Do I have to be a mommy to “opt out”?

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 24, 2007

I’m crazy in love with my two sisters’ five kids. I feel like helping to raise them would give my life meaning.


Dear Cary,

My younger sisters each recently had two babies apiece — two boys on one side, two girls on the other side. There’s also a fantastic 7-year-old in the mix. I have, quite frankly, fallen in love with these children.

I am not a big lover of kids in general. When I was little I never dreamt about babies. As a teen I hated baby-sitting and did office work to make extra money. I married (then divorced) a man who didn’t want kids. At 35 my biological clock has finally kicked in, but I’m unlikely to have my own; I have hormonal health issues and there is no man in the picture, nor a lucrative career, nor a healthy savings account that would make single parenting or adoption feasible.

But being with my sisters’ kids has been this amazing, heart-opening experience. They say that the love a parent has for a child is overwhelming and unconditional. I must be feeling some small portion of that. They are gorgeous, utterly imperfect, joyful, maddening little people. And they are ours — the next chapter in our family’s story. Incredible.

I understand for the first time the importance of generational history — how children represent hope for the future, and why some families really function as clans, fiercely protecting their own. I wasn’t raised with those values. I missed the value of extended family and blood connection. But now, for me, that is changing.

I had a plan, after my divorce, to get myself out of my financial hole and go teach or volunteer in Asia or maybe New Orleans. I would see more of the world (I’ve already been to five continents, but is that really enough?) and maybe help build some schools or distribute food. And then I would move out West and live on the side of a mountain and hike every day and write a novel and move in with a guy who looks like the Marlboro man. If I wanted to, I could take off in six months to a year.

But now all the babies have been born. And I find myself not really wanting to leave the East Coast because I don’t want to miss anything with these kids. When I think about being far from them, or gone for many years, my heart just breaks. And doing what I’m doing now, my single, working-gal routine, being an auntie who mails gifts and visits on long weekends seems silly and pointless too. (If I am going to work an unsatisfying 9-5er, why not live near the people I love?)

My whole career, I’ve been working for nonprofits or groups in the business of helping people and the planet. It seemed the best place to put my energy, but it has been frustrating and unsatisfying. The world seems just a sick, sad, unfixable place. I don’t feel young and idealistic anymore. I feel like circling the wagons — around my nieces and nephews.

I am thinking of moving closer to one of my sisters to be more fully a part of these kids’ lives. I would find a decent job that pays the bills, but nothing I have to devote myself to 100 percent. I would save my best energy for being part of an extended family, and find my pleasure (and challenges of course) there.

I’m wondering, is that lame? Is it lame to “opt out” of career and travel to help take care of someone else’s children? Am I avoiding growing up by refocusing on my family of origin instead of going out into the world and forming a new life and a new family? Is it selfish and insular to prioritize hanging out with my family over helping others in the world? Will I be the old spinster aunt who borrowed someone else’s life instead of having her own? Would I be vamping these children to meet my own emotional needs? Would I be stunting my own creative and spiritual development? Would I be acting out of fear? Abandoning my dreams?

It’s not like I’m considering “opting out” to have my own kids. The “mommy wars” aside, most people understand that choice. But who opts out to be an auntie? I fit a certain profile — mid-30s career gal with lots of sexual freedom and few financial obligations. Should I not be enjoying “the prime of my life”? Experiencing my freedom, climbing the career ladder, reaching my potential, traveling the world, making some art or buying some real estate? Or looking for my next man on Match.com and pricing out fertility treatments?

But if it’s really true I’m just here, in the unlikely and meaningless circumstance of being alive on a planet, doing my thing day in and day out, until I kick the bucket and am forgotten by time, then why not give the very best of myself to the people I love the most, i.e., my family? Here are five beautiful kids, to whom I am profoundly connected, who will need plenty of love and financial support to make their way in this insane world. I could devote myself to their well-being, like any good parent. Except that I’m not their parent, and they aren’t my kids.

Is that lame?

Optin’ Out Auntie

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Dear Optin’ Out,

I don’t think your idea is lame at all. I think it’s courageous and decent.

Nor do I think you are avoiding growing up. I think you’re accepting who you are, how you feel and what you want. That is growing up. Growing up involves recognizing that who we really are doesn’t always fit the categories of value that we have learned through studying history and sociology.

A century ago, doing what you propose would have seemed perfectly sensible. Now, strangely enough, it seems a little daring. Now, as always, you have to decide for yourself.

I think you have largely decided already. But you are thinking it through and sharing your thoughts, trying to make sure it isn’t the wrong decision.

I think it’s great. Trust your instincts and your emotions. Accept who you are.

Must I make an argument for the utility of your decision? No, I don’t feel that I must. I am not a utilitarian. But I do think that our instincts are often powerful and wise, and that when we do what we are drawn to doing, social good sometimes comes of it. Can I prove that? No. Nor do I think we can always know what social good might come from our inclinations. For instance, we might be driven to write, or paint, or play music, not to change the world but to make ourselves happy. In the process, however, much unexpected social good might come. On the other hand, I might have an intense personal desire to rob your house. I would not argue that social good would come from that.

But do I want to really want argue about any of this? No. I just think that if you’re worried that you’re letting the world down, you can let go of that. The world is bigger than we think.

In fact, this impulse you have in no way implies that you are leaving the world or forsaking it. You are not a separate thing from the world, someone sent here to fix the world. You are a part of the world. It’s the same world telling you to do this that was telling you to do the other. Your impulse to help raise your sisters’ children is no more or less valid than your impulse to help strangers. If you were to ask where these impulses come from, I think you will find they all come from the same source: You have a burning desire, a passion, to act according to your conscience. Acting according to your conscience satisfies your sense of who you are. So keep following your passion wherever it leads you. If you feel in a few years that you are needed elsewhere, you can change yet again.

Frankly, your profile of the “mid-30s career gal” does not sound very attractive to me. Having had a taste of business life, I would think many women would find the same thing that many men have found — it kinda sucks. So why do it if you don’t have to?

Why not do what makes you happy?

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I moved in with my daughter

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 27, 2011

Her husband died so I came to help. Now they act like I don’t exist


Dear Mr. Tennis,

I am a 65-year-old woman who has had a long and interesting life. During a particularly “interesting” time (think job loss, forced relocation, job search) I found myself estranged from my eldest child, a daughter 40 years of age, who had recently become part of a new family. Long story short, we didn’t speak much, if at all, for the next three or four years.

Sadly, this all changed when her husband, my new son-in-law, became ill with a terminal cancer. At her urgent request, I moved from my home on the West Coast to their home on the East Coast in order to help during his illness and subsequent passing.

When that sad time came, I realized my daughter couldn’t survive financially without my input, so I offered to stay with her until her daughter went into college (about five or six years) and she herself had been able to get a nursing degree. We share the expenses of the household and then spend our own money as we please. There hasn’t been any controversy about any of this.

My problem is that I am beginning to feel as if I am unwanted here. Neither my daughter nor granddaughter make any effort to speak to me if I enter a room, to bid me farewell as they go to work and school, nor to greet me when they return to the house. I am starting to find that if I don’t speak to them first, they don’t talk to me at all. They don’t invite me to go to dinner with them when they go out, nor am I invited to shopping expeditions, or school events, or anything. This makes me feel as if I’m not really a family member, but only a stranger who happens to be renting a room from them. I am asked to ferry the grandchild to and from school meetings and sports events, but that’s the only time the child speaks to me, when she wants a ride. I know that they may feel that they want time together, and I don’t necessarily want to go, but they could at least ask me.

Due to this move, I have sold or given away almost every possession I had accumulated to make a home for myself. I have kept only a few books, pieces of art, and clothing. I know I don’t have the “possessions” I’d need to furnish a new place for myself, but that can be remedied. I also know it would be impossible for my daughter to support herself and her daughter if I left, so I feel as if I’m trapped by this obligation.

I don’t feel comfortable talking about this to my daughter, as I think I may become too emotional, and she doesn’t like it when I do that. (That is what happened four years ago.) I don’t want to find myself ostracized in what should be my own home, and shunned like some stranger, but this is rapidly what is happening.

How can I make this work?

Shunned Mother

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Dear Shunned,

Would it be possible for you to arrange a little outing with your daughter and granddaughter, someplace quiet by the water, under some trees, where the three of you could relax and the granddaughter could play? If possible, make it a couple of days. Spend the night. Get lots of sleep. Don’t do much. Rest.

This will only be a start, of course. It is important to remember that your daughter and granddaughter are both reeling from this event. They have lost something big that they cannot replace. They are feeling things they cannot control or ignore. They need some convalescence. This is going to take a while. You’ve done a good thing by coming here. But they are wrapped up in their grief and fear and it is not going to be easy. They aren’t going to snap out of this right away.

While it must be painful to feel ignored like this, try to remember that you came to this household to be of service to your daughter. She has had a terrible loss. It would be great if she had better coping skills and better manners but, crushed with grief, some of us lose even the barest courtesy.

They must grieve. Given the harsh and hurried way we live in America, and perhaps more so on the East Coast than the West, grief is often cut short, and we see the distortion this causes in many ways. If we do not grieve — that is, if we do not actively and with some determination move through the experience of loss and allow the loss to take a roomy place within us — then our loss will set about to destroy us. It will work to bring us to our knees until we acknowledge it and do what is necessary. Depression is one way this happens. Drug abuse and suicidal behavior are others. It is possible that your daughter is moving through a period of depression. We can’t know, of course. But we can allow for the possibility.

Where does that leave you? That leaves you in the position of elder matriarch who has journeyed a long way to be of service. You have had a long life and you have learned a lot. One of the things you have learned is patience. You’ve committed to being in this household for five or six years. If you create certain roles for yourself now, you may find that your daughter and your granddaughter slowly move into the shade of your presence.

You can be a refuge for the granddaughter, like a shade tree. She may take some time to see what you offer. Right now she is struggling just to follow her daily routine. It must be terrible, the way students are rushed through life, to have something like a father’s death to carry around. If you create spaces in which she can find what she needs, it’s possible she will respond. That’s why I am suggesting that you create this pastoral, serene setting where the three of you can go and heal. There are other similar things you can do. I’m thinking, prepare the setting and let this grief-stricken woman and girl move into those settings. Not much needs to be said. It’s not a talking, analysis kind of thing. You may not be thanked for it. But if you pay attention, you will notice that you are providing a space in which they can soften into their grief.

If you like to control things and come up with great new ideas that will fix everything, like I do, and if you find it hard to sit still when others don’t immediately see the brilliance of your many schemes and offerings, then you may have some difficulty just quietly giving, and creating serene, healing settings, without expectation of return. So consider that you will indeed get a return: Your return is in the fulfillment of your role as matriarch and elder. Your return will be private.

Overall, what I am suggesting is that you take some time to meditate on the gravity and duration of the situation and on your exalted but unrecompensed role. What you do now may become one of the crowning achievements of your life as a mother and now grandmother. If you summon all you have learned in your long and eventful life, you can get through this and emerge with some satisfaction and a serene sense of completion.

It won’t be easy. You’ll be taking some hits. But you can consider this the answering of a certain destiny.

It is only one destiny. It is demanding, but it need not be final. When you are done here — and you will be done here — there should be a long and sunny vacation awaiting you.

Once the kids are gone, I don’t want them coming back

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 4, 2005

My wife says returning home after college is the new normal — but if they return, I may have to leave.


Dear Cary,

I am 46 and the father of two children, ages 16 and 20 (juniors in college and high school, respectively). My wife and I married very young, had our kids a little earlier than expected, embraced it and made what we felt was the difficult, correct choice of being a single-income family with a full-time mom. I would describe my attitude for many years as that of a doting father and believe that we have given unstintingly, and literally planned out our lives so that our children would have some very nice opportunities. We managed to pay off our home and to pay for a master’s degree for my wife so that, at such time as our eldest was ready to go to college, we could afford to pay for a good school. Which we did; we both have very good jobs and are able to pay tuition out of our yearly income. We have lived below our means for a very long time to do so and generally have not lived what anyone would term a lavish life.

Since she reached age 16 or so, I have really ceased to have a relationship with my oldest daughter. There was never any open break especially: I understand that girls do “outgrow their fathers,” and I accepted the role as an ever-present nonentity and occasional manservant. My wife is a little closer to our girls (the youngest is now 16). I have not especially enjoyed the teen years, to be honest: Again, we have not descended to a level of screaming and open rebellion, but the process of being a doormat to unappreciative family members was not big fun. My children are not psychotic, just run-of-the-mill, somewhat overindulged kids with no appreciation or notable efforts at simple courtesy toward their parents. Normal, in a word.

So what is the problem? It seems that many of my wife’s friends have children who have gotten their rather expensive degrees and simply come back home again to live, sans employment. We have a nephew who attended an extremely expensive big-name school who is now back in the nest, making plans for launching his own company, never having had paid employment anywhere to date.
My wife is convinced that this is the new normal: Kids go off to college and then return home to resume a lifestyle more suited to high schoolers, and she appears to be willing to go along without qualms. My problem is that I am really not interested in the prospect of providing room and board to a college graduate in 18 months’ time: I am perfectly willing to provide financial assistance so that she can start her life elsewhere, but I already feel enormous tension whenever she is under my roof during school holidays.
I’ve had enough: I did everything that I was supposed to do and more, and am not willing to endure Round 2. My wife and I have spoken around this a few times without ever quite getting it out. The point is that, barring some illness or other catastrophic event, I expect my children to assume the burden of their own lives soon after graduation and do not want them to regress to an earlier age. Frankly, if such an arrangement were forced on me for any length of time, I do not think that I would stay in the household.

Do you have any thoughts, Cary? It would not feel good to insist that my wife choose her loyalty to me as opposed to our children, but we have put our own lives on hold long enough. Ultimately I feel that an ultimatum by me — me or them — would not necessarily bring the answer that I would choose, but I know that the alternative is not something that I can put up with. Help!

Wannabe Empty Nester

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Dear Wannabe,

In any household, it seems to me, each contributing member ought to have some kind of veto power over choices that would make them so uncomfortable that they would consider moving out. So I sympathize with you. It seems to me that unless both you and your wife want to have your daughter move back in after college you should be able to say no.

For your next order of business I suggest you do what you’ve been putting off: Talk this over seriously with your wife. You say she appears to have no qualms about your daughter moving back home, and that you have talked around this question a few times. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding it because you believe it will lead to an unpleasant fight. Quite possibly, if you tell her you just can’t wait to be rid of the kids, and if your daughter moves back in you’re moving out, it will indeed lead to an unpleasant fight. But if you tell her that what you really want, and what you’ve wanted for some time, is to have your marriage and your romance back, to have her back, to have your life back, she may feel differently about that. She may be pleasantly surprised. She may have no idea how tough it has been for you, if you have been quietly enduring for all these years. And it may not have occurred to her that your marriage might actually get much better with the kids permanently out of the house. So put it in terms that will make sense to her, where she has something to gain. Don’t give her the ultimatum. Just tell her what you want and how much you want it. And give her something to look forward to: A new, happier, more refreshed you, among other things.

Ask for the sale. Let her think about it. Don’t push too hard. Give it time to sink in.

Of course, first of all, your daughter may not want to move back in. She may have other plans. Your wife may miss her and hope that she wants to return home, and that may be why she has been trying to prepare the ideological ground for such an event, by arguing that this is the new normal. She probably misses her daughter more than you do, and misses playing the role of mother more than you do the role of father. So if you can think of ways to meet your wife’s needs without having your daughter live with you, you may stand a better chance of getting what you want. For instance, if your daughter could live nearby, that might be a compromise that would make your wife happy. Perhaps you could take steps to make that happen — by aiding her in finding a job and an apartment, for instance.
You did what you were required to do. There was an implicit contract involved. You agreed to care for these kids while they were kids, and prepare them to go out into the world and take care of themselves. You did that admirably. Now it’s time for them to fulfill their end of the contract, and it seems right that they should live up to their end.

Aside from the contractual aspect, however, I imagine there is a powerful emotional pull as well. Being completely free of fatherly responsibilities must be a very seductive notion. But some continued support is probably inevitable, perhaps in the form of occasional favors rather than formal financial commitments. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re her father, after all. But I think your desire to have her out of the house is perfectly reasonable, and I hope your wife can grant you this. It seems to me, after all you’ve done, that you deserve a break.

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My children were abused

Cary’s classic column from  Monday, Aug 12, 2013

I live with an awful history, and sometimes it is too much for me


Dear Cary,

I am writing with a problem that makes my heart physically ache.

Let me briefly lay the groundwork first, and then I will present the problem. I was married for almost 20 years to a man who had three children from his first marriage. We had three more ourselves, and I legally adopted my oldest stepdaughter when she turned 18. My stepchildren’s mother is extremely abusive, and all three of them were physically, emotionally and/or sexually abused by her or her relatives. While I understand that she herself was a victim of the same behavior from her own family members, I cannot condone the perpetuation of the cycle. My adopted child (now 34) has worked really hard to separate herself from the traumas of her youth, only now to find that her father, my ex-husband, has now replaced her mother as the perpetrator of abuse in her life.

This daughter has a nice husband, a steady job in a call center, and a lovely son from a previous relationship. She also suffers from a mysterious auto-immune disease and severe chronic pain that nothing alleviates. She has mental problems that show up as bipolar but are probably more like PTSD. The more I study about bodywork, the more I understand that these conditions are outward manifestations of everything she has suffered and continues to suffer at the hands of her natural parents.

My firstborn was molested by my stepson, and raped by a neighbor’s grandson, but when we found out (years later, since she was too ashamed to tell us) my husband dismissed it as normal children’s sexual exploration. I caved in and never pressed charges. I will regret forever that I was not able to a) prevent it and b) stand up to my then-husband and do what was right by our daughter. It took me years also to grow enough of a spine to file for divorce. (As you might correctly surmise, our relationship was a perfect match of emotional abuser and willing victim … until I finally broke and had to make a change.)

Despite these things that happened, believe it or not, I do not regret my marriage. We had a marvelous time for a good long while. I learned about not only practical matters (confidence with power tools, for example), but even in the disintegration of the relationship I learned a lot: to stand up for myself, to make changes, to be really honest and intimate in ways that I never was able to before. I had to go through the fire and the dark tunnels and every other metaphor of shame, guilt, depression, etc., and find my strength there.  By going through all that, plus therapy, plus going back to school, I was really able to change myself for the better. Relationships with my children, my parents and my friends all improved because of me learning how to communicate.

What my ex will never comprehend is that the divorce itself was actually an act of love and compassion on my part, because neither of us could be our best person with each other. My hope was that both of us individually could be better people, better parents, happier and more functional than we were as a couple. He was, however, devastated and retreated into self-medication with alcohol, medical marijuana and opiates, as well as bad-mouthing me to his entire family and our children.

The problem as it stands now is that my ex-husband, who is chronically unemployed and now lives on disability, continues to rain abuse on his eldest daughter, most recently accusing her of dealing her prescription painkillers to her 14-year-old brother (my youngest child), being a heroin addict and flaunting her “wealth” in his face (because she occasionally buys him groceries and little gifts). Out of all six of his children she is the one who has been most steadfastly determined to be kind and loving and financially supportive of him, and she receives for her efforts only more abuse and pain. My biological children all refuse to see him or speak to him. I have a hard time watching him deteriorate this way. There seems to be nothing left of the man that I fell in love with. And of course, my children have lost their father, not to death or disappearance, but to some mental illness that prevents him from being a loving parent. This hurts me the most.

Is there any other advice than “let go”? Cut all ties and never look back?

I apologize for the very long letter, but I felt that I needed to explain myself thoroughly. I hope you might find the chance to answer this letter among so many others that call out for your attention. At the very least, writing this has been helpful to ease my mind and my heart.

Best wishes,
E

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Dear E,

It makes sense that you would want to cut all ties and never look back. But that is probably not possible. It wouldn’t work. You are tied to these people. They are your family.

But you can make adjustments — as you seem to have done already.

In a practical sense, you can do more of what is working and less of what is not. Make that your daily method. In the morning, think about what is coming up in the day, and find time to do more of the things that work for you, and try to eliminate the things that don’t work. If you can avoid seeing certain people in the family whose presence distresses you, then avoid them. If you can write more letters and contemplate your life more, if you can spend more time with supportive friends, then do more of that.

You can be strong for your daughter. You can advise her to cut ties with her father, because he is only bringing her grief. And you can protect yourself. You can, in a sense, abandon these people. Recognizing that there is nothing you can do anymore, you can step back. I know that probably sounds trite, like just “let go.” In fact, what I am saying is that “letting go” is a positive thing but it is not an abstraction; it is a constant practice.

How do you get through such things? This, right now, is exactly how you get through it: You tell your story. You do what works. If writing this letter made you feel better, then write 10 such letters. Write a hundred letters. Write every day.

You know that there is no one complete solution to life’s suffering. But there are changes you can make. And you have to keep making them. You have to keep making adjustments because new things will always arise. Your ex-husband may continue to get worse. Your daughter may suffer continuing bouts of terror and depression and trauma. So you have to keep doing the things that work for you, and do more when you can.

You can also strengthen your capacity to hold and process the feelings that do come up; you can strengthen the way you hold the memories you have. You can strengthen your inner self so that when you think of these things they do not rock you back on your heels. You can learn to see the patterns in all this, to understand how it fits together. And you can also learn to honor the darkness, the ways in which there is no pattern but only evil. You can learn to respect the presence of evil; if not honor it, at least to abide it, so you are not surprised by it or defeated by it, so you can look it in the eye and be stronger than it.

This means calling upon your warrior spirit, your spirit of pure survival. Lately I have been thinking about the warrior spirit in all of us, the aggressive spirit. If you can think back to the act of being born, you can remember that when we are born we are fighting to the surface and we are pure aggression. We want to survive and that is all. We want to come into the world and that is all we know. This birth memory can serve you well. Remember that part of you that is pure survival instinct. It is strong.

So, no, I don’t have any great solutions, other than to trust yourself and the solutions you have already found, and to do more of what works, and less of what doesn’t, and trust your instincts about how to survive these terrible things, and look for the strength in yourself; feel the strength inside. Revel in your own strength, so when awful thoughts and memories arise, you can contain them.

There is no complete solution to living with awful things that have happened. There is only how you live with it day to day, with a strong, vibrant warrior’s spirit.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My husband won’t set limits!

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JUN 5, 2006

Uncle Danny shows up in his R.V. for four-month “visits,” gobbling up our food and paying nothing.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are a professional couple in our mid-30s who have a house in a revitalized urban area in North Carolina. Since we moved into our house four years ago, my husband’s uncle — let’s call him Uncle Danny — has started visiting us in his R.V. for increasingly longer visits — the last one being four months! A little background on Uncle Danny. He is a traveling nurse in his mid-60s. He has never been married and was estranged from most of his family for many years, only remaking contact in the last five years. When Uncle Danny visits us, he expects to use my husband’s spare pickup truck — he takes the key from the rack and helps himself. He also helps himself to the food and beverages in our kitchen, never buying his own groceries during his interminable stays. He almost always invites himself along when my husband and I go out to dinner and never picks up his own check. I would faint if he ever offered to treat us! He does sleep in his R.V., but the rest of the time he’s with us in our house. When pressed as to how long he will be staying during each of these “visits,” he always gives some vague answer. We never know when he’s leaving until a day or two before he goes.

The real rub is that my husband allows this behavior and refuses to set limits with his uncle. My husband is pretty passive and detests confrontation. This year, Uncle Danny has been here from January through mid-April. He left for a few weeks to do some short-term nursing work in Northern Virginia and returned to our home on May 15. I am furious! I’ve insisted that my husband address this issue, and although my husband agrees that his uncle’s behavior is unacceptable, he is dragging his feet about approaching Uncle Danny with some limits.

My question is, how do I handle this situation? I am a generous person by nature and do not like the spite and anger that Uncle Danny inspires in me. I also do not like the stress he is creating in my marriage. But I also realize that it is not my place to deal with Uncle Danny directly. What should I do? How do I get rid of this man?

Tired of Being Mooched off of

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Dear Tired of Being Mooched off of,

Contrary to what you say, I think it is your place to deal with Uncle Danny. It is your house. If your husband won’t do it, it’s up to you.

Why your husband won’t or can’t do it and what that means about his character and his relationship with his family are something you may want to explore with him when you have a spare year or two to spend fighting like cats and dogs. But right now something needs to be done about Uncle Danny’s Ticonderoga, and you need to step in and do it.

Sometimes things just have to be said out loud and somebody has to say them. “You’re fired” is one of those things. “You have to leave” is another one. “I want a divorce,” “I’m breaking up with you” and “I’m resigning effective today” are others, bursting with import and significance but simple in their utterance. You just have to say the thing that has to be said and let it hang there in the air long enough to be heard and understood.

I know what happens when we overcontemplate these things. We look for ways to soften it. That’s fine. You can try to be kind about it. Just don’t let that process of looking for a nice way to say it prevent you from saying it. You certainly don’t have to be mean. Don’t let your welled-up anger spill out in spiteful little ways. But you have to say what needs to be said.

This thing you’re conveying is not really your fault. You’re just conveying the truth; you’re just looking at the situation and saying, here is the way it is. It’s not about you and your feelings; it’s about the household and the way it needs to be run.

It’s your job to set the rules in your household and enforce them. If you don’t do that, you’re not really running a household, you’re just occupying a house.

Tell Uncle Danny that your household has some rules and that from now on he will have to abide by them. The rules cover the length of his stays, the amount of notice he gives before he arrives and departs, and the general running of the household.

Set a limit on how long he can stay. You might have a certain time in mind; a month might be a good maximum, but you might want to limit it to two weeks, or even one week.

Tell Uncle Danny that while he is visiting you expect him to contribute to the household. That might mean paying for groceries and meals and also helping out with chores.

Family has its privileges, of course, but with privileges come responsibilities and reciprocity.

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My brother is no good, and I’ve had enough!

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 30, 2007

He’s in and out of jail, he hardly works, and he always gets thrown out of where he’s staying.


Dear Cary,

I need some advice. I have a 30-year-old brother who has been in and out of jail and constantly needs my help. My mother and father are divorced and are alcoholics and cannot help him at all.

I have built a life with my husband and two kids. My brother constantly needs help with money and he only works two hours a day because his job has now cut his hours. He lies all the time — I don’t even know what to believe anymore. He is constantly moving because he has no money to pay rent so he gets kicked out.

He is living with my aunt at this time and has ruined that because they are going to kick him out soon. For some reason I always help him. I am even paying for a rental car for him at this time. I feel responsible to help him but it’s killing me. My husband is always upset at me and I constantly have anxiety due to his problems.

Please help, what can I do.

Fed Up

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Dear Fed Up,

What you have to do is sit your brother down and tell him that what he’s doing is no longer tolerable to you, and that you are cutting him out of your life. Tell him that you will no longer take his phone calls, or welcome him into your home, or pay his bills, or lend him money or help him in any way.

This might be done in a group, or it might be done privately, depending on many factors, including whether he is a physical threat. It might be done with the help of a counselor or facilitator. You may want strong, capable persons in the room so that he cannot threaten you physically. Or you may want to ask your police or sheriff for a “civil standby.” Often used where property must be recovered by one party in a dispute — say, a husband has been kicked out of the house and wants his clothes back — it might be available to you in this case, if it’s something you feel is necessary.

However you arrange it, you have to tell him that this situation is over.

If you think he has mental problems or if you know of someone in the community that can help him, do not hesitate to give him information about the help that is available to him. And be willing to speak to others who you think might be able to help him — for instance, if he needs job training, or education, or therapy. But beware of making promises that if he does such and such, all will be fine. If you want to put conditions on him, make them concrete and make sure they are things that would really make a difference for you. Don’t sell yourself short, that is. Don’t make it easy on him. For instance, if he has a drug problem, then maybe you say he has to demonstrate that he has been clean for one year, or, if drugs are not his problem, he has to demonstrate that he can hold a regular job and pay his own rent for one year. If there are conditions, make them tough.

You know what you want to see. You want to see him living up to his word, working hard, caring for himself, paying his own way, being dependable and truthful. But he may be skilled at fooling people. He may do well in the short term, but you will still be walking on eggshells, wondering if he’s fooling you and if he can make it long-term.

The bottom line is, just tell him the truth. If you don’t know what it will take for him to get back in your life, tell him that. It’s enough that you’re honest with your brother, painful as it may be for everyone.

There are many ways this can be done, but the essentials are the same: A difficult, painful but necessary message has to be conveyed to someone who doesn’t really want to hear it, is not completely trustworthy or predictable, and whose reactions may be extreme and unpleasant.

After that, you just have to stick to it.

Good luck.

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I secretly hate myself

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 14, 2007

I seem to be OK on the outside, but inside … you don’t even want to know.


Dear Cary,

I have never written to an advice column before, and I chose you because although I sometimes disagree with your advice, I find I can never predict what that advice will be based on the advisee’s letter. Here’s my problem: I secretly hate myself. I know why, too: I am the adopted only child daughter of nasty parents, who emotionally abused me and controlled me all my life. They constantly put me down, berated me for the smallest thing, and particularly picked on my looks and weight, even when I was a small child. My mother is basically a nasty seventh grade girl, preoccupied with appearances, looks and clothes, and my father is a big, henpecked milquetoast whose only pieces of advice are “turn the other cheek” and “kill them with kindness.” They did, however, do things like feed and clothe me, purchase Christmas gifts, and pay for my college education, for which I am grateful, of course, but which, incidentally, I am often reminded of.

It’s a long story, but I finally got away from them physically. I found a wonderful man who is an exceptional husband — loving, supportive, caring, considerate, hardworking, honest and successful. They naturally hate him, ostensibly because they consider his job to be nothing they can brag about, but really because he stands up for me and won’t let them bully him or me. I have worked my way up from low-level jobs (their idea, despite the college education — “you are lucky to have any job”) to a professional career that I enjoy with a good salary.

I call them only when I feel I absolutely have to (i.e., their birthdays) and dread the calls for days in advance. I tell them as little as possible about my life because, as it has been all my life, everything I say is wrong. After the calls, I feel as if I’ve been poisoned. I just want to cry uncontrollably, but I pretend I’m fine. I spend the next few days hating everything about my life and hearing their nasty voices in my head tearing everything about my life down, and I see the fat, ugly person they (still) tell me I am when I look in the mirror. Gradually I come back to myself, but I am so tired of this process.

Mainly I think I am angry at myself for still believing the horrible things they said (and still say) to me. Deep down I worry that my husband doesn’t love me, because they told me no man would ever want me. They told me that people I thought were friends “were just using” me, so although I have friends, and people seem to like me, deep down I think that they don’t care if I am around or not.

How can I stop hating myself like this? How can I just get past this? I have enough perspective to know that they are the crazy ones, but I can’t seem to believe it. I don’t know what to do. What do you think?

Secretly Hate Myself

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Dear Secretly Hate Myself,

Let’s begin by noting that no matter how much outward success you achieve it will never undo the damage your adoptive parents did by not loving you. And it will never get you the love you didn’t get as a child. The only way you can get that love and undo that damage is by loving yourself.

The logic of it is this: If you are working hard to succeed in the world in order to prove something to your parents, what do you think will happen if you ever prove it to them? What will you get from them if you finally prove them wrong? Will they come to their senses and love the child you were? They can’t give that child their love. That child is gone. That child is grown up. So how can they possibly ever give you what you needed? Can you go back in time and get the love you needed from them? No.

That may be why it is so incredibly painful to talk to them. You are still hoping to get this thing you were supposed to get as a child. You are hungry for it, naturally. Of course you hunger for it. But you can’t get it from them. They don’t have it to give. And you’re not a child anymore. So each time you talk to them, you re-experience the deprivation, the primal, existence-threatening psychological abuse. It does indeed sound like you are being poisoned.

How to end this cycle? First of all, I think you must recognize, really recognize, that it’s a rigged game, and the damage has already been done. That alone may be enough to free you from it, or at least give you some psychological room in which to create some options. I think that is really the first step, though, just really accepting that what’s done is done.

Whatever you are doing today to prove that you are worthy of their love it’s bound to cause you nothing but pain until you fully, deeply accept the sad fact of your upbringing. Until then, performing for them is a hopeless task. And it takes you away from recognizing and loving the person that you actually are. It takes you away from developing the talents you may have that are truly unique.

That is the trap you are in. I dare say it is why you are having these episodes of virulent self-hatred.

You don’t have to prove to others that you deserve love. Nobody should have to prove, as a child, that they are deserving of love. Parental love is a precondition of life. It is the inalienable right of a child.

So the damage has been done, and you’re never going to get what you want from your parents. So you have to learn to love yourself. The way to do that, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, is to indulge in some self-pity. Yes, pity yourself. Pity yourself as a helpless child who got a raw deal. It’s not whining. It’s a fact: Your parents were supposed to give you what you needed as a child and they didn’t. In not doing so, they did you wrong. They screwed you up. It’s not the kind of thing you just “get over.” It takes a long time and it takes some difficult cognizance of your own vulnerability. So now it’s your job to give yourself some love.

Yes, I know, we’re not supposed to feel sorry for ourselves. Well, sorry, but sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do. Nobody took care of you. So there was a stage of development you didn’t go through, a stage where, by having them like you and treat you well, you learn to like yourself and treat yourself well. So you have to go through that stage later.

It’s OK. You can do it now. You can get braces as an adult, and you can learn to love yourself as an adult. There’s nothing wrong with doing it. It runs counter to what our culture teaches us about the proper relationship between self and self. Self is not supposed to love self. Self is supposed to control and discipline self! But too bad. Self, in this case, is going to love self. You can do it. You can say to yourself, You are an innocent child of the universe and I love you. You can do that. You don’t have to do it in public. You don’t have to do it with a straight face even. There may be so much loathing there that the mere idea of loving yourself is untenable.

But there’s nothing esoteric about this. I am just speaking the stupid obvious truth. You say, how do I stop hating myself; I say, by loving yourself.

Not complicated. Pretty simple.

The only thing is, you have to actually do it. Thinking about it won’t help — any more than parents thinking about loving a child is going to help the child. They have to actually do it. Yours didn’t. So now it’s up to you.

 

I love the West Coast

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 1, 2005

My problem is, I think I love my East Coast family more.


Dear Cary,

I’m hoping you can help with something that weighs on my mind a little heavier each day. I’m a 25-year-old professional woman, raised in Pennsylvania with four little brothers and sisters aged 18-23 whom I adore. A few years ago, I was working a post-college first job near my family home. I had a nice apartment in the city, saw my family often, and was making friends … but I hated my job. I was completely miserable and mourned my college years, the days of fun, friends and having a reason to get up each day. I hated the humidity, the East Coast conservatism, the snow, the lack of people my age, the rat race … everything.

When I became so unhappy that I thought I had nothing to lose, I risked my entire small savings account, quit my job, bought a van and moved to San Francisco, where I didn’t know a soul and had no job lined up. Thanks to Craig’s List, I found a home with roommates, found activities and clubs, even a dead-end administrative job that I didn’t mind so much because it paid the bills and there was much, much more in life to distract me from it. I lived there for two years, visiting my family back East two or three times a year, while making more and more West Coast friends, having more and more fun and finally beginning to feel comfortable with myself. I was having fun on the weekends and weeknights, I was dating more often, and really discovering an artistic, liberal, outspoken, fun-loving, adventurous side of myself I hadn’t known before, even during college.

Then one day I was referred to a dream job by a friend. Life got even better — I had everything I wanted, including the job. I kept in touch with my siblings as often as possible then, although they themselves were busy with college. During this time, we were all doing our own thing in different locations, talking sporadically, but I don’t think any of us really missed each other. We were all living too fast for that.

The dream job ended up transferring me to Seattle, where I’ve lived for almost a year now. Well, it turns out that life got even better. I love this town more than San Francisco. I have beautiful, wonderful friends here, all of them transports from around the country. I’m making great money. I’m involved in the community, I date a lot, have plans every night, and generally have what my parents have always referred to as “The Life.”

Now my siblings are starting to graduate from college. I just returned from seeing everyone for a week. It always takes us a few days to get back into the groove, but when we do, it is amazing. I miss my little sisters so much it hurts. I miss laying with our arms around each other watching TV together. My brother is opening a store and the whole family is helping him get it up and running — except me, of course, because I’m out here. On the day I left, my sister wrote me a letter asking me not to leave. I cried when I read it, laughed about it with her, and left anyway, came back home to Seattle.

Cary, I love it more here every day. I see myself living the rest of my life here. But my brothers and sisters are settling into a life near where we grew up. I’ve seen my mom’s sister be the one in the family who lives far away, and I see her excluded from the special relationships that my mom and her other sisters share. I don’t want that. I could still live a couple more years out here, while everyone gets really settled (they are still career-hopping and moving around, but I know they will all stay near home), but I know I must go at some point. I know deep in my heart that I must move back to Pennsylvania if I don’t want to be “that sister.” Should I give up everything I love, including my job here (which can’t be replicated on the East Coast), to move back and start fostering a life in a place I hate everything about, save for my sisters, whom I love more than anything? I know it will stifle me to live back there again, right when I am flourishing in my identity and personality out here. Should I move now, or in a couple years, when I know I just shouldn’t wait any longer? Please help me

“Torn” or Something

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Dear “Torn,”

Yours is the dilemma of mobility and economic freedom. It is a dilemma disguised as a gift. It requires you to choose. I can’t really tell you what to do.

I do not know what I would do, either, if I could do it over. I have conflicting feelings about having spent the last 30 years on the opposite coast from my family. But here are some ways to think about it, some vague trajectories and generalities that you might consider, in somewhat random order:

San Francisco and Seattle are great cities for the young. What they offer can be found few other places — openness to experimentation, liberal social attitudes, concentration of youth with similar backgrounds, lots of highly educated people and the jobs to support them. In my opinion, while these areas offer incomparable experiences for the young, what they offer for middle-aged and older can be found elsewhere as well, and often at less expense — schools, housing, parks, good restaurants, recreation opportunities. And their drawbacks can loom as more important the older you get — the expense, the fast pace and loose social ties, the constant change. Likewise, or conversely, the tradition and stability of the East, which you find stifling now, may tend to become more attractive the older you get.

San Francisco and Seattle are great cities to visit, but expensive to live in. If you have to live in one place and visit another, it might be slightly better to be visiting the West Coast but living on the East Coast.

Dream jobs may be harder to find in Pennsylvania, but if you have experience and you are willing to spend a good bit of time looking, you may be able to find a job you like. You are in a perfect position to look now. You can take as long as you like. You are also gaining valuable experience — perhaps at a level of responsibility that might be hard to duplicate on the East Coast at your age. (That’s just a guess.)

You can always move back to the West Coast again, if you find the East Coast unworkable. Whereas, if you never come back to the East Coast to live, you may always be haunted by a thought that you abandoned your family, that you missed the best years of your sisters’ lives, etc.

The West Coast is a great place to reinvent yourself. The East Coast is great once you know who you are. Perhaps it’s during the process of inventing oneself that one is so fragile and thus so dependent on a nourishing environment. You need people supporting you while you’re experimenting with who you are; once you know who you are, it becomes less important to have external support and approval. So perhaps the East Coast would stifle you now, in your experimental period, but after you’ve constructed an identity and lived in it for a while, worked out its kinks, smoothed it out, made it comfortable, then it can travel with you back to Pennsylvania.

So I suggest you do as much as you can on the West Coast while you can. Become who you are. Become who you aren’t and everything in between. Try everything you want to try and some things that you don’t. Then you can return to the East Coast with a glad heart, knowing you’ll be with your sisters and your brother and all the people you love so dearly.

As to the West Coast, it’ll be here for you. Drop in anytime.

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Medical meddlers: It’s my body, not yours!

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 15, 2009

My mother and my boyfriend want to tell me how many pills to take


Dear Cary,

When I was 18, I had my first kidney stone. I had lithotripsy for another at 19 and a very serious bacterial infection in my kidney in between. I am now 25, and have spent seven years with intermittent pain and urinary tract infections. In the past year, the pain has gotten to the point where I experience it in various degrees on a daily basis — sometimes it is so bad I just want to cry. On top of this, I have gone through a series of doctors who have all doubted I have any problem at all — the “stones” don’t show up on CAT scans and they can’t find any other reason for my pain. I have been called a drug seeker, and told I am making it up. I know some of them — male urologists — think they are dealing with a hysterical female.

I have finally got a diagnosis from a new primary care physician and gynecologist of interstitial cystitis (pelvic pain/urinary problems) with kidney stones. These doctors at least believe me — when I have days of pain, followed by voiding debris, it seems the logical explanation. We are proceeding slowly toward more complete treatment — because of the seven years of missed diagnosis and rude doctors, they are making sure others I am referred to are aware of my condition and will be sympathetic toward it. We are still trying to get to the root of the stones, and specifically why my pain has only ever been on the right side of my body. They’ve also referred me for pain management, which is going to be a huge relief.

My problem comes from friends, my boyfriend, and relatives — specifically my mother. They have been supportive and helpful during these times, especially when I haven’t been able to be a pleasant person or reciprocate their kindness immediately. But now many have started focusing on my use of painkillers.

When I hadn’t started a drug regime for my IC, I was taking three Lortab a day. My mother even went so far as to count my pills and lecture me over the phone about being a drug addict. I now take tramadol for daily pain, and have Lortab for when things get really bad. Many people ask how much I have taken, express concern over the number of pills I use (I never exceed doctors’ recommended dosages), and make comments about how they are afraid I have an addiction problem. I also suffer from anxiety — and this only makes it worse. I am very aware of the danger narcotics pose. And I suspect I might have some symptoms of addiction, such as getting overly fixated on getting more pills when I am running low. But this is because my pain is under-managed. All I want to do is feel normal. I’ve tried to explain that pain medication is part of my treatment, but people seem to take such a sharp view toward the drugs. My mother is a nurse and makes comments about the “addicts” in their office who get 90 Lortab a month (what I used to take, meaning three a day). My boyfriend is always inspecting what pills I am taking, asking if I really feel that bad, and saying he doesn’t like it when I’m “stoned” on my medication.

Obviously, there is no way to not have these people involved — they support me through all my trials, pains and rough spots. But I can’t deal with the questioning and accusations anymore. When I tell them there is nothing wrong with taking pills as prescribed, they think it is my endorsement of them. They tell me I need “help.”

I do need help. I need proper medical treatment for my condition. I need to get better. And until then, I am going to use painkillers so I can lead a normal life. Despite these difficulties I’ve maintained good grades and have my dream job. I have friends, relationships, hobbies — but in order to enjoy these things, I can’t be in excruciating discomfort. How do I deal with this situation?

On Meds, Not a Junkie

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Dear Not a Junkie,

Since I’m not a doctor, let’s talk about this as a relationship issue. Let’s just say that in your relationships with people, they keep interfering in something that is basically none of their business. You are looking for a way to draw boundaries, or say no, or get some control over a part of your life.

There is an area of your life that you want control of. You don’t want to discuss it with certain people.

There are ways to do this. They range from blatant refusal to polite refusal, but they are all about refusal. You have to refuse.

How are you at refusing? I’m betting you’re not very good. Neither am I, frankly. I’ve got a little note in my wallet that reminds me to think before saying yes. I also tend to disclose too much. I like to talk about my life but then find I’ve disclosed more than I’m comfortable with and then people give me advice and question my judgment and then I get resentful and start to sulk. You don’t want to see me sulking. It’s unpleasant to behold. Yeah, I’ve got boundary issues! Like right now, already, see what happened? We were talking about you and all of a sudden it’s about me. That’s a kind of a boundary thing, too: I’m trying to say I identify, but then I’m also switching the territory.

So let’s keep talking about you.

One way to draw the necessary boundary is to have a blanket statement that you use on all people who are not your doctor. You might say something like, This is a medical issue and I only discuss it with my doctor.

It may sound weird at first. People may make a joke, or react with anger. Keep your calm. Don’t give in but don’t explain yourself either. Explaining yourself (I’ve learned this with salespeople) just gives them an opportunity to overcome your objections. So, just say no.

The idea is to have a stock policy you adopt with everyone, even your mother, that you just don’t discuss your medical treatment with people who aren’t your doctor.

Now, I have a family. I know about families. You’re supposed to play your part. When you make boundaries, you’re sort of changing the rules. You’re saying, I don’t really like my part that much. But they like your part. It’s the part they want you to play. They can’t play their part if you don’t play yours. They don’t like it when you change the script. So be prepared. Stand your ground. Quietly stand your ground.

Just make it a blanket statement. And then go to the movies.

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How to let go of old resentments

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 8, 2010

My husband and my brother are estranged because of a business deal


Dear Cary,

Earlier this year, around the time of your cancer diagnosis, you wrote about letting go of a long-held resentment. I am particularly interested in this topic because of a family conflict that has gone on for years in an understated way. Whenever it interferes with my life in a pragmatic way, I get completely stressed out and obsess about it.

My husband was badly hurt by my brother as a friend and business partner years ago. Since then, my husband refuses to be near my brother except on obligatory family occasions. I understand this position as a means of self-protection. My brother is charming and would like to smooth things over but doesn’t want to admit any wrongdoing or participate in the work of real reconciliation, and my husband will agree to nothing less. Frankly, I think they both would prefer never to see each other again.

That leaves me to be the linchpin of a relationship they would prefer did not exist. I feel torn by my loyalty to both of them. On a day-to-day level, it’s not usually a problem. I get together with my brother on my own. I’m a one-on-one sort of person anyway, so I kind of like it that way. Every now and then, though, I fear hurting my brother and his partner’s feelings by not inviting them to be part of our shared social life. I can’t even tell my mom when I’m having a party for fear that she will tell my brother about it or feel sad about my failure to include them.

How would you suggest that I deal with the emotional and pragmatic ramifications of this state? Also, can I do anything to help them resolve their bad feelings about one another?

Thank you for your thoughts.

Stuck in the Middle

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Dear Stuck in the Middle,

Resentments, long-held and seemingly intractable, can be suddenly lifted forever. Yet there is no foolproof method that I know of to make this happen. Time and events seem to work in concert with our own efforts.

No one prescription heals the infinite variety of emotional wounds. Rather, our searing and constant attention on these things seems to work in tandem with unseen currents of mercy flowing among us day and night. Eddies of warm wisdom encounter cold upwellings of  unrepentant prejudice and grudge, and out of that comes change. We struggle for years with a sense of grinding injustice, masticating the tough, fibrous hay of our own indignation, standing chilly in our pastures waiting for someone else to make a move. And then things change. Light comes in.

Meanwhile, though it sounds a little silly, thinking good thoughts about the one we resent, wishing them good fortune, blowing positive breath toward them, praying for them — these odd and counterintuitive actions sometimes have surprising effects. Who knows why.

While we wait for things to change, we envision scenarios: What if we got together at the old house and things would be just like they used to be? What if we went waterskiing? He loves waterskiing! We try to reach inner accommodation through judgment of externals: He is really being unreasonable now! I’ve done all I can do and now the rest is up to him! This can go on for years.

And then one day the two parties meet on the street and it is a sunny day and they have met by accident and it seems like a nice time to go boating.

So what are you to do about social arrangements, you who are in the middle? I rather think the best thing to do is simply invite the people who belong and let them decide to show up or not.

This may be tricky in the case of your husband. To invite your brother may seem like a provocation. But, while showing sensitivity to his feelings, I think it would be best if you simply tell him that your brother is your brother and family is family and people have to learn to be in the same room with each other.

This involves a certain amount of letting go. It involves just letting go and doing the normal thing and letting other people work out their differences.

And let me say this: We get to a point in these long-running disputes where we think, screw it, I’ve done enough and he hasn’t responded, well fuck it, it’s his turn.

But it’s never his turn. It’s always our turn. We’re the only ones whose turn it can be. There is always more we can do. We can always try again. We can always pick up the phone one more time. If we choose not to, that’s our choice. But there is always one more try.

And we find, if we take this approach, that after the 15th or the 20th try, there is a thaw, a lifting. If your brother is not working every day in some way to repair this rift, then he’s not doing enough. Likewise with your husband. Likely as not, neither one of these men is doing all he could do. Neither has made himself vulnerable. Neither has taken a genuine risk. Neither has taken it all the way.

I’m not saying I don’t understand that. I do. We’re sensitive creatures. We don’t like being hurt. I understand how one offhand remark from a family member can put one crooked for days, and how, therefore, we naturally try to avoid such things.

But I also know that we can do it. We can survive such hurts. And good can come of making the choice to endure such hurts and keep working at reconciliation. No matter what excuses we make, we have the choice: We can keep working at relationships or we can claim we have done enough and quit. Once we give up, things just get worse.

We have never done enough. There is no such thing as enough. There is always more to do.

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