Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Daughter’s baking fixation: My daughter “Sarah,” almost 8, got to spend a lot of time with her cool aunt, my free-spirited big sister, this summer. (We had a child care lapse and made an unexpected trip to visit a sick elderly relative.) One thing they did together was watch a very popular baking competition show. Truthfully, it’s a very wholesome show, and now Sarah wants to bake and I get to spend weekend afternoons in the kitchen with her while she does funny British accents, so I’m thrilled to bits. My daughter’s favorite contestant is a Muslim Bangladeshi British woman, and she has asked for copies of her cookbooks and has read about her on the internet a lot. Last weekend, when we were getting ready to make some cookies, she said she wanted to “play Nadiya” and went to grab a towel to cover her head like this woman does. I told her that wasn’t OK, that this woman wore a scarf because of her religion and it wasn’t nice to do that when we don’t follow it, but that she could pretend by doing her fake British accent. Sarah says she plays Nadiya at her aunt’s, and now I’m annoyed. Sarah was further distraught because she was planning to dress as this woman for Halloween. Prudie, my daughter can’t pretend to be this woman by donning a fake hijab in my house, her aunt’s, or for Halloween, can she?
A: There are two things worth stressing to Sarah at the same time: First, she’s not in trouble for liking Nadiya or wanting to be like her; her admiration is genuine and not driven by any impulse to mock. Second, you can also start talking to her, in age-appropriate ways, about the history of Islamophobia and black- and brownface (there’s even a current political story you can bring in to illustrate your point) and why putting on a funny British accent generally isn’t considered rude when imitating other peoples’ accents often is.
Your daughter sounds inquisitive, playful, and warmhearted. Rather than saying, “No, you’re forbidden to do X,” once you’ve talked more about the context and history of such costumes, encourage her to develop a thoughtful, conscientious response that’s neither self-flagellating (since it’s not her fault as an 8-year-old) nor dismissive (since she has to live in the world and can’t shrug off history). That said, I think you’re right to draw the line at letting your daughter put on a hijab for a Halloween costume, and if it becomes necessary you can say: “Sorry, I’m your mom and I said so. You can communicate the persona of Nadiya the baker through some other means.”
Q. Vaccines and family reunion: I am planning a family reunion. My uncle has two grandchildren, whose parents have chosen not to vaccinate them. About half of the family knows and half does not. My sister-in-law, a cancer survivor, is part of the “does not know” contingent. I am fairly certain this information would lead to her not attending, along with my brother and nephew. My own kids would be very sad not to see their first cousin, and my mother was looking forward to having this time with all of her grandchildren. She is very angry with her brother for allowing these children to come. I am stuck in the middle as the event organizer. My current thought is that it is fair to say my uncle and/or his son need to tell the family that the children aren’t vaccinated so that everyone can make their own health decisions. My mother wants to flat-out forbid them from coming, and my grandmother just wants everyone to get along. There are eight siblings altogether, most of whom disagree with the anti-vax position but probably won’t speak up. Help!
A: It may help to stop thinking of yourself as “stuck in the middle” as event organizer but “primarily responsible for communicating relevant public health” information as the event organizer. This isn’t an accidental byproduct of event organizing but an integral part of the job, and it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone can make informed decisions about whether or not to attend, and to possibly bring their own children, or people with compromised immune systems, into close contact with unvaccinated kids. It’s up to you whether you tell the uncle he can’t bring his grandchildren or tell the others and let them make their own decisions; if I were in your position I’d choose the former in a heartbeat, especially since you’ve got kids of your own.
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Q. Rings: I lost my husband to suicide during our first year of marriage. I was three months pregnant then and ended up miscarrying. My sister-in-law was with me at the time and she spread the news to everyone I knew. I had to be hospitalized in the end for depression. Fast forward five years, I am doing better but still living at home with my parents and working toward my master’s. I haven’t had much contact with my former in-laws since. They invited me to a memorial service for my husband on the anniversary of his death. I wasn’t strong enough to go and sent my regrets. I think it had a chilling effect on our relationship. My sister-in-law has contacted me out of the blue to ask for several rings that were given to me during my marriage. This does not include the family engagement ring—I already sent that one back to my mother-in-law. Two rings were gifts from my grandmother-in-law. She died during my engagement and gave them to me since they had my birthday gemstone. They were anniversary gifts from her dead husband. Another had belonged to a great-aunt; my husband had plans to convert the large pear-cut diamond into a necklace for our anniversary. I found the plans for that surprise when I started to clean out his closet.
The letter was very short and said the rings were a part of the family history and needed to “come home.” I read it and didn’t know I was crying until I saw tear stains on the letter. I haven’t told anyone about the letter. I don’t know how to process this. I always told myself my in-laws never blamed me for my husband’s death and cared for me. Now I am wondering what really happened then, and it is opening up old wounds. How do I deal with this properly?
A: This is a heartless and baseless request coming five years after the death of your husband. These rings were given with no strings attached, and they carry meaningful associations with your husband’s love for you. You are under no obligation to respond and can ignore this curt, cruel, bizarre letter with a clear conscience. But if you think responding will make you feel more at peace, or like the subject is definitively closed, you might respond with something like this: “I was hurt and bewildered by this request. These rings were gifts from my husband. They mean a great deal to me and I cherish them. I won’t be giving them away.”
I realize that even sending a decisive “No” back to your in-laws won’t magically erase the hurt they’ve caused you; I hope you’re able to talk about this pain with other people in your life so you don’t feel like you have to simply swallow this insult and move on by yourself.
Q. Mom wants to retire: My mom was a stay-at-home mom until my parents divorced when I was 12. In the 23 years since, she has worked part-time jobs and lived off the savings she received from her divorce. She is 60 years old now, is very healthy, and still holds a part-time job. She told me recently she now plans to retire at age 62 and stop working completely. She has no retirement income and plans to live solely on Social Security benefits. I tried to persuade her to at least work until she’s 65 to get the maximum Social Security benefits, but she is convinced the Social Security will be enough to see her through until she dies. We live in a very expensive area of the country, and I know that while the money may be enough now, it doesn’t take into account the rising cost of living. Is there anything I can say to persuade my 60-year-old mother to just keep at it a few more years so she is better taken care of for the rest of her life? Any ideas would be appreciated.
A: Can you ask her if she’d be willing to meet with a financial planner to help her realistically assess her expenses and the rate of inflation as it relates to her planned retirement age? If you’re worried about putting her on the defensive, you can offer it as a sort of practical gift, rather than a hoop you demand she jump through before she’s allowed to retire. If anyone else has any suggestions, or similar experiences with their own parents, I’ll run those too.
Q. Do we always have to be inclusive? I work on a fairly large team (15 to 20 people), and we enjoy spending time together outside work hours: happy hours, dinner, games at the office, etc. We have a colleague, “Ben,” who’s in a wheelchair and who actively participates in all these events. We do generally make sure he can get to wherever we’re going, either by just staying at or around the office, or by using the decently accessible public transportation near our office. One co-worker recently mentioned that his deck is being refinished and he’d like to have us all over for a barbecue when the deck is ready. The problem is, his house would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for Ben to get to, making it unlikely that Ben could attend. Is it inconsiderate of them to host a barbecue at their house? I can’t figure out how to balance someone’s graciousness with inclusiveness.
A: The short answer is yes—it’s inconsiderate to plan a dinner for your colleagues in a house you know one of your colleagues cannot enter. It quite literally does not take Ben’s needs into consideration. If your co-worker with the new deck mentions wanting to host again, you can ask, “Is your deck wheelchair-accessible?” If the answer is no, then you can all plan a work event somewhere else, and your co-worker can grill for his non-work-connected friends and family. (Unacceptable answers to “Is X wheelchair-accessible?” include: “There are only a few stairs,” “I’m not sure,” “Maybe,” or “I could probably lift him.”)
The slightly longer answer is that you say you “generally” make sure Ben can get to your meetups and that the public transportation near your office is “decently” accessible. Here’s a brief report about common problems cities face when complying with the ADA (which has only been in effect since 1990). There’s a lawsuit currently pending against Atlanta, for example, for failing to maintain city sidewalks such that wheelchair users can safely navigate them. Your co-worker cannot enter non-wheelchair-accessible spaces and so that should be a very simple, straightforward, angst-free rubric for deciding where to host your workplace get-togethers: “Can everybody who works in our department enter the building?” If the answer is no, look elsewhere. The implication of your subject line—“Do we always have to be inclusive?”—is that there’s some point at which you will have built up sufficient credit by remembering that Ben uses a wheelchair to forget every once in a while, as if accommodation were a favor you all were doing for him, something he should be grateful for or pleasantly surprised by. It’s not! You should plan work events with Ben’s accessibility needs in mind as often as he is your co-worker, and as often as he uses a wheelchair—that is to say, all the time, as a matter of course, and without believing yourself to have earned extra credit by so doing.
Q. Can I get my roommates to “adult”? I’m moving in with new roommates in the coming month. I’ve had problems in the past where roommates will agree to do some portion of the apartment chores so we can divide the labor evenly but will end up never following through, even when they volunteer to do that particular chore. Is there a way to enforce such chore divisions without having to turn into an endless nag (which often doesn’t get any results either)? I’ve considered changing the Wi-Fi password, but using such tactics seems economically manipulative and likely to just make divisions worse.
A: It’s a great conversation to start having with your roommates now before you all move in together. (I wouldn’t mention your last-resort plan to ban them from the Wi-Fi, though.) Ask them what their experiences have been like when sharing chores with other roommates in the past: what’s worked for them, what hasn’t, what they consider “reasonably clean,” whether they’d be interested in chipping in for a monthly cleaning service to make basic maintenance cleanup a little easier, and telling them a little bit about your expectations so there aren’t any big surprises when you all go pick up your keys and start living together.
When it comes to roommates you don’t plan on living with for the rest of your life (I wouldn’t necessarily give this advice to someone dealing with a long-term partner), I think it’s good to have a point in mind where you’d consider changing the Wi-Fi password or endlessly nagging to be more work than just taking out the trash or cleaning the bathroom yourself. It’s not ideal, of course, and I hope you don’t often have to make that decision and that you all come up with an easy, equitable plan for divvying up chores right away, but if you find yourself so alone in your housekeeping responsibilities that you’re thinking about taking away basic utilities in order to force your roommates to do the dishes, I think you’ll find life a lot more peaceful if you just do the dishes and look for better roommates.
Q. Bi woman struggling to navigate friendship with her straight female BFF: I am a recently out bisexual cis woman in my late 20s, with a preference for women. The reasons it took me this long to come out are a semi-religious upbringing, not-so-great self-esteem, some homophobic bullying when I was a kid, and the thought that my life would be easier, safer, and less scrutinized if I dated men. I am so much more confident and so much happier to finally be openly dating women. For the first time in my life I can actually picture a future that involves a romantic partner, kids, and occasionally even a wedding.
The problem lies with my best friend, “Anne,” who is also a woman, and is very straight. I came to college from a difficult family situation. After a few weeks and a handful of those deep late-night conversations that only college freshmen have, Anne and I became inseparable to the point where early on there might have been some unhealthy co-dependence. A decade later, we have lived together in a couple cities, lived apart in others and traveled to two dozen more, seen each other through breakups and funerals, cried laughing from the pure silliness of jokes about nothing, and sat endlessly in total silence and complete companionship. She matters to me in many ways, and I rely on her, more than anyone else in my life. I love her deeply. But, I am not romantically or sexually interested in her, and never have been. (Please believe me here.) My first worry is that she now thinks I am or at some point was, and I have no idea how to clear the air between us. It feels as though bringing the topic up would itself be proof that I do have sexual feelings for her—I don’t want her, or the women I would like to date for that matter, to think that the lady doth protest too much.
My second worry might need more explanation. I came out to Anne and my other closest friends (all straight) several months ago at a dinner party. It went over well enough. Most had clearly already guessed, and I think a part of her knew too. I hadn’t planned to come out that night. I said it rashly in response to someone else joking about my sexuality; I answered a couple of questions; I changed the topic. Since then, Anne and I have discussed my dates with women casually, but I think we feel mutual awkwardness there and so haven’t gone deeper.
In short, I learned our sophomore year of college that she had a best friend who came out as gay when they were in high school. This revelation weakened their friendship permanently. Anne explained that she worried a little about an unrequited crush, but more so she worried that once her friend started dating girls, the space for their friendship would be swallowed up. Apparently this is in fact what happened. Anne said some other mildly homophobic things in that conversation that I am fairly certain she no longer believes, but it was this—the idea that a woman has a slot for one man (her boyfriend) and one woman (her best friend) and no others—that kept me, in no small part, from coming out at 19, and at 22, and at 25, and at 27.
I was initially terrified of hurting Anne and losing her. Once I became more secure in our friendship, I was less afraid of losing her entirely but was rather afraid of the nature of our relationship changing permanently. I was afraid of losing our closeness and my hard-won sense of family and stability along with it. I am in fact still acutely afraid of this, even though since I’ve come out we have been on vacation together and talk nearly every day. Really, she has been nothing but loving, and her live-in boyfriend (I’m a big fan of him) has been wonderful too.
I guess I’ve been operating on thinking that if I say nothing, if anyone ever asks whether I’ve had the classic “straight best friend crush” on Anne, I can credibly laugh and act as though I’ve never even heard the trope. I’ve been thinking that if I behave casually enough, at 75 Anne and I will still end up sharing a beach house with my wife and her husband and our respective kids and grandkids without ever having to visit my fears. Is this as unrealistic as I think it probably is? On dates I’ve sensed some women tense up when I refer to “my best friend,” and I’ve read enough novels and advice columns to know that jealousy and deep fears left unaddressed create distance, and that distance becomes greater the longer feelings go unsaid.
My question is, if I have to address these issues, how do I have these conversations when I can’t even game them out without panicking? I finally feel almost fully like myself, and I hate that my very best friend is the person I am still most afraid of being fully open with.
A: There’s a lot here, and I wish I could respond in kind, because it’s all so new and so fraught and so deeply felt. But when it comes to the salient question (How do I deal with the fact that my best friend has become a little withdrawn and awkward around me now that I’m out?) I think it’s important not to let Anne off the hook just because you care about her. It’s not true that she’s been “nothing but loving.” She’s mentioned a number of “mildly” homophobic ideas that you’re not entirely sure she still holds and confessed that she stopped being friends with the last person in her life to come out to her. It may very well be that her college friend was less available to hang out once she started dating women, but something tells me that Anne was relieved to seize on that as an excuse to get some distance. The fear of falling out of Anne’s affections has kept you in the closet for years. That doesn’t mean she’s a homophobic monster who’s solely responsible for your closeted 20s, but I think her obvious discomfort about women dating women, especially when one of those women is her best friend, is homophobic. Please don’t feel like you have to carelessly laugh and pretend you’ve never heard of crushing on straight girls if someone asks you—if anyone asks you whether you’re secretly in love with Anne just because you’re bisexual, they’re being rude and it’s not your responsibility to excuse their rudeness.
It’s not unrealistic to have a best friend who’s a woman, not want to date her, and go on to date or even marry another woman. Lots of lesbians and bi women do this all the time! And I don’t think Anne’s homophobia is malicious or intentional or stronger than her affection for you, or that you two can’t recover from her initial avoidance and discomfort. But I do think it’s worth acknowledging and discussing openly.
Q. Re: Mom wants to retire: 65 is not the maximum Social Security benefit. It is 70 years old. And for every year you hold out until 70 you get another 8 percent. If she retires now she will get the least and it will hold for the rest of her life.
Q. Re: Mom wants to retire: If the Mom is now 60, her full retirement age will be later than 65 and probably 67 depending on her actual birth year. If she does retire at 65, her Social Security benefits will be reduced accordingly.
A: Thanks for this! That’s just additional confirmation that it’s not a good idea to retire on assumptions, that there are a lot of details that will be important to pay attention to, and to do a lot of research before making any decisions.
Q. Re: Do we always have to be inclusive? These are not work events, and colleagues outside of work can choose to invite any group of their co-workers (or none of them) they want. Saying someone can’t have a party on their own time with whomever they want is quite honestly odd. No one is going to be sued for having a barbecue at their house outside of work time and only inviting some of their co-workers. The whole world of socializing would be a veritable minefield of lawsuits if that were true. Nothing in the original post suggested this was a work event, just a social event hosted by one employee to celebrate his deck being refinished. For a group that has gone out of its way to be inclusive to their co-worker for work events, this does not extend to nonwork socialization. Reading up here, “The ADA does not cover strictly residential private apartments and homes.”
A: I was not advising the letter writer to make sure their colleague could attend these off-site get-togethers because I worried he might sue her. I was advising the letter writer to make sure their colleague could attend these off-site get-togethers because it’s the right thing to do. No one is forbidding the deck guy from having parties; I just think if you invite your entire department over to your house and then add, “Sorry, Ben, you won’t be able to get in,” you’re being rude. No one has threatened to sue anyone; I don’t think that’s a risk here.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for the help, everyone! Remember, it’s a good idea to keep the needs of other people in mind, even if they haven’t threatened to sue you. See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. My anxiety disorder has me convinced my son isn’t actually mine: I’ve suffered from anxiety my whole life, and with the help of my wonderful wife and a lot of therapy, it’s more under control now than it’s been in the past. I’m also prone to intrusive thoughts, and unfortunately these two issues have coalesced into constant worrying and obsessing over whether my 10-month-old baby is actually my biological child. Of course, I have no reason to think he isn’t. My wife has never given me any suspicion of being unfaithful, and he was a planned and much-wanted child. I can’t sleep, it’s all I think about, and I’ve been too embarrassed to tell my therapist. I’m worrying that it’s going to hurt my relationship with my beautiful baby, and I don’t know what to do. Can I ask my wife to take a paternity test, or will that ruin everything?
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