Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Longing for time alone: I recently returned from a weeklong vacation with my in-laws and I’m exhausted! I love my in-laws, but a week straight with them in close confines was frankly torture. My husband’s family is very close; in fact, we all live on the same street! We see each other almost daily and my mother-in-law babysits our kids during the week while we’re at work.
The vacation we took was very extravagant and paid for almost completely by my in-laws, but not at all how I would have chosen to spend a week of precious vacation time. In talking to my other siblings-in-law, they all felt the same way. The vacation was also a “surprise” and we were all only given about two months’ notice. We know that if work commitments had not allowed us to go, there would have been HUGE problems and drama, so we all had to rearrange our work schedules and other days off in order to make a vacation that none of us really wanted to go on happen. This is not the first time this has happened either; my father-in-law frequently springs trips on us to destinations of his choice, on dates of his choosing, without any input from us, and we are all expected to be excited and grateful because he’s footing the majority of the bill. He does not appear to understand or care that this can create real issues for us at work when it comes to requesting time off.
My husband and I have not gone on a true vacation of our own, that doesn’t involve visiting family of some sort, for almost five years because of these “surprise” trips. I know my father-in-law thinks he’s doing something nice, but it feels more like he’s just trying to control us and the way we spend our time. I feel like a total jerk for complaining about being treated to extravagant vacations, but my husband and I are grown adults who are lucky enough to be able to afford to have nice vacations on our own with just our children, but we never can because we only get so much vacation time per year and it’s all taken up with these family trips. We spend so much time with them already that it would be nice to have it be just us for once. I know that my husband’s siblings feel the same way.
Should we say something to my father-in-law? How do we tell him we don’t want to do these trips anymore, or would at least prefer shorter durations or less frequent trips, without making it seem like we are ungrateful and don’t want to spend time together? I am afraid that he will be irreparably insulted. Or are we all being terribly childish and we should just be happy and grateful that he wants to treat us to nice trips?
A: “It’s not a good time for me to take off work, so I’ll have to miss this one” or “Thank you so much for being so generous and thinking of us, but we’ve already made plans to use our time off to take the kids to Disneyland” should be enough of an excuse for any reasonable person. And if he’s not reasonable, well, he can have a tantrum but it’s not your problem. Because this would represent a change to the way your family does things, you can even warn him: “Just wanted to let you know that we’re so grateful for the amazing times we’ve had and we appreciate you, but we’ve planned out our vacations for the coming year so we won’t be able to go on any surprise trips. Let’s make sure to spend lots of weekends together instead.”
But I’m reading between the lines here to guess (based on the fact that he can afford to fund extravagant vacations for the whole family) that the real reason you don’t want to piss him off might be because you’re worried about being cut off financially or written out of the will. If that’s the case, you’ll have to decide whether the vacations are worth the price.
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Q. Not a juggler: I am facing an impossible situation. Both my parents have just turned 70. My father has had a degenerative illness most of my life, and he is currently bed-bound, requiring at least 12 hours of care a day at their apartment. My mother has now been diagnosed with dementia, and it’s getting worse quickly. I have been told by her physicians she would thrive if she moves into a memory care facility, and that the current situation living with my father is only exacerbating her illness. My father has the opposite issue; he thrives at home. He loves my mother dearly and would not only be very lonely without her (leading to a mental health decline), but wants to stand by her like she did him. I have been told by many it is practically impossible to find a facility that would take both together, as they have such different care needs.
Us all moving in together is not in the cards. We do not have the space nor the finances to make that happen. I am alone handling all the decisions, finances, doctors’ appointments, all the pills, making sure the fridge is full, coming over at the drop of a hat during sundowning moments of panic, and so much more. I lost my job last year due to the pandemic and that is the only way I have managed to keep up with everything, but I would like to get back to work! I’m also afraid my stress is getting to my toddler now, and sometimes I’m so torn I break down in tears in front of her. I know it’s only a matter of time before I make a big mistake—there are just too many balls in the air.
So, my parents are suffering, I am suffering, and my child and husband are suffering. What can I do? How can I move my life forward while honoring and caring for my parents?
A: I hate to say this because it sounds like cheesy self-care messaging on some brightly colored Instagram post, but you are not going to be able to do any of this well or make good decisions if you don’t take care of yourself first.
I know you said you can’t afford to move everyone in together, but can you afford to pay for help for a week? Just so you can take a breath and stop feeling so overwhelmed? You mention you haven’t been working, so I assume your partner is, and that there is some money coming in. But if you can’t pay someone, what about putting out a call for help to your friends and family—sort of like a crowdfunding campaign, but for grocery runs and check-ins and trips to the doctor? Everyone can sign up for one day. Or can you have your husband take a week or two of PTO to handle your parents and the kid? (It doesn’t sound like you’ll be leaving for vacation anytime soon, so why not use the time now?) That way you can breathe, rest, and clear your mind. It’s amazing how much easier things seem when you have a little bit of distance and aren’t in a panic.
Remember that if we’re lucky enough, everyone’s parents get old and need help, so there are a lot of people out there who have had similar experiences. Toward the end of your week of sleeping, eating, and doing whatever brings you peace, you should ask for help again (I know it’s hard, but you have to). This time, do it on a group text or on the social media platform of your choice, explain how desperate and confused you are, and ask anyone who’s willing to join you on a video call for a brainstorming session about how to handle this situation. People love to share what they know and give advice and they will happily join. The questions you should put out to the group are:
1) Is it actually impossible to find a facility that can take both of my parents, or are there some that I haven’t thought of?
2) If it turns out it is actually impossible, what are the objective signs I should look for that will tell me it’s definitely necessary to move mom?
3) What’s the best way to keep elderly couples who are separated happy and connected?
4) While they’re both still at home, are there any resources (like nonprofits or church-based volunteers) that can help me? What about therapists for my dad as he struggles with this transition?
5) Is there anything else you can think of that might be helpful?
So yes, I just pushed the practical advice off on your loved ones and people with experience, because I think they’ll know more than I do. All I can really tell you is to give yourself some of the attention you’ve been giving everyone else, and ask for help. To be clear, I don’t think any of this will make what you’re going through easy, but it might make it feel a little bit more manageable. Don’t forget that whatever happens, your parents will be safe and cared for and know that you love them, and that is a huge victory.
Q. At Manderley again: When I met my partner for dinner the other day, I found him in an incredibly bad mood; he was short with me and cruel about minutiae. He said he’d been to “drinks that didn’t go well,” but he didn’t want to talk about it. Our dinner table conversation quickly went south, and I asked him again what was up with the evidently upsetting drinks. He revealed that he’d met with an ex, “Rebecca,” with whom a serious and long-term relationship had ended very badly. This was his first time seeing her since it all went down years ago, and it had been bad. After telling me this, he seethed at me that he was “livid I’d invaded his privacy.”
Prudie, I asked (if pushily) and he answered. I didn’t snoop. I don’t buy that subjecting me to a nasty mood with no context is fair, or that keeping reunions with exes secret is aboveboard either. He has a history of infidelity (before me), and I think the secret-keeping is an old habit—but my need to know is also driven by that past. Now we’re not speaking. Please help.
A: Of course I can’t say for sure, but my gut feeling—especially given your partner’s history—is that he has feelings for Rebecca, he’s a mess over it, and he’s taking it out on you. Get to couples counseling as soon as possible. But honestly, with this kind of attitude, I have doubts about whether he’d be an engaged, sincere participant. Start to think about what your deal breakers are in a relationship: A certain number of incidents of infidelity? A certain level of secrecy? Being accused of things you didn’t do? Being treated unkindly? I don’t know what your limits are, but the clearer you can get about them, the easier it will be to decide how to move forward.
Q. Vaxxed and vexxed: My wife and I are happy parents of a newborn baby. Relatives have been eager to pop in on us, and we have enjoyed these visits.
Meanwhile, my sister and brother-in-law have just booked tickets to come visit us. While we are excited to see them, they are of a different political persuasion than we are. Given that we have a newborn in our house, we would feel most comfortable knowing that our guests are vaccinated. This is probably something that should have been addressed when we first were notified of their impending visit, and we now find ourselves in the position of needing to address this after the fact. Naturally we don’t want to ruin their travel plans or make things awkward. How do we approach this issue in a tactful manner?
A: “Hi Sister! Our pediatrician just reminded us that everyone who’s around the baby needs to be vaccinated. We are so sorry we didn’t think of this sooner. If you two haven’t had your shots yet, it looks like there’s a pharmacy near your house that can get it done for free. You know how paranoid new parents can be, so to put our minds at ease, can we see your cards before you come? If you haven’t been vaxxed and don’t have time to get there before you travel, we hate to do this but we’ll have to reschedule. Again, really sorry for the short notice and any inconvenience. Living through a pandemic is the worst, and caring for a baby makes it even scarier. Thanks for understanding!”
It’s time to activate the parenting part of your brain, which means protecting this innocent infant at any cost. Awkwardness sucks, but it’s better than your child ending up in the hospital.
Q. Update: Help me help you: Thanks for taking my question. I should clarify that I haven’t expressed the extent of my frustration to my friend, and on our visit tried instead to be a source of distraction from their job as much as possible. I also asked them about how their mental health was doing. They admitted they think their anxiety meds need adjusting and they know they need to go back to a therapist, but they don’t feel they have time. I asked what I could do from a distance to help them make time, but they wave off any offers of help, and even admitted that they know they probably could make time for a therapist but it’s easier to avoid. Frankly, I worry they may be experiencing depression symptoms as well (my sister has depression so I am familiar with the warning signs).
My friend is a known people pleaser (to the point where I and others who love them and know them well sometimes have to make a significant effort to ensure they aren’t erasing their own needs in the relationship), so while I’m not trying to minimize that their boss is frighteningly demanding and abusive (and they know and have vocalized themselves that the relationship is abusive), I don’t believe I was ever encouraging them to hold boundaries that would put them at risk.
I suppose I’m frustrated because I feel as if an enormous part of our relationship has become me listening to them complain about work. It’s truly all we did in our calls and text conversations prior to this visit. I want to be a good friend and listener, especially since they have few others to confide in and also have so much trouble ever talking about themselves or complaining (their parents raised them to be entirely self-effacing). So I want to say “Please either let me help you come up with an exit strategy or let’s set a five-minute timer on how long we talk about your job every call,” but I feel very guilty for wanting to say it because I know if I do, they will never talk about their job again and they could literally kill themselves with overwork and never ask for help again. Is this just a phase of our friendship I have to get through until they figure out how to leave?
A: OK, so this clarifies that this is less about your concern for her and more about being annoyed by hearing about the terrible work situation. Which is fine, and is easier to address! I think the script you’ve come up with is good. Maybe sandwich that quote between reminders of how much you care about them and want to make sure you have room to talk about stuff that’s more fun and hear about other parts of their life. Might they stop talking about work to you altogether? Sure, it’s possible. But I don’t think you are so powerful here that you listening to work rants or not will determine whether they “literally kill themselves with overwork.” After all, you haven’t been successful at making them happier or pushing them to get a new job so far. You’ve done your best, you’re almost as frustrated and agitated over your friend’s behavior as they are with their professional situation, and it sounds like you know it’s time to pull back.
Q. Re: Not a juggler: Speaking from experience, friends and family are unlikely to be filled with great ideas unless they’ve cared for people with the exact needs and assets of the letter writer’s parents. Letter writer, your biggest real help in this situation is going to be a geriatric social worker. This person will know local facilities and their rules, and the ins and outs of insurance and long-term care benefits. Your local aging/adult services agency can give you a line on who’s in your area.
A: Fantastic advice. Add a geriatric social worker to the list of people who can take some of this off your plate and make you feel less alone.
Q. Re: Not a juggler: My heart goes out to the poster. I wish there was more support for people in their shoes. I want to mention that there are retirement communities that can meet the needs of both of your parents. They can be hard to find, but look for communities with memory care facilities on site that provide escalating in-home nursing services. They may not be able to live together as your mother’s dementia progresses, but they can see each other every day. These communities may be too expensive, but if your parents own their apartment or have another asset, it might be possible.
Regardless, you may try reaching out to a Quaker meeting, synagogue, or other religious institution near you to see if they provide any elder care resources/counseling. They could point you towards communities like the ones I described near you, or possibly other options. It does not matter if you aren’t a member of that faith community—they are very happy to help! Your local government or community center may also have similar resources. Best of luck to you and your parents.
A: This is great to hear. See, letter writer, people are helping you already. I’m not saying there is a perfect solution, but I think there are more options and more support than you have imagined.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: We’re going to close out now. Thanks for the questions and the help answering them. See you next time!
From Care and Feeding
I love my 7-year-old son’s name, “Andrew,” but I hate the nickname “Andy.” When we named him “Andrew” we agreed to only use the long version and never the nickname. Until this year everyone has called him “Andrew.”
We moved over the summer, and somehow he has become “Andy” in his new school! I would like to take this matter to the principal. My husband feels like I’m overreacting. He thinks we shouldn’t make it harder for him to adjust to a new group of kids. If we don’t get this under control now, he will be “Andy” for the rest of his life! Help!