Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Kids and trying: My husband and I went into our marriage last year essentially on the same page about kids—he definitely wanted them (ideally three to four), and I was about 80 percent sure I did (ideally two of them). We’re in our early 30s. We did actively try for six months, but yesterday he told me he no longer wants to, only to “not-not try and see if it happens,” which for us, for a number of biological reasons, means we’d be very unlikely to ever have a kid. I’m surprised how much I’m grieving over this idea; I apparently shifted over to 100 percent sure at some point during the past year, and somehow this “we won’t say we’re definitely not doing this—we’ll just slowly let the clock run out on our chances” hurts even more than just a straight “No, we’ve decided we won’t have them.” Logically, I know kids are a thing where they should absolutely only happen when both parents want them, but I still can’t help feeling really betrayed. How do I work through this?
A: I think it’s a little soon to be thinking about grieving and working through this. After less than a year of marriage and a mere six months of trying to get pregnant, your husband went from “I definitely want three to four kids” to “Let’s roll the dice,” without a single intervening conversation—he just told you this yesterday. You’re missing a lot of information here, and you need to pursue multiple follow-up conversations where he can explain where he’s coming from, what changed his mind, what are his greatest concerns, what are his new priorities, etc. And you need to allow yourself to tell him that you’ve changed your mind too: that having kids has become really important to you, that the prospect of simply letting what happens happen feels devastating and you’re not sure you’re going to be able to do it. But don’t just let this change go by on the strength of a single conversation. And if ultimately you decide that having children is a greater priority for you than staying in this marriage, then your goal needs to be to figure out how you can make that happen—not just “working through” your sadness and getting over it.
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Q. Escaping but not: I have a very complicated relationship with my parents. My father is emotionally and mentally abusive toward our entire family, has run out for months at a time, and controls all of our finances. His main target is my mother. For most of my life, he has insulted her while me and my sister are in the room, limited her access to income to a small “allowance,” and acted like she’s invisible while she’s in the room (to the point of me having to relay any questions from her before he would acknowledge them). My mother lived through an abusive childhood and has had several abusive relationships, including this one.
Because of my father’s effect on the family, she’s pretty much the “normal” parent. However, I’ve come to recognize she can be paranoid and abusive. She lashes out unpredictably, and hit me at least once when I was younger. She gets very angry when I flinch at her voice being loud or if she moves toward me too fast, and she is insistent that I’m doing it consciously to make her pity me. She has also mimed me flinching and exaggerated it by throwing herself at the wall as if in fear, all with a blank expression (mimicking me) while forcing me to look at her doing this. She has found out I’m likely on the autism spectrum (from my longtime counselor—I’m seeking a formal diagnosis); however, she does not believe it and has repeatedly said I either am delusional or am making up my symptoms (i.e., struggling with social cues) to get out of being “held accountable.” Since finding out, she has expressed she wants to “train” me out of both my trauma reactions and any self-soothing tics I have (like slowly rubbing my arms when stressed) by miming me as I explained above. Usually this miming happens while she is loudly explaining her reasoning and staring me in the face, making me either flinch again or try to self-soothe more, thus making her more irritated. She says I have no idea how my flinching “makes her feel,” and she clings to the idea that it is not involuntary. I recognize this is not healthy behavior.
However, she is the closest I have to a normal parent considering my father, and I am moving out for college in a couple months. We go over potential schedules, she looks up vegetarian options on campus for me, she’s happy when I’m talking to my roommate, and most of the time it’s like a normal mother-daughter relationship. But there’s always the edge of never being able to let my guard down, lest I get blindsided when she switches back to being “scary.” In the long term, she needs to get away from my father after getting a stable income, and then get therapy. Realistically, I need help to transition to living on my own like any other teenager, and I know I need to learn from her about being independent. I can’t wait to get out of this living situation and away from my parents.
But in having a relationship with her after I move out, when I’m still somewhat dependent on her, I’m worried about handling “both sides.” I need to learn from her, but it feels wrong to keep her at a distance when she’s happy and normal, and the dissonance of remembering the good moments hurt more when she gets riled up. I do have friends I’ve talked to about this situation, and it’s helped me stay sane. But they’re all my age, so they don’t have experience moving out and handling this sort of thing yet. My mother is the one paying my counselor (ostensibly, I’m seeing her purely for my father’s side of things), so it’s awkward when I speak like this about my mom and about that side of our relationship and then ask for advice. I need a straight answer: When do I treat her like she’s my mother, and when do I treat her like she’s my abuser?
A: I wish I had a better answer for you than this. Part of what’s maddening and exhausting about abuse is, as in your mother’s case, for a significant part of the time your abuser is not abusing you. This can strengthen the hope that the abuser is about to let up or can potentially be managed or maneuvered out of the next cycle. But rapidly switching from friendliness and safety to cruelty, rage, humiliation, and unpredictability is part of the abuse—it’s designed to keep you constantly on your guard, constantly on high alert for any behavior that might set her off, constantly trying to please and placate her. There is no strategy you could deploy with your mother to minimize her abuse, and I don’t think there’s ever a time when the “abuser” isn’t present somewhere within her, even when she’s smiling and talking about campus dining with you.
I realize part of why this is so painful is because you’ve long thought of her as the only parent you could rely on, even in part, so allowing yourself to think of her as an abuser in the same way your father is might feel daunting and overwhelming. I’m so glad you’re seeing a counselor and moving out of the house soon. I think living elsewhere and safeguarding your financial independence is the absolute best thing you can do for yourself. You cannot learn about independence from her, not least because she is trapped in several abuse patterns of her own. You will have to learn about that from your peers on campus, from your professors, from campus counseling services, from colleagues when you join the workforce, etc.—anyone but your mother. It’s not safe, and it’s not worth it: You can learn about applying for a credit card or how to dress for a job interview from someone who doesn’t try to mock your physical habits. It is not wrong to keep her at a distance even when she’s “happy and normal.” Just because she’s not abusing you around the clock doesn’t mean her abuse ceases to exist when she starts smiling. Congratulations on getting into college. I hope you find your time there profoundly energizing and relaxing, if only because you can live in peace.
Q. Fiancé has a bi-curious past: I am a straight woman in my mid-30s, and my fiancé, whom I have been with for over three years, recently confessed to me that he has had several sexual experiences with men in his past. He told me this with no prompting, I didn’t “catch” him doing anything online or otherwise, and he is adamant that he is and always will be faithful to me. He just wanted to be completely honest since we are getting married soon. He also is sure that he is not gay or even bisexual, but that this was just something he experimented with in his youth via several one-night stands, and that these were purely sexual relationships, not emotional or romantic ones.
This is not something I have ever dealt with in any previous relationships, and I’m obviously surprised, but I want to be supportive and hopefully get through this together. I’m inclined to believe that the past is the past, and we are together and monogamous now and going forward. I have a basic understanding of “sexual fluidity” and the different orientations, and it seems to be more common than people realize for straight men to experiment sexually with other men. I’m pretty new to this, though. Am I being naïve? Is this new information something that I should be more concerned about for our future? Or should I take it at face value that everyone has a past, and his just happens to include some same-sex experimentation?
A: I do think taking this at face value and trusting your fiancé when he describes his own sexual history to you is your best option. Based on how he brought this up to you, it sounds like he just wants you to know him better since you’re getting married and building a life together. It doesn’t sound at all like he’s trying to build you up to some request for an open relationship or warning you that he’s worried about monogamy. It’s also fine for you to feel a little surprised, since this isn’t something you’ve run into with a boyfriend before (or at least, none of your boyfriends have ever mentioned hooking up with guys before). But this isn’t at all uncommon for straight men (or mostly straight, or whatever!), and there’s nothing naïve about trusting the man you’re about to marry, who’s always been honest and faithful to you.
Q. Is it weird to discuss my son’s height? I am short. My husband is short. My son, 15, is not, and he has gotten a lot taller recently, as 15-year-olds will do. He towers over us. Almost everywhere we go, someone remarks on it. However, he isn’t unusually tall for a teenager—he’s just so compared with us. He likes the added size because it helps him in sports, but he says it’s really boring that it’s all adults want to say to him.
The thing is that my husband brings it up constantly—Son used to be shorter than Friend; now he’s taller! Son is taller than Other Friend too! Husband does this both when Son is around and when he isn’t. I know being short is something my husband is sensitive about (he lies about his own height regularly), but I’m uncomfortable that so much of our focus about Son seems to be on his body. When I told my husband that, he was upset and felt like I was accusing him of something untoward. I personally prefer the “we don’t talk about people’s bodies” rule, but it’s not one my husband subscribes to. Is there an implicit accusation in what I said? Is there any reason not to let my husband get his kicks from talking to me about having a tallish kid? It feels kind of gross to me, but I’m not sure why.
A: It’s perfectly reasonable to ask your husband to knock it off. Family “jokes” or repeated one-liners about how tall/short/thin/fat/_____ a kid’s body is are, at best, boring and irritating to the kid in question. I don’t think you’ll find a teenager in the world who enjoys relatives who make endless comments on their height. It’s especially weird that your husband crows over your son’s height at the expense of other 15-year-olds: “How marvelous that my son towers over Quincy, my 15-year-old nemesis” is not a sentence your husband ever really needs to say. I think the real question here is why you subscribe to a rule about refraining from discussing other people’s bodies and your husband doesn’t. Where does he draw the line? Does he ever think it’s inappropriate to discuss other people’s bodies? Why does he think he’s entitled to endlessly comment (and crow about) a physical feature that his son didn’t ask for and can’t possibly change? Why is he competing vicariously with other teenagers? I think that’s why it feels gross to you; it’s not untoward in the sense that I think there’s anything predatory or sexual going on, but it’s putting an unnecessary emotional burden on a 15-year-old boy to help a grown man work out his resentment toward teenage boys in general (or at least the tall ones).
Q. Quasi live-in significant other and chores: My boyfriend spends anywhere from three to four nights a week at my place. He loves cooking and is happy to take care of that when we’re together, and I’m grateful. One thing I’m not super pleased about is ending up with nearly all the dishes (I don’t have a dishwasher) and cleaning on a weekend morning while he relaxes with coffee and a video game. I am comfortable with putting my foot down about dishes and I plan to this week, but what about other chores? I know it’s my apartment, but I am wondering when or if it is appropriate to ask someone who spends half of his week at my place to occasionally mop or vacuum? He doesn’t make big messes outside of the kitchen, FYI.
A: It’s totally fine to ask him to cook a little less often (or to keep an eye on how many pots and pans he uses on a weeknight), and it’s also fine to ask him to occasionally help you out with basic cleanup. Go for it; having a conversation about household chores during that ambiguous “we’re not exactly living together, but we’re co-habiting in a very real way” period is important and meaningful, and it’s a good opportunity for you both to consider ways you can share tasks and make life easier for one another.
Q. Re: Kids and trying: Sounds to me like the letter writer’s husband is tired of actively trying to conceive (which can be stressful and make sex not as pleasurable) moreso than he has changed his mind about wanting kids.
A: That could very well be it! That’s part of why I hope the letter writer can initiate some conversations with her husband about this, rather than just taking his statement to mean they’ll never have kids and that she should start grieving right away. His frustration and stress levels strike me as totally understandable, but they should be a jumping-off point for talking about their priorities around children, not the ending.
Q. Keeping in touch: I recently went to a partial hospitalization program for two weeks in order to treat my depression and anxiety. As patients, we were discouraged from keeping contact outside of the program. I ended up meeting someone in the program whom I would like to be friends with (and I got the impression she’d feel the same way), but we didn’t exchange contact information before we both left due to the rules. Through the power of Google and Twitter, I found this person’s full name and address. There is no way for me to write to her without it being creepy and making an already vulnerable person feel less safe, right? It just sucks to have to leave what could be a very good friendship back at this hospital, particularly because I didn’t leave the program a lot better than I was when I started it.
A: I think writing her a letter at her home would be a bit intense, yeah; it’d be one thing if you found her on Facebook and wanted to send her a 20-second message, but given that most people don’t correspond by post these days (and she never gave you her contact information), I think it’d be potentially jarring for her. If you were able to find a less-intense form of contact, maybe in a few more weeks or months you could consider sending her a brief message over social media letting her know you enjoyed getting to know her and that if she ever wanted to talk, you’d be available, so the ball’s in her court. But it might be better to acknowledge you wish you’d met under different circumstances, recognize that you don’t know for certain that she actually wanted to deepen the acquaintance, wish her the best, and focus on your own continued recovery.
I’ve come back to this after thinking for a while, and that last sentence of mine strikes me as slightly fatuous: Wanting to connect with someone you had a meaningful relationship with is a perfectly understandable desire, and I imagine feeling yourself cut off from a friendship you’d otherwise pursue in order to “focus on your recovery” from depression is more than a little counterintuitive. It may be that the program you attended has excellent reasons for asking patients not to stay in touch after their hospitalizations, but it’s not illegal or a violation of HIPAA. It’s pretty human to want to maintain connections, especially ones fostered during extreme situations. If you’re able to find a low-key way to get in touch and want to let her know you’d love to hear from her if she were ever interested, I think you should go for it.
Q. Nieces: My sisters both have two girls apiece. I am very close to my younger sister’s pair. My older sister, “Claire,” recently remarked that she was hurt by my “favoritism” and indicated that I was treating her girls poorly. My nieces are all adults. I tried to keep up a relationship with all four of them, but Claire’s kids only want a relationship if they can get something out of it. They stopped writing thank-you notes, and the last two times both girls called me it was to inquire if they could use my house as a pit stop on their road trips (they asked if I could just leave the key under the mat). Contrast this with my other nieces, who call and write and genuinely seem to enjoy my company. I don’t want to hurt my sister, and she has always been sensitive to criticism (especially in the subject of parenting). I don’t know how to properly respond here. I treated all of the girls equally growing up, but I am not going to waste time chasing down a pair of legal adults to force my affection on. I love them, of course, but they made their choices. There is nothing I can do about that. How do I explain this to Claire?
A: I think it’s fine here to balance honesty with tact. You don’t necessarily have to have a big “facing the truth”–style conversation with Claire. You can acknowledge what she said to you and then tell her what you told me: that you love all of your nieces, that you don’t always hear back from Claire’s girls when you send a present or try to talk, but that you’ve always understood it’s just that they’re busy and you’ve always felt love and connection there. I don’t think you need to go into detail about their road-trip requests or mention her parenting, but neither do you need to overworry about her feelings. Her daughters are adults now, and they’ll have to be the ones who manage their own relationships with other family members.
Q. Tricked into a birthday dinner: “Robert” joined our staff as a senior manager three months ago. It has not been the smoothest transition because his wife, “Jackie,” who is not affiliated with our company, is heavily involved in our operations and seems to be around more often than not. Recently, Jackie emailed the office (75 people) to invite up to six staff members to join her and Robert for a professionally prepared five-course meal at their apartment. The date was listed as TBD and those who accepted would be expected to pay for their portions of the meal. The majority of the office ignored or declined the invite. Ultimately, only two staff members (a married couple) reluctantly accepted. A date was finally set (by Jackie), but it turns out that the date chosen is her birthday. This information was not disclosed in any email. We only know because someone found out by chance. Those who accepted feel uncomfortable and also feel like they’ve been tricked into going to a birthday party for the boss’s wife. They already agreed to the date—pre-birthday knowledge. Those of us who now know about the date’s significance think our colleagues have been placed in an unfair position, but we don’t know what’s appropriate in this situation. Should they just bite the bullet and attend? Should they raise their concerns with Robert or Jackie? Or should they make up an excuse despite already responding that they were free that day?
A: I think the rest of the office was right to decline an invitation asking them to join their boss in his apartment for a meal they’d have to pay for. If your co-workers who accepted against their better judgment decide they’d like now to make their excuses and turn down the invitation, they certainly can, although they should probably prepare to have to say “No” to Jackie more often in the future, because she sounds like a real limit-pusher.
The real issue, though, is to clarify with Robert’s own supervisors whether they’re aware he’s been bringing his wife in pro bono to help run the office, and to express your concerns about the arrangement—is this something he’s doing openly? If so, has anyone above him clarified where this unpaid consultant rests on the chain of command? Is she actively managing or issuing direct orders to people in an office that doesn’t employ her? This sounds like a much bigger deal than just a sneaky birthday-party invitation, and while I don’t think it’ll be too difficult to say, “Sorry, turns out we’re not free that evening” or “We’ve thought about it, and I’m afraid a five-course meal just isn’t in our budget,” I’m worried that Robert (and Jackie) might retaliate and waste everyone’s time using office hours to demand further explanation and try to cajole those poor two suckers into rescheduling.
Q. Update: Funeral attendance: Hello, original letter writer here. I did not attend the funeral. I will be happy to celebrate my grandfather’s life at a later time without my sibling or my mother’s husband. This is a situation that I wish was fabricated or exaggerated. My family wants me to “move on from the past.” This isn’t the past! The threats against my children’s lives were made the last time I spoke with my sibling, though I admittedly do not talk to my sibling outside of big family events for valid reasons. My mother acts like I’m crazy for not wanting to be around my sibling. He stabbed me with a knife! He was institutionalized for planning a school shooting! It wears on me when my mother tries to downplay my fears. I start to believe that I am making a big deal out of nothing. Thank you for reassuring me that my concerns are valid. I’m going to try to live in peace far away from my sibling with my recuperating husband and wonderful kid.
A: I’m so glad that you didn’t go, and that you are able to focus on spending time with people who don’t try to make you feel “crazy” for not wanting to be around someone who stabbed you. Be well, and take care of yourself.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for the updates, everyone! It’s such a relief to hear back when things have worked out. See you all next week!
From Care and Feeding
Recently, I have noticed that when I wear my tank-top PJs without a bra, my 12-year-old stepson stares at my chest. I am a large-breasted woman, admittedly, and he is mostly not super obvious, but I can see it out of the corner of my eye, and sometimes it is more overt—he will be talking to me and his eyes will flick down, stay for a moment, and then go back up. He even once did this while I was curled up on the couch and I was wearing shorts after exercising—looking down to stare between my legs as I shifted positions, until I quickly closed them.
I have taken to wearing big sweatshirts, which is fine in winter, but I live in the Deep South, so that isn’t a great solution come spring. His mother wants to confront him directly, but I am worried about making the situation even more awkward, especially since we are still adjusting to life as a family together. Should I just suck it up and deal with the discomfort of too many clothes? Should I just accept that boys his age are curious about bodies? But of course, we also want him to know he can’t do this to other girls and women he meets!
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