Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. For her own good: My husband recently learned that his mom was the victim of an online scammer. She gave him around $50,000, mostly by taking cash advances on credit cards that she now has to pay back. My husband had to really pry to get her to open up about it and has spent countless hours trying to put her finances back together. He’s worried she’s going to fall victim again and has an idea that he should email her, pretending to be the guy who scammed her, just to see what she’ll do. Will she tell my husband about it? Ignore the email? Be a victim again? I think it’s poor form to catfish your own mom, though I understand the impulse. What’s your verdict? Is it okay to catfish mom to make sure she’s not a victim again?
A: I—what? No! This feels self-evident, but just to be clear: No, it’s not a good idea to catfish your mother-in-law! It’s not just “poor form,” either. It’s counterproductive, a waste of time and energy, more than a little cruel, and would demonstrate seriously bad judgment—not to mention undermine your mother-in-law’s trust in both of you.
Q. New daddy: My fiancé bailed on me when I got pregnant because he didn’t “want to be tied down.” Our son is now 3 and his father treats us like a toy. When he has wanted to play daddy, he has shown up and showered us with gifts, but then he gets tired and leaves after a few months. I took him back the first two times because I was desperate. My son and I were living with his mother as I had no child care and couldn’t afford to save money otherwise. My son’s grandmother is a wonderful woman who adores her grandson. I wouldn’t be where I am now without her, but she has giant blind spot for my ex and always believes his excuses.
I have now been with “James” for nine months. He and his two daughters have moved in with me. He is thoughtful, stable, and kind. We have plans to get married later this year. My son has started calling James “Daddy.” This distresses his grandmother. She tells him that his real daddy will be hurt if he hears that. We haven’t heard from my ex since he quit his last job because they were garnishing his wages for child support.
My son has no memories of my ex and James acts like his father in every way that counts, but I do not want to hurt this woman. How do I have this conversation with her?
A: This is tricky, especially because your son’s grandmother has been otherwise so kind and helpful to you. It may help to say something like, “I know how much you love your son and want him to be part of his son’s life. But when you say things like, ‘Don’t call James daddy because it will hurt your real father,’ that puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on a 3-year-old to manage someone else’s feelings. James is the man who is helping to raise him, and it’s normal for him to want to call him that. I know this isn’t easy for you, but please don’t ask my son to stop calling James his father. It would be better for you to find another adult to speak to about this. Can you do that?”
Q. Fake engagement ring: I have been engaged to my fiancé for almost two years now. When he proposed, I knew it was a fake ring, because his intention was always to use a diamond that his mother gave him, and design me a ring with one of his jeweler friends. In the beginning he spent lots of time focusing on how it would be designed. We visited his parents in a foreign country, where he planned to get the diamond. It has been a year since that visit, and I still have a fake ring. It’s not even real silver. He has had to reorder it several times, because it becomes tarnished and leaves my hand green. I have spray-painted it with a clear coat to try to ward off the tarnish. It actually looks quite real, and no one questions it. But I am growing tired of wearing a ring that turns my hand green. Every time I broach the subject he says he is working on it. I am not fancy and I do not want anything special—a ring that costs less than $3,000 from Kay or Costco would be fine. He has the money; he bought me a Rolex for Christmas. I don’t understand why he would not put that money into a real ring. He seems overly obsessed with the perfect ring. Meanwhile, I just want a ring that does not discolor my finger.
I feel bad for asking him for one, and I had hoped he would eventually surprise me, but this seems to be going nowhere. Am I being superficial?
A: Get rid of the thing! You don’t like it, you won’t be getting rid of anything valuable, and it’s irritating your skin. This isn’t something you need his permission to do, and I don’t think “broaching the subject” and waiting for him to take action is the best way forward—be clear about what you want and what you’re not willing to do. “I’m not going to wear this one anymore for [all the excellent reasons you listed]; let’s pick one out together this weekend. If it’s still important to you to design one with your mother’s ring, that’s fine, but in the meantime I’m not going to wear a place holder.”
Q. Writing rage: I enjoy writing so much that it is a key part of who I am. Though I would like to be published, I know that the chances of that are infinitesimally small. Still, I love it and it is also crucial in alleviating some of my mental issues. It is impossible to overstate how important this is to me.
My problem is that none of my friends or family, despite being mostly readers and no matter how much I beg, will read anything I write, even enough to tell me they don’t like it. All I get is lame excuse after lame excuse. Some of them even come to me for writing advice for their work and yet still refuse to read mine. It’s gotten to the point where it’s hard to even look at my social media friends list without lathering myself into a frothing, seething rage. I just want the people in my life share in this important aspect of myself. Love it? Tell me why! Hate it? Tell me why so I can do better! Alas, no, and I’ve half a mind to put out a social media post blasting everyone, delete all my accounts, and start over from scratch. Please help. I don’t know how to deal with this anymore. I want to share my passion, but nobody will have it.
A: It’s perfectly fine to decline to give your friends writing advice, especially if they’re not interested in returning the favor. And I do think it’s reasonable to be irritated with someone who asks for writing advice but doesn’t reciprocate! But overall your best option is to stop asking your friends and family to act as informal, unpaid editors of your work. You’re asking them a favor, and everyone has the right to decline to perform a favor.
It would be wildly inappropriate and unjustified to put your friends on blast for refusing to read and review your work. You are confusing friendship with peer review and professional mentorship, and it’s very clearly not working out for you. Your expectations are unreasonable, and you need to let this go. This sounds harsh! I’m so glad you enjoy writing, and of course it’s reasonable to expect your friends and family to be generally supportive of your hobbies or passion projects—to occasionally ask questions about how your writing is going, or to express excitement when you finish a project. But that doesn’t mean you should expect them to participate in them with you. Join a writing group, take a class, and find other writers you don’t have pre-existing social relationships with who are also looking for feedback.
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Q. Marriage built on lies? White lies?: My boyfriend and I have been together for three years and are compatible, happy, and deeply in love. Our relationship is not the problem here; rather, my snooping is. Long story short, he asked me to check something in his email and I saw an email from my friend, which I proceeded to open and read. She sent him information about an engagement ring and then my snooping (I know) led me to find a small box—which I did not open.
I am so excited! I love this man! Do I have to tell him I found this out? If I don’t, is it starting our marriage on a lie? If I can tell him, when? I feel like this would be deeply upsetting to a man who clearly has worked hard to surprise his fiancée-to-be. Is it OK to never tell?
A: I think the snooping for the box after having seen the email is completely understandable, or at the very least a venial sin. I think looking at an email that wasn’t intended for you, even if you had permission to scan your boyfriend’s inbox, was a bad idea and something you shouldn’t repeat. That said, this is definitely a best-case scenario when it comes to snooping! My mild inclination is that you should talk to him about it, especially since you two have been together for years and have a wonderful relationship—but if you think it would rob him of some of the joy of getting to “surprise” you, then you certainly have my permission to act floored when he pops the question. Just don’t read his emails again.
Q. Re: New daddy: Grandma may actually be concerned about the pace of the current relationship. They’ve been dating only nine months, but he’s already moved in with his two daughters. Maybe she’s afraid her grandchild might get too attached to this man too soon, and then have another “daddy” disappear.
A: That’s certainly possible, and worth bearing in mind! It’s true that James has not been on the scene for years. I think the key, however, is that Grandma told her grandson that he’d be “hurting his father’s feelings” by calling James “Daddy.” That’s not about concern for a steady fatherly presence in her grandson’s life, that’s about her anxiety over the fact that her son has largely abdicated his role in her grandson’s life, and it’s not right for her to place any of that anxiety on a 3-year-old.
Q. Good friend and advice giver but terrible at keeping secrets: I am a compassionate person who seems to have good insights into things. Here’s my problem: I don’t like keeping secrets and I am not good at it. It’s not that I want to “gossip”—although sometimes that may be true! I’m only human!—it’s more that I forget who knows what and people tend to talk to me about lots of things. This seems to be ingrained into my personhood. I can’t seem to stop their disclosures, and I am interested and enjoy trying to help. How can I stop people from sharing things that are supposed to be secrets? That part I really do hate! It’s too much pressure and I find myself blowing it more now that I have passed the age of 50—I really do forget what’s supposed to be secret! What can I do?
A “I’m not very good at keeping secrets. If you’d prefer to keep [obviously private thing you seem on the verge of telling me] confidential, then I don’t think you should tell me.”
Q. Still in school: I’m currently a graduate student scheduled to graduate in May. My core group of girlfriends and I all graduated from undergrad a few years ago. While I went on to grad school, they all got “real” jobs that pay very well. Every year they plan a trip to somewhere fun and very much out of my budget. I didn’t go on the monthlong postgraduation trip to Asia because I had to work to save up for grad school. I didn’t fly to Las Vegas last year because I couldn’t take the time off from school. This year they are planning a trip to Brazil. I am happy that they have jobs that afford them these opportunities, but I’m constantly feeling left out, especially because they all live in the same region of the country and see each other often while I’m still in school alone.
How do I stop feeling sorry for myself? I keep in touch with them one-on-one but can’t afford to go on these expensive vacations. Even after I graduate, I’ll have to focus on paying back student loans before I can think about splurging on an extravagant trip.
A: Say something! Not “Please stop going on expensive trips together because I can’t afford them” necessarily, but tell your friends you miss seeing them and that you’d love to plan something that’s in your budget as well as theirs. You should also cultivate friendships with people who live near you, not as a replacement for these friends, but so you have more than one social network you can turn to for entertainment, support, and company.
Q. Re: Fake engagement ring: You’ve been engaged for two years. This could be off base—but is he eager to marry you? This seems like it could be part and parcel of some cold feet.
A: That’s certainly a possibility I hadn’t considered. Two years is fairly long for an engagement (I’m given to understand), so if part of the letter writer’s anxiety about the delay on getting the ring designed is that her boyfriend may be purposely drawing things out, then that’s worth tackling directly. It’s hard to say something like, “Hey, is part of the reason you’ve been dragging your feet on designing an engagement ring that you’re concerned or anxious about the prospect of getting married?” But that’s a pretty important and necessary conversation to have with someone you’re planning on spending your life with!
Q. Missing a friend: My first husband passed away several years ago after a battle with cancer. Through it all, I had the wonderful support of a longtime friend. It was three years after my husband’s death before I even considered dating. However, a few years ago, I met a wonderful man. After a year of dating, we married, and I am very happy. Unfortunately, this same friend has been very cool toward me since. Everyone has accepted my new husband, including my first husband’s parents, who are happy I found someone. (I am in my 50s.)
This has really blindsided me, because he seemed happy when I was dating, and even commented on how I found a kind, funny guy. We’ve been friends for more than 35 years, and this really hurts. We’ve talked about this, and he denies any negative feelings, but our conversations are stilted. This year, he didn’t even send a Christmas card! How do I get my friend back?
A: If you’ve asked your friend about the reasons for his remarriage-induced coolness and he’s refused to give you a straight answer, or even admit to the obvious, then I don’t think you have many options. I wonder if your friend had developed romantic feelings for you himself? That may not be an especially productive line of thinking, I suppose, but it seems like a possibility.
All you can do in this instance is be honest, name the obvious dynamic that your friend remains unwilling to acknowledge, and be clear about what you’d like: “I’ve heard a lot less from you since I got remarried, and I miss you. I don’t know exactly why my marriage has bothered you, and if you don’t want to tell me, you don’t have to. But I am grieved at this new distance between us, and I’d like to talk about it honestly sometime, if you’re ever willing to do so, because I don’t want to lose your friendship over something that makes me so happy. If you ever want to talk about it, I’m available to listen.” There’s not much you can do beyond that; it may be the case that you have already lost the friendship.
Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for this week, friends! Remember that playtime is always more fun when it doesn’t come with a side serving of compulsory heterosexuality.
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