Defeating the Devouring Mother

Part of a series connecting insight from Jordan Peterson’s books and lectures to motherhood/femininity.

When Parenthood Sucks

It is clear to anyone watching the news that many women want to avoid motherhood at all costs. And women are not alone in their ambivalence about parenthood.  A couple of years ago a Hollywood director, Duncan Jones, tweeted out a rather depressing, and all too prevalent, view of parenting: 

I have two kids, 2.5 and 9 months; they are exhausting, frustrating, and life-destabilizing.  They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but it’s HARD and not obviously a good choice in life. This is where people feel compelled to say, ‘I wouldn’t change it for the world!’ But you know, of course, I would reconsider!  It’s exhausting! It is banal! What it is, is that it is. And they are mine. Hopefully, they will turn out okay.

As frightening as this tweet is, especially considering it was applauded as courageous by many, it is an honest representation of a now-mainstream view of parenthood: It’s not worth it.  

These reactions, while shocking to those in happy homes, should be examined. Parenting has become an onerous hardship for many in our day. By comparison, I cannot find many indications that it was this difficult in the past.  In reading ancient works of literature and philosophy, I don’t hear Plato complain about his teenagers. Sure, Hamlet was a handful and Juliet’s parents were clueless; but generally, children were viewed as a blessing, a motivation, and a reason for being. Religions were created and wars were fought to ensure “heirs.”  Parents didn’t seem “distressed” by the work and sacrifice of children the way we are today. Children were a fact of life- the continuation of life.  As we progress materially, with more modern conveniences and free time, paradoxically parenthood seems to be more difficult, more disruptive, and more “life-destabilizing.”  

The Burden of Ease

I recently discovered one of the root causes of our current plague of joyless parents and unprepared children: modern dentistry. I had a horrific toothache on Christmas Eve.  The pain was excruciating. Luckily, within a few days, an endodontist had done a root canal. I am now recovered, only slightly traumatized from the experience. 

I want you to picture yourself as a new mother in the Middle Ages. After a painful birth, you are handed your precious newborn. You gaze upon her sweet innocence, and in that gaze of love and appreciation comes flooding in the harsh truth: multiple times during this child’s life she will have an agonizing toothache and—with no pain relief—have her teeth torn out of her jaw. Do you think, in your life of motherhood, you would worry about your lack of time for hobbies? Do you think you would fret about the strict schoolmaster?  Do you think you would escort your 10-year-old son to fetch water? You have toothaches coming—it’s time to toughen up. Your primary concern would be survival and strengthening your children against the inevitable agonies of life. Our female progenitors knew there was really no way to protect their children from significant pain.  

hugues-merle-the-poor-mother
The Poor Mother, Hugues Merele

When women have a child everything changes—Medieval or Modern.  But it seems to change more for modern women. When modern women have children, the same biological and God-given desire to protect ignites in us as it did in women of the past— but we don’t have near the same dangers. And on top of that, we have an added expectation of fulfilling all our child’s desires.  In a novocaine-free world, such a quest would seem like something out of Fairyland.  All this underscores just how to ruin parenthood (and childhood): attempt to protect and keep our child happy for 18 years.  That is life-destabilizing.

Jordan Peterson speaks often and boldly against the over-protective nature of modern parents, making kids weak and parents miserable. He advises that we teach our children to “face the challenge of life forthrightly,” adding, “You can’t protect your children, you can only make them strong, and then they can protect themselves.”  

The Pendulum Swings

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to go back to the Dark Ages.  No one appreciates Novocaine more than I do. I don’t think it was good to send 15-year-olds off to war and I doubt most Dark Age mothers were model parents.  But the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Rather than raising hardened toothache-ready children, we are raising children unequipped for the intrinsic difficulties of life.  Evidence suggests that incoming college students today experience greater levels of stress and psychopathology than at any time in the nation’s history (check out the work of Jonathan Haidt for more on the increasing fragility of young people). 

Young people today might not have to fight in the Crusades but they do need to succeed in life, develop relationships, and confront threatening ideas and people.  Our children encounter trials that our ancestors never faced—such as attempting to maintain their virtue in the face of Twitter and Internet pornography.  

Since the introduction of birth control, we are having fewer children and those later in life—and that increases their value and our ability to hover. Too often they are allowed to become our sovereigns.  In the past, there was no rearranging life for kids; they had to contribute and join the larger family project. Today it is the parents who must conform.

If motherhood feels like a burden, it is often a burden of our own making. The other day I was at my son’s soccer game.  One of the boys was put in as goalie and his mother spent the next 30 minutes on the edge of her seat screaming instructions at her son, “Get the ball out of there!  Stand in the middle of the goal!” It was truly exhausting to watch. She was completely frantic. It’s great to support our children but there is a fine line between support and control, and control is exhausting. 

Mothers as Artists or Gardeners?

Much of this exhausting control is an outgrowth of an improper orientation towards our role as mothers. When we are handed our precious newborns, we see their limitless potential.  We may think of them as a blank canvas with the opportunities and experiences we create for them working together to produce a masterpiece.  However, this perspective of parents-as-artists can put undue pressure on any of us since one wrong stroke and the masterpiece is ruined.  We parents can have a remarkable influence on our children but they are not blank canvases; their souls, their passions, and their personalities are their own. 

A more appropriate metaphor and mindset might be to view our child as a seed—of unknown variety.  We are the gardeners, responsible for nourishing our young saplings. We take extra care as it puts down roots.  As the plant grows, we consistently watch for weeds and add nourishment. However, as it matures, if we continue to shield our tree from the wind and rain, it will actually prevent the development of strong roots. Strong roots are made from adversity. Our seed may grow into an orange tree or a palm tree but the strength of the tree is dependent on our nurturing and the strength gained from persevering in the storms of life.

The tree that never had to fight

For sun and sky and air and light,

But stood out in the open plain

And always got its share of rain,

Never became a forest king

But lived and died a scrubby thing.

Good timber does not grow with ease:

The stronger wind, the stronger trees.

(Taken from Good Timber, Douglas Malloch)

The Devouring Mother

The Yin/Yang of Devouring Motherhood

Jordan Peterson calls the pathological version of motherhood the “Devouring Mother,” since this mother devours her children’s potential along with her own fulfillment. Peterson typically focuses this analysis on the danger of overprotection in our parenting, wherein we protect our children out of their own competence.  However, I would like to add another, and seemingly opposite proclivity of the Devouring Mother: neglect. Neglect is equally destructive to children and does, in fact, result in the same ill-prepared and unhealthy young adults.  The Neglectful Mother abdicates her responsibility of clearing the weeds from impeding the growth of her young seedling.  The Overprotective Mother steals a child’s competence, but The Neglectful mother deprives her child of a solid foundation of values and good habits. Together these twin Devouring Mothers leave children mentally unprepared for the challenges of life. Overprotective and neglectful devouring mothers live in each of us.  

What’s interesting is that as bad as over-protection and neglect seem, there is a place for both.  A 6-month-old desperately needs to feel safe in the arms of her mother. And a 10-year-old boy needs to be “neglected” sometimes so that in his boredom he can think deep thoughts or construct forts in the woods. However, when overapplied, both protection and neglect can make motherhood unbearable. One may, in fact, lead to the other. Push too hard one way and there will be recoil.  Overbearing Mom quickly burns out from a hard day of unproductive micromanaging and control. Guess who’s there to give her a break? Neglectful Mom. All this imbalance and misplaced priorities perhaps help explain the sentiment of the Hollywood director, “Of course, I would reconsider having kids.”

Devoured By Weeds- Neglect

 I do have sympathy for parents like this Hollywood director; his kids are so young and little kids are hard.  It can be difficult to find fulfillment in the early duty-filled days of raising young kids. As Peterson once quipped, “If mothers didn’t fall insanely in love with their babies they would throw them out the window.”  However, if we are patient in the early years and attempt to build a strong relationship with our children, the blossoming of our little trees is truly glorious to behold.

While some parents are overprotective, others may simply not enjoy being with their children and would rather continue to live the life they lived previously.  This self-absorbed corrosion is another, more subtle manifestation of a parenting experience that “devours.” We cannot let selfishness allow us to neglect our responsibility. Without proper nurture and instruction, weeds can build up around our children and choke their potential.  

These distracting and potential-crushing weeds are becoming increasingly prevalent as modern society degenerates. Because a practice is common, such as boys playing Fortnite endlessly or girls scanning Instagram for hours, we may feel that it must not be that bad. But Mark Twain warns us, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

We need to rebel against a culture intent on producing the narcissistic and addicted.   Some may say, “Isn’t that overprotective of you?” No.  Building virtue and positive habits in children is not overprotection, it is parenting

When the culture loses virtue and is full of addicting and mind-numbing technology, we should return to time-proven methods of parenting.  It is our responsibility to shield our young children from the “weeds” that could damage their souls. As our children get older, if we have instructed them in virtue, we can trust that their reason and courage— built through personal experience—will allow them to rebel against the destructive elements of our modern age.

“Through self-discipline comes freedom.”  Aristotle

Devouring the Roots—Over-protective Compassion

Our culture needs to rethink our concept of a “good mother.” Often we see the ideal mother as a kind-hearted woman, endlessly concerned for and serving her children.  However, taken to extremes, this mother often ends up producing shiftless little monsters with no respect for her.  This is compassion turned to vice.

Jordan Peterson explains, “Look, you have to understand that you are a danger to your children no matter what.  You can let them go out in the world and be hurt, or you can overprotect them and hurt them that way. Here’s your choice, you can make your children competent and courageous or you can make them safe. But you can’t make them safe because life isn’t safe.  So if you sacrifice their courage and competence on the altar of safety then you disarm them completely and all they can do is pray to be protected.”

We mothers hate to see our children suffer. It is our biological urge to protect them. But when mothers extend the timeline of compassion beyond its necessary borders, it impedes competence-building time.  We don’t want to stall our children in the infant stage. 

We often, with these extra compassions, unnecessarily complicate life. We make our babies into a burden. We let them sleep in our bed and disrupt our romantic life. We buy every contraption possible for their clueless benefit, draining our resources. We give in to our toddler’s every irrational demand to avoid a tantrum, creating an unlikable child. These “good intentions” result in a child who drains our goodwill. 

When my husband and I lived in Hawaii as poor college students, we had a tiny apartment on the North Shore. When we had our first child, his possessions included one laundry basket crib, 5 pairs of PJs, and a pacifier. He was the chunkiest, happiest baby I have ever seen—and easily fit into our meager budget and lifestyle. In my experience, babies need very little other than loving and unselfish parents. If we give them much more than that, we could well be creating our own burden.

Devouring the Roots Even More—Controlling

There is also another kind of overbearing mother, and if we are honest with ourselves, many of us have some of her in us too:  The Controlling Mother. Unfortunately controlling behavior is hard to spot because much of it is passed off as a virtue.  “Let me make that sandwich for you sweety,” says the mother looking to maintain her spotless kitchen. Our child’s development is not more important than a clean house.

Jordan Peterson recommends we never do anything for our children that they can do for themselves, even if it means waiting 10 minutes for our toddler to get her pants on. We sacrifice time and expectations but the reward is that the child actually matures. My 6-year-old still puts his shoes on the wrong feet literally 75% of the time. Did I think at this point he would have mastered it? Yes. But once again, over-helping our kids actually keeps them from learning. 

As Jordan Peterson explains, “For knowledge to be your own you have to integrate it with your own experience. You have to see how that applies to your own case and then have a story to tell about it.” That’s true for all of us. We must find the answers within ourselves for them to belong to us.  If we shield our children from potentially difficult lessons, we are keeping them from integrating this knowledge into their own character.

Children love making their own way and resent mothers who hover. My 4-year-old daughter gives me a death stare if I attempt to buckle her seat belt.  My physically-capable son wants to climb the tree unhindered by my warnings. Far more often than we realize, kids know they are better off doing it themselves.

The Encouraging Mother

 Producing Resilience

So how do we avoid becoming a Devouring Mother? We turn our God-given nurturing nature towards building a resilient, toothache-ready child. As Peterson has taught, “A resilient person is capable of standing up to things in the face of fear and moving forward voluntarily, convinced of their own competence and ability to prevail.”

The unexpected surprise of motherhood is that less is often more, particularly in teaching our kids resilience. Life will provide sufficient lessons as we walk forward confident in our, and our children’s, ability to learn.

Jordan Peterson’s Rule 11 in “12 Rules for Life” states, “Don’t bother children when they are skateboarding.” After reading this chapter I had a chance to test my resolve to follow this counsel.  My son was playing football in the front yard with some neighbor kids.  An argument broke out over pass interference. I looked out the window and could see things were getting heated.  It was more difficult than I expected to restrain myself from going out and resolving the situation. But I did. Five minutes later they moved on to the next play. We must trust in the lessons we have taught our children, trust in their ability to deal with conflict, and trust that difficult experiences are often a far better teacher than suppression, micromanagement, or avoidance. 

Jordan Peterson recommends a level of “detached harshness,” which allows for the development of independence and unchecked mistake-making. Creativity and learning only happen when kids are allowed to resolve problems independently. Having mom around greatly reduces the chances of that.  Sometimes it is difficult to know when our presence is needed. The question I try to ask myself is, “Does my involvement help or impede my child from learning a lesson?” I am surprised by how often the honest answer is that the child is better left alone. 

I’m also finding this is a step in the right direction toward more joyful mothering.   Managing the trifles of my child’s life can be overwhelming and monotonous.  As I stop expending energy on the unnecessary and unhelpful, I am more eager to engage when I am truly needed. 

Although our modern children have vastly different worries than those of our ancestors and are missing fewer teeth, there are still a multitude of fears and hurdles in front of them. Fortunately, when we overcome one trial, we gain the courage to face others. As Peterson says “When you face a fear forthrightly you don’t become less frightened, you get more courageous.” 

Building a Pristine Relationship

edmund_blair_leighton_-_a_little_prince_likely_in_time_to_bless_a_royal_throne
A Little Prince Likely in Time to Bless a Royal Throne, Edmund Blair Leighton

If we are not enjoying spending time with our kids, we are doing something wrong.  Peterson adds, “You need to keep your relationships with your kids pristine.” I have found applying this advice makes motherhood easier.  This may seem counterintuitive since keeping something pristine is difficult, as my kitchen can testify. But when we define the relationship as sovereign, we can let some things go. It is impossible to maintain a “pristine” relationship while simultaneously criticizing our children’s every imperfection, or micromanaging the dream of getting them into Harvard. Moving beyond those preoccupations, our focus can remain fixed on the relationship above all else. This does not mean we give our children their way for the sake of the relationship—quite the opposite.  Children who don’t have boundaries won’t respect their parents, and that is no relationship at all.  But we do accept them for the “variety” they are, orange tree or palm, and replace previously-held expectations in exchange for an appreciation of their unique traits.

The truth is, so much of this relationship tending doesn’t take much. Peterson weeps when he explains how little encouragement people actually need, but often don’t get. The key is to keep our limited interactions optimal and meaningful. As we do this, our children will grow in character and moral fortitude. As we parents attempt to improve ourselves as well, we can let our example do much of the teaching for us.   

Checking Our Motivation

We might also do well to engage in some self-appraisal at times. Why did we decide to be mothers? Do we want our children to one day leave us as capable young adults, or, perhaps subconsciously, do we want to keep them near us always? Do we want to be gardeners, tending a growing tree for the greater good of mankind?  Or are we attempting to selfishly paint a masterpiece for our own glory? If our attitude is the latter, we will very shortly become frustrated with parenting. After all, if we’re straining to make our child’s life a work of art, it would be folly to include suffering in the landscape. And when the underlying parental desire for children is selfish, we can quickly get disenchanted with the often-selfless reality of the undertaking.  

As a woman of faith, I firmly believe that my children were sent to me for a reason.  I believe God chose me as their mother to help them fulfill their unique purpose. I have many failings and there is much my children will have to learn from other sources.  However, I have unique talents, and sharing them with my children brings me joy. As I attempt to use my talents and interests to raise my children, I notice something miraculous starts to happen. As my children grow, I see myself less as their gardener and more as a fellow tree, growing beside them and experiencing the peace and storms of life together.  

In the end, parenthood doesn’t have to devour any of us. Let’s stop attempting to shield our children from the difficulties of life. Let’s stop retreating into selfishness in the face of self-imposed expectations of motherhood. Let’s use the trials of life to be the teacher of resilience.  Let’s have our love, talents, and “pristine” relationships do the work in developing our children’s character. And let’s let go of the rest. And then, when it comes time for our children to face the toothaches and pains of life, their mother will have prepared them well.  

Revised from a 2019 piece published on The Philosophy of Motherhood

A version of this piece was published in Public Square Magazine

 

32 thoughts on “Defeating the Devouring Mother

  1. What a fantastic read. Thank you so much for your insight. I just discovered your blog recently and I look forward to every single email. Thank you.

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  2. Thursdays are my new favorite day of the week…thank you for taking the time to record your thoughts on a public forum. As I read and consider what you say, I am inspired to make changes that will benefit my family. Much love to you!

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  3. Really good stuff Allyson! I’ve been thinking a lot about how to deal with my son Jude. Thanks for the great advice!

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  4. exceptional blog thank you Allyson, I am reading Maps of Meaning at the moment so very on point. I have shared on my FB page recommending reading for all parents.

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    1. The Poor Mother by Hugues Merle and the last one is by Edmund Blair Leighton A Little Prince Likely in Time to Bless a Royal Throne – I love his stuff and have put one of his in a previous post. I need to remember to always name the pictures at the end of the posts.

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  5. Thank you so much for this post! And for writing the others, your thoughts are exactly what I need. As a new mother, I often find myself torn between different aspects of motherhood and sometimes it seems I am just being thrown about the experience. Reading your words reminds me of what kind of a mother I wish to be.

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  6. Thank you so much for this post! And for writing the others, your thoughts are exactly what I need. As a new mother, I often find myself torn between different aspects of motherhood and sometimes it seems I am just being thrown about the experience. Reading your words reminds me of what kind of a mother I wish to be.

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  7. I appreciate this article. Defining the boundary line between overly protective and too permissive is difficult though. It is easy to sight obvious errors in either direction, but I struggle with parsing some things. With my oldest child I tend to lean toward older expectations of manhood beginning at age twelve. I recognize his need to be challenged by other men and to have real responsibilities placed on his shoulders. However, I think 12 is too young for his mind to be fully exposed to the darkest parts of human nature. I suppose that over the span of childhood, exposure to risk and the awareness of evil should be a process akin to inoculation. Hope we get the balance right!

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    1. I believe a mother altering her direction with each child is the sign of a good mother. Some kids need innocence a bit longer than others. I also rarely expose young children to darkness myself – and often protect them from it in early years (scary movies, horrific crimes or current events) however I do explain and instruct when they themselves encounter it. Your son is lucky to have an intentional mom who thinks of these things. I appreciate you reading.

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  8. Great read, very interesting and thought provoking…Thank you for taking the time to write down and share your thoughts. Personally, i’m young and wont have children for some time…but i’d like to think that for every new parent there is also a new philosophy of parenting/parenthood… and on top of that…each new philosophy/method/whatever-you-wanna-callit will evolve overtime.

    I’d like to hear how you would distinguish the “Weeds” from the “toothaches”. It is hard for me to see the difference….given that there is a difference, i initially want to say that you can only shield them from weeds for so long. Seems like acknowledging and discussing a parent’s concern about the “weeds” with their children is important. Maybe discussions are better than straight “shielding” (im not exactly sure what you mean by “shielding”)

    I’d also like to hear more about what a “pristine” relationship means to you. and, How might we maintain that Pristine relationship?

    Also, what are the difficult conversations that will be Challenging for you to discuss with your children as they mature and learn more about the world? (Death? Sex? Drugs? Ect.?)

    Thanks again for your insights into motherhood / Parenthood.

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    1. Thanks for reading. I will try and answer as conscisely as I can. Weeds are distractions/addictions/bad habits that can inhibit a child’s moral and mental development. It’s true that eventually it is not a parents place to shield your children but I certainly believe a young child needs to be protected from destructive elements. For example my sons friends will stay up till all hours playing video games. They played sports and explored the outdoors when they were younger but because video games are now made to be so addictive they are often more rewarding to kids brains than outdoor activity. I am very grateful we have shielding our son from video games. He is a very good athlete now and had has a variety of interests and a dynamic personality. Kids who sit in front of electronics all day have a difficult time with interpersonal skills. I define “toothaches” as the trials and hardships that are inherant to life that children should not be shielded from but should be counseled in how to handle appropriately.

      In terms of pristine. I would say it relates to your last question as well. To keep my relationship to the point where the trust, love, and acceptance between us makes no conversation difficult. A few of my kids have very different personality from my own and so it has been a challenge to navigate the relationship to keep it pristine. It takes effort but I always need to know that my relationship can stand the test of time and circumstance. As for difficult conversations – I don’t think anything is difficult if you start young enough so it is never awkward. I speak about sex and death and drugs in an age-appropriate way all the time to my kids. Kids understand way more then we realize and really don’t need to be talked down to. Thanks so much for reading!

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      1. Ps. Now my son is ten and has had time to see how his friends have been negatively affected by video games he has no desire to play them often. He has developed his own self regulation.

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  9. That’s a wonderful response, thank you for taking the time to write that out.

    Gaming is an interesting topic. I sorta hate to go on this tangent but here it is…I myself love gaming. I can absolutely acknowledge that they have been designed to be addicting, and one must be able to develop the self control of putting the controller down. That can be hard for some people, particularly people facing depression.

    Like most things in life, gaming is something that has negative and positive consequences. Personally I am Very thankful for experiences, relationships, and skills that i developed through gaming…. although, I do not wish spend all of my time gaming. I am also very thankful for the experiences, relationships, and skills that i have developed through my climbs, hikes, and my time in the back country. I do not want to spend all my time hiking and living in a tent. That would also hold me back in many ways. Im also thankful for sports, school, my career…. but i do not wish to be a workaholic. These are All very valuable to me and my development, all in very different ways. I think your son is wise to not play them too often. Seems like he will be a very well rounded and thoughtful man. I’m sure you’ve had some useful talks about the negative consequences of being a gaming addict. I guess we ought to take most things in moderation.

    Thanks again, and please keep writing! Sorry for the long comments, it is really just my quick train of thought!

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    1. No problem. I see that there is value in video games. I have just seen too many negative affects when the habit is started at a young age and crowds out other potential interests. It can also be a cause of contention between children and parents. A lot of it depends on the personality of the child – some children are more likely to overuse it than others. But as you said, moderation in all things. But part of the joy of parenthood is you get it do it in your way and and share your passions with your children.

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  10. I don’t know why I was putting off reading this one. Maybe because the title seemed to describe me as a mother of young adults, having a hard time letting them make their own decisions out there in the world, and i wasn’t ready to tackle that. The article actually gave me a lot of encouragement that we did do a lot of things well with raising our family. Our young adult kids are having to face adulthood without financial help from us. It’s hard for them when they see others from their generation receiving a free ride from their parents. This post gives me courage to tell them it’s going to be ok. They are going to be great adults just like they were such great kids. They were always the stronger variety. And people pointed that out to them all the time. Thank you again for all your effort in writing these posts.

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    1. Thanks Kristen. We all have some cause for regret in our parenting – but today is always a new day. I agree the if they were great kids they will be great adults – and I am sure you had a lot to do with that greatness.

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  11. I’m breaking up with my girlfriend because her son, girlfriend, and her child decided to drop by from out of state. I didn’t wish to smother the visit considering family is very important especially now in these more uncertain times. I did voice that it is common decency to let us know before they turn the key in the car when, who, and depart schedule. And that at some time I would mention this during the visit.
    This produced a fight that lasted 2 days went away and came back a few says later. I’m done. I let her know this is a very serious precedent she was setting as she has 2 other teenagers. I can see some of the flaws in my delivery now. It was very difficult because she reacted in an attacking way toward me at the breath of crossing her princely boy. We should remain friends from a distance.

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