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Sense & Sensitivity

Sense & Sensitivity

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DEAR HARRIETTE: I'm a 20-year-old college student, and my mom recently got engaged to her boyfriend of two years. She's been a single mom for pretty much my entire life, and I'm nervous about her taking this next step. Her boyfriend seems cool, but I really don't know him all that well since they started dating while I was away at school. I want her to be happy; however, I'm also insecure about losing our closeness. My mom and I are best friends. It's been just the two of us for so long. How can I be more accepting of this change? -- Mom and Me

DEAR MOM AND ME: Your mother's relationship is only one of two significant changes that you are facing right now, even if you don't realize it. You are becoming an adult, and you need to step fully into that, which means that you need to be able to be independent of your mother, even as you stay close to her. Interestingly, the fact that she is soon to be married may be a good thing for both of you. Why? Because both of you need to discover how to be independent of each other. Chances are, your mother went through something like this when you went away to college. Becoming an empty nester can be devastating to some parents, especially when they are very close to their children.

Instead of worrying, make a decision to welcome this man into the family, to be happy for your mother and to remain close to her. Talk to your mother about your feelings. Perhaps she will share some of hers, as well. Yes, your relationship will change, but that was going to happen anyway. Welcome the changes, and choose to enjoy the journey.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I'm a Black man living in Columbus, Ohio. My girlfriend -- who is white -- and I have been together for three years and are now discussing marriage, but my parents seem to feel uneasy about this. I asked my fiancee if her parents, being white, were comfortable with us being married. They said they were. But for some reason, my parents aren't quite comfortable with the idea. When I pressed them on it, they said that there's no way a white woman would be able to fully understand me for who I am, especially in a post-Trump America. I disagree, but I don't want there to be strife between our families. What do you think I should do? -- Family Feud

DEAR FAMILY FEUD: Sadly, we live in a country that is still plagued by racism. Even so, many mixed-race couples marry and build beautiful lives together. For conditions to be optimal, it would be great if your families got along with each other and with the two of you. Your parents can have their skepticism. Rather than arguing with them about their beliefs, focus on building your life with your fiancee. Talk through all of your issues and concerns. Be open about race, discrimination and social justice issues. Figure out where each of you stands on the hot topics of the day -- and where your values lie. You will have to stand up to plenty more people than your parents, so test it out to see how strong the two of you are in your beliefs and willingness to fight for your life together.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am a college student, and I have recently been doing extended research for a news article for my job. This will be the first major news article I've ever published. However, I just found out that someone else published an article that is almost exactly like the story I was trying to write, even interviewing many of the people I have been in the process of talking to. I have been doing months of prep work and background research, and I don't want to abandon the work I've done, but I know that the article I publish will be less significant now that someone else in the field has published. This project has meant a lot to me, and I want the work I do to be significant. What should I do? -- Outpaced

DEAR OUTPACED: Schedule an appointment with your editor immediately and reveal what you have learned. Go over the extensive research you have conducted, and then share the article that you discovered. Point out the obvious: Someone else published an article that is frighteningly similar to what you have been researching, and you are not sure what to do. Ask for guidance.

From my perspective, I recommend that you push reset and consider a fresh angle to approach the subject matter. As disappointing as this may seem, what could be worse is to be accused of plagiarism when what actually happened is simply that the other writer finished the work first.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My daughter just graduated from high school and is planning on going to college this fall, but the school hasn't announced what they are going to do in the coming year. I can tell she is very worried and stressed out about her future. How do I console her during this time when I, too, am uncertain about what happens next? -- Going to College

DEAR GOING TO COLLEGE: Your daughter is in a predicament that thousands of college-bound students are finding themselves facing. Because of the unpredictability of the trajectory of COVID-19, educational institutions do not know if it is safe to have students clustered closely together for long periods of time. It is virtually impossible in most classroom settings for students to sit 6 feet apart. So many schools are considering staggering classroom hours, extending online learning into the fall and potentially incorporating a combination of both.

Now is the time for your daughter to be patient as she prepares to approach college without knowing all of the details of how she will begin. She may need to be more independent as a learner -- much like what she probably had to do at the end of high school when most students were practicing distance learning.

If your daughter feels driven to have a personal contact at the school, she can reach out to the administrative office to see if anyone is answering calls. Also, if she already knows her field of study, she may be able to reach someone in that department or school to see if she can make a meaningful connection with a professor or administrator who can give her insight as to what is unfolding behind the scenes.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My elderly parents are struggling with being alone during quarantine. They don't get out normally, and now it's even worse. They don't have many friends, and they are afraid to go outside because they don't want to get sick. I'm working full time, so I don't want to get them sick. How do I ensure that my parents don't get too lonely while also knowing I can't be their only source of interaction? -- Saving My Parents

DEAR SAVING MY PARENTS: We are now more than a year into sheltering in place due to COVID-19. For the elderly, this time has proven extremely difficult; the recommendation is that they have no contact with their loved ones or anyone other than essential workers. If your parents or loved ones live in a nursing home or other retirement community, the rules are strict. "No visitations" remains the rule of the day -- with the exception of drive-by visits with no physical interaction. This is extremely difficult for those who feel isolated and lonely.

You are right that you cannot be everything for your parents. You can encourage them to engage their minds by playing solitaire, reading or listening to audiobooks, or starting an art project. If you aren't already communicating with them via videoconferencing, get them simple-to-use smartphones and do that regularly. Set deadlines for completion of fun projects that give them something to look forward to. Stay upbeat when you talk to them. For more engaging ideas, read welbi.co/single-post/senior-community-activity-ideas-during-covid-19-quarantines.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My employer wants me to go back to the office, but I don't feel comfortable commuting on public transport because I don't want to put my family at risk. I think it's irresponsible that he is asking employees to come into work so soon. Should I put my foot down and say I want to keep working from home, or go along with what my boss wants for the sake of keeping my job? -- Afraid To Commute

DEAR AFRAID TO COMMUTE: One of the biggest challenges about returning to work is the commute. People who drive their own cars have control over their interactions, but for those who must use public transportation, the notion of boarding a train or bus with many other people in order to get to the office can seem daunting.

As you contemplate your next steps, do a self-assessment. Do you have any underlying health conditions that put you at risk for coronavirus complications? That includes upper respiratory illnesses, diabetes, high blood pressure and auto-immune diseases. If so, you could mention this to your employer and say that you want to work, but you worry about exposure. You can ask if you can work from home a little longer to see how the virus manifests as public transportation ramps up.

You may need to point out how efficient you have been during this period that you have been at home so that your employer is reminded of your hard work.

If you find that you are required to go to work, follow all safety protocols. Wear a face covering during your entire journey. Keep your distance from others to the best of your ability. Keep hand sanitizer at the ready. Do not touch your face before cleaning your hands. Good luck!

DEAR HARRIETTE: I've noticed my son, who is home from college, is smoking marijuana quite often now that we are in quarantine. I can smell it on him. While I don't have an issue with marijuana on occasion, I am worried that this is a coping mechanism for his feelings of anxiety about the future and isolation from his friends. How do I talk to him without being accusatory? -- Too Much Pot

DEAR TOO MUCH POT: Medical professionals have indicated that the rates of drug and alcohol use and abuse are up during this period of quarantine during the pandemic. Coping with the fear and anxiety of a health crisis coupled with an economic crisis can be difficult for everyone, young and old.

It is likely that your son's excessive smoking is a coping mechanism. And you are right, he is likely to be defensive. So how can you address it? Talk to your son about how he's feeling and what he's looking forward to doing in the coming days and weeks. Rather than focusing on his smoking, get him to think about the future. What did he like to do before that was a hobby or area of interest? Encourage him to spend some time each day doing that. Invite him to take walks with you in the neighborhood and to talk about whatever is on his mind. Whenever you can engage him, be mindful not to be an inquisitor. Also, tell him stories about yourself and your dreams for the future.

When you feel that your rapport is strong, point out that you are concerned that he may be smoking too much. Suggest that he watch his consumption during this challenging time. If you have done anything in excess -- from eating too much, drinking heavily or even sleeping too much -- tell him that you are checking yourself, too, and you recommend that he do the same.

For more coping mechanisms and support for drug or alcohol abuse, go to cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I've been working the same job for 30 years. Recently we switched to working online. It was a hard adjustment, but I'm getting used to it now. My issue is that I'm realizing that I am very bored with my job. I'm close to retirement age; I don't really want to retire, but I don't want to be in this job anymore. How late is too late to switch careers? Should I even bother switching careers, or should I try to retire early? -- Time To Move On

DEAR TIME TO MOVE ON: It is not too late to switch careers, but before you jump ship, do a thorough assessment of where you are and what the landscape looks like. Right now, most jobs that have the ability to work remotely are doing just that. For health and safety purposes, businesses have been forced to use the internet to stay afloat. This was not a goal for most companies, but a necessity.

Given that reality, most companies that you may consider for a job pivot may be in the same position -- now offering remote work for its employees. Know that this way of working won't last forever for all companies. As soon as there is confidence that it is safe to return to an in-person workplace, plenty of businesses will resume work in that form. You may want to wait it out a bit longer.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My ex reached out to me a month ago. He sounded drunk, but he was also clear in what he was saying. He told me that he thought he had made a huge mistake breaking up with me a couple of years ago, and he knows I am the woman for him. He went on and on. I let him talk because he seemed pretty riled up. I didn't say much.

I called him the next day to talk when I thought he might be sober. What did I get? Crickets. It has been four weeks now, and I still haven't heard from him. I know that he was probably drunk when he did all of that talking about how much he loves me, but come on! Should I chalk it up to a random drunken moment, or should I pursue him and get him to talk to me? I have never stopped loving him. If there's a chance for us, I don't want to let it go. -- Does He Love Me?

DEAR DOES HE LOVE ME?: Listen to yourself, and look at the situation soberly. It's interesting -- while your ex may have been inebriated, you also sound like you are not of sober mind. The way you can evaluate what to do next is based on what is happening now. Sure, your ex may have stammered through telling you he still loves you when he was intoxicated, but if he is running away now, he clearly is not ready to step up and own his feelings.

Don't chase after him. That's not the type of relationship you want or deserve. If he cannot be honest with his feelings and desires for the future, you have no chance at happiness with him anyway. Sounds like it's time for you and your heart to move on.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am doing things at work that are not part of my job description, and I'm not getting paid for them. I'm well respected at my job, which is why people trust me with these tasks, and while I don't mind doing favors once in a while, I'm not getting paid for these favors. It's becoming a pattern. I work for a small business, and I'm very close to everyone. There's a sense of loyalty among all of the co-workers. How should I approach this situation without burning bridges or causing conflict? Should I ask to get paid, or should I just stop doing the tasks entirely? -- Drawing the Line

DEAR DRAWING THE LINE: On one hand, especially in small offices, people tend to pitch in and handle functions that need to be addressed simply because there is a need. On the other hand, these duties should either be shared by office mates or assigned to a particular person as a job responsibility.

This is a tricky situation. I recommend that you observe and evaluate it carefully. Make sure you are not being too sensitive. Are these extra duties so far beyond your scope of work that they should be handled by another? Or should your job responsibilities expand to include these tasks? Do you believe you deserve additional compensation to do them? Or are they distracting you from completing your job? Does anyone else have random additional job functions to fulfill?

After your evaluation, speak to your supervisor. Explain that you are a team player, but you feel uncomfortable having to take on these functions that are outside your scope of work. Point out that only you are being asked to do these things -- if that is true. What seems fair is for extra tasks to be evenly divided if there is no set person to handle them. Just know that pitching in is considered an asset at a job, as long as it isn't abused by your employer.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I'm a 38-year-old woman, and I think one of my friends may be in an abusive marriage. I noticed these patterns in the last couple of months when I would sometimes see bruises on her after they had big conflicts. He has always been controlling of what she does and where she goes, but it has started to get even worse. She always seemed to put up with his controlling behavior, though I occasionally pointed out that it was a bit much. I am particularly worried now that they are in quarantine together and I am not able to see her as often. I try to call her, but it's hard to communicate with her while he's in the house. How can I help my friend? -- Friend in Need

DEAR FRIEND IN NEED: Next time you talk to your friend, suggest that if she is ever in need of rescue, she can use a keyword that sounds natural as an indicator to you that she is asking for help. She can call you, text you or otherwise reach out to you and say that word -- like "pineapple" or "dance class," anything that would not be a natural trigger for her husband but that would indicate to you that you should come pick her up or call the police to rescue her.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I just had a telehealth call with my primary care physician, and he grilled me about how I have been taking care of myself during this period of quarantine. I didn't want to admit that I have gained 10 to 15 pounds. I am embarrassed that I haven't been more disciplined. I was already supposed to be losing weight, but instead I gained. He cautioned me that I have to lose weight because obesity is one of the factors that can make one more susceptible to complications from COVID-19. I know he's right, but I didn't appreciate hearing that from him. It's almost time to go back out into the world. Now he has me scared all over again about getting sick and dying. It's not like I can reverse this weight gain with a blink. What should I do? -- Target

DEAR TARGET: Your doctor was right to caution you about your health during this time. Sadly, the risk of getting ill has not yet passed. You should be extremely cautious based on what the medical community recommends.

That doesn't mean you have to stop in your tracks, though. What you need to do is move your body. The easiest thing you can do is walk for 45 minutes to an hour each day. Put on a face covering, grab a bottle of water and walk in your neighborhood. If you are up for it, you can turn on an exercise video and do an at-home workout.

Beyond that, it's time to change your diet. Cut out the sugar and fat. Choose to eat lean meats and plenty of vegetables. Drink lots of water and fewer (or no) sweet drinks, including alcohol. Track your weight. You can come down significantly if you are vigilant about what you eat and how you move.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My mom has planned a lovely baby shower for me in a couple of weeks. Now she is worried that it may not be safe enough for people to come to our home. The plan was for people to be in the backyard as socially distant as they can be, but since there is a surge happening, she is worried that she may expose me and the baby to the virus inadvertently. She wants to change it to a drive-by party where people honk horns and drop off gifts. That makes me sad. We have been holed up for so long, and I want to be with people. What do you think? -- Baby Shower

DEAR BABY SHOWER: Your mother is right to be overly cautious. Medical professionals do not know yet what the status of the virus's spread will be in the coming weeks. We do know that there is a surge happening in many parts of the country. You may want to host a hybrid event. Invite most guests to participate in the outdoor drive-by so that you get to see your loved ones and they can see you and your blossoming belly.

Later, you can host a much smaller barbecue -- still outdoors -- where you can practice social distancing. You will need to stay at least 6 feet away from everyone at all times. But in this way, you can talk to guests and interact with them a bit more. Everyone should wear facial coverings except when they are eating or drinking, and plentiful hand sanitizer should be made available.

DEAR HARRIETTE: How do I choose my major in college? I have several interests, but I don't know which major to choose. I am studying classics right now; I was introduced to it because a lot of my family members study it. I enjoy it very much -- most of the time. However, I'm wondering if I should branch out and experiment before committing to it as a major. What should I do? -- Undeclared

DEAR UNDECLARED: Think about what you would like to do for your work after you finish school. Consider job options as broadly as your interests take you. Spend some time researching areas that interest you and what jobs exist in those fields. If you have interests in more than one area, take classes in those other fields to get your feet wet and learn. At most higher educational institutions, you must declare a major by your sophomore year. When you get there, do your best to make a choice that represents YOUR interests, not those of your family. This may be one of your first independent decisions. Consider it carefully. Talk to your adviser for additional support.

If you truly remain unsure, you may just have to pick something. For example, I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but there was no "writing" major at my college. When it came time to declare, I chose English because seemed to be the best match. It turned out to work perfectly for me. For other students, it has meant that they have needed to change their majors after a semester or so when it became clear that the subject they chose was not a fit. You do have the option to change if necessary.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I think that my mom's boyfriend may be unfaithful. I accidentally stumbled upon a love letter written by another woman in his pocket while doing laundry. This piqued my suspicion, so I looked through his phone and saw that he had multiple calls to a woman I haven't heard him talk about. Obviously, this is not a sure sign that he is cheating, but it does raise some serious questions. Now that I've seen these red flags, it's going to be hard for me to drop this. How should I approach this situation? -- Cheater

DEAR CHEATER: This is tricky, as you are venturing into your mother's personal business. Since you innocently found the letter, you may consider telling her you have something to share with her that you know is none of your business, but you thought she may want to know. Give her the letter, and tell her how you came upon it. Admit to everything that you did, including going through his phone and seeing someone's number show up repeatedly.

Apologize for going through her boyfriend's phone. Do not add any personal commentary or thoughts about what may or may not be going on. Just give her the letter and let her decide what, if anything, she will do about it.

DEAR HARRIETTE: Recently my stress levels have gone up because of the coronavirus, especially the threat of potentially losing my job if another wave hits. I thought I was in the clear after things seemed to start stabilizing, but the company I work for may not be doing well, and I don't know what will happen if another wave hits. I have noticed myself turning to drinking more often than I'd like to admit in order to cope with this stress. I don't think I am an alcoholic, but I recognize that this behavior could potentially lead to dangerous outcomes. It is challenging because the people who usually support me during hard times are harder to see now, so sometimes it feels like the only option. What steps should I take to address this issue? -- On the Edge

DEAR ON THE EDGE: Take a deep breath and pause. These are stressful times, and it can be extremely difficult to know where to turn when so much is out of your control. You are not alone in turning to alcohol during this period. Thank goodness you realize that this is not a wise choice.

Whether or not you are an alcoholic can be determined at a later time, but since you realize that you have been drinking too much, I want to encourage you to get support. Since your go-to people are not around, you need other people to serve in that role. The Alcoholics Anonymous program can help you remotely during this time. What is amazing about them is that they do not require you to call yourself an alcoholic to attend their meetings. You simply need to have a desire to stop drinking. I recommend that you go to their website, aa.org, and find an online meeting to attend. You can talk about your issues in a safe and confidential space.

Beyond that, talk to your boss to get an honest assessment of where your company is headed. Ask if they think the business will survive and if your job is at stake. Also, start looking for job options that may fit your skills at a company that may be more stable. Be proactive. Good luck.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I have been looking for an assistant, and it has been difficult. Even during this pandemic, I find that many young people do not have a good work ethic. I have hired several college graduates and one student. In all cases, they were lazy and uncommitted. I am baffled. Why wouldn't they step it up more? What can I do to make it clear what I expect? -- Need Help

DEAR NEED HELP: Write out a crystal-clear job description that spells out the qualities you expect in your employees. The list should include things like attention to detail; strong communication skills; a positive, professional attitude; and anything else specific to your work. Ask for references, and when you call them, ask questions about how they work and what their past challenges have been in the workplace. Then offer a probationary period in which the employee must fulfill your requirements, or the job will not continue.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am living with someone who was exposed to someone with COVID-19 symptoms. While we are taking the necessary precautions -- giving her food in her room, having her wear a mask in shared spaces and talking to her from 6 feet away with a mask -- how do we ensure we keep her mentally healthy during this time period in which she has to be physically distant from us and spend a lot of time inside her room? We all feel concerned for her as she already struggles with depression, and we can tell she feels guilty for potentially exposing us to the virus. What can we do, while remaining safe, to make her feel better? -- Exposed

DEAR EXPOSED: First things first: You should all be vigilant about keeping your distance, wearing masks and keeping your home clean -- which you are already doing. Don't give up on your protocols, even for a minute. If you can give her food on paper plates that you then toss out, all the better, so that you don't have to handle her dishes or utensils.

For her mental health, talk to her on the phone or through video calling so that you can hear and see her even though she is quarantined in her room. Remind her of how much you care for her and that you hope she stays feeling OK. Be upbeat. You should also reach out to her family to ask them to communicate with her as well. If her behavior begins to make you worried, contact her family and her doctor, if you know how to reach him or her, to sound an alarm.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My boyfriend just came home from a short vacation with his friends, and he told me that while he was away, he hooked up with a girl he didn't know. I am devastated. We have been together for four years. I was happy for him that he was getting to hang out with his friends. My only worry had been about social distancing, because I knew they would be partying. I never imagined that he would betray me. I love him, but I feel so angry and hurt. I also worry that he could have been exposed to coronavirus -- or worse -- by being with this girl. I don't know what to do or say to him. Can you help? -- Betrayed

DEAR BETRAYED: For starters, ask him to quarantine himself for 14 days to ensure that he does not have COVID-19. That's for his safety and yours. During that period, ask him to think about what he wants. Yes, he had a fling. Does that mean your relationship is over, or just that you have some work to do? You need to talk it through and assess together whether you both want the same thing.

You need to be clear about what you want out of this relationship and let him know. Ask yourself if you can forgive him if he says he wants to recommit to you. It will work only if you both choose each other on terms that you both can follow. Sometimes infidelity leads to a deeper bond for couples. Other times, it marks the beginning of the end. You two have to figure out what it means for you.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I just had a big argument with my boss over what I felt was an injustice done to me during a conference call with a client. I am the one who did all the work on this project, and my boss interrupted me as I was making a presentation and basically took over and acted like it was all his idea. I was infuriated, so I told him as much. We ended up arguing; he claims that every project is his project. He had told me that I was supposed to present.

I feel like I should apologize for blowing up, but I do want to come to an agreement with him for how we present in meetings. I don't want to be the one to do all the grunt work only to have him take all the credit, especially since he presented something totally different to me about how things were going to be. What should I do? -- Getting on the Same Page

DEAR GETTING ON THE SAME PAGE: You should apologize for blowing up. That's never helpful in any negotiation or point of clarification. Then ask your boss what his expectations are around presentations. Point out to him what he told you when you first started working together that led to your assumption that you should take the lead in that meeting. Tell him you want to do a good job, and you consider that presenting your work to clients is part of that. Ask him to give you space in meetings to make the key presentation, and he can take over from there. Or conversely, he may want to set you up and let you take over by providing details. Figure it out together.

DEAR HARRIETTE: I am the highest producer on my team, even now during COVID-19. My boss constantly tells me what a good job I am doing and thanks me for bringing in business. I appreciate that. I feel like he doesn't cut me a break at other times, though.

I have one downfall: I am not very good with time. I admit that I sometimes show up to staff meetings late. I have even been known to skip a meeting if I am tired or get distracted by something else I am working on. I check in with my boss or co-workers afterwards to get caught up, but recently I have gotten complaints. I realize being late isn't good, but nobody else is pulling in the big bucks like me. Don't you think I deserve a pass? -- Wanting a Pass

DEAR WANTING A PASS: In a word, no. You do not get a pass for being late, no matter how effective you are at bringing in business. Think about it. If everybody else has to show up to meetings on time and participate in your office culture in the same way, so should you. A rare exception could be if you had to stay out late with a client or work on a project until the wee hours of the night AND your boss knew you would be late or absent in advance. Otherwise, you still fall under the same rules as the rest of the team. You should show up with a smile on your face, ready to inspire others to step it up rather than resent you, which is probably how they feel right now.

Harriette Cole is a lifestylist and founder of DREAMLEAPERS, an initiative to help people access and activate their dreams. You can send questions to askharriette@harriettecole.com or c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.

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