DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #61: The Sacred Thread

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Dear Sugar,

My twenty-year-old daughter returned home from university after suffering a bout of depression in late May. She is doing better on medication (but stopped going to counseling because she “didn’t feel like it”) and is attending our local community college taking dance and make-up classes (yes, the kind you wear). She really enjoys watching TV and eating our food all day. Her classes start later in the afternoon.

She will be twenty-one in February. How long do we have to let her live here? She won’t help around the house without being asked and I’m tired of it. She is trying to pursue a modeling career but I don’t see that panning out anytime soon. She has been the underachiever all her life. Graduating private school with a 1.98 GPA, leaving university with a 1.8, but testing exceptional on intelligence screening!!

We feel we have been patient while she has gotten healthy but we see no improved motivation in her. She still sleeps until noon and won’t work unless it’s a job she “loves” (so she won’t take “just any job”). Our other two children are largely successful young adults, completing college and attaining work (even in this economy!!). When she does earn some money she buys herself boots! Two hundred dollar boots!! If we push, she cries depression; if we say nothing we feel taken advantage of.

How long should we give her and what should our expectations be? We are at a loss for how to motivate her. Maybe I’m expecting too much?

Help us attain our empty nest!!
M and D

Dear M and D,

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I’m old school. I believe adults shouldn’t mooch off their parents unless they have an extremely good reason to do so (illness, disability, genuine financial emergency). You helped your daughter during her time of need and now that she’s stabilized there doesn’t appear to be a reason you must provide her with free room and board unless you want to. She certainly should get a job—and she will once you stop paying her way, whether she “loves” that job or not. I advise the three of you to have a discussion in which you inform your daughter that you expect her to become financially independent in the coming months and then map out a plan to do so. The changes you hope for aren’t likely going to happen overnight, but there are things you can do to make your situation more tenable in the short-term. Namely, your daughter should be contributing to the household as an equal, adult member, in the form of cleaning, cooking and other duties. Since she isn’t taking to such responsibilities on her own, you’re going to have to be explicit about your expectations. Make a list of the tasks you’d like her to do. Stick it on the fridge. Expect her to follow through.

Though your letter is seething with your sense of powerlessness, I encourage you to grasp the notion that this is a fairly straightforward affair. It’s called setting limits. In order to set limits successfully one must see the situation for what it is, discern what one wants and is willing to give, and then respectfully communicate those things to the involved parties. Setting limits is a lot like defining personal boundaries, which I’ve discussed in previous columns. Limits are not punishments, but rather lucid and respectful expressions of our needs and desires and capabilities. They allow us to be rational about situations that would otherwise make us froth at the mouth with fury. When we fail to set healthy limits we become bitter, angry, tiny-hearted people capable of composing letters such as the one you wrote to me.

So let’s talk about that, sweet peas.

You have reason to want to throttle your daughter, but it isn’t around her spoiled little neck that you need to get a grip. I understand why you’re frustrated. Nobody likes to be taken advantage of. You’ve raised a woman who—at least at this fairly typical, self-absorbed, post-adolescent moment—believes herself entitled to take from you without giving back. But dear ones, do you see your words? They are so fucking ugly. Your every vowel and consonant and double exclamation point disparages your daughter. She is your blessing, your obligation, your privilege, your great fortune, your light, but you don’t have a kind word to say about her. You characterize her as pathetic, lazy, selfish, dumb (though measurably smart), and unmotivated. You belittle her interests, scoff at her aspirations, and negatively compare her to her “largely successful” siblings.

Which leads me to wonder if you are part of the problem. What if your daughter is reluctant to leave the nest because some unconscious and primal part of her doesn’t want to go until she can get you—primal people who should love the fuck out of her—to love her better? Would she become more independent if you were cheering rather than jeering from the sidelines? Do you really think that snidely mocking her educational and career interests makes her more likely to become the “largely successful” woman you hope she’ll be?

You’re mad because it seems that your daughter is ruling the roost, but what you’re failing to see is that it’s the two of you who have the power. So buck the fuck up. Come out of your passive aggressive corner and duke it out with integrity. State your needs and wishes to your daughter about your living arrangements and financial commitments and then love the shit out of who she is, not whoever the hell you hoped she’d be.

There are very few people we get to love as profoundly as you get to love your daughter. Don’t squander it. In your rage and disappointment, you’ve lost the thread. The sacred thread that connects you to her. The one that has nothing to do with real estate or modeling careers panning out or two hundred dollar boots.

Find it and hold it and follow it as if the entire meaning of your life depends on doing so. Because it does.

Yours,
Sugar

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