Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Friends, today is going to be a live chat for the ages—these are some of the most intense problems I’ve seen come down the pike in a long while. Let’s dive in.
Q. Babies at work: I’m a liberal, late-30s feminist and small business owner. In my industry, most or all of my employees are women. I know I’m supposed to be supporting women in the workplace and the have-it-all thing, but an employee wants to bring her newborn to work. She claims that it’s “an easy, mellow baby.” This is bullshit, right? I choose not to have children for a reason and I have absolutely no interest in being around them all day long. My business partner (also a woman) thinks it would be fine. How do I put my foot down without seeming like an asshole?
A: I think it’s worth doing a little research and seeing what other workplaces have instituted similar policies (here’s a few offhand) before dismissing the idea completely. That doesn’t mean you have to institute a no-rules, all-babies-all-the-time policy, but it might be a good idea to figure out something you and your business partner can agree on that can apply to all employees. Ideally, child care wouldn’t be so exorbitantly expensive that it puts working parents, especially working mothers, in such a bind when it comes to figuring out how to get to work every day (and I don’t think “Don’t have children, then” is a particularly useful response).
All that said, you are of course within your rights to decide, with your partner, that your small office can’t accommodate children. If it’s small and open-plan, it might be difficult for other employees to take calls or concentrate. Plus, the building is likely not baby-proofed and your insurance might not cover an accident that involved a baby on the premises. So you have plenty of legitimate concerns that aren’t just “I don’t like your baby.”
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Q. Married with a dance partner: My wife doesn’t share my passion for live music and dancing, so lately I’ve been going to concerts and festivals alone or with friends. At a recent festival, I ended up dancing most of the night with a woman I just met. It was just fun at first, but then the dancing got closer and more intense and our conversation got more personal, though I never told her I was married. At the end of the night, she invited me to come home with her, but I turned her down and said I would just look for her the next day. She agreed, but we didn’t exchange numbers and we weren’t able to reconnect.
I’ve been agonizing over this. I cheated on my wife emotionally and want to put this in the past, but I also found an amazing dance partner who shared my interest and tastes in music but didn’t know I was married. I feel like I owe an explanation to both women. I have already recommitted to a stronger, more emotionally connected relationship with my wife, but I should probably also tell her about my dancing fling. For my dance partner, I want to track her down (she told me where she works) and come clean about being married. Then she’ll know why I brushed her off and can decide whether she is interested in a platonic friendship around music, like I have with other close female friends. Is this possible or worth it? If so, how?
A: You are so close to being totally honest with yourself! I think it’s worth giving it that extra 15 percent. Have you ever had a platonic, meaningful friendship that began with tracking someone down whose number you didn’t have in order to say, “By the way, I didn’t give you my number so I wouldn’t cheat on my wife—I’m married, by the way—with you, but now that I’ve gotten someone you work with to give me your number, do you want to get together sometime and not cheat on my wife together again?” Those other close female friends of yours, I’m willing to bet, did not meet you under similar circumstances, so don’t try to trot them out as evidence that you’ll do just as good a job not sleeping with her as you’ve done not sleeping with them.
I’ll be generous and ask that question of all the other readers, and if anyone is able to say, “Yes, I developed a genuine, platonic friendship with someone on that exact same foundation,” I will grant you my permission to stalk this lady at her job. Leave this poor lady alone, please. She might have been interested in going on a date with the guy she had a nice time with at a music festival, but she definitely did not sign up for receiving the weird confessions of a married guy with a misplaced sense of personal and professional boundaries. You don’t need to come clean about anything; you guys had one nice conversation and danced together a few times, and she apparently handled your rejection with perfect aplomb, so I don’t think she’s losing sleep or otherwise suffering without a more detailed explanation about why you didn’t exchange numbers. Leave her alone and talk to your wife.
Q. Bad host: A friend, “Nadine,” and I coincidentally moved to the same vacation-destination city within six months of each other. We have since both had mutual friends visit and stay overnight with either of us, and we all socialize together when they are here.
About three months ago, she invited “Faith,” a girl she is close to but whom I consider a friendly acquaintance. I thought the visit went well, but now my other friend “Lana” is planning a trip here next month and Faith has asked to tag along, with one caveat: Faith and Lana both want to stay at my house. Apparently, when Faith was last here, Nadine was a terrible and inconsiderate host—keeping Faith awake with noise, making her sit around the apartment (when the whole reason for Faith’s trip was to explore the city!), using Faith as a chore girl (Nadine only has one car and her boyfriend takes it to work every day), etc. I truly don’t think Nadine was being purposefully rude; she has problems picking up social cues and I think she doesn’t think anything went wrong with the visit.
If I say yes to having Lana and Faith stay at my house, Nadine is going to be furious, thinking that we are excluding her and that at least one friend should stay with her. I have a large house with a guest room; asking Lana and Faith to find an Airbnb would not be an option. How do we all navigate this without hurting Nadine’s feelings? I should also note that Faith did address some things with Nadine at the time, but her behavior changed minimally, if at all.
A: Asking Lana and Faith to make alternate arrangements is definitely an option! “I’m so sorry, I’m not able to host, but there are a number of lovely hotels nearby.” If you plan on staying in this vacation-destination city for a long time and you don’t want to have a total open-door policy, you’re going to have to get used to saying that. You should also encourage Faith to talk to Nadine instead if she tries to complain to you about Nadine’s hosting skills again; if addressing “some things” didn’t help, then that means it’s time for round two of that conversation: “I really can’t help you out with that, I’m afraid, but I’m sure if you talked to Nadine about it, she’d listen.”
Just because you happen to live in a town a lot of people want to visit doesn’t mean you have to turn into a part-time hotel! Simply “not wanting to have guests” is a sufficient reason to say no to someone; you don’t have to have a stronger excuse than that, and you don’t need to get drawn into an argument about your reasons just because someone you’re friendly with decided to plan a vacation and assumed your house was theirs too.
Q. I am not a shopping cart: I am a 24-year-old wheelchair user with a damaged spine from a childhood injury. Other than the fact that I’m in a wheelchair, I look “healthy” by most people’s standards and it’s often assumed I am in a wheelchair for a short-term reason, or “faking.”
Recently, I was leaving my apartment building when a sudden weight landed abruptly on the back of my chair, nearly knocking me flying. I screamed, “What the fuck?” only to see a woman rushing toward me. Her child, a girl aged maybe 9 or 10, had jumped onto the back of my wheelchair from behind as if she were trying to ride it. Her mother yelled, “Don’t you dare swear at my child like that!” I said I was sorry but that she had jumped on my wheelchair and I was alarmed. The mother then said, gesturing at my legs, “She was only playing! Why not let her have a ride? You can obviously walk.” I explained that I absolutely cannot walk due to having a bolt in my spine, but this woman interrupted me, saying, “She just wants to play, like on the shopping carts at the store. Don’t overreact!” I told her to go to hell at this point and moved away as quickly as possible, while she shouted something else at me that I didn’t catch.
Unfortunately, this woman and her daughter live in my building, and now whenever I see them, the woman makes snide comments to her child like, “Stay away from the mean wheelchair lady, honey,” and “There’s the fake sick lady.” I know I should just ignore this, but it’s really upsetting me and giving me a lot of anxiety about leaving my apartment each day. Can you please give any advice on what to do here? How could I have handled it better in the first place? Is there anything I can do about this horrible situation, any script I can use to stop her saying these things? Or am I best to just ignore it until one of us leaves?
A: I’m so sorry that this woman has made you the target of her ableist harassment. I’d encourage you to talk to your building’s supervisor, stressing that you’re concerned this woman won’t restrain her child and you might be at risk of further injury; hopefully your supervisor can warn her to leave you alone. As to how you could have handled it in the first place—frankly, I don’t know that there’s anything I’d have advised you to do differently. Exclaiming in surprise and pain is a pretty understandable response to being suddenly struck, and you didn’t go out of your way to blame the little girl once you realized who had struck you. The girl’s mother bears sole blame for claiming you don’t actually need your wheelchair (!), saying you had no right to be startled or upset when her daughter nearly knocked you over, and comparing you to an inanimate object that her child likes to play on. This woman is monstrous, and I’m so upset that she’s passing along her cruel, ableist ideas to her daughter by calling you “fake sick.”
I don’t want you to be alone when you ask her to stop harassing you, because I’m worried she’ll escalate and might even try to hurt you (or encourage her daughter to do so). Are there any other people in the building you’re friendly with, whom you could count on for support if you shared this harassment with them? Maybe even just having someone walk with you occasionally when you leave the apartment so you know you won’t have to encounter her alone would help. If any of our readers have had similar problems, please let us know what worked for you.
Q. Re: Babies at work: As someone who has children, any baby will be distracting to others and I am certain this person won’t get the same amount of work done with the baby at the office. Even if companies allow employees to telecommute, they usually require child care because we all know having kids around when you are working is a distraction. Be sure you have a private place for this woman to pump, and maybe allow her to bring her baby in or work from home in emergencies. Maybe also see if you are able to accommodate her schedule around day care or such. (Some day cares mandate a pickup time, which can be difficult for some parents with work schedules.) There’s a reason why we all don’t have our “mellow” babies at the office! Good luck.
A: Yeah, I think this is mostly a good opportunity to figure out policies about one-off or emergency situations, rather than an opportunity for the letter writer to become a champion of babies in the workplace. I think the suggestion of having a convenient, comfortable place to pump if possible is a good one. Thanks!
Q. Re: Married with a dance partner: Prudie’s answer was spot-on about the partner, but I want to disagree and say DO NOT TELL YOUR WIFE. As one advice columnist wrote years ago (wish I could remember whom, but I read too many), a one-time transgression often should not be reported to a partner. The guilt you feel is your punishment, and your desire to confess your non-affair is just a way to transfer that pain onto your spouse for no good reason. If you really feel so guilty, you won’t do it again, so keep your mouth shut and take this bad feeling in your gut as a clue that you shouldn’t come on to other women.
A: I don’t know that I want to take a universal stance on “reporting near-infidelity to one’s spouse” based solely on how often it happened. The premise of such advice is usually that the one-time or would-be cheater is thoroughly aware of what they did to get to that particular situation and is never going to do it again, and this dude’s judgment seems iffy enough (between the fact that he’s apparently had an emotional affair in the past and genuinely seems to think a platonic friendship with this new woman is a viable option) that I think he and his wife probably do need to have a few serious conversations about what fidelity means to them.
Q. Snoring like a lady: I am a woman in my late 30s. And I snore, loudly and obnoxiously. I have done so almost all my life, and it’s caused me horrible anxiety. Even putting aside being made fun of as a teenager at summer camp and sleepovers, just the thought of going on a trip with friends is terrifying—of course my nighttime serenades annoy them and prevent them from sleeping well, and I hate knowing I’m the source of it.
And then, of course, there’s my dating life. Well, my lack of dating life. The last time I had a boyfriend was a couple of years ago. He didn’t care for me less because I snored, but would often wake me up in the middle of the night if it was bad enough to try to get me to stop. This, obviously, is less than ideal. Since him (we broke up for other reasons), I have not dated. Just the idea of telling a guy, “Hey! We seem to have great chemistry, but I must warn you I snore like a jet engine,” or having him find out the first time we spend the night together, is overwhelming. My friends constantly wonder why I don’t make more of an effort to date, and I can’t tell them why.
I know this sounds so incredibly dramatic and ridiculous because there are obviously a billion more things worse than snoring, but every now and then I get so angry that I was dealt this card. How do I deal with this? I’ve been to doctors, had medical intervention, tried those stupid mouth devices, etc. Nothing has worked or been feasible as a long-term solution.
A: I’ll take you at your word when you say you’ve been thorough and diligent about looking for medical solutions, so I’ll stick to the problem of 1) how to work up the nerve to go on first dates in the first place and 2) how to disclose to prospective partners that you snore before your first sleepover, without sending yourself into a tailspin. (This may not be much of a comfort to you, but a lot of people snore. A lot of women too; you’re not alone. I wish we could come up with a dating service that partnered heavy snorers together so they could help exchange tips and offer support.) You’re aware that your friends and maybe even potential dates might not be as bothered by the snoring as you are, that the real problem is your anxiety about disclosing and being vulnerable, which makes me wonder if some short-term therapeutic treatment (particularly cognitive behavioral therapy–oriented) might be helpful. If you haven’t already looked into that, I’d encourage you to try.
Q. Re: I am not a shopping cart: I’m sure I would have said worse things in the moment to a woman who told her 10-year-old to jump on a stranger. You could write to your landlord about the apartment’s ADA compliance and whether there are policies with regard to jumping on other tenants, citing this case. (Mention their unit number if you know it.) My letting agency would be concerned about tenants making others unsafe and harassing on the basis of disability status.
A: That’s helpful, thank you. I really want this letter writer to have everyone and everything in their corner. You need all the protection, documentation, and backup you can get.
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From Ask a Teacher
My son attends an economically diverse school where more than half of students receive free or reduced lunch. During the book fair, one of his friends told him that he was sad because he would never get a book (we bought one for my son). We are comfortable and, while we won’t go crazy at the book fair, one book will not cause undue hardship. My son wanted to buy his friend a book, but I don’t know if that’s the best solution. When I was growing up, I was that kid never able to get things at the book fair, so I know how that feels. How do teachers handle disparity in incomes between students—both talking about it honestly, and helping to remedy it? Are there things parents can or should do to directly help our children’s classmates without insulting their families?