Carolyn Hax Live: Potty snacks

Sep 20, 2019

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax answers questions and responds to comments about a father caught in the middle, potluck weddings, a son's childcare demands and more. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Hi everybody, happy Friday. 

I moved into my first house of my own late last year. It’s a twin home and I figured it was important to have a good relationship with the people next door. They are an older couple, both retired, and I introduced myself, had them over for dinner and we exchanged a few favors, Christmas cards and goodies, and all was well. As soon as the weather got warm though they started to be a pain in the you-know-what. There are only a few shrubs and a low fence separating my little patio from theirs and every time I was outside, they’d appear within a few minutes, even if I had company. They would literally help themselves to food and drink and bring chairs over and join the party. Eventually I had no choice but to very nicely ask them to respect my privacy and only come over when invited. You’d think I’d told them to blank off and never darken my door again. Now they won’t speak to me or even look at me. I thought it would blow over but it’s been months. Some friends are saying I should be grateful but I hate things this way. Should I accept that this is the way it’s going to be or should I try to talk to them again? And say what? And how could I even do it when they won’t even answer a hello from me right now?

Try inviting them over--slip an invitation under the door. By doing that, you make good on the implied promise of your privacy-please conversation: to keep enjoying their company, just on an invitation basis vs. a drop-in one. 

They may just ignore it, in which case, yes, you probably do just have to accept this as your new normal. However, it would jump from a problem that's 98 percent of their own making to one that's 100 percent theirs.

Not that that helps you with the bad feeling of neighbors who won't speak to you, but it at least can give your conscience a hug.

I can’t understand why I’m surrounded by people, mainly guys, who do nothing but complain about their awful marriages. Their terrible, nagging, controlling wives. No one is forcing these guys to stay married. Divorce is not that hard to do - source: I was married, no longer am. I’ve finally started telling guys who are constantly joking about the hardships that if it's that bad, just go. Get out. They’re not taking it well at all. Like I broke some kind of rule I don’t know. What’s going on with these people? It’s not play-acting on their part. They really sound miserable. So why do they stay? I just don’t get it.

Instead of telling, why don't you try asking:

"If it's so bad, then why do you stay? Not a rhetorical question--I'm genuinely curious about the amount of complaining about seemingly terrible, nagging, controlling wives."

Dear Carolyn, This summer, my mom retired from her long career as a librarian because she wanted to spend more time with her grandchildren (my small kids and my older nieces and nephews). My siblings and I advised against this. She loved her work, and she does not do well with unstructured time. She had the option of reducing her work hours or switching to a less demanding volunteer position, but she chose to leave the job altogether! And now, reality is not matching her expectations. We all have busy schedules with kids in school, and though I have tried to squeeze time out of each week for my kids to see her, it doesn't always work out. My siblings' older kids are even busier and less pliable in this regard. So Mom is sitting home alone or coming up with ways to fill her time, and it saddens her, and me. She does not try to guilt me about it, but I feel bad anyway because maybe I should have been even more forceful in warning her against retiring for the grandkids. Do I have a responsibility to make my kids more available for time with Grandma?

First of all, you did nothing wrong, so, no guilt. You said your piece about her idea of retiring, and so she had that information when she made her own choice.

Second, I don't think you have a responsibility, per se, to fix her maybe-too-optimistic decision. But isn't it possible you all could benefit from a little creative thinking here? By all I mean you, your sibs, your mom and all the kids. The busier families are, the more opportunities they tend to present for an extra adult to be a godsend. Since it was a valid option for your mom to keep working full-time, I assume she is fully mobile and capable? So, maybe she'd be thrilled to do an after-school pickup, a run to a lesson or practice, whatever else you can come up with that isn't taxing--no fair putting her to "work" unless she volunteers for it-- but allows her to develop her own relationships with these kids.

Maybe that's not practical, but maybe too just talking about it with her will lead you to an idea that would work. So, please talk to her directly: "I know you retired to spend more time with the grandkids, so I'm wondering if maybe the reality isn't as you had hoped. How's it going?" And, in response to her response: "Is there anything the sibs and I can do to make it (even) better?" Then float the idea of pitching in, light-lifting only.


Hi Carolyn, My husband of almost 2 years and I are struggling with getting aligned on parenting issues. I have two boys from my first marriage (ages 13 and 11), and the process of forming a cohesive family has been difficult. When we fight (often about the kids and parenting misalignment), my husband explodes loud hostility on everyone and then just checks out. He is distant, barely talks to anyone in the house, shows no affection, and generally ignores everyone until he decides he is willing to come back into the fold. He generally doesn't apologize to anyone for his treatment of us, and although I have asked for us to find more tools to help align on parenting and marriage communication issues, he isn't receptive to that. Two weeks ago we had a blow up fight about the boys (I butted into a very loud and aggressive exchange between him and my older son where I felt my husband was totally unreasonable and that I had to protect my child from the caustic behavior); I was told what a failure I was as a mother because the boys are so poorly behaved; after the rant, the boys and I got the silent treatment most of a week. Things were patched up for a few days before another fight about imperfect kid behavior followed by another few days of silence/resentment. My husband is now back to "normal" and being the loving, funny, kind person that he often is. However, I am so emotionally worn out from the ups and downs I feel unable to open back up inside and accept the warmth. I feel like I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop and him to explode because the boys aren't perfect (they are just perfectly normal for their age, which means they behave sometimes crappy). When things are good, they are really, really good. But when they are bad, it's terrible. I have tried finding a family therapist to help us through this issue, but have been unable to locate one in my area with any availability. We have been in couples therapy, and he's willing to go back, but I don't feel like he really addresses any underlying issues in therapy with me. I want to get off of the roller coaster; I want to have a stable relationship with my husband; I want to believe that this "normal" will last - but I don't see any underlying change or shift that gives me faith that anything will be different. I am at a loss for what to do. (FWIW, I have done a lot of therapy solo. We recently moved from one area of the country to another, so I don't have a local therapist, but I am looking for one). I feel very stuck and unhappy. Not sure what is next.

Please find someone local, asap--for your boys. Doesn't have to be a "family" therapist, just one qualified to work with kids. Your boys need someone to help them navigate and stay grounded through their stepfather's emotional abuse. 

That's what this is: "I was told what a failure I was as a mother because the boys are so poorly behaved; after the rant, the boys and I got the silent treatment most of a week."

Ask their pediatrician for help, since presumably you set one up for them right after you moved?

Also please do find someone who can help you respond to his emotional frailties. He clearly had either poor examples or no examples for handling stress in a healthy way, so whether you stay married to this man or not, you're going to have to find ways to remain steady and present through some intense emotional times and punitive behaviors.

As for the kind of help you get as a couple, I suggest turning your attention away from couples work and toward parenting education. I'm guessing that on top of his own immaturity, your husband has some ignorance of child development norms that's getting in the way of healthy responses to your kids. Yes, you're right, it's normal for even good kids to make bad mistakes, so parents need to factor that into their responses and expectations. If your husband has expectations of 11 and 13 that aren't realistic, then he's definitely going to overreact whenever reality takes a difficult turn. If he's open-minded enough, then a good parent-education program can get his expectations down to the range of the possible, which in turn will mean you and he are no longer setting your kids up for failure.

That is, of course, a huge "if." The toughest obstacle you'll face here is if your husband is unwilling to see anything wrong with his nice-explosive-icy emotional mind-blank* cycle--which, I presumably don't have to say, is so much more of a behavioral breakdown in an adult than mistakes are in a couple of t(w)eenagers.

Anyway. In that case, then you'll need to choose the lesser harm, of an emotional abuser in the house or a separation from their stepfather. I hope it won't come to that. Breathe deeply, act quickly and calmly, see if he's open to change--and trust yourself. You can do this.



*Thank you to prior poster for this coinage.

Dear Carolyn, I don't necessarily believe in the notion of "settling," since I think most partners can offer us wonderful things, but I do believe that it's not wise to choose a partner out of fear rather than out of love. My brother is marrying "Annie" next year. He has been in love with her for a decade and is thrilled that she said yes. She has openly expressed that she doesn't have the same passionate feelings but does think he is a great partner and hopes that her love grows over time. She is in her mid-30s (he's 44) and, reading between the lines, I think she believes this is her Last Real Chance to settle down and have babies and all that. My brother is evidently okay with this. He adores her and has self-esteem issues dating back to childhood. If he's happy, do I just need to be happy for him? As someone who thinks he deserves someone who really loves him and thinks marrying him is a great end unto itself, do I owe it to him to suggest that he reconsider? Or do I just keep my mouth shut and prepare to spend the rest of our lives (or the length of their marriage) faking happiness for them?

feh. At least she was honest.

As I've said so many times before, I think we get one shot at our truth about others' lives: "I know you're nuts about Annie, and I think she's great too. I just want to say this once, and I'll shut up ever after: I think you deserve someone who loves you as passionately as you love her, and thinks marrying you is a great end unto itself.

"Okay, I'm in the shutting up phase now, wishing you nothing but happiness."

This is assuming, by the way, that he knows that you know that Annie has been clear about her marry-now, hope-to-fall-in-love-later scheme--since you seem to be privy to it all. If you're working off impressions, rumors and third-hand material, then it's probably best just to smile and wave.

Lost Faith momma did not say anything about how she addresses the issues when the boys are sometimes "crappy".

That matters, of course, but only as it relates to the upbringing of the boys. Her handling things badly--say, being too permissive--would not excuse his behavior one bit.

Can she un-retire, maybe go back to work part time?

Sure, but that's for her to figure out, not for her kids to suggest.

Just to be clear on terms, he's not "funny, loving, and kind." He's volatile, unpredictable, and a danger to your children's psychological health. The "very good times" do not make up for this.

Yes, thank you. Abuse is all of the points in a cycle, not just one point in a cycle. The "funny, loving, and kind" behavior acts as an accelerant to abuse. It persuades victims to stay, and to keep dropping their defenses. 

My MIL retired from a career as a librarian to spend more time with my elementary-age kids (and travel and bike and a bunch of other things). The first thing she did was volunteer at the kids' school in the library. (With our permission and the kids' blessing) Libraries always need volunteers--experienced ones even more--and every school has a library. The school had no problem scheduling her volunteer time to be in the library when my kids had library time. The kids love it--they get to see Grandma at school! She finds books for them! We love it--family points at school when two working parents don't have much time to volunteer. And she gets to see the kids every week in their "natural habitat" and know when other grandparent-friendly events are coming up. Wins all around.


Maybe next time ask them if they are related to Fred Flintstone. Ask them if they are in the stone age were that old trope about "the ball and chain is making me miserable' still applies? Just ask them if they are genuinely miserable, or if they think this is what is expected of their gender, to complain about marriage. Because that would just be sad. Be genuine and say, it's getting old listening to this if it's just trope, but if it's genuine then find solutions to your problems so you can stop complaining as its no fun to be the listener.

Next time one of the guys starts complaining, bluntly say "Tell me one thing you love about your wife." If they stammer or give you a blank stare, explain that all you hear are the negatives and you want to know something positive about them. Repeat as necessary, and I'm guessing the complaints will slow down.

Because people don't want to feel responsible for their own lives and their own happiness, because that means they're responsible for their unhappiness, too. It feels much better to blame it on external factors (which includes other people), and if they do it long enough they start to believe it.

I'm taking the rest of the day off.

It's not just men - women do this too (gripe about their spouses, with no apparent goal of changing things). I don't get it. My working hypothesis is that it's a form of social bonding, though: there's an assumption that the Awful Spouse is a shared hardship, which other (men/women) will understand and sympathize with. And then participating becomes a social ritual - to prove you belong to the group, to prove you understand the shared experience, blah blah blah. It's a more insidious, more socially-harmful variation of everyone griping about the weather, or the traffic, or the awful coffee in the cafeteria. At least that's my guess. Me, I have a rule to only ever gripe about my wife when she's there to return fire. So far it works for us!

Much fairness here, enthusiastically received--thank you.

Dear Carolyn, A few years ago, my husband died and immediately after that I had a miscarriage. It was a very low time in my life. I have a group of friends from college and one of them did not reach out during this time at all. No note, text, email, appearance at the funeral, nothing. Mutual friends made excuses that I don’t recall specifically now. When we get together as a group I am cordial to her, but I have no desire to be friends with her anymore. She clearly feels bad about this and has hinted that she wants to be closer friends again. I’ve dodge the hints. Earlier this week she sent me a text asking to get together and clear the air so we can get our friendship back on track. But we can’t. I don’t hate her, I don’t dislike her even. I just don’t want to have anything to do with her beyond being basically pleasant in a group. How should I respond to this? She is asking for a lunch or happy hour, and I just don’t want to. I don’t know how to send a text that I don’t wish her harm but don’t want to see her face.

I am mindful of--and so sorry for--your devastation. And I still think the response that might be the most rewarding for you right now is to ask yourself, what do you have to lose by hearing her out? You'd be under zero obligation to "get our friendship back on track"--you'd just be getting an explanation for behavior you can't imagine even has an explanation. 

So, find out. Agree to the absolute minimum--coffee? a walk in a public park?--and make sure you have options for an unobstructed exit. Let her say her piece, then choose whether you then have any interest in saying yours.

I won't defend her behavior in any way. But I do think an approach to life that's built with ample space for people trying to overcome their frailties is one that pays precious dividends, especially over time. 

If you're just not interested in doing this, then send your text, as is: " I don’t wish you harm, but I don’t want to see your face."

Again-- I am so sorry for what you went through.

Oh wow, this idea (asking her to consider volunteering in school libraries) IS brilliant. I always really hesitate to ask her to babysit, even though it would really help, since I hate for it to seem like she has to pay a price (dealing with tantrums, potty, snacks, etc) to see the kids. So this is a great solution I would never have thought of. One of my kids just started first grade and is finally at a school that HAS a library (the other will join in a couple years). ***REALTIME UPDATE: I just texted her to ask what she thought of it, and she's going to look into it on Monday!!

Real-time update! This is so great. 

I would also like to share that I read it as "potty snacks."

And, while I'm here ... I think it's also fine to say you haven't asked her to baby-sit (or whatever else) because you don't want her to feel obligated. She then will be able to say, "Oh, thank you for understanding," or, "Ooh, ask me! I've been waiting for you to offer, not wanting to butt in." When you're afraid of miscommunication, it can help sometimes to communicate about communicating: "I'm not always sure how to handle ____. Do you have a preference?" 

Please reach out to your local domestic violence agency. They may have support groups with other women dealing with the same thing. This is 100% emotional abuse, spoken as a survivor. Even if you do decide to stay in the long run, the local agency may have resources including therapy that might help

I grew up with a father like that. Unreasonably angry and then the silent treatment. Mostly toward my mother. And there were times he was great to be around. The effects of my dad's emotional abuse have effected my siblings and I throughout our adulthood. Therapy did help as adults. But as a child and teen my home was not the sanctuary home should be and I longed for my mother to divorce my dad. I hated my dad and loved my dad. Which is also hard to deal with. Lots of guilt over the hate part. I hope you can get the help you need. Please get your boys into therapy. I also hope that is their stepfather doesn't change that you get them away from him.

For the past year I’ve been engaged to a wonderful woman who I’ve known for over three years but I've recently developed strong feelings for a younger colleague who I started mentoring. She is married and as far as I can tell the marriage is okay. She is very attractive and I also find her extremely intelligent and engaging. We’re both introverts but interacting with her refreshes me in a way I have not experienced in a long time. We have been working long days together on a high priority project and I get the impression that both of us are holding back about our mutual attraction. Sometimes I catch her looking at me in a way that seems to indicate that she’s also thinking about me all of the time. The nature of our job requires that we spend a lot of time in close proximity, making it increasingly impossible to ignore how I feel about her. I don’t know what to do or what my next move should be. When I go home, I’m reminded of how great my fiancee is and I feel guilty for this incredible attraction to my colleague but I can’t help how I feel. This project will be continuing on for the rest of the year and I am worried I will say something that make things awkward between us but I’m also worried that if I don’t say anything I’ll always wonder what might have been. What should I do?

Wait--it seems like your possible to-do list is about what you say or don't say or feel or don't feel about your colleague.

Please focus on your fiancee. She can be great, brilliant, Best in Planet, and not be right for you.

Is that possible? Or, I should say, is that possibly what your attraction to your colleague is trying to tell you?

Crushes happen, obviously, and I could post testimonials all day from people who are still happily paired with the same person they've loved through several intense crushes. So that could be what you're dealing with here. 

It's just that you're not married yet--so you have an obligation, as I see it, to yourself and your fiancee, to ask yourself if "interacting with her refreshes me in a way I have not experienced in a long time" means you got engaged before you knew what kind of connection to a person was possible, and now need to rethink your choice of life partner in light of this new information.

And need to do so without involving your colleague or entertaining the idea of being with her as a real possibility, because she's married.

The rethink is about whether you need to free yourself to find in someone else the kind of feelings you now realize are possible. If indeed that's what this all means. And if you frame it as Fiancee vs Colleague, then you're asking yourself the wrong questions.

He holds you and the boys accountable for their poor behavior. Who does he hold accountable for his own poor behavior?

// I think it's also fine to say you haven't asked her to baby-sit (or whatever else) because you don't want her to feel obligated. Yes! Let people who love you set their own limits. Because I don't have kids by choice, people seem to think I don't like them. But I adore my nieces and nephews, as well as close friends' kids, and am always 110% up for babysitting. I constantly have to remind the parents that this is the case, since their default is that it's a burden. It's not a burden to me--it's a gift. So long as everyone knows "no, thanks" is an ok answer, I say let people who love you set their own limits and ask!

As long as babysitting/helping you out isn't the ONLY time she gets to see the kids, I don't know that you owe her the best, most fun version of your kids, every single time. Tantrums, potty, snacks, and potty snacks ARE all part of the reality of spending time with kids, especially one's grandkids. Might trying to idealize the time they spend together be getting in the way of them actually spending time together and deepening their relationship? Or could letting her participate in their lives warts and all help strengthen the relationship so that all of you, kids included, have more stake in making the time for her when it's fun as well? (Not to take away from the fact that volunteering at their school library really IS a brilliant idea.)

Yes to the "work" of childrearing as the foundation for bonding., as long as any volunteers are also clear on the ability to opt out. Thanks. And, potty snacks.

Good grief, Carolyn! Did you even read what this poor woman wrote?She doesn’t want to meet her. Why are you insisting that she does?? Chatter, I would just text her that I am not available to meet. I would not add “right now.” I would not say I’m too busy “ right now,” because that will invite her to try again. I would just text back: “I am not able to do this.” Because it’s true. And I am so sorry for your loss.

I read what she wrote. Did you read what I wrote? No insisting, just suggesting, with an explanation of my reasoning, plus a last option for if she decides not to see her and just wants her to stop asking. "I am not able to do this" is also a reasonable thing to text to send that same message.

Thank you for the chance to respond.

A colleague does not know how to be appropriately brief in her office chitchat. She will say "Hi how's your day going?" and then finds a way to talk for way too long in response. I have tried saying "I have a meeting" or "I need to get back to my work", visibly standing up or having one foot out the door, and she will keep going! Sometimes she will say "I'll keep this brief, I know you need to get back to work" But it's never brief. Please help.

Interrupt. With [hands up]: "Hold that thought! I'm sorry to have to interrupt you--I have a meeting." Then goooooo.

Or does that read "goo." 

Then gohhhhhh.

I was once that missing friend. I am generally known as an always-there-for-you, shows up in a crisis person. A friend of mine had a psychotic break. I fell off the edge of the earth. My birth mom was paranoid schizophrenic and it had only been two years since she'd died and I no longer had to deal with the constant surprise appearances of behavior I couldn't handle in my life. On the other side of it, I was able to talk to my friend and explain what had happened to me. It was actually a hard lesson for me to learn that there were things I couldn't handle and wouldn't be the person who showed up for them. Our friendship survived - a bit altered, yes. But essentially whole and fulfilling. She was able to understand why I wasn't able to be there and give to her in that moment, and I deeply appreciated it.

Thank you for sharing such a tough time in your life--helpful to have an example.

Highlighting Carolyn's "leave the colleague out of it" if OP is in a position of authority over this younger married woman he is mentoring. Proceed with utmost caution in this scenario!!

That's it for today--about to lose my producer. 

Thanks everybody for stopping by, have a great weekend, and type to you here next week.

This lunatic single woman is out there having a bunch of conversations with married men where she suggests they divorce their wives? People just want to ##### about their spouses sometimes. If (I'm a male if relevant) a male friend got divorced, then was having a conversation with my wife where she was #####ing about me, and the friend said "why don't you get divorced?", I would think both "are you hitting on my wife?" and also "#### off and stay the #### out of my marriage." But maybe you think her #####ing about my not doing the dishes is invitation enough.

OP could be male. But, okay! 

My mother married a man ten years older with four kids, ages 4 to 16. Their mom died when the youngest was just a baby. There was so much anger in the house, most of it directed at the oldest son, my half-brother, who cannot, to this day, say a kind word about my mother. Then, my mom and dad had me and my sister, and the older kids were not my mom's priority. In later years, I know she regretted that she was, in her word's, "not a very good stepmother," but the damage was done. Fractured family, the marriage failed and it was awful. If I could give you any advice, it would be to keep trying with therapy, keep your kids close, and have an exit plan.

Brutal. Thanks for your perspective. 

Let go of the idea that you're the rude one if you cut her off. Often we're too polite to people like this - we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. But it is not rude to guard your time.

I don't think Carolyn was pushing too hard for the OP to "hear out" her friend. I think it can be so important in friendships to be able to hear why we've been disappointed. I had a friend cut me off like this, saying I had let her down too much, and it was so hurtful to not get to say my side of the story, how hurt I had been at the same time. I feel so apologetic that my friend was hurt by my actions, but I was struggling too and I feel that everyone can't constantly do the perfect thing. On the other side, I had a friend who really deeply let me down, when I so dearly needed support. I was quiet about it for almost a year, just not reaching out to that friend but feeling really really sad about it. Finally, after my friend had made a few tentative bids to find out what was going on with me, I told them how deeply hurt I had been by their actions. I can't tell you how cathartic it was, and, on top of that, my friend apologized so sincerely and so profusely, and explained their thinking during the time. It was so so so helpful to have that conversation.

Is the OP a woman? If so, the men who gripe about their wives are probably fishing for an affair with her.


Telling someone who is retired that they should volunteer is so demeaning. It is basically telling someone their skills are worthless.


So does Jose Andres devalue his talent and hard work for the paying customers in his restaurants when he donates his gifts in disaster areas? 

There's working, and there's giving, and they can coexist, because both are valid expression of human worth. Retirement doesn't change that.

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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