Advice: Step Away, Sister

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I have a real problem with my older sister, and—finally—I’ve gotten to the point where I am over it. When we were little, my sister “Ethel” constantly insulted me. She would call me names, make fun of my weight, point out every pimple, tease me that the boys would never be interested in someone who looked like me. Ethel would come into my room like it was her own and rifle through my closets, helping herself to my clothes and shoes, or she would take my CDs and “lose” them, or she would slip my favorite lip gloss into her purse and “forget” to give it back to me.

Ethel has since moved several hours away. I still live in the town we grew up in, and I only see her when she visits our parents. Now that we are adults…well, I want to say we get along better, but we don’t, not really. Adolescent teasing has given way to adult nagging, as though she can make me thinner/smarter/wealthier/with the right guy.

I’m in my early 20s, live independently, have a nice career underway, own my own house, own a car, have a good group of friends who support me instead of trying to tear me down. I like who I am and what I’ve achieved so far, but my sister thinks I can do “better” and won’t hear it when I tell her I’ve had enough, so I keep my distance.

My parents, of course, wish we were closer and have asked me to try, try, try. They don’t hear me when I say I’ve had enough, either. I have no interest in being her friend and having girl-dates with her when she’s in for visits. I certainly don’t feel like I need to go see her and be alone with her on her turf. But I don’t want to be disrespectful to my parents. Should I suck it up and keep trying with Ethel? Or is it OK to keep her at arms’ length?

Stepping Away Sister

Dear Stepping,

B&P: Before we say anything else we want to say, congratulations for getting your life together at such a young age. You’ve made good plans and grown into them. Whether or not your sister and your family can acknowledge your accomplishments, be very proud of yourself and keep building a community of friendship and support even as you build your dreams.

B: Ahh, family. Despite the Norman Rockwellian images of family we like to conjure up—gathered around the turkey, bright smiles, warm gestures, no drama—it’s often a minefield. These are the people who have known you the longest and, ironically, may not know that much about you. They may not know your political affiliation, your current job title or your favorite ice cream flavor but chances are they are intimately acquainted with your emotional triggers.

There’s a profoundly sad moment in the movie Home for the Holidays, that I think will help explain your feelings. The two sisters, constantly at loggerheads through the film, finally have the conversation that gets to the root of their problems. It goes like this.

Claudia: You don’t know the first thing about me.

Joanne: Likewise, I’m sure. If I just met you on the street… if you gave me your phone number… I’d throw it away.

Claudia: Well, we don’t have to like each other, Jo. We’re family.

And therein lies the problem. You’re family, and you’re stuck with each other. And it can be hard to continually justify why you’re spending your valuable time and energy with someone who does everything she can to make you feel bad about yourself when your carefully cultivated, friendship-based, supportive urban family who genuinely likes you is just a phone call and a quick escape out the back door away.

P: Oh, this is so difficult, I’m so sorry. It seems that not only is your sister toxic and has been for a long while, but your parents also seem to have been indifferent toward the pain this causes you — and the disruption this ugliness causes in the family. Their expectation that you, who are picked on, should be the person who can, never mind should, make the situation better is a sad indication of their cluelessness. I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are not actively mean, but they have certainly been passively mean.

B: Normally, I am an advocate for cutting one’s losses and stepping away from any sort of toxic relationship—partners, friends, co-workers if you can manage it (though that does get more difficult). If they’re bad for you, develop an exit strategy, and go. However! Family—and one’s nuclear family in particular—does have its own set of rules. Cousins? Cut ‘em out, let ‘em go, how often do you see them anyway? Aunts and uncles? Easy to create distance. But a sister…

Yeah, that can be tricky.

I’m not saying it’s tricky because I live in some kind of rose-colored ideal that one day, one day, you’ll both come to realize just how important the other is, and years of pent-up anger and dysfunctional interactions will fall away. I’m not saying it’s tricky because some day you may need a kidney, and she’s your best bet. But it’s tricky because you have parents you want to respect and honor; in your letter, it sounds like your parents are the only thing keeping you from kissing her goodbye forever. Chalk one up to yourself for that.

P: Terri and I talked a lot about how you didn’t focus on your sister, but rather on your desire not to be abused by her. Congratulations. Because you can’t fix her; I’m not sure you’ll be able to talk to her about this. You’re doing the work you need to be doing for yourself: you’ve got work you like, you own a house, and you have good friends. You’re building a life. If you read us, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of getting the support you need. If you don’t have it in your social circle, pay for it. You need to figure out what role you play in your family and the ways you are and are not willing to keep the family working. If you want to maintain relationships with your parents and sister, or create new ones, talking to a professional who can help you determine a course of action is a good thing. Maybe that person will have suggestions for new tacks to take with your sister, or your parents. There’s nothing like a little rehearsal before you try new tactics. Afterwards, with your therapist, you can even allow yourself the opportunity to debrief.

If I were you, I would also be disappointed in my parents’ response now and over my lifetime. In a way, it sounds as if they see you as capable and mature, but it doesn’t sound as if they see her as mean and hurtful.

B: UGH! Pet peeve alert! It’s almost as though you’re being punished for being strong. Why do you have to take her abuse? “Because you can” is not an acceptable answer. Sorry. Had to interject.

P: They are not protecting you from her abuse. From your description, your sister’s actions are verbally and psychically abusive. Your parents’ failure to stand up for you deepens that abuse. This is another place a counselor can help you. You don’t want to confront everyone and everything too early as your work on this because that can really blow things up. You need to figure out how to make your family hear you, because so far what you’ve tried has not served you well, but you also have to guard against them becoming defensive and turning on you. You don’t want to let any of your family members tarnish your life and your very real accomplishments.

B: You never mention whether you spend any time alone with your sister when she’s in for her visits. Have you ever, one on one, sat her down and told her how you feel about her behavior? Or have your exchanges been more like: dinner table à she insults you à you eyeroll and tell her to knock it off? That’s an adolescent pattern reasserting itself, and if I were your parents I’d have a hard time seeing it as anything other than the behavior you’ve always engaged in. Maybe you should try taking her out for a cocktail, or inviting her to your house—alone, no parents—to have a long-awaited chat. And tell her, without drama, that her criticisms hurt you deeply. They make you put up walls against her, which then hurts your parents. Try saying, “I expect you to treat me like the adult I am, because I feel like you still address me as though I am 12 years old and you’re the big sister who knows better, instead of the peers we’ve become.” Try NOT to say, “Knock it off, Ethel! You’ve always been so bossy.” Those two sentences are worlds apart in terms of gravitas. Because people, and women in particular, are notoriously bad at actually asking for what we want (because who wants to make waves?), you may want to practice saying what you need to say to your sister in a mirror. Practice makes perfect. Then, the next time she’s around, actually say it to her.

If that doesn’t work and she doesn’t let up…at least you’ve had your say, and can claim that you’ve tried to build a bridge with your sister. If she continues to harass you over your appearance or what the heck ever, don’t engage in that conversation. It’s a common mistake people make, thinking they have to comply or reply to the questions put before them, instead of saying, “I’m done having this conversation, and am moving on.” Give yourself some control of the conversation. Simply remind her that you’ve already asked her not to badger you any longer about personal issues, but you’d be happy to talk to her about the latest movies playing at the local megaplex. I’ll back you in saying that it would be fine, after that, to maintain your arms’ length relationship with Ethel. Be polite, pleasant even, when she’s around, and then slip out the back door as soon as you can to meet up with the friends who support and nourish you emotionally.

P:  Whatever you do, remember that you have choices and that exercising those choices will give you power. She may continue to bait you. But you don’t have to play. It’s a sad thing if she does, but that will be her choice. It might be helpful to plan some fun things around necessary family visits — channel yourself some good old Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar —  not only does it give you something to look forward to, it also gives you a time when the visit is over. One thing you want to be sure about though, as you reduce your sister’s influence in your face to face conversations, you want to ensure that she begins to take up less time in your life with friends. She is who she is. I’m not saying you don’t get to tell stories, but you don’t want to waste your time reliving the discomfort.

 

Time for big sis to step back, or little sis is stepping away.

Time for big sis to step back, or little sis is stepping away.

THE BIG SISTER recipe

  • 2 1/2 oz (70g) Cranberry Juice
  • 1 oz (28g) Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
  • 1 oz (28g) Ginger Beer
  • 1 1/2 oz (70g) Citrus Vodka*
  • 1/4 oz (7g) Simple Syrup**
  • A few drops of fresh lemon juice
For the Garnish
  • 3-4 Sugared Cranberries, skewered, or a slice of lemon
METHOD
  1. To a cocktail shaker, add a handful of ice, cranberry juice, orange juice, ginger beer, vodka, simple syrup and a drop or two of lemon juice. Test to see if it needs a bit more simple. If so, add just about a 1/4 tsp more at a time.
  2. Shake 3-4 times. Pour over ice.
  3. Garnish with Sugared Cranberries.

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Advice: Partisan Politics at Home

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I am a second-semester sophomore at college. To save money and make life easier for my parents, I am attending the college in our town and living at home. It’s been a lot of fun and with one exception has worked very well.

My parents are Democrats. They’re not just great-hearted policy liberals they are staunch, wild, my way or the highway kind of Democrats. My older brothers, who all live in the area, are exactly the same. Nothing’s more fun than casting stones at the opposition! So what’s the problem, you ask?

Well, my boyfriend is a Republican. They “tease” me unmercifully and call him names when he’s not there. If I have him over for dinner, they mock him to his face. It hurts him, and it certainly doesn’t give him a great opinion of Democrats. “See,” he says, “See, that’s what they’re all like.”

The other thing? I’ve been taking nothing but finance and poli-sci courses since I got to campus. I’m a Republican too. And now I have this amazing opportunity this summer to work for a state senator. It’s a dream job. My parents would think it’s a dream job too, except that it’s for a Republican. He’s a good man! But that won’t matter to them.

I’ve avoided bringing up my newly-embraced party affiliation to them. I know it’s cowardly, but I have to live here. I can’t afford to go to school if I don’t live at home. I don’t like living with all the shouting and ugliness. So…Help! Where do I go from here?

Signed,

Stealth Republican

Dear Stealth,

P: Oh, dear… This is going to be a challenge, isn’t it? First and foremost, and easiest, I think you should stop asking your BF to dinner. Although you should be able to invite your friends over and have them be welcomed, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Make clear to him that you’re doing this because you care for him and not because you’re giving up on the relationship.

If one of your brothers is an easier touch for you, you might be able to say to him, not when you’re being what they probably think of as “teased,” but when you’re alone, “I don’t know whether you understand exactly how much it hurts me when you name call and humiliate this guy I care about. I don’t feel safe and I don’t feel that my friends are welcome in my home.”

Maybe he can hear the pain and stop because he loves you. He might then be able to de-escalate what goes on with other brothers.

B: You’re nicer than me. I really want her to confront her parents. I get that it’s a difficult thing to do, but they—and the messages they’ve sent to their other children—are causing our letter writer pain. I don’t think she will make any progress trying to back-door-wrangle this situation. Her entire family is causing her anguish and behaving in an insulting and derogatory manner towards someone she brought to them. Someone has to start acting like an adult here and instill manners. I’m afraid that’s up to the letter writer.

P: I want her to confront her parents; I just want her to develop an ally at home FIRST, if possible. If you can talk to either or both of your parents, you might mention in a non-confrontational way, that you’re confused. Supposedly, they taught you to be open and welcoming of everyone. What does it mean that they’re willing to accept immigrants but not their neighbors? You might lay it on heavily and say that you’re sorry, but you hadn’t realized that you wouldn’t be able to bring people to the house who were different from the family. And say something along the lines, “I’ve told him, that it’s not fair to him to ask him to come to a home where people are mean and hostile towards him.” Tell them the truth, that you respect this guy too much to allow anyone to bully him and that it hurts too much to see the parents who talked to you about inclusivity be so mean.

B: Where does the letter writer say that her parents talked to her about inclusivity, or taught her to be open and accepting? She doesn’t say that anywhere. In fact, she said they’re “My way or the highway” as far as politics are concerned. Which is inherently exclusive. And damaging. As we have proof, written above.

P: I’m holding fast there, Terri. I’m sure they talk easily about accepting all sorts of people. It’s part of the party platform. My guess is if she came home and said she were gay, they’d be all, oh, wow, look now you can get married. They’re not willing to accept anyone outside their norms — but things are hard because they probably actually think the ARE inclusive.

Now you knew that we would get to this — the boyfriend, while his presence in your life exposes uncomfortable truths about people you love, is really only a sign of what the deeper problem is. It seems that you don’t live in a house that accepts you. That’s a crying shame.

B: Much of the time—not all, but much—children continue the affiliations they were raised with. They keep the same religion, the same political ideology, the same diet, even. It’s what people know, and it’s an easy way to define one’s world. The problem comes in when a kid rejects an affiliation. Think about what the gay kid coming out to her or his parents goes through. I mean…I’ve seen fights break out over an adult child’s decision to embrace vegetarianism (Parents: But what will you EAT?  Kid: My vegetables.) I had my own moment with my family when they realized I had given up the religion I was born into. And for you, your decision to switch political parties—it feels right to you, doesn’t it? For you, it makes sense. But for your parents…if it’s how they define their world then it’s also partly how they define themselves. Your defection to the other side is also a rejection of them and who they are. I’m not saying this perspective is the correct one to have, because you’re not rejecting them. But a lot of people take this sort of thing incredibly personally, which is why I think they’re so hostile towards your beau from the very beginning.

P: Presumably you’ve tried the yelling back thing and that hasn’t worked too well. It never does. It just gets everyone all roiled up. If you want change, you’re going to have to be the one who changes. You’ve got things you want to do; you don’t want to spend college simply reacting to their judgmentalism. And you don’t want to become judgmental from the other side. Nothing good comes of that.

However, now you’re going to have to make some hard decisions. Are you willing to live in a house where you’re not accepted? Your quick response might be, “but they’re paying for my school and I can’t afford it any other way.” That translates to “Yes, I’m willing to live with this.”

B: And in your case, that’s a bitter pill and hard to not take personally. Because being made fun of, and having your boyfriend mocked, around the dinner table? That IS personal. Sometimes, people see things upside down. They think if you reject a value system that they believe in, you’re issuing a personal attack. But if they behave antagonistically toward you and someone you love, and make you want to leave the house, somehow, you’re not supposed to take that personally?

P: Some people aren’t willing to put up with this, and they will find a way to pay their own way through school. Sometimes they quit and find a full time job, and live incredibly frugally and skimp and save and get it done. How much do both your education and your self respect mean to you? You can’t have a conversation with your parents, if you don’t know what you’re willing to put on the line. Well, you can, but they don’t usually go well.

B: To be fair, and practical, the idea of the self-supporting college student is increasingly a myth. And even if she strikes out on her own and is fully independent, the way the student loan laws are written, she still needs to access her parents’ income tax records in order to get federal funding, until she is 24 or married.

P: There’s all of that, so if you can’t get an education appropriate for what you want to do without them, can you get some counseling for coping strategies? Because this isn’t going to work forever. Consider your options. Think about coping strategies; think about an exit strategy. Then talk to your parents, who actually may just be clueless about how hurtful they’re being with the boyfriend and with you. It’s not good to live where you’re completely disregarded.

Be prepared. They’ll tell you it’s your boyfriend. They’ll tell you it’s a phase. Even if those things were true, you don’t feel welcome or safe to explore who you can become. My guess is they told you, you can be anything you want to be, and guess what, you want to be a Republican. So did they mean it?

Here’s the thing. Conversations like the one I’m suggesting take a lot of preparation and an absolute dedication to being calm and deliberate. This may be a series of conversations. It’s going to be a lot for them. I just Googled: How to tell your parents you’re a Republican! Of course there was stuff. If you let them see how you feel, let it be the pain, not the anger. Give them space to maneuver a bit. In your home, the anger is a tried and true tool for getting away from the point. Clarify what you want. Practice what you want to say. Start little. Don’t close any doors. But hold fast to your vision for yourself and what you’re willing to do to make your dreams come true. Don’t threaten them; just focus on your dreams.

B: And write a list of topics to cover. Don’t let the anger or pain or arguments or tears or name-calling get in the way of you making your point. If you’re going to intern for a politician, you may as well get acquainted with the idea of sticking to the determined talking points. This? Is what they are. Stay on point. Make your case.

P: You want your parents to support and love you. Even more than that, you need to love and respect yourself first.

Oh I hope this goes well, however rockily. Families are meant to keep growing. The chances are pretty good that they love you and want the best from you. It’s just that your best and theirs are a bit different. And good luck with the internship.

Prepare carefully. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Prepare carefully. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Elephant Cocktail

  • 1  Ounce pomegranate liqeur
  • 1  Ounce  black cherry rum
  • 1 1/2  Ounce pomegranate juice
  • 1 1/2  Ounce  fresh sour mix (2 parts simple syrup, 2 parts lemon juice, 1 part lime juice)
  • Blueberries as garnish

Combine all ingredients (except blueberries) in a cocktail shaker, shake, and strain into a rocks glass. Add garnish.

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Advice: Father, Dead or Alive?

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I am concerned about my 80 year old father. He’s a widower, and the last of his siblings. When he was younger he was a force to be reckoned with—one of those strong, confident Mad Men sort of businessmen—but he’s been retired for a while, and has lost touch with a lot of his old contacts thanks to time or their passing. He doesn’t go out much, and so he doesn’t really take care of himself. He never shaves, he has crazy-man hair, his clothes don’t fit and he’s got dirt caked under his fingernails. I feel like he’s just not concerned about his appearance any more.

What I’m really worried about is what to do about his appearance once he dies. Does a funeral home handle things like a shave and a haircut? His scraggly look doesn’t really represent the man he is. Part of me wants to ask him about this, but I’ve never been able to talk to my father man-to-man. I worry that I’ll get tongue-tied, or end up hurting his feelings. Can you give me some feedback?

Signed,

Worried About the Future

 

Dear Worried,

B: It can be extraordinarily difficult to manage the demands of an aging parent. Interpersonal dynamics can get twisted when the traditional roles associated with parent and child (caregiver and dependent) flip-flop. Fortunately for you, you’ve turned a blind eye to all of that.

P: In today’s world, we’ve allowed ourselves to be so disconnected from life that we don’t know a lot about what can happen as we age. There’s actually a lot of info around about the life cycle, but it seems enough of us aren’t taking advantage. What you’re seeing is your father’s deterioration. Handsome, snappily-dressed men don’t suddenly stop caring, something happens — disease, depression, addiction, stroke, who knows — that makes them unable to care for themselves.

What’s sad is that you’ve let your father wander down this road without stepping in. What’s great is that you’re now ready. Before you do anything, I suggest you spend an evening with your computer googling. Google really is your friend.

Doctors are also your friends. Do you have a family doctor? Make an appointment to talk to her. Find out what you should do for your dad. Call your dad’s doctor. Or call up your local Area Agency on Aging and tell them your father’s in trouble and you need some help. Because, and you need to understand this, your dad’s in trouble…

And then try real friends. If you don’t have siblings, do you have friends your own age who have aging parents? Or friends that are Social workers?

I’m guessing that if you ask in the break room you’ll find someone who knows something and that you’re not the only person trying to figure out what happened to your formerly strong and stylish parent.

B: What you’re missing is his specious hygiene represents exactly who he is now. It doesn’t represent who you want him to be, but it’s who he is. And you know, I get it. You’re thinking of your dad when he was young. Mad-Men-esque. Suave, glib, handsome, right? Dirty fingernails and wild hair is so not that guy. But he’s so not that guy any longer, so you need to stop looking backwards and bring your vision into the future. Coming to grips with an aging parent is difficult. Understanding your father’s mortality means you get a glimpse into your own mortality. Who wants to think about their own Big Sleep? Or, the process that takes you to the end, with the myriad physical and mental issues that accompany the aging process? It’s not pretty, but if we get old we go through it. We can only hope we will go through it with someone who cares enough to ask the right questions if our personal aging process becomes burdensome.

P: In addition to whatever is wrong with your father, his lack of cleanliness is not healthy for him. What’s his refrigerator look like? What’s he eating? Is he capable of feeding himself? You haven’t exhibited a lot of concern for your father other than wanting things to look good when he dies, but my guess is, from the little story you’re telling, that it’s not a warm relationship. Even if that’s the case, you do yourself no favor by not trying to fix things. You can do this from a distance. If there’s no money, social services doesn’t like to let human beings dissolve and die, call them and let them get involved. Don’t want to do it for your dad? Think about doing it for another human being — any human being — and take care of it that way.

B: The likelihood is very high that your father is unwell and needs to see a doctor. The only way you’ll know if he just doesn’t care, or if he’s got deeper problems to manage, is by checking it out. And if you want to actually do something that can further your understanding of where he is mentally and physically, you need to go with him when he goes to the doctor. Get over your discomfort and talk to him. Any relationship issues you may have with your dad stopped being relevant when your father stopped cleaning himself properly. It’s how we adult. It can be hard to take on that mantle when you’re dealing with your own adults, but compassion should point us in the direction of caring, and the reach for understanding.

Of course, if all you want to do is mark time until he dies, then by all means, just worry about the shave and a haircut.

I hope you choose adult compassion. Your father deserves it.

P: Who you are as an individual and what you expect out of life is as much at stake here as your father’s health. Old age can include disease. It always includes deterioration. In our society, we all want to pretend that we will always be strong and vital. We turn our children into tiny sex objects and pretend that 60 is the new 20. It’s not.

We come into being; we grow up; we mature; we age. Each and every one of us. We all need help in each and every one of these stages. And we all need to be helpers. All of us need to be helpers.

I’m trying really hard here not to jump up and down and ask you, “where is your humanity?” Because really, even if you have a lousy relationship with him, have you no feeling for another person? You don’t say that he’s a horrible person; but your disregard for him doesn’t say he’s beloved. I’m not asking you to mend your relationship with this man, even though, trust me, it needs mending! Among the things your father suffers from is neglect — not his neglecting his hygiene, your neglect of him. Please, help him. And then, this is not what you want to take forward with you into the future. This is not who you want to be as a man. No one wants to be the person who doesn’t see another’s suffering.

Unless of course you do. And then, there’s not much that Terri or I can say.

But even if you do, pick up a phone and call social services. Someone needs to take care of this man while he’s alive. Because there is no reason for him to live like this, other than you don’t care to care for him. Before you wrote to us, you could plead ignorance. Now you’re done.

And after you get the life part figured out, here’s some information from an expert. Because they will care for your dad… Actually it seems they’ll care for him whether or not you do. I’m going to trust that you will however do what is right.

This just in from Patti Fitchett, friend of BnP and a professional undertaker: I don’t know anything about while he is alive, but once this person’s father dies, I have some words of advice from a funeral director. First of all, every person who will have any kind of public viewing (such as a wake or visitation with the body lying in state) or even a private viewing (a few family members come into the funeral home to say their goodbyes before cremation takes place) will be thoroughly washed, shampooed and given a shave. Even women are shaved, (and not just those in the hot-flash years) because it helps the cosmetics that are used to look better.

For any viewing, attention will be paid to the person’s fingernails, hair and the fit of their clothing. Funeral directors have tricks to make baggy clothes lay more naturally and to help tight clothing not appear uncomfortable. A public viewing of this kind can be very healing to a family. Sometimes when a loved one is decimated by disease or the ravages of aging, a talented funeral director can give the family a beautiful memory of peace and grace. As far as clothing, new clothing can be purchased, or the person’s own clothes can be cleaned and used. (Nobody HAS to wear a suit!)

A good funeral director will never be judgmental about your loved one. So even if your dad has a scraggly beard and crazy old man hair, we will know that he is your dad and that you love him. That is the spirit of the trade.

Celebrity advisor bio: Patti Fitchett is a licensed funeral director in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She writes a monthly column in her local paper titled “Matters of Life & Death”. In her spare time, she loves to laugh.

aging father napkin

If nothing else, as a fellow human, your father’s well-being should merit some legitimate concern.

THE GIBSON COCKTAIL

2.5 oz Gin (or vodka)

.5 oz Dry vermouth

Garnish: 1 Cocktail onion

Glass:  Cocktail

HOW TO MAKE THE GIBSON COCKTAIL

Add both ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice.

Stir, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

Garnish with a whole cocktail onion.

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Advice: The Real Work of Parenting

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I am struggling to manage my household, and feel like I am failing miserably.

Recently, I lost my job, so the all the financial burdens of our home are falling on my husband’s shoulders. I am looking, but haven’t found anything yet, since I’m a little older and it’s harder for me to find work. My husband is a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy and he hasn’t so much as said one angry thing to me, but I know the bills are piling up and he’s under a lot of stress. I hate it.

We have three kids living with us, and two of them are adults. One of the older kids is in college but the oldest one works. We also have one son’s girlfriend living with us, and two of their friends. They’re all employed but it’s part-time and they don’t make much money. Nobody contributes to the household.

I want to be a good mom, but I also feel like maybe these kids are taking advantage of me and my husband. What should I do? I’m really worried about how the financial stresses we’re under will affect my husband.

Signed, Worried about the Future

 

Dear Worried,

P: Oh, we are so sorry you lost your job. It is hard to find work as you age. There’s no question but that the market place isn’t forgiving of age. Check with all the local help sites and see if there’s support in getting a job. Don’t hesitate to call every single friend you have. You need every piece of help you can get.

However — about your home life! I worry that in your worry, you’ve lost your balance as well as your job. You’re allowing people to leech off you. Young adults whose parents don’t choose to do the same are living with you. Why would you allow them to drive you into poverty or bankruptcy? It’s not smart. It’s not kind. To you or them. Do not allow them to make your life more difficult. Your relationship with your husband is precious, you need to protect that.

B: Way back in the dawn of time, as human civilization developed and we gathered in communal caves and humans developed the traits associated with our sort of community-mindedness, rituals emerged that helped members of a family/clan/unit cross from youthful dependency to adulthood. These coming-of-age rituals were often dangerous (or at the very least emotionally trying) tests of strength or quests for survival. The participant had to manage on their own in the wild, or fight a bear, or walk through fire. And so on, and so on. The rituals served an important purpose, though, and they marked an important, life-affirming transition. The child left the hut, but then returned as a man.

Sometimes, I think it’s too bad we’ve gotten away from this sort of traditional journey into adulthood. Because your son and his friends and girlfriend could really use a “kick ‘em out the door and let ‘em fight the bear” kind of moment. It’s time they all grew up.

P: If there are people in your house who are earning but not contributing, they need either to pay or leave. If they’re making enough to buy gas to get to work and have clothes, then they can contribute from what’s left over. No one owes them beers, vids or tats. Especially people with money problems.

You’re not really being generous, you’re being taken advantage of.

B: By my count, there are eight people living in your house, including you and your husband, and only one person supports the entire lot of you. That, Momma, ain’t right. We will give a pass to the youngest child, who I assume is still somewhere in the K-12 range, and the older son who’s in college; for all intents and purposes, their schoolwork is their job right now, so we will leave them alone so they can focus.

Now. As for the rest of them…

Your son, his girlfriend, and two other friends all live under your roof—eat your food, make use of your facilities (shower, laundry, etc)—and don’t contribute a thing? Oh, Momma, you are being taken for a ride. With adulthood comes responsibilities, and one of those responsibilities is participating in the upkeep of the roof over one’s own head. There is nothing about adulthood that entails living off the sweat of your parents while you behave like a high schooler who works at the mall for mad money.

P: Figure out what base costs are for you and your younger child to live there. Is your college kid working? Is his/her grade average high? Have you always paid for a child in school?

I know I’m old fashioned. I was brought up to participate. Are you doing laundry? Supplying food? Electricity? Sheets? Living space? All of these cost money. Put a price on it. And then set a date.

B: I’m not necessarily advocating that you throw your brood out into the street. I don’t know where you live, housing may be difficult to come by or prohibitively expensive to rent if you don’t have any savings for security deposits, etc.  But allowing them to live responsibility-free in your home does no one any favors. You and your husband are stressed out. Your youngest and the one in college are getting the message (loud and clear!) that in a few years they can live off your largesse, no matter what. And the oldest son and his crew are living an extended adolescence, which doesn’t help anyone. It’s time they take on the mantle of adulthood.

P: Set a schedule: As of a certain date, each of them will owe you $X per month (or week). Establish chores, as well… You might allow those who refuse to pay to sleep there an two extra weeks while they make arrangements, but there will be no food, no laundry, no wifi, no tv. If you have to, take those things out of their rooms. You take that tv out of their room, they’ll move really quickly. Or their devices, or, or, or.  Changing passwords is not all that difficult.

You do these young adults a disservice when you make them believe the world owes them a living. When will they be responsible? I’d want to be darned sure that son and girlfriend were using birth control as well. (when did I get this suspicious?) Because wouldn’t it be lovely for them, now when they have no responsibilities to have a baby you can support and babysit. Yikes. I mean really: Holy Moley!

B: Parents are afraid to seem “mean”. But do you know what’s more cruel than forcing your kids to grow up? Not preparing them for the realities of how the world works, so when they go out into it they can’t function. You can’t coddle them forever. You may think you’re showing love, but you’re emotionally crippling them all.

P: You need to protect your husband. You also need not to be so busy taking care of the house and the freeloaders that you can’t get a job or can’t find the energy to look for one. You also need to be a good role model for your kids and the neighbor kids.. And you owe your youngest a safe place to grow up. The older ones had it; if you can, you want to give the same stability to him/her. What you don’t want is a child that is seeing other people take advantage of you and then beginning to think that she/he can take advantage of you and of people in the future.

B: Long ago, living in the caves or the huts, once people crossed into what was determined to be “adulthood” for their era, they were expected to behave accordingly. Imagine an able-bodied young caveman saying, “I’m hungry…Dad, go out and bag us another caribou, will you? Me and Becky will be snuggling under our fur blanket while you and Mom kill and clean it. K? Thanks.” It sounds ridiculous, right? That’s because it IS ridiculous. Of course you’re worried, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. There’s no better time than the present to take control of this situation.

Taking care of someone doesn't necessarily mean coddling them. Remember that.

Taking care of someone doesn’t necessarily mean coddling them. Remember that.

The Stiff Upper Lip:

  • 3oz Gin
  • 3oz Apple Cider
  • 1/2 oz Triple Sec
  • Lemon Slices
  • Sliced Apples
    Preparation: 
  • Combine all ingredients into a shaker glass and shake well. Pour into a highball glass and garnish with apple slices and a lemon.

Got a problem? Email us at bartender priestess (at) gmail (dot) com. Human non-spambots, remove spaces, insert proper punctuation. All questions will remain confidential.

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Dear Bartender and Priestess,

My sister, “Cindy” is driving me out of my mind. She is so irresponsible.

A year and a half ago we celebrated my father’s 90th birthday. My sister lived in another part of the country, so she took some time off work and came home, staying at our parents’ house as she always does. The day before she was ready to leave, Daddy died of a heart attack.

She called work and took a leave of absence, telling them she was staying with our mom to help her get settled. At first we thought it was great that she was there. It meant Mom had a chance to get used to Dad’s being gone and would have some help downsizing.

But, Cindy’s been home with her now for about a year and a half. It’s way past time for Mom to move into assisted living and for Baby Sister to go home. Mom isn’t getting the socialization she needs. Mom says she isn’t interested in moving out of her house; she wants to live there with Cindy. Cindy always takes her side. She also keeps insisting on being included in Mom’s healthcare decisions. The thing is, I’m a nurse. She’s not. I have her medical power of attorney.

I pay Cindy a salary out of mother’s pocket and we’re giving her room and board. She gets two days off most weeks, but complains if the other three of us can’t fill in on the times the nurses can’t be there on the weekend.

Last week Cindy’s former partner died. I’m sure she’s sad, but she hasn’t been with this woman for about 2 years, and it’s not like they were married. Hell, she doesn’t even believe in marriage. I can’t plan a schedule for the next month because Cindy doesn’t know when things are going to happen in Houston. Why can’t these people make a plan and just stick with it?

Cindy’s an artist and calls herself an “activist.” She’s almost 60. It’s time for her to get something steady in her life and stop leeching off the family. It’s also time for her to stop filling Mom with the notion that she can live at home. Mom doesn’t have a lot of time left I want her to be safe and not constantly reminded that Daddy isn’t here any more. We all live outside Boston (except of course for Cindy) and would make sure that someone visited Mom a couple times a week. There’s plenty of money to make sure she can be somewhere nice. And I’ll never need to worry about the scheduling.

Signed,

Tired of her interfering.

 

Dear Tired,

P: Wow, it must be tiring, being in charge of everything, including a few things you might not need to be. And even the things you’d like to have well organized are not necessarily going to fall into place.

I understand that you would like your Mom to feel better. You don’t say how old she is, but if she was happily married to your father a long time, grieving becomes a life-long process.

I’m not sure why you want to move her out of her home. I understand that it requires more maintenance, although there are programs that help with that, particularly in large cities. You say that there is plenty of money, so why not throw home-health aides at the problem?

I’ll admit I’m biased. Although my mom was in assisted living and then a nursing home, I spent (and was paid by my parents) a lot of time with Mom. I fed her twice a day five or six days a week. It was only later that I realized there was someone in my hometown that I could have had manage their care. I could have moved into their home and had support.

Mom had dementia and was moved a lot. Every single move was a very hard adjustment and she lost ground. You have a sister who is willing to be home and that’s what your mom wants. Why don’t you want that? You don’t say that Cindy’s not taking care of her.

B: I’m concerned about the idea of “downsizing”. Your father’s been gone for not that long of a time, really. He was 90 when he passed away, and I’m going to presume your parents married in their early-to-mid 20s. They have 60+ years of living put into their home. Why the rush to “downsize”? What’s the hurry? I’ve lost my father, too, and don’t feel any need to downsize my mother and distill the entirety of their lives together into…what would make you happy? One room? Two? I’ve watched it happen to other people, who have watched their belongings get carted out the door around them. And I remember one of them saying, “I can’t believe my daughter is doing this. I’m not even dead yet.”

P: Why don’t your Mother’s wishes carry any weight? Why can’t she have what she wants, especially if Cindy wants to give her that? My sister also had medical power, but because I saw Mom every day, and took her to the docs and to the emergency room — oh, yes, there are lots of emergency room visits with aging parents — she didn’t dream of making decisions without my input. Because I saw her every day.

B: Agreed. Your desire to leave your sister out of your mother’s medical conversations is, quite frankly, alarming. If you’re a nurse, then you know that communication and information are paramount in providing medical care. What do you gain by not having your mother’s primary caregiver as up to speed on her medical information as possible? Other than some odd sort of gloating right that you know more than Cindy, so ha ha Cindy. I am not sorry that I don’t understand this.

And what’s with the question of socialization? Does Cindy lock your mother in her room and never talk to her? Because your mom saying, “No, I don’t want to move, I want to stay here with her” tells me she likes the arrangement. Do you think Mom needs bingo night? Does your mom even like bingo? It feels like your idea of socialization is more “put her with people her own age (who she neither knows nor cares about) so she can mark time until the big sleep” and less “leave her with one of her children, who she loves, and who is offering her services as an end-of-life caregiver”. If you think Mom needs a bingo night…offer to take her to bingo. See how it goes.

P: This feels a lot like sibling rivalry here. Make sure that in your fight you leave enough room for your Mom’s well being. And I can say with assurance that 1-2 visits a week will not compensate for the comfort of her daily interaction with your sister. And as fine a home as you find, they will not love your mother the way your family does. If Cindy’s willing to do this work of love, give thanks and pamper her.

And really, what is it about your sister that you don’t like? I’m presuming her name is Cindy for a reason. Is Cinderella a family name or just a position? Her estranged partner dies and you need to know when the funeral is rather than asking her if she needs some time off and does she want to come to dinner? (And oh, btw, activist is a real word and doesn’t need the quotes around it.)

B: Your reaction to the death of Cindy’s partner (former partner, someone who was clearly very important to her) saddens and upsets me. It’s really too bad that she couldn’t die according to a more convenient timetable. For you. Though that seems to be at the core of your issues in this question. Your mother isn’t finished mourning quickly enough. Your sister hasn’t moved out in a timely fashion and is, furthermore, delaying your mother’s resigned exit out to pasture. And now, with Cindy’s partner up and dying on you, you may have to muddle through a few days that are loose and unscripted. Normally, I would sarcastically state that that was unfair of her to do that to you, but I wouldn’t want you to think I was serious.

P: Cindy works five days and has to cover the couple of hours that you guys can’t make work during the week? Are you kidding me? What makes you think you’ll all make time to see Mom when she’s in the home and you’ve packed Cindy back to Houston? If Cindy’s staying there — oh right, living at home with your mother — do you pay her for eight hours or round the clock care? If it’s only eight hours, you’re getting a steal.

B: Ann, it can be difficult to have someone you treat as an indentured servant, when you actually sort of don’t want that servant around.

P: However much we love our parents, it’s exhausting to be present. Recognize that. Support her as she does this very hard work. And you need to work on getting over the sibling thing, as it’s really unattractive.

B: Again, we agree. If your baby sister is 60, then you’re…pushing 70? Isn’t it time to put down whatever burdened you with all this anger? For your mother’s sake, if for nothing else. You’ve put her in the middle of your personal feud with Cindy. Why do you think it’s OK to use your mother as a chew toy as you rehash some lost but not quite forgotten rivalry?

P: Look, I have to believe you want the best for your mom and you’re worried. But you can’t control people’s aging process. You put her in a home and they’ll keep her alive, but not necessarily living. Stuff and familiarity is so important. She keeps her rhythm and not the institutions rhythm. She has someone who loves her living there all the time.

She has you who must love her, although, you might want to put more of that in the way you talk about this. If managing your mom is too hard, pass it on. Hire someone. Or let Cindy do it. Put your Mom and Dad’s money to good use. Let her live as large as she can in her home. Everyone wants to die at home. Sounds like your mom’s got the resources she needs to manage that. Why not make that dream come true? Certainly she helped you realize your dreams.

And whatever you’ve got going about your sister, you’re old enough to get over it.

Repeat after me: Relax. Have a nice glass of warm milk. Easy, now.

Repeat after me: Relax. Have a nice glass of warm milk. Easy, now.

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Advice: Five-Finger Fallout

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

My Uncle and I went to a pub the other night and had a great time. The beer and the food were great. We laughed a lot. I spent the night thinking, “yep, that’s my uncle.”

And then we got home. I drove because he’d had a fair amount to drink.

When we get home, he produced a beer stein that he’d pilfered from the bar. (Did I mention that I hang out there, often?)

So we had a fight. Yeah, I probably should have waited until he was sober. But he’s a grown man and he stole a glass from a bar. It makes me furious. It’s stupid and disgusting. I confess I shared that opinion with him.

He thinks I’m prissy and stuck up. I think he could easily afford to buy the stupid mug (or the bar if he wanted to), so what’s the thrill? When you’re 50, why are you stealing beer mugs?

It was stealing when we were in college and guess what? Still stealing.

He wants an apology. I want the mug to go back to the bar.

Oh, great. Now the mug will not be going back because he just “dropped it” on my kitchen floor.

What do I do with him? How do I look at him with all the admiration I had just yesterday afternoon?

Signed, Disappointed (and outraged) Nephew

 

Dear Nephew,

B: It’s always difficult to find out our beloveds have feet of clay, isn’t it?

So you and your uncle, out together, had a great night until you realized he likes to help himself to things. One of the main expenses any bar faces is the cost of glassware. Of course, one reason for that is breakage. But more to your point–the fact is, people like to steal bar glasses. More to it, beer companies want customers to steal their glasses with the cool logos printed on them. It’s stealth advertising. And I admit it; I’ve lifted one or two things from bars in my lifetime. I’m not proud of this, but it’s the truth. And my perspective shifted entirely once I went behind the stick and I ended up running short on glassware while trying to satisfy thirsty customers. It’s annoying.

P: Annoying indeed. And probably hard to reconcile with your image of him and what he represented to you. I confess that when it comes to some things, I’m very black and white — and not necessarily in the healthiest of ways. I have strong “shoulds” about things like this and this falls on the other side of my line. I have found myself outraged about exactly this — there was that time when a bunch of girlfriends got up to leave a bar and I realized my bag was full of silverware my friend had pilfered. Although that did have the added zing of her having set me up to be the one who would have been the bad guy if we got caught.

But I think there are a couple things going on here that make this hard for you to deal with. One, he stole the stupid mug. Even if the beer companies profit from this (I admit I never considered that, Mme. Bartender), stealing isn’t part of your value system. Two, your uncle is not the guy you always thought he was — and loved him for being.

B: Here’s my armchair psychiatrist, pop-culture take on what motivated your uncle. First, it is possibly the single safest way to misbehave, ever. If he engaged in drunken sex, there’s inherent danger. He could catch something, he could ruin any current relationship he’s in, he could encounter his one-night stand’s jealous partner. If he drank and drove, he could kill himself, kill someone else, end up in jail, have to pay tremendous out of pocket fines. But stealing a glass from a bar..? He gets the thrill of kind of feeling like a little bit of a badass with little to no repercussions. The most that would happen is, someone would think he was kind of a jerk, and shrug their shoulders as they took the glass back and walked away.

Or so he thought, until you unloaded on him. He probably never thought acting like a frat boy–thirty years too late–would result in such anger from you. I almost imagine the song “Glory Days” playing in his head, until you made the needle scratch its way across his mental soundtrack.

P: I probably don’t really care about what motivated him. Because, after all, he’s not looking for our support, you are. What I do care about is how you cope with your feelings about him. He’s both someone you admired and someone you didn’t know as well as you thought you did. He’s all those things you once loved, but he’s some things (a sometimes heavy drinker who lets alcohol override his good sense) you don’t like.

We’ve all been things we don’t like, the question is do we learn from those things? In this case, your uncle seems not to have learned quite enough. This is a chance for you to realize your uncle is human in ways you’re not excited about. It is also a chance to plough through the stuff that you do, that are not exactly aligned with your values and start living into who you want to be.

B: It is a blessing and a curse that we, as humans, can have complicated and even conflicted feelings about one person at the same time. You love your uncle, but you’re also profoundly disappointed in him. I get it. And you’re angry, I get that too. The thing is, you have the power to control what you do here. He is your uncle, but you are also an adult,  with all the attendant autonomy to decide how to further react. You can choose your interactions so they suit you without putting you in a position to be made uncomfortable again. You can also choose to hold on to the anger that’s flared up within you–which, after the fact, only tears away at your own well-being–or you can let your anger go. I’m not saying forget it. Remember it. Just don’t let it ride you like an old coat. And take charge of future interactions.

Don’t go out to the bar with him again. That’s where the side of him you don’t like came out, so don’t go back asking for more. I also would not make a point of confronting him about it again, because you’ve already spoken your piece. While his actions offend and upset you, and highlight something you don’t like about your uncle, in the grand scheme of things this isn’t the worst crime a person could commit, and I say that as a potentially irritated bartender who’s run short of glasses on a Saturday night. Your uncle knows how you feel, and you can’t make him see your point or apologize from the heart or stop him from digging his heels in deeper if he’s responded by being mad at you for being mad. Move on. Choose not to hang out with him, but don’t let it ruin Thanksgiving, dig?

P: Since we’re concentrating on you, you have the chance to look at the difference between exercising good judgment (based on your values and common sense) and being judgmental (based on self-righteousness.). It’s true it’s only a mug, but he stole it. And faced with your disapproval he made the childish choice to shatter the mug in your kitchen. (Keep wearing your shoes for a while.)

But our reaction to that kind of nonsense is ours to control. Judgmentalism is seductive. I have heard and succumbed to its siren call on more than one occasion. Your uncle acted like an idiot. He will live with that the rest of his life, because your relationship will never be the same. It won’t be the same because you don’t need to be hanging out with people who boost glassware.

I doubt, however, that your sound value system includes disdaining people who have foibles and weaknesses. When we were talking about this question, Terri and I had this whole long conversation about the messiness of forgiving. You want to let go of your self-righteousness. You’ve lost the chance for him to be a different person, because he did this. You have the chance to accept that weakness (and isn’t that forgiveness?) in your now perhaps not so favorite uncle. But you don’t want to be clinging to self-righteousness when you make the decision not to forget — you want to keep the information about who your uncle is in your brain, and your heart and try and see him for who he is.

For, as always in these situations, the deepest part of the question is “who are you going to be?” How will you be a person of integrity? How will you be the person who moves from thoughtful, accepting (but not embracing) love?

B: If only people behaved honorably, and as we wanted them to, all the time. But they don’t, and getting over a fundamental disappointment can be a long trip. Is this incident going to override the entirety of your relationship up until now? It’s up to you to decide how to manage the information you have. And if you decide to burn a bridge with your uncle, remember, they’re difficult (if not impossible) to build back.

P: This is the hard growing up part that happens as we become adults and our favorite uncles become people rather than icons. And sometimes we realize that our favorite uncles were our favorite uncles when we were children and might not be the best role models for us as adults. (I had this uncle. Brilliant, funny, talented — and an alcoholic who messed up his life and his children’s) He’s not a friend or acquaintance that you can move into the “former” category. He’s family. He’ll be at Thanksgiving or at your Winter Celebrations. You’re going to have to make space for this extra bit of info you have about him. Because he’s still all the things he was, plus he’s this one other thing that you’re not crazy about at all. There are maybe some other things you’ll not be excited about.

He can be some of those things to you again if you’ll let him. You might not be ready for him to do that by the next holiday. And you have a choice, you can go home and nurse a grudge and cast a great pall over the holiday, or you can find something else fun to do that holiday that will necessitate your absence (something fun, did you hear me?) and give yourself some space to come to terms. Families are filled with foibles. You don’t need to encourage him and you may never have the relationship you had with him, but acceptance will keep your family, your family. You may not need to share with anyone what happened… (that’s why you wrote to us, not your mom!) but you do need to change your relationship with him to one you can live with… but you need to do that when you’re not nursing your broken heart.

stealing beer mugs

Think carefully? Do you want to start a feud over this?

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Advice: Husband? Or Landlord with Benefits?

Dear Bartender and Priestess: For the last ten years I have been married to “Shaun”. We’ve both been married once before. Shaun and I get along well and like many of the same things, so courting seemed easy. It wasn’t long after we were married, though, that he informed me we were going to split every expense exactly down the middle. Everything, 50-50. He makes significantly more money than me, and I don’t begrudge him that, but he doesn’t even adjust what I should pay to account for our disparity in income. I moved into his house, which is in his name, and he won’t make me a co-owner on the deed because I can’t meet the equity he’s got. Instead, I pay him rent every month.

I am expected to pay my half on everything. He recently took his teenage son on a two-week vacation, and I couldn’t go because I couldn’t finance my end. When we go to dinner it’s Dutch. He sets spending limits on gifts and, if a gift I give him is of lesser value than one he’s gotten for me, he will return what he got me and get something at a lower price. He’s generous with his son and with organizations he cares about, but he clamps down with me. Of course, we hold no joint bank accounts or credit cards. That’s out of the question.

I’m paying off a large loan, but that’s projected to be completely paid off in two years, so at least that will loosen up my income a little. But he makes me feel like I’m less of a person, a second-class citizen or something. I know Shaun loves me, but he always puts everything else first–his son, his career, his tech gear, his public persona as a charitable giver. I’m practically living hand-to-mouth in his beautifully appointed home, generating cash for him to spend. Am I wrong to think that as far as he’s concerned, I am more of a servant and less of a wife?

— Indentured Servant

Dear Sweet Servant.

P: I’ve read this and read this and read this, looking for comfort to give you. I can’t find it. You have a relationship, legally, it’s a marriage, but it seems far more a financial relationship than one of mutuality and tender regard.

B: You know, I think I need to have a bit of a lie down after reading this letter. There’s a throb, directly over my left eye, that isn’t going away. I am with Ann. I can’t find the comfort. I can’t find the other side of the story. This just seems…depressing. And an unreasonable way to want your wife to live.

P: You don’t say, and I don’t understand: What are you getting out of this? He’s getting rent and a half share on the expenses. Even the language; why isn’t your input part of the cost of living together? I’ve known people who split expenses, but done that based on how much each person was making… and still… are you married or are you roommates?

You say he loves you? How do you know that? And more to the point, do you love him? Why? And what does “I love you” mean for either of you?

B: Exactly. I’m not seeing a whole lot of loving interest in this part of the story. It’s hard to hear someone say, “I know he loves me, even though I am the last of his priorities.” You might want to examine that. While the son will probably always take some kind of priority over you (and rightly so), at some point the career, or the tech gear, has to get bumped back to give you space to thrive. Because you’re not thriving, you’re barely surviving. God help you if he ever gets a dog.

Moreover, you make a point of saying that “it wasn’t long after [you] were married” that he instituted his 50/50 plan. Which tells me his pre-nuptial behavior was different. Perhaps there was some courting. Some spending. Some dinners or trips. Or, at the very least, no discussion of whether or not you were going to live in his house and have to pay him rent.

Rent. RENT?????  Look, if you’re going to pay rent somewhere, at least let it be in a place in which you have some power. Like, in your own apartment. I can almost get around the idea that you’re not on the deed; it might not necessarily be a simple matter of adding a name to a sheet of paper, depending on the lending bank’s policies, and if you outlive him you’ll get the house anyway. I have to ask: What if you refused to pay him? Would he kick you out? Is that how you envisioned your marriage?

P: I think you need to figure out less where is he in the relationship, and more where you are. Why are you in this relationship? So far, I’m not understanding.

I don’t know how you think through these things, although I can say your last method wasn’t great, because it led you here to ten years with a balance sheet.

B: I would say she shouldn’t even worry about where he is in the relationship. In his mind, he may be the most relationship-positive monkey in the tree. For the moment (and only for the moment, as this is dreadfully uncharacteristic of me) I will assume that he’s not doing this because he’s on some weird power trip and that this is legitimately as good as he gets. He may think he’s the king of boot-straps and tough love, and his bean-counting is helping to build your character because after all…he worked for every penny he ever earned, so by gum… This may be his (deluded) logic. What you say at the heart of your letter is, his logic is bonkers. And, his best is nowhere near good enough in terms of making you feel loved, or valued, or that you’re worth anything more to him than as a roomie with benefits. Is that what you want to be?

Now that I’ve given one benefit of one doubt, let me return to my usual cynical self. I feel like he’s totally manipulative, and part of the reason he wanted you to be his wife is because he could wield financial control over you. Like he’s thinking, if you can hold your own, great, but if not…where the hell else are you going to go? It’s not like you’ve got the money to leave. Right? Does that ring true even a little? Then strategize an exit plan and work toward making it happen, because nothing will get better from that.

P: I think you know the answer to your first question. The real question is what do you want? Is this really a relationship you want to be in? Why? What are you getting out of it? (Go ahead, fill up your own balance sheet with pros and cons.) You may be willing to stay in this relationship for real reasons, but I’m not hearing them here. But go or stay you need to get all those things addressed.

People who see things in black and white, or in his case black and red, are not always easily engaged in conversations about change.

But you can’t ask him to change until you know for sure you want to be there, and what you’re going to do when he says he likes life as it is. And why shouldn’t he? So far, yepper, you sound like you’re a roommate with bennies. What bennies are you getting?

B: I like the idea of filling out a balance sheet of pros and cons; it might be the only thing that makes sense to a person who’s caught up in bean-counting. The super-hostile part of me wants you to present him with a bill for any and all work done around the house. Do you cook? Do laundry? Vacuum? Mow the lawn? Spend your time grocery shopping? If he’s going to charge you to live there then part of me thinks you should charge him for services rendered. And then I’m exhausted by my own spite because seriously, sister. That is no way to live.

P: You do just sorta toss that “I have a large debt” thing in. Are the arrangements you’ve made based on your money handling in the past? Were these agreements you entered into knowing this? Which does change the question a bit. In that case, get out of debt and get some financial counseling. Actually, get some financial counseling and get out of debt. Sometimes they can help us think things through differently than we do, they know the options. Financial counselors are our friends, just like therapists are. At some point you may be able to involve your husband in this, if that makes sense, but not before you figure out how to move from your indebtedness.

B: To be fair, Ann, she also says she’s paying down the debt and projecting it will be paid off in two years’ time. It’s not as though she’s disregarding the debt or floundering through it in an “I can barely pay the interest” sort of way. Though it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea anyway to meet with a financial counselor, particularly if leaving is an option the letter writer is leaving on the table.

P: That said, the house thing really bothers me. At what point do you live there? Is the house paid off? Are you paying him rent on a house he owns? That would be icky. If he dies before you, do you have to move? This is messy stuff. But it’s stuff you need answers to.

B: I may have come off as a little flip before regarding your rights to ownership if he dies before you do. You may want to look at his will and find out if he’s specified to whom his property will go.

P: So many of the questions the Bartender and I answer come down to the same advice. You have to figure out what you want and how you’re going to get it — and failing that, how you’re going to cope if you can’t have it.

Because too few of us learn these skills these days, either at home or at school, therapists are our best friends. They not only teach us to identify and ask the right questions, they help us figure out what to do with the answers, even when they’re uncomfortable.

I’m afraid you have some uncomfortable answers ahead of you. You at least have some uncomfortable moments, if you decide that staying is what you want to do. You’ll have to deal with feeling less than a partner. If you ask for what you want and don’t get it, you’ll be faced with all sorts of ugly realities.

B: For what it’s worth, if you do decide to leave it should be a relatively easy financial split, since you don’t have to worry about dividing out any accounts. Should you decide to stay, please bear in mind that you’re going to continue to fall to the back of his priority list, so you’ll need to be at peace with that or it will continue to tear you down and perpetuate your already-established feelings of second-class citizenry. Subsequently, figure out ways to make yourself, your own priority. Maybe you can’t afford a two-week vacation (right now); can you do a spa day? Or have a girls’ night? Can you take a class you’ve always been interested in? Or start working on The Great American Novel?

You can do all that with a loving and supportive partner, too. But making yourself a priority while you’re with Shaun might help you find direction and self-worth.

P: Really, please find someone who can support you in asking yourself the good questions. If he ever agrees to couple’s counseling, make sure he pays his half. [mic drop]

No but really. What DO you want?

No but really. What DO you want?

A Lonely Island Lost in the Middle of a Foggy Sea

1.5 oz Rhum J.M Agricole Blanc
.5 oz Cruzan Black Strap Rum
.5 oz Old Port Deluxe Matured Rum
1 oz Pineapple juice
.75 oz Lime juice
.75 oz Demerara syrup (1 part demerara sugar, 1 part water)
.25 oz La Colombe Pure Black Cold Press Coffee
Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice.
Shake vigorously for 10 seconds and strain into a tiki mug filled with crushed ice.
Garnish with pineapple leaves and coffee beans.

Got a problem? Email us at bartender priestess (at) gmail (dot) com. Human non-spambots, remove spaces, insert proper punctuation. All questions will remain confidential. 

Want to know more about The Bartender and The Priestess? Go here!

Thank you for reading. Now go tell all your friends about us. {{{heart hug}}}

Advice: Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway?

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

Please help me try and talk some sense into my son. He is 30 and recently got engaged to a wonderful young woman, who is 31. I want to make it clear that we are thrilled that she’s going to be a member of our family and welcome her with open arms. She’s a young professional, works as a buyer for a retail company, and has a good head on her shoulders. My son launched a landscaping business a few years ago and he works hard, so he’s had success building his business. Of course, they’re busy planning their wedding, spending their free time looking at catering halls and event menus. I keep trying to tell them they don’t need to do anything big. Honestly, I think they should just elope.

Her side of the family doesn’t have a lot of money, so expecting her parents to pay for some elaborate affair is unreasonable. My husband and I are willing to contribute some money toward their wedding but we certainly can’t foot the entire bill, either, so the kids would be paying for it primarily by themselves. It just seems like so much money to spend on one day. Who needs a big hall and matching napkins? When I got married, I had a traditional wedding and I couldn’t believe how much money it ended up costing my father. My son and his future wife already have a house and all the expenses of their lives that they have to account for. They’ve been living together for the past five years, too. Because they already live together, I don’t feel like they need some fussy transition to bring them to “the first day of the rest of their lives”, or something like that. They’ve already transitioned, she is already there.

How can I make them see reason? 

Signed,

Worried Mother

Dear Mom,

B&P:  We can’t say we think it’s your kids who need to see reason. This is their wedding. Your letter makes us uneasy on a couple levels. We hope that you’re sharing your misgivings with the Bartender and the Priestess before sharing them with the couple. Because we think you have some work to do. This is such a common problem. Weddings are supposed to be joyous but instead, often bring out odd family dynamics. Ones that need to be dealt with so that when it comes to the Big Day, it’s all about the couple getting married. While we understand that you have hopes and dreams for your child, you have to understand that he’s the person who’s now making those hopes and dreams come true.

B:  Since Ann is, among her many talents, a wedding priestess, I’m going to let her take the point on this one. Go to it, Annie!

P:  First off, it’s their wedding. You have the right to decide whether you will give them money or not. You have the right to say if you’re going to give them money that they will use for their wedding or for their house.

It is not your decision whether or not they have a wedding. Presumably, you were around when your parents, not just your dad (unless your parents were divorced) were spending that money on your wedding. You could have called a halt to the spending at any time.

You have options for your generosity, but no options, really, to create financial leverage.

B: My question here is: how would you have felt, when you were planning your traditional wedding, if someone told you that for X reason (you’d already had sex with him so you can cut the white wedding act, or you were already a little *too* old to be the princess, or whatever) you probably ought not to have the wedding you wanted? Would you have thought that person had a point? Or would you have thought that he or she should butt out?

P: Secondly, it’s their money. You’ll give them a set amount (if you so decide) and then it’s up to them to figure out how to finance the rest of the event. You say they have a house and life, and you say they have the jobs that support that. No bank gave them money for a house if they didn’t have their finances in order. Hopefully you did a good job raising your son and he has solid financial values and isn’t going to endanger his future.

If they make some mistakes, hey, that’s part of their adulthood. All of us who have reached this stage have made some seriously bad investments in our time. And yet, here we are.

But he’s now out on his own; making his own decisions with his new family. She’s his primary family now. Your family and her family are the clan around the couple. You’re in a supporting rather than an organizing role. And by that I mean, it’s his checkbook not yours. If they want to get married, your gift or lack thereof will not be what determines their actions.

B: And not only is it your son and daughter-in-law’s money that you’re trying to manage, even though you make no mention of their actually asking you for any financial assistance. You’re also trying to dictate what’s to be done with her parents’ money too. I am often suspicious when someone employs a persuasive argument cloaked in, “It’s not just me. I’m also trying to be thoughtful of these other people who haven’t asked for my help in this.” Unless her parents called you up and personally asked you to mediate wedding plans on their behalf, then it feels like you’re trying to abdicate your responsibility for your feelings. For whatever reason, you don’t want to own up to why you want your son and daughter-in-law to keep their wedding small, so you’re putting the blame on her family. That’s dirty pool.

P: Thirdly, let the Priestess (aka the Wedding Priestess) assure you, people get married at all points in their relationship. Times have changed. You may or may not like that. But, you can’t as the song says, hold back time. Again, you can choose not to participate, but that won’t do much for your relationship with your son, your daughter-in-law or your some day grandchildren.

B: I am not “aka the Wedding Bartender”, but I’m no stranger to the industry, and I’ve even officiated a few myself. And what I’ve seen, over and over again, is that weddings aren’t necessarily about sending a blushing couple off into a new life together, no matter how much Jane Austen one watches. Instead, they are about two people choosing each other, and declaring in the way they deem most fitting for them, that they love one another more than anyone else. Do I think weddings are expensive? Yes. Do I think they’re often frivolous and overdone? Yes. Do I think that it is the decision of the bride and groom–and them alone–to determine what is the best way for them to celebrate and mark their feelings for their life partner? Yes. And there’s no right time, no external time frame, that decides what merits what level of ceremony. Some first-time young-marrieds want a simple legal ceremony performed by a JP, some fifth weddings want the whole shebang. And no one else has any say in the matter

P: And fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, what I hear in your statements is that you have no respect for your daughter-in-law. I’ll call her that rather than soon to be daughter-in-law, because as you say she’s already there. That’s a dangerous walk if you want a relationship with your son. He loves her. He has made his decisions. You need to find a way to love her too, because he loves her and he has made his decisions. I’m wishing them happiness. In the sad event that this relationship ever comes apart, remember you never get to say what it seems your truth is, if you never liked her anyway. He’s her choice, you’d better make ones that will get you what you want, which is ideally a great relationship with your son. So, again, my suggestion would be: find a way to love her.

B: There’s a symbolic line that gets crossed when two people marry, and that line involves the recognition that one’s children aren’t children any longer. They’re on their own, out in the world, ready to work and do chores and have babies of their own and enjoy all the ups and downs of a self-determined life. Traditionally, in the fables and the social rituals we base many of our marital practices on, this thinking dominates. It takes center stage even if it doesn’t resemble how the bride-and-groom-to-be actually live. You need to let them be the adults they are. Though they may have been on their own for years, you still call them “the kids”, and you’re still trying to maintain some kind of control over your son. And you need to trust that they’ll make decisions about their intended ceremony based on their needs, desires, and budget. Your son and daughter-in-law are not kids, and they’ve already established their own domain. He’s got his own household to manage, he is no longer a dependent of yours.

P: I’m sorry; this isn’t what you wanted to hear. The hardest part of raising children is keeping those hands open to let them go. Still, it’s probably the most important part. You and your husband, if he’s part of this decision, need to decide whether you’re going to give them money. You need to decide if you’ll participate in the preparations. But whether they have a wedding is–oh, I’ve avoided this, but here it is–none of your business.

You need to do what you need to do to deal with this. Therapy, conversations with your husband, conversations with your friend, just plain ol’ soul searching.

I can say that I believe that choosing generosity is always our best investment in the future. There’s an old adage that says the groom’s mother should wear beige and be quiet. I don’t believe that. I would say: Wear something wildly flattering and be the warm, loving, encouraging mother-in-law that your new daughter is going to want to come home to with her husband.

B: And look at the son and daughter-in-law you have before you. You raised a boy who became a man who started a successful business before he was 30. This man was thoughtful in his choice of life partner, and chose a woman who is smart and capable and building her own career, successfully. Let their actions be your guide. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know what’s best for them; your role as mother-oracle is over now. Instead, love them as the adults they are, and believe they’re able to decide what’s best for themselves.

Let go and enjoy a loving, expanding family.

Let go and enjoy a loving, expanding family.

Drink: The Mother-In-Law

  • 2-1/2 ounces Bourbon
  • 1 teaspoon Cointreau
  • 1 teaspoon Maraschino
  • 1 teaspoon simple syrup
  • 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 dashes Amer Picon
  • Stemless cherry to garnish

Directions

  1. Place all of the ingredients, except for the garnish, into a cocktail shaker.
  2. Fill the shaker with cracked ice and then stir the mixture for 40 seconds to chill.
  3. Strain the mixture into a cocktail glass, garnish with the cherry, and then serve immediately.

Got a problem? Email us at bartender priestess (at) gmail (dot) com. Human non-spambots, remove spaces, insert proper punctuation. All questions will remain confidential. 

Want to know more about The Bartender and The Priestess? Go here!

Thank you for reading. Now go tell all your friends about us. {{{heart hug}}}

Advice: Fraught Family Visits

Dear Bartender and Priestess:

My husband’s sister and brother-in-law stay at our house occasionally for overnights, in order to visit my mother-in-law. How can I best put this? They are annoying house guests.

I’ve never seen them lift a finger to make dinner or help with the clean up afterwards. My brother-in-law, “Bob”, drinks a ton of coffee but has never made himself a pot. He speaks loudly, and mostly about himself. My sister-in-law, “Betty”, is sweet but talks incessantly, so much so that she’ll even distract herself from what little help she offers me at cleanup. They’ve never offered to take us out to dinner, or order us some Chinese, or (Heaven forbid!) cook us something.

Usually they visit at our house, but we also have a vacation cabin. When my family visits the cabin it’s for two nights each summer, and we’re never expected to host them over the holidays, because we select a hotel that’s convenient for all of us. Bob and Betty often come for a few nights at Christmas. This year, my husband has invited them to come for two weeks. Two weeks! And he did this without consulting me first. When I asked him why he would invite them for an extended stay without talking to me he said it’s because I would never agree to host his sister. I want to show respect to my in-laws and make my husband happy, but hosting them is so difficult. I literally cannot handle them in my home for two weeks.  What can I do?

—Just Can’t Do This

Dear Can’t,

B&P: Oh, so many things, so many things. The first thing we want to do is ask you: what are your choices? Because you’re either going to have to find a way to handle your in-laws being at your house for two weeks, or…what? You can leave your husband, I suppose. Or you can check into a spa and take a solo vacation during their visit, thereby nakedly displaying to your in-laws just how much you don’t like them and, by default, how little respect you have for your husband and your chosen family.

That’s not an option? OK, then you have to deal. Our take on this is not as seamless as it often is, and we’re reminded we’re not one brain but two — often contrary ones…

B: Often, a letter writer will state the real issue that’s the root of their problem, but cloak it in distracting-but-not-overly-relevant details. Your in-laws, especially the chatty sis, are annoying, I get it. Jeff never makes a pot of coffee, the brute. And two weeks is a mighty long time to host guests, even ones that you like. But then you say this: [My husband’s] retort is that I would never agree to host his sister.

Let me repeat that: I would never agree to host his sister.

Your husband felt that the only way he could have his family in for an extended visit was to go behind your back and make plans without you, because you would never.

Hey, so…how’s your marriage? Because it seems like you have limited tolerance for the family you married into, which will, with time, have its effect on your husband and your relationship. It already has, since he’s acting out in such a way as to exclude you from input.

P: So Terri and I listened to your silence and came to some slightly different conclusions (which is the problem with silence), although this first one we shared: Sounds like there’s a whole lot of history of people’s not talking to one another. Sadly, it sounds like it starts with you and your husband. You’ve not really discussed who stays and how long, what the house rules are and if they’re different for people who stay two days and people who stay a week, who handles what chores.

And I’m not sure how his retort silenced you. According to what you said, your siblings’s stays are brief and infrequent, and his family stops in during the year, comes for several days during Christmas and is now coming for two weeks. So, “you’d never agree to host them,” is untrue and unfair. And that’s dirty pool. Unless of course, Terri’s on the money here, and you begrudge what’s happening. 

B: My guess is, you’re seeing Bob and Betty exactly as they are at home. He probably never makes a pot of coffee in his own kitchen, either, and I’d bet she never stops talking, but for them it’s how it’s done, and they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong. My (further) guess is, and neither does your husband, really, though he may nod his head in mute agreement whenever you voice your displeasure with your family by marriage. It’s who they are. And the thing is, if you take the examples you gave us, yourself, then they seem…ok, annoying, but they’re not committing crimes. You don’t say that Bob gets falling-down drunk and hits on you, you don’t say that you’ve caught Betty kicking your dog. Instead, you say he drinks a lot of coffee and talks about himself, and she carries on. Nobody’s picking fights or creating backstabby, noxious family relations. Except you. After they leave. With your husband.

You say you’d like to show respect to your in-laws. I’d like to see you start, too.

P: You haven’t mentioned it, so we don’t have any real information about how your husband participates in your visits. Although, since we know what’s wrong with your in-laws, you probably wouldn’t be too shy about telling us what the hubster’s up to.

I must say, however, that whether or not they’re perfect guests, that’s a lot of time to have people in your house. Are you retired and able to spend the whole summer there or is this your entire vacation?

How much time do you normally spend hosting? And does that interrupt your lazing around doing whatever you normally do while vacating?

B: You mention your own family’s visits, which last for two days and are over. How do you manage to regulate their visits? Are they just better behaved? Or have you taken the time to instill some boundaries with them? Maybe now that you’re going to have them for two weeks (because oh yes, sister, they’re coming), you can start to change some of the rules of their visits to make their behavior less irritating. Overnights, or a few nights in a row are one thing. Two weeks’ worth of visiting, though, that’s living together, and living together requires boundaries.

P: Independent of them, I would certainly be talking about rules for long-term house-guests. But if people are coming for two weeks, will you set up a schedule and make up a list of stuff and ask them to bring that? You haven’t said they’re poor. And even if people have fewer resources, presumably they have some. They can always bring the potatoes, whole and chips. Most people are happy to participate if they know what the expectations are. It might take a while and plenty of snack items to get them trained, but it helps to be direct with people.

You don’t say, but what is your husband’s idea of hosting? What are his jobs for their stay? I can’t believe it, I almost found myself writing, what does he do to help… but in fact, they’re your shared guests, maybe even his guests… His guests require his doing his part and your doing yours… because in a marriage, you get to have a guest in your own house!

B: You want to be gracious, be gracious, and remember, the only behavior you ultimately have control over is your own. Have you ever thought about making Bob’s coffee drinking a bit of a joke? Buy him his own mug and set up a station for him. When he comes in, present it with a flourish. Say, “Bob, you’re here for two weeks, and I know how much you like coffee. Here is your own mug, and here are the filters, the spoons, the sugar, the coffee.” Offer to show him how to work your coffee maker. And then go about your day without worrying over his coffee habit. Clear out a space for them in your fridge and tell them they’re welcome to stock up on groceries. Let them know (ahead of time) that you never cook on Wednesdays so everyone is on their own that night. I’m afraid you won’t be able to put Betty on mute, so maybe you can find some interests you share. See if she wants day passes to your local gym, or take her to something you would like to do, too. A talk at a library, a sewing bee, something. If she’s going to talk, then perhaps you can turn her chatter into something you want to hear. Also, give them a key to the cabin to use while they’re there, and let them know they’re more than welcome to come and go as they please. They might not want to be around you 24/7 for two weeks, too, particularly as you tend to sit in judgment of them.

P: Because you’ll have to answer this, how long are you willing to have Betty and Bob at your house? Terri points out your in-laws are coffee guzzlers (good save, Terri, I was for more passive aggressively removing coffee from the house. But she’s right, get him his own miniature coffee maker with a gold basket that he can refill. Save the landfill, save your sanity.)  and loud (well Terri and I have a certain fondness for loud-mouthed women) Neither of these are egregious faults.

And when I hear the words vacation cabin, I think vacation. For me, that would be feet up on the screened in porch reading, floating in the lake/pool/body of water maybe reading. Oh, and napping. Rummaging in the fridge. Maybe burgers on the grill. Terri’s idea might include fewer burgers and more cooking… but what do you want for this time? Simply not having these guests is not an option.

Before you deal with the in-laws, I think you and your hubster might want to talk about one another’s goals for the vacation. (PS, yours count as much as his.)

Once you have a list of how you want to spend your time, you can talk about how it fits to have guests and what you’re willing to do to entertain people. And if he’s not willing to take up a lot of the slack, because you both know how they are, ask him how he thinks the two of you should solve this problem. Because it’s not your problem or even, really, simply his. They are his family. As Terri points out, you married him. And he comes equipped with family. And he loves them. And that means he knows how to love people. That’s something you want in a partner!

B: And now, more than ever, at last, finally! It’s time to talk to your husband. Not at him, to him. You can start by acknowledging you’ve put your husband in the middle between yourself and his sister and brother-in-law, and that’s not fair of you. Two weeks with them, without his discussing it with you beforehand…yes, he was terribly unfair and dropped a bit of a bomb shell on you, but it’s also a wake-up call that perhaps your own behavior hasn’t invited his conversation in the first place.

You’ve let them come and stay with you in order to see Mom, but has it always been through gritted teeth? Your own family seems less mashed up with each other than your husband’s family; they stay in a hotel over the holidays, they are in for two days and done at your cabin. This may be how you want families to act, but it’s not the family you married into. Ask your husband whether or not he finds his sis & BIL’s behavior difficult to manage, too, or if you’ve just made him feel bad about having a sibling. Ask how you can work together as a unit to not have this sort of difficult rift in the future. Be quiet, and let him answer you. Active listening can be extraordinarily difficult; what I am going to ask of you is that you don’t answer until he is done speaking. Don’t talk over him, don’t start formulating a response. Just let your husband speak about this situation with his sister. He ought to do the same with you and I’m going to ask you again: when it’s your turn to speak, talk to the things that really upset you in this. It’s not Bob’s coffee habit or Betty’s chatter, it’s that your husband made these extended plans without consulting you. The solid frame of a really large wall is going up between the two of you. Work to dismantle it before you’re divided for a lifetime.

P: And what’s your goal? Their personalities are not going to change, she’ll always talk too loudly and he’ll drink too much coffee, but you can take your book and go sit on the porch.

And, worth your while, you need to think a little about how they’ll respond — because even if they are selfish, you don’t ever want them to seize on this as an opportunity to stop seeing Mom. And that’s a real consideration for as long as Mom’s alive. That’s another gift you get from your loving husband, another Mom.

I don’t know that I was quite as worried as Terri that this was a game changer for you, but I do know it seems like an awfully big hill to put up in your own back yard. You have a husband with a family. And presumably a lovely cabin. Enjoy that!

Let me repeat: Be kind.

Let me repeat: Be kind.

Two Sisters Toddy

  • ½ oz strawberry liqueur
  • ½ oz Grand Marnier
  • 1 oz bourbon
  • crushed ice
  • lemon twist garnish

Blend all ingredients (except lemon) in a blender until smooth. Serve in a champagne glass with lemon twist.

Got a problem? Email us at bartender priestess (at) gmail (dot) com. Human non-spambots, remove spaces, insert proper punctuation. All questions will remain confidential. 

Want to know more about The Bartender and The Priestess? Go here!

Thank you for reading. Now go tell all your friends about us. {{{heart hug}}}

 

Advice: Tiny Home, Big Problem

Dear Bartender and Priestess,

I think I am in over my head and I am not sure what to do.  I have been married for 8 years and have two children, ages 6 and 2.  My husband and I have always been environmentally and socially conscious, and recently decided to try “simple living”.  Against the cautions of some of our family members, we decided to downsize from a 2500 sq ft suburban home to a 650 sq ft “tiny house” that we had custom built for our family.   It is super cute and we were pretty mindful in our planning, carefully considering what we thought we could live with. But now that we have been living in it for a month, I hate it!  There is no room to do anything!  I feel like I am constantly tripping over stuff, there is NO privacy, and I feel terribly confined.  I am often grumpy and find myself snapping at my husband and kids over the smallest things.  I feel this way now, in the summer, when we have been able to spend lots of time outside…how am I ever going to get through a winter like this?    I had NO idea that I would find this so difficult.  While I am struggling with our new home, my husband seems to think it’s all great.  He is constantly sharing the “joys of simple living” with everyone we meet.  We have invested a lot of time and money in this “new way of life”, and I feel like a schmuck for wanting to bail on it so soon.  I don’t want to let my husband down, nor do I really want to hear “I told you so’s” from our families.   But really….I feel like I am going to go insane if we don’t do something different soon. I don’t know what to do.

-Missing My Space

Dear Missing Your Space,

P: Ah, my dear, I’m sure you thought the honeymoon would last a little longer… This is/was a huge undertaking, and however carefully you plan about the space, I’m not sure there’s any way you can plan about the realities of so much less space. This is something you need to learn to live with, something that will take discipline to make work for you.

I suspect that anyone can learn to thrive in a smaller space although not everyone will choose to. But it’s only in the last couple generations that most people had large spaces to live in. We’ve developed notions of privacy and privilege that go along with that space.

B: Americans like space. We’ve been culturally ingrained with romantic ideals of wide open spaces and big skies. Large cars. Ample personal space. Certainly, most of us don’t even consider what it would be like to live in the stackable apartments they have in Japan. I have a friend who is planning a move into a tiny house with her husband, this very spring. She said, “Space is difficult. I think it is both the most overrated and underrated commodity we have.”

I get that you’re environmentally conscious and want to reduce your carbon footprint. And I’m glad that you care enough about the state of our planet to want to pass that caring on to your children. But you  made a tremendous leap into a new extreme, and now, it seems like you’ve found yourself stuck. We presume you can’t move back to your old home, or that moving at all isn’t really an option you’ll willingly entertain. Now what?

P: The tiny house movement is new, so I looked around the interwebs for discussion boards concerning the transition to a small home, and couldn’t really find anything. As I looked I realized, oh, right, people live in apartments with their families that are this small and manage not to ruin their lives or their children. I suspect you need to change the rules — and it make take some time to figure out what the new normal for simple living is. It may take some iterations before you finally settle on what works for everyone. Because of course it doesn’t work if everyone else is happy and you aren’t.

B: My initial instinct is to remind you to take a breath, take a walk outside for five minutes–alone, of course!–and calm down. You’ve only been in that house for a month, and you may be going through growing…shrinking?…pangs. You’ve lost roughly 75% of your former living space, so you need to allow for an adjustment period. It’s a different way to live. Energy gathers in a home differently in a space that small, especially when there are four people contributing to it. One toy left in the middle of the living room floor creates a sense of clutter, one heap of socks looks like a mountain of laundry. It’s entirely possible that once you adapt–once your vision adjusts to your new surroundings, once you learn how to manage your family’s presences, once you create house rules that reflect where you live now–you’ll breathe a little easier.

But the important thing to remember in all this is that you aren’t managing that household alone. You have a husband with you, a life partner, who should ostensibly help you with how your home flows. He may be telling everyone how much he loves tiny-house living. Have you ever told him how YOU feel?

P: Your discomfort is the whole family’s problem. And they need to recognize that. ‘Cause as the T-shirt says, “If mamma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!”

How do you blend privacy, play, work, studies and remember, romance!

B: It’s all well and good that your husband is busily extolling the virtues of tiny living, and I understand that his apparent enthusiasm would dampen your desire to tell him how unhappy you are in your new home. How can you tell him you’re unhappy with something in which he’s clearly delighted? What you need to bear in mind is, this is your life. This isn’t some temporary inconvenience, like getting a new roof put on or having every window in the house replaced. Tiny house living may have been an idealized projection of your vis a vis green-living, Little House on the Prairie-esque romantic notion, but the functional part of you that dislikes your living situation is your real self. It’s uncomfortable to realize your ideal and your real selves are in conflict, but you need to honor who you are and what you want. It’s time for you to take what you have and make the best of it.

P: Idealism is amazing. But reality takes getting used to. You are not practiced at this. Some of the family living skills you had from living in your house that was 4x your beautiful, new, little one will not transfer to living in a much smaller space.

So do some good research and then some thinking. Plan as carefully for your day-to-day family life as you did for space. Could you have done this before? Sure! Did you? No. So what? Now’s the time to look at things. Talk about it. Start a blog about it. 

B: Talk to your husband about how you feel, and tell him you want to institute some changes as to  how you all operate in your new space. You may want to institute new clutter rules, which could make a difference as to how you perceive the open space you have. You may want to try and institute a quiet time, to mellow out the collective energy in your smaller space.

P: In small space you have to work as a unit. Individualism takes a back seat to the family, although everyone needs to be acknowledged. The balance of privilege and family priorities needs to be built to fit the home you have. Teach your kids to be productive members of the family. Make them responsible for chores and living skills. They’ll still be kids, but we need to learn to be aware of others; it’s not inborn.

I remember that growing up, we all used to sit in the living room and read quietly. TV was a communal activity. Pretty much everyone watched. If we didn’t have TV we wanted to see, we played games. We had a big house, but we did things together in the evenings. And we learned to like quiet activities. Turn off the noise; if there’s music on, consider sitting and listening to it. Or make it a treat that gets turned up to dance music when there are chores to be done.

Remember, you are creative, you figured out what to do with stuff, now you have to build a family that fits in your little home.

We forget that we can go out in the winter as well. It’s not as easy if we’re in the country as it might be in the city, but kids used to spend hours playing outside in all kinds of weather. Time outside in fresh air makes you lots less rammy. Build a play house, hang a swing. Learn to snow shoe or ice skate or cross country ski. Do it with the kids. You’ll feel better too.

B: I’d advise that you and your husband set a deadline for you to see how you feel after new house rules and activities and spatial negotiations are implemented. If, at the end of it, you still think you need more space, then give yourself the respect you deserve and act on that. Build on an extension to the house. Or put up a she-shed. If you end up expanding your living space yet again, remember, there are ways to be environmentally mindful without confining your living space to 650 square feet. Create a personal food garden. Keep bees. Create a protected wildlife space on your property; there are ways to do that even if you live in town. Look into solar paneling and ease your burden on the national power grid. You don’t have to upheave your life–again–in order to change it. You just need to be respectful and honest toward everything you already have.

P: You’ve got this. You just need to reconsider what works. And if in a couple years, yep, keep trying, it doesn’t work, then find something that’ll make mama happy. But no sense leaving before you’ve really done your homework.

Et voila!

Et voila!

The “Home Sweet Home”:

  • 60 ml vodka
  • 140 ml lemonade
  • spearmint sprig
  • dash of orange bitters
  • lemon peel

Put sprig in glass. Fill with ice, top with vodka and lemonade. Stir. Top with bitters, garnish with lemon peel. Kick back and relax!

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