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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Smells causing yells: My girlfriend and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment last year, so we’ve had lots of time to adjust to each other’s habits before the pandemic started. We are having a repeated fight and not making progress in one area: foot hygiene. She is pretty obsessive about it. She takes off her shoes before she enters the apartment, then immediately washes her feet in the bath to make sure they don’t smell. I, on the other hand, take off my shoes and then go about my business—making dinner or whatever. My girlfriend is very sensitive to smells and says the smell of my feet is extremely displeasing to her. This has occurred regardless of how much I sweat that day. She can even smell my feet if I immediately put on clean socks. Prudence, I love this woman, but I cannot live for the rest of my life having to wash my feet every time I come home from any errand. Am I being unreasonable? Is there another solution to this issue besides one of us just caving to the other’s living habits? Please advise.
A: This is the sort of thing that baby wipes were made for. If you’re worried about waste and plastic packaging, you can look for biodegradable or relatively eco-friendly ones, but just keep a stash by the front door, give your feet a thorough rubdown when you walk through the door and take off your shoes, then throw on some clean socks or nice, comfortable house slippers. It’ll take about 30 seconds, go a long way toward making sure your house doesn’t smell like a locker room, and doesn’t require toweling off afterwards. A workable compromise is definitely possible here—congratulations! That is not always the case for this column.
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Q. Mother’s Day drama: My daughter is married to a lovely woman, “Sandra.” My husband and I were not surprised when our daughter came out to us in her teens, and we made it clear that we loved her unconditionally. We were thrilled to meet Sandra and have always invited her to family events. We enjoy a close relationship with both of them. Sandra and our daughter told us from the outset that Sandra’s parents rejected her when she came out and sent her to conversion therapy. Her mother wrote her a series of vicious letters throughout college, leading to Sandra all but cutting them off apart from when she attends one family event a year. Sandra’s parents did not attend the wedding, although I understand they were invited. My husband and I have only met them once very briefly. They barely acknowledged us.
So imagine my surprise when I received a phone call from Sandra’s mom last night! I have no idea how she got my number (Sandra says she did not give it to her). The woman basically interrogated me as to who I thought I was for having spent Mother’s Day with her daughter. She had apparently seen photos we had shared to Facebook of the special lunch we had made together, along with the presents they got me (because they’re sweethearts). Apparently, Sandra’s parents were not aware that Sandra and our daughter have been sheltering in place with us since lockdown began. She accused me of “stealing” her daughter away from her and blamed me for the fact that Sandra had neither called nor sent her mom a card. I did my best to calm her down but eventually cut her off and blocked the number after more insults. Sandra was mortified when she found out, and has sent her parents an email telling them to never contact any of us again.
The more I think about it, the more I worry that by telling Sandra about the call, I’ve exacerbated an already awful situation. I may have overreacted in how upset I was, leading Sandra to become very angry on my behalf. She is now saying that this is the final straw and that she is going to cut her parents off for good and attend no more events. I feel terrible. I guess what I’m asking is if there’s something I should have done differently, or if there’s anything I can do now to help the situation. My daughter thinks it’s about time Sandra cut her parents off, but my husband and I both ache a little at the thought of how painful that must be for everyone involved. Her parents have behaved terribly, but I am worried it will hurt Sandra even more to have no connection to her family at all anymore. She won’t be able to see her younger brother and cousins if she cuts them off, from what I gather. What can I do to help her, and should I try to persuade her to do anything differently? I feel very responsible for my part in this and want the best for her.
A: I’m so sorry you’ve had to deal with this, but I’m in agreement with Sandra and your daughter, at least as far as you’re concerned. You were right to tell Sandra, as painful as it must have been for you, because if you hadn’t, I think there’s an excellent chance that she would have been blindsided by a similarly rage-fueled call from her mother. Keeping this from Sandra would not have resulted in a meaningfully healed relationship between her and her mother. One of the most painful ripple effects of parent-child estrangement is often that the child in question is shut out from relationships with other, younger family members, but I don’t think there’s anything you could have done to prevent this. You can reassure Sandra that you’re no longer upset and that you’re terribly sorry she’s been put in such a painful position.
But I don’t think you should fault yourself for the fact that Sandra is upset over how her mother treated you. It is, I think, a fair sample case of how her mother treats people Sandra gets close to: She wants to punish them for enjoying a closeness with her daughter that she has forfeited by virtue of her homophobia and unkindness.
Q. I don’t normally make out with my friends: My best friend is an incredible human being with a huge heart. I’ve known him my whole adult life, and in the past six months or so we’ve gotten even closer, to the point of questioning whether this has become a codependent friendship. Last week was incredibly tough for me as I had to end a relationship with a man who I was convinced was the love of my life. I spent the weekend with my best friend (we have both been social distancing and will quarantine for two weeks before spending face-to-face time together), and I felt so much better getting to spend time with someone who has always had my back. Yesterday, though, friendly cuddling escalated to us making out—something that hasn’t happened ever in the course of our friendship. We talked about it afterward and are comfortable summing it up to circumstance and hormones (we are both in our early 20s), and we agreed it shouldn’t happen again and that it doesn’t change our friendship. Clearly, because I’m writing to you, this conversation wasn’t enough for me to feel at peace. I value our friendship so much, and I love him tremendously, but how likely is it that two people who I guess are attracted to each other(?) and are as close as we are can carry on without this being an issue? Can a healthy friendship exist after something like this happens?
A: Yes, I think it can. It might not immediately feel like things are “back to normal,” and in fact it may be that the two of you arrive at a different understanding of what “normal” looks like, given that you’ve now acknowledged at least some sense of a mutual attraction. But it will take time. Given that you two are very close, that you think he’s “incredible,” that you seem to be attracted to each other, I wonder if you have considered the possibility that you might want to date. You don’t have to date him, of course, and I’m aware you just got out of a very serious relationship, so you may not want to think about dating anyone until you’ve dealt with your immediate heartache. But it’s worth considering, I think, even if you ultimately decide that for whatever reason you’re better off not dating.
But you didn’t ask me whether you should date your friend; you asked me how to prioritize a long-term friendship over short-term attraction and uncertainty. To that end, I think the best thing you can do is acknowledge reality, rather than try to pretend things are already “back to normal.” I think that would be helpful to share with your friend, and to tell him anything you might need in order to process this, whether that be further discussion or a bit of a cooling-off spell. “I care about our friendship, and I need a little time to deal with the fact that we kissed, even though we both agree on the basics here” is a perfectly reasonable thing to say.
Q. Daughter of an ally: I am a woman and recently engaged to the love of my life, also a woman. We have been very fortunate throughout this process to have parents that have been both engaged and welcoming to us both, to the point we have to tell them to cool it on their (sometimes outrageous) wedding ideas. While we both talk all the time about how lucky we are, it took many, many years to get here. I have a close but similarly distant relationship with my parents that includes a couple of years of estrangement and never formally discussing my sexuality (I have only brought home two people including my partner). This relationship is the first time I have even heard the word girlfriend used. While I give my parents all of the credit in the world for accepting us in a way that I didn’t know was possible, a new issue has come up: the use of the phrase “We always knew X was gay.” I hate it. Not only did I not even know that this was the future that I would have, I am not gay. It’s a relatively useful term that my family can understand, but it doesn’t describe everything about me.
I am at a loss. I do not know how to address my feelings about this because we are not really a let’s-talk-about-our-feelings type of family. My partner thinks that I should let it go. Without sounding like an ungrateful child of privilege, how can I address this? Should I just keep the peace? I know they are not ill-intentioned, and I am SO fortunate to have never gone through the plight of some LGBTQ+ humans, but it pains me to my core when I hear this. Help!
A: I think there are ways to at least obliquely address this “We always knew” stance without necessarily hurling yourself into conflict or having a no-holds-barred, all-feelings-all-the-time heart-to-heart with the parents you’d rather keep at arm’s length. If someone tosses out “We always knew” again, you can say—in a spirit of musing, rather than of challenge—“It’s funny, because I don’t think I always knew myself. There were times when I had a dim understanding of something that was going on, but it took a long time for me to figure things out.” If they bristle, you can drop the subject rather than push for a fight it sounds like you don’t want to have. That said, I also hope you can ease up a bit on yourself. Just because other LGBT people may have had worse experiences with their parents doesn’t mean it’s your responsibility to overpraise yours; you’re still entitled to disagree or dislike some of their choices, and even to decide to push back where it seems worth doing.
Q. Single no more: My best friend “Rue” and I have always been the single ones in our friend group. We have both individually struggled with feelings of “not-enough-ness” due to our singleness and have each sought therapy. At age 30, I am now in the first real adult relationship of my life. We are happy together, and I see a future. But ever since things got more serious, Rue’s been pulling away. I sense she now feels abandoned or adrift now that the circumstances of our friendship have changed. I’ve tried every which way to bring this up with her—the direct approach, the indirect approach, everything—and she says she’s fine, but I still feel distant. Is this just an inevitable growing apart? What else can I do to save this friendship?
A: You can’t force Rue into a conversation if she doesn’t want to have it, unfortunately, and it seems like, at least for right now, she doesn’t want to have it. Given that you’ve tried to raise the issue more than once and through a variety of different needs, I think the best thing you can do right now is offer her space. That doesn’t mean you can’t say anything, but there’s no substitute for willingness on her end. If you can, try to leave the door open for a conversation in the future: “I’m really sad that you’ve been avoiding me because I care about you so much and our friendship is really important to me. I won’t keep asking you to talk to me about this, because you’ve made it clear that you don’t want to. But if you ever change your mind, please know that I’m always available to talk. I don’t want to jump to conclusions about what this is about—maybe I’ve said or done something that hurt your feelings, maybe there’s something else going on in your life I don’t know about. But this friendship matters a great deal to me, and if there’s any conversation that could heal this distance between us, I’m ready and willing to have it. If you ever want to, please give me a call.” I hope she does.
Q. Too much mom? My partner of one year is incredibly close with her mother after a family tragedy that occurred a few years ago. They talk to their mom at least once a day, often for an hour or more. I talk to my mom once a month. There’s no big estrangement, just a lack of closeness between us, and I try to limit my calls to once a month to ensure my mother doesn’t get too ensnared in my daily life. I feel bad for saying this, Prudie, but it weirds me out that my partner talks to her mom every day. They talk about mostly mundanity (the weather, the pandemic, goings-on in my partner’s hometown)—or at least that’s what they talk about around me. In an awful way, it makes me feel like I’m marrying a child who isn’t self-sufficient without their mother. It doesn’t disrupt our life at all, and my partner prioritizes our schedule over the mother’s call schedule. But it still creeps me out. Am I being unreasonable here? Is it even worth bringing up? This concern feels so petty, but it’s been lingering.
A: I don’t think it’s inherently creepy for an adult child to talk to their mother every day, no – but I do think this is worth bringing up, because this sounds like a pretty significant issue that’s not likely to go away anytime soon. I don’t encourage you to say something like “I feel like I’m marrying a child,” because that’s unduly harsh and not, I think, a fair representation of your partner. Your partner isn’t asking her mother for advice every day or for input on decisions the two of you should be making as a couple, or sharing your personal information with her. They’re simply close, and made even closer by virtue of sharing a relatively recent, painful loss. That may bring up a number of complicated feelings for you, especially given that you have to keep your own mother at arm’s length in order to protect your own feelings and freedom. But it’s important to keep a clear distance between “This makes me uncomfortable, and I’m having a hard time with it” and “This means my partner is behaving like a child.”
Q. Family gratitude: Due to declining health, my wife and I no longer travel. In the last three years, her two nieces graduated college, got married, and both have announced their pregnancies. We sent large checks to both of them for the various celebrations. Only one bothered to thank us; the other one just cashed the checks. We spoke with my sister-in-law and got scolded for expecting any acknowledgment from her “busy” adult daughter. While we are happy for her, we are not sending her any more money. My wife and I are of two minds about what to do with our other niece. My wife is worried about hurt feelings and causing a family rift. I don’t think we should punish one girl for the bad manners of her cousin. Both of them are adult, married women and can deal with the consequences of their choices. We would like to maintain a relationship with both of them, but it is very obvious only one of them wants that. What should we do?
A: I know it’s after the fact, but I do think you should have spoken to your niece, rather than to her mother, when she failed to acknowledge your gift. She was, as you say, an adult, married woman, so there was no reason to speak to her mother about her failure to acknowledge your gift—you should have gone to her and asked if she’d received it. That’s water under the bridge now, but I do hope that in the future if you’re frustrated by something one of your nieces says or does (or doesn’t say or do) you’ll deal with them directly rather than involving your sister-in-law to advocate on their behalf.
That said, I completely understand why you feel hurt and unappreciated; no one is so busy that they have time to cash a check but not to pick up the phone or scratch out a few lines to say “thank you” to the check writer. But I also agree that this third niece shouldn’t be held responsible for her older sister’s rudeness, and that if you’re able to offer her a graduation gift, it would be a kind and generous gesture.
I do wonder if it’s possible for you to at least approach your other niece, the one who never acknowledged your gift, to see if it’s possible to reestablish good terms before deciding she doesn’t want a relationship with you. What she did was rude and thoughtless, and you are of course entitled to stop sending her money, but I wonder if you could approach her in the spirit of honesty and open-mindedness, tell her that you two were hurt that she didn’t acknowledge your gift, and give her the opportunity to apologize. You don’t have to, of course, and you may feel like that’s an uncomfortable position or too likely to result in a fight. But if you have otherwise had a good relationship with her, and she’s ordinarily kind toward you, it might be worth a tricky conversation to reestablish goodwill.
Q. Re: Smells causing yells: I used to have horribly smelly feet. My doctor said to put antiperspirant on my feet before I put my socks on. I have not had smelly feet since!
A: That’s remarkable! Maybe it will be helpful to our letter writer or another reader. Thanks for the tip.
Q. Re: Family gratitude: Prudie, I think you may have created a third niece out of nothing—there are two nieces, one thanked the letter writer for the gift, the other didn’t.
A: I think you’re right! To paraphrase Steve Martin on 30 Rock: “I miscounted the nieces, Liz.”
Q. Re: Family gratitude: Maybe I missed something, but where did the third niece’s graduation come from? I think the letter writer was just saying, “We have two grown nieces. We send them both gifts, but only one acknowledges those gifts. We gave both of them graduation and wedding gifts. Now they are both pregnant, but we only want to give a gift to the niece that has acknowledged our previous gifts. Can we do this?”
A: You’re absolutely right, and that necessarily changes my answer! Or at least part of it, because I still think it’s worth going back to the niece who never acknowledged her check and having a conversation regardless. But in this case, I agree that getting a baby shower gift for one niece but not the other would unnecessarily sow conflict between the two. I’d get something relatively modest for both of them and save that conversation for any day that’s not the day of the shower.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much for your help, everyone! And I’d like to apologize to the letter writer who unexpectedly received a phantom third rude niece from me this week. Mea culpa!
From Care and Feeding
Q. I can’t bond with my baby: The baby is now 6 months old and I still don’t feel a connection with her. Of course I love her and want her to be happy and healthy, but I have no desire to care for her or really even hold her. She’s my first child whom I didn’t breastfeed (due to complications after birth) and I am so glad that I am not tied down to her in that way. I do all the practical things I need to do to take care of her, but my husband does almost all the holding, feeding, and playing. He’s completely happy to do it and our daughter certainly isn’t lacking in love or affection, but I feel terrible that I have hardly any bond with her. Is there something wrong with me? Am I emotionally stunting my sweet daughter by not bonding with her? Should I just “fake it till I make it” or is there something I can do to help me bond? Read more and see what Nicole Cliffe had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.