May 23, 2008

Herodotus, I need some advice.

If you woke me from my nap to ask me about Tootsie Pops again--

No, no. This is important.

Then speak, child.

The new Indiana Jones movie is coming out today. I want to go see it around noon, but not alone. It occurred to me that my mother-in-law, who lives with us, does enjoy Indiana Jones, so I asked her to come with me. But she said no.

So you are seeking a moviegoing companion for Indiana Jones? I'm afraid I'm not the one. At my age, we're not impressed with archaeology. We just think of it as really slow journalism.

No, that's not the problem. See, the conversation went on from there. I asked her why she never wants to go anywhere. She said "I don't know". Then I asked if she thinks that's something she should work on. And she said "No."


You're old. So I thought I'd ask you for some help.

Did you bring me anything?

Er...no. Was I supposed to.

It is customary.

Can I owe you?

MAY you owe me.

MAY I owe you?

No. Consider me the methamphetamine lab in the foreclosed, abandoned suburban tract mansion of your consciousness. Your first hit is free.

Er...thanks. So what should I do?

Do? Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. First, let us think. There is a tendency for us--especially those of us raised in your culture--to assert our will upon older people and upon women. This tendency has more to do with cultural conditioning than any real urge to have your way. So you should first guard against this. Tell me: If your mother-in-law were in fact not an older woman, and not related to your partner, and were simply a young male roommate, would you care at all whether he left the house?

Well, that's not quite fair.

Why not?

Because a young male roommate wouldn't involve himself so thoroughly in the life of the house. He wouldn't engage me in conversation all the time, or attempt to be involved. If he was a "homebody" type, he would be likely to stay in his room and do his thing.

And if he didn't?

If he didn't, then at some point there'd be an awkward conversation wherein I'd have to set some boundaries.

Have you had such a conversation with... what is her name?


Have you had such a conversation with Carolyn?

Many times.


And she agrees to whatever I say, then slowly and methodically erodes whatever boundaries I set, in small ways, so that I would feel terrible enforcing them, or so that I'd spend more time enforcing them than is realistic or fair.

So what are you asking for, here?

I want to know what to DO.

Have you considered the possibility that you can't DO anything?

Um. Not really.

Can you kick her out?


Can you talk to her?

I can try, but it doesn't work.

Can you alter her behavior?

I'd like to think so.

And why would you like to think that? She's a human being. You can't really alter any human being's behavior, long term. All you can do is either accept it, or get away from that human.

But she's really impossible. You have no idea. And it's my house. Don't I get a say? Shouldn't I?

I'm sure she is impossible. The fact that she is emotionally and logistically dependent upon you must be very difficult. It also has the effect of making her seem less than a fully-determined person.

What do you mean?

We see those who are fully dependent on us as pets. As children. We don't give pets or children the right to make their own decisions, because they require our judgment and our support to survive.

I see.

But there's just one thing: Carolyn, while almost offensively and seemingly unnecessarily dependent upon you and your partner, is not a child. And she is not a pet. She is in a different category. She has her own ideas about the way she wishes to live, and is obviously willing to inconvenience and annoy you to get her way.


So if SHE'S not going to change, and if your living circumstances are not going to change, the only thing left to change is

...I suppose. But why should I? It's not me with the problem.

Oh. I'm sorry. I thought you came to me with a problem.

But my problem is HER.

Even so, your mother-in-law is an economic fact of your life, especially now. She is like fuel prices, or weather, or grey pubic hair. You can't control these things, but you can control the way you prepare and emotionally respond to them. Once you realize this, you are released from the burden of feeling it necessary to change another person. For example:

You get angry that she won't go to the library, since she loves books. But can't you go to the library to get away from her?

Sure. But I like being at home.

Do you? Really? I don't see you as the "nesting" type.

Well. I guess I'm not. I like being ABLE to be at home.

But for the sake of your own happiness, you must make this not about pride or about who is more stubborn or who has the right to what. You must make it about actions that you can take. Changes that you can make.

What else?

You must focus on the benefits she brings. She walks the dog. She cooks. She does laundry. She is NOT like a young male roommate who stays out of the way. But a young male roommate wouldn't do all of these things to save you time and money--time and money that you really need to save right now.

Okay, fine. What else?

Don't be scared to hurt her feelings. She's not your mother. She may wish for your emotional support, but you are under no obligation to provide it on her schedule, or at all. This is a business arrangement for you. If you need her to stop talking so you can concentrate, you must say so. But try not to generalize it. Simply deal with the occasion that presents itself.

Got it. Anything else?

Yes. Watch carefully and learn. Just as you can't control your mother-in-law, you can't control the fact that you will age. But you can control how you react to it. You have before you a great cautionary tale about how an aging person can be choked to death, slowly, by fear. Carolyn is an example of what happens when fear is allowed to take hold

Yeah, but i don't have that problem.

Really? You already refuse to travel by air unless it's absolutely necessary. You don't take vacations. You don't leave the house if the traffic is bad. You change your plans to keep from being in crowds.

But that's not fear. It's not wanting to be inconvenienced.

And your desire to avoid inconvenience or annoyance is so strong that you actually change or cancel plans, or never make them, to avoid it.

Okay, okay. That's enough out of you. I gotta go. Thanks, Herodotus.

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