Carolyn Hax Live (October 9)

Oct 09, 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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So, anything new? On today's stress-eating menu, week-old cherry pie. At the end of this, I'm just going to divide like a giant cell into two Carolyns.

Am I really supposed to be communicating with my husband about why he didn't get Father's Day and birthday presents this year? In both instances, I'd already purchased items, and my husband was well aware of that. (Kiddo is too young to know what day it is or buy something.) Both times, my husband threw a mean temper tantrum a few days before he was supposed to receive the gifts. During his pre-Father's Day tantrum, he snapped that he didn't want any presents and that he only wanted a wife who listened and agreed with him because "that's the right thing to do." Before his birthday, he complained that he thought our marriage was terrible and I was the sole reason for that as he didn't do anything wrong and I was a lazy wife. So I returned that present and canceled plans for that day. I took both outbursts to mean my husband didn't want anything. His pre-Father's Day rant was explicit so I felt no explanation was needed then. If I'm so bad, then he doesn't need any of my generosity or kindness. (And whenever I suggest splitting up, he gets insecure and clingy, especially when I start packing.) Do I need to be explaining myself more the next time this happens? My husband saw me pack up the gifts and return them and never said anything. Although he knew he was getting something special both times, he has never inquired into the status of those gifts or special plans that I canceled.

You are "really supposed to" be talking to a professional about the significant underlying issue here, which is your husband's volatility and emotional abuse, and the potential risk to your and your child's health and safety. A call to 1-800-799-SAFE or 1-800-656-HOPE (Nat'l Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN, respectively) can get you started on finding local caregivers who can help you. A resistance to screening and treatment tends to go hand-in-hand with this kind of volatility, but it's still worth a try to ask your husband to get evaluated by his doctor for possible anxiety or depression or other issues that could explain both the outbursts and the clinginess (likely two parts of a cycle).

Regardless, you need to get help for you. Please take this seriously.

Hi Carolyn! Thanks for your consistency in this crazy time. on the question from today's column about therapy, yes, take a break or end all together if it's time. but a fruitful discussion could also come out of talking about what you used to find useful and feel like you're not getting anymore. Or there could be issues that you are ready to face but not there quite yet. A talk about that could open up new avenues. Or a break might help you find the things that are still there to be explored.

Good ideas, thank you. A reader emailed me to say, too, that not being able to broach this with the therapist is a sign the LW still has work to do in therapy. Which is so simple and smart I knew I had to share it here.

When my boyfriend first moved in with me 2 years ago, visitation weekends with his daughter were spent at his mom’s house. His ex-girlfriend and their daughter live near his mom, almost 2 hours away from us. His mom has a big yard and that way they could both see her, his daughter wasn’t too far from her mom, and it worked for everyone. He had planned to keep things that way for a long while. Then COVID hit – since his ex is an essential worker he didn’t want to expose his mom so now his five-year old daughter comes to our place. I’m in my early 40s and not really good or comfortable with small children having not been around them since I was one. But I realize this is an obligation that came along with my boyfriend so I’m trying really hard to be a good stepmom. It’s exhausting though, everything revolves around her when she’s here which the way it has to be I understand. Everything changes: the timing and content of our meals, TV programs, our sleep patterns. Our neat, serene apartment is a wreck, there’s constant noise, the cat hides, and I dread it. Which is bad, I know. I’m so afraid she will come to realize how I feel. She’s a nice kid, but high energy and understandably needy - seeing as she doesn’t get enough time with her dad, I mean. Do you have any suggestions for me? Coping strategies, or ways to reframe this, so I don’t dread her time with us?

So, first thing, little kids do upend everything like meal times and what's on TV, and they are generally louder than adults, and they are generally messier.

Second thing, when a 5-year-old's child's presence is so wild and needy and disruptive that you aren't sleeping and the cat opts out, it's possible the disruption is beyond the range of normal and crossing into dysfunction.

Third thing, because of 1. and because I'm going off just one long paragraph, it's hard to say definitively when you're living a 2.

So here's what I suggest, to start. Educate yourself on the child's age (now and going forward, as needed) and the general expectations that suit it. PEP is a good resource and has moved a lot of good stuff online. LINK Ask your BF to do the programs with you. Figure out some ways of establishing gentle order. It's better for adults but essential for healthy kids.

Also, talk to your BF about finding places the daughter can run and play hard. Stress, neediness and high energy are all conditions that are alleviated through hard exercise.

And, finally, pay attention to how your BF responds to all this. Even when the daughter grows up and goes, he will be who he is, and he's showing you who he is. Either you can work with that, now, to make things better on these weekends, or you can't.

The end of October will mark the 8th anniversary of my sister's death from breast cancer. “Janie” was often a difficult and disruptive force in our family during her life from childhood to adulthood - we tiptoed around her because if she got mad, she would freeze you out. I think she had undiagnosed bipolar personality disorder. At the time of her cancer diagnosis, it was Stage 4. We soon learned that a few months before her diagnosis, she had rekindled a relationship with “Bobby,” a man she had dated many years before. She had not mentioned him to any of us, but we met him a few weeks after we learned that she was sick. He told us of his love for Janie and dedication to her. Our family (my elderly mother, two other siblings, and I) rallied around Janie, taking her to all of her chemo appointments and related treatments, shopping and cooking and cleaning and providing financial support and everything else. Bobby dumped her. He told her that when she “got well” they could see each other again. Nothing the family did was enough for Janie. The more we gave, the more she demanded. She complained bitterly to her friends and the home health care people we finally forced her to accept (who were excellent) that our family was awful to her. After 4 ½ grueling years, Janie died. Our family was with her on that last night and I stayed after everyone else left, waking up in the morning in the chair by her bed to find she was gone. We published an obituary that remains online. Now every birthday, every Valentine's Day, every death anniversary, Bobby posts messages proclaiming his undying love for Janie, begging us to add more photos to the obituary site, whining about how much he misses her, saying he will see her in heaven. Every year it gets more difficult to resist the urge to respond to him and say, look, you glassbowl, you abandoned her in her time of need, you have no idea what an ordeal this was, you would have 4 + years of photos if you had stuck around, your declarations of love are hollow, so stop it. I know it isn't a good idea, but I think that one of these days I'm going to lose my resolve to be the bigger person and let it fly. Would that be so wrong?

It would be regrettable, which is a kind of wrong, yes.

I am sorry about your sister. I am sorry you had to deal with the fallout when Bobby left.

But this commenting-on-the-obit situation looks to me like a proxy for a whole lot of unresolved feelings, yours and Bobby's. 

I'm guessing he is wracked with guilt and the laments are his outlet for that. Ineffective, obviously, but that's so common when the death of the person we want to apologize to takes all our other options away. 

You, for your part, have significant (and apparently justified) anger at Janie--carrying a lot of it already when you learned of her illness and adding to the pile as she punished your every caregiving kindness. Her possible untreated mental illness works as an explanation for her behavior, but not as a giant eraser for what you felt about and suffered through with her.

So Bobby has a convenient, living, like-clockwork opportunity to vent his bad feelings and in doing so hands you a convenient, living, like-clockwork opportunity to vent yours.

I can't make suggestions to Bobby, but if I could, I'd steer both of you to therapy or grief support, to work through these incredibly complex, utterly normal, conflicted feelings about Janie. Let it fly *away.*

 

Son (33) previous married (2 years) and now divorced; is now surprised that we are less than enthusiastic with his recent announcement of a wedding in 1 month. He has been with this new girlfriend for 2 years, living together. They talked about getting married and decided to do it during the pandemic so as to have it low cost and a way to exclude inviting members of her family - and also, a way to exclude most of his as well. The girl is 27 and out of work for a full year, posts endlessly on her instagram page & is trying to make it as a "life coach." He provides all the finances - rent, food, etc. enabling her to pursue her dream. He says he is in love and she makes him happy. He becomes hostile when asked "why rush" "why not have a period of an engagement" He would not tell his 3 sisters of his wedding plans - told us to "tell them if you want" Very sad and concerning start to a life together. Pushing away both sides of the family and isolating them both. Question? attend ceremony?

Attend ceremony, obviously, yes, if you can do so safely.

And apologize for crossing wayyyy too far into his business with your objections. 

Your certainty you're right about her has blinded you to how *you* would feel if someone criticized and even badgered you about your poor taste in people because ... your true love posted a lot on Instagram? That's what you've got? Unemployment is not exactly an eye-popper right now.

Your objections are such a devastating insult to your son that I'm not sure your relationship with recover even if you do 1. grasp fully how urgently you owe him an apology; and 2. deliver that apology in a masterstroke of sincerity and grace.

There's is just so much contempt in your view of the woman he loves and lives with, and so much evidence that contempt kills more relationships than pretty much any attitude or feeling we can have toward others, that I don't think you'll get anywhere without dismantling it from within. It's about married couples, but the work of Gottman Institute centers on contempt, and there's plenty to read to get you started: LINK

And please know that if they do go ahead with the wedding, and you do go ahead with the inner work to challenge your biases, and you do wish the couple well and make room in your heart for the new DIL ... and she turns out to be terrible and the marriage goes south, the effort you made won't have been in error and you won't have earned license for told-you-sos. If being close to your son is your purpose, then make it your goal instead to trust your handiwork in raising him, support him in his choices, flag things only if genuinely dangerous or concerning (abuse, for example, or clear signs he's unhappy), and be as sad and surprised and ready to lend a shoulder as anybody when something unravels, even something you saw coming all along.

My SO deceived me in a way that should probably be unforgiveable, and I feel certain I would encourage any friend to cut and run in the same circumstances. Yet I am considering trying to work through this if they can explain why this happened and articulate a plan to ensure that such an action would not occur in the future. I've expressed that this will require a lot of difficult work on their part, and even if they do this work, I can't guarantee that in the end it'll be enough for me to trust them again. But I love them, and am not ready to run just yet. I don't know if I'm stupid, or the world is more complicated that it feels when you're watching other people's lives and not your own. I also don't know what my question actually is here, except maybe "so which is it?"

It's your life. You get to be as stupid as you want to be with your trust and your feelings. 

This might actually be the only thing on earth I can claim any authority on: It's a lot easier to see the solutions to everyone else's problems than it is our own.

When you're living them, all the absolutes have feelings attached that make them qualified and equivocal and malleable. 

Just promise me you'll promise yourself this: that you will base your decisions on how you feel about yourself through this period, not how you feel about your SO or anyone else. That's the most reliable indicator--what we see in the mirror. 

Good luck, and I hope SO decides to be worthy of you.

My SIL recently got a puppy mill puppy who immediately presented with a host of problems- worms, cough etc. He’s about 4 months old now and after spending thousands of dollars in vet bills, is allegedly “fine” now, but was so much work that SIL (30’s, not attached) moved home for the help. My MIL and FIL were scheduled to visit my family (four kids under six and a 2yo dog) next weekend and just informed us that SIL is coming too and bringing the puppy and isn’t that great?! We only see them several times per year and they stay for a full week at a time, in our home. My husband immediately questioned the health of the dog, and it was waved off. I then said I wasn’t comfortable with a dog, still so young, who was so recently so sick (vomiting still 2 weeks ago), both near my dog and my very young kids. Not to mention the fact that he isn’t potty trained, chews, bites like all puppies do and we have a dog that goes absolutely insane around other dogs, getting very rough. My twins are 1 and can’t walk, spending all their time on the floor. MIL is livid and says this is because I don’t like SIL (which is true, we have a long contentious history), and if the dog can’t come, neither can SIL. She also said new dog is “part of the family” and I’d better just get used to it. Am I being unreasonable here? We’ve never allowed guests with dogs. The idea of a hotel was written off due to covid, and the dog is too young/sick to be boarded. Thank you!

Oh for fox sake.

No too-sick-to-board, inside-pooping, adult-dog-agitating, needle-tooth puppies around small children. Period. 

This is not even a discussion. 

Nor is your no-dogs policy with guests. Your home, your rules.

That they're giving you crap about this not making their case any stronger.

There may be plenty for you to own in this "long contentious history," but, if so, then you'll need to start the patching-up process some other time and in some other way--one that doesn't put little crawling people at risk.

I just found out that my uncles and grandmother have decided to put my grandfather in a nursing home. I'm feeling so defeated and sad about it. I always knew it would come to this because he requires more care than they can give him, but with covid running rampant I am not so sure it is the best idea. I guess I have no question here

That's okay, I have no answer here. I'm sorry. There is a vast quality range in nursing homes, of course, as with anything, so your grandfather could ultimately be safer than he was in his home.

This is purely anecdotal, obviously, but a friend who works in a nursing home is quarantining from his own family, since March. Others for sure are putting their own emotional health on the line to keep their charges safe.

That's not something you can control, but what you can do is support your grandmother and uncles and, in whatever way possible, stay in touch with your grandfather. Fight the impulse to resist what they're doing and turn it into ways to stay close.

Drawing the line and saying no to the puppy is a task for the husband, right? It's his family. It sounds like they're in agreement on this but that the LW is having to take the lead in dealing with this problem.

My two adult daughters are estranged and off doing their own things. Now they're having children of their own. Neither wants to hear about the other. At this point I have accepted my role as the mother of two children in two separate worlds, but it's so hard to abide by their rules--don't share this (news), don't accept that (gifts). How do parents deal with this? Any recommendations for reading material, online resources/groups?

Set your own rules. You will conduct your relationships with each of your children as you see fit. You won't go out of your way to share news but won't keep secrets, either, or constantly monitor what you say.

They can decide how to conduct themselves, but they don't get to tell you what to do.

If you're afraid this will anger them to the point of cutting you off, then it's time for you to talk to a therapist about healthy boundaries. Your accepting your "role" is actually a sign of respect for them. The estrangement itself, though, could well be the loudest symptom of a family-wide, intergenerational boundary problem, in which case now's a great time to get to work on your part of it. 

I'm sorry. This must be heartbreaking for you.

The visit should be written off due to Covid. These in-laws don't sound like the sort of people who would take sufficient precautions to be allowed around your kids anyway.

Thanks for that. My mother died nearly a year and a half ago. I cried only once, and if I'm honest, it was only because the last possible glimmer of an atom of hope - that she'd actually be a decent mother someday - died as well. The fact that I'd had any hope at all surprised me, since any objective observer would have given up decades sooner. People with good, or at least well-meaning relatives never seem to understand why I don't feel any grief at all and why I helped my dad start dating within a few weeks of the funeral. "Her...untreated mental illness works as an explanation for her behavior, but not as a giant eraser for what you felt about and suffered through with her" really sums it up. If you could convince people with good mothers to stop projecting, you'd be a hero to millions.

I doubt I can, but maybe you can make a dent by explaining it as you did. Happy to be your messenger.

I (a guy in my 30s) once told my therapist (a woman) that I felt like I had dealt with the problems I was hoping to tackle, and felt ready to wind down therapy. She said "I think, rather than figuring out what you want, you let the women in your life make decisions for you and set the direction of your life". So I stayed in therapy. We both appreciated the irony of that, but she was right, and it was something we started to work on more directly...

That's really funny. Thank you.

Please remember that at no time during the process do you owe your SO anything just because he/she has made some effort or even a lot of effort. This is about what you owe yourself, not what you owe your SO or even what your SO owes you.

Thanks, great reminder.

Thank you Carolyn, for your thoughtful response. I have to say that I didn't mention the many good times that I had with my sister while she was ill - we went to the Bahamas, we spent a lot of good time together, I actually lived with her to take care of her for about a year until that became untenable. I do have some unresolved anger toward her, but I also have a lot of love and forgiveness. Nothing about my relationship with her bothers me on a regular basis. The fact that I stayed to sleep in the room with her the night she died (she was terrified of dying alone) brings me comfort. She was no angel, but she was my sister and I love her. I'm just irritated AF by Bobby.

Ha. Okay, fair enough. 

Then stop reading the comments?

How in the world did you get cherry pie to last a week uneaten?

A constant supply of fresh cookies. It's brutal around here.

Strategically opting in to a pandemic wedding JUST to exclude people, not telling his sisters, etc. is a red flag (one you've sadly pushed yourself out of being able to address by carping on him excessively about "rushing"). But this isn't rushed.

Well wait--normally I'd agree on the red flags, since they're my favorite decorative accessory, but given the amount of operatic angst that gathers around weddings and their guest lists and bottom lines, using a pandemic as a built-in excuse to avoid it all sounds like genius to me. 

My stomach clenched when I read this, even though my father has been dead for almost six years now. That letter could have been written by my mom at any point during their forty-something year old hellacious marriage, which they started putting me in the middle of when I was a tween. Cycles of emotional abuse, violent outburts and temper tantrums from him; passive-aggressiveness from her; sulking and weeks without speaking to each other from both of them (with him faking sick the whole time in an attempt for sympathy). I am recovering, am close to my mother, and realize she did her best with some very limited options, but please, please, please, OP: get out. Whether or not you have children. Frankly, especially if you have children. I did love my father, but the holidays are peaceful and joyful now. I never knew they could be that way.

Your mention of the Gottman Institute and its work around contempt makes me wonder: What is the opposite of contempt? Appreciation? My 50+ year life span has led me to believe that contempt is the most corrosive thing that can happen to a romantic relationship, and I wonder how it can be avoided or reversed.

Appreciation works, though I'd tweak it to gratitude. 

I am a stepmom who was in a similar situation/had similar feelings at first. This isn’t a guarantee, but I have come to really love my stepson and miss him when he is at his moms’s. Also my cat got used to him over time (and with patience in teaching how to be gentle and talk softly around kitties when possible). I read “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” (which Carolyn recs here often). I came to really empathize with him and feel for him [what he must be going through right now as a kid in the pandemic and also a kid whose parents are divorced] and just want to be part of his having a really good experience growing up/to be there for him as a solid adult he can trust. We still have some rough days but overall he is a bright spot in my life. Definitely seconding running them around outside - we go to a park where he can play in the creek and run around and is generally much easier to be around after that - bonus it gets me out of the house into nature too! Online only please

The combination of big yard versus apartment and the change in plans due to COVID makes me wonder if the high level of noise/mess/stress is coming from having a normal level of 5yo energy contained in a small and not-so-kid-oriented space. I think trying to get outside together safely as much as possible when she’s over might help.

Reading between the lines, when the visitation was at BF's mom's house, my bet is that the grandmother did all the heavy lifting. Perhaps your BF also got some mothering. If that was the case, you may be in a replication of that arrangement now. When I became the wife of a noncustodial father, he was always primary when his daughters were with us, since that's the way it was for the two years following his divorce and before we met and married. Gradually, I assumed a more equal role as a co-parent when the girls were with us.

The daughter might see that it's hard on you. Or she might see that you're trying. The fact that you wrote in because you want to be good to her is telling and I'm willing to bet the kid picks up on it even if she doesn't always show it.

So are the WashPost's Meghan Leahy & Amy Joyce columns and chats!

Yes, I read them both. They're good supplements to the PEP training, which is organized by age and topic. 

Hi Carolyn, I know I am extremely fortunate to be healthy and employed during this time. However, I feel this exhaustion in my bones that will not quit. It seems like I can’t sleep enough. I have so much trouble getting out of bed that my kids have not signed onto online classes in time and I am struggling to meet deadlines at work. Is this just burnout? Middle age? Laziness? I don’t know even what I am asking, perhaps if this is a normal reaction to this crazy time, and positive means of addressing it. Thank you!

Since I'm confident I hit it myself last month, I am a believer in the concept of the "six-month wall," as described by Aisha Ahmad: LINK

The good news is, it passes. Rest, forgive yourself, try to incorporate a few new things to replace your old-standby ways of coping. 

Anyone else being hit with waves of emotion - sadness, despair, dread? I try to logic my way out of it (we're among the lucky), or breathe my way out of it (helps temporarily). I'm managing to perform my job, keep the chores done, hug the kiddos... But not much more than that. It would just help to hear if other people are feeling this way, too.

Yes! See "six-month wall," ^^

I ate half a bag of chocolate chips the other day and then baked cookies to cover up the evidence.

Rock star.

Carolyn: My spouse’s parents essentially disowned our entire family after we supported our transgender child. They are extremely devoted Catholics and my father in law was very clear in his apoplectic emails that we were making the wrong decision for our child (MIL went along with it because that is “what wives do”) Five years later, our trans child is a thriving 9th grader, and our two younger children (9 and 11) barely remember them. My parents have been 100% supportive since day 1, fortunately. Recently, we heard through extended family that my MIL has been having some minor health problems and my FIL reached out to my spouse, “Dan”, with some initial feelers for reconciliation. “Dan” is cautious but misses his family (his brother has multiple health issues and told “Dan” that he couldn’t go against FIL’s wishes because brother relies on their help). I am much more cynical; I think FIL is worried about who will take care of them (both early 70s). “Dan” and I are financially secure (I am a doctor, “Dan” is an accountant) in a way his brother is not. Also, I am unwilling to expose my kids to FIL’s toxic views and am still very hurt by some things he said (eg we were committing child abuse) while we were still in contact. I am wondering how to navigate this. “Dan” is willing to continue to avoid contact if I am adamant, but I know he wishes things were different with his parents. Any advice would be welcome.

Would you be able to stomach it if Dan spoke to his family but you and your kids stayed away? 

No judgment if that's too ethically fraught for you, given his family's actions and your absolutely appropriate backing of your child. Your and Dan's primary responsibility is your child's well-being, which includes prioritizing your marriage over Dan's connection to a family of origin that undermines him. Plus, there is a risk this would drive a wedge between you and Dan, if they haven't softened but he softens to them.

Still, I propose it because his "I'm willing to do this if you make me" stance tells me two things: 1. Dan does have healthy priorities; 2. but he wants to give his parents a chance to show him they've changed (though grounds for that could be in his imagination only). 

If you can grant him that, then that might be better for you two long-term. Running this by a therapist experienced in treating families might be really helpful before you make any decisions.

Sounds an awful lot like depression, which would be perfectly understandable since there's no end in sight. Time to have a conversation with your doctor? Best wishes.

My first thought was respect, which is something you hold for a person, for their autonomy, for their right to be who they are, even when when you're angry or disappointed with them.

I once read that a woman ate the leftover half of a pie, baked a new one to cover the evidence, then ate half of that pie so no one would know. Genius!

How do I tag the Nobel Prize committee

I was shocked at how useful a two minute daily guided meditation turned out to be. I am so not a meditation fan, which makes this curious. Worth a try? I mean, it's two minutes.

Totally. While the pie is in the oven.

My version: I either need a week away WITH my husband or a week away FROM him. But I cannot take another night of scrolling through netflix together after the kids go to bed.

I can add nothing to this.

My grandmother never really cared for my mother - her daughter-in-law. Guess how I felt about my grandmother.

Ooh! I know this one.

At this point I count it a successful day if I get up, take care of my personal self, take care of those dependent on me, and take care of my surroundings. Anything beyond that is superhero territory. You are not alone.

I'd love to hear, here or in the comments, from the dog people who truly think this is o.k. Why do you think it's acceptable to force your pet on people who have said no? It's so common and I JUST DON'T GET it!

I don't get it either and I am very attached to my dogs. Who, by the way, are getting more handsome right now as I type this.

If anyone wants to explain not taking no-dogs for an answer outside the comments (i.e. without a user name attached), then submit it to the chat now and I'll post it next week. 

While your husband sound like a glass bowl, your letter rings all sorts of alarm bells on your side too. He’s mean and you make it known that you’re returning his presents? You decided his outbursts meant he didn’t want anything? IF you’re so bad he doesn’t need your generosity? And this has happened on more than one occasion? I think you also need to look at your responses to conflict, whether they’re with him or do one else in the future.

Fair points/possibilities. Counseling for both, solo, would make the most sense. Thanks.

I discovered elastic-waisted corduroy trousers a few years ago and wear them in all seasons. As long as I fit in them, stress eating is Just Fine.

I am thinking Humpty Dumpty-style overalls.

Okay, I'm just scrolling questions now and not forming answers to them. That's it for today--thanks everybody, have a great weekend, and I'll type to you here next week. 

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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