Whenever I host large dinner parties, only the women offer to help with dishes. I appreciate this, but when I take them up on their offer, there’s a gender imbalance in the kitchen I’m uncomfortable with. I sometimes end up refusing because I hate the optics of it: The men sit around drinking, while the women wash up. I’d like the men to help more, but I don’t want to ask any friends and guests to clean up if they haven’t offered. I’m hosting a Friendsgiving, and some people will bring their own dishes or booze, so I don’t even know if it’s appropriate to ask for help if they’ve contributed something to dinner. Is there a way around this cleanup issue, or am I forever doomed to do all the dishes by myself the next morning?
—Thanksgiving Cleanup Anxiety
If you are hosting a holiday meal, you have every right to cheerfully conscript your friends and guests into whatever tasks need doing in order for them to get their free meal. That doesn’t mean you have to harangue everyone, but it’s perfectly appropriate for a host to say, “So lovely to see you. Thanks for coming. You’re on mashed-potato duty” to a guest, even if that guest has already brought you a bottle of wine. You’ve found—as is so often the case—that relying on an all-volunteer army usually means that the women notice you need help and offer to jump in, while the men seem to think dishes magically appear clean and tucked away in the cabinets the next day. I think the best way to correct this is to be brisk and upfront: Once the chatter has died down after the dessert course, grab a few plates and say, “Every time I host a dinner party, it’s always women who want to help me clean up afterward. Guys, I’d love it if a few of you would help me with the dishes this time. Are there any men who can help me out?” Hopefully—I’m assuming the guys you socialize with are more passively than actively sexist when it comes to kitchen cleanup—you’ll see a few chastened faces, followed by a hasty offer or two. But don’t be afraid to name a conspicuous dynamic, and don’t worry that you’re breaking some sort of hosting etiquette by pointing out the obvious and asking for a solution.
I live in a friendly, family-oriented neighborhood—or at least it used to be until “X” moved in about two years ago. He is withdrawn, is reclusive, and hates children. He leaves the lights off at Halloween and shouts at any children who knock on his door. He’s lodged several complaints about kids coming into his yard without permission and sent notes to everybody warning that he was not prepared to take on any liability for their safety on his property. He’s had particular difficulty with my 7-year-old son, who seems drawn to his home, and he’s gone from complaining to me to saying horrible things to my child. This runs the gamut from telling him that there is no Santa Claus to a detailed description of the crimes of serial killers to an explanation of how animals are butchered for meat. I’m furious, but X insists that the situation is entirely my fault and has warned that the next time my son steps onto his property he will bring charges. Do I have any recourse here? How do I persuade this angry, unpleasant man that harming a child with words is out of order? And what do I say to my son, who is now having nightmares about serial killers and afraid to cross the street?
—Neighbor Hates My Son
This man sounds dreadful to be around. It also sounds like he’s only lashing out when kids knock on his door or play in his yard, rather than leaving his house and looking for children to push around. I think your best strategy here is to remind your son regularly that he shouldn’t knock on this man’s door or play in his yard. On that front, at least, your unpleasant neighbor is in the right. I don’t mean to downplay how totally out of proportion and distressing this man’s behavior has been, but for someone this intense and unreasonable, the best way forward is to avoid him as much as you and your son possibly can. I can’t imagine that “bringing charges” against a 7-year-old for wandering into his front yard would result in any actual consequences for you and your family, but he’s made it very clear that he doesn’t want your son to knock on his front door or to play in his yard, and you should make sure that your son doesn’t, even if it means monitoring him a little more closely. When it comes to this newfound fear of serial killers, you can keep reminding him that he’s safe with you, that there are very few of them, and that your neighbor was trying to scare him—which may lead to its own conversation about how to give a wide berth to someone who clearly doesn’t want company.
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I recently flew out to visit my boyfriend at his older sister’s house. My flight was delayed four hours, and the airline lost my luggage. By the time I got to the house, I just wanted to take a shower and get clean. The guest bathroom had a pretty arrangement of toiletries (minisoap, shampoos, etc.) and fluffy towels right by the bath. I used them without thinking, just like I borrowed a shirt and a toothbrush from my boyfriend. The next day, my boyfriend’s sister drove me back to the airport and lectured me, saying I should have asked for shampoo and conditioner from her and not used the fancy ones in the bathroom. She said she has to order them online and it was very rude of me. I felt like a 6-year-old getting lectured for having an “accident.” My boyfriend and I got back home, but this situation still bothers me. I haven’t told my boyfriend because I didn’t want to cause trouble, but we are going back to his sister’s for the holidays. Did I do something wrong here? His sister lives in the Deep South, while we live on the coast. I have never stayed at anyone’s house except for a few slumber parties as a kid.
You didn’t do anything wrong. If a host says, “Here’s the guest bathroom” and nothing else, no reasonable person would assume, “Before I use the towels and toiletries provided by the shower, I should ask if there is a secret backup stash of towels and toiletries I’m supposed to use instead.” It’s fine to be a little fussy as a host, but then it’s incumbent on you to tell your guests what they can and can’t use. You can tell your boyfriend about it, not in the interest of causing trouble but to find out if his sister has any other quirks you should know about before visiting again: “Last time we stayed with your sister, she got really angry with me for using the shampoo and towels in the guest bathroom. I was taken aback, because I’ve always thought of that as pretty normal guest behavior. Is there anything I should know about what she wants her guests to do so I don’t accidentally offend her?”
I recently did some research on an ancestry website about my recently deceased grandmother’s family. While doing so, I found my grandmother’s first husband—my father’s biological father. He abandoned my grandmother with two children in England in the 1950s, went AWOL from the Air Force, and was never heard from again. My father has made it plain over the years that he has no curiosity about this man. My grandmother remarried, and I love and admire my grandfather, who is still living. But I’m curious, and based on genealogical information, publicly available information, and family resemblance, I’m certain I’ve found my biological grandfather—as well as several other relatives that would mean siblings for my father, and uncles, aunts, and cousins for me.
I expected my father’s father would be dead. I never thought I’d find a living man. Do I share this information with my father? Or do I keep silent? Do I reach out to this stranger? Or do I leave it well enough alone and say it was never meant to be?
There are serious potential downsides here, but you have a material interest in this discovery that is separate from your father’s. If you wanted to get in touch with some of your (likely) newfound cousins, aunts, and uncles, you would be able to do so in your own right as their relative, even if your father didn’t want any part of it. But I imagine you don’t relish the thought of doing so if it would cause him grief, and I can also imagine your getting in touch with these people may potentially upend their whole world if they don’t already know that your biological grandfather abandoned another family wholesale in the 1950s. You should proceed carefully and ask yourself in advance if you’re prepared to handle a worst-case scenario, one where your newly discovered branch of the family resents and shuns you for bringing this information to light. If you’re not, it might be better to close the lid on this Pandora’s box.
Ask yourself, too, what your goals are in reaching out to your grandfather in particular. Do you want to try to facilitate a reunion? Do you want to ask for an explanation or apology on your father’s behalf? Do you want to develop a relationship with your cousins? It will help clarify what the next right move is, to have more specific aims than “satisfy my curiosity.” If you’re willing to run the various risks, then it would be kind to tell your father before contacting any of these potential new family members. You can tell him what you’ve found, say you understand if he doesn’t want to hear anything else about it, and let him know that you’re considering getting in touch. If you’d be willing to reconsider doing so if your father were strongly against it, then tell him you’ll wait to hear from him before doing so. He may have any one of a number of possible responses; be patient with him and give him time to process this new information. Accept that what seems interesting and a bit removed for you may feel fresh and painful for him, be prepared to listen, and take your time. That way, whatever comes next, you’ll be ready to handle it.
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“On the off chance he eats your kid PLEASE SUPERVISE HIM.”
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My father died last year after a long illness, and my mother immediately moved on to a new beau. It was hard to see, but my sister and I acknowledge that our mother did much of her grieving before our father died. My sister is hosting Thanksgiving this year. Her in-laws are staying over, so my mother and her new boyfriend are staying with me. My guest room has twin beds. This is “unacceptable” for adults—my mother is demanding she get my room. The thought of my mother having sex with her boyfriend in my bed makes me want to vomit. I don’t want to be the one responsible for ruining the holiday here. I am the only one still grieving for my dad. Sometimes I stop and cry because something reminds me of him. My sister is focused on her family, while my mother has been constantly traveling with her new boyfriend. I don’t want to be the drag, but I can’t deal with this. Why is my guest room not acceptable? Can you help me?
I want to make a real plug here for spending Thanksgiving at a hotel by yourself near the ocean. There will be other Thanksgivings—it happens every year—and right now it sounds like you’re pretty overwhelmed by the family pressure to be more “over” your father’s death than you are. But if the idea of spending Thanksgiving by yourself doesn’t appeal, I think you still have options. While most adults don’t thrill at the idea of spending the night in a twin bed, sometimes it happens when one bunks with family, and insisting that your host clear out of her own bedroom for you—even if said host is your adult child—is out of line. You don’t have to get into a conversation about sex in order to say no to this request. Tell her that your guest bedroom only has twin beds, and if that doesn’t meet her standards, she should find a nearby hotel. You can still say that politely. “If the guest bedroom doesn’t work for you two, I’ll understand if you decide to rent a hotel room” isn’t the equivalent of “My house, my rules, so put up or shut up, Mom.” But it’s a line worth holding to, and if your mother keeps pressing the issue, then you can tell her that you’re genuinely happy that she’s found someone but that you’re having a really hard time dealing with your dad’s death, still need space, and think it will be best to see everyone for Thanksgiving dinner while having separate places to sleep. If she tries to argue further, you can just say, “I love you, Mom, and I know we’re all dealing with Dad’s death in different ways, but this is my final decision, and I’m not going to argue about it anymore. Let’s talk later.”
Last week, my youngest brother’s wife gave birth to a little girl, their first child and our parents’ first grandchild. As we were all gathered in the hospital, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the little morsel, my long-term boyfriend thought it would be “funny” to call out during that special moment, “Wait until 18 years from now, when she’s screaming that she hates you and ya gotta figure out a way to pay for college!” This was said to my brother, as he was holding and gently rocking his newborn daughter. I was appalled and let my boyfriend know it later when we were alone. I told him my family would not be amused by that at all, and he answered that it was just a joke and we were all “way too uptight.” I’m upset, both by his comment in the hospital and by his attitude toward my feelings about it. He won’t apologize, either to me or my family, which is infuriating. I’m not asking him to crawl at my feet, just a little acknowledgment that his remark was inappropriate. He refuses to see that there’s anything wrong and tells me to get over myself. Am I being “too uptight”?
You don’t want to endlessly rehash this with your boyfriend, because in the grand scheme of things it was a relatively little moment, but you should also be able to have conversations about jokes that bother you. Tell him, “Whenever I’ve tried to bring this up, it’s felt like your main priority is defending the joke, and as long as that’s your priority, you don’t really listen. What bothered me about it was that in that moment, everyone was full of joy and excitement over our new niece, and you’re the only one who felt the need to draw attention to yourself by making a joke about how unhappy this was eventually going to make them. It wasn’t the biggest deal in the world, but you don’t have to agree with me in order to acknowledge that it’s reasonable for me to have disliked it.” It may also help if you can drop the request for him to apologize to your family, since it doesn’t sound like anyone else has expressed a desire for an apology. Hopefully he can come to see that acknowledging your feelings and perspective doesn’t mean he “loses” and that this moment could have gone better had he been willing to ask himself, “What part of me feels so uncomfortable in this happy, loving scenario that I need to imagine a future where all of these people hate and resent one another?”
“My family are Christians who are active in the Episcopal Church. My husband is an atheist. Last year, he volunteered to give the blessing at Thanksgiving. However, instead of a prayer he took us all by surprise with a two-minute rant about ‘the myth of God.’ Everyone was upset, and it ruined the meal. He just informed me he plans to wear a T-shirt to Thanksgiving this year with a dead frog nailed to a cross with the words ‘He died for you.’ If he follows through with this childishness it may cause me to leave him.”
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