Ask Amy

Readers -- it was been heartwarming and instructive to hear from and talk to you. Happy holidays, one and all.

And let's do this again! - Amy

December 6, 2006 1:34 PM

Dear Amy: I find it's much easier to just let go of my expectations this time of year. I see a lot of people getting their feelings hurt because they expect others to do certain things - when their imaginary dream holiday doesn't happen they are crushed.

I have two small kids, so I just let go and try to see it from their eyes. Everything is magic to a three-year-old. You don't need much to be happy when you think like that!


Dear Jennifer: What a wonderful note to end this fantastic chat on!

Yes, there is a Santa Claus. The big guy in red lives and breathes in every wide-eyed three-year-old.

Don't forget to take time to ice skate and drink cocoa and give your friends and folks an extra squeeze. Give a hand to someone in need. THAT's what it's all about.

December 6, 2006 1:32 PM

Dear Amy: Thank you so much for your ideas! I was considering a donation to charity since this is something they do very regularly (see letter below). I think they'd appreciate it very much.

Have a wonderful holiday! Keep up the fantastic columns!

Need Santa's Helpers

Dear Need: Thank you! Readers like you make me feel like the "Great and Powerful Oz!"

But I'm not. I'm just a middle-aged woman, sitting in a cubicle.

I did a column on Monday suggesting various charities; you can check that in the Trib's archives. But do your own search and find your own -- it's a lot of fun.

December 6, 2006 1:30 PM

Dear Amy: My husband [and I] are at a crossroads as far as Christmas cards. We are expecting a baby very shortly and still have a lot to do to prepare. I feel that I just want to write a simple Merry Christmas and Happy New Year and our signatures. He says we have to write a personal note in the card. It is making me feel guilty, but I don't see it as problem that for this year it is only a standard greeting. What are your thoughts?


Dear Mary: Take an evening -- write a line or two. And make sure that your husband does his bit -- he's the one who cares so very much.

December 6, 2006 1:27 PM

Dear Amy: My mother-in-law lost her husband in September of last year and quickly re-married within 3 months. She has erased her late husband's things and presence in the house to the dismay of her step-son and sons. We have all sat by and waited for her to realize her mistakes but we are all suffering. Her current husband has made sure that her family has limited contact with her and her youngest son whom still lives in the home. She has stated that she must stand by her husband's wishes and thus we must all "wait" to resume our relationships.

Thanksgiving went by with her celebrating only with her young (15-year-old) son and new husband. Christmas she has decided will be the same since her husband is unwelcome in many family members' homes and her son is unable to go anywhere the husband is not welcome. How can we get her to see the pain she is causing?

Where is grandma

Dear Where is Grandma: OK. This is sort of scary. This husband seems to be isolating your mother-in-law from her family. This is a sign of an abuser.

You need to do everything possible to keep the lines to her open. I know that it is so difficult because you are all still shocked and grieving over your own loss, but I think that it would be a mistake to deny this couple access to you -- I know that your family is reacting to their own behavior, but you really should do everything possible to tolerate this in order to keep a close eye on her and on her son.

Your husband really should step up (along with other siblings) and gently try to resume these ties in order to try to assess her situation.

December 6, 2006 1:19 PM

Dear Amy:

We usually spend holidays with my brother and his family as the rest of our family is out of town. Our kids are growing up and four of the six are now in college. I'd really like to stop giving them gifts as they're all working and generally don't like anything we give, however my brother and his wife insist that if we give to one we give to all or not show up. How can we make this pleasant without making gifts a requirement to celebrate?


Dear Kate: Well, I'm sort of with your brother on this. If you give to one, you should give to all. This is where the whole Heifer International (or another charity) idea would be great. You could donate something for the entire family on behalf of the entire family. That way, everybody is "gifted," a village gets an ox, and life goes on.

Everybody wins!!

December 6, 2006 1:16 PM

Dear Amy: Long time reader, first time writer.

It seems that every time my mom, sister and I get around each other, my mom can't stop singing the praises of my older sister. I can barely mention anything I've done before my mom jumps in to say that my sister has done something similar. My sister often talks over what I'm saying. It's to the point that I don't feel like saying anything at all when we three are together. Even the tiniest of happenings turns into a competition in which I do not choose to participate. My mom and sister create it; I'm just trying to have a conversation.

We will be spending a week or so together for the holidays. Any ideas how I should deal with this? Most often, I sit quietly and let them talk away.

Little Sister

Dear Little Sister: Gosh -- for a minute there, I thought that you were my sister, writing in.

This treatment is patently unfair and most likely a pattern that is so well-worn that your mother and sister don't even realize it. If it continues, then you'll get more and more quiet until you're just sitting there reading a book while the two of them talk over you.

One book you might want to read (probably not in their presence) is "The Dance of Anger" by Harriet Lerner. I'm not saying you're angry, mind you, but Lerner is really great at describing how family members do "dances." Everybody plays their part. By changing your behavior even a tiny bit, you can influence theirs, too.

Make sure that you build in plenty of time during that week to do things that you enjoy. You read my suggestion about ice skating, I presume??

Everybody skate!!

December 6, 2006 1:12 PM

Dear Amy: Two things about difficult Christmas seasons --

1. Break the traditions you shared with your departed loved one. Try new things with friends and family that don't have associations with the past. Help at a soup kitchen. Buy a Heifer animal for a friend.

2. Do something (lots of somethings) for others which helps take the focus off of "self" and toward those who are also in need and blue over the holidays.


Dear Nancy: I love your suggestions. People get so locked into what they think are traditions. But traditions are made and new traditions can be made, too.

Heifer International is a really wonderful foundation that sponsors various animals in Third World locations. One year my cousins gave each person in our family goats, chickens, oxen, etc. and we enjoyed it so much. We named "our" animals, gave them personalities and backstories, and screamed with laughter. I'll never forget it.

December 6, 2006 1:09 PM

Dear Amy: My family is in another state and we spend most holidays with my husband's family. While I love them dearly, I do cherish the thought of having a holiday with just my own, immediate family (husband and kids). I wish we had more of our own traditions. How can I pull this off without hurting my mother-in-law's feelings? Thanks so much, and I truly enjoy reading your column daily!


Dear Julie: I receive a lot of letters about this and I've dealt with this in my own life, too. There comes a time in every young family's life when they have to sort of "strike out" on their own to create their own traditions. The idea is that once you do this, you then fold your in-laws (and your folks) into your tradition.

You -- and certainly your husband -- can start this year by perhaps telling his folks that you're going to do Christmas morning at home with the kids and then invite them over for a late breakfast after the kids have opened that first round of gifts. I love those Christmas morning brunches and have a great recipe for "egg bake" -- that you can make well in advance and then keep in the fridge (or out on the porch, if it's cold).

Your mother-in-law's feelings might be a little bruised, but surely she had to do this same thing with her own family, many years ago. If she thinks about it, she should understand.

December 6, 2006 1:02 PM

Dear Amy: As an addition to my earlier question, my boyfriend doesn't think his parents and I should exchange gifts. I explained that they are great people and have been so nice to me so I'd like to show my appreciation. He still doesn't think that's reason enough to give them a gift. I disagree and will feel worse if I don't give them something small to show I care.

Still Need Santa's Helpers

Dear Still: If you will be with them on Christmas Day, then of course you should give them a (small) gift. Just don't go cuckoo-bananas.

December 6, 2006 1:00 PM

Dear Amy: I have been invited to one of my best friend's wedding. The date is Dec. 30. I am currently unemployed and cannot afford to attend and bring a gift. Even attending right now may be a stretch. How do I break the news to my friend from college who btw is a guy?


Dear Courtney: If you have to choose between attending and bringing a gift, then attend the wedding. You can make a great gift by taking "candid" photos of the couple during the reception and putting together an album for them.

If you cannot swing attending the wedding, the time to tell them is right now. Don't wait until the last minute -- if they think you are attending, they will have planned for and paid for your meal, etc.

If you truly can't do it, you should just say, "I'm soooo sorry but I just won't be able to come. You mean the world to me and I'll be thinking of you -- and I can't wait to hear about it."

But really, I think that you should move heaven and earth to try to go -- these events truly are life's milestones, and they're more beautiful when they're shared.

December 6, 2006 12:57 PM

Dear Amy: My family lives in N.C. and I am far away, but go every year for Christmas. In past years I had been pretty much treated like Cinderella by my step mother, being told to "just make breakfast!" "just clean the house!" etc., while her "real kids" do nothing.

Last year I thought I had a brilliant plan to avoid this and offered to make the family dinner for 30 as a gift to her. It took two days and was told it was great by everyone, but one person was missing from the dining table: step mom. She sat in the den and ate dinner alone. I was baffled. This year I offered again to cook as a gift to her, and she said she is just going to have sandwiches on Christmas. Is her home so what can I say, but wondering how to avoid the Cinderella issue again.


Dear Cinderella: She sounds like a pill. She also sounds manipulative and possibly depressed. The answer to this sort of passive aggression isn't for you to do more, but to do less. Be a great guest by offering to help around the house (regardless of what others do or do not do), and get some direction from your father about how he thinks you could best contribute to the family. She may just need to sulk, and you may need to let her.

December 6, 2006 12:53 PM

Dear Amy: As Christmas approaches I am making my list of things I need to do, and my husband doesn't understand the amount of stress I am under. I work part time, but he seems to think once I leave work, I have all the time in the world to "do it all!" How can I be less stressed, or try and get him to understand that Christmas just isn't the "warm and fuzzy" it should be for me?


Dear Carrie: Here's my holiday stress-test: Do you have time to go ice skating?

If the answer is no, then you're too stressed. Cross one thing off your list and replace it with something that is purely silly and fun.

Your husband may never understand how it feels to be you -- but the idea is for him to back you up, make things easier, and grab for your hand when you are about to fall on the ice. He's the guy who's going to take you skating.

December 6, 2006 12:51 PM

Dear Amy: My parents can't stand my husband and want only me to come for a visit right before Christmas. He can be difficult, but would be upset if he was not included. How can I tell them that it's not fair to invite me and not him, even if they don't like him. I've asked them to be civil for an afternoon, but they say they can't do it.


Dear Shannan: How's this -- "Mom and Dad, my husband and I are a package deal. It's not fair to invite half of my family and not the other half. That would be like me asking to spend time only with Mom and not Dad and that's not fair, right?"

I find it hard to believe that someone can't manage to be civil for an afternoon -- so I guess that if your parents tell you that, I would assume that they're just not trying hard enough.

December 6, 2006 12:45 PM

Dear Amy: I love your column! Thanks so much for offering your unique perspective on life's issues. It's really refreshing!

My holiday stress this year involves a gift for my boyfriend's parents. We've been dating for about a year but I don't know his parents all that well. They are definitely the kind of people who have everything they could ever want (in gift terms), so this makes the Christmas present quite a dilemma.

I've tried to enlist my boyfriend's help but haven't gotten very far. He finds them very hard to buy for, too. They get a lot of meaningless "tchotckeys" & I don't want my gift to find a home in the back of the cabinet…or worse… to become part of your "awful homemade gifts" series.

So what do you get for the people that seem to have everything?

Need Santa's Helpers

Dear Need: I love the idea of trying to match people's interests with a charity that you think they might like and donating in their name. Find an organization that will provide you with plenty of material about how the donation is used. Check for lists of charities and ratings -- you can do a search along various interests.

Materially, a gift I love is to find an old photograph (get your boyfriend to give you an ancient school picture or maybe a photo of him in his Cub Scouts uniform -- best yet, anything warm and silly with his parents in it). Have the photo restored, if necessary, and put it in a nice frame. Who could resist!!

December 6, 2006 12:39 PM

Dear Amy: I was supposed to be married this November, but my fiance broke things off about 5 months previously. With the holiday season, I'm running into folks who hadn't heard the news and end up asking me about the wedding. I end up having to tell them there wasn't a wedding, and it leads to people feeling bad. I've tried just laughing off the whole thing, but people feel awkward about that too. How should I respond that might make people more comfortable?


Dear Gail: First of all, that sound you hear is the sound of me clapping my mittens together for you. How thoughtful you are to worry about how other people feel about this! You rightfully realize that weddings are a bastion of hope for a lot of people; they feel sad and shocked to learn that such a joyful event has been cancelled.

A simple hand on the arm, along with, "I know that this is awkward, but everything's ok -- really, it is" would help to smooth the waters.

Then you change the subject. "So -- tell me what you're up to. What are your Christmas plans?" This will give people the opportunity to catch their breath and move the conversation along.

December 6, 2006 12:34 PM

Dear Amy: I have a daughter-in-law for the first time this year. We are thrilled to have her join our family. Years ago, my MIL knit stockings for each of us and they are beautiful, even if mine is slightly smaller. I choose to believe that she'd just lost track of the gauge when she did mine. We hang them as part of our Christmas decorations. This year our new daughter-in-law will be at our home for the holidays. We don't have a matching stocking for her and I don't want her to feel the least bit like she's not a part of the family. Any ideas? I don't knit nor do I know anyone who could knit a stocking for her. Do I need to just put the old ones away?


Dear Lilly: How's about having someone knit a teeny, tiny little bootie for her, in keeping with the declining scale of the in-law stockings?

OK. I couldn't resist. That's a joke, of course.

I love your spirit. I can tell that you're going to be a fantastic mother-in-law because of your sensitivity to this. But I think that it's fine to add a brand new, fresh and different stocking for this new family member. She knows that she's new to your family and it would be surprising if she expected everything to be matchy-matchy over your fireplace -- certainly on this first Christmas.

Remember -- it's what's IN the stocking -- and in your hearts -- that matters the most, right?

December 6, 2006 12:25 PM

Dear Amy: I have a very good friend who is in counseling for her debt problems. I have been supporting her and stressing the importance of getting out of debt and putting away some money for her retirement. (She is in her early 40s). She is selling off her large collection of Hermes scarves and asked me if there were any I liked so that she could give me one for Christmas and birthday, as she is preparing to sell them on Ebay. (The scarves are a source of her debt, by the way.)

I gently declined as the scarves are not to my taste, and I told her that I'd prefer she sell them and put the funds towards her debt, and that the best presents she could give me would be the knowledge that her debts were getting sorted out. I have not heard back from her, and I am wondering if she is offended. I know that a major source of her self esteem is wrapped up in dressing well and giving lavish gifts, but I am truly concerned for her, and I have told her so. What should I do?


Dear Sandy: She may feel that your friendship, like her debt problem, is "wrapped" up in these scarves. You are already being supportive and instructive, but at some point, you need to accept that she is her own person and that she may want what she sees as normalcy in this friendship so that it's not always about her money, her problem, or her debt.

You should ask her if she is offended, focus on some positive moves she is making, and tell her that you know that your friendship has been sort of consumed by this debt problem but that she will always mean more to you than the sum of her problems.

December 6, 2006 12:22 PM

Dear Amy: Is it normal that I get totally irritated when the person in front of me on an airplane reclines their seat? It takes almost all of the limited personal space. I don't recline my seat unless the seat behind me is empty. What should I do?


Dear Paul: Is it sooooo normal to get totally irritated when someone reclines their seat into your lap. I have covered this in my column before and have suggested that you might want to contact the flight attendant. However, depending on the airline and the mood of the flight attendant, they may not be willing to do anything about it.

I have a theory about this that people don't actually realize what a tremendous imposition this is -- until it happens to them. Of course, you are also welcome to recline your seat, but in my mind, that doesn't really compensate. Airlines are aware of how much passengers hate this and some advertise -- and sell -- more leg room.

Let's start a movement!

December 6, 2006 12:20 PM

Dear Amy: I have unique circumstances this year that are adding a level of stress to the holiday. I lost my mother suddenly on 1/2/05. I also am contemplating placing my father in hospice care due to a rapid decline in his health. I really don't feel festive at all. Many friends and family are being very supportive - but this holiday season is likely to be grim.


Dear Lori: I am hearing from many people who are dreading the holidays for some very good reasons; I'll echo what I have said previously -- that sometimes you just have to allow yourself to feel sad and do whatever things you can that bring you even the tiniest amount of joy. Please lean on your friends and support system this year. Call on them and let them help you to get through this.

So often, people want to be supportive and they don't quite know how. You could call a friend and say, "You know, I'm feeling so down right now -- can I come over for a few minutes?" The hospice facility should also offer family counseling and definitely take advantage of it. I'm a huge supporter of hospice for precisely this reason.

December 6, 2006 12:18 PM

Dear Amy: Last year at this time my father was diagnosed with leukemia.

After just one treatment of radiation he passed away very suddenly. I am trying to enjoy this holiday season but I can't help feeling blue about my dad not being here.

What can I do to cheer up?

Holiday Blue

Dear Blue: This is a rough time of year for many people - especially those, like you, who have lost a loved-one. This is very sad, and I'm so sorry.

It would help to keep your expectations reasonable this year. You're bound to feel sad, and one aspect of the holiday season is that, in addition to being a very cheery time, it is also a time for reflection and contemplation. This thoughtfulness can help you to feel your losses in a new way but also deepen your connection to your blessings.

If it's not too painful, do something that you know your father would have enjoyed. Spend as much time as you can with friends and family. Find a new and creative way to honor your father's memory (donating a tree to be planted in spring, perhaps). But also take time to simply feel what you need to feel.

An extra viewing of "It's a Wonderful Life" along with a jumbo box of tissues might in the end make you feel better.

December 6, 2006 12:16 PM

Dear Amy: I was divorced five years ago. My children are now in college.

Five years ago my ex-husband gave my son a collection of books for Christmas. They were all classics: Proust, Shakespeare, Kafka, Twain, et al. Now, five years later, my ex continues to send my son the exact same books that he gave to him five years ago.

It's like a bad scene out of "Ordinary People" where the parents keep giving their son the same gift, every single year. It's heart breaking to me.

Do you think he just forgot? Was he too consumed with his new wife and his new life?

Over Thanksgiving my son said to me, "Mom, Dad is five for five. Every book he's sent me, he's sent me before."

I really don't know how to respond to my son, who is intelligent and sensitive.

Have you got any advice?


Dear Nancy: I know that I've repeated gifts from year to year, and it's not as much from inattention as from the idea that I get in my head that some particular thing would be ideal for a particular person. Then I forget that I've already given it.

In general, it's best for young adults to deal with their parents, but I can understand how this would be difficult for your son to tackle. If your son can't manage it, then you could step in and deliver the message.

You or your son could e-mail, phone or write to his father to basically say, "Dad, I really appreciate the books you've given me these past few Christmases, but you've repeated some of the gifts from year to year. I'm sure it's accidental but I just wanted to let you know. I love getting books and I have a list of books I'd look forward to reading if you want any suggestions."

One of my favorite childhood holiday stories concerns a neighbor of ours who gave one child a scarf still on the knitting needles one year (not quite finished) and the next year gave the finished scarf to another child.

It really is the thought that counts.

December 6, 2006 12:12 PM

Dear Amy: Please help to get the word out for all the people who have a December birthday. When it comes to gift giving I hope that I can persuade people to remember that it is our birthday - not Christmas.

I cannot tell you how many "birthday gifts" I receive that are for the holidays.

I have been given Christmas ornaments, Christmas wine glasses, Christmas frames, Christmas towels, Christmas earrings, Christmas cookbooks, Christmas plates, Christmas wine stoppers, Christmas napkins, Christmas bowls, Christmas flags, Christmas mugs and Christmas books. The list could go on and on.

I have also had people start holiday collections for me, i.e. nativity sets and holiday carolers, etc.

You get my drift.

Please let gift givers know that just because we have a December birthday, that does not mean that we want holiday knick knacks or decorations. I have even suggested a donation to a charity of the giver's choice in my name to eliminate all of the holiday gifts but I keep getting the same old Christmas "birthday" gifts.

It My Birthday, Too

Dear My Birthday: The entire period between Halloween and January 1st seems to have become Christmastopia - all Christmas, all the time.

Even though I realize that it's a little late in the month to alert people to this seasonal scourge for those celebrating December birthdays, perhaps we can all plan to make some changes for next year.

This issue happens to hit close to home for me because today is my mother's birthday.

So happy birthday, Mom.

Sorry about the reindeer sweater.

I promise to do better next year.

December 6, 2006 12:09 PM

Dear Amy: With the holidays fast approaching, along with the greeting card exchange that comes with it, I am dreading having to endure yet another year of what seems to be the growing popularity of the "Christmas Newsletter."

Many of our friends and acquaintances, whom we really like and enjoy exchanging a friendly greeting with, have the mistaken impression that we are interested in the infinite detail with which they describe all of their travels, people they visited, their children's and grandchildren's latest activities and adventures, etc.

We have never met many of the people they refer to!

Several of these letters are so boring that they often go unread.

Can you recommend a polite way of letting these people know that we'd just as soon not be on their mailing list if it means having to get one of their annual "recaps?"

Enough Already

Dear Enough: I know how easy it is to make fun of these holiday letters and the people who write them, but really - give me a break.

OK. I admit that I'm a serial Christmas letter offender, but honestly, of all of the holiday atrocities neighbors perpetrate upon one another, is a letter of marginal to no interest to the recipient really so awful? Is a holiday letter as bad as those gigantic inflated nylon Santas that I see popping up on everyone's front lawns? I don't think so.

Just as there is no way to politely shut up your friends and neighbors if they choose to natter on in person about their children and grandchildren, there is no polite way to ask them to remove you from their holiday mailing list. If you aren't interested in hearing from these people or in learning their boring tidbits of "news," then toss their letter.

But I'd rather receive a holiday letter (and the intended and unintended amusement it may bring) then a pre-printed card with a pre-printed signature.

(Here's a tip for holiday letter writers. In my own letter, I completely confine my "news" to my own immediate household - leaving extended family members to tell their own stories and hopefully lessening the "I don't even know these people!" factor for recipients.)

December 6, 2006 12:04 PM

Dear Amy: My parents are coming to visit over Christmas this year.

My father is a chronic smoker who only smokes outdoors while here. My mother thinks that I don't know that she returned to smoking after 15 years of not smoking.

My father drinks 2-6 beers each day.

My wife and I have a 10-month-old daughter and neither of us smokes or drinks.

My parents live over 12 hours away and look forward to this.

We would like to establish a no smoking or drinking policy in our home.

Christmas is a tough time to try to rock the boat but we feel like it is a perfect time to do so.

We do not want our daughter to be exposed to these vices in our home.

Are we being unreasonable?


Dear Conflicted: You have the right to establish your own family values and to try to enforce these values to others while in your home. That's one very important aspect of parenting.

What you can't do is expect for others to be thrilled about it.

Rather than spring your vice squad on your parents upon their arrival at your home, you should let them know beforehand that you don't permit smoking or drinking at your house. Perhaps there is a pub nearby where they can go if they choose to imbibe.

Even though it seems clear that you disapprove of smoking and drinking even outside of your home, it really isn't up to you to cure your parents of these vices when they're not in your presence. Only they can do that.

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