Waving, Not Drowning

Dear Viv: I have mixed feelings about a surprise third baby

On this week's podcast, Viv discusses what to do when a friend ignores your advice, how to handle a surprise pregnancy, and how to feel more confident

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By Viv Groskop on

Dear Viv,

I currently live in one of the largest cities in the US with my partner of 23 years. My problem is with one of my good friends- I will call her Nina: she has 3 young children and is about to return to full-time work. Nina's partner ("Grumpy") of 12 years recently quit his job last year to study. He is always in a bad mood and is nasty and unpleasant with her and the children all the time. He refuses to help with anything, be it cleaning, cooking, or taking care of their kids. He also keeps all the bank accounts in his name and doles out money to Nina only as he sees fit and complains if she "overspends," yet he took out a loan for his own graduate studies.  I know this because whenever Nina and I talk, all she does is complain about Grumpy. I have tried to be a good friend and listen sympathetically, often for hours on the phone. Remembering your good advice, I have never once said anything bad about her partner. I have suggested counseling numerous times, but Nina says Grumpy thinks it costs too much money. What can I do to help her? I am growing sick and tired of her complaining yet realise she has a lot on her plate. I want to be able to be a good friend but I am feeling dumped on and wishing for better boundaries. Please help.
Warm regards,
No Longer Patient Friend

Hello, No Longer Patient Friend! What a great friend you sound. I wish I had a friend like you who I could talk to endlessly about loads of really annoying things. Please send your phone number! Joking aside, you really do sound like a nice person but it also sounds like your friend is pushing up against the limits of your niceness. So what’s to be done? I don’t want to get caught up in judging your friend and her relationship with Grumpy. In a way their issues are kind of irrelevant here because this is about you.

You’ve listened, you’ve been open, you haven’t passed judgement, you’ve suggested counselling... What’s left now? You seem to have two questions: “What can I do to help her?” And “How can I avoid getting further caught up in this?” I think the two are interlinked. You’ve already answered the first question -- What can I do to help her? You’ve already tried so much. I’m not sure there’s anything left. People can only be helped when they want to be helped. The second question answers itself -- How can I avoid getting further caught up in this? The answer? Stop helping.

I know this is harsh and you want to be a good friend. But you need to be a good friend to yourself as well -- and also respect the fact that your friendship may not survive at all if Nina keeps on taking advantage of your good nature and patience in this way. Set some rules for yourself -- Nina doesn’t have to know about them. Don’t call her, wait for her to call you. When she does call, put a time limit on her complaining. Once she has had fifteen minutes or twenty minutes or whatever, say, “I’d really like to talk to you more but I have to leave the house in a minute.” If you meet face to face, the same idea holds: put a time limit on the meeting. I know this sounds weird and unkind but as I say, this is for you, not for your friend, and she doesn’t need to know about it.

The other option is, of course, to say something. Tell her that you’ve had enough of hearing her problems and her never changing anything. But that’s an extreme option and I think that might be cruel and too shocking for her to hear. The fact is, as you’ll know yourself, in situations like this the listener or the “helper” becomes complicit in the problem: why should she ever fix anything when she has someone she can offload to? If you stop the offloading option, something might just shift for her. On the other hand, it might not. Either way, find a way to make a change in the way you interact which allows you to be a bit more selfish about your own feelings and time. You’ve been a good friend to her and will continue to be one. But you’re not a one-stop therapy shop either. All the best with it -- wishing you strong boundaries and a change in life circumstances for your friend and Grumpy.

Dear Viv,

I'm expecting a third, surprise baby and have mixed feelings about it. We have a boisterous young son at school and a clingy 18-month-old daughter who doesn't sleep and still wants to be breastfed all night, and while I always thought I wanted a big family (I'm one of four), I'm so tired and done in and can't help but look at my full-time career-girl life of five years ago and wonder what I'm doing now. I feel guilty that I'm more terrified than excited about this third baby, guilty that friends of mine are struggling to conceive their first and guilty that I'm just not the happy earth mother I always hoped I'd be. And I feel pretty stupid as a grown woman in a stable relationship admitting to a 'surprise' baby. I'm just feeling overwhelmed while pretending to the world that I'm fine.

Oh lovely reluctant expectant mother. You really are not the only person to feel this way. My heart goes out to you. It would be so easy for me to say: “Please just stop feeling guilty.” And if it were that easy, you would have done that already anyway. I’ll say it in any case: Please just stop feeling guilty. Guilt is a really pointless emotion unless it makes us do something positive: it can help us to know how we really feel about something and it can motivate us to change something or to make amends. But guilt can also be a redundant and toxic emotion, blocking us from feeling good about things when there is really nothing to feel guilty about. For me the question to ask yourself about guilt is this: Is feeling guilty helping me to change anything important or know something about myself? If the answer is no, drop the guilt.

Of course, feeling this way is completely natural because you are exhausted. Your emotions are not rational at a time like this, so don’t expect them to be. They’re also extremely mixed and overwhelming -- you’re excited but terrified, anxious but happy, surprised but resigned... This is all completely normal.

Do you absolutely have to pretend to the world that you’re fine? Can you be honest about your mixed emotions with some people you trust? Have a sense of humour about them. Everyone will be glad to hear you make a joke about not having passed Biology GCSE. (I have three children and I genuinely do not have Biology GCSE.) What you’ve done isn’t “stupid” -- it’s just something that happens sometimes because we are all human. (Actually I don’t know for sure how it happens -- as I mentioned, I don’t have Biology GCSE.)

Allow yourself to feel all the emotions, however mixed and complex. Don’t beat yourself up about them. What’s done is done and there are many, many positives here, not least the fact that you already know how to raise a family and you’re bringing this baby into a lovely close family with two siblings. Speaking from experience, they kind of raise themselves. Don’t tell my children I said that. The eldest one is still trying to get me to pay him money for babysitting the smallest one and I just say: “Do you want me to give you a bill for all the parenting I have done of you?” Allow yourself to enjoy your pregnancy, feel glad of the empathy and compassion that you have for other people and rejoice that your child won’t have me as its mother.

You can hear the answers to these and the following question on Viv’s podcast, Waving, Not Drowning, above.

Dear Viv,

People keep telling me that I'm capable and good at what I do, but I just don't believe them. I have zero self-confidence, and I know that it's holding me back and I need to improve it but I don't know how. How can I start feeling better about myself and my capabilities?

Got a question for Viv? Email her at DearViv@thepoolltd.com. The Dear Viv podcast airs fortnightly on The Pool at 5pm on Tuesdays. All letters will be edited for length. Unfortunately Viv cannot reply to your emails personally. 

You can subscribe to The Pool's podcasts on iTunes

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