Category Archives: family

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My husband doesn’t want this kid!

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, APR 10, 2011

We talked and I thought he was up for this, but now it looks like he never was


Dear Cary,

I am a 33-year-old married mother of one. While the discussion of having more children was always sort of tabled for my husband and me, after hearing about the painful process of having a baby after 35 from some of our friends, my clock went into overdrive. While we are not in the best financial position to have another child, we were not any better off five years ago when we had the first one — and she has all the love, support and stuff a kid could want.

So we had it out: time vs. money, money vs. time. I explained that he would still be able to make babies long after it would be safe for me to carry to term, that getting pregnant now might be harder than it was the first time, that it still takes 40 weeks to cook the baby and I’d expect our lives would change between now and then.

Time passed, but when he told me he was ready to try, I believed him. Now that we are expecting, he is sullen and withdrawn, moody and distant. When I gave him what I thought would be happy news, he said, “Congratulations! Shit!” Which left me feeling hurt and it’s been downhill since then.

So where do we go? Stay married and have two kids, one of which he secretly never wanted? Get divorced because he doesn’t feel like being responsible? Something else? I wish I could just talk to him, but he just sits there and then I find that I am only angrier and more confused than before.

Just the Two of Us

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Dear Just the Two of Us,

It will feel stupid at first. You’ll sit there with him and he’ll be all sullen and you’ll ask him something and he’ll murmur something and you’ll want to throw something at him but this is where you make your spiritual breakthrough.

You don’t throw something. That’s a spiritual breakthrough. You realize that in a way this isn’t about you and how angry you are with him, and it’s not about him and what a stupid thing he said.

It’s about living on earth in the child’s time.

You’re going to have a second kid and it’s a stupid time to get a divorce so you have to learn to sit there while he goes through all his gears. I’m not saying it won’t drive you crazy. But it’s worth doing because the alternative is to keep stomping around the house because he’s imitating a statue in a wax museum.

The thing about listening to somebody is it doesn’t have any preconditions or time limits. If you’re going to sit there and demand that he talk right now, you might as well not do it. You have to sit there long enough that he notices you’re there and then you have to sit there a long time after that, pretending that you’re just kind of hanging out.

It’s like with dogs.

Getting him to talk, I mean.

Some dogs if they’re well trained will respond to direct commands. But a lot of time what you’re doing is indirect and sneaky. If I want to hang out with the dog I have to pretend I’m not really hanging out with the dog. They don’t like needy humans. It seems undignified to them. So you have to sidle up but you’re really doing something else, like reading a magazine. And then the dog is like, OK, if you must, sit here with me and read.

Some people think this standoffishness is more like cat behavior. Maybe some cats. But the poodles are like that. And sullen guys are like that, too.

Now, maybe it hurts your pride to have to do anything but yell at him. And, OK, yes, he did say the stupidest thing possible for a man to say when his wife tells him she’s pregnant.

In fact, what he said was so stupid you want to crawl inside his skull and play back the tape and see what exactly he was thinking.

Was he thinking, Oh, boy, here’s a clever way to let her know that I’m glad the baby’s coming but I’m also scared? Or maybe, here’s a great way to let her know that I’ve been angry at her since this whole thing started, but I haven’t said anything, but now that she’s actually pregnant here’s the perfect time to get back at her? Or maybe he was thinking, Uh, I think I’ll just say something really stupid now. And maybe she’ll love me more because I’m really stupid.

Whatever. It was the stupidest thing he could say. But it’s a little late for you to be wanting the perfect man. This is the one you got. Divorce is a dumb idea while you’re pregnant and worried about money. So you have to somehow get closer to him and that might mean having a little humility. So do it. Sit quietly and let him talk. Wait until he tells you what’s going on. Ask him if he’s clinically depressed. Get some help from a marriage counselor. Put aside your pride but reward yourself later somehow. It’s for the greater good.

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I’m already dreading Christmas with my family

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Cary’s classic column from

We’ll sit around with nothing to say, eating takeout food.


Dear Cary,

I know this is pretty early, but I’m already freaking out about hanging out with my family during Christmas. My family consists of my mother, my father, my brother and me, the daughter/sister. My brother isn’t married, but I am; I have a husband and two kids. My husband and the kids get along fine with my family; actually, my parents love my husband to pieces. The problem is with me.

Whenever I get together with my parents, which is only once a year or so, I get the feeling that they don’t really want to be with me. I mean, we drive six hours, they fly for four hours and my brother flies for four hours (don’t ask why we are all traveling…that is another long story) and then we spend the weekend together by doing a lot of nothing. My parents go to sleep at 7 or 8 p.m. and get up at 5 a.m., and by the time I get up at 7:30 a.m. or so, they have already left to go to doctors appointments, to fix the roof on a rental house, to go to the DMV. They don’t show up until noon or so. My brother stays in bed until 2 p.m. and parties with his friends until late. Our “quality time” together consists of eating from the same takeout places over and over again.

Now that I have toddlers, there is something to entertain us, but without the kids, there is nothing to say to each other. My parents are very private people; if you asked me what their biggest worry was, I would have no idea. When I ask about their work, I just get vague answers and sort of sarcastic replies. I know this is just par for the course because I have the same problem getting all defensive about choices I made and things that I do; when they ask me questions, I hedge as well. I’ve made some career choices that bother them and they let me know that they don’t like it, so I shut up about the details. My mother also recently told me that she would like to divorce my dad because he’s kind of a control freak and generally a rude man, except that she takes her wedding vows seriously and that she’s used to him and, heck, what else would she do? This was a shock to me (even though I think I could never live with my dad) as I thought that their marriage was fine, even stellar.

I just have this feeling that we are at an impasse, that all of us want to be closer but we don’t know how to be. Right now, I feel that hanging out with my parents is an obligation rather than something I enjoy. Is it to be that way always? If it is, I just want to know that and that I shouldn’t expect any more closeness from my family and I should look elsewhere. I’ve been reading a lot of Zen stuff recently and I’ve been trying to let go of my “attachment” to having a close family and have no expectations of ever having one, but I have to say, sometimes I read stories of people’s relationships with their parents changing on their deathbeds and their wishing it had happened earlier. My relationship with my parents isn’t terrible—it’s just not very much fun. What should I do?

Out of Sorts

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Dear Out of Sorts,

You can change your eye color. You can change your sex. You can change the temperature of the planet. But you can’t change your family.

What you can do is introduce small variations in the activities you engage in while visiting with your family. These activities may have the effect of changing how you feel while you’re around them. One of the things you might try is just to be a positive, supportive witness. See if there are ways you can be helpful, without getting in the way. You might offer to drive your parents around on their early-morning errands, or to accompany them in their car to expedite the parking and waiting as they go in and out of places. As you accompany them, perhaps riding in the back seat, observe them. Look at them closely. Think about who they are. Consider them as individuals. Let your mind wander. Be Zen-like about it.

There will probably be a lot of stupid and boring stuff coming out of their mouths. Try not to get any on you. Let it pass. Be a supportive witness to their experience. Hold a place in line at the DMV. Hand your mother a magazine. Hold her purse while she looks for her other glasses. Be unobtrusively helpful, and observe. Observe your mother and observe yourself. What are you doing as you stand there, holding her purse for her? Are you resenting her for being so befuddled? Are you mad at her for telling you she’d like to divorce your dad but probably never will? Does it give you a sinking feeling? A feeling of rage? Are you wishing you were somewhere else, anywhere other than here? Where is it exactly that you would like to be? Make a mental note to go there, later, after Christmas. Then get back to what you are doing, holding your mother’s purse, glancing at the magazines in the waiting room.

The idea is to get your bearings. Get comfortable being around your parents. Lower your expectations until they touch reality.

You may wish to make some breakthrough by talking about the things that are on your mind—why doesn’t the family come together like a family, dammit?! But you must be careful. A family is a delicate thing, wrathful and sensitive to disturbance. If there are certain things that you feel need to be discussed, it might be best to approach them not as emotional or spiritual questions, but as tasks that need performing. It sounds like your parents are practical people who value getting things done in a timely manner. So if, for instance, there are questions of health, or life and death, that you feel your parents and your brother avoid talking about, you might approach them by attempting to square away financial concerns, powers of attorney, investments, the will.

For certain kinds of people, a troubling spiritual question is best addressed in its physical embodiment. For such people, the proper disposition of such an embodiment can, in itself, constitute a spiritual or emotional experience. I know that sounds rather arid to those of us who breathe deeply of the bracing air in the world of ideas, but in my experience it is often the case.

You must go slowly, respecting the depth and complexity of the family as an organism. To be realistic, in this first year of trying to make it better, you might only accomplish small variations in your own activities.

Because of your dissatisfaction with how the family performs, which you probably have not successfully hidden (we can hide little from our family), other family members may already fear that you are going to try to “bring the family together.” They may not want to be brought together. In fact, such enforced togetherness can be so excruciating for its victims that they find some pretext never to return.

Anything that smacks of trying to bring the family together may have the undesired effect of tearing it apart. It is, as I said, a fragile thing.

So I suggest you make such changes as you can in your own activities, quietly, meditatively, without attachment to result. Try to be a reliable, supportive witness to those around you. Hope for gradual improvement.

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I forgot to tell my wife I have a 12-year-old daughter

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, JUL 8, 2005

I fathered a child when I was a screwed-up loser and kept it secret all these years.


Dear Cary,

Boy, did I screw up.

About 13 years ago, I fell for a friend of my sister’s and got her pregnant. I was at this point in my life a loser. I had no job, no home (I was living with my father), no car, no license (never had it), no complete education, and absolutely no prospects. Her family, predictably, hated me.

After a couple months of unremitting and conflicting pressure from our families, she “realized” that I was a loser and she cut me loose. No contact, no nothing.

The last night that we ever discussed the baby was the night she gave birth. I got raving drunk and never discussed it again. My very WASP-y and remarkably repressed family followed suit (or was it I that was following suit?) Either way, the topic was off limits, that part of my brain and my heart was blocked off with yellow tape, and everyone moved on.

She married and her husband adopted the baby. I turned my life around materially and spiritually (education, wonderful wife, good job, house, etc.). I never tried to contact her or the baby. I told myself that I was only a “donor” and that I would only screw things up for her and the baby. Eventually, my wife and I bought a home not too far from my daughter and her family.

I dealt with the issue alone, fighting the late-night demons and doing everything I could to hold the situation at bay.

Years passed. A mutual friend of the family ran into the woman and told my sister that my daughter is 12 now and asking a number of questions. The resemblance is unmistakable and her parents have done a wonderful job (I am thrilled for them and her ). Faced with this, and only because I was faced with this, I decided to tell my wife about the situation.

Predictably, my wife is furious and feels (rightly) that I have violated her trust. We are just about to start a family of our own, and now everything in my life has been thrown into play. I don’t know if I would have been able to reveal this if not forced. Now that it is out in the open, the events are painful and crushing.

I’m scared, I’m confused, and I suddenly feel every bit as worthless as I felt all those years ago. I don’t think that my wife is going to leave me (we are looking into starting some kind of couples therapy), but I feel like I am still paying for not being good enough all those years ago. I am starting to get angry at those folks who are angry at me.

I have written a letter to my daughter’s mother and adoptive father, explaining where I am in my life and that we are very open to contact and a relationship, once rules and boundaries have been established; but my primary concern is my wife. I do not want to lose her (or her respect) over this.

Three days ago I had a normal life, and I feel like I am never going to have that again…

What a tangled web we weave…

TuscanAd_Voice2015

 

Dear Tangled,

I do not think you will lose your wife over this, or that your life will fall apart. You will get into counseling and learn about family systems and the keeping of secrets. You will work out some arrangement with the family of your daughter, and your wife will look at you with unfathomable anger for an indefinite period, and if you are good and do not completely freak out, eventually the normal life you had three days ago will return. But I hope out of this comes some thinking about how you have been living and where the secrets come from and who this person was who so many years ago fathered a daughter and kept it secret from his wife. I detect in your letter perhaps a lack of empathy for your earlier incarnation, and I would like to share a little about how I, who was also a bit of a loser and somewhat out of control, have come in middle age to regard my earlier self.

It has been helpful for me to see that I did some of the things I did because I was trying to do the right thing, strange as it appeared. It has been of great help to me to realize that I have often been an innocent actor, naive and lazy and deluded but not malicious. Like you I was trying to survive. I was doing what I had to do at the time. It has been helpful in considering why certain episodes went wrong to consider what I was running from and why I kept so many secrets and why the truth seemed unsurvivable. Was there some knowledge so corrosive that the silence in our household was a kind of insulation, a balm to naked skin?

What truth was so terrible at the time that it could not be uttered in the house? That you had sex without love? Is love a pair of handcuffs that must be worn every time? Is it a sin to do something simply because you really, really want to and it feels really, really good? Was it a sin to make love to your sister’s friend? Was there no one else around who could take you by the hand and show you what you then had to do? Was this all up to you? Are you the sole perpetrator of some crime? Must you punish yourself now for rest of your life?

It has been of great help to me from time to time to conjure up this innocent being, this young boy who was simply trying to express love and wonder, and later this young man who seemed to be in trouble but was not robbing houses or hitting people on the head. I suggest you do not hate this younger man, this fuck-up, this version of yourself. I suggest, instead, that you learn to love this nasty little fuck-up that you had to leave behind. I suggest that you offer a hand of forgiveness to this nasty little fuck-up. He was a guy trying to figure it out. He was a guy trying to get along. He was a guy trying to live with whatever it was that hurt. What was it that hurt? Who ever knows what it is with a young guy that hurts so much? We don’t talk about it among ourselves, although always there will be a stoned glance or a touch between young men, high on this or that, that says I know the crazy hurting thing too, it’s a motherfucker. So you followed the trajectory of your hurting and you got drunk the night your daughter was born.

Fathers have been getting drunk and leaving town for centuries when their babies are born: In spite of our storied propensity for engendering life, we do not always welcome it when it arrives, we kind of wish it would go away, we want to be left to our tools and our greasy hands and our shade trees, our violent metal and brief explosions, our gray primer and rust, our certainty of objects. The birth of a child means more life, more crying, more questions, more hunger, more lying and walking away, more required courses, more questions we cannot answer, more tests, more tedium, more teachers, more classroom sitting, more desolate afternoons, more diapers and howling, more unbridgeable gulf, more rules, more discipline, more silence. We do not like life in a lot of ways. For some of us men we like a few books, we like a little racquetball, we like maybe a sauna and some swimming, we like a long drive down a leafy road in a good truck, but we did not sign on for the entire program and it tires us out, frankly, and after the truck is parked we just want to lie down and go to sleep, and it is like this day after day for many of us men, which is why we father kids and go off into the woods, never to speak of it again until it comes up by a careless word or two in the supermarket, and there we are again, saddled with ourselves, bending under the incomprehensible load of what we have done — given life to a child who now looks out at the world and says, I don’t know, man, what you’re all so fucked up about, this looks pretty good to me. Just wait, we say. Just wait.

What I mean is, you need to conjure up some compassion for the teenager you once were, this wayward loser without a home or a job. You need to do this in order to stop hanging your head in shame for having been simply young and confused and unsure what to do. My sense of it is that your keeping of secrets arises out of intense shame. You need to replace that shame with some compassion and respect. To do that you need to go back down some of those same old roads and find out what you were really looking for back then.

I can’t do that for you. But my guess is that you were looking for a way out of WASPish silence, the long tradition of family secrets, the code your family lived by. You were looking for a more authentic way of feeling and being. Making love and getting drunk seemed like ways to get to something real. But at the crucial moment, when your waywardness truly bore fruit, it was a forbidden fruit it bore, so you turned away in fear. You turned back to what you knew best: the keeping of secrets, the silent bearing of shame.

Now, as an adult man, it’s time to pick up where you left off. It’s time to finish what you started — not with teenage acting-out but with a sober acknowledgment that wild, untamable passions are as important to your life as oatmeal for breakfast and plenty of life insurance.

You’re married now. You’ve got a house and a job. You’re safe. It’s time to hold your head up and acknowledge who you were then and who you are now and make the best of a pretty good situation.

I hope you get a chance to tell everything. Sometimes, after a life of secrets, telling everything helps.

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Mom says dump the boyfriend or leave home!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 25, 2009

We got caught making out and now my mom’s all like you have to break up with him if you want to keep living here


Dear Cary,

My name is V and I’m 18 years old. I have a boyfriend and he’s 18 years old too, but the situation here is that my family has never liked my boyfriend. Me and my boyfriend have been going out for 10 months, and he has always been a good boyfriend to me. The reason my family doesn’t like him is because of the way he talks all ghetto like.

My mom says that he has me threatened and that I’m scared of him, but she is saying things without knowing that my boyfriend actually respects me. He has never hit me or yelled at me, and if he did, I would tell him to watch it, and he’d be like, I’m sorry, babe. Besides that, Friday was his graduation, and after his graduation I went to his house to celebrate. While at his house, I called my mom and let her know I was going to be at his house, and she said it’s OK, she’ll go pick me up.

After a while being at his house, he was getting hot and turned on, so we told everyone we were going to the store, and as we went out the door, he pulled me into the basement and we went in there. We were alone, and let me tell you, I already lost my virginity before that with him, but we weren’t really doing anything besides making out and I did a striptease for him. After a while we heard people looking for us, and his aunt saw when I was slipping my dress back on and started to yell at me and told me to get out of her house. By the way, my mom didn’t know anything about me not being a virgin. So as I was putting my heels on, his aunt told my mom how she found us. My mom was upset, very, very upset after that day.

She hadn’t said anything to me up until yesterday, when she told me to sit down in the living room and started talking, and her rules were:

Break up with your boyfriend and you can live at my house under my rules and keep your studies at the university, or
Leave the house. If you’re not willing to leave your boyfriend, then go live with him and lose your studies.

And honestly I don’t know what to do. I need help because I love my boyfriend to death and he’s willing to help me out if I go live with him. As a matter of fact, he’s been looking for jobs already, and he talked to his aunt, and she said it is all right with her if I go with them, but I’ll have to get a job, and that’s OK with me.

My problem in deciding between one or the other is that my family has always been everything, but for some reason I have felt like they have been turning their back on me and they don’t want to listen to me. My mom is mad at me. She says she’s disappointed in me, and I’m afraid that if I stay here at my house that she’s going to keep on bringing this situation up, because my mom tries to control my life all the time. She says if I live under her roof, I do what she tells me to do. I have no opinion and no say in anything, and I am tired of them deciding for me.

I have already made a decision to leave my house and learn to be an independent woman on my own, and go live with my boyfriend and just make my life already. I am conscious that it is not going to be easy, but I just want to be with my boyfriend. To tell you the truth, I want for my family to at least get along with my boyfriend. That way I won’t have to leave. I really do not want to leave my house because of my little sister. She told me last night crying that she doesn’t want me to leave because she can’t sleep without me being in the room with her. I know I did things wrong, but in my opinion my mom is taking things way too far.

All I’m looking for is for someone to tell me their opinion on my situation and to help me out. I am really seeking some help.

Confused

 

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Dear Confused,

I think you should stay at home for now until things can get sorted out. Ask your mom for some time. Promise to stop seeing your boyfriend for two weeks or a month while you sort things out. That will give her time to cool down.

Then tell your boyfriend the only way you can still keep seeing him is if he will go, on his own, to talk to your mom. He’s got to apologize and impress her that he is a gentle and honest man. He’s got to humble himself before her. But he’s got to be honest with her, too. He can’t snow her. If she senses that he’s trying to deceive her, or charm her, or sweet-talk her, she will become hardened to him. It’s got to be genuine. He’s got to say that he likes you very much, enough that he is willing to make some sacrifices in order to continue seeing you.

Now, you can’t get this all done in one conversation with your mom. So just tell her that for now, you want to stay at home and you’re having a “moratorium” on the boyfriend.

Here is the important thing: You have to have some flexibility and patience. When families suddenly break apart over something like this, it hurts everyone. It hurts you, it hurts your mom, and it hurts your sister.

So you need to use conflict resolution. If you can slowly resolve the conflicts, maybe this can be worked out to everyone’s benefit.

There are a lot of emotions involved. Your mom is trying to protect you, and you are trying to grow and be your own person. That naturally creates conflict. You have to learn to do some negotiating with your mom.

In negotiating with your mom, you have to have some things to offer her. What do you have to offer? Make a list of all the things you have to offer her if you stay at home: You can help take care of your sister. Staying at home will make your sister happy. You can clean and cook at home. You can be with your mom and keep her company. And you can stay in school so you can get a good job.

Your mom doesn’t really want you to leave. She wants you to stay in school. She wants you to stay at home. But she is trying to be a good mom. And she is trying to feel like she has some power over what goes on. So give her some power. Give her what she wants. But do that in a way that gives you some rights, too.

Now, after your boyfriend talks to your mom, you will want to see what she says. If you want to keep seeing your boyfriend, you don’t want to have to do it in secret. So you’ll have to figure that one out. If he can’t be persuasive, maybe his aunt will have to come talk to your mom as well. And if you’re going to keep seeing him, there will have to be some limits. Your mom won’t want him going into your room, and she won’t want you sleeping at his house or spending the night somewhere. You can guarantee she won’t want that. But if he approaches her on his own, and apologizes for what happened, and impresses on her that he truly cares for you and wants what’s best for you, she might agree to let you keep seeing each other.

You have this on your side: She doesn’t really want you to leave. She wants to keep her family together, but she wants some control and some respect. So this situation can be worked out. It doesn’t have to end in bitterness.

And don’t forget your little sister. You can “lobby” your little sister: Tell her that you very much want to stay at home, and that you just have to work things out with your mom. Don’t necessarily try to get her to take sides, but just be honest with her. In a pinch, she can tell your mom that she, too, really wants you to stay.

The most important thing at this crucial point, whatever happens, is this: Stay close to your mom and to your sister. Stay in school until you have a useful skill and you know how to get a job and support yourself. And don’t count on your boyfriend. I’m sure he’s great, but things do change. At 18, a year is like a lifetime. Things could change.

So the best solution is for you to try to negotiate something with your mom where you can live at home. You’ll have to give up some things, but so will she. She’s angry right now and being overly rigid. Show her you can compromise, and maybe she will accept your solution.

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Can I stop my aging parents from suing each other into oblivion?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 9, 2008

Divorced, they’ve been squabbling in courts for over a decade.


Dear Cary,

I write this letter to you with the hope of gaining some clarity in a situation that it appears I cannot remove myself from.
My parents have been divorced for more than a decade now, but unfortunately neither of them got the memo that divorce means moving on with their lives. They still wrangle each other in court to this day. The reasons range from money to psychological damage caused by the other. You name it, and one has probably made a court matter of it. The two of them don’t speak, and I am the proxy by default.

Needless to say, this has deeply affected me for a while. After more than a decade of hearing the victim complex both my mother and father carry, it is not difficult to realize there is no rationalizing with either of them. I have not had a close relationship with either of them for a long time now, and over the course of the past year I have put so much distance between them and myself that I only touch base with them once a month.

I told myself I would not allow them to hold me back from living a happy, productive and fulfilled life. I can’t say I have neared any of those goals, but I can say that keeping them and their dysfunctional lifestyles at bay has allowed me to live a somewhat emotionally tame lifestyle.

But a difficulty has presented itself. My mother has signed her competency over to her friend/confidant, who coincidently is a former attorney. This individual has filed four lawsuits to date against my father as my mother’s guardian, and it doesn’t look like he is going to stop anytime soon. My father feels that he is being extorted.

He feels that if my mother is truly incompetent, why sign over power to an individual outside her immediate family? Basically, he feels that a fraud is being committed. And honestly, I can’t say I completely disagree with him. I am not a lawyer, nor I do I know the legal definition of incompetence, but something about this situation makes me want to call “bullshit.” At the same time, I am unsurprised and prefer to sit on the sideline instead of getting tangled in the mess.

I can’t say my father is a complete victim here. He is an attorney, and takes full advantage of that fact. It feels like after all these years of his taking such advantage, my mother will go to whatever lengths possible to get what she feels is rightfully hers, even if it means bending the truth.

My father tries to guilt me into doing something about this. His take is: “You have the power to stop what she is doing. She is wronging me.” I feel like, What’s the use? Why should I get caught up in a problem he helped exacerbate?

My siblings and I have spent enough time as the pawns in their juvenile warring for the past 12 years. Even if I do try and take the reins of being guardian, my mother will undoubtedly fight me on it. Nor will this end the power struggle between my parents. They’ll find something new to fight over.

What I am looking for, Cary, is for someone to tell me that my ambivalence in this situation is right. I feel like this is my time to start my life (I am in my mid-20s) … I have a lot going for me, and I don’t want to be sucked back into their dysfunction. Am I entitled to close my eyes to this situation?

Your opinion please.

Ambivalent Son

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Dear Ambivalent Son,

Of course your ambivalence is right. It is a natural response to an impossible situation.

Yet you must decide. You must decide whether to intervene. And I suggest, for better or worse, that you do try to intervene. I say this fully understanding the difficult emotional consequences such an attempt can have. I say this because you stand at least some chance of avoiding further damage. You stand at least some chance of doing some good.

At least engage your own legal counsel and examine the alternatives. After seeing all the options you may decide that doing nothing is best. At least you will have examined your options thoroughly. I suggest you do this as soon as possible. Such situations can get worse quickly. Assets can disappear; relationships can turn bitter; those who stood by can be burdened with lasting regret that they did not step in sooner.

In suggesting this, I feel like a fool, frankly, for often what happens is this: Even after forgiving oneself and others for shortcomings; even after admitting that we have absolutely zero chance of achieving a better past; even after recognizing that we are powerless over our parents; even after recognizing that we did indeed do what we could, that we did indeed try and were rebuffed, even after weekly sessions in therapy going over it and over it, the painful situation persists and we remain ambivalent and embittered and crippled by its insidious, undermining power: I failed as a son. I failed as the good son, the son with promise. I failed to protect my parents.

The only oasis of blamelessness in this hurricane of guilt and recrimination is the knowledge that one fails in such endeavors not because one is a bad son but because one is powerless over the ultimate fate of others.

This is a difficult thing to keep in mind. It needs constant reinforcement. We do not have godlike powers. If I had godlike powers I would change my parents. I would change my siblings. I would put us all in a big white house by the river. I would take us all back there to a quiet summer street shaded by banyans and mimosas, walking by the seawall, dangling our toes in the water, bicycling to the store for popsicles, devoid of cares, attending to childhood, sure and safe in the embrace of our parents who were young and strong and could be trusted to solve any problem and untie any knot. That is what I would do if I had godlike powers. I would take us back there. I would make life a fantasy. We would all tend lovingly to my parents as they aged and weakened, cooing over them and rocking them to sleep and feeding them with spoons. We would sing them lullabies and change them and protect them from things they cannot comprehend. In love for one another we would sacrifice, each of us, to the extent we were capable of, and each of us would understand that each sibling has gifts and limitations, and we would honor each other for our gifts and our limitations, and we would all take turns taking care of our parents.

That is what I would do if I had godlike powers. But I do not. Neither do you. So we do what we can. To the extent that you can gain some legal power in this matter, I hope you take steps to do so. If you can protect assets and prevent further lawsuits, if you can arrange for binding arbitration between the parties, perhaps you can avert certain catastrophes.

As to precisely how you do this, legally and financially, I respectfully yield to legal and financial experts. My point is more a moral one: You have to try. You may be damaged in the attempt. You may find that suddenly you are the enemy of all. They may all turn against you, including your siblings. But you will have tried.

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My Christian daughter says I’m going to hell

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Cary’s classic column THURSDAY, OCT 4, 2007 03:10 AM PDT

I don’t believe in God but I want to allay her fears.


Hi,

I am the father of a 13-year-old daughter whose mother has been taking her to an evangelical Christian church her whole life. Her mother’s family is entirely Christian. I am not a Christian, and in fact think that organized religion is actively harmful to her development into a rational adult. None of my friends are Christian, nor any of my family.

Her mother and I split up right before she was born, but I have been an active parent. She lived with me for fifth and seventh grades and has been with me every summer and every other holiday. Right now, I have her every other weekend. Religion is not the only issue her mother and I have had, but until this point we have been able to compromise and get along with each other pretty well.

As my daughter gets older, however, she has started to become fearful that because I am not a Christian, I am going to hell. When I try to explain my beliefs (that I don’t believe in God or a higher power), she cries. I am certainly not trying to deny her mother the right to take her to church, but I don’t want to cut my two weekends a month with her short to take her back to her mother’s to attend church. Nor do I want her mother telling her that I am going to hell.

It has gotten to the point that if I even try to broach the subject of religion (mentioning my belief in evolution or that homosexuals are not sinners), it upsets my daughter greatly. Obviously, this is not what I want, but I do want to be able to communicate to her what I believe.

Her mom thinks that I am denying her freedom by not taking her to church on the weekends that I have her, but I am just trying to help her see that other people believe other things and that having an open mind is a good thing.

What am I doing wrong? And more important, how can I talk to my daughter about this without making her cry?

Unholy Father

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Dear Unholy Father,

Does football exist?

Some would argue no. Surely they have heard people speak of football and argue forcibly about its rules and the conduct of its games. But they have never been to a game and would never go to a game because to them football is a mass illusion with a peculiar, inexplicable allure for millions of clueless fools, on whose hard-earned dollars certain unscrupulous people get very rich.
If your daughter is not a football fan she might argue thus. Moreover, she might argue, football is harmful to the development of a peaceful, nonviolent culture.

To which you might respond, well, if football does not exist then how can it be harmful?

And she would say, well, people gather to watch games, but what they are watching is not really football. It is just a bunch of people believing in football. There is no actual football. It is an illusion, a group hallucination. But it warps people’s minds and diverts them from more important things.

To which you might reply, Have you ever been to a friggin’ game? How can you say that? What can this thing that we are doing possibly be if it is not football?

Well, she might say, that’s your problem. All I know is that football does not exist, and if it did exist, I’d know.

How can you know unless you go to a game? you’d ask her in exasperation. Moreover, how can you know what goes on there after just one game? You would need to attend games regularly for maybe several years, or at least a couple of seasons, before you could really feel you know what’s going on there!

Exactly.

What I am trying to say is, the way to help your daughter grow is not to debate the existence of God. It is to go to church with your daughter and experience what she is experiencing.

You can argue about who is winning and who is losing. But at least watch the game.

Her problem is not that she believes in God. It’s that she believes you are going to burn in hell when you die. It’s her concern for you, and her fear for you, that are the problem. She wants to believe otherwise but has no solid grounds on which to place any hope. If you go to church with her, you will make it possible for her to believe that there is at least a chance that you will not burn in hell. From this she will derive great benefit. It will give her some peace of mind. The peace of mind she derives from it will help her in her schoolwork and in her relationships with others. It will help her sleep at night and it will improve her attitude toward you. It will be one less complaint she has against you. It will be one less wedge her mother can use between you. And it will be the only way you will ever be able to argue with her about religion with any credibility, should you choose to do so when she gets older.

Now is not the time to argue with her about religion. Now is the time to strengthen your bond with your daughter by participating in things that matter to her, by showing her that you respect the way she lives her life and by showing her that you have an open mind.

But don’t just go to church with her. Meet with one of the officials. That’s right, wander right down on to the field and speak with one of the guys in the striped shirts. Or whatever they wear. Arrange a private conference. In this private conference, you can say whatever you like. It doesn’t matter really. It might be a good conversation or it might be utterly ridiculous. But show your daughter that you are willing to engage with one of the people she respects. Show her that you have enough humility and independence of spirit to engage, that you are not fearful or dogmatic or close-minded.

In your own mind, you might approach the matter as a consumer. Don’t be glib with the official or you may be ejected. But in your own mind, think of salvation, or “eternal life,” as a product.

How is this product obtained? Are there instances in which people are granted “eternal life” at random, or must every grant be preceded by an act of faith, or surrender? Are there exact words one must use to close the deal, or will any words to the effect of “I’m in!” suffice? Would a silent act of surrender suffice? If a silent act of surrender would suffice, then is it possible that you have already been saved? And, once granted, can this product be recalled? For instance, what if a child were to be a fervent believer and then later lost his belief? Would that initial belief still grant him eternal life? Go over the terms and conditions, as it were.

Once you have done this, and conversed with an official, you might be able to confidently tell your daughter, without going into specifics, that you think everything is going to be OK, eternal-life-wise. She would probably appreciate that.

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I won’t grovel for my mother-in-law!

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Cary’s classic column from

After all I’ve been through, I snapped. I don’t want to apologize, but I want my family back.


Dear Cary,

In the past three years, I have had a great deal of loss. My father, both grandmothers and my 36-year-old brother died. My mother had breast cancer and I had a miscarriage. Plus, two of our family pets passed. It has been a great deal to absorb, especially when the onslaught of loss kept going and going.

When a family member grew ill, or near the end, I relied on my mother-in-law to fly in to help my husband with our kids. She is retired, well off, and visited us often. Most visits with her tended to involve her taking us out for meals and taking us shopping. When I was a stay-at-home mom, I appreciated all the gifts and meals out as a diversion from our otherwise tight budget. Holidays were over the top; she even took our family on two Mexican vacations. We didn’t ask for money, or trips, but we did accept them gratefully.

When my last family member grew ill, I traveled across the country and my mother-in law came to stay with my family. The trip ended up being longer than originally planned because I decided to stay for the funeral. When I asked my mother-in-law to change her plans and stay one more day, she said she had a dentist appointment to attend. Furthermore, she asked if the funeral date could be changed or could someone else bring the ashes home. I was aghast. My grandmother’s funeral didn’t take precedence over a dentist appointment?

When I called my husband later that night, he told me that his mother had been concerned over our finances. She was urging him to look for a better job and asking when I was returning to work. She had been talking finances with him the whole time I had been gone, knowing full well that I handle the money in our family. She talked about feeling unappreciated. She had never brought up any of these topics with me, and to do so while I was gone and in such a dire emotional place, just seemed wildly inappropriate to me. I think she was acting needy when I was in a time of actual need.

In the end, my husband took time off work and sent his mother home in time for her appointment. On a layover, on the way home from the funeral, I called my in-laws and told them that I was canceling our next planned vacation to Disneyland. In part, I was angry over my losses and didn’t feel like “business as usual” after hearing her bemoan our finances. I thought, “Fine, if you’re suddenly worried about my money then I won’t spend any more of yours.” I have since returned to work and it’s been the silent (or martyr) treatment from her for almost a year now.

After licking my many wounds for many months, I realize that what family I have left is small and that I want to be close again, at the very least for the sake of my kids. I am at an impasse with my mother-in-law that I’d like to be resolved, but I don’t feel like groveling or apologizing. I miss our old relationship, when we were close and things were fun, but realize that ship has sailed. What should I do?

Mother of All Mother-in-Law Issues

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Dear Mother of all Mother-in-Law Issues,

What should you do?

Grovel.

Seriously.

Grovel and apologize.

It will feel great.

It’s not that the groveling and apologizing will feel great. But when you finally become willing to grovel and apologize, you will have achieved a spiritual victory. You will be free of your wounded pride.

Before you feel free of your pride, you need to grieve. If you feel you can’t grieve because your mother-in-law has withdrawn her support, then you may well feel angry. Your pride may be hurt. If you are used to being the one who handles the money and someone comes in and starts giving advice, your pride is hurt. When our pride is hurt we want to strike out. When we feel threatened we want to strike out.

But you need to take care of yourself. You have “licked your wounds” but you have not allowed your grief the kindness of time. You may feel that grieving is a luxury, that before you can grieve, somebody has to step in and take care of things and make sure everything is running smoothly. So when your mother-in-law tried to take care of her own needs, you felt panic. How can you grieve, how can you get through this, if there isn’t someone making sure everything runs smoothly?

Well, as you know, death changes all that. Death doesn’t wait for us to clean up the house. It comes and plunges us into grief and certain things just have to wait.

The way we live our lives today, we don’t plan for difficulty. When overwhelming feelings arrive, as well they will, when grief arrives, and it will, when sadness comes, and it will, when the life cycle turns, we haven’t made room for it. We haven’t prepared the house for this new visitor.

So forgive those around you, and accept your own grief. Maybe the house will get messy. Maybe the kids won’t be perfectly taken care of. Maybe a little sheen will come off the glossy finish. That’s OK. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Have some compassion for yourself. You’ve been hurt. You’ve been through hell. You’ve been through hell and haven’t given yourself credit. Possibly others haven’t given you credit either. So give yourself credit. Let yourself feel this. You’ve been beaten down. People you love have been taken from you. You lost a baby, for heaven’s sake! Life has taken loved ones from you. You’ve been torn apart. Let yourself feel this. Give yourself love.

How to repair your feelings toward your mother-in-law? One way is to list all the things you are grateful to your mother-in-law for. List all the things she has done for you, the gifts, the visits, the dinners. Just list all the things you are grateful for. Think of what you would miss if she were gone. And thank her for all these things.

When your mother-in-law said she had to go back, isn’t it possible that she lied, that it wasn’t about the dentist, that she had emotional reasons of her own for getting back home? People do things to meet their own needs. They don’t necessarily understand consciously what all their needs are, or how they’re meeting them, so they say things like they have a dental appointment because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. So sometimes it comes out sounding pretty lame. And offensive. But it’s very hard in most families for someone to just say what they’re feeling.

And perhaps you need to grovel — not for your mother-in-law but for yourself. Maybe something in you is calling you to grovel, for it is an oft-observed truth that in what we most resist lies a deep attraction. So go ahead and get down on the ground and feel the ground. Grovel and let out your grief. Let yourself do this. A part of you wants to. Your prideful ego wants to maintain its appearance as the completely together entity who’s in charge of the finances and knows what to do in every instance. But it is your prideful ego that stands between you and relief. So let your ego blab on about its resentments and its anger and its refusal to grovel and refusal to apologize.

You don’t need to be afraid. Death comes. The ego doesn’t want to die or accept the fact of death, and so it stands between us and true grieving. In reality we decay. We lose people. Things fall apart. We leave the stage. We make room for more. That’s how it goes. Every life is full of constant leaving. It tears us apart but that’s how it is.

Just let it go, all this stuff. Let yourself break down. Let yourself fall to your knees. You’ve had enough. You’ve held it all together long enough. Let it go.

Let your tears fall. Let your tears fall into the ocean of tears that have fallen for all the departed for all the years that we have been saying goodbye to souls old and young. Let your tears fall into the river of souls. Let yourself fall to your knees and grieve for all the souls that have passed by us. Empty yourself of this grief. Empty yourself. Empty yourself and make room for all the new souls coming into the world.

Welcome all the new souls coming into the world. Make room for the life to come.

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My father’s widow is stingy

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JUN 9, 2005

I know he would have wanted to give me more money, but his will left everything to her.


Dear Cary,

I’m 34. My father passed away a year and half ago. He remarried when I was 15 but started dating my stepmom (SM) when I was 9.

Dad and SM kept their finances separate. My father was known to help his kids out when she wasn’t looking. For all I know, she was doing the same with her kids. My sister, the black sheep, was barely welcome in their house, but my dad still helped her out. Which is why his will surprised me. My dad left all the money in a trust that SM administers. She gets his pension too, which leaves her taken care of for life.

I hate that this bothers me, but she’s been reluctantly generous since my dad died. She spent the first year crying poor. She grudgingly sent me my father’s desk, making it clear to me how much the shipping cost. She won’t ship any other furniture of his to me unless I pay. Meanwhile, she gave her oldest son her Volvo, the second one she’s given him. She’s now moving her youngest son and his girlfriend into her condo at an extremely subsidized rate. Everything I’ve gotten from her since my father died, I’ve had to ask for.

I’m now pregnant with my first child. I spoke to her before I was pregnant about possibly helping us out financially the first year we have a child. I explained that it would make a big difference because I wouldn’t feel pressure to rush back to work. Since I announced the pregnancy, she has offered to buy me a car seat and some maternity clothes but made no mention of our previous discussion. My in-laws, who are very generous, immediately told us how they could help us financially. They constantly surprise us with their gifts. The abundance has been especially comforting since my dad’s death.

I think I feel abandoned by my dad. I think every day that she is not generous with me I feel extra slighted. I honestly think his will was the will of a man who thought he was going to die at 90. He always assumed he would, even after his cancer diagnosis. How do I move on? Do I bring up the finances with her again? It’s making it hard for me to talk to her and then of course I feel money-grubbing.

Just writing this letter is making me sad.

Wanting More

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Dear Wanting More,

You say you feel abandoned by your father. Your father may have abandoned you many times in the past, physically, financially and emotionally. But this time he did not abandon you. He died. That is different. That is not abandonment. It is an excused absence.

Perhaps he led you to believe that he would never die and he would always take care of you, so his death does seem like a betrayal or abandonment. But who had the largest loss of all? He is the one who lost his life. His loss was the greatest of all.

It is our job, as the living, to make peace with the dead.

What do we owe the dead? We owe the dead the opportunity to truly be gone. That is one great consolation of death — that, as television ads for the advance purchase of burial plots put it, in death we do indeed settle our “final expenses.” Isn’t that a lovely thought, that there finally is, indeed, a permanent caesura to our endless invoices? Perhaps in this painful weighing of gifts is a refusal to let go of your father completely.

It is hard to make peace with the dead when we are still entangled in their affairs. So I think you need to change the way you think about the money and property your father left. To do that, you may need to face with renewed clarity the fact of his death, its utter finality. He is completely gone. Everything that was once his is no longer his. It is no longer your father’s money. It is his widow’s money. The decisions she makes about how to use her money will be based on her values and the relationship that you and she have, not on your idea of what your father would have wanted.

A person’s will leaves certain instructions about the disposition of his estate, and through that legal instrument the dead may continue to exert an influence over the living. But it is a mistake, I think, to reach beyond his legal instructions and presume “he would have wanted this” or “he would have wanted that.” Indeed, he may have told you many things about what he wanted. But unless they are written down, those utterances lose all force as the last breath leaves his body. The living are left to sort it out with the only tools they have.

Those tools are, it seems to me, our values, our human decency, our feelings for each other and our regard for our own security. Among your father’s strongly held values, I take it, was the belief that parents ought to help their children financially when they can, well into adulthood. Now, the values a person lives by are admirable in two ways. One, they have an inherent validity — it’s clear that society benefits from honest dealings, concern for children, etc. Two, they are seen as admirable because of the esteem in which we hold the person. We look up to our parents and emulate their values. That admiration based on our esteem for the person is, I think, the basis on which we say, My father would have wanted this. In saying so, we are honoring not only his values but our memory of him as a person. We are carrying on a relationship with him even though he is no longer here. We do this out of love for him. That relationship, that continuing love for his memory, is vital and should not be denigrated.

But unfortunately it is not a basis for settling property disputes. Many people loved your father and had an idea about what he would have wanted. Many people held him in esteem and shared his values. But the money now belongs to his widow. It is she who must make the decisions about how to use it. If you can persuade her that the values your father lived by are good in and of themselves, and that she ought therefore to give you more money, more power to you. Perhaps you can construct an argument in which you distill and renew the values he lived by and present that to her. But the argument must, I think, be based in present reality.

As a way of working through this you might ask yourself: What is the importance of those values he held and bequeathed to you? Why is it still vital that parents help their children well into adulthood? How did he balance the needs of children and widow, and how ought that be managed now? What concerns for her own well-being might she have that she has not spelled out? Why, on their merits, are her actions miserly or unfair? In short, what is the right thing to do?

As you think it through, you may find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with her actions themselves. Indeed, you may find that there isn’t anything wrong with what she is doing, judging by contemporary standards. If so, you may then be left with only your sadness over your father’s passing. That is a great sadness indeed. In fact, once you think it through, the money may seem the least of your loss, compared to who this man was and what he meant to you.

It is best in life to turn from matters over which we have little control and little responsibility to those matters over which we have great control and great responsibility. Those matters are chiefly the conduct of our own lives and how we care for our own loved ones, whose hopes, like ours, are that we be generous and prosper as long as we can.

Walking on a hillside meadow perhaps one day soon you will feel the wind and it won’t have his breath in it; sitting at his desk one day it won’t be his desk anymore, but your desk. I’m not saying it will happen today or tomorrow, but it is something to look forward to, a state of understanding and acceptance that will make your present anguish over Volvos and car seats seem strangely disconnected from life’s grave and joyous milestones.

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My family is living in a pigsty!

 
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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 10, 2005

My mom’s a slob, my sister’s a loser. What is wrong with these people?


Dear Cary,

My question is a simple one of whom to be mad at.

Here’s the background: My mom has always been a horrible housekeeper. My dad actually left her because of it — he would come home from working 50 hours a week and then clean on the weekends. My mom would instead read romance novels, talk to her friends in Ohio, and dote on my younger sister and me. After my dad left, the house got messier and messier — the carpet discolored, the dishwasher broken since 1992 (it’s still there). I was kind of an introvert until I hit college and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary about this lifestyle.

My sister never went to college. Let me rephrase: She went to five certificate programs ranging from massage therapy to fashion design, never graduating from anything, until she went to a two-month pastry chef program and finished — hallelujah! She moved out at 22 with her boyfriend and got a job in the big city, and we all thought she had grown up. Unfortunately, she quit under mysterious circumstances (reportedly, her “crazy” boss was about to fire her for being lazy), the boyfriend went to AA, and she moved home into the basement.

In this house live my mom, my weak grandma, who is starting to get some pretty depressing dementia, my sister and five cats. I came home for a month-long stay from my home in New York. The house has been more neglected than I can possibly sum up. My sister and mom both chain-smoke, so I’ve been cleaning cigarette tar off the walls. I’m finding cat poop in random corners. There is junk everywhere. And to top it off, when I was washing the walls, my mom asked me to get a few dark spots from the skin oil of our dog where he used to lay — our dog died two years ago.

I could live with spending my visits cleaning if it weren’t for my sister. She’s 24 and my mom keeps spoiling her. Cooks for her, pays her phone bills, buys her whatever she wants with the money she’s working a 40-hour job for. My sister has proceeded to turn the house into her personal frat house. Her boyfriend spends the night, she leaves her dirty dishes next to her unmade bed, she leaves towels smudged with her eye makeup throughout the house and leaves my mom to return her movie rentals. She has a minimum-wage job at a bookstore and is now taking mythology classes (mostly online so she doesn’t have to go) at the local community college with the intention of becoming a therapist.

After a few weeks of cleaning, I told her how much it would mean to Mom if she helped out. She agreed to help, then covertly left the house only to call me at midnight from the big city — she and her boyfriend were drunk and needed me to pick them up.

I’m pissed at my sister for refusing to care about our home or her life. Maybe I sound jealous of her carefree lifestyle, but I got my butt in gear and learned to cook my own meals years ago. I’m also pissed at my mom for letting my sister walk all over her and not just kicking her out for her own good. My mom protests that when she asks my sister to clean, she just won’t do it, so it’s worthless to ask. I’m also conscious of being the “successful” daughter with a master’s degree and a fancy life in NYC, snubbing my nose at their lifestyle. I’d pay for their maid if I could afford it.

I’m worried that at this rate my sister will never learn a sense of responsibility. She’s 24 and has had two abortions. I’m worried that my sister will get killed in a car accident — she’s already been in two — which would crush my mom. I’m worried that my sister will come to me to support her one day when our mom dies and I will have to say no, get a life.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Cinderella

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Dear Cinderella,

If your question really is whom to be mad at, my answer would be: Don’t be mad at anyone. Leave them alone. Go back to New York and quit trying to fix your family. They are responsible for themselves.

But I sense you are asking more than just whom to be mad at. You are asking why the situation is the way it is and what, if anything, you can do to fix it. What is your role in this, and what are your responsibilities? How can a person of good conscience just abandon her family when it’s clear that things have gone wrong and they need some kind of help?

First, try to put yourself in their shoes. Think how you would feel if your sister and your mother showed up at your home in New York and started cleaning your apartment and rearranging your stuff. You would feel that they didn’t respect you, that they were overstepping their bounds. My guess is that your attempts at helping them are making them feel small and inadequate, and they probably resent you for it.

Next, consider what they might be getting out of living the way they do. Why, you may ask, would anyone in her right mind choose to live like that? And who, having been shown there’s a better way, would continue?

Well, we all do things that don’t seem to make sense to others but that give us what we happen to need. It can be maddening, I know, to watch someone do something one way when you know it would be much easier and smarter to do it a different way. But often the benefits of our seemingly absurd actions are known only to us — and sometimes we ourselves do not really understand what we are getting out of it.

A family is a dense, complex web of dependencies and interdependencies. It is a nurturing place but also a dangerous place, full of threats to our egos, to the way we think of ourselves. There may be individual pathologies at work as well — you mentioned your grandmother’s dementia; perhaps there is depression and drug abuse at work with your mother and sister.

Because the family is such a dangerous place, we all figure out ways to protect ourselves from each other. The dreams, ambitions and shortcomings about which we are most vulnerable are the very ones that we keep most carefully hidden from the family’s view. So it’s no wonder that our actions often seem inexplicable and baffling to the family: Afraid of ridicule, we go to great lengths to disguise our true objectives and our true failings. That is why it is so difficult for one family member to help another one recognize and deal with a problem such as drug abuse or alcoholism: You are trying to help, but you are perceived as a threat.

Not only can your well-intentioned aid be seen as a threat, but so can be your worldly success. Faced with the success of a sibling, we are driven to differentiate ourselves, lest we feel bested, overshadowed. But we must not acknowledge that we are differentiating ourselves in reaction. That would be tantamount to admitting our weakness, our jealousy, our resentment and fear. So we pretend that we are just doing what we’re doing.

Sometimes we go overboard in this symbolic differentiation: If you are going to become the secretary of state, I will become a crack head. That will show you. If you are going to be a pot head, I am going to become a Republican. If you are going to go to New York and become successful, I am going to go home and live in the basement with five cats. That will demonstrate … what? That you’re not right about everything. That you don’t know everything. That you’re not the boss of me.

And so it goes.

To think that you can walk into such a system and fix everything by cleaning the cigarette smoke off the walls is very human and very understandable but quite clearly doomed.

Why not, instead of trying to fix your family, try to understand what emotional needs they are getting met, and what deep and universal values they are exhibiting — for instance, the value of tolerance and patience, of unconditional love. And the love of place and togetherness. No matter how screwed up things seem, they are at least together. They are a family. What is this saying to you? Might it be saying that there are some things even more important than getting your butt in gear?

This may help you stop being mad at everyone. After you stop being mad, please do consider what forms of practical aid you can offer. A regular cleaning service, if you can afford it, would be ideal. And if there are clear clinical pathologies present, then consult with appropriate specialists.

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My dad left us because he is gay

 
Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 22, 2005

Why did he spend 18 years with my mom? Did he know all along, or what?


Dear Cary,

Two months ago my dad moved out of the house. For about two years he has been depressed and then he started to have a drinking problem. My mom tried everything. They decided to go to a marriage counselor but my dad didn’t like therapy. All he did was yell at the counselor and tell her that he did not have a problem and that he was not depressed.

Once my dad moved out he was much happier and calmer. With him here it was like walking on pins and needles. The week he left he called every day and then he called three to four times a week. I was confused. If he left then shouldn’t he just leave and not call to see what was going on? He didn’t check in while he was here, so why was he doing it now? He has been gone for two months now and it is so much better here. Me, my mom and my sister are much happier. But when my dad moved out my mom had not worked for 16 years. So she had to find a job and now has a full-time job but she doesn’t earn much money.

It has been really hard for me to adjust to all of these changes but I have managed. But two days ago my mom sat me and my little sister down and told us that she had to be honest with us about something. She said that she and my dad were getting a divorce and that it was not just because of his depression or his drinking. It was because she could not stay married to a gay man. My mom figured this out four months ago but it took her this long to tell me and my sister. They have been married for 18 years. Did he not know that he was gay? If he did know, then why did he get married to my mom? Was he just trying to make it go away? What was he doing? Why now?

Confused Child

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Dear Confused Child,

Those are good questions. I will attempt to answer them. But first I have a question for you: When you ask an adult a question, do you sometimes find that they don’t really answer it, that they talk about something else that you hadn’t brought up, which you weren’t even thinking about or don’t care about?

I seem to remember that happening to me when I was a child. When I asked an adult a question I had generally thought it through. I knew what I was asking. I wanted an answer. But often I was not taken seriously. Sometimes my questions were complicated, and I was often misunderstood. But I was not looking for sympathy or hugs. I was looking for answers. So I will attempt to answer your questions.

Yes, it’s possible that when your father married your mother he did not know he was gay. He may have felt he was a heterosexual man who had occasional homosexual feelings. As you suggest, he may have thought that getting married would make the homosexual feelings go away.

Why now? Well, as you will find out as you get older, the longer one lives with a truth, the more difficult it is to resist it. It’s as though you were holding up a wall. It becomes more and more tiring. You finally give in and let the wall come down.

So why did he call so much after he left? I can think of some reasons. One, of course, is that he loves you. The sound of your voice makes him happy. Also, he wants to continue to contribute to your well-being. Moving out doesn’t change that. Some people might say he feels guilty and is seeking forgiveness. That may be part of it. But it’s not your job right now to forgive him. You may be too angry at him to forgive him or even to want to speak to him. But if he is trying to be helpful, if he is inquiring as to your well-being, it’s OK to talk to him and tell him how you are.

You also ask why, if he’s going to go, he doesn’t simply go and not bother you? It’s a good question. It would simplify things if he were simply gone. But you would probably start to miss him, too, if he never called. It’s better this way, even though it may be upsetting to hear from him right now, because you don’t want to get into the habit of never talking to him.

For you, having to talk to him is probably a lot of work right now. It requires you to come up with a new way of relating to him. But if I were you, I would try to force myself to talk to him, to keep up the habit. You will probably find, as time goes on, that you settle into a new relationship with him and bit by bit you become glad to hear from him. What makes it hard right now, I’m guessing, is the way all your emotions well up when he calls. You may feel angry and sad all at once. You may feel things of an intensity and complexity that you haven’t ever felt before, and that may be frightening to you. It may feel as though you are getting a little crazy. Intense emotions will do that even to the strongest person. But that’s all right; then they pass and you are the same as you were. Your emotions won’t hurt you. They are not your enemy. In fact, if you look at them as a source of strength, they will help you get through this.

I have tried to answer your questions as clearly as I can, without adding a bunch of nonsense. Even so, I have probably said more than I needed to. It’s hard to avoid doing that. The important thing to remember is that your father still loves you, and things will get better. You can depend on that.

 

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