Carolyn Hax Live: 'Halloween Costume Etiquette'

Sep 14, 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.

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. Feeling particularly grateful today that it's Friday. 

Carolyn, I’m 49 and probably about to be unemployed because of job elimination. Not struggling financially, thank goodness. But feeling anxious and depressed, sort of staring into the void. Any advice or words or comfort?

Sorry about the unwelcome disruption, or at least the threat of it. I hope it's of some comfort to know that what you're feeling is completely normal. Change is hard, and losing income is scary, even when you're prepared for it.

It sounds as if you can use this period of uncertainty to work on your Plan B--and in the process basically treat your anxiety (unless it's bigger than situation, in which case please do make an appointment for a medical screening). Figure out, for example, some exact numbers--how much $ could you live on indefinitely? Then, what jobs would bring in that amount? Which of them sound interesting, and which are you qualified for?

If you don't feel ready for this--if it feels too big--then break it into smaller pieces. Dedicate, say, 30 minutes per day to this research. 

At the same time, start thinking of things that calm you, that you can turn to if you suddenly find yourself with open days to fill. The biggest payoff awaits, I suspect, in things that occupy you, tap into your creativity and save you $ all at once. Cooking is an obvious example, but there are others. Easing some of these hobbies into your schedule now can also take the edge off your dread.

Sorry for the long gap there--contractor at the door, unexpectedly, at 12:03. Timing, baby ...

Dear Carolyn, our friends asked us for a home service referral recently. We recommended one which we were very satisfied with based on its service provided to us a few years ago and our friends decided to go with this company. During the actual home service hours at our friends' house, they asked us very specific questions regarding the services instead of asking the service providers that were at their house. They seemed not very happy with certain aspects of service, and they asked us how those aspects were at our house back then. This got me wondering: Where does the buck stop when we recommend any services to others at others' requests and based our honest past experiences? Are we responsible for others dissatisfaction even though we were satisfied with the service before? In our case, do we need to tell our friends that we are sorry about their dissatisfaction with the service? Thank you!

We all hire at our own risks, even people recommended by others. It seems like a basic fact that not every client has the same standards, and not every job will be exactly alike. 

Come to think of it, I have an exact parallel in real life. We hired movers based on a friend's recommendation, and they didn't do a great job. Didn't bring enough people for the job so it took forever, and even broke some stuff I really cared about. I did think about our friends as the job started to go south, but only in the sense of, "Oh well"--we did our due diligence, and our friends just had better luck. It happens.

This is especially true when months or years have gone by since you used that service. Chances are there will be at least some new staff, which can change everything.

For me to blame them for our bad experience would be completely futile, unless of course I wanted to feel better about it all by blaming someone else--but that would make me a jerk, and I try not to be one. 

I hope  your friends also try not to be jerks and just accept there's risk in hiring anyone. And I hope they eventually talked to the people they hired about their concerns instead of the people who recommended them. 

But it would also be nice if you said you were sorry they didn't have the same experience with this contractor that you did. That's just a kindness.

Dear Carolyn, My son just started kindergarten and we got a schedule of holidays, celebrations, and sign up sheets for parent volunteers. For Halloween all the kids are to dress like a scarecrow but they can be as creative as they like with it. Each grade in the school is given a costume like this. First grade is a barnyard animal, second grade is clowns and so on and so forth. I find this a sad, it’s Halloween and the entire point is to dress up how you want to. Kids are given so little freedom to be creative and now we are taking Halloween, too? I know that I can take him trick or treating in whatever costume he wants but I can’t stop being bummed about the school celebration. I know my feelings will spread to him so I need to reel my disappointment in. Any suggestions?

Deep breathing, to start. Fill your lungs gradually all the way to the bottom, hold for a second, release slowly. Repeat.

You've been at this school thing for a matter of weeks or even days. I feel confident in promising you there will be stuff to freak you out, knot you up and drive you in for a tense series of meetings at least once a year for the next 13 years. Keep your powder dry, sure, but consider sitting this one out.

I'm responding to the degree of upset here, not necessarily to the complaint itself. It certainly seems as if the school has overthought and overwrought a holiday that was better left alone. And of course there's a cost element here that I find more alarming than the creativity thing, since assigning a category means kids whose parents can't pony up for two costumes in one year lose their chance to decide what they want to be and have to go with the school's choice. Blah.

But even then, maybe there's something to this tradition that you'd actually like if you knew more about it. So here's some advice you can use not just for this, but for anything else a school does to annoy you: Ask first. Not, "I can't believe you ruined Halloween!!!" but, "This is an unusual way to do Halloween. What's the rationale?"

Again--maybe there's something inspired about this that you haven't thought of.

Educators can certainly get in their own way, plenty, but it doesn't hurt to go into it with the understanding that they're professionals and they've spent years figuring out what works for their communities. So, ask. Then think about the answers you're given. Then think how important it is in the scheme of things. Then decide whether it's time to complain.

I am 39 years old and have been with my girlfriend, “Debbie”, for almost 3 years. She told me a few months ago that she wants us to get married and I asked for some time to decide. That time is running out and I know I need to make up my mind. She’s 34 and I can understand why she wants to settle down and start a family. The thing is, I’m not positive she’s the one. I’ve been up against this feeling many times before with other girlfriends and I always figured when the right woman came along, I would just know it and there would be no doubts. I love Debbie, she's beautiful, kind and generous, but there’s still some nagging doubts in my mind – things like the fact that her sister and mom are both stay-at-home moms and even though Debbie says that’s not for her, will she expect that when she gets pregnant? I have no desire to be the sole wage earner. My dad was the one who told me years ago that I would know when the right girl came along and not to settle for anything less but now he’s urging me not to let this wonderful woman get away. Could it be that I’m never going to be absolutely sure or should I keep holding out for that magic moment where all doubts disappear? I don't want to make a mistake but I don't want to be in alone in my 50s still chasing that impossible dream.

"I love Debbie, she's beautiful, kind and generous"

Do you even know this person? That is such a sterile description.


"her sister and mom are both stay-at-home moms and even though Debbie says that’s not for her, will she expect that when she gets pregnant"

Wha? Teddy just translated this so well I'm going to steal it: "She said no but I am going to speak for her and guess that means yes"

And if you've spent any time in this forum, then you can guess what I think of the "magic moment" idea.

I don't mean to pile on. Your description--of Debbie, of your doubts, of your history, of your concept of "right"--is just so detached, with no signs of intimacy between you and Debbie.

Do you talk? About more than logistics of who works when and why--about feelings, fears, hopes, old aches, new epiphanies? Do you listen? Do you trust? 

Can you list three things about Debbie that make being with her different from being with anyone else?

Have you thought about how you *feel* about Debbie? Do you have a sense of the way you feel when you're not in a relationship? Can you summon the way you've felt in other relationships? Is there any difference among these various emotional states? Is the way you feel with Debbie the one you want to keep?

If you were Debbie, would you think you were the best person for her?

There is no "absolutely sure" when it comes to other people, not even close. But you can become an expert on yourself, and anchor your decisions in that. Please do give it a try.

I don't know how costumes have changed since I was a kid, but once upon a time "scarecrow" would've been a blessing, in terms of simplicity and low cost. Basically just the kiddo's jeans, a plaid shirt, hat, and a little straw sticking out the sleeves and pants bottoms.

True. Other grades, though, don't fare so well. 

If I was forced to dress up as a clown in 2nd grade, I would have begged to stay home that day. *shudder* CLOWNS. NO. (Still no, many years later)

Yes, there's that, too.

Been there (was 53). additional advice: network like crazy. meet people for breakfast, coffee, lunch, at their schedule. Also ask how you can be helpful to them. Find volunteer work that you like. Plan out your day as if job hunting is your FT job (even if you aren't ready to do that). Update your linked in profile. Join or participate more in professional associations. Get on a good exercise program and meditate or do yoga. All these things helped. Talk to everyone........most people have been un or underemployed at some point. Have a story: new CEO went in a different direction, RIF, whatever.

Hi, Carolyn-- An update on your column about my adult son who was cool and snippy when we lived together. (LINK) Things between us got minimally better when he moved out, but during this summer's family reunion, his abruptness moved seriously into the rude category. I was upset and wasn't sure why or what I could do. Was I invasive when I asked where he bought his shirt? Were our interests too different, and he just didn't like me? After I cooled-off, and we got home, I asked him why he was like that. He kindly explained I was acting around my family just like my siblings and mom act around me. Angry, narcissistic, manipulative. Let's say that wasn't the easiest thing to hear (I so wanted to say, "it's NOT me! I'm so much better than they are! I'm fried from managing them, so give me a break!"). But I listened and made sure I understood, amen for therapy. From that, our whole relationship turned around. I've spent time with him where he always had polite frostiness. Those times, I listened more instead of changing the subject, I didn't inwardly bristle when he wasn't paying attention to me from introversion or his phone, and joked about my narcissism -- so he knew I heard him. We even had a relaxed and connected birthday dinner and a real hug afterwards. Not sure when I last had one of those (vs. the polite ones). I know this isn't one of the more urgent issues you see, but I'm happy for this turn around. Your response helped along the way, so thanks.

This great, thank you. That you were able to take his criticism without getting defensive says so much about you. It takes guts, faith, and a lot of self-control.

And it's as urgent as anything, no? What supersedes our connections to the people who matter to us.



Hi Carolyn, How do we get out of a carpool-to-school arrangement with our neighbors, without creating unpleasant awkwardness? The current arrangement is: Twice a week we drive their kid to school; twice a week they drive ours. (Fridays we take them separately.) At the end of week two, they have now made us late or nearly so a total of eight times (their kid is never ready to go when we pull up, and they are always late pulling up to get ours). We have been friendly with them for years, and I really hate to mess that up with a statement that basically amounts to "You guys are always late, so never mind." Any suggestions?

That sounds fine to me. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just say it. Or:

"We love you guys, but hate being late. Is this an adjustment period or do we have irreconcilable carpool differences?"

My sister's husband confessed to an online affair and apparently is going through a major midlife crisis. My poor sister is of course stressed and worried although they are doing marriage counseling and he is also doing counseling (I think). The problem is we (my mom and me, we're a very close-knit bunch) now hate this guy's guts. We were never crazy about him (selfish, rude, etc.) but tolerated because he made my sister happy. Now he's not even doing that. So if they stay together what's the best way to deal with him, because it's going to be really hard to deal with him after all of this.


I'm not being facetious. He's a selfish rude jerk who made your sister happy, then he became a selfish rude jerk who made your sister stressed and worried. If she takes him back, then presumably she will have decided this selfish rude jerk makes her happy again, or at least happy enough. 

Which means you can go back to your original modus operandi: putting up with him because he's part of your sister's package deal.

It would be lousy, but it wouldn't be new.

Here's hoping this mess wakes her up.

You really never know what’s going to happen down the road. There is no guarantee that your girlfriend won’t want to stay home once you have a kid, even if she says she doesn’t now. My life is nowhere like what I imagined it would be like on my wedding day. If you love someone and care about them, you make it work. Going at it expecting some sort of guarantee that it’s all going to work out the way you wanted it to is a recipe for unhappiness. For BOTH of you.


Carolyn, how does a couple decide how much of their life to share with family? My husband and I have been trying for a baby for a year and are now starting fertility treatments. I feel strongly that I want to keep this as private as possible (between us, a therapist, and one or two close friends.) My husband wants to share with his parents and siblings and thinks that I should also share with my family. I understand his need for support but I think we would be better off getting it from a professional vs. my in-laws who will likely give us a bunch of platitudes/ push fertility myths and then somehow end up telling the rest of the extended family. If I'm being honest, I'm also embarrassed and feel broken because the issue is on my end, and don't need everyone knowing that. It's all extremely personal and sensitive, and can't anything stay private anymore? Or do we always need to be sharing?

I am so sorry you have to go through this.

I also am sorry you see yourself as "broken." Would you say that to your friend if she were in your position? Would you call her broken, and agree she should be embarrassed? I don't even know you and I know--no way. You'd be encouraging her, urging her to trust that you won't judge her or annoy her with advice and myths.

So please be as kind to yourself as you'd be to your friend.

As for reconciling your preference for privacy with your husband's impulse to share, it's important to get into the specifics. He wants broad community support and you want narrow, professional support. That's the general picture. The specific one for you is that you don't want your in-laws pushing myths or sharing your news widely. That's fair. The specific picture for your husband, I'm guessing, is that he doesn't want the added weight of keeping a secret. That's fair, too, since both of you would have to choose your words carefully whenever you're around people.

These do seem mutually exclusive, so it'll be tough, but they're also the same thing: You both want to feel comfortable around other people as you go through this difficult process. Maybe just talking about it on those terms will help the two of you figure out what your two visions have in common--and maybe, for example, you can trust some people to know without talking about it around you? Discretion isn't a totally lost art, I hope.

If you just can't find a level of disclosure you both can accept, then, given that your body is the one getting treated and stuck and hormone-jacked, you have the veto power here. I hope he freely embraces that.

My son, who is in his late 20s, has become involved with a woman who has a young child from a previous relationship. As I understand it, the kid's father is still marginally and inconsistently in the picture, and does not appreciate that my son is taking on certain "daddy" roles. Also, even though my son seems to really love the kid, his relationship with his girlfriend is somewhat unstable (and he says he does not see himself marrying her in the near future). All of this is to say that I am very unsure how to relate to the kid, who I now see on a pretty regular basis. It feels as though she could be out of my life any second, and I don't know how that plays into my role as a grandmother-like figure. (She already has two very loving grandparents.) What are best practices for not adding to the instability already swirling around this very sweet little girl?

Teacher, neighbor, babysitter--these are roles in so many children's lives that are warm and caring and, in most cases, temporary. And the kids are (in most cases) okay with that. Just be present in the moment and be mindful that she has fixed quantities in her life in her mom, her two grandparents, and even her demi-dad--and they will likely remain that way. 

Carolyn, I am a single mom to two incredible boys. My ex-husband's mother is my live-in nanny and general cheerleader (a story in itself). I have a great job, a beautiful home and a supportive boyfriend. Even though I have absolutely nothing to complain about, sometimes I just want to run away. I want to be in a place for a day or a week (or a year) where no one needs or demands anything from me -- problems solved, forms signed, appointments made, cash doled out, Minecraft stories listened to, or even just time spent. I love all the people in my life dearly, but I get to a point where I just want to scream at them to leave me alone. I am trying to be more positive and remember just how great I have it -- I feel totally churlish even writing this -- but some days it's hard not to feel sucked dry. Do you have any advice for getting back to that grateful state of mind? Thanks.

Gratitude is nice and all, but it sounds like what you really need is some alone time. A chunk of it, built into your schedule, accounted for with child care and without apology.

Especially if you're an introvert, this is a mental health issue, not an oh-poor-me issue.

It may be that you need a longer stretch to start, like a full day or a weekend, and after that will be okay with the "touch up" of a weekly break or regular exercise class or daily meditation or whatever. But if that's not doable, then find a place to put that smaller break into your schedule and see whether it's enough to feel some relief.

Dear Carolyn, My ex-husband and I divorced when our daughter was 3. I went on to get remarried to a man who had 2 children from a previous marriage. We then had two kids of our own. My ex-husband is remarried but they don’t have any kids. Overall, we co-parent really well and we have equal time with our daughter. I am happy with this arrangement, it’s becoming more obvious my daughter is not. She is 13 and her step-siblings are 11 and 9 and her sisters and 3 and 6 months. Despite our best efforts to blend our families, for some reason she just does not click with the other kids. She isn’t mean to them and wouldn’t bully them or anything like that, but she doesn’t really interact with them much beyond family group stuff. When she is with my ex-husband she is able to spend more time with friends because his house is closer to them and they have a far more flexible schedule. My ex is also able to buy her some very nice things. Besides that, she just seems happier without a lot of people and the chaos in our house. On the weekends she is here I often go looking for her and find her reading by herself in her room while her siblings all play elsewhere. She would never say this, but I think she just doesn’t like being at our house. I feel like she is visiting here and her “real life” is at my ex’s. I want her to be a part of things here, not a visitor. How can blend our families more successfully?

She could be in a non-blended family of five children and still prefer to read in her room while her siblings play elsewhere. Especially at age 13, where the urge to tell one's family to go away is strong, and especially when three of the four, if not all four, of the siblings are on a completely different developmental planet.

I don't think there's anything terrible about a kid this age being somewhat disengaged at home. We don't learn to be resourceful when we get everything we want as we want it when we want it. Her needs are for a quieter environment than your home provides, so she has found a way to meet them. Good for her.

The only thing I would suggest is the basic raising-a-teenager survival pack: Be unobtrusive but watchful; find ways to spend time with her one-on-one (yes, I'm hilarious) that meet her where she is vs. where you want her to be; and keep an open mind about the best way to give her what she needs. It may be that it serves her better to tilt her schedule more toward being at her dad's, especially given the proximity to friends ... but she could also use a place to hide from her social life (that she can blame on her parents, win-win) and recharge a bit. Like I said, watchful. Her feeling emotionally safe is the best encouragement for her to blend.





So, you don't want your future wife to stay at home. Great. But are you willing to put in the effort so she can work without going bonkers from stress? Are you going to do your fair share of kid-wrangling and ferrying, cooking, meal planning, cleaning, shopping, and errands? Without whining or arguing or procrastinating or waiting for her to tell you what to do? And without expecting headpats and compliments for the bare minimum? I've met my fair share of men over the years who "can't imagine having a wife who didn't have her own career," and then, once the marriage happens, they hang back and expect to be waited on...and are baffled when their wives ramp down their aspirations. This is absolutely a conversation you should be having with Debbie as part of a larger marriage talk.

Remember that no plan survives first contact with reality. All you can do is figure out whether you want Debbie to be the one who stands with you to catch everything life is going to throw at you.

Embrace this time. EMBRACE IT. you’ve probably worked your whole adult life with short American vacations - can’t be away too long, gotta check in! Spend at least two weeks sleeping in and doing nothing more strenuous than lunch with friends, or, a plane ticket somewhere. Or two months - decompres. Then start networking

To recap - retiree parents are very active with their hobbies. We talk on the phone a lot but they never come visit despite traveling further for vacations. This is very hurtful but historically emotional convos just make them shut down ever more so when we have touched on this topic it hasn’t gone well. I need to decide - do I drag kids to them for thanksgiving so we can actually spend a holiday together and if so how do I not resent them / their choices?

Please stop holding the space in your life for these imaginary attentive grandparents. You have parents and they are who they are, not who you think they will magically become in the presence of your children. So just stop. You're torturing yourself and, quite possibly, teaching your kids that it's okay to mark your happiness as "pending" while you wait for other people to do things for you.

How do YOU want to spend Thanksgiving? And don't say, "In my own home with my parents visiting." Choose only from the options available to you. You can stay home and make your own holiday of it, immediate family only, or invite friends/neighbors you care a lot about; you can travel to see your parents; you can go somewhere cool on a vacation. 

Just, decide. Stop giving your power away.

Oops, gotta run. Thanks all, thanks Teddy, have a great weekend (or stay safe if "great" is no longer an option), and I'll type to you here again Friday.

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.
Recent Chats
  • Next: