Do I have to be a mommy to “opt out”?

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that lame?

Optin’ Out Auntie

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Dear Optin’ Out,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why not do what makes you happy?

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My life is a failure

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 27, 2005

Like a man waking up from a coma, I suddenly realize in my 40s: My life is a sad, painful, ugly ordeal!

Dear Cary,

This past year has been pretty painful. I feel that I have lived a failed life. About a year ago it was like I woke up from a long coma and for the first time clearly saw my life for what it has been. I started looking back on what I wanted when I was 14 or 15 and what I thought my life would be, and it was like a jolt from wherever that I had not achieved the things I wanted the most in my life.

Due to a variety of family problems, personal problems, illnesses, stupid mistakes, bad relationships and just plain bad luck that I don’t want to detail here, my life has been a sad, painful, ugly ordeal. Therapy and medication only helped me so much. Most of my problems were in the social and emotional areas. I just didn’t get the development and life experiences that most people get. A painful childhood led to an even more painful adolescence. I had a brief respite when I was around 14 or 15, but I wasn’t able to completely get over the obstacles.

I also wasn’t able to help my younger siblings avoid the same problems and pitfalls I faced. It was a nightmare watching them go through the same things. I had also hoped to have a family of my own, but I was not able to overcome my social problems to do that.

I have done OK in some areas. With some difficulty I was able to go to college, hold jobs, and maintain my own home. I am surviving, and there are things in my life I enjoy, but I also know I will never be completely well and normal and feel whole.

Going back over my life, I have been seeing very clearly how this problem led to that problem, this mistake led to that mistake, etc. I know part of it is probably my age; I am in my 40s, a time when you look back. But am I also going through the grieving process for the things I have lost in life? The pain has been acute. I don’t think therapy will help. You can’t go back 20 or 30 years and change things.

Lost Dreams

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Dear Lost Dreams,

No, I don’t suppose you can go back and change things in the past. But if you are willing to seek a happier life, your analysis of your past behavior could prove a starting point for changing things in the present. Perhaps you can identify ways you might do things differently today. The question is, how, in practical terms, do you accomplish that? How do you apply your insights? How do you translate them into behaviors? What concrete actions can you take to put into effect these insights you have gained? And also, what might stop you? What lies between your insights and their application, between theory and practice? What further, perhaps hidden, personality traits or beliefs might work to stop you from changing your life, in spite of all you now know?

This would be a great time to put down on paper specifically what actions you might take today to change your life. Since you have not provided specifics, I can’t know what those things might be. But one of them might be that, in the very beginning, you will first refuse to rule out anything. That would, I think, include the refusal to rule out further psychotherapy. But it would not be a prescription for it, either.

It would be nice if there were specifics to work with. But at least the refusal to rule anything out leaves you the widest selection of options. Let’s play a little game with that, just to be sure it’s clear what we’re talking about. For instance, if it turns out that you need to run for president in order to have a happier life, will you be willing to do that? What if you have to stop eating asparagus? Meatballs? Tuna? What if it turns out that you need to get up at the same time every day and to exercise three times a week on strength equipment? What if you have to give up coffee? Will it make any difference to you what you need to do? What you need to do might seem surprising; it might not make sense; it might offend your sense of who you are and what you know. I’m suggesting that you be prepared for that.

Your ruling out certain possibilities may be a protective device. But what further is there to protect yourself from? You have already suffered deeply in the failure to become what you desperately want to become. So I would abandon all caveats at this point. I would abandon everything. I would continue walking into whatever crazy flames you’re in. I’m one of those people who believe that deep change comes through difficult surrender, surrender of protection, surrender of the sense of knowing what we’re doing; I believe in shamanistic transformation through trial and madness. It sounds to me as though you have come very close to a painful madness of truth; you have seen the tragic dimensions of your life. Many, many people never get this far. You, in your comprehension of your own failure, have gained a valuable bit of wisdom. To have fully grasped the way our dreams don’t pan out, the way the water always rises around us, to be standing now, in your 40s, waist deep in the flood asking the most fundamental, searing questions about life — you are very close to some kind of transformation anyway. So please do not give up. Please do not foreclose on any option available to you.

While you have taken brave and difficult measures to discover the reasons for your unhappiness, you may also have boxed yourself in by limiting the kinds resources that you believe might get you over the top. When you say, “I don’t think therapy will help,” you may be right; but it also sounds a like a prophetic proclamation without much practical meaning; you may be doing what a lot of us might do in a similar circumstance — to attempt a kind of preemptive walling-off of further emotional or spiritual discovery. Because, of course, the whole thing can be quite painful. If you just mean that you don’t think much pointless psychobabble about the past is likely to help, I would agree. If you should get into therapy and find it’s pointless psychobabble, please have the courage to follow your instincts.

But, having had these difficult insights about your life, and being left with many practical questions about how to put them into practice, you might benefit from some concrete assistance making specific present-day changes in your behavior. You will have to seek the relevant know-how to make those changes. Whether that know-how is in the hands of psychotherapists or economists or general contractors or plumbers or hypnotherapists or Buddhist monks I have no way of knowing. All I know is that most big projects require some kind of help.

So rather than tell you what I think you need to do, I will just plead with you to keep going, to hang in there, to find a way to apply your insights to your current life. Whatever is of use to you, use it. Whatever is of no use to you, let it go. But keep going, keep struggling to understand your life, and don’t rule anything out.

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I secretly hate myself

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Secretly Hate Myself

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Dear Secretly Hate Myself,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not complicated. Pretty simple.

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

 

I love the West Coast

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Torn” or Something

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Dear “Torn,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

How do I overcome the inertia?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column TUESDAY, MAR 21, 2006

I have so much potential I can’t decide what to do!


Dear Cary,

I’m 23 and panicking.

I’ve been working at a fairly small company in New York for about two years now. Immersed in my studies during my senior year at college, I hadn’t looked very hard for employment and landed this job a few weeks after graduation almost by accident. It has been good for me in some ways; I’ve learned new skills and improved others (both professional and social), and with the luxury of never having to take work home, I’ve been able to spend my limited free time pursuing numerous hobbies and projects. The pay could be better, but I’m living at home with minimal rent and other expenses and the salary is enough that I can afford to feed my book and movie habits and to travel when I can get the time off. However, I’ve long since hit the top of the learning curve here, there’s no opportunity for advancement, the hours are long, the work endless and repetitive with ever-decreasing time to do what I was hired for (writing) — and I’m restless to the point of desperation. I frequently feel burnt out but don’t want to stop what I do outside of work because that’s what really makes me feel alive.

My family, friends and even some co-workers are trying to convince me to quit. I know that’s the right thing to do. If any of them were in my position, I’d tell them in no uncertain terms that it was time to move on. But I can’t seem to do it, despite feeling overqualified and stagnating in my current position, if not decaying. I’ve started filling out grad school applications only to leave them half-finished. I’ve idly looked for jobs online, but the activities I do after hours to keep me sane (writing/presenting papers for conferences, for instance, and running a Web site) are convenient excuses preventing me from conducting an intensive search.

Part of the trouble of being stuck in this job (or seeming to be stuck, or self-defeatingly sticking) is that the number of possibilities once I leave are daunting. Although I’ve considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember and know that I will be writing for the rest of my life no matter what else I end up doing, I’m an intelligent young woman with varied interests and the potential to succeed in just about any field I choose. I was an excellent student (straight A’s, double major, Phi Beta Kappa, the works) with one of those ludicrous laundry lists of extracurricular activities, an itch to stay busy and intellectually stimulated that hasn’t left me (hence the aforementioned projects and hobbies). I can think of a dozen careers and academic disciplines that I might enjoy. So I ask myself: Should I apply to grad school? In what subject? Move somewhere new? Take a new job? What kind? Where? Quit for a set period of time and write? Travel? And so forth. For months I’ve been caught in circular thinking patterns and a paradox of atheistic mortality: I only have one life and want to choose carefully, so I’m putting (too much) thought into the next step — yet it’s only one life, so why am I wasting time at a job that has nothing left to offer me? I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?

It also doesn’t help that I feel under a good deal of pressure to achieve something significant. Like anyone, I want to make a difference, create something I’m proud of (a book, I’ve always assumed), leave a legacy. At school I was part of a community where expectations for our futures were discussed on national or even global scales. Such ambition is pretty new for me, and it’s very stressful to be fueled by this desire to achieve without knowing where to direct it.

Almost everyone I’ve asked for advice has said I should “just choose,” “just take action,” that things will work themselves out, that I’m young and have lots of time, that people go through multiple career changes nowadays and you never know where you’ll end up. One perceptive friend pointed out that I don’t have as many choices as I might like to think, and that by the time I narrow down all these possibilities to realistic opportunities (e.g., getting accepted to particular programs or landing specific job offers), the choice among them will be easy. I know there isn’t one “right” path and that a job or degree doesn’t define me as a person. I just don’t know where or how to start. How do I overcome the inertia?

Paralyzed by Potential

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Dear Paralyzed,

I could give you a to-do list and some deadlines. Would you like that? OK. Sketch out three possible book ideas — one or two paragraphs for each book idea — and send them to me by April 1.

Identify five graduate programs you are interested in and rank them, with explanations. Send that to me by April 15.

Also, on the work front: First, back up your contention that there is no upward mobility at your present company by explaining why that is. Are you sure that your company isn’t going to expand in some way that might accommodate you? Then identify five other jobs you might get. Send that to me by April 30.

There. That should justify your existence to God for six weeks or so. Oh, but you don’t believe in God. Well, I kind of don’t either. It’s complicated, no? But we’ll get to that.

I’m serious, by the way. I mean to see if this works. If it does, I can say to readers, here is something you can do with your own friends: Give each other deadlines. Help each other when you are stuck! This is the action approach — the part of the action approach that is crucial. It is not enough to simply say, do something! One has to find out a way to make something happen.

People who say, “Relax, just pick one, you’ve got plenty of time,” may not remember 23 — may not remember just how important the world is at 23, how limitless is the horizon, how fresh is the air, how ready the mind, how spirited the walk, how eager one is to begin. At 23 I rode the hippie bus from Manhattan to San Francisco and ended up in a falling-down Victorian on Fulton and Baker one floor up from a deadhead with bad teeth named Sunshine.

I thought I had it made.

I note with interest this sentence: “I am terrified of death and recognize that refusing to move forward is like refusing to accept my mortality, but shouldn’t that very realization somehow enable me to overcome the problem?” If you think about it for a minute, you will realize the limited effectiveness of such insight. Recognizing you have a broken leg doesn’t cure it. It’s just the beginning of a process of understanding.

But my guess is it’s not really mortality that terrifies you. At 23, I thought I was terrified by death, but the actual things that terrified me were less impressive: failure, weakness, shame, appearing to be mediocre. I romanticized my fears. What I actually feared was not death, but the risks one takes in living.

It was fear of failure, and fear of being judged. It was fear of being mediocre, of joining the human race and being a worker among workers, of not being special, of turning out to have all the same problems and limitations as everyone else. To avoid facing those things, I avoided doing many things. I chickened out. I walked off the ice (I am still lacing up my skates on the sidelines, slowly watching the action out of the corner of my eye.)

So, using my experience as a guide (even though we are different in many ways), I would try to locate some fears closer to home. These actual fears may be harder to accept, though they sound less powerful: fear of choosing the wrong occupation, fear of not living up to your “potential,” fear of wasting these precious years, fear of not being as happy as you are right now.

I did have one thing at 23: I knew without a doubt that I wanted to be a writer. So, it seems, do you.

So why not just write the book? Wouldn’t that be enough right there?

That brings to mind another danger of believing the whole “You’ve got so much potential” thing: Actual accomplishments are much harder than they look. Not only does the world itself seem to resist our efforts to accomplish even the smallest objectives, but you will resist yourself; right now, theoretically, you could do a million things. But in reality you can’t even quit your job. That’s what I mean. Even easy things are hard to do.

So send me your assignments. And if this works, I will recommend that readers do this with each other. I already know that it works in many settings where one gets stuck. I hope it will work here.

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He does the dumbest things!

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Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 5, 2004

I thought my husband was stupid, but he’s just got attention deficit disorder.


Dear Cary,

I’m 40 years old, married for 19 years, with three boys ages 4, 8 and 14, who are constantly and completely amazing to me. I never finished college and I married at 21.

I suppose that it’s also no surprise that a marriage that starts out so young is a rocky one, but we had a real revelation this week. For the past two months I had secretly been thinking, “You know, maybe the problem is just that he’s stupid.”

He does the dumbest things and makes the most ridiculous choices again and again and seems unable to think with any kind of logic. If he tries to clean our garage — which is like a cross between a junkyard and a toxic waste dump — he might find the car buffer, which would lead him to immediately go wax his truck, which would lead him to look inside the truck and decide to clean out the truck, where he might find a bill that’s overdue and he’ll end up sitting at his desk writing a check, having long forgotten that he was cleaning out the garage. His office is chaos, his truck is chaos, his business is chaos, and our life is not chaos only because I exhaust myself doing everything alone.

I’d been entertaining the idea that he’s just stupid and selfish and lazy and inconsiderate and then I read a description of adults with ADD that said, “They’re not stupid and selfish and lazy and inconsiderate. They need help.”

He’s willing to pursue treatment, but as with other changes in his life, it did not originate within himself but with my handing him the article and saying, “Look, maybe this is the problem.”

I’m not bucking for sainthood here. I was preparing to return to school, get my degree, get myself situated, and then get the hell out. I’ve been offering for the last year the appealing proposal that we find a duplex and live as a post-nuclear family — eating dinner together and sharing the parenting — just not sharing the living space. I don’t want other men — after 19 years of this, all I can think is, it’s too hard to get rid of the one I’ve got so, why the hell would I want another one? And I really don’t care if he entertains strippers and hookers all night as long as the kids don’t know.

I never wanted to look my boys in the face and say, “Your dad isn’t here because I can’t live with him. I know it makes you miserable, but hey, I’m happy.” I didn’t want to be the quitter, the bad guy — unless I had some proof of appalling behavior to hold up to people. It’s hard to explain to someone that you’re leaving your husband because of the condition of the garage.

People love this guy. He’s gregarious and funny. I guess I love him. I just wish he lived somewhere else.

He said to me last night when discussing getting treatment, “Well, part of this effort is going to have to come from you.” What I wanted to say was, “Fuck off!” Why is it my job to be the strong one who picks everyone up? Why is it when I went through a major depression I had to figure it all out on my own and seek treatment on my own and basically be completely responsible for myself and now, when he needs help, “Well, part of this effort is going to have to come from you.” Yeah, I know. It is. It is.

I don’t want to be my parents, still complaining and whining about my spouse and my miserable marriage after 40 years. But I’m almost halfway there, and I’m still complaining and whining about my miserable marriage. Will I regret breaking up my family, or will I regret choosing to continue a life in which I’ve never been happy?

Terri

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Dear Terri,

I loved your letter. It is filled with bitter wit and acrid observation, and beneath that you obviously have a huge, huge heart.

Here’s what I think: I think you stay. I think you stay and see this through and look for ways to be happy within the world you have chosen. Within the world you have chosen, you do not have to whine and be miserable. You have these three children who are a great joy to you. And you have this man whom you do indeed love.

You do love this man but you’ve let him tax you to the limit. You need a vacation. You need a massage. You need a weekend at a spa. You need some flowers. You need a nice meal at a nice restaurant and to come home to find the garage cleaned out by your 14-year-old — with the help of the 8-year-old and maybe even the 4-year-old. You need everybody to pull together.

How do you get there? I’m not sure. But you have the three boys on your side, of that I am sure. And you obviously have a great deal of leverage. I’ll bet there are books on this. I’ll bet there are techniques you can use to unify your family, divide the labor, and get yourself some breathing room. Perhaps the duplex idea can work. At least it shows that you are being creative. If the duplex idea can’t work, you can devise other structures to insulate you from your husband’s crushing disorganization and lethargy while he struggles to overcome his ADD. The 4-year-old will be in school soon, and your options will widen as he gets older and more independent. Perhaps you can go back to school part time. And you can look forward to improvement in your husband. So you can have some hope.

If you can swing it, get some help into your life. Get some support from other over-stressed mothers. There’s a group for everybody, isn’t there?

The only thing I urge you to do is to try to stay together with your husband for the sake of the kids. I’m not morally or religiously against divorce, but my observation, and my own experience, is that it is often destabilizing to children in ways that we don’t fully understand and can’t fully cure. That’s a definite cost, and I think in many cases the cost is simply too high.

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If I could do it over …

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 17, 2003

I’ve been with one woman for my adult life, but now I feel closer to someone else.


Dear Cary,

I am a 42-year-old man married for six years; previous to marriage, my wife and I were together for 15 years. Do the math, and you’ll see that I’ve been with her all my adult life. She is 10 years older than I am, with a grown daughter; we have no children. The one certain fact is that we love each other very much, in the deep way that comes both from the many years together and the work we’ve done together to keep the relationship alive.

So here’s “but.” I have a woman friend of 10 years (call her J), to whom I’ve always been attracted. Years ago, I persuaded myself that it was primarily a physical attraction, and that intellectually and emotionally, my connection to my wife was stronger and more important than anything else. It doesn’t feel that way now. I can’t point to anything that’s changed lately; it’s just a growing feeling that J is the person I feel closer to, feel more at ease with, and want to be with all the time. Maybe it’s the fact that she is the opposite of my wife in some key areas: She’s independent, financially responsible, stays on an even keel emotionally, and does not use her keen intellect as a weapon. Somehow, this remarkable, wonderful woman can’t seem to find a permanent mate and is still single.

J is not perfect; I don’t have her on a pedestal. And none of this is new. When I was deciding to ask my wife to marry me, I went through a process of weighing pros and cons and the equation included my attraction to J. If I could do it over again, I would come to a different conclusion.

The path of least resistance is to maintain the status quo. Even after allowing a proper interval for the dust to settle, there’s no guarantee that I could ever be anything more than friends with J. Separating from my wife would have to be couched in terms of wanting to be single to find a new relationship that would make me happier and more fulfilled. Putting it in those terms would force me to tell a half-truth — I would have a hidden agenda, an unappealing prospect. I just feel stuck and would really appreciate some compassionate advice that you’re so good at dispensing.

Ponderously Pondering the Possibilities

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Dear Ponderously,

I have pondered this and here is how I see it: Right now you have two good relationships, one with your wife and one with your friend. Neither one is perfect, but they are both good and valuable. And each has the capacity to grow and change, to become better. So you are in a pretty good spot. If you separate from your wife, you lose one of those relationships right off the bat. So you are down to one relationship, the weaker of the two, a relationship that might be weakened still by your new single status. It might blossom, but you have no reason to believe it would. Keep in mind, your independent friend may value the fact that you are married; your status may in fact form a boundary that makes the friendship possible. So you are contemplating throwing away one good relationship and putting another at risk in the hope that you will become happier and more fulfilled.

If you want to become happier and more fulfilled, I think there are less destructive, less risky, and more innovative ways to go about it.

The question you need to ask, I think, is: How unhappy are you now with your marriage? Are you so unhappy that it would be better to be alone? It’s normal to be unhappy at times, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is making you unhappy while you are still in your routine, so it is common to say, Well, if only I weren’t married, maybe I wouldn’t be unhappy. If you simply need to be alone in order to have some peace of mind, perhaps you could go somewhere for a few weeks to get out of your daily marriage routine and try to re-inhabit some of your native contours.

I would try that, first. You seem to have good communication with your wife, so you could explain your need for some solitude to her. But perhaps there are other things you need to talk with her about. Perhaps you have been wounded in some way that you haven’t fully acknowledged; perhaps you are angry at your wife for something she did, but you aren’t coming clean about it. That may be the reason you find yourself drawn to this other woman, with whom you have a less difficult history. Think about it. Is there some way your wife hurt you that you would like to get back at her for? I don’t know for sure, but when you describe your friend’s best qualities, you contrast them with some traits of your wife. You mention that your wife uses her intellect as a weapon. Has she wounded you with her intellect in some way that you have yet to acknowledge? If I were you, I would look at that, and see if you can’t make peace with her.

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I’m hanging by my fingernails — but it feels good!

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Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, AUG 1, 2005

I’ve got this situation with my husband that’s really rough. Maybe I should move on?


Dear Cary –

My husband wants to go visit his lovers. And I’m strongly considering moving on.

My husband has been cultivating a relationship with two men, life partners in an open relationship, since about 1993. One of the two was his father’s lover, and quite frankly I have been motivated partially by some concern for what I perceive as the inappropriateness of that relationship. But as important, or more, I am dedicated to monogamy. I love my husband. We are compatible to a degree that is unusual, and remarked upon by others. I met him in 1997, and we were married in 1999.

The relationship has never been easy. My husband is an alcoholic, and the first three years of the relationship were characterized by sleepless nights and other such drama. On particularly wild evenings, I’d drag my unconscious husband inside the chain-link fence (we lived in a scary neighborhood, and I was afraid he’d get attacked otherwise) and leave him to sober up. This period culminated in a catastrophic accident (likely his fault), which left him with over $200,000 in hospital bills, unable to work for two years, and partially disabled to this day. I don’t want to whine, but I supported us through this period and likely always will earn more than he does by a factor of 10.

I have always held multiple-skilled jobs, and when I wanted something I couldn’t afford, I picked up additional work from waitressing to freelance gigs. He is now in college, which I pay for, and has become a licensed craftsman. He has gone to visit his lovers three times now, once when we were not committed to each other, once solo (when of course he had sex with them), and once, last Thanksgiving, with me. So, bringing us to the present, last night he told me that his lovers had asked him to come visit again and were offering him a plane ticket to do so. He claims this is not a sexual visit, but understands where I stand on the issue.

I spent last night without sleep in a diner, drinking coffee and eating bad food, unable and unwilling to share our bed with him. Because I am absolutely appalled and angry. But I am also looking to the future. I am thinking of a life without him, and thinking of what might be available to me.

My feelings are complicated. I am concerned for him, angry at being thrown over and lied to (because I don’t trust him not to have sex with them, and may never), and feel that this situation is patently unfair. For starters, I haven’t been able to take a real vacation in over a year. I have been sent for work to many vacation-worthy, places and I have gone to every single one of them alone because my husband was too busy to come with me. Lying on a pristine beach … alone. Eating sushi in San Francisco … alone. On a big game hunt … alone. I have two upcoming assignments which he won’t join me on, either. And he backed out of our mutual vacation this fall, which would be the first we’ve taken together outside the United States.

I have been a good girl. I am not old, ugly, or incapable of getting action. Indeed, I turn down people regularly who assume that I am single because they have never seen my husband. And because my primary job is, in essence, negotiating with wealthy people, I meet many cultured, genteel, wealthy, available men, some of whom are interested in me. Finally, I have devoted a significant portion of my paycheck to our home, and to my husband’s college, retirement fund, and healthcare. Because of poor planning on his part, I just donated part of my college fund (which I have been building up so I can return to college when he finishes) to him and last year donated additional money to the IRS. Frankly, though I worry about the effect that my leaving would have on him and on me, the persistence of this issue pisses me off. And I suspect I can do better.

I realize that any partner is challenging, and that any relationship would take effort. But I sometimes dream of being with someone who doesn’t toy with my emotions, truly values me above others, and can be my professional equal. Am I wrong to fantasize about alternative partners and what they might hold for me?

Wrong to Fantasize?

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Dear Wrong to Fantasize,

Here’s how your situation strikes me. It’s as though you had written to say, “Dear Cary, I have been hanging by my fingernails from the edge of a cliff for a few years now and, though it’s not really all that bad, as I have learned to kick my feet to frighten off the buzzards, nevertheless I have begun to wonder if I might be better off if I were to hoist myself back up on the ledge where I could sit comfortably and catch my breath. At least for a few minutes, or possibly an hour. Not that I would like to permanently reside on the ledge. I like hanging by my fingers from the edge of the cliff, and I’m good at it. But still, lately I’m beginning to wonder just how much longer I’ll be able to do this. I may eventually have to change positions not because I want to necessarily but simply because I run out of strength. What do you think?”

And of course what I think is, How did you decide to hang from the cliff by your fingernails in the first place, and why is it only now occurring to you to hoist yourself back on the ledge? Not that I don’t respect you for the talent and effort and sheer brute strength required to do what you’re doing. But to what practical purpose?

Maybe I’m going too fast here. To back up a little: No, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to fantasize about a better life. In fact, I think you should move on in your life and make things easier on yourself. But when and if you begin to take action in that regard, you may encounter upsetting emotions. So it wouldn’t hurt to think about how you ended up here, before you make any sudden moves.

Let’s just speculate. Why have you taken on so much? Maybe it feels more secure to hang from the cliff by your fingernails than to trust somebody to grab your wrist and pull you up. Have you ever been able to depend on other people in your life? Might it be that in your early life there was no one to depend on but yourself? And, not to be insulting, but we do tend sometimes to do things for symbolic reasons, as though we had an audience. Is your hanging by your fingernails a demonstration of some sort? If so, you might ask yourself why you need to demonstrate your strength, and to whom you are demonstrating it.

Wouldn’t it be great to just haul yourself over the ledge and relax, sit there for a while enjoying the view? Oh, look, there’s your husband, stumbling! Look out! Oh, no! He’s going to fall! You’d better run and help him!

What if you just let him fall … as a thought experiment? Why do you have to rescue him? I mean, who says so?

Speaking of your husband, that business with his father’s lover indicates that there may be a lot of pain and confusion in his life that he’s going to have to deal with himself. That’s another reason, in my book, to think about extricating yourself. Maybe it would be best if you work on your life for a while and he works on his.

I’m going to make another guess, which is that when you begin looking for patterns in the choices you have made, you may find a pattern of choosing weak people and not trusting them. There is a connection there: If you choose weak people, you don’t have to trust them. Conversely, having strong people around can be threatening: You may have to trust them; you may have to give up some control. Hanging from the cliff by your fingernails may be a lot of work, but at least you have control. Besides, the view is truly amazing!

But I really think someone ought to fly close by in a helicopter and put it to you over the loudspeaker: Hey! You! Hanging by your fingernails from the cliff! Get back on the ledge! Now!

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Did I luck out, or did I settle?

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My boyfriend is great, but I was never swept off my feet. What is this nagging feeling?

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, JAN 21, 2003

 


Dear Cary,

I’ve spent the past six years of my life with a wonderful man who is educated, caring, wonderfully attentive, incredibly expressive, and who happens to be a good fuck. I know of people who would be willing to settle with someone who possesses any one of his traits, but that seems to be what’s hounding me, that word “settle.” Years ago, before knowing this prince, I embarked on an infinite and fruitless number of dates with ogres, fiends, frogs and prince-posers. I met him in a period of my life where the prospect of spending my 30s as a dejected, jaded dog was slowly becoming a reality. I did not want to be that lonely man, the kind who spends just a tad too much time contemplating the latest selection of ice cream at Safeway. I wanted passion in my life. I needed stability. And when I met him, my dreams were fulfilled 50 percent.

My parents love my mate, and my nieces and nephews are crazy about him (they call him “uncle”). My friends all think that I am lucky to be with such a person (they’re all single), and when I broke off with him once, my father cried. It only took 12 hours for me to call my boyfriend back, begging for forgiveness and a second chance. Afterward, I felt like a lying schmuck, because what really guided my hand to dial the digits was not wanting to waste the three years we were together. And that I would be alone again in the world while someone else gets to have this wonderful guy.

He’s a psychotherapist by profession, and I know that I can talk to him about anything. Yet I dread having a talk with him since I’m not sure what outcome I’m hoping to come from it, or what I even want to talk about. When he cuddles me in his arm and kisses me tenderly I feel that I am home and secure as a bug. I’ve learned to adore him through all these years and I can picture myself being with him for the rest of my life. But that seems so final and long, and the thought that I was never really swept off my feet when I first met him haunts me daily. Sometimes I feel that maybe it’s me, that I wouldn’t know love if it tagged me on the forehead. Or if it sprouted slowly in my backyard. What do you think is wrong with me?

Kinda Confused

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Dear Kinda Confused,

What I think is wrong with you is that you think something is wrong with you. If something were truly wrong with you, you’d have bruises or burn scars and there would be a police report. You’d feel like killing yourself; you’d have no shoes; you’d be sleeping on a cot at the Salvation Army; you’d be penniless and on the street; your family would have deserted you or your lover would have betrayed you; you’d have a gun in your mouth, or you’d be in prison, or you’d have jumped out a window. You would not be hinting around that something might be wrong but you don’t know exactly what it might be.

You don’t have problems, so much as unanswerable questions. Why you weren’t swept off your feet is an unanswerable question. It’s not a dumb question; it’s understandable that you ask it. But there’s probably no concrete, complete answer, and, anyway, it doesn’t need to be answered in order for you to be happy. I think if you knew it was OK to not be swept off your feet, then you could just stop asking the question. So try replacing those doubts about why you were never swept off your feet with the affirmative knowledge that it is OK for your love to take the form it has taken.

I know it sounds a little trite; I wouldn’t say it except that the alternative is so destructive. What if you threw off what you have, tore asunder the fine bonds of family you have worked hard to form, dashed the hopes of the one who has been constant and true, and had a big garage sale? When you emerged no richer, no younger, no thinner, no better-looking and with quite a few dishes missing, would you have improved your chances of being swept off your feet by a new man with all the qualities of your current lover plus the added bonus of his off-the-feet-sweeping ability?

Not likely. In your mind there may be a storybook romance that you feel you could have if you only weren’t stuck in the romance you’re in. But the romance you’re in sounds remarkably lifelike. That makes it better than anything in a storybook, we being, after all, remarkably lifelike humans and not characters in a book.

You’re a lucky guy and you’ve got a good thing. Cherish it. If you really think about how good you’ve got it, you might jump for joy; you might even get carried away and sweep yourself off your own feet.

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Holiday nightmare: Here it comes again

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Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY,  DEC 4, 2011

How can I make this year’s gathering tolerable, at least?


Dear Cary,

So, this is a boring question but a timely one. It’s That Time of Year again, when the secular and religious Christians descend upon the homes of their relatives to give gifts no one wants or can afford, and to torment each other emotionally.  

I am dealing with the Ghost of Christmas Past That Won’t Go Away. My childhood was horrible. The holidays generally involved going to my paternal grandmother’s house for the obligatory exercise in guilt and the giving of gifts that no one ever liked and which were always wrong and not good enough. My family didn’t like me, and they had severe problems that I won’t go into, but suffice it to say that these gatherings were damning, draining, discouraging and demoralizing. So much so, that once I got into my 20s I quit talking to my relatives for seven years and moved 3,000 miles away. They were not invited to my wedding. They never met my children.

Anyway, my grandparents, uncles and father have long since died. I have abandoned any semblance of Christianity — no trees, no Easter eggs for me — and have instead become interested in the religious tradition of my mother’s family. I still have a cousin from my father’s side who lives about 40 minutes from me. Every year, she invites me and my husband and kids over to her place for Christmas Eve. She is one of those highly repressed, chronically nice yet inwardly seething people who always tries to do the right thing and resents the hell out of the world for not appreciating her, but she’s too polite to go on direct attack. I feel she wants to go through the motions of maintaining the myth of family connection, as if that group were less horrible than they really were. She’s a very nice, good person who has been generous with my kids, and is reliable. She’s done a lot of stuff for me over the years, but I never felt like it was for free, thus I don’t feel safe with her emotionally. It doesn’t feel like an emotionally honest relationship. There is a subtext, but I don’t know what it is.

None of us can afford to spend a lot of money on gifts. She can’t, and I can’t. Nobody can. But I am afraid that we will be invited, and my kids will want to go, and I will feel obligated to go over there, even though I am probably not wanted anyway, and we will all give in to the pressure to shop in order to go through the ritual of giving gifts nobody wants or needs.

What is the deal with the competitive gift-giving thing, anyway? In my family of origin, it was supposed to prove that people cared because they couldn’t express caring in any other way but through money or gifts. They couldn’t say anything nice, they couldn’t be affectionate or warm — they were all bundles of grudges, resentment, suspicion, insecurity and bitterness.

Miss Manners would be appalled, so I’m not asking her, I’m asking you: How can I get out of this event? Is there any nice way to say to my cousin, to acknowledge, that none of us can afford to go through this charade? And then just not do it? Because what I wish is that anything anyone would spend on me they would simply take for themselves and buy something they really want and enjoy rather than give me something I don’t need or want and resent me for it. Do you get that receiving anything from anyone in my extended family carries the burden of resentments and unmet needs and accusations? It’s a drag. Why do we keep doing it?

You may wonder why I don’t invite my cousin to my house, which could be an option if my place were not such a dump — broken plumbing, holes in the wall, non-working electricity, a neighborhood eyesore, broken oven, rotting doors, chunks of house falling off, etc. Far from the Better Homes & Gardens image our grandmother lived by. No dining room, no place to sit. I hate the Holiday Season and wish I didn’t have to do this stuff anymore. Frankly, it would not surprise me if she really doesn’t want to do it, either — but how to address the issue? Or just make other plans?

Dreading It

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Dear Dreading It,

Here we go again.

I was at Salon’s panel discussion last night about the meaning of the Occupy movement and, more broadly, this moment in our social and political history.

Every now and then what we all know and have been repressing becomes visible. Someone does something and it catches on and things change. It is hard to know when such a moment is at hand.

But certainly now is such a moment. The moment is at hand to make courageous changes both public and private.

It is especially hard to make changes in family practices when there is no larger context for them. One risks being labeled an eccentric or a troublemaker. But when a large social context appears — such as when the feminist movement happened, or during the era of civil rights protests — then individuals in families have an opening. It is as though taboos are lifted and people may speak. That is when we may make changes — particularly when everyone has known the change needed to be made but no one had the courage or the opportunity to speak up.

Your critique of how your family celebrates Christmas is nicely linked to the larger critique of our general economic arrangements. If we can speak of the unfairness of our current system, and its waste and destructiveness, we can also speak of the unfairness of our individual practices, and how wasteful they are. We can do this with a clear conscience. We can do it in context.

It is a time to make changes, some large, some small. These changes may be “political” in certain ways. But what is great about the current moment is that when “political” movements take hold they always touch individual lives in important ways.

One interesting thing about the panel discussion last night was that those of us who have lived through previous social and political movements were able to acknowledge what we learned from those past attempts to change our society. One thing we learned was that a nonhierarchical, consensus-based approach leads to a more durable — if messier — group process.

It was refreshing to consider afterward the wonderful benefits of just leveling with people, of just telling the truth and being heard.

So I hope that in some way this holiday season you can tell the truth to those who matter to you, and that you can be heard, and that you can be yourself and be loved for who you are. My guess is that you are indeed loved for who you are. My guess is that this relative of yours who has invited you over has a real appreciation for you. But, like you, she must struggle to find an “appropriate” way to put her appreciation into practice.

There are many dangers in trying to “fix your family”! But there are ways to simply be present in it, and there are ways to appreciate the flawed but sincere ways that people come together this time of year and try to share what is in their hearts. That is what many people are trying to do, however imperfectly they are doing it.

One idea that comes to mind is for you to give each person an envelope with a personal letter in it; make it a card, as a nod to holiday convention, but put a longer letter in it, too, telling that person the truth about your experience, and inviting that person to confide in you, if he or she wishes, about his or her real experience of the world and of your family.

This could be done quietly.

You might have to give these cards at the end, as you are leaving. Or you might write them in such a way that you are comfortable with each person reading what is in it. If you write what you truly believe and are comfortable with each person reading it — that is, if you refrain from slander and venting — then it might indeed be an empowering act by which you cease this compulsive and harmful thing everyone has been doing for years while acknowledging the universal drive to connect with others at this time of year and celebrate our humanity, such as it is.

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