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, everyone. Let’s chat!
Q. DNA doozy: I took an at-home DNA test three years ago and loved it—I learned more about my family history and some potential health issues. I eagerly suggested to my husband that he take it as well. He just took it and figured out he has two half-sisters he never knew about. After two days of denying it, his parents finally confessed that he was born via an egg donor and his mother isn’t his biological mother. He’s absolutely distraught.
I feel the blame is with his parents for hiding this secret for 30-plus years. He feels guilty for taking the test and responsible for the emotional meltdown it’s caused in his family. How can I support him through this? Am I right to be angry at his parents for hiding such a salient fact for so many years? Are my feelings of guilt at having recommended this test in the first place valid? Please help.
A: This is a complicated situation, and part of why it’s important to ask, Am I prepared to learn something potentially devastating? before taking any sort of genetics test, rather than embarking on it as a lark. I imagine that your husband’s parents may have felt a degree of shame and sadness 30 years ago and didn’t know how to talk about egg donation with their children. That doesn’t mean your husband is wrong to feel distraught, but I don’t think they kept it to themselves purely out of a desire to be withholding.
You’re all still in the immediate aftermath of a pretty serious revelation. With time and conversation, this may go from The huge family secret that ruined everything to The complicated circumstances of how this family came to be. My guess is that at least some of the anger toward your husband’s parents is an attempt to manage the feelings of guilt you have about your own role in this discovery. You need to work through both—one isn’t going to cancel out the other. Talk with your husband, encourage him to seek therapy, support whatever decisions he makes regarding whether to try to contact his half-siblings, and remind yourself that you can’t fix this situation, only walk through it with him.
Q. I ignored my BFF, and now she has cancer: I’m in my late 30s and have been best friends with “Lindy” for most of my life. I’m ashamed to admit that I stopped prioritizing spending time with her when I met my now-husband. Then I had three children in quick succession, and with the stress of working full time, raising my kids, and still seeing my husband, I completely fell off the face of the Earth. Lindy tried hard to meet me on my level, but even though I treasured the time we spent together, I didn’t have the energy to be a supportive friend to her. I just found out that Lindy has been battling an aggressive cancer for a few months—and not from her. I’m gutted. A few months ago Lindy reached out to me, asking if we could get together, but I couldn’t see her for several weeks. I now believe she wanted to tell me about her diagnosis in person, but after I rescheduled twice, she stopped trying. I am disgusted with myself for how I’ve continually put her off. I’m having difficulty functioning with this grief—grief I don’t even feel entitled to. I want to reach out to Lindy but worry I’d start sobbing and make reaching out all about me. What should I do?
A: I’m so sorry. This sounds unimaginably painful. I think you’re wise to want to make sure that you can contact her in such a way where she doesn’t have to manage your feelings if you start to have an emotional response. It may help to initiate contact in writing, either over text or in an email, so you can choose in advance what you want to say and make it clear that you understand if she does not have the time or the energy to respond. You can say that you’re deeply sorry for putting her last, that you’ve heard about her diagnosis, and that you’d very much like to apologize and be there for her in whatever way she needs. If she responds in the affirmative, then you can spend some time in advance rehearsing what you’d like to say, either with your husband or a close friend, until you can get through it without falling apart. If she’s not available to meet, then I’d encourage you to find a counselor who can help you work through this painful combination of grief and guilt.
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Q. Expectations from an aging parent: I am a 33-year-old woman, engaged, with a complicated relationship with my mother, who has both physical and mental health issues, many exacerbated by poor health choices. Her behavior growing up proved to be extremely emotionally scarring for me, and we didn’t speak for years after I left the house. I’ve been fully independent financially since age 18 (paid for my own college, worked during high school), and although we’re on speaking terms again, we are not, and have never been, close. She is unmarried, she doesn’t have much savings because she gambles, and while I have a brother, he is a drug addict with his own psychological demons. My fiancé and I are about to use all of our savings to purchase a small two-bedroom house and begin a family of our own. It is clear she wants me to take care of her as she gets older; however, there is no way I would ever be able to do so financially or emotionally. I have anxiety issues stemming from childhood and my relationship with her—there is simply no way I can live with her and maintain my own mental health. How do I convey this to her (and my extended family) in a way that is kind?
A: If your mother has simply hinted at it, you can feel free to ignore those hints; if she’s come out and said things like, “Someday, when I’ve gambled all my money away, I’m going to move in with you,” you can kindly say, “I won’t be able to do that, and you need to come up with your own retirement plan.” If your extended family wants to shove their oars into the conversation—which is none of their business!—simply say, “If you’re concerned about Mom’s financial plan, I encourage you to speak to her about it.” If you need to put more distance between yourself and your family members as a result, you should do so; getting pressure from the entire clan about becoming your mother’s full-time emotional caretaker sounds exhausting, and you don’t have to put up with it if they can’t let the subject go.
Q. Conflicted about confidentiality: A colleague, “Rachel,” and I took a business trip together a year ago and got to know each other quite well during our travels. We work for the same company but at different locations, and because of our distance, I think she felt more comfortable opening up to me. She shared that she has experienced a lot of abuse, depression, and personal trauma, and that she once attempted suicide. While we don’t interact much, I have assumed we are on friendly terms. Another friend and colleague who works with Rachel has recently begun to share some frustrations about Rachel’s behavior. I’ve listened but mostly encouraged her to talk to Rachel directly. It escalated today when she brought up some alarming indicators that Rachel is sliding into depression and may harm herself. I don’t see Rachel much, but I have noted that in the last few months she’s not been responding to me when I’ve reached out to say “hello.” Knowing about some of her past struggles, I’m really bothered by her distant behavior and this secondhand information. Do I break confidentiality about her past suicide attempt? Rachel is very private and feels people are “out to get her.” Breaking confidentiality might only confirm her distrust of others, but I care and would never forgive myself if she harmed herself!
A: Is your question whether you should tell a co-worker who has been complaining about Rachel’s behavior at work about Rachel’s suicide attempt? Because if that’s who you’re referring to when you talk about “breaking confidentiality,” then the answer is absolutely not. This colleague has repeatedly complained about Rachel to you, even after you’ve encouraged her to talk to Rachel directly; I don’t think you have reason to believe this colleague has Rachel’s best interests at heart. The odds that she would gossip about Rachel’s past suicide attempts and try to pass it off as mere concern are high enough that you should not say anything to her.
That doesn’t mean you should completely ignore the situation, however. Tell your colleague that you can’t help her with her problem with Rachel and that she needs to stop talking to you (and others) about it. Encourage her to find a more productive, direct, and compassionate way to get through it. Meanwhile, send Rachel more than a simple “hello”—tell her that you hope she’s doing well, that you have missed hearing from her and wanted to see if she was all right. Tell her that you understand if she’s not up to responding, but that you’re here if she needs anything. You can express interest in her well-being and affection for her personally without letting her know that one of her co-workers is gossiping about her mental health.
Q. Dazed and confused: I always thought I was straight, so I’ve only tried to date guys. About two years ago, I fell in love with a girl but thought maybe she was an exception, because it never happened again. She was also straight, so I didn’t pursue it. I’ve never connected with or enjoyed any type of intimacy with guys. It feels weird. I’ve never had a boyfriend—although I’m only 25, which is still young. I’ve recently made a few queer friends and am head over heels for, you guessed it, a girl. She’s everything I’ve wanted, but she’s off limits because she just got out of a relationship. As much as I want to pursue her, I can’t. I’m willing to wait, but I don’t want her to think I’m experimenting with her. I genuinely want to be with her. Can you please give me some advice?
A: You certainly don’t have to do anything you don’t feel ready for, but someone who’s just gotten out of a relationship is not, in fact, off-limits—they’re single. You might want to give it a few weeks before asking her out, but you don’t need to observe a long or open-ended mourning period just because she used to date someone else. You say that you don’t want her to think you’re experimenting with her, but all dating is an experiment. Think of it this way—you’ve spent most of your life trying to convince yourself that you’re straight. Even though you haven’t had a boyfriend, that hasn’t stopped you from talking to guys about potentially dating because you were afraid they would think you were experimenting with them. So don’t be unnecessarily hard on yourself when it comes to women by thinking you have to prove something before you can go out with someone you like. The fact that you haven’t had a girlfriend before, and the fact that she’s recently single, shouldn’t keep you from telling her that you’d like to go on a date sometime. Good luck!
Q. Help out or shut up: I have taken over our family’s holiday celebrations since my parents retired—I am the only one of my siblings who has the room and patience. My brother and his girlfriend visited us this summer. She decided to send me an email of “helpful” tips: We need better mattresses in the guest rooms, nothing was clean enough, and the meals were “too heavy and unhealthy.” I don’t want her back under my roof. She and my brother can rent a hotel room if her sensibilities are so sensitive. My brother is now threatening to boycott any family festivities unless his girlfriend is “welcomed with open arms.” This makes our elderly mother cry—the holidays are about family. I haven’t gotten a hint of an apology and have been made to be the bad guy; I am sick of all this. The holidays are stressful enough as it is, I don’t want to deal with this. Can you help me?
A: Honestly, I think you should consider making alternate plans for the holidays this year. This sounds like a job that involves a great deal of work, a ton of emotional pressure, and very little joy for you. If you’re not ready to book a ticket for somewhere warm and relaxing without trying one last time though, I think you should say this to your brother: “I’m happy to welcome you and your girlfriend, but I’m not going to buy new mattresses anytime soon. I do my best to keep my house clean and to provide meals for my guests, but if either of you have specific needs above and beyond that, please feel free to help me cook and clean for multiple guests. If you’re not willing to visit under those terms, I’m sorry to hear that, but that may be the best choice for everyone involved.” If your mother tries to cry to you that the holidays are “about family,” remind her that you are in no way trying to get rid of your family. You’re simply setting realistic limits around what you can and can’t do in the way of hosting. (And seriously, think about booking that ticket.)
Q. Brother: My brother broke up with “Caroline” last year. She is my current roommate. I know her, trust her, and she pays rent on time. My brother started dating “Nikki” last month. She had a fit and forbid my brother from visiting me when Caroline is present. I haven’t told Caroline any of this and am trying to deal with this on my own. My brother is apologetic but lets Nikki walk all over him. Caroline once dropped me off at my brother’s, and Nikki freaked out and accused me of “sabotaging” her relationship. Our parents don’t know about any of this, and I don’t want to spend the holidays covering for Nikki’s fake sweetness. What should I do? My brother has lost his spine, but I don’t want to be the one to ruin the holidays.
A: “Nikki, Caroline is my friend and roommate, so we spend a fair amount of time together.
I have no interest in trying to manipulate my brother’s dating life. I’m not going to apologize for living with Caroline, and I’m not going to be available for future conversations about why I got a ride with her.” If she attempts to force the issue even after this, simply stick to your talking points: “You should really talk to my brother about this. I’m not available for this conversation. Have you been watching anything good lately?”
Q. Adults only: My husband and I often host dinners and parties, adults only. My good friend, “Vanessa,” is a single mother of a very quiet 12-year-old girl, “Sara.” Last year, while Sara was home alone, there was a break-in and Sara ended up locked in the bathroom calling 911. She was unhurt, and insurance covered the damage, but Sara has terrible anxiety about being alone. She had panic attacks about Vanessa going to the store to pick up milk in the middle of the day. It didn’t seem fair to me that Vanessa should miss out on socializing with us or that Sara should be forced out of her comfort zone. I told Vanessa that Sara could stay upstairs and read or watch TV. She is old enough and responsible enough to entertain herself. This has made several people mad, including my sister-in-law. She has three little boys under 6. Worse, she has made comments, within Vanessa’s hearing, about Sara being the “exception.” I am upset because everyone knows what happened to Sara, and, frankly, my party policy at my house is none of their business! How do I shut this down without embarrassing anyone?
A: Take your sister-in-law aside and be direct with her. “Please don’t make any more pointed comments about Vanessa’s daughter in front of her. Sara is dealing with trauma that’s specifically connected to being left home alone, and having her read upstairs is an easy accommodation to make to our rule. If you find this unbearable, while we’d miss having you at our dinner parties, we’ll understand if you need to stop attending.”
Q. Re: Help out or shut up: The writer should ignore the email. He or she is under no obligation to take any of these “suggestions.” She might want to stock a few simple items for the girlfriend to eat instead, but also gently turn it back on the girlfriend. “I’d love it if you would cook a meal or two while you are here.” Invite the brother and girlfriend, ignore the attitude, and have a lovely holiday. What can she do? Stomp around and go to a hotel? Perfect.
A: Ignoring an unreasonable email is always a lovely option, and certainly one the letter writer should consider. That’s a beautiful suggestion.
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