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. Trapped in a deeply unhappy marriage: I have been married to my husband for 17 long years. I quit working when our second child was a year-and-a-half old. We now have four children and three of them have special needs. I have tried to return to work for the past six years but have been unable to get a job that would pay for child care. I have a master’s degree, but it has not helped me find gainful employment after such a long time as a stay-at-home parent.
I want to leave my husband; I cannot. I have no job and no support. He has made it clear that he will not pay me child support or alimony. I know a court could compel him, but if I banked on this and he was late on paying, I would be in a very desperate position with my children. We attend a church, and he has told a few people—mostly women—a deep tale of marital woe that spread, and now I am treated like a pariah. One such person is a woman with whom he is having an emotional affair. We have gone to marriage counseling, but it didn’t heal anything; he was charming and won the therapist over.
I am happy to be a mother and grateful I can take the kids to their various appointments and therapies. I adore my children; they are everything to me. I know this is a privileged place. I don’t know what to do. I am miserable and lonely. Are there any resources for people like me? Is there anything for me, save for “wait and just survive”?
A: I think a strategy of waiting and focusing on your own sanity and well-being is a good one, but I want to be able to help you prepare for the day when you are eventually able to leave your husband, even if that day is still far off. I think the best next step is to look for any remote, part-time work you can do while staying at home with your children so you can start to save money of your own in an account your husband doesn’t have access to. If it’s possible to set up a single meeting with a lawyer, it may be that there are options you’re not yet aware of when it comes to dividing up your assets sooner rather than later, and I don’t trust your husband to give you the most up-to-date information that may be in your favor.
If any readers have had similar experiences or know of any relevant resources, please let us know in the comments: What else can she do to make her present situation more bearable and to prepare to file for divorce without ruining herself financially in the future?
Q. How can I be fat-positive in a professional setting? I am a 29-year-old woman who is fat. I’ve always had a big belly, ever since I was a small child, and as an adult I commonly get questions about my pregnancy. I have never been pregnant and don’t ever plan to become pregnant. I often just say “I’m not pregnant, just fat!” which elicits a wide array of responses; most I just laugh it off. Sometimes people will follow up with, “I’m sorry, you aren’t fat!” I had a co-worker once say, “I didn’t know you were pregnant!” When I responded “I’m not,” she just laughed at me. I once even had a client argue with me that she was sure I was pregnant the last time we spoke a few months ago.
How am I supposed to respond to this? I have gotten this response from strangers, rude co-workers, and clients at the domestic violence shelter I work at. I don’t mind being fat. I am healthy and able to do everything I want to do. I’m mostly OK with my body. I grew up with a lot of cruelty from my family, and it can be hurtful to hear mean things said about my body. I obviously can’t tell off a co-worker or client, but I want to make it clear to them that my body isn’t open for discussion. Additionally, I want to make it clear that they shouldn’t be concerned with anybody’s shape, size, or body.
A: It’s so remarkable to see, in that moment, someone realize just what they mean when they say, “You aren’t fat”—namely, “I like you, and fat people are [lazy/unattractive/bad/fill in the stereotype here], and you’re not any of those things, so you can’t possibly be fat,” even though you’ve just asserted your own fatness, calmly and without asking forgiveness. Their discomfort at realizing just how much they use the shape of a person’s body to assign value is serious, and I think it’s fine to let them sit in an uncomfortable silence without trying to rescue the moment, even if it is a client. But you can always change the subject after that with, “I’m ready to stop discussing my body now. Are you?”
Maybe a local domestic violence shelter doesn’t have a robust corporate human resources department, but surely there are companywide policies about things you should never say to clients. You might talk to your supervisor about adding discussing other people’s bodies, whether client or co-worker, to that list. I’m so sorry that you’ve been put in this situation so often, and I’m so angry on your behalf that, on top of the difficult work you’re already doing, you have to repeatedly argue with other people about whether or not you’re pregnant because they’ve decided your size means your body is up for public debate. And while your job may require a great deal of sensitivity and patience, it’s still perfectly polite and professional to tell someone they’re being rude and they need to stop when they laugh at your body or start sputtering about how you must be pregnant. With co-workers, especially, you have the grounds to say, “You need to stop talking about my body, and I hope you don’t say these things to our clients or other people in your life.”
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Q. Family distance: I got kicked out of the house at 16 by my abusive mother. I lived with my boyfriend’s parents for the next four years (lots of weird dinners when my ex-boyfriend brought new girlfriends over). My younger sisters “Molly” and “Nell” were 15 and 12 at the time.
We are all adults now. I haven’t spoken to my mother for years and am struggling to keep a relationship with my sisters. Nell wants to play family fixer and get me to reconcile with our mother. She tries guilt tactics like, “Mom has changed; she deserves a second chance” or “Forgiveness is good for you.” I tell Nell not to bring up the subject or I will hang up the phone. I had to do this twice last week. Molly edits the past and makes up stories to excuse her own actions; i.e., all her bosses hate her, all her exes are abusive, and I owe her (money, time, attention) because I “abandoned” her as a kid. I remind her our mother kicked me out with nothing but the clothes I was wearing and that Molly avoided me at school for months. Molly will stop but then start saying the same BS a few weeks later.
I try to keep my boundaries, but I feel like I am putting my finger in a leaky dam. When it is great, it is glorious. I love my sisters, but I am tired of treading the same conversations again and again. I don’t want to cut them off like I had to do my mother; that was an emotional amputation to save my soul. What do I do now?
A: I think your strategy with Nell is a good one, and the fact that you had to use it twice last week is a sign that you’re doing the right thing. It’s not necessarily going to get her to stop right away, and that’s not really the goal (much as you might want it to be). The goal is just to not have to listen to her go on about your mother, and as long as you’re getting off the phone in time, that counts as a success. To whatever extent you’re able, stay relatively calm and cheerful when you do so as not to give her grounds to start an argument over your tone.
When it comes to Molly, I wonder if there’s an opportunity for gently disengaging some of the time. You’ve had to do so much work when it comes to your family, and it sounds wearying. I don’t want you to have to feel responsible for making sure Molly develops a more realistic and less persecuted worldview, especially because you say that things are wonderful when she’s not trying to relive the past, this time as director.
I think you should continue to correct her when she says something you have direct evidence didn’t happen (“Actually, Mom kicked me out of the house”) and try to listen as open-mindedly as possible the rest of the time (she may very well have had some bad exes and bosses). I can’t promise you that this tactic means you won’t eventually run into conflict with your sisters on the same subject—that may very well be inevitable—but I think it’s worth picking your battles with them, and finding friends who may also come from really challenging family backgrounds to commiserate with in the meanwhile.
Q. Re: Trapped in a deeply unhappy marriage: There are a lot of options for the letter writer.
I’m going to assume she’s in the U.S.: She can apply for supplemental security income for her kids with special needs, which would give them a small amount of income but, more importantly, guarantees free medical care and some services. It also makes it much easier for them as adults if they need that Social Security. She should look into services where she lives; in my state, she would probably be eligible for “waivered” services where she could have access to special-needs caregivers and other things like equipment or respite care.
One question is where her husband’s income comes from. If he has a regular job with an employer, it’s pretty easy to get child support taken out directly and her county’s child support agency can help her get started with that. If he’s self-employed or works for his family, it can be much more difficult.
Alimony, at this point in time, mainly exists in the minds of sitcom writers and for the crazy rich, but this woman is in one of the situations in which it still is frequently ordered—that of a stay-at-home mom with special needs kids. The courts get how impossible this can be. No guarantees, of course, but she stands a good chance. She has many things she could do, and can start doing while she’s still married (the SSI thing will take a while).
A. This is so helpful, thank you. The letter writer can spend some time on a fact-finding mission to figure out how to make leaving go from a near-impossibility to a maybe still-far-off but definite possibility. It’ll make the time go faster if she knows she’s taking steps toward making her dream a reality, and she doesn’t just have to depend on her husband’s whims when it comes to making sure their children are provided for, even after they divorce.
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Q. Just a mom, I guess: My co-worker and I work together really closely on a project that involves working with kids a lot. Last winter, I had a baby and immediately jumped into this project after returning from maternity leave. It was high-stress and I struggled with coping with the long hours and solo parenting while my husband was out of town for long stretches, and I was later diagnosed with postpartum anxiety.
Midway through our project, my co-worker noticed a crying child and instead of asking me if I could help in a neutral, professional way, he told me to “go be maternal.” I was shocked in such a way that it didn’t register for a while, but suddenly our entire dynamic shifted. Where we’d been a great team before, suddenly I felt myself quick to anger, quick to give the silent treatment, and quick to jealousy when I saw him treating other female co-workers as more than mere mother figures. I confronted him about it, and he apologized, but I cannot let it go. I know it’s partially my fault for not accepting the apology (I told him I did at the time because what was I supposed to do?) and partially because it was an offhand sexist comment delivered at the exact wrong time when I was insecure about everything, from how good I was at my job to my qualifications as a mother. I keep getting frustrated with this co-worker and want to just burn it all down with him, but I know it’s a bridge I can’t burn, so I feel trapped.
How do I move toward where I can accept this apology and repair a good working relationship so many months later? We share an office with a hot, talented non-mom who I think he has a crush on, which makes it even worse.
A. How much longer is this project going to last, and will you have to continue to work with him super closely once it’s over? If it’s just a matter of keeping your head down for another couple of weeks, I don’t think you should worry overmuch about “genuinely” forgiving him so much as remaining professional and getting back to your normal responsibilities. If you’ll have to keep working closely together for a long time, I hope you can cut yourself a little slack. I’m glad he apologized, but just because someone else offers you an apology doesn’t mean you have to instantly forget what they did to hurt you. It doesn’t start a countdown clock toward perfect absolution or set a deadline you have to meet—it’s the start, not the end, of repairing.
My guess is that your co-worker has noticed the change in your dynamic, and I think it’s worth taking some time to talk about it again. If you think you need additional help, you can mention it to human resources (since this is the kind of dynamic that falls under their purview and you might be able to get some institutional support), but otherwise I’d recommend something like this: “I appreciated your apology about the ‘maternal’ remark, but I’m still finding it hard to move past it. It really made me second-guess how you see me and our working relationship. If I occasionally need a little space to work alone or to catch up over email instead of in-person, I hope you can understand that. I don’t need you to apologize again, but I do need your cooperation as I take a little time to re-establish a coworking relationship.” To whatever extent you’re able to occasionally work from home/out of a coffee shop/in a nearby conference room, I hope you can do it. If you reach a point where you think you simply can’t continue working with him, I think it’s worth telling your boss and asking to be reassigned before you reach a breaking point and actually burn that bridge.
Q. Fight or flight? My husband and I have been married for less than 10 years. For the past five years, I have been watching my husband waste away. He has severe depression and is not doing anything to help himself or accept help from others. He stays in bed all day when he is not working, is cruel to me and our children (not physically abusive), and refuses to help me with anything (including calling 911 when I tripped and broke my leg in the house last year).
What makes matters worse is that we are both mental health professionals. I have exhausted my resources to try to get him help. I’ll make appointments, and he will miss them. Once I stayed at home to get him to an appointment, and he became very hostile and violent in refusing to go. Local laws don’t help because, surprisingly, he doesn’t meet the standards to have him committed or give me authority to make decisions for him. He has to consent to treatment, but he won’t. I can’t treat him, ethical issues aside, because he literally won’t speak at all if I bring it up.
At what point is it OK for me to leave him? I still love him and want him to be well. I miss my husband! Last week, our daughter told my mother that she is afraid of her daddy. I don’t want my children raised like this. I can’t live the rest of my life nervous to be around my husband.
A. I think you know you need to leave your husband, and the reason you’re asking “at which point is it OK for me to leave him?” is that you want to know if you’ve suffered enough already, if you’ve already reached the point where any other person in your shoes would make the same choice, if your own safety and your children’s well-being are sufficient concerns. But this isn’t a matter of permission. You’re not abandoning someone in need, and depression isn’t what’s causing your husband’s cruelty. It’s not what kept him from calling an ambulance when you were lying at home with a broken leg unable to get up, and it’s not what caused him to become violent toward you. It’s not just “OK” for you to go; it’s important for you to go.
You can go and still love him; you can go and wish the best for him, but you absolutely need to go. Depression does not cause a man to become violent with his spouse when she tries to take him to the doctor, and it doesn’t cause a man to deny her medical care when she’s hurt. You say he’s not physically abusive, but the physical abuse has already started, and one of your children has already learned that her father is someone to be afraid of—it’s not just OK to go, you deserve to go, you need to go, and you get to go.
Q. Father’s history of sexual assault: My parents have been separated since I was 3 years old; I am now 22. I’ve had a distant and often difficult relationship with my father for my entire life, although it has improved somewhat in the last few years. When she felt I was old enough to know, my mom told me that my dad had been a psychiatric nurse but was fired for having an affair with one of his patients, and that this was the main reason they had separated. Being quite young, I didn’t really consider what this meant, and although I was upset, I never brought it up with my dad.
Yesterday, I (purely by chance) found a local news article from the late ’90s, describing how my father had made sexual advances on multiple vulnerable patients of his. This included groping an 18-year-old girl in his car who he knew already had a history of sexual abuse. He also had sex multiple times with a woman he was treating for depression.
I have no idea what to do with this information. I don’t think I can (or should) pretend nothing has changed the next time I speak to my dad, but I have no idea what to say. He sexually assaulted multiple vulnerable women 20 years ago, and there’s nothing he could say that would make that fact any less true or awful. Is it my moral duty to cut him out of my life over this? I have no idea what to feel or do right now.
A. You only learned about this yesterday. Your father is no longer a psychiatric nurse and there is no immediate danger to any vulnerable patients, so your only moral duty at present is to give yourself some time and space to process this shocking, sudden news. Find a therapist if you can afford it; talk about this with friends you trust. Consider speaking with your mother before speaking with him, although I think you should give yourself a few days at least before you bring this up to her.
Ask yourself what kind of relationship with your father you can imagine yourself having in light of this news. What kind of consequences would you want him to have faced for this? What kind of internal and external work would he need to have done in order for you to feel like more had changed in his life than the mere passage of time? You don’t have to rush to get the answers to these questions right now. It may be that part of you already feels guilty or ashamed for having any residual feelings of tenderness or affection for your own father, and I hope you can remind yourself that loving your father is not a moral choice—you were a child when he committed those crimes, you never knew about or tried to excuse them, and contemplating having a conversation with him about those crimes is not the same thing as offering him absolution.
I think this information will likely change your relationship with your father—it likely already has—and you’re right to be horrified and upset. Children whose parents have committed sexual assaults are sometimes referred to as secondary victims for the way the effects of those crimes reverberate in their own lives. But these crimes are not yours. I hope you can take all the time and space you need to sift through these questions and that you have a lot of friends in your corner ready to offer support.
Q. Re: Trapped in a deeply unhappy marriage: Not a lawyer, but my understanding is that the court prioritizes the well-being of the children over either parent when it comes to divvying up assets. In this case and with your special needs children, the court would almost certainly compel your husband to pay child support—a considerable amount—and quite possibly garnish it out of his wages so he doesn’t even get to see the money before it goes to your kids. It sounds like your husband knows this and, in order to avoid that fate, he has resorted to emotionally manipulating you and cutting you off from all forms of outside support. You need to talk to a lawyer, stat. There are more options available to you than your husband is leading you to believe.
A. This is very much in line with the other responses I’ve gotten about this letter—the letter writer’s husband isn’t just trying to make sure their community only knows his side of the story, he’s trying to make sure his wife doesn’t have any outside information on what she’s entitled to. But the good news is that he doesn’t actually have a monopoly on reality, and just because he feels like he shouldn’t have to help support the family they created together in the event of a divorce doesn’t make it true.
From Care and Feeding
My 8-year-old son is a very messy eater. Yogurt, cereal, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese—he starts out with the utensil but eventually starts eating with his fingers. Then he unconsciously wipes his hands on his pants. After every meal, I have to sweep under the table and wipe down the table and chair, which he had been touching with his disgusting hands. He also frequently knocks over cups of milk, which are not fun to clean up. I thought this would all be over by now! He’s in third grade, and his other friends are not like this.