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Article updated: 6/11/2013 12:09 PM

Keeping yourself in mind during family woes

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By Carolyn Hax

Q. My husband and I are returning to my hometown for a celebration where we will see many people who haven't seen me since I graduated from high school. I'm dreading the expected question "Do you have any children?"

We don't because my husband and I went through a very rough time and have spent time working hard to repair our relationship before starting a family. I know we have made the right decision but it breaks my heart whenever people ask. Any advice to keep from spending the celebration in tears?

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A. I try to take letter-writers at their word wherever possible. It's simple respect.

But I'm balking at your "I know we have made the right decision." Right decisions tend to sit better than yours appears to be sitting with you. They might cause a bad moment at a party, for example -- but not constant tears, or dread of such tears, or dread of casual questions.

For this decision to indeed be right, I think there needs to be at least some cause for confidence that your relationship will recover in the foreseeable future and that children will follow.

So if you have that confidence, then lean on it when you're under the hot lights of a hometown grilling. "Children, yes, soon" will be the answer in your mind, even if the one you speak is simply "No kids yet, and you?" (Questions are ace deflectors.) A few rogue tears -- accept them as inevitable -- merely show you're human, and they'll upset you more than they do anyone else. A smiling "Oops, there I go again, new topic" will suffice.

If big, uncontrollable tears say you don't have that confidence in your relationship, then my answer is to a question you didn't ask: Do what it takes to be sure of your path, and don't talk yourself into one just because another "rough time" is more than you think you can bear. The right decision, whatever it may be, is worth the transitional pain -- as is the right home for those badly wanted kids.

Q. For as long as I remember, my mother has taken potshots at my father. She cannot say one nice thing about him. I was on the phone wishing her a happy Mother's Day, for example, and all she could do was talk about my father's "deficiencies": He falls asleep during the day (he's 84!), he can't see (just had cataract surgery), he can't hear (hearing damage from the Army) ... the list goes on.

They have been married almost 60 years, and I can't figure out why, since she seems to dislike him greatly. He doesn't seem to mind, which is why it works, I guess, but I don't want to hear a litany of my father's supposed negative traits. In my eyes, he's a (bleeping) saint for living with her for almost 60 years!

If I say anything to her, she gets angry. Once, she spoke to him so meanly that I said, "Mom, be nice to him!" She called me the next day to defend what she did, and also said she asked my father and he didn't think she was being mean.

He has to say that to keep the peace. I don't know what to do. If I say anything, she will get so mad at me, defend her position, and basically not hear a word I say.

A. So? Goodness, you're both cowed by her.

The point of speaking up isn't to convert your mother into a gentle and forgiving soul, since 60 years are telling you that won't happen, and it isn't to protect your father, because he is neither asking you to (see: "60 years") nor do you have evidence you need to -- though it may come to that should your mom's abuse escalate.

The point of speaking up is for you. It's to let your mother know that you have limits to what you'll accept from her, and that failure to respect them will have consequences for her. It's also to make it clear you aren't afraid of her miserable little wrath.

On the phone: "Mom, if you keep bad-mouthing my father, then I'm hanging up." Then do.

In their home: "Mom, it's so ugly when you treat Dad like that." Then change the subject by talking warmly to your dad.

And when she calls to defend herself: "Mom, he's 84, recovering from eye surgery and disabled from serving his country. If you think that's his fault, then there is no defense for that." Letting voice mail handle her also works nicely.

As deviations from a lifetime of your mom's teachings, these options may feel out of reach; in that case, I suggest counseling if you have access, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline if you don't, (800) 799-SAFE (7233), since it covers verbal abuse as well.

• Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, or chat with her online at 11 a.m. each Friday at washingtonpost.com.

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