Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Bert: My brother and I were roommates with a dog (his) and a cat (mine) when he died unexpectedly eight months ago. Since then, the care of his dog has fallen to me. While I like his dog, who’s an 11-year-old terrier mix I’ll call “Bert,” I’ve never been a dog person, so in the weeks immediately after, I was asking around to see if any of our friends and family would take Bert. Some people said upfront that they couldn’t take on a dog, which I respect, but there was a squirrely bunch who said things like “Oh, won’t you miss him?” or “You can’t separate Bert and your cat,” or “Don’t worry, you’ll rise to the occasion.” I interpreted the latter group of comments as people being too scared to directly say no to the guy who just lost his brother, so I dropped it at the time. Since then, although I’ve been handling things mostly OK, everything I’ve thought about me and dogs has been proven true—I’m just not good at dogs. I don’t like the walking in the cold, and the poop, and the whining for scraps, and the following me around everywhere staring. My brother took care of all this, and the dog used to follow him around, not me. It makes me miss him more.
Things are coming to a head now. Bert has started making messes on the floor, and the vet thinks that it’s a permanent medical issue that may get worse. He can only wait six hours between going outside, so I’m waking up in the night to take him out and asking a neighbor to do so when I can’t get back from work on my lunch break. I know what my brother would do. When his last dog was incontinent for the last six months of his life, he kept the dog in diapers—he was living with his then-girlfriend at the time, but I’ve heard about it. I don’t think I can do that. I’m more desperate now, and I’m considering going back to the squirrely people to ask again if they can take Bert, being honest about his circumstances, but I’m still not sure if anyone would say yes. I can’t stand the thought of them throwing more platitudes at me, and I saw on Facebook that one of them has gotten a puppy or whatever in the time since I asked if they’d take Bert, which I really resent. It would be reprehensible to take Bert to the shelter because he’s so old, and I can’t do something like that to my brother’s dog. What are my options here? I don’t feel like I can do this much longer.
A: You can certainly go back to your friends and let them know that you’re no longer able to care for your brother’s dog, and make it clear what you’re asking for (and what you’re not): “It’s been a hard six months, and it’s increasingly clear that I can’t keep caring for Bert. If anyone is able to either care for an elderly dog, know of someone else who is, or is willing to come by and help me with him when I can’t, I’d love to hear from you. Please don’t tell me that I’m not willing to part with Bert, or that my cat couldn’t stand to be away from him—it’s been a very difficult process, and I really need help right now.”
Q. I didn’t want my son, although I’m so glad we had him: I made a mistake. I told my wife that I felt coerced into having our son. Mind you, said son is 25 and an awesome human being—funny, kind, the son that anyone would feel proud to have. I am proud. I love him dearly. I have a great relationship with him. But the other night, after a few too many drinks, I let it slip that I didn’t really want a child and felt coerced into having one. I have no regrets—I love my son and I’m so glad he’s in my life, and I love his mom, who is my partner of many years. If anything, I’m glad that we had him even though at the time I was unsure. In the years following his birth, I found a part of myself I never knew existed—being a father has been an amazing experience that I would never trade.
But my wife is pretty upset. She knew that I had hesitations, but we went ahead with the pregnancy. She has shared that she felt alone when our son was born, but that she felt I stepped up to the plate when we were raising him. I feel like crap, admitting feelings I had long ago but that have since been resolved. Meanwhile, my wife is really hurting. What should I do?
A: I think you pretty clearly do have regrets! That doesn’t mean you’d take it back if you could, or that you don’t feel happy about your family, but otherwise this would not still weigh on your mind so heavily 25 years after the fact, such that you’d bring it up with your wife now, a “few too many drinks” aside. You also pretty clearly love your son and ultimately feel glad you got the chance to raise him, but you can’t try to take back what you said or insist that it doesn’t really mean anything in light of the life you’ve had together. It makes sense that your wife is hurt, and she has a right to be—just as you have the right to talk about the ways in which you felt coerced or pressured into having a child with her. It may be helpful for the two of you to see a counselor who can help you talk about this, because it’s a pretty big issue that’s baked into the foundation of your relationship. You can absolutely reassure your wife that you’re glad you stepped up and raised your son, but that doesn’t mean you can rush past this particular discovery or make her feel good about it right away. Now that your son is grown and out of the house, you two might have the time and the energy to discuss some feelings, resentments, and insecurities you both had to put to the side when he was a child.
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Q. Bless who?: I have been taught since I was a child that when someone sneezes you should say “bless you” to them. I know the origins of this are religious. Nowadays it feels like saying “bless you” is less about religion and more like “Hey buddy, sneezes can be a pain, I acknowledge that.” Now when someone sneezes, I don’t say anything. But somehow that feels rude. Should I say “bless you”?
A: Whatever the origins of saying “bless you” when someone sneezes may be, they’re so very old and lost in the mists of time that I don’t think anyone (aside from the deliberately literal) really thinks it’s a religious expression. It’s a slightly arbitrary social nicety, and it’s a polite acknowledgment and a general hope for continued good health. If you feel weird not saying anything, go nuts and offer the sneezer a friendly “bless you.”
Q. Fiancé wants to work in country with a bad human rights record: My fiancé is a consultant who works internationally, typically for nongovernmental organizations that do great work. He’s been offered a contract with a government that has a bad human rights record, and I do not support him accepting it. His justification for being inclined to accept is that he would make a lot of money he could funnel into good charitable causes. I’ve expressed my opposition, but he’s planning a short visit to the country in the next few months. I’m trying to decide whether to dig in and attempt to change his mind, or just refuse to take him to the airport and request that he not talk about the job with me, though the latter seems petty. How do I stay true to my position and not cause permanent damage to our historically fantastic relationship?
A: At the risk of sounding flip, the United States has a bad human rights record, so I think it’s worth asking some follow-up questions. What’s the nature of your boyfriend’s contract work with this particular government? Would it directly enable or facilitate continued human rights abuses? Would his visit to this country depend upon the exploitation or endangerment of vulnerable people there? Would his work require him to turn a blind eye to further abuse? Would he be penalized professionally for speaking out against them? Does he agree with you that this country has a bad human rights record, or does he seek to justify, minimize, or ameliorate it? Does he have a history of funneling the money he makes into good charitable causes, or is this the first you’ve ever heard him mention the practice? What are the good charitable causes he’d like to support, and how much of his income does he plan on giving to them over the duration of this contract? What are these charities’ overheads? If he’s never given significant charitable donations before and has no idea what kinds of charities he’d like to support or how much of his income he’d like to donate, then I think you can safely assume it was offered as a conversational misdirect and not a genuine offer. This is worth having difficult conversations about, I think, and not rushing to preserve the “fantastic” nature of your relationship. If he’s really fantastic, he’ll be available to talk about it with you.
Q. The other kids: My brother is a struggling widower with a 5-year-old son. I often take my nephew along with my own children for outings and other events. My brother is seeing “Carol.” Carol has two children and a nasty habit of “forgetting” to pay what she owes. She agrees to give us money for events like taking all the kids to the fair or to the movies but then never pays. My husband and I both work but have a tight budget. Entertaining and feeding two children not even related to us is not an option. We have brought this up to Carol several times, but it keeps happening. The last time she stiffed my mother over $300 after my mother had been taking care of her children after school every day for two weeks. My mother survives on Social Security and what we pay her for watching our children. I fought with my brother over this. Carol, of course, threw herself a pity party, and my brother is the favorite guest. She has a better job than me and lives in a nicer neighborhood than us. I am sick of this. What do I do short of cutting Carol’s kids out of any activities? And maybe going to war with my brother?
A: “Since Carol hasn’t been able to reimburse us for the last X outings, we can’t afford to take her kids along with us again. If she’s not able to pay us upfront for taking the kids to the movies, then you two will need to make alternate arrangements.” That’s your only option short of taking on debt, I think, and it’s hardly “going to war” to describe a financial reality. If your brother doesn’t want to send his nephew over without his girlfriend’s children, then he’s free to figure out some other way to pay for child care. It might feel cold or unkind to set a limit with your brother here, since you describe him as “struggling,” but he’s certainly capable of having a conversation with his girlfriend about paying what she owes.
Q. Re: Bert: I would recommend trying some local no-kill shelters in the area. Call and plead your case. A lot of them (like the one I work for) keep the dogs only in foster homes (vs. being at the shelter in a cage), they often keep room for “hard-luck” cases that normal shelters would overlook, and they tend to have trained, dedicated staff and a network of “dog people” who have dealt with these kinds of things before and would give Bert a loving home in his senior years.
A: That’s helpful, thank you. This definitely seems like it could fall into the “hard-luck” category, and I hope someone is able to help the letter writer during a doubly difficult time.
Q. To tell or not to tell?: About a year ago I changed jobs. I hated my new job and wanted to go back to my old place of employment (I left on very good terms). I was recommended by a friend for a position that was a perfect fit for me and I already knew many of the people I would be working with. After making it to the last round of interviews, I didn’t get the job. I was curious about the guy who got the job instead of me and looked him up on LinkedIn. He seemed to have none of the qualifications or experience that I had, and none of the qualifications or experience that my interviewer said they were looking for. I was so confused how he got the job—so I Googled him. I then found out that he is a registered child sex offender who got out of jail about eight years ago. He served a very short amount of time after harming over 20 children over a 10-year period. There were many times he could have been stopped, but he was very charismatic and talked his way out of trouble for years. He strikes me as a predatory long-term offender. To say I was shocked is an understatement.
After a few days of thought, I sent an anonymous email to the HR director and the administrative director who will oversee this man. I included links to a few news articles and this man’s listing in the state sex offender database, said this was information they should be aware of, and left it at that. But now I don’t know what to do about my friend that referred me.
She has a son about the same age as the boys this man harmed. Do I say something to her? Send her an anonymous email or tell her outright? I think in the end this will come out one way or another—a simple Google search of this man turns up many news stories with pictures of him. I’m sure I’m not the only person who will Google him. But what if it comes out because he molests a co-worker’s child (he found his victims through his place of work before)? I know people in this area get friendly outside of work, and I know many other people have children too.
I’m just not sure what to do. If anything ever happened, I’d feel so guilty for not saying something to my friend. I don’t think someone who has committed this kind of crime against children should be shielded or given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his criminal past. Do I say anything to my friend or hope that HR and the administrative director take care of this in a way that keeps employees and their children safe?
A: I don’t think you should wait for HR to notify employees—they may very well not—before speaking to your friend. Given that you know this man has previously used his workplace to find victims, as well as the long-term scale of his crimes, the relative brevity of his incarceration, and the fact that he has a history of talking his way out of consequences, I think you have reason to warn your friend to be on her guard. There’s no reason to do so anonymously, and there’s no reason to wait.
Q. Ex’s partner throws tantrums for my approval: My ex and I remained friends, but we are no longer close. Part of this is us growing apart as people, but part of it is her new partner, “P.” P is very sensitive, has very low self-esteem, and for some reason thinks very highly of me. The two of them are glued at the hip, so I haven’t been able to spend one-on-one time with my friend/ex since we were dating, several years ago. P shows up to events that have no plus-one on the invite. It might even be a Mike Pence situation, I don’t know. (This is true of other socializing too, not just for events I host.) P acts desperate to be my friend, even though I don’t think we’re very compatible, and makes huge public displays at perceived rejection: not being invited to something, not replying to their texts within five minutes, not laughing at their jokes. I’m happy the two of them are happy, but I want to actually see my friend once in a while, and I want to not be friends with her partner! Or at the very least, not have P be constantly on the verge of tears in case I don’t think their puerile sex humor is funny. Other friends have noted their concern that our friend doesn’t seem comfortable in her old hobbies anymore and always has to reassure P that they’re wanted and doing well—even if P is acting wholly inappropriately and trying to curry sympathy by throwing tantrums. How can I get away from this person without breaking up their loving relationship? How can I ever spend time with my friend again without constantly being on edge?
A: This one’s a little tricky! I don’t think it’s unreasonable for your ex-slash-friend to bring her partner to parties and informal get-togethers that don’t specify whether a plus-one is indicated. And it may very well be that if you suggest the two of you get together one on one, with no partners, she’ll say no, either at P’s request or because of her own commitment to their particular brand of monogamy. But you do, I think, have grounds to say something, even at the risk of getting brushed off. If she is available to get together just the two of you, tell her that you’ve noticed she doesn’t seem to enjoy her former hobbies as much as she used to, that you’ve noticed her partner often seems upset and in need of reassurance, and you wanted to know if she’s OK. If she gives you the brushoff, leave it there; if she seems relieved at the prospect of being able to discuss it, you may be able to help.
As for whether you need to do anything to either prevent or moderate P’s tantrums, I don’t think you owe them anything beyond general civility. If you notice P losing their cool at the prospect of not being conciliated, don’t respond to their tantrum. Change the subject, leave the conversation, be direct and acknowledge it when their behavior gets out of hand. Say, “I’ll give you a minute to collect yourself,” then walk away. Or “No, I didn’t get the chance to respond to your text sooner; I won’t always be able to reply immediately.”
Q. Re: Bless who?: I say “gesundheit.” It does the same thing without any religious undertones.
A: Even better! It is weird, certainly, that the polite response to some bodily functions is to acknowledge them according to a specific ritualized script, whereas for others it’s to pretend they never happened, but ours is not to try to remake society—at least not today.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week, if we haven’t all ruined the holidays first.
My husband and I just had a beautiful baby boy. He’s doing well but was premature, and I had a complicated pregnancy that required months of bed rest. A week after our son’s birth, we learned devastating news: My husband’s mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease.
That means my husband’s risk of inheriting this horrible genetic disease, and eventually becoming gravely ill and dying from it, is 50/50. If my husband inherited it, our baby’s risk also is 50/50. I’m heartbroken, afraid, still hormonal, and furious. It is obvious my mother-in-law has known something about this for more than a decade. Her own mother and several of her aunts died of it. My mother-in-law says she didn’t really know it was HD; she just thought it was something old people get. There’s evidence she’s lying about her ignorance, and I think she did it because she wanted grandchildren. I feel I had a right to know of the existence of this genetic disease before my husband and I conceived a child. I should have known before we married! I still would have married my husband, but I would not have had a child without genetic counseling. (We do have an appointment with a genetic counselor in a few weeks.) My husband is angry with his mother, but not as much as I am, and this is becoming a source of argument between us at a time we need to be supporting each other. My questions are: Can I limit how much she sees the baby? She’s visited a lot, but seeing her makes me sick. How much can I vent to my husband over this? And what are my obligations to other family members? For example, one of my husband’s cousins is very recently pregnant and they might want to get testing to see if the fetus is at risk.
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