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Valerie L

Hello,

I (35, she/her) have one baby and another on the way. I am exceptionally tired these days and expect to be similarly fatigued for the next, oh, 4 years or more. Anyway, I have had to be intentional about my bandwidth and have been ruthlessly cutting out anything that seems optional. I am running into the following issue with my in-laws: we just have two totally different cultural conceptions of time. I should mention: I am white and my husband is not. I was raised in a family where there were distinct start and end times and a high value placed on punctuality. Everyone in my family shows up exactly when they say they will, and this is my preferred way of operating. I bring this baggage to the whole operation, and I am aware of that.

My husband’s family is very loose with time. They will not commit to when, or even sometimes if, they are coming over at all. I have tried to view these as two different and yet totally valid ways of being but for holidays and baby events like birthdays and Trick or Treat, etc. it is just killing me. I do the majority of planning and execution for these events. I buy the food, plan the menu, cook everything, and do the majority of set-up and clean-up plus any Holiday Magic for the baby such as shopping, wrapping, decorating, ensuring the house is clean and all the guest rooms are made up nicely, etc. I do this so the baby can have nice holiday traditions and memories, I am aware I could do nothing at all and order a pizza and lock the doors, but these were fun, magical things for me and I like for her to experience them alongside the people who love her. It is worth a little (not a ton) of extra hassle to me to ensure she gets to do these things.

We always host because for me, as the only ones currently with little kids, it is just easier to have everything happen here. That way, I don’t have to lug everything to two different sides of the family, tiring out the baby and stressing me out. I can be sure she will get a decent nap in her own bed, has a high chair to eat, a play area where I don’t need to watch that she isn’t jabbing a fork into a socket, and our dog will not spend all day alone and have accidents, etc. I can also avoid showing up at 2 for something that isn’t actually HAPPENING happening until 8pm or having one side of the family angrily waiting on us when the other side makes us late. As added fun, they each live about an hour-plus in the opposite direction of one another.

We do holidays open-house style wherein I typically will have some sort of low-effort breakfast or snack available for anyone who comes early and then a dinner in the early evening. Lately, I’ve been more and more tired and am finding that having this “come whenever” policy is the worst because:

1. I have to have enough food for everyone who *might* come, which is not only expensive but also time-consuming to make so much and then end up having to store/freeze/etc. Having tons leftover and no one to send it home with can almost double my cleaning time because I have to find places to store everything or freeze it in portions etc.

2. It’s impossible to do anything because “so-and-so says she’s 10 minutes away” can mean 10 minutes or two hours and sure, I would wait 10 minutes for her but I can’t wait 2 hours, the food is getting cold and/or the baby wants to open her presents etc. It’s always tense and frustrating because it’s always “Just 5 more minutes and then we can start!” and somehow without fail whenever we start without anyone they walk in literally 2 seconds after I finally give up and are peeved that we didn’t wait for them.

3. My own family are not exactly angels, they get frustrated *with me* and also the Whole Situation when they are sitting around waiting for someone and have at times shown their displeasure vocally. Sometimes they are sick of waiting and leave before dinner or whatever and then are icy to me afterwards for “choosing” the people who “couldn’t even bother to tell you if they were going to show up” over them.

4. When husband’s family sometimes don’t come at all despite saying they were going to, they always want a Birthday or Holiday 2.0 wherein I usually have to do the whole shebang over again or travel to them the next weekend after I just kicked my own ass doing the whole thing the first time. My husband is maximally sympathetic to this and always says we should do it despite me NEEDING that next weekend to get my life back together.

5. I am frankly tired and introverted and a FULL DAY of people showing up at anytime, no warning, and needing to entertain them is nightmarish for me, I get no downtime and no breaks to enjoy the day myself. We just did Easter and I have one photo of the day, in the morning before anyone arrived, and no memories at all of the baby’s day. I am hormonal and pregnant and dramatic but I cried when I realized.

I have talked to him about how this impacts me, but he says it’s just cultural, they will never ever change, and that this is who they are. I do believe that but as the one who is having the majority of the difficulty here, I really do think we as a nuclear family could do this better or have each other’s backs to establish some better boundaries to ensure I don’t end up exhausted and recovering for days afterwards. I am pregnant, I have a toddler, and I work full-time so I don’t have a ton of bandwidth.

Any thoughts on how we can do this better?

Hello, I am exhausted reading this!

I have opinions and recommendations. Many of those involve getting your husband to do his share of hosting & family wrangling, but one principle extends through all of it:

IT IS TIME TO DO LESS. 

Right now, while the baby is a baby, and will only vaguely remember how much Holiday Magic there is, it is time to scale the hell back on all of this. Plan a holiday or two you celebrate just as a nuclear family without inviting the whole clan and without schlepping anywhere. Outsource a lot of the work when you host. Order the pizza, already!

IT IS TIME TO BE MUCH LESS ACCOMMODATING. 

I think you’ve been smart to try to do things Open House style, where people can drop in and out as they wish. But it is time to prioritize the people who actually show up, not the ones who might. Yes, there are some cultural issues at play here, but your husband married you, meaning that your joint celebrations don’t have to 100% match his family’s expectations and habits for the rest of time. When you are on your parents’ turf, let their culture take the lead. When your husband’s relatives host something, go with their flow. For example:

  1. If you drive, take separate cars or make plans around trains/buses/rideshares. That way you can show up in the afternoon with the baby, visit for exactly as long as you feel like it, and then head home when you are ready, freeing your husband up to stay however long he wants. Plan snacks/your own mealtimes so you don’t get hangry waiting for things to get underway. As a pregnant woman and new mom, you have both a duty to yourself and the authority to make your own schedule right now. Use it! “Lovely to see you all, I need to get this one home and into her jammies. Have fun!” 
  2. Plan on dinner being at 8:00 and roll up at 7:00 or so. You know by now that this is how things tend to go, so there is no reason to wait around for hours in advance. Nobody in his family is going to hassle you for being “late,” and if they do, you are free to openly laugh at them. “Hahaha, really? I’ll keep that in mind!” 

But when you host things at your home, with all the work that entails, it’s time to make it work for you. You have four years of experience that tells you that there’s no way to make everyone happy, so at least make yourself a little bit happier than you are now!

What happens if you decide, for the rest of 2022, you are having exactly one [Insert Holiday] celebration,. If you host, that’s it, that’s the one. If you don’t host, consider alternating celebrations with the various sides of the family vs. running yourselves ragged or making plans that require some to wait and others to show up on time and thereby setting everyone up for a bad time. I know there is probably a ton of pressure for everyone to SEE THE BAAAAAAABY right now, but as the baby’s parents, you have a lot of power to dictate how and when that happens. You do not have to see every relative or every set of relatives on every single holiday. It’s okay to invite just one set of in-laws some of the time, to see some people on Holiday Eve and others on Holiday Day, and it’s okay for you to miss events now and then. You and your husband might also have better luck seeing smaller groups of your various family members more frequently in more casual settings so there isn’t so much pressure for big events to be the be-all and end-all.

Before you host the next event, hash out what’s most important to you. Is it to have everybody together under one roof? Is it to decorate the place up and serve really great, special food as a treat for yourselves and your guests? Is it to make sparkling memories with and for your kids? Is it to catch up with relatives you don’t get to see very often? If you know your priorities, you can adjust your plans so you’re getting more of what you actually want. For example, if party photos are important to you, but it’s been too chaotic  for you to get good ones, maybe hand your camera off to someone who reliably shows up and has a decent eye, and ask them to take some for you. This can be a great job for teen & 20-something cousins and for shyer folks who are happier when they have something tangible to do, and it also means that you can be *in* more photos.

When you plan the next event, you could try making the schedule explicit in the invitation, and include an end time:

“We’re hosting [Holiday] from [time] to [time] on [date]. Doors open at [time]. Meal served at [time]. Cake/Presents/Etc. at roughly [time]. Baby has nap at [time], so if you plan to see her, come before then. Doors close at [time]. Let us know by [date] if you can make it so we have enough food. Can’t wait to see you all!”  

Make the total window smaller than you usually do. Say, 4-6 hours or so instead of The Entire Day, and based around one meal-time, not All of Them, Question Mark? The more open-ended you are, the less important it is that people show up at any specific time, the more the “whenever” feeling perpetuates itself. If it doesn’t matter when people show up, and they know you’ll come to their planned thing the following weekend, why should anybody adjust anything? I know you are trying to be maximally flexible, but consider that a lunch/brunch with a set start and end time frees people up to make their own evening plans and frees you up to nap with your feet up in an empty house once everyone has gone. 4-9 pm drinks/dinner window gives everyone the whole early part of the day to do other stuff. Breakfast to ??? is WAY TOO LONG an interval for people-ing!

At least 24 hours before any event, mentally convert any and all “maybes” to “no” and assume they aren’t coming. Make a generous amount of food for the people who said they were coming, which will leave a much more comfortable amount of leftovers, and don’t be afraid to ask people to bring a dish of something to share or storage containers for taking leftovers home with them. If a swarm of unconfirmed people do actually show up after all, welcome them with enthusiasm and let that go down in history as The Time You Ordered Supplemental Pizza And Nobody Died Of It. Treat it like a good, happy thing that they were able to come vs. “You’re late, again.” If people are jerks to you about not waiting for them to start things, it’s as good a time as any to say, “I’m so glad we were able to see you after all!!!!” and give ZERO apologies.

Schedule breaks for yourself. Every 2 hours of hostessing requires 1/2 hour of quietly feeding the baby and/or handing the baby to a willing grandparent and putting your feet up for a minute. Speaking of schedule, your baby has one, and it is the boss of you for the forseeable future. Use it! “Oops, gotta get the little one down for her nap.”

Then, deputize your husband to deal with *way* more stuff than he usually does.

  1. Party leftovers are your husband’s job now. He can figure out how to send them home with people, how to store them, all of it. Stackable deli containers where all the vessels use the same lid are your friend. 😉
  2. When invitation emails or messages go out, your husband should call the matriarchs/chief social directors of his side of the family and explain: You’ve both decided to switch it up for this holiday. The times on the invitation are real. If they want to eat/see the baby/hang out, it needs to happen roughly between Start Time and End Time. He is not about to let his pregnant wife throw a 12-hour party right now (not to mention TWO parties, what the entire fuck), and he’d appreciate help in spreading the word. If someone says they can’t commit to that, he can say, “Okay, we’ll be so sorry to miss you, but maybe next time!”  
  3. Your husband always has the option of asking his parents and important family members what would work for them while also advocating for your needs. “Mom, I know we all like to keep things open-ended, but I’m trying to make things easier on [Letter Writer]. She loves seeing you, and she puts so much work into these things. Is there some time window or way that we could arrange things that would make it easier for y’all to commit and reduce some of the ‘ am I cooking for 12 people or 60’ anxiety for her? How did you figure this out with your in-laws when you first got married?”  He may not get a good answer, but it’s not all on you to brainstorm new ways of accommodating his relatives and hope you’ll hit on the right one.
  4. Once the event starts, both of you can put your phones down. He can stop answering the influx of “I’m on my way!” and “We’ll be there in 10” texts, and he can definitely stop relaying that information to you in real time. If he must answer, he can say, “Great to know, drive safe!” and then move on with what you already planned. Y’all decided that lunch was at 2pm, so eat lunch by 2:30 at the latest, and whoever joins you, joins you. Stop postponing stuff for people who aren’t here! Definitely stop doing it because of magical time estimates!
  5. If his relatives are affronted because everyone didn’t wait for them to arrive, let them be affronted, and let your husband handle it, and let him wait on them! “Relative, we’re so glad you’re here!  We didn’t want the food to get cold, so we started eating already, but I’m happy to fix you a plate.” “Relative, so good to see you!  Sorry you missed the baby, she just went down for her nap and there is no way on earth I am going to wake her, but let me get you something to drink.” 
  6. When the scheduled event end-time comes, say goodbye to everyone and take yourself to bed or otherwise off the clock. YOU ARE GESTATING AN ENTIRE HUMAN. YOU NEED SLEEP. If people want to linger, your husband can play host if he wants to, and it’s his job to see them out the door and make sure you have some peace and quiet. Everyone can still have fun without a command performance from you.
  7. If your husband’s relatives miss the celebration and want Holiday 2.0 the next weekend, HE IS WELCOME TO GO OR TO HOST THEM. HIMSELF. ALL BY HIMSELF. He could bring last week’s leftovers and your daughter to their houses and hang out with them there as long as he wants to. Or, he could host at your home while you nap in comfort at your parents’ house or in sweet solitude at the fanciest nearby hotel you can reasonably afford and the expectation that you will return to a clean, quiet house. Up to him! I’m not throwing a second party for your relatives who didn’t come to the party I just threw” is beyond reasonable as a boundary.
  8. Your husband wants and expects you to accompany him to every celebration on his side of the family, and the only real way to break this cycle is if you stop going sometimes. There can be a strong pull in families to have every single person present at every single event or else it’s “ruined,” but personally I think one of the benefits of family is that you’re going to be related to each other forever so nothing has to be solved right now. Will everyone still love everyone a month from now? Yes? Great! “It’s cultural.” “This is who they are, they’ll never change.” “Okay! But I could really use some down time after last weekend, so I’m going to sit this one out. Blame it on your pregnant wife!”  

I don’t really believe in using invitations to try to teach people lessons or communicate anything besides “We’d like to see you, please come,” so I don’t expect that any of your respective relatives will “learn” anything about punctuality vs. flexibility if you and your husband change things up a little. Arguments about whose culture is better and who is technically being “rude” at any given time are also incredibly unproductive, in my opinion. “Punctuality” vs. “A relaxed open door policy for family” are different value systems, and it’s always going to be a bit of a balancing act where they collide. Fortunately, boundaries aren’t really about getting other people to feel or behave differently, they are about carving out what you need and making decisions that preserve your own comfort and sanity. In this situation, the way you defend and maintain those boundaries isn’t based on proving who’s more right, it’s based on “I’ve figured out that this is what I need, thanks for understanding, I’m really looking forward to seeing you!” As long as you’re choosing to host, you can make a few more choices to make all of that easier on yourself.

tl;dr stop this madness and do so much less

Valerie L

Hello, Captain!

I (28, they/he) have been out as queer for seventeen years, and as trans for twelve. I have had a really difficult time with medical transition due to disability and finance stuff, but I’ve done about 18mo of HRT total and have had gender affirming surgery– this to say that I’m pretty visibly not cishet. I’ve been gay for a very long time, a lot longer than most of my peers and people I’m in community with. While it’s always a little odd to be in an ‘elder’ role when I’m not even in my thirties, I definitely get that my experience isn’t necessarily the most common, and that validation from people you see as ‘experts’ (ha, imagine calling yourself a Queer Expert, how pretentious) feels great when you’re figuring yourself out. I’m generally always down to get a coffee or a beer with someone to talk about gender and sexuality, and I really value getting to be that person. I think it’s really important for everyone to give back to their communities in ways that they’re best suited for, and I’ve always been a very welcoming person, so being sort of a Community Greeter has always been something I’ve found really fulfilling. 

That being said, I’m struggling with the sheer number of baby queers who get crushes on me. There’s six that I know of right now, and I frankly do not know a lot of people! It’s not that I’m unwilling to date someone who’s just realizing they’re queer, but it always ends up feeling like none of them are actually into me as a person– just me as a soft landing space, me as a Knowledge Haver, me as an ‘established queer’ who makes them feel like their queerness has been validated. I’m tired of having the same ten conversations with dates and of not feeling like I get any space to continue exploring my own constantly growing identity. I’d love to, say, discuss my currently evolving understanding of myself as both transmasc and lesbian, but I’m stuck in gender theory 201 explaining for the millionth time to the hundredth different person that yes, you can really call yourself trans even though you’re not sure yet if you want to do HRT. 

I’m pretty new to the city I currently live in, and so far, haven’t really found a group of queer people with more similar timelines to me to hang out with. Actually, most of the queer people I’ve met here have literally, explicitly interrogated me about ‘how’ queer I am, which is extremely weird and hurtful– but that’s a new experience for me, while the gaggle-of-newly-out-people wanting to date me has been the standard for probably the last five or six years. Not having, like– I hate to use this wording here, but not having ‘adult friends’ to balance the quasi-mentorship/fending-off-crushes dynamic has me starting to feel like a new single parent desperate to talk to someone about taxes.

How can I tell all these baby queers to take a few steps back, that they probably are attracted to me mostly because I’m a generally friendly and approachable person who’s making them feel seen and secure, and that while they’re absolutely just as validly queer as someone who’s been out for half a century, I don’t have any interest in dating them til they’ve been out for at least a couple of years?

Thanks so much,

Always The Teacher, Never The Peer

Dear Brave Correspondent,

Phew. What a tiring and familiar email you’ve sent – not because the question is tiring but because I have also had this experience and it’s a lot. I too was out before many of my age peers and I, too, was in queer community while some of the people born just a few years after me were still busy convincing themselves that their crushes on Joan Jett were actually a healthy admiration of her iconic style (both can be true but… in these cases, generally not). I also want to validate and applaud your ability to recognize that people quite a bit younger than you are probably mostly interested in rubbing their identity against yours for confirmation and validation rather than actually rubbing some other part of themselves against you. It can be challenging to understand how these power dynamics come into play, and you definitely get a ton of points for having figured this out so soon and saved yourself a lot of drama (and probably saved some other people some hurt).

But now, what about your friendships and dating relationships? I think we need a two-pronged strategy here: one initiative to position yourself as Not Available to people who are hoping to solidify or refine their understanding of themselves through a little naked jiggery pokery (fine, reasonable, but not what you’re interested in), and then a different one to make sure people at your own stage of queer-and/or-trans life are able to see you as a viable friend and/or date prospect. I also want to say that it’s actually okay if a part of you enjoys feeling competent and helpful and knowledgeable as a resource sometimes, and other times not so much. That’s called “being able to manage your own energy level” and maybe also “sometimes we vibe and sometimes we don’t,” but let’s start there: you’re NOT a public utility. None of these people get to demand your time. It is of course useful and helpful to be a resource, and many of us need someone to help us navigate our business when we first start coming out, but you – a private citizen – can choose your own level of engagement and it doesn’t always have to be the same.

In making friends as an adult, I think a lot about the research of Jeffrey Hall at the University of Kansas, who showed that it takes 60 hours of time spent together to cross the threshold into “making friends.” Then I put my head in my hands and sigh, because 60 hours of volitional time together was so easy in university, and now it feels like a heavy lift – how do you get people you just met to commit to spending a bunch of time together when your orbit doesn’t bring you past each other every day, ten times a day? I mention this not to bum you out but to validate: there’s a reason you’re finding it difficult.

Okay, so: what to do about it? I’m not sure where you live, and I am sure it’s COVID-times wherever that is even if the people around you are pretending it isn’t, but I know that any solution is going to require that you make some intentional and specific efforts to find the people you want to hang out with. It’s time to join gay book clubs and trans gardening chats and queer dodgeball leagues and whatever else your city has where queers have leisure and recreation. Volunteer at the queer theatre, join a political action group, go gay-camping or whatever the people there do, which will bring you into conversation with a wider variety of people. If you have the capacity, have your new friends over for brunch on a semi-regular schedule (first Sunday of the month waffles in the backyard?). Volunteer in the groups you join, which will automatically mean you spend more time with your fellow rock-climbers or live draw-ers or whatever, and at this point what we’re looking for is that you get enough time with those people to start figuring out which of them might be YOUR people. Also, not for nothing, negotiating COVID protocols with people will give you useful early information about their willingness to respect your boundaries and hear your needs, which will be useful later (especially if naked time begins to seem appealing to you both).

Then, Brave Correspondent, you’re going to have to do something a little scary – you’re going to have to tell people right out that you’re looking to make friends. I completely understand that this might sound awkward, and sometimes it is, but the good news is that basically everyone feels awkward all the time and just naming your own awkwardness is actually… strangely charming? Just say it, “I promised myself if I came to this barbecue I would talk to at least two new people. I’m really trying to make more friends here who have been out a while.” Then, keep saying it. Tell everyone you meet you’re looking for new friends and dates and that you’re interested in people who have been out for a while (you can also phrase this as “been in the movement for a while,”). Then when you find people you vibe with, be clear that you are looking for friends and would like to hang out and do things together. If they’re nerdy, show them the research and tell them you want to see if it’s true – if you spend 100 hours together in the first three months, can you become friends? Schedule hikes, wine-tastings, mini-road trips to the beach or a concert or to eat some exciting food, have them over to watch a new movie (or re-watch each others favorites). Make time. You’ll find that after a few longer hangouts you’ll either be excited for more, or you won’t, but knowing it takes time, being transparent about scheduling time, and making the time to spend will get you on your way for sure. Also queers love good communication, so that will definitely be a point in your favor.

As to the people who need or want your Grown Queer Vibes but are still too young to be interesting to you (and are maybe exhausting you a bit), here’s my counterintuitive suggestion – volunteer to be a mentor with a local LGBTQ coming out group. While it will take a couple hours per week, it also gives a boundaried container for that work – you do it on Thursdays from 7-10, not at other random times, and if people try to waylay you after a lecture you’ve both attended to ask you a bunch of things the answer then becomes “I would love to talk about this during mentorship group time” or even “I’m not in the right headspace for that conversation right now, but I facilitate a group for people at the early stages of coming out if you’d like to join us,” and then just…don’t. Also, although “I’m not interested,” is more than enough of a reason not to get involved with someone, we also know from experience that some people can be hard to dissuade and queer/trans communities are so small that sometimes even when the other person is generating the conflict by not taking no for an answer it can still feel c o m p l i c a t e d to say a plain and unadorned No. To be clear, you should be able to and I want that for you, and also in the real world some people think of No as the opening of a negotiation WHICH IT IS NOT but newly-out people don’t always have the best skills at this yet – which is why this method has a double-helping of utility, because now as an official mentor you can simply say “It really wouldn’t be appropriate for me to date anyone in the youth category” (which can be up to 30 in some groups, though 25 is more common) and if they push it further the answer is “I wouldn’t be able to be a helpful mentor if there was any concern that I might be dating in the same pool as I am volunteering, so this isn’t negotiable within my ethical framework.”

The thing is, Brave Correspondent, as a community we are all hungry for guidance and expertise, since most of us grew up isolated from our culture and our community, in heterosexual and cisgender families, and we have to find our way as adults. That’s fine, and it’s reasonable and okay for people to want mentorship – it’s needed. But it’s not reasonable for you to feel like you have to do it constantly (and instead of getting to be an adult with friends). So a combo of putting some clear boundaries around your helping times – be helpful, yes, but you’re not a Vending Machine of Community Care, available upon demand – and making it very clear that you’re actively looking for other older friends should go a long way here. I hope you have great dates and hot times and actual leisure and community there, and that all the right people compliment your outfits and smile at you across the lobby.

love and courage,

Bear

S. Bear Bergman gives advice at Asking Bear. He is the author of five books for adults and four for children, most recently an advice collection titled Special Topics in Being a Human: A Queer and Tender Guide to Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way about Caring for People, Including Myself, with illustrations by Saul Freedman-Lawson.

Valerie L

Dear Captain,

My mom (50F, She/Her) and I (22F, She/Her) have a bit of a strained relationship. For a little context, as a child, I only got to see her on the weekends and over the summer as my dad had custody of me. This made us weirdly co-dependent on each other as I would prefer living with her due to an abusive step-mom, and she would cling to me whenever she went through something emotionally traumatic. When I turned 14 my dad forcefully moved me away from her to a different state. I only got to see her during summers and this exacerbated the problem a bit. Thinking about her would cause me to burst into tears.

I tried my best with my high school schedule to call when I could, but with homework and trying to make new connections our conversations became less and less consistent. I also developed severe clinical depression at this time so I didn’t enjoy talking much. Whenever we would call it would either be a guilt trip, or bad news (she had a lot of health issues, unfortunately, and a pretty bad job). She didn’t have many reliable adult friends so I would be her source for support, advice, and a shoulder to virtually cry on.

Fast forward to college. I’m calling her less due to my busy schedule. I’m in a really hard major that takes up most of my time (engineering,) and when I do get free time I just want to watch Netflix and be alone. I try to call once a week and at most once every two weeks, but she makes me feel extremely guilty for this frequency. To try and make up for this we text daily or even send voice messages but this is still not enough for her. It doesn’t help either that she recently entered into a new relationship and will often spend a majority of our conversations either ranting about him or going into graphic detail about their sex life. I want to tell her that it makes me uncomfortable, but she only recently started opening up to me so I worry that if I tell her she’ll close up again.

All this to say (TL;DR): I can’t deal with the emotional toll of our conversations but I know she has no one else to go to. I also can’t take being guilty, but I don’t have the time or energy to be more consistent. I don’t know what to do and it’s beginning to affect my mental health.

Signed,

Call Fatigued.

Dear Call Fatigued,

I have written versions of this advice before (a good sign that it should go in The Book!), but we get new readers all the time, so thanks for this chance to review some tried-and-true boundary maintenance advice.

My first recommendation is for you to find a therapist or counselor if you have access and haven’t already done so. Given your history with both your parents, there is a lot to unpack here, and a lot of un-learning to be done. You’re not going to be able to change how your mom feels or how she tries to interact, but you are going to need to teach yourself how to live with her upset feelings sometimes, without taking responsibility for her emotional well-being, so that you can maintain healthy boundaries and your own mental health. This is incredibly hard, important, primal, life-long stuff, so if you have the means and access to obtain some support, this is a very good reason to do it. You might also want to read about attachment styles and  parentification, especially “emotional parentification,” where a parent relies on their child to fill their emotional and social needs. What is happening to you is not okay, it is not your fault, it is not your responsibility to live your life around your mom’s needs and feelings or make up for all the time you were separated.

My next advice is that you continue with weekly or every two week phone calls when that works for you. You’re a busy college student, you’re at a stage in life where more independence from parents is natural, and you are the child in this situation, not the parent. You are not doing this wrong, and you don’t have to do more work to manage this relationship!

In fact, you sound pretty diligent and responsive about staying in touch, and yet your mom keeps indicating that no amount of support and attention will actually be enough for her, there will always be more guilt and more feelings (her feelings) that she expects you to handle. That is stressing you out so much right now, but it’s also where your path to freedom lies: If someone gets upset with you no matter what you do, it was never in your power to fix what’s actually wrong, so you might as well do what works for you. So call when you have time and want to. Try to interrupt the guilt trip and apology spiral. “You don’t call enough!” “Probably not, but I’m here now, so hello! What’s new with you?” 

You can also level with her:

  • “Mom, I know you wish I would call more, but this is what I can do right now.”
  • “Mom, when I do call, and you start off by telling me it’s not enough, what are you hoping will happen? Because what actually happens is that it makes me feel bad and want to get off the phone as soon as possible. Can we skip that part from now on and try to enjoy the time we do spend together?” 
  • “Mom, you’re doing That Thing again. I’m not ignoring you or mad at you, I’m just busy with school. Give me a little space!” 
  • “I’m not comfortable being your relationship sounding board. Can we talk about something else?” 

You may also have luck scheduling a regular phone date, as in: “Mom, I’ve been pretty busy, but I want to make sure I set aside time for us to talk. [Day/Time] and [Day/Time]* are usually pretty good for me, does one of those work better for you for a regular chat? Great, let’s put it in the calendar and I’ll plan to call you then.” 

[*Note: Offering two choices that you already know will work for you is an old “managing up at a scattered-but-control-freak boss” trick, and a generally useful tactic for including other people in a decision while also moving things along.]

Scheduling a regular time to talk can have several benefits, over time:

  • It can become an anchor for your relationship with each other. When you were a child, circumstances prevented your mom from showing up for you regularly, and when you did spend time together, everything was more fragile and much more intense than it needed to be. But you’re both adults now and you get to decide what you want your relationship to be like and create new, healthy habits to push the old ones out. “Every Sunday at 4pm, we show up for each other.” There are worse starting points..
  • Pressure and intermittent reinforcement increase anxiety, structure tends to decrease it. If you both know the next time you’ll talk, and trust that you’ll talk again soon, there’s less pressure to cling, to run away, or make everything happen now now now.
  • If you know you have a designated “Mom & Mom Feelings” time in your week, you can practice redirecting her when it gets to be too much.“Got your message, love you, let’s talk about it on Sunday!” “Good question, I’ll think about it and let you know on Sunday.” “[emoji of choice]. Let’s catch up Sunday.”  “Ooof, sounds like a rough day. ❤ Talk Sunday?”  

I know you’ve tried versions of this already, and you are aware that your mom will not like this and will try to get around your boundaries. Expect lots of “emergencies” where she wants what she wants when she wants it, an “extinction burst” of escalating the bad behavior in the hopes of getting you to comply.  But I promise there is a method here. What she will interpret as avoiding her is actually you creating a structure and a possibility for healthier interactions.

Now comes the really hard part: Resetting things is going to take time, and in the process you’re going to have to let your mom feel whatever she feels without stepping in to try to fix it. Sometimes you’re going to have to text back stuff like “Wow, sounds like a lot going on! You’ll have to fill me in Sunday,” and then mute notifications on your phone, put her number on “do not disturb” when you are busy with school or need to decompress, or turn the thing off and put it in a drawer until you actively want to engage with her again. You’re going to have to leave your mom on “read” and let whatever escalation she tries pile up for a bit, including laments about how she has nobody else, including accusations about what a selfish daughter you are, without responding to it until you said you would, which for example purposes means “Sunday, 4 pm.”

When each scheduled call rolls around, you’ll have the opportunity to practice a little bit of what I like to call “generously selective memory” where you ignore any intervening escalations and histrionics, endeavor to be pleasant, and act as if everything is going according to plan (because it is!).  “Hello, Mom, how are you?” “Oh, NOW you’re calling me, when it’s convenient for YOU, but you have NO CONSIDERATION for your MOTHER.” “Yep, that’s right! My schedule is all over the place, but this is usually a good time for me to talk without distractions. What’s new?”

If one week’s call doesn’t go according to plan, reset and try again at the usual time. If applying intense pressure stops working to get your mom what she wants, and if respecting boundaries gets her more consistent quality time with you, she might learn and adapt. If she doesn’t, that’s not because you did it wrong, and it doesn’t mean you should stop engaging on your own terms. Consistency over time is more important than any one interaction.

When you do talk, you’ll also have the opportunity to set more appropriate boundaries about relationship and sex talk. You mention that you’re afraid that if you say anything about being uncomfortable with the level of detail, your mom will shut down and stop communicating as much. Okay? Given that the frequency, intensity, and subject matter when she “opens up” are highly inappropriate and are specifically what is bothering you, is this actually… a bad…outcome? If your mom starts detailing her SexyTimes and you say “Whoa, Mom, that is Officially Way Too Much Information About Wangs You’ve Visited!!” or “Mom, yikes, that’s enough Girl Talk for today, let’s change the subject please,” she may feel slighted or judged or like you “owe” her just because you’ve put up with it in the past. If the subject won’t stay changed, and you end up cutting the call short as a result, that might make her feel very upset. And?

When you keep bringing up a topic, or behaving in certain way, and other people repeatedly tell you they don’t like it and visibly act like they don’t like it, that is information you can use to adapt your behavior accordingly. Negative feedback, painful feedback, awkward feedback that makes your mom feel bad can all be useful feedback, and it’s not “mean” or “selfish” for you to have your own needs within these conversations.Your mom has choices about how she treats you. “My daughter said ‘please stop,’ so I guess I’ll double down and keep going” is a choice. “When I do x, my daughter gets uncomfortable and doesn’t want to be around me as much, and that makes me feel bad, so I should probably stop doing x” is another available choice.You are allowed to react honestly to her choices.

Speaking of choices, your mom is an adult who has had a lifetime to make friends, find her own therapist, and otherwise build a support network that is not her half-estranged child. She doesn’t have anyone else? Not one trusted, safe, or even nice person in 50 years? That’s sad, but it does not obligate you to fill in all the gaps in her social and emotional life. She managed to meet a partner somehow, some way, so please trust: She could find a volunteer gig or religious congregation or message board or career counselor or class or some way of connecting with people who aren’t you. She may not want to or know where to start, but that still doesn’t mean you have to agree to be her sole emotional support for the rest of her life. “But I should be able to talk to my child!”  “Okay, but I am telling you  I’m not comfortable, and that this seems like a you + your therapist sort of topic.” “But I don’t want to talk to some stranger!” “That’s as may be, but I have an exam tomorrow and need to say good night. Good luck sorting it!”  When she shares problems and you do want to be supportive, try asking questions that emphasize her agency: “Wow, that’s tough. What do you think you’ll do about it?” “How upsetting. How do you want to handle it?”  Breaking the habit of “Mom has problem, daughter is the solution” requires many tactics.

The hard part is the only part that actually works. You cannot un-feel your own feelings (I WISH), and you cannot change your mom’s feelings or her behavior. Boundaries live in the part you can control: Your actions. The best way to defeat a guilt trip is to let everyone involved, including yourself, feel all the feelings, and then take the action you know is best for you anyway, even if you feel guilty and your mom feels bad when you stop discussing her sex life or having intense conversations on her schedule. When you decide that you can live with your mom feeling lonely or sad sometimes, but you won’t make yourself available at the expense of your own mental health, that’s when it changes.

Therapist and TikTok-er KC Davis has one of the best breakdowns of this, ever, in my opinion. Video:

@domesticblisters

Boundaries are behaviors, feelings, and beliefs… but always my own. #strugglecare #boundaries #mentalhealth

♬ original sound – Kc Davis

“Please don’t speak to me that way” (a request) vs. “I don’t stay in situations where people speak to me that way” (a boundary). Doesn’t that clarify, like, so much?

Letter Writer, you may never get what feels like a “normal” or “comfortable” relationship with your mom, where all of the damage of the past is undone, where both of you are getting everything you want, and where you’re both on the same page about what a good relationship even looks like. The goal isn’t to make everything perfect or find that One Conversation To Rule Them All that will persuade your mom, it’s to do what’s within your power to make things better than they are right now, with less friction and stress for you, and let time do the rest.

Complying with your mom’s pressure tactics, subsuming your own needs (including the need to decompress and watch TV sometimes, and the need to be the child and not the parent in your relationship)  will not make things better. It is okay if you don’t want to talk to your mom every single day or be her sounding board about heavy or overly-intimate topics. It is okay to take some actions that she finds hurtful in order to reset things between you and carve out your right to space and autonomy. The time to do it is now, when you’re both relatively young, so that you have the time and opportunity to see what else you can be to each other. <3.

Valerie L

Dear Captain

I have ended up in a very awkward situation with a tutor/professor and I wondered if you had any advice on how to navigate this. (I am female she/her)

Basically I am learning Farsi in my spare time for fun. I did an online evening course in the language then when that ended I thought it would be cool to get a few private classes to keep improving before the evening classes started again. I found a teacher online that looked promising so I emailed him to ask how much he charged, whether he could do 3 or 4 classes initially to see how I liked learning with him, and so on.

The teacher answered me right away (a good sign) and sent me his number asking if we can text on WhatsApp to sort things out faster. In general I don’t like to give my number out to strangers right away but this seemed ok so I added him on WhatsApp. Immediately the guy video called me. I am not used to getting video calls– i loathe them actually– so without thinking it was video, I answered him. I was sitting on my bed at the time casually dressed in a tank top since I was at home that morning. So immediately this felt off. The guy told me he only did classes in batches of 6, cited a price that is out of my range and much higher than what I had seen elsewhere as the going rate, and instead of waiting for me to decide if that was OK for me, he told me we can start Monday BUT (a) i have to bank transfer the money to him by the end of tomorrow to ensure my place and (b) I have to provide him with my full name and my full home address. (He had already asked where I lived in the call and I told him my city, we are in the same city but it’s huge).

Anyway I told him I would think things over and let him know and he said he only takes serious students and i need to decide fast because I need to get the money sent over etc. I felt pressured.

After we hung up he WhatsApped me twice to ask me for my full home address “for his official records” and asked me to make sure to send these details over by the end of the working day. So given that his prices were also too high for me and I didn’t want to pay for lots of classes off the bat with a teacher when I don’t know if we would work together well, and given that I am not going to give a random dude my home address. I felt pressured and I just said sorry I am no longer interested in classes at this time and I blocked him on WhatsApp and thought that was that (I didn’t feel like giving him a lesson on how to conduct himself, i just wanted him to go away).I felt like he had escalated a casual enquiry that he could have answered in a email into an intrusive hard sell pushy saga with video calls and requests for my personal details of where I live.

Anyway so I re-signed up for the next semester of the online evening class and guess who is our new tutor? That’s right Video Call Guy…. i thought well, I will just be professional and act like nothing happened and give him a chance, and we can just all do the class with no fuss. There are 8 others in the online class anyway so should be no issue right? Well, in the class the FIRST thing he does is insist we all give out our personal phone numbers to him so he can set up a WhatsApp group for us to chat and make friends and help each other. We are all beginners in the language and he wants us all to meet up in person and chat online. I don’t know anyone in the group personally, they are all strangers. I generally don’t do WhatsApp groups except for family and some very close friends (the class does not require us to be in them and the college that organises it has its own online system where we can communicate without giving personal numbers out etc) and i don’t really want to have this awkward guy messaging me or have extra non class work chatting on WhatsApp. I am happy to attend classes, do all homework and prep on time, participate fully during the class, even communicate by email here and there with class members if need be but I don’t want him or them in my pocket like that. It’s NOT a requirement of the course (it’s a a 60 minute once a week evening class not a university or college course.) TBH I think if i hadn’t have had the home address history with this dude I might feel less reluctant to participate in such a group… but it is what it is

I have made it clear, without fuss that I “just don’t do” WhatsApp groups and no one else seems to care, but this guy is just… mentioning it a lot. Do I need to defend myself more explictly here with an explanation of why I “don’t do” WhatsApp? I know some people like them for learning but I am not one of them. If it were a requirement of the course I would suck it up, get a second number and use an old phone for it but I honestly don’t have time for the hassle. Plus this just seems… controlling somehow.

Thanks so much

I Just Want To Learn Not Give My Personal Details to Strangers and Chat Online

Hello!

I think you are handling this situation beautifully, so what I have on offer is encouragement and confirmation that 1) Yep, something seems at least a little off* about this guy’s high pressure sales tactics, demands for personal details, and immediate, ever-escalating contact, 2) Even if he turned out to be totally above-board, it would be okay to nope out simply because you don’t like his style, and 3) You do not have to join the class WhatsApp group, ever. Hold fast!

[*My automatic response to “negging” and other high-pressure tactics is Absolutely Not. Only for SERIOUS students you say? And I have to sign up RIGHT NOW? Absolutely Not. Absolutely Not is also my policy for unprompted video calls from people I don’t know. Now that I think about it, that also holds for people I do know. Surprise Camera! No thank you. And there is no earthly reason he actually needs your home address for an online-only course. You were very smart to balk. At all of this.]

Script, if you need one: “Oh, thank you, but if you want to reach me about class topics please use my school email or the college’s online system.” I recommend emailing something like this at least once via your/his official course email so that it’s on record in case you need to escalate at some point.

Repeat as necessary, don’t argue or justify or explain, and keep right on not joining or giving out your number. Nobody associated with this class needs to know that you even have a cell phone or know what WhatsApp is.

Script if he brings up your earlier encounter/the fact that you blocked him on WhatsApp to try to get you to change your mind: “This course is a better fit for me than private tutoring, and I realized I prefer to keep personal social media separate from professional and school contacts. My email [or the school system] will work just fine if you need to reach me about anything related to class.”

Don’t be vague or apologetic in an effort to spare his feelings, and remember that reasons are for reasonable people. You don’t have to convince him that he’s being a weirdo in order to set this boundary.

Now, your instructor might try to harp on the fact that it’s “easier” if you join the group, meaning he only has to drop announcements there instead of sending them through the college’s system. I am telling you, that is not a good enough reason.* He should send official course announcements via the college’s system and/or the official email you used to sign up for the course as a baseline. He should not distribute students’ personal information to each other. (If you decide you want to video chat with some of your fellow students, you can handle that on a case-by-case basis as you get to actually know them. In your shoes, I’d also be pretty interested to know the experiences of other female students with Mr. Video! Chat! Right! Now! as the class goes on.)

If he doesn’t get the message and keeps bothering you, and/or if you get the same behavior from fellow students, figure out who his boss is and make the fuss you’ve been trying to avoid until now. If the instructor is new at teaching at a college and used to being informal about these things, somebody above him needs to clue him in. If you end up needing to do this, don’t mince words: “Intrusive,” “invasive,” “careless about student privacy”, “ignoring direct request to use official channels,” etc. Find that “Per My Last Email” energy inside yourself and apply it.

[*Note: I have taught many, many college courses where collaboration outside of class time was absolutely necessary to doing the work. When forming project groups, facilitating this without invading students’ privacy can be as simple as “Please figure out how you plan to stay in touch with each other, using a form of communication you are comfortable sharing and that you check regularly, and decide on ground rules about when it’s okay to get in touch and reasonable response times. Being respectful and professional about communication with your crew members is part of your Participation grade.” On the first day of class, when I don’t know anything about these people, I am not making them give each other their phone numbers.]

I hope this guy accepts your gift of a fresh start and that you have an enjoyable experience learning more of the language!

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