Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
On Fences and Lady Parts

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Dear Marjo,

I have two kids, and I feel lucky that I can stay home to raise them. My neighbor, “Marnie,” is a working mom, and she probably feels just as lucky.

My problem is that Marnie’s son often comes to my house after school, and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, he's good friends with my own son and we enjoy his company. And I couldn't sleep at night if I let him stay next door alone, doing his homework and fixing his snack by himself. On the other hand, I feel like Marnie is taking advantage of me. He’s been coming here just about every weekday afternoon for the entire school year. I feel like she’s just assuming I’ll take care of him without even asking me for my help. She doesn’t even say thank you.

To make it worse, a handful of times her son’s Friday afternoons have turned into sleepovers so she can decompress or go on a date night with her husband. She doesn’t seem to realize that I myself could use a night to relax. And I haven’t gone out with my husband in forever.

When this started I felt generous and helpful. But now I feel resentful. How can I get back to those positive feelings?

Signed,

Sitting on a Fence

Dear Sitting,

Ouch. It’s so easy to picture you, sitting on a fence that separates your neighborly back yards, with the kids playing happily on one side and your friend on the other, working in a job she loves and actually making eye contact with her husband. Meanwhile you’re straddling the fence like it’s a horse, one leg hanging down on each side, your hands holding on tight so you don’t fall and hurt someone. The problem being, of course, that you’re hurting yourself, and you are the only one who’s in pain. That damned fence cuts right through a delicate, vulnerable place. And I don’t mean your lady parts. I mean your heart.

What a lovely, lovely thing it would be if our neighborhoods and towns and world had more people like you. You have been generous, and you deserve to be thanked, if not with a warm loaf of banana bread than with a genuine smile and a hug. It’s too bad when that doesn’t happen, because it makes wide-open hearts like yours start to creak shut.

I know that creaky feeling. When you give and give and give but rarely receive in return, it’s hard not to feel resentful. I feel it every morning when I wake up to an empty coffee pot and a full dishwasher. Every Sunday when I deal with dinner for the seventh night that week. Every time I empty the laundry chute and the dirty clothes fall out, together with a silent assumption that they’ll be clean and folded the next day. Pretty soon that resentment leads to anger, and then the cupboards start slamming, dinner is take-out, and that pile of dirty clothes becomes a mountain. Of course, everyone has their own list. That’s just (part of) mine.

But here is something I’ve learned that’s changed my life and my relationships in a powerful way: Resentment is the first sign that what’s happening is at least partly my responsibility. And that means I also have the responsibility – and power – to change it. I spent years cringing from that truth, and another couple years not knowing how to move forward. So let me save you some time: Speak up.

It seems simple in retrospect, but when I asked my husband if he’d be willing to fix dinner on the weekends, he said yes. Not only that, he said it made him happy to contribute, and anyway, he’d always wanted to learn to cook. Then I tentatively mentioned the laundry, and he offered to own it entirely. (That’s when I said yes.) I’m still working on the coffee pot and dishwasher, but those seem like small things. (And it’s just occurring to me as I write this that if I start the dishwasher earlier at night and learn to set the timer on the coffee pot, I can solve those problems myself.)

Talking with friends has been harder. That’s where some version of “I need help. Can you help me?” comes into play. For example, I once had a coworker who asked me to carpool, which sounded like a great idea. We took turns for several weeks until she broke her wrist and couldn’t drive. I was happy to take over, but once her wrist healed we never went back to the old arrangement. Every week that went by made it more and more awkward. I didn’t want it to sound like I’d been seething with resentment, even though I had been. Eventually I smiled and said “Hey, my car has been running on fumes lately. Do you mind if we go back to taking turns, or maybe sharing the gas bill?” In other words, “I need help, can you help me?” Instead of feeling guilty and angry, she felt like she was being a good friend. And she was. For my husband, it was more straightforward. “I need help with the laundry. Do you mind pitching in?”

So, dear Sitting, step back from those hard feelings – even though they’re entirely valid – and ask yourself what you need help with, and how she can be part of the solution. Then talk to your friend. Try “Hey, I need to spend more time with my husband. Could you maybe take the kids on Sunday afternoons?” Or “I need help teaching my son to study by himself. Do you think you could make other arrangements for your son for a couple afternoons a week?” Even if she doesn’t jump in with a response, it’ll plant a seed that blooms later once she’s had a chance to think about it. And who knows? Maybe she’s been feeling guilty about it and didn’t know how to speak up herself. Or maybe she really has been assuming it’s okay because you haven’t said anything. One way or another, trust your friendship and your instincts, and speak up.

XO,

Marjo

Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.



Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.


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Great advice. My only though is that, she never said the other woman was a friend, only a neighbor, and those two are necessarily the same. When she does stand up for herself, and since there is the possibility of no friendship to protect, the neighbor may react defensively, out of embarrassment or lack of understanding of the common rules of neighborly courtesy. It could end civilly, or not. Just be prepared, and know that you are in the right.
Maybe "Sitting on the Fence" got herself into trouble, because she was making value judgements about her neighbors lifestyle. Trying to save the neighbor's child, when she was never asked to do so.
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