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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My partner’s work habits are atrocious: My partner, “Bo,” has always had trouble keeping a job for more than eight months; he told me it was mostly due to reasons outside of his control (like terrible bosses). I’ve generally supported him in his employment search for the past few years. I have a pretty high-powered career myself, but I’ve always tried to keep that separate and not “rub it in” when he’s had so much trouble finding a good fit. Prudie, working from home has starkly illustrated what makes Bo such a bad employee. I feel bad for saying this but … it’s hard to watch. Bo has few if any organizational systems. He writes down tasks on random slips of paper, which then get lost, and I frequently hear him having to apologize to folks for forgetting deadlines or deliverables. In meetings, he rambles incessantly, taking forever to get to his main request. If I was in a meeting with him I’d just tune out and avoid future meetings with him. When he’s overwhelmed or stressed, he adopts a tone with people and makes them feel bad for asking him to do things that are 100 percent part of his job. I’ve coached many entry-level employees over the years and I know these behaviors are definitely coachable. It’s not an indelible part of his personality! Though I obviously wouldn’t coach him myself, I’m thinking of recommending that he reach out to a career counselor or coach to help him with executive functioning. He’d be so much more effective in his job, and I know he’d be happier knowing he was doing a better job. It’s hard to watch Bo make these fixable mistakes over and over all the while thinking there’s nothing he can do to change his situation. At the same time, I know I’d get annoyed if my partner tried to give me career advice. Bo is really sensitive about this topic in particular. What should I do?
A: Your best long-term solution is probably going to involve finding ways not to watch Bo at work. Obviously that’s tricky given that you’re both working from home, but look for as much space as possible to put between your workplace and his—make sure your office setups face in different directions if you can’t be in separate rooms, wear noise-canceling headphones when he’s in a meeting, take a walk by yourself when you can, etc. That way it won’t feel quite so crucial to get him to take your advice right away; I want you to be able to find some peace and quiet for yourself whether he’s receptive to a conversation or not.
When it comes to broaching a topic your partner is sensitive about, I tend to think it’s best to be direct and ask straight out rather than try to hint your way through the conversation or ask a lot of leading questions: “We’ve talked before about your trouble keeping jobs for more than a year, and I have a suggestion I think might be helpful. Do you want to hear about it, or would you rather not?” If he’s interested, great; you can identify a few major issues (focusing on what’s most important or easiest to fix rather than giving him a highly detailed explanation of everything he’s ever done wrong) and suggest a few coaches. If he’s not, you can back off and let him keep learning from his own mistakes. Either way, look for ways to scale back and disengage from his work habits after you have this conversation so you don’t find yourself trying to monitor him for progress all the time.
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Q. What’s in a name? My 13-year-old has recently come out as gender-fluid and wants to take some steps toward transitioning. I’m so happy they felt comfortable enough to come out to me, and I very much want to support them. We’ve begun researching binders and talked about to whom in the extended family they are comfortable being out to, preferred pronouns, etc. There’s just one issue: They want to change their name. I feel like if the situation were different, I would support this as well, but I’m having an issue with it. The short story is that their dad, who passed away two years ago, picked out their name. It’s one of the things that they will always be able to have to connect them with their dad. The name itself is fairly androgynous (think “Peyton”), so it’s not like the name has a strong gender connection one way or the other. I wonder would I be a terrible mother to say they need to wait until they’re 18 to change their name legally in the hopes that they may change their mind. At least then I can use the time in between coming to terms with severing that tangible connection to my late husband. Or would it cause an irreparable blemish in my relationship with my kid?
A: Is your 13-year-old asking you to start the paperwork to petition for a legal name change right now or just asking to start going by a different name in everyday conversation? Obviously the same emotional complexities will apply for you regardless, but I wonder if you aren’t putting the cart before the horse. And while I understand why this feels fraught and challenging, I think it’s a mistake (not “terrible mother” territory, merely counterproductive) to frame the possibility of your kid changing their first name as a move either toward or further away from their late father. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on your kid, who I’m sure loved their father very much and isn’t transitioning to “get away” from him or his memory. Any trans person who chooses a new name does so despite having been named by a parent; the decision to transition isn’t necessarily or automatically about repudiating that parent’s choice. Nor do I think you’ll make much progress by saying, “You shouldn’t need to change your name because I think your birth name is gender-neutral enough to satisfy you”—that still makes your kid’s transition about your feelings and not your kid’s.
That doesn’t mean you have to start the paperwork today, of course; there’s a lot of room between “wait five more years” and “let’s call the courthouse this afternoon.” And I hope you’ll give yourself time to seek out individual support to help you deal with your own feelings and the ways in which change can exacerbate grief, since your husband isn’t here to experience your kid’s transition with you. But if you ask for a delay in the hopes that your kid will stop wanting to change their name, I don’t think it will actually satisfy either of you—your kid may start feeling guilty that their transness is somehow harmful to their father’s memory, and you may start feeling like controlling your kid’s name is the only way to honor your own grief. You’re not a terrible mother. You’re grieving, and you miss your husband, and you love the name he chose for your kid, and all of that makes a great deal of sense; I hope you find a lot of ways to both support your kid’s autonomy and make room for your own feelings where you can. Good luck.
Q. Family dysfunction: I’m a 47-year-old man with an older sister, younger sister, and younger brother. My older sister and I have a different father than our other siblings do. Based on what I’ve heard from our relatives, our biological father was abusive and eventually banned from visiting by the authorities in the country we were born in. My younger siblings’ father married our mother when I was a baby and adopted us when I was about 8. He was also abusive toward me: Corporal punishment was common in our small military town, but we were lucky if he only used his belt to hit us. He came after us with anything that was close to hand, even our own toys, for things like playing too loudly. My siblings would get a few swats, but I’d be kicked and beaten for a much longer time. If they got grounded for a day, I’d be grounded for weeks. Later my stepfather gave up drinking and became quite religious. He’s now a deacon at a very prominent church. But he continues to treat me differently than he does my siblings and blames me for anything and everything. My mother agrees with everything he does, even when he compares me negatively with my siblings.
Eighteen months ago I broke off all contact with them. My mother has called and texted, but I eventually blocked her number. I’ve discussed this with my best friend and my favorite cousin. They both bring it up seemingly every chance they get, even after I’ve asked them not to and said that I just want a clean break, a chance to deal with it on my own. They seem to think I’m being unreasonable, that family is family, and that I should “just ignore it.” I cannot. How do I get them to back off?
A: “Family is family” isn’t really an argument so much as a tautology. You’re certainly aware that your parents and siblings are your family, so your friend and cousin aren’t even providing you with new information: You made the decision to cut off contact knowing perfectly well that your relatives were, in fact, your relatives, and after trying to “just ignore it” for 47 years. A script: “I gave ignoring it my best shot for decades, and now I’m trying something else. You don’t have to agree with me, but this isn’t up for debate, and I’m not looking for advice or suggestions. I hope you can drop the subject, because if you can’t, I’m not going to continue this conversation with you.” In the meantime, I hope you can discuss this with other friends (or maybe even a support or discussion group for adults who have become estranged from their relatives) who aren’t so eager to tell you to just pretend you weren’t abused while talking to your abusers—you deserve support in this decision, not second-guessing and continued victim blaming.
Q. My lover’s son might spill the beans: I’m in my 30s and unmarried; though I do hope to have a long-term partner someday, a demanding career means I truly don’t have time for an intense relationship right now. I’ve generally come to terms with this. Last year I began dating “Neil.” I knew he was married, but he had already separated from his wife. She and their 5-year-old son lived in another state. Since I wasn’t looking for anything serious, I saw no problem with this—until Neil’s wife and son moved back to our city because of her job. They are still living in two different households but are legally married, if physically separated. Neil’s son is starting kindergarten in the fall and will be attending the same school as my niece. My niece and I share a last name and look generally alike. I’m terrified Neil’s son will recognize her and say something. The rest of my family has no idea I’m in a relationship with a married man. I feel like we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb, but Neil seems to think the chances of us getting exposed are minimal. I disagree. I’ve truly fallen in love with him and am starting to see a future, feelings he has verbally reciprocated, but I hate the feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. What should I do?
A: I know this isn’t your question, but I’m more than a little worried for these kids and all of their families, given that they’re apparently going to be returning to in-person classes without a vaccine in the middle of a pandemic. When it comes to your own situation, all you need to focus on is this: Your sort-of boyfriend is not interested in helping you with your problem, so you’re going to need to figure out what you want to do without him. If your biggest priority is making sure your relatives don’t find out you’re dating Neil, and Neil isn’t worried about the possibility of his son blurting out “You have the same last name as my dad’s new girlfriend” but you are, then what steps are you prepared to take to prevent that outcome or to manage your own anxiety beforehand? If you’re starting to see a future with him, you will eventually have to say something to your family; I don’t think it’s at all practical to hope you can just wait this out, hope Neil eventually divorces his wife, and then pretend you two just ran into each other on the street and started dating afterward. Would you rather tell them now and get it over with? What if Neil breaks up with you for telling your family? Will it still have felt worth it to move from secrecy to openness? If Neil has “verbally reciprocated” your interest in a future together, has he also “verbally communicated” this fact to his wife? Does she understand their separation as a prelude to divorce, or is she still under the impression that they’re in a romantic relationship? How well have you gotten to know Neil’s son, given that you’re concerned he’ll recognize your niece from a shared last name? Does he know you’re dating his father, or does he think you’re just a family friend? I can’t answer these questions for you, of course, so the best I can do is encourage you to come up with some sort of plan—any sort of plan beyond just “hoping a kindergartner doesn’t blow up my secret.”
(For what it’s worth, I think you already have an intense relationship of the sort you claim you don’t have time for. Maybe you’d even have more free time if you pursued an intense relationship with someone available. Food for thought!)
Q. Heartbroken over cousin’s betrayal: My cousin and I were best friends growing up. We were born only six months apart and lived down the road from each other. She was the one person whom I felt I would always be able to count on. We had a million sleepovers, inside jokes, and traditions, and we shared deep secrets with one another. We were practically attached at the hip from birth until I was 20. Then I got engaged. I asked her to be one of my two bridesmaids and thought that we connected throughout the wedding process. I thought the bachelorette party and bridal shower went well. Three days before my wedding she texted and said that my wedding was “too chaotic,” that she wouldn’t be going, and that there was nothing I could say to change her mind. She also said that I had changed and expected too much of her throughout the process (which was confusing because she had no duties). I was confused and taken off guard and got married without her there. We haven’t talked in over a year, and I well up with tears every time I think of her. She has not attempted to reach out to me, so I feel like I’d only be setting myself up for failure to try to talk to her again. What should I do?
A: If you don’t feel emotionally prepared to talk to her yet but you hope to do so at some point, start thinking about what kind of support or preparation might help you get ready, such that you’d be able to at least imagine such a conversation without crying. (That’s not to knock crying, by the way—it’s perfectly fine to cry over an estrangement, especially one you still don’t fully understand, and you don’t have to make total composure and icy calm your goal.) It might help to see a therapist in preparation before reaching out to her, or even to write out some of your thoughts and questions, your fears and your hopes, your ideas for what reconciliation might look like, before giving her a call or sending her a letter. I can’t promise you, of course, that trying to get in touch means that she’ll be able to speak honestly and kindly to you about what she meant when she said your wedding was “too chaotic,” but I do think there are ways to think about this conversation beyond simply success and failure. If your goal is to learn more about how she felt, to honestly and patiently reflect on what your part may have been without either getting immediately defensive or rushing to blame yourself, and to communicate your own hurt and grief in the loss of your friendship, then I think there’s a real possibility for success. You don’t have to do it tomorrow if you don’t feel ready, but it sounds like you want to find out if it’s possible to get ready someday. I hope you can.
Q. Friend doesn’t want to see me now that I’ve moved away: Two years ago, I moved from Chicago to a smaller Midwestern city. About every other month, I return to Chicago to meet with work clients, but my company allows me to choose where I stay. I have several friends in Chicago, one being “Katie,” who was a bridesmaid in my wedding. Katie said that whenever I’m in town she’d love to see me. I’ve stayed with her a few times, and I try to be a tidy, appreciative guest and rotate between her and other friends so as not to burden anyone. About a year ago, I stayed with Katie for the last time. Ever since then, when I’ve asked about visiting, she’s told me she “doesn’t want to have to change up her schedule,” specifically her daily gym sessions and happy hours with co-workers. I’ve been super flexible in the past and made it clear I’m not asking her to change her schedule at all! To make matters worse, the last time I asked she said she was exhausted by having friends over but then posted on social media how excited she was that a different friend was staying with her—the same week I would have been in town. Why wasn’t she honest with me that those dates weren’t available? I’ve stopped asking to see her, and she’s completely stopped texting. Nothing remotely strained or negative happened during any of my visits, and the stays have only been two nights at a time. Where did I go wrong? And how do I ask Katie since she’s dropped all contact with me?
A: I don’t know where you went wrong—you may not have gone wrong at all. It’s entirely possible that you were as polite and conscientious a guest as you could have possibly been and that Katie’s distance stems from something else. Maybe you were a model visitor and she just liked her other friends better, or feels that you two have grown apart but didn’t want to admit it. There doesn’t seem to be anything obvious on your end that you need to reflect on or apologize for, so it’s really just a question of whether you want to risk further silence or rejection by asking her what happened. If you’d rather safeguard yourself and give her a wide berth, you certainly can. But if you want to send one last message and say, “I don’t know why we’ve stopped talking. It’s hurt my feelings, and I miss you. I don’t know if I did something to offend you during one of my visits, or if there was something else going on you didn’t want to share with me, but I wish I knew what changed. If you ever feel like talking about it, I’m available,” you certainly can. Katie’s the only one who knows why she stopped wanting to host you. If you want to push for clarity, you have a right to do so; if you want to protect yourself and assume that anyone who simply freezes you out can’t be trusted with further vulnerability and focus on your other friendships, you can do that too.
Q. Group projects all over again? I recently became the project leader for a research project at my workplace for the first time. I am only a couple of years out of graduate school, and I am very excited to have this much freedom for the first time. As a student, I assisted on a research project for one of my professors, and it was a very educational and enriching activity for me. Now as a project leader, I am working with a team including my supervisor, another supervisor, and several students seeking credit for the summer semester. They are wonderful and insightful, and in our meetings, I love hearing what they have to say. However, in the between times, they have been slightly less than responsive when I ask for input. We have been working on several large tasks leading up to our next meeting, and I have sent an introduction and a reminder email about each. I would just stop by in person to check in, but much of our team is working remotely. In addition, because they are students and have summer classes, we are often not working the same days. However, when I check our shared documents, it seems like no one but myself is making any edits. I really want this project to be collaborative, to uplift student voices, and to give them the same level of access and coaching that I received as a student researcher. Any ideas for how to engage them? Am I doing something wrong?
A: I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, although I am a little surprised that you’ve been assigned to lead a project that includes your supervisor. Is this common for your profession or field? It strikes me as an inherently untenable situation if you’re responsible for supervising the person who normally supervises you, because the chain of command and responsibility gets immediately muddled. You could start including deadlines in your follow-up emails: “I’ll need to finalize edits by July 25 [or whenever], so please be sure to add yours to the shared documents by July 23.” You also have the option of speaking directly to your supervisor about your trouble getting others to meet deadlines and asking for advice: “I know this is a little unusual, because normally I report to you and for this project things are reversed. Have you been in this situation before, and if so, what do you recommend I try next?”
When it comes to the students working with you, though, you don’t have to be quite so careful. Just let them know if they’ve missed dates for getting their edits in and ask them to add them as soon as possible. Presumably at least one of the complicating factors is the fact that many of your students may be dealing with pandemic-related financial anxiety, sick relatives, concerns about their own health and future, etc., so I’d encourage you to remain open-minded and flexible when you communicate with them, and be sure to ask if there’s anything they need from you in order to finish their own work.
Q. Re: What’s in a name? I’m a trans guy and had a remarkably similar thing with my dad, who was very supportive but confided in me at one point that it did hurt him to think of the name my mom had chosen for me no longer being used after she’d passed away. He didn’t tell me this in the context of trying to control me or forbid me from doing anything. His words were more “I love the name you’ve chosen, but it does make me feel weird that the name your mom picked out for you isn’t going to be yours anymore. I know that’s irrational, but can you think of any other ways we could honor her together?” I was profoundly touched he confided in me so respectfully, and it led to a big talk about how we both felt like we wanted to do more in our regular lives to honor Mom’s memory. (We got some wonderful pictures of her framed and visited her grave together more.) I actually ended up keeping the name as my middle name, which my dad loved. Just a thought.
A: Thanks so much for this. I think it’s a lovely idea to ask for ways they can honor his memory together. It seems clear that that’s something they both want, and there are a lot of other ways for the letter writer to make sure they keep his legacy alive. I do want to caution the letter writer against asking for a “compromise” middle name, just because transitioning kids often feel so much pressure to please or placate their parents that I worry about the kid’s sense of freedom and possibility. But beyond letting the kid lead the way on name exploration, I think there’s a ton of room for the letter writer to address sadness about experiencing changes her husband isn’t alive to see and seeking out ways to incorporate his memory into these changes so it feels like he’s present in some meaningful way. For whatever it’s worth, I think adolescence was always going to be a tough time, because it comes with so much change even without adding transition into the mix, so it makes a lot of sense that this additional shade of grief is coming into play here.
Q. Re: What’s in a name? I would be honest with your kid that there are some emotional reasons why the idea of the name change is hard. I think they will perceive some intensity around the question, so it makes sense to be honest about where it’s coming from rather than letting them develop their own assumptions about your feelings and motivations. And they could still use the name in most situations even without legally changing it. Good luck. It’s a challenging situation.
A: I agree that it’s both important for the letter writer to be honest about her own feelings with her kid and that she makes sure she has another outlet (a close friend her own age, a therapist, a support group for parents of trans or questioning kids, all of the above) where she can really get into things without worrying she’s putting undue pressure on her 13-year-old. She should process outside of the family unit first so she can speak frankly and messily and without editing herself before having a more restrained conversation with her kid.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks again, everyone! See you next week.
From How to Do It
Q. Have I been totally duped about penis size my entire life? Recently I had sex with a man who said he had a 10-inch penis. It was, indeed, huge. But when I told my (gay) friend about this guy’s endowment, he told me that specific measurement was statistically very, very unlikely, and that the guy was probably just getting away with it because people have a skewed perspective (mostly because guys lie constantly, making people think smaller sizes are bigger). He said my guy was probably more like 8 or 9 inches, and that is already “huge” by most people’s standards. He said anything over 7 inches is “big,” given that the average penis is more like 5 inches or a little more. Is this … right? How rare is a 10-inch penis? Do all guys lie? Is everyone terrible at spotting actual size when they see it? Read what Stoya and Rich Juzwiak had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.