Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. One child only: I adore my son, but my pregnancy was a trial through the pits of hell. I was hospitalized continually in my last month, and my heart rate dropped so low it actually stopped once. While my son and I came out the other side OK, I am never going through this again. My husband has agreed to get a vasectomy. We agree this is for the best.
My husband’s sisters unexpectedly cornered him over us having a second child, and unfortunately he was honest. Now they have made it their mission to correct us. We have talked to them, told them their comments are hurtful and unwelcome, and they stop only to sneak it in in regular conversation. I was taking my son to the park to play with his cousins when my sister-in-law told me that it was “selfish” that my son would never know the “joy of playing with his brothers or sisters.” I opened my mouth without thinking, I retorted, “Only a selfish bitch would ask me to risk my life and leave my child without a mother because she can’t conceive of my life having any actual value.” I was so upset that I called my son over and we went home.
I have unleashed hell upon us. All my in-laws are up in arms over my “bitch” comment and excuse my sister-in-law as just being “concerned.” It has gotten to the point where I cry if I see their names on caller ID. I am tired of this! My husband agrees that his sisters are out of bounds but balks at cutting them out of our life altogether. He keeps telling me this will blow over. I don’t know what to do.
A: So your husband offers his sisters private information about your plans to have children and then when they turn their ire on you (funny how they don’t seem to be going after him for trying to get a vasectomy), he does, apparently, nothing besides reassure you that they won’t yell at you forever. Your husband is falling down on the job! It is breathtakingly rude and invasive, what his in-laws are doing, and while I agree that cutting them out of your lives altogether is a drastic step, asking you to put up with a torrent of cruelty and speculation for not endangering your body with another pregnancy is frankly more drastic.
All your husband needs to say is: “If you can’t speak to my wife without criticizing our decision not to have more children, then you need to take a break from calling us. The two of us made this decision together, and it’s unfair of you to target her and not me. Whenever you feel able to make friendly conversation about a topic other than our fertility, we’d love to hear from you. Until then, please save it for a journal or your therapist.” If he’s not willing to say something so comparatively mild in your defense (and I very much hope that he does—you almost died during your last pregnancy and his family is descending upon you to make you feel guilty for not doing it again, so his standing by in this moment is cowardly and unconscionable), then you should at the very least stop taking their calls until your in-laws can be civil.
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Q. Work time: I just started a new job after many years of living in poverty. I was living without insurance, struggling to feed myself, and barely able to make rent. I am now making good money (by my standards) at a position that I really enjoy. I enjoy the work as well as my colleagues, but my supervisor, Renee, is not my cup of tea. I knew that she wasn’t the best fit for me when I started the position, but I was so desperate for money that I couldn’t wait on the other jobs that were considering me to give me an offer.
Renee has a host of communication issues, but my main challenge with Renee is that work is her entire world. She chooses to work 60-hour weeks and expects me to do the same in my position. It is clear that she has no life outside of work. When she offered me the job, she told me that she expected me to work a lot, and I obliged out of a deep need for money. I am working between 43 and 45 hours a week, but I can tell that this upsets her. I have already spoken to human resources about my physical and mental inability to work the same hours as Renee, and the HR officer completely understood my concerns and urged me to disregard any requests that Renee makes. The HR manager expressed that many people have had issues with Renee in the past and that I would absolutely not be punished for simply getting the job done without putting in ridiculous hours, especially as there is nothing in my contract that mentions me working outrageous hours! My feeling is that as long as my work is getting done and I am behaving in a professional manner, there shouldn’t be an issue.
I am not willing to give up my life, friends, and mental health for a job. However, I need the money badly, and I am happy to be getting back on my feet financially. Should I just give this job a year or two, attempting to fly under the radar while working normal hours, and then find a supervisor who takes better care of herself without looping me into her issues with boundaries? Is there some language that you can give me around how to thoughtfully counter Renee’s suggestions that I am not working enough?
A: I’m really glad that HR has gone on the record as saying that you’re well within your rights not to match Renee’s hours and encouraged you to hold firm, although I wish they’d also helped you escalate the issue to management (does Renee have a supervisor herself?) so that someone above her makes it clear that she needs to stop commenting on your hours.
I think setting a goal of a year or 18 months while also looking for other supervisors with reasonable work-life balances is a good idea. In the meantime, if Renee is upset that you’re only working 45 hours a week, don’t make her happiness your problem. If she’s doing more than just passive-aggressively signaling that she’s upset—like actually asking you to work late or come in early or making frequent digs about the hours you keep—then I think the best response is just “I’m able to get all my tasks done while sticking to the hours I was hired to work. Is there a particular project you wanted to ask me about? Otherwise I think we’ve exhausted this subject.”
I don’t know if Renee has hiring power, but if she doesn’t have the ability to fire you herself and you know that HR is willing to back you up, I think you can ignore any comments she makes about your hours after that. A boss isn’t exactly easy to ignore, I realize, and I hope that if you do decide to bring this up again with her own supervisor, she’ll be given a warning and either decides to change or is taken out of a managerial position.
Q. Which English to speak? I am from a rural area of the U.S. with a unique dialect. Despite an extensive education and relocation to an urban area, I’ve fought to retain my dialect, which I consider to be an important part of my identity. I can of course code-switch, but at home I prefer to speak freely in the way I was raised.
Now that I have children, I’d like to impart this dialect to them. My partner, however, strongly objects, insisting that it is confusing and that I teach them to speak properly. I could use some perspective. I don’t want to disadvantage my children, but I hate to think that we will lose the richness of our linguistic history.
A. This is a really basic primer on bilingual kids, but there’s a lot of research supporting the idea that children are not in fact confused by learning more than one language or more than one dialect in the home, so your partner’s fears are misguided. If he’s willing to learn a bit more about early childhood language development, it should put those fears to rest; in the meantime, you should absolutely share your dialect with your children.
Q. Re: One child only: As the mother of an only child for various reasons, frankly those sisters are way, way out of line. If they’re going to go after the letter writer for their decision about procreating, they’ll go after her forever. Her husband needs to be much more forceful, as in: “The structure of our family is absolutely none of your business.” I’d have cut my family off in a heartbeat if they’d dared to criticize our decision to have an only child.
A. Yeah, this seems like the sort of situation where it would be gracious to offer a one-time only opportunity for them to get their act together—and if they don’t, stop taking their calls or accepting their invitations to get together. The bar here is so low! It’s just: “Don’t harass my wife about our decision not to have more children”! That leaves countless thousands of topics for conversation still available.
Q. Mother dearest: I’m a 27-year-old woman from a culture that is hugely deferential to parental opinion. I’m a successful lawyer, responsible with my life and my money … and I’m miserable. I find myself constantly being berated by my mother dearest for staying late at work, having friends, getting the occasional drink, or even getting a haircut. Anything that doesn’t meet her approval (which is nearly everything) ends in me getting the silent treatment. For instance, when I had to stay at work until 2 a.m. recently, I heard, “You don’t care for your mother. If you wanted me to be healthy, you wouldn’t pick a job that gives me stress.” (Prudie, my job doesn’t give me as much stress as my mum claims it gives her.)
I’ve been seeing a doctor and a therapist for general anxiety and depression. My question is: At what stage do I push back? I cannot handle “If you don’t do exactly as I say, I don’t want to be your mother.” I love my mother. But I also want to be able to live my own life and not worry about my mother not loving me because I work long hours or am asleep at 10 a.m. on a Saturday.
A: I think you push back at the stage where you’re seeing a doctor and a therapist, being constantly berated for things like running errands or having a social life, and feeling miserable. Now is a very, very good time to push back. I don’t know if you’ve talked much to other women who share your background about how they’ve set limits with their own mothers, but it might help to talk to people who know your particular cultural context and have been in similar positions as you figure out what battles you think are worth fighting and which ones aren’t. I’m not quite sure if you were hoping for specific advice on what to say to her or just permission to say something at all. You can certainly have both!
You know, I think that the first attempt at pushback will likely result in increased conflict. If you’ve never really tried to set limits with your mother before, the first time you say, “I’m not going to be available to talk tomorrow. I’m sleeping in and then I’ve made plans with friends,” she’s liable to escalate in order to discourage you from ever saying something like that again. That just means you’ll have to plan the first “act of rebellion” (actually just, you know, moderate distance) out in advance, and you’ll also have to figure out how to handle receiving the silent treatment from your mother in a way that doesn’t result in your calling her back and apologizing. Ask a friend to help you out when you feel like picking up the phone out of guilt, or ask your therapist for tips on what to do when you start to feel guilty and overwhelmed and like you’re hurting your mother by allowing her to ignore you.
The main question you’ll have to answer, I think, is this: “How can I genuinely enjoy my day knowing that my mother is trying to control my behavior by sulking and acting as if I’m hurting her by establishing independence?”
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Q. Husband desperate for children: My husband is going on 40 and is desperate to be a father. We started trying five months ago, and it hasn’t happened yet. He is in a state of panic, afraid he will be a geriatric father and won’t live long enough to see his children get married and have children, despite being healthy, fit, and active.
His stress is affecting me in turn. He brings it up constantly, reacts with impatience when I get my period, and tells me to go get checked by a fertility specialist. He gets hypersensitive whenever he hears one of our friends is having a child, and he gets testy around our friends who are parents and who dominate the conversation with their own baby talk. He says this is something outside of himself, something he cannot control. He constantly compares himself to other men who are fathers, asking, “What do they have that I don’t?” He has made his inability to get me pregnant on the spot a failure on his part and, by extension, mine. He almost never wants sex except during my fertility window; then he insists we do it even if I’m bone tired and not in the mood.
I am trying my best to be patient and supportive. However, his anxieties are stressing me out, and I am resentful. Perhaps the fact that I can take or leave motherhood makes it hard for me to appreciate his struggle. But to me it makes no sense: He was raised in the West, has three university degrees, and yet cannot understand that not getting your wife pregnant within the first week of trying isn’t a failure on a man’s part?! He continues to cling to antiquated notions of what it means to be a “man.” He makes me feel like I failed him every time I fail to get pregnant. I have seen two doctors; one told me to lose weight, and the other scoffed and said I was young and fit and these things take time. I know from friends who’ve struggled with infertility that stress and desperation can actually hinder or delay conception. I am trying hard to stay relaxed, to track my cycle, and to assuage his fears while managing my own stress. How do I get through to him?
A. For starters, I hope you can start telling your husband, “No, I’m exhausted and not in the mood,” when he wants to have sex and you don’t. You are not a baby-producing machine, and if you don’t want to have sex, that’s a very good reason not to have it. All this nonsense about how he “cannot control” his own speech or behavior is just that: nonsense. His anxiety and fears that he put off having children until it’s too late may be very powerful indeed, and I’m certainly sympathetic to them, but it doesn’t mean he’s suddenly incapable of making choices or restraining his worst impulses. If his habit for dealing with fear is to take it out on you, hold your own menstrual cycle against you, behave rudely toward people who are already parents, and pressure you into having sex when you’re exhausted, then I’m worried about how he’s going to deal with fear when the two of you have children.
When you add to all that the fact that you personally can “take or leave” motherhood, I think you have every reason to take getting pregnant off the table until he can find real, workable strategies for managing his feelings like an adult. (Not to mention that he’s apparently already decided that whatever children you two have will need to get married and have children themselves before he dies, which is a lot of pressure to put on some kids that don’t even exist yet!) Don’t budge on this. He needs to figure this out before he becomes a parent, and it may be that his response when you ask for time and reflection convinces you that you don’t want to raise a child with him after all. This is worth taking your time over.
Q: Ex-fiancé fiasco: In February last year, my (then) fiancé ended our relationship with no explanation. His mantra was “I have nothing to say.” I was blindsided and wholeheartedly broken. In the following months, he would call and text me with wild things, ranging from “I miss you and think we should get back together” to “I’ve hired men to rape you on film and send it to me” (this was in response to my asking him to delete any personal photos he had of me in his possession).
I’ve now found out that he has a new fiancée. Again, this is less than a year after we broke up. How the hell does something like this happen? Part of me wants to reach out to her and let her know how vile and violent he became toward me. (But for the distance between us, I would have filed a police report. I was genuinely terrified for months he would make good on his threats.) But I’m also thinking it would be better for me to keep this unfortunate waste of the past five years of my life iced out, for the sake of my sanity. Some third-party opinions are sorely needed.
A: I think it’s worth filing a police report even though there’s a great distance between you. This man sounds unpredictable enough that I want you to have something on record in case he starts trying to threaten and harass you again. You are under no obligation to keep tabs on him or to do or say anything that might renew his attentions toward you; your only duty is to take care of yourself and keep yourself safe and far away from him. If you still speak to anyone who knows this guy, you might consider asking a mutual friend to offer her a word of warning, although my guess (or hope) is that he’s lost a lot of his friends once they found out what he did to you. You can, of course, try to reach out to her if you feel a strong desire to, but not if the idea fills you with terror and you’d only be doing so because you feel personally responsible for his monstrous behavior.
Q. Not on the same page (in fact, maybe a chapter ahead): I have been seeing someone for five months. About a month in, we discussed what we were looking for in a relationship and agreed that we eventually in the near future would be interested in a committed relationship, but a few things needed to come together before we took that step (at the time he was unemployed, and I was up for a potential transfer at work). We continued to see each other, met each other’s friends, talked about the future, and even spent his birthday together. He got a job, and I found out that I was not going to be transferred out of state, so things seemed to be progressing well.
Last night while getting ready to go to his best friend’s birthday celebration together, he dropped the bomb on me that he did not consider us exclusive and he has been continuing to see other people. This took me by surprise because, while we had not yet “defined the relationship,” all signs in my opinion were pointing to the fact that at least we were not actively seeking out other people. Obviously, I have made the age-old mistake like thousands before me by not verbally solidifying this. He communicated that he is not ready for a full-fledged relationship and feels that committing exclusively to someone indicates long-term commitment and the prospect of marriage. While I don’t fully disagree, we are in our late 20s and have talked about topics relating to where we want to live in five years, whether or not each of us wants children, et cetera. I fear that our approaching nearly six months of spending time together and him still feeling the need to see other people is not a promising sign. He says he has not slept with anyone since he started seeing me, but the fact that he still is actively going on dates with other women does raise the question of whether he even remotely sees a future with me. He tells me he needs more time to figure out what he wants since he went through a devastating breakup a year and a half ago and keeps repeating how much he likes me and doesn’t want to lose me.
I feel like we have already been emotionally attached and quite couplelike, so the fact that he fails to recognize this or feels differently is very upsetting. I don’t want to push him away and ruin what potential we have because I am falling for him and see a future with him. I also understand he may process his emotions differently than me and truly need more time to sort his feelings out. Nevertheless, I don’t want to be made to look like a fool. Should I give him a chance?
A. I agree that it’s important to ask for what you want, and that one shouldn’t assume sexual or romantic exclusivity until one’s had a conversation about it, but I also think it’s fair, given how things were going, to have believed you two were on a path toward increased commitment. I think you’re letting him misdirect you a bit, though, with all this talk of “I feel committing exclusively to someone implies the following” and “Well, I haven’t slept with anyone else.” The fact of his year-and-a-half-old breakup, devastating or not, is not information that you need in order to make your own decision. If you decide that you’re not interested in dating someone who’s still on the fence about committing to you after six months, I don’t think you’d be ruining any “potential.”
“I don’t want to lose you either. I really care about you, and I could see a future for us. But I also know that after six months, I’m already pretty emotionally invested in you, and I think you’ve gotten a chance to get to know me fairly well. If that wasn’t enough for you to feel ready to date me exclusively, and you want to keep seeing other people, then I just think we want different things and should part ways now. If you ever change your mind, I hope you’ll give me a call.” Don’t worry about “looking like a fool” or what you had the right to expect or anything else. Just be honest about what you’re looking for and don’t settle for something less than that in the hopes that it’ll ultimately get you what you want if you’re just patient enough and self-effacing enough.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: See you all next week! What a ride this week was. Remember to breastfeed with discernment and forbearance, everyone.
Q. Should I tell my company I miss work because of clinical depression? I am a high-performing individual at my workplace who also suffers from clinical depression and anxiety. I’ve discussed the basic issues with my boss, who seems vaguely supportive without truly understanding—she’s stated that I should do what I need to do for myself without really seeming to understand that sometimes I just can’t bear to come into work because of these illnesses. This year has been challenging so far, and I’ve taken four sick days this year where I’ve supplied other excuses for not being at work. Do I owe it to my boss/company to tell them why I’m really not there? This is a fairly progressive company, but I still fear backlash and prejudice because these are mental vs. physical illnesses.
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