My mother is a wonderful person, kind and smart and fun to be with. So I was really happy when my husband took a tenured position at a college near the town where I grew up and my mom still lives, even though the move was not so great for my own career. My kids, seven and nine, adore her, and so do Jason and I.
One of the things I like best about her is that she has always known how to take advantage of the world around her, finding out about great things to see and do and sharing her enthusiasm with others. Since I moved back she and I have been going out to the theater or other cultural events about once a week. Or we used to. Lately she keeps biting off more than she can chew, so I find that she is constantly inviting me to things, or accepting my invitations, and then begging off at the last minute. I have to say that, as far as I know, she never cancels because a better opportunity has come up. She always makes good on any financial loss, like nonrefundable tickets or a babysitter’s cancellation fee. And she always offers to give me both tickets if she is the one who paid. But it is still disappointing.
What usually happens is that, at some point on the day of the event, often just two or three hours before we’re set to leave, she will call and say that she has a bit of a cold, or a touch of some bug, or realizes that she did too much that morning or the day before, and just isn’t up to it.
Since I have little kids and a spouse who often works late, setting up these evenings is not always easy. And by the time she calls it is almost always too late to arrange something with another friend, or get a sitter if my husband is home and free to go with me (i.e., no homework help needed, no school projects, no youth sports, no taxes, home work or urgent laundry to do). Sometimes I go to the event alone, which I don’ t much like, but usually I stay home.
It is getting so she cancels more often than not. Any advice?
—Puzzled in Piermont
I wish you had told me more about your mom’s health and stamina. I suppose she may be a hypochondriac, or have poor time-management skills, or just have had a run of bad luck, but it seems more likely that she and her immune system are slowing down, or that she has a medical condition. The same outgoing spirit and joie de vivre that have always made her so much fun as a companion may be making her unduly optimistic about how much fun she can actually handle.
So, first things first: how much do you know about your mom’s state of health? Is she getting good medical care? Find out what you can, and try to make sure that she is seeing the right providers, and that she isn’t understating her symptoms and their recent effects on her life. She may have some very simple health issue, like a vitamin deficiency or endocrine imbalance that can be controlled with medication. Or she may have a more serious problem. Changes in overall vitality and susceptibility to infections should be looked into, no matter what one’s age.
Second things second: how to handle the cancellations themselves? It would be great if your mom did turn out to have a highly treatable medical problem. But life is rarely that simple. Your mom may be getting more frail and tiring more easily as she ages. Or she may have a chronic illness and be in denial about it, or trying to spare you. If—whatever the reason—your mom keeps cancelling on you, I can see why you would find the situation annoying. Even so, I would go very easy on her. Try not to sound angry or exasperated when she calls. I get the sense that this planning and anticipation are an important part of her relationship with you and her engagement with the world, and that discouraging them could adversely affect her sense of well-being and even her health. Besides, what would you say? You could perhaps talk to her in a general way about avoiding situations where she gets tired from having been too active earlier in the day, or the day before, and then having to cancel something she would probably rather have done. You could certainly call her a couple days before any specific event, and remind her to rest up. But, as for those recurrent “bugs” and “colds,” you can hardly tell her to stop getting sick, or to go out even if she feels terrible.
The worst “solution,” I think, would be to make fewer plans with her. I am a great believer in the benefits of even misplaced optimism. (In fact, I often wish I could drum up some for myself.)
Instead of scheduling fewer events, you might take the lead in scheduling somewhat different ones. Propose nights out (or in) that make her less likely to cancel, or that make you more likely to have a good time even if she does. You might suggest a restaurant dinner followed by a movie on HBO at her place: if she is feeling poorly, you can still bring her takeout and maybe still watch the movie. Include a mutual friend in your plans from time to time, so that if your mom cancels you will still have a companion. (You might even ask your husband on occasion.) When you can, steer your mom toward events that are easy to cancel or postpone, or that you’d be less likely to mind attending alone.
If you have a very flexible, and understanding friend, you could ask him or her to be on call for certain events you’d hate to miss but don’t want to attend unaccompanied. This arrangement could work well for plays or concerts with expensive or hard-to-get tickets, especially if the deal is that your friend goes for free, and maybe gets a dinner out of it.
We had a similar situation in my family, where one of my elderly aunts (the cool, Bohemian aunt) was forever making and cancelling elaborate, ambitious plans. It turned out that she had a very serious illness and all that event-scheduling had been a kind of whistling in the dark. I admired her pluck. Her son and daughter both found it a bit annoying, though, even after her diagnosis. But then again, I lived 200 miles away and didn’t have to deal with the situation—and perhaps, since she was my aunt and not my mother, I was more willing to accept how sick she was.
Good luck. It must be frustrating to cope with so much uncertainty, especially when your life already pulls you in several directions. But try to be patient. Your mother obviously thinks that it’s worth hoping against hope, making plans she may not be able to keep and paying for tickets she can’t always use, just for a chance to spend time with you and share activities she thinks you will both enjoy. I can tell how much you love and admire her. The next time she makes you crazy, think about how kind and smart and fun she is. She won’t be around to cancel on you forever.
P.S. La Wally and I read your letter a bit differently: she assumed that your main concern was missing out on precious time with your mother, while I though you wrote mostly out of frustration over all the wasted effort and missed events. I have to admit that La Wally’s interpretation is equally plausible, and more generous-minded.
La Wally says:
Has she spoken to her mom about it? She should tell her mom how important it is that they spend time together, and tell her to be especially careful not to do too much on days when they have plans. If her mom needs to stay home but does not just want to go to bed, the daughter should go over there to keep her company and take care of her. That way they can still enjoy each other’s company, just the two of them.
For almost three years, off and on, I have been seeing “Bryce,” the man I think of as the love of my life. Since the day I met him—I was dating his brother at the time, and had come to spend Thanksgiving at his family’s house—I have been totally smitten by him and, when things are good with us, I have never felt more delighted by another person. Or better understood.
He really gets me, as they say. But he keeps getting entangled with other women. First it was one of my housemates, then his TA, then a woman twice our age who is married to one of his college mentors. And there have been more.
It is true that Bryce has never explicitly said that he and I have an exclusive relationship. But he implies it all the time—partly by the way he sneaks around, and then acts all sheepish and ashamed when I do find out what he has been up to, but mostly by his constantly talking about how special and unique our relationship is. He says we have a true meeting of minds. He also says that he has never felt an attraction to anyone like the one he has for me. But then I will find out that he has gotten into yet another scrape.
We had been doing well for about six months. Then, about three weeks ago, that former housemate of mine let me know that Bryce had been sleeping with her again, and had given her the impression that he was no longer with me. I confronted him, went ballistic, and said I never wanted to see him again. Packed up his gifts and the few things of his he used to leave here and shipped them to his place. Blocked, erased, and otherwise completely avoided him.
I confess that I did read the stack of paper letters he mailed me begging for forgiveness, making promises, and praising me. I was trying to convince myself to stop even doing that when he ambushed me in front of my apartment last week and proposed to me! He had some family ring and a bouquet of my favorite flowers. He went down on one knee, the whole bit. This took the air out of me, and I just stood there passively until he grabbed my arm at the elbow and walked me across the street, where there is a little park with stone benches. He sat me down and told me that my kicking him out had made him realize how crucial I was to him, and that he wanted us to embark on the “great adventure of state-sanctioned monogamy.” He talked about how he had been mulling this over ever since I confronted him. He’d thought about what I had said (most of which I can’t actually remember), and even consulted the experts, including his happily-married parents and Martin Luther. He talked about how Kierkegaard believed that erotic love could never be fully expressed outside of marriage. He even talked about kids. He told me that he has never believed in making vows he could not keep, and that he takes marriage vows very seriously indeed. He said that he felt as if he had finally grown up.
I told him that, for my part, I felt as if had been hit by a truck, and needed some time. But I have no idea what to do. Bryce is all I have ever wanted—if I could trust him. What do you think I should do? Would I be crazy to take him back and move in with him officially, even marry him? Could marrying him be the best way to hold onto him?
—Smitten in New Britain
You might have a better chance of holding onto him if you married his brother. Or maybe his best friend, or boss. From what you’ve told me, Bryce thrives on forbidden love. He seems to love the thrill of violating taboos, breaking down other people’s resistance, and risking discovery. Although I suppose it is possible that he really does see marriage as representing a clear break with the past, giving rise to a whole new reality with new priorities and even new desires, I would not bet on it.
Bryce may be sincere now. After all, your dumping him gave you what, to Bryce, is a woman’s greatest attraction: you became unattainable, or close enough to it to get his juices flowing and ramp up his philosophical reference skills. But even if he is not currently making promises he already knows he can’t keep, think about how little effect social norms have had on him in the past—how, in fact, going against these norms is a pattern and may be a compulsion. In the three years you have been seeing him he has betrayed his mentor, stolen his brother’s girlfriend, taken advantage of a work subordinate (his T.A.), and persuaded one woman to cheat on her husband and another to deceive her housemate. And lied to you about most of it. Transgression excites this man, and being married or otherwise publicly monogamous might just add the thrill.
I strongly suspect that, if you two did start publicly and exclusively cohabiting, or even if you actually made it to the altar, Bryce’s promises would eventually become just another taboo he could not resist violating. (Do you ever wonder what he would have thought of you if you hadn’t been dating his brother?) This might happen right away: I can easily imagine his spicing up his own wedding with a “heart wants what it wants” episode triggered by some young cousin-bridesmaid. Or he might maintain his enthusiasm and sense of duty for months or even years, while still flush with conscious purpose and moral fervor—revived, perhaps, if you have a kid. But do you really think you can count on him to stay with you over the long haul?
And are you sure that this guy understands you in ways nobody else does? Some people, and some lovers, are great listeners and better talkers because, while they are with you, you are the only person in the world. The problem is that—whether from a sincere hyper-focus on the present, or from a conscious plan to charm or seduce—they often have a similar effect on everybody they find desirable and happen to be with. Bryce may be one of these people: many womanizers are. You should consider this possibility while trying to reconcile his history of deception and wide-ranging sexual activity with the “special” understanding and delight the two of you enjoy when you’re together.
I can only imagine how hard it must be to resist when the man of your dreams proposes, complete with flowers and a ring, to say nothing of philosophy. But grand gestures are easy. Slogging through life is what’s hard—and while it is possible that your finally standing up to Bryce has led to deep reflection and true conversion, it strikes me as more likely that Bryce can’t bear to lose you but may not, realistically, be able give you the honest, monogamous relationship I assume you want.
If your letter had asked for simple thumbs up or down, mine would have turned down, with gusto. But you seem convinced that Bryce is The One, or would be if he cleaned up his act, and you seem quite willing to give him a chance: your final question was about how best to hold onto him, not whether trying to would be a good idea.
My advice, therefore, is that you SERIOUSLY consider giving this guy the boot once and for all; but that, if you can’t or won’t dump him, you take things slowly. Evaluate his sincerity and purpose over time, and get plenty of counseling. By “counseling” I mean help from professionals, for each of you and for you as a couple. I do not mean talking only to each other, or relying on great thinkers from past centuries. Kierkegaard, by the way, is probably not the best guide you and Bryce could choose: after giving a 19th-Century philosopher’s version of the “It’s not you, it’s me” speech, he broke it off with his fiancée and remained single all his life, writing vividly about despair. His ringing endorsement of marriage was: “Marry or don’t marry, you’ll regret it either way.” And don’t even get me started on Luther. It’s true that he was a big fan of married nuns and clergy, and had a stable happy marriage to an ex-nun. But he also believed that women were created for the “precious and godly” task of bearing children, so I would give him a miss, too, and concentrate on exploring whether you can trust Bryce to be honest with you, and whether he can resist further dangerous liaisons.
La Wally says:
I would not marry him right away or move in with him either. I would tell him exactly what kind of relationship I want, which sounds like it means being exclusive and honest. Frankly, he does not sound all that great. So maybe he is not really The One, even if there is such a thing.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
La Wally is the nom de June of June Cleaver‘s adult daughter. In real life, she’s an artist and entrepreneur. What’s up with her name? In choosing a pseudonym, the two of them considered the names of the original Cleaver family offspring, both boys, but rejected “Beaver” for obvious reasons. “Wally” alone seemed too masculine and generally hideous. But “La Wally” brings to mind Catalani’s wonderful opera. Speaking of which, have you seen the movie Diva? You should.