Dear Emuna,

Once again Thanksgiving is upon us (I know it’s not a traditional Jewish holiday but my family likes to celebrate it) and once again, I’m expected to host. In general I like having guests and I like cooking – but I resent the expectation. Just because I enjoy it doesn’t mean it doesn’t require effort. There will be 30 of us this year which means borrowing an extra table and chairs – and preparing lots of food. We have a good time usually but I get a little resentful because most of my family members don’t do anything to help. They don’t offer to cook or clean. I enjoy the oohs and aahs over my elegant table and delicious food but I’m exhausted when the meal is over and can’t really enjoy the rest of the day. It’s Thanksgiving after all but gratitude is the last thing I feel. How can I change the situation?

Reluctant Hostess

Dear Reluctant,

There are a few strategies you could adopt but I think you first need to do some introspection to explore if there is some psychological payoff you are getting from this “martyr” role you are adopting. If the answer is no and you sincerely want something to change, you can start by asking for help. Maybe no one realizes you want it. Maybe they honestly believe the cooking is such a source of pleasure to you and you don’t want to share. Or maybe they feel inadequate because their cooking doesn’t compare to your gourmet fare or they would buy something at the market to bring.

If you want help, you need to make sure that they feel comfortable bringing what they can and that you feel comfortable serving it. If you set too high a bar, you make it difficult for others to contribute.

With respect to cleaning up however, this is less obvious. Everyone should easily be able to help unless you are very particular about how things go in the kitchen and once again think it’s just easier to do it yourself. But since this really doesn’t seem to be working for you, let go and let them into your domain. Be very explicit. “Could you please clear the plates?” “Could you wash those dishes for me?” “Here’s the towel for drying.” It won’t just be helpful to you; it is good character for them to participate in the chores aspect of the day and not just the overeating part.

No one (husbands included!) is a mind reader. In all situations, if you want or need help, the best way to get it is to ask. I think that, in fact, everyone will enjoy the day more if they have a role to play and everyone will feel a deeper sense of gratitude. And you will have more energy for that backyard football game!

Cold Daughter-in-Law

Dear Emuna,

My daughter in law of 5+ years doesn't respond to any attempts I make to contact her, no matter the time or the method I use. She seems to bristle if I show up at her door more than a minute early for a pre-arranged play date with the children. I am careful to follow all of her rules and have tried to be supportive of her regardless. How can I help this situation improve?

Frustrated Mother-in-Law

Dear Frustrated Mother-In-Law,

I was just telling a group of women I teach that the most frequent letters are from mothers-in-law or daughters-in-law describing their frustration with the relationship. It is unfortunate that so many of these situations that should be a source of pleasure are in fact a source of pain.

You have given me very little information to work with. There is no suggestion as to what caused the rift or even if there is an identifiable cause. I don’t know what her family or origin was like or her expectations and I don’t know anything about how you have behaved towards her since she became a member of your family. That makes it even harder than usual to give any meaningful advice.

It’s definitely a good start that you follow all of her rules and continue to be supportive. Keep that up. Are there ways you could be more supportive? Can she go out when you are with the grandchildren and get a much-needed break or do some grocery shopping? Can you take the grandkids out so she can clean up or have some quiet time in her own home? When you come to see your grandchildren, can you ask her what she would prefer or how you can help? Perhaps if you make it about her needs and not yours.

Whatever you do, don’t involve your son. It won’t be good for him or their marriage to put him in the middle and if ultimately he has to choose, he should follow the Torah dictum that “Therefore a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife” and you will be the one who loses. Like all of life’s challenges, focus on the long run. It’s not about this moment but about the journey. Perhaps if you can stay calm and loving during this difficult time, you will be rewarded when she is able to take a breath and get more perspective. Don’t act in ways that are short-sighted. Don’t do anything hurtful to her and just pray that ultimately the relationship will improve.

My Grunting 15-Year-Old

Dear Emuna,

My 15 year-old refuses to do his homework or explain to me why. He just grunts when I ask about his day and looks a little sheepish when he brings me notes from his teachers about his poor grades. I try to keep the doors of communication open but his seems slammed shut. What should I do?

His Mom

Dear Mom,

Welcome to adolescence! Those grunts and shrugs and eye rolls and sheepish looks are what pass for conversation in the world of teenage boys and their parents. It’s a very difficult age and adolescent boys are notoriously non-communicative. That is totally normal and not a cause for concern.

Poor grades, on the other hand, are more serious although your options remain few. Since teenagers live in the moment and are impulsive, it’s hard for them to understand the implications for the future of a failed English course. Even if they hear it in one moment, they’ll forget it the next as some exciting activity presents in front of them. They think they are immortal and have a hard time focusing on future consequences (which is why many of us believe they don’t belong behind the wheel of a car!). So you need to begin with this understanding.

The second piece of the puzzle is recognizing their particular personality and challenges. Motivation and the ability to make an effort are not traits that are distributed evenly across the board (despite what some teachers may believe). If applying himself doesn’t come easily to your son, he doesn’t get a pass but it’s important to acknowledge and understand this challenge.

Thirdly, parental authority is not as compelling as we would like it to be. I frequently quote my teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, who said that today “all we have is our personal relationship”. Although that relationship seems limited to grunts right now, we don’t want to permanently damage it by harsh and prolonged fights about homework and grades. Perhaps a tutor could help. Perhaps a friend could be enlisted. Perhaps his teacher will play a helpful role. And perhaps you have to accept that he won’t do as well as you would like but he’ll turn to you in the future when in need – and he’ll grow through facing the consequences of his choices. Perhaps it will be some combination. But the behavior you describe is well within the normal range of teenage behavior and you’ll all handle it better if you recognize that. As with everything but probably and particularly adolescents, never underestimate the power of prayer!