Category Archives: Parents

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My son is almost 30 and won’t leave home

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 4, 2007

I know I can’t support him anymore — I need to save for retirement. What do I do?


Dear Cary,

I’m a single mother with a grown son. I love him more than I can say. He’s a good person, a great guy in so many ways — smart, creative, kind to animals, etc. We get along well, have common interests and enjoy each other’s company. The rest of my immediate family is dead, and he is literally all the family I have.

The problem is that he’s turning 30 and shows no signs of wanting to leave home. He did move out and try the roommate route twice, but both times it did not turn out well and he moved back in with me. This wouldn’t be so bad — we do get along and all — but he doesn’t pay half the expenses, or even a quarter. In fact, he doesn’t pay me anything at all. My frequent requests for him to contribute to the rent and utilities often result in his losing his temper and yelling at me that all I care about is money. He spends his salary on himself: clothes, movies, computer accessories, you get the drift. It’s as if he still sees himself as a teenager with an allowance.

It’s true that he doesn’t make enough money to live on his own. We live in Los Angeles, and the cost of living is pretty high. He would have more options if he had a better job, and this keeps almost happening. And then it’s as if he sabotages the situation. Why? When I was his age, I was supporting myself and raising him, all by myself.

I saw a movie called “Failure to Launch” about this very situation. It was a comedy. But this isn’t funny. I keep thinking that this situation could be a lot worse, but it still just grates on me. The fact that he seems to feel it’s all right to sponge off me hurts; it shows a serious lack of love and respect for me. And yet, he does seem to love and respect me. I don’t get it. My retirement is approaching on little cat feet; I should be socking away any extra cash for myself, not using it to support him. I keep seeing my future self, living on Social Security and my small retirement account, and still supporting him. Or even worse, still working because I can’t afford to retire. I can’t stand it.

Where did I go wrong? What can I do? I can’t throw him out on the street; I just can’t. But not leaving the nest and learning to fend for himself in the world aren’t good for him. I know he wants to find the right woman and get married, too, but he rarely dates. Who wants a man who is still sponging off his mother?

Please give me some advice. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Forever Mom

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Dear Forever Mom,

There really is only one thing you can do. You have to kick him out. That is, in more gentle terms, you have to tell him firmly that he has to find another place to live.

It may be difficult emotionally. So take some time to prepare. Preparation is not the same thing as delay. It doesn’t mean putting it off until you feel ready. It means setting a date, making a commitment and then planning fully and well.

I suggest you begin by writing him a letter, explaining the situation much as you have explained it to me. You will want to tell him face to face about your decision. But writing it out will give you a chance to explore the issues; giving him a copy of it will ensure that you are both clear on exactly what the future arrangements will be.

Take a couple of weeks with the letter. Make a couple of drafts. Delete parts where you find yourself overjustifying, or attacking, or bringing up old hurts and slights. Avoid emotional pleas. Just tell him, as you have told me, that you cannot support him any longer, that you have to be socking away your cash for retirement and that you have set a date by which he must move out. Tell him the date. Make it stick.

You must be definite about the date by which he is to leave. You must be clear about the fact that he cannot return even if the roommate situation isn’t to his liking. You have to stick to your guns. His inability to make a roommate situation work in the past is a concern, but it is his concern, not yours. If he has to live with roommates, he will have to find a situation that works.

You are not just kicking him out on the street. If you want to assure yourself that adequate housing is available in your area, consult ads for roommate situations and do the math. Give him the figures if you like. If his income is not going to be sufficient, tell him that he is going to have to find some way to increase his income. If he needs a loan to make it through the first six months, suggest a way that he can get a loan. But do not make him a loan yourself. You must stop supporting him if you are to meet your own financial goals.

Do not forget to review the laws that cover tenants in your area. Even though this is a personal arrangement between you and your son, it is possible that in the eyes of the law you are considered a landlord and may have responsibilities in that regard. I don’t know about that, myself. I suggest you consult with an expert — either a landlord-tenant attorney or a legal aid agency qualified to advise you.

This is a tough situation. There is no reason for you to kid yourself. It could be one of the hardest things you have ever done. And you will miss him. It would be wonderful if he were to find self-sufficiency, form a family of his own and bring you into it, so that you have a place in a new family. That would be great for everyone. But whatever happens, know this: You are doing the right thing.

As you write your letter and think this through, other small details of the arrangement may occur to you. That is good. No detail is too small to consider and agree about. I suggest, for instance, that you explicitly insist that he perform the physical move himself, or enlist moving help on his own. If he needs furniture and you have some pieces you wish to let go of, offer him those specific pieces of furniture. If he needs dishes and cookware and you have some extra, set some aside for him. But make it clear that once he has moved out, what remains in the house is your property, not his. Tell him that he should not just come around whenever he feels like it and remove random objects.

These are small things, but they are important. Making all these conditions is a way of creating your new independent relations. It will be difficult but it will accomplish the necessary thing: Your son has to separate from you. He has to become independent so that later in life, when the conditions of dependency change, he can offer support to you.

Write your letter. Cook him some dinner. Tell him he has to move out. Give him the letter. Tell him you love him.

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I’m still angry at my father — what happened in my childhood?

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Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, NOV 1, 2005

I have certain hazy memories that give me the creeps, but I really don’t know the truth.


Dear Cary,

I’ll try to make this short. I’m a 27-year-old man. I’ve blown every good relationship I have ever been in. Sometimes I wonder if my inability to commit comes from my father, who was married three times and is an extremely self-centered person. I idolized him at a young age, but I can say my hatred for him has been growing at least since I turned 13. I should be over it by now. But my father is incredibly needy and lonely and sad; my brother has distanced himself and gotten married, and I’m increasingly left with the burden of this incoherent, drunk and stoned child who can’t even pay his own bills.

At the same time, since I was 14, I’ve had this suspicion in the back of my mind that he sexually abused me. I never talked about this fear to anyone, and I’ve always thought that this was something I probably invented or a convenient excuse to be annoyed when he tried to hug me. I always figured I’m just a cold person who doesn’t like being touched (though it doesn’t bother me when my mom hugs me.) I just figured I hated him so much for so many reasons, that that was why it bothered me for him to hug me. But I can’t get rid of this idea. I took showers with him until I was 8 or 9 years old. Is that weird? But I remember my mom walking in and out of the bathroom. So nothing could have been happening, right? I don’t know why I think this.

I don’t want a reason to feel sorry for myself, I really just want to know whether a person can make up these feelings.

Crazy?

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Dear Crazy?

First of all, you are not making these feelings up. Your feelings are real. On the other hand, they are not facts. They do not prove what happened or did not happen.

Your feelings may be connected to some traumatic event or series of events. Or they may be the result of a pattern of bad parenting that left you anxious, confused and afraid. Whatever the reason, the important thing, it seems to me, is that you have some feelings that are rooted in childhood that you now are being called upon to understand and deal with in adulthood. You are feeling just as powerless and yet full of rage toward your father today as you did as a child.

A competent psychotherapist could be of immense help in working through this. I suggest you contact one.

I don’t mean to discount the importance of knowing whether you were abused by your father, and I don’t think a therapist would, either. Knowing the literal truth about our past can be powerful and transforming. But your quest would not end with that revelation. For what if that truth cannot be known? It is sometimes the case with childhood memories that you will never truly know the literal truth of what happened. Does that mean you are doomed to your current unpleasant state of mind? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that if you did know with certainty exactly what happened that you would therefore suddenly and miraculously be cured of your difficulties.

So how do you deal with these feelings, if the literal truth of what happened might never be known? One way is to fashion a narrative that is true enough for your purposes and then behave according to what you know did happen. You could say, for instance, I am feeling this way because I was raised in a chaotic, uncertain environment where physical and sexual boundaries were not clear and where my own power was marginal or nonexistent.

Does that seem to fit the facts? Having fashioned a narrative like that, you can then make some common-sense observations: For one thing, you are normal. You are feeling the way anyone would feel had they been through what you have been through. For another, you can now make sense of some of the specific feelings you are having.

For instance, perhaps you fear being in a close and powerless position relative to your father; being in such a position, because it repeats a lifelong pattern, may cause you intense anxiety and emotional pain. So being hugged by him, being in a car with him and having to depend on him for things may all bring up those old feelings. It’s also possible that being close to anyone may trigger those same feelings.

As you start observing such things, you may find it useful to define what is going on, to say that you are in the process of forming some adult boundaries; you are paying close attention to how physical proximity and intimacy make you feel; and you are noticing some discomfort in certain situations. In that connection, you can say, Aha, I’m a child of an inappropriate father! So I have to be careful around inappropriate behavior! I have to be careful when I become intimate with someone — because I can be flooded with feelings of vulnerability or fear!

You are not alone in this. There are many, many people in the world today who experience fleeting memories of early experiences that leave them briefly paralyzed or panicked or suffused with sadness. These feelings are real, and their sources are real, though not necessarily in a literal sense. In other words, you felt what you felt as a child. What you felt was real and true. And how you felt as a child affects how you feel today. But though you may feel a murderous rage today, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you were threatened with murder as a child; you might have responded to a cue from the environment in a way, as children do, that was greatly amplified. You were not an adult, who can weigh the relative significance of threats and respond appropriately. So you may have experienced many things as a child that felt dire and life-threatening.

But you are an adult now. So your task, I think, is to remain open to these feelings, not to deny them, but to work to get to know them, to get used to these feelings, to try to understand their language. Your feelings are, after all, not just a distraction; they are also a source of intuitive knowledge about what is actually happening around you. There may be times in your life when people actually are too close, and you are right to feel uncomfortable. As you come to know and understand these patterns of feeling, ideally you will extend your new understanding to other people who have been through similar experiences.

You cannot change what was done in the past. But you can change how you are feeling in the present.

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How long do I keep this secret a secret?

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, MAY 8, 2011

My father is not my “bio-dad.” My mother’s lifelong lover is. Whom do I tell, and when?


Dear Cary,

I’m 44 years old and facing a dilemma concerning my father’s mortality. OK, it’s more complicated than that:

My parents divorced when I was 2 (I’m the third child, born six years after my next sibling, after my mother went through chemotherapy and had been told she’d never have more children). When I was in college, I learned that the friend of the family who had always just “been around” in my childhood was actually my mother’s lover — and my biological father.

I had always known that my mother’s marriage had been mostly an obligation: She was a “good Greek girl,” which meant that, despite being valedictorian in high school, she did not get to go to college, and she was expected to settle down with a nice boy from church. Now I understood that she had had an intense love affair with this married man (also Greek, from the same church) over the course of many years, that the affair became known to his wife and to my mother’s husband, my father. They ended the affair … except they really didn’t and a year or so later my mother got pregnant with me and concealed the truth for years … until my then-girlfriend-now-wife started asking questions about the man who was in so many “family” photos. My mother never found another love in her life, partly because she was dedicated to her kids and was exhausted raising us as a single mom with no child support, but partly because she and my bio-dad were an on-again-off-again thing for decades; he never left his wife and children, he has admitted that he’s been kind of a crappy father to his own kids, I’ve heard that he may have had other affairs and even fathered other children (though that seems unlikely and more like small-town spite) and he didn’t always treat my mother well (once he apparently called her and said he’d leave his wife for her … but only if she’d leave us kids; she wouldn’t speak to him for quite a while after that). At the same time, he was the closest thing she had to a true love, and I felt for her, for her loss, for the fact that one of the best things in her life had to happen in the shadows.

I tell you all of this as if it was passed along as a single story, but in reality I had to glean the details both before and after my mother’s death from cancer five years after I learned about my bio-dad. In the moment, my bio-dad was told that I knew; shortly after all of this was acknowledged, I brought them together for dinner in a nearby (and more anonymous) city and, when she was dying a few years later, I brought them together so that they could say goodbye. All of this was like espionage — no one could know because both spouses are still alive and the community would be scandalized. Even my (half) siblings didn’t find out about the affair and my parentage until after my mother’s death, which led to some hard feelings from them — not directed toward me, but unavoidably complicated our relationship as a family, which was already reeling after my mother’s death removed the center from our immediate-family lives. (My “father” is a nice guy but has been plagued with his own troubles over the years and is not interested in being the center of anyone’s life, though his relationship with me and my family is quietly kind and loving from both a geographic and emotional distance.) The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.

My bio-dad and I have remained in contact even after my mother passed away 17 years ago. He’s now in his early 80s and his health is failing. Because of adult-onset diabetes, he’s gone blind and now is unable to do much of anything on his own, which means he’s homebound and I can’t reach him, because he fears his wife finding out — I have to wait until he finds time to sneak a short call to me. And even then, our conversations are surface-level: catching up, casual thoughts about the future, etc. Someday soon I’ll get a call telling me that he’s passed away and I’ll have to face the first of two decisions: Do I travel back to my hometown to attend the funeral? I ask myself what I hope to get out of the funeral, and while I don’t want anything out of it, I can’t wrap my head around ignoring the funeral of the man who is my biological father. I’ve lost my mother and my extended family has drifted apart, so I’m sensitive to the number of people I have in my life that connect me to my past. Will I regret not going? Will going be a whole lot of effort for a relationship that was never that deep or meaningful? Since I’ve been told that I look a whole lot like him at my age, will I be flaunting something potentially painful to his family?

The second question is more complex. Since I first found this out, I’ve been sure that I don’t want to participate in the lies, and everything that I’ve learned about my mother’s life and everything that’s happened in my family since I’ve found out about this has only reinforced my sense that these lies have consequences that echo down through generations. I’m not willing to bear that burden any longer than I have to and I certainly don’t want to pass it on to my children. I’m not interested in hurting anyone — especially the spouses who were deceived for years about this affair and my parentage; there’s some question about whether either spouse knows about me being the result of this affair, but I think if either does, s/he has repressed that knowledge. In time, however, I need to be able to be truthful with my own children about their family history. Both in the name of factual truth (god forbid there’s some need to ask a genetic relative for a donation) and in the name of not being visited by the sins of the father, I feel this is the right thing to do. Back before my bio-dad was ill, I talked it over with him, suggesting that he either talk with his kids or leave some sort of letter in the event of his death. He was wary but said he’d think seriously about it … and then his health spiraled out of control and it just hasn’t felt like I could bring up the subject without sounding like the grim reaper discussing plans for the rapidly approaching end.

My thought is that I could wait until a while after his estate is settled so that any contact from me doesn’t look like a play for money and, assuming he’s left no notification, write a letter to his children basically just letting them know the history and that I desire nothing more than that each of us know the truth and be able to speak the truth — though certainly not before the spouses have passed away. In that way, I’d let them know that I exist and that I want nothing from them, but that I’m here if they are open to making contact on whatever level at some point in the future.

Am I crazy to want to do this? Is it a violation of his kids’ privacy? Of their desire, perhaps, to not know that their father betrayed their mother for most of his marriage? Do I wait to contact his other children until both betrayed spouses have passed away as well?

Genetic Truth-Seeker

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Dear Truth Seeker,

Whom you tell and when is important, but before you can make those decisions, something else comes first.

You must first make peace with the facts. That is not a simple matter. It will not be quick. It will involve looking honestly and at times painfully at all the ways this family secret has shaped your life.

You were raised in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies. That sounds harsh but it is true, and it is a gift; that is, it provides you with a fact-based framework in which you can begin to sort out who is your true, beautiful, shining self and who is the self that has been taught to hide, to keep others’ secrets, to carry the legacy of shame and darkness into yet another family generation.

You say, “The fact of all of this deception has weighed on me.” Of course it has. It is safe to say that it has weighed on you more than you know. What will bring you lasting peace is understanding how this legacy led you to make the decisions you have made, and how it continues to affect you today. Your task in life from this moment forward is to examine in honest detail the many ways it weighs on you and how it has shaped your decisions. This is no less than the task of uncovering your life’s meaning. It is the task of uncovering who you really are.

The question of your paternity is important, but it is also a metaphor. We all seek to understand where we came from, as individuals, as family members, as members of racial, religious, ethnic, political and national groups, and as a species. We all come from mystery and contradiction. But those of us whose paternity is a settled matter do not have the added burden of knowing that if we speak the truth we may incur the wrath of others.

We do not have to walk around wondering what will be the reaction of others if we tell the truth. You, on the other hand, must face the fact that telling a fundamental truth about yourself will have explosive consequences. This must be a burden indeed.

It is the burden of the truth-teller in the family. Truth-tellers are often attacked. They upset things. They draw attention to themselves, and to matters others would rather not acknowledge. In this way, a family in which a secret is being kept is similar to a family in which some other secret — of addiction, abuse or alcoholism — is being kept. It also has echoes in the national cultural debate about who we are as a people, as tempers flare when we talk about the “founding fathers” and “where we came from.” That is because questions about origin lie at the heart of questions about existence.

What kind of a person are you today? What secrets are you yourself keeping? How has the habit of keeping secrets to protect others affected your ability to love, to create, to be loved, to be a part of the world? How has it affected your sleep and your health, where you live and what you do with your time, your capacity for forming friendships, your work life, your intellectual interests, your passions? These are the things that you can examine if you have a regular course of therapy or peer counseling. What is your relationship with the church, whose power and views on sin influenced your mother to keep her behavior, and thus your origins, secret? How has this experience and this knowledge informed your notion of a “normal” life? Has it caused you to assume that everyone lives lives of deceit? Where else has secrecy and deceit crept up in your life? When you sense family secrets are being held in other families, are you drawn to them? Do you find yourself enmeshed in workplace intrigue? Do you find it easy to be honest with others about where you come from? Or are there dark areas that you have walled off?

Like an alcoholic or the child of an alcoholic, in the story of your family secret, you now have a narrative, like an origin myth. One part of the narrative is the search for your true identity. Another is your search for your real family. Another is the uncovering of clues to your own behavior: Why you made certain decisions, why you have reacted at times the way you did, why your relationships are the way they are.

Those of us who have such a central narrative often express a gratitude that strikes others as odd. But we are lucky because a fact like this can be an organizing principle. By studying the effect of this one secret, you gain the opportunity to uncover the core mysteries of your life: the particular ways this family secret has affected you. That is what you are now tasked to discover and make peace with. If we talked at length, some of those ways might emerge. But I am not a therapist. You and I won’t be meeting every week to talk about this. But I do suggest you find someone with whom you can meet every week to talk about this. It would be to your advantage if that person were skilled in family therapy and had experience with stories like yours. But it might also be someone who has simply been through what you have been through. The important thing is that you meet regularly over a period of time, at least a year. It takes time to see the truth.

I would really like to see you commit to a long-term process of uncovering the ways in which growing up in an atmosphere of secrecy and lies has shaped your choices in life and your day-to-day behavior. This kind of thing is best done by meeting regularly with a psychoanalyst, psychotherapist or psychologist — someone trained to help as individuals break through the veil so we can see reality.

Reading other people’s stories is one way of coming to grips with your own story. Telling your story to others who have similar experiences is also helpful. By apparent coincidence, today’s Family Secrets site features a story about learning who one’s father is. Various newspapers, magazines and television shows also cover such stories, and in their protagonists you can find kindred spirits. In a sense, these people are your family — your spiritual, or experiential family. They are the people likely to recognize how you feel and how you have lived your life, better than your own family.

Another interesting affinity group is the stepfamily letters project. Telling our stories is one part of the process. Another is learning about Murray Bowen and family systems theory.

You seem to be a good man. This situation is hard. I commend you on your journey to find out what this story means to you.

Your life is the story of a secret. Unearth the secrets of that secret.

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My son eloped and cut me out

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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

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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.

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I detest my parents, but I’m turning into them!

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 29, 2005

As a student of biology, I fear that genes are destiny. I feel powerless to individuate!


Dear Cary,

My parents are pretty nice people. They raised me and my brother in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, provided us with food, attention and a first-rate education, and generally gave me a pretty good childhood. They might even say that everything that they did, all the jobs that they hated, all the sacrifices they made (they are immigrants) and all the trouble they went to, they did for us.

Here’s the catch. I can’t really stand to be with them, and somehow as I am aging, I can tell that I’m turning into them and I’m starting to not be able to stand myself. My father grew up in a household of eight siblings and the father was physically abusive and the parents played one child off another. My father is always referring to his mother’s favorite child (not him) or the indulged child (not him either). All eight children moved to the U.S. and all are not speaking to each other since there was a Terri Schiavo-like argument over their mother’s last year of care. My own mother grew up in a poor village where her father left the family for 11 years (!)(sending back little letters of $$) to work on seagoing vessels and she left her village to get a better education at the age of 13.

Now, when we get together for family gatherings (once or twice a year), we just stare at each other and don’t have anything to say. My parents are very judgmental people, always complaining about what slights other people are doing to them and how we aren’t living up to their standards. Every single sentence out of their mouths is a slight dig into my way of life. I find them, in a way, to be talentless. Bright enough to get a nice-paying job, but in other ways, with no redeeming qualities. They have no friends, they can’t tell nice stories at dinner, they can’t seem to get promoted at work; my dad, especially, wants my mother to cook and clean for him and he sits on the couch after getting home from work and watches TV. His mental challenge is to give the highway toll workers 100 pennies for his toll. They are depressed, sullen people.

You know, I want to be something special (doesn’t everybody?), and I feel like my parents aren’t special people and they keep saying that they have these terrible genes that make us all stubborn and have a bad temper. I keep reading self-help books that say, you are special just being you! Bah! You know, when you go to pick out a new puppy, the first thing that people tell you to do is to look at its mother and father and then you’ll get a good idea what they will be like when they grow up, and this is true! I don’t want to be biologically related to my parents! Lots of people say, “Oh, I’m nothing like my crazy mom and dad,” but I was trained in biology and I know that either these people were secretly fathered by the mailman or they are more like their parents than they choose to admit. How do I not loathe my parents? How do I not loathe myself for being like my parents?

Gene Therapy

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Dear Gene Therapy,

How do you avoid being like your parents? You make choices. That’s it in a nutshell. That doesn’t mean you don’t occasionally say things they used to say, or find yourself having attitudes they used to have. But particularly on the big, life-changing issues, you take responsibility for your own life and you make careful, considered choices.

Those choices, in turn, go to work, long-term, like little machines in the background. They set in motion various habits and opportunities that over time mold you into the person you would prefer to be. You put yourself in a different environment, one more suited to who you want to be, and your environment, like a little identity machine, cranks out the recommended daily requirements of the life you want to live. If it’s the suburban lifestyle of your parents that you dread getting sucked into, then you make a major choice to live in a lively, provocative city, one that will teach you things you can’t learn in the suburbs, one that will bring out parts of your personality that you want to bring out, one that will nurture you in ways you want to be nurtured and discourage you in ways you want to be discouraged.

In that sense, a city can be like a new parent. You submit to its authority and bask in its love. It will suggest for you new opportunities and will admonish you for your old habits. Indeed, a new city can be a cruel master, and will punish you severely if you cross it. But it will also help you be the person you want to be.

As well as choosing an environment that molds you, you also can choose specific, targeted activities that result in actual long-term fundamental change — in how you generally feel, how you react to situations day-to-day and, in a very real sense, in who you are. They can range from highly specific things like quitting smoking or learning tai chi to broader things like concentrated study and mastery of a field you are drawn to, difficult and dangerous challenges such as rock climbing, travel, psychotherapy, religious studies, pilgrimage, marriage, child rearing. All the big, life-changing experiences will change you fundamentally to some degree if you remain alert as you undergo them. And if you respond to them deeply, each experience will take you closer to who you are and farther from the dreaded replica of your parents that haunts your sleep.

There are, as well, many cooked-up, concentrated experiences available, meant to transform the individual in a weekend. A good massage can sometimes work wonders. Anything is worth trying once. Some New Age hucksters may promise too much and deliver too little. But take what you can use and let the rest go. There is often a little wisdom in the craziest babblings of crackpots and charlatans and fools.

It sounds simple in words, doesn’t it? No problem. All you have to do is change your whole life. Ha ha ha.

So be prepared for monumental resistance from within! That is where the real struggle begins — in attempting to not become your parents you realize that you don’t really know where you begin and your parents end! You are indeed, in many ways, the same! It’s not just a question of future choices and molding yourself, but of conscious dismantling of heavy, well-installed machinery, bolted to the floor and clearly meant never to be tampered with or moved! So you walk where you can walk to get where you have to go; sometimes you have to go around, so you go around.

And occasionally you will have to fight for your life. In dismantling these mechanisms that have worked for you for so long, it can feel as though you’re losing your grip. At times of great challenge, you need faith; you need something to hang on to; you need support from people you trust; you need a map, a method, a solid sense of where you’re going. At times you may not have any of that. You may be desolate and alone, racked with doubt and regret that you ever started on this journey. At such a time all you may have is just a dim and fading notion that you started out somewhere and you’ll end up somewhere. That will have to be enough. Know that you’ll have periods of numbness and confusion. That’s the price of differentiating yourself.

Look at it this way: Even if you didn’t undertake this journey, you’d be numb and confused much of the time; you just wouldn’t know you were numb and confused.

Some of the things I have outlined above you may find unacceptable. You may say that something is “impractical” or “not your style.” You may think if you move to a city too far away from your family that it will bring down years of shame and heartache and just won’t be worth it. That sort of thinking, I would suggest, is why we do end up like our parents — we go pretty far but not far enough; we fail to challenge the very ingrained attitudes that we detest in our parents. So it is not easy. You may not recognize some of these ingrained attitudes as your enemy. They may make you feel safe and connected to your heritage. It is hard to tell sometimes. This resistance could go to the core of your being. For instance, the very notion of individuality and control over one’s destiny may feel foreign to you.

And there will be a price. If you move far from your family, if you choose paths that take you away from them both geographically and spiritually, you will miss the closeness you think you might have had. There will always be the life unlived, the road not taken.

So, in short, I would say that we can avoid becoming our parents because identity is fluid. Between us and biological destiny stand the power of choice, the power to change one’s environment, and the power to undertake activities that transform us in deep and lasting ways.

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Big 4-0

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 18, 2002

I have a wonderful daughter but no love or romance, and life just sucks.


Dear Cary,

So, I just turned 40. So far, it sucks, thank you very much.

There’s something about a “magic number” birthday like 40 that brings the suckiness of one’s life particularly to mind.

Not that there aren’t a couple of bright spots. The brightest is my almost-6-year-old daughter, who lives with me three-fourths of the time (the other one-fourth she’s with her mother, 1,000 miles away). Another is my job, which (despite the usual level of political bullshit and general aggro) is pretty damned fun most of the time.

But I’m finding that a life that consists of sleeping, getting the kid ready for school, rushing to work, picking up and feeding the kid, and sleeping again — well, it really leaves a lot of room for improvement.

I admire myself for my commitment to doing the best I can for my kid, and (most of the time, except for the darkest parts of the night) I think I really did do the right thing in fighting like hell to have her go to school in my city (and thus to live the majority of time with me). But a part of me keeps whispering that if my kid remains my “only reason to live,” that’s ultimately going to be destructive for her (and incidentally for me).

Meanwhile, romance is nonexistent — there’s been nobody since my daughter’s mother booted my ass out of the house a couple of months before our daughter was born — and my “sex life” consists of furtive wee-hours masturbation to Internet porn and very occasional (when the kid is out of town) trips to sleazy strip joints.

I never did date much — each of the relationships I’ve had was instigated and pursued by the woman involved — and whenever, now, I think about trying to get involved with anyone, I run up against internal arguments that I can’t rebut: 1) I don’t know how. 2) I can’t see that I have time or room in my life. 3) Who’d have me anyway — a porn-using, over-40, tied-down-with-kid, chronically depressed geek?

Over the past dozen years, I’ve tried breaking out of my destructive patterns with a variety of tools — psychopharmacology (antidepressants), a couple hundred SAA meetings, group and individual therapy, “men’s work” — and it’s all helped a little, but not enough, and going back for more seems as if it would be way too much work for way too little payoff. (Except for the antidepressants, which I keep up with and which probably keep me from completely imploding.)

So I’ve just kept on truckin’ as best I can — as I say, in the past six years, the kid’s been a great motivator. But it’s starting to feel as though I’m not ever going to get unstuck. And, frankly, another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through. What really aches badly — and makes it suck the most — is the loneliness of it all. (At least, that’s how I justify asking you for advice.)

Is there a way out of this that I’m missing?

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

I was very moved by your letter, because I recognize your thinking and the pain that comes with it. I am moved toward a kind of anticipatory grief, as though I see where you are headed in a dream and I cannot catch up with you to tell you to turn. I am chasing you with only a cane to help me hobble over the stones and you are heading faster and faster toward the edge of the cliff.

What sucks is not your life. What sucks is suicide. What sucks is that you are simultaneously inches away from accepting your life as it is and inches away from jumping off a bridge. Compassionate detachment is hard to maintain in the face of that. It is hard to maintain a safe distance when you say that “another couple dozen years of this kind of stuckness is not something I’m willing to live through.”

So let me talk to you as a brother, as a fellow who has walked that dark, oppressive corridor where it is hard to breathe and hard to move. Let me talk to you as someone who doesn’t care to be delicate, but who cares very much for you and the girl.

You say the Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings helped a little but not enough. How do you know what is enough? How do you know where you would be without them? Is it enough that group therapy, individual therapy, men’s groups and SAA kept you from suicide, from arrest, from incarceration, from losing custody of your daughter altogether? It may not feel like it helps enough, but if you’re depressed, you can’t rely on what it feels like. Your feelings aren’t going to tell you the truth; your feelings are going to lead you to a room in a cheap hotel and tell you to put a noose around your neck. You need something better than feelings: You need reality.

And how do you know it would be “destructive” if your daughter were your only reason to live? How many reasons do you need?

Basically you need to make little improvements in your life, and little adjustments in your expectations. You need to bring your life and your expectations closer together, so you’re not living in that airless void between is and should. Make incremental improvements in your life; make incremental adjustments in your expectations.

I’m no expert on psychology, but I can say that cognitive therapy helped me stop using language to reinforce my depression; it helped me construct a new, kinder interpretation of reality. I know that your feelings drive your language, but I also think your language feeds your feelings and that you can change your language to starve your feelings of their false bravado of bleakness. How about making your language more neutral, more factual, pulling it out of your mental shop of horrors? Instead of saying that your wife booted your ass out of the house, how about just saying that you and she split up. Instead of saying that your life consists of just sleeping, rushing, feeding, rushing, sleeping, try saying that you have a very busy and full life.

And instead of saying there are three internal arguments that you can’t rebut, why not try rebutting them? The first one, in fact, is eminently rebuttable on its face because it’s meaningless: “I don’t know how.” Of course you know how. If you didn’t know how to get involved with someone you could never have gotten married. The worst you could do is just repeat what you did the first time. The worst a woman could do is boot your ass out of the house, or, to use our modified language: The worst that could happen is you form a relationship and then it comes to an end. How bad could that be?

The second assertion is also easily rebuttable. Many single working parents find room in their lives and time for relationships. What is so different about your life? Are you on a book tour? I’m sure you could find the room and the time.

The third assertion is not really an assertion, but a question. What woman out there, indeed, would be interested in an intelligent, employed single father, evidently smart and tough, who is managing tolerably well with his share of human challenges? You have enough grit to take care of this girl, and that’s admirable.

I’m not saying you have to be happy. I don’t even know if it’s within your power to be happy. But I think it’s within your power to stay well back from the brink of suicide and hopeless depression. Maybe that’s just as good as it gets. Maybe it’ll have to be.

As I said, I was very moved by your letter. I don’t think there’s some way out that you’re missing. I think you know what to do and you just need to be reminded. Stay in touch with your groups. Exercise. Eat right. Get enough sleep. Keep taking your antidepressants. Remember: Your daughter won’t let you down. And some of us out here, if you just stick around, we won’t let you down either.

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I found a girl in my son’s bed

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUN 30, 2009

I don’t think I’m comfortable with my 17-year-old bringing 16-year-old girls home — but what to do?


Dear Cary:

Last night I discovered my 17-year-old son brought a girl to stay the night. To say the least it was unexpected and I don’t think I was expected to find out. I found out when I woke up around 4:30 in the morning and went to have a glass of water and found an extra pair of shoes at the door.

I entered my son’s room to find a young girl of maybe 16 in his bed. I didn’t say anything (I think shock set in for a while) and said to him aloud that I wasn’t really sure what to say but would talk with him later on. I didn’t kick her out. I had to leave later that morning and my son worked at night so I haven’t had a chance to talk to him yet. After thinking about it I’ve decided that it’s not something I’m comfortable with and plan on telling him I don’t wish for it to happen again. I also plan on reminding him that he comes from a long line of successful impregnators so he would be wise to keep protection handy.

I’m a fairly liberal parent and give plenty of leeway to my children. I’m a single father as well. My son is an A student who holds down two jobs, and he is going into grade 12 this fall. He’s easygoing, ambitious and intelligent. I’ve never minded him having girlfriends. I expect he will respect my wishes and not bring her again overnight.

Is there something else I should say to him?

Concerned

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Dear Concerned,

There are many things you might say. But first: What is the girl’s name and age? Where does she live? What are her parents’ names, and their phone number and address? Those are reasonable questions. You may reasonably want to know much more — what precautions are they taking, how long have they been sexually active together, and how many other partners has your son had? But you need at least to know who the girl is and what her situation is.

Let’s hope she is at least 16. Otherwise he may have broken the law. And even if she is 16, in some states, under some combination of circumstances, sexual activity between them might be illegal. For instance, according to the age-of-consent laws linked to in the previous sentence, in New York state, “Sex with a person under 17 is a misdemeanor if the perpetrator is at least 16 (see infra). (‘Sexual misconduct,’ NY Penal Law § 130.20.)” So if they had sex in the state of New York, he may have committed a misdemeanor. It might not hurt to consult a family lawyer.

That said, might we talk a bit more broadly, and at distinct cross-purposes to what has just been said? For I am about to critique our entire society for doing what I have just done: treating sex first as a problem and second as a gift.

To begin again with an innocent mind cleansed of the obvious, let us ask: Why is sex bad?

We know that sex is not bad per se. Yet we routinely greet the sexual awakening as a problem. We do not celebrate it. It represents for your son a unique rite of passage. Your son is having sex! He must be very happy about that. He is also proud. He may have wanted you to discover him in bed with a girl. No matter what you said, just knowing that you saw him means a lot to him. This is not the pride of callous male conquest. It is rather the pride of discovery and arrival. It is probably something he would like to share, if he could do so safely, with fear neither of ridicule nor of corny congratulations in the gruff, squirm-inducing way of men uneasy with intimacy.

It is too bad that we do not have family rituals for celebrating such a thing. Weddings have metastasized into grotesque spectacles of affluence perhaps in part because they no longer represent the moment of sexual awakening. There ought to be rituals for that, the actual coming-of-age.

Fat chance.

Imagine trying to institute such a thing.

The very idea could get you arrested.

And yet I remember well.

I remember the clatter of dishes at dawn, tiptoeing out of a girl’s bedroom before the mom noticed. This happened a good bit in high school. And though we knew we had broken rules, we had no consciousness of having done wrong, only that we had done right in contravention of the many unreasonable restrictions imposed on us by ignorant adults. We felt such pleasure and beauty, such happiness and satisfaction! How could the gods not look favorably upon us — even if adults sought to constrain our desires?

And what were we supposed to do — emulate the adults around us whose arid, pleasureless lives filled us with dread? We did not wish to emulate a society of adults seemingly locked in a dry, tortured existence. We did not want to learn how to live our lives as they were living theirs. Why would we? What did they have to offer us?

So we defied them, quietly seeking pleasure where we could — in the darkness, in the early morning hours, in the quiet, air-conditioned rooms of our parents’ houses while they slept. We had found something that seemed to fulfill our destiny, ill-understood as it was, and we happily pursued it as though it were our life’s calling.

Of course, whatever your experience of sex was as a youth, you now are an adult and responsible for enforcing all the adult rules and so, too, of course you are uncomfortable with the idea of your son having sex because he’s your son, after all. Of course it gives you pause. How could it not? Let us count the ways in which the issue is bound to cause you discomfort:

You don’t control it. It could have bad consequences. You’re probably supposed to stop it. If you don’t stop it you may be held up to public censure and private condemnation. You might find yourself with a granddaughter or grandson. You might have to pay for a wedding. You might have to tell the girl to leave. You might have to police your house more vigilantly. You might have to think about your son having sex. You might be troubled by thoughts that seem just plain wrong: You shouldn’t be picturing your son having sex. You may find you carry a deep-seated taboo about that. It just plain isn’t right. Other things that may happen that you could find yourself worrying about: Your son may come to emotional harm. His girlfriend may come to emotional harm. You may find yourself wanting to console them or fix things you cannot fix. The parents of the girl may call you. You may feel responsible for your son’s actions even though you know that properly speaking you cannot be responsible for something you knew nothing about.

And yet in the midst of all this, you might wonder why this beautiful event, which is celebrated in rituals and songs and dances and paintings and sculptures and myth the world over, is cause for such concern.

Sex may bring pregnancy and the threat of disease. There are religious taboos in addition to the many unpleasant repercussions mentioned above. It is an issue for a father to deal with. It is many things. But while you do what must be done, as a father, as an adult, try to take a minute to celebrate this as well. It is also an awakening.

 

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Is my son gay?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JUL 5, 2005

As a mom, I can’t help wondering — but is it any of my business?


Dear Cary,

I’m writing to you A) because I like your column, and B) because you were once a 20-year-old male. I’ve got one of them — a 20-year-old son, not a column — and I’d appreciate some advice.

“Kent” is a good kid. Actually more than a good kid; he’s a bit of a phenom. Very bright, high-achieving, athletic, popular, good-looking, yadda yadda. Top student in high school, president of this and that, and he’s now attending a wonderful university on a pretty wonderful scholarship. He’s funny and good company and we’ve always had an enjoyable, mutually respectful relationship. I feel very fortunate to have such a great kid.

So … is there a problem? I dunno. Is it a problem that a young man as described above has never had a girlfriend? Dates to the prom and such, sure. But not, to my knowledge, a romantic relationship, ever. He’s always had good friends who are girls, but he hangs out primarily with other bright guys not unlike himself.

My gaydar has never “pinged.” My husband (his stepfather) says firmly, “He’s not gay.” And if he is, well, he is. I guess what my dilemma boils down to is this: Is there any acceptable way for me to inquire into his personal life? Am I totally overstepping to even wonder? I suppose I wouldn’t be, at least as much, if I wasn’t watching his younger brother throwing himself into the joys of girlfriends with such delight. It makes me wonder why that didn’t happen with Kent.

I suppose you’ll ask, “Why do you need to know?” And I don’t, of course. It’s his life. But I am nagged at by the thought that if a young man were having concerns in the sexuality department, it could be an awfully isolating experience. If anything is going on, I hate to think of him going through it alone.

Can you give me any guidance?

Stymied

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Dear Stymied,

I was indeed once a 20-year-old male. For a while, I was even younger than that. I remember when I was around 16 my dad and I were out back behind the garage and he was trying to talk to me about my girlfriend. I remember thinking, “What does ‘knocked-up’ mean?”

He was trying to ascertain certain facts and issue certain instructions regarding the activities my girlfriend and I were engaging in. But the language he used was this weird hybrid of delicate Victorian circumlocution and World War II sailor talk. So I could not be sure if he was saying that we should stop our activities altogether (“She’s not some tart, or harpie, or gold-digger, is she?”), use condoms (“Pop two bits in a Texaco slot machine and get yourself some rubbers!”), or perhaps just follow Supreme Court rulings a little more closely (“If she gets knocked up, you’d better hope you’ve got John Law on your side”). This was a few years before the Roe vs. Wade decision. I told him she was on the pill. He looked relieved — and also, if I remember correctly, a little jealous. The whole conversation, as one would expect, was awkward.

Today, for public health reasons, parents have been instructed in how to talk to their children about condoms, AIDS and STDs, but that doesn’t mean that truly intimate things are any easier to talk about. The intimate is, by nature, difficult.

So how would I like to have been spoken to at that time, or a little later, as a 20-year-old, about the matter of my sexuality? By the age of 20, I had a passionate, if incomplete, vision of where I was headed in my life. I pictured myself being married and monogamous, but I did not picture myself raising a family (I am married with no children). I pictured myself moving to a major coastal city and trying to get involved in literature and the arts (here I am in San Francisco, working for Salon). These things, even at that time, I think I could have told my parents, had we been able to have a kind of neutral, open-ended talk about my dreams for the future.

If I had been gay, I think at the age of 20 I might not have been ready to proclaim myself as such to my parents. But my vision of the future would probably have contained the essential elements. I would probably have not seen a wife in the picture. I would probably have seen a life primarily occupied with my same-sex friends — the bright young men you refer to. The things I would leave out — dating women, romancing women, marriage to a woman — would probably indicate to a perceptive person where I was headed, whether I wanted to disguise my final destination or not. So rather than asking your son point blank, Are you gay? I suggest you take some time — a good amount of time — to ask him about his dreams for the future.

He will better be able to answer you if he understands what you want. What you want is something a little amorphous that yet requires great precision in its description: You want to know how to dream about the future.

Put it this way: You’re a mother. Mothers dream about the future, about family and what their kids will do. Your son appears in your dreams about the future. But you do not know how to dress him, what occupation to give him, whether to make him married, single, divorced, living with somebody, what. Likewise, sons also dream about the future. They do not want to deceive their mothers. But neither do they wish to be labeled. I’m sure your son would like to give you some reliable sign of what he envisions for himself, as long as he can do it without being misunderstood or pigeonholed.

So I think you absolutely should talk to him about what kind of life he wants to have for himself. I could imagine something like this:

“You know, ‘Kent,’ I’m a mom, and naturally I think a lot about my kids and the future and our relationships and the things that stand between us and greater understanding, and I’ve been wondering for a long time now about some of the things we pretend to be when we’re really not, so I’m just going to ask you point blank: Are you really named ‘Kent’”?

To which he may reply, “No, Mom, my name is not ‘Kent’! That’s the name you gave that advice columnist, asking him if I’m gay!” [LAUGHTER]

OK, so much for sitcom dialogue. I can’t put words in your mouth, but I can suggest a general outline for the kind of conversation that will help you. You need, first of all, the proper setting. For instance, a long drive is a great place, because he can’t get out of the car to get a soda or change the channel on the television. Dinner in a private place, or a long walk are also good settings.

I would indeed tell him that you are wondering what the future will hold for him. I would say that there are a lot of choices one can make in life, and that it’s vital to be true to oneself when one makes those choices. (Each choice is a blow of the sculptor’s chisel — is that too corny?) Tell him that you sense he is building a very accomplished and admirable life, that you see it in every decision he makes. But tell him that you want to get a better sense of where he is going with this life of his. I would stress that your deepest wish is that he make his decisions in accord with his truest self.

You might also say that the whole question of whether one is to marry and have children or not marry, or whether one even wants to have sexual relations with women or with men, is something that often evolves over a great deal of time, and that one need not place oneself in a box at the age of 20 and say, “This is what I am.” One’s identity can be more fluid than that. It can evolve. But tell him that you’ve noticed that he hasn’t had any serious girlfriends and you wonder if that means anything. One simply wants to know how to think about another’s life, where it is heading, what the choices are, what the possibilities are. What kind of future does he envision? Is it a future with a romantic partner? Is it a future with a man or a woman? Are there kids in that future?

I would not insist that he declare himself in any final way. But if he balks at discussing the future at all with you, there I would press him. I would not say that’s OK, we don’t have to talk about the future. You do have to talk about the future. Having achieved much already, he obviously thinks about the future; he thinks about rewards and consequences. He’s not some slacker dude who lives in the moment. If he resists discussing the future with you, he may be frightened. If you sense this, I would not let him veer away from it merely because he is frightened. This is where you can actually do some good; you can lend him some adult strength. This is where some pressure could be helpful. If indeed he has a secret to entrust to you, this is your chance to accept it. Don’t let the opportunity slide by. Resist the impulse to take off the pressure. Let it be an uncomfortable moment. Remain silent and let him speak if he wishes to. Do not interrupt him. Hear him out.

I have had letters from young men who have not yet gotten involved with women because of various things — religious fears, fears of disease, shyness, ignorance about courtship, performance fears, trauma because of one bad experience. What these young men had in common was fear of some sort. The fact that he hasn’t had a long-term girlfriend yet doesn’t mean he’s gay. We don’t know what it means. But I think you are right to try to help him talk about something that he may feel he’s going through alone.

The trick is to give him enough room to talk — and, as I said, to apply gentle pressure if he becomes afraid to speak.

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My 8-year-old misses his old life — should we move back to the suburbs?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, OCT 19, 2006

It was good to separate from their alcoholic dad — but I feel bad about bringing my kids to the city.


Dear Cary,

My husband and I are recently separated. To make a long story short, he developed a serious drinking habit over the course of our nine-year marriage and refused to seek treatment. He became violent, mismanaged his business, squandered an inheritance and was terribly irresponsible with money, so much so that when we sold our house a few months ago we narrowly escaped foreclosure.

I could not afford to purchase another home in the idyllic suburban town in which we lived, so I moved with my two children, ages 4 and 8, to the city. I love it here, as I am a 15-minute walk away from the university where I am a graduate student in a very demanding biomedical research program. I am sharing a house with my sister, who is helping me immensely. She watches my children so I can run to the grocery store and is home when I have to stay late in the lab.
Five months into our move, my 4-year-old has adjusted, but my 8-year-old is miserable. He misses his friends and his old lifestyle, and his best friend who lived next door. There were 18 children on the block where we lived and they were always outside playing together. There are few children where we live now (unless you count the rowdy undergrads), and even if I allowed him to go outside by himself there would be no one to play with. Though we go to the park on weekends, he is not spending nearly as much time outside or with friends as he used to. Yes, there are great cultural opportunities here and it is more diverse, but that matters little to my son.

I feel so guilty for having removed my son from such a wonderful environment that I am considering moving back. Although I could not afford to purchase a house in that town, I could rent something small there. However, this would mean a longer commute for me, getting home later in the evening and the loss of my sister as a housemate, as she wants to remain in the city.

My dilemma is this: The city is better for me, but Mayberry is better for my son. Should I move yet again (an exhausting prospect) or make him tough it out?

Even if we did move back we would not be on the same block. I am aware that on the scale of possible human tragedies this one ranks pretty low, and though I remind him of this and offer him Lemony Snicket books, it does not comfort him. I know I had to leave the marriage, but did I have to leave the town too? I’m starting to think that in the turmoil of a dying marriage, I put my own needs before those of my children.

Sincerely,

Guilty in the City

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Dear Guilty,

I can relate to what your son is going through. When I was 12 my family moved to a world I did not recognize.

I did not know what to do to feel the way I used to feel. I did not know what I needed or how to get it. I did not know what I was feeling or what I had lost.

Knowledgeable adults could have helped this sensitive kid adjust. But such people were not available, and the adults who were available were overburdened with challenges of their own. So I was left to my own devices.

I did not do well in that situation. I did not develop the coping skills I needed. I now know that to adjust and grow in my new surroundings I needed to do two things: to maintain ties with my old world and to forge ties with my new world. But I did not know that then. I was just a kid.

So I had some troubles.

Therefore, my heart goes out to your son, who is much younger than I was when we moved. His connection to his home has been torn. He is doing his best to adjust. But he does not know how to adjust, nor does he have the powers to create a new world in which he can feel comfortable and confident.

Luckily, he has you. You are going to have to create that world for him. I suggest that rather than moving back to the suburbs or suggesting that your son just “tough it out” you consciously set about to create structures for your child that maintain some ties with his old world and help him cope with his new world.

Drive back to your old neighborhood and let your 8-year-old hang around, breathing in the air of the old place. Let him go play with his friends for a while in the old neighborhood. Have his best friend come and spend the night. Let him spend the night at his best friend’s house and then pick him up. Maintain the connection to the old neighborhood without having to move back there.

At the same time, create structures in his new world so he can develop new ties. I don’t know what organizations are available or what his interests are. Nor do I think this is going to be easy. I remember what it was like to live in a neighborhood where all a kid had to do was walk out of the house and his playmates and friends were all right there. In such a setting, there was no need for formal activity programs such as the Boy Scouts or what have you. But that world is gone. Your son is going to have to do things differently now. He is going to have to participate in more formal social structures. Pick some fun activities that will put him in regular contact with others.

He may resist. I certainly did. But I suggest that you be firm. You know what is necessary. He does not. He may think he knows what he needs, but he is just a kid. You are the mother. You know best. If he finds it hard to get to know new kids, help him. Keep at it. Do not let him fail.

You have a chance here not only to help your son adjust to his new surroundings but to counteract the lesson that an alcoholic father imparts to his children: that when stressful change arises, one responds by collapsing inwardly and drinking. You can demonstrate a more positive pattern — that one responds to stressful change by creatively adapting, by coming up with new ways to interact with the world.

You don’t have to explain all this to your son. Instead, teach by example. You can simply say, “We’re adapting to change.”

I do suggest that for the sake of maintaining a positive attitude you think of it as “adapting” rather than as “toughing it out.” Try being grateful for the opportunity you have gained — that you don’t have to spend the rest of your life watching the father of your children kill himself in front of you, fearing that he will crash his car into the neighbor’s garage or collapse on the front porch with his pants down around his ankles. You have escaped that danger. You and your children are safe. You may find, when you consider your good fortune, that you feel some measure of gratitude to the wrinkle of fate or cosmic force or God that brought you this far unharmed.

Your kids are going to find this hard. They are going to miss their dad. And they’re going to be sad and upset sometimes. But I think, all in all, that you have a very lucky 8-year-old.

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Somebody sent child protective services to my house!

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 30, 2007

An anonymous complaint brought a scary visitor with a list of accusations.


Dear Cary,

I have an unusual problem that is really hurting me. About two months ago, a worker from the child protection agency in my town appeared on my doorstep. She told me she had received a report about me and my child and was investigating. She came in and read off the accusations. I was reeling and in shock. Someone associated with my small church had sent in a complaint anonymously. The accusations were ridiculous and untrue except for one. My child had kicked another child whom my child was really upset with. This child was jealous and had been teasing a lot, but his parents weren’t aware of it. This incident was reported in detail to the agency with the statement that “she didn’t care about it,” which is, of course, untrue. I was really upset about the kicking and talked to my child about how we settle differences, and then I took away a planned play date. We talked to the parents and I thought the matter had been settled.

I had to furnish names of people who could vouch for my parenting and I gave two friends from church. I also talked to the minister, who is very new to our church and to other church leaders. Everyone I’ve talked to is shocked and supportive and no one has any idea who could have done this or why.

The mother of this boy grew increasingly distant and angry after this incident and then refused to speak to my child and me at all. They quit coming to our church soon after. This family didn’t have many close friends as they are hard to get along with and didn’t come very often. Their child didn’t have friends at the church either except for my child. We had been very good friends at one time.

I could tell from the worker’s demeanor that the charges weren’t going to go anywhere but I still haven’t heard from the agency. I could be in for a surprise but I seriously doubt it. No one at the church has been contacted by the agency, but the worker had already visited my child and the school counselor before she came to my door. There were no concerns at the school and my child handled herself well so far as I can tell. It’s a real nightmare to have this happen.

My problem is that I don’t know for sure who did this. If it is this family, they aren’t at my church anymore and probably aren’t going to be much of a threat in the future. If it’s not this family, then it’s someone from my church and that is very scary as we are active at the church. We’re still going to the church and participating in selected activities. I’ve curtailed some of my child’s activities to lessen the chance that someone might observe something that can be twisted around to look damaging. Other than this mother, I’ve had no conflicts with anyone else in this town and neither has my child.

What is the most prudent thing for me to do? What is the psychological profile of someone who would do something like this to a child and his mother? Is it likely to be someone I’ve had a conflict with or a relative stranger?

Thank you so much. I think you give very thoughtful responses to people.

Pretty Good Mom

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Dear Pretty Good Mom,

You’re telling me that an employee of the state, acting on an anonymous accusation, visited your child and your child’s school counselor, and then came into your house and read you a list of accusations made by someone associated with your church. Then you were required by law to furnish a list of people who could vouch for your parenting.

Your letter inspires great outrage. Where is this place? Who are these people?

I couldn’t live in a town like that!

But here’s what a reasonable citizen might do. A reasonable citizen might go to the agency and ask for a meeting with the caseworker and the caseworker’s boss. I would want to learn as much as I could, not about who made this particular complaint, but about how such a system operates. Does it happen often that people are referred in this way? What are the procedures? What records are public and what are private? What is the agency’s funding? What is its charter? Who makes decisions about who is hired and fired?

Now, of course our society has to protect children. There are some truly evil people out there.

But I would want to know if I, too, could simply make a complaint about someone at random and cause a case worker to go visit them and scare the living daylights out of them. I would ask them to show me the form and the process by which I could make such an anonymous complaint. I would ask them how they determine the credibility of such a complaint. Must a person making a complaint appear in person, or could such a complaint be made in writing or over the phone? Must the person furnish identification? Are records kept of the person’s visit or phone call? Under what conditions are those records made public? What threshold of credibility must a complainant meet? What evidence must be given prior to the sending out of an investigator? What protections are in place so that any old sociopathic busybody can’t just use this agency to harass and terrorize his or her neighbors? And if there are protections in place, were they used in this instance?

Finally, I would be very curious to figure out — though I wouldn’t ask this directly — if a person making a complaint might be able to use specific knowledge of the agency and its personnel in order to cause an investigator to come out.

You know what else I would want to know? I would want to know what kind of academic background and credentials these people have, these people who are empowered to walk into some family’s home and read off a list of anonymous accusations. Of all the powers of the state that are available to petty, misguided bureaucrats who might have just a touch of the sadistic and the power-hungry in them, this is one power that ought not be entrusted to just anybody. I’d want to know that anyone doing this job at least had an understanding of the limits on state power in a free society.

And I would want to know how often it can happen that a totally bogus complaint reaches this point. I’d want to know if they audit their activities to determine this. I would want to know if this agency had a higher incidence of such false complaints than other agencies.

And I’d say, well, if this is a public agency with public records, then the press has a right to see them.

And then once I’d learned all I could, I’d contact a reporter at the local newspaper.

I’d tell them my story.

I’d beg the reporter to at least call the agency and inquire about my case.

You wouldn’t have to get the reporter to promise to do a story, just to make a phone call.

Come to think of it, the logic is sweet: In the same way that a child protective agency is more or less compelled to investigate any complaint, so a newspaper reporter is more or less compelled to at least make a phone call to check out a tip.

Now, I’m kind of dumb about small town life. It may be that doing these things would make life too uncomfortable for you. If so, I would still suggest that, in order to understand what happened, you learn as much as you can about the social forces in American life that could lead to such a thing. And if I were you I would think seriously about moving to a more cosmopolitan area.

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