Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bosom Buddies

Dear Mr. Steichen,

I have a question that's been on my mind for several years! Here it goes:

I have been friends with a girl I met in college for about five years now. We were fairly close in college and always hung out with the same group of people. However, towards the end of college I started to realize what a crappy friend she is. She constantly made plans with me and canceled at the last minute (using excuses like she was tired or didn't feel like going out anymore), she would agree to meet me at a particular time and be 30+ minutes late, she was growing increasingly materialistic, and slowly I realized what a shallow and insecure person she was. After college, she moved away and I did not make a special effort to keep in touch since I felt annoyed by the way I was treated, but we did see each other once or twice when she was in town.

Then about 6 months ago I found out she had a complete mental breakdown. Our mutual friend told me she actually suffers from bipolar disorder and she had stopped taking her medications. I called her during this period to let her know I was here for her and to show her I cared. Fortunately, she is now back to normal and working well at her job. She moved back to the city I live in about a month ago and is now looking to rekindle our friendship. The problem is, I don't know if she was so flaky before because of her illness or because of her true personality...which in this case I'm not sure how to separate the two! I still feel like our personalities don't mesh well together, but I also feel bad for her and don't want her to be alone in the city. How should I approach this friendship?

Personally, I would give your friend another chance, given all that she's been through, and given that some of her past inconsiderate behavior towards you was indeed probably due at least in part to her personal instability. Call me a cock-eyed optimist, or just a pushover, but I think it's always better to take the high road and give people that second (or third, or fifteenth) chance.

Reverse the roles for a second. Imagine how much that kind of reaching-out would mean to you if you had been through what she has been through and you found yourself in a new city? My take is that there but for the grace of [insert Higher Power of your choice] go I. If I'm in a position to reach out to someone, I sure as h*ll better do it, because who knows when I might need it down the line...the proverbial what-goes-around-comes-around.

But speaking of karma, just because she's been through a lot doesn't mean she should get carte blanche to treat you like crap again, and also don't expect years of tension to resolve themselves instantly. Remember the end of the Cold War? Reagan and Gorbachev weren't doing Madlibs and playing with the ouija board at a special State Sleepover as soon as the Berlin wall fell. It took some time to bring things back together. (And you know, it was really awkward when Reagan wanted Gorby to braid his hair and Gorby would get all self-concsious and want to go home. But then they'd just do another quiz from Seventeen and all was forgiven. Fun fact, they reportedly never could agree on who was the cutest member of NKOTB, but those records are sealed for only another twenty years, so stay tuned...)

For your little "detente" or "glasnost" or whatever fancy term you want to use for your act of hatchet-burying, start small. Bring your friend out with a group to a bar or a party, or if you're having a large-ish gathering at your house invite her to come...just the way you would with any old friend with whom you had lost touch. Test the waters, and if it seems right, keep hanging out. As with any relationship, let it rise or fall on its own strength--you're not doing yourself or her a favor if you try to force it out of pity for her. And if the old behavior starts to resurface, you will obviously know to slow things down, if not let them come to a halt. But you could be missing out on a good friendship (you obviously were friends way back when for SOME reason) and you won't know unless you extend the proverbial olive branch. Both you and your friend have nothing to lose by this, and in fact stand only to gain.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bringing up Baby

Dear Mr. Steichen:

I am expecting twins and keep encountering several awkward questions, often from people who I am not so close to. Do you have any witty retorts (or just tactful replies) for the following?

First, when I tell people I am having twins they often immediately ask, "Oh, so are stopping after these two?" I find it so bizarre to be asked this when we have NO children out of womb at present. It's like your breakfast waitress asking you what you'd like for dinner.

Another awkward question: "Oh, you are having twins? Did you have fertility treatment?" As a matter of fact, my husband and I did consult with several doctors about fertility matters. But this seems so inappropriate and somehow makes me feel like these kids are less mine or natural. What is an expectant mother or father to say to such questions?

Yes indeed, these are dicey. Some might say "Oh but what's the harm in asking these kinds of questions...I'm just trying to find out more about their situation." But think about what you're really asking. In fact, let's test these using the diagnostic tool of hyperbole.

Using exaggeration for emphasis, the first is in effect asking, "I know that you have no idea about what being a parent will be like, but can you seriously think about having another kid after raising twins?" Hardly an uplifting or encouraging sentiment. The second is even more outrageous when you hyperbolize: "When you and your spouse were trying to conceive, did you have sex at home until you got pregnant, or did you go to a doctor's office and have them do stuff to you." Whoa...didn't mean to go there, did you?

Unless you're having a heart-to-heart conversation on the subject--a conversation initiated by the person, not you--it's not your place to give his or her life your own running commentary, which is exactly what these questions have the effect of doing. (Very close friends and family members can get a pass on this particular point, but they should still proceed with caution.) But how to respond...

When in doubt, keep them in doubt: To the first question you reply with an honest, "You know, we just aren't sure, but we're so excited about becoming parents." Because you honestly don't know, right? You may or may not have more kids...time will tell. To the second you can offer a slight variation, "You know, we're not sure how it happened, but we couldn't be happier." Because again, you don't know exactly how it happened. Lots of people who undergo fertility treatment have single births, and lots of people end up with twins just through mother nature taking a hand in.

If they persist, just stick to the same line. Remember, it's none of their business unless you want to make it their business, and it sounds like you don't. Being vague may seem flaky, but it's probably the quickest and most polite way to shut down an uncomfortable line of questioning. Once you make it clear that they are not going to get the information they're asking for, they'll probably move on.

Alternatively, you can turn either question back on them with a neutral "Why do you ask?" (Incidentally, this is the universal response to any question that you don't think should have been asked in the first place--thanks, mom!) "Why do you ask?" will usually make a person realize his error on his own. Of course, this keeps the topic active, so you have to be ready to parry a follow up question. And in the event that they don't take the hint, you can always just shut them down with one of the polite vaguenesses noted above.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Kindness and Strangers: ok to say no?

Dear Mr. Steichen:

Yesterday I took my son to dance class, held in a neighborhood about 20 minutes away from the main part of town. A parent who I have just seen in passing, and not even exchanged names with, out of the blue asked me to drive her son to a parking lot in the center of town to meet her after class, rather than coming back to pick him up. Our two sons don't know each others' names, either--partially because of a language barrier (the family is Korean). I was very uncomfortable with this. Thoughts that went through my head were that her son is of an age and size where I would put him in a booster seat in the car, but she made no mention of him needing one, how did I know if she would be where she said she would be, in an area that is pretty unfamiliar to me as we've only lived here for two months, and wow, I would never ask anyone to do such a thing for me unless it were some kind of life or death emergency. So, I made up a lame excuse about needing to be somewhere directly after class. I hope it was plausible, but I feel bad about not helping out when I probably could have. What would you have done?

I think in this instance your polite excuse was the best route, even if you had to obscure the truth a bit. Behaving humanely means that more often than not you bite your tongue (not the same as lying), especially when you are not confident about the full background of a situation.

You had multiple good reasons for not agreeing to the request. Your excuse allowed you to excuse yourself (the words are related for a reason!) from a situation you were not comfortable with, and without getting into it with the person about why you were uncomfortable. Although it sounds as though the thoughts running through your head were bordering on the inappropriate (e.g. "What kind of mother would ask a perfect stranger to drive her son to some parking lot?!?!”) you very decorously kept these to yourself. Who knows, maybe where the family has lived previously such a request was perfectly above board.

If making amends would make you feel better and if carpooling is genuinely something you would like to consider, you can take this up with the woman next time you see her, making it clear that any ride-sharing will have to be coordinated well in advance. And if going alone is better for your situation, you can also explain this to her too: "Our family has such a hectic schedule, I'm afraid I can't commit to coordinating rides with anyone." If you are polite and upfront and don't make it a big deal, she probably won't either.