Friday, November 20, 2020

Ask Aunt Dorcas: The Teasing Boyfriend and the Mother's Fears

Both of today's questions touched a nerve and a bunch of memories in Aunt Dorcas, and you can see she went on at rather great length. Is there a relevant angle she missed? Feel free to add your respectful comments and perspectives.

Aunt Dorcas on Tire Mountain


Dear Aunt Dorcas,

My question is this: I really don’t like to be teased, but I don’t usually show it. I know most of it is my own insecurity about myself, but sometimes I also just want straightforwardness. This has caused some conflict with my boyfriend, who likes to tease me but doesn’t mean anything bad by it. I don’t want him to feel like he has to walk on eggshells because I’m insecure, but I also don’t want to feel like I have to just accept it if I feel annoyed at his teasing. We have talked about it a few times, but I’m not sure how we can find a good way to resolve it.

For example...I’m in grad school and if I get a test back and it’s a 97, he says “only?” My mom did the same thing when I was growing up and it always annoyed me, but when I talked to her about it, she stopped. I always have made good grades, but I just want to hear “nice job,” not “only?” Because my insecurity is “maybe I’m not actually that smart and everyone will find out eventually...” 

He says he’s not a “words” person (and I’m all about the words of affirmation), so I think it’s easier for him to tease than to say “good job” - although he does say that sometimes, too. 

All of this is much harder because we are long distance and this is on the phone. 

Maybe this is more information than you bargained for.  It just came up again today and I’m at a loss right now, so I thought I’d ask. 

--Hannah


Dear Hannah,

It so happens that Aunt Dorcas relates to this question deeply and personally, and so must take a deep breath before she speaks, and may not be entirely objective.

At first glance, this is a small thing. He teases—with one tiny word! You feel uncomfortable. No big deal. That’s life.

And yet, here you are, thinking about it, feeling persistent feelings, and writing to Aunt Dorcas.  You sit yourself down and pour a good dose of logic. “Listen, Self. He has a good heart. He doesn’t mean anything bad by it. Goodness, if you keep this up he’ll be too nervous to make any comments of any kind. You’re just overly sensitive because of your mom and because you always wonder if you have what it takes. So dumb, really. You just need to grow up and get over yourself.”

Do your thoughts and feelings meekly shut down and go away? No. They do not. They keep returning. So annoying.

Here’s the TL;DR: Your misgivings are telling you something. Listening to them doesn’t necessarily require something drastic like ending the relationship, but it will mean you understand yourself, your guy, and the relationship better.

Here’s one angle of your story: He’s a guy who is not a “word person.” You’re a woman who is. You’re in a long-distance relationship, talking on the phone. One of you is straightforward; the other is more jokey and subtle. This is a recipe for relational glitches.

Paul and I were in that exact situation, long ago. [Although in a different combination, as he was both straightforward and jokey.] It was hard, and, in looking back, not exactly healthy. Unless you already know each other really well before you spend time long-distance, you miss an enormous amount of context, nuance, and subtext when you communicate by phone and letter.

I recall one bump of many. I fancied myself a budding photographer. Living in Minnesota, I took pictures of snow. It was challenging to get those shots of snow to actually look white in the finished photos. I learned to fiddle with the camera to adjust f-stops and shutter speeds, but then my efforts would be derailed by the photo processor, who ran them through an automated process that adjusted everything to a middle gray.

I had talked to Paul about this, on the phone. He acted interested, bless his heart. Soon after, I got a set of pictures back in the mail, as we did back then, and they had actually turned out, I thought, at least kind of.

I mailed a few of my best shots to Paul.

The next time we talked, I asked if he’d received the photos. He laughed and said, “Oh, you mean those pictures of gray snow?”

I was so hurt and mad I wanted to break up right then or at least hang up on him. But that was before I had learned to be mad out loud, so I didn’t say anything and acted like things were ok. Then I cried and cogitated for three days, and then I finally wrote a letter explaining how hurtful that was and how could he be so insensitive and horrible?

What would have been a 15-minute conversation in person, between honest healthy adults, turned into a gnarled, agonized, weeks-long back and forth in letters and phone calls, since we could only afford one call a week, and letters took three or four days to get there.

I am getting hives, just thinking about it now.

Here’s the thing, though. Paul got it. He finally realized how important this was to me, and how it made me feel when he joked about it. He never did it again.

I learned that it was safe to be honest with him. Even though I was overly sensitive and a bit immature about my photography, he accepted that and was happy to work around it.

That is significant.

I hope it’s ok that our family had a dinner conversation about your situation one evening.

Paul, who related deeply to being a clueless boyfriend in a long-distance relationship, said, “If this is something the guy normally does, inadvertently, and he doesn’t get that it hurts her, then she needs to be clear about it. ‘If you do that, this is how I feel.’ Otherwise, how is he supposed to know?”

However, we all sensed that there’s a deeper and potentially more dangerous dynamic here. Teasing can be a precursor to abuse, a testing of the waters to see how far a person can go. If the teasee says, “I’d like you to stop saying that,” and the teaser says, “Hey, I was just joking. You take everything so personally,” warning signs ought to go off everywhere. Bullies by definition don’t stop when someone says Stop.

Jenny said, “She’s insecure about her grades, and that’s what he’s teasing her about. You can tease people about other things, but not their insecurities. The line is if you know it hurts them.”

Matt, who also has compassion for guys trying to figure out relationships, said, “Does he know this is about her insecurities and how it affects her? There’s a moment of ‘Getting It’ that he may not have had.”

Phoebe suggested saying, “I know you’re not a words person, but this is important to me.” She added, “I wonder if they’re a bit of an intellectual mismatch, and he’s insecure about her being in grad school, and her good grades.”

Ben said, “Framing it can be important. Maybe he assumes she knows he means, ‘Good job!’ Does she say he’s doing something wrong and frustrating, or does she give the context that it’s ok in some situations, but in this particular one, it hurts?”

Jenny added, “Like, ‘It’s not rational, but it makes me feel this way.’”

Paul said, “They need to figure this out before they talk about marriage.”

Amy said, “He can’t just say ‘Good job’? He can’t just learn that skill?”

Phoebe added, “If it bothers her this much, working it out doesn’t mean she just accepts it. This is significant to the relationship.”

Someone else said, “If he says, ‘I was only joking,’ and not, ‘I’m sorry,’ that’s a warning sign.”

We note that although the guys tended to have a bit more sympathy for the guy, and the girls for you, it’s not a contest. This is about the relationship. Can it work, or not?

So, Hannah, you’re not silly for being bothered by the teasing. Our emotions are activated for a reason. Your feelings about this situation are giving you important information. They might not be logical, but they’re picking up on things. So please don’t try to deny or minimize them.

My advice is to have a blunt and specific conversation. “When this happens, this is what you say. This is how it makes me feel.” [Please note that this is the time to state facts, not explain why or apologize for feeling this way.]

Offer a solution. “I would like you to root for me instead, and be happy for me, maybe by saying, ‘Wow, good job!’”

His responses will give you lots of insight into his character and your future together. Ideally, you can have this conversation, even over the phone!, and both of you will see it as bringing clarity and understanding rather than blame and shame.

Even if you are very different people, you can make it work with someone who listens, seeks to understand, and works at changing for the sake of you and the relationship. Engagement and marriage to someone who gets defensive and brushes off your feelings would not be a good idea.

Eventually, you’ll want to do some praying and searching about that sensitive area in your own heart, where you need reassurance that you have what it takes. This exploration is less likely to happen if you’re in a relationship where you don’t quite feel safe, or where this sensitivity is continually bumped and scraped.

In other words, if he can accept this part of you and treat it with care, it is more likely to heal.

You and he will both change as time passes, and his teasing about your grades may be as forgotten as our conversation about the photos, which I hadn't thought of in years. But the issues it raises will affect your future together in profound and significant ways.

I wish you much clarity, wisdom, and courage.

--Aunt Dorcas

+++

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

How is a young mom to face the fearful predictions of persecutions, one world government, end times, tribulation, conspiracies etc. When I hear these things and then look into the faces of my beautiful babies, I am crippled with fear. It’s not that I disbelieve the possibilities. 

Thanks,

Katie

Dear Katie,

Let me bless you, first of all, for your fierce protectiveness of your babies.

One of the things that surprised me about motherhood was the mama bear that was unleashed inside of me when my babies were born. Nothing was going to hurt them on my watch. I would give my safety for them, my limbs, my possessions, my life.

That impulse was so strong that I really thought that if someone physically threatened my babies, my instincts would take over and I would probably lose all mental faculties, nonresistant beliefs, and restraint, and I would murder the dangerous person. I casually mentioned this at a family dinner. Paul thought it was not exactly necessary that that be said, out loud, in front of his two alarmed elderly aunts. He was probably right.

So I planned that if any evil person invaded our home to hurt my children, I would dump the diaper pail on his head instead of murdering him. To discourage him from sinning, you know. As long as I could think this clearly in the moment.

Seriously, the protective instinct is like a force that takes over us. Its sheer power is scary.

I never came close to testing the hypothesis that shocked the aunts, but I did have an occasion when I almost gave my life to protect my children. We hit a moose on a lonely road in Canada on a bitterly cold night, and our vehicle caught on fire. I pulled the children out of that flaming van and got them to safety with not the slightest thought for myself. Thankfully, we were rescued before I froze to death in my sweater and skirt on that below-zero night.

I found out that it’s true: a mom will give her life. I never deliberated. I just did what I needed to do. It never crossed my mind to do otherwise.

All that to say: Good moms are deeply, fiercely, down to the bone protective.

It’s no wonder we look at the world and think My Stars. How can I bring a child into this?

We have a tiny sense of control over our everyday territory. We keep the marbles and cleaning supplies out of reach, cook the most nutritious food, buy the best carseats, and tie up the strings for the blinds. We keep the preschoolers away from the unsavory relative at family reunions, refuse to schedule play dates with the friend’s bullying boys, hold everyone’s hands when crossing the street, and send our teens out the door with a litany of cautions.

But oh, sweet Jesus have mercy, the things we cannot control. 

The sweeping trends, the growing hostility toward our beliefs, the rank evil in every level of society. The economic woes, the conspiracies, the plagues of mental and physical illness. Pestilence, hunger, injustice, and persecution around the world.

We are helpless to fix or prevent the looming terribleness. That wicked world is right there, waiting to swallow up our children.

And yet, here we are, you and I, discussing this. Other mothers in other times faced those same fears. When I was four months old, the Cuban Missile Crisis paralyzed the Free World with dread and terror.  My mom used to tell us how she went to town, and, everywhere she went, people’s faces were drawn and worried. A nuclear war seemed imminent.

Was it right to bring children up in such a world?

My oldest was born only a day or two before Chernobyl, another nuclear crisis. My youngest was two when 9-11 happened. The fear we all felt was similar, I’m sure, to what my mom’s generation felt back in 1962.

Katie, I’m guessing you were born in that time frame as well. You’ve not only survived but created another generation.

Let’s talk a bit about predictions, young moms today, fear, and what I see as the Biblical view of your question.

Not to logic you out of your feelings, but you should know that most of today’s predictions will never come true, and no one predicted the truly awful things happening today.

In the 70s, another Ice Age was imminent, they said, as was a nuclear war. The Russians were going to take over the United States, or at least Communism was going to come here, spreading from within, and we would all be persecuted for our faith. California was going to break off and fall into the ocean. The exploding world population would require us all to have only one child or we’d all starve.

Well. We can all see how those predictions turned out.

No one ever told us to watch out for radical Islamic terrorism, Covid-19, riots in Portland, political correctness, the opioid crisis, AIDS, or Lyme disease.

So, if it helps, remind yourself you’re probably dreading all the wrong things. Of course the Biblical predictions will come true, but we don't know when or exactly how.

There’s a paradox with young mothers that’s a bit baffling. If our great-grandmothers could have looked ahead and seen your life, they would have thought you lived in paradise. Clean running water! Central heating! Shopping at your fingertips, and the funds to buy things! Most of all, I think they would have envied the medical advancements. No one in your generation, in North America, fears diseases that will send multiple family members to an early grave in a week’s time.

At the cemetery half a mile up the road, I sometimes look at the little gravestones, many from a local diphtheria epidemic that took Paul’s 4-year-old great-aunt and many others, and I think about what those mothers endured.

And yet, with all these luxuries, young moms seem to be swimming in anxiety. They agonize over nutrition, parenting methods, and whether or not to vaccinate. Like you, they fear the future.

Imagine how that would look to a woman from 1875 or so.

I’m not mocking you. I think your fears come out of your protectiveness and also your knowledge of the world.

As you know, fear has torment. It paralyzes. The best antidote to fear is not ignorance, although that helps, but a combination of faith, love, anger, and action.

Faith in God’s sovereignty and purpose. Love for Jesus and your children. Anger at what sin has done to our world. Bold action in defiance of visible realities.

Bold action, in your case, would be having babies when the future looks dark and raising them to serve God no matter what.

In Biblical history and later on, women gave birth under the most horrible circumstances. They married, got pregnant, and welcomed babies when their families were enslaved, when they were poor, when injustice flamed all around.

Childbearing wasn’t as optional back before today’s contraception methods, and babies kind of showed up, ready or not. This means you face questions Great-grandma probably didn’t—is it right for me to decide to have a baby and bring a child into this world? Yet there was still a deliberate courage, back then, in getting married, knowing that babies would likely follow, and in choosing to welcome each child.

Those historic women didn’t wait for hope before they had babies. Instead, it seems they saw the babies themselves as hope.

Moses, Samuel, Samson, Jesus. All born in hard and hopeless times, and bringing change. Martin Luther, Harriet Tubman, Ben Carson.

Our children might suffer someday. That truth is excruciating. But out of our fierce protection must come a recognition that suffering is not the worst thing that can happen. In our work to protect our children from encroaching evils and from eating mothballs, we must also teach them to stand alone, to speak truth, and to right wrongs. To sacrifice, to love, to live out the Gospel before a confused and frightened world. Then they’ll be able to face a future that none of us can predict, no matter what it holds.

Of course, not every child will be a difference-making hero. Some will not live to adulthood; others will survive but disappoint us. Both prospects are terrifying enough to make us not ever want to have children at all.

And yet, we give birth, driven by faith and hope. 

You are not helpless. Powerful instincts give you strength. Your babies are defiant hope in the face of the world’s darkness and despair. You have what it takes.

Watch, pray, buckle the carseats, latch the safety gate, and keep the medications out of reach. You’ve got this, fierce mama. Faith, love, anger, action, and hope.


20 comments:

  1. Aunt Dorcas, you are a gem.

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  2. Something I once heard and I think of alot when the subject of "how will our children be able to live Godly lives in this wicked world" comes up is this - God gives grace for the times we live in. That's true today and will be true as long as the world stands

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  3. You rise to these advice-giving essays like a leaping orca. Your writing is beautiful, your logic sound, and your exhortations are always full of understanding and hope. You shine here, Dorcas!
    But I just want to clarify one thing, as one of your faithful non-Christian readers. I don't believe there is a "growing hostility toward [your] beliefs." We of the non-Christian world are hostile toward Christians who CALL themselves Christians and then act abominably in the name of their religion. You are not that. And there are plenty of Christians in the world who are not that. Give us credit for understanding the difference between real faith and using faith as a smoke screen, just as we understand that not all Muslims are terrorists. Unfortunately, over the millennia, many truly evil human beings have couched their greed, power hunger and blood lust in religion. We ALL need to recognize and reject those monsters.

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    1. Thank you, Lisa. I find I enjoy this format very much.
      Interesting perspective on religious beliefs and how they come across. I like your point that non-Christians can tell who's genuine and who isn't.
      I think if you keep traditional beliefs about morality, language, dress, and manners, and the society around you rejects them, it feels hostile even if it might not be.

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  4. My late Mother-in-law told me that God made it so easy to get pregnant because otherwise we would always have a reason not to have babies. She was so right.

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    1. Never thought of this but I think she was right.

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  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  6. I have got 3 little children and sometimes I am afraid of the future, too. I like your thoughts on this subject. I think that we should lift our children up to Jesus in prayer. He will provide.

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  7. "Your babies are defiant hope in the face of the world’s darkness and despair." Your statement was a bright ray of joy and surge of strength for this young mama, who could have posted the exact question that "Katie" did. I will print this out and hang it on my fridge!!

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  8. This is just really, really good, Aunt Dorcas! Thank you so much for pointing to Truth in how to live and also being brave to 'tell it like it is'. :)

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  9. I love this Aunt Dorcas feature so much! Thank you for sharing your wisdom and advice here. I really appreciate what you had to say to young moms about the fears that come with bringing innocent, vulnerable souls into the world. I too am in that stage and have felt that choking fear when I look into their precious faces. I really like the thought that our babies can symbolize hope and bold action in an unpredictable world. I'm still scared and pained sometimes. Not just at what can happen to our world at large, but all the things that happen to each of us personally. Loss, hurt, and so many other things that find each one of us eventually. I believe the best thing I can give my children is a love for Jesus. He will never change and we can face anything with Jesus by our side. Of course I can't make that choice for my children, but I can live it out and pray my children grow up to believe in Jesus too. I can get all wadded up about giving my children the best nutrition, the best opportunities, the best memories and on and on. These are all fine and good but there's only one thing we truly can't or shouldn't live without and that's God. I know my children can face whatever may come in life with the power and grace of God. I have so far to come in modeling that, but I hope and pray I can do better every day. I really don't want to mother from a place of fear. Thanks for your encouragement.

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    1. "I know my children can face whatever may come in life with the power and grace of God. "
      Yes!
      All the best to you and your family.

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  10. Back to the first question. It seems to me that there is a “second mile” to the Golden Rule. The first and obvious layer is to not say or do anything to anyone that I would not like to have done to me. The next layer is to think about what I do or say, and not do it if I know it makes the other person feel worthless, put-down, hurt, or mocked.

    We are not carbon copies of each other. It can be essentially selfish to brush away another’s responses and feelings by reasoning: I wouldn’t care if someone did that to me, and then concluding it’s her (or his) problem if it bothers her (or him). –LRM

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  11. A HEARTY AMEN to both of your answers! I felt a passion burning within me to reply to both questions. And then you answered them with words so well put and that agreed with what I was thinking. High five!

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