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, chatters! Let’s do what we do best.
Q. The celebrity at the funeral: I work as a personal assistant to an actress. Almost anyone would recognize her and know her name. She is a normal and down-to-earth person who has become my friend. A few days ago, my father died. My family is in the middle of making funeral arrangements. My boss made a comment about attending the funeral to pay respects to my dad, whom she became friendly with because he is such a fun, lovable guy. But here is the thing: I feel sick to my stomach at the thought that everyone at the wake and reception will be gawking at her, trying to subtly take pictures of her and asking for autographs. This happened at a mutual friend’s wedding during the ceremony, and it has happened three times to her at other funerals—including during the burial. I am thinking of asking her not to come to the funeral. I know that she would understand, but it would hurt her. But I can’t stand to think of anyone disrespecting my father’s memory by clamoring over an actress at his funeral. What should I do?
A: I think you should do whatever you think is necessary for your own peace of mind: You just lost your dad, and other people should be doing what they can to make life easier for you. Could you deputize a close friend—or two or three—to run interference on any thoughtless funeralgoers who might try to approach her? They could spread the word beforehand (“Hey, a celebrity will be at the funeral, be cool about it, don’t say anything or try to get a picture, or we’ll have to whisper-shout at you before any of the bereaved notice”) and gently dissuade any stubborn holdouts to put their phones down and walk away so you can focus on saying goodbye to your father.
Hopefully the people who knew and loved your dad will be able to remember why they are there, and know how to behave themselves even in the presence of a celebrity. But if the idea of having to assign some of your friends to the position of “wranglers to the starstruck” sounds too stressful or overwhelming, you’re well within your rights to ask her not to come. They were friendly but not so close that they had a relationship independent of you, and you say she’ll understand despite feeling initially hurt—it’s definitely an option that’s available to you.
Q. Hellion of a 3-year-old: I’m at my wit’s end with my 3-year-old son, “Liam.” Liam began preschool three weeks ago, and he’s already been suspended for a day. My husband and I have had to take off work either to talk on the phone with him or to go pick him up due to his absolutely atrocious behavior. He has been hitting and kicking his classmates, spitting at his friends, flat-out telling his teachers “No!”, and, just today, hitting his teacher! His teacher! Finally, his behavior has escalated to the point of said suspension. We are in constant communication with his teachers, I have taken time off work to observe him in his classroom (he only received one timeout while I was there), we have gotten on the same disciplinary routine as his school policy (i.e., timeouts, verbal warnings, etc.), and have even already had one parent-teacher conference. In three weeks. I have tried to see it from my kid’s point of view.
When he is forced to come home from school, he is in lockdown in his room with one book and no toys, and is to only come out when he needs to use the bathroom. His screen time is already at zero, as he does not particularly seem to care for shows, movies, or any television in general, because he is instead perfectly content with running around in the backyard, playing with his toys and our dog. I am pulling out my hair. I am emotionally beside myself every single day I send him to preschool, absolutely dread texts from his teachers, and tear up as soon as my child’s preschool name starts ringing on my phone, as I know that means my child must now come home.
I am going to have another baby any day now, and our house has been under a huge remodel for the past four months. There is no way my husband and I can afford to go down to one income, so me being a stay-at-home mom is, unfortunately, out of the question. I am beyond distraught. This makes me physically ill. What do I do?
A: It’s so clear from your letter how overwhelmed and unhappy this is making you, and I want to take a moment to acknowledge that this situation sounds unbelievably difficult and stressful, and you have my sympathy. I want you to be able to get more thorough, more consistent, and more useful support. But the thing that stood out to me the most here was “When he is forced to come home from school, he is in lockdown in his room with one book and no toys, and is to only come out when he needs to use the bathroom”—that strikes me as a totally disproportionate punishment for a 3-year-old, who is surely too young to understand the cause-and-effect of a timeout longer than a few minutes. That kind of isolation, lack of contact or comfort, and lack of stimulation strike me as debilitating, and they surely contribute to his acting out later. Please stop doing this at once. No pediatrician or child care specialist would recommend locking a toddler with a single book in his room all by himself for an entire afternoon. It’s cruel and inhumane and you need to stop. It strikes me that so far all Liam has encountered from adults is punishment, and I don’t think that’s going to help you get to the root of why he’s acting out.
Of course, I understand why you find his behavior troubling, and he shouldn’t be allowed to hit and kick other people at will. You should be talking to his pediatrician and seeking out professional help to find out what he needs that he’s not currently receiving—kids that young have a pretty limited vocabulary when it comes to articulating a problem, or communicating a need, and you can’t punish a 3-year-old the way you might a 16-year-old. I would love to hear from our readers with suggestions on how these parents might seek out more specific assistance to help their child.
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Q. Asking American people of color about their heritage? I’m a white person from a very diverse country where white people are in the minority. I completely get why the “Where are you from?” question is painful and loaded for people of color in the U.S. But, when interacting with Americans, is it possible to ask about a person of color’s heritage without sounding racist?
In my wildly diverse friend group, our cultures and languages make for rich, funny, and wonderful conversations. It’s also a great way to move beyond small talk with a new acquaintance. But I’m worried that if my white self asks an American POC about their heritage, they’ll understandably bristle. Obviously, I wouldn’t pursue this conversation if someone seemed uncomfortable. My question is about even opening with it at all: It’s mutually enjoyable when there’s buy-in, so is asking entirely off the menu for people likely to have experienced this microaggression? And if not, how can I phrase a question about heritage (like the story of their Nigerian-sounding name) without sounding like I’m asking, “Why aren’t you white?”
A: It is polite to let other people decide when and if they want to discuss their heritage with you. You can certainly ask appropriate questions that increase emotional intimacy, and trade anecdotes about places you grew up in and things your parents do that drive you wild sometimes, but I think you should pay attention to that internal discomfort when you contemplate asking someone “Hey, what’s the story of your Nigerian-sounding name?” and ask them something else.
Q. Is this normal? I work for a well-known nonprofit and its policy on business travel is two to a bed, four to a room. I don’t want to share with my co-workers because ewww. Also, we are often at a training for two to three weeks. We also are expected to house each other when we travel to save money, instead of getting a hotel room. I get cost-saving, but often this means sleeping on a couch (or floor)! I love my organization but I hate this! How do I bring this up with my boss? I am entry-level and in my early 20s, but this feels wrong.
A: I know Alison Green (Ask a Manager) gets variations on this question fairly often, and I’m on both her side and yours when I say that I think a company should only send as many employees as it can afford to book individual rooms for out on business trips or to attend conferences:
People who have never encountered the expectation to share rooms tend to be horrified by it and often argue that a company that can’t afford private rooms for employees is a company that can’t afford to send people on business travel. (I tend to think this, personally.) But the reality is sharing rooms is within industry norms in a whole host of fields.
Q. Loss: My ex-wife and I lost our 2-year-old son in an accident many years ago. We struggled to make our marriage work, but it fell apart after my wife wanted to try for another child. I couldn’t stand the thought; it felt like replacing our son. We divorced. I ended up remarrying a woman I met in a grief support group. She lost her husband and son to a drunk driver but had two older daughters. My ex-wife sent me a letter wishing me the best after the wedding announcement. We don’t see each other or speak to each other much, but we do live in a small city and have friends in common. My new wife and I never planned on any more children, but she became unexpectedly pregnant. We are cautiously optimistic but haven’t told anyone yet. I feel guilty. My ex never remarried. I wasn’t lying when I said I didn’t want another child at the time, and a pregnancy wouldn’t have saved our marriage, but the guilt still gnaws at me. I don’t know what to do. It feels cruel to let my ex find out about the pregnancy through social media or an acquaintance, but calling her or writing a letter feels like salt in an open wound. We loved each other once and will always be bound by the loss of our son. I don’t want to cause her pain. Help me please.
A: I’m torn between “I’m so sorry you’re in this position” and “Congratulations” on the new child you and your wife are expecting—there’s a lot of joy and pain in this situation. I think that your ex-wife is at a point where she can experience happiness on your behalf and isn’t worried that your new marriage is a commentary on your relationship with her. That doesn’t mean she won’t feel pain or even anguish when she learns you’re expecting a baby, but I do think you can trust her to hold that joy and grief in healthy tension with one another, and that she’ll find the love and support she needs from her own family and friends to process whatever complicating emotions she experiences on hearing the news.
I think it’s kindest and best for you to tell her directly. If you think she’d prefer to respond privately, then I’d suggest writing her a letter and calling a day or two after she’s received it. You can acknowledge that you’re not sure what the best way to talk about this looks like, that you’ll understand if she’d rather not discuss it at length with you, but that you’re grateful for her distant-yet-kind presence in your life and care about her. But I think she will appreciate hearing about it from you instead of from a third party.
Q. Lassie, don’t come home: We got a dog last year, with the promise that my husband would take care of it, as I do the majority of the care for our two young children and the house. Surprise! He does next to nothing. (It should be noted that we both work full time outside the home.) The dog jumps on the kids, sheds everywhere, hasn’t been to the vet or received proper medical attention, is never brushed and bathed, and is driving me up the wall. I want her gone. We’ve had multiple discussions about his lack of necessary care for her, but nothing changes. I need a script to drive it home or I’m likely to explode.
A: A script is great, but you don’t need to get your husband to agree to anything in order to start contacting friends who might be looking for a pet, or reaching out to local shelters and other organizations that help re-home dogs: “This isn’t working, and it hasn’t worked for the last year. I’m frustrated that it’s come to this point, because you told me you would take care of the dog and haven’t done so despite repeated conversations, and now the dog is being neglected and not getting the care she needs. I’m going to find her a home where she can be properly looked after, and afterward maybe we’ll have more free time to discuss how we got to this point.”
Q. Not invited to my wedding: I’m getting married next month, and I’ve sent out formal invitations to my family and close friends. I have a large group of friends—I’m a really big extrovert. Unfortunately, some people think I’m their best friend when that isn’t the case. Now old friends I’m not that close with have come out of the woodwork inquiring about the wedding date. How does one politely tell someone they were not invited to a wedding? Or am I just SOL on this one and about to get burned on a friendship?
A: If someone’s just asking you “When’s the wedding?” you can politely respond with something nonspecific like “We’re getting married in October,” then move the conversation along to your honeymoon plans or asking what your friend is up to for the holidays. But if someone outright asks you where their invitation is, you can certainly say: “We’re having a small wedding. I wish I could invite everyone, but I’m afraid that’s just not possible.”
Q. Re: Hellion of a 3-year-old: I think the parent of the “hellion” needs parenting classes. A good first step is to stop referring to a pretty normal 3-year-old reacting to a lot of big change in his life as a “hellion.” A second step is to read about proper responses to a 3-year-old’s emotions. Timeouts do not work for 3-year-olds. They don’t understand their emotions or consequences. You hit the nail on the head, Prudie, with the point about the wildly disproportionate punishment for a 3-year-old. The school seems pretty awful too.
A: That’s a really good point about the school—I felt so unsettled and troubled by the description of how they were punishing this little boy that I didn’t realize how odd it is that the school hasn’t recommended additional forms of support or testing. If your school’s only response to a 3-year-old acting out is to warn him and then send him home over and over, it is missing something really significant. He needs something that he’s not getting right now. He does not need more punishment. He needs to know that he is loved and cared for, and every time you lock him in his room you’re telling him that he doesn’t deserve to be around other people (or even outside playing with his dog). Parenting classes and possibly anger management for both parents strike me as immediately necessary, as well as a change in school to a more supportive environment. I realize the letter writer already feels overwhelmed, but these are absolutely necessary changes.
Q. Re: Hellion of a 3-year-old: I’m a child and adolescent psychiatrist and think your answer is totally heading down the right path. It’s highly likely that a lot of this behavior is acting out, stemming from perceived chaos and changes that are a lot for a 3-year-old to articulate. I recommend positive enforcement instead of punishment. Seek out a therapist who can provide you with parent management training. It’s a time-limited course of training (usually eight weeks), initially for parents only and then including some sessions involving the child too, that will help your family get back on track. It’ll be especially helpful once the newborn arrives and potential jealously gets triggered. Best wishes with a challenging time.
A: That’s really helpful. Thank you for this specific advice. Someone else asked if it was possible for the letter writer to go back to whatever they were doing before this particular preschool, and another pointed out, “Your description of the discipline process sounds like you have chosen an overly regimented school for him, and your total lockdown when he gets home sounds like you have wildly age-inappropriate expectations of him.” I’m worried about making the letter writer feel defensive or dog-piled, but I really want to drive home the point that what you’re doing right now is not OK. Please ask friends and family for extra support right now (whether that mean bringing over meals, helping you make appointments with doctors and therapists, getting the car filled up with gas, etc) so you can dedicate all the time and attention you can to finding new ways of dealing with your child.
Q. I kicked my husband out for masturbating to a friend’s photo: I came home last night after a girls’ night out and noticed that my husband’s phone was not plugged in. I picked it up, plugged it into the charger and took a peek to see what’s happening on Facebook. I open it up and there I see a picture of one of his friends in a bikini, zoomed into her body and chest. I woke him and asked him about it, and he, in a sleepy daze, admitted that he used it earlier in the night to masturbate to. I can honestly say I lost it. My husband cheated on me over a year ago by kissing one of his co-workers after work. It was a one-time indiscretion, after which I agreed to work on our relationship. I don’t know why, but this feels the same to me. I feel like he cheated all over again. I gave him three days to move out, and said that if he does not comply, I’m taking my daughter on a mommy-daughter trip to give him more time. I don’t see myself getting over this or ever being intimate again. I don’t know if I’m overreacting here, but I honestly feel broken about this. Read what Prudie had to say.
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