Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Hello, everyone—let’s chat.
Q. Druggy grandma: My mother-in-law lived with us briefly a few months back. She was living with us because she had gotten back on drugs after five years of sobriety and almost died from stomach ulcers. We gave her a place to stay because she swore it was a one-time mistake caused by the man she was seeing at the time. She told all of us she was done with this man, who was letting her bleed to death on the bathroom floor.
A couple weeks ago, she received a large insurance settlement for a car accident. She left our house then and told us she was just going to pay off some debt and settle things with her dad before coming back to stay, but then she never came back. A few weeks passed, and we got a text message saying she was in town and wanted us to meet her new boyfriend. It turns out she was at a local casino and the new boyfriend is actually the same man who supposedly got her back on drugs and actually did leave her to die alone. It now seems clear she is also committing insurance fraud by gambling the money away instead of paying back the insurance and will likely go back to prison at some point if she is caught.
My question is, how do we explain what is happening to our young children? They are 4 and 6 and have been wondering what happened to Grandma. They ask regularly why she doesn’t stay with us anymore and why she never comes around. We don’t want her or this man back in our lives. My mother-in-law does not respect anyone’s boundaries, so she may well show up on our porch with this guy. She could easily show up anywhere they are this summer, and I need them to understand that they should not go with her at all. How can we get them to understand?
A: I think it’s time to find an age-appropriate way of describing addiction to the kids—something along the lines of “Grandma loves you, but she has a problem called addiction, which means sometimes she’s not well, and which means we can’t see her as often as we might like.” That feels a bit clumsy and stilted—you might want to consult your pediatrician for more information about how to discuss addiction with kids under 10.
Q. Pay for cake: I used to be a semiprofessional baker, so I volunteered to do the wedding cake for my cousin’s wedding with the stipulation they would pay for materials. Bridezilla doesn’t begin to cover it. Six weeks to the wedding, she demanded six completely different cakes from chocolate to vegan. I made samples of them all and my cousin promised to reimburse me. The cost of materials topped over $500 since the bride changed her mind—again and again—after I bought materials. I sent the bill after the honeymoon. Nothing. I followed up and got rudely shut down. The bride was “upset” I would do this to “family,” and my cousin just shrugged. My aunt asked me what I expected and hung up on me when I said I didn’t expect my family to lie to me and rob me.
I am completely pissed off. My mother died when I was young, so my aunt and cousin are more like my second mom and little brother. I work in a field where $500 is not an indifferent amount to me. I also have complete documentation. I will win if I sue. I don’t want to, but the indifference of my family here when I went to the wall to give them my best (and deal with the princess bride) hurts. It really hurts. What do I do?
A: The pain and frustration at being squeezed for free cake, and then yelled at for trying to adhere to the terms of your agreement, is real and understandable. My worry for you is that the time and expense of going to small claims court over a $500 bill will quickly eat up whatever money you may be awarded. I think the best thing to do is mourn the fact that your cousin, his wife, and your aunt have all revealed themselves to be largely uninterested in treating you with respect and kindness and give them a wide berth from now on.
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Q. A queerie: I am a nonbinary queer dating a wonderful woman who identifies as a lesbian. I love her and we’ve been having a great time together. However, she hates the term queer when used in reference to herself. She fully supports other people using it, and fully supports using it for me, but whenever it’s used in the general sense of a group including her, she balks. She’s made it clear that she’s not part of the queer community, will never join me in queer spaces since she isn’t queer and doesn’t belong there and doesn’t want to intrude, and, while fully supporting the queer community, doesn’t see herself as part of it.
Prudie, being queer is a huge thing for me. It’s a major part of my identity, and while she hasn’t asked me to stop using it for myself, only for her, I can’t help but be betrayed. This has been the source of a lot of arguments for us, since I try to explain why she should use it and she says I’m disrespecting her identity by trying to force a term onto her that she doesn’t identify as, which isn’t the way I see it at all. How can I make her see the light and start accepting that she is queer? Or is this a lost cause, and should I end it to find someone who’s more aligned with my opinions toward such an important word?
A: I think whenever you find yourself in the position of saying, “How can I convince my partner to identify differently than she does?” you’re not doing her any favors. She clearly understands her lesbianism as compatible with your queerness and doesn’t harbor any animosity toward your identity or your friends who share it, so I think you should take her at her word and let go of the idea that you can convince her to adopt that term for herself if you can only explain it better. I get that you don’t see yourself as trying to force her to do anything, but even if you think her reasons for not calling herself queer aren’t good ones, they’re still her reasons and you need to respect them. Language like “How can I make her see the light” is not good, I think; she’s not a lesbian because she’s insufficiently enlightened. She’s a lesbian because she’s a lesbian. If you can’t see yourself accepting this situation, then I think breaking up is probably the best thing for the two of you. But if you can try to at least approach this with curiosity and respect, there may be an opportunity for mutual support, solidarity, and difference here. I wish you the best of luck with whatever option you choose.
Q. Family secrets: My mother refuses to keep a confidence and proudly has said for years that there are no secrets in her marriage. I learned early on that I could never ask my mother for advice or guidance without it filtering down directly to my dad. The man is the proverbial bull in a china shop. At 12, I confessed to my mom I had a crush on an older boy at our church; she told my father and he cornered the kid and lectured him not to dare get “handsy” with me. The boy didn’t even know I existed, but the incident followed me until high school.
I am 20 now and my mother complains that I am blocking her out of my life and we “never talk” like we used to. I feel guilty and I hate it. I love my mom and would love to confide in her, but I can’t. I don’t want my father to know about my sex life, or love life, or basically anything that has not been socially sanitized. He doesn’t need to know and my mom can’t get that. If I try to bring this up, she gets defensive and asks me if I am doing anything my father would be ashamed of if he knew. My father wants me to be a virgin until the day I die (but still give him grandkids!). Our relationship is not based on true emotional intimacy and I am OK with that, but it hurts me I can’t have one with my mom. Should I do anything here?
A: You do not need to feel guilty for setting reasonable limits based on your mother’s past behavior! I realize just saying that won’t vaporize your guilt, but I hope you can bear that in mind when you’re tempted to buy in to her train of thought and blame yourself. If you feel up to it, you might say, “Mom, you’re right that we don’t always talk like we used to. That’s because when I’ve shared private information with you in the past, you’ve told Dad against my wishes, and it’s put me in some very embarrassing situations. If you want to rebuild trust with me, you would need to acknowledge that I don’t always want to share things with both of you. It would take time and we’d need to start slowly. If you’re not willing to commit to that, then we’ll have to talk about other things that don’t involve my personal life. The choice is yours.”
If you don’t want to hash that all out with her—and I can certainly understand why you wouldn’t want to—then you can just say, “I’m sorry to hear that, Mom; I’m not always going to be able to share everything you want from me. I hope you can respect it, even if you don’t agree with me. Let’s talk about something else. Have you seen any good movies lately? What are you up to this weekend?”
Q. Re: Druggy grandma: The letter writer is also concerned about the kids’ physical safety because Grandma may try to get them to go away with her. Please let their camps, caregivers, friends’ parents and babysitters, etc., know that Grandma is not allowed to be with the kids.
Period. Think about getting a restraining order against her and the druggie boyfriend. Also, any criminal insurance fraud proceedings may solve this for you.
A: Yes, absolutely—make sure everyone else who helps you look after your kids is aware that Grandma does not have your permission to visit or take them home, and make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Q. Friend obsession: My friend “C” and I have been best friends since kindergarten. (We’re in our mid-20s now.) Our friendship has waxed and waned over the years, but we still remain good friends and talk to and see each other several times a week. Here’s the problem: I’m obsessed with her. I think I always have been, because I’ve always admired her life (even when we were kids), but now it’s gotten to the extreme. I spend hours looking at her social media and rereading our texts, and I’m constantly daydreaming about different scenarios. I’m even a little jealous of our other friends for getting to spend time with her. I don’t think she’s noticed—yet (she’s definitely the type to say something if she did)—but I’m terrified of ruining our friendship. Sometimes I think I should just end the friendship altogether. For the record, I’ve never physically stalked her or anything, and my obsession is purely platonic. How do I stop this?
A: I know you say your obsession is “purely platonic,” but I think it’s worth revisiting that premise! If you spend a lot of time daydreaming about “different scenarios”—you’ve left that part awfully vague!—I think it’s time to consider the possibility that you have a crush on your friend and are possibly even in love with her. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll want to ask her out, but I don’t think you should be so quick to foreclose on the very idea. Since you know that, for now at least, you don’t want to say anything to her, I think most of the work ahead of you is going to be internal. My read on your letter is that you’re both women and that you haven’t previously considered yourself as being attracted to women; it might be time to revisit some of that.
If this reads as totally wrongheaded to you (and/or if you’re not a woman), then I think you still have plenty of options. As long as you find it easy to maintain reasonable boundaries and don’t actually start stalking her or making her uncomfortable, you don’t have to punish yourself for having an intensely platonic crush on a friend. Let those feelings inspire something creative, or keep a journal, or try to invest in some of your other slightly less fraught, friendships. You are allowed to have feelings, even occasionally extreme ones.
Q. Brother’s will: My brother died a few months ago. We both are estranged from our parents and he put me down as his beneficiary for everything. He didn’t change it after we had a falling-out last year. I thought his new girlfriend was trouble: never married, with two kids by different men and a record. There wasn’t a funeral since he donated his body to science. I was such a wreck that I paid a lawyer to deal with everything. His girlfriend left some hostile and foul messages for me on social media, so my immediate reaction was “screw her.” I put all his immediate belongings in storage and parked his motorcycle and car in my garage.
I have finally worked up the nerve to go throw out my brother’s belongings. There was a ring and printed-out papers about adoption and artwork done by the kids calling him “Dad.” I feel sick, like gravity has been turned off. Everything I built up in my head was a lie and I don’t know how to make it right. I don’t know if I can. There wasn’t much money left, so I just stuffed it in a savings account.
What should I do? My first thought was to sell the car and motorcycle and give the money to his girlfriend, but she has been convicted of check fraud. (I Googled her.) Should I put in a trust for her kids and send her the ring? My boyfriend tells me if my brother had serious, he would have changed his will. The “Dad” art put a hook in my heart—I want to help these kids. I don’t know what is best.
A: I think the guiding principle here ought to be not “What should my brother have done while he was alive to prevent this situation, and how can I use his failure to do so as an excuse to be less-than-thorough as his executor and beneficiary?” but “What do I think my brother wanted while he was alive, and is it safe or reasonable for me to carry some version of his wishes out now?” Your brother may not have known he was going to die and thought he had plenty of time to change his will. The art and the adoption papers are, I think, sufficient evidence that he intended to provide for these kids as a parent would. I think your proposal to set up a trust for the kids and return the ring to his girlfriend is a good one. You don’t need to contact her directly if you think she’s likely to just yell at you again; talk with a lawyer about the best way to make sure the money goes to the kids and to hand the ring over on your behalf.
Q. Should I do this? Am I crazy to actually go through with this? A longtime Instagram follower of mine sent me a private message the other day complimenting me on my photography skills. We got to talking and he then admitted he also likes me. Since then, we text, video-chat, and share our respective lives through the powers of social media daily. He lives in Brazil, I in the U.S. I am 15 years older than him. I am about to be 46. We seem to have common interests, have hit off really well, and have not done what many guys interested in me have asked for or sent nude photos. He claims to be single and not looking for marriage. He wants to come here to visit to see if he wants to live here permanently. I have thought about opening my home for a few weeks with him paying lodging, which could help me as I am between jobs and help him to save on hotel costs. He will be applying for a travel visa. Do you think I should?
A: I think it makes more sense to agree to meet for a date before you invite him to move in with you, even if it’s only temporarily. What if you two don’t get along as well in person as you did on FaceTime? How much more awkward would it be to break up if he were staying with you? You can absolutely proceed with this guy, but maybe go from zero to 15 before you ramp up to 60.
Q. Re: Pay for cake: It’s called small claims for a reason! It absolutely isn’t expensive to file a claim, and if you do win, you can recoup court costs in addition to the debt that you are owed. Your aunt and cousin are being absolute asses, and I think you should file after giving them another month to respond.
A: That is fair enough! My instinct here is that the money is less important to the letter writer than the feeling that their relatives don’t really care about them, and no judge is going to be able to fix that. At the same time, $500 is $500, and if they want to file a few weeks from now, I certainly think they can. It’s not like they’d be damaging an otherwise-fun relationship—they already damaged it pretty thoroughly themselves.
Q. Re: Brother’s will: One option, depending on the kids’ current circumstances, is to use the remnants of your brother’s estate to set up 529s or educational savings accounts for the kids. Then check in with other relatives and your parents and let them know. Don’t pester anybody to contribute to the account beyond this. Just let them know, and people can make their own decisions from there.
A: That’s a great idea, thank you; even if nobody else chips in it’ll feel meaningful to have given them the opportunity, I think.
Q. Re: Pay for cake: I disagree strongly with Prudie’s approach on this one. The letter writer has said their cousin and aunt are basically their closest or only family. The letter writer is clearly hurt (as well as out of money). Losing one’s family is sometimes necessary but it’s always a last resort, and nothing that the letter writer has said indicates that they want this or that the relationships were bad over a long period. So why not try to talk to the cousin and aunt at some point, explaining how you feel and that it’s not just or even mostly the expense—it was that you worked so hard and felt so hurt by the way you felt you were treated? The letter writer should ask themselves what is their goal right now, and if it’s to be heard, to heal their relationships with close family, and possibly to get some part of the financial loss, hopefully that can be done.
A: I’m getting a lot of responses to this effect, so I’m happy to cheerfully reverse my initial advice and say that small claims court is a perfectly sound option, and worth pursuing; you might not ever get those relationships back but at least you can get your money. Spend it on something nice for yourself—I hope you get it.
Q. My mother-in-law hopes we die: My husband, our three young children, and I recently went on a vacation with my in-laws. We provided the accommodations. My mother-in-law tries to act more like our children’s mother than a grandmother. She loves her grandchildren, but she is very interfering, judgmental, and disrespectful to me and my husband. On this recent visit she brought a children’s book for our 5-year-old daughter that was missing the last two pages. The book was about a girl who visits her grandmother for the summer every year; my MIL wrote an ending with my daughter that said the girl’s parents died and she got to live with her grandmother forever. It was written like a happy ending! When we confronted her (away from the children) that it was inappropriate, she blamed our 5-year-old saying it was all her idea. I am so upset I can’t even look at this woman; and now she is suggesting we get together again next month to go camping. What should we do?
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