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, chums! Let’s chat.
Q. My son’s summer fling: My son “Adam” has dated “Jenny” for five years, off and on. They love each other very much but have taken several breaks, including most of this spring and summer. During that time Adam had a fling with “Sasha,” a longtime friend. Adam and Jenny reunited in August, and shortly thereafter Sasha found out she was pregnant. She and Adam are in their early 30s, and they could afford to raise a child. Adam has told Sasha he’ll support whatever she decides to do, but the pregnancy has put a strain on his relationship with Jenny.
I believe he’d love this child and would make a wonderful dad, but I also realize that part of him would be relieved if Sasha had an abortion. Adam has turned to my husband and me for emotional support. I love Jenny very much. I know she aches because she might not be the mother of Adam’s first child. At the same time, I desperately hope Sasha keeps the baby. I want to be a grandmother, and I’d do whatever I could to support this baby. I haven’t told Adam this, but the uncertainty of what will happen has been gnawing at me. I also feel compassion for Sasha; I don’t think these are the circumstances in which she imagined she’d have her first child. How should I be supporting my son right now? And if Sasha decides to have their baby, and I want to develop a relationship with her, how can I do so while remaining sensitive to Jenny?
A: I can imagine this situation feels extremely stressful and high-pressure; the good news is that you don’t have to do anything right now. (The bad news is that you don’t get to do anything right now.) I’m glad that your son has told Sasha he’s prepared to support her regardless of her decision. That’s the right thing to do. Given that he’s a grown man in his 30s, I don’t think you need to do much to support him right now, other than to encourage him to stay in friendly, open contact with her and to figure out what material support he can offer her. If Sasha does decide to carry the pregnancy to term, and she and Adam become co-parents, then they’ll likely need to have a number of conversations about what that relationship will look like. If that happens, then your only responsibility to Adam’s girlfriend is to be kind. (That’s assuming they stay together—given that they’ve broken up repeatedly in the last five years, odds are good that they’ll break up again under such pressure.) That doesn’t mean pretending you’re not excited or downplaying your relationship to your son’s child as a grandmother.
Q. Dedicated partner: I am a 34-year-old cis hetero woman in a relationship with a cis hetero man. While we are both sexually experienced and have electric sexual chemistry, I have never been able to climax during penetrative sex without the assistance of a toy. My current partner is loving, supportive, understanding, and patient. He is genuinely interested in my pleasure and listens responsively to my needs. Moreover, he is an enthusiastic proponent of my “little helper” in the bedroom. Despite all of this, he still believes there “must be a way” for him to help me climax via penetrative sex alone. He says we just haven’t focused enough, that we need to trust and let go together, and he knows I will be able to orgasm.
It’s almost like he pities me and feels like I have missed out on one of life’s great pleasures. I have explained to him that I would only feel like I was missing out if I never had an orgasm during sex and that he doesn’t need to work harder or do anything differently, that nothing needs to be fixed. Regardless, once a week or so he brings it up again. I am beginning to feel frustrated with him, which I feel guilty about because he is clearly concerned and dedicating energy to help me. How do I get him to let it go?
A: “When you bring this up on a weekly basis, even though I’ve told you repeatedly that I’m very happy with our sex life, it makes me feel hounded and like you’re not interested in listening to me. ‘Trust’ and ‘letting go’ are important components of sex, but they’re not a replacement for direct clitoral stimulation. Stop framing this as a desire to help me, because you know it’s not something I’m interested in. This is about a desire on your part to feel like your penis is the only thing I need in order to get off. If you want to talk about your own fears or anxieties, that’s absolutely fine, and I’m available for that conversation, but you need to stop insisting that we need to try again for a hands-free orgasm for my sake. It’s not for my sake, it’s for yours.”
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Q. Other kids: My boyfriend has a 4-year-old son with his unstable ex, who also has two older girls from a previous relationship. He is saving money so that he can go back to court and win full custody of his son, and he is struggling to stay civil with his ex and follow the custody agreement. She has taken to dumping off her other kids randomly with my boyfriend’s son.
No word, no warning—all three children get out of the car and she is gone. Sometimes the girls will only have their school bags and what they are wearing that day. His ex argues she deserves some “me time” and manipulates the girls (“Daddy says he doesn’t want you!”).
We have no extra resources and sometimes struggle to pay all the bills on time. The courts are conservative and biased toward mothers here—his ex willfully violates the court orders and has never gotten so much as a slap on the wrist. There is no other family to call. Short of calling Child Protective Services, we are stuck. My boyfriend feels responsible for these girls, and their mother is not physically abusing them or starving them. I am trying to be supportive, but it’s draining to have our lives and family dynamics be shoved around by this woman. What can we do?
A: I think the most crucial point of your letter comes in the “Daddy says he doesn’t want you!” line. While your boyfriend may not be these girls’ biological father, if he’s been raising them for what sounds like at least the last five years, and they refer to him as their dad, then there’s more to think about here than simply getting custody of his biological son. I think there’s a reason your boyfriend “feels responsible for [them],” and it’s not simply that he’s an extremely generous person. He’s been their father for a significant portion of their young lives, and while that doesn’t make his ex’s behavior any less frustrating, it may serve as a helpful reframing when you feel tempted to draw a line of distinction between his son and his daughters.
When it comes to this particular issue, you may have a few options. Your ex can ask his attorney to send a letter to his ex outlining the specifics of their custody agreement and whatever aspects of it she may have violated (although this is a confrontation-heavy approach). He can request further mediation from the local Family Services Agency, or he can ask his ex if she’d be willing to get together and talk about what aspects of their current custody agreement are and aren’t working. I agree that calling CPS or attempting to go back to court over what would be seen as a “minor” issue would not only prove ineffective but look bad for your boyfriend’s court case.
In the meantime, don’t take this out on the girls. When you and your boyfriend spend unexpected time with them, be as loving and engaged as you possibly can. Don’t badmouth their mother in front of them, and don’t make them feel like unwanted deliveries. They did not ask for any of this, and have very little control over this situation. Remember that children are excellent at picking up on cues that they’re not wanted.
Q. Outgrowing friends: I graduated from college a year ago. Since then, I have bought a car and my first home, and I have a stable job. The issue is that quite a few of my college friends haven’t grown up since their college years. I understand that I did the adult things a bit sooner than most people my age. I just feel that I have outgrown most of my friends. My idea of fun isn’t going to a house party and drinking a strange combination of alcohol that is served to me in a plastic bin anymore. I feel awful for having these feelings about my friends, but I feel as though we now have very little in common. Should I move on from the friendships or make more of an effort to meet them where they are at in their lives?
A: Congratulations on achieving so much financial stability so relatively early in life! Don’t force yourself to go to house parties and drink out of a kiddie pool if that’s not where your heart lies, but that doesn’t mean you have to drop your college friends completely. And this is a perennial post-college problem, so don’t feel like you’re doing something unusual or terrible by starting to drift away from the people you spent a lot of time with in school. Invite your friends to get together one-on-one (or to come visit your house, or go see a movie, or take a walk, or whatever activity might suit their budgets). If there’s a way to remain a part of one another’s lives that doesn’t rely on periodic binge drinking in a stranger’s living room, then that’s great! At the same time, you can absolutely feel free to pursue other friendships with people you have more in common with now.
Q. Reluctant to call it abuse: I’m the oldest of a large group of siblings. One of my younger siblings has been terrorizing my immediate family for years, but acting nice and sweet around extended family. Recently, my parents decided to send her out of state to live with my grandparents so that she could get help. When I was younger, she would physically attack me. I have clear memories of her biting me, but beyond that most of the incidents blur together. As I got older the physical attacks got focused on my other siblings, while her attacks toward me became verbal. She always knew exactly what would get me upset. (Most of it was comments on how I was weird because I’m dyspraxic.) The last straw was when, in the span of a week, she pulled a knife on my dad (she didn’t actually stab him) and kicked a different sibling who has heart problems in the chest. The problem is I’m resisting calling it abuse and going to the on-campus mental health counseling. How do I get past this mental block to get the help I need?
A: If it helps, you don’t have to call this behavior “abusive” right away in order to access counseling services. You can simply ask to see a counselor because your sister’s behavior distresses and hurts you, and start from there. The on-campus counselor’s office exists to help students in need, and you certainly qualify under that rubric. If part of your mental block includes the idea that this isn’t sufficiently “severe” to merit using that office’s services, remind yourself that the only necessary qualifications for walking in the door include “being a student” and “having a problem.” You don’t have to decide right now how you’re going to talk about your sister for the rest of your life. All you need to do is to find someone you can speak to, safely and confidentially, about how her behavior has affected you.
Q. Thank-you note to grieving mother: My wife and I are expecting our first child soon. We recently received a baby shower gift in the mail from her aunt and uncle, which was generous of them. They were invited to the shower, but we didn’t expect them to come because my wife’s aunt has shut herself off from the world since last year when their teenage daughter died unexpectedly. She won’t accept calls or visits from the family. We’ve always enjoyed time with her, and the family is distraught that she won’t re-enter the world. No one is critical of her mourning period, approaching two years, because of the unthinkable tragedy of losing a child, but they miss her (they also presume she’s depressed). My question is, is there a way to write a thank-you note that acknowledges how grateful we are for the gift, given the circumstances? We don’t know if it’s appropriate to acknowledge their grief, or even how to put that into words.
A: That’s a lovely idea. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to acknowledge your aunt’s grief and loss, in part because I don’t think she goes a moment without thinking about it. Tell her you’re grateful for the gift, that you love her dearly, that you think of her often, and that you grieve with her.
Q. Re: Other kids: OMG. These two girls are being neglected by their mother, period. Heck yes, call CPS! Your first responsibility is to stop the abuse. CPS has a reputation for heavy-handed child snatching, but they really will work for the benefit of the children, if only to help Mom get her “me time.”
A: I’m not sure that this qualifies as abuse. It sounds deeply inconsiderate and frustrating, certainly, but I don’t have a strong sense from this letter how frequent this is, and the letter writer suggests the children are otherwise provided for. I think the first step is to revisit the custody agreement before considering contacting CPS.
Q. Wrong time: “Kelly” and I have always been at odds romantically. I carried a torch for her for years in college, but she was married. She separated from her husband and I worked up the courage to ask her out—she turned me down gently and ended up going back to her husband. We have remained close friends. I moved on and met “Sadie.” We bonded over our romantic troubles and fell in love ourselves. Sadie and Kelly became friends. I am engaged to Sadie, and Kelly is one of her bridesmaids. Kelly’s marriage recently disintegrated after her husband got another woman pregnant. (Kelly has been trying for years.) Since then Kelly has been a mess: crying jags, getting drunk, and hitting on me when we are alone. The first time I picked her up from a bar and she told me she picked the wrong guy, loves me, and tried to kiss me.
I pushed it off as a moment of emotional weakness. Then Kelly came over to help with the wedding, and Sadie was running late. She “joked” that if I ever wanted to run away with her she would go in a heartbeat and then said turning me down was the biggest mistake of her life. She was sober, and Sadie could have walked in the door any minute. It rattled me so much I made up an excuse and went into the basement. When I came back up, Kelly and Sadie were comparing color swatches.
What do I do here? I feel like I am holding a bomb. I love Sadie and would never cheat on her. I don’t want to blow up either my wedding or a 15-year-old friendship. If I tell Sadie, she is going to feel betrayed and throw Kelly out of the wedding party, and people will get to talking. Kelly is going through a rough time and needs support. Her behavior is completely out of character. What is the right thing to do here?
A: What Kelly is going through is terribly sad, but she has no license to actively try to sabotage your wedding simply because she’s grieving a painful betrayal and the end of her marriage. I can understand why you want to protect your friend and keep people from gossiping about her, but you can’t do so at your fiancée’s expense. She has a reasonable stake in needing to know that one of her bridesmaids has repeatedly hit on you, while both drunk and sober. You may not want to blow anything up, but imagine how much worse things will be if Kelly tries this again and Sadie finds out either from accidentally seeing a message or walking in on something. It doesn’t sound like you have reason to believe Kelly is going to suddenly snap out of it, so keeping quiet and hoping everything just goes away is not going to work.
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