in- laws & boundaries

Dear Sugars,

My husband and I are in our early 30s and have been together for 10 years. His parents live 45 minutes away; mine live on the other side of the country. Here’s the deal: My in-laws are too nice. My husband and I run a business together, and for the last five years my in-laws have worked for us, unpaid, one to two days per week. They shower us with gifts at every opportunity. They mail us cards for special occasions and give us treats on Valentine’s Day and Halloween. We celebrate all holidays, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and birthdays with them every year. They house-sit for us when we’re away and are currently looking to a buy a house so they can live closer. My mother-in-law cooks and brings us five meals a week. My father-in-law yells “good morning” across the parking lot every time I see him at work and waves with an enthusiasm that baffles me.

All of these things are so nice, but I feel suffocated and resentful, Sugars. I need space, and I don’t know how to get it without hurting feelings. My husband is on board with all of the ways his parents are in our lives (he’s an only child, by the way). He says they want to do these things because they love us. He feels hurt when I can’t come up with a list of gifts that I want his parents to buy me or when I suggest that he could meet his dad for a Father’s Day lunch without me.

Are my in-laws excessively attentive or am I just a Scrooge? Do I need to set boundaries or accept these kind people in my life as they are? 

Over-Loved Daughter-in-Law

Cheryl Strayed: Even good-problems-to-have are problems, Over-Loved, and, while I’ll admit to being wildly jealous that you get dinner delivered to your house five nights a week at no charge, you have my sympathy. The most important part of your letter is not the section in which you list all the nice things your in-laws do for you, but rather the way you feel about being the recipient of all that thoughtfulness. Your husband is content with the dynamic. You are not. They are crossing boundaries that you do not want them to cross. Which means you need to set those boundaries.

Steve Almond: The only way you’ll be able to accept these people in your life, Over-Loved, is if you set boundaries. Otherwise, you’re stuck pretending to be grateful for their kindness. It’s this pretending — the muzzling of your true feelings — that leaves you feeling “suffocated and resentful.” You need to have a candid conversation with your husband, and then your in-laws, in which you acknowledge your gratitude but also express your need for more space. Hot meals delivered to your doorstep are great. But only if you want them. What if you want to prepare dinner yourself?

CS: I don’t think you need to have a discussion with your in-laws about how you feel when they do X, Y or Z. Such a conversation has a high potential to lead to hurt feelings and the likelihood that in your desire to soothe them, you’ll be persuaded to allow things to remain as they are. The most powerful aspect of setting boundaries is that in doing so you aren’t asking others to change their behavior; you’re opting to change your own. You feel suffocated by your in-laws’ generosity, so stop accepting the “gifts” you have control over. Start paying them for the work they do at your business as employees and stop using them as house sitters. Thank your mother-in-law for all the good dinners she’s cooked for you so far and tell her you and your husband will be cooking your own from now on. Tell your husband you want to celebrate some holidays with your own family of origin (or others) and do it. Once you establish these boundaries, the things you have less control over — the onslaught of cards, the way your father-in-law greets you — will very likely feel far less suffocating. You might even come to appreciate them.

– from The New York Times’ ‘My In-Laws Are Suffocating Me. Help!’

Art by Charles Barsotti


Dear Carolyn:

Here’s a problem you might not get too much: in-laws who are too nice. My husband’s mother calls him once a day, sometimes more. Every time he and my daughter visit them (about weekly), they insist on sending things back with them that we don’t want, usually foods we’re trying to avoid. 

Each of these gifts requires a special phone call of thanks from me personally, usually after a long day of work, which then turns into a lengthy chat. 

My in-laws want phone calls anytime we travel long distances or in bad weather, just to be sure we’re safe, and they get annoyed when we forget.

They keep track of our kids’ doctors’ appointments so they can ask how everything went. 

Is there a polite way to get them to back off, just a little? We love them and appreciate that they are always there for us, but it’s just too much of an emotional burden to handle their anxieties about our everyday life. When we try to speak up, my mother-in-law is very hurt and feels we don’t want her around.


This is a problem I do get, too much, but calling it “nice” is new.

You describe a mother-in-law who is manipulative, controlling, insecure and boundary-challenged.

Is your husband as uncomfortable with this as you are? Is he ready to set some limits, or has he too bought into the “nice” canard?

I suspect you’d both benefit from reading on boundaries and emotional manipulation. Don’t tune me out: The best read on this topic is “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It will seem like a loopy recommendation for “just” a fussy mom, but it’s actually square on point. And if that doesn’t stick, then ask if he’ll join you at one, just one, session with a family therapist for some outside perspective. You can talk follow-ups afterward.

It won’t be pretty, even if your husband’s fully aboard. He’ll need to be kind and sunny and absolutely immovable on these, phased in gently:

– Screening her calls. He picks a frequency he’s comfortable with, and sticks to it.

– Saving your “We made it home okay!” calls for when there’s some doubt. (Severe weather, for example.)Supporting you when you say “Thank you” by note or e-mail.

– Realizing her distress does not obligate him to appease her. “I love you, Mom. This is just the way I’d like to do things from now on,” until it sticks.

These are optional:

– Not sharing appointment times. “When there’s something to report, we’ll let you know,” cheery as a cupcake. If the appointments are a bone you want to throw, then keep sharing, knowing it’s one concession, vs. the top of a slippery slope.

– Tackling the gifts. “Our home runneth over, and we hate to see you spend money on things we can’t keep” is one approach, as is channeling: “If you’re looking for something for the kids, they need new socks,” or, “The kids loved those X you baked — would you be willing to make them again?

– Neither will work, of course, if their goal is to undermine (“usually foods we’re trying to avoid”?), but it’s worth trying before you start the [smile] Thanks! [donate] cycle. 

Your lives, your terms, with love.

from The Washington Post’s ‘Carolyn Hax: Firmly but gently set boundaries with in- laws who smother’


There were two very important things that helped Jyot Singh keep warm through the dark winters; Nani’s praute and Nani’s hugs. When Nani would hold him, Jyot felt as if the whole world was holding him. And when he’d refuse to let go, Nani would giggle, ‘Oh my, look how big your heart has grown! Perhaps you’ve eaten one too many praute!’

But Jyot was certain that it was Nani who had the biggest heart, because he couldn’t stop getting so lost in it.

Art and text by Baljinder Kaur

Narcissism vs. Self love

I thought narcissism meant you loved yourself. And then someone told me there is a flip side to it. So it’s actually drearier than self-love; it’s unrequited self-love.

– Emily Levine


Narcissism is often spoken of as elevated and sometimes detrimental self-involvement. But it’s not just a personality type that shows up in advice columns; it’s actually a set of traits classified and studied by psychologists. The psychological definition of narcissism is an inflated, grandiose self-image: to varying degrees, narcissists think they’re better looking, smarter, and more important than other people, and that they deserve special treatment. 

Psychologists recognise two forms of narcissism as a personality trait: grandiose and vulnerable narcissism. ‘Grandiose narcissism’ is the most familiar kind, characterized by extraversion, dominance, and attention-seeking. Grandiose narcissists pursue attention and power, sometimes as politicians, celebrities or cultural leaders. Of course, not everyone who pursues these positions of power is narcissistic. Many do it for very positive reasons like reaching their full potential or helping make people’s lives better. But narcissistic individuals seek power for the status and attention that goes with it. Meanwhile, vulnerable narcissists can be quiet and reserved; they have a strong sense of entitlement but are easily threatened or slighted.  

– W. Keith Campbell , The Psychology of Narcissism

GIF by Uno Moralez

a kinder philosophy of success

Mood- Me Waheeda in bed on a Monday morning, mentally preparing for the fresh hell that is the start of every workweek and also choking back the urge to throw up

For me they normally happen, these career crises, often, actually, on a Sunday evening, just as the sun is starting to set, and the gap between my hopes for myself and the reality of my life starts to diverge so painfully that I normally end up weeping into a pillow. I’m mentioning all this because I think this is not merely a personal problem; you may think I’m wrong in this, but I think we live in an age when our lives are regularly punctuated by career crises, by moments when what we thought we knew – about our lives, about our careers – comes into contact with a threatening sort of reality. 

It’s perhaps easier now than ever before to make a good living. It’s perhaps harder than ever before to stay calm, to be free of career anxiety. I want to look now, if I may, at some of the reasons why we might be feeling anxiety about our careers. Why we might be victims of these career crises, as we’re weeping softly into our pillows. One of the reasons why we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs… What is a snob? A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you, and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. 

The dominant kind of snobbery that exists nowadays is job snobbery. You encounter it within minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21st century, “What do you do?” According to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses…Most people make a strict correlation between how much time, and if you like, love – not romantic love, though that may be something – but love in general, respect – they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined by our position in the social hierarchy. 

Here’s an insight that I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can’t have it all. You can’t. So any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding… And the thing about a successful life is that a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own… When we’re told that banking is a very respectable profession, a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion. 

So what I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas, and make sure that we own them; that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out, at the end of the journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.

Alain de Botton, excerpts from A Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success

लिपट जाता हूँ माँ से

A photograph of Nanima, my grandmother, with her friends and sister- figures, and my grandfather’s old but pristine Urdu dictionary. He was fluent in the language and gave me my love of words.

लिपट जाता हूँ माँ से और मौसी मुस्कुराती है
मैं उर्दू में ग़ज़ल कहता हूँ हिन्दी मुस्कुराती है

उछलते खेलते बचपन में बेटा ढूँढती होगी
तभी तो देख कर पोते को दादी मुस्कुराती है

तभी जा कर कहीं माँ-बाप को कुछ चैन पड़ता है
कि जब ससुराल से घर आ के बेटी मुस्कुराती है

चमन में सुबह का मंज़र बड़ा दिलचस्प होता है
कली जब सो के उठती है तो तितली मुस्कुराती है

हमें ऐ ज़िन्दगी तुझ पर हमेशा रश्क आता है
मसायल से घिरी रहती है फिर भी मुस्कुराती है

बड़ा गहरा तअल्लुक़ है सियासत से तबाही का
कोई भी शहर जलता है तो दिल्ली मुस्कुराती है

मुनव्वर राना

In 2016, my father in law gave me a book of Munawwar Rana’s poems. The jacket was a generic beige and the cover art so terrible I struggled to resist the saying- sometimes you can judge a book by its cover, thank God. In her odd, joyless little essay on the significance of covers, writer Jhumpa Lahiri says, ‘If the process of writing is a dream, the book cover represents the awakening.’ Stacked anywhere- a library, the tiny tinfoil shops at bus stands and train stations, a bookshop- this forgettable looking thing was and is definitely being passed over for its shinier peers, its awakening delayed indefinitely. For we are magpies, and poetry that looks like a limp beige sandwich doesn’t cut it. First, poetry isn’t easy to read. It looks like it should be- words tumbling down the page close to the spine so there’s more page than print, a thin waterfall of type against a clear paper sky. Sometimes it’s not even that- just a cluster of five, seven, ten words the middle of the page, like stray crumbs- unthreatening, so easy to scoop up and knock back. It’s a pleasant enough departure from our text- dense lives where skimming, not reading, is the only way to consume knowledge. In allowing you to read and not skim by virtue of its form (entire worlds and experiences made minimal, compact) poetry can seem like an easy, gratifying means to self improvement. But poetry is anything but easy. Its form dictates urgency so it is immediately confrontational; while prose affords you a lush thicket of words to meander and get lost in, poetry pulls you right into the deeps. Unlike prose, you cannot leave a poem mid-way; it demands the dignity of uninterrupted closure. Then, writers of the vernacular spend entire lifetimes militating against the colonisation of language, succeeding only in islands. The colonized thought has no room for a language rubbished by the coloniser; in forcing us out of our native language structures, the coloniser alienates us from our own instincts. Thus, we dream in one language, curse in another. Make love in one language, network in another. Even as the royal infants are celebrated for their precocious multilingualism, no one thinks to congratulate immigrant children or colonised children, fluent in so many worlds and fractured in so many places they can barely keep it together. When, as a little girl I’d argue with my mother, she’d say Just because you know English it doesn’t make you right. Apni angrezi apne paas rakho, zameen pe aao. It hurt then that she thought my choice of language was deliberate, that I was using language to cause her pain. I wasn’t. English really was my default, and it made my relationship with my Hindi Pahaari Punjabi- fluent mother miserable. For writers of the vernacular, there is also a reckoning with the bitter irony of posthumous glory. Unlike living writers of prose, living poets scrape the bottom of the culture and readership barrel, i.e. WhatsApp forwards. If you’re current you lack depth or heft and if you’re current and vernacular, what hope, really? Poetry must be sepia toned to be consumed in respectable circles. That is the way of the world.

Thanks to my father in law, a prolific writer of Hindi verse when he’s not tending to his patients, I’m actively reading current poets. Rana’s work is a contained explosion of feelings and imagery. The domestic and the political give it texture, woven wholly and inextricably into each other so you barely know where one ends and the other begins. Like fabric. लिपट जाता हूँ माँ से reads like running your hands lovingly over the soft, cool, neem- scented silk of your grandmother’s old sari, only to discover a rupture that threatens to turn it to shreds. Rana is skilled at landmining his verse with moments of jarring discovery and sudden discomfiture.

‘Sometimes people say to me, “why should I read a poem?”’, writes Jeanette Winterson in an ode to poetry. ‘There are plenty of answers,’ she says, ‘from the profound – a poem is such an ancient means of communication that it feels like an evolutionary necessity – to the practical; a poem is like a shot of espresso – the fastest way to get a hit of mental and spiritual energy. We could talk about poetry as a rope in a storm. Poetry as one continuous mantra of mental health. Poetry as the world’s biggest, longest-running workshop on how to love. Poetry as a conversation across time. Poetry as the acid-scrub of cliche. We could say that the poem is a lie detector. That the poem is a way of thinking without losing the feeling. That a poem is a way of feeling without being too overwhelmed by feeling to think straight. That the poem is “the best words in the best order” (Coleridge). That the poem “keeps the heart awake to truth and beauty” (Coleridge again – who can resist those Romantics?). That the poem is an intervention: “The capacity to make change in existing conditions” (Muriel Rukeyser). That poetry, said Seamus Heaney, is “strong enough to help”.’ In another essay, she explains why poetry is for everybody- ‘..when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read in school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.’ Rana’s poems, among others’, are my finding place.

how do you decide?

When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance.

When making a decision of minor importance, I have always found it advantageous to consider all the pros and cons. In vital matters, however, such as the choice of a mate or a profession, the decision should come from the unconscious, from somewhere within ourselves. In the important decisions of personal life, we should be governed, I think, by the deep inner needs of our nature.

Malcolm Gladwell

GIF source unknown