My son eloped and cut me out

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 17, 2012

I only got a generic notice, as if I were just a bystander, or an acquaintance!


Dear Cary,

It’s my turn. I need advice.

I opened my mail earlier this week and found a wedding announcement — from my son. My son, whom I raised alone since he was 3 (he’s 30 now).  My son, whose selfish temper tantrums through high school stopped me from dating women (and therefore, anybody) for years. Whose tour of duty in Iraq I gritted my teeth and “supported” him through despite my soul-level objection to his joining the Army.

The same son who, after he got his head right, volunteered — practically begged — to officiate at my wedding last year to a very sweet woman who rode out his homophobia until it was gone.

The son (my only child) about whom friends marvel, “You guys are SO close! It’s heartwarming.”

He married his girlfriend of five years, which is whom he SHOULD marry — and I’ve encouraged that for a long time. But eloping with no discussion with anyone (family, anyway) is disappointing, to say the least. There were no family issues going on about them; everyone on both sides was hoping for and expecting them to marry sometime soon. I’m sad that they’ve just taken a little jaunt downtown and gotten married in secret, taking away from everyone the opportunity to participate and celebrate. Certainly they have the RIGHT to elope — but everything legal is not also a good idea.

All of that one could get over, and I no doubt will, but to just simply have been on the address list for a photocopied announcement — that’s too much for me. I got the news along with anyone else whose address they had — high-school classmates, work friends, former employees. It’s not like there was any other unhappiness going on; in fact, he called me “just to say hi” the same day they mailed the announcements, but without responding truthfully to “What’s new with you?” I’m overwhelmingly sad at having been held at arms’ length over this, and he is royally ticked off by my telling him — carefully — how hurt I was to get this notice in the mail. I was clear that I am happy for him to be married to this woman, and I sincerely hope it’s forever, but I feel like they just went off on a lark (“Hee-hee, let’s go get secret married and not tell ANYBODY — they’ll be SO surprised when they get the note!”) like teenagers, with no thought about the broader meaning of joining together publicly, of themselves as not just independent beings, but also part of a larger community of family and friends.

My friends are shocked, some even angry, and I feel hurt, hurt, hurt and sad, sad, sad. Slapped in the face. The wind knocked out of me. In light of my generic notification, I picked out a generic “congratulations” card and signed it with my first and last names (instead of “Mom”).  I have to see both of them this weekend at a family birthday party (and I can’t disappoint my young niece by staying away). I don’t know how I can do this without crying. How? How do I deal this weekend, and how do I get out of this mire of sadness I’m stuck in?

Sign me

The Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom

OnlineWorkshopFinishingSchool112315

Dear Generic Person Formerly Known as Mom,

You sound like a good and well-meaning person who was hit hard by something and had no defenses against it. Sometimes something will just bring you to your knees. You aren’t expecting to be so deeply affected by something, and you aren’t expecting someone to do something, and then when it happens you have no defenses.

Having no defenses can be a good thing. Sometimes it’s the only way to truly feel something. In fact, I tend to think we often live in awful unreality, that we glide over tragedy and fate too easily, that we are glib and casual when we would be better served if we were grave and formal and silent, for daily we walk amid miracles and crimes.

I was at my locker this morning at the gym, next to a Russian man, and I said, “Excuse me,” so I could dial my combination into my green padlock and open my locker. I looked into his face as he turned, and I saw pain and sorrow and anger; the look was so open as to be startling; he was not guarded and bland or shallowly comical like so many of the American middle-class men who frequent the gym; I saw his face and I thought of what horrors he had endured, what secrets he had, what awful things he had lived through. His face was grave and true. It humbled me. I sat quietly and waited while he dressed.

So let’s just talk about emotional pain, and the dignity it involves, and its power. Let’s not talk yet about why your son did what he did or any of that. For starters, let’s say that emotional pain comes from an injury not to the body but to the soul, to our self-esteem or confidence or sense of who we are. In this case, it seems that your sense of  self in relation to your son was injured. You thought your son held you in a certain regard but his actions seem to show that he does not.

Let’s again delay talking about why your son did what he did and keep talking about you.  Let’s talk about your sense of yourself in relation to him. You have been his loving mom. You have been the most important person in his life. Being his mom has been one of your greatest roles. It has been a constant buoying force in your life. It has filled you with contentment and joy throughout the day. It has served to bolster your self-esteem and standing among your friends. Think about how important his place in your life has been. Just allow yourself to look at it. It might seem that to evaluate it like this might diminish it, but it won’t. It will just help you see in how many different ways your relationship to your son has been central to your self-esteem and well-being.

To be somewhat glib, let’s say that emotional pain goes away when the injury heals. In this case, your sense of self in relation to your son was injured. So how can that heal? Your son has suddenly moved out of your sphere and you are going to have to adjust. You are going to have to find new sources of joy and self-esteem. You might begin thinking about how your role in life will now change. You might begin thinking about how to let go of your son and find other sources of joy and contentment and pride day to day. You might also think about how to have a better relationship with your son, on these new terms in which he has moved out of your sphere of influence.

Let’s also now consider what your son might have been thinking and feeling. He broke some rules. He did something heedless but also romantic. I wonder how he sees rules. It is possible that he does not take certain rules very seriously. You say he joined the Army and went to Iraq. The Army has a lot of rules. Perhaps his tour of duty in Iraq left him with a feeling that some rules are important because they protect life and limb, and others are civilian rules that are not about life and death and so they don’t matter as much.

I don’t know if you pray or not, but if you do, it might not hurt to pray for your son. That might just mean conjuring him up in your thoughts and wishing for his happiness. It might just mean having him in your thoughts in a kind way. Pray for him to be happy and to be safe and to endure and prosper.

You might also pray for him to gradually acquire the wisdom to see how his choice hurt you so deeply; you might pray that he will acknowledge that one day. I think he will. I think he will one day see that it hurt you deeply, and he will tell you that he didn’t want to hurt you. Pray for him and love him. You will all get over this.

TuscanAd_09122015

My mother is dying — how will I bear it?

Write for Advice

I know it’s inevitable, but I can’t imagine how to get through it.

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, SEP 26, 2005 01:04 PM PDT

Dear Cary,

I’m writing because I love your advice and follow your column avidly. I don’t have the time or focus to make this pithy. I’ve always envisioned writing you a clever and insightful letter someday, and this ain’t it.

In a nutshell: I just learned my mother has a deadly cancer, her second round in two years. Despite what doctors are saying right now, I have a gut feeling that this is it: My mother is going to die young. She’s not even 60. I’m not even 40. She won’t meet my future children. She may not even be alive to see me get married to the love of my life. He and I had planned to get married next summer.

I am the only daughter, and anticipate being in the role of primary caretaker. My father and brother try their best, but I have always known it will be me who will help my mother die (or get well if there is some miracle). In fact, I have been preparing for this in therapy for over a year: trying to overcome my phobic fear of death, hospitals, illness, and least helpful of all: vomiting (people getting chemo vomit — a lot). I’ve made some progress, but I am still terrified and panicked that my fears will get in the way of being helpful or comforting.

She gets her first chemotherapy treatment next week, and I will be there (she lives in a city three hours away).

I’m beyond “why me, why her.” I know we all must deal with the death of our parents someday. Here is my question: How do people bear it? What can I do to overcome my fears and terror, and to offer my mother — who I love fiercely — solace and even meaning in the face of death? Is it even my role to offer this? How do I hold hope and death at the same time? She has been a wonderful mother — and devoted so much of her life to caring for me. How do I return the favor?

Heartbroken and Afraid

Dear Heartbroken and Afraid,

Much has been said to malign death, but little is said in its defense. Thus we fear it inordinately. But there is much about death that is wonderful. One thing that is wonderful about death is how little it requires of us, and how much we can count on it. Unlike a lover or a deliveryman, death will surely come, eventually, every time, to all of us. It will come whether we want it to or not, whether we are home when it arrives or not, whether we schedule it or not. The certainty of its arrival is frightening in a way — we might not be ready when it arrives! — but it is also reassuring. For once we do not have to choose. We bear no responsibility at all. If we do not make a selection, a selection will be made for us. When death arrives, it will not require payment or any form of reciprocity. It will not turn down the bed and then stand at the door waiting for a tip. Death, for the dying, need not be feared.

All death requires of us is that we bury our dead.

This is not to say that you are a silly and weak earthling caught up in weak and silly fears. I am not trying to pass myself off as some cold, imperious guru, impervious to fear of death. Far from it. I too fear death and dread the passing of those around me. I only suggest you try to make peace with death itself, in your own heart, to the extent possible, in order to lighten your burden, so that you can then move on to the issue before you with less dread and anxiety. You have probably made ample progress, perhaps more than you realize, by concentrating on this issue over the last year in your sessions with a therapist. You have been preparing. You cannot cure yourself, of course, or eliminate your natural responses to these future events. But you can prepare for them, and you have been doing so.

So take heart knowing that you are well prepared for the difficulties ahead. And take heart knowing that there will be many, many people around you who will care for you and help you when you need it. Your immediate family may disappoint you, but when illness comes, others rise to the occasion; wise caregivers and unexpected allies who were only on the periphery seem to step up and become central. Be alert to the people in your mother’s life who will now come forward. Look to them for the support you will need. That is how people bear such things.

It’s gruesome and terrible and frightening, I know, when the body is in the process of dying. But we do get used to certain tasks, however much we think we could never endure them. And death itself, once accomplished, is serene and quiet.

While you are taking care of these tasks, think of the immense procession you have joined — consider, as you empty bedpans, that you are taking your place on the great wheel, that we all go, every one of us, eventually, no matter what we believe, no matter what we have accomplished or destroyed, no matter how we have failed: We all go, and likely there will be someone emptying our bedpans, and someone emptying theirs, and someone emptying theirs. In this cycle of care and decay we are united. Your mother will go, and you will follow. My parents will go, and I will follow. Or perhaps I will go first and they will follow. We do not control the order of our going. Of this we can be sure.

I am not saying something as clichéd as that all this is happening for a reason. I don’t know that. But I do know that death comes to all of us eventually, and so to deny it when it is coming is, well, futile, yes, but also undignified. Without giving up — we must do what we can to live — we also need to embrace death, recognize its power, its omnipotence. Give it its due.

Perhaps some of our unease has to do with our guilt that we are not the ones who are dying. But really, unless we believe in a literal hell — and I don’t — what could be so bad about being on the other side? Why should we pity those who leave a little before us? For a time, some of us will be on one side, and some on the other. For a time, our friends are inside the nightclub and we are behind the rope. But before too long, we’ll all be over there on that side. True, the difference between the living and the dead is profound and fundamental, as is the difference between those inside the club and those behind the rope. But still, as Tom Waits sings, “We’re all gonna be just dirt in the ground.”

So I suggest you take responsibility for the things under your control, try to make the proper medical and financial decisions in a timely way, comfort your mother, tell her whatever you need to tell her before she goes, but give some measure of honor to death itself, as well. It is all of our fate. It is our inheritance. We will all be joined there eventually.

My dad is threatening to deck my mom — at my wedding!

Write for Advice

The family’s never gotten along, but I want to give my bride the wedding of her dreams.

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 23, 2004


Dear Cary,

I’m 26 years old and divorced. I’m engaged to be married to my best friend from college, the woman I should have been with since day one. There are no snags in our relationship with each other, but I am dreading the wedding because my family is bound to screw it up.

A couple of months before my divorce, my parents announced their separation. It was widely believed, and some claim confirmed, that my dad had an affair on my mother and left her. To be fair, my mother is not a nice woman, and my dad repeatedly talks about the 29 years in hell that was his marriage.

Since their divorce was final, my mother and I have also had a rocky relationship. She feels that she was abandoned by Dad and that her children will also abandon her since we’ve already met the other woman (whom she refers to as Dad’s whore, slut, etc.).

My mother refuses counseling, which I, my brother and her entire family have begged her to seek. She thinks counseling is for the weak. She also maintains she never made a mistake in parenting us at all. At my brother’s wedding, she flipped out — chased me down the aisle, made a beeline for my dad to start something (intercepted by me), and got in an argument at the after-party with my brother. She has not guaranteed me that she won’t be as nutty and disruptive at my wedding. When I asked my father to avoid her, his response was, “I’ll make no moves to approach or contact her, but if she gets in my face, I’ll knock her out.” I wonder what the “perfect parent” guidebook would say about that.

I’m not asking for life advice. That would take you too many articles and would be fodder for the message board for ages, but how do I handle the wedding? Whom do I invite? How do I set ground rules? I just don’t want my churlish and self-centered parents to ruin my bride-to-be’s special day.

My Parents Have Reverted to Teenagers

TuscanAd_Jun13-22_2015

Dear Son of Teenagers,

Have you considered hiring security? That was my first thought. But what do I know about weddings and security? In my family, we just get drunk and fight. So I called a wedding planner to see what she would do.

“I would suggest that you hire security,” says Joyce Scardina Becker, president of Events of Distinction in San Francisco.

“I would also,” she said, “in a very diplomatic way, as a wedding planner, have a personal conversation with each of the parties individually. The stress here really is on the couple, and it doesn’t sound like the parents are acting as parents. I would tell the parent that you are going to hire security. Have a conversation with the parent, and if the parent still threatened prior to the actual wedding itself, then I would say, You know, if you really are going to hold this threat over my head, I think it’s best that you do not attend my wedding.”

As to the mechanics of hiring security for a wedding, I talked to Monica Hinojos, a training consultant at Black Bear Security. She said that not only do many wedding facilities and banquet halls require the presence of security as part of their contract with insurers, but that such requests from families, in her experience, have grown more frequent since 9/11. “He should have security there,” she said. “The physical presence of a guard — an effective guard, not one that’s sleeping or slouching — is that they deter incidents from happening. Just their presence alone. It’s called ‘officer presence,’ and it’s a deterrent.” You should also, as Scardina Becker suggested, brief security on the background of your parents, and give them photos so they can pick them out and keep an eye on them.

FranceAd2015

I would definitely take this problem seriously, particularly your mother’s refusal to promise not to act up, and your father’s vow to “knock her out” if she approaches him. “You’d be surprised how many family members are killed at Thanksgiving and things like that. Especially if there’s alcohol involved,” Hinojos said. “They’d be smart maybe not to have alcohol served,” she said, but that’s up to you.

If alcohol is going to be served, I’d suggest you not make it an open bar, and identify your mother and father to the bartender so he can go easy on their libations. (Maybe he could even water their drinks!)

This is all assuming that, after your frank talk with both of them, they promise to try and behave. If they don’t, as Scardina Becker suggested, you ought to tell them, difficult as it may be, that you would prefer they not attend.

And as to the long and complicated tale of your unhappy family and how it got that way — the full telling of which you have mercifully postponed for another, longer day — you know as well as I do that what Tolstoy said is so often quoted only because it’s so often true: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Mom says dump the boyfriend or leave home!

Write for Advice
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

 

TuscanAd_Voice2015

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.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up