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Carolyn Hax Live: How Can I Be Sure I Don't Want Kids? plus Toxic Potential Mother In Law, Friends and Dates Who Make Vague Plans and/or Bail, and Mammogram Experiences

 Carolyn and her mother, Liz Hax (family photo)
Carolyn and her mother, Liz Hax (family photo)
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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008; 12:00 PM

In her daily column in The Washington Post Style section, Carolyn Hax offers readers advice based on the experiences of someone who's been there. Hax is an ex-repatriated New Englander with a liberal arts degree and a lot of opinions and that's about it, really, when you get right down to it. Oh, and the shoes. A lot of shoes.

Carolyn was online Friday, October 3 taking your questions and comments about her current advice column and any other questions you might have about the strange train we call life. Her answers may appear online or in an upcoming column.

A transcript follows.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Carolyn is raising money to treat and defeat ALS, the disease that took her mother's life. If you'd like to make a contribution to the ALS Association, click here. Or, spend time with Carolyn and your fellow peanuts at the Walk to D'Feet ALS in Washington on Sunday, October 12. Click here to join the Hax Pack.

Got more to say? Check out Carolyn's discussion group, Hax-Philes. Comments submitted to the chat may be used in the discussion group.

Carolyn's Recent Columns

Carolyn Hax Live Archives

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Carolyn Hax: Hi everybody. I'm going to take a break from the arm-twisting this week, and just say thank you for your support of my Walk to Defeat ALS team. If you're still interested in donating, the link is the top of this discussion, and if you'd like to walk with us Oct. 12 on the Mall, the more the merrier.

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Hax Pack: How is the fundraising going? I sent in $37 last week cause you said you were close to the top. Last year I did Relay for Life with my mom and the $400 I personally raised put her group over the $15K edge for the first time ever. It was very rewarding.

washingtonpost.com: Check the progress and make your own contribution HERE!

Carolyn Hax: Oh all right. One little pitch. You can see how we're doing by going to that site, too--we're trying to reach $25,000.

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Wedding drama question: I just wondered on the politeness of this one. I got asked the question, but am not sure if my answer was correct:

A wedding is coming up. There are three adult cousins (and their mother) that live on the opposite coast. My aunt wants to invite the mother and 2 of the siblings, but NOT the third one (who is crazy. Not in a throws-fits sort of way, but she is odd to have to manage as a houseguest, and I gather my aunt is quite bitter about the last visit). She does not want #3 at the wedding at all, even if #3 stayed in a hotel.

The other two and the mother, odds are 50/50 that they would come. #3 would absolutely want to go and move heaven and earth to do so, and would definitely find out if she wasn't invited, and would be very hurt if she wasn't.

I told my aunt it isn't polite to invite everybody BUT one person out of a family group, especially if she's going to find out (they all live fairly close to each other). It would probably go over better if she just didn't invite any of them due to the distance/cost, rather than invite everyone but #3.

What do you think? Was I wrong?

Carolyn Hax: You made the right call. (Remember those old ads--AT&T?--where they showed an NFL clip, and you had to officiate?)

The only thing I believe justifies excluding one member of a group like that is if the one member did some personal harm to you that everyone agrees would justify that person's exclusion. Otherwise you're just putting the whole group in a terrible position.

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Big Decision in Washington D.C.: Hi Carolyn, love your column and chats, your wisdom is enviable. My husband and I are on the verge of deciding not to have children. Most of the time the thought of this excites me and gives me a huge sense of relief - I think that some people may think that I'm crazy or mean or just very odd for having these feelings. But I am also on the verge of being okay with that since I know these things are not true. Also, at times, every now and then, I worry that someday will I regret that we did not have kids - and sometimes I think I definitely will not regret it. This is so confusing. I guess I just need to give it more thought? This is a HUGE decision, and I feel like other people have such an easier time making up their minds about this - like they just KNOW. What do you think?

Carolyn Hax: I wouldn't be surprised if the majority of people making this decision didn't struggle with it. Choosing to have kids is one of the few decisions out there that is both positive and irreversible--and while it's possible to reverse a decision not to have kids, you do have only a limited time to change your mind.

Throw in the fact that the decision, once made, profoundly shapes the rest of your life, and I find it surprising that people can make up their minds easily on this.

Two things about your particular situation. 1. The "con" you cite in your decision not to have kids is fear of regret--not, "I love kids" or "I yearn to hold a baby" or anything child-specific. Just an observation; I'll let you follow that thought where it takes you.

And, 2. How old are you? In other words, vagaries of fertility aside, how long do you have to change your mind?

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Reston, VA: Hi Carolyn, In today's column you said, "If family pressure is indeed enough to make your bride "miserable and frantic," then marriage might be premature...If she lacks a healthy sense of self and of boundaries, negotiating marriage might only add to her strain..." Well, I'm that bride. From the moment I got engaged a few months ago I've been trying to negotiate what I want with what my fiance wants, what my parents want, and what our friends want. It's completely exhausting and at times has made me miserable. I do think I'm ready for marriage, though, and if anything this time has been a growing experience for me. I've realized that I don't have a great sense of self - I'm very easily swayed by others' opinions, which is why I've done basically what my parents have told me is "right" my whole life. It's also why it's really difficult for me to separate what others want from what I want. I disagree with you, though, that these weaknesses make me unfit for marriage. At least I'm tuned in to what I need to work on, and I'm willing to work on it.

Carolyn Hax: Okay. I guess standing up to me is a start. As long as you find a way to hear your own drummer through the noise of everyone else's, and you trust your own ability to decide which drummer to follow in which situation, then, mazel tov.

If your sense of self is still tangled up in the influence of others, though, then I would at least scrutinize very carefully your choice of mate before you proceed with the wedding. When one's decision-making shop is struggling to produce good decisions, awareness and a willingness to work on it are both important, of course--but it's also important to realize you're going to have to live with some of the decisions coming out of that shop for a long time, including some that were made before you realized you had a problem.

Not a criticism or a challenge, just an argument for careful thought.

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Re: Wedding drama question: They could also invite just the mother, and not the cousins. Use the generational divide.

Carolyn Hax: That works too, thanks.

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Anonymous: Carolyn, what do you do when you find yourself getting increasingly frustrated with your partner because you see them displaying characteristics of one of their parents? My SO likes to avoid confrontation whenever possible, and avoids taking responsibility for simple things, like calling to have electricity turned off. His father is the same way, and it has served him very badly over the years--resulting in personal and financial problems. Other than recognizing it and trying to nip it in the bud (which is inevitably termed "nagging"), is there anything else I can do to help him avoid following his father's pattern?

Carolyn Hax: If you're trying to get it at the bud stage, it's too late. This is a problem that needs to be addressed at the root.

And, it's a problem -he- has to address. It is not your job or place to help him avoid becoming his father. As you've already discovered, speaking up whenever it happens doesn't help, but instead only estranges you from each other one "suggestion" at a time.

Given that the roots of this are probably deep, judging by its staying power through at least two generations, it might be the job for a reputable therapist. However, before you make that call, try to see what you might be doing to enable or aggravate the problem. For example, since you say the father did the same thing, maybe you need to look for the mother's actions or demeanor in your own. Are there any similarities--be as brutally honest with yourself as necessary--and is it possible your partner sought you out subconsciously as a way of re-creating his emotional comfort zone?

Your role is something you -can- change, and could have the ripple effect of changing your dynamic with your partner.

Even if you don't feel you do resemble any figure in his life prior to you, then it's still productive to consider on your own what might be at the root of your partner's conflict-avoidance. Understanding his emotional makeup is best way to understand your own effect on his emotions, and from there you can make thoughtful changes in your own behavior. As needed, a pro can help you at any of these stages.

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Boston, MA: (Not online only, but online please because I don't always read the print version)

My sister is in an abusive marriage. Because he has never left bruises, she doesn't see it that way. But, he has smacked her and shoved her and I think the escalation will continue because there doesn't seem any sign of it not continuing (i.e., neither of them will go to counseling or get any kind of anger management help).

What do I do when she calls me every few months after there's been a blow-up? This time, she's going to leave, blah, blah, blah. I offer to pay for her to come to where I live, I offer to get assistance for her, I try to convince her to get a restraining order this time...

Of course, then he apologizes and cries and swears to never do it again. Then, she calls to tell me everything is OK now and she believes him that he won't do it again. This has been going on for a few years now.

If she won't get help, what can I do? It's killing me to know everything that's going on and she feels like I'm the only one she can confide in. She also has three kids under 10 and I don't want them to learn that this is how families act.

Carolyn Hax: Oh my. Have a look at my favorite gone-but-not-really Web resource on abuse: www.peaceathome.org/fact_book.html

The thing you're looking for is the discussion of abuse as a cycle--his apologies-and-kindness phases ARE part of the abuse. They're not the good that mixes with or evens out the bad. They're key elements of his control over her. Think about it: Without them, she'd leave. With them, she'll hang on indefinitely.

I suggest this pamphlet so you can educate yourself. That will put you in a better position to get that message to her. She will hear it only when she's ready to, but at least when she is ready, you'll have it. That's the most important role you can play.

(Sorry this took so long, everybody--I popped over to make sure the handbook was still where it was supposed to be.)

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Big Decision in DC again: Thanks for your response. You're probably right that many people struggle with the decision on whether to have kids and that it would be surprising if people made up their minds easily on this - it just seems like many people think they should have children and our society expects it and pressures us. For instance, we've been asked countless times (especially since we've been married) "When are you going to start having kids?" and never "Are you going to have kids?" So, we do like children and babies (we have nieces and nephews that we adore). It's just that it causes me anxiety to think - what if I had my own? (for many reasons). I am 33 and my husband is 36 and if we do have a kid(s) I would rather not be over 35 and have a "high risk" pregnancy (anxiety again). So I guess we have a couple of years to decide although in reality I could have until around 40.

Carolyn Hax: You do have some years--again, setting aside the vagaries of fertility, since it's always possible you couldn't conceive if you tried. But you sound like a perfect candidate for just deciding to make this decision. Don't act on it surgically just yet, simply decide not to have children. Then, live with it for a while.

What you tell other people is always a tough call, because it's really nobody's business--but at the same time it could help you with your societal-pressure anxiety if you just stared it down (I'd say "once and for all," but we all know it would be "once and then a hundred more times after that").

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CFBC: As someone who is child-free by choice, I can tell you that you will probably have to put up with very intrusive and rude questions/comments. We got married under the assumption we would want children eventually. As we got older (now in 30s), we realized having children just wasn't our thing. No particular reason other than we don't. People still speculate about our marriage and the 'real' reason why we don't have children. Snarky and rude responses seemed to shut people up temporarily. The fact that we had to tell relatives that he got a vasectomy (a private matter imo) in order to get them to leave us alone is sad.

No matter what you decide, it is YOUR choice. Good luck.

Carolyn Hax: I'm posting this as a PSA so that the people who do apply this kind of pressure will have a chance to see the error of their ways and, next time they have an opportunity to weigh in on someone's fertility choices, bite down on something instead. A mini-quiche works nicely, or a stick.

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East Coast: Hi Carolyn - I love your chats and would appreciate your perspective on an on-going saga.

In a nutshell, I had a hideous last year and my husband basically left me high-and-dry to live through it all alone. We've talked about this and he's apologized and wishes we could go back and do it again. I'm in therapy to try to get a grip on my own depression/post-traumatic stress and we've attempted couples counseling but basically we can't seem to get past it. We aren't communicating, we aren't having sex - basically roommates with matching jewelry, as I've seen you describe it. I recognize that he's a great guy - kind, patient, intelligent - and I really don't want to hurt him, but we've only been married 3 years and I can't face living like this forever. How do I know when it's time to call it over? We're in our late 30's and have no kids, if it matters.

Carolyn Hax: I'm sorry. I would isolate two conditions that would indicate that it's over: 1. if the problem was something in him that you don't think he can credibly change; or 2. if you don't ever see yourself letting go of this and loving him fully again.

About No. 2. You've been hurt really badly, and it's a natural impulse to close yourself off as a defense against getting hurt like that again. However, whether you give your marriage a real shot or you call it quits, the only way for you to get your life back is to move beyond the closing-yourself-off stage. The goal I would suggest setting for yourself is to get to the point where you're not afraid of getting hurt again. Not that you're ever going to want to get hurt, obviously; you're just looking for the point where you realize that if it does happen, you can handle it.

Getting there while you're still married, as it happens, will help you make the best decision on the future of your marriage.

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Houston , Texas: Speaking of not having children...question that came up this week. A good friend is currently struggling with the decision whether or not to do so. She has heard from many, many people that to not have children is "selfish" - do you have any idea what they mean? Selfish by not re-populating the species? Selfish by not sharing her love with a child? I personally see HAVING a child as a potentially selfish thing (that is selfless at the same time if you do it right) in that YOUR desire to have a child is what puts them on this earth. Not trying to rile up the 'nuts, just honestly curious.

Carolyn Hax: Not this again.

Deciding not to have children because you're too selfish to make the necessary sacrifices for them is, in fact, a selfless act. selfLESS. In case anyone missed that. It's an act of decency to your children-not-to-be.

I feel strongly enough about this that I would question the judgment and values of the person who spewed that "selfish" rot, not just on this issue but on anything of any moral weight.

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Stupid question: I'm trying to organize a date. Twice now we've set it up and twice he's canceled, citing "other plans". He's aiming for a third shot. Should I let this one go?

Carolyn Hax: "Other plans" is pretty lame. Sickness, work, traffic, flooding basement, I'd say try again--in other words, if it were something he wouldn't possibly choose over a date if it were up to him. But going with the better deal suggests such a dim prognosis for good manners that it might not even be worth the one date.

This is a change, by the way--my initial answer was, "Go, why not, as long as he's trying." But the words "other plans" insinuated themselves into my fingers and this is what they wrote instead.

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Childless, VA: We just tell people we've decided to have puppies instead. Most everyone seems to understand immediately and to not push -- grandmothers and mothers-in-law included.

Carolyn Hax: Really? Anyone willing to road-test this one and report back?

(Actual puppies not necessary, right? Some people, after all, don't want creatures of any kind waiting for them to come home and start nurturing.)

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Al-anon question: Hi Carolyn,

I've been thinking of going to Al-Anon. My husband has slowly but steadily increased his drinking (he now has 4-5 beers per night) and it's affecting every aspect of our lives. He says he wants to cut back, but doesn't want to go to AA because he doesn't want to stop drinking altogether.

So, I've been thinking about Al-Anon. But what exactly happens there? Will I get tips on how to get him to choose to AA? Tips on how to deal with him?

I'm not sure I see the point if he's not going to get help.

(This is honest - I'm really not being snarky.)

Carolyn Hax: It helps you understand the implications of his drinking so you can make better decisions for yourself. There's a Web site if you want to have a better idea what to expect before you go to a meeting.

Just to give you a practical example, it'll help you see why the answer to, "Will I get tips on how to get him to choose to go to AA?" is a definitive "no."

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Washington, DC: Is a potentially toxic MIL a reason to call off a promising relationship?

I'm 28 and have gone out a few times with a very nice man. We took his parents, who live in Richmond, to dinner last week at a fancy DC restaurant. It was a disaster from the get-go.

The first thing his mother said to me, even before "Hello," was "why aren't you wearing a bra?" Startled, I explained that I had had a mammogram that morning (and if you've ever had one, you know loose-fitting clothing is the order of the day for several days afterwards). Her response? "You're too young to be having mammograms." I explained that my mother, aunt, sister and 2 cousins all had or have breast cancer. Her response? "Harrumph!"

In retrospect, I think this was a shot in the dark designed to embarrass me. I'm a small person, 5'4", size 4-6, 34B. I was wearing a nice lightweight suit and a camisole. I was not spilling out of my clothes, or displaying cleavage or nipples.

It subsequently turned out that this woman does not like liberals, minorities, foreigners, homosexuals, immigrants (legal and otherwise), non-Christians (and she considers Catholics "non-Christians!") and many others. Everything was wrong about the restaurant and the meal. If she were a character in a movie or a book, you would say she was conmpletely over the top. Unfortunately she's here.

Her other son and daughter, not surprisingly, live on the West Coast. BF and his father say, that's just Mom being Mom; you have to learn to ignore her. But I simply can't! The thought of spending any amount of time with her, much less her being the grandmother of my future children, literally sends shivers up my spine.

While not imperative, I am hoping for a close relationship with my in-laws because my mother died when I was 12, and my father subsequently remarried and is now living and working in Thailand.

I'm not nearly at the ultimatum, her or me? stage yet. I know at the moment his choice would be her. Should I retreat before it reaches that point? I do like him and we get on well, but so far it's only semi-serious so a split, while painful, would not be devastating. However, I also hate to let this woman ruin my chance at future happiness!

Thanks for your thoughts.

Carolyn Hax: I would say that his not sticking up for you is a reason to stop regarding this as a promising relationship. The exchange you describe is flat-out (there I go again!) horrifying, and if your boyfriend was a witness to it and did -not- step in to protect you from Mammilla's venom, then that upgrades the whole scene from horrifying to jaw-dropping. "Ma! Back off," is just not that hard to say. That is, not for the healthy children of even the most twisted parents.

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not having kids: I overheard my common-law's mother explaining to someone "My son's wife doesn't want to have kids so they're not having any."

Is it just me, or does this sound like blame-laying. (and no we're not married, but after 6 years of cohabitation, she started calling me his wife).

Carolyn Hax: That is blame-laying to my eyes, yes. However, going out of your way to react to it would complete the transaction between two people spoiling for a fight. Try to be the bigger person.

I'm not suggesting you do that by ignoring the implications of her words. I just think you need to be aware of her distress, as well as her inability to deal with it in a forthright way, and use that as incentive to be as forthright as possible with your "husband" on the issues of his mother -and- of your not having kids. The better you and he deal with these two things, the less able his mother will be to sow the seeds of discord into your relationship.

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washingtonpost.com: To Seattle (and anyone else who ever experiences server errors when submitting to WaPo chats): Our system has trouble with things like unclosed parentheses, like if you are making a list like a(right parenthesis only), b(right parenthesis only), c(right parenthesis only). I hope that's close enough to English to be understood! Resubmit without extraneous parentheses, or any other weird brackets or things like that. - Elizabeth

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puppies, ugh: I may get some flaming for this, but I think the whole pets as children thing is going a bit too far. I'd probably have a much worse reaction to someone saying "we got puppies instead!" than just saying "no kids for us, thanks."

Yeah, I shouldn't judge. But there are all these "Doggie Style" stores around town and they are everywhere and it's just getting to be a bit much. I like my cat, I like to get it catnip, but it's not a child or a child replacement. No.

Carolyn Hax: I see why you made that connection, but I saw it just as "butt out" softened by puppies.

So the conclusion, I guess, it that it's appropriate only when it's a big fat lie.

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AA or Al-anon: Quick observation - the husband recognizes that his drinking is too much but does not want to quit - this is good and huge. He should go to his family doctor and say just that. Many times drinking is self-medicating a condition (likely depression) and he should be thoroughly examined. Second, it's likely his family doctor will suggest some counseling. This is important and not to be blown-off and presents a one-on-one approach which will take into account his want to decrease without stopping. AA and Al-anon serve their purposes well, but sometimes a blanket approach isn't right for everybody.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, good suggestion.

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Carolyn Hax: Sorry, just bailed on an answer--will try to have another one soon.

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Chicago: My in-laws have gotten it into their head that I don't have a "real job" and that I mooch off my wife/their daughter. The reality is that I make more money than my wife, but I guess they think because I work from home and set my own hours while my wife goes to an office every day, that somehow means she has a real job and I don't. Anyway, should I or my wife attempt to explain to the in-laws what it is I do and that I'm actually quite successful in my field, or is it better to just let them go on thinking whatever they want to think?

Carolyn Hax: Why hasn't your wife/their daughter said anything? Seems to me it would be a no-brainer the first time they made that mistake out loud.

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WHY do people do this?: Answer questions that shouldn't be asked?

"Why aren't you wearing a bra?" -- I mean, really! Whatever happened to the cold stare, the one-raised eyebrow, the "Excuse me?" said in a chilling voice? Whatever happened to answering the question that SHOULD have been asked ("I'm fine, thank you; it's lovely to finally meet you.") instead of the question that WAS asked?

Carolyn Hax: Oh, it's still alive and well. It's just that some people aren't that fast on their feet--be it because they're a little nervous, or because their first instinct isn't to protect themselves, but instead to please.

This could even be something the boyfriend and girlfriend have in common. It would explain why she gave a real answer, why he mounted no real defense and why Momzilla felt she could get away with being so intrusive. We animals make a lot of quick, subconscious calculations in situations like this. Too bad we aren't as clear on the outcome as pack animals are.

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Virginia: My mother in law tells everyone that I am the reason my husband and I don't have kids too. It is blame laying, because she thinks it's okay for men not to want to have kids, but women who don't want them are cold. For a while, my husband fought her on this, but it really isn't worth it (though at one Thanksgiving dinner he memorably said, "Actually Ma, we don't have kids because I don't have a penis. Pass the yams.")

I'm actually okay with the blame laying. Small price to pay for not exposing a kid to my MIL.

Carolyn Hax: Remind me to save this one for when I run reader advice over the holidays.

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Al-anon again: He is absolutely self-medicating. But he would never bring this up to a doctor.

He does go a doctor a few times a year for a chronic (but non life-threatening) condition. I think he has some serious mental health issues that he is self-medicating. Is it ethical for me to contact his doctor and say "Next time you evaluate him, please look for these concerns I've noticed."

Carolyn Hax: Absolutely. His doctor can't call you to talk about his condition, but you can call his doctor.

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AtHome, VA: A second tier question concerning the young woman who was braless because of a mammogram that day. I'm 62 and have been having mammograms since my mid 40's. I do not understand her comment about loose clothing being the order of the day of the mammogram, and for several days after. I have never gone braless because of a mammogram, nor was looseness a consideration for my clothing. Perhaps she is particularly sensitive, or the facility is not handling her as well as it should

Carolyn Hax: I wondered the same thing, and was planning to look it up after I went offline.

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Los Angeles CA: A close friend gave my daughter an expensive birthday gift, with a proviso that she must keep up a certain grade average in school. This makes me the policeman and grade snitch, which I find offensive. In fact I find the whole thing offensive but my daughter of course wants to keep the gift. Any ideas how I should respond?

Carolyn Hax: I think she needs to return the gift. It's not right for someone to give an expensive gift without running it by the parents first, much less an expensive gift with strings attached. It's going to be hard for your daughter to do, but she needs to tell (your?) close friend that keeping her grades up is something she needs to do for herself, and that the gift, while very much appreciated, is distracting her from that goal.

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Other Plans: I've been seeing someone for a few months who cancels plans and doesn't tell me until very late (well after he knew) which keeps me waiting around and unable to make other plans.

I don't want to be the "mom" but I do need to explain this isn't ok with me and makes me feel like the least important item on his agenda. FWIW - I truly think he's just clueless and perhaps taking things for granted and would be surprised to know this makes me question his feelings. How do I say it?

Carolyn Hax: You say it the same way you said it here: "This isn't okay with me and makes me feel like the least important item on your agenda." Telling someone you've had enough isn't being the "mom," it's merely declining to be somebody's doormat. (A process of vital importance that is often thwarted, as it happens, by the desire to appear "low maintenance," cool, laid-back.)

And then if he does it again, cut him loose. It's not clueless, it's rude.

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Bra-less: Women who have small breasts and small frames, like this woman does... tend to encounter a lot more pain during mammograms then their bustier counterparts. My mother is the same way and her breasts are tender and sore for days afterwards.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, you saved me some calls/searches.

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Carolyn Hax: Of course, now I'm feeling so very not ... what was it? "small-framed."

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Atlanta, GA: Is there any kind of award we can give Virginia's husband for the best comeback of all times?

Carolyn Hax: Ooh, thanks for the Philes-fodder. Nice balance to the "rudest question" post.

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Bowie, MD: Could you post the whole "no, we don't have kids..." on your discussion forum? I'd like to see both sides of the argument, even though hubby and I decided not to have kids for health reasons -- and we have been together 14 years.

I'd like to see what others have to say.

Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: Done. Anyone else want to lighten my workload?

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"Better Plans": Hi Carolyn-

Thanks for answering my question. I've found lately that many people tend to evaluate the activities someone is doing beyond the person they're spending time with.

I have many friends that I can call up and say "want to get together?" and the question then becomes "what?" The purpose being, seeing a good friend.

I am seeing more and more that folks tend to expect friends to be some sort of cruise director on the Love Boat and hook them up with the sexiest plans. If they get better ones, they cancel. I also find that many people wait until the last minute to accept an invite in case something better comes along.

It's one thing if it's a group meeting up for happy hour, or something informal, but going to dinner, or going to someone's home where planning comes into play -- how is this considered acceptable?

If you ask someone to hang out and they say "well, what are you doing?" is it wrong to feel offended? I do. I feel like unless I'm into kicking puppies or shoving bamboo shoots under my fingernails that they should want to spend time with a friend, not be entertained.

Am I being too black and white with this?

Carolyn Hax: I've been getting a lot of complaints about this lately--as if our consumer-mindedness has jumped the borders of commerce and into relationships. (And oh, my, look what it has done for commerce.)

I think instead of going straight to offense, you might try stopping off at a midpoint and seeing how the other person responds:

You: "Want to get together?"

Friend: "Well, what are you doing?"

You: "Idunno, spending time with a friend?"

In other words, give a jiggle to see if that's enough to get them off the rude course and back to a civil exchange.

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Washington, D.C.: I want to do what I can to foster a good relationship between my parents and my new baby, even though my parents are annoying as all get-out. But they make it so hard. If I offer to let them babysit two days when they are in town, they complain it's not three. They say that they buy her noisy toys specifically because I don't like them. They bug me to make plans for a day six months in the future.

The baby cries most of the time her grandma holds her. Which is worse -- biting my tongue and letting the baby be uncomfortable, or enduring the coldness of my mother when I suggest the way the baby likes to be held?

I am a pretty laid-back parent but clearly unless I am willing to relinquish custody to my parents, they won't be happy. So the bigger question is, how do I navigate this for the next 18 years?

Carolyn Hax: Decide exactly how far you're willing to go to meet them "halfway," knowing upfront that it will never be enough--and hold your ground. If you can do two days (a lot, by the way), then two days it is. It's up to your parents to choose whether to enjoy what they have or ruin it with complaints about what they don't.

It also helps a lot to keep the moments of conflict in perspective. If your mom is hurting the baby, then of course you intercede. If the baby's safe and just crying, then you give your mother some room to find her own way. The long term goal is to help nurture your baby's relationship with her grandparents, so long as it doesn't cross the line into compromising her health or yours.

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Re: Other plans: It's me, the stupid question poster, again.

My spidey sense tells me he's just not that into me, which is fine. This is his way of expressing that. Better now than later.

Do I owe him anything? A response to his cancelling e-mail? An explanation? A plea begging him to respect other peoples' time?

I had just planned to be completely nonresponsive. That doesn't seem fair but neither does telling him the truth.

Carolyn Hax: Next time he reaches out to make plans, just say no thanks.

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Clearwater, FL: Asking what a person is doing as a response to "do you want to get together", may not be rude, it may just be a poorly worded response. The real question may be "How much will it cost, because I can't afford to do much shopping/going to movies/spending money on anything right now."

Carolyn Hax: How about, "Yes, I'd love to see you. What did you have in mind?"

Then you're not being rude and making your companionship conditional. You're also completely entitled to say, when the person suggests something out of your range (price or interests), "I'm too broke/I get sleepy in late movies/whatever, how about X instead?"

I don't like to blame technology for maturity problems, but this is starting to feel as if technology lets us work around a multitude of maturity problems.

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What Are You Doing?: Boy, I'm feeling terrible. If a friend calls and asks if I want to get together, I'll often ask what they want to do. I'm not trying to evaluate the entertainment value, but rather whether I want to. Example: I have a friend who wants to get together on Friday evenings. After a long work week, I'm often tired. If she wants to go to a movie or hang out at either of our houses, cool. But she often wants to add making dinner and going out for drinks, making it more than I can handle that night. What's wrong with that?

Carolyn Hax: See above. It's the way you frame it. Say yes to the friend and then no to the plans, if needed. Not yes to the friend only if the plans suit you. There's a significant difference in the unspoken message you send to the friend.

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Arlington, Virginia: "Other Plans: I've been seeing someone for a few months who cancels plans and doesn't tell me until very late (well after he knew) which keeps me waiting around and unable to make other plans."

Why do people accept in SO's what they would not stand for in their friends?

Carolyn Hax: Actually, a lot of them put up with it from friends, too.

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Carolyn Hax: Elizabeth sent me this a bit ago: "I think I can safely now say that every person's mammogram experience is different." I'll save her from the B-cup brigade by signing off. Thanks all, and type to you next Friday.

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Re: dry wedding: Hi Carolyn. In today's column, you wrote that a dry wedding is inviting flask-smuggling. Do people really expect alcohol during the reception? This summer, my husband and I got married in an early afternoon ceremony, immediately followed by a reception in our church fellowship hall. Because it was on church grounds, we couldn't have had alcohol even if we'd wanted it. Are we now being considered rude to our guests by not providing a reception with the option of an open bar?

Carolyn Hax: That was only in reference to the family of hard drinkers; expecting to keep them sober by not serving alcohol struck me as naive. Other situations, other guests would certainly be open to a different outcome.

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