DEAR READERS: For those of you who celebrate, happy Valentine's Day! This day has been reserved as a day to express your love and affection for those you hold dear. I like the overarching sentiment, even though I cringe at how product-driven the day has become.
Instead of being overwhelmed by the consumer mania of Valentine's Day, I invite you to stop a moment and think about what else it can mean for you. If the highlight is love, can you think about those you love the most and get creative about how you celebrate them without falling into the trap of spending a pocketful of cash? A thoughtful call, a handwritten note, an invitation for a romantic walk, a shoulder rub -- all of these cost nothing, but count for so much.
I do not disparage those who purchase lovely treasures for their beloved, but I just think it isn't a requirement.
When I was growing up, I don't remember Valentine's Day being a thing in my house. My parents were happily married, and they did pay attention to each other. But I'm blanking on any memory of red roses, chocolates or jewelry on that day. I want to say I noticed an extra kiss on the lips when my Daddy came home from work, but that's me waxing nostalgic more than actually remembering.
Valentine's Day took on greater meaning for my family when my father died. This larger-than-life man was born on Jan. 1 and died on Valentine's Day. Go figure. He definitely didn't plan it, but it happened nonetheless, and then, with time standing still, this day of love marked a day of death. My mother's husband of 41 years was no longer. That peck on the lips was done. That sparkle in the eye that they shared, especially in their later years, was extinguished. That call to check to see if we were living up to our expectations no longer came.
In the more than 20 years since my father's passing, we reignite that flame of love between our parents and their three daughters on this special day -- not with gifts, but with calls, with memories, with hugs, with blessings.
There is a song I love by Luther Vandross, called "Dance With My Father." I think of this song and of the gift that my own father, the Honorable Harry Augustus Cole, gave to my sisters and me -- the ability to dance. What I wouldn't do to dance with him again.
What does Valentine's Day conjure for you? Dig deep to unearth a treasured memory that you hold about people you love. If they are still living, reach out and remind them of how much you care. If relatives are still with us, contact them to share whatever comes up for you. And for those you love right now, make sure they know your gesture of affection is real. The flowers that emerge from your heart are far more valuable than those that you buy -- that is, unless your store-bought rose is accompanied by your heartfelt embrace.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I have a 6-year-old nephew and 2-year-old niece who live far away from me. This makes it difficult to establish that traditional relationship that aunts have with their siblings' children.
I try my best to Skype them at least once a month and have gone to visit them a few times since they were born. However, I feel a disconnect with the kids. The older they get, the more unwilling and uncomfortable they are to talk and communicate with me. I am having trouble understanding where this disconnect is coming from, when I try my best to communicate with them often. I know that they are only kids, but it hurts my feelings. How should I bring this situation to my brother and his wife without sounding overly sensitive? -- Distant Auntie
DEAR DISTANT AUNTIE: You should talk to your brother and his wife and let them know how important it is to you that you build a meaningful bond with their children. Ask for their support in making that happen. If they create anticipation around your monthly calls, this may inspire their children to get excited. They are still very young, so their attention spans are short. Think about how you want to engage them when you get them on Skype. Can you share a short story about an experience they might be interested in? It could be about pets, nature or some other topic of mutual interest.
If you are able, talk to their parents about inviting them to spend a week or weekend with you once a year. Establishing a relationship with them on your turf may help to foster a special bond with them. Finally, be patient. They are young. If you remain persistent, something will blossom.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I have a friend who always tells me a negative or mean comment that an acquaintance has said about me. This friend explains that honesty is key, which is the reason they relay certain comments back to me. However, I believe that there is a time and place for everything, and hearing negativity come back to me from a person I care about does not feel good. Sometimes I question if this is a true friend and wonder if he sticks up for me when comments are being said. How should I handle this? -- Always Negative
DEAR ALWAYS NEGATIVE: It is time for a cease-and-desist conversation with your friend. Tell him that while you understand his position about always being honest, you do not appreciate his constant relaying of negative commentary about you. Ask him directly if he ever defends you when people speak badly about you to him. Listen carefully for the answer.
Admit that you are not perfect, as no one is. Add that you are generally open for constructive criticism, but you are beginning to wonder about his motives. He is the one who consistently brings you critical commentary from a range of people. Ask him what his motives are. Be frank with him. Tell him that the way he is acting doesn't make you feel like he's being much of a friend.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I had a birthday party a couple of months ago and posted some of the photos on social media. Recently, I was at an event and saw a woman I've known peripherally for a long time, and she wished me a happy birthday. I commented, thanks, but that was a while ago, to which she replied that she saw pictures on Facebook, so it didn't seem that far away.
This woman was a little snippy, which made me think that she felt snubbed that she wasn't invited to my party. While I like her, I don't think she has ever invited me to anything. I don't see why I should feel bad for not including her in my private celebration, nor do I feel like I should have hidden it from social media. Other people who weren't invited liked some of the photos and made pleasant comments. Do you think I should have handled her differently? -- Outside Looking In
DEAR OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: People react in different ways to finding out about activities to which they were not invited. Exposing your experiences on social media creates an open invitation for people to know what you are doing and to react to that in different ways. In the case of this woman, what you might have done when she pointed out that she saw the birthday party photos on Facebook was to say, "Yes, we had a great time!" or something like that, which acknowledges the fact that you celebrated and enjoyed.
In the future, if you post images from events where others are not invited, you may want to add in your comments that you know not everyone could join you, but you appreciate their love and support. You have to craft it so it is specific to the event, but it's worth considering how to make other friends feel more comfortable about not being there. You might also avoid posting a group shot that shows everyone who was there and also points out who was not there.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My husband makes comments about my weight all the time, but in subtle ways. I catch onto it, but I am struggling to tell him that I feel he is attacking my image. He prides himself with being "real" all the time, but I think the comments are unnecessary and they hurt my feelings. This also opens the door for him to look at other people who are more fit than me. How can I nip this in the bud so that I can feel comfortable in my marriage? -- Feeling Heavy
DEAR FEELING HEAVY: Let's start with you. What do you need to do for your own health and well-being? If that includes losing weight, make that a priority. Get a physical and work with your doctor to create an eating and exercise plan that will help you to reach measurable goals.
Tell your husband that you need his support instead of his ongoing commentary about your weight. Admit that you are struggling to manage your weight and what you need most is his support. Tell him that right now it feels more like he is disparaging about your looks, and that it hurts your feelings. Ask him to support you by being a cheerleader rather than a naysayer.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I work from home as a freelance writer, so most of the time I live in my sweats. I was invited to a fancy party recently, and that's when I realized how much weight I have gained. I tried on all the party dresses that I have in my closet, and nothing fit -- I mean nothing! I couldn't zip, button, snap or close anything. I was able to cobble together an outfit, but this was a wake-up call. I didn't realize that I had gained so much weight. I figured I was a few pounds heavier, but this is serious.
I don't feel motivated to do anything about it, because I don't plan on getting dressed up anytime soon. I know that's an excuse, but what can I do to break out of my cycle? I spend hours in front of a computer screen. That's how I earn a living. I'm not sure what I can do to change my schedule. -- Popping Zippers
DEAR POPPING ZIPPERS: That dressy occasion was your wake-up call to pay attention to your health. One of the pointers in many weight-loss programs is to stop wearing clothes that stretch because they can be deceiving. You can easily think you are the same size if your clothes expand with you.
You need to break up your routine. The weather is getting nice, so taking a walk is one of the easiest things you can do for yourself. A few years ago, I read a wonderful essay in The New Yorker by humorist David Sedaris about how he got obsessed with a FitBit and ended up losing a ton of weight while challenging himself to walk more as he tracked his steps on the device. That got me to go outside and walk and to get a tracker. There are even free tracker apps that you can add to your smartphone.
Consistency is key. Before you sit down to start your day at the computer, get up, go out and walk for a half hour or so. The ultimate goal is 10,000 steps per day.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I was asked to be a reference for a woman who worked for me several years ago. I like her a lot, but I am reluctant to recommend her. When she worked for me, she was often late and had a chip on her shoulder. I mentored her to think differently about the way she approached work. By the end of her tenure with me she was better, but I don't know what she has done in the ensuing years. I do know that giving a reference is important, and it reflects on my reputation as well. I don't want to badmouth her, but I feel like I have to tell the truth. That's why I would rather not do it. Do you think I should call her to explain my concerns? -- Bad Reference
DEAR BAD REFERENCE: Contact your former employee and tell her you want to talk before taking any further steps. Ask her about her career to date. Directly inquire about her punctuality and attitude. Express your reservations about being a reference for her because of her past with you. Listen to see how she explains herself today. If you think you have heard enough to be a solid reference, agree to talk to the hiring manager. Just make sure the candidate knows you have to tell the whole truth.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I am so upset about the fact that film director John Singleton died. He was only 51 years old. I didn't know him or anything, but I read that he had high blood pressure, and that's probably why he had a stroke. It is so scary to me that a man who must have had enough money to have good health insurance and who should have been able to afford to go to the doctor could die from this.
I have high blood pressure, too. I find it difficult to keep up with my appointments and meds because of the expense. But seeing that this man died so young has shaken me to my core. I am trying to follow the directions that I've been given, but now I'm worried I could end up dead. If it happened to this great man, how do I stand a chance? -- Afraid to Die
DEAR AFRAID TO DIE: John Singleton's death is surely a wake-up call for many people. High blood pressure is often called the silent killer because it is possible for you to have no noticeable symptoms and for your body to be in crisis. You are doing the right thing by going to the doctor and doing your best to follow her recommendations. Talk to your doctor about your concerns about medical costs. Try to work out a payment plan there, or ask for a referral to a clinic that might be more affordable. You should be able to find a fit that you can afford.
In addition to regular checkups and taking your prescribed meds, you should also exercise and eat healthy, low-sodium meals. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are a number of things you can do to help yourself, including cutting down on caffeine and alcohol. If you smoke, you should stop immediately. For more information, go to: mayocl.in/2GV3gcB.
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Finally, do know that just because someone has money or fame does not make that person immune to health concerns. Singleton was a great director who contributed significantly to our culture. It is a tragedy that he died so young.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My relationship with my mother is strained. She was always hard on me growing up and has yet to validate any of my accomplishments as a woman. I am 44 years old now and have had many personal successes. One of my greatest is my 2-year-old daughter.
I was previously told by doctors that I couldn't conceive any children, so having my daughter was a blessing on my life. However, my mother ignores this fact and constantly lashes out and shows her disapproval with the fact that I am not married and had a child in a nontraditional way. My relationship with my child's father is the most stable and happiest one I have been in. I want my mother to stop looking at me through such a negative lens. This hurts, and I wonder why my mother does not show me the support that I need. -- Mother's Approval
DEAR MOTHER'S APPROVAL: Sit down with your mother and tell her you need her help. Outline your concerns just as you did in this letter. Tell her how much her judgment hurts you, and plead with her to offer you love and support instead.
If she refuses or seems unable to bite her tongue, you may need to distance yourself from her for a while. Your absence may help her to think about you and your daughter differently.
DEAR HARRIETTE: Thanks for addressing teen suicide. If a teen says he or she is suicidal, has a plan and has the means to complete that plan, then he or she should be hospitalized. These criteria are objective. Sometimes you have to ask questions to obtain this information, and some readers may be nervous about doing that. If that's the case, please remember that talking about suicide does not make people suicidal. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org), is a great resource. -- Want to Help
DEAR WANT TO HELP: I appreciate your follow-up regarding teen suicide.
This discussion reminds me of my teenage years. My best friend died by suicide on her 16th birthday. When I remember the days and months leading up to her death, I recall being so close in our freshman year. We spent tons of time together, along with a small group of other girls. But there was a change in our sophomore year -- she got a boyfriend and started spending less time with her friends. We tried to stay on her radar, but she became secretive and standoffish.
I mention this because if you notice that your teenager has changed friends suddenly or has shut down from the people who are normally part of his or her life, that's another indicator that something is off. My friend seemingly had everything; her story is a reminder that how things look on the surface may be different from what's going on inside.
For parents and friends -- if ever you're in doubt, get help. Your child may be angry for a moment, but you may end up saving his or her life. If a teen is articulating the desire to end his or her life, be proactive and take that child to the hospital.
If you are having suicidal thoughts, I urge you to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or the Crisis Text Line, which you can reach by texting the number 741741.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I recently got married, and I am still in the process of settling down with my wife. Before meeting her, I devoted my life to being a support system for my mother and sister after my father passed away. Sometimes I feel that they take advantage of me by taking money out of my account without alerting me, but it has never been a pressing matter until now. I am building a family of my own and have a child on the way, and I need to focus my attention on providing for us first. My mother and adult, employed sister just don't want to let go of me. They also enter my home as they please, which makes my wife uncomfortable. How should I handle this? -- Torn
DEAR TORN: It's time to change your bank account and prevent them from having direct access to it. You may need to change your locks, too.
This sounds extreme, but it may be necessary in order to wake up your family to what life is like for you now. Explain that you will never stop helping them, but your priorities have shifted and you must focus on your growing family first.
DEAR HARRIETTE: Your advice to "Who's Watching My Baby?" was certainly not "Sense and Sensitivity." This is exactly why there are so many problems with our next generation.
Any male can contribute to the creation of a human being. It takes a real man to be a parent. You should have advised that young mother that it is time for her boyfriend to learn how to "adult" and leave his Peter Pan years behind.
I'm incredibly disappointed that you would give that boyfriend a free pass and put all the burden of raising the young child on the mother and the grandmother. The message you sent was terrible, and you should retract it. As a member of our local school board, I can speak from experience -- these are exactly the situations that are creating the problems that local school districts, communities and law enforcement have to undo. They're problems created when adults don't want to parent their own children. -- Take Responsibility
DEAR TAKE RESPONSIBILITY: Thank you for your letter and clear concern about how I addressed a sensitive matter. The question was about a young woman with a baby whose boyfriend is supposed to watch their child on occasion. When it is his turn, he typically gives the child to his mother, who watches the baby. The young mother was upset about this. My response suggested that it may be a blessing that the grandmother is stepping up and caring for the child.
You make an important point here: The young man does need to learn how to care for his child. My intention was not to give him a pass. It was to make sure that the baby is properly cared for. I remember that as responsible as my husband attempted to be in the early days, I was sometimes legitimately worried that he was not as safe as I thought the moment called for. Quite frankly, when my daughter was an infant, I was worried to leave them alone together. I definitely needed help -- including from him -- but it took time before I felt that he was capable of handling her on his own. It was from that perspective that I considered that Grandma watching this baby could be a blessing.
What I didn't take into account in response to this young woman was that the man does need to figure it out. I recommend that the learning curve would best occur if the couple is together and the new mom can teach him what she wants him to learn about caring for their child. If that is at all possible, it may lead to a healthier engagement on his part and relief on hers -- over time.
Even if they are not together as a couple, given that they both created this child, hopefully he will agree to be an active participant and learn how to care for the baby. If the two can spend some time together each week, he will grow confident enough to watch his child successfully. The new mom can also talk to his mother to ask her to help her son to participate in child care when the baby is there.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I used to work with a life coach a few years ago, and it was helpful. We stopped working together a while back, in part because I couldn't afford to keep hiring her. She does not accept insurance, and the weekly payment was too much for me. Now that some time has passed, though, I miss working with her and getting her sound advice on things. I am thinking of contacting her again to find out if we can make an arrangement that is more manageable for me. Do you think it's rude for me to ask for a price break or some other kind of deal? -- Discounted Coaching
DEAR DISCOUNTED COACHING: For starters, it's great that you recognize the value of this woman's services for your life and smart for you to try to figure out how to work with her again. Rather than asking for a discount, why not think outside the box? Do you offer any services that might be of value to her? Perhaps you can barter with her so that you both benefit. You might also ask her if you can work together once a month rather than once a week. That would keep the cost down. Let her know your thoughts. By offering a menu of options, you will be letting her know that you value her expertise and time, and you are watching your wallet.
DEAR HARRIETTE: One of my closest friends moved back to town recently, and we have been trying to get together, but our schedules are completely different. She is an early-morning person, and I am a night owl. I have missed a couple of planned meetings simply because I didn't wake up in time. The time that she can meet in the afternoon is smack dab in the middle of my workday. Even though I work for myself, it is tough for me to be available at that time.
I really want to spend some time with my friend, but as I have been thinking about it, I realize that the only times that we try to get together are on her terms -- when it is convenient for her. I don't think that's fair. I love her and want to be able to use this valuable time that we are in the same city to be together a bit, but I need her to be more flexible. -- Work With Me
DEAR WORK WITH ME: Your friend may not realize that she has been calling the shots in your relationship. Perhaps that's the way she has always been, or could it be that she is the more active one in terms of trying to organize get-togethers with you?
Whatever the reason, you don't need to bring up what bothers you about your getting together. Instead, become proactive. Start inviting her to do things with you at times that are convenient for you. Talk to her about your schedule. Make it clear how much you want to see her and spend some time connecting. Look at your schedule, and offer a bunch of options for seeing each other. If you both hold that intention, you will get together eventually.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I made a commitment to connect with loved ones at least once a month this year after two of my friends passed away in 2019. We had spoken on the phone occasionally, but that's not the same thing as seeing them in person. I loved my friends, and I realize that I just didn't make enough time for them. I hate that I wasn't more responsive when these friends reached out.
As I try to organize visits with my remaining friends, I have found that some people don't share my enthusiasm. They barely want to talk and have no interest in a face-to-face meeting, even though I said I would come to them. How can I stay positive when others don't share my view? Oddly, I feel like some of them are doing exactly what I did with the friends who are now gone. -- Reconnecting
DEAR RECONNECTING: Your idea is a great one, but you have to accept that not everybody shares your vision for connection. Instead of getting discouraged or angry, focus on the friends who agree to get together. Pace yourself, too. Your sense of urgency is great in that it is propelling you to take action, but be mindful of how you engage your friends. If they sense desperation or panic from you, your invitation may not seem as appealing. Chart out who you want to see, and extend invitations each month. Accept that you may not reconnect with everyone, but you are giving it your best effort.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My family has lost the desire to go to church. We recently moved to a new home and have yet to find a church that suits us. The issue is that no one is making an effort to find a good option around us. I've explained my concerns before, but no one listens to me or is willing to help look for a new congregation. I am starting to believe that our lack of attendance is causing some spiritual instability within our home. How can I convince my family to take this more seriously? -- Go to Church
DEAR GO TO CHURCH: Since you are most concerned about establishing a new church home, why don't you take the lead? Start by talking to your former pastor, and ask him or her for recommendations. Your pastor may know churches in your new neighborhood or may have connections to the community that may be of value to you. Go online and look up churches in your denomination that are nearby, then take a drive by to see them. Spend the next month or so attending different church services to see what feels like a good fit. Always invite your family members to join you, but don't push. Once you find the one that you like most -- or even two from which to choose -- invite your family to join you to help make the decision. It may take a while for everyone to re-engage, but this process will get you to a decision.
Know that moving in and of itself can be stressful. Whatever spiritual instability you may be experiencing could be a result of that. Stay strong and keep your eyes open so that you notice what's going on with your family. Schedule weekly check-ins with them to see how the adjustment is unfolding for them.
Harriette Cole is a lifestylist and founder of DREAMLEAPERS, an initiative to help people access and activate their dreams. You can send questions to email@example.com or c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106
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