Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Ol’ Piller: My wife and I recently had to have our dog put down. The dog was young, barely more than a puppy, and while this was upsetting to me, it was devastating to my wife. (The dog was sort of “her pet.” We have another pet that’s “mine.”) Our young daughter is also devastated. Through the whole thing, I’ve tried to be supportive, loving, and helpful.
My problem is that I am also absolutely furious. My wife is not a tidy person. Our house is rarely as neat as we’d like, which is not the end of the world. But she’s always had an ability to create unholy amounts of mess: papers everywhere, food left around, bags dropped wherever on the floor. It’s long been a source of frustration for me. And it’s how this happened. She walked into the house and dropped her bag, which she never cleans out or goes through, on the floor. The dog rummaged through the bag, found her ibuprofen, and ate it. Now the dog is dead (ibuprofen: really, really bad for dogs).
So here I am, trying to hold it together. I want to comfort my wife, who is really hurting, not to mention our daughter. But I also need to work through my anger. I don’t want to tell her how I’m feeling because even in a quiet, peaceful moment, “I’m upset because you sort of killed our dog by being a slob” is not what she needs to hear. And yet, it’s kinda what happened. How do I comfort my wife while also dealing with the anger I feel toward her?
A: I agree that you two need to talk about it, and I think there are ways to bring this up that aren’t just You killed our dog because you’re a slob: “I’ve been worried about finding a way to talk about this. We’ve all been devastated about the dog, and I know you’d never do anything on purpose to hurt her. Accidents happen. But I am also angry: This happened because you left dangerous medication on the floor in an easy-to-access location. I want to figure out productive, peaceful ways to discuss this. I know this is really hard for you, and I don’t want to pile on. But we need to be able to talk about it and figure out what kinds of changes are possible.”
It might be a good idea to suggest seeing a couples counselor who has some experience with people who have difficulty parting with possessions. That’s not to say that your wife is necessarily a hoarder, but I wonder if there’s an emotional component to her inability to deal with messes. I think it’s possible to discuss this honestly, even if it causes your wife pain, without simply berating or recriminating. You cannot pretend this didn’t happen, or that it wasn’t avoidable, just because you’re afraid of hurting her feelings. Especially if you plan on ever getting another dog.
Q. My birthmark: I’m 15 and I was born with a birthmark on my right leg. It’s on the back side and consists of pinkish, unconnected blotches extending from my ankle to my behind. I’ve never really minded it because it’s on the back of my leg and I’ve accepted it. My mom hasn’t. She was bullied a lot when she was younger, and I guess she’s trying to protect me. She made me get laser surgery to remove my birthmark, which was really painful and she knew it because I would ask to stop it early every time. When I’ve worn dresses, she’s always suggested putting concealer on.
My main problem is that she won’t let me wear shorts. I’ve asked her a lot, and she’s always said no and because I’m not confrontational I end the conversation there. She knows I want to but she won’t let me. Once I was out with extended family and I bought shorts. When I put them on the next day and prepared to meet everybody, she screamed at me, demanding me to take them off. But my grandma was on my side and my mom finally gave up, with me sobbing. Another time I wore them, prepared to go to school, and she calmly told me that people will talk about me behind my back. I sat in my room for an hour alone and when she came back she proceeded to rub my whole leg with concealer until it started to heat up and burn from friction. Then she made me stand outside in the sunlight to make sure she couldn’t see it. Only then did she take me to school an hour late, and then said that I lied.
Now I just take the few pairs of shorts I have, secretly wear them at school, and take them off before I get home. I’ve done that at least five times now and I’ve felt great and like myself. Plus, no one’s bullying me, and if people talk behind my back I don’t care because I have supportive friends. I’m tired of doing it behind her back, though, and she’s being nice by buying me high-quality leggings. Am I being a dumb rebellious teen? And if not, could I get some advice on how to persuade her to let me wear shorts?
A: I’m so sorry that your mother has convinced herself that your life would be better if she did all the bullying for you. You’re not being dumb or rebellious. Your mother is being at best misguided and insensitive, and at worst cruel. Forcing you through painful laser sessions and giving you friction burns over a light-pink birthmark that nobody else even notices suggests to me that she’s not currently capable of listening to reason or prioritizing your physical well-being. I’m glad that your grandmother is in your corner, and I think it’s time for you to invite other adults into the situation so that your mother can no longer try to isolate you and imply that you’re a liar when you protest against the way she treats you. Are there counselors at your school you can talk to? Other relatives in addition to your grandmother who would be concerned if they knew how your mother was behaving? I think you should cast a wide net here, because I think your mother needs to face a lot of loving-but-firm resistance about the way she talks to and touches you.
I’m so glad you’ve been able to wear shorts, that you have a lot of friends in your corner, and that everyone else in your life doesn’t give a snap of their fingers if you have a pink birthmark on your leg. It’s just a nonissue. Your mother’s shame is not your problem, and she’s trying to convince you that everyone else in the world is going to have the same repressive, cruel, unkind reaction to your body that she does. Mostly, I think, what I hope you take away from this is that your mother is not trying to protect you. She’s trying to hurt and control you, and that’s not what real protection looks like. You deserve better, and you deserve help in making sure she doesn’t touch you like that again.
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Q. Didn’t expect a reward, but: I work as a waitress in a downtown area. One day, I got off work and went to meet a friend who works at another restaurant. I discovered a purse beside a dumpster near the restaurant. I picked it up and with my friend we were able to find the owner on Facebook. There was a wallet with no cash, but with IDs, a house key, and a cracked iPhone. I wanted to get it back since I have had my purse stolen before and know what a hassle it is to replace everything. The lady responded and asked me to bring it to her since she has a baby. She lives about 20 minutes from me. I didn’t expect a reward, but I didn’t expect to be attacked! The lady was horrible. She accused me of stealing her cash and ruining her phone, and threatened to call the cops on me. (She also used an ethnic slur against me, but I am white.) I told her to go ahead, that I was at work and on camera until half past 6, and that I was sure the police would love to check. I walked away and she slammed the door. Several days later, my friend texted me that a lady with a teenager showed up at her restaurant. Her son had stolen a purse and taken $200 out. She made the kid return the money and apologize. She asked me if I returned the purse. Her manager says he will wait two weeks and then give the money to us, since we returned the purse, if the lady doesn’t stop by again. Do I owe it to that lady to tell her about this? I could use the money, and frankly, it grinds my gears to think about helping out that racist witch again.
A: Give the manager this woman’s contact information and encourage him to get in touch with her directly. Since there’s now at least a semipublic trail of who last had the money, there’s at least a decent chance that if you took the money, this woman would later resurface and demand to know why the manager hadn’t kept her cash for two or three or six months until it was convenient for her to come in and get it. If there’s one thing I don’t want for you, it’s for this woman to have an excuse to come after you. You certainly don’t ever have to talk to her again, and someone who works at the restaurant where her purse is stolen can manage the handoff, but I think that if you were to take this money, it would only be a matter of time before your life got worse and more complicated because of it.
Q. Family history: My husband and I, after several years, are finally expecting our first child. We are beyond excited. Recently, at his 20-week scan, he was diagnosed with unilateral multicystic dysplastic kidney syndrome. We are following up on doctors’ recommendations and meeting with specialists to see what will happen next with our child. One of the specialists was a geneticist, who wanted family history. I spoke with my mother-in-law and she stated that there was no indication that there were issues with kidneys on her side of the family.
The problem lies in the fact that when we spoke with my husband’s aunt (who is my mother-in-law’s sister), she stated that there were a lot of kidney diseases that run on that side of the family, which could be the reason why my son has been diagnosed with this condition. We asked my husband’s aunt if my mother-in-law knew, and she stated that my mother-in-law did know all of this information. Prudie, my mother-in-law blatantly lied to my face. My husband’s aunt states that this is because she was worried that this would be a bad look for my husband’s side of the family and didn’t want my side of the family to blame my husband’s side. Which is a BS statement—my family would never do such a thing. My parents are doctors and believe in modern-day medicine. There’s no “blaming.” It’s just an explanation for the condition.
I am beside myself. I cannot believe this woman lied. She is a devout Christian who is constantly preaching to us about the Lord and different topics. She tried to get me to change our son’s name because it wasn’t in the Bible. I am so disappointed in her and cannot face her in the upcoming future. My husband is so furious that he is threatening to cut off all ties with his mother. I am less angry, just tired and stressed and disappointed. How should we approach this? What should we do?
A: I think you two should wait until you are a little less angry and stressed out and then talk to your mother-in-law before deciding whether a continued relationship is possible. Talk through your ugliest and most painful feelings with one another first. Ask each other what you might reasonably expect from his mother in the future, what boundaries you two want to agree upon when it comes to planning visits or reestablishing trust. Take your time and focus on getting all the medical information you need to take care of yourself and your pregnancy. Then talk to her about it. You don’t have to coddle her, but I do think it’s worth giving her a chance to apologize and offer to try to make amends before you decide whether you’re prepared to maintain ties with her. You can tell her you know that she lied, that you’re hurt and bewildered by it, and that you don’t understand why she did it, and then ask her to tell you more. If that conversation goes badly and you decide you need to keep your distance, I think that’s perfectly reasonable. If she’s contrite and understands the seriousness of her violation but you still think you need time and space before you’re ready to forgive her, I think that’s perfectly reasonable too.
Q. My boyfriend’s dreams: My boyfriend and I have been together for almost a year and a half, though we took a two-month break eight months into our relationship. Now we live together and are at the happiest point to date in our relationship. I discovered recently that, about five months into our relationship, he reached out to an ex over email and expressed sentiments I consider to be emotional cheating: that he was dreaming about her every night, that he couldn’t stop thinking about her, that she was the only woman he felt would ever understand him. I was, and still am, heartbroken, as by that time we were already in what I considered a happy and healthy relationship.
He swears that was a different time for him and that our time apart changed him. Since getting back together six months ago, our relationship has bettered exponentially, and he felt that he had to close that chapter before he and I could really begin the relationship that we have today. Still, I can’t help but feel now like the first “installment” of our relationship was a sham if he was thinking about her all the time. Though the two haven’t seen each other since before he and I met, and all communication is over between them now, I feel betrayed. How do I get past this? How do I trust him again?
A: I’m curious how you came to discover this email. (It doesn’t sound like he told you in the interest of full disclosure.) One of the questions I would want to ask my boyfriend, if I were in your situation, is “Would you ever have told me about this if I hadn’t discovered it?” I’d also want to know what he thinks he would have done had she responded, at what point he stopped thinking she was the only woman who would ever understand him, what made him stop thinking about her every day and dreaming about her every night, and how he’d feel if I felt that way about somebody else. What changed during that two-month period when you two were apart? Six months ago isn’t that long—how sure is he that things are different for good? What kind of work is he willing to do in order to earn back your trust? I don’t mean to suggest that you need to ask these in the spirit of “gotcha” questions. I think there’s an honest and possibly quite painful conversation you two need to have. And if you don’t feel like he’s being honest with you, if you get the sense that he’s holding something back or trying to make out like he just magically got over her one day and never thought about her again, then I think you should take that as a sign that you shouldn’t try to get past this or trust him again, and break up with him.
Q. My high school friend’s wedding: I ended up in a psychiatric hospital a little less than a month ago. I missed a friend’s bachelorette party (I did give her some advance notice—and I still paid for my share) and I told her I would still be there to support her at her wedding. I have already RSVP’d. I’m not in the mental state I want to be yet, and the thought of even picking out a dress to wear to the wedding makes me feel sick. Her wedding is in a week, and I really don’t want to go. None of my friends know that I was in a psychiatric hospital because I don’t want to share that with them. Am I the world’s shittiest friend if I don’t go to the wedding?
A: Generally speaking, if there’s any way you can avoid changing your RSVP from “Yes” to “No” a week before someone else’s wedding, I think you should do it. But you’re less than a month out from receiving possibly acute psychiatric care, and the mere idea of buying a dress makes you feel sick. If you think you can trust the bride with this information and that she’ll keep it confidential, I’d explain the extenuating circumstances and tell her that you’ll have to celebrate with her sometime later, when you’re doing better. But if you don’t think you can trust her to keep it confidential, then I think your options are somewhat limited, because failing to show up after RSVPing “Yes” would be a pretty noticeable slight. If that’s the case, I wonder if you have a sense of what you might need in terms of support and assistance to attend for, let’s say, two hours. Is it to not wear a dress? Is it for someone to give you a ride, and to leave early? Think about what might make the event bearable, and if it’s at all possible, give it a shot.
That said, if you really consider it, and you continue to think it would negatively affect your health, don’t run yourself ragged: Tell your friend that you’re truly sorry but you’re not able to attend due to health reasons, that you haven’t made the decision lightly but you can’t go into more details right now. Hopefully, if she’s a true friend, she’ll understand, even if she’s not sure about the details. I’m so sorry you’re struggling right now and I hope things get better for you soon.
Q. Every last detail: I work with a woman named “Janet” in her mid-50s. Janet is a wonderful person. Despite a 15-year age difference, we have managed to strike up a friendship, and I rely on her help to complete projects in my office. Janet has a stepdaughter who recently had a baby. Naturally, Janet is over the moon, and I am very happy for her. However, Janet provides me with daily updates and photos of the baby. I’m also receiving updates on care and breastfeeding. This also went on throughout the pregnancy—I got the play-by-play and all the belly photos. I feign interest and coo over the baby, but this is really annoying me. It’s just TMI. How do I cool the overzealous sharing without sounding like a bitch? Or do I just have to grin and bear it and hope the novelty wears off and the sharing diminishes?
A: I’d probably err slightly on the side of gentle deflection here, rather than: “Janet, I’m thrilled about your new baby, but these updates are a bit too much for me. I’d love to see a picture every once in a while, but I don’t need to hear breastfeeding updates.” (Or rather, I’d save that for after all the gentle deflections have failed. That’s certainly an appropriate thing to say to a co-worker, but if you’re in a small office and depend on Janet regularly for help, I think you should be a bit overcautious and hold that comment in reserve.) I’d be more likely to say: “Oh, what an adorable baby! I’ve got to get back to X project before I’m totally swamped, but I’ll stop by later when I need help with Y regulation.” Set up interactions with her that are particularly designed to address specific work issues so that you have an obvious exit, and be prepared to say “That’s so sweet! I have to go get caught up on this” a lot.
Q. Re: Family history: I would be angry at my mother-in-law too. As Prudie said, take some time before you speak with her. Then write down what you want to say.
That being said, my husband had this same kidney problem, but they didn’t know until he was 6 months old. He had surgery at the time and again as a teen. He has had a great life, played athletics in college, went to an Ivy League school, and traveled the world. He is in better health than other people with both functioning kidneys. Maybe it will be different for your child, but I want you to know that someone had this and continues to have a great life. Good luck!
A: Thank you so much for sharing this! I think part of what’s scariest about this situation is that your baby isn’t born yet and so you have all the anxieties and fears about what might happen but no sense yet of what your life as a family is going to look like, either in sickness or in health. I’m so glad you’ve got attentive doctors and I hope you get all the help you need as you prepare for the baby.
Q. Re: Family history: Couldn’t disagree with your advice more! Did you look up this genetic issue? At worst, it’s incompatible with life; at best, it has lifelong medical consequences. What her mother-in-law did is monstrous, especially considering that she claims to be Christian. I’m in the husband’s camp—a liar pointedly doing so to “protect” some kind of family honor or herself from some imagined social slight is not a person I’d choose to keep in contact with.
A: I understand it’s a serious and sometimes deadly condition; that said, the couple in question didn’t seek out their mother-in-law’s advice before getting pregnant, only after the diagnosis. What she did was terrible, but I don’t think she can rightly be held responsible for the fact that some diseases are genetically transmitted. There’s plenty to be angry with her about, without adding to it.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone—see you next week!
From Care and Feeding
Q. My 15-year-old is totally unmotivated. How do I get him to care? My son, a high school freshman, is a very laid-back and relaxed 15-year-old. This was great when he was younger—rarely was there a tantrum or strong resistance—but as a teenager it makes me so worried. We cannot get him motivated about school, or to find his passions. He puts in little effort and does fine. But he is very bright, and with even a modest effort he could do quite well. He doesn’t get in trouble at school, has many friends, and hasn’t pushed our boundaries beyond what is appropriate at his age. Perhaps this is our own hang-up about how he should be successful. We want him to attend college and find meaningful work. Do we just let him find his way? Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.