Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. A predator neighbor? I have a neighbor, “Jane,” who has two kids with similar ages to my own (5 and 7). I recently found out that Jane’s husband used to look at child pornography. I confronted Jane, who told me that this was years ago, that her husband has since obtained psychological treatment, and that it’s no longer an issue. I disagree. I’m disgusted by Jane’s naïveté; I don’t want my children playing at their house anymore and am seriously concerned for her children’s safety as well. Am I overreacting?
A: It’s absolutely fine to say that, for you, the bar for whether someone who used to look at child pornography should now be around your children needs to be pretty high. You’d presumably want to have heard about it from them; felt like there was a great deal of transparency, honesty, and accountability in their home; and been able to ask questions or set limits that made you comfortable. And that’s not what happened. You’re well within your rights to want to know more about why Jane thinks her husband is unlikely to cause harm aside from mere wishful thinking. “Obtaining psychological treatment” sounds fairly vague, and “It’s no longer an issue” makes it sound like she thinks it was a momentary lapse in judgment. If you’re not comfortable letting your kids play over there, don’t let them. If you’re concerned Jane is burying her head in the sand, tell her so and lovingly encourage her to seek more help than she’s currently receiving.
Q. My husband makes fun of me behind my back: I’ve been married for 13 years, and we have a kid. Several years ago we were going through a bad patch, and my husband had an emotional affair with an ex-girlfriend that didn’t turn physical only because I found out about it before their plans to meet up came to fruition. My husband and I went to therapy, and things seemed to get better. He promised to cut off all contact with his ex-girlfriend.
Recently, his father died, and my mother became terminally ill. He’s been dealing with his father’s funeral arrangements while I was in another state saying goodbye to my dying mother. When I came back, I found out that the ex-girlfriend has been reaching out to my husband, offering to come to his father’s funeral and to be there for him. My husband has been replying to her, saying that he would like her to, but that his “crazy wife” would probably kill him if she did, which she apparently thinks is hilarious. I am trying to help hold things together for my dad, my mother-in-law, and my son, all of whom are having a hard time dealing with these losses, and now I feel like there’s nobody there for me. I am so hurt and angry that I don’t know what to do, and yet I still have my father-in-law’s funeral to get through, as well as my own mother’s imminent funeral. I’m really at a loss as to what to do about my husband. I would truly appreciate any input.
A: This sounds devastating, and I can understand why you feel a little shell-shocked and uncertain about your next move when you’re in the middle of trying to grieve a parent each. Your husband has not just neglected but profoundly betrayed you on multiple fronts—first by initiating an affair and having every intention of sleeping with someone else, then by, after promising to end it, taking a break from funeral planning to speak cruelly about you to the woman he had the affair with in the first place. That’s pretty monstrous. It’s not a one-time lapse in judgment but a pattern of ignoring and slandering you. I think you’re right to feel like nobody’s there for you in your time of grief, because your husband has made it pretty clear that he’s not going to be able to support you either emotionally or logistically. If you’re able to spare the time right now, I think it might be worth going back to your therapist—alone this time, so you can talk about what you need. I think you have sufficient reason to end your relationship, but if you don’t feel like you can do that until after your mother’s funeral, that would make sense to me. At the very least, I hope you can tell a friend how hurt and betrayed you feel by your husband’s infidelity and cruelty so that you don’t feel like you’re carrying this burden alone. But this goes well beyond a bad patch or even an affair your husband regrets; he’s clearly still trying to get it off the ground and doesn’t mind using your reputation as fuel.
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Q. My ungrateful friend: A few years ago, I was at a job I hated. I made friends with a colleague there who also hated working there. We instantly bonded, and I loved this friend for indulging with me in our complete dislike of our employer. We complained constantly, and it was healing for me. Eventually, I moved on and got a new job, which is much better suited for me. This friend and I stayed friends, and I realized our friendship revolved around complaining—she is a very good complainer! Lately, though, I’m really getting angry at this quality she has. Her current complaints seem ungrateful and insensitive. She complains about her pregnancy and about how fat she’s getting, and even once said she wishes she could get rid of the baby. She complains about the very expensive house she just bought, about its imperfections and how construction is taking forever. As I listen, all I can think about is how I wish I could have a baby or a house, and how grateful I would be if I were in her shoes. I’ve never said anything to her because it doesn’t feel like my place, but it’s painful to be her emotional dumping ground. I do like her as a person and hope I can continue the friendship. What should I do?
A: I think friendships that begin as a mutual opportunity for complaining often don’t outlive their original circumstances. You say you hope you can continue being friends with her, but you also don’t mention anything positive about her friendship. Does she go out of her way to ask you interesting questions? Is she a good listener? When she’s not complaining, does she have something thoughtful or valuable to say? (Is she ever not complaining?) I get that you don’t want to blow up at her, but it’s certainly a friend’s place to say something if they want to change the tone or focus of a given conversation. There are several grounds you might base this next conversation on. If she’s really seemed straightforwardly miserable about this pregnancy and has even mentioned wishing she weren’t having a baby, that seems important to bring up: “You’ve mentioned before that you wished you could get rid of this pregnancy, and it sounds like it’s been really hard on you, so I just wanted to check in—have you just needed to vent? Or are you having second thoughts about this baby?”
But if you have that conversation and feel reassured that she doesn’t actually want out of her current life and just wants to endlessly complain about kitchen renovations, you can absolutely say, cheerfully, “I’m sure it has been frustrating, but I want to make sure we spend a little time talking about things that are going well in our lives, too. Let’s talk about something else.” If you feel like someone else is using you to endlessly complain, it very much is your place to say something! You have every right to politely draw a line when you don’t think you can stand to hear about kitchen island measurements another minute.
Q. Ethnically ambiguous white person: I’m an ethnically ambiguous white person. I’m also Jewish, and my family originates mostly from Eastern Europe, but I get asked about my ethnicity on a fairly regular basis, and I’m read as a member of a number of different ethnic groups. On one memorable occasion, a woman at a workshop on writing respectfully across cultures turned to me and began to guess my country of origin, giving me five or six wrong guesses before I ended the conversation. A while before people started asking me about my ethnicity, I started dying my hair black because I think the color looks better on me and because I enjoy the black hair/leather jacket look. (My natural hair color is dark brown.) Lately I’ve been wondering if the hair dye is a bad idea. I know the black hair wouldn’t make me look nonwhite if I didn’t have nontraditionally white-looking facial features, and I don’t do anything else that would alter my racial presentation, like tanning. That said, should I go back to my original color? I prefer the way I look with black hair, but I don’t want to be offensive. For what it’s worth, I still look white enough that I think I have most elements of white privilege.
A: I think that you are overthinking this one! There is not an ugly or offensive history of dying one’s hair black. You enjoy the way it looks, and you get weirdly intrusive questions about your background no matter what color your hair is. Dye your hair the color you like best and don’t worry about it.
Q. Looking for new jobs after a personal absence: I left my job at a nonprofit last October after 12 years for health reasons. The long-term stress of the job caused quantifiable damage to my heart. I’ve been trying to get pregnant for four years without success; I don’t think the work stress has helped this situation. During the time off with my husband’s support, we’ve bought a new house, moved, renovated, sold the old house, buried my grandmother, and supported my mom through a major surgery. I’m currently running my mom’s bookstore while she recuperates. I’ve tried to focus on my health during my time off with the goal of limiting further heart damage while pursuing medical intervention for the infertility. (I’m doing a final round of intrauterine insemination this month, and after this I’m done trying.)
I plan to start looking for a new job in the fall, and I’m worried about explaining why I haven’t been working for the past year. Aside from not wanting to talk about private medical matters during an interview, I start crying when I’m asked about my health, because it’s scary and overwhelming and infertility sucks. Is there some pat answer I can give that doesn’t invite further questions? Any advice on being forthcoming without oversharing?
A: I think trying to make sure you don’t cry in an interview should be your primary goal—and it’s an achievable one, too. You don’t need to discuss your health during the interview process, and you have a number of plausible-sounding explanations for your résumé gap. If you’re interviewing at companies that differ even only slightly from your last nonprofit, you can say that you took some time off to reassess your career goals and prepare to enter a different industry. Or you can refer to this time as a brief sabbatical to try your hand at running a bookstore, or time you took off to move, or a combination of all of the above. Most importantly, you should practice delivering that answer at home until you can comfortably get through it without losing your composure—until it feels as emotionally neutral as reciting a grocery list. I hope you’re able to quickly find a company (maybe even out of the nonprofit world entirely) that doesn’t put its employees through that kind of stress and values work-life balance. Good luck.
Q. “Supportive” homophobes: I’m a gay woman who was subjected to a lot of abuse when I came out to my family. My parents were horrible, threatening me with conversion therapy, insisting I date a family friend’s son to “try to be normal,” and then defending him when he assaulted me. I see them very occasionally now that I’m a happily married adult, and only because I don’t want to lose touch with my lovely younger sister who lives with them (she is 13). My question relates to the rest of my family. They all know how my parents treated me, and none of them helped at the time, even when my parents kicked me out for a while and I had to stay with friends. These people now position themselves as being super liberal and supportive and will often talk, as if bragging to me, about their involvement in various Pride-themed things and express their exaggerated support of any TV show having a gay character. They only do this, of course, when my parents are out of the room at family get-togethers. They also ask me, in hushed voices, how my “friend” is, and will force conversation out of me about how my wife is doing when my parents are out of the room. I despise this. I want to scream at them that they are all hypocrites, and that at least my parents are open about being homophobes (they flat-out ban me mentioning my wife around my little sister and young cousins), but I know this isn’t an appropriate reaction. Can you recommend a script for me to politely but firmly shut down these obnoxious, virtue-signaling comments? I am worried I’ll explode next time it happens!
A: There’s the low-conflict version, which involves spending a little less time at family events and a little more time arranging to take your younger sister out to lunch or to the movies, since she’s the only family member you actually care about seeing right now. That might mean treating your extended family members’ monologues about their great service to the LGBTQ community as white noise and making a lot of vague, agreeable noises (“That’s great!” “How wonderful.” “Terrific!”) that you can deliver on autopilot without feeling like you’re actually forced to be mentally present to hear their whitewashed version of the past. It also could mean playing pleasantly stupid when they ask about your “friend”: “Which friend? Jim? Anders? Trevor from work? Oh, do you mean my wife? How funny, I never call her my friend.” That’s assuming, of course, your parents are out of the room at the moment and you’re not in danger of losing contact with your sister if you break one of their “rules.”
Since you’re worried about being barred from seeing your sister, who’s still a few years away from being able to dictate the terms of her own social life, I’ll stick to a medium-conflict rather than a high-conflict option. Again assuming that this is all happening while your parents are out of the room and you don’t have time to hash out the past 20 years before they return: “I’d rather not discuss this right now, thanks.”“That’s not how I remember things. It’s very difficult for me to discuss the past, especially here, so let’s talk about something else.””We all know that my parents’ arrangement means I’m allowed to see my sister as long as I don’t talk about my wife or my orientation. Please don’t make this harder for me than it already is by bringing up topics you know I’ll be punished for discussing.”
Q. I’m not sure how to respond to my poly-curious partner: My partner of a year and a half recently told me that he thinks he may identify as polyamorous. He had periods in his previous relationship that were open, but he describes those experiences as purely sexual in nature. This was a concern for me when we first got together because I am much more comfortable with monogamy. At the time, he believed he would be happy to be monogamous in the right relationship. So far, he hasn’t been able to articulate what exactly he wants or how he pictures his newfound preference fitting into our life. We are in a very serious relationship and have been working to blend our families, since we both have children. We have plans to move in together in the next year, but now I am completely thrown off. I’m terrified, and I don’t know how to move forward. I am in love with this man and want to build my life with him, and he says the same. How does the poly piece fit? I love his children and am bonded with them, and my daughter looks up to him like a second father. There is so much more at stake here than just the two of us.
A: “I can’t imagine moving in together without having at least some sense of what you think your polyamory might mean for our relationship. I need you to tell me more about what you want, even if you’re afraid I won’t like it, because we can’t move forward without answering a question as significant as what fidelity means to us. I realize that you may not be able to just draft a manifesto overnight, but I need you to start talking, because this could potentially affect every aspect of our relationship.” This is also a great time to start seeing a couples counselor, ideally together, but by yourself if he refuses to go, especially one who’s worked with polyamorous/nonmonogamous couples before. The goal should not be to convince yourself that you can get behind your partner’s—maddeningly vague!—plan, but for each of you to clarify your goals and values, and to determine whether they’re compatible before taking a big next step toward commitment. If he can’t articulate what he wants out of polyamory, even after you give him time and space to do so, then that doesn’t bode well for your future together. Conversely, if he’s able to offer you a version of something that you find appealing and nonthreatening, you might be able to move forward.
It’s lovely that your children have all gotten to know one another and that you already consider one another part of your original families, but please don’t use that information to put additional pressure on yourself to move in before you’ve addressed this. If ultimately you realize you need a monogamous relationship and your partner can’t commit to one, it would be so much better to break up now, after a mere year and a half, than to have to deal with splitting up a household.
Q. Re: Looking for new jobs after a personal absence: Fib a little. “I left my job. I needed to help my mother, who was experiencing health problems, and I took over managing her bookstore. So I was able to help out family and expand my management skills at the same time.”
A: That doesn’t even sound like a fib to me; that just sounds like a professional polish thrown over what actually happened! If you’re not certain you can mention your mother’s health problems without risking your composure, you might say just that you helped out a family member by managing a bookstore on their behalf while they took leave of their own, and then go into a bit of detail about what you learned on the job. It sounds kind of impressive, frankly; I’m not sure I could just pick up and run a bookstore on a moment’s notice.
Q. Re: “Supportive” homophobes: When your relatives talk about being so supportive of gay rights, Pride, etc., casually say, “Have you ever thought about being a foster family for LGBTQ kids? They’re so needed. It was really hard for me when I got kicked out and had nowhere to go.” End it there with a dead stare.
A: On some level, I think that’s the conversation these family members are kind of trying to have with the letter writer. Whether or not they’re consciously aware of it, they’re clearly uncomfortable with the ways they held back and hoped for the best in the past when her parents were abusing her, and after years of avoiding an important conversation, they want some sort of absolution or at least out-and-out conflict. I kind of love this response, although I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the letter writer’s relatives would let this one sail right over their heads.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. When should I call out my child’s teacher’s racist comments?: My wife recently accompanied my son’s third-grade class on a field trip. Preparing the children, the teacher commented that she did not want them to behave “like wild Indians.” Naturally my wife was taken aback by this and, in the era of Trump, feels it’s necessary to address, but could not think of a way to do so at the time. Important information is that this would be a conversation between white people in a small, excruciatingly white district in what is very possibly the whitest state in the country—which hopefully goes some way toward explaining (not excusing) the casual insensitivity of the comment.
My wife would like to talk to the teacher about this during upcoming parent-teacher conferences. My concern is that, in my experience, people don’t react well to this kind of criticism, and my son is going to be in her class for the rest of the year. Complicating matters, my wife has recently been hired by the school district and she will likely have to work with this woman in the future.
I would like my wife to hold off on confronting the teacher with this concern until the end of the school year, when she is not able to adversely affect our son’s school experience. Are my concerns unfounded? Do you have any advice/suggestions as to how we could go about confronting this teacher gently and in a way that doesn’t put our son in danger of petty retaliation? Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.
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