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In a heated moment, a mother reveals a dark chapter from her childhood to her daughter, then immediately regrets it. What now? In this week’s episode, the Sugars tackle this and several other questions, including how to handle a brother-in-law who treats your vacation as his own free childcare; what to do when your best friend’s husband asks you to lie; and why we sometimes recoil at very public displays of grief.
We're back home after another frustrating vacation with my in-laws. My husband is very hurt because this is the second time this year that, having made the long trip to his parents' house, his brother dropped off his two kids with us and left for the week. The last time this happened, it was during spring break and his brother stayed home with his wife to mulch their yard, while my husband and I watched their kids along with our own three children for the whole week at my husband’s parents house. My niece and nephew are wonderful and we love spending time with them, but it's difficult to be responsible for five kids.
I suspect my mother-in-law encourages my brother-in-law to drop off his kids so all the kids can get together. Before this most recent trip, we told her that it was too much, and that we would like his brother and his wife to be there to watch their own kids. But she ignored our request. I can't tell her who to invite to her own house, and we, of course, do like visiting with the kids. How do we delicately make sure that this doesn't happen again? My husband is worried about his brother's reaction if we were to bring it up to him directly.
Sincerely, No Vacation
Cheryl Strayed: Part of being a grownup is using your words, and there's just no way around this. First of all, you haven't spoken to the brother, you've told the mother-in-law, “We don't want to be looking after our niece and nephew all week.” That's a reasonable request, and it was ignored by your mother-in-law. I think what you need to do is go to their father and his wife, and say “Listen, we love spending time with the kids, but it's too much to have five kids in the house all week, so let's make a plan.” Nobody likes conflict, but think about it this way: What if things stay the same? You're going to have to do something that will make you a little bit uncomfortable, but the end result will very likely be that you'll have a more workable vacation the next time you go visit.
Steve Almond: If the brother and his wife had actually had the courage to say to you directly, “We need time to work on our marriage, we really need X, Y and Z,” then you could say, “Well, I want to do that for them and I hope they would do the reverse for me.” This brother believes it is his right to put you in charge of his kids without directly asking you, and you're not okay with it. That means you probably need to have a talk with your husband and say, "I'm not okay with the family culture that I married into, because I see consent and accommodation around someone who's being blatantly inconsiderate and entitled." Parents should take responsibility for their kids, and if they're going to try to get other people to take responsibility, there needs to be some sense of gratitude and mutual exchange. You have to have the courage to resolve this conflict rather than avoiding it.
I recently had an issue come up with my best friend's husband. As I'm friends with both of them, it's not unusual for us to spend time together in some combination. While she was recently out of town, he came over to my apartment to play a game and have a drink with me. Nothing untoward happened, but he stayed late. As he left, he asked me not to tell his wife he was there late, as it would make her upset. He asked me to lie and tell her he left at a specific time, much earlier in the evening.
Sugars, this spun me out. I'm not sure how to process this situation. I feel like I betrayed my best friend, but I also feel betrayed. I haven't seen either of them since this happened, and I've been avoiding it because of how awful this interaction made me feel. I know I can't avoid them forever, but I also know that when someone gets in the middle of a couple, the couple may survive, but the friendship doesn't. I don't want that to happen. What should I do?
Steve: This guy, Befuddled, has enlisted you as a co-conspirator and forced you into a double bind: you either lie for him, or risk hurting the marriage. You need to have a conversation with him and say, “I am not cool with this. Don't come over to my place if you can't do so without lying. You're getting me in the middle of your mistrust and your mess, and we're not going to be friends if you ever do it again.”
Cheryl: First, Befuddled, I really want you to let yourself off the hook here. You were so taken aback by his request that you didn't immediately say "No, I won't lie for you." Now you've thought about it, and my advice to you is to talk to him and simply say, "I was really uncomfortable with you asking me to lie to your wife, and I'm not going to do that. She's my friend, and I'm not going to get in between you. End of story." Clearly, your female friend feels a little threatened by the idea of her husband spending a late evening alone with you, so I think you should avoid the situation. Don't get together alone with this guy anymore. That kind of friendship with him is over until he can prove otherwise.
I made a mistake in anger. My daughter is ten, and she’s been a raging ball of hormones lately. In one of her daily "You don't understand me and how hard my life is" tantrums, I, out of sheer exhaustion, yelled something I feel shame and guilt over. I yelled, "You don't know a hard life. When I was your age, my step-dad used to touch me inappropriately and hit me, so you don't know a hard life, girl." I regretted it immediately and left the room.
I told my husband what I had said, and he thought I should talk to her about it. I did not. I chose to do what people always did to me all my life and pretend it didn't happen. I haven't stopped thinking about what I said. I know she probably thinks about it. She's only ten. I have had my eyes wide open her whole life in the attempt to make sure what happened to me doesn't happen to her. And somehow, by yelling that at her, I brought that garbage into her life anyway. Do I talk to her now? Do I wait? Do I say nothing?
Thanks for your help, Mom With Foot In Her Mouth
Cheryl: First of all, MWFIHM, I just want to say that you didn't bring that garbage into her life. She's not being abused the way you were, so please don't beat yourself up about this. There are ways that we can talk to our kids about things that are ugly — like abuse and physical violence and sexual violence — that are important things for them to know about. As mothers, we are human, and we're not going to be perfect. Modeling for your daughter how to deal with the consequences of something you said in an angry moment is a really powerful lesson. It's one that I have had to do over and over again, and MWFIHM, I bet you have too. Go to your daughter and say to her, "I said something to you about my life as a child, and I want to talk to you about it.” You're right that she's thinking about that, you're right that she's curious about it, and you're also right that it's time for her to know about it. I really, strongly hope that you'll have that with your daughter, MWFIHM. I know you can.
Steve: You sign your letter "MWFIHM," as if this is a faux-pas. I want you to try to think about yourself in another way. I've said a lot of things in anger and frustration to my kids, and it's not the offense that matters to kids, it's what happens afterwards. Do you attempt to be honest about why you got so frustrated and what was really at issue for you? The biggest mystery kids are trying to solve is the mystery of their parents. Who are they? How did they get to be that way? And when we hide aspects of ourselves, we don't allow them to understand our frustration, our anguish, our ghosts. This is a moment where an ugly episode has given you the opportunity to break that cycle.
My fiance's grandfather died last year, and his family is still reeling from the loss. He died at the age of 82, after battling cancer for the better part of two years. His family believes deeply in healing through faith. My fiance believes in science and does not hold with his family's evangelical beliefs on this subject. He said his goodbyes, so when his grandfather died, he did not feel anything was unresolved.
His mother firmly believed up until the very end that a miracle could save her father's life, and she has not taken his death well. She is very public with her grief and regularly makes long Facebook posts about how she is suffering, inciting people to comfort her. She expects an involved and ever-ready network of people to support her.
I get it, because here's the problem, Sugars: my dad died ten years ago, when I was 19. He died on the last day of my freshman year of college. He was going to move me out of my dorm the next day, but he had a brain aneurysm rupture and died. I never got to say goodbye. He didn't have an opportunity to put his affairs in order. His death was sudden, traumatic and life-altering, and because of this, my pity for my future mother-in-law is stunted. I feel deep resentment when she brings up what her father should have been here to do. In these moments, my heart goes numb. He had a long good life and made peace with everyone in his family.
Sugars, how do I navigate this? How do I stop being such a cold, hard bitch? My fiance's mother is aware that I lost my father very young and unexpectedly, but I'm not open with her about the fact that I feel my experience with loss was worse than hers. That would be cruel. I know this is not a competition, but how do I respect my own emotions while reacting to her with empathy instead of resentment? How do I respect her right to publicly grieve when I don't understand it?
Steve: I am always struck by how much people convert their pain into self-loathing, and how quickly. Heartless, when I read that you think of yourself as a cold, hard bitch, my first thought was, “My god, you're in pain. Your grieving isn't over.” You write about how his mother is inciting people to comfort her, and I think this is envy. What she got is a support network and people to comfort her in her grief, and the reason it seems ostentatious and proprietary is because I don't think you got that opportunity. I don't think you had that support. You wouldn't resent her if you did. She seems to be getting everything where you got nothing. It's an effort to understand your own emotions around the loss of your father that will allow you to recognize that, just like you, your fiance's mother is in pain. If you extend a little bit more of that compassion to yourself, you will find a way to be more sympathetic to her.
Cheryl: Heartless, you didn't have the same experience as your fiance's mom, but you do have the same emotion: you're both suffering the loss of someone who was essential to you. That's where that sense of competition or envy falls away, and what you plug into is your empathy, your compassion, the things you have in common. Your future mother-in-law is getting a lot of support around this big loss. That's available to you, too, and it is consoling. It's okay to ask for that kind of community rallying around you, and it seems to me, Heartless, that you're feeling like that's a little undignified. But that's what she needs in this time of her loss. You're ten years into this, but it's still fresh for her. Think of this as an opportunity to open yourself up to a deeper understanding of what this loss means in your life, rather than something you have to grin and bear and fake your way through by consoling your future mother-in-law.
I remember an episode where the two of you joked that Cheryl's fetish is dating men who adore her. I was not dating a man like that at the time and had no confidence that I would meet someone who would love me like that. Luckily, I have. I am now dating a man who adores me. My question is for you, Cheryl: do you ever get bored?
Cheryl: Here's the deal: it only works in the long term if also you adore that person in equal measure. It's not without conflict, it's not without him driving me insane, it's not without him getting annoyed with me, but, in the end, we absolutely adore each other. I would get bored if I was adored but didn't adore back.
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