Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Welcome back, and happy New Year! Hopefully we all have new and exciting problems. Let’s chat.
Q. Pregnancy: When my husband and I were grad students, we had an unexpected pregnancy. After much discussion, we both agreed it wasn’t the right time for us. I had an abortion. For years, I thought it remained a private matter between us. This year we decided to try for children. Over Christmas, I missed my period. I got excited and asked my husband to buy me a pregnancy test. It was negative. Our actions got out, and my sister-in-law asked drunkenly if I was going to “kill this one” as well. She has struggled with infertility for years, and apparently, my husband confided in her about the abortion. She announced this to all of our extended family, including her very conservative Catholic parents. My husband failed to do anything. At all. He just stood there. I went up to my sister-in-law and called her a “heartless barren bitch.” Then I walked right out the door.
I have been staying with my sister. I feel humiliated and betrayed. All the messages from my husband have been about damage control, not us. I have swallowed a lot of shame over our choice, but it was we who decided, him and me. I honestly do not think I can be in the same room as my sister-in-law again. A month ago, I was happy and looking forward to my future. Now I don’t know if my marriage will survive. Please help.
A: This is so painful, and I’m so sorry. Your husband’s betrayal of you was both private and public, and required ongoing cover-up. He failed to defend or assist you in any way as his family tore you apart, and now he’s only concerned about how to smooth their feelings over and isn’t offering you an abject apology for his behavior. I think you’re right to stay elsewhere, because he hasn’t demonstrated that you will be able to trust him or consider him a partner if you were to return home. If he can’t acknowledge how seriously he damaged your trust, if he can’t demonstrate just how he plans on protecting you from his family, and how he will own up to his own part in your mutual decision to get an abortion, and if he can’t commit to honoring your privacy in the future, then I think you should stay away from him. Don’t start a family with a man who betrays your confidence and throws you to the wolves at the first opportunity.
Q. Race on job applications: I’m a biracial woman, Indian and white, who is soon going to graduate from a doctoral program. I’m applying for academic jobs that have an online submission form. Many of these don’t allow for a biracial or multiracial answer and say something along the lines of, “Pick whichever race feels more dominant.” I have gotten really sick of having to explain that my mother isn’t white. My Indian grandparents also passed away recently, and I’d like to honor their memories. Is it OK to tick the Indian box instead of the white one? Do you have any suggestions for undermining the whole system instead of taking an easy way out?
A: It’s wildly disturbing that there are academic programs in the year 2019 that haven’t gotten around to adding a box for multiracial people, not to mention the fact that there are some asking applicants to “just pick” whichever race “feels more dominant.” (What on Earth does that mean! The implications of “dominance” there are … they’re doing a lot!) I think it’s worth getting in touch with those programs and expressing your concerns about the way they’ve built their online applications. You might also bring this up to your doctoral adviser, if you haven’t already, and ask for their support in encouraging various programs to update their forms. In the meantime, you have the right to tick whatever box you like. You have every right to acknowledge your own background, and it’s ridiculous that you’re being asked to choose one over the other in order to get a job interview. If there’s a place on any of these online forms to give additional information about yourself, I’d suggest adding, “I was not given a biracial option during the application process, which surprised me. I’m sure I’m not the only candidate who is put in a difficult position due to this policy. What are you doing to change this?”
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Q. Critical: Visiting my mother for the holidays was uncomfortable this year. My children, ages 8 to 12, are polite and well-spoken, but my mother uses the same tone with them as with her dog when it has an accident on the rug. Unless every chore is done to her exact instructions, she criticizes. My son gets yelled at for throwing a banana peel in the garbage rather using the garbage disposal. (“It will stink up the trash can.”) My youngest didn’t fill the ice tray all the way. My daughter eats too fast, doesn’t dress warm enough, doesn’t make the bed the right way, etc.
I have cut off my mother when she criticizes my kids and try to redirect the conversation, but it has been a constant this trip. We live on the opposite coast, so flying out is a huge expense. I asked my mother privately to lighten up and please enjoy us being here, but her response is that there is no point in trying if you aren’t going to do it right. She expected “more” from me as a mother. This entire trip has left a sour taste in my mouth. Am I awful if I don’t want to do this again? At least flying my mother out lets me push her on to my aunts who live nearby. My in-laws never treat my kids this way.
A: No. Spend next year with your in-laws. Spend future years with no extended family at all. If you feel so inclined, fly her out and push her off on your aunts—assuming your aunts are willing—once every couple of years, but cut way back on the visits to her house. It doesn’t sound like anybody is enjoying them.
Q. Re: Pregnancy: I understand the letter writer’s distress, but why did she feel it was OK to call her sister-in-law a “heartless barren bitch”? Including barren seems needlessly cruel.
A: I don’t think it was at all a kind thing to say, but I think the letter writer was under unbelievably provoking circumstances, and I’m inclined to grant her a lot of compassion, given that she was in shock at learning her husband had shared the detail of the abortion they’d chosen to get together with the rest of the family, and was now having it thrown in her face when she was trying to get pregnant years later. I would not have encouraged her to say it had she asked me in the moment, but I think she was much more wronged than in the wrong. If she were moved to apologize for her part in this, I think she would not need to say more than this: “In the heat of the moment, I returned your cruelty with cruelty of my own, and I apologize for bringing up your own struggles with fertility when acknowledging your heartlessness. I’ll thank you not to discuss my fertility in the future, and I’ll extend the same courtesy to you.”
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Q. Overly invested: I am the youngest person in my pink-collar job; the majority of my co-workers are either married or divorced with kids. I have no interest in either, and I have long since learned to never voice such an opinion unless I want to be treated like a particularly unintelligent toddler. I usually talk about my dogs or my garden over lunch, but this year I’ve dealt with a lot of interest in my dating life, usually fielding multiple inquiries a week from different people. I think I am a fundamentally honest person, but I really do not want to get into this at work. I know they will take it as a personal insult or a personal project if I am truthful. Can I lie and make up a person? The work culture is quite conservative here, and I’d rather avoid trouble if I can.
A: My worry is that if you made up “a person” it would not help you avoid trouble, because it would lead your already-nosy co-workers to start making excited inquiries about how things are going and when you two are going to move in together, get engaged, get married, or have a baby. I think the safest way to keep the heat off of you is to develop a quick line or two, something like: “Oh, no updates from me, but [interesting fact about your garden]. How’s everything with your kids, Marjorie?” If anyone keeps pressing—which would be rude but perhaps not surprising, given their habit of prying—just stick with a bland denial and a redirect. The temptation to lie may be strong, but it’s only going to result in more questions, and that’s the last thing you want.
Q. Helping my brother cope: My brother is going through a terrible breakup. It has come to my attention that things have not been all sunshine and rainbows in his decadelong relationship. He has mentioned there was physical abuse and more emotional abuse than he was letting on. When this terrible chapter is closed, should I ask him to go to counseling? Currently our family is rallying around him, but there is only so much I can get him to do, or even talk about. How would I approach this subject without fearing he will completely run away?
A: My answer would vary depending on whether he’d intimated that he had been physically abused by his partner or if he had been physically abusive toward them. You only say he claimed “there was” abuse, which is unclear. If it’s the former, I think since he’s already acknowledged it, you have plenty of ground to carefully bring it up: “You mentioned that [Ex] was sometimes violent, and I’m just so sorry you were in pain. Thank you for telling me about this. If you ever want to talk about it, or if there’s any way I can help you find more support, please let me know. I don’t want to pry, so if you don’t want to talk about it, I won’t ask again, but I’m always available if you do.” If it’s the latter, or if he’s been unclear, the script ought to be something more like: “You mentioned that sometimes there was physical and emotional abuse in this relationship. Can you tell me more about what you meant by that? I’m concerned, and I want to make sure both that you’re getting the help and support you need after this breakup, as well as to make sure you don’t harm anyone.” Depending on what he shares, you may be faced with a number of options, ranging from offering his ex your support, encouraging him to seek help and to stop his pattern of violent or abusive behavior, or even filing a police report.
Q. Lens licker: My co-worker, while at a communal work table with me, midconversation, making eye contact, will routinely remove his eyeglasses, lick the lenses, and wipe them with his shirt. I find myself revolted and averting my eyes. If he were doing this at his own desk, I could look away and give his quirks privacy, but this is middiscussion. Is this behavior as gross as I think it is? What should one even say?
A: “Please do that somewhere in private, thanks.”
Q. Re: Pregnancy: This level of betrayal is staggering, compounded by your husband’s lack of character in neglecting to come to your defense. There is no way that he was unaware of his sister’s bitterness and tendency to become loose-tongued with other people’s personal information. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m more sorry that you have invested so much time with a husband and family that don’t have your back. When you say “it got out” that you took a pregnancy test, I’m loathe to imagine exactly how, but even if you left it on the bathroom counter by mistake, it’s still private, and to comment on it is wrong.
Leave. Take your life, your grad degree, and your future children with you, and don’t look back. I believe that love, children, and a great future await you if that’s what you want to create for yourself, but you can’t do that with someone who fundamentally doesn’t believe in your right to privacy. Go with my blessings and prayers for your happiness, but for God’s sakes, go.
A: He doesn’t care about her privacy and he wasn’t willing to defend her from an absolutely horrifying, invasive attack. I hope she’s already gone. Couldn’t agree more.
Parenting Advice From Care and Feeding
Q. My wife drinks too much in front of the kids: I look at her, and I don’t recognize the person I married anymore. For the first time in 18 years, I don’t see a future with her—but I have two kids to think about.
Read the answer to this and other parenting quandaries in Slate’s Care and Feeding column.
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