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Bankrolling the Birthdays

My daughters live half of the time with my ex. She and I get along pretty well. She plans the birthday parties for both girls, and I’m expected to share the cost with her. That sounds like a fair deal to me, but she never asks me before she does the shopping. Lately, the birthday gifts for our 9-year-old and 12-year-old have gotten to be pretty pricey. I’ve been out of a job for the past three months, and it’s really hard for me to keep up with her budget. I’m not sure why we need to be paying so much for the gifts. I committed to pitch in, so help me know what to say. — Anonymous, The Nations

Your finances may be in tough shape just now, but they’re not likely to look much better if you leave them in the hands of your ex. Being honest is your best option. Go ahead and explain your situation to her, but don’t ask for her pity or suggest that she set up an installment plan so that you can pay off your birthday debts. Your daughters are probably old enough now to start suggesting what they want as birthday gifts. Their mother may have the income, as well as the urge, to give them whatever they ask for. You might tell her how much you’re willing, or able, to pitch in and let her pick up the balance. But no, that’s not good advice. You don’t live together, so revert to the time-tested practice of giving separate gifts. Just ask the girls for their wish lists. Tell their mother what you’ve chosen; she can deal with the rest of the list as she pleases. You have no reason to be ashamed. Show up at the parties, or throw them once in a while at your place. You can show her how to have a big time with cost control.

Questionable Behavior

My mother has always been outspoken. Her friends have learned to accept that and have decided it’s just part of being her friend. But lately, when she meets anyone, even someone she’s never met before, if they ask, “How are you?” her response is, “Do you really want to know?” I think people find it insulting, so I’ve asked her why she’s doing this. Her explanation is that she’s just tired of people asking questions to which they don’t expect an answer. How do I get her to stop, or is she, maybe, right? — Anonymous, Brentwood

Of course your mother is right. People she’s just met, or scarcely knows, have little interest in her last visit to her doctor or her problems with her plumber. Your mother surely understands that when people ask in passing how she’s doing, they’re not asking for an autobiography. The common practice, I fear, is to say “fine” or, at the worst, “OK,” unless the people asking the question are true friends. If that’s the case, she can hold forth, but she’ll be setting herself up to listen to the details of their lives. Even at her age, your mother can learn to say, “I’m doing well, thank you.”