Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. How to get over a bad proposal? I’m Jewish. My partner isn’t, but knows it’s important to me. We’ve had a lot of conversations about the subject and agreed that we’d raise any kids we had Jewish, etc. I didn’t grow up with Christmas and, quite frankly, don’t enjoy it (he knows this), but we exchange presents because it’s important to him. He chose to propose to me on Christmas, by hiding a ring box in a stocking. It was a surprise. I wasn’t excited. I hated the ring, and the proposal made me feel like he didn’t understand me or the traditions we’d spent so much time talking about at all. I was so embarrassed and upset, and I haven’t been able to get over it since then. It’s gotten worse as we’ve gotten closer to Christmas 2020; I just keep crying out of nowhere. I love him and I like our life together, but I keep feeling like maybe I’m just making a huge mistake. How do I move past this?
A: It is never my advice to say “Just move past this” to someone who is regularly crying, feels deeply embarrassed and upset, believes their partner has fundamentally misunderstood them, and doesn’t know how to find meaningful common ground! If it were only about the ring, I’d still encourage you to talk to your partner, because having to wear an engagement ring you hate for the rest of your life (or the rest of your relationship) is awful and unnecessary. But it’s also about whether you feel understood and valued by your partner on the outset of a hopefully lifelong commitment! So do not try to move past this on your own. Tell your partner! That doesn’t mean you should turn to him and announce, “I hate this ring, I hate the way you proposed, I think this is a huge mistake” all of a sudden. But tell him you’re hurt, and worried, and that you need to talk about what was going through his mind when he decided to plan a Christmas-themed proposal.
This engagement is not something your partner gives you and then you can either accept or reject. This is something you two are doing together. You have an equal stake in it. The ring will be on your finger; it’s reasonable for you to have an opinion about it. Good intentions and cluelessness are not a recipe for a stellar engagement, but you don’t have to worry that you’re biting your partner’s head off by being honest about your feelings. Obviously I’m biased against the kind of engagement where one person does all the planning in secret and the other has to simply wait and hope (or drop hints, wait, and hope), but I think for good reason. He got this wrong. That’s not necessarily an indicator you two won’t be happy together. The real question is how he responds to hearing he’s hurt you. If he can get over his initial self-consciousness or disappointment, hears you out willingly, and is prepared to plan something else together, so much the better. If he sputters, sulks, or insists that it was still a good idea and you “should” like it, then that might be a sign it’s time to start seeing a couples counselor together.
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Q. My name is not my husband’s! I got married after finishing grad school and earning my law degree. As such, my professional certifications are in my maiden name and I’m proud of that. When I got married, I hyphenated my last name legally, but I still only go by my maiden name. My issue is that when I receive mail, it’s addressed to Mrs. Husband’s First and Last Name. I understand that style is the old-school proper way of addressing someone, but I don’t think it applies to someone who kept her last name. Is there a polite way of asking to be addressed by my own name?
A: There are many polite ways to ask to be addressed by your own name, as it happens! If any of this is coming from your friends or social acquaintances, you can just correct them at your convenience the next time you speak: “By the way, your last letter came addressed to Mrs. Julian Foxhunter, but it’s actually Mrs. Rebecca Foxless. Would you mind updating your address book?” If it’s coming from professional organizations, colleagues, and/or clients, it might be easiest to send a generic notice to everyone at once (or as many of them as you can at once). I can’t promise this will end the practice entirely, but it should reduce the torrent to a stream (maybe even a trickle). But as long as your tone is civil and you don’t throw in obscenities at the end, it’s always polite to correct someone when they get your name wrong.
Q. Claiming a minority identity: My younger sister “B” and I grew up as members of a religious minority, but we were raised extremely secular/atheist. Our parents did not have us participate in any of the ritual coming-of-age ceremonies. We were basically religionless.
We’re now both in our 30s. About a year ago, B began getting more interested in our religion. She started a new Twitter and Instagram centered around this religious identity. B will frequently get into “Twitter wars” with right-wing folks or post extremely dramatic statuses for attention (think “As a member of ____, I can confirm Person X is essentially committing genocide by not speaking up for us when hateful rhetoric is everywhere right now”).
Prudie, if B genuinely wanted to explore her religious identity by joining a faith community, meeting with a spiritual leader, or starting to observe rituals, I’d wholly support it! I think late-in-life exploration is great. But it’s abundantly clear that she’s not. She does nothing religion-oriented in her home or with her spare time. It’s solely confined to an internet identity that she milks for attention/follows/likes/other tokens of affirmation. We are white and fairly privileged, and she’s also privately shared with me that she likes “reclaiming” this religious identity because it makes her seem “edgier” and less boring than she’d otherwise be.
I honestly hate this. Many people in the world do follow our religion and it feels like B’s stealing someone’s identity and culture for internet points. The juxtaposition between her public and private life is infuriating. I almost want to post on B’s Twitter that she’s a fraud and people should stop listening to her, but of course I won’t. Why am I getting so bent out of shape around this? I know B can do whatever she wants with whatever identity she wants, but it just feels … gross to me, I suppose. Is there a way of talking to her that won’t come off as hateful? The more attention she gets online, the more B leans into her religious “identity” and it’s just getting worse. Please help.
A: You certainly have grounds to speak to your sister about her behavior, and I think it’s possible to do so without getting mired in the quicksands of validity and arguing over whether she ought to use scare quotes when talking about her identity. Just let that part go! I think you’ll have better luck arguing that her attempts to reconnect to her roots by yelling at strangers on social media around the clock is an exercise in frustration and unlikely to result in a robust, flourishing sense of connection to her spiritual community than arguing it’s an indicator her identity is insincere. Think “This is counterproductive” rather than “This is something no real ______ would do.”
Keep your goals limited, and don’t offer your sister suggestions about how you think she might better express her newfound religiosity in her home or in her spare time. Just paraphrase what you’ve told me (that you’ve found these new accounts of hers jarring, that there will always be some stranger online with a bad opinion to argue with, that you’re troubled she exclusively associates your religion with “edginess” and the constant listing of grievances, and hope she can find other ways to reconnect with it) with one important addition: Tell her that you’re unfollowing/muting these accounts of hers because it’s just not a project you want to be a part in. Even if she doesn’t take your advice, at least you won’t have to see every update the moment she posts it.
Q. Frozen-out sister: I messed up. My sister and I were always on tenuous terms for the entirety of our adult life, mostly driven by her constant negativity, victim mindset, and ability to hold a grudge for literally years. I only called her once a year for her birthday.
My children clearly took note of this. Now that all four of them are grown adults, they’ve taken a similar tack with not just my sister, but almost every elderly relative in their life. My brother and cousins complain to me that they never hear from my children. My children are busy professionals who do call/email/text on extended family members’ birthdays but make no effort to have a relationship outside of that. My oldest tells me my brother is a “drag” because he’s “racist” and “ableist.” I am embarrassed my children are acting this way. How can I get them to actually put in effort into these important family relationships, especially since I never did when my children were growing up?
A: Why are these relationships important? Did your brother cultivate a meaningful relationship with your kids when they were growing up, or was he just sort of around? Do your cousins call your kids a lot or otherwise meaningfully invest in their relationship? Why are your relatives complaining to you instead of to your grown children about your grown children’s behavior? I’m sorry to say that the days when you could force them to put in effort with their older relatives ended a long time ago; you can encourage your cousins and brother to talk to the kids directly and tell them they want a different kind of relationship with them, but you can’t make your kids want it against their own inclinations. And if your oldest child does not want to hang out with your brother because he is racist and ableist, I don’t think you have any cause to be embarrassed about your child’s conduct.
Q. Employee limit: I run a very small business with five employees. “Marie” is an older lady that has been with me for a year. I have tried to be flexible with her but I am reaching my limit. She has medical problems, plus the most irresponsible adult children I have ever met. All three of them can’t seem to keep a job or take care of their own children. It falls on Marie. Then it falls on the rest of us. There has not been a week in the last few months that Marie has not had two or more “emergencies” where she has to leave work and take care of the grandkids. I’ve had to reschedule my own appointments to come in and cover for Marie. My other employees have complained to Marie about leaving them on projects or expecting them to pick up after her. I have tried talking with Marie. She cries and begs me for her job. She says she can’t find anything else in this market.
Last week, I reached my limit when Marie kept leaving to FaceTime her daughter in the back room. Loudly. For over 45 minutes. Leaving me to deal with several clients alone. When Marie came out, I told her to leave for the day. When she is here, she needs to be here fully. I told Marie her job was on the line. Marie apologized and left in tears.
I really don’t want to fire her. I let people go for theft and other reasons, but never someone like Marie. She is a lovely lady but this can’t go on. I can’t think of anything else to do. Can you?
A: I can appreciate why you don’t want to be too harsh with Marie, who’s dealing with health problems and may be the primary caregiver of her own grandchildren. But what are you doing to make sure you don’t lose your other employees? If they’ve routinely complained to you about having to pick up her slack and clean up after her, and nothing’s changed, I worry you’re going to start losing them the harder you work to placate her. I realize the job market isn’t at its most robust right now, so things might not be as precarious than they would be under other circumstances, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of your non-Marie employees were keeping their eyes out for other opportunities. Certainly Marie’s life would not be improved if you two were the only remaining workers at this company. At the very least, coming up with a consistent fallback plan for when Marie is absent (that everyone else knows about, and which doesn’t put undue stress on any single individual) seems like a good short-term idea, especially since it’s happening so regularly.
I can also appreciate your desire to find alternatives to firing Marie, because her distress seems real and she certainly can’t help requiring medical attention—it’s not as if she’s leaving work to go bowling. I think there are opportunities for you to be both firmer with her and more flexible. For example, when she disappeared for 45 minutes to have a loud conversation with a relative, there was no reason for you (as her boss!) to sit around waiting for her to come out. You could have (politely) interrupted her and said if there was a crisis she needed to attend to, she could make up her work later, but that otherwise the call would have to wait. You could establish an office policy about taking personal calls (taking them outside, none longer than five minutes, coming to you shortly after if there’s an emergency and they have to leave so you’re not guessing what the schedule’s going to be that day—whatever balance you can strike between “professional” and “humane” without veering into chaos). But if you don’t want to fire Marie, then you need to offer her a clear set of expectations, and don’t just abandon the subject when she gets upset. You’re her manager, and even though I think you’re right to try to keep her on, you have to actually manage her, not just let her do whatever she wants and then snap at her, “Hey, your job is on the line,” because you feel guilty about not establishing common office rules earlier. I realize that you may come to a point where you can’t keep employing Marie, no matter how hard you try to make it work, and you need to prepare yourself for that possibility—but as long as you’re secretly convinced you can’t ever fire her, you’ll only make things worse for everyone who works for you. Good luck.
Q. A boring hermit: I recently found out that I am pregnant for the first time, but I’m not far enough along to feel comfortable telling anyone, even close family. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been trying to take the maximum number of precautions for safety—I lived through the spring in New York City, and it was scary as hell—but now I feel even more uncomfortable taking risks with my health. Although the weather still permits some outdoor get-togethers, I feel weird being in physical proximity with friends, even if we are both outside and wearing masks. It’s emotionally exhausting to keep moving away according to my mental yardstick, and equally draining to need to make excuses about why I don’t want to meet or even fantasize about a “what-if” type scenario where if things are OK we might both get tested and then meet somewhere safe for a day or a weekend.
I’m tired of giving the same excuse (exceptionally and continually true though it may be!) that things are bad and we’re being very cautious, and can’t yet give the excuse that I’m protecting a new pregnancy. What can I say to loved ones to explain why I’m just not up for anything anymore?
A: I think something like “I haven’t been feeling very well lately, and while my symptoms aren’t COVID-related, I don’t want to take any chances” might be a good option—it makes everyone feel a little bit good about themselves for having such a careful friend, and it’s not like you have to fake a specific illness to back it up (or something super-specific you’d have to walk back later). I don’t think anyone’s likely to press, but you can say something vague like “feeling really run down lately” or “digestive stuff” (that usually stops any follow-up questions). “I’ll let you know when I’m feeling well enough for in-person meetups again, but until you hear otherwise, assume that I’ll only be available to talk on the phone or catch up over Zoom for a while.”
Q. The gift of giving: My friend “Samantha” gets me a gift for the holidays every year, despite my fervent requests that she not do so. In the past, I always got her a gift too, though. Now, however, she makes the gifts from her whole family—her, her husband, and her son. I don’t really know the proper etiquette for that; a couple of times, I sent them a gift certificate for things they could do as a family, and I know for sure that one of those, and possibly both, went unused. I don’t really want to buy separate gifts for all of them because that gets expensive, and frankly, I’m not friends with her husband. I know this sounds bratty, but it really causes me anxiety, which is why I repeatedly request she not get me anything. How do I handle this?
A: I think she’s still getting you these gifts herself and simply appending her husband and son’s name to the card because she thinks it’s better form, or more “holiday-ish,” or (I hope this isn’t the reason) wants to lean a little harder on you emotionally. Keep getting her presents just for her, if you want to. Or, if you’re ready to push again, tell her you’re taking the year off from gift exchanges: “They can be overwhelming and stressful in the best of times, and this year is nowhere near the best of times. I love you and I know how much you like exchanging presents, but the biggest gift you can give me this year is not having to worry about gifts.”
Q. Re: My name is not husband’s! I can’t speak for all senders of business mail, but having worked in the fundraising department of a nonprofit that sent its fair share of donor-related mail, I can say with a high degree of confidence that everyone in this day and age has you stored in a mailing list database somewhere, and the software used to generate their mailing labels should have the capacity to adjust to your preferences. Whether there’s an easy way to make that preference known to everyone who sends you mislabeled mail is another thing, but if it helps you be persistent in your quest, please at least know that if anyone tells you they can’t, they’re either lying or using TI-89-calculator-level computers to run their business.
A: Yeah, the question of generic (but business-related and therefore not junk mail) mailings was probably the trickiest part of this question for me. You can certainly write back (or call or email) and ask to have your name updated relatively simply, but you might have to do it 50 different times with 50 different organizations, so it can eat into your time. Every so often I get an old email from some group I joined in 2010 or some shoe store I shopped at once in 2005 addressed to one of my (several) former names, and while it’s not the biggest problem in my life, it does sometimes feel like I’ll never finish changing my name. But we beat on against the past as best we can, to paraphrase old Thingummy.
Q. Re: My name is not my husband’s! Sorry, but you ARE Mrs. Julian Foxhunter: You may not like it, but it is not wrong to address a married woman as Mrs. Husband’s Name, even if she kept her last name. Mrs. Rebecca Foxhunter would be incorrect, but not Mrs. Julian Foxhunter. Check the etiquette books!
Of course, it is also proper to request to be addressed as something different. But they did NOT get her name wrong!
A: Oh, come now! Are we really going to snarl “facts don’t care about your feelings” this early in the week over something like “I don’t want to be called Mrs. Husbandsname?” Addressing a married woman as such is a totally made-up convention that we are free to do away with as we like; there has been no cellular change brought about by wedlock that has be-Julianed this woman. It’s a very old-fashioned thing to do, and it’s perfectly understandable that the convention ought to change. The etiquette books also tell men to remove their hats indoors, but I’m not going to answer all the men who write to this column, “I could tell you wrote this with a hat on—get yourself together; you’re wrong.” Be reasonable!
Q. Update: Not a stranger: I wrote to you a while back about my adopted son, Max, and how his grandparents were trying to sue for custody from me after they found out I had moved in with my boyfriend, who is helping me raise Max. I just wanted to say thank you for the advice, and also to thank some of the people who left really compassionate and helpful comments.
And I thought you’d appreciate the update: After sending a slew of frightening and homophobic letters threatening us, the grandparents sent one of their friends impersonating a social worker to our home, who got very angry with us when we did not let her in (as she had no decent ID). Police were called, our lawyer was amazing, and while they have dropped their custody effort, we are now taking legal action against them. It’s a lot. But I took your advice especially about leaning on friends in our bubble for support, who helped me see I needed a break from work to focus on my family. I’m taking time off work now to concentrate on looking after Max and supporting my boyfriend, who has been amazing throughout this. Thanks again!
A: Thank you so much for writing back with an update—your question really stayed with me, and I’m so glad you’re getting support from your friends. I’m also very glad that your former in-laws’ Wile E. Coyote–style attempts to steal your child have failed, and that you’re following legal counsel. Stay safe, take care of yourselves, and thanks again for letting us know how you’re doing.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone! Have a great week, keep your first name no matter how married you are, see you next Monday.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Toddler toilet trauma: At the gentle encouragement of our 3½-year-old daughter’s day care teachers, we have been nudging her toward potty training, despite the fact that she has zero interest in it. She knows when she has to go, she can control it, and she’s interested in potty matters. But she is perfectly happy in her Pull-Ups. With an enormous amount of encouragement she has peed on the toilet maybe 15 times at day care, and a whopping one time—ever—at home. She wears underwear, but we go with Pull-Ups for naptime, bedtime, long periods away from home, and pooping.
She seems increasingly anxious about it, especially at home, where lately she doesn’t even want to sit on the potty. She’s the last kid in her class not to be fully trained. Should we keep plugging away, or push back against the school’s (understandable!) pressure and wait until she shows more enthusiasm? Do we need to go cold turkey and do one of those pants-free weekends at home? (I can’t even imagine her pooping on the toilet.) Help! Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.