Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Yucking my yum: I’m a 35-year-old man engaged to a great woman. But we’ve hit a rough patch with my family and I need help figuring out how to navigate this. My fiancée, “Sarah,” is white and from the Midwest. I’m from a big city on the West Coast; my dad is white, and my mom is Chinese. Unlike Sarah, I grew up very exposed to lots of cuisines and different kinds of foods. Sarah has never been an adventurous eater, and that’s fine! The problem came at Christmas when we were with my family, and my mom made some Chinese dishes that aren’t on standard “American Chinese” menus. No one forced Sarah to eat or even try any of these items, but her face was a mask of horror and disgust during the meal (which included many American dishes, too, to accommodate her). It was embarrassing. And I could tell my mom felt hurt and uncomfortable. I talked to Sarah later, but she denied making faces. I don’t know how to talk to her about this, because it can’t happen again. I love my mom’s food, and I want any future kids Sarah and I might have to be exposed to it and have a chance to experience that part of their heritage, but any conversation I have with Sarah gets stalled because she flatly denies doing anything wrong and quickly turns the conversation to bodily autonomy (“I choose what to put in my body”) even though no one tried to make her eat anything. Please help.
A: “We’re not talking about what you do or don’t eat. We are in total agreement on that front. I’m not asking you to eat anything you don’t want to. You may not have been aware of the faces you were making, but I was looking right at you, and so was the rest of my family, and your reactions were visible, obvious, and rude.”
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Q. I don’t want my stepmom at my wedding—how do I tell her? I don’t like my dad’s wife; we’ll call her “Terry.” She was our neighbor when I was young, and she and my dad had an affair and left their respective families for each other—it was very messy. It took a long time for my dad and I to rebuild our relationship, and then eventually Terry was reintroduced to me as his girlfriend (even though they were already married—which I discovered later on my own and which was also a mess). My dad passed away about six years ago and I have stayed in touch with his wife but only as much as I feel I have to. I keep her at arm’s length because she says hurtful, thoughtless things to me, but I also don’t want to cut her out of my life completely. I try to make time to see her around the holidays; I reach out on her birthday, on my dad’s birthday, on the anniversary of his passing, etc. My mom hasn’t seen this woman since they were neighbors—without going too far into it, my mom has really not let go of her deep hatred for this woman 25-plus years later (which is a whole separate issue for another time). Here’s the thing: I recently got engaged and we told Terry (mostly so that she wouldn’t find out via social media), but I can’t invite her to our wedding. Her presence would ruin my mom’s day and mine because she makes me so uncomfortable, and knowing how my mom’s family feels about her would make that anxiety even worse. I feel like I need to tell her that she won’t be invited but I don’t know how to do that nicely … is there such a way? Also she lives 800 miles away and I don’t have plans to go back there for a while, so this conversation will almost definitely be happening over the phone. Any advice you could provide would be appreciated.
A: I think not inviting Terry is well within your rights, but I also think you’ll need to accept that if you don’t, she may very well decide you have cut her out of your life, or at least that the terms upon which you’d like her to stay in it are unacceptable. So it will help to be realistic on that front. Do you think Terry is likely to assume she’s invited? Or does she seem to have a similar view of your relationship, namely that it’s a fairly perfunctory one? If it’s the latter, you may not need to say anything.
But if it’s the former, or if you worry she might start making travel plans otherwise, you have options. You can either offer her something plausibly deniable about how you’re keeping the wedding small (which, given her history of saying hurtful, thoughtless things, she may decide to challenge), or you can simply come out and say that you’ve decided not to invite her given her history with your mother and let the chips fall where they may. What you want to say to Terry isn’t nice; you can (and should!) say it politely, but there’s no gloss you can put over it that makes it anything other than what it is.
Q. Ladies AND gents: I am a woman in her 40s and have been with the same guy since college. Before him, I only dated guys (boys, really!), and I never experimented in college. It was him and bam, that was it. The past few years, though, I’ve realized that I’m not just attracted to men—I think I also like women. Actually, I’m pretty sure about this. I don’t feel a need to explore or cheat on my partner, but I feel a big relief just acknowledging to myself that, yes, I find women attractive too. Coupled up in all this are the things we keep reinforcing with our young child: We accept you for who you are, you can always be honest with us, differences are wonderful, yadda yadda. My preference isn’t quite eating at me, but I’m not quite the heterosexual woman my husband thinks I am. When does this become something that I should tell my partner about? Is 20 years later too late to say, “Hey honey, I’m bi”?
A: Twenty years later isn’t “too late” because you didn’t know that you were bisexual 20 years ago. I think this is something worth telling your partner about when you feel ready and like you could use additional emotional support and intimacy (which it sounds like you could). And just in general, I don’t think it’s ever too late to come out, even if you’d been married for 60 years. People change or come to new realizations about themselves all the time, and that’s worth discussing! I don’t think it’s something you “should” tell your partner about in the sense that you’re obligated to disclose something unfortunate, but I do think you should inasmuch as you’d like him to know you better and because it’s congruent with the values you’re trying to pass on to your child. Good luck. Let us know how that conversation goes if and when you decide to have it! Even if you decide to remain in a monogamous marriage, you may find you still want to reach out to other bisexual people for platonic support/solidarity/conversation, and it would likely feel meaningful to be able to talk to your husband about that.
Q. Bank of Mom: Unlike all of her friends, my daughter will be graduating from a dental assistant program this spring with no debt. She also has a four-year bachelor’s degree, which she also has no debt from. This happened because we began saving for her education when she was a baby. She’s a good kid—kind, funny, well-liked, no problems with alcohol or drugs. But she’s decided that she wants to work for a year and then go back to school to become a dental hygienist—they make more money than assistants and can work alone. There’s no way she can save enough money in a year to do that. What is my obligation here? I have the money to pay for the course and her living expenses, but it’s money I had earmarked for a down payment on a getaway place near the water to enjoy when I retire. I feel like a bad, selfish mother for not wanting to give up my dream. Am I?
A: It doesn’t sound like your daughter has asked you for the money, and she’s an adult with (almost) two degrees who’s trying to figure out how to pay for further education on her own. I think your only obligation here is to encourage her to make whatever decisions seem best to her, to offer advice if she asks you for it, and to let her figure out how to balance the possibility of some future debt against a possibly higher future income. Keep your money.
Q. Safety as a single woman: I am a single woman in my 20s. Since graduating college about two years ago, my social life has been basically nonexistent. I would really like to get out there and make some friends (and possibly even start dating). The problem is, I don’t know how to do this. More specifically, I don’t know how to be safe while I do this. Since I was young, it has been drilled into my head that a single woman shouldn’t go out at night alone. But at night seems to be when most people socialize. I also don’t drive, so I rely on walking, public transportation, and ride-share apps, all of which have their advantages and disadvantages at night. I also tend to struggle to pick up on clues that someone is possibly dangerous. How can I get out and meet new people safely? Are the threats to single women at night as bad as everyone says? I really don’t want to be this lonely forever.
A: I don’t want to make any sweeping claims about “Yes, it’s always safe to walk alone at night” or “No, it’s never worth doing,” in part because life and safety are, unfortunately, not always perfectly predictable. I can say that threats to women don’t always come from strangers, and it’s likelier that harm would come from someone you already know, which isn’t exactly comforting. That said, there are a number of precautions you can take (letting a friend know where you’re meeting someone and arranging to check in with them after your date, meeting anyone for the first time at a well-lit bar or café or restaurant you’re familiar with and feel comfortable at) should you decide you want to start going on dates at night. If you struggle with safety cues, I’d also recommend asking friends whose judgment you trust what they think you should watch out for, or consider trying group dating events where you’ll feel a greater sense of safety in numbers. I know you say you haven’t had much of a social life these past two years, so I realize you may not have a lot of current close friends to reach out to, but maybe an old college buddy will be available for the occasional check-in via text or phone call. Since you’re also looking for new friends, I’d encourage you to first try meetup groups that get together during the day on the weekends and seek out groups of women who want to do the things that interest you (go see movies, go hiking, whatever) before trying to add dating into the mix. Good luck!
Q. Am I settling too much? One of my favorite things about my girlfriend of four years is that she is so passionate about her work. Unfortunately, that passion has now tipped into workaholism, and I feel like I’m pulling all of the weight in our relationship. I cook, clean, and calm her after late-night panic attacks. It’s gotten to the point where she’ll be doing work at home and I’ll be zooming around making her a cup of tea or rubbing her shoulders. I’ve talked to her about how her work has been affecting our relationship, but she doesn’t seem to get it. She just apologizes and promises she’ll be more present whenever this project or that paper is done. I know I’m never going to be No. 1 in her life. (She’s told me as much.) Should I break up with her or resign myself to a life of being No. 2?
A: Could you be happy as a lifelong No. 2 priority? Because if you are—if you really and truly are, have an excellent social support system outside of your girlfriend, lots of hobbies you’re able to pursue, and feel satisfied with the ways in which she is able to support you—then you certainly can stay with her, if you want to. But the fact that you refer to that as “resigning yourself,” that you feel like you’re carrying a weight around, that you “zoom around” trying to tend to her needs every night in an anxious pattern of soothing and caretaking, and that her workaholism affects your relationship but she doesn’t really seem to understand your needs or your perspective makes me think that this arrangement is not actually very satisfying for you. Plenty of people are both passionate about their work and capable of prioritizing their partners, even occasionally fixing a reciprocal cup of tea for them.
Q. Supporting agender child: My child is almost 18 and has told me she is agender. She hasn’t changed her pronouns or name but is thinking about it, and doesn’t want to be referred to as a daughter or sister any more. I wasn’t totally taken by surprise, though I was surprised by my own momentary sense of rejection—I’m a woman and she doesn’t want to be like me. Whatever, I’ll deal with that. What I want to know is, what are the best resources you can suggest for educating myself (and extended family) on what agender means, so she isn’t burdened with doing all the explaining? We want to put together a reading list for ourselves (husband, who is very supportive, and me) and grandparents/aunts/uncles, etc. Where to start?
A: For what it’s worth, I think it’s totally normal and age-appropriate for an 18-year-old not to want to be like her parents. That’s not to say you should beat yourself up for your private response, but I think some sort of differentiation was probably inevitable, even if it hadn’t been around gender, and I hope you can take some solace in the fact that “I don’t want to replicate your life” is a good and necessary part of parenting someone into adulthood. Gender is both incredibly private and often experienced relationally; it makes sense that you’d have a number of conflicting responses when it comes to no longer using the word daughter and I hope you’re able to set aside some time for yourself to process that. That said, I don’t think your kid’s identity is necessarily a commentary on yours—this is likely something she arrived at after a lot of careful consideration about her own life and her own experiences, not because she looked at your life as a woman and thought it was lousy. I don’t have lots of recommendations when it comes to reading, although in your position I’d probably check out what resources PFLAG has available and maybe some of Kate Bornstein’s work; mostly I think your best bet is to ask open-ended questions and listen to your kid.
Q. Re: Yucking my yum: I would have a serious conversation with Sarah and put a hold on your wedding. I would also chat about future children and your feelings about them wanting to know their heritage. Also, she can choose what to put in her body, but wouldn’t it have been nice if she tried one of the dishes? This is very different but I hate eggs. My mother-in-law makes this “famous” quiche. I tried it to be nice and actually really like it. I tried some other egg dishes and didn’t like them but now she makes me this quiche that I really enjoy. I learned I don’t have to like or even try dishes if I don’t want, but sometimes when I do I am pleasantly surprised. Also I would love to try your mom’s food—it sounds delicious!
A: I’m so glad that you’ve been able to try something new and be pleasantly surprised! On its own, I don’t think declining to try a new dish is a sign that someone’s unadventurous or closed-minded, but I do agree that the underlying issue here has to do with Sarah’s ability to treat the letter writer’s family and heritage with basic respect and courtesy, which is no small issue, especially as it comes to marriage and (possibly) kids. And if she’s not even able to acknowledge the possibility that she made a face without realizing it (much less being able to admit, “Yes, I did make a face, and I denied it at first because I was ashamed, which was wrong and I’m sorry”) then that would make me worry about her ability to deal with conflict honestly. That doesn’t mean the letter writer should cancel the florist immediately, but I do think it opens up a lot of other questions.
Q. Re: Yucking my yum: Any chance these were more than things not on the “standard” menu but included what Midwestern whites would consider to be really weird or disgusting ingredients? Just being at the same table as some of those things would be enough to make me weirded out, and I’ll try almost anything once. I’m just saying that Sarah’s response might have been a little more instinctual, and when pressed she’s ashamed and thus doubling down on her denials.
A: Just because xenophobia can feel “instinctual” to white people doesn’t mean it’s natural or right. It is possible, polite, and respectful to behave neutrally in front of food you don’t want to eat when you’re a guest in someone else’s home.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone. See you all next week!
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