The Washington Post

What to say to a snarky, tradition-minded mother


Adapted from online discussions.

On Monday, “Can’t Be Martha Stewart” asked how to respond to his mother’s jabs at his full-time-employed wife.

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

Re: Martha:

Um, shouldn’t he also have a private conversation with his mother to explain that he will not tolerate these little jabs?


(Nick G alifianakis)

Only if talks break down at the great bilateral cats-and-dogs summit I advised yesterday. When you can’t fix the source of the jabs, then, yes, you try to fix the fact of them.

Re: Martha:

Are the couple sure they’re not indirectly disparaging the mother’s choices or devaluing the work she did? For example, comments that imply that an OB-GYN’s time is too valuable to spend on housework.

Anonymous 2

Possible, thanks, although it wouldn’t be unprecedented if the mother took the mere fact of the different choices as a rejection of hers.

To: Martha:

In an age-appropriate (and non-angry) way, explain to your children why your mother says the things she does, how times change, and how every family has to make the right decisions for itself. You might even add that when they have homes of their own, the way they were raised might look outdated and unfamiliar. (No talking robots, for example.) Life is about the freedom to make the right choices for ourselves and our families.

Anonymous 3

Good teaching moment, thanks. And if the robot cooks chickens, then I want mine now — with an “off” switch for the talking.

Re: Martha:

My mother worked as a schoolteacher for my entire childhood (1960s). In my high school graduating class, I can remember only one true stay-at-home mom. That parent model has never been the only model in the United States, and the writer’s mother needs to realize that.

Anonymous 4

Thanks. Many women, though, were steered into “pink-collar” work, which helped preserve the world view that women were society’s helpers and nurturers.

Dear Carolyn:

You may be correct that my mother is intimidated by my wife’s profession. I will try to make this a macro conversation with a things-are-different-now bend.

Can’t-Be-Martha again

Please let us know how it goes.

Dear Carolyn:

My mother likes to pretend we’re best buds, when the truth is that I’m not terribly keen to spend much time with her. Sometimes, it’s pleasant. Others, it becomes one criticism after another.

She keeps pushing for us to have lunch once a week. I have no desire to subject myself to her picking at my weak points, so I make excuses. I just can’t bring myself to say “Look, you can be a real [expletive] sometimes, okay?” Is that what I should do?

We’re Not That Close

No, that would be honesty in brick form after a long stretch of no honesty at all. That’s not fair.

Her jabs aren’t fair, either, so start saying that: “Picking at my weaknesses isn’t friendly lunch conversation.” And, once the foundation is laid: “That’s your third swipe at me today. I’m going to leave now, and hope you’re in better spirits next time.” And do leave.

When there’s a real and honest relationship, then, “Look, you can be a real [expletive] sometimes, okay?” will be in a context that makes it loving and funny vs. a brick from the blind side.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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