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Carolyn Hax Live: Advice Columnist Tackles Your Problems

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 23, 2009; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Friday, October 23, 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.

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Carolyn's Recent Columns

Past Carolyn Hax Live Discussions

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Carolyn Hax: Hi everybody. To mark Week Two of doing a better job at advocating for ALS patient care and research, I'm going to share what I wrote last year about my mom, who I lost to the disease in 2002. (This is from the Oct. 9, 2008 column.)

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Dear Carolyn:

[Your campaign in your mother's memory] made me wonder, off and on all week, what in your personal opinion made your mom so very special? Many of us reading your column have difficult and sometimes downright unhealthy relationships with our parents but want very much to rise to the occasion for our own children. How did your mom pull it off?

I have a little girl and I want to do my best by her.

Pittsburgh

That you care so much to get this right probably will go a long way toward making you an excellent parent.

But it's a great question, and it's something I have in the back of my mind often. It would probably be good for me to bring it to the front.

Things I really liked about my mom:

She was there. She listened to our stories, knew our friends, came to our games.

She had a sense of humor that was sly, whimsical and ever-present. She single-handedly started a spaghetti fight, a salad fight and several water fights in our house. The salad fight started when we were all hanging around the dinner table talking and picking at the leftovers, and someone must have said something ridiculous, because she took a handful of salad and threw it at the person. That was the end of that.

She hated overheated rooms, self-important people, chitchat, knickknacks, dumb television, makeup, phonies.

She was engaged with the world around her, and didn't seem out of place in a library or at a concert or at a sporting event, in pursuits high and low, so she was in a position both to encourage varied interests and enjoy them with us.

She didn't just grant us freedom to decide who we wanted to be. It was clear she enjoyed the process of watching us become those people. When we asked for help, she gave it, but otherwise stepped back and let us figure things out (even though it was obvious it was straining her very being just to hold herself back).

She was as flawed as anyone, and while she made an effort not to inflict her flaws on everyone, she also didn't withhold herself from us. She could, for example, hold a grudge longer than I think ever recorded in human history. If you told her someone was mean to you in school, she hated that person forever, no matter how nice the person turned out to be. She got crabby, burned dinner, said just the wrong thing. No veneer of perfection there.

She had four babies in five years and wrangled them into adulthood without (as far as I can tell) backing down or succumbing to indulgence. No meant no. But she also knew that it was possible to teach the value of hard work and delayed gratification, while still allowing moments of unearned, overpriced joy. I miss her every day.

If you would like to sponsor my team, the Hax Pack, go to

my page

.

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This year's walk is Nov. 1, but at a new location--please click the link for details.

Thank you to everyone who pitched in last week. You're the greatest.

Oh, and if I screwed up the link again, please let me know asap. Thanks.

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Stuck on the elevator: Hi Carolyn, While I agree that last week's Eye Roller should neither be glaring, eye rolling, or judging others for their elevator choices, I don't think Eye Roller was "hiding behind the obesity epidemic".

In fact, I wish we as a culture were doing more to address how technology has contributed to our sedentary lifestyles. Every choice we make has a cost. When we choose the elevator over the stairwell, we are choosing to use electricity rather than the calories our bodies produce. If we're tired or our feet hurt or we have a disability, then sure, the financial and social costs of electricity are merited. But I'm not sure that otherwise able-bodied persons who always take the elevator or otherwise expect technology to keep them from ever breaking a sweat are even conscious that somewhere along the line, a cost is being born by themselves or society in general. And not only is this not doing their health any favors, but I wonder what the lack of effort (and endorphins) does to their sense of self worth and/or sense of being a living, breathing member of the animal kingdom.

Just my two cents...

Carolyn Hax: Appreciated. I'm glad you brought it back up.

The thing is, I think our culture is doing plenty to cover the issue of technology and sedentary lifestyles. I can't get the [shneesh] away from reminders to eat well, be green, take the stairs, keep my kids off the couch, blah blah blah. It's all correct and it's all good--I am not just a spokesman for the green-and-fit societal movement, I am also a client.

But if these messages get any more up in my face, I'm afraid I'll end up snorting them.

I'm saying this to acknowledge your point about the cost of society's choices. But that's still all beside the point of my lid-flipping last week. That point, and it still stands, and you seem to nod to it here, is that these changes have to come from within. Using shame and judging, even in the privacy of our own minds, is a blunt and virtually useless instrument. Are some people slugs? Absolutely. Should they do better? For their own benefits, yes, though that's their choice, and where there choices affect others, I hope they'll take into account the consequences of their actions, be it to run up public health costs or churn out needless quantities of greenhouse gases.

It's just that strangers have no way of distinguishing between an elevator abuser (still not an outrage to me, but I'll use it b/c it got everything rolling) and someone with lupus or Lyme disease or a bad knee or an office without stairwell access. And so I maintain that even when the problem touches people at the societal level, the solution still rests with individual choice.

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Beltsville, Md.: Can a loving marriage be sexless?

Carolyn Hax: If neither spouse loves sex, sure. (Or if neither minds when the other obtains sex outside the marriage.)

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Carolyn,

Your mother is an inspiration to me as I navigate the motherhood road. Thank you for sharing. BTW, your HaxPack link doesn't work.

Carolyn Hax: Ha. I am hopeless. (The problem is (a) last year's links don't work and I've failed to mark them clearly to differentiate them, and (b) I keep doing this at 11:55 a.m. and forgetting that I needed to leave myself time to test my links.)

Jodi, can/would you save me from myself, again, please?

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washingtonpost.com: Carolyn's ALS Page - Hax Pack

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Somewhere on the east coast: Dear Carolyn,

A very close friend in Oregon sent me a very brief e-mail telling me that she just got engaged and will get married next year. I e-mailed her my best wishes and asked her about her wedding. This was two weeks ago, and she hasn't replied to me yet.

Meanwhile, a close friend in New York told me that this woman in Oregon (a very close friend of hers, too) has already told her that she's invited her to the wedding, and she's already making plans to go. Does this mean that I'm not being invited? What should I do? Is it okay to ask the future bride if she is going to invite me? Should I tell her that I know that she invited the woman from New York? If she doesn't invite me, am I supposed to send her a present? What kind of present is appropriate for a friend who doesn't invite you to her wedding?

Carolyn Hax: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGh.

Call her with your congratulations, and to catch up.

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Washington, D.C.: I have a friend who still lets her pre-teen child sleep with her. He has his own room with a bed but several nights a week he sleeps in bed with her. Whenever her significant other comes for a weekend the kid walks into the room or fakes an illness to try to get back into mommy's room. Many people have told her that this needs to stop and on occasion she has said it herself. Is this behavior normal and when should it stop?

Grossed out

Carolyn Hax: It's not healthy for the child, it needs to stop immediately, and boy would problems be easy to solve if only the people having them would step aside and let us solve them.

In other words, the mother knows it's wrong and is still allowing it, and so for whatever reason she doesn't want things to change. If you think adding my voice to the chorus would help, then add it, and you can also add Marguerite Kelly's; she wrote about this in her Family Almanac recently, so I would check her archive on The Post's site, too.

But, again, the real problem is that Momma doesn't want to fix the problem(s). This one (co-sleeping with one's kids past the point of its being advisable, which, admittedly, is a disputed point) happens to be a classic inertia problem--parent doesn't want to manage a kid's bumpy feelings, and so maintains a cocoon past the point where it's good for either of them to be so dependent upon each other. This mother has to be willing to do the hard work of teaching the kid to stand alone, emotionally speaking.

Since she has apparently skipped the various entry points to starting this process in her child's late infancy, toddlerhood, etc.--where the steps are incremental and therefore easier--or they hit a big bump (divorce? fatehr's death?) and she let it all backslide, she's got some hard work waiting for her. I do hope she takes it on.

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Constant State of Wanting: I can't seem to find a place of contentment in my relationship. We reach a calm place, I push further. My mind is a whirr. It isn't a push for marriage/ring/babies. It's a push for more feeling, more touching, more intimacy... Why can't I let this come naturally? I've even tried chanting to myself...ha!

Carolyn Hax: How are you in other areas of your life--do you get a nice home, and immediately start eying a nicer one? Do you hit a career milestone, and start a new envy cycle based on a higher position? Do you always live just a little bit beyond your means?

I don't think you can figure this out without first pegging whether this want-more trait is relationship- or character-driven.

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Michigan: My brother just welcomed his first baby in September and he has not yet invited anyone to come up and meet him. We are all VERY excited. Is it rude to ask when we might plan a visit? (We've taken into consideration that maybe his wife is having trouble adjusting or something.)

Carolyn Hax: This really depends on how close your relationship is with your brother. If your history is one of difficult communication and potentially explosive misunderstandings, then you probably need to follow his lead--though it wouldn't hurt to get involved from afar by asking them if there's anything they need, and sending care packages as you can. Or, if he says they don't need anything, send the occasional can't-fail-can't-clutter gift in the form of a classic children's book for their collection. It says, "I'm here and ready to get involved" in a way that's both constructive and non-intrusive.

If you're close, then you just say, I can't wait to meet the baby, but I don't want to get in the way--please let me know as soon as you guys are ready.

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Confused in Florida: Husband and I have been married for two years and have a 7-month-old son. We are both 28 years old, own our home, etc. Mother-in-law and I have had a good relationship. After my son was born, she stopped calling me completely. She used to call every week or I would call her. He is my first child, and her first grandchild. My husband and his parents are on good terms.

I don't know what to make of this. I have tried calling a couple of times, but she is either not home or isn't answering the phone. Advice on what to do? This is really bothering me because my mother disappeared when I was 15 and my father died when I was 16, so I was really hoping that my husband's parents would be wonderful grandparents. For what it is worth, they seemed to initially be very excited and happy about his birth.

Carolyn Hax: Has your husband done any recon?

Just off the cuff, I'd say that she's either paralyzed by the possibility she might call during naptime, or she perceived some slight and she has withdrawn from you without explanation. I hope it's not the latter, but if it is, then your husband is your best chance of getting the truth.

Just in case it's the former, though, you might want to keep calling on your regular once-a-week schedule. And start sending her photos and scribbles and anything else that will keep up her link to her grandchild while you figure all this out.

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N.E. expat, Va.: I was back in New England recently for a family emergency. Parents and siblings were sitting at the hospital and in the course of a discussion about my sister's SO, she mentioned he'd said he wouldn't be giving her a ring on birthday/Christmas/V-Day because then it would be considered a gift and if they called things off, he wouldn't get it back. Nobody seemed fazed by it, and I haven't met the guy yet (last two times I've been up, the plans for us to meet have fallen through), so I can't tell if this is a sense of humor thing that wouldn't bother me if I knew him or if I'm right and that is kind of a weird way of approaching things. I'd say something to my sister, but we have a fraught relationship in this area because of her past comments about guys I've dated. Ex: For several months during my last relationship, if she was over our parents' house and answered the phone, I would say hi, then ask for our mom because I didn't trust myself not to say something I'd regret because she'd been pretty obnoxious about the guy. A, I weird for thinking that's a strange discussion to have had? If not, do I just let it go? Mention something to our mom? Wait and see what I think if and when I meet him on my holiday visit home? Or mention something in an e-mail to her? I know phones are better, but we don't ever talk on the phone unless she's around when I call our parents, so that would, I think, automatically make this a BIG DEAL and throw up a barrier. Holp!

Carolyn Hax: It's not just you, the boyfriend's declaration is a jaw-dropper. If you were close to your sister, then I'd say you had a near obligation to flag it--but, then, if you were close, then you would have flagged it without having to check with anyone else.

The issue here might not be the boyfriend or even your tense sisterly relationship, but instead the fact that you and your sister are just two very different people. What hits your ears as horrifying is, apparently, to her, an anecdote so reasonable that it wouldn't have occurred to her not to share it.

At this point, unless you have other signs that your sister is (a) poised to walk off a proverbial cliff, and (b) beyond rescuing by anyone but you, I suggest you stay out of it, at least until you're able to meet the guy. If in the meantime the two of them come up in a conversation with your mom, though, you can always fish a little--just be sure to listen more than you talk.

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Duluth, Minn.: My wife is afraid of everything ... flying, confined places, someone breaking into our house and many other things. I use to think it was kind of cute but with children I worry that it is impacting them. Moreover, I worry that she is not allowing them to grow because she is overprotective. They can't do many of the things (e.g., rides bikes, walk to friends houses, or play basketball on a quiet street with construction cones set up as roadblocks) that the other kids in the neighborhood do. I don't think we can live in fear of miniscule risks but I get nowhere when broaching this with her. I am mostly concerned about my oldest who is almost 11 (the youngest is 7). Any thoughts?

Carolyn Hax: "Cute"? To be living, at best, half a life, and all of it in fear?

jhajko;r

;da'lhKNijsc:LD :jf

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"Untitled" 2009

(Forehead on keyboard)

Please get your wife to a reputable and competent psychotherapist, and spring her, not just your kids, from her neurotic prison.

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I spied: Carolyn,

I read, not entirely by mistake, an IM conversation between my in-laws in which they both totally trashed me, calling me worthless, lazy, irritating and careless. My relationship with them has never been amazing but I thought we had achieved some sort of mutual ground over these seven long years...this really tore me apart. They are staying three more weeks (in our tiny apartment) and I just feel...destroyed that this is what they think of me. How do I deal with this?

Carolyn Hax: 1. Talk to spouse. Whole truth.

2. Examine your own behavior. Where do your in-laws have a point, and where are they being completely unfair?

3. With spouse's cooperation, decide how to approach these next three weeks. Confront? Kick out? Redouble efforts to please? Bite down on stick, count days? Which you choose is less important than having a partner in your spouse. If you're alone in this hell, then that's a bigger deal than your unimpressed in-laws.

4. Detach. For most people, the emotional default upon receiving harsh criticism is to regard the critics as significant, and their rejection as a knife to your soul. The next step then--a reflex, really, is to attack the critic's significance and patch up your soul.

There actually could be a lot more (or less) going on here than your reflexes say. The critics can be wrong, or dorks, or just on a different planet from you and incapable of getting who you are. They could be right about some things, wrong about others, and with a different delivery their message could have been one you welcomed and even discussed with them over coffee ...

It may also be that your pheromones don't get along with their pheromones. It could be that you bring out a side of their child that they don't/don't like/don't recognize, and so they see you as this gut-level threat.

In other words, overrule your wounded-animal impulse and look at this like a scientist. Dissect, learn, proceed.

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D.C.: I have a bad habit of falling for male friends and I'm not sure how to break myself of the habit. I always think, I have so much fun with this guy, why not date him?

Carolyn Hax: Why is that a bad habit? Unless you're forcing it or just feigning friendship as a way of getting a closer look at someone you find attractive, being friends first is a great way to end up in a romance with someone you find attractive -and- actually like

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To Duluth Again: : And stop being so PASSIVE. You worry that SHE's not letting them grow up? Where have you been this whole time while she was laying out unreasonable rules?

And on what planet was it cute that your wife lives in terror?

Or did her exaggerated fears just make you feel more secure and manly?

Carolyn Hax: I'm guessing there was a lot of (false) security sought in role-playing. Home/children/fainting couch were her turf, and protection/breadwinning were his. Terrible trap for all involved, but especially the kids.

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Rockville: You make it sound so easy to get a loved one into therapy. Sometimes, it's near impossible. I have had to make some difficult choices in my marriage because of my husband's issues. But in the end, I can't make him help himself, and I don't think divorce is a viable option for my kids because it might mean that they are more exposed to his moods if I am not present, and he is not sick enough to be considered a bad parent, and in fact, is a fine father mostly....Sometimes, you just cannot fix another person.

Carolyn Hax: Er, I've been beating that drum since I started this column (even did so today, in re the co-sleeping pre-teen!). I made an exception for the frightened wife because it sounds as if their family dynamic is such that her husband can, in fact, get her to therapy.

Of course, he still can't make the horse drink.

(This chat, on the other hand, could make a horse want a drink, straight up.)

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Re: Co-sleeping: Hi Carolyn, I really liked your response to the co-sleeping parent. It seems so applicable to so many other issues too. However, you left out (purposely?) what the friend can do to help. I know you can't make other people change, or do the hard work for them, but what role can a friend/sister/sister-in-law play in cases like this? I want to help a friend in a similar issue where she has trouble saying no (kid gets bad grades, still allowed to go to a sleepover when that was part of the bargain of getting good grades for example). But I don't know how to start. Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: This actually ties in to the elevator issue, believe it or not (and I think the original elevator poster just reached for a drink, if s/he hasn't sworn off this forum for good).

The ability to affect the behavior of those around us ranges from abundant-but-limited to 0. In fact, the ability to affect our own behavior comes with limits, but that's the closest we get to complete control: over our own thoughts, words, actions. The moment the behavior you want to change is someone else's, you lose the last word.

If that person is really really close to you, though, you probably have a lot of influence. In those cases, it's important to use that influence judiciously--and that can mean anything from asking openly for something instead of, say, manipulating people do do what you want, or it can mean picking you battles carefully to avoid intruding on others' lives for trivial reasons.

That could be where you are with your "friend in a similar issue." If you are close to this person, if you have a history of using your power/influence judiciously, and if you use it judiciously here, you can be a tremendous help to this other person. Depending on the way you best communicate with your friend, you could start by asking her how it worked out that Kid went to sleepover despite getting bad grades? And in the answer you can read whether there's an invitation for you to help or not. If there's no invitation , you help by example and you help by listening (with the occasional leading question), and that's about it.

Once you move out into the rings of people who aren't really close to you--say, they're related to you don't confide in each other, you're friends but not in regular touch, colleagues but not close outside the office, whatever--like the tetchy sisters from earlier in the chat today--then your ability to influence/help someone else weakens.

The one thing that can really affect the power we have with each other is the invitation to comment/help. When we're asked, we can help no matter how close or distant you are. But presumably we're talking about how to help people close to us who are struggling, but haven't asked. That's the tough one to navigate.

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To Duluth: OMG. Look, just to expand on Carolyn's comments, you are allowing your kids to be subjected to a subtle form of child abuse. They are not being allowed to develop normally and you are enabling your wife in stunting their lives. Frankly, your whole family needs to be in psychotherapy and your kids might even benefit from going to live with other relatives or friends while you and your wife learn how to parent with appropriate boundaries. They deserve a normal-as-possible life as soon as possible.

Carolyn Hax: Shipping the kids off could give them the glimpse they need into what life unstunted would look like, or it could be a stressful and unnecessary upheaval. That's a call best made by a professional who can see everybody up close.

But I do think you hit the seriousness of the issue with the stunting/enabling points, thank you.

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Madison, Wis.: My boyfriend is super blah around my friends and family, but turns up the charm around his groups. People in my circles have mentioned that he seems "unengaged"--I got this from my mom, my sister, and two of my good friends. I chalked it up to nerves at first (but we're going on two years)--and when I ask he just says that relationships need to happen naturally--but I'm starting to feel like he really couldn't care less about developing friendships with my family/crowd. Aside from saying--"just fake it..."--what can I do? I feel disappointed that he's not out to make a "good impression."

Carolyn Hax: Hm. too many variables here. Are your friends/fam local, or do you see them just through occasional visits? What about his? And if your good friends are local, are they integrated into your life, or are they people you just see on your own occasionally, like once-a-month lunches? How about his friends?

As a result of his "blah"-ness, do you see your friends less than you'd like? Or do you have a group of friends with him that you gravitate to naturally, and you probably wouldn't see these other, pre-boyfriend friends more than you see them now?

Is your boyfriend otherwise open to meeting new people, or is it just his people and everyone else gets the brush-off?

is he otherwise solicitous of you, or do you sometimes feel you're close to him only because you make it convenient for him to be?

(more)

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Carolyn Hax: What I'm getting at here is whether you have a fine relationship and he just doesn't click well with people from your "past" (weird to refer to family that way, but I hope you get what I mean)--people whom you've kind of outgrown yourself, or with whom your own relationship has changed; or whether you're with someone who doesn't feel the urge to embrace people in your life just because you care about them.

In other words, to find out what his blah-ness says about him, it matters what your friends/family mean to and say about you.

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Please don't help me: Maybe it's just my own perspective, but I find myself seriously annoyed by people who give me unsolicited, but well-intentioned advice, even from family or close friends. I will admit that my life is not perfect, I am not perfect, and my kids aren't either, but for the love of cornflakes, lay off. If I need help I will ask for it. In the meantime, please tend to your own problems, which are plenty from my perspective, and stop wasting your time annoying me.

Carolyn Hax: Another (highly persuasive) way of arguing the point that if you want to help someone, the best thing you can do is wait till you're asked for help.

Thanks.

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Duluth (last time ... hopefully): I have to respond to the passive and enabling comments. I love all the assumptions people make. What makes these people assume I'm doing nothing? I let the older child ride bikes, walk to his friend's house and play basketball provided the cones are out. I give the younger child more limited freedoms. I spend hours discussing with my wife that we have to allow our kids to develop. I've encouraged counseling. But I'm only at home on daylight hours during weekends. The other 5 days (particularly in the summer since the kids aren't in school), she's in control. And, when she sees me doing any of these things -- and I'm very upfront about it -- she'll follow our son and/or be furious at me for not recognizing the chance that he could get kidnapped or hit by a car. And though it doesn't stop me from giving the kids some freedom, I must admit I start becoming fearful of the guilt if something astronomically unlikely did happen (and I'm certain I would never be forgiven). I should add that she's coming around a little (not as likely to fight me when I allow it) but not so much as needs be (she will never allow any of this on her own).

Carolyn Hax: Fair rebuttals all, and I'm happy to post it to round things out.

I still believe, though, that the passion of the weighers-in is something to take seriously, not defensively.

Yes, you are out and your wife is the one in charge of the kids. But you said yourself--and we are echoing--that the person in charge is not in charge at all, but instead is handing the parental reins over to fear.

It's time for you to get tougher about the whole situation. You don't "encourage" counseling, you ask her to go. You go on your own, and find out what recourse you have to get your kids into a healthier environment.

To this point you -are- being passive, pretty much giving the "what can I do?" shrug to having a very ill person raise your kids.

Do you want to take this on, or not?

And if you do want to take this on, are you ready to make a call, right now, for professional help--for you, since you're the one who gets to decide that?

Are you ready to put your marriage on the line, if you thought it would be better for your kids that way? If so, are you ready to discuss your options with an attorney?

I'm not typing this as a long way of saying, "Divorce your sick wife." I'm simply trying to poke you in the ribs in response to this: "But I'm only at home on daylight hours during weekends. The other 5 days (particularly in the summer since the kids aren't in school), she's in control."

That's fatalism, not realism. You're the father and you need to do better by your kids. Please don't waste your energy getting angry at me/us--channel it into the problem you have at home.

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Judgment and Control: I think there is a real nexus to explore here, which you just hit on in your answer to the poster with a friend with a parental discipline problem - how judgment is, or can be, an offshoot of our desire to control the world around us, and the people around us - and how often it backfires, because people don't like to be judged or controlled. My favorite example: An ex-boyfriend who told me he "loved me, because I wouldn't get fat or drink too much, the way his mother did." To which the natural response (mine, anyway), was - could I have another piece of cake and a glass of wine, please? Not precisely the most constructive response, perhaps, but there it is. So the first question I ask myself, if I find myself judging someone else and particuarly if I am thinking it necessary to weigh in on some "problem" I perceive is this: Are they asking for my advice? And, if not, and assuming no one is in danger of being abused, what right and/or duty do I have to "advise" them? Or judge them?

I think a lot of this is reflexive - judgment, particularly - and the struggle is to step back and figure out exactly where your little circle ends, your sphere of influence and control. And so often, it's a lot smaller than we'd like it to be.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, there's a lot to think about here.

I would posit, though, that, yes, the sphere of influence may be smaller than we want it to be in that it's just ourselves and nobody else--but it's at the same time very large and unruly. Raise your hand if you think controlling your own thoughts/words/actions is a snap. And that complexity, too, drives us reflexively into other people's business.

Part of my argument for this angle is external and anecdotal: The people who really get up in your business are so often the ones whose lives could, ahem, use a little of their own attention?

(FSBO: Stunning yet cozy glass house, 4BR, 2.5BA, dramatic views, some TLC needed.)

And part of my argument is internal, since this emotional state has to sound familiar to a lot of people: you are scared of something, so you micromanage others (don't do X, call me by Y) whilst you're snacking compulsively on chips.

Either way, you're right, stepping back is key, and can be a struggle, depending on how a person has been "trained," usually by parents.

_______________________

"You're the father": Can we change that to "you're a parent"?

Carolyn Hax: Sure.

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To Michigan, new baby: Baby born in September, it's October. That means the baby is 1 month old and parents have not had a full night's sleep much less a quarter night's sleep. Send food package or ask if you can help but I'm not surprised the new parents have not yet gotten organized enough to invite people over.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks, I'll throw it out there.

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Duluth: Enough Already: Really? The kids can't play in the street and they need to be shipped off? A lot of parents don't let their kids ride their bikes, play ball in the street, take public transportation by themselves, the list goes on. Sure, maybe the wife has a problem but I don't think this is as end-of-the-world as the chatters make out. It is tough to ask for advice if the response is OMG, get the kids out of the house. Come on.

Carolyn Hax: Now wait a sec, my response to "OMG, get the kids out of the house" was to say, in so many words, "not so fast."

Point taken about the potential for hysteria to undermine the advice--however, the feelings ran pretty strong on that issue, and the point that the poster was being passive was, I thought, a necessary one. Here's a more temperate version, one I wish I had seen earlier, that makes the argument very well for why this isn't just about kids who can't play in the street:

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re: Duluth: I get the feeling from his postings that Duluth doesn't see that his wife is, in fact, sick. That her phobias aren't rational, that she's suffering from a mental illness. Because she is. Just the fact that he claims she's getting a little better concerns me -- this is not something that gets better on its own. She needs professional help.

And it's not just about whether the kids are able to go out and play like their friends do. That's helpful, but these kids have been living with an unhealthy mom for years (7 and 11, that is). They have a mom who can't give them what they need because she's not well. And what they need isn't simply the freedom to ride their bikes. They need a mom who can nurture them and connect with them.

This is like the mom who said that she won't get divorced from her non-reponsibility-taking moody husband because he's a good father, mostly. That's a little like saying that a boyfriend isn't an abuser because doesn't hit me all the time. If dad's got some significant underlying issues, he's got to get himself better for the kids.

Kids pick up much more from the adults around them (especially their parents) than they're often given credit for. They pick up on moods, on a lack of bonding, on how miserable their parents are -- and they are affected.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks for this.

Now, certainly, kids can survive an unhealthy mom, and they can grow to see that not every household was like theirs, and they can make adjustments in their own lives and so on. But if Duluth is in a position to address the problem now, then that could make for a better life sooner for the mom and the kids.

meanwhile, if any of the kids are on the same track as mom--i.e., unable to see their own poor health and/or unwilling to get help for it--then Duluth's intervention on his family's behalf can be the equivalent of getting treatment for an ailment that might never get caught otherwise.

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Re: Falling for Friends...: I used to do the same thing as this poster. For me, the problem was I would try to make my male friends into boyfriends, when if I really was honest with myself I actually had no real interest in them. It was safer to have a crush on them then to do with the "scariness" of guys I didn't know. I would go from one friend crush to the next. So while I agree being friends first is great - I saw this as looking for love based on security, not reality.

Carolyn Hax: Nice nutshell of what could be wrong with it, thanks.

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Madison, Wis., again: Overall, I'd say that he's attentive in most other aspects. He doesn't keep me from my friends-but I sometimes have to decide if I want to go to gatherings alone, or stay home with my fella... both are fine. Everyone is local, but I feel like I've grown distant from my old group. His friends are around a lot-I'd say I feel that I've incorporated myself into his life, just fine. And I enjoy it... but I'm resentful that it doesn't go both ways. The only result of his blah-ness is that my friends and family get the impression that he's not into-me, or excited-enough to be with me... or some other notion. I guess I just don't feel like he's made any effort to determine if he clicks with them... or not. He basically just looks bored and I feel like the girlfriend who keeps talking about how great her boyfriend is and everyone else is not convinced. I'm not sure if I cleared anything up there. I'll look over your initial response again. Thanks for taking my questions!

Carolyn Hax: Sure thing. And now that I've forgotten the details of your original post, I might be suggesting something you've already done, but the way you've described it here, I think, would be a great way to describe it to him. In a what's-the-deal kind of way.

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Confused in Florida again: So, I asked my husband to call his mom on his lunch break, which he just did. I guess that was the right thing to do, because she let it out to him. She is upset and angry because I am not using a lot of the stuff she got for the baby.

That is true, but this is why: she bought everything at garage sales and much of what she bought is either age-inappropriate (like a baseball and a yoyo which he can't use yet) or not safe (like an old crib that does not meet current safety standards).

I had asked her when I got pregnant not to buy anything because I wanted to pick out the big items like high chair, crib, car seat. Nothing against used stuff, but I wanted to examine it first. They live out of state, so I could not shop with her. I did use all the clothing she bought- I don't care if clothing is new or used. I also hung up pictures she bought and displayed knickknacks she purchased as well. It's not as if I threw everything away.

My sister actually gave me many of her children's things, like a high chair which cost her $300 5 years ago, which I am using instead of the high chair MIL bought for $1 from who knows where. I hope I am not being unreasonable about this. When they brought us the stuff, FIL said to please feel free to give any or all of it away again because everything she bought cost less than $100 total. I don't know what to do to make this right. My husband said she just seemed very upset and disappointed about it all.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds as if you need to talk to her yourself now, and smooth things over.

I would suggest not dwelling on the fact that the stuff she bought is of unknown provenance and therefore unsafe. It is a (wayyyy) common problem between new parents and their parents, since the two generations right now span the litigation divide; however, "yard sale" and "unsafe" do not have a 1-to-1 correlation, since, who knows, your MIL's find could have started its journey as a $500 dollar highchair three years ago, right? And, it is a real poke in the eye to someone to say, "You knew about babies once, but that's all out of date and useless to me." Some of the approach to babies is timeless, some of the changes are just medically trendy, and some of the new approaches are a vast improvement over the way things used to be. The problem is, you, personally, can't be 100 percent sure which is which, so shooting down an "elder" is sometimes necessary but just as often presumptuous.

Meanwhile, it is your child and as parents you do indeed have the last word over a grandparent. However, the grandparent feels emotionally very exposed here--wanting badly to be involved, often having a wee bit of ego tied up in being involved, but having full knowledge that involvement is at the pleasure (and worst-case, whim,) of the parents.

(more)

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Carolyn Hax: So what often happens is a grandparent (or other relative) will want to be involved, maybe even feel slightly conscious of intruding, and will show that enthusiasm in a way that feels safe to the person--through, for example, stuff. that means the stuff is more than stuff, it's an overture.

To the parents, of course, it has to be handled as stuff--do they need it? Do they want it? Do they like it? There's excitement and a little ego involved here, too, oftentimes, and recognition that the grandparental stuff is also an overture. But in order of priority, it's usually child's needs first, parents' needs and desires next, grandparental feelings after that.

As you've found out, the grandparent who sees the overture cast aside can have an outsize reaction of anger or hurt feelings or even scorn for the new parents, "They think they know everything," etc.

So what you need to do now is prevent this last reaction from getting out of control. Let your MIL know she is welcome in your lives with open arms, and that you've had lots of stuff from lots of people and maybe you weren't as mindful as you should have been about who gave what, but that the clothes she gave you were lifesavers, that much you know. And encourage her to talk to you directly when she;s upset, because your relationship with her is important to you.

If she's on the emotionally healthy side, she just wants to know that she's not the dispensable bystander to your growing family. Mothers of sons have a real fear they'll be kicked off their DIL's turf, and so acknowledging that could really help.

If she's not on the emotionally healthy side, well, then your work will be a little harder, and the outcome more in doubt. But reaching out still will give you a better chance than letting her imagination run wild.

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Hurt feelings MIL: Really? Her feelings are hurt because new parents didn't use some of the stuff she bought them so she doesn't call or come see her grandchild for SEVEN MONTHS? Really?

Carolyn Hax: keep reading.

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Blah-ness in Madison, Wis.: The LW seems concerned that boyfriend's blahness is making him look bad in front of her friends. Does this bother her because 1.) she doesn't think her boyfriend would want to be viewed this way or 2.) she thinks this makes HER look bad?

Carolyn Hax: Gahhhh thought it but left it out. Thanks for having my back.

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Washington, D.C.: I just thought I should chime in here as an adult child of a mother who has serious anxiety/depression issues. Growing up she was similar to the poster's wife in constantly telling us everything that could go wrong, worrying, etc. Fast forward to now, I have one sibling who is too crippled with anxiety/depression to leave the house and another who until recently could not travel and almost lost a job because she wouldn't go to the doctor for her first injection in over 20 years. We have all had to deal with the aftermath of this childhood and it isn't pretty. I echo Carolyn's words that this is a serious issue and please, please get your kids into therapy now.

Carolyn Hax: Duluth might be in the bar by now with the horse and the original elevator eye-roller, but I'll put it out there, thank you.

And, I'm sorry. That's a heavy thing to carry around.

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Living in fear: Unfortanately, the media only emphasizes all the tragic things that can happen in the world, especially to children. Just this morning, a morning show gave advice that kids should not wait for the school bus by themselves because it is a place that predators stalk for their prey. For the past year, I have been letting my nine year old walk a quarter block around the corner to wait for his morning school bus without going with him, and letting him walk home on his own when the school bus drops him off. The bus stop is full of kids, including parents for some of the little ones, and we live in a safe community. I had to second guess myself on my decison that he is old enough to handle this safely, and of course, will have another talk with him on safety, but now I wonder if I am doing the right thing.

Carolyn Hax: Another day, another plug for "The Gift of Fear." By the end of it, Gavin de Becker is almost ranting about the insanity of TV news in particular, how it exploits and cultivates fear of things that have an infinitesimal likelihood of happening to someone.

Please treat your doubts to an informative antidote. And, it's a cracking good read, too.

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Philadelphia: I love jewelry more than 99.9% of the people on earth and would not consider keeping a ring from a failed engagement. However, many people do and I think the boyfriend has a point. Why have $xK stay with someone you're no longer spending your life with?

Carolyn Hax: Calluses

On my forehead

Make me happy ...

The reason the boyfriend doesn't have a point is that if he thinks his GF has it in her to keep an engagement ring post-breakup, just on the technicality of its being a "gift," then he thinks her character is crap. So why on earth would he even date her? (A: because he'd keep a ring on a technicality himself, meaning his character is crap?)

People asked me what I meant by the would-s/he-make-a-good-ex-spouse test, and we're now talking about exactly what I mean: Most people, if they're honest with themselves, know early on whether their SO's would be gracious in response to getting dumped, or would make them pay dearly. And I believe that if you answer (b) Make me pay dearly, then you should NOT marry this person under any circumstances, or, egad, have children with him/her. There's no guarantee any relationship will work out, but why guarantee yourself/your kids misery if it doesn't?

I also happen to think it's more likely to last if you both know you;d be gracious in dealing with a split, since then, if nothing else, you'd both be a little nicer to each other in general.

Same as the engagement ring. Trusting/trustworthy people give freely, without strings, and arent' takers.

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Carolyn Hax: Holy 3:21. I got off on a rant myself.

BYE, thank you, type to you next Friday or when my forehead heals, whichever comes later.

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Boulder, Colo.: Carolyn, As part of my job, I research, rate and review baby products. So we questions on this issue all the time from our readers. There are real safety issues involved with products that may have been recalled or have lead issues, etc. So these parents are doing the right thing. The key is how you present it to the MIL. You could tell her you found that the crib was recalled. Or a strap was missing from the high chair making it unsafe. And the company can't replace it. Of course you want to express your gratitude at their thoughtfulness. And emphasize the great clothes they sent.

Carolyn Hax: Genius, thank you.

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NYC, N.Y.: re: Duluth

There's a harshness to the responses posted from the peanut gallery which makes me wonder why you chose those particular responses to post. This is someone who is coming to you for advice about his dawning awareness that the love of his life is not a fit parent. This has got to be a difficult place for the non-primary caregiver to be. You gave him, among other things, the off-topic accusation that he didn't come to his worries sooner because his partner's worry made him feel manly.

Though I think you have good points today for him, I also think you threw him to the wolves a bit, and I don't blame him for his defensiveness. Please remember: people are coming to you for help because they don't know who else to ask.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Sometimes I don't see this forest while I'm up to my ears in trees.

The frenzy was off his calling his wife's fears "cute," which warranted mention but not a mob with torches and pitchforks.

To answer your question, I choose responses based on what appears to be a group tone--the reasoning being, if this is what a lot of people are saying, then it represents something I missed/underplayed. It's not intended to whoop people up, but instead to round out my answers.

I will keep your concerns in mind as I choose, thanks again.

Bye for real.

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Carolyn Hax: I lied! One more thing coming ...

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Carolyn Hax: This from The Post:

"And for the Hax-philes who are connected to a nonprofit or charity in the D.C. area in the field of education, I'd like to invite you to join Carolyn at the kickoff of The Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund. You can read more about this organization at www.washingtonpost.com.

"The kickoff reception will be held Tuesday October 27 from 6-8 pm at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC. E-mail wpcharities@washpost.com by noon on Monday October 26 if you'd like to attend."

Me again: Sorry for the late-breaking mention, and hope to see some of you there.

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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.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

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

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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