Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Exiting academe with grace: I will have my Ph.D. this summer (in a humanities field). Despite graduating with a decent publication record (three articles and three book chapters, along with a dozen or so leading conference presentations), routinely high CIFs, and connections to a well-respected private university, I do not have a tenure-track job offer lined up. Over the past year, my mother’s health has declined suddenly and dramatically. She may have one or two years left to live, if she’s lucky, and she certainly cannot work. Moreover, the family is already deeply in debt over medical bills—with more on the way—and, thanks to state cuts to Pell Grants, three of my younger brothers are delaying their plans to attend college.
I have decided to transition out of the academy. The jobs simply aren’t there any longer. I’ve also been offered a lucrative job with a philanthropic organization near my parents’ home. My dissertation adviser is a truly extraordinary woman who’s invested in me professionally and personally. She took the news badly and said, essentially, that she regrets the extent of her mentorship and support. My school’s graduate program is quite selective, and I understand that I took someone else’s position, someone who could have gone on to contribute to the field. I already feel enormously guilty for taking up so much time and so many resources. But I also know that the academic life isn’t for me. I’m simply not willing to spend the last years of my mother’s life chasing tenuous opportunities across the country, uprooting my life and my partner’s every year, and putting my life on hold in the hopes that a dream job materializes somewhere. How do I communicate the news to my colleagues, many of them dear friends, without losing their respect or disappointing them as deeply as I did my adviser?
A: Release yourself from the burden of trying to make sure your colleagues don’t experience disappointment. Tell them your news, acknowledge the difficulty of your decision and your excitement over being able to take a job that will help you make ends meet and care for your family, and let the rest go. Hopefully they will be able to handle any subsequent disappointment with more tact and grace than your adviser did. But even if they don’t, you can’t place your own future at risk chasing a job that may very well never appear when you have the opportunity to support yourself right now.
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Q. Break up: I broke up with “Kay” over her bipolar disorder. I loved her and sympathized with her struggles, but that relationship took a real toll on me. Kay sparkled. She was witty, lovely, and amazing until she hit an episode. Then I didn’t know which Kay I was getting. She could be clingy and accusatory and withdrawn. I would have to help her into the bathroom to shower. She could be manic, quitting her job and spending her last paycheck on a shopping spree the week rent was due. We were together for three years. I broke up with her the second time she quit her meds and lied to me about seeing a doctor. I still love her, but honestly I ended up having to get therapy myself. Kay has reached out again and wants to be friends. She is living with her sister and doing better. I want to believe that. I don’t know if I can. What should I do?
A: It’s wonderful that she’s doing better, and it’s totally fine—or valid, or neutral, or what have you—that she wants to be friends, but none of that is particularly germane to the question of whether you would like to be friends with Kay. You do not owe someone friendship just because they would like to be friends with you, or because they’re addressing their mental health issues, or because they’re “doing better” than they have in the past. The only reason to pursue a friendship with Kay would be if you wanted to be friends with her. It doesn’t sound like you do. You can let her know that you wish her the best and that you’re truly happy for her but not interested in reconnecting, and leave it at that. It’s not unsupportive or stigmatizing to acknowledge that her behavior in your relationship had a real, painful effect on you, and that as a result you two are better off as distant exes.
Q. Too many tiny woodworkers: I teach a woodworking class for kids ages 4 to 6 at a community arts center, and I really enjoy teaching there. The one problem is that my supervisor keeps over-registering my class so that I have seven or eight kids when the class maximum is six. We don’t have enough physical space for eight kids at our miniworkbench. Each semester, I prep materials and check my rosters carefully for six students, and at the start of each semester, one or two families show up without registering and I am expected to “fit them in.” How can I help the supervisor understand that I can’t teach eight children how to use hand tools like saws and hammers by myself even though I do an amazing job with a class of six?
A: I will assume you, as a professional woodworker, are more familiar with the safety protocols of your trade than I am, and that it’s not unheard of to teach 4-year-olds how to handle a saw. But I’ll admit I blanched at that particular detail! I think that’s the best angle to stress with your supervisor: “This is a safety issue. I can’t effectively monitor eight kids at a time, and since there are sharp tools and preschoolers in the room, I need to be able to keep my eyes on every one of them. I can’t take on more than six students at a time, and I hate having to turn parents away at the door. How can we make sure I don’t have to?”
Q. Should I be doing more to help my boyfriend when he’s sick? My boyfriend and I have been together for two years. All is going well and we are looking at moving in together later this year, but for right now we live about 30 minutes away from each other (an hour at rush hour) and only really see each other on weekends and an occasional weeknight due to our respective work and life commitments. Currently, he has the flu.
If we lived together, there would be absolutely no question about taking care of him (the flu is rough!), but living as far as we do, I’m not sure of the protocol. He lives quite far from my work, so going to see him on weeknights means little sleep for me—which would also harm my ability to fight off the flu myself—but he lives alone, and I’m a bit uneasy about leaving him to his own devices with the flu when I technically could be there to help. Should I drop everything and go help out? Or can I assume that he will be OK fending for himself until the weekend?
A: Ask him! “How can I help?” Maybe he just wants to vent a little and for you to make supportive sounds over the phone; maybe you can have some soup and cold medicine delivered to his apartment. It doesn’t sound like he’s been asking you for much, so I don’t think it’s likely he’ll respond to your question with something like “Can you take the next five days off work and sit by my bedside?” Arranging a delivery of Gatorade and saltines and decongestants or other over-the-counter meds that can help relieve his symptoms won’t affect your ability to get work done—you don’t have to go full “a ministering angel thou”—but it’s a loving gesture that will go a long way. And get your flu shot if you haven’t already!
Q. Should I break up with my friend? I moved 800 miles away from one of my best friends almost 10 years ago, but we have always kept in touch. As the years have gone by, we have both married good people and had kids. Happily, our husbands get along really well and we have considered each other more like extended family rather than just friends. Our families have visited each other and even traveled together. We’ve been as close as possible considering the distance between us. Over the past few months, I have noticed her growing a little more distant, often taking days to text back or not texting back at all. Occasionally she will text me something like: “I’m sorry for being a bad friend. Let’s talk more.” And I will text back asking how she’s been and what’s new, only to get no reply. I have given her the benefit of the doubt because as a fellow mom with young kids, I understand that life can be wild.
Recently, my friend bought a plane ticket to come visit me and my family. She sent me a screenshot of her airline ticket and I have been planning on her visit for the past two months. Then three days before she was supposed to come she texted me that she had work commitments that she could not get out of and would have to cancel her trip. I was disappointed and upset, feeling like our friendship is one-sided. Then, the day before her visit would have started, her social media post made it evident that she was on vacation with another friend. I am angry and upset. It is so obvious that she lied to me because she wanted to go on this other trip instead of visiting me. There is no way I can give her the benefit of the doubt or excuse the way she has treated me. Should I confront her about the fact that she lied and let her know how she has hurt me? At this point, I don’t think our friendship will be the same, as it is so clear she does not value me the way I valued her, and I don’t know if I can ever forgive her for discarding me as a friend. Is the breakup conversation necessary or should I just stop initiating contact with her as we go our separate ways?
A: I think it would be valuable to say at least once that you know she lied to you, and that she’s hurt your feelings and broken your trust, etc. You don’t have to have a full breakup conversation where you go into every little detail about how this friendship fell apart over the years, but I think it’s better to at least acknowledge why you don’t want to continue speaking, rather than just ghosting and hoping she never notices. You’re under no obligation, of course, and the choice is yours, but in your position I think I’d say something before withdrawing.
Q. Am I a fool to believe? My partner and I (both women) have been together for 30 years. The past couple of years have been rough. We’ve talked about opening up our relationship and discussed various other ways to make things better, and we’ve been going to couples counseling. To date we’ve decided not to open the relationship. My partner is the one who is unhappy with our relationship, but she’s said she doesn’t want an open relationship. I’ve mentioned several times that I feel like she’s trying to push me away. She insists she’s not and that she wants to be with me. Then last week she casually mentioned to a friend that she’d seen her dating profile on a popular dating site. I was sitting right there when she said it and I asked why she was on a dating site. She “just likes to read profiles for entertainment.” Is that a thing, or am I a fool to believe her? She’s always been open with me, and cheating just isn’t something I’ve ever thought she would do.
A: It’s certainly possible that your wife has set up dating-app profiles without actually going on a date with someone else, but you’re still entitled to ask questions and have an emotional reaction to her decision to set up those profiles “for entertainment” without talking to you about it. You say that she’s unhappy and that you sense she’s trying to push you away. Do you know what she’s unhappy about? Do you two have the same working definition of what a happy relationship looks like? Do you both agree on what you can reasonably expect from one another? Does she understand why you feel hurt knowing she created this account in secret and then casually announced its existence in front of both you and a friend, thus making it difficult for you to react honestly? Do you feel like she cares about your feelings? All of these questions are important and require careful attention from both of you; I don’t think it’s just a question of deciding she’s never “done anything” on these apps and trying to make yourself forget about it.
Q. Do I tell them? I am a gay woman in a happy and fulfilling marriage with my wife. We have great careers, a beautiful home, and meaningful friendships. As we’ve built our life together, we have both realized, after a lot of thought, that we want to adopt an older child from the foster system. Great, right? The problem is my parents, and in particular my mother. My parents have a habit of choosing their ultraconservative religion over my well-being (continuing a friendship with my abusive and manipulative ex-husband for years after our divorce in the name of Christianity, for example). I have since made the decision to exclude them from all but the surface of my life, but I can’t figure out whether I should tell them about moving forward to adopt, or if we should just show up to Christmas with our new family member. My concern is that as soon as my mom finds out about the adoption, she will begin attempting to domineer me with “concerns” about the child, us as gay nonreligious parents, my parenting abilities, the public school systems, etc. On the other hand, she will be very hurt to find out the adoption has transpired without her knowledge. I just don’t know what to do.
A: I agree that showing up for Christmas with a previously unmentioned child is likely to result in a highly dramatic and unpleasant outcome. Have you considered not spending Christmas with your family? If you’re committed to keeping them in a surface-level relationship, it strikes me as totally reasonable and continuous to make your own holiday plans that don’t involve them on a yearly basis. I realize that doesn’t really settle the question of when and how to inform your parents; even if you don’t visit for Christmas, if you and your wife do adopt, you will presumably have to tell them at some point. I think the best way forward is to assume that your mother will be both hurt and domineering; reject out of hand the idea that either of those reactions are reasonable or something you have to pay much attention to. Assume she will behave badly, inform her only when you and your wife both feel prepared to spend a little time managing the fallout, and feel free to give her the information in a phone call, email, or text with relatively little detail. (“By the way, Marina and I are in the process of adopting an older foster child. We’re very excited and look forward to meeting ____.”)
Since you’ve had to keep your family at arm’s length in your own life, I think you should prepare to do so even more vigorously for whatever child you end up raising, especially if you think your mother is likely to try to take her anger toward you out on your kid. So bringing the kid to a family Christmas where you know your mother is likely to flip out would definitely be the wrong move! That’s not to say you can’t ever give your family the chance to meet any future children of yours, but you should definitely vet them first. If your mother tries to “domineer” you with concerns about your nonreligious status, your gayness, etc., that’s a very clear sign that she’s not prepared to be in a relationship with you, and for you to cut the conversation short: “I’m not going to argue about my religion with you, Mom. Let’s talk some other time.”
Q. Re: Exiting academe with grace: You reached your goal—a paying job, in your field, near your family—and your adviser responded with: “But what about me? I was hoping you would be able to help my career!” And you didn’t take someone else’s spot. You earned your spot and deserved it! Tell people with an upbeat manner because you have accomplished amazing things and will continue to do so. Congrats!
A: I agree that an upbeat manner is the right way to go, in no small part because it will signal to everyone else that the politest and most appropriate response is to say “Congratulations!” and then go worry about the future of the academy in private. I totally agree the letter writer earned and was entitled to their “spot” at their institution, and the fact that there have been no tenure-track positions available for them despite their qualifications is an indictment of the field, not of the candidate.
Q. Re: Exiting academe with grace: I hope this doesn’t sound overly dramatic but I’d also advise you to keep quiet about your plans until after you’ve defended your dissertation. You might even go so far as to tell your adviser that she has given you quite a bit to think about and you may reconsider. The reason I say this is that it seems like you haven’t had your defense yet. Don’t jeopardize that in any way. Don’t lie, but don’t discuss your plans again until after the defense is done.
A: That’s really helpful. Thank you. I had assumed it was only a series of formalities the letter writer had to get through before being formally presented with their Ph.D., but if there’s any chance they could still be denied out of resentment, then I think you’re right and not being overly dramatic at all. Do what you have to do to ensure you receive your degree; you don’t owe any of your colleagues information about your future plans as you try to support yourself and exit a field that has no sustainable employment for you.
Q. Update—re: Hellion of a 3-year-old (Sept. 23, 2019): I am the letter writer regarding the 3-year-old toddler boy, “Liam,” who was having immense issues in school. I took your advice, as well as the additional feedback provided, to heart and I have been communicating with his pediatrician frequently about Liam’s behavior. We took Liam out of preschool, and he is now being looked after by my mother. His pediatrician has commented in the past how Liam does not have the same attention span as children his age, and while he cannot diagnose Liam until he is school-age, he has referred us to a behavioral therapist. This therapist has a yearlong waitlist; however, when I broached Liam’s sleep issues (mouth-breathing, snoring, waking at all hours of the night), we were then referred to an ENT, who has ordered a sleep study and believes Liam has some sort of sleep apnea. It has also been recommended that we see a therapist who specializes in play therapy or in parent-child interaction therapy. I will update further as these issues are addressed and resolved. While it hurt me to see some angry comments about taking parenting classes (I had been taking them from the time Liam was 3 weeks old until he turned 2), I appreciated the concern of both you as well as the commenters. We have since halted all 16-year-old forms of punishment and are encouraging our Liam to express his emotions (he is extremely articulate for his age) instead of immediately reprimanding him for age-appropriate outbursts. He is a bright star in our lives, and he loves his younger brother fiercely. Thank you.
A: Oh, I’m so glad that you wrote back to let us know how you’re all doing, and that you’ve been able to get useful referrals and have hope of more targeted, helpful treatment for Liam in the future. I’m also extremely relieved that you’ve found a way to change the way you discipline him and respond to his outbursts. That was the right thing to do, and I believe your life and Liam’s will be immensely improved as a result, even if things don’t get easier right away. Please do let us know how these various therapies and sleep tests work out. I hope keeping Liam at home with his extended family continues to work out for all of you, and that every once in a while you’re able to schedule a minivacation for yourself. Thank you again.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! See you all next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. My stepsons won’t stop trolling me: I have a fiancé who has a son in his early 20s. The son is my fiancé’s sponsor for citizenship, and I feel as if he uses the sponsorship, and his dad’s guilt from his divorce, as a tool to manipulate his dad. Since I have lived with them, I have had to endure the son swearing, threatening to stab us, stealing, and lying to us. He cannot keep a job for more than a month and is obsessed with making custom Nerf guns, which I find a creepy hobby. He says weird things to me and threatened to kill himself when he recently lost his job. We got into an argument about him cutting my dog’s hair once, and he took my cat and cut her whiskers when we all were getting ready for bed. He also trashes the house so bad and my fiancé just cleans up after him or blames me for the mess. His son has wrecked one of his cars and keeps getting tickets, continues to swear, lie, steal, and trash the house. I want him kicked out, but I also feel horrible about the sponsorship situation. Before my fiancé’s son started acting out, we never argued. He supported me when I didn’t have a job and has always been there for me, except for this issue. Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.
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