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. Friends “rescued” a dog? My friends recently told me that they rescued a dog off of the street. They are clearly in love with their new dog, and I know they are wonderful dog owners (this is their second dog). I soon learned that they heard about the dog through a friend of theirs who is neighbors with the dog’s previous owners. My friends said the dog was neglected (escaping often near a busy street, trash in the yard, maybe other issues I haven’t learned of). When the dog escaped one day, my friends say they just picked it up and have not returned it to the owner or turned it over to animal control. I looked online after hearing this and saw an ad the previous owners put up looking for their lost dog and saying how much they miss it. I’m torn. I walked past the house of the previous owners hoping to confirm the place looked dirty or neglected, but it had a beautifully manicured lawn and was a well-kept, normal-looking home. I also did an internet search to see who the previous owner was, and she is a woman in her 60s who sews and bakes and works at a church.
I feel like the right thing for them to do would be to call animal control or the Humane Society if they knew the dog was in a bad situation, not just take it. I think I need to try to convince my friends to return the dog or maybe offer to buy it. But I’m scared that I’m butting into their business. They are smart, otherwise moral people, and I feel like they must have a good reason for this. But I can’t stop thinking about that woman’s ad talking about how much she misses her dog. What do I do?
A: I think you’re right to talk to your friends, because it sounds like they may have been misled by this neighbor person (possibly deliberately misled—I wonder if that neighbor had a grudge against the original owner). Tell them you feel awkward about this, but that you’d want to know if you were in their position: “I’m worried the person who told you about this dog’s original owners misled you. I was recently in her neighborhood and saw signs looking for the dog. She’s worried and anxious and misses the dog, and from what I could see, both her lawn and her home look beautifully maintained. It seems like the dog just ran away and got lost, not that it was escaping abuse or neglect. If you want me to send you the ad so that you can look for yourself, I’d be happy to do so. I know how much you love this dog, and I know this must feel really complicated and painful, but I’d want to know about this if I were you.”
Q. Atheist godmother? I’m a longtime nonbeliever. I have a very good friend “Anne” who is Jewish, married to a lapsed Catholic. Anne and I have been friends since college; we live in the same neighborhood; our older kids are the same ages and went to school together in elementary. We have vacationed together, and we have occasionally talked about raising the other’s kids if anything should happen to one of us. Anne and her husband had another child a few weeks ago. They baptized their older children in the Catholic Church and intend to baptize this baby as well. Their older kids have family members as godparents. Anne asked me to be a godmother to this baby, and I reluctantly said no. She’s heartbroken. She says it’s just a formality, and she wants their families to know what an important person I am to them, and that it’s a way to open the “you’re not getting our kids if we die” discussion that they’ve been putting off. I just can’t get over thinking of this as a religious commitment, even if Anne doesn’t see it that way. Am I overthinking this? Should I do it because it means more to Anne than it does to me? Help!
A: I suppose it depends on how exactly she planned on establishing your status as godmother. It’s my understanding that the Catholic Church requires godparents to be confirmed Catholics who have taken communion (I’m not sure how recently, and I’m not Catholic myself, so it’s possible I’m mistaken), so if she’s asking you to stand godmother through formal Catholic channels and it would require getting baptized or affirming religious beliefs you don’t hold, I understand why you decided to decline. But if she had planned to have an “off-the-books” secular ceremony, or even just wanted to start referring to you as her daughter’s godmother informally, I think you might reconsider. While the role of a godparent has roots in Christian tradition, there are certainly very similar traditions from other religious and cultural contexts, and since you’ve already talked about wanting to formalize your relationship so you can raise each other’s kids in the event of a sudden death, I think you’ve already got most of the traditional godparenting ground covered.
That’s not to say that you’re unreasonable for considering being a godmother a religious duty, or at least a role with significant enough religious roots that you’d rather not take it on. You’re not overthinking it, necessarily, but I do think there’s a chance for a follow-up conversation with Anne, and I’d encourage you to take her at her word if she’s able to assure you that there’d be no spiritual component, that you wouldn’t have to go to church, and that she respects your atheism. Or, if she can’t assure you of that, your next best move might be to say, “Let’s talk more about establishing custody and guardianship so we know our kids will all be taken care of if the worst happens. I love you and I want to be in your kids’ lives forever, but I have to draw the line at religious duties. I hope you know I’ll still be spoiling this baby rotten every chance I get.”
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Q. Baby shower dilemma: I’m having a bit of a crisis, and I’m not sure what to do. Four years ago, a couple of months before we got married, my now-husband had a one-night drunken stand with a mutual friend. I was away at the time, and as soon as I returned, he tearfully confessed. We went to therapy, got through it, and got married. We now have a happy life with a gorgeous toddler and a new baby on the way. Part of getting through it was that he agreed to never see this woman again. We were drifting apart from that friend group anyway, and we actually don’t see anyone from those days anymore—with one exception. I stayed on friendly terms with someone who was tangentially related to that group of people, and she’s having a baby shower. I obliquely asked if anyone from the old group was invited, and she said that two were, one being the woman my husband slept with. I 100 percent understand that they were both at fault, but I can’t help but feel panic at the idea of seeing her. It’s brought up all these feelings that I thought I was over. I deeply do not want to see her. I don’t even know how I would talk to her. Do I make up an excuse about why I can’t go to the shower? I was really looking forward to it, but I can’t see myself in a room with her. All I picture is having to pretend that we both don’t know what we know.
A: Absolutely you can make up an excuse. I understand why you don’t want to share such vulnerable and intimate information in order to decline the invitation, and I can see why it would still be difficult to be in the same room with this woman. Since you are only on friendly terms, rather than seriously close, with the woman whose shower it is, just send your regrets along with a gift and a thoughtful card.
Q. Boyfriend: I have been dating “Trent” for about four years. He lives with me but frequently flies back east to see his family. They are extremely conservative, and Trent works for the family company. I have met them once as Trent’s “roommate.” Our lives are great except for the social media blackout. I can’t post anything personal about our life or let anyone else post anything personal about us. Trent is paranoid about anything getting back to his family. On one level, I get it. Coming out would cost Trent potentially his family and his career; I had supportive parents and a lukewarm-to-neutral extended family. On another, I am sick of getting stuck in the closet with him. We are both grown men, and if we want a future together, something is going to have to give. Trent keeps promising me it will be “someday.” I love him, but I don’t know if I can keep being with him. An ultimatum seems cruel, but on my darker days, I wonder if it comes down to me or them—which is Trent going to pick? For an added level of complexity, Trent is a second-generation immigrant and a person of color. I am white. There is a whole level of culture and ethics and identity that I can’t even scratch. Am I being a bad boyfriend here?
A: I wish I knew where this idea that all ultimatums are unfair or unfeeling came from! Ultimatums, like anything, can be deployed cheaply or manipulatively, but it’s hardly cruel to say, “I’m not going to stay in the closet for another four years. I love you, but I can’t stay in this relationship either. Being closeted has taken a real toll on me socially and emotionally, and I’m not going to do it anymore.”
It doesn’t sound like Trent has said to you, “Because you’re white, you owe it to me to stay closeted,” so I’m not sure where you got that idea from. It is a deeply misguided idea, and one that does both of you a disservice. He gets to make his own decisions about what he does or doesn’t share with his family, and you get to make your own decisions about what kind of long-term relationship you want to be in. It’s not a referendum on whether he’s a good person, but whether you two have compatible ideas about the future. He may have reasons for staying closeted that are compelling for him; you just don’t happen to share them. And the ways in which he is closeted seriously affect you! You have every reason to consider this when you think about your own future, especially because Trent’s chosen to work for his family’s business and become further entangled in their dynamic. Tell him that if he ever does come out, you hope he’ll look you up, but that in the meantime you two just aren’t looking for the same thing. Break up, find a roommate who’s just an actual roommate, and start going out with guys who don’t have rules about your social media use.
Q. Dating a casual racist: I recently dated a woman for what were, for the most part, two pretty amazing months. There were a couple of minor red flags, but I finally broke things off after she used a really cruel and dehumanizing term to refer to an Indian superhero. After I calmly said, “That’s racist,” she said it was OK because she “only said it between us.” I called the evening to a close but brought it up again a couple of days later, having given both of us time to think.
I asked if this sort of language was something that came up often for her and her family (she and her family moved to the States around 15 years ago). She said yes but dismissed it as nothing more than what comics do when they tell racially motivated jokes as part of their sets. She also told me that a black man had pointed a gun at her once. When I told her that I’m not comfortable with that kind of thinking or having it around my 5-year-old daughter, she got upset and accused me of being racially and culturally insensitive toward her and her family. She said that it was all no big deal. I assured her that I wasn’t calling her or her family racist, and that they were all generous and very caring, but ended things by saying I didn’t think we were a good fit. While I’m certain that calling off our romance was the right thing to do, did I overstep in calling her out or questioning her about her racial beliefs?
A: No, claiming that racism is an inherent part of your cultural background is a terrible excuse for racism. You can see, I think, how opportunistic and absurd this attempt to find a good reason was—“It’s fine for me to call someone a racial slur because 15 years ago I was mugged by someone from a totally unconnected race!” “Sometimes professional comedians are racist, and you’re not angry with any of them right now!” “It’s fine when only you heard me say it!” “Racism isn’t a big deal!” She panicked when you calmly but steadily acknowledged reality—that she had said something racist. Rather than just take a deep breath and say, “You’re right, I’m sorry,” she threw half a dozen sorry excuses at the wall in hopes that one would stick, then said, “Maybe you’re the real racist for acknowledging my racism,” and finally closed with “But racism isn’t a very big deal anyhow.” You are lucky this came up after only two months, and I hope the next amazing woman you meet doesn’t go through your mail or combine casual racism with profound emotional fragility.
Q. My bridesmaid once slept with my maid of honor’s fiancé: After nine years with my boyfriend, I just got engaged. I was so thrilled I told my best friends right away and let them know they’d soon be my bridesmaids. Once the fog of euphoria lifted after the proposal, I realized there was one big problem: My maid of honor’s fiancé once slept with one of my bridesmaids, “Joann,” in college, about five to six years ago. The maid of honor knows, and she has never been too keen on Joann since. Do I 1) ask the maid of honor if she’s OK with it, 2) lie and tell Joann I have to cut down my bridal party because we don’t have as many groomsmen as I expected, or 3) tell Joann she can’t be in my bridal party over a hookup from five-plus years ago? I don’t want my wedding to have an uncomfortable cloud over it because of this.
A: It’s a little unclear to me whether your maid of honor was in a relationship with her now-fiancé when he slept with Joann back in college. If she was, I can understand wanting to proceed with caution and delicacy. If she wasn’t, and she’s just unhappy that her fiancé slept with other people they both know before they got together, I don’t think it’s reasonable to attempt to accommodate her at Joann’s expense. Whatever the exact nature of the situation, it doesn’t sound like anyone has yet asked you to do anything differently, and you’ve already asked them both to serve in your bridal party. I think you can proceed with wedding planning and not go looking for trouble when trouble hasn’t yet announced itself. By the way, you will probably experience some discomfort during the wedding planning process; weddings usually involve a lot of people with a variety of goals, hang-ups, resentments, and sometimes competing interests, and having a totally stress-free experience isn’t always possible. That doesn’t mean you should expect nonstop suffering from here on out, of course, just that it might help to adjust your expectations; a better goal might be not to avoid all discomfort but to find good support as you have to make sometimes stressful decisions.
Q. Undeserving raffle winners: During Pride Month, my family attended a wonderful community event thrown by a local LGBT organization, where we ended up winning a big prize in their raffle. We would be thrilled by this except for one thing: We are, for all intents and purposes, a straight couple (although obviously we are staunch allies, and all were absolutely welcome at the event). I feel a little weird accepting a prize that was probably intended to go to a family from the LGBT community. We donated to the organization both at the event and again after we won the prize, but I still wonder if the right thing to do is to donate the prize back or pass it on to someone in need. (It’s a voucher that expires in a couple of months, and we’re not even sure if it is transferable.) Should we donate again and give an amount equal to the prize value? Am I overthinking this?
A: You are of course free to donate the prize or pass it along to someone who needs it more than you! Not because you have to, but because it would bring you joy to see someone who really needs this voucher get a chance to use it. This was a community event for both members of the LGBT community and their supporters, so you and your family were very clearly welcome raffle members, so don’t feel like you need to pass the gift along out of guilt that you somehow accidentally gamed the system or harmed some gay people by winning a gift certificate. But if it would make you happy to pass the gift along, go right ahead. You do not have to make another donation to try to expunge a misplaced sense of guilt; you were exactly where you were supposed to be, welcome and among friends.
Q. Re: Atheist godmother? There’s no correlation between being a godparent and being the person who’ll get custody if the parents get hit by a bus! Please do something to stomp this weird misconception out.
A: It sounds like the letter writer’s friend was hoping to use a formal godparent relationship as a way to broach the conversation about guardianship in the event of an illness or accident with her parents, not that they believed acting as a godparent would grant them legal custody, but in case anyone is confused about the issue, they are indeed two different things!
Q. Re: Atheist godmother? I am a godparent to two children (now adults). In one case I was not even present for the ceremony because I lived out of state. In neither case were there any major religious tests involved. You just have to agree to provide spiritual guidance, which I would argue anyone with a conscience could provide (though the Catholic Church might quibble with that). There may be some families that take this seriously in a religious way, but in most families I know, the godparent is like an honorary aunt or uncle. Agree to be the godmother—I don’t think you will regret it.
A: For what it’s worth, I’ve gotten a few different replies with diverging experiences as a godparent. A few people said that in their experience, only one godparent needs to be a practicing Catholic, while the other doesn’t need to be. I can understand if the letter writer still doesn’t feel comfortable with the compromise, but it is a possibility.
Q. My adult son lives at home but pretends we don’t exist: I am sad my 25-year-old son couldn’t care less about his family. He dropped out of school and lives at home but works the late shift, so we never see him. He will not visit his grandparents, whom he used to adore (they live nearby). He never bought anyone (except his girlfriend) a Christmas present, and he avoids all family functions and has no guilt or remorse saying this is just how he is. He gets tested at work, so we know he is not on drugs. He is the type that if he never saw any of us again he would be OK with that. He has a brother who is not like that at all. My heart breaks that they will never have a relationship or that his father and I cannot count on his help since he is so emotionally detached (and content). Read what Prudie had to say.
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