Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, campers. The ropes course is closed. Everyone please report to the lakeside for mandatory problem solving.
Q. Another child: When my twins were born, it was very traumatic. I was on bed rest for five months and both our boys were in the hospital for weeks afterward. Five years later, they are happy and healthy. I want another baby, but my husband reacted badly to the idea. We fought about it for months, and counseling didn’t help much. My husband is stubborn and says we have a good life now and that he doesn’t want it to change. He keeps bringing up the agreement we made when we were engaged—two kids only—as if a pair of college students a decade ago knew everything about their future lives! During therapy sessions, he confessed he got a vasectomy a few months ago without telling me. He didn’t want an “accident” to happen. I was so stunned. If he had slapped me, it couldn’t have hurt more.
I don’t know how to go forward. I stopped going to the counseling sessions because they were full of useless lies. My husband and I talk about the boys, and then I go to the guest room as soon as they go to bed. My husband apologized to me but wouldn’t reverse the vasectomy. He wants to go back to counseling. I am so hurt I don’t know what to do. Please advise.
A: I’m so sorry for the pain you’re experiencing right now. I also want to encourage you to reconsider your response to your husband. He’s been very clear from the start that he only wanted two children, and your repeated attempts to change his mind have not worked. It’s hard when two people have different desires when it comes to having children, but you can’t force him to want to become a parent again just because you do. Your husband has a right to decide for himself whether he wants to have more children, even if you disagree strongly, and I think it’s worth asking whether you have actually given him space and freedom to tell you honestly what he wants, or if he felt so much pressure from you that he saw a vasectomy as his only option.
It’s fair for you to grieve the difference in opinion here, and to mourn the lost possibilities of having more children together, but don’t let this take away from the fact that you have a husband who wants to make things work with you and two happy, healthy children. I think it’s worth going back to counseling together.
Q. Bipolar bride: I’m getting married the last weekend of April. I’m marrying the right guy, so the most important thing is sorted! I’m 34, bipolar, and stable. However, I’m starting to feel hypomanic and intensely irritated. As a potential snapping turtle, I’m worried, because my fiancé’s parents are visiting from out of state. The first time we went to visit them after getting engaged, his mother insulted my gorgeous, nontraditional ring. When I pay for dinner, they thank my fiancé. They’re racist. My plan was to politely call them out and set limits. My fiancé stands up for me with them, but they’re still his parents. With my bipolar brain acting up, I’m scared I’ll go too far. What say you?
A: I think you have a lot of good strategies already in place! If your in-laws aren’t already familiar with your diagnosis, you might ask your fiancé to brief them on what that sometimes looks like so they’re not surprised or taken unawares. If you find yourself on the verge of losing your composure, it may be best for you to step outside and have your fiancé make your excuses. You two can even agree on a signal beforehand. (And I don’t think you should worry too much about “What if I get really angry if my future in-laws say something racist?” If you do, that’s a pretty understandable reaction.)
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Q. My boss is my former teacher, and a lying hypocrite!: A year ago, I made the mistake of accepting a job at the same workplace as my former teacher. I always knew this woman was off her rocker. She’s a brilliant teacher, but a terrible and abusive person.
This woman is now my boss. I am both the youngest employee and her former student, so she breathes down my neck in a way that feels wildly inappropriate. She harasses me outside of work via text, email, and Facebook. She chastises me about whether I have gotten my driver’s license yet. She tells me to “take initiative,” but each time I try to take care of responsibilities on my own, she stops me and irately orders me to do something different. When I try to ask her what she would like for me to do, she gets angry at me for “taking up her time.” Just a week ago, she called a big staff meeting in which she emphasized that she “totally understands” that sometimes we may need to call in sick at the last minute because of illness or family emergencies, yet she got angry at me when I did try to call in sick. She sent out an embarrassing mass text message to all my co-workers, calling me lazy and undedicated, then threatened to refuse to write me references for future jobs if I’m “going to act like this.”
I have been offered a position elsewhere, but the employer isn’t 100 percent sure that he needs me just yet, and even if he does, the job won’t start for another four or five months. My current boss found out that I was considering moving on, and now she constantly trash-talks my prospective employer, insisting that “no one will ever look out for you like I do,” and that I’ll be miserable without her.
Working for this woman is making me feel like absolute garbage. I want to just quit and cut off all ties with her and block her on social media. I possibly even want to tell her, straight up, how detrimental she has been to my mental health ever since I was a kid, and to let her know in no uncertain terms that I don’t want her to contact me ever again. I feel so emotionally traumatized by her. And yet I worry that if I quit, she is going to spread lies to everyone in our field about me. She has been known to do this before. What do I do? I feel like I’m going to die.
A: I don’t think you can trust that this woman isn’t going to bad-mouth you even if you stay in this job for another five years. She’s already demonstrated that she’s irrational and vindictive, and you shouldn’t base any of your employment decisions on the hope that she might be induced to treat you well or look out for your professional reputation if only you can find the right way to placate her. Quit your job. You don’t say that you’ll be financially ruined if you do, but you do say that you feel like you’re going to die and that she makes you feel terrible on a daily basis both on and off the clock. If she’s as out-of-control as you say, then I don’t think you’re the first person she’s tried to smear professionally, and I don’t think her bad opinion is going to be a career-ender for you—my guess is that lots of other employers won’t take her word as gospel.
As for telling her off once and for all, I don’t think that’s going to help anything. I can understand the temptation to finally unload everything you’ve been holding in, but it won’t help you achieve any of your goals (professional and personal separation, moving on with your life, minimizing future contact), and will only encourage her to respond in kind. Quit, block, and enjoy the silence.
Q. Help out: I live in a small apartment complex where I know most of my neighbors. I trust them, and we have an actual sense of community here. “Jane,” a single mother of two, moved into the unit next to mine six months ago. She is freshly divorced and struggling. We met after her car battery died and I gave her a jump. Jane works a lot of overtime since her ex basically vanished. She can’t afford day care, and usually can’t make it to pick up her kids. I work very close to her kids’ schools, so it’s not a big deal for me to linger a little at work and then go pick up her kids and take them back to the apartment complex. Her 12-year-old watches her little brother until Jane gets home. I have been doing this for about four months. Jane has also asked me a lot of other favors, but she hasn’t been returning them. Twice I have asked Jane to take me to the airport, only for her to flake out at the last minute. She also refused to loan me $20 so I could get gas when I experienced a problem with my bank card, even though I knew she had cash at the time.
Jane has good kids, but I am starting to feel like a free taxi service rather than a nice neighbor. Jane rarely asks about my life, and usually only calls me wanting a favor. I told my co-worker about this, and she told me Jane was taking advantage of me: “Everyone has a sob story, but that’s no excuse to be selfish.” Is my co-worker right? I feel responsible for Jane’s kids and I don’t want to hurt them, but I am getting really tired of Jane’s treatment. Any conversation we have had about this ends with a quick apology, an excuse, and no change.
A: Based on what you’ve told me about Jane’s financial situation, I’m inclined to think she hasn’t been able to help you, rather than that she hasn’t been willing. You say she’s been struggling financially, but don’t understand why she couldn’t lend you gas money—just because she had cash on hand doesn’t necessarily mean she can afford to spare $20. If she’s regularly unable to pick up her own kids from day care, I can imagine that giving a neighbor—even one who’s been very helpful to her—a ride to the airport isn’t easy either.
That doesn’t mean Jane is a put-upon angel—it is genuinely frustrating to interact with someone who never asks you how you’re doing and makes no attempt to establish some form of emotional reciprocity. If you’re able to occasionally pick up her kids with relatively little inconvenience, I think you should continue to do so, because they have a genuine need and can’t help how their mother behaves. Beyond that, if you don’t want to go out of your way to do Jane a lot of favors or have one-sided conversations, feel free to keep your interactions with her polite but limited.
Q. Re: Bipolar bride: The letter writer has identified her future in-laws as undermining and triggering. These do not sound like people who deserve her full trust. It seems more likely they’ll use the information she shares with them as a hammer to beat her up with and to invalidate her appropriate emotional responses (as well as any inappropriate ones). Can you imagine spending the next 20 years hearing, every time you make a rational request or express a feeling, “Well, that’s just your bipolar acting up again”?
A: I agree that the in-laws don’t seem like trustworthy people, but it doesn’t sound like the letter writer is interested in keeping her diagnosis confidential. It also sounds like—implicitly, at least—she’s worried about the possibility of having a manic episode in their presence and letting them find out in the moment, and wants to forestall that possibility. However, it’s worth acknowledging that they may very well attempt to misuse and leverage this information in order to dismiss her—in which case the letter writer and her husband-to-be should have a frank conversation about whether a relationship with them will be possible.
Q. Matchmaking mom: My daughter is 6. Yesterday, the mom of a little boy in her class called me and informed me that her son has a crush on my daughter. She said she wanted to make sure he hadn’t “behaved inappropriately” but also seemed to want to discuss how cute it was. We aren’t close, but I like her fine. I thought this call was odd—I remember a lot of fake-dating at my own elementary school, but never any parent involvement.
I’m wondering if I’m expected to do something in this situation. Should I tell my 6-year-old? Warn her about “inappropriate behavior”? Set up a playdate? I’m inclined to do nothing, but some advice would be appreciated.
A: I don’t think there’s anything for you to do here, either. (Parents of pining 6-year-olds, feel free to chime in here.) There’s no reason to set up a playdate unless your daughter wants one, and it doesn’t sound like she’s especially interested. Nor should you warn your daughter about the specter of possible “inappropriate behavior” when there’s no behavior of any kind to speak of just yet. (I assume you’ve already talked to her about age-appropriate ways of dealing with conflict and had the basic “your body, your rules” conversation.) Just because this woman thinks it’s “cute” to read additional meaning into the crush of her 6-year-old doesn’t mean you have to participate, either to join in or to offer correction. If she brings it up again, you can politely and neutrally forestall her; otherwise, let it go.
Q. Not ready to forgive: How do I tell someone that I’m not ready to forgive them without sounding stubborn or combative? How do I communicate that I appreciate the apology but am still hurt, resent what they’ve done, and can’t honestly forgive them?
This is currently happening with a friend of mine. She is trying to pressure me into forgiving her by repeatedly apologizing. I don’t want to ruin our friendship or make things super awkward, but I don’t want to trivialize how much a comment she made has hurt me. I’m disturbed by her insensitivity and am not ready to “forgive and forget.”
A: This is a great example of, When is an apology not really an apology? An apology is not a magical token one offers in exchange for instant forgiveness. The fact that your friend keeps repeating the apology, as if through repeated application she can extract her desired response from you, suggests that she doesn’t really understand what a meaningful apology and real change would look like in this situation.
“You’ve apologized for this a number of times now, and I’d like you to stop. I appreciate that you’re sorry for what you said, but I’m not getting anything out of these repeated apologies, and it’s starting to feel like what you’re actually trying to do is badger me into getting over this before I’m ready. What I need from you right now is some time and space. I’m still hurt, and it’s going to take me a little while before I’m ready to spend time together again. I need you to stop apologizing to me for this, and to let me take the lead on when we next see each other.”
Q. Re: Delayed thank-yous: You do not “have a year” to write thank you notes after getting married. The guest has a year to send the gift. But the thank-you notes should go out as close to immediately as possible after receiving and opening the gift.
A: I have been so thoroughly corrected on this one from all comers! There goes the one point of etiquette I felt deeply confident I knew. In the original letter writer’s case, I think it’s best simply to send them all out as quickly as possible without mentioning the traumatic circumstances of the last year. For everyone else, I’m sorry. You don’t have a year. If I made the rules, you would, but this world is an imperfect one, and you’re going to have to start addressing envelopes posthaste.
More Dear Prudence
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