My Friend Won’t Shut Up About Her Kids. What Can I Do?

Advice on sticky friendship dilemmas.
Nov. 15 2011 7:09 AM

My Friend Won’t Shut Up About Her Kids

She used to discuss other topics, but no longer. Can I stop listening?

Friend_Or_Foe_standingIllo

Illustration by Jason Raish.

Dear Friend or Foe,
One of my closest friends—“Tammy”—can only talk about her children. Pre-kids, she wasn’t this way. Then came a few tumultuous years, during which time she married, bought a home, lost it, had a child, then another one. When after two years she literally hadn't asked me how I was doing once, I was ready to walk away from the friendship. But then she demonstrated, out of the blue, that she really did care. I realized then that she was raised in a barn, more or less, and her social graces are not all that great (and I forgave her).

Lucinda Rosenfeld Lucinda Rosenfeld

Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of four novels, including I'm So Happy for You and The Pretty One, which will be published in early 2013.

But at a recent dinner party, she dominated the conversation so completely that, when others tried to change the conversation, she’d quickly steer it back to herself. It wasn’t even clear that she realized what she was doing. But it would have been much nicer not to have her there. I have other friends who are mothers and who were there that evening. On their nights out, they're happy to talk about anything else.

Do I sit Tammy down and explain that when you’re socializing, you should express at least a cursory interest in other people? Tammy is very smart and has proven that she can discuss other topics. (This is what we did pre-kids, and it still happens once in a while.) But she’s so desperate to ensure that her kids have a happy childhood (unlike herself) that her devotion to them is all-consuming. Part of me feels bad for her, as she’s gone through some rough things in her life, especially as a child, and I don't want to pile on. The other part can’t take it anymore.

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Sincerely,
You're a Great Mother and It's Really Boring

Dear YAGMAIRB,
You say that Tammy is trying to compensate for her own crummy childhood. But that’s no excuse for being a bore. Before I had kids myself, I remember being at a party where, standing on either side of me, two acquaintances were comparing notes on their breastfeeding schedules—and more notes and then even more notes—and me wanting to gag (or throttle) them both. That kind of myopia, especially around people who don’t have kids, is just plain rude.

But you said that Tammy recently proved in some other way that she still cared—and that she’s still capable of talking about other things. So I’d be inclined to cut her a little slack and, rather than confront her directly with her out-of-control narcissism, take an active role in getting her outside of her own head. Maybe you two could sign up for a sport or cause together, something that would provide Tammy with something to obsess about that doesn’t involve the cognitive development of preschoolers  Hopefully in a few years’ time, she’ll start to see that children are just one (albeit frequently dominating) aspect of adult existence.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

Dear Friend or Foe,
My friend "Candace" has a good heart and is generally a good friend who can be counted on when you need her. Now in her late 40s, she hasn't been employed one day in the decade I've known her. Instead, her aging mother, now in her 80s, has been fully supporting her, not just by paying her rent and other bills but supplying her with spending money. (Her mother was a teacher who apparently invested well and spends almost nothing herself.) When we first met, Candace had been out of work for less than a year. Some friends attempted to hold an intervention regarding her spending habits, which she took exception to, taking refuge in those who hadn’t participated in the intervention and doing nothing to change her habits.

Now it’s years later, and Candace has been on depression medication ever since. The same friends want to stage another intervention. But I know from trying that broaching the topic of her apathy and lack of ambition, even in subtle, non-confrontational ways, makes her hackles rise. She says that this is her life and that her relationship with her mother is no one's business but theirs. She then lists a series of reasons why she wouldn't be able to get a decent job even if she tried (she's been out of the workforce too long, she doesn't have a marketable skill set, etc.). I’ve even suggested that she go to a vocational school, maybe for teaching. But she says she couldn’t bear to be on her feet all day and around noisy/sick children, etc. Meanwhile, her house has become a Hoarders-" style sty. Housekeeping was never Candace’s strong suit, but now she doesn't even let people in the door because of the state the place is in.

Her other friends and I are concerned that, once her mother passes, she’ll be forced into a situation for which she’s completely unprepared. Then again, her mother owns her home, so that could be sold. It might also be that her mother will leave her enough to subsist on indefinitely, if Candace lives modestly. Candace is also right that it's not my business if her mother wants to raise her forever. It’s also true that I haven’t suffered from long-term depression (and don’t know what it’s like). I also suspect that another intervention will only cause her to become defensive and resentful toward us. Still, I have to admit that I get annoyed with what I think are just constant excuses for Candace being lazy. What do you think?

Sincerely,
Intervention Wary

Dear IW,
I think it’s too late, and you should give up your Pygmalion fantasies of turning Candace into a  functional member of society. From what you’ve described, the woman’s problems go way, way beyond laziness. (The hoarding tendency is the tip-off.) Instead, I suspect she suffers from some form of mental illness that makes her able to exist outside of an institution but only by a thread. You clearly see Candace’s mother as enabling her dependence. But it may be that her mother knows better and is supporting Candace precisely because she suspects that, left to her own devices, her daughter would be on the street. More to the point, it sounds as if you’ve already tried to get Candace to seek employment or some other form of livelihood—and have gotten nowhere. She’s also in her late 40s and hasn’t done a single day’s work in the 10 years you’ve known her. What makes you and your friends think that the 11th year will be the charm?

Candace is right about one thing. She’s probably not even hireable at this point. Having a skill set is one thing. Showing up, clean and on time and day after day, is another. It’s not clear to me Candace is capable of either.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe

Dear Friend or Foe,
My friend” Hilda” has always been a little bit of a gossip, but two years ago she crossed a line and made me wonder, “Gee, what does she say about me behind my back?” I told her I had trust issues concerning her and explained why I was backing off. But she said “I'm not like that anymore, I'm a trustworthy person.” Fast forward to eight months ago, when her live-in boyfriend of 13 years broke up with her and asked her to move out. Two months later, she took up with a married man who has since left his wife and children to be with her. I’ll be the first to admit that I feel judgmental and concerned about her choices. And I expressed my concern for her well-being over lunch. But she blew it off and explained that “things are better than ever.”

Over the next few months, her behavior was so erratic and impulsive that I avoided her. She was eager to push her married boyfriend on everyone. And, quite frankly, my husband and I had no desire to meet him and forge a friendship. After a month went by with no contact, she called to    say that she hasn't been to work in three weeks due to a mental breakdown. She's been in outpatient therapy at a psychiatric facility and explained that her breakdown was the reason she’d been behaving strangely. I feel some level of compassion about her mental health issues. But I don’t believe this breakdown came out of thin air. I believe a lot of her life choices led to this. How do I explain that I’m no longer interested in continuing the level of friendship that we once had? To be honest, I have no guilt about ending this friendship as I feel I have nothing left to offer.

Sincerely,
I'm Over It

Dear IOI,
Well, if you have no guilt about ending it, why not just tell her to go to hell? But then, I suspect you care more than you’re letting on, or you wouldn’t have written asking me for advice about how to dump the woman. Which is to say, I think what you’re really looking for is permission to cut bait. Here’s what I think: You’re combining apples with oranges. First, you say Hilda is a gossip who, you suspect, talks about you and other supposed friends behind your back. (Fair gripe if true.) Then you say Hilda got dumped by her de facto husband of over a decade and, on the rebound, hooked up with a married guy and then had a mental breakdown—which proves just how untrustworthy she is. But Hilda’s personal problems, even if they involve home-wrecking, do not make her an “untrustworthy person.” They make her a person who has suffered serious personal setbacks that caused her to make some stupid decisions and ultimately put her in the hospital.

Which leads me to my next point: You seem to be blaming the woman for having a breakdown. (As if having one were a choice one makes simply to be selfish and annoying!) Bottom line: Ditch Hilda because you don’t enjoy her company, don’t support her choices, and can’t deal with the drama anymore. But if you do so, please exercise a little compassion. What about just being busy when she calls? The last thing the woman needs right now is for an old friend to sit her down and tell her she’s a lying piece of crud.

Sincerely,
Friend or Foe