Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, all—let’s chat!
Q. Guardianship dilemma: We have had our foster child, who is 7 years old, for almost one year. She has trusted us to disclose abuse and has come a long way. Everyone talks about how she has been progressing in leaps and bounds since being with us. We love her dearly, and the feeling, we believe, is mutual. She has asked us if we would keep her forever. When doing word association with her counselor, they said the word trust and she mentioned my name.
This is our dilemma. We very much want to, as she is bonded to us and we’re bonded to her. We do not know if she would have a hard time with a new family, as she has had a lot of loss in her life and comes from a very dysfunctional family. The problem is our age: I am in my late 50s, and my husband is pushing 70 but in very good health. Would it be selfish of us to keep her? We know we would both miss each other dearly.
Does the age outweigh the love we can give her? My husband wants to adopt her. We would make provisions in case something happened to us. Even though we give her material things, we also give her a lot of care and let her be a child and experience the good things in life instead of the bad. I cannot stress enough how we love her to pieces. What do we do?
A: I’d welcome additional advice from any readers with experience fostering, especially over 50. But if your age is the only thing keeping you from considering keeping her long term (if such an opportunity arises), then I don’t think that should hold you back—and it’s certainly not selfish. Lots of grandparents end up raising their grandchildren. Many people become first-time parents late in life. Relative youth is not the only gift a parent can give a child, and if you and your husband are up to the physical and emotional challenge of continuing to raise this little girl (and if you’ve already been with her for a year, I think you have a pretty good sense of your own abilities), then I don’t think you should force yourself to part from her just because you’re worried about your age.
Q. Estranged relative: I have a sister who is famous and who has not spoken to me since our mother died. We have a bad relationship because my mother and I decided not to pay for her college tuition and room and board, and she was forced to get scholarships and work.
My home burned down in a fire last October and I lost all my pictures. My sister has the only originals from my childhood. How can I ask her for copies in a way that does not alienate her further? I want copies for my family, not for any other reason.
A: If you and your sister haven’t spoken in years and you’re only getting in touch to ask her a favor—even a relatively small and necessary one—then I think there’s a limit to how much framing can help you get what you want. Prepare yourself for the possibility of hearing either nothing, or a “No” followed by a series of recriminations, even if you ask in the kindest way imaginable. If you’re able to accept that, then let her know you’re not attempting to relitigate your past relationship and regret bothering her, but that you’ve lost all of your childhood photos in a fire and would be grateful if she’d be willing to share any copies, digital or otherwise, with you.
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Q. MLM scheme: My mother has signed on as a consultant for a multilevel marketing company and she’s demanding that I sign up under her. She was going to set sales and party goals for me, and wanted me to sign up for a monthly standing order and a weekly conference call. I said no—I don’t like the product, and I hate sales. Now she’s furious and is refusing to speak to me until I apologize, sign up, and recruit three friends. She’s making me feel terrible and has said some very hateful things.
I’m not signing up for this scam. She will make my life even more hellish if I do. My husband doesn’t want me to waste money on this, as we’re trying to start a legitimate side business making custom lighting fixtures. What can I do to make my mother understand I’m not obligated to participate in this and that she’s overreacting to my decision? She wouldn’t treat anyone else like this—why does she think it’s OK to do it to me? This is normal behavior for her, I’m sad to say. I’ve never been able to tell her no without this kind of backlash.
A: If this is normal behavior for your mother, then I don’t think that there’s much you can do to make her understand that she’s being demanding, selfish, and totally unreasonable. The best thing you can do is minimize the amount of time you spend listening to her tirades. “I’ve said no a number of times, and I’m not going to argue about it with you. If you’re able to let this go and want to talk about something else, I’d love to catch up; otherwise, I’m not going to have the same conversation with you.”
As for the question “Why does my mother think it’s OK to treat me like an underperforming employee?”—I think that’s an excellent topic to explore with a therapist. I imagine that it must feel, at times, like if you could only explain things to your mother reasonably enough that she would treat you with kindness and respect, but that’s giving her motivations way too much credit. She is treating you irrationally, and I don’t think rational conversation is going to get through to her. All you can do is set limits and reduce the space you grant her in your life.
Q. Sorry, don’t want to donate a kidney: My husband and I live in a different state from his 75-year-old father and only see him once a year or so. My father-in-law became diabetic several years ago; he didn’t make much change in his diet or exercise habits thereafter (family encouragement notwithstanding), and he now needs kidney dialysis and likely a kidney transplant. He often fails to take his medication and is, in general, not a great patient. For all these reasons, neither my husband nor his sibling are particularly inclined to offer up one of their kidneys to him (they might, if he would “take better care of it”).
In all honesty, I’m not enthusiastic about my husband offering up a kidney, either. But I fear this situation may be severely damaging their relationship with their father. My father-in-law hasn’t come out and said so, but I’m sure he’s wondering, “Why aren’t my own flesh and blood offering to help me out in this way?” Instead, he sends out aggressive and passive-aggressive emails to the family accusing all of us of not caring generally (which is not true). I don’t want my husband and family to regret spending the remainder of my father-in-law’s life in bitterness. Any suggestions on how to navigate this situation lovingly—and without anyone donating a kidney?
A: I think that as long as your father-in-law hasn’t made an out-and-out request, you and your husband don’t have to respond to (what you see as) the implicit demand in these emails. I also think it’s important to restrict the scope of your responsibilities here. You can, and should, help support your husband as he navigates his father’s illness, but I don’t think you should worry overmuch about, or assume responsibility for, your extended in-laws’ possible feelings of regret in the event of your father-in-law’s death.
Talk to your husband about what he thinks he’s capable of when it comes to supporting his father in this illness. Does he want to visit more than once a year? Does he want to respond to his father’s emails? If so, does he want to stay positive and address only what’s explicitly stated therein, or does he want to try to address the underlying recrimination and unstated accusations? It must be difficult to get these missives from a man who’s probably in pain and distress, but you should also bear in mind that he has a medical team he can turn to for advice and support, and that it’s not solely the responsibility of his children to manage his anger.
Q. Re: Guardianship dilemma: I was an adoptee and by the time I was 7, my father was in his 50s and my mom in her late 40s. Sometimes it was a little weird that my parents were so much older than the parents of my peers—I was the only girl in kindergarten who could sing Dean Martin songs—but I always knew that I was well-loved and that I was special because they chose me. My dad died from cancer at 67 when I was a young adult, but my mom only just recently passed away at 87.
A: Thank you so much for sharing this. Another reader who sometimes works with legal guardians says that “while worries about the future and your relative ages aren’t nothing, [there aren’t any] red flags in terms of your continued ability to care for this child.” Especially since the letter writer has mentioned setting up provisions in the event of her and/or her husband’s untimely death, I think they should be open to adoption, should reunification with her biological family prove impossible or undesirable.
Q. Husband outed me: I am an alcoholic who is actively seeking care for my condition. This includes going to various rehabilitation centers, traveling to Serbia and Thailand for treatment, experimental medications, et cetera. My husband told my sister about my condition, but ultimately I blocked her after about a year because her “help” was about her and not about what could help me.
Now I’ve learned my husband also told our best friend about my condition, after I asked him not to. I don’t know how to relate to my friend or my husband. I think this is private medical information that should’ve been up to me to share. How do I move on?
A: I think the best thing for you to focus on right now is accessing consistent, local, long-term support for your alcoholism before adding “moving on” from this particular conflict to your list of goals. Your husband may have been in need of help himself, and while it wasn’t right of him to tell her without your knowledge, he likely needs care for his condition (partner to a suffering alcoholic) as well. You don’t have to move on immediately, and you can talk to your husband about how this made you feel, but prioritize your own recovery and encourage him to find support of his own, whether that be through Al-Anon, therapy, support groups, or something else.
Q. Music: I was a professional singer before I married; I have no children and none of my siblings’ children have shown any interest until “Delia.” Delia is fascinated by music, and we have bonded over our shared love of singing and piano. She sings at church and at school—she is talented and driven. I personally pay for Delia to have professional private lessons and a piano rental since my sister is a struggling single mother.
My sister mentioned this to my sister-in-law, and she is now upset because I am not paying for her sons’ hockey and other extracurricular activities. She and my brother both make a good living; my husband and I have always given generous Christmas and birthday gifts to my nephews. When my sister-in law-brought this up to me, I told her she was acting greedy and grasping, and if any of her sons would want to sing I would pay for lessons, but none of them are interested in music. She hung up on me.
Now my brother is upset with both my sister and me. My husband is ready to rip both my brother and his wife apart. My sister canceled a visit with her and Delia to my brother’s over this. I don’t know how to fix this. Did I do something wrong in trying to cultivate my niece’s talent and our shared interests?
A: Trying to cultivate your niece’s talent is not wrong. I think you unnecessarily escalated the conversation with your sister-in-law by calling her “greedy and grasping,” but since you give presents to all of your nieces and nephews on a regular basis, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking your sister’s specific financial circumstances into account, or paying for a shared hobby you bond over with your niece.
Encourage your husband to stay out of the situation since it’s already overcrowded. Tell your sister-in-law that you’re sorry for speaking so harshly to her, but don’t apologize for not buying her sons’ hockey lessons. If your sister and sister-in-law continue to fight, stay out of it. All the children in this situation sound well-loved and well-looked-after—no one is suffering from neglect or obvious favoritism just because you pay for your niece’s piano lessons.
Q. Re: Guardianship dilemma: I was 45 when my son was born, which made me 53 when he was 7. I think the wisdom and maturity of your middle years would be a huge benefit, and unconditional love is what she needs and what you are prepared to give. Go for it!
You might want to consult a financial planner as well. I started a college savings plan for my son so I wouldn’t have to keep working to pay for college when I would be ready for retirement. I also purchased an additional term life insurance policy for 10 years so that I was comfortable that there would be some money to help him get through college if something happened to me.
A: That’s a practical piece of advice that may go a long way toward settling some of the letter writer’s fears! There are a number of additional complications that may arise as a result of becoming parents relatively late in life, and while that’s no reason not to move forward, it’s a good idea to be as prepared as possible.
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