Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Catered Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving has always been a huge source of stress for my mother, and I don’t have one memory of her actually enjoying it. Since my brother and sister-in-law moved, my house is the only one feasible to hold everyone (five siblings, spouses, and all the kids). I told everyone I would be catering the meal, but they would be welcome to make a dessert or side dish. Reactions were mixed. My mother says, “It will not be the same,” but it is my house so I should do as I see fit. The loudest naysayer has been my youngest sister. She told me I was “ruining the holidays.” The woman burns water and hasn’t helped with a holiday meal since she was in high school. I told my sister I didn’t care about her opinion, and she was welcome to either take over hosting duties or not come. She is sulking, and my mother is upset. The entire point was to make the holiday easier, and that isn’t happening. Please advise.
A: I can’t believe it’s already “but you’re ruining the holidays” season. I’m sorry your sister and mother are being so petulant. My guess is that, in your mother’s case, if she were to accept that it’s possible to take it easy on Thanksgiving and also have a good time, she’d have to acknowledge that she spent years stressing out unnecessarily and doesn’t want to think of those panicked weeks as wasted time. Your sister, on the other hand, is just being a pill and sounds one step away from asking for her Thanksgiving dinner to be spooned directly into her mouth. Let her sulk! To both of them, you can say, “I hope you can find your way to enjoying a catered dinner—I think it’s going to be wonderful to get together as a family and the food will be just fine. It won’t be exactly like every other year, but traditions can change, and the important thing is that we all get to see one another. I’m not going to have any more conversations about the menu.”
Q. Creepy co-worker, or am I the jerk?: I have a co-worker who skeeves me out big time, but everyone excuses his behavior because he has autism. I’ve had autistic friends, co-workers, and roommates before and never had issues beyond communication hiccups; this guy is unlike that. Among other things, he will often follow me or block the doorway to keep me from leaving when he wants to chat. He also occasionally tries to hold conversations with me while leaving his phone in full view while it plays videos of (thankfully clothed) women with large bouncing breasts. I feel unsafe around him, but management doesn’t care and co-workers act like I’m being rude and unreasonable. I’m starting to feel like I’m going crazy! We have no on-site HR, and I don’t know if I can confront him without management’s support. I don’t want to leave my workplace of 10 years, but I’m sick of feeling on edge whenever he’s around. Am I overreacting?
A: No, what you’re describing sounds like textbook sexual harassment and has nothing to do with being on the spectrum. I’m sorry management has been useless thus far, but in addition to looking for another job—your best bet, I think—you should absolutely say, “I need to get back to work, please move because you’re blocking the doorway” when he tries to keep you trapped in a conversation. The sexualized-but-not-fully-nude videos sound so over the line I’m amazed no one’s filed a lawsuit. I’m also amazed not a single manager has even said something as mild as, “Stop watching videos on your phone at work.” You’re not overreacting. This guy’s behavior is wildly inappropriate and needs to stop.
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Q. Vasectomy: My wife and I had a complicated pregnancy that left us with fraternal boy and girl twins. While I love our kids, I have emotional scars from the birth. My wife went into cardiac arrest because her blood pressure dropped so low—the doctors actually discussed with me the possibility of losing the babies or my wife. She was hospitalized the last two months of her pregnancy. It is a moment I never want to relive.
Our twins are 4 now, and my wife and I agreed before we were married that two kids would be ideal. I am tired of condoms and want to get a vasectomy. My wife is opposed. She “maybe” wants more children in the future, and the thought of that makes me sick. We got lucky last time, and I wouldn’t risk our lives now for anything. We wanted two kids and were blessed not to lose anyone in the last pregnancy. My wife thinks I am “selfish,” and couples therapy has been useless. It has gotten so bad that I can’t trust any sign of intimacy from my wife. I am sleeping in the guest room. I guess this is my Hail Mary. How do I convince my wife that this life is worthwhile? I am sick of worrying and wondering. I want to love her and enjoy our twins. Why isn’t that enough?
A: I’m not sure why your wife can’t accept your repeated, clear answer of “No more kids,” but you do not need her permission to make choices about your own reproductive health.
Please schedule that vasectomy as soon as possible. You’re already sleeping in the guest bedroom and afraid that your own wife would try to undermine your birth control choices—you have nothing to lose at this point in terms of intimacy and trust, and everything to gain in terms of peace of mind and security that you will not be having a third unwanted child. Be honest with your wife once you’ve scheduled it, but please don’t let her convince you that you’re selfish for sticking to your original ideal of two children. Having more children needs to be a unanimous decision between the parents involved, and while she has every right to feel sad or grieved at the prospect, she has no right to try to control or punish you for setting limits.
Q. My dad decided he isn’t my dad anymore: I’m 28. I have a younger brother and a younger sister, both in their early 20s. Our dad recently informed us that my brother and I are not biologically his children. Apparently our mom had a long-term affair, and only our sister is biologically his child. He said he’d had suspicions for a long time and secretly obtained our DNA to run paternity tests. He and our mom are divorcing. My dad is heartbroken. He says he needs some time to think and is only communicating with our sister, who is furious with our mom but also feels caught in the middle of all of this.
Everyone my brother and I talk to sympathizes with our dad and villainizes our mom. It’s not that simple to me. I don’t hate my mom, even if I’m mad at her. I’m also devastated that my dad is taking a break from being my dad. What if the past 28 years don’t matter to him because I’m not biologically his? What if he won’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with my brother and me? I’m even more angry at him, I think, but I feel like I have to forgive him no matter what because of how badly my mom wronged him. When I spend time with my mom, I wonder if I’m betraying him.
A: This is absolutely devastating, and I’m so sorry you’re caught in the middle. You don’t have the luxury, as your parents do, of divorcing either of them, and I can’t imagine how painful it is to feel like your relationship to your father is being put on hold while he figures out whether he wants to resume it. You are not betraying your father by having a relationship with your mother. You can recognize the ways in which she hurt him and acted badly without disowning her, or the ways in which she’s been a good mother to you over the years. Nor are you wrong to feel hurt and anger toward him, especially for secretly obtaining your DNA to run a paternity test 28 years after your birth. If you’re not already seeing a counselor, please find one, preferably someone who specializes in marriage and family therapy. You deserve the chance to speak with someone about this, and since your father has removed himself from the family scene, I think a therapist is a good place to start.
Q. Sad songs: My husband and I are total dog people, and have two right now. Our third had to be put down in February for a variety of ailments. My husband had saved her from a family that neglected her health once she could no longer breed. We were able to restore her to health in significant ways in the two years we had her, but other issues lingered and she was too sick to stay. It was heartbreaking for us both, and I’m still sad. But my husband seems way more than sad. He bursts into tears sometimes and sleeps with her blanket. I get it, I really do. But he also can’t bear to hear sad songs or love songs, at all. If something comes on the radio, he changes the station. If a TV show or movie plays a song that makes him emotional, he will change it. It’s starting to get annoying because this means that I can never hear these songs and watch these shows or movies. It’s an almost daily—and sometimes several times a day—occurrence. I haven’t said anything because feeling this way makes me a monster, right? I feel lost as to how to help.
A: I don’t think you’re a monster for noticing that your husband’s grief is still affecting his ability to function as your partner almost nine months after your dog’s death. It sounds like you haven’t brought this up with him because you’re afraid of seeming callous or like you don’t care about the dog you lost, but I think it’s both possible and important to bring up. Tell him what you’ve noticed, and tell him that you want to find ways to talk about how he’s handling the loss of your dog that don’t involve interrupting every TV show or movie you watch for the indefinite future. You can frame it as finding ways to deal with your loss together rather than “I need you to be able to sit through a movie tomorrow because I’m tired of your tears.” Therapy may prove useful to him, especially if you two have additional dogs that will die at some point in the future. It may help, the next time you find yourself in such a moment, to pause the movie yourself, spend a few minutes talking with him about his feelings (rather than turning the movie off and avoiding the feelings entirely), and then resuming it, with him if he feels up to it, or without him if he wants to take a few minutes to collect himself before coming back.
Q. Re: Creepy co-worker, or am I the jerk?: Your co-worker is a creep, period. I’m tired of people making excuses for awkward dudes that engage in creepy or otherwise off-putting behavior. These were the same creepy dudes we were told we were supposed to “give a chance” when we were in school. You’re not overreacting.
A: There’s a big difference between someone who needs clarification in terms of customary or expected workplace behavior versus someone who is clearly using isolating and intimidating tactics in order to get female co-workers alone and indirectly force them to watch sexualized videos. To try to pass that off as having anything to do with being on the spectrum is absolutely unconscionable.
Q. Girlfriend makes movies about her ex: My girlfriend of three years is a filmmaker. Her last movie was inspired by her ex-boyfriend, and the one she’s writing now is, too. She tells me that I should be grateful she hasn’t made a movie about me, as it means I have been a stabilizing presence in her life, while things with her ex ended badly and they don’t speak anymore. But her films are not traumatic. They’re about sensuality and arousal, and her ex has now taken up years of creative real estate in her brain despite—or because of—the way he treated her. I know the artistic process is mysterious, but I am still feeling a mix of jealousy, anger, and disappointment that I can’t be a bigger inspiration to her, plus a bit of humiliation that by championing her work to everyone, I’m somehow carrying water for her ex. Is this a sign of some unresolved conflict within her, or am I overreacting?
A: Anytime someone says to their partner, “Be grateful I haven’t made a movie about you,” with the implication that they will as soon as you cross a line, I think there’s cause for concern. Frankly, I think that’s the aspect you should be concerned about here, rather than worrying whether the focus of your girlfriend’s art means she’s still carrying a torch for her ex. If, however, she said this in a light-hearted way, and you don’t normally feel like she wields the specter of incorporating you into future work as a means of controlling your behavior now, then I don’t think you need to worry much. You can certainly talk to your girlfriend about your feelings of jealousy, though. Acknowledge that you know it’s not your best self, and that you don’t expect her to change her work in order to accommodate your insecurities, but that you want to spend a little time talking about the ways in which you feel jealous and disappointed that you don’t mean as much to her as he does. The artistic process isn’t so mysterious that you two can’t talk about the lines between her work and her personal life.
Q: Re: Vasectomy: I feel sorry for the letter writer, and here’s the irony: If his marriage ends because he schedules the vasectomy, he might find himself in a future relationship and wishing he hadn’t had the vasectomy. It’s quite a Catch-22.
A: One thing at a time, I think! It’s possible that someday the letter writer might be in a relationship with someone else and want more children, but that’s not the reality that he’s dealing with now, and he seems pretty certain right now that a vasectomy is what he wants. They are more easily reversible than, say, getting one’s tubes tied, so there is that, but I don’t think he should worry about a bunch of different things that might happen at some point—he’s got enough to deal with right now.
Q. Unexpected honeymoon: My husband of six months and I were recently gifted our dream honeymoon by my in-laws. We’re so excited because we did a quick, low-cost wedding and were saving up to hopefully go somewhere for our anniversary. Now we’re going this winter, to a place we never would have been able to afford (we are paying for travel on points and will still have plenty of costs out of pocket while there). My in-laws have worked hard their entire lives but are now at retirement age and have the extra funds to offer this gift easily.
My question is, how do I explain this to my much poorer parents? They have just enough money to get by and gave as generously as they could for our wedding. They know we didn’t have the money to do a honeymoon now, so going on this trip will be confusing and I’m sure they’ll wonder how we’re doing it. I don’t want to hide my in-laws’ generosity as if it doesn’t exist or that I don’t appreciate it. But I don’t want to flaunt the wealth inequality in gift-giving either. What should I do? How much do I need to tell my parents? Thanks!
A: You don’t need to tell your parents how you’re paying for your honeymoon. You’re an adult, and if your parents are generally reasonable and polite, they will keep any curiosity they have about the financial aspect to themselves. Moreover, it sounds like you’re only going on this trip about six months earlier than planned, so I’m not convinced it’ll be as big a shock to them as you fear it might. If they do ask questions, you can say, “We found out we’d be able to cover it a little earlier than we planned.” If you feel like going into detail, you can add that you were able to do so by using a combination of travel points and a wedding gift from your in-laws, but you certainly don’t have to.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for today! Try not to be jerks about other people’s fertility next week.
Several years ago my husband had an affair that resulted in a child. Although we’re still married and he has no interest in a divorce, he lives with the child and her mother. Our family has been shattered and my children occasionally say things that let me know they still carry a tremendous burden of hurt. But we all believe the child bears no responsibility and deserves a father. The mother of the child, however, will never be accepted into our lives. A major problem arises around the holidays. My husband insists on coming over for Christmas, but isn’t present in any meaningful sense. He just stares straight ahead. He criticizes little things, opens gifts but never takes them with him, and refuses any offers of food. Nothing we do makes him happy and the harder we try the unhappier he seems. I know therapy for everyone is the answer but he’s never been one to open up and previous efforts have been fruitless. What can we do to make his Christmas visit a little less awkward and perhaps even pleasant? I hate to see him so unhappy, but we’re tired of having to tiptoe around him all day.
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