My dad threatened to shoot us all and chop us into pieces

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I’m not sure how much filial devotion
I owe my father, now that he’s talking
about buying a rifle.

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, APR 4, 2007

Dear Cary,

Since our mother’s death four and a half years ago, the burden of caring for our elderly father has fallen to my siblings and me (particularly my oldest sister and my brother). When my parents retired they moved far away to a rural area in another state, which is difficult to reach by plane and is easily an eight-hour drive. My mother was never particularly happy there, and we were never very happy about having to travel so far to see her. Nevertheless, my father’s law ruled and she remained there until her death, lonely and isolated.

My father, to put it bluntly, has never been a particularly likable person, and he has alienated virtually everyone he has ever known. He is narcissistic and selfish, self-pitying and mean, insulting and dismissive. He has virtually no friends where he lives and is barely tolerated by his neighbors and fellow churchgoers. None of us feels any particular bond with him, outside of a feeling of obligation that we must care for him. All of us have admitted to each other and ourselves that we do not love him.

From afar, my sister pays his bills, makes his doctor’s appointments and schedules repairs for his tractor and appliances. My brother, who is disabled and doesn’t work, has made several extended-stay visits with him despite the severe emotional toll these visits take. Though we have persistently lobbied my father to move closer to us since my mother died, he has stubbornly refused to acknowledge his dependency on us or the excessive toll caring for him is taking.

In the last several months a few events have happened that have pushed the situation to a crisis point. First, an aide we hired to come to his house to assist him with medicines, buy groceries, etc. has become a romantic obsession for him. This came to our attention after he asked her to buy condoms so that they could “have sex ” because he is “in love” with her. Since she entered his life, he has attempted to transfer all of the duties my sister had been performing for him (and before that, our mother) to her, and became very irate when we interfered with this make-believe relationship by limiting the amount of time and types of activities the aide could perform. Next, his license was suspended (and will soon be revoked) because he is not fit to drive, an event we hoped would “wake him up” once and for all to the situation he is in, but it only gave him an excuse to rely more heavily on his aide. When she is not available, he continues to drive, putting at risk his own life and the lives of countless numbers of people unlucky enough to share the road with him.

Last weekend my sister and her husband drove down to his house to disable his car and ask him once again to come back with them, but unsurprisingly he refused. Then, he got it into his head that my brother-in-law must be at the bottom of this conspiracy (when in fact he has only been an exceedingly patient observer) and came after him with fists up. My brother-in-law restrained him, telling him he didn’t like the way he was treating his wife and the rest of his family, to which my father replied, “She’s my daughter and I’ll treat her any way I like.” When they decided to leave, my father ran after them, telling my sister that although she was once his “favorite” he didn’t love her anymore, and that he was soon going to buy a rifle and kill us all and chop us up into little pieces.

To say the least, we are fed up and disgusted. After the considerable investment of time and emotional energy she has contributed to our father’s cause over the past few years, my sister is devastated. He was a shitty father always, but when our mother was alive she was a buffer between him and the rest of us. It has only been in the last several years that we’ve had to face, so starkly, how much we truly do dislike him.

The question is, what to do? If he won’t help himself, and refuses to let us help him, what obligation do we have to bend to his whims? We can no longer care for him from where we live, and we no longer want him to move closer to us. It may sound cruel, but as the situation is not likely to get better, we would prefer to distance ourselves from it altogether. If he wants to be alone and as isolated from us as he is from the rest of the world, what obligation do we have to subject ourselves to his abuse and disdain?

Practically Fatherless

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Dear Practically Fatherless,

I would say you have very little filial obligation at this point, aside from the bill paying and medical scheduling that your sister is already doing. Because the relationship with a parent is felt to be so special, we sometimes neglect to consider the ways in which it is just another human relationship that must conform to the same norms and standards that every other human relationship conforms to. We overlook behavior that is in fact beyond the pale and intolerable, and that leads to insoluble conflicts and impossible situations.

It is understandable that you feel the age-old pull of fatherly gravity, that you are susceptible to an ancient wish to make things right. But not only do your well-meaning efforts meet with resistance — they seem to make matters worse. So remember this:

Your father is still capable of making choices. They may be bad choices, but they’re his choices.

In this case, he chose to chase the car down the road, threatening to buy a rifle and shoot you all and cut you up into pieces.

His threat may indicate that he is mentally unstable and in need of care. So I advise you to consult local psychiatric social services about what you can do in this regard. For while your obligation to involve yourself further may be limited, you do have an obligation to understand the legal and medical situation, so you can make informed choices. If he were willing to give up certain of his rights, by appointing someone his guardian and/or assigning durable power of attorney to someone, then you would have certain powers to conduct his financial affairs and restrict his movements. In this area, in addition to consulting with social services, you should get a full accounting of your legal rights and responsibilities from an attorney with experience and expertise in elder law. The SeniorLaw Web site lists many resources. An aging person, with certain indications of dementia, does not proceed neatly one day from “competent” to “incompetent.” Rather, for a period of time one is lucid at times and not at others. So I think unless and until he is declared incompetent, you must judge him by the standards you would use to judge anyone else.

All this becomes moot once he buys the rifle.

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Few prospects are more chilling than filicide. And, as this short monograph on Answer.com reminds us, Freud maintained that where there is a prohibition, there is a wish. Else why the prohibition, eh?

And parents do not just kill their little babies. They also kill their adult children. According to “Classifications and Descriptions of Parents Who Commit Filicide,” a research report authored by Linda Cylc while she was doing graduate work in psychology at Villanova University, “fathers generally kill older children. Murderous fathers frequently have histories of drug and alcohol abuse, previous criminal records, and very high levels of environmental stress, and the murdered children often have had previous injuries (Palermo, 2002; Stanton & Simpson, 2002) … One more stressor seems to be important; fathers who kill their children are very often going through a separation from their wife or other marriage/relationship problems, and this can be seen as an additional risk factor (Marleau, et al., 1999).”

So do what you can, and absolve yourself of guilt. Consult with legal and social services to get a firm understanding of what your options are. Try to define a trigger point at which you would petition the court to have your father declared incompetent. Otherwise, stay out of his way. And warn the neighbors!

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

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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

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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.

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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.”

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My dad’s become a crazed right-winger

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He’s a Vietnam vet and a retired civil servant. Now his mind’s been warped by Fox News! He’s gone Obama-nuts!

(Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAY 19, 2010)

Dear Cary,

I am writing because I am feeling more and more estranged from my father in the last few years, and I would like to return to the loving, respectful relationship we had while I was growing up. I am an independent, socially liberal woman in my mid-20s, currently in graduate school. My father is a retired civil servant and veteran of the Vietnam War. I am sure part of our conflict is generational; he has always been nostalgic for the “good old days” when men wore hats and acted decently. I remind him that men in lynch mobs wore hats, and it didn’t make them any more decent. He, however, chooses to idealize the values of his childhood, and ignore the racism, sexism and ideological repression of postwar America.

He has always identified as a Republican or an Independent, but it was a socially liberal, small-government kind of republicanism. In the last few years he has exchanged his moderate views for right-wing conservatism. His sole source of information is Fox News and conservative radio shows, and he has espoused increasingly paranoid views of our country’s future and President Obama’s intentions. He actually thinks Obama may be a Muslim, a socialist/communist, and is actively destroying America while the left-wing media clings to political correctness and looks the other way. He watches Glenn Beck and thinks, Yes, this makes sense. He is becoming myopic, and I am ashamed to say, racist and ignorant.

This is not the man I grew up with. I think he fears a future he cannot control, and longs for a past that never existed. He is responding to this existential crisis with fear, anger and paranoia. I feel for his situation, but cannot respect the viewpoint it generates. We are at a point where we can barely speak about current events or politics without deeply offending one another. I feel I cannot reconcile myself to his beliefs, and I know it is profoundly changing our relationship. How can I help him embrace a progressive, inclusive future? How do I bring back rationality, sensitivity and temperance into our discussions?

Worried

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Dear Worried,

One of the truisms of doing service in the world is that we aid ourselves by aiding others.

So I note that, after a five-month absence, my first two columns concern a brother’s addiction and a father’s figurative disappearance. How emblematic of my own emotional state. I have addicted brothers, both literally and figuratively, and I have recently lost a father — literally and figuratively. Anyway, I like to observe how the themes in my own life are reflected in the questions I choose to address. And “loss” is not meant literally; “loss” can just mean a sense of moving away, or a problem, a chasm, some distance having opened up between people.

Putting aside for the moment your ideological struggle with your father, I am drawn to the universal problem of living in time and accepting how others change.

Frankly, I suggest you take the long view.

Life in time is a constant shedding. It’s a shedding of skins, a shedding of beliefs, of relationships, attachments, memories, powers. And so it requires us to be in constant mourning for the things that pass. But things also go in cycles and are reborn, so that relationships we thought were dead come alive again, but differently, changed by the shedding, and so we are constantly getting used to the new, and we are constantly shedding, and we are constantly being amazed, as though we were waking up every day in a new universe.

That is the meta-setting for what is going on with you and your father. You long for the way it was and wonder  if there isn’t some way you and your father could return to an earlier time. You wonder this despite the fact that you are an intelligent, educated woman and know that time cannot go backward.

The past is shed away into chaff and dust. But the future bears unexpected gifts. Ahead will be some new setting in which you and your father find agreement and grow close again. Sometimes the gradual weakening of the parent and the strengthening of the child brings them to such a point. In taking care of him you may grow close to him again in time. He may fight his weakening and reject your help at first. But then, in time, as often happens, he will become grateful for your help and will come to admire and depend on your competence.

You needn’t wait for such gradual life changes, however. You can shift your focus today to some realm about the virtues of which you and he agree. Perhaps the natural world is such a realm. There is not much to be argued about a stream, a trout cooked over a fire, a sunset over a lake. Political sentiments may arise but there is more to agree about than disagree about in the beauty and pleasure of nature. Or it may be that you and he still like the same art or the same music, or enjoy the same favorite relatives. I would try to find things you both enjoy, and place yourself in mutual witness of such things. That way, rather than focusing on what you disapprove of in each other, you stand side by side, facing an object of mutual approval. How can we not admire those who admire the same things we admire?

While focusing on the interpersonal, I do not want to ignore the fact that crazy political ideas are dangerous, and that lives are at stake. What worries me is how deep this familiar mania goes. Is it a short-lived, shallow, Fox News-induced paroxysm of misplaced patriotism and class resentment, after which will come a return to reasonable debate in matters of national destiny?

Or is America headed toward some cataclysm of unreason that will result in some kind of tyrannical, undemocratic hell the likes of which we have never seen?

And what can we as individuals do to avert such a catastrophe?

I think the long-term stability of the nation depends on the endurance of strong liberal institutions of learning, the teaching of sustained critical reasoning to children at the earliest possible time, an insistence that children learn not just to excel on standardized test but to excel in evidence-based decision-making and rhetorical decoding.

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Call me crazy, but history offers little reason to feel secure. Rather, upheavals, reversals, rises and falls seem to be the norm.

The damage done by Fox News, in concert with a failing educational system and a consumerist culture, may take decades to repair. I hope that you will courageously consider what role you can play in preserving a culture of liberal thought.

From where I sit, in a San Francisco cafe, there seems to be great reason for hope. All around me there seems to be a revolution among the young, something like a spiritual shift in response to deeply felt symptoms of planetary collapse and catastrophe.

But that’s San Francisco. Then there are the many like your father who have been allowed, encouraged irresponsibly, to take a welcome leave of their senses and rant against reason.

At base, it seems that a fight is under way between reason and nonreason.

But to return to the personal and the spiritual: Even if we were witnessing the catastrophe that your father’s irrational passions portend — a fascist split, a takeover by a military/corporate cabal — even then, your problem would be to make peace with what history has wrought. You are yet another tiny being witnessing the giant, tragic ruptures of history.

So it sounds trite to say it, but the planet will still be here long after Glenn Beck, Barack Obama, Keith Olbermann and you and I and everyone else who is reading this are just memories, ashes, bones, fleeting thoughts and fading photographs.

In closing, you ask, “How can I help him embrace a progressive, inclusive future? How do I bring back rationality, sensitivity and temperance into our discussions?” I think a better question to ask is, “How can I be closer to my father?” or “How can I accept him as a human being and seek his acceptance of me?” The difference in approach is based on my observation that the realm of rhetoric is one of ever-finer distinctions; it is a realm of differences, and so it tends, of its own nature, to amplify differences. Rhetorical interaction does not lend itself well to finding commonality. Even if you could, say, agree that you and he both love liberty, or both believe in Enlightenment values, you would soon be arguing about the finer points: What does “liberty” mean to someone who watches Glenn Beck? What does it mean to a socially liberal woman in graduate school?

So I suggest you seek areas of commonality in nature or art, and in feeling rather than idea. Have some fun together. Build trust and enjoyment through shared experiences. Have patience. Be gentle.

One last thing, if you please.

Note I say above “life in time”: meaning life experienced in a linear way, as opposed to life experienced in bursts, explosions of understanding, flashes of knowledge, discontinuities and ruptures. We lose things slowly and do not notice we have lost them and thus fail to mourn them. We notice such bursts more sharply than life’s ever-present character of gradual decay and constant shedding. Yet it is the constant shedding that can be known and counted on. Attention to the many small deaths of a day keeps us agile of spirit.

For this, too, shall pass.

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What happened to all my dad’s money?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAY 19, 2008

He remarried, he moved, and now all his savings are gone!


Dear Cary,

I recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas where my father gave me news that made me furious. I’m not really prone to anger, which makes this even more surprising.

My mother died in 1999, and my father soon moved to California and remarried a short time after. I had reservations about his wife, but I kept my mouth shut out of diplomacy. I was just glad to see him happy.

He told me this past year his marriage had been difficult, and he had moved out of their house. During my trip to see him last week, he explained that their house was now up for sale. With some prodding, I also found out his life savings is now gone, and that his wife and her family took advantage of my father’s kindness over the course of seven years. Some of this financial help was in money lent to his wife’s son (which was paid back to his wife, not my father), down payments on their house, and the purchase of a car (which has been given to his wife outright). On top of this, when my father needed other forms of support from her family, they didn’t offer the least bit of help. Now, their house is up for sale, and I doubt his wife will give my father his share without a fight. The trouble is, my father is not a fighter, and though he says he is concerned about all of this, his demeanor says otherwise.

First of all, I feel betrayed by my father. I will admit my own selfish reasons — money he threw freely at his new family could have helped me. I wouldn’t have asked him for money unless it was an absolute emergency, but the fact that he didn’t even think of me in this matter hurts. Second, I am furious at his wife and her family. I can’t understand how so many people could take money from one man and then be so unconcerned when he leaves their life. Thirdly, I am angry at myself for not catching this sooner. Would it have helped had I told my father that I had a bad feeling about his wife? We’d talk on the phone about once a month, but he never brought any of this stuff up. My father is 70, and the fact that his life savings is now gone due to his naiveté and a family of parasites doesn’t really seem to bother him. This makes the situation even more difficult for me.

I’m not sure what my question is — I found out about all of this a few days ago and maybe just needed to vent. I mean, I can call a lawyer on my father’s behalf, but the money he gave his wife and her family is gone. I think the best he could hope for is to get half of the money from the sale of the house. Also, I want to call his wife and tell her off and let her know I’ll be fighting to get what’s owed to him, but I realize this may complicate things legally. I want nothing to do with her or her family aside from this financial issue.

If you’ve read this far, thanks. Maybe my question is the universal one: What do I do and how do I go on?

Where’s the Money?

LastChanceTuscany

Dear Where’s the Money?

Remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

Remember this also: He will never tell you that.

In the swirl of emotion and drama, when it appears that your father has been robbed, that he is a helpless and passive victim of his second wife and her children, when you are tearing your hair out because he will not lift a finger in his own defense, remember this: Your father used his money to get his needs met.

His needs were expensive, as it turns out. But he got them met. And now he is broke. It’s unfortunate but there it is.

Some needs we do not like to admit we have. After a long marriage, a man may not know how to fix himself a sandwich or wash a shirt. He may not know how to sit with himself alone in a room crowded with thoughts and feelings. He may not know how to make new friends, or cry, or walk through crushing grief with a high head. He may not know how to tell anybody how frightened and alone he feels without his wife. He may not know how to ask for help.

But he knows how to give away his money.

Your dad used his money to meet his needs. And now it is gone. It was a real need he had, and he met it the only way he knew how.

We do not always spell out our needs, especially the ones that are deep. Our needs may be perverse or trivial yet they are real. We may have a need, for instance, to appear powerful and nonchalant, untroubled and above it all. We may have a need to feel the indebtedness of others. We may need to be secretive and not tell anyone what we are feeling. That is a need, but it is a need that is a surface need, covering a deeper need. There are other surface needs masking deeper needs. If the gas gauge on your truck is on E, maybe you don’t like the feeling that gives you. Your surface need is to deal with that needle. Maybe you break the glass and push the needle up until it says F. That might make you feel better. But it won’t solve the problem. You need gas. We often get our needs met without solving the problem. Rather than meeting some needs, we need to interpret those needs, or transform them, by digging to the roots — fear of abandonment, fear of being ridiculed, fear of feeling weak and out of control. And then we deal with those deeper needs by building better foundations — a stable financial situation and stable relationships.

One tragic way we deal with fear of losing our money is, paradoxically, to keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of running out of money, we keep spending. Rather than admit we are afraid of being taken advantage of, we keep giving our money away. In this way, fear of the money running out makes the money run out.

We are accustomed to thinking of money as something we use to meet our needs. One way to deal with that is to turn that around and place ourselves at the service of our money. We can say, OK, as of today, now I meet the needs of my money. What does my money need? It needs to be taken care of! It needs to multiply. It wants to multiply! It wants to earn interest! It wants to be put to productive use!

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That’s a good thing to do with things that need nourishing and care. We place ourselves at the service of those things. Creativity, for instance. When we place ourselves at the service of our creativity, it blooms. When we keep asking it to provide for us, it dries up.

There is another angle. Yes, we use our money to get our needs met. And our needs often mask other needs. But the other angle is: People come into our lives and use our money to get their needs met. They have needs and we have needs and there is an exchange of money and need, emotion and need.

It is a common tale: The wife dies, the husband remarries, the new wife takes his money. This happens over and over and over.

And then, when all the money is gone and the second wife is gone, you begin to meet some of your dad’s needs. Your dad is lonely, weak, confused, sad, in need of a sandwich and a fresh shirt perhaps. You begin to meet his needs. The relationship changes. It is painful.

So now we come to the concrete section where you take action. I suggest that you do indeed contact a lawyer and take whatever other concrete steps you can take to get the facts and ensure that your father gets any and all money that is due him. Do not delay. What you need, first and foremost, is a complete accounting of your father’s financial condition and legal status. As to his legal status: Is he married but living apart? Is he planning to get a divorce? What is his status? As to his financial condition: What are his sources of income? What are his assets? Go through all his papers and figure out what his situation is.

This will not be easy.

If it were as simple as saying to your father, “Dad, I want to go through all your financial activities over the past few years so I can understand where your money went, and help you control your money in the future,” and if he would say, “Ah, that sounds like a splendid idea, here are the keys to my file cabinets, and here are all my tax returns, and here are my letters, and the deeds, and mortgage statements, and here is a record of the private arrangements I have made with various of my wife’s family members, and here is my checking account, and, by the way, why don’t you become a signatory to my checking account so you can monitor all the checks I write?” well, that would be nice, no?

But how likely is that? More likely, I would think, your efforts to become involved in your father’s financial dealings will be met with obstacles that range from suspicion, covert resistance and apparent lack of interest to outright hostility and stonewalling. It is a tremendous emotional change for a father to admit that he has maybe made some mistakes or been taken advantage of. It is a tremendous change for him to admit that he now has to let his children look into his affairs, and possibly criticize or question his judgment.

You have to look in private places. You have to get permission. You have to ask for things you have never asked for. Or you have to snoop. You have to ask other relatives for information. You have to ask people your father has dealt with for information about those dealings. You have to talk about and understand financial arrangements and real estate transactions that you have no expertise in. It is hard.

And this is all stuff that some families never, ever talk about, or talk about guardedly, or in code, or in such a way as they don’t ever really say anything. In order to do all this, you, too, are going to have to change. And you are going to have to face that you, too, have some needs that have been perhaps unacknowledged.

But now it’s time for a change. For you to change means you may have to face your own needs — your need for your father to place you first, for instance. He didn’t do that. He met his own needs. He forgot about your needs. And he met the needs of this other woman, not your mother, not your mother who is dead. Not the mother you grieved. He let this other woman come in and replace her. Another need you may have right now is the need to not be so angry at your father that you could strangle him with your bare hands. That need is not being met right now. So you have to face what is behind that anger. What is behind that anger is sadness and fear. Your father has shown his weakness. He has shown his needs. The man you depended on for so long is now the weak one who needs your help. You are seeing the beginning of his decline. A new era is begun. You must be strong and responsible as he slips into being dependent and needy.

You have reached one of life’s turning points, and you are not alone. My advice to you is to begin now, because you could be at this for the next 20 years.

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I want kids, but he doesn’t. What could be simpler?

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, JAN 31, 2005

Should I break it off now and look for a man who wants to raise a family?


Dear Cary,

I’m a 31-year-old smart, cute, funny, perennially happy physician who is in love with a 38-year-old chemistry professor. He is everything I want in a man. He’s warm, kind, caring, handsome, intelligent (some of our most interesting conversations are about quantum physics … grrrrr) and crazy about me. He has never been married and had a happy childhood. We can discuss any topic under the sun — conversation and silences are both filled with pleasant comfort and warmth. He is a liberal, an environmentalist, funny and wise about life and otherwise inexplicable things like taxes and stocks and — oh! — the sex rocks! In all a perfect package, except he does not want kids and I think I do.

We met online five months ago on a dating site as I was going through my divorce. I was not heartbroken about the divorce, as I had an “arranged marriage,” we never fell in love, the ex and I were totally mismatched and it was a relief to get separated. When the chemist and I started dating, it was supposed to be a testing-the-waters type of thing. He was, after all, the first guy I had ever dated. (I’m from a culture that frowns on making out with boys you are not married to.) But he feels right and I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

So, where do I go from here? He likes his quiet time, is a bit of an introvert, likes to hike and travel, and does not think that he can sacrifice all of this for 18 years to raise a child who may or may not turn out to be a fine upstanding citizen. (These are scary times, you know.) He’s got a point there. I like sleeping in on the weekends, not having to worry about nannies, day care, poopy diapers, pediatrician visits, the Family and Medical Leave Act, teenage angst and whatever else is inevitable. But I’ve achieved a lot in life, I’m going to be financially secure, I have a wonderful job I love and a great family (who are overseas), and in two or three years I may yearn for the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

So before I fall deeper in love, should we break up, cut our losses and run, or should we let time decide? Should I let someone who seems to be “the one” go and hope to meet someone else who will be a better “one”? If we took care to arrange for adequate day care, to ensure that he and I went on a “date” once a week without the little one and took vacations just by ourselves to keep the fire kindled, would that give me the best of both worlds? Or is there a chance that I would doom the relationship to failure by making him compromise?

Looking Ahead

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Dear Looking Ahead,

If he doesn’t want kids and you do, then you should break up with him.

There, that was simple, wasn’t it?

So, if it was so simple, where have I been for the last hour? Why have I been thinking about probabilities and branching courses of action?

I got caught up in this notion of “the future.” The future is unknowable. Everybody will tell you that. So why do we spend so much time thinking about it? Knowing we can’t know it, we attempt to know it anyway, and then we start to feel like we can’t know anything at all, not even the present, because who knows, we might turn into chickens, or we might open a soft-drink bottling plant!

“Soft-drink bottling plant?” “Chickens?” Why did such notions enter my mind? Those are images out of rural Florida and Alabama. Those are images out of my childhood. (See the hour-glass bottles of Coca-Cola clinking along the conveyor belt; see the man in overalls pick up a bottle, open it and take a swig; it looked like the best job in the world!)

Why did those particular examples arise? What is going on here? Ah! Now I’m remembering. When I was a kid, we lived in the future. You never knew when something might happen to alter the way things were, so the way things were wasn’t really the way things are, so you couldn’t make any plans. We didn’t open boxes and put things away because we might be moving. We didn’t throw things away because we might need them. You never knew. Anything might happen. Best to leave your options open. Why even leave the house? You might get polio. Then again, you might not. Who could know?

The notion of an unknowable future became a source of paralysis for me later in life. So there I was again just now, the happy writer, trying to live in the moment, sitting at the computer, luckiest guy alive, getting paid to do what I love, and getting all paralyzed and confused about a simple yes-or-no question — because it involved the problem of the future! (Apropos of nothing — except perhaps the humorous synthesizing powers of the unconscious — what came into my mind, actually, was the phrase “software bottling plant.”)

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So how do you make this issue of the future concrete enough to make a decision about it? You stop thinking about wanting kids in the future and think about wanting them right now. You want kids right now. You are practical enough to realize that you can’t attend to them right now, but you want them. Likewise, you can treat his lack of desire for kids as a definite trait. If he wanted kids he would probably have made some by now. He would have gotten married.

So it’s not that mysterious.

Ha ha. Watch out. Everything is that mysterious.

We move from mystery to clarity to mystery. We embody paradoxes and contradictions. We express them in dramatic symbols; we act out the ineffable. He is a chemist. You are a doctor. You enjoy great chemistry together. Quantum physics excites your molecules. You understand how something can be indeterminate, can become its opposite, can change shape, can be unknowable in one way and knowable in another. I suggest that you determine that you want kids and he does not. But I acknowledge that in the act of determining, you may alter what you determine. You are both scientists of life and matter. States of matter can change. Water becomes steam. Water becomes ice. Elements influence one another. When the conditions are right for life, life sometimes appears.

Knowing what you want and what he wants, I think it is appropriate to acknowledge that certain combinations of people create unforeseen reactions. So before you break up with him, have a very frank talk. You may have awakened something in him. He may have awakened something in you.

It’s not so simple after all. Sorry, but that’s life.

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Can we flee my husband’s family?

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, SEP 3, 2009

They’ll drive us crazy if we stay. We want to move to Colorado!


Dear Cary,

This is hardly a new topic, but here goes.

My husband and I have been married about a year and a half. We met, instantly fell in love and got married a short time later. We are in our mid-30s and know ourselves well, so there was no reason to wait. And we are crazy happy with each other. Unfortunately, this whirlwind courtship and wedding situation didn’t give me as much time in retrospect as I could have used with his family. Not that I would have ditched my honey, but I probably wouldn’t be living where we are now, which is the crux of the problem. Here’s the cast:

His mother: where fun goes to die. Literally. My husband’s father, whom he dearly loved, killed himself about 15 years ago rather than continue being married to her, although only my husband knows this and she wouldn’t believe it anyway. She is the typical old Catholic, martyr, misery-loves-company type. Refuses to say anything positive to my husband. Couldn’t congratulate him on our wedding day, much less contribute a dime toward it and she is very, very comfortable financially. I am polite to her, but I don’t see us getting particularly chummy when every time I see her, she unloads about something my husband did 20 years ago. She’s 70 years old and no, she’s not mentally ill — she’s just a bitch. When I lost my job about a year ago and our fridge died in the summer, we asked for help. Her answer? “Well, you’ll just have to wait for a sale and get it yourself!”

His brother: AKA Golden Boy. Which I find ironic since he has done nothing of note in his entire life except get married in the Catholic Church and pop out a couple of kids, so he gets the lifetime free pass for whatever bullshit he wants to pull. He’s lazy, uneducated, a freeloader, thief, cheats on his wife, and everything out of his mouth is a lie. His best skill is probably getting his mother to pay for whatever he wants by pointing at the kids and saying, “I really need ____, but it’s so expensive with the kids …” Total con man and he plays his mother like a fiddle. He just stole my husband’s golf clubs out of our garage and I can’t wait for how his mother justifies it so it’s my husband’s fault.

His maiden aunt: She owns the house we rent. She’s pretty nice although she believes family comes before all else, meaning we should dismiss every stupid thing the brother does because “That’s just the way he is!” She’s 75.

So we all live about two blocks apart. We moved into this house because it was sort of a wedding present from the aunt, the rent was affordable, and we were planning on having kids. Not a good idea in the 450-square-foot apartment we were already sharing with two cats in the city. Now, after a year and a half, we are ready to bolt. Except that we can’t just yet — any apartment we can find is even more per month. So we are saving our money and plan to move to Colorado in a couple of years. Great, right?

Except that MIL and aunt are expecting us to hang around and take care of them in their old age like they did with their mother. MIL can kiss my ass and we have no problem leaving her to Golden Boy — he more than owes it to her. But the aunt … she’s kinda nice and we don’t know how to handle that. She HAS given us a place to live and all. Should we be preparing her for this ahead of time (which will undoubtedly lead to endlessly complaining about how we don’t appreciate family and more of the MIL’s bitching) or just keep it all quiet and tell them after we’ve bought the house and the moving truck is packed? The grandmother died at 95 and there’s no way in hell I’m staying here 20 years in this situation. And I know this sounds really petty, but let’s be honest — the aunt and MIL make it very clear that my husband and I just don’t “count” as much as Golden Boy because he has kids, so you know where the inheritance is going.

So do we prep them or gleefully skip out?

Desert Gal

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Dear Desert Gal,

I hear something in your voice. I hear a self-assured quality that seems at odds with what you are actually asking, or saying. You are saying that you have married into a family that you find intolerable. It is not something you can gleefully skip out on, even if you go to the moon. Nor can these characters be neatly labeled and placed in boxes. You can divorce your husband if you want out of the situation. But otherwise, you’re in. This is the family you married into.

So here is what I first suggest. Take the long view. And try the high road.

Your mother-in-law may be a truly impossible individual. But try the high road. Go to her and say that you love her son very much, that you recognize that you may not live up to her ideal of a daughter-in-law, that you would like to be accepted as a part of the family, but that your dreams for such a life are taking you to Colorado. Tell her that you recognize that she and the aunt (her sister?) will need some help in the years to come, and ask her if there is a plan in place, and what her hopes and expectations are for your role in that plan. Tell her that if she hasn’t thought it through yet, that you hope she will. Offer to help her come up with a plan if she does not have one.

Give it a shot. Like many people, she and her sister might prefer not to think about the future and plan for it but just wait until it happens and then hope their families take care of them, and make life holy hell for everyone just on general principle. But you have a chance, now, to put everything on the table and see what happens. You have a chance, now, to start the conversation. You can offer to help by creating a plan. And you can make it nonnegotiable that you and your husband are moving to Colorado.

I also hear something else that I think is significant: Your husband’s father killed himself when your husband was a teenager or young man. It is understandable that because of the enormity of this event one might wish to reduce it to ironic dimensions: that he killed himself, literally, to get away from his wife. But suicide reverberates through a family in many ways no matter what explanation we give it. Each person in this family was without a doubt affected by his suicide in ways that they may not understand and probably cannot or will not communicate. It is there, that suicide, in your husband’s psyche and in the dynamics of the family.

You say you and he know yourselves well, so there was no reason to wait to get married. But if you truly knew yourselves well, you would have known that, perhaps because of the pain and chaos of your early lives, you tend to make impulsive decisions. Knowing that you tend to make impulsive decisions, you might have waited. But you plunged yourselves into a situation from which you now wish to escape. So you want to escape to Colorado. That may be yet another impulsive move. So if you truly want to know yourselves well, you should know this: that you tend to make big decisions on impulse.

It sounds like I am scolding you, doesn’t it? I apologize. I have no place to scold. I have no right. Let me try to get at what truly bothers me. My guess is that your husband was deeply affected by his father’s suicide, and that it is present in your relationship today in ways you are not aware of. And I sense that this unresolved pain is pushing you to vacate the premises. But it will go with you. Unless you and he examine how his father’s suicide has affected him, and how his current family relationships are affecting both of you, my guess is that no matter what you do, eventually you will experience emotional upheavals that seem to come out of the blue, and you will not know how to deal with them.

I feel this in your tone: You want a quick solution. And yet your actual situation calls for exactly the opposite.

I’m not saying don’t move to Colorado. By all means move to Colorado. Get out of there. But no matter where you go, you will be blindsided by events in the evolving family drama unless you begin working now to understand how that dynamic operates.

How about this: You have the conversation with your mother-in-law, the two of you move to Colorado as planned, but then you promise me to embark on a course of self-exploration so you can bring to consciousness the ways that his father’s suicide is operating today in your relationship.

Here is a very quick gloss on that. You say that your husband shared a secret with you, which is that his father killed himself to get away from his wife. If your husband is relying on such a story to cover over the enormous feelings he must even to this day be experiencing as a result of that suicide, then he has some work to do. It will be painful but liberating work. It will involve facing the loss of his father. It will involve facing his own guilt about the ways he might have prevented that suicide if only he were a better son, if only he had loved his father more, etc.

If he clings to this story that his mother is to blame for his father’s suicide, then in the years to come when his mother truly needs his help, it will be hard for him to play the role of loving caregiver and son, of protector and provider. Unless he takes some action to reconcile, he may also feel constant guilt for having, in a sense, abandoned his mother after his father’s suicide.

This sounds fine on paper. It is easy to say but hard to get. You have to get it.

For instance, a few months back I was driving the truck along Lincoln Boulevard by Golden Gate Park in the fog, bellyaching to myself as usual, when something “became real” for me. I felt in my chest something that I had perhaps known intellectually for some time: That my frail, demented 85-year-old father was never going to get up out of his bed and give me the warm, encouraging pat on the shoulder or the wise, clear, practical advice that I for so many years resented him for not giving me. Holy shit. What have I been thinking? There was no more father out there to blame. The only father I had was within me. The only father I needed, also, was within me. Whatever fatherly support or strength or advice I felt I needed, I would have to create for myself, or find somewhere within me. I had to embody that strength.

It was a visceral thing. With agonizing slowness, the heart learns.

That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about. You can know the facts of this suicide, but certain things must be felt. So I suggest you find someone to help you and your husband work through his father’s suicide now, so it doesn’t creep up on you two for the next few years until you feel like you are losing your mind because lately you’ve been breaking down in tears at unexpected moments and some depression has overtaken your husband and he’s angry and resentful and drinking too much and getting violent and suicidal and you cannot find him in the gloom and you are wondering, where the hell did this come from?

Don’t wait for that. Confront this now. Go ahead and move to Colorado and find somebody to work with about this. You can have a good life and make all this work out. But you cannot ignore it. It will not work itself out on its own.

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How to eulogize the dad no one likes?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 31, 2007

My friend’s father is just one more reason feminism exists — but can we say that?


Dear Cary,

I have been friends with my best friend since we were 15 years old; we united because we both had crazy-ass parents. Hers was an abusive alcoholic dad, mine was an undiagnosed borderline personality disordered mother who wreaked havoc on my life by playing constant mind games.

They’ve both aged. My mom has mellowed, and until recently, so had my friend’s dad. But now he’s had a few mild strokes, seems to be slipping into dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s, and is back to drinking and attempting to be the big, tough guy he always thought he was. He’s driving everyone insane. Conversations between us often turn to talking about his funeral (which I think many in the family are hoping will happen sooner rather than later), and recently we came upon an interesting dilemma: Who will deliver his eulogy? And is there an obligation to be nice?

I’m a writer by trade, so I think there’s hope I’ll come up with something good. A nice compromise, if there’s one to be had. There probably won’t be many people at said funeral, but still, we were brainstorming ideas of what to say and came up with pathetically little:

He always tried to tell a good joke.

He is the reason why his daughters are such strong feminists today.

He didn’t ruin any of his daughters’ weddings.

He liked to be involved in the community.

We got some good black humor belly laughs out of the conversation, but now I think we could really use some advice. Should the eulogy be avoided? If someone in the family insists on one, should it say only nice things? I know it would be totally inappropriate to say, “Good riddance,” but that’s about the only thing I can think to say.

Blocked Writer

TuscanAd_Jan2015Dear Blocked Writer,

The dead, however monstrous in life, are finally defenseless in death. This seems to inspire a certain mild scruple in the rest of us.
It is safe to say that not all his survivors despised the deceased. So however much you may wish to take a last backhanded swipe at the man, or deliver a devastating closing argument, I would not advise it, not in the eulogy at least.

In a eulogy for a man whose life you did not admire and can only weakly celebrate, a recitation of the facts and accomplishments would suffice. He was employed. He supported his family financially. He graduated from some kind of school. He did things for the community. He liked to tell a joke. He was a father. That’s enough. Or at least it’s something.

I have recently had occasion to observe that when someone dies, events are set in motion that are unexpected in certain ways and beyond our control. We really do not know all that we will feel and do. So things come up that you did not expect. And people step in. Someone other than his daughter or you may rise to say a few good and surprising words. Everyone may learn some things about him they did not know.

It is a time to remember the good in a life.

That does not mean that in private you cannot exorcise your demons. Death, in fact, does offer an occasion for the living to settle accounts — in private. So if you must — and it sounds like your razor wit is being sharpened on his withering torso even as we speak — go ahead and deliver those few choice words you’ve been saving up for him. But do it while alone with the corpse.

Being alone with the dead levels the playing field. It is easy to heap scorn, like clods of dirt, while we all stand around together, powerful and united in our vitality. But get alone with the dead and see what happens.

Even in death those who were tyrants in life hold surprising power over us. And they sometimes manage to best us even from the grave: They leave odious instructions we feel honor-bound to follow. Oh, the dead are clever beyond measure!

Preferable to all this ghoulishness, of course, is a settling of accounts with the living. You know better than I how things stand. It may not be possible to talk to him openly. But if it is, if you see a chance, if there is something you need to say to him while he can still hear you, I hope you will say it.

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My wife is lying to me about her affair

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JAN 24, 2007

I’m already raising two kids of my own. Should I divorce her and go it alone?


Dear Cary,

About a month ago, I discovered my wife of one year had had a fling with a co-worker that she initiated. I found out, I’m ashamed to say, by checking her e-mail because she’d been going out a lot, staying out late with people from work. When I complained about some of the excessive hours and frequency, she apologized, said she was being stupid, and was sorry. And it continued.

My gut told me something was wrong after one evening, when she was out late again, and we “argued” about it, and again she offered an apology, and then she was back in the bedroom, singing and burning a CD. The next day, I gathered up my courage, and dove into her e-mail. And there was the incriminating evidence. I was devastated. I confronted her, she was stunned, but not particularly apologetic and remorseful. I offered to forgive and understand, wanted to talk. She offered a litany of complaints/justifications, saying “Nothing happens in a vacuum.” She said that turning 32 (I’m 41), and working in an office with a bunch of single people, had made her acutely aware of her age. She said that although two or three months earlier she’d told me she wanted to have a baby, that the decision stemmed from the fact that she felt like an outsider in the home, never truly the mother of my two kids, and wanted a child of her own. I had agreed, but said that we needed to be practical regarding buying the home and getting financially stable before we made that move. She said that started her thinking about the age thing, and how she should take advantage of the time she had left before motherhood.

Then she wanted to clam up.

Although she agreed to stop seeing this person, she maintained her distance and withdrawal. She just wanted to act as though everything was OK, which was very difficult for me to endure, as we’d had no cathartic moment of remorse, regret and so on. I felt she was stalling for time. I went to visit a friend in N.Y. for three days to give her some space. I came back, wanted to make love, she would have none of it. The distance continued, and each time I tried to talk, she freaked and got angry, telling me I was pressing her. She went away for a long weekend to get some space. When she came back, nothing was better. We’d made a good show of acting normal around the house, trying to normalize things. Then I found out that she’d called the lover over the long weekend and lied to me about it. I tried to understand, again offering conciliation. And still no meaningful discussion. She told me I needed to be on meds, that my anxiety was out of control, that essentially I was making the problems worse. I already do take an as-needed prescription for anxiety.

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I immediately scheduled a session with a couples therapist. We agreed that we were both going with the intent of trying to work things out. She ended up turning the session on me and my anxieties, how she felt backed into a corner, and I had consented to begin taking antidepressants to try to give her the space she needed by further quelling my anxiety. But my anxiety, which I’ve dealt with as a separate issue for a while, was really being exacerbated by my gut feeling that she wasn’t being straight with me, was holding something back, and stalling for time. Later that week, she lied again, this time about grabbing a beer after finishing working late, and gave me some story about getting the car stuck in the snow. I didn’t believe her, confronted her, and after a lot of evasion, she confessed.

We made love finally two days later, and afterward she was very distant, but tried to be reassuring. I wrote her a letter saying that I understood she was in a difficult place, and probably grieving for what she’d thought the affair would offer, and so on, again encouraging her that if she did indeed love me, as she professed, then we could still work through this. She said we needed to talk, and she owed me more of what was in her mind. Again, I checked her computer, and in the Internet history found that she’d been checking into apartments — the evening after our first therapy session. So, I had some idea what was coming, but we calmly sat down with a bottle of wine, and I let her tell me everything. Essentially, although she declared flatly that the affair is over, the lover done with (supposedly it was a one-time thing and I’ve no evidence to the contrary), she didn’t know whether she was happy, taking things for granted here at the house. She basically was coming to the conclusion that she wanted a separation.

We’ve had a long and and occasionally stormy history, including a two-year hiatus when she moved to New York. She came back to be with me, moved in with me and my two children, and after two years wanted very much to be married. Apart from the usual squabbles about housework and dealing with my two kids (who embraced her and loved her) discipline-wise (and they’re both very good kids, just the typical too much TV, messy room stuff), we seemed to have a very functional and happy marriage. She said as much many times. I felt very secure.

And then this. She says that although she’s not moving out to be with the lover, and I think this is probably true, she’s wondering if there’s something more for her out there … independence, the single life, what have you. I have two kids from a previous marriage, and we are renting a house we were planning on buying. If we separate, then I’m going to have to find an apartment myself, adding to the disruption in the kids’ lives and mine.

Basically, I don’t know what to do. I have no idea what to do, or say. It seems like this should all be fixable, but she just doesn’t want to face the fixing. I’m frightened about myself, my children, and starting all over again at 41, having been so devastated by this sudden and unexpected upheaval in our lives.

Husband Lost at Sea

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Dear Husband,

Divorce this woman. Protect yourself and your kids.

If child support can be ordered by a court, by all means pursue child support. But do not depend on it. Rather, if losing her means moving to an apartment, then move now. Do not wait. You cannot depend on her support even if it is ordered by the courts. So put yourself in a position where you do not need her support. Take care of yourself and take care of your kids.

Make a new life. Simplify. Dedicate yourself to the raising of your kids. Be cautious. Meditate. Eat well. Help your kids with their homework. Clean the house. Cook. Sleep regular hours. Work out. Stay well. Be steady. Follow a routine. Know that you are doing the right thing. Realize that this is your calling in life. Submit to it.

Be clear about this: Your wife has to go. She is wreaking havoc on your lives. She made a promise to you and to your kids when she married you. She gave you to understand that she would be there for you and your kids. Now she has shown that she either is not capable or simply has no intention of following through with her commitment.

Do not pursue therapy with her. Simply get her out of your life.

She is unhappy. That is unfortunate. But you cannot make her happy. You can only participate in her misery.

If freeing her from her commitment would not harm anyone else, one could say, whatever, it was a failed romance.

But it was not just a romance. It was an agreement to raise children together.

You’re going to need some help. I suggest you educate yourself and look into organizations that support men who find themselves in situations like yours, for your troubles are inextricably related to your legal status as a man and a father. In asking for child support from your ex-wife, you will be in a non-traditional role, which may take special handling and raise special difficulties for you that other men with similar experiences may be able to help you negotiate.

Throughout this, be protective of your children. Make sure their needs are met and their routines are followed. Tell them that you are taking care of them and they are going to be OK. Show them strength and kindness and hope and love. Be a model for them of how to face the world. Make a safe and strong little unit, you and your two kids, an unshakable foundation.

If you eventually want another woman in your life, your kids come first. Do not put your household at risk again for your own needs.

Seek family support. Where is the mother of your children? You do not mention her. If she is alive and can help support her children, insist that she do so. Other members of your family may also be able to help. Reach out. For the sake of these two young children, reach out.

Yes, this involves emotional sacrifice. But it also means playing a satisfying role. What greater thing could there be? I plead with you, dedicate yourself to raising these children.

Make it your life. Throw yourself into it. No matter what else happens, that is one good thing you can do.

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My husband doesn’t want this kid!

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

Just the Two of Us

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Dear Just the Two of Us,

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

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

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

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

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

It’s like with dogs.

Getting him to talk, I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dear Cary,

Boy, did I screw up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a tangled web we weave…

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Dear Tangled,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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