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Carolyn Hax Live: Troublesome mother-in-law; Grinch stealing Christmas?; Christmas for Jews; Should I be a buttinsky?; Holiday horror and more

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Carolyn Hax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 23, 2010; 12:00 PM

Carolyn was online Thursday, December 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.

E-mail Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com.

Good news! Carolyn's archives have been updated. Check out the sidebar on Carolyn's archive page to find even more transcripts from past Hax chats.

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Carolyn Hax: Hi everybody, happy Thursday again. There's a lot of holiday angst out there, so I'll start with something that will help at least one person feel better.

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Arlington, VA: Happy Holidays! Do you or any readers out there know of anywhere in Northern VA that needs volunteer help this Christmas? I'm spending the holiday weekend here away from family/friends for the first time and thought I could at least make the best of it and help out someone who could use a hand. Thanks for any ideas!

Carolyn Hax: Anyone?

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Grinch-ville: Hi Hax, We usually exchange gifts on the Sunday before Christmas. But after we moved this month (with me doing most of the work) my husband said we'd skip exchanging presents. Then last week he said he wanted to do presents. I got him a few well thought out little things. When the time came to exchange he gave me.... nothing. Seems he hadn't gotten a chance to get me anything. His solution is that we can go to the mall tonight (when it will be chaos) and he'll buy me whatever I want. This plan still leaves me feeling hurt. Sure, I'll get a gift, but it's not like he'll have put any thought into it. Am I being a brat?

Carolyn Hax: If you make it just about gifts, then, yes, you're being a brat. But your parenthetical and your use of "well thought out" in describing your gifts say you're very [ticked] off about more than a Christmas trinket that could have been purchased on Tuesday.

It's apparent that you feel as if you're doing the heavy lifting in the marriage, and you're angry about it. I'd also guess that you haven't actually come out and said this, and instead you're battling (or choosing not to battle, and storing up the anger over) each little incident where you feel he hasn't made his share of the effort.

If that's true, then please take several deep breaths, sit down with your husband today and tell him how you are feeling. The longer you postpone this, the more your anger is going to eat away at your love for him, till there's eventually nothing left.

If I'm wrong and it's a recent development that he's not really coming through, after a solid history of being steady and generous with you, then you either make it a what's up? conversation, or you skip it altogether and give him a break as a thank-you for all the years of being great to you. And you go gift-shopping tonight with a smile and a sense of adventure. Doesn't have to be the mall, you know.

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RE: volunteer help: Not sure about Northern Virginia specifically, but one year in Colorado I delivered meals for Meals on Wheels on December 25th. The agency that coordinated the meal delivery had a real shortage of volunteers on Christmas (lots of people wanted to be home with families and so couldn't make their regular commitment). It was very fulfilling, as many of the folks we delivered meals to were pretty isolated and very happy to have someone to chat with--even just for a few minutes--on Christmas.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds like a great idea, thank you.

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washingtonpost.com: Carolyn Hax advice generator

Carolyn Hax: Oh, I meant to put this at the top--a little something from the Live Online crew.

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Volunteering: Food and Friends can use your help getting meals to local people who are dealing with life-challenging illnesses. I did this on Christmas Day a few years ago and it was really wonderful to share some love with some people who aren't necessarily having the best of holidays. (And they have many, many fewer volunteers on Christmas than on Turkey Day). Specific holiday volunteer info here.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Keep em coming.

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Only child syndrome?: Dear Carolyn, At the risk of making a blanket statement, do you think folks who grow up without siblings have difficulty seeing things from another perspective? My MIL is an only child. She has difficulty accommodating our priorities and schedules. We have three kids (a 3-year-old, and 6 month twins) who need to eat and nap at certain times. Otherwise, they get cranky. We are celebrating Christmas at my MIL's house, and she wants things her way or no way. That means dinner at 7 and present opening at 8. Well, considering my kids are in bed by 8, I don't get how this will work. She wants us to keep all the kids awake for picture purposes while everyone opens presents. We want our son to open presents in the morning, but my MIL says that's not her tradition. Overall, she tends to get her way as my husband says it's easier than trying to reason with her. He also uses the excuse that she was an only child so she is used to getting things her way. Well, she's an adult now. Shouldn't she act like one? Or am I being the unreasonable one, in essence, trying to get everyone to adhere to what I would like? Happy holidays and thanks for doing your chat this week and every week!

Carolyn Hax: You're welcome, and thanks for the kind words.

I don't think it's fair, though, to make a blanket statement about only children. Your husband is wrong to use that as an excuse for his mom, and so please don't adopt it. You're getting warmer when you say she's an adult and should act like one. Even if you can demonstrate a statistical difference between, say, men and women or the old and the young or onlies and sibs, that doesn't mean you can assume the difference in any individual. Fairness demands that each of us must be judged on our own merits, not the merits of a group.

That's for long-term thinking. For the short-term, you need to decide whether you're going to adopt your husband's it's-easier-this-way approach to his mom--and if you decide against, you need to have a direct conversation with your husband, both to state your opinion and to ask his cooperation. E.g.: "You've chosen not to try to reason with your mom, and I get it. But now we have small kids, and I can argue that it's no longer easier to let her have her way--not when it means cranky kids and consequently a cranky me. I want to draw the line this year, and I'd like you to back me up. I'm going to offer her a few other choices as a show of good faith."

For example, you can choose not to dig in on the Christmas morning gift-opening and switch it to Christmas eve at 6--then dinner at 7, kids in bed at 8. The gifts can be just for the kids at that hour, even, so your MIL can get pictures. The more flexible you are in the alternatives, the more high ground you claim in refusing to keep your kids up late.

You don't strictly -need- to claim any more than you already have; bedtime is bedtime and your MIL is being unreasonable. But, in dealing with unreasonable people, you're going to have to refuse to budge at some point, and that always goes over better when you surround it with good PR moves.

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RE: Heavy Lifting: Ok, so what do you do if you've told your spouse several times that you feel like you do all the heavy lifting and still nothing changes? Then what?

Carolyn Hax: You figure out how much you're willing to do, and you do only that. It may seem like bean-counting, but it's actually an important step in figuring out what exactly is wrong between you. For example, it's possible for half of a couple to be very high-functioning and to have unrealistic expectations of what the other half needs to contribute. It could also be, though, that one half is choosing not to do even the bare minimum and is perfectly fine with watching his/her mate hoist every burden to the point of utter exhaustion. If you make an effort to define the true minimum to-do list--food, bills, just enough laundry to avoid offending passers-by, just enough maintenance to keep the cars running, etc.--that will help you see whether your contribution reflects your spouse's, or whether you're really just the only one who cares to try.

If it's the latter, then I strongly suggest professional intervention, be it through marriage counseling or a marriage seminar/class. There comes a point where just saying it fails, where doing everything in angry silence fails, where doing your own cooking, laundry and dishes fails--and that point is when the marriage fails. Best to bring in the disaster team before (as I said above) your anger swallows up all the love.

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Only child MIL, young kids and bedtime: As the mother and wife to two only children, I say for this one year, agree to follow the MIL's (unreasonable, unrealistic selfish) dictates. Three screaming, tired kids will put her off doing it that way next year. It may even get you out of having to spend the holiday with her next year.

Carolyn Hax: That actually occurred to me, but I fear she 1. won't learn and 2. will use the nightmare evening as ammo against her son and DIL.

Depends on how bad the MIL is, which is something only the couple can determine. So, I'm posting your suggestion, with the asterisk. Thanks.

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Crazy MIL: So that woman clearly has a crazy MIL. I'm not sure I'm following how 6 month old twins are going to open gifts anyway. But the one thing I think is that you often give such a pass to moms and how everything has to be so precise when it comes to their child rearing. I mean an 8pm bedtime is great and I know schedules are necessary for kids but something about sticking to a strict bedtime on Christmas Eve seems off to me. My parents let all hell break loose over the holidays and I swear we turned out just fine. Actually some of the best memories I have are of staying up late and then tearing through the house at 4am to get to the presents.

Carolyn Hax: As you said--not as 6 months. I'm all for breaking routines as a source of warm childhood memories, but these kids are so young it's a recipe for screaming and even the 3-year-old is probably before the memory threshold. And, too, with more than one kid at a super-young (i.e., pre-reason) age, parents are just trying to get through the days. I give a pass to these parents because the people who pressure them to "lighten up" or whatever aren't the ones who have to deal with the mess. The parents do.

And not just on the day, but usually the day after, too. Why stress them further for a pointlessly disrupted routine? If there were a great point to it, then my answer would be different, but this sounds like just one woman who wants things her way, and the daily workload that a toddler plus twin babies bring is not even a consideration (except come picture time).

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The grinch stole my christmas.: My Mother in law went into septic shock last night and is on life support.

I just dropped almost a grand to get my wife to her bedside. Budget buster.

I am solo with my kids for Christmas. They know their grandmother is not doing well, but not how bad.

I have to wrap presents for everybody, and somehow make the next few days "happy", including the big Christmas Day reveal, the late night putting out of gifts (I still have things that need assembly ya know) and cookies and milk for Santa for my kids.

Where is my cape?

How am I supposed to make all this happen? I am a damn good dad, but really...

Carolyn Hax: You will pull it off, and cut a few corners, and it'll be okay. It doesn't have to be perfect. Since their mom isn't there your kids know that things aren't going to be just the way they always are--that's a break for your efforts right there, even if it's also the source of the problem.

Here are a few thoughts, in no particular order:

Skip the wrapping and use gift bags (don't be afraid to put out an e-mail to friends to see if they have any extras lying around).

Santa will eat box cookies, and if your kids think that's wrong, bake with them. It'll be a way to fill time in a holiday kind of way that doesn't force you to put on a show. Just put on music and measure, mix, repeat.

Skip the assembly and wrap the gifts as-is, and/or call in a friend who can come help you after the kids are asleep. Desperate times.

Love the fact that this season produces an entire catalogue of movies and TV specials that can provide holiday cheer while you spend an hour or so trying to get yourself together.

Whatever else you have to do, see if it's something the kids can "help" you do. It's time with them, which they'll love, and progress on your list at the same time.

Did I say explicitly to keep that list short? Keep it short. Now's not the time to get ambitious about Christmas.

Finally, don't forget to call your wife to see how she's doing, and to assure her all is well at home. It will help her, and give you perspective at home.

Hang in there, and good luck.

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Anonymous: "As the mother and wife to two only children"

Huh, how is this possible? Doesn't the only child imply there is just one? It's like my Dad's old bad joke - he used to say his brother was an only child.

washingtonpost.com: Her child is an only child, as well as her husband. I had to reread it a few times before I got it too! -- Jodi

Carolyn Hax: What Jodi said.

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Anonymous: "Otherwise, they get cranky."

Is this really the end of the world? Life can't always revolve around not upsetting children - they always get upset anyway about something. So what if one day they eat at a different time or stay up an hour later? They're kids, not a bunch of little Rain Men who are going to freak out if their perfectly ordered lives have some variety.

Carolyn Hax: See next post:

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to the "lighten up" person: When my twins were 6 months old, a major bedtime delay would take 4 or 5 days to recover from (I'm not kidding). Also, none of my kids slept through the night at that age, so if things were screwed up at betime, NOBODY slept all night. If you have 6-month twins and a toddler, you are probably an exhausted wrech. Adding to that is just cruel.

Now, when the twins are 4 or 5, that's a different story. But not for babies and toddlers.

Carolyn Hax: Thank you.

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MIL: Are parents really enforcing a bedtime on Christmas Eve these days?

Carolyn Hax: Six months old! I think some are forgetting the details of the question that was asked, extrapolating portions of it to fit their experiences, and drawing conclusions from there. We're talking multiple, very young children; the exhausted parents' needs are paramount.

Moving on now ...

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Alabama: Hi, Carolyn. I need your advice on whether to become a buttinsky. My 18 year old babysitter has a close friend who had a baby at the end of their junior year of high school. Her baby is close in age to mine, so I took an early interest in this young woman. Last week I saw my babysitter and inquired after her friend. She began telling me a story, which then led to the admission that her friend is having lots of sex and not using protection. Her parents, apparently, forbid it (she was on the Pill for a few months until her mother found them and ordered her off) and her father diligently checks any insurance forms that arrive at their house (where she still lives). I used to work for Planned Parenthood, and informed my babysitter that her friend could go, as a student, and get an IUD inserted for a discounted price, and she would not have to use her insurance. My babysitter said she'd pass on the information. I'm sure she will, but these are 18 year old girls, and one is fairly irresponsible at that. I thought about calling PP myself and getting some actual price quotes and then passing them on to my babysitter to give to her friend, as well as some other birth control advice. My gut tells me to stay out of it and that I've done enough, but I just can't imagine this girl getting herself into the same situation all over again simply because her parents are stuck in the mentality that only nice girls get pregnant because only easy girls prepare for safe sex.

Carolyn Hax: The level of dysfunction in that girl's life (her family's plus, now, her own) is far beyond your ability to help. That said, there's no harm in writing down the address and phone number of the local PP so your babysitter can just hand it to her friend. That way you'd be lowering/removing at least one hurdle between the friend and a clue--and even though it's a minor one, it's still one less hurdle. Sigh.

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Carolyn Hax: Hey there. I'm still here, but quit in the middle of a question, so pretend this is on-hold music (I'm listening to the still astonishing Charlie Brown Christmas CD, if you'd like to imagine that).

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Grinch stole Xmas: Possible help - if the dropping a grand was due to buying a plane ticket, often airlines will agree to adjust the price and refund a portion in the case of someone flying out for just such an emergency. They're known as Bereavement Fares - You have to call and talk to Customer Service, but there is usually an established procedure where you submit whatever proof is needed, and it's fairly automatic from there. They're usually reasonable about not having been able to make arrangements in advance.

Best of luck to all of you.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks. Maybe save for after the holiday? Since even on an average day, calls to customer service hike the degree of difficulty significantly.

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NoVa : Carolyn, I need an objective opinion. My feelings have been hurt yet again when discussing Christmas morning plans. This happens every year. My parents host the family and gkids at their house. My sil insists on letting her kids (9ys and 10ys) open their christmas presents as soon as they wake up. I have asked that this year they only open stockings (which is a shopping bag full of small gifts) and wait to open other gifts until I arrive. I am the only one living local where they along with my sis and her family sleep at my folks house. I said I could be there at 8:00ish and she thinks I am being unreasonable to expect her kids to wait that long. They are from the west coast so 8:00 is like 5:00. She said that Christmas is about the kids and they shouldn't have to wait. I responded that Christmas is about family being together and they should wait for me. Well the discussion got heated and I lost it telling her to do what she wanted because she was going to anyway. I am on the verge of boycotting Christmas because I feel like it isn't important for me to be there anyway but that is very childish of me. Any suggestions on how to get thru the day without be a 'B'?

Carolyn Hax: This sounds like a lot of old stuff between you and your sister, so unless that gets resolved, nothing is going to work. Just as 9- and 10-year-olds can certainly wait till 8 a.m. to open gifts (duh), an adult who cares a lot about the gift-opening can get her butt out of bed at whatever hour that demands (duh). Or just sleep over, on the couch if necessary.

Since I can't make your sister budge, I can only advise you: Figure out what you want, and do -your- part to make it happen. It would be nice if everyone held hands and sang "Loo loo loo, loo loo loo loo loo" (to the tune of Hark the Herald Angels Sing), but it's not happening here, so figure out your own Plan B.

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Don't let the grinch steal Christmas: My wife used to travel extensively for work--even a couple of months at a time. I never did a solo Christmas, but I did lots of other holidays solo. Don't get bummed out by this and don't get so overwhelmed that you lose your cool. Restaurants save a lot of cooking and cleanup duties. A note from Santa that the Elves didn't get to assemble something and that the kids need to help Dad can work wonders too. There is also no rule that says every present has to be wrapped. This is an opportunity for great one on one time with the kids--take advantage of it.

Carolyn Hax: Well said, thanks. And this is actually a case where the chucking-the-routine-makes-for-great-childhood-memories advice actually does apply.

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RE: Alabama: Why not tell the babysitter to have her friend contact you if she would like to know more about getting birth control without her parents knowing. When I was in H.S. our assistant principal let it be known to the students that they could come to him and talk about their problems. Before long the girls would go to him and tell him they wanted brith control and he would excuse them from school to go to PP down the street. He would probably get in trouble for that now a days but at 18 this girl can come and talk to you and there is nothing the parents can really do about it.

Carolyn Hax: Another good thought, thanks.

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How much support for an ex?: Hi Carolyn, My ex-husband and I split about 7 years ago when he realized he was gay. As difficult as the situation was, I made every effort to accept things with grace and we have stayed close. I'm remarried now with a toddler and an infant, and he is an important part of all of our lives (I have a wonderful husband).

Here's the thing. My ex always tended towards depression, and for years I was, in his words, "the one good thing in my life." That was a lot of pressure even when we're married. Now, his life is not in a good place - bad job, chronic illness, no relationship - and he is not handling it well. He posts the most depressing status updates on FB, he texts me with thinly veiled hints to invite him over, he tells me I'm his best/only friend.

My heart breaks for him, but I'm frustrated too - he's been in a horrible job for years and hasn't updated his resume. He doesn't eat well, doesn't exercise, and his dating life is a mess (through his own doing). When we were married, I took it upon myself to be his one-woman cheerleading squad, but I just don't have it in me anymore.

That said, he is really a wonderful person and I constantly feel guilty that I don't have more to give - or more accurately, I'm not sure I want to.

Any words of wisdom?

Carolyn Hax: "I can be your friend, but I can't be your therapist. Please take these things to a professional; I will help you find one."

This needs to be your mantra when he leans on you harder than you believe is appropriate. You're absolutely right in saying, "That was a lot of pressure even when we're married." Go a step further and see that it's too much pressure, and that your steadfast support of him crosses over into enabling. It's one thing to be "there for" someone; it's another to be the reason someone can postpone taking action to get well.

If you have trouble differentiating the former from the latter, and appointment or two with a therapist could be useful to you, too. Doesn't have to be a huge commitment--just see it as a few training sessions for spotting and avoiding co-dependency.

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RE: Grinch stolen Christmas: The bereavement air fare mentioned wouldn't qualify unless the mother-in-law had died. Airlines used to also offer 'compassionate fares' for such emergencies, but both bereavement and compassionate fares are much less common than in the past. Airlines have cut waaay back on such things to make ends meet. Always worth asking about, but don't count on it.

Carolyn Hax: I was wondering about that. It's worth asking, regardless of "policy," because who knows who is authorized to make exceptions--but only if that isn't another stressful thing on the to-do list.

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RE: NoVA: Carolyn, The lady said it was her sister in law not her sister that will not wait for her to get there to open gifts. What is the matter with Grandma saying they will open gifts at a certain hour. I think it is unfair for them not to wait for all the family to assemble. She said they would be there at 8:00 am. SIL sounds like a control freak. We had to wait upstairs for my parents to get up and mom would start the coffee and turn on the tree lights. Then we would all troop down to see what Santa brought.

Carolyn Hax: ops, you're right, thanks. But sister, SIL, the advice is the same. We could decide it's the work of the Devil not to hold kids back from gifts, and it's still completely irrelevant. The facts the poster has to deal with are these: She wants to be there for the gift-opening, she said she'd come at 8, and the SIL won't wait till 8.

So, either the poster arrives earlier, sleeps over, or misses the gifts. No sense complicating the picture with what people "should" do, or what's fair, or who's word is final. The bad feelings are in effect, and the choices are clear. Assigning blame helps no one, nor does re-staging the same argument annually.

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RE: It's one thing to be "there for" someone; it's another to be the reason someone can postpone taking action to get well. : Hi, different poster with similar issue. How do you react to the inevitable statement "if you cared about me you'd want to listen rather than tell me take it to a therapist. Listening is what friends are for." I've heard a few variations of this statement from someone and I feel like I know what the answer is to why I can't be her therapist, but I can't get it into words.

Carolyn Hax: "Yes, listening is what friends are for, but I can't help you just by listening--you need ideas from someone who is able to help you, and I'm not trained to give you that help. A good therapist is."

If you continue to get pressure, hold your ground, and say you're suggesting this -because- you care.

Dealing with manipulative people is very difficult (and that's what this friend is, manipulative), and it helps if you go into your interactions with her knowing where you want to draw lines. That way, even if you don't have the words, you do have the decisions made on what you will and won't agree to do. Stick to those.

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Re Alabama: What about disease? If the girl is unprotected there are far worse things than getting pregnant (again)! Condoms don't require a doctor's note or health insurance and provide a layer (pun intended haha) of additional safety.

Carolyn Hax: Yes, but they involve a decision in the heat of the moment, and so people who aren't committed to using them aren't good candidates for using them as a primary form of birth control.

This is 99.9999999 percent up to the girl, and there's very little anyone can do, especially someone who is not close to her.

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he is really a wonderful person and I constantly feel guilty that I don't have more to give: How does this statement square with his "messing up his life" and trying to manipulate his one-time cheerleading squad into letting him lean on her? Wonderful people don't do that.

Carolyn Hax: ding ding ding. Co-dependency isn't a word I throw around, but I think it fits here.

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When the bomb drops: We all have days when our best laid plans go kaboom. I always think of this as an excuse to step outside your life for a day. Instead of trying to retofit Christmas, go to the kids and say "Christmas as usual isn't happening this year. What would you like to do?" They might remember this year as the best of all.

Carolyn Hax: Sounds good to me, thanks. Another good idea coming:

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Carolyn Hax: Argh, now I can't find it. Hang on.

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wrapping and unwrapping: for the person whose SIL's kids open their presents super-early Xmas morning: she seems pretty invested in that. Why does she care? Unless of course the kids are opening HER presents without her being there. In that case, she brings those presents with her when she comes later that morning, and tucks them under the tree then.

for the dad trying to wrap: we used to just use any old shopping bags and crudely stick one of those adhesive bows on top. it became a sort of fun family tradition -- as soon as one present was "unwrapped", the bow would be snatched away and stuck on the next gift, and so on. we would also do this, when feeling more ambitious, with the discarded wrapping paper from earlier unwrapped gifts... the more obvious, the better!

Carolyn Hax: If they're old enough to play along, sounds like fun.

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Carolyn Hax: Many posts on compassionate fares, including some from people who have gotten them recently to be with living relatives. Just FYI. The conclusion I'm drawing is that it's worth asking about but not counting on. Thanks everyone.

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Spouse needs a therapist?: When is it OK to tell your spouse that he or she needs to see a therapist because your listening to him or her doesn't help? My spouse has significant issues with his/her ex and I feel frustrated because I feel like he/she would benefit from talking to a therapist about dealing with his/her feelings related to these interactions. It's hard, because I feel like my job as a spouse is to listen and try to help, but I also feel frustrated that no progress is being made - he/she still has these awful frustrations and anger with regard to ex, and nothing I say or do can stop this. I can't control ex's behavior nor can I help him/her figure out how to respond in a way that is healthy emotionally.

Thanks so much

Carolyn Hax: It's pretty much the same as with a friend. In this case, you have good language for the problem already: "It's hard, because I feel like my job as a spouse is to listen and try to help, but I also feel frustrated that no progress is being made." Then you say that you think it's time for professional help.

And, not for nuffin, but if your spouse resists such a clear and honest and compassionate entreaty, then you can count that as evidence that the ex's behavior isn't as much of the problem as your spouse believes.

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Anonymous: "Wonderful people don't do that."

Wonderful people don't get sad, desperate and needy - ever? It must be nice to be perfect with perfect friends.

Carolyn Hax: Agh. This isn't just "sad, desperate and needy," this is making a choice to place his entire burden on one person--and not for one bad spell, but for many years running--instead of caring enough about his now-ex to get some real help. There is a point where people owe it to their friends to help themselves, and it has nothing whatsoever with being "perfect."

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"If you cared about me you'd want to listen": If you think it will help at all, the answer is: "The kind of help you need is bigger than I feel comfortable dealing with. I think a therapist will be able to help you BETTER than I can. That's why I keep suggesting it."

After that, if she doesn't get it - then stop trying to explain it. That's you beating your head against the wall and accepting responsibility for her reaction.

Stop trying to justify it to her. She's somebody who has decided what "caring" means, and that's her definition. You can't meet it, that's fine. So maybe you're a friend by your definition, and not by hers. If that's not good enough for her, then it's not, and it doesn't mean that you weren't good enough, just that the 2 of you aren't a good fit as friends. Even if that's because she's in denial about how much help she needs. You can't solve that either.

Carolyn Hax: A gift. Thank you.

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Christmastime for the Jews: Hi, Carolyn. My husband and I are Jewish, and are raising our 2-year-old daughter Jewish. His ex-wife is Christian. (Their marriage failed for reasons other than the blended faith, and my stepson was a baby when it happened.)

Anyhow, normally, his ex gets Christmas with their 9-year-old son (for obvious reasons), but we have him this year (the ex is doing a "girls' week" in Hawaii. Fine, whatever).

We're having some trouble reconciling traditions here. We don't want to start with the Christmas tree, Santa, all that--especially because then our daughter will have that expectation. (also the big deal that we're not Christian, and we don't celebrate Christmas. We did offer to take him to church, as a goodwill gesture, but the ex says don't worry about it.) We also already did presents for Hanukkah. The ex will be doing Christmas stuff for New Year's with their son, so he's not going to not have Christmas at all. We'd planned Netflix and Chinese Food like Jews everywhere.

We don't want a sulky boy all weekend, though. Is there anything we can do? We've asked him what would make his time here fun, and we got the great 'tween "uh, I don't know." Thanks.

Carolyn Hax: I'm not Jewish, and I would try to pull together a Hanukkah for a Jewish child who was just staying with us--much less a stepchild. I mean, cheez--wouldn't you rally for, say, an exchange student who was a little homesick, and try some of his/her traditional foods? It sounds as if your hesitation is based in a combination of resentment at the annual Christmas saturation show (a legit gripe) and a palpable dislike of the ex--but neither warrants punting on celebrating for and with your stepson.

And the argument that your 2-year-old would develop expectations based on a tree and Santa--well, she's 2, there's no risk there. If she asks about a tree next year, you say, "That's the holiday [Brother] celebrates, but we don't." Done. And a tween stepson means the Santa sleigh sailed years ago.

Time for you or, better, your husband (assuming he has the better relationship with him) to run an errand or do a chore around the house with the boy, get him talking a bit, and ask him what his three favorite Christmas traditions are. And, if possible, also pose the same question to the ex. Pulling together a favorite dish or cookie, a small tree and the movie/outing/activity he names might still make for an awkward "uh I don't know" kind of Christmas, but it will show him that you're willing, as a family, to go out of your way for him.

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Holiday Horrors: I was laid off this week. 4 calendar days notice (Saturday to Tuesday). No severance pay - not even a negotiation. No prospects. When I went into turn in my keys, the people in the office were unspeakably rude to me: one lady -actually- turned her back on me. I'm not traveling to the East Coast to see my immediate family because I'm broke and my dad is moving in with his mid-life crisis girlfriend that he met in August, and I just could not handle being there.

I am spending Christmas day with my aunt and uncle with whom I haven't been very close. When I called to tell my uncle about the layoff as a "heads-up," he turned out to be the most warm, caring, sympathetic member of the family. He was encouraging, complimented my handling of the situation, and is looking forward to making Christmas special for me. I almost couldn't get him off the phone - this reserved, tough retired firefighter just could not stop saying good, sweet, supportive things.

Ho ho ho.

Carolyn Hax: Aw. You caught me off guard with that one, thank you.

I hope this is the beginning of a quick turnaround for you.

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re: The Grinch Stole My Christmas: Maybe it's just me, but he sounds like a whiner. Single mothers have been doing all of that and more for ages. Can't a man just suck it up and be a solo parent for a few days/weeks?

Carolyn Hax: Yikes. Why the man hate?

Single -parents- do have to suck it up and do all that and more and have been doing so for ages (as have military ones with deployed spouses, among others). But that doesn't suck all the sympathy out of the universe for someone who just got an emotional, financial and logistical blow and who has to paste on some jolly with two days to pull together Christmas, does it?

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Sending your spouse to a therapist: I had to do this and here's what I said. "You know, we've talked this to death, and I've given you every suggestion I can think of to help... and it hasn't helped. It's time for you to go see someone who is qualified and paid to help you, because I've done all I alone can do."

It wasn't that hard, and it was so helpful. You should be aware that the change will be an adjustment for you, too, because your spouse won't be coming to you any more as their only/primary outlet. You may feel like things have gone silent. However, it's okay to ask "how are things going, etc... did you talk about anything you want to share, etc..." just be prepared for the fack that he/she might not want to or have anything to share. Having an outside counsellor also means that when things come up that you can't solve, you can also say "hey, why don't you talk to XXX about that at your next appointment."

Finally, if your spouse doesn't like the first therapist they meet, have them try another.

Good luck. I promise, this is going to be a great development in your marriage.

Carolyn Hax: Or an informative one. Thanks for spelling it out.

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Christmastime for Jews: As the child of a mixed religion marriage, who grew up not particularly anything...

The person who got the most upset the year I didn't have Xmas dinner the way I'd started doing as an adult was my literally little (5' 3") old Jewish grandmother.

Cheez, if there's anything I can think of to say "we don't accept you as family" it's refusing to help celebrate another family member's holiday because it's not what YOU do.

He's a kid/tween which might mean as an adult that you have to put more effort into helping him celebrate it than just showing up. It's a mitzvah.

Carolyn Hax: Thanks.

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the dad solo for Christmas: I'd like to thank the person who left red wine in the break room.

Seriously....from the bottom of my coffee mug.

Carolyn Hax: Nothing says "Xmas off the rails" than red wine in the coffee mug.

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Retiredville, VA: Concerning the MIL with a timetable. The original letter talked about the schedule for Christmas, but most of the comments I've read so far switched to Christmas EVE (Carolyn's reply actually made that switch). There is a huge difference IMHO. I think doing the kids on Christmas Eve would be a reasonable idea, but I don't believe the plan for Christmas Eve was dinner at 7, gifts at 8. It is not reasonable to expect a small child (one this year, three in years to come) to wait until 8PM on Christmas night to open presents.

Carolyn Hax: Ugh, right again--I did introduce the "eve," thanks. I've actually never run across someone who celebrates Christmas night, so I didn't even see the possibility.

For what it's worth, I think a 3-year-old can wait, as long as the gifts aren't under the tree all day and no one's whooping up the anticipation. But that's asking a lot of discipline of the adults in the house, and that's not likely to happen if there are differing opinions on ways to celebrate and differing levels of stubbornness.

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Baltimore, MD: Carolyn, some old friends who live several hours away and I have mutually extended open invitations to come visit each other. I've visited them on several occasions and, from what I could tell, everyone enjoyed my company. However, not one of them has ever once visited me. On one occasion, several of them visited the city in which I live for a few hours, but "forgot" that I lived there and never called. Another friend would to routinely drive past the city multiple times a month and promised to call me one day to have lunch, but that never happened. I don't have any local friends, so visiting my old friends is the only chance I have to socialize. At what point should I write them off, though? Some of them said they would have free time during the holidays to visit, but I have not heard anything yet. Thank you.

Carolyn Hax: Have you tried shifting from open invitations to explicit invitations? In my experience, open invitations are invitations for nothing to actually happen.

I also think--the bigger issue--it's time to make more of an effort to make local friends. Your hours-away friends could be moving on in your absence, without any reflection on your value to them as a friend. Maintaining long-distance friendships is tough.

It's clear that you're very invested in maintaining these friendships, given your lack of local friends, but if they have lots of local friends, they're not going to be as motivated. so instead of working on the angle of their motivation, work on the angle you can control--i.e., putting down roots where you are. It's not easy but the effort almost always pays off.

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Unwelcome Presents, MD: Hi Carolyn,

I know that you answered a question similar to this a week or so ago, but my circumstances are a little different. My in- laws are not in the best financial situation, but they insist on buying us extravagant presents, even after we've clearly explained that we don't want them. We thought that we had convinced them that an overpriced heater would be the last big present, but they gave us a very large money order for Xmas. It was delivered two weeks ago, and they called to make sure that we opened it. My husband and I don't know what to do. These gifts are neither welcome nor needed, and they honestly cause us a lot of discomfort (and have been the source of several arguments). Is it worth trying to explain this to my in-laws yet one more time, or is it time to just stop? I'm tempted to open a retirement bank account for them and start depositing the cash there, but I'm afraid that they'll just be angry about that, too.

Carolyn Hax: Open the account in your name and put the cash in, for when they're broke beyond the point where they can get angry about or say no to help. If they never reach that point then, yay, you have a nice boost to your own retirement/emergency find. If they do go broke, you'll be so glad you didn't spend their money--it can help keep you from getting caught in any undertow.

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Washington, DC: Hi, Carolyn,

I would like your opinion about something. My sister-in-law treated me pretty badly about something that was truly none of her business (it was a choice between me and my husband about one of our children). She made rude comments to a mutual friend who then shared those comments with me. Now, after two years have gone by with minimal contact, she wants to patch things up, probably at my brother's urging. My husband, my mother, my best friend all think it's best if I take her up on the offer. But I am stuck on why it's always people who behave badly who come out ahead. I really doubt that she will apologize or even acknowledge what she did and said. I have to ask, why do I have to be the bigger person?

Carolyn Hax: Wait a minute--you're assuming that she won't apologize or acknowledge her mistake, and assuming the worst about someone isn't bigger-person territory. The bigger person here would hear her out, and then decide what to do based on what she has to say.

And, it's not about who -has- to be the bigger person. Ideally, both of you will -want- to be the bigger person, regardless of what the other does.

Also, I don't know what the rude comment was, but your mutual friend was a key player in this mess, and should have addressed your SIL's comments on the spot and in confidence; there's no way you should have been told. Once you were brought into this, your SIL lost any chance she might have had to realize, on her own and in her own time, that she was wrong to shoot off her mouth.

Finally, I don't see how your SIL "come[s] out ahead." Two years of tension has to have been miserable for this whole family, and it's not as if your SIL becomes family homecoming queen just because she took the first move toward saying enough is enough.

Enough is enough. Talk to her, and if you find you can't get past certain aspects of what she did, or if her words don't move you into a conciliatory mood, then you can say that when you talk to her--but be sure to spell out what you do need (e.g., "I haven't heard you say you were sorry, and it's important to me that you acknowledge the pain you caused"), and honor it if she comes through, because there's no honor in staying mad for the sake of staying mad.

Most of all, don't go into the peace talks in a punitive state of mind. That's bad for you, above all.

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Jewish/Christmas stepmom: Nothing tells a kid "I resent that your mother's in Hawaii and I'm stuck with you when I already had my December holiday" like not stepping up to help the kid have a bit of a Christmas celebration with the other half of his birth family. Believe me, a 9-year-old can feel the negative vibe. Stepmom's the one who needs to step up - and grow up. Give the kid a break. I bet he'd rather be with his mother and instead, he's going to your house.

Carolyn Hax: Last word, thanks.

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Unreasonable MIL: Thanks Carolyn for responding to my post. My husband and I have both suggested alternatives as to when to open presents to no avail. I don't have high hopes as my MIL is very stuck in her ways. Another example: she serves a baked ham for Christmas dinner every year because it's her "tradition". I'm allergic to pork (she knows this) but would not dare offer to bring anything like a roast chicken. So, I fill up on side dishes. Overall, we butt heads on lots of issues. But I will defend my kids' bedtimes. Yes, it seems like one day, but it won't turn out to be the Norman Rockwell pictures she wants. Unless screaming babies and an overstimulated toddler pulling ornaments off the tree is what she had in mind. Pass the egg nog - I'll need it.

Carolyn Hax: Going back to my original answer--you really need to talk to your husband on drawing lines with his mom. The problem isn't that she puts her finger in your eye, repeatedly--it's that your husband lets her do this to his wife.

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Go Home!!!: It's after 3, go home have a safe and wonderful holiday with your family!! Thanks for another wonderful year of advice! See you in 2011!!

Carolyn Hax: I will! Thank you, and thanks everyone for stopping by, today and this year. Enjoy the holidays you enjoy, find a laugh in the ones you don't enjoy, and I'll see you here in 2011.

And I hope I got my pronouns straight on that last answer ...

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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.

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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