Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Ahoy-hoy, all! Let’s chat.
Q. Caught a supervisor and a co-worker in a compromising position: I recently caught a married supervisor receiving oral sex from a co-worker. My department regularly holds parties when we hit benchmarks ahead of time, and during that time the floor where we work is pretty empty. I ran down to grab something from my desk, saw this happening, froze for a few seconds, then turned and fled.
I have never seen or experienced anything like this in my life, and in hindsight I should have gone right to HR. Our office is close, so I know and am friendly with both of my co-workers. But I have no idea what to say, and since it has been a few days, I’m also nervous I won’t be believed. What should I do? (I should add that my friends and I suspected that these two were having an affair, but we didn’t want to believe it because the supervisor is someone we trust and respect. The co-worker is also two decades younger than the supervisor.)
A: If the co-worker in question is a direct report of the supervisor’s, then there’s a potential abuse of power that’s deeply concerning. On the other hand, reporting these two to HR could very likely result in harsher social and professional consequences for the younger and unmarried co-worker. You say you’d already suspected the affair, but not whether it’s affected their behavior toward each other at work, nor whether you believe the supervisor was behaving in a predatory fashion. I think that’s the most important thing to consider before speaking either to HR or the supervisor in question (or both). I’m inclined to think, given the age and paygrade gap and the fact that they were having sex in the office during a party when one might reasonably expect other people to still be in the building, that you should at least seriously consider it.
Q. Beach: Since my husband died, I have semi-retired and moved to a one-bedroom cottage on the seashore. I have a sofa bed and welcome people to use it. My college-age nieces begged me to let them bring friends down. I had six girls camping out in my living room. I thought the weekend went smashing (I bought groceries and made waffles for them), but when I got up early to walk the dog and walked into the kitchen, I overheard my nieces cutting me down to their friends. I should be “embarrassed” about my home since my husband left me a lot of money but I “obviously didn’t spend it.” They made fun of my speech, my friendliness, and my nieces said they were “ashamed” to be related to me.
It was devastating. While I was never as close to them as teens as I was when they were little, I never thought they hated me. I walked into the living room and told everyone to start packing—their stay in my home was over. My nieces panicked and apologized, but I told them to save their breath as I had heard every word. One of the girls said their flight wasn’t until tomorrow and told me to get a taxi and a hotel room. I told them they had two hours or I would call the sheriff to remove them from my property.
I called my sister, the girls’ mother, and told them her children were coming home early because of their behavior. My sister has since defended her daughters and insists I “overreacted” and am too “sensitive.” They are only “children,” and I had “threatened to call the police on [my] own family!” It is like having my heart shredded in a meat grinder. I never saw this coming. Worse, my sister doesn’t even deny what her girls said, just excuses it. My brothers are furious on my behalf, but our parents are frail. My nieces are the only grandchildren, and my parents want this all to be over. I don’t know what to do. Please guide me.
A: I agree that there was no reason for you to call the police over this, but you didn’t call them, and you had every right to tell the girls to leave your home. What they said to their friends while enjoying your hospitality was unconscionably cruel and totally unjustifiable, and you did the right thing in telling them to make their own travel arrangements and for refusing to bend when they tried to guilt you into hosting them until the next day. You do not have to forgive and forget just because your parents are elderly. Your nieces are young adults capable of making their own choices, not children, and you have every right to keep your distance as a result of what you overheard. Hopefully they will learn and grow as a result of this, but it’s not your responsibility to welcome them back into your life—they can learn and grow on their own time.
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Q. Finding my own voice: How do you find your own voice after working with exacting bosses for your entire career? I’ve been working in marketing/communications for six years now but always under extremely micromanaging and, frankly, abusive bosses at tiny companies. My first boss loved my writing and art direction, but took credit for everything I did, to the point that I don’t even know if I actually had successes at that company or if they were all his. My current boss seems to hate everything I do. He is hypercritical of my writing to the point that I feel terrified to do my job. He demands that I be creative, but then tears apart everything I do without providing any constructive feedback. The only thing I’ve managed to get out of him is that he wants me to “be cooler,” but he refuses to define what that means to him, and it feels impossible to act on that feedback. I feel like I’m being set up to fail. This has eroded my confidence in my own work in such a way that I now struggle to write or create anything. Am I actually capable of having a voice or being creative? How do I find that inside myself when I’m stuck under someone else’s thumb?
A: I think you are being set up to fail, and I’m not sure how much internal work is going to help with such an external problem. That’s not to say you can’t do anything to rebuild your own confidence, but I think the only long-term solution is to either convince your boss to give you actual useable feedback, or to find one who can. “I’m having trouble making progress with revising my work based on the criticism you gave me, and I want to find a better way to communicate expectations. I know you disliked [whatever features he hated] about the last project, but the only feedback you offered was to ‘be cooler,’ which isn’t specific enough for me to know what to do differently. It would help me to know when you think I’ve done something well so that I know I’ve met your expectations. And when you want me to change something, it would help if you are as specific and constructive as possible, so I’m not left guessing. Does that sound possible to you?”
In the meanwhile, I think you should start sending out your resume to a few larger companies. Leaving these “tiny, abusive” companies might not fix all your problems, but at least you’ll have more colleagues you can turn to for advice and support, so you’re no longer the sole focus of hypercritical bosses. You are absolutely capable of having a voice of your own, but it’s very difficult to cultivate one when your boss is constantly in your ear shouting you down.
Q. Outside the frame: My fiancé comes from a huge family where all nine siblings live within an hour’s drive of their parents. They spend an enormous amount of time together, including every holiday (some of which they’ve made up), birthday, and milestone. They also have firm traditions regarding food (much of which I cannot eat), games, costumes, etc. I participate, but it’s often overwhelming for myself and the other “married-ins.” Over the years, those not blood-related have learned that it is not appropriate to make suggestions or contribute our own food or traditions; we simply have to learn the family ways. But the thing that hurts the most is pictures. Each gathering requires tons of photos, some of which are specifically “family only.” At the last family party, I half-jokingly suggested that the “married-ins” take our own picture, an idea loved by the “married-ins” but greeted with great consternation by the blood siblings. My future mother-in-law was so hurt she left the room.
My fiancé thinks I should apologize to his mom, but I don’t think I did anything wrong. In fact, some of the other “married-ins” would like to use this as an opportunity to engage in a family discussion about feeling excluded. What do you think? Should I apologize? Is this an opportunity, or will it just open a bag of worms?
A: Oh, wow, this family sounds exhausting. You jokingly suggested taking a photograph with some of your in-laws, not splitting off en masse from the family and staging a coup. I don’t think you ought to apologize—that’s an unrealistic request. And this seems like an excellent opportunity to have a more in-depth conversation with your fiancé about what he thinks are reasonable expectations for you as his future spouse, how the two of you can deal with each other’s families as a couple rather than members of two opposing teams, and particularly how to deal with his mother’s demands.
Q. I’m divorcing my husband and don’t want to keep seeing his love child: Six years ago my husband “Chuck” cheated on me and got “Janice” pregnant. I decided not to ignore him and have since then tried to help raise “Libby,” their daughter. For several years Janice worked hard to drive a wedge between Chuck and me. She threw away things I bought for Libby, told the parents at Libby’s preschool that Chuck left her for me when she was pregnant, and would “joke” about calling child protective services on me. She’s mellowed out, but I’ve never been able to form a relationship with Libby, and it’s been difficult for Chuck and me to work on our marriage.
I plan on divorcing Chuck, but I worry about disrupting Libby’s life. Libby loves me, and she’s a darling child. But I don’t plan on seeking any sort of visitation rights. I don’t want to hurt Libby. It’s not her fault at all that I don’t love her back. I’m ashamed of myself and don’t know how to proceed without figuring this out. How can I minimize Libby’s pain?
A: I’m not sure you can, based on your proposed course of action! Seven years ago you decided to try to help raise Libby, but a child is not an experiment. You can’t simply tap out seven years into a child’s life because you’re not feeling it, then expect that decision to come without consequences. I know Libby already has a mother—albeit a very challenging-sounding one—in Janice, but if you’ve been an involved stepparent for the first seven years of her life and she loves you, then the total disappearance you’re proposing is likely to be devastating and destabilizing. I think you should seek visitation rights, even if they’re non-custodial and not especially frequent. You have an obligation to this little girl that goes far beyond how you feel. She’s a “darling child,” so I don’t think the occasional visit is going to tax you unduly. You don’t have to be a full-time parent to her, but just because you didn’t give birth to her doesn’t mean you can change the decision you made seven years ago to stand as a parent to her.
Q. Re: Finding my own voice: I work in the same field and have encountered the same issue, so you have my sympathy! With one boss I found that nothing, ultimately, would please them. I had to leave to find creative freedom of expression. When my current boss asks me to liven things up, I can get paralyzed with creative block at times, but I try to take it as permission to loosen up and have more fun with my writing. In practical terms: Cross out any formal or standard marketing language. Get down to the basic message you are trying to convey and think about a more lighthearted way to approach that message. Keep in mind, always, the people you are trying to reach. When in doubt, step away from your desk and come back to the task at hand.
A: It can only help the letter writer to acknowledge that, with this boss in particular, there may be no quality of work that will ever please him, that his irritation is not necessarily a sign that the letter writer has done something wrong. I’m glad to hear that you’ve found an employer who doesn’t ask for impossibilities and think taking a minute to step away and clear one’s head is almost always a good first step.
Q. My boyfriend or my grandchild: My boyfriend and I live together, and my 19-year-old daughter lives with her father and has a 2-month-old baby. She has found a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. job, but would need me to keep her baby at times. My boyfriend fears she is going to need my help more often than not, and that this will interfere with our relationship. He says he’s not running a day care center.
I feel torn. My daughter needs my help, but my boyfriend feels I’m not putting him first. He said he didn’t sign up for this, that my daughter was irresponsible and got pregnant, and that she can figure out her own babysitting arrangement. It’s almost as if he’s giving me an ultimatum. How in the world do I handle this? It is extremely stressful!
A: The question before you is not “How do I make sure my daughter and boyfriend are both happy with me?” It is “How much time and energy am I able to spend babysitting my grandchild, and how do I communicate that to my boyfriend?” You don’t say that you feel personally reluctant at the thought of helping your daughter out, or that you don’t want to help look after your grandchild, simply that you’re anxious at the prospect of your boyfriend’s resentment. I can’t say that I think much of his response; it sounds like he’d like to indefinitely punish her for getting pregnant at 19 by withholding time and affection. But this isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. You don’t have to promise to be available to look after your grandchild 3–11 p.m., five days a week. But you should commit to whatever time feels manageable and enjoyable to you, and you should make it clear to your boyfriend that while he’s important to you, so is the rest of your family, and that he’s not running a day care center because he’s not the one being asked to look after a baby. If he decides to make good on his implicit ultimatum, then I think you’re better off without him.
Q. Re: Outside the frame: Maybe I’m experiencing a sense of false déjà vu, but didn’t you have a letter at one point that was almost this letter, point for point, even down to the detail about the “made-up,” family-specific holidays?
A: That does sound familiar! Maybe each of the “married-ins” is writing in separately, thinking they’re alone, and will be heartened by seeing their in-laws-in-arms’ letters published here.
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