Monday, April 28, 2008
APRIL SHOWERS BRING MAY GLOWERS
I'm an older mom-to-be (38) expecting her first baby in late June and I'm dealing with a problem that might as old as the hills but I'm hoping you'll listen and help me out anyways.
It's the baby shower and all the hopes, dreams, and bizarre traditions that go along with it. Things have gotten out of hand and I don't know what to do about it. I'm a fixer/helper by habit but this seems pretty unfixable.
I've always been sort of uncomfortable with the concept of a baby shower anyways. But now that I'm in the throes of the last trimester I understand better where they come from. People love the idea of new life and the ones carting it around inside them are too exhausted and stressed to prepare adequately on their own.
So when my friend "Megan" offered to co-host a baby-shower for me and asked me to hook her up with any one else who wanted to do the same, I was thrilled. She doesn't really know any of my other friends so she wasn't able to contact them directly. A few months passed and none of my three oldest, closest friends stepped up so I sent Megan the email addresses of a bunch of people who had expressed some interest in participating and included these three girls. That's probably when the unpleasant feelings started coming up for me. Something along the lines of "I'm asking people to host a shower for us? Yuck."
Within a few days, five more people had volunteered to put something together for us. And in the process, I caught wind of something that immediately made me a lot more uncomfortable. "Sarah," who couldn't participate for various reasons, let me know that Megan had told the rest of the folks that part of shower hostessing was chipping in on a big gift for the parents.
Well, Megan's financial circumstances and background are very different from most of these other five girls. She's a sales rep from the suburbs and they're a filmmaker, students, an admin assistant, and a full-time mom whose husband is in the faltering real estate business.
When I found out about the "big gift" I got nervous and, while I didn't disclose to Megan the tax returns of my other friends, I said to her, "You know I consider the shower the biggest gift of all. Anything else from the hostesses would just be bonus." A bunch of us were also in the midst of planning a shower for another friend and I sent Megan the master plan for this shower and said, "This is the kind of thing I'd like." It was very simple. Just a bunch of potluck dishes. I even asked that the invitation mention that hand-me-downs and gently used items were preferred.
I thought she got the picture but come to find out a few days before the shower, through Megan herself, that she found the rest of my friends' ideas and budgetary constraints "naive" and not only was she having the thing catered but the big gift had been purchased, apparently before finding out what if anything the rest of the ladies could contribute. At least one of these girls had sent her an email stating clearly that she was very upset with how things were going.
Megan claims that she shared this information thanks to the influence of two margaritas. I sort of regret buying said margaritas or asking her how things were going.
But I sort of regret the whole thing. When I saw the turn things were taking, I took certain steps to make my preferences clear but I also told myself "These ladies are all adults and they can take care of themselves. They also know me and how thrifty I am. Surely they'll put their feet down before anything gets out of their comfort zones." But now it sounds like that didn't happen the way I thought it would.
I mean, none of my friends have the wherewithal to ignore their budgets. So then I thought, "Megan could have adjusted her ideas based on the limitations of her co-hostesses." but it sounds like she hasn't and is going to end up eating alot of the cost. And that in the meantime she might've guilt-tripped and shamed the other hostesses because of their preferences and limitations.
I'm afraid that I'm facing one friend who is resentful for having spent too much and others who are resentful for having been pressured into spending too much. I feel this desperate need to fix this situation and apologize to every party. But I also feel like I need to explain to everyone besides Megan "This is not my fault!! This wasn't my idea" And even to Megan, I want to say "I told you I didn't want a big gift. I told you I wanted a low key, pot luck style food situation."
I sometimes tell myself I could have managed this situation better if I hadn't let them do it on their own. But that's really a lie. The planning got into full swing right around the time I hit 28 weeks and my energy just bottomed out. Plus I had massive amounts of work to do too. If it had been up to me I probably would've just let the whole thing slide.
I just feel terrible. I'm going to resist the temptation to ask other people how they felt about what happened because, at 32 weeks, I can't deal with the guilt right now or the stress of trying to make things right. I keep thinking "Well clearly I'll just have to fete these ladies right when it is their turn." But I wonder if you've got any ideas about how to deal with the current situation in a thoughtful and mature manner that doesn't involve guilt, defensiveness, finger pointing, or "I told you so"s.
Needs the Stuff but Not the Stress
Sweet Jesus, do I know what you’re going through. First I had a last-minute shower thrown by a friend who took pity on me (“Oh my god, no one has planned you a shower yet? What the hell?” “Oh, showers are dumb.” “No! You have to have a shower! It’s an absolute crime to have to buy all that crap yourself!”) I offered to have it at my house because she had a studio-sized house and a toddler and I didn’t want to stress her out over a total act of charity, but then she sent out an invitation from “Friends of H” instead of listing her name. Immediately, my other friends sent out similarly even more pitying messages (“Are you ‘Friends of Rabbit’? You shouldn’t have to throw your own baby shower!”).
Then another friend insisted that she MUST throw my shower, at her place. She loved baby showers, she had always wanted to throw one, and it only made sense. I said she should talk to my other friend, but that I felt pretty sure that the other friend probably would love to be let off the hook for the whole thing, since she had a very demanding job and a very demanding toddler and was only stepping in to save me from an uncertain baby-showerless future. So the shower-loving friend took over, sent out an invitation, then left the country for a week . For the next two weeks leading up to the shower, confused invitees emailed me with questions, so that basically did feel like I was the one hosting my own shower, a task that not only felt like a total fucking scam (“Here’s the list of shit I want”) but that I had about as much proclivity for, in my 9-month-pregnant state, as an elephant has for hosting a tea party. Day by day, I felt guilty and embarrassed and stupid and pathetic and friendless and yet, I knew that anything I said to anyone would make me look like nothing less than an enormous (literally and figuratively), whiny, ungrateful, disgusting loser. The day of the shower came, and I wanted to call and say I was sick, but instead I waddled in, had a fruity virgin cocktail, surveyed the fresh flowers and the homemade empanadas my friend had stayed up all night making, and I felt incredibly grateful and happy and guilty, of course, but mostly just thankful that I had such great friends.
Here’s the thing you have to remember: You’re pregnant. Even if you could ascertain what was going on (which you can’t), you’re still going to feel much more responsibility for the whole thing than you should. Yes, it’s always terrible when a rich friend asks poor friends to pony up for anything, and it sucks when it’s done in your name, for your benefit, when all you want is a pile of hand me downs. But this is the way showers are: Someone other than you is planning the whole thing (ideally). Whatever they plan, you have to go along with it. I’m sure Abby or Ann Landers would tell you to intervene and gently inform the host blah blah blah, but fuck it. You’re too big and pregnant to successfully maneuver through that minefield. It doesn’t matter if your friend asks too much. It doesn’t matter if your other friends gripe to her and to each other. All of that has nothing whatsoever to do with you. If some friends want to say, “I’m buying X my own gift,” they can do that. If others want to say, “You’re a soulless yuppie hostess whose asking too much from us,” that’s their right. You need not concern yourself with any of that. You’re a human manufacturing plant right now, and diverting energy away from your basic function will only cause a world of pain and grief for everyone involved.
I realize now that mistakes were made along the way to my baby shower, and look, I never want anyone else to plan another party for me, unless of course it’s a surprise party and I don’t have to think about it at all until there’s a crowd of smiling faces and a margarita the size of my head staring me in the face. But mostly when I look back at my shower I think, “Wow, so many of my friends really, really wanted to do the right thing for me.” Both hostesses were totally well-meaning and heroic in their efforts, and I’m sure I stepped on their feet numerous times along the way, in my clumsy, stomping, confused-animal state.
When events like this are planned, friends end up criticizing the way other friends handle things – they’re not friends with each other, and they all think they know what’s best for YOU. It’s not just the cost alone – believe me. Your friend will balk because someone took the reigns in a way that they wouldn’t have, because they know it would make you feel bad if you knew.
But right now, you need to pretend you know nothing. Ask the hostess to keep you in the dark. Just tell her you can’t handle it, and apologize for whatever trouble comes up. If other friends hint that your hosting friend is being obnoxious, smile and say, “She means well” and assure them that they should do whatever they feel like doing, you’ll be happy with hand me downs or used clothes or just seeing everyone right before the baby comes.
That’s if they mention it. If they don’t, don’t bring it up. Trust me, it doesn’t do any good to get wrapped up in it. Again, you’re pregnant. You’re prepared to take action and wage holy jihad over the slightest offense. Someone could say to you, “I just saw a lost kitten down the street” and you’d spend the rest of your week looking for it (trust me, I know this from experience).
This isn’t your battle to fight. Leave it alone. Don’t touch it. Don’t think about it. Know that you’ll show up, the food will be wonderful, everyone will be freshly showered and smiling, and you’ll open a bunch of crap that scares the hell out of you but really does come in handy down the road. Be gracious to everyone. Believe me, the less you gripe now, the easier it’s going to be to enjoy the whole thing later.
Everyone already knows that YOU wouldn’t have squeezed money out of anyone for anything. But even so, don’t forget that the misguided yuppie friend, however uncool, really wants to do the right thing, too. She can’t imagine not writing a check for whatever amount a hostess requested. That’s her personal code, and there’s something to be said for the friends who just hand over money, even if they can’t afford it, in order to be a good, helpful citizen. Haven’t we all choked up a big chunk of money for a birthday dinner and then lived on credit cards for the rest of the month, simply so we didn’t have to rock the boat and make other people uncomfortable, particularly on someone’s birthday? Even though we all think that we alone can determine the right way and the wrong way to handle these things, everyone has a different opinion based on their background, and there really aren’t clear guidelines on how to act, no matter what Ann and Abby say about it.
So goddamn it, go to that shower and eat that damn good food and enjoy yourself! Gush over it, open the big present and gasp and make everyone feel great about the fact that they’ve been eating beans all month for you. It’s not your fault, and fuck it, enjoy your day in the goddamn sun. As a 37-year-old mother of a 18-month old, I can tell you, a catered party in my honor sounds pretty damn good right about now!
Not that you’re an ingrate. I wouldn’t relive that baby shower weirdness again if you paid me. But look, it is an absolute crime to have to buy all of that crap yourself. (And anything you don’t get as a present, you should borrow from someone if you can. The first host of my shower insisted that I borrow a whole room full of stuff, and it was the nicest and most life-saving move I can possibly imagine.)
But you know what will really make you feel ok about your situation? Another queasy baby shower story! Come on, I know there are tons of them out there! Send ‘em my way – rabbt (at) this url.
Good luck with your new human!
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
GUILT TO SPILL
I am a reasonably successful guy in the age group between boomer and X-er. My job is reasonably well-paid, but nothing obscene. It's also insecure, and I could lose it at any time, though its not actively under threat. This matters, since I am married, and have 3 young kids, who will be an impressive financial burden once they start to get closer to college age. Plus there's the whole "planning for retirement" thing, which I am trying to be very proactive about. All in all, the situation is, if not under control, then at least within some semblance of it, assuming I remain steadily employed for the next 20 years, and don't develop a cocaine habit.
The problem in this happy little American dream story is, like the typical American schmuck that I am, I can't get along with my mother-in-law. She is of the genus, Irresponsibilis Depressis, a repeat offender at binge spending, borrowing against her house, losing the house as a result, and moving into a smaller place. Lather, rinse, repeat. To the point that now she is actually living in a (fairly nice) subsidised housing project, but one where admittedly not many of the other residents are Ivy graduates and former Fulbright scholars as she is.
Additionally, she regards me as quite the villain in her current housing situation. In fact, I do theoretically have the wherewhithal to bail her out of these messes. But of course that money is supposed to be my kids' tuition money, my retirement money. Generally, it has been a pain in the ass to go and earn it over the past twenty years while she has been sitting on her kiester eating bon-bons and spending money on quack medicine, spur-of-the-moment consumer electronics purchases, and home remodeling.
In spite of my evident disdain for her lack of foresight in getting into her bind, I did once buy an apartment that adjoined hers, as well as replacing her car recently, and sending her several thousand dollars over the years in emergency funds. Nevertheless, I am the bad guy, because I really just won't give her free access to my checking account. I even went so far as to put the proceeds from selling that apartment into a special fund, and I'm collecting the income from that fund for her eventual nursing care, its up to $20,000 bucks now.
Here's the question: What is my moral obligation here, and am I meeting it? Is the fact that she's not happy, and thinks that having more money would make her happy really my problem? Yes, its true she's basically broke. But even when she has had money she hasn't been any happier. She spends it, which provides a momentary distraction, but she soon returns to misery, but with less money.
Eventually she (just 70 now) is going to get sick or break a hip, or just drift into senility. Someone is going to be on the hook to pay for it. That someone is me. There are other kids, but they are all academics who don't have enough for their own lives much less hers. Her ex-husband whom she ditched 25 years ago, doesn't seem particularly eager to pony up big either.
Reading over the above, I'm sure you'll ask why I don't mention her daughter, my dear wife, in this whole discussion. Unfortunately, she has sort of washed her hands of responsibility for her mom's happiness, except at those times when the emotional blackmail becomes very explicit and intense, at which point she passes the buck to me, to pass the bucks to her mom. She and her sisters have more or less given up on the notion of really helping their mom. She refuses any sort of counselling or medication, except for quack counselling at expensive meditation retreats, and quack medication such as blue-green algae based cures. (not joking.)
Wondering How Guilty I Should Feel
Obviously you shouldn't feel guilty. If you'd done nothing in the past, if she were rotting away in a terrible nursing home and no one was visiting, if she weren't someone who spends every cent that's given to her immediately, then that would be another story. But what are you supposed to do for her? Buy her a place?
I'm not really sure that the kind of woman who blows her nest egg and blames her son-in-law for it can be trusted with such gifts. If she were grateful and kind to you for the stuff you have done, if she had, over the years, tried to plan and save and be careful to take care of herself, that would be one thing. If she simply wanted more company and companionship, well, that's something that should be taken into account. But she doesn't want those things. She wants to sit around and bitch about what a bad guy you are, because she has nowhere else to put her self-loathing.
Let's look at her kids: If they were remotely inclined to help, they could figure it out. They could discuss it, pool a little funds, and make something happen. Academics aren't well paid, but they are paid, and most people who plan and are careful can save money. If your wife came to you and said, "Look, I think we have to do something." then you'd have to consider it. But what is she doing? "It's your call"? So you can take the blame? I don't quite understand her role, but it sounds like she needs to take responsibility for her part in this. She shouldn't allow her mother to target you, if really, this stems from her crappy relationship with her mother and her mother's shitty relationship with money.
Maybe she feels that, since you're extremely responsible with money (which it sounds like you are) then you're the one who makes the call on this. I don't know, though. This is her emotional equation, not yours. How can you be expected to make a good decision about someone who's merely a big pain in the ass in your life, who has no lasting emotional ties to you (thanks in large part to her bad attitude)? Your wife needs to define what she is and isn't willing to do -- for her own sake and for yours. Even if it's just a conversation between you two, you need to figure out where she stands in relation to her mother. She's going to freak out if her mom dies and she doesn't know if she's done the right thing or not, and she might blame you in retrospect. She needs to sort through her feelings and be clear about what she wants and what her boundaries are.
But that's her work, not yours. Look, you've got $20k set aside just for your mother-in-law. Other than considering long term care insurance (maybe she's too old to afford such a policy) I don't see what you can do. I would maybe add to that fund a little more, so that you know you can bail her out of TRUE misery if needed. But what more can she ask for than that? Obviously she should've saved for her old age and not blown her nest egg, and obviously her kids are the ones who should be having tough conversations about what to do in case of emergency. Your wife needs to discuss it with them before something bad happens again and no one is prepared to handle it.
You mentioned having to pay for college eventually. I assume you're putting as much as you can into some 529 funds for your kids -- this is one way to put the money out of reach, really, and maybe that'll also serve to assuage your guilt somewhat. If you've also been working for 20 years and haven't saved all that much for retirement yet, you'd better be maxing out your 401k and IRA contributions. Once those two things are taken care of (And personally, I'm a fan of throwing a lot into a college fund when a kid is small and then not worrying about it -- who wants to lament the cost of college for 18 years? Better to really scale back your spending now and relax moving forward) and you're making progress on paying off your house by the time you retire, then you can think about your mother in law if you want to. But retirement and college money are sort of essentials -- you can't really short change them without screwing your kids OR yourself and your wife.
Now, if you have all kinds of money left over after that, and that makes you feel guilty, I suppose you could consider how you might improve her life. You could sit down with her and talk about what she really needs to feel better. Or you could just visit more often and see if that calms her down. Maybe she's just lonely and she copes by griping about money. But you know, some people get a hint that you're doing ok, and they're just twisted up inside over it. They want all that MONEY you have socked away! And you're so CHEAP! Not surprisingly, they're people who spent all of THEIR money already, and even if they made the money you did, they'd spend it all and want more regardless.
Really, screw her. She sounds awful. Let your wife define the boundaries there. Sure, if you feel like you're the one person capable of sanity on that front (and honestly, it sounds like the other kids are either avoidant or they dislike their mother and want to maintain strong boundaries and keep her out of their lives), you could do what you can to clarify what might actually help her.
But if you've already done that and she's still angry, fuck it. Don't let the fact that one person hates you make you unhappy. You're just a reasonably good, responsible person who expects to be treated with respect, and this woman is an anomaly in your life. This is really your wife's problem to solve. If she really really thinks you two should help more, after looking deep within herself, then obviously you'll consider that. But don't let this woman compromise your future and the future of your kids just because she's angry and has nothing better to do than blame someone else for all of her mistery.
Best of luck.