divorce, Ex, family, lessons learned, marriage

Repost: An open letter to angry adult stepchildren… 

I wrote this post on October 15, 2010. I am reposting it because I see that it got over 11,000 hits, and some people might find it useful. My personal situation has changed a lot since I wrote this piece 12 years ago, so please keep that in mind if you read this… For instance, one of Bill’s children now speaks to him. Sometimes things can turn out better given some time and perspective.

Before I start with today’s post, I want to explain that my thoughts today are not necessarily directed to my stepchildren. After all, in eight years I have only met my stepchildren once and, since then, have had absolutely no contact with them. No… today’s post is for angry stepchildren who still talk to both of their parents and, for whatever reason, hate one or both of their stepparents. 

Yesterday, I was hanging out at one of my favorite online communities when I noticed a post written by a guy who was very upset with his father. This fellow, who is very open about being a homosexual, had recently written a heartfelt letter to his dad about his homosexuality. He was asking his dad for understanding and support. His father, apparently, didn’t respond to the letter the way the writer had hoped he would. 

So my online friend was understandably devastated about this turn of events and, in the course of describing his pain, happened to refer to his father’s wife as a “heinous harpy”. He did not explain why he thought of his stepmother that way. In fact, most of his posts were about his relationship with his father. But I couldn’t help but notice that, for some reason, he seemed to hate his stepmother and felt the need to express his hatred in a post that, at least on the surface, had nothing to do with her.

Here’s what I’d like to say to that guy, along with anyone else who hates their stepparent(s), yet still loves their parent(s). You may have a very good reason for hating your mother’s or father’s spouse. Or you may not have a good reason for hating them. But have you considered the reasons why your parent married that person? Put aside your personal feelings for a moment and think about it. Just spend a few minutes looking at life through your parent’s eyes.

Divorce sucks. It sucks for almost everybody, including many stepparents. Yes, if you are a child of divorce, you absolutely have a right to be hurt, confused, angry, etc. But chances are, your parent is hurting too, and would like the chance to try to be happy with someone else. Do you really expect your parent to go through life alone, just because their first try at marriage didn’t work out? Would you actually want them to be alone as they get older and less independent? 

Like it or not, your parent made a choice to invite another person into his or her life. Your parent had his or her own reasons for doing so. Maybe you don’t agree with your parent’s reasons or taste. Maybe your stepmother or stepfather is cruel or hateful to you. Maybe you feel like he or she takes your parent’s attention away from you or tries to shut you out of your parent’s life. Perhaps your parent’s remarriage has destroyed any hopes that your parents might reconcile.  

All of these issues are valid reasons for you to feel the way you do. But I’m asking you to stop and consider your parent’s feelings. Think about why he or she made the choice to invite this new person into their life. Then, if you’re able, take an objective look at your stepparent. Is he or she really worthy of your hatred? Does your parent genuinely love his or her spouse? Have you taken a moment to see what your parent sees in their wife or husband? 

Then, think about this… Did you decide to hate your stepparent? Or did your other parent make that decision for you? Consider this. I have met my husband’s daughters just once. During our one meeting, which barely lasted 48 hours, my husband’s daughters and I seemed to get along just fine. One of them went as far as to give me a big hug and refer to me as her other mother. But not long after that meeting, my husband’s daughters mysteriously started distancing themselves from their dad until finally, in 2004, they stopped talking to him altogether and, in 2006, actually sent him letters demanding that he let their current stepfather adopt them.

Since I haven’t seen or talked to my husband’s kids since that one meeting which had seemed to go so well, I can’t help but think their mother was somehow threatened by me and told them they should hate me, as well as their dad for choosing to marry me. In other words, the girls didn’t decide to dislike me until their mother decided for them that I was a bad person. Incidentally, I have never met their mother, and she has very limited knowledge of me, so I’m not sure how she determined I was so evil. I try not to take it personally, since I have a feeling she would have hated anyone my husband had chosen to marry.  

Here’s something else to consider. Relationships are always a two-way street. You may hate your stepparent and that may be all very well and good. But your stepparent may also reserve the right to feel the same way about you, especially if you’re an adult. You might not care about how they feel, but if you want to have a good relationship with your parent, you might be wise to reconsider the way you treat his or her spouse. There may come a time when you’ll wish you were on better terms with them.  

Marriage is a dicey business at best. Statistics show that about half of all married couples eventually divorce. Many of those people will have children, so there are lots of people in the child-of-divorce boat. Moreover, a lot of those children-of-divorce will eventually grow up and be divorced themselves. If that ever happens to you, would you want to spend the rest of your life alone just to spare your child’s feelings? Would you want your child to have the right to choose your mate for you, especially since most kids eventually grow up and have lives of their own?  

In our society, most people reject the idea of arranged marriages decided by their parents or anyone else. Do you really think you should have the right to reject your parent’s choice for a spouse? Would you want your kids to overrule your choice of whom to marry? And would you be happy if your parent eventually divorced and remarried a third or fourth time? Remember, divorce sucks… and it’s very expensive. I think the only people who could possibly enjoy the process of divorce are those who get a paycheck from it. Chances are, if your parent divorces several times, he or she might not be as financially well-prepared to handle growing older. If he or she wants to remarry, it makes good sense to let them (hopefully) choose the right spouse, once and for all.

I know for a fact that my husband is less lonely and a lot happier with me than he ever was with his ex-wife. We are very compatible with each other. Certainly, things would have been less complicated had he and I met first. But that didn’t happen. We make each other happy and belong together. Most parents want the best for their children and hope they will be happy. I’d like to think that a loving child would want the same for their parent(s). I know my husband’s happiness has led to his being healthier and wealthier… perhaps giving his kids more time to reconsider whether or not they really do want to throw away their real dad for good.  

Life is pretty short and there may come a time when you’ll wish you had more time to spend with your mother or father. If you love your parent(s), I would expect you’d want for them what they, hopefully, want for you… health and happiness and freedom from loneliness.

It’s true that you may have all the legitimate reasons in the world to hate your stepparent(s). All I’m asking you to do is to take a minute to understand where your hatred is coming from and determine whether or not it’s truly valid. Maybe your stepmom is a harpy or your stepfather is a selfish bastard. But your parent chose them to be a part of their lives. They must have had a reason… And maybe you should try to have some respect for their reasons. I’m sure you’d wish for and expect the very same if you’re ever in their shoes.

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anniversary, Bill, love, marriage, memories

What happened after September 12, 2001…

Yesterday was the 21st anniversary of 9/11. I noticed that not a lot of people posted about it, probably because a lot of us are preoccupied with the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II. I know I watched some of her final journey from Balmoral to Edinburgh. Although I’ve seen some posts about how the monarchy needs to be abolished, the truth is, a lot of people loved the queen. Of course she wasn’t perfect, and there were some things she did that angered people. But then, nobody’s perfect… and I’m not so sure it’s that easy to dissolve the British monarchy. Maybe it will happen someday, but I don’t think it will in my lifetime.

In any case, every year on 9/11, I remember what I was doing that day. I even remember what I was wearing. I remember how, all day, I wondered if Bill was okay. He had just been relocated to the Pentagon and was working there on 9/11. He happened to be in the wedge that got hit. In fact, his office had just been moved the week prior. If it hadn’t been moved, he probably would have been killed on 9/11. We were just “friends” at that point, having just spent a truly wonderful Labor Day weekend together. I knew we were developing strong romantic feelings for each other, but we still hadn’t really made our relationship public. And so, on 9/11/01, no one would have known to tell me if Bill had died or been injured.

I remember that evening, talking to my mom on the phone. I told her about my “friend” who worked in the Pentagon. She was an experienced Air Force wife, so she gave me some advice. After I got off the phone, I got a PM from Bill on Yahoo! Messenger. He said he’d tried to call me, but he had the wrong number. We had a serious conversation, and I told him that if he considered me his girlfriend, it might be a good idea to tell people about my existence. He agreed, and we announced to friends and family that we were together.

We also started to date in person regularly. This was a new thing for me, because I didn’t really date much at all before I met Bill. I’d had a high school boyfriend, but that was a very platonic relationship. I had no sexual history to speak of, and although I was only 29 years old, I thought I was going to die a virgin. So it was kind of strange to be dating a man, especially since he was divorced and had children.

Because I lived in South Carolina and he lived in Virginia, our dates involved long weekends at one or the other’s apartments. I came to enjoy those weekends very much, even though we were both broke. We were just so comfortable with each other. We always had a good time doing whatever… watching movies, taking walks, eating cheap food… and then he decided not to practice Mormonism anymore, which was a great thing. I remember going to his apartment once, having left beer in his fridge during my last visit. The beer was finished. I asked him what happened to it, and he said he drank it. I said, “Yea!”

In November 2001, Bill and his mom joined us at our Thanksgiving shindig at my Granny’s house in Virginia. They fit right in with my family. Bill’s mom liked me, and my parents loved Bill, which I knew they would. My dad made jokes about Bill being LDS, but I assured him that when he met Bill, he’d love him. Sure enough, I was right. I went to visit Bill at Christmas; then he flew to Arizona to see his kids. That turned out to be his last good holiday with his kids before his Ex went into full alienation mode.

A few weeks later, we were online, and I told Bill I wanted to give him a candy pop ring. He said, “Don’t do that… because I want to give you a ring.”

“Does this mean you want to get married?” I asked.

“Yes.” He said.

“So are we now engaged?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so.” He said.

I went into my last semester of graduate school unexpectedly engaged to be married. I never thought it would happen. Two months later, before I got on a plane to Jamaica to attend my sister’s destination wedding, Bill took me out to dinner at 1789 restaurant in Georgetown, where he presented me with a beautiful engagement ring. I’ve worn it every day since then. My finger has a permanent groove in it. 2002 was a big year for us… I finished dual master’s degrees and got married. I became a military wife and stepmother. Of course, I barely count myself as a stepmother, given how alienated Bill’s daughters were. But at least one of them came around, eventually.

It’s hard to believe we’ve been married for almost 20 years. In just two months, we’ll pass that milestone. It seems like yesterday, we were online friends, and I was wondering if he’d survived 9/11. I’m so grateful that he did survive, because I could not have imagined a more perfect husband for me. We are ridiculously compatible, which is no small feat. Like I said, it’s not like I dated much before we met. I look at the state of the world now, and I feel fortunate that Bill and I have been together to experience it. We’ve shared a lot of incredible life events that have run the gamut, happy, sad, infuriating, amazing… And we still light up each other’s faces. Below is a photo I took on Saturday, after we’d been drinking wine in the rain at our village’s wine fest. It amazes me that after twenty years, I still smile like this when I’m with Bill.

No makeup… and my chins showed up, too.

Anyway… I didn’t mean to get all mushy. I guess I just wanted to write something kind of sweet for once, instead of something angry, snarky, or depressing. The day after 9/11, we were an official couple.  Four months after that, we were engaged.  Ten months after we got engaged, we were married at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington.  The last twenty years have flown by.  Despite my bitching, grousing, moaning, and negativity, it’s mostly been a wonderful trip.  But it definitely hasn’t been without its challenges, as any regular reader of this blog knows.  

I’m so glad I took that leap of faith.  I would not trade my life now for what I was preparing for when Bill and I met.  It would have been a very different life for me… I might have been successful.  Maybe I might have even found another man to love, although I think it might be hard to find one that is as compatible as Bill is.    

I don’t get crushes anymore.  I don’t have any temptation to be with anyone else.  I don’t know if that’s normal, but I do know that while I might notice a good looking man, I don’t feel like trading Bill for that other guy.  I don’t wonder about intimacy with other men.  I don’t wonder how it would have turned out if one of my old crushes had liked me back.  I don’t know if that makes me unusual or lucky.  I just know that the one thing in life that I really did do right was get married to Bill.

While I don’t cherish the horrific memories of 9/11, I do think that 9/11 pushed us together sooner. I don’t think we would have been as quick to get together if it weren’t for that terrible day, when I didn’t know if he was dead or alive, and he didn’t know if he was going to survive. Bill was recovering from a truly toxic relationship, and I was just nervous and scared, and wanting to finally launch a career I might have been proud of. I guess the universe simply had different plans for both of us. I really can’t complain. In fact, every day, it amazes me how things have turned out for us.

Thank God for guys like Bill… who appreciate complicated women like me.  I can’t imagine being with anyone else…

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Bill, Ex, marriage, mental health, relationships

“Quick! Eat this before I give it to an animal!”

Here’s another life lesson, courtesy of the late, great George Carlin… Please keep in mind, this is just one way of looking at things, and it comes from my perspective. Your mileage may vary.

Years ago, when I was still in high school, I bought a bunch of cassette tapes by the late George Carlin. They were mostly his concerts from the 1970s and early 80s. I was a new fan, having been introduced to Carlin by HBO (Home Box Office), which I watched incessantly as a child. That probably explains a lot of the stuff I write about as an adult.

George had a funny routine he did back in 1981 called “Ice Box Man.” It was included on his album, A Place for My Stuff, which I listened to repeatedly on cassette as I drove from Gloucester, Virginia to Williamsburg, on one of my many work assignments there. In that routine, he talked about how it was his job to monitor the refrigerator and freezer. Naturally, that led to him making many nutty observations about humans and their relationship with the food they store in the fridge.

“Close that Goddamn door!”

I was reminded of Mr. Carlin this morning, as Bill and I were discussing a blog post I recently wrote titled “The latest big dream job“. It was yet another post about Ex, and her many elusive dreams. You know the old 80s song, “Don’t Fall in Love With A Dreamer?” Well, it’s sage advice, especially if you want to keep your sanity. Dreams can be a lot of fun, or they can be a distraction. Or, if someone is hellbent on following an unrealistic dream, they can quickly turn into a disastrous nightmare.

As we were talking about the prospect of Ex jetting off to an exotic place with the son she says has severe autism and runs away from home, Bill said he could only imagine what living with her is like these days. She has so many big ideas. Sometimes she tries to implement them, but they are almost always overcome by events, or somehow, her enthusiasm wanes and she loses interest. Often, when he was still married to her, that eventually meant being poorer, but not always wiser. If you’re the type of person who is responsible and likes a little stability in your life, that kind of shit gets old pretty quickly. It would be easy to be caught up in the dream at first… but then, hundreds or thousands of dollars and wasted hours later, when the dream falls apart, it’s not so much fun anymore.

So what has this story got to do with George Carlin and his “Ice Box Man” routine? I’m getting there.

Back in the late 80s, Bill was a young man who wasn’t very sure of himself. He doubted his appeal to women, and had this really low sense of self-worth. We have a few theories as to where this low self-esteem came from, but to make a long story short, it kind of made him a sitting duck for an abuser to exploit. Enter Ex. She spotted him, alone, in his mid 20s, reasonably handsome, and an Army officer. Her first husband was an enlisted guy, and for whatever reason, he wasn’t ringing her chimes anymore. I suspect she saw Bill as someone she could mold and manipulate, someone who would help her follow and achieve her dreams… someone with more earning power.

Well, I’ve written plenty about what happened after that. What I want to focus on today is the moment Bill decided to “eat food that someone was only going to throw away…” That’s where Carlin’s “Ice Box Man” comes into the story.

Carlin says:

...’Cause there’s a bigger responsibility. And that is getting into that refrigerator and deciding which things need to be thrown away. Most people will not take that responsibility. Most people will just go and get what they want, leave everything else alone and say, “Well, someone else wants that. Someone else will eat that” Meanwhile, the thing is getting smaller and smaller and smaller and is, in fact stuck to the rack. Well, I’ve got to go in there and decide when to throw things away.

“Chocolate pudding? Does anyone want this last chocolate pudding? I have just one chocolate pudding left. It’s only pulled away from the side of the dish about three inches all the way around. And there’s a huge fault running through the center of the pudding. Actually, it’s nothing but a ball of skin at this point. Does anyone want a ball of fault ridden chocolate pudding skin? I’m only going to throw it away.

A lot of us have experienced this, haven’t we? Especially those of us who hail from the United States, where we have big refrigerators, and parents or grandparents who lived through the Great Depression. People who have been deprived tend to be very averse to “wasting” things. It doesn’t just apply to food, either. It can apply to inanimate objects or even relationships. As Jim Bob Duggar liked to say, before his family fell from grace, “Buy used and save the difference!” If you have a shitload of kids and not that much money, it makes sense to buy things used, especially if there’s a lot of good use left in the item. It makes sense to eat what you have before buying more food. Or, even better, learning how to garden so you can grow your own food. Waste is not good, is it? Of course, you have to use up the item before it goes bad or falls into disrepair.

But a lot of us aren’t like this, and we pass up things when they are more appealing. As Carlin observes, “Well, someone else wants that. Someone else will eat that.” And no one ever eats it, but they don’t throw out the item that is wasting away in the fridge, shrinking from neglect, turning different colors, growing fur, or whatever. They don’t toss it, because they can’t bear losing the chance to “waste not, want not.” Even if passing on using the item would ultimately be better for them in the long run than trying to use it would be.

At one time, I’m sure that chocolate pudding Carlin speaks of was appetizing and delicious, smooth and creamy and sweet. But after weeks of neglect, it shriveled up into something ugly, unrecognizable, and in fact, potentially dangerous to one’s health. Ahh… but still, even when it’s clear that something is beyond its freshness or not particularly appealing or appetizing, a lot of us still won’t throw it away. Bill recently cleaned out one of our fridges, and he tossed an unopened jar of pickles that we bought when we still lived in Jettingen, four plus years ago! I have lots of over the counter drugs in the house that are two or more years beyond their expiration dates. Last night, I was looking at flea and tick meds for Arran that expired in January 2020. I didn’t use the meds, but I also didn’t throw them away! They’re still in the closet as I type this! I will be tossing them in a few minutes.

Over almost twenty years of marriage, I have often asked Bill what the hell he was thinking when he decided to pursue a relationship with his former wife. Don’t get me wrong. She’s probably the perfect mate for someone. But she was clearly not a good match for Bill, even if she was the most mentally stable person alive. They have very little in common, other than having gone to the same high school. They don’t have similar interests at all. He likes to go to nice restaurants, listen to alternative music, brew beer, read good books, and live within his means– but in style. He likes working for the Army and doesn’t mind the chaotic lifestyle that can come from that. Ex has a lot of interests, but none of them really aligned with Bill’s. Her big dreams never seemed to mesh with Bill’s reality and desire for stability.

According to Bill, once she had him hooked, Ex turned into a different person. Ex often made fun of Bill’s interests. She denigrated him in front of other people, and shamed him when he expressed goals and desires for his own life. She had completely different goals, and would not work with him. In fact, she often sabotaged his efforts to get ahead. Her idea was to be the Queen Bee, and he was expected to be a Worker Bee. So, in her mind, he had no right to make decisions for their life together. That was solely her job.

Some people would find this quality in Ex very attractive, as they don’t know what they want, and it can be comforting to be with someone who doesn’t mind being in charge of everything. But knowing Bill the way I do, I think that the chocolate pudding Ex promised quickly turned into a ball of pudding skin. Still, he held onto that shriveled up pudding skin for almost ten years before he finally decided to “throw it away”… He mistakenly believed she was the only person who would find him attractive. When they got together, he even saw himself as shriveled up chocolate pudding, waiting to be “thrown away”.

Carlin continues:

Do people do that with you? Offer you some food that if you don’t eat it, they’re only going to throw it away. Well, doesn’t that make you feel dandy? “Here’s something to eat, Dave. Hurry up, it’s spoiling!” “Something for you, Angela. Eat quickly, that green part is moving!” “Here, Bob. Eat this before I give it to an animal.”

There was a time in Bill’s life when he had very little confidence, especially around women. Although he’s always been a very pleasant, likable, attractive person, he somehow got the message that he wasn’t appealing to other people. He was shy, and reluctant to approach women. But, like a lot of people, Bill also hoped to marry someday, and have a family. Ex presented him with that possibility when she showed up on his doorstep in Germany with her toddler aged son. She was friendly and charming, and willing to relieve his loneliness. They knew each other from their high school years. In his mid 20s, Bill was watching his contemporaries get married and start families. Ex was offering him that chance, and he wouldn’t have to put himself out there to get it. She was pursuing him, which was flattering and deceptively made starting a family seem “easy”. And… he also felt kind of sorry for her. She told him horror stories (probably false or exaggerated) about her first husband that stimulated the “white knight” rescuing aspect of his personality.

So, even though they weren’t a very comfortable match, Bill decided to marry Ex. In retrospect, it seems kind of crazy–like taking a chance on eating that ball of shriveled up chocolate pudding skin and hoping it doesn’t make him sick or kill him. And yet, people do that all the time, don’t they? They take a chance on that questionable food from the fridge, some of which they may not even be able to identify anymore.

Carlin says:

…Perhaps the worst thing that can happen is to reach into the refrigerator and come out with something that you cannot identify at all. You literally do not know what it is. Could be meat, could be cake. Usually, at a time like that, I’ll bluff. “Honey, is this good?” “Well, what is it?” “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like it. It looks like…meatcake!” “Well, smell it.” (snort, sniff) “It has absolutely no smell whatsoever!” “It’s good! Put it back! Somebody is saving it. It’ll turn up in something.” That’s what frightens me. That someone will consider it a challenge and use it just because it’s in there.

“Honey, is this good?”

Then there’s the concept of “leftovers”. I think about how I wound up spending a year of dysfunction in college, because I needed a roommate. I found myself agreeing to live with a woman with whom I was completely incompatible. And, in fairness, she agreed to live with me, and she probably feels about me the same way as I do about her. Yet, we still agreed to be roommates. This wasn’t because we were “simpatico”, but because we both needed a warm body to occupy our dorm room.

It was quite a year. We survived, but not on particularly friendly terms. I guess you could call us “leftovers”. We were two people– not friends– who needed someone to share a room and hadn’t ended our first year of college with a buddy with whom we could bunk. It wasn’t a good match, and I’m sure we were both equally glad when the academic year was over and we didn’t ever have to see each other again. It’s one thing to do that when you temporarily need a roommate. Bill had his share of incompatible roomies, too. But it’s really not a good idea to start a marriage with that mindset, especially when children are in the mix. Marriages are supposed to last most of a lifetime, even if they often don’t.

Carlin says of the food in the fridge:

It’s a leftover. What a sad word that is. Leftover. How would you like to be…a leftover? Well, it wouldn’t be bad if they were taking people out to be shot. I might even volunteer. But, y’know, leftovers make you feel good twice. D’ja ever think about that? When you first put them away, you feel really intelligent- “I’m saving food!” And then, after a month, when hair is growing out of them and you throw them away you feel…really intelligent- “I’m saving my life!”

I have often pointed out to Bill that, while he definitely suffered, having married Ex when he didn’t really love her, Ex also suffered. Because who wants to be the charity project of someone who just feels sorry for them? Ex used to complain to Bill that he didn’t love her enough. Bill would try to show her that she was wrong. Of course that never worked, because she already knew what he didn’t want to admit. He hadn’t married her because he loved her and wanted to be with her. He married her because he’d pitied her, and himself… and he didn’t have enough self-respect to give himself the chance to find someone more compatible. He also didn’t have enough respect for Ex to give her the same opportunity, thus sparing themselves and their children a lot of pain.

Bill had made the mistake of regarding himself as a “leftover”. He also regarded Ex as a “leftover”. And he had decided, with her agreement, that they should try to make it work, even though there were many signs that it was not a good idea. Getting married to another warm body simply because someone is willing and available is not exactly a great way to start a family, is it? I mean, many people have done it… and some may have stayed together for many years. But how many people find happiness that way?

It works in the movies sometimes, but not so much in real life. Like having an ill fitting shoe, or a dental crown that doesn’t quite fit right. Maybe it functions, but it’s not comfortable or pleasing. You end up with blisters or inflammation that makes you miserable. Or maybe, to keep with the food theme, the leftovers take away your hunger and keep you from starving to death, but leave you with diarrhea or heartburn. Not all leftovers go together, you see. Who wants to mix cherry cheesecake with stinky cheese, roast beef, and peanut butter?

There’s more to Carlin’s brilliant “Ice Box Man” routine, and I highly recommend that you listen to it, especially if you haven’t heard it. Carlin was a wise, observant, and brilliant man, who was also very funny! I have learned a lot from him over the years.

As for Bill’s formerly “Ice Box Man” approach to marriage, I would say that not all is lost. He came away from that experience with a lot of wisdom and insight. He has a daughter who has come around after years of estrangement. He’s got three grandchildren. And he has the satisfaction of knowing that he was able to survive some pretty horrifying shit. Now, he’s thriving, and he’s found someone with whom he is very compatible… ME. 😉

God knows, I have often thought of myself of a leftover, too… so I am very happy to have found the right person against tremendous odds. Especially if you know how and where we actually met… but that’s a story for another day.

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communication, controversies, expressions, family

“Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?”

Yeah, sing it, Avril…

Apologies for the old hit from Avril Lavigne. I’m not even a big fan of Avril’s music, but this song seems appropriate for today’s topic, which comes courtesy of Carolyn Hax’s advice column in the Washington Post. I had other topics in mind to write about today, but it’s Sunday, and I figured it would be better to write about something less serious. And today’s post from Carolyn Hax is definitely lighter than my subject matter has been lately.

Here’s the letter in question, which was adapted from an online discussion:

Hi Carolyn! 

I’ve recently started to attend family functions with my boyfriend. He always says I don’t need to bring anything, but I never go anywhere empty-handed.

His mom is preparing the entire meal for the next event, including desserts. I’m a baker and usually bring desserts but Boyfriend says mom might be offended if I bring a dessert when she’s already taking care of that. This party is for his sister’s birthday, and I don’t know her well enough to choose a gift, and he won’t give me any ideas because he insists I don’t need to bring a gift. I asked if I could at least get a card, and he said he’ll add my name to his card — but he and his sister have been passing the same card back and forth for 12 years as a joke. This is their thing and I don’t want to impose.

But I just can’t fathom going empty-handed. Any ideas as to what I can bring?

— Never Empty-Handed

Carolyn’s advice to the letter writer was to try to call the boyfriend’s mom and ask her directly what she should bring for his sister, if the boyfriend won’t “work with her on this”. She also said that the letter writer should explain to him that telling her that she doesn’t need to bring anything is easy for him to say, and maybe even well-intentioned by letting her off the hook, but it actually puts her in an awkward position. Carolyn further writes:

He is seeing this through the family lens, but you are not family and you’re newish to everyone, so you don’t know how you’ll be judged.

You want to make a good impression. If he wants to set you up to succeed, then he either needs to give you a token way to contribute, or be more thoughtful in explaining his family culture to you, or connect you to his mom (or whoever’s hosting) to find out for yourself.

This advice makes sense to me, I guess. However, there is also hopefully a good chance that Boyfriend is telling the truth. It’s possible that his mom and/or his sister really don’t want her to bring anything. Moreover, I would expect him to tell me the truth. So my response, which so far is being well-received was this:

I would just take the boyfriend at his word. If it goes awry, then I’ll know I can’t trust what he says and move on.

She can always warn the guy that if he’s not being truthful, and she shows up with nothing and his mom or sister thinks it’s rude, that will mean that she can’t trust him to be honest, and that might mean they shouldn’t continue the relationship. There is a good chance, though, that the mom and/or his sister really are among those people who doesn’t want guests to bring things. My mom is one of those people. She’s at a point in her life that she’s trying to get rid of things she doesn’t need. I have been the recipient of many lovely gifts people have given her that she just didn’t want or weren’t her taste.

If you think about it, bringing something for the host/hostess actually can lead to embarrassing situations. Here’s an example from my personal history.

Recently, I wrote about how I have a phobia of mushrooms. I can’t eat them or touch them, and I prefer not to look at them or smell them. One time, years ago, a woman invited me to her house for dinner. She was a vegetarian. Because I wanted to be a good guest, I baked two loaves of bread and brought one of them with me. Guess what… hostess wasn’t a fan of bread. And guess what else? The dinner she made was LOADED with mushrooms. And yes, it was very embarrassing. I explained to her, honestly, why I couldn’t partake of the dinner. Fortunately, she had a good laugh at my expense, and even told some of her colleagues about it.

People love to leave comments on the Washington Post’s Facebook page about this post, when it’s clear that they didn’t read the article. It’s mainly because they don’t want to pay for a subscription. If they had read the article, they would see that other people offered reasons why bringing the usual go-to gifts of wine, flowers, and candy might not be the best idea. Here’s what a couple of people wrote:

Re: Guest: Yes, please arrive empty-handed. I find hosting people who are compelled to bring something, anything, very tiring. Fine to ask if you can contribute to the meal, for instance, but if the answer is no, then accept that.

— Tired

Tired: Yes, yes. When I tell my guests what (not) to bring, I want them to take me at my word, not send me looking for a vase for the lovely and well-meant flowers.

In the case of someone new being invited into the fold, though, the standards shift a bit. The balance of power is more precarious. The boyfriend can be more helpful here. That’s all.

I have a policy that when people say they want no gifts, I take them at their word. I assume they had a reason for making that statement. If they didn’t mean it, they shouldn’t have written or said it, and they shouldn’t be upset when people abide by it. If Mom is annoyed with the girlfriend for coming to visit the family empty-handed that early in the relationship, that’s another sign that the letter writer might want to consider, should things go further in that relationship. I would hope that the boyfriend’s mom and other family members would be just as eager to make a good impression on his girlfriend, especially if there is a chance she might one day marry him, or otherwise engage in a more serious relationship. Because– that could one day be her mother-in-law… and you want to pay attention to red flags. Divorce is expensive, and marriage can be challenging enough without a mother-in-law with whom you don’t mesh. Fortunately, my own mother-in-law is awesome, and my mom adores Bill.

A lot of commenters seem to think that the letter writer should just ignore what her boyfriend says, and go against his advice on dealing with his family. I don’t know about other people, but it would really annoy me if I told Bill about what to expect from my family– people that I’ve known my whole life– and he didn’t believe me. I can understand the letter writer’s dilemma in not wanting to be rude, but I would consider not trusting my boyfriend’s word as kind of rude, too. I’m big on trust, and I don’t like it when people don’t take me seriously, even though I joke around a lot. Joking around is one thing, but I’m not the kind of person who would deliberately set someone up to fail. If I care enough to bring you home to meet the family, that means I’m serious. And I would not tell you not to bring a gift if I knew that not bringing a gift would make my mom or sister think you were a jerk. I would hope for the same consideration.

I also noticed that the people commenting were suggesting gifts that could be problematic. That bottle of wine might not be appreciated by someone who is fundie Baptist or LDS, struggles with alcoholism or some other health issue, or someone who just doesn’t drink. Flowers might not be appreciated by someone who has severe allergies or, like Madonna, hates hydrangeas… or whatever other flower. Some people don’t like plants because they have a brown thumb, and kill everything they touch.

Ouch!

Or maybe it will be an awkward exchange, like when Melania Trump brought Michelle Obama a fancy Tiffany box on Inauguration Day…

Nice of Melania to bring a gift. Too bad the Trumps didn’t have enough class to show up to the 2021 Presidential Inauguration.

Someone who prides themselves on being a great cook or baker might not appreciate it if you take it upon yourself to bring dessert. A lot of people go to great lengths to plan when they have a party. If you show up with a cake from a bakery or even one you’ve made yourself, it may send a very embarrassing message that won’t be well received. Or, again, it could turn out that someone has diabetes and has to watch their sugar or carbs for health reasons. I had a friend, years ago, who had an allergy to chocolate. She loved chocolate, but couldn’t eat it, because it made her break out in hives. Imagine showing up at her house with a lovely, expensive chocolate cake that took hours to bake. Hopefully, other people can enjoy it.

Here’s what I think is a fairly foolproof gift– sincere gratitude for the invitation, and authentic, attentive, and appreciative company. That’s it. Maybe that gratitude could be augmented by a handwritten note expressing thanks, mailed a day or two after the gathering. One of the nicest “gifts” I have ever received from anyone was a lovely, handwritten note from Bill’s younger daughter, who was considerate enough to think of me when he went to visit her in March 2020. I will treasure it always, for there’s no other gift like it. It came from the heart and, best of all, it cost her almost nothing in money, but yet it’s priceless to me. I will keep and treasure it always, especially since it doesn’t take up any room or collect dust.

Now THIS is what I call a good– and very classy– gift. There’s not another like it.

There’s no reason to sweat the small stuff. There’s no reason to make things more complicated than it needs to be. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. While giving a small gift to a host or hostess is usually considered good etiquette, when it comes down to it, the best etiquette is considering what will make the other person feel most comfortable and at ease. I would expect that the boyfriend in this situation knows his family well enough to advise his girlfriend honestly. She should take what he says at face value. If it goes wrong, that will be a sign of things that could be coming in the future. At the very least, it could be a signal that he’s not going to be straightforward about other things.

Damned right.

Some of the comments on this remind me of the American attitude about tipping. So many people seem to think that everyone loves gifts. Not everyone does… just like not everyone expects or appreciates a tip. Seriously… in some cultures, tipping is actually considered rude or just isn’t a thing. American culture is not the end all, be all, and there’s a lot to consider in any relationship. If you don’t know the guy’s parents, I actually think it’s better to wait before you bring a gift, unless you’ve been assured that they would appreciate one. Gifts can go awry. Besides, meeting new people is a two-way street. I see no reason to complicate that meeting by adding in an unnecessary element, like what gift to bring. Especially when it’s been made clear, by someone who should be in the know, that gifts aren’t expected or even desired. I think it’s smart to learn about the culture in any new situation before assuming you know what should be done.

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careers, Ex, marriage, music

Partial repost: “Slogging” through life… or “I’ve never had what it takes to be a woman…”

I’m having some trouble getting into the mood to write this morning. I did, however, find this post from October 2018 that I think is pretty interesting. And it has nothing to do with the horrors of the news these days, either. It has to do with the horrors of life… “slogging” along in a job that pays the bills. We’ve all done it. Most of us keep doing it. Why? Because unless we live alone, we have responsibilities to other people. And so, a lot of us are truly “slogging” through life. I have edited this a bit, since things have changed for us since 2018. That makes it more of a “partial repost”. Maybe later, I’ll write something fresh.

This song cracks me up… Listen until the end to get the second half of my title.

The comments on this song are pretty interesting.  There were quite a few from men who were offended by the notion that they’re selfish and self-absorbed.  Clearly, they aren’t the ones Garfunkel and Oates are singing about, right?  Not all men are inattentive to their partners, obsessed with their jobs, and expecting women to wait around for them and follow them as they pursue their dreams.  Not all women are being forced to give up their aspirations for their men, either.  Hell, in my case, I wound up doing what I’d always wanted to do anyway, albeit not for a real paycheck. 

Actually, what really stuck out to me was a comment made by a man who presented the other side of this reality.  Behold…

The insinuation being that men don’t sacrifice their dreams to support their family? Maybe not in show business, but sacrifice is very much the norm for the working class (which constitutes the majority of the population). Nobody ever dreamed of working in a coal mine or in sanitation, but millions of people (mostly men) do it on a daily basis to support their family.

Lots of people, including many men, are just “slogging through life”.  It’s not just women who give up their dreams for a relationship.  Plenty of men do it, too.  How many guys do you know had dreams of being in a band or creating art for a living, only to wind up doing a job they hate simply for the money?  It takes money to raise a family, run a household, and make the world go around.  Not everyone has the talent, luck, or ability to pursue their dreams.  That’s true for everyone.

I can’t think of a single person I know who, when they were kids, said they wanted to empty port-a-lets for a living.  And yet, you can bet there are people out there who do it, simply for the money it brings.  I don’t know too many people who had aspirations of making refrigerator doors for their life’s work.  And yet, before Bill got back into the Army full-time, he worked at a Whirlpool factory and supervised men who had been doing just that for over twenty years.  They’d show up every day, punch in, and spend their shifts standing on the line, putting three screws into refrigerator doors all day.  Then, at the end of the day, they’d clock out, go home, and sleep until it was time to come back and do it all over the next day.

I don’t know anyone who, when they were kids, dreamt of waiting tables for a living, nor have I ever heard of any parents wanting that job for their adult children.  And yet, I know several career servers and bartenders.  Some of them stay in that work because it sometimes pays better than sitting in a cubicle all day.  Some stay because it’s a portable skill.  Some truly enjoy the work and find it more stimulating than an office job.  Personally, I hope I never have to wait tables again.  It wasn’t work I particularly enjoyed.  But I might do it again if I had no other choice.  I’d rather wait tables than shovel dog shit, which is another job I did back before I became an overeducated housewife.

I think this song probably resonates more with the stereotypical career woman.  That’s the woman who went to college, busted her ass in an entry level job, climbed the rungs of success, got promoted, and became unwilling to let that success go, simply for the sake of a relationship or motherhood.  Not that I necessarily blame them for doing that.  It’s hard work to succeed in the work world.  It’s not usually enough to simply be good at what you do.  There’s usually a certain amount of social engineering involved and a willingness to kiss up to the right people.  That takes a certain kind of person… the kind of person I’m not.  So although I am fairly intelligent– or so I’ve been told– and I might have gotten a career going if I’d worked at it, it’s probably a blessing for me that I latched on to Bill.  It’s also a miracle that we’re as compatible as we are.    

Of course, Bill is also lucky enough to be doing work at which he excels and finds interesting.  When he was married to his first wife, she had a vision of what her life was going to be, and she expected Bill to conform to her vision.  In the 90s, the Army was downsizing.  Bill’s military career, in those days, was not so good.  He lacked confidence, and didn’t have the “killer instinct” that is highly prized among some military leaders. Ex also didn’t like the Army dictating to Bill over her, nor did she enjoy having to move all the time.  She was not a fan of the “mission first” mantra to which all people in the military and most of their families adhere. She wanted her wants and needs to come first.

So, when Bill had the chance to get out of the Army early, he took it, along with severance pay (that he eventually had to pay back).  Then he joined the Army Reserves, and he and Ex moved from Washington State to Arkansas. They bought a money pit of a house that Ex liked, because it reminded her of one she’d once seen in a snow globe. Ex proceeded to then spend money they didn’t have on furniture, carpeting, and landscaping. She said she didn’t want her children growing up in a trashy house or living like poor people, even though they were legitimately poor! 

Because the Army Reserves didn’t pay enough to cover all of the bills, Bill also worked in a couple of factories.  He did this only for the money.  He had looked into becoming a parole officer, which was work he thought he might enjoy, but the money was not enough to support the family.  So he worked in a hellish toy factory for awhile, making very little money and doing extremely dull, soul crushing work, simply so his family could eat.  He eventually got another, much better paid job at Whirlpool, where he was a supervisor.  He hated it; but he did it.  

Here Bill was, a guy who had gone to a great private university in Washington, DC and earned a degree in international relations, watching old codgers put refrigerator doors together.  It was not the stuff of his dreams.  He worked hard during the times when his young daughters were awake, so he didn’t get to see them much.  Meanwhile, Ex continued to treat him poorly, and work turned into an escape from his home life.  

Bill’s whole existence revolved around that factory job– a boring, soul draining, exhausting position that made it hard for him to properly support the family, let alone ever see the sun. And Bill is very much a morning person, so those swing and third shifts were pretty hard for him. His brain goes down with the sun; that is a fact! I remember seeing a picture of Bill in those days. He was in his early 30s, but he looked at least twenty years older. In fact, he looked older then than he does today, over twenty years later!

Then, an opportunity arose for Bill to go back into the Army with the Arkansas National Guard.  He could be in the Title X program, which would mean he’d be a full-time officer, same as he was when he was in the regular Army.  He’d just be paid from a different pot and serve at the pleasure of the governor of Arkansas.  It was a real blessing for him, because he was finally ready to excel in the Army. Yes, it would mean the regular Army lifestyle, but it beat the ever living hell out of factory work and never having enough money to pay the bills, or enough seniority to score a day shift.  

But Bill’s ex wife wasn’t on board with that decision.  She was presumably pissed off that the Army would, once again, dictate the course of their lives so much, and give Bill someone else to answer to besides her. She was not willing to let him go back into the Army to do work that was more appropriate for him, yet forced them to move all the time. She wanted instant gratification and total freedom to do what she wanted… although it’s hard to enjoy total freedom of choice when one is broke.  

It didn’t matter to Ex that the Army paid more, offered much better benefits and more prestige, and was work that Bill found interesting and fulfilling.  Bill’s decision to go back into the military wasn’t what Ex wanted. She resented that he’d made that choice for himself, and wanted him to get back in line.  So she tossed out the “d” word.

Ex later admitted she hadn’t wanted the divorce. She had meant for it to be an idle threat. But Bill went off script and agreed when she presented her ultimatum, which also included the false accusation that Bill hates women (I’ve been with him for almost 19 years, and it just ain’t so).  

Ex didn’t want to give in and be a good partner, and let Bill’s career disrupt her vision of what her life was supposed to be.  She expected him to keep working in that factory, living in podunk Arkansas, strictly so that she could maintain the status quo of that vision she had.  Bill realized that he didn’t want to live that way; so, when Ex demanded the divorce, he agreed.  She was supposedly shocked, and very upset. She locked herself in the guest room at my in-laws’ house and cried.

Instead of owning up to what was supposed to be an idle threat, Ex was determined to make Bill pay dearly for not doing her bidding. She still thought he’d eventually cave, even after they drove to the notary she’d tracked down who would work on Easter Sunday morning. She truly believed he’d come crawling back to her. She even told him he’d always know where his family is; which, of course, was a lie.

They had their ugly divorce, and then Bill and I found each other.  We weathered some difficult years financially, but I’d say our lifestyle is a lot more like what Bill’s dreams were for his own life. I’m relatively contented, too, even if I do worry about someday living in a refrigerator box– perhaps even made for a Whirlpool fridge— under a bridge. Ex, on the other hand, is reportedly still unsatisfied.

I had my own “dreams”, back when I was a lot younger, although to be honest, I’m not sure how they would have worked out for me.  I got through my graduate programs just fine, but if I had taken work in those fields, I’d probably truly be “slogging through life”.  It would be work I was doing to put a roof over my head.  I’d probably be waiting to die.  

But then, I probably would have also liked the career I trained for more than shoveling dog shit or waiting tables.  Maybe I’d feel better about myself… although if I know myself, I doubt that’s what would have happened.  I would always be coveting something else and kicking myself for not following my elusive dreams.  My real dream, by the way, is to be a writer and a musician who actually gets paid regularly, not a public health social worker.  Right now, I’m fortunate enough to be able to chase my dreams with little hope that they’ll come true… but I also don’t have to slog away in a job I hate just to maintain my existence. 

It’s hard for a lot of people to be satisfied, though.  Even though I do pretty much get to do whatever I want most days, I still feel a bit unfulfilled.  I do sometimes feel like I’m just waiting to be done with this life.  Listening to “50/50” and reading the comments reminds me that I’m not alone in this reality.  I probably shouldn’t complain.  

Edited to add:  I played this song for Bill and he immediately got what Garfunkel and Oates were singing about, even before they got to the punchline.  Then I shared the comment I quoted in this post and he was about to protest, until I reminded him that many people aren’t lucky enough to pursue their dreams.  They’re simply trying to keep the lights on and the fridge full.  Often, accomplishing that involves slogging away at a job they don’t enjoy.  

So while I get the point of the song and enjoy it– I also realize that it really applies to a relatively small segment of privileged people who had the opportunity to even try to chase their dreams.  Many people are not that lucky.  That being said, as much as I complain, I do realize that I’m very lucky, and luck can be a fleeting thing.  

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