DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #34: Are You My Mother?


Dear Sugar,

A few years ago, I met a significantly older man. We’re talking 15 years older. At the time we met he was firmly attached to a woman who was essentially his common-law wife. I fell for him and then I tried my best to let go, but we kept in touch, and recently he told me that he broke up with his longtime partner.

We’ve been out a few times and romantic-relationship-type activities have occurred. (Sorry for being vague, but I’m bashful.) Anyway, I really, really like him a lot. But I’m hesitant. It’s not only that I’m so much younger than he is, it’s also that I’ve never had a relationship anywhere near as serious as the one he had with his former girlfriend. Plus, he’s all messed up from what happened with his last relationship. (He needs time.) In spite of all this, I can’t help but wonder if he’s the right one for me. I really want to find the right guy, and he could be it, but I’m trying to protect myself.

Sugar, am I a crazy, immature, insecure lunatic?

Lady Born in the 80s

Dear Lady Born in the 80s,

Oh, pumpkin, we’re all crazy, immature, insecure lunatics sometimes. Especially when it comes to romantic love. So let’s map out a way that you can be the least crazy, least immature, least insecure, least lunatic version of yourself in this situation.

You want to see if your middle-aged paramour is the “right” guy while simultaneously “protecting” yourself? You already know what I’m going to say to that, don’t you? I’m pretty certain that I’ve made one guiding principle of Sugarland deeply clear: there is no protection in love. It’s impossible to remain invulnerable to heartbreak and loss while truly opening yourself up to a relationship that has a statistically high chance of leading to heartbreak and loss.

You simply can’t ride to the fair unless you get on the pony, Lady Born in the 80s. So put on your hat and get on the damn pony.

Date the man. Mess around with the man. See what’s there between the two of you. And don’t spend another minute in this measly, defensive, fraidy cat crouch that will only hurt you profoundly in the end.

Instead, here’s a thought: how about you protect yourself for real? Not in the uselessly emotional but-what-if-he-breaks-my-heart! way, but rather in the boldly analytical wow-I’m-falling-for-a-man-who’s-both-fifteen-years-my-senior-and-on-the-rebound way?

This requires thinking. It requires honesty and doubt and several fearless conversations with your hot old man, during which you ask and answer questions like: What is the nature of our attraction? Is our age difference genuinely bridgeable both now and over time? How do we address the fact that while exploring this new relationship together one of us is still deeply processing the end of another?

These questions will lead to other, more complex questions. The answers will either wind you down a long and interesting path or to a short but instructive dead-end. They will also protect you in the only way that matters. You might lose your heart, honey, but you’ll keep your hat.



Dear Sugar,

I moved to a new city a little under a year ago and in the past few months have been feeling so at home and at ease after various bouts of loneliness. I’ve met some great women here, women I might have seen myself being able to date at some point, or at least sleep with for a while. What is the problem with this? Well, I am finding that I am gravitating toward women more from habit than from necessity. As in, I pursue what is immediately available and then lose interest rapidly, sometimes before it even starts but because I am a sensitive, sensual person, I have a hard time turning it away.
I guess what I am asking is, is this biological or emotional? I’m a male in my mid-twenties just starting what looks to be a promising career doing what I love. I feel so much love and gratitude in my life and just typing that sentence made me feel a bit better. I really, really love women and don’t know if I could ever just turn it off. I also don’t want to end up another distant, difficult, non-communicative male unsure of his own feelings.

I think part of the problem might be that I feel like I need physical love to be happy and am less of a person without it. Is it more self-affirmation I need? Do I need to convince myself that I will find someone that I really can love and not just pursue because they are available for me immediately? Does this have anything to do with my mother?

I adore your column and hope you do it for a long time.

Lots and lots of love to you, Sugar.

Dear Anonymous,

Have you ever read that book by P.D. Eastman called Are You My Mother? In it, a baby bird hatches while his mother is away from the nest and he decides to go out to find her. He can’t fly yet so he walks. He walks and he walks and he walks on his tiny baby bird feet, constantly asking the question: Are you my mother? Each time he asks the question, he’s convinced the answer is yes. But he’s wrong. Nothing is ever his mother. The kitten isn’t his mother. The hen isn’t his mother. The dog isn’t his mother. The cow isn’t his mother. The boat isn’t his mother. The plane isn’t his mother. The steam shovel that he calls a Snort isn’t his mother. But finally, when all hope is lost, the baby bird gets himself back to the nest and along comes his mother.

It’s a children’s book that isn’t really about children. It’s a book about you and me and everyone else who has ever been twentysomething and searching for the thing inside that allows us to feel at home in the world. It’s a story about how impossible it can be to recognize who we are and who we belong to and who belongs to us. It’s a fairly precise tale of the journey you’re on right now, Anonymous, and from it I encourage you to take both heart and heed.

Of course you’ve slept with women you aren’t actually very interested in having a relationship with, honey bunch. Of course you have! When you’re single and in your twenties having sex with whoever comes along is practically your job. It’s biological. It’s emotional. It’s psychological. It’s egomaniacal. And yes, some of those impulses just might have a little something to do with your mom (and your dad too, for that matter).

The conflicted feelings and thoughts you’re having about love and sex and the occasionally contradictory actions you’re taking with women are developmentally appropriate and they’ll teach you something you need to know, so don’t be too hard on yourself, but do take care not to get stuck. Not getting stuck is key to not becoming “another distant, difficult, non-communicative male unsure of his own feelings” who sleeps with every mildly interesting and interested woman he meets. We learn from experience, but no need to keep learning the same things from the same experiences over and over again, right?

You know what it feels like to say yes to women you don’t ultimately dig, so how about seeing how it feels to say no? What space is filled up by sex with women you aren’t all that into and what fills that space when you don’t fill it with them? If you’d like to become the emotionally evolved man it seems so very clear to me that you are on the brink of becoming, you’re going to have to evolve beyond asking every kitten you meet if she’s your mother.

She isn’t. You are. And once you figure that out, you’re home.