I moved in with my daughter

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 27, 2011

Her husband died so I came to help. Now they act like I don’t exist


Dear Mr. Tennis,

I am a 65-year-old woman who has had a long and interesting life. During a particularly “interesting” time (think job loss, forced relocation, job search) I found myself estranged from my eldest child, a daughter 40 years of age, who had recently become part of a new family. Long story short, we didn’t speak much, if at all, for the next three or four years.

Sadly, this all changed when her husband, my new son-in-law, became ill with a terminal cancer. At her urgent request, I moved from my home on the West Coast to their home on the East Coast in order to help during his illness and subsequent passing.

When that sad time came, I realized my daughter couldn’t survive financially without my input, so I offered to stay with her until her daughter went into college (about five or six years) and she herself had been able to get a nursing degree. We share the expenses of the household and then spend our own money as we please. There hasn’t been any controversy about any of this.

My problem is that I am beginning to feel as if I am unwanted here. Neither my daughter nor granddaughter make any effort to speak to me if I enter a room, to bid me farewell as they go to work and school, nor to greet me when they return to the house. I am starting to find that if I don’t speak to them first, they don’t talk to me at all. They don’t invite me to go to dinner with them when they go out, nor am I invited to shopping expeditions, or school events, or anything. This makes me feel as if I’m not really a family member, but only a stranger who happens to be renting a room from them. I am asked to ferry the grandchild to and from school meetings and sports events, but that’s the only time the child speaks to me, when she wants a ride. I know that they may feel that they want time together, and I don’t necessarily want to go, but they could at least ask me.

Due to this move, I have sold or given away almost every possession I had accumulated to make a home for myself. I have kept only a few books, pieces of art, and clothing. I know I don’t have the “possessions” I’d need to furnish a new place for myself, but that can be remedied. I also know it would be impossible for my daughter to support herself and her daughter if I left, so I feel as if I’m trapped by this obligation.

I don’t feel comfortable talking about this to my daughter, as I think I may become too emotional, and she doesn’t like it when I do that. (That is what happened four years ago.) I don’t want to find myself ostracized in what should be my own home, and shunned like some stranger, but this is rapidly what is happening.

How can I make this work?

Shunned Mother

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Dear Shunned,

Would it be possible for you to arrange a little outing with your daughter and granddaughter, someplace quiet by the water, under some trees, where the three of you could relax and the granddaughter could play? If possible, make it a couple of days. Spend the night. Get lots of sleep. Don’t do much. Rest.

This will only be a start, of course. It is important to remember that your daughter and granddaughter are both reeling from this event. They have lost something big that they cannot replace. They are feeling things they cannot control or ignore. They need some convalescence. This is going to take a while. You’ve done a good thing by coming here. But they are wrapped up in their grief and fear and it is not going to be easy. They aren’t going to snap out of this right away.

While it must be painful to feel ignored like this, try to remember that you came to this household to be of service to your daughter. She has had a terrible loss. It would be great if she had better coping skills and better manners but, crushed with grief, some of us lose even the barest courtesy.

They must grieve. Given the harsh and hurried way we live in America, and perhaps more so on the East Coast than the West, grief is often cut short, and we see the distortion this causes in many ways. If we do not grieve — that is, if we do not actively and with some determination move through the experience of loss and allow the loss to take a roomy place within us — then our loss will set about to destroy us. It will work to bring us to our knees until we acknowledge it and do what is necessary. Depression is one way this happens. Drug abuse and suicidal behavior are others. It is possible that your daughter is moving through a period of depression. We can’t know, of course. But we can allow for the possibility.

Where does that leave you? That leaves you in the position of elder matriarch who has journeyed a long way to be of service. You have had a long life and you have learned a lot. One of the things you have learned is patience. You’ve committed to being in this household for five or six years. If you create certain roles for yourself now, you may find that your daughter and your granddaughter slowly move into the shade of your presence.

You can be a refuge for the granddaughter, like a shade tree. She may take some time to see what you offer. Right now she is struggling just to follow her daily routine. It must be terrible, the way students are rushed through life, to have something like a father’s death to carry around. If you create spaces in which she can find what she needs, it’s possible she will respond. That’s why I am suggesting that you create this pastoral, serene setting where the three of you can go and heal. There are other similar things you can do. I’m thinking, prepare the setting and let this grief-stricken woman and girl move into those settings. Not much needs to be said. It’s not a talking, analysis kind of thing. You may not be thanked for it. But if you pay attention, you will notice that you are providing a space in which they can soften into their grief.

If you like to control things and come up with great new ideas that will fix everything, like I do, and if you find it hard to sit still when others don’t immediately see the brilliance of your many schemes and offerings, then you may have some difficulty just quietly giving, and creating serene, healing settings, without expectation of return. So consider that you will indeed get a return: Your return is in the fulfillment of your role as matriarch and elder. Your return will be private.

Overall, what I am suggesting is that you take some time to meditate on the gravity and duration of the situation and on your exalted but unrecompensed role. What you do now may become one of the crowning achievements of your life as a mother and now grandmother. If you summon all you have learned in your long and eventful life, you can get through this and emerge with some satisfaction and a serene sense of completion.

It won’t be easy. You’ll be taking some hits. But you can consider this the answering of a certain destiny.

It is only one destiny. It is demanding, but it need not be final. When you are done here — and you will be done here — there should be a long and sunny vacation awaiting you.

Once the kids are gone, I don’t want them coming back

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 4, 2005

My wife says returning home after college is the new normal — but if they return, I may have to leave.


Dear Cary,

I am 46 and the father of two children, ages 16 and 20 (juniors in college and high school, respectively). My wife and I married very young, had our kids a little earlier than expected, embraced it and made what we felt was the difficult, correct choice of being a single-income family with a full-time mom. I would describe my attitude for many years as that of a doting father and believe that we have given unstintingly, and literally planned out our lives so that our children would have some very nice opportunities. We managed to pay off our home and to pay for a master’s degree for my wife so that, at such time as our eldest was ready to go to college, we could afford to pay for a good school. Which we did; we both have very good jobs and are able to pay tuition out of our yearly income. We have lived below our means for a very long time to do so and generally have not lived what anyone would term a lavish life.

Since she reached age 16 or so, I have really ceased to have a relationship with my oldest daughter. There was never any open break especially: I understand that girls do “outgrow their fathers,” and I accepted the role as an ever-present nonentity and occasional manservant. My wife is a little closer to our girls (the youngest is now 16). I have not especially enjoyed the teen years, to be honest: Again, we have not descended to a level of screaming and open rebellion, but the process of being a doormat to unappreciative family members was not big fun. My children are not psychotic, just run-of-the-mill, somewhat overindulged kids with no appreciation or notable efforts at simple courtesy toward their parents. Normal, in a word.

So what is the problem? It seems that many of my wife’s friends have children who have gotten their rather expensive degrees and simply come back home again to live, sans employment. We have a nephew who attended an extremely expensive big-name school who is now back in the nest, making plans for launching his own company, never having had paid employment anywhere to date.
My wife is convinced that this is the new normal: Kids go off to college and then return home to resume a lifestyle more suited to high schoolers, and she appears to be willing to go along without qualms. My problem is that I am really not interested in the prospect of providing room and board to a college graduate in 18 months’ time: I am perfectly willing to provide financial assistance so that she can start her life elsewhere, but I already feel enormous tension whenever she is under my roof during school holidays.
I’ve had enough: I did everything that I was supposed to do and more, and am not willing to endure Round 2. My wife and I have spoken around this a few times without ever quite getting it out. The point is that, barring some illness or other catastrophic event, I expect my children to assume the burden of their own lives soon after graduation and do not want them to regress to an earlier age. Frankly, if such an arrangement were forced on me for any length of time, I do not think that I would stay in the household.

Do you have any thoughts, Cary? It would not feel good to insist that my wife choose her loyalty to me as opposed to our children, but we have put our own lives on hold long enough. Ultimately I feel that an ultimatum by me — me or them — would not necessarily bring the answer that I would choose, but I know that the alternative is not something that I can put up with. Help!

Wannabe Empty Nester

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Dear Wannabe,

In any household, it seems to me, each contributing member ought to have some kind of veto power over choices that would make them so uncomfortable that they would consider moving out. So I sympathize with you. It seems to me that unless both you and your wife want to have your daughter move back in after college you should be able to say no.

For your next order of business I suggest you do what you’ve been putting off: Talk this over seriously with your wife. You say she appears to have no qualms about your daughter moving back home, and that you have talked around this question a few times. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding it because you believe it will lead to an unpleasant fight. Quite possibly, if you tell her you just can’t wait to be rid of the kids, and if your daughter moves back in you’re moving out, it will indeed lead to an unpleasant fight. But if you tell her that what you really want, and what you’ve wanted for some time, is to have your marriage and your romance back, to have her back, to have your life back, she may feel differently about that. She may be pleasantly surprised. She may have no idea how tough it has been for you, if you have been quietly enduring for all these years. And it may not have occurred to her that your marriage might actually get much better with the kids permanently out of the house. So put it in terms that will make sense to her, where she has something to gain. Don’t give her the ultimatum. Just tell her what you want and how much you want it. And give her something to look forward to: A new, happier, more refreshed you, among other things.

Ask for the sale. Let her think about it. Don’t push too hard. Give it time to sink in.

Of course, first of all, your daughter may not want to move back in. She may have other plans. Your wife may miss her and hope that she wants to return home, and that may be why she has been trying to prepare the ideological ground for such an event, by arguing that this is the new normal. She probably misses her daughter more than you do, and misses playing the role of mother more than you do the role of father. So if you can think of ways to meet your wife’s needs without having your daughter live with you, you may stand a better chance of getting what you want. For instance, if your daughter could live nearby, that might be a compromise that would make your wife happy. Perhaps you could take steps to make that happen — by aiding her in finding a job and an apartment, for instance.
You did what you were required to do. There was an implicit contract involved. You agreed to care for these kids while they were kids, and prepare them to go out into the world and take care of themselves. You did that admirably. Now it’s time for them to fulfill their end of the contract, and it seems right that they should live up to their end.

Aside from the contractual aspect, however, I imagine there is a powerful emotional pull as well. Being completely free of fatherly responsibilities must be a very seductive notion. But some continued support is probably inevitable, perhaps in the form of occasional favors rather than formal financial commitments. And there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re her father, after all. But I think your desire to have her out of the house is perfectly reasonable, and I hope your wife can grant you this. It seems to me, after all you’ve done, that you deserve a break.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

My brother left his girlfriend with a 5-month-old baby

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, AUG 30, 2007

They thought the baby would fix things, but he didn’t, so the dad split. Does that mean he’s no good?


Dear Cary,

Early this year, one of the greatest bright spots in my life occurred: I became an uncle. After 10 years of bleak family moments, we all finally had a moment of renewal. My older brother called me (I’m an expat and haven’t actually seen the munchkin) ’round about 4 a.m. EST: “God, he’s beautiful.”

Four months later my brother split with my sister-in-law. They were effectively, though never officially, married — 15 years together, since high school. OK bro, you had a son and split with your girl four months later. As he put it to me on the phone, “There’s no way people aren’t going to think I’m an asshole.” Right: People are going to think you’re an asshole. And the thing is, Cary, I sort of think he’s an asshole too, and I’m wondering whether I should.

To be clear, there was no plan on my brother’s part to run when a child appeared, and he’s determined to be there in general. He loves his boy and loves the woman in question, but is no longer in love. The breakup was apparently mutually agreed upon and (more or less) without rancor. They went through what I suspect is very common: There were problems in the relationship and when the pregnancy occurred, they thought a baby would solve those problems. They didn’t plan it, but neither of them agrees with abortion, and they thought, “Well, this will bring us closer together.” It didn’t work, apparently — the baby made it more clear that they were not compatible.

Fine.

But my brother is leaving this woman with a 5-month-old child. Having never actually had a sister, she’s the only person I’ll call sister. She’s intelligent, attractive and a good time out. I love her dearly. But now she’s an early-30s single mom and her life prospects just took a serious nosedive — because of my brother.

A central principle of modern Western life is that you ought to do what you think is self-sensible in relationships. Be yourself, right? “Staying together for the kids” is not sensible — for you or for the kids. But maybe sometimes you should hang in a little longer than you want to. Maybe my brother should stick in living as a family for, say, two years, if only to help the mother during the most tiresome times. Maybe sometimes, “staying together for the kids” makes a little sense.

He and I have been through a lot together — watching a father kill himself with alcohol. “I will not be that man and that includes not being trapped in a relationship I don’t want” is a guiding principle for both of us. I understand that motive and I agree that an unhappy marriage is worse than a divorce. But fuck, divorcing when you have an infant? Is my brother an asshole?

TM

Dear TM,

OK, let’s call your brother an asshole. What difference does it make what you call him? You love him, right? He’s your brother. You’ve been through a lot. You’ve probably sat up together nights worrying about your dad, and would he make it, and why’d he do what he did, and wouldn’t it have been better if he had been able to stop drinking. And there were probably times you thought this time he was really going to stop, and he got your hopes up, and then he blew it again and again until you really thought you couldn’t take it anymore, and then when you’d lost all sympathy for him he got gravely ill, and then what can you do, you can’t call a gravely ill man an asshole, so you had to have sympathy for him at the end and watch him die with a sickening blend of rage and love and helplessness, asking why did he have to die like that when there was help available, when there were people who loved him who were willing to do anything for him if he would just stop drinking.

So you and your brother are bonded in the deepest possible way by watching your father drink himself to death. And as brothers I imagine you cut each other a lot of slack, because you both know the deep wounds that that event left in you. And you are both committed to not making the same mistake your dad made, and to not being victims, and to not being unhappy. And all that makes sense. And none of us can judge what kind of personal hell your brother lives in as a result of trying to be a good man but being prone to the demons just like your dad was and maybe just like you are as well. We’ve all got demons and we do the best we can and sometimes we really fuck up and we’re assholes. And who can know what we’re going through, how hard it is, how many times we’ve pounded the wall with our fist or buried our face in a pillow at night. He’s your brother, so you also know he didn’t do this to harm people. He’s your brother, so you may know that he’s selfish and has trouble seeing the big picture, and maybe he doesn’t have such great impulse control and maybe he’s prone to fits of moodiness and helplessness and hopelessness, and maybe he’s also a bit of a dreamer and a charmer and has an outsize genius for a good time, and maybe he wants more out of life than a 9-to-5 job with healthcare and benefits like your dad had, because look what good that did, and look what good it did your mom to stay in a relationship that gave her nothing but crying time, so he’s not going to stop pulling the lever on the slot machine because you never know, a happy life has got to be possible.

So even though it’s about the dumbest, most assholic thing to do to leave your lover with an infant child after 15 years of implied common-law till-death-do-us-part, that’s what he did, knowing full well he’d be called an asshole for it. So let’s go ahead and call him an asshole and get that over with because there’s work to be done. There’s a kid who doesn’t know about any of this; he just knows he’s alive and he’s hungry and he needs to know that the world isn’t going to come crashing down around his head every 15 minutes when another of the “adults” around him gets it into his head to seek his bliss in Idaho.

So what do we do? And how do we do it?

Kids can grow up well under all kinds of circumstances. It’s about how you treat the kid and who the kid is. The last thing you want to do is tell this kid his dad’s an asshole. So let’s just pretend that everything we’re saying the kid is hearing. Now who is his daddy and why did he leave? He left because he had to. We don’t know why. He had to go do something really important, and he loves us and cares about us but he couldn’t live with us because he had to do something. And we love him and he’s a good man and he loves us and that’s just the way it is, because we don’t understand everything even though we’re adults and maybe it seems like we do. We don’t. We don’t really understand even how an electronic ignition works, or why sometimes you get “404? errors. We don’t know why some toys are lame and others are your favorite. We don’t know why some kids are bad and some kids are good. We don’t know much, except we love you and things are going to be OK.

Something like that. You get what I’m saying? I’m saying get real and painfully honest but don’t fill the kid’s head full of hateful garbage.

And beware of this, too: Intense disapprobation can be an intoxicant. You can get high calling people assholes, that is. You can get high and feel powerful talking trash. That’s one reason we do it. It makes us feel better. But that doesn’t make it useful or productive. Except for getting stuff off your chest and moving on. So yeah, maybe your brother is an asshole. Now help me move this crib.

Like I said, the important thing is, How can the people around this child help the child, and help the child’s mother?

One thing you could do, like you said, is urge your brother to stick around for a while in some capacity. Maybe not living in the same house with them, but nearby. Urge him to get a job and make some money and contribute to the well-being of his child and the child’s mother. And other people can help too. It doesn’t have to be a formal arrangement. People just need to be there and help out. And your brother can leave his new girlfriend at home when he visits, and if he doesn’t have enough sense to do that on his own, you can tell him, gently, that he’s being an asshole again, and to leave the girlfriend at home. And when he comes over he can bring something for the boy. And the boy’s mom can welcome him as if he’s someone she likes, not as if he’s the shit-head asshole who left his infant child for reasons typically unfathomable and unforgivable.

I mean, we’re going to have these rotten thoughts when people do rotten things. But we’re going to try to do what’s right anyway. We’re going to try to be the adults in the situation, now and for the next 20 years.

My husband is a high-achieving alcoholic, seven years sober Should we finally tell the kids?

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, DEC 9, 2005


Dear Cary,

When our two boys were small children, my husband was a very high-achieving alcoholic. He never lost his job, he never verbally or physically abused either the kids or me, he remained a good father, and he never alienated his friends or family. Indeed, to this day, no one other than me (and his treatment group participants and counselors) know about his alcohol abuse. He did, however, almost die from alcohol. He attempted to stop drinking without medical intervention and suffered seizures and other life-threatening complications. As a result of this event, he got into a treatment program that worked for him (at least to date). After several years of drinking at least a fifth every day, he has not had a drink in about seven years. At his insistence, we have never told our kids or families about his alcoholism.

The problem is that our boys are no longer young kids — one is in high school and one in middle school. From our counseling and my experiences with him, I am completely convinced that the brains of some people are hard-wired to abuse alcohol and/or drugs and some are not. I know that I can drink one glass of wine at dinner (I haven’t in seven years) and have no desire for a second, while he simply cannot start drinking without continuing to drink. Consequently, I believe that it is very important for our teenage boys to understand that given their genetic makeup, they need to be particularly sensitive to the impact of alcohol on them. I also want them to understand that we, as parents, do have experience with alcoholism, and that if they ever find themselves with an alcohol issue, we will be able to understand and help them. Since we, as parents, now never drink and seldom put ourselves in social situations where alcohol is present, I worry that our children will perceive that we would never be able to understand or help them with alcohol issues (even though I talk to them about such issues regularly).

In short, I want my husband to talk with them about his alcoholism in an age-appropriate way. He, however, is too ashamed to engage in such a discussion and does not want me to tell them (which I completely understand). I’m wondering if I should push the issue (our older boy just turned 16), or just let it drop as I have in the past.

Just Curious

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Dear Just Curious,

You ask a difficult question. I personally have pretty clear feelings about what to do.

I would tell the older boy. Then I would tell the younger boy as well, so that the older boy is not burdened with knowledge that he must either tell, imperfectly, or keep secret.

But I’m just one person — a person, moreover, with my own history of alcoholism that I’m quite candid about. I respect your husband’s desire to keep this matter private. That’s his choice.

I don’t believe there is a direct link between what you choose to tell your children and whether they develop alcoholism. You may tell them or not tell them. They may or may not develop problems with alcohol. The two are not causally related. As I understand the current science, there are indicators and apparent predispositions toward alcoholism, and there are traits associated with it, but there is no one certain cause or one certain measure of prevention.

If you tell them, they will probably experiment anyway. They might react abnormally to the first drink, or they might not. Knowing the history might act as a deterrent. Or it might not. Knowing that their dad beat it might embolden them. You can’t tell with kids.

It’s natural to want to talk about it. And it’s true that you have valuable, firsthand experience to impart. But as a former young person with an alcohol problem I can testify that young people with alcohol problems tend to be unreceptive to parental advice. That’s part of the syndrome.

All this leads us into contradiction and uncertainty. So for me, the question of what to tell the children is more a question about truth telling and the keeping of secrets in a family than it is about alcoholism prevention. It’s about what you believe you can control, about what is sacred, what is shameful, what is safe and what is toxic.

If my math is correct, the children were around the ages of 9 and 6 when your husband stopped drinking, meaning they undoubtedly witnessed him drunk, with that glassy stare, the slurred speech, the smell. So, apart from whether it’s going to prevent them from becoming little alcoholics or not, the information might have the effect of bringing a little sense to their world: Aha, now I understand this memory of my father falling asleep at the table, or being too “tired” to go upstairs.

If you love the truth and you believe that the truth can be life’s most powerful ally against insanity, depression, self-hatred and the like, then you may feel a strong urge to air the truth. On the other hand, perhaps you also know the powerful effect of a shameful fact revealed. Perhaps you know that sometimes children need to believe their parents are infallible, and you marvel at how certain truths, once revealed, never go back in the bottle: How could he have been a drunk? What if he should slip? What else don’t we know? Was he unfaithful to Mom? Are we sure we’re his kids?

I wonder how your husband’s attitude toward his alcoholism plays into this. Does he feel that his alcoholism is his fault? If so, perhaps he is still tormented by it in a way that he needn’t be. In fact, you might consider the possibility that it is necessary to be free from it psychologically and morally in order to be free from it medically. That is, shame, guilt and the keeping of secrets are part of the syndrome of addiction. You can easily see how this works: One stops the substance but retains the habits of mind. The habits of mind lead eventually back to the substance. So you have to change the habits of mind. One way to do that is to tell the truth.

But perhaps your husband is not burdened with shame at all. Perhaps he is simply making a very grown-up attempt at harm reduction. As I said, it’s a tough call. I know what I would do. But it’s a decision you and he must make.

Just to be clear: Inasmuch as it involves the well-being of the children, I think it’s a decision you as parents need to make together. But inasmuch as it involves your husband’s personal struggle with alcoholism, I think it is his decision alone how much to reveal. I’m not sure how to reconcile those two domains. But that is marriage.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Is my son gay?

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

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

Can you give me any guidance?

Stymied

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Dear Stymied,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Somebody sent child protective services to my house!

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, NOV 30, 2007

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


Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty Good Mom

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Dear Pretty Good Mom,

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

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

I couldn’t live in a town like that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d tell them my story.

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

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

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

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

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My boyfriend wants me to move, my daughter wants me to stay

Should I pick up and move four hours away to be with the man I love?

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 19, 2007

Dear Cary,

I have to make a decision and I need your help. Decisions have never been my forte, but for the past 11 years I’ve been able to make them pretty well because I had a kid. When you have a kid you make decisions that will help the kid. As much as possible. So I went back to school to be able to get a job with health insurance, eventually left my addicted husband, and was able to finish up another degree that was closer to my heart (and less practical) because I wanted to show her that you could “follow your dreams” and because I could be there some afternoons when she got out of school.

She’s 11 now. And much to my surprise/ dismay/ excitement I’ve fallen in love with a man who lives in a city about four hours from here. We’ve been seeing each other about two years. He lives in the big city, expensive, scary, invigorating. I see him every other weekend (I go down there) when my daughter goes to her dad’s. (The addiction isn’t something that will harm her physically unless he steals her allowance.)

However, this man I love doesn’t want a long-distance relationship anymore. Well, he never did. He wants me down there now. And if I don’t go down there now (or soon) he wants to see other people. And if he sees other people, I have to stop sleeping with him because I really suck at that sharing, multiple-lovers thing. Plus there are diseases. And I get jealous, paranoid and permanently sad.

He’s got a steady job (yippee!), he’s a good guy (I think, sometimes my judgment isn’t the best), and we have great, awesome, amazing sex. We talk about anything and everything. Practically every day. If I go down there this is what he’s willing to do: He’s willing to help me pay for an apartment. And if I don’t get a job with health insurance he thinks he can put us on his plan. OK, so this isn’t marriage, but I don’t know if either of us is ready for marriage again.

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So what am I waiting for?

1) He has faults! He’s a neat freak, controlling of his environment and occasionally gets mad. OK, that’s not the real problem. The real problem is that he and my daughter don’t get along. He has never had kids. She has never had to share me with anyone (her dad got addicted soon after she was born). He’s controlling. She’s messy. He’s a snob. She likes pop culture. He’s a serious working artist. She’s a kid. He’s never had to put his needs aside for a kid. She’s never had to put her needs aside for a person she isn’t related to.

2) If I even mention the possibility of moving, my daughter bursts into those sobbing, horrible tears that kids have when their lives are about to be torn into pieces and their parents are ruining everything. Her best friend’s life would be ripped apart right at the tender age of 12. Our cat wouldn’t be able to go outside. I’d have to find a new dentist and doctor, and change the address on all my checks.

3) The big bad city is expensive. I live in a town that is cheap. This semester I am working three jobs and making it — but how can I live in the city with a kid, being a single parent and all? I’m not the best moneymaker in the world, although I’m trying hard. And what about the schools? How the hell can we navigate that labyrinthine system? And what if she gets mugged in the subway?

4) Her dad. Not the best parent in the world, but still, he’s her dad. We’d work out some alternative agreement for custody probably; however, it wouldn’t be every other weekend. He wouldn’t come to see her school plays — that is, if schools have plays down there (and textbooks, and windows).

5) If I don’t move there’s a chance that I can work my life a little differently. It has been a hard 11 years. I’m tired. I’ve got a chance to work less than I do now, starting this summer. I would be able to be there a little bit more for my daughter, but I could also work on my other love, writing. I’ve got stuff started — it’s just been hell trying to get the time to finish. Writing was my second degree and my “follow your dream” idiocy. I love it. I miss it. I desperately want to see if I can actually do it.

Is that pitiful? I can’t tell anymore.

We talked about our impasse this weekend. I asked for another year, so that I can take advantage of this possible job situation, and he said fine, but he wants to see other people.

If he starts seeing other women I have no doubt that he’ll be snapped up in no time. He’s cute, fun, smart and neurotic, living in a city filled with cute, smart, fun women who are attracted to neurotics, don’t have children, and have big expensive breasts. Shaved legs. Money. No obligations. “Sex and the City” and all that.

As I said, I think I really love him, for what that is worth. I’m just not sure what that’s worth anymore.

I want to know what the right decision is. How do you know that? I thought my marriage was something that would last for a long time — that it was Right, with a capital R. That love conquered all. That my husband would never lie to me. That I would never fail him. But he did lie, and I failed him in some essential way. People do shitty things to each other. Look at your mail. Affairs. Addictions. Betrayal.

Is love worth it? Or should I just resign myself to going to the movies alone on Saturday night, watching everyone else snuggle and share popcorn? I’m tired of being alone and I’m scared to be with someone. I don’t want to ruin my daughter’s life. I don’t want to ruin my life. I want him to wait for me. I want him to want me enough that this situation is OK with him. But it isn’t. He has needs. I have practical responsibilities and obligations that shape my life in a serious way. I love him. I love my daughter. I’m driving myself insane.

Sorry to go on. You better go get some coffee or Xanax or whatever you take to get through your mail. Thanks for listening.

Now, please tell me what to do.

Stuck, Trapped and Insane

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Dear Stuck, Trapped and Insane,

Stay right there. Don’t make a move.

You are so close to having things right. And you are so close to blowing it.

I wish I could jump in my truck and drive out there and talk you down.

I am so glad that you wrote, so at least I can say, I’m envisioning a life for you where you stay put and enroll in a class and start doing regular writing assignments and start to feel the salutary effect of a regular regimen, and where things slowly start to come together and get a little easier and your daughter blossoms into this amazing person and you carve out the time you need because you know the terrain and you have control over it and it’s your turf, and bit by bit the boyfriend issue works itself out, either because he does go away finally and it is sad but you are in a good place to handle it, or maybe he sees that if he wants more of you he will have to drive up there sometimes and see you, but you do not sacrifice your own life for something as uncertain as a neurotic artist living the complex life of a neurotic artist in the city.

So you mentioned “Sex and the City.” Do you remember when Carrie Bradshaw followed her glamorous boyfriend Aleksandr Petrovsky, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov, to Paris? Remember what a bad time she had, how when she joined the artist on his turf he had no time for her? Remember how heartbreaking that was?

So stay where you are. Enjoy your daughter’s happiness, which will be amazing but fleeting. Write. Take a class that requires you to find the time. If you have a deadline you will find the time. That is what I did today — I am actually a student of writing as well as a practitioner now, and I had a deadline today. I had to give something to my teacher. So I did it. I found the time. That’s how we do it.

Why do I feel so strongly about this? That is what I am asking myself now. OK, here is why — and if this is my personal bias then this is my personal bias: I identify with your daughter. I identify with her because I so did not want my parents to move just when at the age of 11 I was getting a foothold, when I was finally developing a sense of myself in the world, some mastery of the neighborhood and of the school, some friends, some continuity, some reasonable ability to plan and see a future and a network of adult teachers upon whom perhaps I could call for guidance, and a strong interest in science … but they moved. And I was a lost kid and so then began all the acting out and now years later I’m still working to undo it.

So, yeah, OK, I’m taking your daughter’s side. But not just that: I’m taking your side, too. Because if you move you are uprooting yourself.

Oh, man. You have a chance here to do the right thing is what I’m saying! You can do your writing and you can keep things stable and sweet and down to earth and I know that is the right thing. I can feel it in your letter.

Besides, you aren’t itching to move. That’s the thing that gets me most of all: You are sad about the prospect of losing this man but you do not want to move. Why can’t he move? He’s got no kid. If he wants to be around you all the time why can’t he move?

Why? Because he has his life in the city. He has his life in the city. Doesn’t that tell you something? It tells me something: If you move to be with him you’re going to be fitting into his life and when you don’t fit perfectly into his life there’s going to be trouble. You will have uprooted your daughter, given up your jobs and your residence, disrupted the joint custody arrangements with your ex, and abandoned your support network. You will be somewhat dependent upon him.

Don’t do it. Stay where you are.

And how to handle the man? Here is how I suggest you handle the man. Tell him you’re not going to move. Concerning his desire to see other people: Tell him that if he is going to see other people you don’t want to hear anything about it ever. No talking about the other people. None.

That doesn’t mean you’re agreeing to stay with him. If you’re not comfortable even knowing that he is seeing other people, maybe you decide to end it. But just tell him, now, to protect yourself, no matter what else happens: No talking about other people. Because you already know you can’t handle that. Don’t get into it with him. Decide on your own. If that’s where he’s going, and you can’t handle it, then end it. But don’t allow yourself to be negotiated out of the good life you already have.

Live your good life. Take care of your daughter. Write. Work less. Enjoy the sun. Sleep well at night. Invite the boyfriend up if you like. Or say a sad goodbye. But cherish your life. It will be OK.

Write for Advice

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I seem to be moving in with my boyfriend — but why?!

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Cary’s classic column from

His 9-year-old has Tourette’s and ADHD, and I’m still a student … is this a good idea?


Hello,

I’m a 23-year-old student and I am moving in with my boyfriend (29) and his son (9) this week. I’ve realized as the date draws nearer that my ambivalence about this situation is much deeper than I thought.

Let me tell you first about the kid: He’s very sweet, very bright, but he is by no means an easy child to take care of. He has Tourette’s and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which although well medicated cause him to have more trouble listening and following directions than even the average 9-year-old. And although I have never witnessed one firsthand, he has had a few pretty violent temper tantrums — throwing and breaking things, biting and hitting his dad, etc. Also, his mom is not in the picture. She had him when she was 16, and when he was 3 didn’t show up for a visit. She’s been out of the picture since and has expressed no desire to be back in, although her parental rights are still intact. The fact that she is gone is probably for the best, since she didn’t take good care of him during her time with him when he was little.

Anyway, my main concerns are as follows: school, my relationship with the kid and my social life. Although my boyfriend has assured me that he won’t ask me to give up studying to take care of the kid, I’m still worried that my grades will slip given the decreased amount of time I’ll have on weekends; also, the guy will have a very high-powered and demanding job, and I can’t help but suspect that his promise is hyperbole. I’m worried also that I won’t have the patience for it — when I get home from a long day of class and work I would much rather take a nap, go to the gym, watch TV, smoke a bowl or have a beer, not play Scrabble with a kid who has a penchant for peeking at my letters or make a dinner that will probably get less-than-stellar reviews if it’s not mac and cheese from a box. (Cooking is the other thing — I learned to cook from a chef, I love cooking and experimenting with food, and I’m dreading having to accommodate the child’s picky eating habits. I’m experimenting with ways to expand his culinary horizons, but it won’t be easy.) I’m worried that I’ll get territorial and that I just won’t have the patience or the selflessness to help care for him properly.

My social life is the other concern. None of my friends have kids, nor do any of their significant others. I know I won’t be able to go out as much as I’d like anymore, and that I’ll have to spend a few Friday nights watching the house while my boyfriend sees his friends. His parents and my parents both live in town, so we may have some willing weekend baby sitters. And we both have friends who are willing to watch him, but no matter how much people help the presence of a kid will still crimp my style. This is anticipated, but also not something I’m particularly excited about.

And, hell, I just can’t believe I’m even dealing with this right now. Being a young parent was never something on my to-do list, and I’ve worked since I became sexually active to eliminate my risk of having kids, even having an abortion when I was 18. While I love my boyfriend, I resent him for not wrapping it up all those years ago and for not exercising more discretion in his partners. I know it’s wrong to hold mistakes against someone for the rest of their life, but this particular mistake is now impacting my life, and no matter how much the boyfriend has cleaned up his act — he graduated from law school a year ago — it doesn’t really help with my dilemma.

The books I’ve skimmed about dating men with kids assume that the children are the result of a terminated marriage and hence that there’s a mother in the picture; they don’t discuss how to achieve the right balance of distance and friendliness in the girlfriend-kid relationship. They assume that their audience is middle-aged, has long since finished school and is by and large done being young. There is no good advice for my situation that I’ve been able to find; what’s yours?

Soon to Be Too-Soon Domesticated

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Dear Soon to Be Too-Soon Domesticated,

My advice is: Don’t do it.

You’ve presented it as a deal that has already been done, but I don’t see why it has to be done. I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t see a cogent argument for doing this. It doesn’t make sense.

Since it doesn’t make sense, one starts to wonder why you decided to do it.

You do say that you don’t believe your boyfriend is going to hold up his end of the bargain. You also say he just graduated from law school. What do lawyers study? They study how to argue. They study how to persuade. So my guess is that he talked you into it. It serves his interest, not yours.

It’s possible you didn’t really think this thing through. You’re just starting to do that now. So before you go to all the trouble of moving, see if you can’t delay it. Cancel the move. Wait a year or two. See how things play out. Renegotiate.

Everything you say about yourself — your preferences, your prior decisions, your situation in life — everything says that you need control over your time and an unencumbered living situation. You don’t need this responsibility, nor are you suited for it. It sounds like a bad deal all around. So I urge you to renegotiate. You are not the right person to bring in to mother this kid. Chances are, if you move in, it’s going to put such a strain on your relationship with your boyfriend that you two will break up. And it won’t be doing the kid any favors. If the kid needs support, he needs trained, professional support.

Again, that’s my take: Cancel. Renegotiate. Delay. Look for other options.

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Allergies can be deadly

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Cary’s classic column from Aug 24, 2004

My husband keeps poisoning our son … and then he says, Whoops, I forgot!


Dear Cary,

I am very happily married, with three wonderful children my husband and I are both besotted with. My husband and I treat each other with genuine respect and love, and we rarely fight. Except …

My oldest child, N, has a severe allergy to nuts and peanuts. This didn’t come as a big surprise to me, since my sister has a life-threatening peanut allergy, and I’m allergic to cashews and shellfish and lots of other stuff. It doesn’t cramp my style all that much, but it does mean I’ve grown up understanding what food allergies feel like, and why it’s important to take them seriously.

The way we learned about N’s problem was when the two of them went camping when N was about 18 months old. I was home, too pregnant to sleep in a tent, but it was the first time I’d been away from him that long. I had not yet let him eat nuts. We had agreed, I thought, to wait until he was at least 2, and then introduce them at home where I could monitor him. (We knew at that point he was allergic to dairy and eggs.) Well, my husband gave him a peanut butter sandwich which he almost immediately threw up in the tent.

When he told me what had happened, I got Epi-pens in case of another exposure, and had my husband read some material about how a first reaction that severe was really bad news. I thought he understood.

Now N is almost 8. Two or three times a year since that first time, my husband has slipped up and let him eat nuts. It’s always when I’m not there, since I am always on the alert. It’s always dessert, because for my husband eating sweets is like a religious experience, or at snack time after church, which, ditto. Last night it happened while I was taking the baby for a walk while the three of them finished up at a restaurant. There were nuts in a chocolate chip cookie. What a concept! N instantly knew from a feeling he gets in his throat and intense nausea. These are symptoms of impending anaphylactic shock, but this time, again, it didn’t cascade. Next time — who knows?

I was and am infuriated. I let him have it, and he told me I am never to speak to him that way. So now, and every other time, in his eyes this is less a life and death issue, and more a matter of my dissing him.

Any sensible person would tell me to wait until the air had cleared, be grateful that N had dodged another bullet, and later discuss the matter with my husband dispassionately, since he’s obviously feeling ashamed and attacked. And I do bring it up later — it never stays dispassionate for long, but it always ends with my being persuaded that, this time, I’ve gotten through to him. Then it all happens again three or four months later.

I know that if the worst should happen, and from my research I have to say it’s really not all that remote a possibility, it would ruin our lives forever.

So how do I handle this?

Going Nuts in a Life-or-Death Way

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Dear Going Nuts,

So let me get this straight. Every now and then your husband poisons your son and then he says, whoops, sorry, I forgot not to poison my son. And then you yell at him and he tells you not to get so angry about it.

So, if you’re Medea in the bath, mourning her children, what are you supposed to do, just calmly call the morgue? Whatever tone of voice you talked to him in was probably understandable. He’s endangering your kid. Does he not understand that?

I think this is really serious. This isn’t like your husband tossing the child up in the air or letting him sit on his lap and take the wheel of the car, which are seemingly dangerous things fathers like to do with their sons that drive mothers crazy but don’t necessarily endanger their sons’ lives. This borders on abuse, it seems to me. This could kill your son.

You have to stop your husband from ever giving the child anything with peanuts in it. The question is: How? I would say you’re going to need a combination of strict new rules and behavioral insight. I would lay down some strict, unequivocal rules right away, and also consult a behavioral psychologist to get at the long-term issues involved. The rules: No store-bought cookies at all, ever, not even one. No cookies in restaurants ever, not even a bite. Only cookies you bake yourself. No peanut butter in the house, ever. Eliminate all chances for error. Be unrelenting and thorough.

Then, for the long term, get some help from a behavioral psychologist or the equivalent. Clearly, your husband does not consciously want to endanger your son. Yet I find it hard to imagine that these omissions are simply random. He’s probably doing it for reasons he doesn’t see or can’t admit. By working with a psychologist, you and he could gain some insight into why this is happening.

Perhaps he’s doing it to get back at you for shaming him. Or perhaps he’s trying to prove to himself that his son does not really have a life-threatening peanut allergy at all. See, he doesn’t really have a life-threatening peanut allergy! See, he’s still breathing!

Yikes.

My wife and I were talking yesterday about how every now and then someone locks a baby in a car with the windows rolled up and the baby dies from the heat. If you were a father who did that, she said, how would you go on living with yourself? And I said, grimly, only half-joking, that you’d pretty much have to kill yourself. Perhaps your husband would see the situation in a fresh light if he were to compare the infinitesimal pleasure he derives from ignoring his son’s allergy against the lifelong horror of being responsible for his death.

 

Cary's Writing Retreat in Chester, CT

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13

Our featured people of the week: Janine Kovac and the Write On Mamas

Cary and I first learned about The Write On Mamas from Janine Kovac, who has been a regular attendee of Cary’s writing workshops over the past few years. In addition to being an exceptional creative talent, Janine has an amazing spirit and energy, and is one of those rare people who can bring people together and make magic happen. Here’s what Janine has to say about the Mamas:

The Write On Mamas are a group of 32 writing moms (and one dad!) who meet monthly in Mill Valley, California to write and exchange feedback. Each meeting we have a guest speaker from “the industry” talk shop with us. Cary Tennis was our very first guest at our inaugural meeting in February 2012 and let our first writing workshop in January of 2013.

Since the group was founded, we’ve read at Litquake, Lit Crawl, the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts Women’s Literary Series. And in 2014, we’re publishing an anthology of our essays—scenes and thoughts from our lives as mothers and writers. (One of our essays was born in Cary’s January workshop!)

Our moms (and dad) range from published authors to journalists to bloggers to avid journalers. We also have a collection of “satellite moms”—Write On Mamas who live in Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and Canada.

You can read more about us on our website writeonmamas.com. Want to know more about our upcoming anthology? You can read about that through our Indiegogo campaign.

WriteOnMamasLitCrawl