Carolyn Hax Live (August 7)

Aug 07, 2020

Advice columnist Carolyn Hax took your comments about her current advice column and questions about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

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Hello, Friday. Good to see you.

A few years ago, my first marriage ended on rather bitter terms. I was at fault, I was cheating and left when my girlfriend (now wife) fell pregnant. I regret my actions and wish I’d been a stronger man. But at the time, my first wife and I were both miserable due to a late term miscarriage and I needed to feel something other than grief and sadness. Recently, my sister told me that my ex-wife had a novel published. I was quite surprised as she’s a technical writer and never expressed interest in fiction. Upon reading it, I observed that it’s a thinly veiled account of our last year together and I’m very much the villain of the piece. I hate that she remembers only the bad times and wrote an email to the address in the back of the book expressing my apologies. She wrote back and said those were only words and don’t change anything. Fairly rich coming from a writer but I don’t believe there’s any further action I can take, is there? I just have to live with being the villain of her story forever, correct? Or are there other steps I could and should take?

Like what? 

It happened, and her writing about it doesn't change anything about that. You are living your own life now, with your new wife and child, it sounds like, and your ex's book doesn't change anything about that, either. 

The only thing that is different is that you thought you were through reckoning with your own actions, and having them reconstituted into a book form forced you to reckon with them again. That's it. 

If you meant well when you wrote the apology email, then that is what matters--your intent. How your message was received is out of your hands. It is possible from your phrasing that your intent with the apology was you get yourself off the hook and/or make a case for the "good" times, in which case, she probably read right through that and saw the apology wasn't sincere.

So, wrapping it up: You have a past that you reckoned with and re-reckoned with, so there's nothing more to do there; you have an apology that wasn't well-received, so you can ask yourself whether your expression of regret was genuine or if you were just trying to make a case for yourself as not as bad a person as the one in her book.

That's really it. It's actually pretty typical for regrets to come back at us, even after we thought we'd dealt with them.  

My mother-in-law is an incredibly generous person and I love her but she's been overwhelming of late. She lives within walking distance of us and until the pandemic it was never a problem because she has so much family a bus ride away and also many friends. Now due to the pandemic, she has to be careful and her world has pretty much shrunk to us. She has only sons and treats me like her daughter which is okay but she’s much more demonstrative and present than my actual mother. While we’re working she shows up and insists on cleaning our house, which probably sounds wonderful but is incredibly uncomfortable for me. Especially when she makes our bed or does things like scold my husband for leaving a mess in the bathroom. On my birthday my husband had planned to prepare a special dinner but she showed with an already prepared 3-course meal for the three of us. It was delicious but not what we had planned. She came over shortly after we found out that I’m expecting (we’ve been trying for a few months) and she practically knocked my husband out of the way to get to me and hug and kiss me and tell me that she’ll do everything for me now. My husband doesn’t see the problem here, so is it me? Am I making a problem out of having a wonderful mother-in-law because my own mother is kind of distant?

I don't think you're "making" a problem, you have a problem.

It might be on the better-problems-to-have end of the scale, but it's still a problem.

No one likes to have their autonomy taken away. That too is a matter of scale--some people take comfort in their ability to decide small things for themselves, and others are much more comfortable handing things over and just showing up for whatever comes of it. Both of these natures can be taken to unhealthy extremes of control and passivity, but within a healthy range, it's perfectly valid to want to live within your comfortable part of the scale. 

Your mother-in-law, forced out of her comfy place by pandemic restrictions, is trying to find a new comfy place in your household, since that constitutes the bulk of the raw material she has available to her right now. It's actually really great she has that option--except her doing this has forced you out of your comfortable place. In your own household. A place you are of course entitled to.

You could bar the door to your MIL, or you could decide to just roll over and be "incredibly uncomfortable" for as long as it takes for life to get back to normal-ish. I suggest looking at this like puzzle, where the object is to find a place in between the two--where you look to your daily life to find things you can hand over to your MIL, and reserve a few things to keep entirely for yourself. Explain to your husband what you're doing and why it's so important to you, to retain a bubble of control, and ask for his cooperation in figuring out 1. how to divvy things up and 2. how to hold the lines, lovingly and with a mind to everyone's relatively fragile emotional state. 

My daughter is 9 months old. Her name is one that has many common nicknames (think “Elizabeth”) . My husband and I prefer the full name, but we recognized that when you give a child a name like this, nicknames tend to creep in at some point. We both agreed we were ok with that. Fast forward to now. My Dad has started affectionately calling her a name that arose from the noise she makes when they play this game where they make silly sounds at one another. The name is along the lines of “little bird.” My husband HATES it. He says that all relatives should be supporting our desire to call her by her full name, and he worries she may get confused. I see no evidence that she is confused. She knows she is “Elizabeth.” She knows that it is funny when her grandfather calls her “little bird.” My husband says that since he is my dad I have to intervene. I don’t want to intervene. This is a sweet little thing they do together. I don’t understand why my husband wants to ruin it, and he can’t articulate any problem with it beyond worry that she will end up with some kind of name confusion. Help!

I don't know where the idea of "name confusion" ever took root. It's ridiculous. People know who they are.

Think of how many names and tones a dog will respond to.

I would like to find some way to validate your husband's concern, but I can't think of any that outweighs the fact that he's using a weak argument to stand in the way of strong bonding with Grandpa.

Unless he comes up with something real to object to, he needs to find a way to release his need to control the name if he doesn't want to be miserable and contrary throughout your daughter's childhood.

I'm sorry that doesn't help you much--that was an answer better suited to his having asked me the question.

My wife and I were thinking of starting a family this year, but now for various reasons we agree that it's not the right time. I am completely happy to wait until next year or even the year after. I do not feel any particular rush. But she is visibly very sad and disappointed by our decision to wait. I hate seeing her this way. Can you suggest any ways to help make this waiting period a happier time for us both, or redirect some of her maternal feelings in a productive way? A pet would be the obvious choice but we are both allergic.

She might just need time and space and sympathy to adjust.

It also might be that she didn't "agree" in her heart so much as she gave in to what seemed unavoidable. So, it's worth asking her specifically if this is just something she's struggling to process--understandably--or if she has second thoughts about your decision. 

Carolyn - I have read your columns and chats for several decades and I am 100% happier in my life having incorporated your advice. Thanks! I need some help. I moved back in with my 70ish year old parents, partly because i have a chronic illness and partly because they are 70ish and can't do everything by themselves. Ha, did you believe that? Cause I did! The truth is that my father does everything he is not supposed to do, all the time. This is after doctors' advice (plus some other peoples' advice) to stop, slow down, and ask for help. Guess who recently ripped his fingernail off and broke his finger putting his hand under the mower while it was running? Just for a second! Could have happened to anyone! Today the Tropical Storm is coming and suddenly he needs to clean every one of the gutters out before it gets here. WHY. This is after my mother and I spent a solid 30 mins convincing him not to mow the grass for various reasons. He agreed but then GUESS WHO HEARS THE LAWN MOWER RUNNING LATER IN THE DAY. Me. I hear the lawn mower running. WHO IS SUPERVISING HIM??? Not my mother since, as we've established, he doesn't listen to her either. Somehow I have adopted the worlds tallest toddler. There is a general idea in our house that, ha ha, this is how all men are in retirement and oh-well we just have to put up with that! Ha ha! They are all negligent and liars? I think we can expect better out of our retired men than this. I would be less frustrated if after these events that he creates for himself, he wasn't in pain. None of his body parts work correctly, which is a surprised to no one but him. If I remind him that cleaning all the gutters is going to make his shoulders hurt, like 3 weeks ago when all the the items in the attic had to be brought down and inspected - he says, Yup. As if, this is the price we pay to be human. He believes of this stuff to be NECESSARY and needs to be completed THIS SECOND. He is going to HURT himself. I do not believe this to be pandemic-related as he has never been able to sit still or relax. Is there someone we can get him to listen to and stop this madness? im so tired

Why are you still trying?

Not a rhetorical question--I am genuinely curious. I can see it if his hurting himself would then present a serious problem for you and your mother, by, for example, demanding more care-giving than you're in a position to give, or creating severe financial hardship. But if he just wants to be busy and doesn't care about his body, and you want him to stay in one piece for your own reasons--because you want him around for a lot more years--then he wins that one. He gets to choose how to live his life, even if it means skydiving onto the roof to get to a hard-to-reach gutter. 

Condensed version: If you can't stop his madness, then work on the madness of trying to stop him.

Please do not put even the gentlest pressure on your wife to be happier or to put her maternal feelings into something else. You mean well, but anything you might do or say in that direction would basically be telling her that her feelings are unimportant and that she shouldn't feel the way she feels. Just because you're happy to wait doesn't mean that she does, will, or should feel that way. (Also, it's perfectly okay for you to feel that way, and don't forget that.) You cannot make someone else be you in how they react to things. Instead of trying to fix how she feels, let her know that you see that she's having a harder time than you are and ask her whether there is anything she would like you to do. Maybe there is, maybe there isn't, but don't look for ideas from third parties when your wife is right in front of you and is the first person you should be asking.

It's worth remembering that the name is his daughter's-- not his.

"MIL, we love having you, but we're adults, and this is our house. Please check in with at least one of us if you want to make plans, so we can coordinate things. And please don't clean our house. Honestly, it comes off as insulting, and I know you mean to be loving."

For the father - I made up my own name, and refused to be called anything else for a year or two. It became my parents’ favorite nickname for me, and a family memory we all treasured. Not sure what’s going on here, maybe competition with the father-in-law? - but don’t take away a ritual that the daughter loves now, and may remember always.

I was also the “villain” in my marriage ending, so I say this respectfully, but her view of you is part of consequences of your choices and you have to learn to make peace with it and move forward. I regret the choices I made and I too had my suffering and reasons, but that didn’t make it any more understandable to my ex spouse or any less hurtful. My best advice toward achieving peace when you genuinely regret what you’ve done is to learn the lesson and not do that again to someone else.

The villain just wants the last word. He thought he had it when he cheated on and deserted his grieving wife but then she wrote a book. The nerve.

I'm struggling to find some grace, or maybe a mantra, about my MIL's behavior re: Covid and our daughter/her granddaughter. She has been up to visit us TWICE since the baby was born almost two years ago (once newborn, once at 9 months), and we visited over Christmas. She won't Zoom or Facetime or learn video chatting. Lives ~2.5 hours away by car. Yet she posts on social media almost daily about how she misses visiting with granddaughter, how they have this great "relationship" and "rapport," how Covid has ruined this time for her since she can't travel, etc. Carolyn, she never freaking came up BEFORE Covid, and NOW she's lamenting that it's Covid preventing her from seeing her granddaughter? She was preventing herself just fine before the global pandemic. So I guess the things I'm struggling with are: resentment that she rarely visited in the before-times and when she visited was not helpful, secondhand gall at her social postings framing herself as an active/involved Grandma, and a feeling of general injustice that she gets to portray herself as a victim. I'm never going to just call her out because it's rude and I would like to maintain a cordial relationship with her. My husband just shrugs and says "She's always been into appearances" but he's had 40+ years to accept this. Do you have any words of wisdom to share?

How about that your husband spent 40+ years wrestling with this so you don't have to.

Enjoy the fruits of his emotional labor and write her off, guilt-free, as an attention-seeking fraud. He knows it, you know it, she knows it--what the world thinks is irrelevant.

And stop following her on social media. It is not oxygen; you can cut it off completely, immediately and forever, and still not die.

Hi Carolyn submitting early. I have two children who are both fundamentally good kids. BUT one is a very very cute 10 year old daughter and the other is a very very annoying 14 year old son. One is cuddly and sweet and funny. The other is only rarely cuddly or sweet, funny but snarky (mostly about me his mom) and seems to adore one thing - contradicting every statement I make (I say it’s the moon that shines so bright. He replies ‘‘tis the sun). You can probably see where I’m going with this - I KNOW this is normal teenage behavior, I KNOW my sweet 10 year old will also become an annoying 14 year old too. But right now I feel lots of affection for her and only annoyance and irritation towards him. And then I feel guilty. Because I think he can sense the difference (however much I try to hide it) which I’m sure worsens his behavior. Do you have any tips on how I can navigate my emotional imbalance between the kids? What can I do to feel more affection towards my teen? Or even less annoyance? the pandemic and months of all of us being together constantly hasn’t helped with any of this (or anything else in the world for that matter but that’s a different story). Thanks as always for your wisdom.

You've actually done exactly what you need to do here a few times before, with both children: You need to adjust your parenting style to match your kid's changing needs. You don't make airplane noises anymore for the feeding spoon and you don't say, "Red sneakers or white?" to avoid power battles when you're trying to get out the door. This change is no different.

The teenage adjustment just feels like something different because it's the first time your kid isn't grabbing for your attention. It's a hard thing to watch unfold and easy to take personally--but, don't. All it means is that you did your job and your 14-y-o is testing out the whole idea of getting along in the world without you.

As you know--and as you're sensing, in *his* sensing the difference--he still wants you around, and needs you around, and wants your approval. The easiest path to giving him the approval and attention he wants but without getting all up in his grill is to look for and appreciate the person he is growing into. The surly stuff isn't everything--there's an interesting person developing in there. Yes, the caterpillar was cute. But it was always going to be temporary. Make it your mission right now to be the person who sees the first vague outlines of the butterfly, and delights in them. 

Ooh I could have written that letter 20 years ago. For me, the boundary issues only got worse, especially once we had kids. The short answer is to not let her have a key. Ask her to call before coming. Explain that while you are working it adds to your anxiety if she's messing around in your kitchen. (It sure did with mine. I could never find anything afterward.) The calendar is your friend. You would like her visits on the calendar so you can plan activities, even Zoom calls with your family/friends too. Gotta ask did your husband move a lot growing up, possibly a military family? If so, he's going to have an even harder time saying no to his mom.

I faced a similar situation with my MIL, who was very different from my mom. I recommend setting firm boundaries in a clear but loving way, even during this pandemic. It is really easy for patterns to form, and it her actions are accepted now, it will be hard to undo them in the future. You and your husband should decide what’s comfortable for both of you, set the boundary and then stick to it. Your MIL will likely want to have even more involvement after your baby arrives. You can always adjust the boundaries as your preferences change.

My brother was a surgery resident when his first child was born. That meant he was hardly home and when he was, he was half-asleep or fully asleep. He was very jealous when I bonded with her so quickly. She would look for me in a room for the first few years of her life. Maybe your husband is having a hard time, or doesn't have time to appropriately bond with the baby and seeing your Dad have a great bond with her is bringing up feelings of jealousy. For my brother, I made sure to not be around if he was with her, or made sure to give him ample 1x1 time when he was around. (There was a lot of family around at the time to help out because his schedule was so crazy) I encourage you to see if there is something else there with your husband - not bonding, having an issue with your Dad (always being around, being overbearing, etc), or wanting more time with his nuclear family (him, you, kids). Good luck!

Really good lines of inquiry, thanks.

We might need to know what your dad's nickname for your daughter is. If it's "Little Pig Butt" or "Little Horse Face," your husband isn't wrong.

Well, yeah. Or if *he* was called that, then he can be forgiven for some nickname-related emotional scarring.

My rising 3rd grader has always gone to public school and has done just fine. This year, though, her school will only be open 2 or so days a week. Her dad and I both work FT in jobs that demand our attention throughout traditional work hours, and we can't supervise remote learning. We're trying to figure out whether to send her to the little Jewish school across the street this year. It's close, convenient, and since they've been planning for months, and have the resources, they should be able to do in-person learning 5 days a week with relative safety. Though it's a cost that wasn't in our budget, the tuition isn't unreasonable; we can make it work. The question is, should we? Is it an OK / ethical choice to make, given the circumstances? We're really struggling with this, my husband especially, and we have to decide soon.

What is the ethical dilemma, exactly--leaving public schools? Grabbing an opportunity because you can afford to, knowing others don't have that option? Subjecting your daughter to the risk of full-time school because you need to work? Taking a spot in a parochial school of a different (I'm guessing) faith, therefore not intended for you?

I was about to try to answer all of them, but then I realized (tick, tick, tick, tick) I have done or am doing all four myself. So I am in no position to give disinterested guidance.

As a parent, I try to do the best I can for my kids--which to me doesn't mean giving them the best of everything, since excess can mess kids up, too, not just scarcity. It means reading their needs, reading the circumstances, and deciding. Usually it's clear enough, or the stakes aren't so high that a little blurriness becomes a problem. Sometimes, though, it comes down to figuring out which choice won't haunt me at 3 a.m.

It sounds like you're at that point--what will help you sleep at night?

I fully support CH’a suggestion to unfollow MIL. I’ll also offer that my therapist has suggested I view my own mother’s comparable behaviors through the lens of sympathy. What you’re describing sounds like someone who is trying really hard to convince people her reality is something wildly different than it is. There’s a reason she feels the need to do that - and it’s not because she’s a happy, secure person. It’s nothing you can fix but you can feel choose to feel empathy that she’s stuck in that kind of emotional place if you want to.

Great stuff, thank you.

Teens want to be seen as adults. Are there ways you can give him independence and respect? Ask him to teach you something? Have him take over ordering groceries and making breakfast & lunch? Find ways to harness his desire to be independent and in control, in ways that can let you praise him.

Even the smallest slices of independence can help so much at this age. I remember my parents started letting me set aside a summer weekend or two where I could stay up as late as I wanted. On those nights I would read, play video games, have the house to myself (an even rarer commodity nowadays). I would stay up late enough to see the sun rise and then sleep in till 3pm the next day without them ever bugging me about it. The rest of the year I lived life according to our family’s schedule and needs. But those few nights were so precious because they were 100% MINE.

Happy Friday, Carolyn! Thanks for all your thoughtful help? Where is everybody? Or is there a particularly sticky wicket preceding my post? Best wishes to all!

Hi all, I'm sorry for the delay on our start. It was a producer error. Carolyn was here but I was late. 

My SO got a job offer that would allow him to telework full-time, which means he no longer has to live in one of the most expensive cities in the US. He has decided he's going to move back to his hometown, where cost of living is much lower and he will eventually be able to buy a nice home, whereas here that's just a fantasy. He has asked me to think about moving with him. We've been together for about 14 months. I have no idea how to begin making this decision. We have never lived together, and our plans for the future have been tentative at best. If I move with him, we will live together and likely end up getting married. He'll be my entire social network at first, until I meet new people, and I will have to make some career changes. But if he goes without me, I'll regret it forever (and for the record, I too am tired of living in an overpriced city, shelling out endless rent). It feels like such an all-or-nothing decision. He doesn't have to wait for me -- he is moving in a few weeks, and then I can either join him or not. He doesn't want to break up, even if I stay -- but I don't know if I have the strength for a long-distance relationship right now. So how do I start breaking down the facets of this decision?

You don't have to. Just stay where you are when he moves. See how you manage--and really try to manage, because that's the only way this will work.

My definition of "work" here = getting the most useful idea of what life will be like long-term if you don't go with him.

I realize this is a terrible time to make the best of any living situation, because options are so limited and compromised, but that doesn't change the fact that you're making a decision between A and B where A involves doing absolutely nothing different from what you're doing now. So, easy--try A. 

If you lose the option of B just by waiting, then maybe that's an indication B wasn't going to be the long-term answer, either.

I have an infant, and I'm overwhelmed with all the unsolicited advice I'm getting from my relatives, in-laws, and friends who already have babies. I don't believe I have all the answers myself, but my baby is happy and healthy, and I don't understand what makes people think I'm just sitting around waiting to be given an itemized list of all the things I should be doing differently. I know enough not to take it personally, but how do I stop it altogether (if such a thing is possible)?

If you're feeling blunt: "I know you mean well, but I am exhausted by unsolicited advice."

If you want to send the message today and have them receive it via "duh" a day later: "Did you ever find a way to stop the flood of unsolicited advice? That's actually one of the few things I dislike about being a parent."

If you're good at playing the long game: "Hm, I'll keep that in mind." Because eventually your kid will grow and advisers will will fall away to bother someone else.

I have two 14 year old grandsons (also 16 and 18, so some experience here). Yes they are sometimes snarky and grouchy, also smelly and zitty. But I can so often see glimmers of the tender hearts hidden under those crusty exteriors. I’m sure it’s much easier for grandma, but I’m always trying not to bruise that tenderness - the world does that enough. And they really do get better in just a couple years.

Am I the only one who wants to know the name of the book?

No.

My twelve year old is smelly and doubles down on stuff he is objectively wrong about and is right this second angry at me because I won't promise to buy him any vehicle in four years, let alone the truck he can't live without. Meanwhile the five year old is cuddly and totally up for berry picking with me and tells me I'm the best mom ever because I bought her a thing of glitter nail polish. Me and the big one are going to go for a ten mile bike ride later today, because that's something the five year old definitely cannot do, and I know from all the other rides that we'll be much happier together afterwards. He's a really interesting _person_ under all the hair and tweeny angst, and he's as tired of being told what to do as I am of telling. A long ride or hike breaks the dynamic for a bit.

Understand though if there is another lockdown which is likely in winter your child will still be doing virtual school. Just because they can offer 5-day in person now doesn’t mean they won’t have a covid outbreak or have to close if mandated by the state. A relative of mine is thinking the same because in their stare the religious schools have different regulations than public and have a better chance to stay open.

Right, true. Though a private school's resources can make that better, too--small classes, for example.

Great idea - my friend's granddaughter lived with her and the deal was she could sleep as late as she wanted on Saturdays because that was the only day she had no morning obligation (school, church) (she was about 15). Often she'd roll out around Noon and ask grandma to order pizza. It worked for them - I think she was more cooperative the rest of the week.

Your advice/questions to ask the parents thinking about switching schools for this year is very good. One other thing to consider, as I'm sure many parents are also agonizing over, is how well do they think their rising 3rd grader handle switching schools. Schooling in 2020 is a mess as it is. And 3rd grade might be a very hard time to have to make all new friends (and then lose many of them if he/she goes back to public school the following year). All of that on top of presumably not seeing many of his/her current friends all summer might just lead to problems down the road. I don't have kids but I feel sooo very sorry for parents this fall.

Been there. Survived -- though sometimes I wondered if I would. One action I took: I hugged him everyday. Whether I wanted to -- or not. I told him I loved him -- even when sometimes it was hard to say because he was being such a bratty 14 year old boy. Hugging him, loving him is important.

Yessss. Ask, though--"May I give you a hug?"

I am completely dense about this... do religious schools accept children outside of their faith?

There's no "religious schools" monolith any more than there is a "media." It's thousands of people and institutions following independently generated guidelines. Plus, discrimination laws apply in some cases (jurisdiction and funding sources are just two variables). Often the filter is more about the requirements and the education offered than any specific rule, since some schools focus heavily on religion and some barely if at all. 

 

 

And tell them the hug is for you. You need the hug. Because they definitely will act like they don't.

Perfect.

I recently saw a social media post that said "You think you've got it bad? Some people are 15." And you know what? All of my problems suddenly seemed a lot more manageable, because, thank goodness, I am no longer 15. Mama, your son is going through a tough time right now. He has to survive being a teenager. Please be kind as you survive him surviving this.

Hi. I think you breezed through this one a little too quickly. IMO, this fellow is showing what could be early signs of dementia. He needs to be tested by a neurologist if possible. and he may need more vigilance and caring than an older adult with all faculties intact.

I am putting this out there as an if-there-are-signs-the-unsafe-behaviors-are-new-or escalating cautionary i-dotting. I don't agree that being older automatically requires people to slow down or that people who don't slow down automatically are under suspicion of cognitive decline.

And remember it is not about you. I had to keep telling my husband that when our 13 year old (girl) would stomp upstairs and slam her bedroom door. Don't take it personally. She's now a pediatrician so it all worked out. But she doesn't like teenagers either which is one reason she's training in neonatology.

Okay, that's it for today. Thanks everybody, stay well, have a great weekend (by whatever standards you've set), and I'll type to you here next week.

Absolutely ask before hugging. And then do NOT guilt trip if the answer is no. As a teenager I got very body-conscious, especially around my opposite-sex parent. I can't be the only one.

Yes, good point--take no for an answer gracefully. Thanks.

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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