Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Parental problems: My parents had an acrimonious divorce when I was a baby, and when I was 3 years old, my dad kidnapped me for a period of three months. I don’t remember any of it, or the immediate aftermath. Since then, my dad has been an incredibly loving and supportive parent to me. I’m 30 now and about to get married. My mom still hates my dad, and I don’t blame her for that, but she expects me to hate him too. My mom still brings up my kidnapping every chance she gets, even in front of friends of mine. How can I tell my mom I understand her feelings about my dad but ask her to stop taking them out on me? And how can I prepare for these two to be thrust back together for the first time in 27 years at my wedding?
A: I think you can tell your mother that you’re not available to discuss this with her any longer, that you understand her pain and anger and you want her to find people who can help her deal with them, but that—for pretty obvious and unique reasons—you can’t be one of those people. Then, if—or, more likely, when—she tries to bring it up in front of you, you can say, “Mom, we’ve talked about this. You know I can’t discuss this with you” and end the conversation.
But I think you may have more luck with your first question than your second—it may simply not be possible to expect that your parents can be in the same room, even if you want them both to be there for your wedding. Just as you don’t want your mother to relitigate that terrifying, traumatic time in her life when she didn’t know where you were, I think it’s also reasonable for her to say that she cannot be around your father. That puts you in a very difficult situation, I realize, but I think it may be necessary. It might help to talk this out with your partner and to figure out how you can celebrate separately with whichever parent decides not to attend the ceremony itself.
Q. How disabled is disabled enough? I am a young, relatively healthy person who by all appearances is totally able-bodied. Because of a series of birth defects, I am blind in one eye and losing vision in the other. I have limited depth perception and am constantly tripping and running into tables, shelves, etc., as a result. As I continue to lose vision, I have stopped driving and can hardly even use stairs without shaking. My problem is that, because I look healthy, nearly everyone I’ve ever told of my disability has responded with surprise or disbelief, and I’m very anxious about using available aids as a result. Though I’d never look at anyone using a medical device and question the legitimacy of her need or the degree of her impairment, any thought I have of potentially using a white cane is dismissed because I’m certain I’ll look like a fraud using one. I do see out of one eye, and I can typically get around OK, but I can’t help but wonder how much easier a cane would make simple tasks like walking to my desk. How does a person know when they are disabled enough to warrant medical aid, and how could I handle the inevitable questions I’ll get from those who see a healthy young person using a walking cane?
A: I think your first question has a really simple answer: You know that you need a medical aid because it would significantly improve your quality of life. There are a lot of stairs in the world, and you shake every time you use them; you run into everyday objects on a regular basis and hurt yourself, and you’d like some help keeping yourself safe while performing basic, repetitive, unavoidable tasks like walking to your desk. That’s how you know you’re ready for a cane!
When it comes to dealing with other people’s inevitable questions, I think a very simple “I need it” is a perfectly fine answer, although you also have my total permission to say, “Why would you need to know that?” if a stranger is rude enough to bother you about your cane. I wonder if the city you live in has any advocacy organizations run by and for blind and visually impaired people, because I imagine you might find some meaningful solidarity and support there—that might be worth checking out, if only to get advice about how to deal with rude or intrusive questions from people with experience. I think your concern about ableism—especially the type of ableism that emboldens people to interrogate strangers about the legitimacy of their medical and mobility aids—is legitimate, but I also think you shouldn’t let it hold you back from using a cane if you know that it would improve your quality of life.
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Q. Gently deflecting problems: I have a very close friend whom I talk with on and off all day over social media. A lot of our conversation is lighthearted, just easy distraction from work, but we’ll talk about problems or things that upset us or just general moans as well. However, she is much more outward with her emotions, and when she is stressed (which is often, as she has a stressful job and family) she will tell me about every issue that comes up during the day, projecting all that stress over to me. I am trying hard to respond more often with “I’m sorry. I hope it gets sorted. I love you!” etc., rather than trying to fix every issue. Still, I am an emotional sponge and I find these interruptions draining, and when they pile up they make me anxious. I don’t want to tell her to stop offloading on me—that’s what friends are for and she leans on me a lot (though she also has lots of friends). I think it’s OK to not be able to always be there. But what can I say to explain that sometimes it’s too much for me? Is it selfish to just want the lighthearted conversation sometimes? Am I making too big a deal of this?
A: Since this is a close friend of yours, I think it makes more sense to check in with her either in person or over the phone than to send her a message about it in the middle of the workday. Tell her what you told me: that you don’t want her to stop coming to you with her stressors entirely but that sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming during the workday, and you’d like to be able to occasionally redirect the conversation to something lighter until such a time that you can have a slightly more in-depth talk about what you’re both struggling with at the moment. If you frame it as a course correction rather than as a serious intervention, I don’t think she’ll be hurt or feel rebuffed, and it will make future deflections (“Let’s talk about this after work—I hope everything works out.”) a lot easier. But if you do deflect, and she’s not instantly ready to pivot to talking about the movies or something equally lighthearted, I think you should leave it alone and find some other mode of distraction.
Q. Re: Parental problems: If your father kidnapped you after a court order or an agreement between them because he didn’t like the outcome, what he did was abusive and caused lifelong trauma to your mother. I have worked with many PTSD victims. The fear and helplessness that the kidnapping of a child can cause is often as bad or worse than the trauma of combat, rape, or torture. Please don’t minimize what happened to your mother and lump it in with cheating or other lower-level offenses spouses do to each other.
Just because you can forgive him doesn’t mean she can. Or that she should.
If you tell her she has to come to a wedding and put up with him, or else not come at all, you are retraumatizing her. I get that you don’t like the choice you have to make, but you both are paying the price now for what your father did decades ago. He should be the one paying. If he’s at all a decent man who has regrets for what he did, he should voluntarily sit this one out.
A: I’m inclined to agree with this perspective! It’s one thing to ask to limit the conversations your mother can have with you about this, but if you ask her to sit out your wedding so he can attend, I think you’ll damage your relationship with her in a way that may be difficult or even impossible to recover from. As this reader says, if he really wants to try to make amends for the harm he caused—which he can’t undo, only ameliorate—then he’ll step back and be gracious. This is something you can rightly ask of him.
Q. Sometimes my girlfriend talks like we’re from different generations: My girlfriend of nine months is a blue-collar worker through and through, and I think her co-workers have really rubbed their personality on her. She’s a kind and caring person, but it drives me crazy when she, a millennial like me, starts making pretty typical “kids these days” kind of rants. Especially about our own age group. I’m an office worker, but I heard the same kind of rants when I used to work in the service industry. It didn’t bother me then, but it has started to get to me when she makes jokes that just seem crotchety and mean-spirited, and she gets annoyed with me for being too sensitive by not finding her jokes funny. She’s even sent me some “millennials are entitled” articles that I don’t think she even reads, but she gets upset and shuts down the conversation when I give even the slightest pushback or counterargument. How can I talk to her about this? Because I’m getting to the point where I think we’re just too different and should leave now before the situation really explodes into a full-on tearful-screaming breakup.
A: I think it’s totally fine to say to anyone you have a personal relationship with who tries to send you articles as backup for an ongoing argument, “I’m happy to have a more in-depth conversation with you about this topic, if you want, but I don’t want to trade articles back-and-forth. What about this article struck you as important or meaningful?” But in this case, since your girlfriend has a habit of lobbing articles in your direction and then sprinting away from the follow-up conversation, I don’t think she’s actually doing this in the interest of having a loving, mutually respectful discussion.
Nor do I quite understand the framing of “blue-collar worker” versus “millennial.” Lots of members of every generation, including the millennial one, are blue-collar workers. I think seeking clarity on that front is important! Is there something about your job or your class background that’s become a sore spot in your relationship, and is she trying to discuss it as a generational issue because she’s afraid of talking about how it affects just the two of you? It may be, as you raise this topic, that you want to ask her if there’s anything you’ve done or said that makes her feel like you’re dismissive of her financial or professional struggles because you potentially make more money or come from a more financially stable background. That’s worth asking, and you should be receptive to what she has to say.
But if pursuing those questions doesn’t result in anything productive or enlightening, and you just generally find her to be pretty bad at dealing with conflict or bringing up issues that matter to her in a healthy way, then yes, you can certainly end a nine-month relationship over something like this. Finding someone who knows how to argue well, or who’s at least interested in finding ways to argue better, is an important part of a good relationship, and if you don’t think that she’s capable of it, by all means call this one quits and look for someone who knows how to disagree without either exploding or running away.
Q. Terrible friend? My good friend moved about two hours away last year. She says that I don’t visit enough. I do miss her and her almost-3-year-old son (who’s like a nephew to me) a lot, but it’s not easy to find the time. I don’t have a car, meaning I have to take the train (a $70 ticket), and because of that, I need to commit to a full day or an overnight visit. (It doesn’t make sense to spend four hours on a train to only visit for a couple of hours.) That can be tough, because sometimes I have random events on the weekends that may not take long in and of themselves but preclude me from making that commitment. Also, sometimes, if I do have an entirely free weekend, I just want to spend it on my own time, not having any plans. And then there’s the issue of her son. Don’t get me wrong—he is adorable, and smart, and funny, but he lives life on his own terms, and they (my friend and her husband) let him. The last time I went to visit, the entire time was dictated by him, down to not even going to the playground because he didn’t want to get in the car. (By that, I mean, they said, “Let’s go,” he said “No,” and they were like “Oh OK, we’re not going.”)
I know I might sound selfish, but it’s just not enjoyable. I don’t know how to approach this when she gives me grief for not coming more. By the way, she has come back to visit me a few times, but only when her job is sending her here, so she’s in town anyway. Am I a terrible friend?
A: No, of course you’re not (and I think you know that you’re not). I want to try to interpret your friend generously, so maybe when she gives you grief it’s more along the lines of “I miss you,” rather than “You never visit, you don’t care about me, I’m languishing in isolation and every weekend you don’t devote to me and my kid is a weekend wasted.” If that is the case, you can just return the sentiment without assuming she expects you to drop everything and stay with her every week. But if she’s actively getting on your case or demanding that you account for the weekends that you stay home, then it’s well past time to say, “I love you, and I love getting to see you. But it’s just not possible for me to visit you more than [once a month? Once every few months?], so please stop asking me about this. I want to enjoy the time we do spend together, not fight about my other friends or interests.” It sounds, frankly, like you two have gotten to see a ton of one another over the past year. I have friends who live relatively nearby whom I still don’t see every weekend, and that doesn’t prevent us from being close or enjoying one another’s company. If her expectations are unreasonable, then there’s nothing wrong with failing to meet them, or in telling her that she needs to let them go.
Q. Friend’s sickness cost me money, but it wasn’t her fault: This past weekend, my roommate and I went out for a few drinks. After only two drinks, she suddenly went from perfectly fine to not at all fine. In trying to get her home quickly, I ordered us a car that she proceeded to vomit in. After leaving the ride-share, she collapsed, continuing to vomit while being periodically unresponsive. I was terrified. An ambulance was called and we went to the hospital. Long story short, she’s thankfully OK now, but the last thing she remembers is her head spinning after the second drink, and she blacked out the rest of the night. We believe something was put in her drink—we’ve gone out many times and this has never happened to her, plus I saw her only consume two drinks, which I’ve seen her drink before to no ill effect.
My question is about the ride: I was charged an exorbitant cleaning fee, on top of the original fare and tip, which puts the total into several hundred dollars. My friend and I both live barely above paycheck-to-paycheck, and she’s already feeling a tremendous amount of guilt for “putting [me] through all that” (even though I’ve reassured her many times that it wasn’t her fault and that I’m just thankful she’s OK). I haven’t said anything to her about this, and I don’t want to make her feel worse about an already horrific experience. At the end of the day, I care way more about her well-being than the money, but at my income level, this is a significant amount for an unexpected expense. I should continue to say nothing, right? Is there anything else I can do?
A: I’m so glad that you and your friend are both OK. I wonder if you’ve tried contacting the ride-share company you used, explaining the situation and asking if the company (not the driver, of course) can offer you a partial refund or credit of some kind. It’s worth asking, I think, given the circumstances and the fact that you can provide evidence of having to go to the hospital. But if that avenue proves fruitless, I do think you can share this with your friend and ask her for her help—you’re clearly not bringing it up in a spirit of punitiveness or demanding she give you hundreds of dollars this minute. You might ask her if there’s a small monthly amount she could contribute to help defray the costs over time and together come up with a schedule that works for both of you. It’s not a question of fault or responsibility, obviously; cleaning the car was an absolutely unavoidable expense that neither of you could have predicted. I understand your fear that it’ll make her feel guilty, and I think you can leave a lot of room to talk about her feelings in this conversation, but that’s no reason for you to shoulder this financial burden alone. You can reassure her that she didn’t put you through anything and that you would want a friend to have done the same for you if you had been suddenly ill and likely drugged, and then still deal with the financial fallout together.
Q. Parenting etiquette: I love my family more than anything, and I am a very modern, liberal dad. My issue is that often my wife will ask that I come along for play dates, birthday parties, etc., and often I am the only dad there. She knows I’m a feminist and plays to that a little, but sometimes I just feel like the odd person out and would rather she just take him.
A: I think it is OK to sometimes feel like the odd person out because the reason you feel odd is that none of the other dads in your social circle are pulling their weight when it comes to their kids’ socializing. That shouldn’t be an excuse for you to bow out too. “None of the other dads show up to their kids’ birthday parties, so why should I have to?” isn’t an especially defensible (nor, frankly, modern—or maybe, like, the Jetsons’ idea of modern, where Jane and Rosie do all the housework and the bulk of the child care but they also have jetpacks) sentiment. I would, in fact, encourage you to volunteer every once in a while to take your kid yourself and let your wife stay home. I would also encourage you to seek out other, more-present fathers so you can expand your social points of reference a bit. And enjoy getting to spend time with your kid! The age of play dates and group birthday parties doesn’t last forever.
Q. Re: How disabled is disabled enough? I had to use a walking cane for a couple of years after a severe injury, and I had the same kinds of concerns you have. I discovered that people respect what a cane signifies and that it provided all kinds of security I had not even realized I needed. As one example, I discovered that when I was crossing a street or parking lot, drivers interpreted the cane as a clear indication that I might need more time to cross in front of them. They usually stopped, smiled, and waved me across in front of them with great kindness. When this first happened, I realized how difficult it had been until then to cross streets or parking lots. I had felt I needed to hurry, which had made me even more unstable. I had gotten to where I was limiting where I went and what I did. So, I guess what I’m saying is that I found people to be very kind and non-judgmental, and I learned that something like a cane that alerts people to special needs you may have turns out to liberate you in ways that let you get around safely. Since stairs now make you shake with fear of falling, I think this matters.
A: Thank you so much for this. I’m so glad that your experience using a cane in public has been such a good one, and I hope the letter writer has a similar one and that they’re met with understanding and respect too.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone. See you next week!
From Care and Feeding
Q. My family’s history of disability has made me afraid to have kids: I’m 29, and my husband is 32. We’re both pretty sure we want kids, but now that it’s almost time to actually do it, he’s ready to go, but I’m freaking out. My biggest fear is of having a disabled child. My sister is severely disabled from a chronic mental illness, and I love her, but I see every day how hard her condition is on my parents. She requires around-the-clock care, and my parents’ marriage—let alone their own health and finances—has barely survived. I know that the odds of my own child being similarly disabled are low, but I’m still not sure I can take the risk. How do I get over this? Part of me does long for a child, but at other moments I wonder why I would risk messing up the easy, happy life I have now?
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