Enough, already

My mother-in-law couldn't have been more helpful after the baby was born. She baby-sat, she cooked -- then she moved in.

By Garrison Keillor
Published August 1, 2000 7:02PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

After years of ambivalent feelings about having a child, I finally gave birth to a beautiful redheaded baby boy this February. I am thrilled and know I did the right thing. However, I still wanted to go back to my job as a marketing professional. I started interviewing day-care providers, and then my mother-in-law swooped in, and offered to take care of the little guy full time for free. She moved in with us. She adores the baby, plays with him, takes him for long walks, etc. etc. She is also a registered nurse. However, SHE LIVES WITH US. She seldom gets out of the house. She tries to give us our space, but her relationship with my husband is strange. She cooks for him, washes and irons his clothes, even offered to cut his hair one day. My husband, a very independent man by nature, seems to have no problem with this arrangement. I, however, do. I just don't want anyone else living with us, regardless of how nice they try to be. I've become very cranky over this.

My husband talked to his mother about moving out and getting an apartment near us and just coming over during the day to take care of the baby. She agreed that this was the best solution, but I fear she'll never actually move out. I feel that she may just move away, meaning the baby would have to go to day care, which my husband is opposed to. I want to get my house, husband and privacy back. I also worry that the baby is not getting a chance to socialize with other children. And that my mother-in-law won't be able to keep up with him when he starts crawling, which may happen soon. And without my mother-in-law living with us, I will actually have less freedom on weekends, as we won't have a live-in sitter.

Am I just an ungrateful daughter-in-law, or do I have legitimate concerns? Any advice about compromises, or tactful ways to handle this situation without hurting anyone's feelings?

Guilt-Ridden Mother

Dear Mother,

You're a worrier is what you are. You're worried that the sun may shine and give you skin cancer, but on the other hand it could rain and your car might skid off the road and run into a tree. The Good Lord gave you a little boy and then sent this merciful angel to care for him, and also cook and do laundry, and all for free, and the first thing you should do every morning when you awake is say, "Thank you, God, for giving me this fabulous mother-in-law."

Of course even a saint can weary of the constant attentions of an angel, so you should find a cheery apartment for your mother-in-law. Close but not too close. You can pay for this with the money you save on day care. Tensions subside a little. You and your husband can have private conversations again. You can make love and not worry about the whooping and groaning. What's crucial, though, is that you spend some time with your mother-in-law and talk to her, without your husband present, and arrive at some sort of friendly compact with her. That's the key to the in-law problem. The in-law is in your life, though you didn't choose her to be, and your choice is to make some sort of friendship on your own -- or to live in a state of controlled suspicion and animosity. Any adult person should have sufficient diplomatic skills to form a friendly relationship with another adult: This is basic, basic, basic. Be a friend to your mother-in-law.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am 32, successful in my career as a classical musician, but unhappy in my love life. It seems that every time I meet a man that I'm interested in, I wind up being the buddy: someone great to talk to, but not someone to pursue romantically. Last week I went out with a great guy who I was sure was attracted to me, and we talked for hours about all kinds of interesting things. But by the end of the evening, the chemistry seemed to have evaporated from his side. Although my friends and colleagues tell me that I'm an attractive woman, I'm not very confident about my looks. It frustrates me that I can't seem to transfer the confidence and self-assurance I have as a musician, on- and offstage, to my personal life. What am I doing wrong? Am I talking too much?

Lonely in Berlin

Dear Lonely,

For one thing, you don't seem Deutsch, mein schatz, you seem rather Amerikanisch, and maybe the Karls and Dietrichs are in search of a Gertrude and not a Melissa. The guy whose chemistry evaporated was a guy in need of stronger chemicals: his problem, not yours. Are you talking too much? I don't know, but if you suspect so, perhaps you are, out of overeagerness, overstimulation, which can lead someone to be aggressive conversationally in innocent but unpleasant ways, leaning forward across the wienerschnitzel and being too emphatic.

If you're not confident about your looks, then do something to make yourself confident, whether your friends think you need to or not. The whole point of fashion is not to impress other people as to make one feel sleek and cool and elegant. The whole point of slimness is to feel good, not to be slim. Get yourself feeling attractive, and then forget about romance and just have yourself a good time and one fine night you'll be sitting in a little bierstube and hear Gershwin played on the piano and turn and see a tall man walk toward you, adoration in his eyes. Ignore the lederhosen and suspenders and the dumb hat and the tuba, and simply accept him for who he is. On the other hand, how can you? You'll sit and talk and this time the chemistry will evaporate from your side.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My ex-boyfriend and I have been together twice, broken up twice and now he wants to get back together again. All in the space of four years. (We're in our early 30s.) It was a comfortable and passionate romance; we were compatible and I think he's brilliant, witty, responsible and cute as a button. The first time we broke up because he freaked out about how close we were getting -- our romance started only a month or two after his previous one had broken up -- and I was devastated, but we continued to hang out together, and then I was feeling hung up and told him to fish or cut bait, so we decided to try again. That lasted for six months, and then he decided it was too much of a burden. It broke my heart. Now, a year later, he's back. He's been in therapy for bipolar disorder and says he's feeling better and is better able to handle his emotions now that he's on antidepressants. He wants to try again. I'm scared, hopeful, excited and wary. I want to trust him and I'm so afraid that if this doesn't work out I won't be able to climb my way out of the hole I'll be in.

We talk on the phone. I ask lots of questions, don't see him very much. He has a good job that pays well, he gets along great with his family, my friends like him, his friends like me. I haven't met anyone I enjoy half as much. I go back and forth between "it shouldn't be this complicated" and "I want to give it every chance to succeed." Comments?

Still at Bat

Dear Still,

He must be a great guy if you're considering forgiving him again. When he isn't freaking out, he must be fabulous. In any case, he's yours. You're not going to say goodbye to him, that's perfectly obvious. And that's your business. But you should accept that life with the gentleman is apt to be a roller coaster, so look to training yourself to tolerate the dizzying climbs and the terrifying drops and turns. Maybe I'm wrong and the antidepressants can change everything -- I hope so, for your sake -- but even with the intercession of blessed chemicals, there is a large need here for some emotional maturity. A man who freaks out because he felt he was getting too close to you needs to grow up. There isn't a pill to treat fear of intimacy, at least nothing the FDA has approved.

Dear Mr. Blue,

For almost two years I've been in a pretty decent relationship with a sweet and sexy guy who seems to have no long-term intentions. He says, "I'm just having fun and enjoying what we have together." I want to break up and cut my losses. I don't like perpetual dating. I've seen my brothers and uncles string women along for years without making any true commitment. I don't want to be that woman. I do love him and we have so much fun together and he has become very important to me, but I need more. When I think about it it makes me moody and depressed. Help me please!

Antsy Woman

Dear Antsy,

You want what you want and he wants something else. Maybe he's not listening, maybe he's daydreaming about the beautiful starlet he'll meet in a few months or years, maybe he doesn't take you at your word. But there isn't much room for compromise on the question of marriage vs. prolonged courtship. You have perfectly good reasons for wanting marriage, and we needn't review all the stark facts here. Set a date in your own mind and decide to decide by that time. If the relationship is depressing you at the almost-two-year point, don't let it go past the two-and-a-half-year point without a definite change in your favor. Don't be dependent on having a Relationship. You want to be with a man who is ennobled and encouraged by love to take bold steps and be brave on behalf of the relationship. Some men simply want to have fun and when it isn't fun they're gone. Why accept that if it isn't what you want?

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have wanted to write to you for a while but have held off for want of a decent trauma. My life, like everybody's, is full of little day-to-day traumas, but by the time I'm halfway through the writing of my woes, something has gone right, and I feel like a drama queen for moaning and give up. So I guess I'm OK, but why?


Dear Jack,

You're basically OK because your parents brought you up to be, and they taught you not to focus on your problems, and how did you treat them? Jack, you treated them like dirt under your feet. The suffering you caused those two fine people should make you pick up a phone and call a therapist and make some appointments. Sit down and start talking about your mom and dad and before you know it you'll be walking through deep mud indeed and reaching for the Kleenex and finally after all these years you'll start facing up to your problems.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've been dating the same boy off and on (he's 30) for more than three years. He makes my heart pound like absolutely no one else does. He told me last week that I have every quality he's ever looked for in another human being. But he likes the fact that we maintain our separate lives, so I only see him once a week or so, sometimes less often, and he is hesitant to take our relationship to another level. I want to hang on to him. It seems like at age 24 I ought to start getting some practice in how to be involved with someone. Right? He's getting ready to move to a city 30 minutes away after the first of the year. What if he slips away from me before we really take the chance to explore this? Argghh! My heart is in a twist.

In Love

Dear In Love,

It's hard, kid. Of all the guys in the world, you had to pick one who prefers his woman at a distance. Honey, he isn't in love with you, even if you are a quality human being. This is a problem that doesn't lend itself to negotiation: It puts you in the position of begging for his attention, and it results in a lot of whimpering and sniffling, and that's no good for you. Sure, it's a good idea to get some practice in being involved with someone, but this guy doesn't want to dance. Don't hang on. Give him all the slack he wants, and live your life, and soon he will disappear. He seems to be assuming that you'll stay put, like a lawn mower. Don't let him assume that. He has no right to. Drop the boy and find a man.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After my marriage crashed and burned, I spent four years pulling myself together and learning to fully enjoy the tranquillity of middle age and living single. Then I met a man who made my socks roll up and down. We're talking love here ... a true midlife passion. Such a guy. We moved in together a year ago and have rarely been apart since then. Last week he left on a 10-day business trip and I cried as I waved goodbye and moped around the house all day, and then I heard this little voice inside my head say ... "You're free." It felt like chains were dropping from my shoulders. I've dined out with old friends I haven't seen in years. I cleaned the house and it stayed that way. The toilet seat stayed down. I rediscovered the joy of watching old movies until 3 in the morning. I got to hog all the covers. It has been bliss. I have felt playful, lithesome and unfettered. What the hell is going on here? I adore this man, so why has his absence turned out to be this much fun? Could it be a sign that I'm really designed to live alone the rest of my life? What a grim thought. Please help, Mr. Blue.

Happy And Nervous

Dear Happy,

It's called a vacation and other couples experience it too. They may not let on to each other, but they do. Marriage is an institution that, even at best, places strains on a person. I love my wife dearly, but when she's gone I get to stay up and work late at night with nobody telling me to stop. I don't feel playful, lithesome and unfettered, but I do get to occupy the entire bed crossways, and most of all, when I put the toilet seat up, it stays up. I don't know why women can't put a lid back up when they're done doing their business, but a man gets tired of nagging at them. And why do they keep asking you, "Are you mad at me?" No, of course not! But a little peace and quiet is nothing to sneeze at.

Dear Mr. Blue,

My wife and I have four children and live in a nice home, have our bills paid, money in the bank, have worked arduously at our marriage to make it last 15 years, but my mother-in-law is driving us nuts. She is divorced and on disability (for lupus exacerbated by her weight) and has little to do but meddle, which she does extremely well. She constantly criticizes my wife, "corrects" our children and gets into this "victim-rescuer" mode, where she's either one or another. We call her Hurricane Harriet. We moved to this town about nine months ago to be closer to my wife's family (mom, dad and brother live here). At this point, I'd rather move somewhere with a long-distance phone number than stick around and try to work around her. Any suggestions?


Dear Besieged,

Find a terrific job opportunity elsewhere, an offer you can't turn down, and pick up the family and move. It may take you a year to find it, and meanwhile, be the nicest guy in town, a pal to her dad and brother, a comfort to your wife and children, and a rescuer in time of hurricanes. Kill the old lady with kindness. Look for the next rock and then hop.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I am a 23-year-old woman in Iowa in love with a 43-year-old man in New York. We met a year ago on a flight from Dallas to Des Moines. He sat across the aisle from me. We stole glances at each other, but it wasn't until the plane landed that he gathered the courage to comment on the book I was reading, Garcma Marquez's "Love in the Time of Cholera," and hand me his business card. I called him and the ensuing round of phone conversations and e-mails confirmed my worst fear, that we were in love. We have had only a few fabulously magical weekends together. He has a busy career, and I am finishing up with school. I consider myself to be a fairly mature young woman and this whole affair seems so irrational. But I can't help thinking that this is "it." He has never been married and has always wanted to have a family but gave up hope a while ago. Am I crazy for pursuing this? If not, how can I convince him that we can make it work? What do I say to my friends?

Iowa Girl

Dear Iowa,

You're not crazy for enjoying this big sudden operatic romance, heck no, but what exactly are you "pursuing" and what are you trying to "convince" him of? A few magical weekends is not a good basis for venturing into marriage, believe me. (Fifteen magical weekends, at a minimum. Preferably 20.) It isn't the age difference that's of concern here, it's the fact that you don't know him. You should, for your own protection, assume that this is a nice fling and put thoughts of "it" in the refrigerator, in the crisper drawer. Don't worry about what to say to your friends. All they want is the juicy details, and you can save those for later.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a 23-year-old reasonably attractive girl, and a virgin, which I'd be OK with if the reason were religious, but it's not, it's just that I've never dated anyone for more than three weeks and never had the opportunity. I haven't even done any of the other stuff like oral sex. Am I a freak? I feel as if I am behind on the Grand Timeline of Sexual Activities. Any suggestions? I've been told I should masturbate to get more comfortable with my body. What do you think?


Dear Frustrated,

You're no freak at all. There isn't a big tent on the carnival midway with a barker growling into a microphone, "Hurra hurra hurra, come in and see the 23-year-old virgin! Yowsa yowsa yowsa! She's 23, she has all her bodily functions, and yet, ladies and gentlemen, she has yet to DO IT! She's here! She's alive! She's in our tent!" I suggest that you take it easy and have a wonderful summer. As for masturbation, it's OK if you do it for simple pleasure, but if you do it because someone says you should to get more comfortable with your body, it can cause blindness.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

MORE FROM Garrison Keillor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Writers And Writing