The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Mom is upset that daughter doesn’t fit arbitrary definition of ‘success’


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I’m hoping you could share your thoughts on using gifts as a platform to give a well-meaning nudge in a new life direction.

My adult daughter (now in her 30s) has been something of a disappointment in terms of her career development. Most other members of the family of her generation are extremely successful doctors, lawyers, executives, etc. She is a mid-level manager, and, although she has a good income and clearly enjoys her job, she doesn’t seem terribly ambitious.

I am just worried she is coasting a bit and being somewhat lazy, selling herself short. Greater achievement is just expected in our family and it is frankly somewhat embarrassing to me.

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

I’ve tried to discuss this with her numerous times, but she insists she is happy with her life as-is. Would it be horrible of me to offer the first year of law school tuition as a holiday gift to motivate her to do more with her life? Or should I assume the cause of her lack of motivation is something deeper, such as depression, and offer to pay for therapy/treatment?

Good gift?

I have two ways I can go with this. I can treat your question as a joke, one you planted in my queue so you could sit back and watch me get all fired up, or I can treat it as if you’re serious about this and have no idea that it’s so judgmental and controlling that it verges on a parody of pushy parents.

I’m going to go with (b), just in case.

As a gift to your daughter, love her for who she is, and get yourself some therapy to help you find out why you need so badly for your offspring to fit some arbitrary definition of “success.”

Dear Carolyn:

I suspect my girlfriend found the gift I was planning to give her, because she made a very clumsy and unnatural comment that she hoped “nobody would try to give [her] an xyz.” So . . . what should I do with the xyz hiding in my closet? It can’t be returned and was semi-expensive.


Just tell her outright, and see it as a gift that you get this unusual insight into your couple-worthiness. Put on this kind of face < :-/ and say you know how she said she hoped “nobody would try to give [her] an xyz”? Well, you got her an xyz. And, er, you’re not sure what to do about it now, so you thought you’d just say, “Surprise!” and see if you can sort it out together. For example, maybe you and she can think of someone who’s dying for an xyz, which would allow you to sell it to this person for a nice price.

And this is where you’ll see how bright your future is with her: It’ll either be a great moment, better than if she had loved her xyz — or it’ll make you grateful that, for the low, low price of a nonreturnable xyz, you got to see that She Ain’t It.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at

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