Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
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Q. Flu vaccination: My 15-year-old son’s mom and I are divorced. She is the custodial parent. My son wants the flu shot. I work in health care and have seen the consequences that can befall unvaccinated patients—I want him to get the flu shot. She is an anti-vaxxer and dead set against it. Legally it appears I am powerless to do anything about this. Is there anything I can do?
A: Does your son’s school offer flu vaccinations? Many do; check with the school administration and find out if it’s possible for him to receive a vaccination there. If that’s not possible, and you do have visitation, then I think you should take him to get a vaccine when you’re together. It’s been an unusually bad flu year. The CDC recommends everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine, and not nearly enough people do. If you don’t have visitation with your son, talk to him privately. Make sure his mother’s anti-vaccination views aren’t the only thing he hears about health and safety, and encourage him to get the shot himself, at a pharmacy or a local clinic (or check here). There are still a few months left in flu season and the shot’s worth getting, this year and every other.
Q. Mourning guilt: After a couple of years of decline, my beloved, 21-year-old cat had an episode that left her immobile, and I reached the painful decision to put her to sleep. I shared a special bond with “Vivian”; she has been a comforting and spirited companion since I was 12. We shared a deep loyalty, and she loved my children like they were her own kittens. I know I will never again share a bond like this with anyone. I feel a deep emptiness without her.
My problem is that I can’t shake feelings of guilt for this loss having hit me so hard—you see, just over a month ago, one of my best friends lost one of her best friends, a young man, who died suddenly and tragically in an accident. I know that the death of an exceedingly old cat is not, in fact, a tragedy, and it feels foolish to have my friend try to comfort me (she is a cat lover too, and even came to Vivian’s “100th” birthday celebration), or to publicly declare my grief. I know these events are unrelated, yet I feel like I don’t have the right to feel so awful, so sad and isolated, when those close to me are going through so much worse. I don’t know how to cope with this.
A: I’m so sorry that you lost your cat after so many years together. Losing a pet can be devastating, and I don’t think you should be so hard on yourself. You know that the death of a pet is not on the same scale as the death of a person, but you’re also not trying to argue otherwise, nor have you failed to support your friend as she’s grieved the death in her life—just because she comforted you when your cat died doesn’t mean you haven’t been there for her in turn, or that you’re trying to put your cat’s death on the same scale as her friend’s death. This death matters to you. You do have a right to feel awful and sad and isolated. It makes sense that you want to be conscientious about how you speak about your feelings publicly, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be honest about your loss.
Q. Re: Flu vaccination: Hi, family court lawyer here. This is a perfectly valid reason to seek modification of your custody agreement for purposes of medical decisions.
A: Thank you! You don’t necessarily need to seek split or sole custody, but it’s absolutely worth revisiting the terms of your custody agreement over this.
Q. Dream on: I have been with “Ben” for five years, and we are both in our early 30s. I comfortably describe myself as an old fogy. I work a stable, boring job, like to garden, knit, and worry about my 401(k). My most spontaneous thought is to skip the vacation to France in favor of sleeping in, repainting the den, and making love in the morning. Ben is a creative type. I used to describe him as exciting and dynamic, but now I feel flaky and selfish fits more. He moved into my house three years ago after he lost his job. He freelances, but nothing consistent or stable. At the beginning, I honestly was OK with having a “house husband” and supporting his endeavors. But he doesn’t take care of the house. Inspiration will hit and nothing else matters. I will come home to dirty dishes, unpaid bills, and two dogs that haven’t been walked all day. Two weeks ago, Ben left my parents and me waiting for over an hour at dinner because he “had to focus and forgot the time.” We fight all the time, and Ben accused me of being “unsupportive.”
I am tired of all this, but I’m afraid to break up with Ben because he will be physically homeless and he has no savings worth speaking of. I love Ben, but I don’t like him anymore. I feel more like his maid or mother than his girlfriend, but I still don’t want to see him on the streets. Help!
A: Ben will not end up on the streets if you break up with him. Ben sounds like a person who is deeply committed to looking out for Ben—he’ll land on his feet. He’s an adult, and if he has to rely on family or friends or a shelter after you two break up, then he can find a way to access those resources. If he’s used your concern for his well-being in the past to guilt you into staying with him, then find a therapist who can help you set and enforce boundaries with him, and figure out why you’ve accepted the line that this grown man is somehow incapable of taking care of himself without you to parent him. He’s not incapable. He’s done a great job of making sure he’s been well-taken care of for the last five years—he’s going to do just as well without you. You should be focusing on how well you’ll be doing after you break up with him. I think you’re going to be surprised by what a relief it will be to refuse to consider his problems your own.
Q. Re: Flu vaccination: Please call your divorce lawyer before taking any of the steps Prudie has outlined. You don’t want to be violating any custody agreement—that can be used against you later on.
A: In order, then: lawyer first, then vaccine.
Q. The cursed child: My husband’s family has what they call “the Curse.” Going back several generations, the oldest son in the family has died young, before the age of 35. My husband’s older brother died in a car crash at 22, his uncle had a stroke at 31, and his grandfather was killed in a factory accident at 33. Three months ago, I gave birth to my first child, a beautiful little boy named after his late uncle. The problem is, my husband’s family can’t stop talking about “the Curse.” In the hospital after he was born, my mother-in-law even joked, “It’s a shame he probably won’t live to meet his own grandchildren.” I’ve tried laughing it off, but I can’t help being upset and angry when my husband’s family jokes about my new baby’s inevitable tragic death, although my husband insists they don’t mean it seriously. In addition to my own anxiety, I worry about them making these comments to my son when he gets older.
What is an appropriate response the next time someone says something? I love my husband’s family, but this has to stop.
A: Do not laugh it off, if you don’t think it’s funny. I can certainly understand that your husband’s family has a darkly humorous way of dealing with these abnormally early deaths, but it is entirely appropriate to say, “Please don’t joke about the untimely death of my newborn baby.” Talk with your husband in advance about your feelings and enlist his support. Make it clear that whether or not his family members “mean it seriously,” you don’t appreciate it, and you want them to stop. It’s not especially important how seriously they mean it! (And, let’s be frank, this is the sort of joke-that-isn’t-a-joke that’s an attempt to dispel anxiety with magical thinking). It bothers you, and they’ve already made the joke multiple times—they need to find a new one.
Q. Lied to: I don’t want kids. Ever. I have known since I was 5 years old and I was given baby dolls instead of games like my brother. I have been patted on the head, lectured, and talked over by every mouth-breather who assumed they knew my own mind better than me because I had a pair of working ovaries. I don’t want to play games or waste time. I have always been very upfront about being child-free and nonmaternal. I am in my late 20s now and have been with my boyfriend for three years. We live together, have a dog, and I love him. We have been talking about marriage, and he brought up the concept of kids. He wants one. I don’t. He thought I would “change my mind” because, apparently, he thought I was lying those thousands of times I told him that I don’t want kids.
I feel like I have swallowed broken glass. I love him, and he lied to me. I can’t have a kid. I can’t think of a more horrible thing to do than bring a baby in to this world out of obligation instead of love. I still love him. What do I do now?
A: Tell him that if he wants to stay with you, then he is committing to being in a child-free relationship, that he was wrong to assume you would change your mind, and that he should stop holding out hope that you’re going to abruptly turn an about-face. If he’s not willing to make that choice, then you two will break up. That’s sad and painful, but as you say, it’s not as sad and painful as bringing an unwanted child into the world.
Q. Everyone’s bi: My partner and I are the only women in a close circle of guy friends, and until recently were the only known queer people in the group. A while ago, one of the guys in the group, “Kirk,” came out as bisexual to me and my partner, but asked us to keep it quiet from the rest of our friends, as he’s worried they’ll have a problem with him as a queer man. We don’t think they will, but obviously respected his decision to come out in his own time. Kirk was especially nervous of one of the guys in the group with a slightly macho image, “Picard,” and specifically said he was worried about him finding out. However, since then, Picard privately came out to us as bi as well, and asked us not to tell the rest of the group—especially Kirk, who he feels has said homophobic things in the past. We had a hard time not laughing, and desperately wanted to just tell him on the spot that he seriously had nothing to worry about! We didn’t, as it goes against our principles to out someone against their wishes.
Would it be wrong in this case though? If it were me, it would be a weight off my mind to realize I’d been worrying about nothing, and I’d find it funny. But would they have a right to be angry with us for betraying their confidence to each other? It’s been three months of them dancing nervously around each other pretending to be straight and it’s getting silly now!
A: They would have a right to be angry with you for outing them when they’ve expressly asked you not to, yes. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think either of them is worried about “nothing.” Just because someone is bisexual doesn’t mean anything homophobic they said before coming out suddenly doesn’t count. The pain those comments engendered is still very real! Continue to offer your private support to both friends, and let them come out in their own time.
Q. Pet names—how to politely ask a new guy not to use them: I’ve been online dating for about a year now, and every once in a while I run into a guy who uses pet names to address me. Normally, at the outset, I get turned off by this and stop messaging the potential date. In the last week and a half, I’ve started talking to a guy I am highly interested in. He is a pilot and I am an attorney with a demanding schedule, so we have not gone out on a date yet. We have a lot in common and he seems quite genuine. But he addresses me as “gorgeous.” For example, in the mornings he texts me “Good morning, Gorgeous.”
I find these names to be demeaning. I do not like being called gorgeous, sweetie, or babe. I’m a 31-year-old woman, highly educated, skilled, and professional. I find these names offensive, though I understand they have different meanings to other women. I want to politely ask him to not call me any pet name, but I don’t want to put him off either.
How do I handle this in the highly impersonal world of texting, before we meet? And how should I handle this in the future for other men who, whether in the workplace or personal setting, address women by these names?
A: “I don’t like pet names; would you please just call me by my first name? Thanks.” If his response is anything other than “Oh, of course, thanks for letting me know,” then you know you should move on. You can say the same thing to any man who tries to address you by a nickname without your permission, whether you’re at work, on a date, or with friends.
Q. Shy guy: I recently started a new job, which means fielding the usual questions about where I’m from, what my family is like, et cetera. The problem is that, as a trans guy who had a somewhat difficult upbringing, I have very little desire to talk about my childhood (also, I could potentially be outed if someone knew my last name and my hometown). I do want to get to know my co-workers, and I don’t want to come off as cagey, or inadvertently imply that something worse happened to me growing up. I just need to be able to tactfully convey that I’d prefer not to discuss that part of my life—or at least work out how to smoothly redirect conversations when they stray into that territory. I’m not a totally closed book; I’m happy to swap college stories and talk about my life after that! But how can I fend off what should be innocuous inquiries from colleagues without making the wrong first impression?
A: Presumably your co-workers aren’t all in the habit of trading minute details about their upbringings with one another, and there are a number of vague-but-still-casual ways of redirecting questions at work. “I’m from [general region]” rather than “I’m from [hometown]” is a good start. If someone follows up with, “Oh, what part?” you can simply say, “Oh, close to [bigger city/slightly smaller region], but then I moved to [other town] for college. What about you?”
It’s also absolutely fine, polite, and professional to say, “Oh, I don’t want to discuss that, thanks,” when a co-worker asks a particularly specific question about your childhood (which, you know, hopefully none of them will!), if it’s said in a friendly-but-firm tone.
Q. May-December: I am 28 years old and dating someone 25 years older than I am. For the first few months, I tried convincing myself that it was just a fling, but our relationship has developed into something loving and wonderful. However, I am anxious about moving to the next step of having him meet my parents. I know it’s my life and that they will get over any initial doubts eventually, but how do I get past these jitters and take the plunge?
A: Your best way forward is to own it, I think. If you seem timid or half-hearted about sharing this information, it may only confirm other people’s suspicions that the age gap between you is too wide and that you’re unable to deal with the implications of your relationship. When you tell your friends and family that you’re seeing someone, be frank but nonanxious: “He’s quite a bit older than me, by about 25 years. I know that may come as a surprise to you, but I’m really happy with him, and I think once you get to know him you’ll understand why. Let’s find a time to get together for coffee next week—I’m really excited for you to get to meet him.”
Q. Name Change: I am fighting with my fiancé over changing my last name. We are both in our 50s and been married before. I got married right after high school and had my two girls. My ex was a sleazebag, but I kept his last name when we divorced for my girls. This was the name I went to college under (while working full time and raising my girls alone), the name I bought my house under, and the name they called when I graduated from medical school when I was 39. I have had this last name longer than my maiden one. It is more me than anything else. I refuse to lose that simply to bow to outdated social convention. I love my fiancé. He is a patient, kind man, which is why his insistence on this subject befuddles me so. As far as I can tell his reasoning behind it is that “this is what married people do” and his family will consider it “weird.” This has become a serious roadblock in planning our wedding. How do we get around this?
A: “Married people do a lot of things, and we’re not following the marriage guidebook line-by-line. There are plenty of ways in which you and I are both deviating from the norm, so I think there’s probably something else here that makes this such a big issue for you. I don’t mind if your family thinks it’s weird that I don’t change my name, and I don’t care what other people do to their names when they get married. I care about mine. Is there something else going on here? Why is this so important to you? Not to your family, and not to other people, but to you—I want to know you and what you’re thinking and feeling. I’m not going to change my mind, but I do want you to feel like you can be honest about this with me.”
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for joining me this week, everyone! And don’t try to elbow your way in to somebody else’s delivery room.
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