circumstance is taking the hands-off approach too far.

I found out this morning that after years of unsuccessful fertility treatments I am at the end of the road trying to have biological children, and I really needed to hear that.

(((big e-hug)))

It is also okay to tell you husband that it is important to you. If after that he can't muster the will do something with you after you have told him that it is important to you and why, then maybe you have a problem. But don't be afraid to tell him it matters to you, even if he thinks it shouldn't. He should care because you do.

Please get legal advice. The usual pattern with this kind of mother is she won't actually give up custody, will show up randomly in their lives, tell the children she will come get them on X day only to no-show and you may have no legal right to even get them shots etc. So talk to a lawyer about what your status is so if you keep them you can pick their schools, take them to the doctor, pay for therapists to deal with the mother's random return to their lives to only depart again leaving them confused and hurt. It will also protect you and them in case she decides she wants to take them back even for a limited time. If you have legal custody you can at least know you are providing as stable a home as you can.

Dear Carolyn, My boyfriend and I hosted a Super Bowl party, our first joint hosting stint since moving in together late last year. The party was his idea (he's a football fan and I'm not), and most (not all) of our guests were his close friends. Yet he did almost nothing to help me get ready for the party (we split up the tasks beforehand, but he "ran out of time" to do his and I ended up having to rush through them at the end), and then halfway through the night he got tired and disappeared to the bedroom to play on his phone while I made sure everyone was still having a good time. I'm really upset about all of this, as I feel that a few short months in, he's already taking me for granted as a housemate and assuming I'm going to do the "women's work" of hosting. If he were to ask me to redo that party next year, I would definitely say no--there was nothing in it for me, just work and expenses. I'm still too angry to talk to him about it, but whenever I do, what's the right message to send here?

"Are you going to do your half, or am I going to pack my half? Because this never happens again."

It's exception to the rule day!

If he gets it, truly gets it, then this will have been the most useful crappy Super Bowl party of your life. If he doesn't get it--*truly get it*--then do indeed pack up. No one is worth a sacrifice that you find demoralizing and offensive.

BTW, you're already subtly consenting to this sacrifice by referring to "next year." There is no next year unless and until you're confident there's no next time on dumping all the work on you. Internalize this.

There is of course the possibility that your BF just got himself out of his depth and lacks both the practical skills to accomplish his half of the list (and/or budget his time for it properly) and the social skills to stay "on" as a host for hours on end.

These warrant sympathy for sure. Having the idea for a party is a lot easier than pulling it off, unless you're good with BYO chips and a keg, and if he's new to living with a partner then this might have been his first real shot at entertaining.

But it would be a trap to go just with the sympathy and forget the other half: his comfort with letting you carry the load. Had he gotten up the next day and apologized for dumping it all on you, and admitted that he got in over his head, then I expect we wouldn't be having this little chat. He didn't, so we are, so you need to. Good luck.

 

I've been reading your columns / chats for about five years now. Earlier today, I had a question, but then I put my Carolyn Hax cap on, and knew what the answer was. Thanks for all you do. :)

You're welcome! Was it this one? Or this one.

My husband and I have a five and a half year-old girl, and are not planning to have more children. This is for a variety of reasons, but primarily because we are easily stressed, don't do well when sleep-deprived, and aren't really baby/toddler people. Our daughter was NOT an easy baby and we don't want to go through all those stages again. Yet, I always feel a twinge of sadness when another family with an only announces they're expecting. I love the idea of a bigger family. I wish we could handle another kid and I feel terrible on the occasions when my daughter asks for a baby sister. At the same time, I know this is the right choice for us. But how do I bring myself to fully accept it?

Normally my advice would be to start with making sure you're sure. It is a huge decision and there are a lot of variables--such as, a different baby will be different, possibly easier (or harder of course); you'll be better at it, as veteran parents; knowing your limitations could help you plan better for a second baby's care, including more paid help. I say this because often it's some deep, not-fully-acknowledged uncertainty that makes you unable to accept your decision fully.

But that doesn't seem to be the case here. It's not just that you say persuasively "I know this is the right choice for us," but that the issues you cite--stress, sleep deprivation, the steep difficulty of baby/toddler care--are pretty much unavoidable with little kids no matter how many mitigating steps you're able to take.

So. Lots of throat-clearing, but feeling the need to be thorough I guess.

What I suggest now is 1. to keep in mind that choosing ANY path leads to some sadness about what you sacrificed for it. Believe me, parents raising these bigger families look at the way you guys with onlies can, say, travel with relative ease, live more comfortably in population-dense areas, focus on one activity at a time ... sorry, getting a little misty here. Anyway, yes, you're going to hear complaints from your daughter about not having a sibling, and that's hard. But when that happens, just remind yourself how much sweeter it is than, "I HATE MY BROTHERS WHY CAN'T I BE AN ONLY CHILD." There's no one magic way to have a happy family, and there's no happy family without some aspect of it that will remind you of what you gave up along the way.

Then ...

2. Stop thinking and start enjoying the things your choices have made possible for you that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. Do travel--and sleep in, and go to restaurants that normally slam the doors and turn off the lights when they see families with four kids under 10 coming in. Get your big-family-lite by playing host to other kids, which is so much easier when you don't have to manage the varying needs of different-age siblings. Savor what you've got. 

Good?

 

My daughter is a 22-year-old college student. She wants her boyfriend of 6 months to visit us for spring break. We said he was very welcome and that we would make sure the guest room (which sometimes gets cluttered) will be ready for him. She immediately got mad. She thinks they should be able to sleep in her room because they are both adults. My husband and I are not prudes (at least we don't think we are) but we also don't think that we have to feel uncomfortable in our own house. We would feel more comfortable with him in the guest room and her in her room. And, we think that her younger siblings (10-15) should be considered in the equation too. We aren't fans of setting a precedent and potentially a slippery slope of when to allow/not allow shared BF/GF bedrooms. After some discussion, I said I would submit the question to you and if you answered, we would abide by your answer. Our daughter agreed. So, please answer!!!

I'll decide for you if you want, but I actually wrote a decide-for-yourself flow-chart-ish column on this that will probably take you to the same decision but make it yours: LINK.

Have a look and see what you think. If I've signed off, pop by Facebook and post under the chat link: CHAT LINK

--

BTW--"feel uncomfortable in our own house"? These are adults. Regardless of what you decide, it's time to stop treating your daughter like a child just because it's easier on you to see her that way. 

 

Your only might not complain about being an only. I did not and was always mystified by people telling me I should have wanted siblings or asking me if I hated being an only child. Sure, I didn't know any different but my parents provided me with a wonderful childhood and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Not saying it's a good idea in this case, but I think "Up to Chance" is positing the idea of taking away or reducing birth control with her fiance's consent. She refers to reducing "our" use of birth control (condoms?). I don't think she means to ambush him. My husband wanted to "leave it to chance" and asked me to remove my IUD He's an intelligent person. He knew that meant pregnancy was more likely than not. I don't think that's wrong.

If it's a mutual decision, then, I agree, it's fine to let nature decide--as long as both are committed to committing to any children that result.

In response to the question about the friend who is likely suffering from depression, please be careful about mentioning your concerns with your friend’s family. The family may be the source of or contributing to the depression. And they can weaponize the additional information provided about the friend’s mental state. As someone who has been dealing with depression, I think the best thing to do is let your friend know you are concerned about her and to be more persistent in getting together.

Many court systems have forms that can be completed to petition for temporary guardianship of children without the expense of hiring an attorney. Mom's conduct constitutes abandonment of the children so a judge is almost certain to grant the guardianship petition.

Yes, I used to bug my parents for a baby sister or brother. And I'm not saying there aren't huge advantages throughout life to having siblings. But also no guarantee as to how those relationships may go, and I was lucky to have cousins that became like siblings as we got older. Knowing yourself is wise. If you don't feel like you can cope, don;t do it. It's frankly the harder, wiser and kinder decision.

I saw a Korean drama once where the heroine realized that the "right" decision isn't one with no regrets because no matter what you choose, you'll always have regrets. It's the one that has fewer regrets than the alternative. If you think your regret is even 1% less than what you'd feel if you'd gone the other way, you made the right choice. Thinking about that 1% and how no big decision is regret-free has been helpful to me.

I love this, thank you.

Please check yourself in your need/want/desire to have another baby. Do you truly want to bring another child into the world with a reluctant partner? Or are you stressed and feel that having a baby to nurture would be a comfort to you right now. A therapist friend once told me that she saw women having babies when they hit major stress points in their lives because the nurturing hormones are very soothing and gives women the idea they can deal. She knew this because it was happening to her at that time. She compromised with her husband and they got a puppy, her urges for another baby went away pretty quickly.

While "Deciding to have or not to have a baby seems like too enormous a decision for mere mortals" is a stunning abdication of responsibility, let's indulge it for a minute. Yes, perhaps some divine influence will "decide" whether or not you conceive. But afterwards, you "mere mortals" have to decide - every. single. day. - to love and support that child emotionally, mentally, financially, physically, in every single way there is. Are you and your fiance sure that you will be able take on that responsibility? If not, please don't gamble on a child's life.

...when you find yourself horrified at the moral choices your partner seems to be making. The night my husband's mother was paralyzed from the chest down in an accident and it was time for someone to go see her in the ER with his father for the first time, he stammered and said it was better for his father's friend to go. I was horrified, and interrupted him, and pushed him and his father out of the waiting room towards the ER. We've never talked about it since, but that was so clearly the last moment of my husband's childhood and I've never regretted what I did. He's stepped up 100%, and more, after that moment to care for both his mother and his father. Sometimes we panic and have issues dealing with this hard stuff. A partner should be able to nudge.

I called friends crying while I was depressed, and they turned around from their drive to upstate New York and came to me in D.C. I actually rallied to make dinner that night (but didn't have to leave my house!) and it's been almost ten years and I remember that like it was yesterday. If they had asked me if they could come, I might have said no, but they said "we are coming" and it's probably the brightest moment in the time I was depressed by far.

This probably comes from not knowing what to say to his friend and feeling embarrassed about that. That's hard for everyone but just showing up makes the difference. Can you weave this into your butt kicking? He will feel much worse later if he's notable by his absence because of awkwardness.

Weaving + butt kicking and somehow I think Etsy.

Or is that just my sign that I've been on too long.

OP here. I just want to clarify that leaving procreation up to chance was HIS suggestion, not mine. I would never do something underhanded.

Yes, so sorry I misread you--and soooo glad I misread you! 

New answer is above. My apologies again.

 

Okay, that seems to cover it for comments ... 

 

Thanks everybody, thanks Teddy, have a great weekend and type to you here next week. 

Also -- stop acknowledging fake holidays.

Ha. Except they're all fake. 

 

Oh--OP with the 22-year-old daughter and BF. You out there? Last chance to make the transcript. Otherwise hope to see you on FB.

The earlier writer learned about regret minimization from a Korean drama; others of us learned about it in econ grad school. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regret_(decision_theory) : "Regret theory models choice under uncertainty taking into account the effect of anticipated regret. ... It incorporates a regret term in the utility function which depends negatively on the realized outcome and positively on the best alternative outcome given the uncertainty resolution. This regret term is usually an increasing, continuous and non-negative function subtracted to the traditional utility index."

Better than butt weaving, and that's saying something. Thanks.

I was that child. To this day, I call my aunt at least once a week, but maybe speak to my birth mom four times a year. My aunt is my real "mom" and the fact that she made room for me in her life changed everything. It is the first and greatest blessing of my life, and my children's lives now that they have an "extra" and attentive grandmother in her, too.

Now that's a valentine. Thank you for sharing it.

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 washingtonpost.com. She lives in New England with her husband and their three boys.
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