Ask Amy: Getting Through Tough Times Chicago Tribune syndicated columnist Amy Dickinson talks about how the slumping economy is affecting family households.
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Ask Amy: Getting Through Tough Times

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Ask Amy: Getting Through Tough Times

Ask Amy: Getting Through Tough Times

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Every other week or so, we check in with Amy Dickinson, who writes the syndicated column, "Ask Amy," for the Chicago Tribune. And recently, she got a letter from a 16-year-old worried about her dad. My father, she wrote, has a very stressful job in the car business, which, due to gas prices, isn't doing so well right now, and he handles his stress by exploding in anger. It's often unreasonable. My father acts this way on every vacation and nearly every day he has off. It's not violent, but his anger is scary. The letter's signed, Worried Teen.

Well, the letter made us wonder about the emotional fallout from hard times. What are you and your family doing differently these days? And how does that affect relationships? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our blog at Amy Dickinson joins us today from member station WBEZ in Chicago, Illinois. Nice to have you back as always, Amy.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON ("Ask Amy," Chicago Tribune): Hi, Neal. Now, I think we can stipulate that people rarely write to me when they're feeling good, right?

CONAN: Mm-hm.

Ms. DICKINSON: But what I've noticed lately is there's an increasing number of letters from people that reflect what's going on in the economy. Somebody will write to me and say, we told our brother in law that he could stay in our basement until he got on his feet, got a job, because he lost his job in a layoff. He said he would stay a month. Now it's six months later. What do we do?

CONAN: Right.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, there are just a lot of situations that are bringing people together in very unexpected ways, and it's hard to cope with.

CONAN: Well, what, for example, did you write back to Worried Teen?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, Worried Teen, I gave her some suggestions about how to talk to her father about his anger. I also acknowledged that the economy is forcing a lot of families into stress mode, and that she needs to know this, and obviously, she did. She acknowledged that. And I assured her that, you know, none of this is her fault, but I just gave her some suggestions about how to talk to her dad about it, and choosing the right time.

Now, one of the things that she mentioned in her letter was that he had exploded sort of in anger in the car on a family car trip that had lasted for 13 hours. Now, that's pretty stressful anyway, but when you're sitting - when you're burning up the gas, I think it feels even worse. And you know, one of things this family and other families might end up doing are taking what people are calling "staycations."


Ms. DICKINSON: This is when you skip your out-of-town vacation, but you stay at home instead, and you try and recreate your vacation at home only without the 13-hour car ride and its attendant stress.

CONAN: So, you get some paper flowers and make a lei and throw a luau in your backyard.

Ms. DICKINSON: That's right. People have been - have had to cancel their vacations and they - some have, very, very cleverly, tried to re-create or have a little fun with the idea of taking their planned vacation at home instead. So, parents are pitching tents in the living room and having campouts with their kids, and you know, some of this can be fun. But for a lot of people, it's really, really challenging, and I'm very curious to hear how people's lives have changed recently and what they're doing.

CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get some callers on the line. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email is And let's begin with Meghan, and Meghan is calling us from Sacramento in California.

MEGHAN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

MEGHAN: Well, our living situation has been pretty difficult recently. I live with my mother, my stepfather, my 13-year-old sister, my 21-year-old stepbrother, and 24-year-old stepsister in a three-bedroom house. So, it's pretty tight quarters. We are all sort of living together because, you know, money's been pretty tight and especially for the three, you know, 20-somethings in the house, and my stepdad works as kind of a mechanic, and you know, doesn't really make a lot of money and it's a pretty unstable business. And - so, it's kind of difficult emotionally for all of us to live in the same house at the same time. But we're all sort of pulling together, and helping each other out, and combining resources so that we can each, you know, get on our feet again.

CONAN: It must be - are they all - are there tensions over, is everybody doing their share?

MEGHAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, everything from who's doing the vacuuming to who's got a job? I mean, it's from like the most minute to the most intense, I guess you could say. So...

Ms. DICKINSON: I have a question.


Ms. DICKINSON: Is anybody in your family - like, is any of your family member considered to be, like, the leader - like, do you...

MEGHAN: Oh, yeah, my mother.

Ms. DICKINSON. OK. Because once...

MEGHAN: She's been doing so much for everyone, from - I mean, she just helped my stepbrother get into bartending school so that he can have some sort of a skill, you know, because he sort of got out of high school and has been floating around from job to job, and now he's got a skill. I mean, she's got all these ideas. And she made us put up a whiteboard where we all write down our chores. It seems very - I don't want to say elementary, but we've all sort of gone back to, what can everybody do to make this work? And for all of us to be able to stick together and to be OK, you know, when we're not making a lot of money. So, she's definitely been the driving force, you know, behind all of it.

Ms. DICKINSON: Wow. I love that, because I actually was going to suggest that if you're lucky enough to have somebody who takes a leadership role, that that person can also really expect a lot from family members. And the idea of a chore chart is excellent, because if somebody isn't able to find paying work, they can demonstrate that they are supporting the household in their own way.


Ms. DICKINSON: So, good for her.

MEGHAN: Definitely. It's helped out quite a bit.

CONAN: And Meghan, this will be a sitcom someday.

MEGHAN: You know, I think it will.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, you know, Neal, you bring up a great point, because I think that ultimately, some people will look back on this period the way you hear, you know, maybe our parents talk about the Depression. I read an article yesterday that people are starting to take in borders to try and help make their mortgage payments. And I think in some ways, like this family, which seems to be functioning pretty well despite a very extreme situation, once they've all got it together, they'll look back and maybe even laugh about - and I'm sure they'll be proud of how they managed.

CONAN: Meghan, thanks for the call. Good luck to you.

MEGHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye -bye. Let's see if we can get - this is Carlos. Carlos is calling us from Kansas City.

CARLOS (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

CARLOS: Yeah. Just yesterday we had to let our kids know that we had to cancel our summer vacation, and you know, it was really hard, however we did it during dinner. And they did not even (unintelligible) - to see my 7 year old in bed - before going to bed crying because we cannot take this family vacation that was just, you know, like a 10-hour drive for the weekend. But we cannot afford that, and we realized that because, you know, we're paying 600 dollars a month in gas this summer and it was gut-wrenching to...

CONAN: Yeah.

CARLOS: You know, you have to...

CONAN: I can only imagine what that would - where were you planning to take the kids, Carlos?

CARLOS: We were going to drive to San Antonio, you know, do the Riverwalk and Sea World and...

CONAN: And just for the weekend, but they were really looking forward to it?

CARLOS: Yes, all year long.

CONAN: And - I don't know, Amy, is the idea of a staycation an option here?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, I actually, if - Carlos, if you could, I think it would great if you and your wife can get together and think of a way to create that vacation a little bit at home. Maybe you can get some postcards or download some photographs of San Antonio, and sort of, kind of, decorate one of your rooms. You can do crafts. You know, maybe there are ways to have a little, special weekend that doesn't involve going so far away. And of course, I love the idea of sleeping outside. You know, kids love to sleep outside. So, if there's a night when you can even start out the night outside under the stars, that would probably be very special and memorable for them.

CARLOS: Thanks for those suggestions.

CONAN: And good luck, Carlos.

CARLOS: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to - sorry with that. Let's go to Paul. Paul's with us from Orange Park in Florida.

PAUL (Caller): Hello. This is Paul.

CONAN: Yes, Paul. Go ahead, please.

PAUL: Yeah. I'm one of the angry fathers. Long since my kids have grown up, but I remember many times when they would ask me for money or things that cost money, and I would respond to them in anger, and it was really, really - deep down inside, it was a sense of shame, a sense of embarrassment, and - that I didn't have the money to give them what they want, because I certainly did want to give them what they wanted. You know, but I could remember going to the county fair and saying, OK, we've got 50 dollars, and when 50 dollars is gone, we have to go home. And we went and my wife got sick, and the kids, you know, I wouldn't say they had a good time, because they saw papa and papa was not in a good mood, and...

CONAN: Yeah.

PAUL: You know, it's difficult when you don't have enough income to give your family what they want. You know, you have to give them what they need, and sometimes you can't go beyond that.

CONAN: Sometimes you're lucky to even do that, but...

PAUL: Yeah.

CONAN: Amy, money seems to be at the root of a lot of problems in a lot of families, and of course, in these hard times, it's - those problems are just getting worse for a lot of people.

Ms. DICKINSON: Absolutely. And first of all, I think it's really remarkable that Paul called in and shared his perspective, because I'm sure he's absolutely correct that it's a feeling of shame. And men especially, I think, don't know how to express that in a way that certainly kids can understand. And it's ironic, because a lot of us, we look back on our childhoods, and it's those frightening moments where something very benign sort of turns on a dime, and somebody explodes in anger, and that's what you remember from your trip to the carnival.

You know, it's -that's the shame of it. And I just think that parents have to very, very honest with their kids, very honest, and just, you know, if you face this as a unit, as a tribe, as a group, even drawing kids in a little bit and not frightening them, but just letting them know that you're counting on them to help, I think that helps, because everybody's pulling together.

CONAN: Paul, thanks for the call.

PAUL: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

PAUL: Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking with "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's see if we can go to Carrie. Carrie's calling us from Norman, Oklahoma.

CARRIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Carrie. Go ahead, please.

CARRIE: Yeah, I have a 6-year-old daughter. My husband and I - I was a stay-at-home mom for six years, you know, and now, of course, I've had to get a job, and my husband and I are both working, working overtime. She's having to be with a lot of babysitters, which is very frustrating for her, and it's difficult to explain to her, you know, why exactly that is.

CONAN: And why it's changed so much, yeah.

CARRIE: Yeah, exactly. Things have changed a lot, and of course, because we're stressed out, we're both a lot shorter with her than we used to be. We're usually pretty laidback people, and so that's, of course, you know, difficult for her. And you know, everything from - I mean, we are all getting less sleep because we're working late. She won't settle down until her dad can be home to read her her bedtime stories, and so she's getting less sleep.

Her teacher has said that she's forgetful at school and doesn't concentrate as well. I mean, it trickles down to the littlest things, and she's just - it does. It just breaks your heart to see the way these things that are so beyond your control, you can imagine that for her it seems to be way beyond her control. So, it's been very frustrating.

Ms. DICKINSON: Wow. That is - and boy, there's nothing quite like the dinner hour, when you've raced to the babysitter's to pick up your daughter and your race home, and you look in the fridge and there's nothing quite in there. And everybody's hungry and tired, and I know it's so hard with two working parents, and obviously, a 6-year-old is going to take this kind of transition pretty hard. So, I mean, the only thing I would urge, and I'm sure you - you're conscious of this is, to try and stabilize her situation as much as you can. For instance, with - if you can find just one steady babysitter, I think that would help a ton. And obviously, as you said, everybody needs to get plenty of sleep, and also less media at night. I think would help.

CARRIE: OK. That's a good idea.

CONAN: Good luck, Carrie.

CARRIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate the call. Let's see if we can talk with Mark, and Mark's with us - calling - Mark calling from St. Louis in Missouri.

MARK (Caller): How're you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

MARK: Good. I just thought it was funny. You had a mention of a staycation luau in the backyard, and that's exactly what we're doing. I lost my job about three months ago, and I'm still - I'm pretty handy, so I'm able to do some carpentry and stuff on the side to get a little income coming in. But we had a vacation planned that we canceled, and I've got some relatives who are in town, so we decided to just invite a bunch of friends over and have luau in the backyard. And everybody's bringing some stuff to keep the cost down on us, you know, and I think it's going to be a fun time.

CONAN: How did you get the apple in the pig's mouth?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARK: There won't be a pig, but just, you know, a bunch of barbeque and that kind of thing, and my wife just happened to be at a yard sale and picked up a big Tupperware thing full of leis. So, the whole luau thing kind of evolved.

CONAN: You can probably download some hula lessons, too, on your computer.

MARK: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well...

MARK: Well, you know, it is a little stressful not being able to count on a particular paycheck every week, but you know, and the healthcare thing's an issue. But the fact that I do - am able to have some income coming in definitely, you know, takes the edge off.

CONAN: And spreading out the expenses, Amy, well, I think that's a piece of advice a lot of us can follow?

Ms. DICKINSON: And I just love Mark's idea, and it doesn't sound like you're going crazy and, you know, you're not going overboard with this backyard luau idea. But you're involving other people, and I love the spirit of it. I think that sounds great. You know, one thing parents can do - families can do together on a nice night, you can run an extension cord out your window, bring your television, DVD player outside and set up and have a movie night on the lawn.

MARK: Right.

Ms. DICKINSON: You know, you can have a little drive-in movie. Make popcorn. You know, there are all sorts of things families can do that are just a little bit out of the ordinary, and kids will never forget this kind of thing. So, your luau sounds fantastic.

MARK: Yeah. I think we're all looking forward to it.

CONAN: We're expecting an invitation, Mark.

(Soundbite of laughter)


CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARK: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: And Amy, thank you very much, as always, for being with us.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated column, "Ask Amy," for the Chicago Tribune and a bunch of other newspapers. She joined us today from member station WBEZ in Chicago, Illinois. Tomorrow, it's Science Friday. Ira Flatow will be here. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a great weekend. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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