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, everyone! Let’s chat.
Q. I bully my sister for her weight: My sister Margaret (30) is morbidly obese. She’s happy, active, and has a wonderful group of friends. But she refuses to take steps to lose weight, and she eats poorly, and it drives me crazy. I love Margaret so much and am terrified of losing her too early. I also hate that people hurt her feelings and treat her poorly because of her health. This manifests in me criticizing her and picking fights with her about her weight. I’m ruining my relationship with Margaret. She avoids me, and I don’t blame her. I make her feel bad about herself. I don’t know how to change this dynamic, because swallowing my fear drives me crazy. My own husband has lectured me about this. I want to change. Where do I begin?
A: It’s good that you want to stop hurting your sister. You say that you hate that people hurt her feelings and treat her poorly “because of her health.” But they don’t treat her poorly because of her health, which they cannot see; they treat her poorly because of her size, and you are chief among them. If you are incapable of spending time with a fat person without turning your own fear and anxiety into criticism, then you need to see a therapist so you can find a meaningful outlet for managing your terror and need to control. “I’m cruel because the world will be cruel to you” is not a good excuse. Once you’ve found someone who is willing and able to help you do that (and not, for example, a therapist who is going to co-sign your constant criticism as an attempt to be “helpful”), you might write to your sister (since you’ll have more control over what you say before you say it in writing) and tell her that you’re sorry for how you’ve hurt her, that you understand why she avoids you, and that you’re getting help managing your own anxieties so you don’t continue to hurt people in the way you’ve hurt her. Make it clear that you’re not asking for anything from her and that you will continue to respect the distance she’s put between you. It may or may not be possible for you and Margaret to be close again—that part is not up to you—but you can stop bringing up her weight and belittling her at every opportunity. That much is in your power.
Q. My wife died; I’m dating my first love. How do I honor my wife’s memory? I dated my first girlfriend, “Rebecca,” from 19 till we were almost 30; our families were close friends and I had known her since elementary school. I kissed her for the first time behind the baseball stands when I was 10 and she was eight. But I wanted a family and she didn’t. We made a commitment to stay best friends, which we upheld. I married a wonderful woman and had three children. She was in my wedding and good friends with my wife, but stayed single, eventually having a daughter by a sperm donor after a long-term relationship ended. We’ve attended every family Thanksgiving and Christmas together, vacationed together, and she’s my oldest’s godmother. They called her their aunt. But then my wife died in a car accident. It was awful, but my best friend, along with my family, got us through it. It’s been three years, and recently, the two of us started dating again. My kids seem pretty OK with this—they love her, they know the timing, and she’s been a strong, loving presence in their lives. But we’re at a loss at how to talk about our relationship, especially with my oldest, who is 9, without making their mom sound like an afterthought. I loved my wife and was fully committed to our marriage; if she hadn’t died we wouldn’t be here. But do we put up photos of us from when we were in our teens and 20s? Admit to the kids that she wasn’t *just* my best friend, before I met their mom? How do I talk to them about how happy I am now, without sounding disrespectful?
A: I think you are being harder on yourself than you need to be—this is not the series finale of How I Met Your Mother. Since your oldest kid is only nine, I don’t think it’s time to start explaining the slightly more complicated backstory you and Rebecca have just yet. Your kids already know and love their aunt and are aware that it took the two of you three years after your wife’s death to start dating—they’re in possession of the majority of the relevant facts. If you feel anxious about explaining framed photos from your twenties, then don’t put them up. When the kids are a little older, you can explain that you and Rebecca dated before you became best friends; when they’re a little older still you can answer questions (if they have any) about what that shifting relationship has been like for you over the years. But don’t feel like this is a guilty secret you have to explain in order to justify being happy and together now. As long as you make sure to talk about their mother with your children and to encourage them to remember her fondly and out loud, I think they’ll continue to know how much you loved her, and that she was never just an afterthought to you.
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Q. I dread having another child: When my wife Beth and I became serious, we agreed we’d have three kids. I’d always been ambivalent about fatherhood, but falling in love with Beth, who’s a decade younger than me, made me want a family. I’m now in my late forties. We have two incredible children. And I’ve realized that two kids are my limit. I’m the youngest of six kids, and my parents were burnt out by the time I was born. They resented me, and I was largely raised by my big sister. Having a third child would exhaust me. Beth would have loved having five or six kids, and I dread disappointing her by changing the plan we made. We’ve seen two couples implode when one wanted more children than the other did. I’ve been putting this conversation off, but Beth has been hinting she’d like to try for a third child soon. What do I tell her, and how should I comfort her?
A: Tell her today, please. If she’s already dropping hints about a third child, there’s no way you’re going to avoid having a serious conversation; I don’t think she’s likely to forget that she wants to have another kid with you. Don’t worry too much about comforting her just yet. She’s likely to have a number of reactions—maybe anger, maybe grief, maybe both—and you can’t rush her through them. Stick to what you’ve noticed about yourself, about your own capacity to be a present parent, what you’re afraid of (becoming stretched too thin that you end up resenting your kids) and what you hope for (to be a relatively relaxed, emotionally available parent to two children), and that you didn’t know you’d feel this way until you’d already had two kids. Then give her space to have whatever reaction she has. Don’t try to make the very first conversation you two have about this subject end on a harmonious note or make sure she’s totally comforted by this change in plans; give her time to ask questions and discuss this with you. But tell her now, because honest conflict will feel so much better than hiddenness and anxiety.
Q. Single, not an alien: I am single. I have basically always been single. I’m cool with it, I’ve got an amazing life with fantastic friends and I’m happy. Except several of my friends are in relationships, and will have these couples-only parties or dinners. They’re all people I love hanging out with, and they’ll tell me all about it after the fact with the addendum, “Oh, it was a couples thing, you know,” and it makes me feel really left out and awful. Like: I’m single, not an alien. I am not going to feel like a third or fifth or seventh wheel; hanging out with people who are in relationships wouldn’t even occur to me as a thing that’s weird. How do I convince my friends that inviting me to stuff where everyone else is in a relationship is not going to upset me, and that not inviting me just because I happen to be single is actually kind of lousy?
A: It may help to organize a dinner or party at your house once in a while, so you can control the guest list and make sure there’s a mix of couples and individuals. And talk to these friends sometime when you have a few minutes alone, before they’ve hosted another couples-only party, and remind them that you have no qualms about being the only person who’s not part of a couple at a social gathering and that you’d love to be included. But all you can do is let them know your preferences—if they do occasionally have couples-only party after that while still continuing to include you in their other plans, I don’t think you have grounds to pursue the matter further. If that happens, I think your best option is to focus on hosting more parties yourself.
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Q. Re: I dread having another child: And then schedule that vasectomy. You don’t want more kids, then you have to MEAN it. Take control of your fertility.
A: I’m getting equal parts “birth control/vasectomy” and “couples counseling,” and think they’re both worth considering. Not couples counseling with the goal of changing the LW’s mind, but to help them both deal with change. Another reader says “I wanted a third child; my husband didn’t. I understood his point, but was terrified that my disappointment would turn into resentment that destroyed our marriage. Counseling gave a place for him to find words for his feelings and for me to develop a strategy for processing the grief and moving on. This is a big deal and rocky emotional path to navigate. Don’t hesitate to call in professionals for help.”
Q. Stepdaughter resents her dad’s absence: My husband Clark and I live halfway across the country from his teenage daughter Tina. We see Tina as often as possible: holidays, summers, and Clark flies to visit her as much as we can afford that. I still know it’s not enough for Tina or Clark. I would gladly move to where Tina lives with her mom, but I share custody of two young daughters with my ex-husband. (Clark met me when he traveled to our city on business; we were both divorced.) Recently Tina has been standing Clark up for Skype dates, and when she came out for Christmas, she implied that she wouldn’t come stay with us this summer. She’s angry that her dad moved away, and she has every right to be. Clark is distraught, and we’ve been arguing lately, even though we both want him to see Tina more. How can we let Tina know she’s loved and as much a part of our family as my daughters? She has her own room here, she’s included in every family event big and small, we try to Skype several times a week—but nothing will make up for her dad’s absence.
A: I think you’ve answered your own question. Your husband chose to move halfway across the country from his daughter. He may have had good reasons for doing so, he may have felt anguished at the decision, he may miss her very much and want to see her as often as he can, but that’s still the choice he made and it still hurt her. You can encourage him to continue to offer her as much love, support, and emotional availability as possible, even when she’s angry or tries to pull away. She’s a teenager and that would be normal even if he hadn’t moved away to build another family with you. But you can’t fix your husband’s relationship with his daughter for him. I don’t know if part of you feels guilty over the fact that he met you while traveling and now lives with you and your children and not his daughter, but that may be part of what’s driving your desire to “fix” the situation. But there’s a limit to how much you can do. What’s broken in Clark’s relationship with Tina is the fact that he moved away from her and now helps to parent your children instead of her. She has a right to be hurt and angry, and Clark will have to deal with the consequences of his choice with grace, understanding, and patience.
Q. Career change and a challenging spouse: I am a 36-year-old woman who has reached a bit of a career plateau. I’m dissatisfied in my industry and feel like a bundle of soft skills with no real shining achievement or standout hard skills or knowledge. I have a niche master’s degree, and have been praised for being a good communicator, responsive, easy to work with, and a reliable problem solver and troubleshooter. Yet, when I look at job descriptions, I’m overwhelmed by all of the technical knowledge or years of experience every field and position seem to require (beyond most entry-level positions, that is). I’m a quick learner, and I’m confident I could work up to a position in a different field at my current pay scale within a few years. My challenge is that my husband is negative about opportunities that would allow me to change industries and change responsibilities because they would be lower level and, thus, almost definitely come with a pay cut. We can survive a pay cut, easily, and I would be so much happier, but this is just anathema to him. Things like this make me miss my freedom as a single woman when I didn’t feel bound to some sort of arbitrary financial figure that somehow signals security. I feel like I should honor his wishes since our lives are commingled (though we maintain separate bank accounts), but how can I present these opportunities to him as short-term cool-downs in our income? And, how can I find the confidence to just … give him less control and power in these situations?
A: “Honoring your husband’s wishes” doesn’t mean you have to stay in an industry you dislike forever just because he wants you to stay in a certain tax bracket. Your husband can certainly give you his honest opinion, and it’s great to take your partner’s interests into account before doing something as significant as changing careers and making less money, but being married doesn’t mean you can’t quit your job unless your husband approves. (Especially since taking a pay cut wouldn’t even put you in a precarious financial position!) Your lives may be commingled but they’re not interchangeable, and he’s not the one who has to spend eight hours a day at your job—this is ultimately your call, and it would be no matter whether you were married or single. You can, and should, share your plan with your husband, as well as what you’re prepared to sacrifice to change industries (and I imagine you’ll do plenty of research with people who are already working in the field you’re hoping to break into), but don’t frame it as something you need his say-so in order to do. You can welcome his feedback, advice, concerns, fears, anxieties, whatever—but you can’t, and shouldn’t, ask his permission.
Q. Re: I dread having another child: This: “give her space to have whatever reaction she has.” I can’t second this enough. I was the one who wanted more, and my husband realized he didn’t. My feelings were a tangled up ball of anger, disappointment, and betrayal—but he didn’t push me and that space allowed me to deal with each in turn. Reassure your wife that you know this hurts her. Remind her that you’re willing to listen and console, or to leave her alone if she needs that. Respect that she may be, in fact, grieving. If my husband had tried to rush me into being fine with the new reality, our marriage would likely have “imploded” like the others you mention. You’re going to deliver a big hurt; give her space to heal.
A: Thank you so much for sharing this, and it’s really nice to hear from someone whose marriage has survived something as profound and painful as not wanting the same number of children. I hear so often from people whose marriages didn’t survive it, and I’m glad you two found ways to work through hurt and disappointment together.
Q. Re: Career change and a challenging spouse: Today, workers should look at their careers as being “lattices” instead of “ladders.” Switching to another industry, or taking another job in your same industry but in another field (moving from operations, to training or HR, for example) is common and provides a worker with a holistic view of an industry, and more “tools for the tool belt.” Additionally, as we age, it’s common to want to develop other skills (soft skills or hard skills) because our personalities and personal needs adapt and change. You’d be making yourself more versatile and more in demand, from a career standpoint, with more skills from different industries, than you would if you just stayed in one field. I’d speak to a career coach or head-hunter to get more information and hard data in this decision, rather than just believing what your husband says that making a change would result in a lower level job or a pay cut.
A: This is helpful; thank you! Your husband is not a part of this new industry you’re hoping to break into and may not have all the most up-to-date information about what the change would entail. Again, I want to stress that you get to make this decision even if he would do something different in your shoes. The goal should be to keep him informed and give reasonable answers to reasonable questions. He does have a right to that as your partner! But you’re just looking for information so you can make an informed decision, not trying to earn the right to do it.
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From Care and Feeding
I Can’t Wait for My Mom to Be a Grandma, but My Stepdad Is a Nightmare: She allowed him to abuse us as kids, and I don’t want to cycle to continue. What should I tell her about visits?
Read the answer to this and other parenting quandaries in Slate’s Care and Feeding column.