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Hi Captain!

I’m a 21 year old trans man, (he/they) who came out on New Years and I’ve been trying to help my mother deal with it and learn. My mother is so so so much like yours as described in Letter 1233, and so desperately wants to understand things, but has no clue how to deal with all the complicated feelings my being trans brings up about me and about her own gender. She doesn’t get it and won’t rest till either I’m not a man or she’s able to understand how I feel and why the hell I’d feel that way about my body and self in a way that works for her.

It’s not been the worst because I’ve got college classes resuming this week as a buffer, but I’m already so exasperated because I cannot do the work for her to understand this the way she wants/needs to but don’t know how to help her further. I wrote some of my feelings, I gave her S. Bear Bergman’s Butch is a Noun to read some passages I listed from, I suggested Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation and Kate Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook, and a myriad of articles about how to support trans people. But she doesn’t feel this way about herself as a woman and is just so fundamentally struggling with why and how do you know this, and are you sure, you haven’t even dated anyone so maybe things will change when you do things with another person (I wanted to melt in my chair).

I’m a women’s and gender studies major! I should be able to do this, but I’m so far away from where she is I don’t know how to bridge the gap, and while it’s academically invigorating as an interest it’s becoming personally exhausting. Any advice for me, or a message that might help her?

Thanks!
Tired Trans Man

Dear Tired Trans Man:

Happy New Year and congratulations on taking a really big, hard step! Aside from your very fraught parental relationship, I hope that coming out brings you a ton of joy and comfort and self-discovery in the coming year.

First, per #1233, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relentless need to “understand” as a derailing tactic that people and institutions with relative power use to withhold compassion and help from others. Of course we want to help, we just can’t deliver any help until we are sure that it’s exactly the right help, better commission another study and think about it more. Or, what if we help, and that just makes the situation worse? Better not to do anything until we know for sure. In the meantime, can you try explaining it again? And you needn’t have such a nasty tone when you ask! Do you want help or not?

Ugggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

This is how we treat people who we don’t believe are experts about their own experiences. Their needs are always debatable, “understanding” is presented as the key to unlocking compassion and care, and it’s irresistible, really, because who wants to go against increasing understanding? What wouldn’t you attempt in a quest to “only connect” with someone who is so important to you? Surely if you just explain yourself well enough, your mom will understand, and once she understands, she’ll care, and then she’ll do the right thing. It’s a perfect trap because you’re a scholar of this stuff, because you believe in reading and well-reasoned arguments. And it’s a perfect trap for her, too, because the well-worn position where she imagines that she is the authority on what’s best for you is far more comfortable than than the reality where you know more about certain things than she does (like yourself)(and the course of study that you are a relative expert in). But your identity is not disprovable by people who aren’t you, even if everybody does the required reading!

I think it would be wonderful if your mom would come to understand where you’re coming from, and I, too would love it if she could read the perfect argument that would make her say, “Yes, okay, I get it!” and treat you right. But I also think that she needs to do right by you right fucking now whether she understands or not. As it stands, the more you try to persuade her, the more the framing persists that this is a project of persuasion, with you as the one who must persuade and your mom as the arbiter of how much persuasion is possible. To disrupt this dynamic, I want to get you out of the persuader-and-comforter-of-Mom role and reset the relationship a little bit. It’s time to enforce a set of boundaries and expect a set of loving and respectful behaviors immediately, and hope that understanding follows.

First, if you can safely get a little physical distance from your mom,  do it. The dorms, another relative’s house, a friend’s house, walks outside, do something so that she’s not in your face and in your head all the time. This is a gift to both of you, I think. She needs some time on her own to process, you need some time to not feel like a freshly picked scab.

Next, I want you to take stock of all your supportive resources – emotional and physical – that don’t depend on your mom. If she gets nasty and starts throwing out ultimatums, do you have safe people and safe places to go? What can your school offer? Who’s got a couch you could crash on for a while? Do you have access to bank accounts and your important paperwork? Hopefully this is too much caution on my part and you’ll never need this list, but a lot of people who never thought they’d need it have turned out to need it, so emergency planning is going to be an unfortunate part of the coming out process until we make a different world.

For now, it’s also time to limit conversations about gender at home, not deepen/expand/footnote them. You told your mom a fact about yourself and gave her some reading material. You’re not Transgender Siri, open for 24-7 Thought Experiments. “Mom, I know you have questions, but I’m kind of exhausted talking about it right now. Can we just watch some TV together?” 

Then, as soon as you have some time/headspace, could you grab a journal or blank document and make a list of things you need from your mom right now? “Mom, whether or not you understand why, I need   _________________. “

You don’t have to show your mom the document or express all – or any- of these things to her now or ever. I just want to yank this back from being all about what she claims to need from you in order to do right by you. You’re a young adult in the middle of a huge, transformative thing. What do you wish your mom would do about that? What did you hope her reaction would be like? Now that you’ve told her, what do you need her to actually do in the day-to-day to make this easier on you?

Possibilities that come to mind:

  • “…I need you to use my correct name and pronouns.”
  • “…I need you to use my correct name and pronouns without arguing and without every conversation becoming about your feelings about my gender. If you mess up, apologize quickly and move on!” 
  • “…I need home to be a safe place that I can decompress and spend time with you, just hanging out, without having to justify or explain my whole existence.”
  • “…I’ve shared some resources that were meaningful to me, personally, but I can’t actually teach you how to process this while I’m in the middle of going through it. If you want to discuss gender identity and transition more in depth, there are groups and resources for parents, and I need you take some of your questions and anxieties there, especially while this is all still so new for both of us.” 
  • “…I need what every kid needs: I need you to tell me that you love me and that you’re proud of me.” 
  • “…I need to be able to tell you true stuff about myself without having to comfort you because I turned out different than what you imagined.” 
  • “…I need you to accept that I have the final say in how I identify and describe that identity. You’re not going to be able to argue me into being different than who I am, and I can’t keep discussing this with you if that’s your end goal.” 
  • “…Mom, I could use a trip to a tailor and some money to replace some wardrobe pieces with stuff that fits me better.” 
  • “…I don’t need you to earn a PhD in gender studies, I need you to be my mom right now. As my mom, you don’t have to understand everything about everything in order to be nice to me and be on my side, right?” 
  • “…Telling you my gender identity doesn’t mean you get to comment on my body or my dating/love/sex life. That stuff is private and not up for discussion!” 
  • “…I need you to help me spread the word to the extended family, and I need you to help enforce name & pronoun expectations with them.” 

Your list doesn’t have to include any of what my vicariously-generated one does, and it will almost certainly have stuff that hasn’t even occurred to me here, and that’s fine! It just matters that it’s authentic to you. Once you have your list, pick some basic actions that would make you feel better and that you feel like you can consistently insist that your mom do, whether or not she understands or agrees with the why. These will be the seeds of your boundaries, stuff where you can repeat “Oh hey, he/they pronouns please, thanks” and expect her to do what’s needed without engulfing you a long, draining discussion about it. (I keep mentioning names, both because they are important, and because cis people change their names all the time and everybody rolls with it. When Miss Thing from college got married and changed her name to Mrs. Dicksmack Elderberry Wiggenspoof IV, your mom may have had private opinions about that, but I bet she managed to not be an asshole directly to the lady in question when she wrote out the annual holiday cards, so surely she can muster the same baseline of good manners on behalf of her child?)

Once you shift the territory from “What does your mom need to understand in order to be nice to you?” to “What does your mom need to do in order to be nice to you?” it gets much simpler. Not easier, but simpler, in that the more your mom does affirming and supportive actions without creating additional friction for you, the better relationship you’ll have. The more she makes you fight for basic politeness and respect, the more you’ll shut down boundary-crossing conversations and the less time you’ll spend with her. Making it simpler also means that your scripts can stay fairly consistent and incorporate tons of positive feedback for the behavior you want to see, while still refusing to make fixing her heart your job: “”Mom, I don’t really know how to explain that to you, but thanks for [doing the thing I need you to do] anyway, it really means a lot to me!” 

If she really wants to be a supportive mom, her way forward is clear: Do the kind, supportive, necessary thing for her son now AND seek more resources/readings/discussions understanding on her own time, until actions, understanding, and heart align. If those things can’t happen all at once, she should start with kind, affirming actions and words.

Important: Often, when you first set and actually enforce a boundary, the other person’s words and emotional reactions get worse as they try to bluster and bully and manipulate you into compliance, but their behavior gets better. It’s often referred to as an “extinction burst” when the boundary-crossing or -disrespecting person senses their control slipping and in panic they throw everything possible at the problem in hopes that you’ll decide it’s just “easier” to do what they want. They’ll often “neg” you – calling you “selfish” or “ungrateful” is pretty common – in order to try to blame you for how they are behaving and trick you into proving you are not that thing (by doing what they want). When you’re dealing with someone who Just Wants To Talk About It One More Time, So They Can Finally Understand, it can be really, really hard to stay consistent with your boundary, because you want to communicate, dammit! If you won’t engage until the boundary is respected, it becomes so easy for them to paint themselves as the Great Peacemaker and you as the one who is perversely refusing to engage. It’s a tempting trap, but until the boundary is respected, it’s still a trap.

If you can anticipate and plan for the traps, it can make it easier to hold your course. To do this, when you’re just starting out with enforcing a certain boundary, try to give the other person’s emotional outbursts as little attention as you can manage, and treat evidence of each behavior change as signal that it’s working and proof that you should continue. Examples:

  • Mom rolls her eyes and dramatically sighs every time she gets your name right = Mom got your name right = It’s working, so keep insisting!
  • Mom uses the wrong pronouns, but immediately corrected herself = Mom used correct pronouns = It’s working.  Keep insisting!
  • Mom calls you “selfish” or “childish” or “inconsistent ” for having a boundary, but does the thing you asked her to anyway = She did the thing = Keep insisting!

This grace period of “she was annoying about it, but at least she did it”  has a limited shelf-life, and I’m sure readers could tell you stories about “Family Member, I transitioned TWENTY YEARS AGO, come the fuck on with pretending you ‘can’t remember’,” but in the very beginning, getting the actions to accrue in your favor is the first step to building a new normal where good behaviors are routine and performative backlash and outrage are way too much effort – for them – to continue.

Finally, before I go, I just want to reiterate: Your mom’s journey toward understanding and acceptance is ultimately her own project. You’re not harming her by being who you are, you’re not being trans at her, you owe her neither defense nor restitution nor an annotated syllabus. You’ve been generous so far in sharing yourself and trying to educate her in the right direction, but your worth was never subject to her limitations, and it’s entirely unfair that you should have to do all this work to be accepted in your own home. I hope your mom does the right thing and tries her best to deserve having such a wonderful, thoughtful, beautiful, lovable kid. I’m sending love, and I know everybody in AwkwardLand is rooting for you. 

Dear Captain Awkward,

I was wondering if you could either please help me with the problem I have, or let me know if I’m making too big of a deal out of it. I (33, nonbinary transmasc, he/they) need some strategies to deal with adults who interrupt me. I am a tour guide and a lot of my interactions with guests go like this:

Me: “Hello, everyone! Welcome to the [historical site]. Would you like me to tell you a little bit about the–

Guest: “When was this house built?”

Me: “Oops, haha, I was just going to tell you that! This [site] was built all the way back in [year], by the famous [historical figure]–”

Guest: “How long did [historical figure] live here?”

Me: “Oh, I was just going to get to that! The [historical figure] family lived here from–”

Guest: “How much of the furniture is real?”

Me: [Internally dying]

Because of my painfully long history of both being socialized as a woman and having worked in customer service since my teens, I always stay smiling and pleasant throughout these interactions, no matter how grating. I am proud of myself that in recent years, I have taken to speaking up at home when family members interrupt me by saying things like, “Oh sorry, I actually wasn’t done speaking yet,” or, “I’m sorry, I hadn’t finished the end of my sentence yet.” I feel safe doing this at home because my parents cannot demand to speak to my manager if they feel offended.

Why I feel that this might be a “me” problem is that I’ve heard from multiple sources about “collaborative overlapping,” where people from some cultures/backgrounds are used to interrupting each other. I honestly don’t know if I’m savvy enough to distinguish collaborative overlapping from people who are being just plain rude and thoughtless. Where is the line?

Is it ever appropriate to gently let adult customers know that you weren’t done talking? I honestly don’t mind if kids interrupt me, because they are still learning manners, but I feel like adults should know better. Or is that just me being insensitive to other ways of talking?

Tired Plebian

Hello from a former college teacher who had to learn how to deal with being constantly interrupted by student questions! I am using exclamation points because I am excited about helping solve a very fixable problem that I have a lot of experience with!

First, I love the example scripts you provided, I can picture the dynamic perfectly. However, I’ve noticed that they all contain a little morsel of pre-apology to the person who is doing the interrupting. At work: “Oops, haha…” “Oh, I was just going to get into that…” With family: “Oh sorry, I actually wasn’t done speaking yet,.” The person is throwing you out of your groove, and you’re apologizing for not reading their minds and working even faster. At work, at very least, I want you to actively practice not apologizing when this happens. Not even a little crumb of “sorry.”

:Brief commercial break while Canadian readers recover:

To accomplish this, I want you to stop thinking of the constantly-interrupting people as customers who need to be catered to at all costs and start thinking of them as participants in a group. You’re in charge of leading a group through an experience. In your opinion, does the interrupting behavior enhance or detract from the experience of the group? You’re worried about potentially pissing off the interrupters, but if you cater solely to them, what about everybody who doesn’t interrupt you? What are they missing when you don’t get to everything you wanted to say because one person kept interrupting you and dominating the experience? How much of everybody else’s time is spent catering to this person? I’d argue that learning to manage this isn’t about your own customer service abilities or personal standards for rudeness, it’s about managing a distraction that impedes your ability to do your actual job and serve everybody who visits the site.

With that framing, here are some practical steps:

1. Set clear expectations from the start. “Hello and welcome! Before we get started, there are a few housekeeping rules. [Insert info about what can be touched, where exits and bathrooms are, rules about photos and recording devices, etc.]. Finally, in every room/stage of the tour, I’ll deliver some information for everybody first, and then I’ll pause so that you can ask questions. If a question pops up at other times, I’ll ask that you kindly hold off until those periodic discussion breaks, so we can all hear each other and stay on topic, thank you.” 

Laying out expectations doesn’t mean nobody will ever interrupt you again, you will definitely be interrupted both by people who are extremely enthusiastic and curious and people who heard you and assumed “Surely they don’t mean ME,” a.k.a. the exact same people who interrupt you now. But setting it up from the start gives you more room to maneuver, and it tells everybody exactly what will happen: a) Don’t worry, there will be time to ask questions, so there’s no pressure to absorb everything all at once, and, b) People can certainly ask questions as they pop up, but they won’t be attended to until the Q&A.

2. Pause, then try working the interruption into the flow of what you intended to say anyway. 

For example, when a guest interrupts your intro to ask When was this house built?,” if that’s part of what you were just about to cover, pause briefly to reorient yourself, then use the question to continue speaking to the whole group. “Everybody in? Great. Gather round. Now, the house was built in [Date] by the [Family], but the part we’re standing in was an addition in [Date].”  Spiel continues….

The pause is important. It can be short, but don’t skip it. It’s an efficient way of silently communicating with multiple audiences at once, delivering “Oh, yup, I heard you,” “There’s a rule about asking questions, you’re not misremembering that!,” and “Don’t worry, I got this” to whoever needs to hear what.

For added effect, try holding up a hand or finger in a non-verbal “”One minute!” or “I see you, please wait!” gesture during the pause to acknowledge the question asker before you return to addressing the group, so they aren’t tempted to keep repeating their question even louder.

3. Remind, redirect, and thank people in advance for doing the thing you want them to do. 

If the same guest then immediately interrupts to ask, “So how long did the [historical figure] live here?” 

Briefly pause again, take a breath, reorient yourself in what you were about to say, and only then address the person. Try keeping a smile and a very even tone, but be firm. “Good timing, we’re about to cover that period in detail, so please hold onto that thought for when we get to questions! Thank you!”

Then, do something with your body language and attention to consciously return to speaking to the group as a whole: “Now, this room was used for [purpose], which is interesting because ….” 

It’s tempting to think that it’s easier to just answer each little quick question and move on, and sometimes it is! Every group is going to be different, so calibrate these strategies as you go depending on who is in the room and how you’re feeling about all of it. Just, keep in mind, people are here to hear from you and learn from you for a reason. If it takes you a second to get back on track, go ahead and take that second!

4. When it’s Q & A Time, definitely *do* go back and invite the interrupters to ask their questions. 

Give them lots of friendly attention and praise during those intervals.“I appreciate your patience! Now, I remember, you were asking about [historical period], Sir. To answer your question, it’s _______.”  If the rest of the group isn’t really asking questions and is more talking amongst themselves, definitely take time to go up to the person and engage more one-on-one. You want the interruptions to stop, not the enthusiasm!

In fact, a very good classroom practice that may be transferrable to you is to give people breathers to talk amongst themselves between “lecture” time and “Big Group Q&A” time. While they’re discussing or just taking the place in, circulate around quietly to each individual and small group, and bring the best insights and questions back to the bigger group  before moving on to the next thing. “You all have such interesting questions! For example, who knows what a ______ is?” Having a loud, interrupt-y, “this group activity is more of a 1:1 chat between me and the teacher” person in the room can have a quelling effect on everybody else, where, even if the quieter people CAN get a word in, they don’t want to come across like That One Person, so they don’t speak up, to everybody’s loss. Doing something like this gives the louder people some of the individual attention and affirmation they crave while also making sure more voices and insights make it into the room.

5. Remember, there’s only so much you can do. 

If one person is really determined to make it all about themselves, there’s only so many ways to be like, “Okay, only one person can be talking at a time, and right now that’s me! We’ll get to your questions and comments in just a moment, ma’am!” or “We also conduct PRIVATE tours of the space, if you’d like to book one of those just check in with the reception desk!” and keep your cool, so if you’re not able to successfully pre-empt it or shut it down every time, assume this person is this way everywhere, with everyone, and it’s probably not you. There are a lot of turds in the world who feel entitled to be catered to in all things at all times. They won’t perish if you shush ’em.

This advice isn’t about being perfect, or never being interrupted again, it’s about restoring a sense of agency and control so that you can incorporate interruptions into your flow without letting the tour be hijacked in a way that upsets you and disrupts the rest of the group. I hope it helps, happy explaining!

Dear Captain Awkward,

I need some advice on how to be Switzerland, if that’s even possible. Honestly, I’m mostly just horribly heartstick at how broken my family is because of COVID, and I know that whatever your response may be to this, you’ll be sympathetic to how much Everything Sucks right now.

Here’s the scoop, as succinctly as I can make it. Which isn’t very succinct, ugh, and there’s some nuance and details I’ve had to leave out for the sake of brevity.

So, we’ve got my parents (M&D, she/her, he/him). They’re team COVID Isn’t a Huge Threat for Me, so Therefore it’s Not at All. Not Covid doesn’t exist! microchips in the vaccines!, but they definitely watch too much Fox News. Got the initial vaccine, thank heavens, but are refusing boosters because…I think it’s mostly “we don’t know the long-term effects of the vaccine” and “CDC guidance keeps changing, how can I trust their opinion?” Luckily, they live in a rural area where COVID cases have always been low, and since they abide by basic health-and-safety standards, they’ve stayed healthy and haven’t even had any exposure.

As for me, I like to think I’m Team Unsexy Facts, namely that COVID isn’t the Black Death or the common cold, and people hyping it up/downplaying it to one or the other is extremely damaging. COVID can be serious for some, mild for others. The best way to ensure you’ll be one of the latter and not overwhelm the hospital system is to get vaccinated/boosted. I personally don’t have any additional health risks, so I’ve maintained a social circle and even do things like eat out occasionally, etc., although I wear my mask in public and stay away from crowded bars, etc. I recognize I’m in a privileged position here, and I try to be respectful of people’s respective risk tolerances….which brings me to…

My brother and sister-in-law (SNL, she/her) have two children, a toddler and a baby. They live in a city several hours away from M&D. SNL is on the opposite end of the spectrum from M&D when it comes to politics and thus COVID. To her, if you pass someone in the street and you aren’t wearing a mask, you’ve been exposed to COVID. It is always a terrible, scary disease, and the fact that we don’t have long-term data about it makes it even scarier.

SNL has consistently drawn very hard lines around seeing the children, such as requiring two week, you-can’t-leave-your house quarantines, although she relaxed a little a couple of months ago to “limit social interactions and wear a mask when you go out.” M&D have had a Bad Attitude about it, but complied: They’re butts, but honest ones. But now, since M&D haven’t gotten boosters, SNL refuses to let them visit, even if they agree to quarantine beforehand.

There’s a lot I’m not going into here, but believe me when I say that over the last two years, there’s been some relationship-damaging communication and behavior on both sides, such as SNL deciding that Mom could visit, but not hold the grandchildren, and not telling Mom until she’d arrived and went to hug one of them…and I’m sure my parent’s general Bad Attitude is what’s led to SNL’s trust issues about whether they’re really masking/quarantining.

To my SNL, if the children go outside the bubble, they will probably be exposed to COVID, they will probably catch it, it will probably be severe and will probably have long-term effects. Any risk is too much risk!!!

To M&D, there is no risk, so why is SNL being so paranoid??!!? 

My perspective is: If the children go outside the bubble, there’s a chance they’ll be exposed to COVID, there’s a chance they’ll catch it, there’s a chance it may be severe, and there’s a chance it will have long-term effects. There’s no denying there’s risk. However, both children are perfectly “normal and healthy,” and for such children, two years of data indicates that COVID is no better or worse than the Flu or RSV – which can be dangerous, but most often isn’t. Therefore, the risk is outweighed by the benefits of getting grandchildren socialized and having a relationship with family. Risk vs. Reward.

M&D see only reward and no risk, and my SNL sees nothing but Red-Alert-Risk. Obviously, the twain do not meet. And here I am, stuck in the middle.

A lot of my pissed-off-ness it is at my SNL, but I’m also increasingly pissed at my parents. As unreasonable as my SNL may be, M&D’s Bad Attitude makes every.single.thing harder than it needs to be. For example, they could solve a lot of problems instantly by just getting the damn booster. But, ironically, they’re using the same logic my SNL is using: “There are some questions about long-term outcomes. And any risk is too much risk!”

I don’t talk with my SNL much, but, when I do, it’s becoming harder and harder to just nod and smile when she starts talking about COVID precautions. With my parents, I’m in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with them that SNL is being a butt, but having to also try to point out that they’re being butts too. And it’s been this way for two.bleeping.years., and I am tired.

How do I deal?

Sincerely,

Probably-Being-A-Butt-Too

Hello, Probable Butt,

I’ve preserved your email subject line as the headline, “Family being opposite but equal butts about COVID – How do I maintain sanity?” It’s part of a through-line of treating both sides as if they are equally wrong/annoying/unreasonable in your letter, and I’m sure it feels to you like everyone is being equally unreasonable/annoying, but I would argue that the two sides are not the same, and treating them as equal value propositions is very much part of the problem.

From your letter: “My perspective is: If the children go outside the bubble, there’s a chance they’ll be exposed to COVID, there’s a chance they’ll catch it, there’s a chance it may be severe, and there’s a chance it will have long-term effects. There’s no denying there’s risk. However, both children are perfectly “normal and healthy,” and for such children, two years of data indicates that COVID is no better or worse than the Flu or RSV – which can be dangerous, but most often isn’t. Therefore, the risk is outweighed by the benefits of getting grandchildren socialized and having a relationship with family. Risk vs. Reward.” 

I’m very glad that you have found a way to have a social life and manage your own risks in a way that feels sustainable for you. That is not an easy thing to do, especially as the variants keep changing the risk landscape. But you’re not going to be able to apply your own decision-making to what your brother and your sister-in-law should be doing or how they should feel about it. Statistics about sick and dying kids include plenty of real, actual kids; “but it was statistically unlikelyyyyyyyyyy!” doesn’t mean shit if your kid is one of them.

Your brother and sister-in-law are caring for children who are too young to be vaccinated yet. Plus, even if it were theoretically possible to ensure robust compliance, masks are not recommended for kids under two years old. That’s two lines of defense that are available to you –gone. This means that your niblings’ lives depend a whole lot on other people making safe choices, and that means your brother and his wife have a completely different risk calculus than you do. Look around. Do you see large groups of people making good choices that prioritize protecting society’s most vulnerable people? Do you see institutions trumpeting the importance of protecting vulnerable people and doing all they can to make protecting them as easy/seamless/safe/automatic as possible? Because this expendable walking sack of co-morbidities is…not…seeing that.

The pandemic is a shitshow and people’s tolerance and endurance is deteroriating, so yes, you all have my sympathies. I believe you that some of your sister-in-law’s fears *may* come across as paranoia, and I believe you that that you find her generally draining or have reached the end of your patience. But again, her children are too young to be vaccinated, they can’t wear masks, and their lives depend on the adults around them making safe choices. Your parents are individuals, true, but they are also part of a giant, screaming pattern of people and institutions dismissing and minimizing caution when it gets in the way of what they want. (While we’re here, remember when all those smug assholes in the spring wrote think-pieces about how we were “addicted to the pandemic” if high-risk people kept wearing masks and being generally cautious about indoor socializing even though vaccines were available? I’m not an epidemiologist but I suspect “lol at your pointless caution in defense of your own life” isn’t the ‘gotcha’ they were going for.)

Right now, especially with Omicron surging, everywhere your sister-in-law takes those kids, every time someone outside the bubble crosses the threshold of her home, she’s got to run a calculus around who is reliable about vaccination and masking, who will test, will there even be tests, who would be honest and actually stay home if they felt sick, is this a worthwhile risk given other risks from going to work/buying groceries/having home repairs done/going about the non-optional parts of daily life. All of the pre-pandemic things she could safely and enjoyably do to handle life stuff and get the kids more social interaction, like having Gam-Gam and Pee-Paw come over, putting the kids in daycare, having playdates,  having grownup friends over to hang with the kids and have some adult conversation after bedtime, or hiring babysitters so she and your brother can get a break, all of that is GONE unless she’s willing to say “fuck it, might as well get COVID!” or unless she’s very, very careful about who she trusts.

Nothing is without risk, true, so then it becomes about controlling what you can control. One thing she can control is who comes to see the kids and what her rules are about that. And any cost-benefit analysis about having the grandparents over has to account for:

  • Can your sister-in-law trust these specific people to do whatever is in their power to minimize the risk that they’ll expose her, your brother, and the kids to COVID-19?  Until they get the booster, at very least, that’s a flat no.
  • Re: “bad attitudes,” can your sister-in-law trust your parents to actually respect her house rules and protocols without being giant assholes about it and making her have to monitor and remind them, justify, and fight for every single inch, and submit to being treated like she’s a bigger problem than a deadly infectious disease? That also sounds like…no.
  • Does being around your parents add a major stressor to your sister-in-law’s life right now? I’m betting on yes.

But “grandparents”! But “family connections!” But also, increased risk of BOTH serious illness AND of having an extremely unpleasant time! Sounds fun! That time your mom visited and the rule was “You can come over but surprise! No hugs!”  clearly backfired, and it would have been better to spell out the rules beforehand, but in that case, the obvious default  is still, “Don’t like my rules, don’t visit us.”  Having one thing backfire doesn’t erase the ongoing need for caution or make your sister-in-law “just as wrong” as your parents.

So where does this leave you, trying to be Switzerland?

First, I would suggest getting out/staying out of the role of mediator/messenger as much as possible. “That sounds like a question for sister-in-law and brother.” “Have you told the parents what you’re telling me?”  “I hope you work out a safe way to get together soon!” “Hmmm, their house, their rules, sounds like.” It’s okay to cut conversations much shorter for your own sanity and stop being the clearinghouse where everyone comes to vent. The more everybody vents about it, and the more everybody gets the message that both sides are just as bad, the more entrenched everyone will get, and the less peace you’ll have.

Speaking of, second recommendation is drop the “both sides are equally bad” nonsense.

If your parents want to see their grandkids, they have choices. They could get the damn jab already. They could collaborate with their son and daughter-in-law about visits and ask what precautions would make everybody most comfortable in advance, so there are no more “no hugs” surprises. They could stop treating their daughter-in-law like an unreasonable B-word and be real and empathetic about how fucking terrifying it must be to be a parent right now. When she says something is too risky, instead of dismissing it automatically, they could say, “Well, we want to see you and the kids, so what can we do to make it possible?”  “What can we do to support you and keep everyone safe?” “Is there anything we can do to ease your mind or make this all easier for you?” “If visits are on hold for now, what are other ways to stay connected?” Video chats, video story time, and mailed toddler artwork all still exist, even if everybody’s sick of them

If you want to talk to your parents about it, tell them that it’s possible to think somebody is being overly cautious and still adhere to their house rules, so do they want to visit or not? “Sibling and sister-in-law are in charge of who sees the kids and when, so what’s the worst that happens if you do as they ask?” “She’s been pretty clear that nothing’s happening until the two of you get the booster, so probably start there! :shrug: I gotta go, love you, talk soon.” 

If you’re exhausted with hearing your sister-in-law’s pronouncements of doom, it’s okay to disengage a bit, but I would stop treating her like she’s “just as bad” as your parents and err more on the side of validating her feelings and emphasizing her agency in the face of the anxiety. “There’s too much information and not enough at the same time, it must be maddening as a parent to try to process all of it.” “That must feel awful. What do you think you’ll do?” “If I want to hang out with the niblings, what do you need from me to make that happen?” “Is there something I could do to make this a little easier for you?”  You don’t have to fully agree with her about everything to do this, you can say “That hasn’t been my experience/that’s not my understanding of how that works, but what do you think you’ll do about it?”  as a way to redirect her when you think she’s spiraling. You don’t have to try to play it cool or be smooth. “SNLname, I hear you, but I’ve already used up all my Pandemic Worry this week. But I am glad to hear from you, so tell me,  what are you and Brother making for dinner? Are you reading or watching anything good?” 

I hope your family can all get on Team “Let’s Try Our Goddamn Absolute Best To Not Give The Grandkids A Preventable Illness” sooner rather than later. Comments are even more off than usual, but I do want to share two resources that I’ve found helpful/reassuring:

I’m wishing everyone maximum safety and minimum arguing with people who are being butts out there. Remember, the mask goes OVER the nose.

Hello! 

This is a bit complex, but I’ll try to be as succinct as possible. 

A particular relationship (or rather, a lack thereof) has been paining me for years. 

I (36 F) met L (55 M) almost 10 years ago when I was bartending. He was a regular, and while I found him very attractive, A: he was married (albeit lengthily and unhappily, which was known to the other regulars) and B: I have a lot of insecurity about my appearance and didn’t think he’d be attracted to me. One night my shift relief didn’t come in on time, causing me to miss a ride to an event with friends. When my relief did show up he offered to give me a ride. In a turn of events that surprised me we wound up hooking up that night. 

I was in a terribly position financially and in regards to living arrangements and he helped me multiple times without my asking him for anything, and didn’t hold his help over my head. We continued to hook up with the understanding that it wouldn’t lead to anything, but I fell for him, as one does. 

I confessed my feelings to him and he confessed similar feelings for me, but said that he didn’t see how divorce was possible for him at the time (he and the wife share 2 children who were both going through a considerable amount and relied heavily on both parents for support.) 

This hurt me deeply, but I accepted it and eventually started seeing another man (33 M) whom we’ll call P. I’d been very honest with P about my feelings for L, and that being in a serious relationship wasn’t in the cards as long as those feelings were present. P managed to convince me that L wasn’t genuine and that I’d be better off with him. Wanting very much to be wanted, I began a relationship with P that wound up being incredibly toxic and abusive. It lasted for about 6 years, and abandoned communicating with L at Ps request. 

Eventually the relationship with P imploded and I reconnected with L in 2018. All of the old feelings were still there, and though we now lived 4 hours apart, we met up several times and stayed overnight at hotels together. Though we cared deeply for each other, L was concerned that I lived too far away for a relationship to work. 

At the end of 2020, I made the move north that I thought would be better for my job prospects as well as possibly make some headway with L. I was very surprised upon moving that he was seeing someone. According to him, he never thought I’d make the move. We stopped talking for several weeks, but wound up texting again after that relationship failed for him. After a lot of texting and a few outings to lunch, we slept together several more times. 

Throughout all of this, I’ve been plagued endlessly by abandonment issues, impatience, and longing for this very cautious man whom I’ve loved for almost a decade at this point. In anger I’ve pushed him away repeatedly, only to text back during lonely periods. I very recently blew up on him via text, demanding an answer. Eventually he informed me that while he had feelings for me, he couldn’t abide being repeatedly pushed away and is now “trying to live peacefully.” 

I’ve accepted that as best I can and am continuing my therapy for various mental health issues. 

Recently, another blow was dealt in that he’s recently been diagnosed with what is probably a brain tumor and I’m in absolute shreds over this. 

What do I do? 

Sincerely, 

At A Loss 

Dear At A Loss,

Between you, me, and the Internet I can admit that there have been times when I was low and lonely and somebody came along who was a) absolutely a bad idea on every possible indicator level and b) seemed like the only human capable of making me feel like a living, breathing person in a moment when I really needed that. Alas, I’m not a stranger to the “relationship” that’s  intoxicating and perfect as long as nobody else knows about it, as long as nobody actually needs anything from it, and as long as it touches the space-time continuum and normal, functional, daily life as seldom as possible. So please know, I”m not judging your grief or the longings that led you here. You were lost, and L. made you feel like you were found, and nobody else had ever done that in quite that way before, so you told yourself that driving several hours to fuck in a hotel room, or staying loyal to him even while you were involved with other people, or, at long last, moving across state lines for him was the kind of grand gesture that would add up to a future together. You could love him so much that it would constitute a form of proof. 

But other people don’t work that way. Your feelings were so deep and true that you didn’t notice or found ways to ignore how consistently this guy told you, “This is all there is or will ever be” between meeting now and then for sex/lunch. It’s not that he never had feelings for you, but I think that there’s always been a “but” if you’d only listen to the end of the sentence:

  • “…I’m married and not getting a divorce because the kids need me.” 
  • “…I”m seeing someone else.” /”…I never thought you’d move here.”  It’s unclear whether L. was still married AND seeing someone else on the side when you rolled into town, but, let’s be real. It’s far from impossible.
  • “…I just want to live peacefully.” (i.e. “I didn’t expect you to actually need and depend on me” “I’ve considered your ultimatum and I guess the answer is ‘no’.” “Whoa, sorry, still not leaving my wife, especially now that I’ll need someone to do the hardcore care-taking!”) 
  •  Consider that the night you first hooked up was a surprise to you, but I highly doubt it was much of surprise to the 45-year-old married barfly who pounced the second you were in a vulnerable place.

The tumor is a cruel twist, but maybe it’s also a giant, flaming arrow pointing in the direction of It’s long past time for you to grieve this man like he died and start getting on with the rest of your life.”

As for how to do that, you already know: Keep going to therapy. Delete his number and block or otherwise shut down any of the ways he can get in touch with you. Start locking your phone in a time-safe at night or other vulnerable times so you won’t be tempted to text him. Pour your feelings into a journal and letters that you don’t send. Find ways to be nice to yourself. Sing all the sad songs at the top of your lungs. Keep your Asshole Detector polished and sharp so you’re not tempted by the next troubled, unavailable dude who crosses your path. Repeat after me: “Unhappily married” unfaithful men are married men, not boyfriend material. They all have a story about why they are different and special, and when you’re 26 (like you were when you first met L.) they can sound very compelling, but the older you get the more you’ll realize that all the stories sound exactly the same: “I would like to have sex with you, and I have Very Good Reasons for why nothing is ever my fault.” 

Mourn L., yes, but as a way to being done with him. The feelings will have their say awhile yet, but this limbo of “what do I do?” ends the second you accept what’s already happening, the second you take L. at his word that he doesn’t want to actually build anything with you.. He wasn’t the one for you. You can say for sure that you tried everything. Stop trying. Lay down this project where you fix him or fix the situation somehow. You name yourself “At a Loss,” but it’s past time to cut your losses.

I truly don’t know where people like this come from, and I don’t know where they go once they pass through our lives, I’ve never had the fortitude to follow the wake of destruction back to the source when it’s me digging out of the rubble. Do they go back to the shitty marriages they complained about constantly? Back to sending secret sexts to their latest dopamine supply? Do they eventually get therapists of their own and realize, “wait, I was being a giant piece of shit, I’ll definitely stop that!” or do they just serially hit on all the junior staff and everyone in their AA meetings, world without end? I don’t know what justice looks like here, even as I convert my own past follies into cautionary tales.

Letter Writer, I predict that if you do the work to get L. out of your system, if you cut your losses and truly let time heal that part of you, there’s a future for you on the other side of all this where some pathetic married geezer will attempt to put the moves on you or some younger version of you out where you can see, and you’ll throw your head back and just fucking CACKLE at his audacity. “Oh, did you mistake this for free marriage counseling? Surely you weren’t whining about your wife and kids as a seduction technique?”  The other ladies around the bar will have a good laugh together, and you’ll all make sure everybody has a safe ride home, while he slinks off into the night with howls of derision ringing in his ears. When it happens, pour one out for L., it will be a tribute as good as any stone or marker.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My mom passed away when I was quite young. In the years that followed, my relationship with my dad disintegrated.

While I’m sure I’m not blameless in that disintegration, it was overall pretty one-sided. Before my mom passed, he refused to talk to me on the phone once I’d moved away, citing that he had “nothing to say.” After she died, I heard from him less and less.

There were a few years of contact after he remarried: he invited me and my ex husband to visit him at his winter home a few times, and a twice I stayed at his home (across the country from mine, quite a trip to make), once for the purpose of work, and once attend a friend’s wedding. Both times, he left me alone in his home for multiple days while he left to visit friends, or to travel to his winter home. To clarify: both times I spent more than half of my stay alone, after I had specifically taken an extended period of time off with the intention of visiting with him, which I communicated to him about in the months leading up to my visits.

In the time since his wedding, he has more or less stopped calling me or sending cards on important days. He has done the same with my brothers, who live in the same city as he does, choosing instead to spend his time with his new wife, and with her children and grandchildren. When my ex husband and I separated, I told him in advance that I needed him to be there for me, even if just for five minutes, on one especially hard day. He reluctantly agreed, but then texted me day-of to say that he had a Christmas party, so wouldn’t have time to take a call. I have since stopped reaching out to him entirely, and as result we barely talk.

It has been ten years since my mother passed, and my current partner and I are planning to be married. Is there any way that I can reasonably ask my dad about my mom’s wedding rings? I have desired them since her passing (she and I were very close), but did’t dare ask sooner because I thought it would be disrespectful to him and to his grief. He now seems to be happily moved on– remarried, and invested in his new family. If I sound bitter, it’s because I am, but I still want to be respectful, and further am worried that my asking will allow him to somehow spin a story about me a greedy daughter (rather than as the daughter he abandoned, but who misses her mother). Please help.

Hello, thank you for your question.

I don’t think this is an unreasonable request at all, and I suggest that you just go right to it:

“Hello Dad, if you are still holding onto any of Mom’s jewelry, especially her rings, can I please have it? It would mean a lot to me. You can send it to [address] or I can have [Brother*] pick it up.Thank you.”   

[*I normally do not encourage people to delegate difficult family stuff to others, but in this case, if you think a trusted sibling would be willing to do this for you, then yes! Recruit a local to solve the “Dad said yes but never actually sent it” stage of this problem!]

Don’t assume anything about what his reaction will be or try to manage it, and don’t loop through past disputes. Ask for what you want, present tense, and give him the opportunity to rise to the occasion. This is a kindness to both you and your dad.

If the wedding ring got buried with her, or he doesn’t want to part with it for sentimental reasons, he’s got access to the same 26-letter alphabet that you do and can tell you so in words. “I’m so sorry, I’d really like to hold onto it.” You’d be sad, but at least you’d know for sure, and the problem of approaching him wouldn’t be hanging over you anymore. Maybe a good thing to do before you ask is to pick out a plan B ring that you love, so it will be slightly less fraught.

As you fear, your dad may be affronted and spin some story about you being a “greedy” daughter and you can be like, you know what, I am greedy, GREEDY FOR KINDNESS, thanks for sending those rings, I’d like them by [date] and I can reimburse you for the shipping. If he gets accusatory or insults you, my bet would be that he lost it or already gave it all away to his new family and feels guilty, so he’s taking it out on you. Fun thought! Not actually fun! But totally in character! If he reacts badly, it won’t be because you asked wrong or weren’t supposed to ask. Can him thinking of badly of you compare to how badly you already think of him? The dad who ditched his kids when their other parent died is hardly in charge of defining “selfishness” for other people.

On the plus side, he may also just go ahead and send the jewelry on without a second thought or word. He’s been totally avoidant and absent from your life since your mom passed, so if he can get rid of stuff that he doesn’t use or want to think about without having to have a conversation about feelings, that would also be in character. This is not a man who runs toward the difficult conversations! It’s sad and painful given what you needed from him, but in this case his reticence might not be the worst thing.

No matter the possible reactions, I think the best way to ask is to keep it extremely simple and direct and omit apologies that you don’t owe and reasons that he won’t care about. Does he still have the jewelry? Can you have it? When/how is the easiest way for you to collect it? Thanks so much.

I’m sorry about your mom, anniversaries can be really tough. Congratulations to you on your upcoming marriage. ❤

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