How can this exhausted and burned out mom stop feeling bad about feeling bad?

Dear Gentle Butch,

My husband and I had our second child a little over a year ago, and we’ve been having a really rough time.

Our daughter had a fairly run-of-the mill infancy and is now a bright, verbal, inquisitive, high-energy four-year-old.

Our son doesn’t have any serious medical issues or anything, but he was colicky for the first six months of his life, and had a bunch of random ailments (back-to-back ear infections, a giant canker sore on the tip of his tongue that prevented him from nursing or taking a bottle for 10 days, etc.) that led to a lot of misery and lost sleep for all of us.

He’s physically healthier now, and developing normally, but he’s still an anxious, clingy banshee screamer who hates sleep–seriously, when he’s at full volume he sounds like a concrete saw or a dentist’s drill or a Nazgul or I don’t even know what. The CIA tortures people with noises like this.

I dragged my husband and myself to therapy when the baby was 6 months old, because I could see that things were bad and not getting better, and it turned out we both had postpartum depression–I didn’t even know men could get it. Therapy helped somewhat through the end of the year, but then we had to end it because the deductible reset and it was no longer affordable.

I work a full-time job and my husband is a stay-at-home parent; I’m the primary parent whenever I’m home in the early mornings, nights, and weekends, so we’re actually both doing about 50% of the child care, only I’m working a full-time job on top of that, and he has some sensory issues that take a very high toll on him having to listen to the banshee screaming all day every day.

We’re exhausted and miserable, we’re barely able to be present enough to connect with our daughter and give her the care she needs, and we’ve almost given up on trying to spend time together and connect as a couple. He gets a few hours to himself in the evenings between dinner and bedtime, but my free time is so fragmented and unpredictable that I’ve given up trying to do anything meaningful with it–if I get a moment where no one is demanding anything of me, all I do is scroll mindlessly on my phone, because I have no way of knowing when I’m going to be interrupted next.

Everyone keeps giving me “it gets better” speeches, but I’ve lost the ability to think far enough ahead to believe that. So yeah, we’re pretty burned out.

The reason I’m writing to you is because I feel really guilty for being burned out. We’re white, straight-passing, middle class, and able-bodied, and I have a stable, well-paying job with (mediocre, but still) health insurance. My husband’s parents are local to us and our daughter is able to spend the night over there every week or two, to give us a bit of a break (the baby can’t do overnights yet, he’s 13 months and doesn’t sleep through the night reliably, plus he gets very anxious, unhappy, and screamy when left with other caregivers). We have an amazing community of friends who have brought us meals, babysat the kids for free so we can get out for a bit, and provided endless sympathy and commiseration.

But even with all this privilege on our side and all the help we’ve been able to get, I’m still running on fumes with no end in sight, and beating myself up about it because so many other people have it so much worse than us, and why can’t I do better and be better when I have so much to work with here?

Do you have any advice that could help me stop feeling bad about feeling bad? How do I let go of the guilt so I can move on with just the ordinary difficulties of everyday life?

— Burned Out

 

Dear Burned Out,

I absolutely ache for you.

There is a part of my psyche that is trapped in the hellish twilight of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and despair that is having very young children.

I was so sleep-deprived that I hallucinated bugs crawling on me. Our baby and then toddler kept having more tantrums than really seemed normal, and it got worse when we tried to rock and hold him. Then when we had two, and everything got exponentially harder. My kid was punching his preschool teacher and throwing fits nearly constantly. When we found out that he had Tourette’s and autism, we added in at least two or three weekly doctor and therapy appointments to our plate. I didn’t make very much money and my spouse stayed at home, we had no relatives in town, and we felt that we couldn’t leave our baby with anyone else, either.

I had a particularly difficult time when raising my boys when they were young, with very little if any outside help.

And I think you have it worse than I did.

I need to say that again to be very clear: You have it worse than I did.

I tell you this because what you are describing sounds just unlivable. A baby who cries especially loudly AND constantly AND won’t sleep, just by itself, is a nightmare. Caring for that baby while trying to take care of a bright, verbal, inquisitive, high-energy four-year-old sounds nearly impossible. It’s exhausting enough to run around with a high-energy kid, especially an inquisitive one, without anything else to do.

You literally never get a break. Ever. Your parents might take the four-year old two or three times a month, but you are still with that baby who screams and screams. And working full time while also taking the burden full-time of caring for your children as you’re giving your husband a break is going to burn anyone out.

Now. Let’s look at your privileges, and how they are helping you right now.

You say you have parents who live close, who give you a break every once in a while. I mean, that’s great, but since you feel you can’t hand over the baby, this is only a very slight advantage, and it’s mainly for your daughter who will get uninterrupted and quiet adult time.

You say you are able-bodied. Perhaps you’re able-bodied as far as mobility is concerned, but one of you has sensory issues that make a crying baby even more difficult for him, which is not only awful for him but also means that the breaks he need are vital, probably daily without fail, and that puts more pressure on you. You were BOTH diagnosed with Postpartum Depression.

So . . . ableds? Not so much.

You’re middle class with a stable, well-paying job. Really? I mean, you can’t afford counseling. I’m sure that having a stable job means you worry about money and housing less than many other parents, but that supposedly well-paying job doesn’t leave you with enough cash available for counseling, and I assume that it doesn’t pay you well enough to hire some help to come help a few times a week. And you’re living on one wage, which is really hard to live on for most people, even if your job is stable and well-paying.

I’ve gone through this in painstaking detail because I want you to see that you genuinely have it rough, and some of the privileges you have aren’t quite as privilege-y right now for your family.

Anyone in your situation would be completely burned out. Anyone in that situation would find themselves sobbing in the car on their way to work, probably deeply stressed in their relationships, and barely able to function.

The United States, man. Our hateful late-stage capitalism doesn’t offer many jobs that pay enough to support a family. We do not offer our citizens reliable, quality, or remotely affordable health care, so many of us do without. We have absolutely no preschool or toddler daycare or childcare options that are anything less than insanely expensive, let alone equipped for kids who are struggling like your baby is. Our housing costs are skyrocketing, groceries have become an absolutely giant expense that somehow our government doesn’t have to count toward any measurements of our economy, and then we have this fucking Calvinist bullshit that we’ve taken from those religious lunatics who first came here and started murdering the local populace: if you suffer, it is because God wants you to suffer. If God wants you to suffer, you must be a shitty person.

It’s not explicitly religious anymore, but it sure is woven into the fabric of our society so tightly that even someone like you who barely hanging on feels like she doesn’t have the right to feel burned out by her incredibly high-octane life.

In other words, all of this isn’t the economy. It isn’t a lack of supports for new parents. It isn’t having to work full time to pay the bills when your kids have intense needs. IT’S YOU. ALL YOUR FAULT. YOU DID THIS TO YOURSELF.

If we keep blaming ourselves and chasing our tails, we’ll be too worn out and filled with self loathing to make any systemic change, yeah? Our system is specifically designed to make you feel this way, to perpetuate itself.

So, some people have it worse. Why should this somehow sustain you and give you buoyancy and hope? There is always someone, somewhere, who has it worse. This does not mean that we do not also suffer and that we do not also have completely human reactions to inhuman conditions.

You are having a completely human reaction. If you weren’t feeling burned out, I would suspect you of being in denial.

Don’t let your stupid hateful capitalist Calvinist culture and our barebones economy and poisonous messages jammed into your subconscious tell you that you have no right to be miserable in a miserable situation! Sadly, you have earned this burnout and to expect yourself to sail through it like Mary Poppins is just too. Damn. Much.

 

PS PLEASE take a deep breath and leave your baby with other people for a few hours here and there, and even overnight. So what if they need earplugs for a few hours or have one rough night of sleep? You say you have supportive friends. Let them support you in the way you really need it.

How do I handle my unapologetically racist son?

Dear Gentle Butch,

My oldest son has become an unapologetic racist. He has opined that black and Hispanic people are unintelligent, destructive, and without self control. He has told me and my husband that we’re naïve and can’t face facts we don’t like. His comments on these subjects have ranged from dispassionate observations to mean-spirited jokes. But, despite what he’s said to us, he seems to function at a diverse high school without incident.

I’m not completely sure where all this has come from. His beliefs don’t seem to be based in any kind of larger right-wing perspective. His girlfriend is Jewish and we have several gay family friends that he’s still quite fond of.

I grew up in a very white bread, religious world. So did my husband. We both wanted to raise our children in a different environment. We made an effort to settle in a multicultural city, live in a diverse neighborhood, and send our children to schools where people aren’t all the same. Almost from the moment our son was born, we tried to teach him that prejudice, of any kind, was wrong.

If any other relative or acquaintance expressed some of the views my son has, I wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But I can’t bring myself to pull away from him the way I would anyone else. We had him young and he was our only child for a long time. The three of us were once very close.

His views have created a big rift between us and put a significant strain on our household. My husband and I have made it clear to him that we don’t want racist statements in our home. And there has been a tacit agreement between us not to bring up issues that might lead to disagreement. I will admit that my son is better at adhering to it than I am. We’ve had several bad arguments. The last one got very nasty and we didn’t talk for a few days afterwards.

In almost every other way, he’s a good son and a good person. He works hard in school, stays out of trouble, and—when I returned to full-time employment—accepted greater responsibility for our three younger children lovingly and without complaint. His brother and sisters adore him. Sadly, I worry about the influence he might be having on them.

In some ways, I feel like this is karma. The arguments I’ve had with him remind me of the ones I had with my parents when I stopped being religious. This worries me because, eventually, my parents and I completely stopped communicating with one another.

My husband has told me that I need to stop “picking fights” with our son. He feels our time to mold him his passed (he’ll be leaving for college next year) and we have to behave accordingly. He says the best thing we can do is avoid talking about certain subjects and hope that our son changes his mind about them. I sense that he’s right and that this is really our only option. But, at the same time, I still feel like I should be doing more. Is my husband correct or is there some other effort I can make?

Signed,

Minneapolis Mom

 

Dear MM,

Oh, WOW.

Of course you aren’t going to cut your kid off. Come on. But you can fight his racism with every ounce of your strength. White supremacy is a hell of a drug, and you need to fight like hell to help get your son out of its clutches — and to keep your younger kids away from it as much as you can.

But first you have to get very uncomfortable. And remain so. And I’m getting very uncomfortable myself, because I am going to say awkward things.

Ready? Your son is probably right that you are somewhat naïve, at least if I’m right about what you mean about your upbringing. When you say “white bread,” do you mean “white?” As in: you grew up in a totally white town somewhere outside of the Twin Cities? You grew up never speaking to or interacting with any black or Latinx people at all as a child? That you probably remember the first time you met a black person?

Is it fair to say that your son has grown up with far more experience with black and Lantinx people than you have, even living where you are as adults, and thus sees you as pie-in-the-sky white liberals who have no on-the-ground experience?

I think facing up to the idea that perhaps you ARE somewhat naïve can help this situation. (Also, all teenagers think their parents are naïve, and fighting that is just a waste of time and breath.)

Ask yourself: am I horrified because he is thinking wrong thoughts? Did I just teach him “prejudice of any kind is bad” and end it there? Have I thought through and presented to him and my other kids what racism IS?

I’m not here to make excuses for your son’s racism, but even if he’s had lots of experience with black and brown people in school, what he might not have seen is how the system treated him and his classmates differently. Did he see kids he thought were lazy because they were disconnected and disenfranchised (or just plain hungry) in class but never learned about the specific, extremely purposeful systemic reasons they might feel disconnected? Does he know about redlining and food deserts and the racism of school funding models?

I think what a lot of white kids fail to realize, unless someone sits down and explicitly teaches them this, is the following: racism isn’t how a certain person FEELS about certain other people. Racism is a supremacist system that we white people set up from the very start of our country to keep the vast majority of the resources, comforts, rights, and power in the hands of a few. We as a country have continued to enforce and reinforce this in overt ways such as police violence and a completely horrifying (and economically disastrous to the future of our country) immigration policy, and in quiet and unseen ways such as making entire companies, schools, public spaces, and governmental entities only comfortable for white people.

So if you brought him up just saying: “don’t be racist,” and since our schools in Minneapolis don’t actually teach about redlining and the reservation system and Indian boarding schools and the Dakota 39 and our hideous policies and practices in exploiting migrant workers for sugar beets and the reason why we built 94 with an awfully strange route to destroy a row of black businesses and divide African-American and Jewish communities in North Minneapolis while conveniently destroying a multi-racial neighborhood in St. Paul with a strong black community in one fell swoop — kids just hear: ‘prejudice is bad because we are all the same and it is bad,’ and they look around themselves and see that white people sure do seem to be doing well for absolutely no reason they can see, well then why wouldn’t they draw racist conclusions?

I’m not saying all of this to make you tear your hair and feel bad about yourself. I’m saying all of this because you said you have younger children.

While I don’t think it’s too late for anyone to learn, I especially don’t think it’s too late for your young kids to learn. Teach them some of this racist history. Help them to see the system of white supremacy for what it is, instead of just telling them prejudice is wrong.

As for your son, and for your husband: when it comes to race, too many white people tacitly agree not to bring up certain topics. I know your spouse believes it’s too late to ‘mold him,’ but that is two kinds of bullshit: 1. It was too late to mold your son after you finished knitting him together in your womb. I know some of us THINK we have molded our kids into some shape, but really all we can do is try to educate them, rain down love on them, and keep our hands and feet clear. They are people, not clay. 2. You never stop teaching your children, and they never stop teaching you.

And one thing you can still teach your son is this: that you will NOT avoid topics to make a racist more comfortable. That until he either gets himself educated or keeps his mouth shut in your house and around your other children, he is going to be very, very, VERY uncomfortable.

And in doing so, you teach your other kids: we do not remain silent in the face of racism. We do not help other white people feel comfortable in voicing their hateful bullshit, even if they’re family.

Especially if they’re family.

So if your husband doesn’t like it he should get some ear plugs and go play video games or something. (I’m pretty annoyed with him, in case you haven’t picked up on this. He should care about this, too.)

Now. As for karma.

Western people often see karma as, basically, God’s judgement. Kind of like, yanno, a conservative Christian might see the world. And that’s how you seem to be talking about it. It’s not a thing. It isn’t. Knock it off.

But you’re right in one way: these arguments seem reminiscent of the ones you had with your mother. She thought she was fighting for your soul too, I imagine.

Here’s where I feel like they are similar, and why I mentioned your possible naiveté, at the risk of not being terribly Gentle: if you were just telling your children what to think and how to behave based on the idea that prejudice is “wrong,” it could be reminiscent of the idea of sin: racism is a sin, end of story.

It also possibly has the same urgency as those with your mother: our country is on a razor’s edge right now, with our Bigot-in-Chief. The stakes are so, so high.

Shifting the conversation to information on our nation’s white supremacist history, with specific examples, (within earshot of the younger kids) allowing him to draw his own conclusions? That’s breaking the cycle.

Good luck.

 

How do I support my awful coworker’s daughter?

Dear Gentle Butch,

I work in a small office of only a few people. My least-favorite coworker (I’ll call her Susan) has a teenage daughter (Hannah), who is queer, but is not out to her family. (It’s complicated how I came to know this.) And, while I have met Hannah a few times, we don’t have a close relationship. My coworker frequently laments her daughter’s rejection of boys (chalking it up to immaturity) and tells us her plans for “socializing” her daughter (with or without her consent). Hannah is involved in drama club at school, which seems pretty social to me, but Susan is dismissive, saying Hannah is too introverted to be good at it (which is not necessarily true).

Most recently, Susan told us about Hannah bringing a boy home. Susan was glad that Hannah is making friends with boys, but disappointed that her interest in him is only friendly. On top of that, her husband freaked out and went full-on patriarchal. He insisted on meeting the boy first to see if he “looked scary,” imposing time limits on visits, making sure she keeps her door open, etc. Susan told this in a smiling dads-will-be-dads kind of way. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to laugh or what, but it was all I could do to contain my horror.

Susan always sounds exasperated when she mentions her daughter. I hate to hear Susan sound so down on her daughter all the time and I am never sure how to react. I don’t want to accidentally out Hannah, or make it sound like I’m telling Susan how to raise her children. But they way she talks about her daughter, queer or not, is appalling to me.

I should mention that I am also queer and quite out about it. My wife and I have casually offered to spend time with Hannah after she and my wife bonded a little bit over a shared enthusiasm for YA fiction. Hannah is very shy about reaching out and when we have made tentative plans, Susan tends to make it inconvenient so that Hannah cancels. We have not persisted, afraid it will look like “recruitment.”

I really want to be an ally to this girl, but I don’t like her mother at all. How should I respond to my coworker’s stories and comments about her daughter? Do you think we should try contacting Hannah again?

–Coworker Didn’t Get the Memo

What a heartbreaking letter.

It’s so incredibly hard to watch a parent pull this crap when you are helpless to intervene.

Well, mostly helpless.

I think you have done what you can with Hannah. You have made it clear you’d be willing to hang out. Her mother has made it clear that she is going to passively resist this as much as possible, but Hannah will eventually have more mobility and freedom. I imagine she will learn to drive or take public transportation, for instance. If her father allows it. (I HOPE I am joking about that.)

I assume Hannah knows you are a couple. She knows who to turn to if she needs to, when the time comes. And that is so, so important.

Now, the next stuff I’m going to say is fully optional. You are hereby cleared by me, as a queer and a parent of a queer, from any other responsibility. You can back away quickly when she talks about her daughter. You can change the subject or put your fingers in your ears and hum. She sounds like a very irritating person, on top of everything else.

But.

As a parent, I’m feeling like I need to at least give this damn lady a sliver of the benefit of the doubt.

To be clear: I think she is just a thoughtless parent who believes its her job to control her kid’s life and that there is only one way to be happy and she knows what it is, so she’s going to try to force her daughter into the shape she thinks is best.

Oh and that she thinks her husband believing that he owns his daughter’s sexuality and body is funny.

But.

On the off chance she is sharing this with people because it was a bit unsettling to her and she wants to see a reaction to gauge how weird some of this is, responding naturally might be just what she needs.

And she might be deeply frustrated with her daughter’s refusal to fit into the shape she’s trying to jam her into, and talking a little might help her see how ridiculous she is being.

You don’t have much to lose — she is already passively-aggressively keeping you from her daughter, so it’s not like you have a connection to her that will be in jeopardy.

So there are two ways to go, and this probably depends on how comfortable you are with confrontation.

One: I think she needs to see that some people are horrified by her husband’s behavior. I think she needs to see you recoil and say something like: “Actually, some of the best actors are introverts.” I think she needs to see you narrow your eyes over her bemoaning over her daughter not having a boyfriend already and looking skeptical. And if you can have a natural, honest reaction to what she says without telling her off, you will probably empower others around you to do the same.

Two: you can be empathetic. Or mime it. When she starts talking about her daughter in that antagonistic tone, you can say in a warm and kind tone: “It sounds like you’re pretty frustrated with her.” If she is, and wants to talk, she can — and increased intimacy might give you a chance to offer her other insights. If she isn’t, and hadn’t realized she’d taken on this tone — well, that’s information for her, as well.

I get it. I want to save all the queerbabies with parents like this (and worse, of course), too. But you have truly done what you can right now for the girl, and you’re continuing to be. And for her mom . . . showing her that it’s possible to have a happy life and a stable relationship even if you’re queer might help her to stop frantically attempting to force heterosexuality on Hannah. 

Good luck. And remember it’s always an option to just change the subject or walk away, for your own mental health.