Carolyn Hax Live: 'My children have turned me into a grinch!'

Dec 06, 2019

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax took your questions and comments about navigating family during the holidays, whether to pivot to a dream career, and family secrets. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Hi everybody, happy Friday.

How can I socialize when I can't talk about my life without people freaking out? I admit my life is stressful but I think other people have lives that are just as if not moreso. In a nutshell, I take care of my 92 year old mother-in-law, her two dogs and her parrot in my home. My brother died in October of this year and my father, who suffered from severe Alzheimer's, died less than a month later. I helped care for my father as well and for a nephew with serious issues. My husband has serious health issues, which are obvious, but he is still healthy enough to work. Unfortunately I have found that simple socializing seems impossible as people, reasonably, want to know what I do and what's happening in my life. I try to give a quick answer, I care for relatives but it never suffices, and as people learn more I become an object of pity ("Oh, how sad"), horror ("That's awful, I could never live that way"), or ridicule (How were you so stupid as to get yourself into that situation?") I am tired of being avoided. I just want to have regular conversations with someone, go see a movie and talk about it. I'll even talk politics, whatever, but I can't seem to find anyone willing to discuss anything but my life. Let's talk about your life for a change!

Wait--someone actually called you stupid? For real?

There's really no help for that person, but for all of your other conversation attempts, please just take full control of your boundary: "I appreciate your concern, but I'm taking a badly needed vacation from this topic." You'll probably fare even better of your have a preferred topic ready: "Any good shows to recommend? I just finished _____ and I'm not sure what to watch next."

That is, after all, the 2019 common denominator, right? Stream fright, when there are so many choices you don't want to waste any time on a meh one.

Hi Carolyn, I was just offered a job that would revolutionize my life. It would mean a substantial pay cut (major enough that I might have to downsize to a smaller apartment and push off some goals like home ownership), but it's in my dream field, doing work that matters, on a schedule that would allow me much more time to do other things I love. This would be an easy decision if I were single. I would take the job and enjoy the self-actualization. But I have a girlfriend (5 years, since we were both in grad school) and her contribution to this conversation has so far been to remind me of how tough it would be to return to a higher-paying job if I take this career detour. Honestly, I resent that and wish she would not weigh in, since I feel that the "voice of reason" perspective is already covered elsewhere. But now the doubt is there, and I don't know what to do anymore.

I'm not sure what the problem is--that the concern might be valid and it's poking through your wishful thinking; that the "elsewhere" was probably right all along but now you have to take it seriously just because your GF said it; that you disagreed all along with the voices of reason but now that's harder because it affects your girlfriend, and/or your relationship/future with your girlfriend?

Maybe it's all moot anyway, since you want the revolutionary job and you haven't made any vows to anyone and so you take the pay cut. 

But since something is under your skin about it all, it's probably worth at least a hard look first. Maybe say to GF you're frustrated that the money issue is so far her only contribution to the conversation, and you're hoping she has some other thoughts of insights to contribute, because you respect her opinion and because this will affect her to some degree. That way you'll either get something more substantial to think about, or you'll get confirmation that your GF is not really on this journey with you. Good luck.

Hi, Carolyn. Big fan here, but I must respectfully take issue with your response to the woman in today's column. (She has extreme sensitivity to fragrances and felt her sister-in-law was callous toward her request to remove potpourri and other items so your reader could visit.) I don't happen to have that condition myself, thankfully, but as a singer I can tell you that I sing with several people who do suffer from it. And I wouldn't hesitate for a second to scent-proof my apartment if they asked me to. You're of course right that scents linger for a long time, but they are definitely less intense when the source is removed. So I can't quite wrap my mind around your apparent belief that the reader's request was unreasonable. How, for example, is it different from asking that a food whose mere proximity causes respiratory distress (e.g., peanuts) not be served?

There's a huge difference. The purging of the house would be time-consuming and labor intensive, on short notice, and the relative would still not be able to be in the house safely, if I take her description of the circumstances at face value, just given the nature of scents. Having less-strong scent is still scent and still a risk for someone with a severe allergy. Not cooking with nuts, on the other hand, would be time and effort neutral and would be 100 percent effective at avoiding the problem. So there's no comparison between an entire house and one ingredient.

I heard from a few people that my answer was insensitive, just as the LW called her SIL insensitive--but I really hope I can make my point better this time around: There are feelings, and there are molecules. I am 100 percent in the LW's corner on feelings, but feelings don't have any say over the molecules. The chemicals are what they are and I say this as someone who gets migraines and nausea from a lot of fragrances--any adaptation to LW's allergy will have to be a long-term project. Which, again, I think her BF should take the lead on, starting now, with his family, so LW can be a full participant in future gatherings.

There's going to be a bit of dead air, my apologies--I bailed on a question and need to start over.

Note to OP asking about conspiracy-book wish list: Can you talk to your child's therapist for guidance? S/he can't break confidentiality with you, but you can say your part and seek advice.

Just like it says. I used to like he holidays. Still do, mostly. But the disruption in routines, and extra sugar, mean days of crazy, rambunctious, cranky kids after the big day is over. We’re not going really crazy or over the top. So how do I sit back, relax, and let the kids enjoy candy in their stockings without dreading the days of tantrums when the family goes home, and the routine sets back in.

This is an under-talked about problem, imo. Holidays and changes for Daylight Savings were some of our most stressful difficult times as a family.

The only thing that seemed to help was being less ambitious in our holiday plans and more physically active. The "sit back, relax" option usually led to the more colorful emotional unravelings. It's fine when applied to the idea of not micromanaging the candy intake, but I think you need to balance that out by getting ahead of the meltdowns and getting everyone out for a hike or into a gym/rink/play space/climbing structure or whatever you can manage. It's more planning when you're already fried, but it's usually well worth it.

What is the best way for my family to try to spend zero discretionary money due to a most likely job layoff coming in 2020 without having to tell everyone in our circle? The last few months friends have wondered why we don't want to join them for dinners or concerts, or anything at all that costs money, but I don't see why a possible layoff is any of their business. From the outside, it probably looks like we are just extraordinarily cheap people currently with a good income. Any good way to not offend all of our friends without telling them the whole truth?

Like any other tough decision, you have to decide what your priorities are and recognize that you're going to have to sacrifice  your lower priorities. Is keeping your financial situation private your top priority? Then it's going to cost you some closeness to and companionship from your friends. Are closeness and companionship your priorities? Then they're going to cost you some of your privacy.

You can certainly try the little-of-both method, and answer your friends' queries with a general version of the truth: "We're on a radical financial diet. Restaurants and concerts are out, but we'd love a game night, if you're up for that." Be ready to answer their follow-ups--"I'd rather not get into it," or, "Just looking down the road," or, "Resetting our habits"--but I hope people have the good manners not to pry.

You absolutely don't have to tell people your business, but I do want to add there's no shame in a potential layoff. Just in case that's any part of your motivation to stay mum.

So, my only brother and his girlfriend announced in August that they're expecting a baby. Yahoo! My parents and I were so excited, a new little person to love. Although behind the scenes, my mom did a bit of hand-wringing about the instability of their relationship (not married, not living together, not even dating for all that long). I was more optimistic and excited to support them in the building of their family. But Mom was right. Apparently they've had a bunch of horrible fights recently and now they're breaking up. The girlfriend is moving back to her hometown, 120 miles away, to be near her family for support. I am so disappointed. I was really excited to become an aunt, and now that is slipping away. I don't have an independent relationship with the baby's mom and my brother is too upset to help facilitate one. So now what?

So now, nothing, except adjusting to the new circumstances. 

You will still be an aunt, and 120 miles is not that far in the grand scheme of things--plus, presumably, your brother is going to be an involved father to some degree? So the only thing "slipping away" is the beta version of your imagined auntie role. In this version, a child will live part-time with Daddy, I hope, and what  a great time for a lovingly invested auntie to be on the scene helping out.

If I'm wrong about your brother having some custody, then it'll be tougher, but you'd still be an auntie and I'd still advise you to get in touch with the baby's mom, after a judicious amount of time to let emotions settle, to let her know you care and you would like to be available to her and the child, if they're willing. 

So, my partner and I are giving up on our efforts to birth or adopt a child, and I have decided to make 2020 the year of filling my life with things that make me excited to be alive. A number of my friends have hobbies they are super passionate about, and communities of friends they have met through those hobbies, and I'm envious and a bit mystified. I have thought of copying one of them, but none of the specific pursuits (biking, knitting, gastropubs, spoken word) specifically interests me. Maybe I'm a boring person, but it's hard for me to visualize myself doing something with my free time other than watching my favorite TV show du jour. My partner works 70-hour weeks as an EMT and doesn't seem to have the same problem; he comes home, hangs out with me, goes to sleep, gets up and goes back to work. How do I find the hobby that suits my personality and gives me joy (and with it, the tribe of new friends I have been hoping for)?

Maybe a hobby isn't the right direction; maybe you're better suited for a cause? 

I was just listening to an interview with the new Boston schools superintendent, and I was reminded (again, it seems constant these days) of the staggering amount of need among U.S. children. Need for food assistance, need for reading buddies or one-on-one tutoring, need for counseling, need for health care, need for clothing and basic hygiene supplies, need for school materials, need for repairs to crumbling infrastructure. Your efforts to build a family say you care deeply about children--and that's something you can still do even if the children aren't your own. 

You can start small just by checking with your local school to see what their volunteer needs and protocols are. If that's too painful right now, so soon after "giving up on" a building your family--understandably, and I'm so sorry it didn't work out for you--then consider something more arm's length, like collecting things for needy kids, like coats and books. You have time, energy, and a craving for meaning, which means you have so much to give.

As someone who has been laid of twice, I'd like to offer the OP some emotional support. Layoffs have such a stigma, because you feel that if you were more critical in the workplace you wouldn't be let go. Please don't assume others will think poorly of you or judge you. Layoffs and other job losses are SO COMMON and I can guarantee that someone you are avoiding telling has been through one. You can absolutely say you are cutting back financially without disclosing why, but if the layoff happens, know that most people will sympathize.

A wise person used to tell me "Nothing is over like Christmas when it's over." This would be true whether or not you enjoyed the fun parts. Try to enjoy the fun parts.

As the cliche goes, you will spend the majority of your life (the awake bits, at least) at work. You already seem to value spending that time in a meaningful and fulfilling way more than the extra income. Your girlfriend's opinion should matter, of course, but it is your decision to make. If you need the extra encouragement, I'm mid-way through a career I hate and have daily regret about not looking harder for a different career path.

My daughter was always very temperamental. In addition, my ex-husband (her father) is narcissistic and was emotionally abusive. We finally divorced when she was 12. Before the divorce, our household was very volatile from both my ex's and her outbursts and me not handling any of the out bursts well. Initially, after the divorce my household was very calm, but my ex and daughter had an explosive relationship. Toward the end of high school, my daughter completely went off the rails (almost didn't graduate despite previously making straight A's) and our relationship also turned very volatile (again with me not handling her outbursts well). Through all this I never got her into therapy because she was uninterested when I offered it to her after the divorce, and then later when it came up it came across more like I was threatening her with therapy (my super bad). Now she is 20 and away at school. I worry about how she grew up in an unhealthy emotional environment and didn't learn proper coping mechanisms. I even worry she may have borderline personality disorder. She is great a person and I hate the thought that she may end up unhappy because she blows up her relationships through unhealthy behavior. I love her and feel like I failed her. Would I be overstepping if I suggested therapy to her? And if not, how can I suggest it so it's clear it's coming from a place of love and not a criticism of her?

Have you gone to therapy yourself? You are refreshingly open about your own contribution to the unhealthy home environment, so please don't take this as slapping you down for your honesty. It's just that you now need to have an adult relationship with your daughter, which is a big transition regardless, and on top of that she might need you to be healthy for both of you, and it sounds as if you could benefit from some new skills or reinforcement of old ones.

Not insignificant side benefit, it's a lot less high-horsey to suggest therapy to someone because you've been there yourself and benefited from it.

"...her contribution to this conversation has so far been to remind me of how tough it would be to return to a higher-paying job if I take this career detour." "Is that a problem for you? If so, why?" Then listen and decide whether it's something you consider important enough to weight your choice one way or the other.

I actually did exactly this a few years ago. I took a 60+% pay cut to follow my dream. And less than 6 months later I realized what a huge mistake it was. It took me some time, a lot of phone screen interviews, etc. but I was able to get back into my old field at (almost) my old salary. But, it was surprising to have a lot of people drop the salary SUBSTANTIALLY when I told them that I wasn't currently in the field. I had to remind them that people have babies and return to work at the same salary and that all the years of experience didn't just magically evaporate when I left. I still had something to offer and that's why many of the recruiters were reaching out to me. It can be done, it's not impossible.

You’re not engaged. I get that she has a right to her opinion but if this is really what you want and who you are, you should embrace being you. Better she know your real priorities before marriage. Aside from *your* income how would this affect her / your joint life? Would this burden her financially or prevent her taking her dream job (or taking off work to have kids meaning this job = no kids)?

I found out my 84-yo father has cancer; I found out from my sister, who found out from his wife, but both communications were "in secret." My father hasn't told either my sister or me directly. I would like to be able to communicate with him about this but am not sure how to bring it up. I think his failure to tell us could in part be his own selfishness/insensitivity (he also failed to tell us when he remarried), but also because he doesn't want to "burden" us. To the extent it's the latter, it seems like I should be able to communicate that isn't a problem, but to the extent it's for his own personal reasons, I guess it's his choice?

It is, though it's one that affects you and others, clearly.

Seems to me the most respectful approach is to accept his decision and drop the subject. The respect-meets-honesty plan is go back through the source, and ask his wife to nudge him to tell his kids, at least.

If she says no, or if she does it and he says no, then think of this as a gift you can give your father: You play along, and you let him think he's protecting you from all this. (Or, if he's just thoughtless, you play along and let him think he's getting one by all of you.) The it's-his-life-to-manage truth is at its most urgent at the end of life, isn't it? And even if he beats the cancer, 84 still gives him every right to yell you all off his lawn.

Your enthusiasm is infectious. It sounds like something that you should really try, especially if you are young. It isn't as hard to get back into higher paying work as you would think. At places that can't pay much, you often get to take leadership roles earlier. That can translate to higher paying work back in the more lucrative sector. And at places where everyone is enthused about doing things that "matter," being the person who takes on the admin/management roles of budgeting and planning and supplies, etc. are very appreciated. Also good experience for transitioning back. However (big however ), it is still work. If it was all fun, they could do everything with volunteers. If you go into a new job with stars in your eyes and expectations that it will all be meaningful and close to your heart, you will inevitably be disappointed when you still have to collect statistics, and draft reports and edit stuff, and fill out time sheets and help accountants do the tax returns, etc. So don't hesitate because you will never be able to earn more money again. Do think three times because you need to realize that not every moment at work can be meaningful and perfect. If you can live with that, go for it.

Every moment of next week's Hoot will be meaningful and perfect. Otherwise, though, great stuff, thanks.


Are you a boring person or a contented person? My feeling as a long time reader is that you get a lot of questions from people that ask you how to get to point B because the societal expectation is Point B when they are actually content being at point A but just feel like they should get to point b. It's okay not to have hobbies and spend your time watching TV show du jour if that's what you want to do.

Team Point A.

I hope you don't mean to suggest it's wrong to be boring, though.

What do I do when my friends are hurting and I can’t do anything to help them? I don’t have a lot of friends, but right now all of them are in various degrees pain and depression, and I feel useless and helpless and depressed myself over it. I’m not married and don’t have children so I can’t even relate to some of their problems or give them any useful perspective. I can listen and be sympathetic, but other than that I've got nothing.

If you have a dinner you can prepare for them and mobility to get out on a walk with them and a stupid board game to distract them with, then you have everything, and that's not nothing.

In other words, please don't conflate an inability to fix their problems with an inability to help.

And please don't be so tough on yourself.

And also make sure you have ways to keep yourself afloat when you're not with these friends. Other people's sadness can weigh on you, certainly, but it's important to be able to recognize when you're carrying around other people's problems, which isn't healthy. Sometimes all it takes to stay upright is to build some restorative things into your schedule--ones you know to be a reliable source of perspective, energy, joy.

Hi - You so often recommend resources when people are at a loss for next steps. That's me now. I need to repair a relationship with my FIL who I lost my temper with due to his mean, sarcastic, dismissive approach to me (in response to his behavior around my one year old). A week later, I am still angry and uninterested in actually fixing the situation, but I need to for my husband and child. Do I start with a book? A therapist? Friend therapy? Time? Thank you!!

You start with your husband. How does he interpret what happened, how does he feel about it, what kind of relationship does he have with his dad, does he see anything wrong with it or him, what would he like you to do, ideally, and how close to that ideal is he pushing for you to get? 

You don't even say whether he thinks you or your dad did anything wrong.

The steps are: you and your husb figure out where you both are in this; you reconcile any differences into a plan; you both follow the plan. 

Those steps can take you in many different directions.

about all the things going on -- and still being able to socialize? Wow, that hit home. My son went on Sunday to a residential treatment center. It was one of the worst days of my life. It was so difficult. He is there, I haven't spoken with him and the updates aren't enough. I have told a select few, but wow, it's going to come up isn't it? In conversation: so, how are the kids doing? I have no idea how to answer that. It's so difficult. I don't want to tell people my life story (because this whole adventure started just about the moment he was born, and he's a teenager now). I don't know if I'm looking for advice or what -- but I get that you want to socialize and talk about something *other* than day to day difficulties! you *live* that life, you want to talk about something else.

You know what? You answer it however you want to. This is social time and so don't apologize for making the social connections you need right now to feel better and/or just enjoy yourself.

There's an argument for the connections you make when you're honest--I've been on the giving and receiving end of the oh-no update, and it can be well worth it to trust your people--and there's an argument to be made for urging people to talk to you about every inane thing either of you can think of but nothing a millimeter deeper than that. 

And for those worried (just talking in general here, not to you, OP) that people will say unkind things about you behind your back: They will say them if you manage to hide all your bad news, they will say them if you try to hide your bad news but it gets out anyway, they will say them if you admit your bad news upfront, they will say them if you have no bad news in your life ever. They will arguably be the most savage in the last case. 

That is, they will say unkind things if they're unkind people who say unkind things. You can't really do anything about them except avoid them when possible. If you're stuck with them, then just accept you can't find the perfect way to say things that'll escape their notice. Wasted energy.

Ah, hit send too soon--wanted also to say, OP, that I'm sorry you're going through this with your kid & hope the treatment center delivers a breakthrough.

Yesterday marked the two-year anniversary of my father's death. He too had cancer and told absolutely no one, nor sought treatment. We only found out when he collapsed and wound up in the hospital, literally on his death bed with just days to live. They never even found out what kind of cancer. This left his affairs in a mess--no one knew where the will was, no plans for what to do with his wife--my 90+ year-old mother, who was destroyed by his death, no chance to put grievances right, no nothing. I wish I could end with good advice--I am still stupified that he let this happen. At least you know it in advance, won't be surprised to find out in his last hours.

I'm sorry. There is good advice in here, though, to potential secret-keepers: Don't.

My daughter was 20 when she was hitting every textbook mark for BPD as she took off for a new school a 1,000 miles away. I knew she was going to crash and burn and I was worried she would be dangerously distressed for screwing up but would not be able to take advice or help from me at the time. She did get worse, failing classes, had to take medical leave from school and came back to town. I drove up to get her and didn't bring any of it up, no advice, no opinion. I think she really appreciated that. Moved in with roommates, went back to the local University making good grades. Eventually she told me she had found mental heath care/medication on her own. Today, at 31, she has a stable marriage, 2 kids and masters in a growing field. And all I did was stay out of her way. Chances are you won't make things better by telling your daughter what is likely obvious to her. Stay in touch (a LIGHT touch) and don't say anything she might twist around to take as criticism/judgement/ fault finding. Give her a chance to take care of herself, the very act of her doing so can go a long way toward getting better. It's scary to hold back, but it could be what she needs if she perceives your efforts to help as pressure and guilt-provoking. Hang in there, I know it's scary. If she sees herself as an adult, you have to see her that way, too.

Thank you.

I went through this with my own father more than 20 years ago. At 88, he had lived with cancer for at least five years (that I know of), had several cancer surgeries, and still refused to acknowledge what the problem was. At most, he very occasionally referenced what to do "if anything ever happens to me." The day he died, our very last conversation was who he was supporting in that year's World Series; he was dead three hours later (during my two-hour drive back home from his city). BUT...that was the way he wanted to handle it, and so my sisters and I let him. I've always thought of it as the last gift we could give him...

My 30 year old niece completely ruined Thanksgiving by saying after grace “and may you all be forgiven for eating Turkey flesh” She also brought up a cousin’s painful break up infront of everyone and spilled other family secrets. I left early with a migraine. Now as Christmas is approaching I would like to Host a Christmas dinner but I don’t want her ruining my dinner and I don’t trust her to keep quiet. What should I do? PS at Thanksgiving she broke veganism (there was vegan options) and ate the vegetarian food my family brought.

Easy for me to say, I know, but please don't give her so much power! The grace sign-off was worthy of a BA HA HA and not much more. I mean, that story's good enough to hold up next week with the naked charades and tequila fires.

The painful breakup obviously is meaner-spirited, but especially if you're the host, you get to say: "Did you seriously just bring that up?" 

Short version, focus on chipping "completely ruined" down to "made ... *interesting."*

The vegan/vegetarian scorekeeping is just a rabbit hole. Pettiness never solved anyone.


Oh, Carolyn, I could just cry seeing these people write in about not sharing their sorrow with friends. Is it shame? My husband had a psychotic break and attempted suicide --the shock of our lives, no history of depression. From day one I decided no way would we hide this. And it's the one thing I did exactly right. When you shine a light on shame it instantly begins to shrivel. Love to all those sufferers.

Come sit by me. I can handle all the real stuff OR talk about anything but. I'm not freaked out about less-than-perfect lives because we all live them.

So great, thanks.

That's it for today. Thanks everybody. Have a great weekend, and don't forget to contribute your stories to the Hoot: LINK. Earlier = better chance it'll be published. 

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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