Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Very hairy name: My wife and I are a month away from having our first child, a boy. My wife is very close to her grandfather, who is currently suffering from end-stage terminal cancer. To honor his memory, she wants to name our son after him. Unfortunately, this name is also shared by a very well-known male porn star (with crossover appeal, who has appeared in nonpornographic films and TV shows). In other words, when a future employer plugs my son’s name into a search engine, he will be greeted with reams of videos from the 1980s featuring a very endowed, very hairy adult-film star. My wife is innocent as can be, so she is unaware that our son would share this name. Do I let her in on it? Just let it go and hope this guy’s popularity will have dwindled by the time he is grown so that it’s not a problem?
A: I’d be a little surprised if this guy were still a household name by the time your as-yet-unborn son is applying for work—he’s very much of a particular time and place—but if you think it’d be difficult for you to keep from giggling at your own son’s name, I think it’s worth talking to your wife about. Stress how relatively well-known this particular guy is and that it’s not a stretch to assume at least some people will primarily associate this actor with that name, and suggest your son’s middle name honor his grandfather while his first name is something else.
Q. Part-time dad: My fiancé’s sister, “Deb,” got pregnant by a man she barely knew. He didn’t stay around for the birth of his daughter, “Evie.” Her older brother, my fiancé, stepped up to the plate and took on a parental role. He moved back home, bought a car seat, and took up the majority of the late-night feedings. Most of his paycheck went to take care of his newborn niece. Deb promptly got involved with another dirtbag. When her mother and brother protested, she took her toddler and disappeared for six months—long enough for the money and romance to wear off. This pattern has been repeated at least twice since I came into the picture.
Evie is now almost 6. She is a bright, active child, and her grandmother can no longer keep up with her. Most of Evie’s day-to-day life is managed by my fiancé and me. She sleeps at Grandma’s, but everything is taken care of by us. Deb still has legal custody. She blows in like an unwanted storm and stirs everything up. Evie starts wetting the bed and having nightmares when her mother comes through. I love Evie. I can’t go through with getting married unless my fiancé agrees to seek permanent custody. We keep going around and around about this—he wants to think the best about his little sister. But Deb is an awful person and a worse mother. She treats Evie like a toy and her family as her own personal piggy bank. I can’t act like a mother only to lose my child. I love my fiancé with all my heart, and he is a truly good man, but he wastes his time on Deb when Evie should be his primary concern. He loves that little girl. I am willing to commit to legal action, but not if he isn’t. What do I do here?
A: I think if your fiancé is the family member likeliest to be awarded custody were his sister’s parental rights to be terminated, and if he’s not willing to seek to have her rights terminated, there’s a limit to what you can do on his behalf. Deb sounds like a lousy and unreliable mother, but if she hasn’t demonstrated sufficient abuse or neglect for the law to intervene, then she has a right to see her child and even resume custody. That’s a very difficult position for you to be in, of course, but short of strong-arming your fiancé into court, it’s the only position available to you. If this is an issue that you’re willing to delay or even call off your own wedding over—and I think you’re certainly right to be concerned—then you and your fiancé should continue to talk about your long-term goals, plans, and contingencies for raising Evie. See if he is at least willing to consult a lawyer about whether a custody case would even be possible, making sure that you’re both clear that Evie’s well-being is your greatest priority. I’m not positive that you’ll be able to get him to act as you want, but I do know that if you need to call off your wedding over this, it’s better to know sooner rather than later.
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Q. That’s a novel idea: Last night my grandmother called me to tell me about an encounter she had in an Uber. Apparently, her driver was a woman with a fascinating life story: She’s a professional surrogate who has five children of her own and has successfully carried seven surrogate pregnancies! My grandmother was very inspired by this and asked the woman if she could write, as she thought this would make a fantastic novel. The woman said not really, and my grandmother said, “My granddaughter is a very talented writer, and she could write a novel about you.” She got this woman’s contact information and told my grandfather about it, and it seems everyone is in agreement that a novel simply must be written and that it has the potential to be “a real bestseller.”
Now my grandmother is asking me when I’ll have time to co-author this novel. The answer is never: I’m about to start my senior year of college and I’m also in the process of moving house. I find the idea objectively interesting, but is it something I’ll be able to write a whole novel about? No! All the writing I’ve done over the course of my life has been somewhat lurid romance—she doesn’t know this—and I hate writing on other people’s schedules or based on someone else’s ideas. This is by far the silliest and strangest situation I’ve been in for a while. How do I navigate telling my 80-year-old Russian grandmother that I’m not interested and unable to write a whole novel about this stranger without hurting her feelings? Saying “That won’t be possible” won’t be possible because I’ll get bombarded by follow-up questions.
A: “That won’t be possible” is, of course, perfectly possible because you can answer those follow-up questions. You can even, if need be, say, “I’m not going to answer any more questions about this. If this woman decides to write a book, then she deserves a co-author who is as passionate about this project as she is, and that person isn’t me.” You have a perfectly legitimate reason for saying no: “I’m focused on school and moving house right now, and I’m not interested in co-authoring any novels, no matter how good they are. I’m glad you think I’m a good writer, but please don’t volunteer me for any more projects because now you know I’m not available to take them on.”
Q. Is it possible to be dehumanized during sex without feeling dehumanized afterward?: I am a gay man who enjoys safe casual sex. Recently I was talking to someone on a dating app who expressed an interest in dominating me. Up until that point I had never engaged in any BDSM. However, I am fairly adventurous, found this guy attractive, and was turned on by our conversation. We had a discussion about boundaries, and then I went to his house. Overall, I enjoyed the experience until afterward. He fully respected the boundaries we set, but I wished there had been some intimacy after we finished. Cuddling, conversation, something. When we were playing our roles, I was completely dehumanized and fine with that. But now I follow him on Instagram, where I can see that he’s a nice, normal person, and it feels strange that he never showed me any of that.
We’ve texted back and forth a bit since we met. He says he’s interested in meeting again, but when I asked if he’s interested in cuddling or kissing in addition to playing those dom/sub roles, he said no. I don’t blame him for not wanting to. People are into what they’re into. And I think it’s best for me to leave it as a one-time thing, given my reservations. I can’t shake this frustrated feeling, though. He will only speak to me as if we’re playing those roles. I find it hot, but I don’t want to be dehumanized all the time. He won’t show me any other side of him, but I see it on his social media. He has sweet photos with his nephew and his besties. It all makes me wonder if he would treat other guys this same way, if he would let me in if I were, say, more handsome. I know it’s silly to care so much about someone I only met once, but this new experience has really shaken me. Should I avoid this kind of hookup entirely in the future? Do I need to be more discerning about who I do it with? Is it possible to be dehumanized during sex without feeling dehumanized afterward?
A: I don’t think it’s silly to care about how a sexual partner treats you or to find yourself experiencing lingering feelings afterward, especially because the two of you did something fairly intense together, something you’d never done before. If you felt dehumanized or disregarded afterward, it makes a great deal of sense to me that you’d anxiously try to find a “reason” for why he didn’t display any kindness or respect once he’d gotten what he wanted out of you. Feel free to unfollow him on social media or not to respond to his texts; it doesn’t sound like he treats his hookup partners in such a way that you’d enjoy seeing him again. If you decide to have another hookup with intense emotional or physical dynamics, it’s perfectly reasonable to say, “I’m fine with keeping this casual, but once we’re done, I need some aftercare like cuddling/tacos/friendly conversation,” and to hold that as a minimum bar to be cleared before agreeing to meet with someone else.
Q. Grandma: My daughter married a widower with a little boy, whom she adopted. They have two daughters together. They live far away from me. “Klara” is the mother of my son-in-law’s late wife. He is still very close to her, and Klara acts as a grandmother to all three children. At first, I was thankful about how close my daughter is to Klara and how wonderful it was that Klara has been able to help out with the children. Except now I never get to be the only grandma present. If I visit my daughter, Klara is there. If I can get my daughter to come for a holiday, Klara is right there on the plane. Klara has no other living family but her grandson, and my son-in-law lost his family young. My son-in-law will not leave Klara behind, and my daughter sees no problem with it. The few times I have brought it up, my daughter got defensive and said she expected better of me. I am not suggesting abandoning Klara in the cold—I just would like to see my only grandchildren once in a while without her there! My husband tells me to drop the subject and wait until the kids are old enough to fly out here by themselves. It is ridiculous to wait a decade. I don’t hate Klara. She is a nice woman, but I don’t think I am asking too much. What should I do?
A: I don’t think what you’re asking for is terribly unreasonable either, but I’m not the person you have to get to agree with you. You’ve asked a few times now, and your daughter has made it very clear that she and her husband aren’t going to agree, and I think you’ll have to make your peace with being one of two grandmothers in the room—at least for the time being. Be as kind to her as you can, enjoy the time you get to spend with your grandchildren when they visit, and let this one go.
Q. Close to home: I had a short-term relationship with “Jack.” Very hot and heavy, but very messy. We never got to introducing ourselves to our extended social circles. I knew Jack had a sister. I did not know that his sister was “Sarah,” a recent hire at my company. She seemed nice and desperately wanted out of her lease. I knew someone at my apartment complex was leaving at the end of the month, so I told Sarah about it and talked to the owner for her. Sarah got the apartment. I found out about Jack being her brother when he showed up to move Sarah in. I was so surprised that I drove around the street and started some social media stalking. It was all there on Facebook! I don’t do social media, and now I have my ex’s sister living across from me and working with me. How do I handle this? I can’t ignore it, but I want to so badly. This only happens in bad rom-coms, but this is my real life!
A: If it helps, this sort of thing happens more often in real life than you might think. I’ve gotten a number of letters from people who showed up to work only to find their exes’ siblings/best friends/roommates working in the next cubicle—and sometimes the actual ex. While this feels like an inherently dramatic situation, there’s actually not a lot that you need to worry about, as it’s highly unlikely that you’ll run into Jack at work or that Sarah will try to talk to you about her brother. Since it was a short and noncommittal relationship, you’re not keeping important or work-related information from her. Stay friendly and polite when you run into Sarah at work or in your apartment complex, but don’t go out of your way to get closer to her.
Q. Re: Part-time dad: I think the letter writer should consider accepting the challenging fact that she will love and care for a child that is not hers, with all the risk that entails. She wants the situation to be less risky, but that may not be possible under her state’s laws. As a family lawyer in Pennsylvania, I have represented relatives of a neglected child who are taking care of the child. It’s a delicate situation—voluntary relinquishment of custody or of parental rights may not be forthcoming, while grounds for involuntary relinquishment may not exist, and pushing the issue may cause the mother to take her child and run. Try to find it in your heart to be patient and loving with this higher-than-average parenting risk.
A: I think you’re right in considering this to be an inherently risky parenting situation. It’s difficult because the letter writer can hardly go back in time and become less attached to Evie, but there doesn’t seem to be a clear way to develop primary custody easily and without incurring greater risk.
Q. Can I tell a casual acquaintance to get therapy?: I have a friend from college who I was never close to, but we are fond of each other. She is a sweetheart but naive, and she went through something horrible close to a year ago. Her boyfriend of about six months died very unexpectedly. I can’t imagine going through what she is going through, but I am in therapy myself for PTSD and it has helped me a lot.
She posts a lot on social media, and one day she will post that life is sunshine, and the next she will say that the pain is overwhelming and she can’t see through it. It is so painful to see, and I itch to shake her and say, “There are things you can do about it! Grief is real, and for some people it doesn’t go away on its own!” I don’t think she’s done anything to actively try to process her trauma. I’ve suggested books I thought might help when she has specifically asked for suggestions, but I just don’t feel it’s my place to write her a letter (we don’t live near each other) and tell her I think she needs therapy. And while neither of us have much money, I do have insurance from a domestic partnership and I don’t think she does, which might hinder her access. Should I try to convince her that there is help for her pain, or let her process how she will?
A: Resist the urge to shake her. It’s wonderful that therapy has helped you deal with your PTSD, and of course grief counseling can be meaningful to a great many people, but there’s also a degree to which unexpectedly losing a romantic partner is simply going to be agonizing, regardless of how much sleep she gets, how much therapy she gets, how much she journals or drinks water or takes long walks. The fact that she occasionally talks about not knowing how to see through the pain strikes me as a fairly reasonable response to the sudden death of a lover. Before you offer her another suggestion, reach out and let her know that you’re thinking of her and are available to listen if she ever needs to talk. That doesn’t mean you can’t ever recommend grief counseling to her—I think you can and should talk about how much it’s helped you—but you should listen first, without trying to fix anything, and let her know that you grieve with her. If she doesn’t take you up on your offer and doesn’t seem to be getting “better” on the fastest timeline, don’t pressure her into speeding up the recovery process.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone!
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