Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Reasonable accommodations: I am one of two people in my department at work. The other person on my team has ADHD, and also suffers from anxiety and depression. Due to these challenges, our office does its best to provide reasonable accommodations, per the guidelines of the ADA.
The problem: Their version of “reasonable” means expecting me to do all of his work, as well as my own, most of the time. At this point, people from other departments, as well as our higher-ups, copy both of us on every email, knowing that he will most likely never respond, and that I will complete whatever tasks need doing. It was already the case that I did two-thirds of the work before COVID, but over the course of the pandemic, that has gotten closer to 90 percent. I’m now working up to 75 hours a week, including late nights and weekends.
Any attempts at talking with him or my higher-ups about more evenly distributing the work have gone nowhere. And when I tried talking to my HR department, they reiterated the ADA guidelines and reminded me that the company has a zero-tolerance policy for ableism. I don’t know how much longer I can handle this. I have nightmares about work and break down in tears at least once a week. I wish I could just quit my job, but I’m the primary breadwinner for my household, as my husband’s job is currently on furlough. Is there anything I can do?
A: There’s a vast difference between “This company must accommodate X employee’s needs according to the ADA” and “The only way this company can comply with the ADA is if Y employee works two jobs.” It’s the company’s responsibility to reasonably accommodate your colleague, not yours, and that should be your go-to line when speaking again to your own boss and HR. “I’m not able to work 75 hours a week anymore, and I cannot keep managing XY projects at this rate” is what you want to negotiate with them; they want to distract you from advocating for yourself by blaming your colleague, which does you both a disservice. Don’t allow them to cover for their exploitation of you by claiming the ADA requires such exploitation. It doesn’t. You may also want to contact an employment lawyer, if management continues in this line. They should not be doing this to you, and you have rights that are worth protecting.
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Q. Photo flap: My first wife passed away 11 years ago. I met my new wife “Helene” about a year later, and we married three years after that. Helene is unable to see pictures of my first wife without falling into a depressed state and wondering if I truly love her. I truly love(d) both of my wives with all my heart. I feel that I found my soul mate, twice! I do not believe that I have ever said anything or acted in a way that contradicts this. But I am Helene’s first love and she is my second love. Helene is super angry with my first wife.
I don’t know how to reconcile this. We just moved into a new house and are putting up photographs again. I’d like to put up a specific picture of my kids that happens to also have my first wife, but broaching the subject sent Helene into a daylong sadness and anger that I could not do anything about. Helene is a wonderful person in so many ways. For instance, she is good to my kids even though they are from my first marriage. She even reminds me to stay in touch with them. When this has come up in the past, I’ve just given up and given in, but hiding such a big part of my past makes me feel wrong. Any ideas?
A: I’m so sorry you’ve felt responsible for managing Helene’s fear and resentment on this subject, and I agree with your (implicit) suggestion that it’s time to stop giving up in the face of her anger. Her reaction to pictures of your long-dead wife is totally inappropriate, completely disproportionate, and is ultimately her responsibility to manage. It can be difficult to draw a hard line with someone if you’ve historically given in, so you may want to ask a friend or two to offer you support as you plan your next conversation with her.
But you should be firm and unapologetic! It’s cruel and unreasonable for Helene to say, in essence, “Because I’m so threatened and unable to consider your perspective on the subject of your first wife, it’s your responsibility to hide all images of her for the rest of our marriage, or else I’ll lash out for hours or even days.” It is not reasonable for Helene to be “super angry” with your first wife, who has been dead for over a decade, simply because she was once alive and in love with you before you or Helene ever met. The fact that you are Helene’s first love is no justification for her terrible behavior on this subject. She needs to take immediate steps to get a handle on her feelings so that you do not have to manage them; if she needs to see a therapist or ask her friends for help, she should do so, but the responsibility is wholly hers and not yours.
The fact that Helene is nice to your kids does not make up for her bad behavior elsewhere. It’s merely a bare-minimum requirement. Any partner of yours should be nice to your kids. She doesn’t get “ extra credit” for being friendly with your children that she can then spend on being irrationally angry and jealous of your dead first wife. Wanting to have a few pictures of your kids with their mother in your home is a perfectly reasonable desire that’s totally consistent with your love and respect for Helene. You’re not suggesting building a shrine, or holding your first wife’s image constantly over Helene’s head for comparison. Helene owes you a sincere apology and amended behavior, and you have the right to insist on it.
Q. Disorganized gardener: When my wife and I moved in to our new house, the previous owners passed on contact information for their gardener, “R.” R is fantastic. She shows up reliably every weekend, does a ton of work, and makes our garden look great. She’s also quite obviously struggling with mental illness. Many of her stories make very little sense, and she often talks about how the police are spying on her. When I first met her, I tried to offer some help but it quickly became obvious that this just made her nervous.
I don’t have any contact info for her family (she seems to have some support there, but I don’t really know much). Normally I wouldn’t try to get more involved, but in the past year she’s stopped cashing the checks I write for her. I tried giving her cash, thinking that she might not be able to use a bank (which can be hard for lots of reasons). She wouldn’t take the cash. I only just now convinced her to take a large check from me to cover the last several months and I asked her to cash it soon, but I doubt she will. I’m at a loss as to how to convince her to take payment. What is my ethical obligation here? Can I ethically continue to employ someone who won’t or can’t accept payment?
A: I agree that it would not be ethical to accept free landscaping work (especially if it’s every weekend and involves “a ton” of effort), even if the landscaper in question seems to prefer it. But I also think you’re right not to want to invade her privacy or try to go over her head and involve her relatives, even if you could find them. I’m a little lost on this one, I’ll confess! Readers, do you have any suggestions? I’ll run as many as I can.
Q. Church wedding: My sister is in the process of planning a wedding to a man she’s been dating for only two years. He’s a nice enough guy but I’m a little concerned—he’s a member of a very strange religion. My sister and I grew up nonreligious, but we were always taught to respect all religions and belief systems. I’ve been to plenty of different religious services with friends and relatives.
However, I feel like his denomination is about two steps away from a cult. He claims to now be secular and not interested in staying with the church, but he still attends every week. My sister goes along with this and has even agreed to have their wedding in this church. I went to a service just to see if I was being unfairly prejudicial but the whole thing was bizarre and again, very cult-y. The wedding will be completely dry (very strange for my Russian/Italian/Irish family) and there is no dancing or music other than hymns allowed. The bridesmaids’ dresses must go past the knee and we’re not allowed to wear makeup. I apparently will have to cover my tattoos and remove my piercing to be allowed into the building.
The more I try to talk to my sister about my concerns, the more she pushes back. I know she’s (barely) an adult but I feel like she’s making a huge mistake. How can I show her she’s not going down the right path?
A: It can be very difficult to show someone else that they’re not going down the right path, particularly when they’re your sibling, and even more particularly when it comes to how they choose to plan their wedding (and most particularly of all, when they believe they are going down the right path!), so I suggest you scale down some of your goals. You can reasonably hope to learn more about why your sister has been making these choices, if you ask her about them and listen with an open mind, and I think you should start there. “I’ve been a little surprised to learn you’re planning such a religiously observant wedding, because I thought neither of you were especially religious. Do these feel like temporary compromises you’re prepared to make in order to please his family, or are you considering taking on some of these observances yourselves?” If ultimately the two of them decide to hold a fairly conservative dry wedding, whether because they sometimes/sort of hold those values themselves and don’t want to admit it, or because they want to go along to get along, that’s ultimately their choice. If you’ve noticed your sister pushing back when you try to steer her in another direction, make it clear that you’re not going to try to tell her how to plan her wedding anymore—that you just want to know a little bit more about why it’s important to her, since it’s all new to you.
Beyond that, I don’t think it’s terribly unusual for people to get married/engaged after two years of dating; you may not like the guy or this relationship for a variety of reasons, but it’s not a shockingly fast progression. And I’d encourage you to let the alcohol issue go; attending one wedding without alcohol might feel strange, but it’s not going to harm you or anyone else in your family, nor will it prohibit you from drinking on any other occasion you choose. It makes sense that you find these restrictions cumbersome, especially when both your sister and her partner are claiming they don’t really “believe” in them, but if it’s only for one day, I think you’ll get a lot further if you let some of these battles go, and let your sister make her own choices (and her own mistakes).
Q. Difficult name: My sister is trans. Her relationship with our father was very difficult when she came out, though they reconciled in the months before his death.
My late father and father-in-law share the same name. I am pregnant with a boy; my husband and I decided to name him after both of his grandfathers. My father-in-law is in a steep decline and my husband is not handling it well. My sister was very quiet when we announced the sex and name of my baby. Last week, we had an ugly conversation where my sister accused me of “deliberately” triggering her anxiety by naming my son after our father and being transphobic by wanting to honor my son with her deadname. Why didn’t I think of her? I told my sister this wasn’t about her; Dad was years dead, they made up, she needs to seek a therapist and not project on me. I have always been there for her, through thick and thin, and if she can’t do the same, we shouldn’t talk for a while.
It has been a while. My sister and I have always been in each other’s corner. Why can’t she be in mine now? I need my sister. I guess I can understand her reaction, but this is literally life and death. And the name is very, very common. What do I do?
A: This is a difficult situation! I can understand both of your respective positions, and recognize that it’s possible for people who genuinely care for each other to also have contradictory or oppositional interests. You and your husband do, of course, have the final say over what to name your son, but I do think it’s interesting that you didn’t mention your father and father-in-law’s common (and in-common) name was also your sister’s deadname until about halfway through your letter; it seems far more relevant that this was once her name than the fact that her relationship with your father was complicated before he died. It makes a great deal of sense to me that your sister would find it painful, possibly even impossible, to isolate her reaction from a name that people once called her for years.
That doesn’t mean you have to agree with her claim that you did this deliberately in order to target her; it seems clear from your letter that your motivations were rather the opposite—you didn’t want to think of this name as something your sister had any ties or reactions to, but as something that you and your husband share with your father and father-in-law. You didn’t do this deliberately to hurt her; you didn’t want to think about her relationship to this name at all. You did want to take into consideration your husband’s feelings about his father’s illness; you didn’t want to take into consideration your sister’s feelings about her former name. I don’t say that to blame you—it makes sense that you were prioritizing your husband’s interests because he is the other parent of your child.
But just as your sister can’t tell you what to name your baby, you can’t tell her not to have a reaction to this name, either. I’m glad you two both recognized you needed time and space when things got really heated. You should both be commended for that; it can be very hard to take a break from a painful fight in the moment. But I do encourage you both to take things down a notch. You did not do this deliberately, true; but it’s also not true that this is “literally life and death.” Naming your son after his grandfather is not going to keep his grandfather alive, and it’s not the only way you and your husband can honor that family connection. Whatever you decide to do next—and I’m not saying that you must do what your sister says—you should state your case not in terms of your father-in-law’s impending death, but in terms of a decision you’re prepared to live with and take ownership over. I wish you, your sister, and your husband as much peace and compassion and patience as possible. You’re all going through a lot right now.
Q. Benefiting too much from unemployment? About a year ago, I got laid off due to COVID-19. I started receiving unemployment, moved in with a friend who had also lost their job, and have budgeted enough that I haven’t had to dip into my savings. My industry was hit pretty hard by COVID, so I’ve gotten very few job interviews. I hated my last job and I’ve been thinking about changing my career for a while. Right now, though, it’s hard to explore the industries I’m interested in because COVID has shuttered a lot of employment-related activities I could do. Honestly, I’m not sad about it. I’ve been able to finally read all the books on my shelves, started drawing again, and have generally enjoyed myself in a way I haven’t since I graduated from college.
I know it sounds crazy, but I’m actually doing better than I was before the pandemic. I’ve gotten so comfortable in my current situation that I’ve actually started tanking my interviews on purpose. I can’t turn down a job offer and maintain my unemployment benefits, so I’ve been hoping that I won’t get an offer. I know I can’t do this indefinitely, but I’m thinking about doing it until the pandemic ends and I can get an idea of what kind of work I might be interested in. A small part of me thinks that I’m being a terrible person for taking benefits when I could possibly get a job. A much larger part of me remembers how miserable I was at my job. Am I a terrible person for planning on staying on unemployment for the foreseeable future?
A: You’re not a terrible person for receiving unemployment when you need unemployment benefits, nor are you a terrible person for snatching moments of rest and pleasure during an unbelievably difficult year. As you already know, tanking your interviews on purpose is not a strategy that’s going to work for you forever, so I do think it’s time to start thinking of alternate strategies—but if you’re realizing that you might want to look for work in a different industry altogether, it makes sense that you haven’t wanted to seem like an ideal candidate for a job you fear you’d be miserable at again. I realize you have to continue looking for work to keep your benefits, so you can’t simply stop applying altogether, but I’d encourage you to look for jobs that at the very least don’t exactly resemble the last one you hated, to whatever extent that’s possible. If you can set up informational interviews with friends who work in other industries, or ask among your professional network for help transitioning to another field, that might go a long way toward improving your future interviews.
I don’t think you should wait “until the pandemic ends” to start figuring out what kind of work you might want to do, both because there’s no way to know how long the pandemic will continue, and because there may never be a complete “return to normalcy” where everything reverts to pre-pandemic conditions. Start that planning work now instead of putting it off for some vague date in the future, and good luck.
Q. Money-pushy mother: I adore my mother, but she’s what I’ve taken to calling a money-pusher. Whenever we’re out somewhere with friends—or just decent acquaintances!—she insists on paying for everything; it doesn’t matter if we’re talking a few dollars or a couple hundred. She absolutely refuses to take no for an answer in these situations, to the point that it can become downright uncomfortable for the other person—hiding their cards, stealing the bill, shoving their money back in their wallets. At almost 60, she’s relatively well-off after working her way up from nothing, so I know why she’s the way she is and I’ve learned to just roll with it, but I also know how uncomfortable this can make others feel. Is it worth bringing up with her now, or should I just let her live her money-pushing life if it makes her happy?
A: You have grounds to speak to her on your own behalf, but I’d preach caution about telling her how you think other people feel about it. Either “I want to sometimes pay for meals or events when we go out together—how do you feel about that possibility, and how might we plan ahead for those occasions so you’d feel prepared?” or “I appreciate your generosity, but when we’re getting coffee with some new acquaintances and you’re so forceful about paying that you shove their money back in their wallets, it makes me feel uncomfortable and like you’ve lost sight of the point of paying for someone’s purchase, which is to put them at ease and make them feel welcome” would be good points of entry, and don’t rest your argument on the uncertain ground of other people’s hypothetical feelings. Good luck!
Q. Re: Disorganized gardener: Why not give the gardener a prepaid debit card? That way you have paid her. If she never uses it, you will be covered if someone intervenes with her and tries to straighten out her finances.
A: A few people have mentioned this, along with Venmo or Paypal; I don’t know if switching from checks/cash to electronic payment will do much (she can just as easily let the money languish there), but it’s worth a shot. You can also tell her (kindly!) that unfortunately you can’t let her keep working without payment and see if that makes a difference.
Someone else has suggested getting in touch with the family anyway, since the letter writer believes they have a good relationship, and flagged the possibility that she’s under a conservatorship. I’m not so sure that’s likely, given the independence of her working relationship with both the letter writer and the previous owners (and I’m reluctant to encourage anyone to push for a conservatorship, at least not without knowing a lot more about her situation), but if all else fails and you have reason to trust them, then it might be worth a shot.
Q. Re: Church wedding: The letter writer doesn’t mention what seems “cult-y” to them beyond it being a fairly conservative-sounding religion, but as someone who was raised Mennonite, this description would fit in with more conservative/Old Order churches I’ve seen. And a dry wedding is honestly not that unusual—I promise you can survive one reception without alcohol. It could be that the groom wants to make his family happy and doesn’t mind going along for a day. Maybe learn more about this denomination before you write it off as a cult?
A: I didn’t want to get too distracted by whatever details about this religion have troubled the letter writer, because there’s not much in the letter there! But the objections they do mention—no alcohol at the wedding and somewhat-conservative dress and tattoo policies—don’t, in my opinion at least, rise to the level of having an intervention. If the letter writer’s sister was saying, “Nobody gay can come to the wedding,” or “Everybody has to espouse this religion in order to attend,” I’d have a different answer, but as it stands, I think the letter writer should let some of this go.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much, everyone! See you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q: Is this OK? Since my daughter was 8 (she’s now 11), she has been invited to five birthday parties that are actually two separate parties. The first part is your typical party where six to 15 kids are invited to some venue (bowling alley, activity center, the birthday girl’s home) in the afternoon, e.g., from 3 to 6 p.m. Then the second part is when only a few or half the girls go to a sleepover at the birthday girl’s house. My daughter has been on the main guest list for this type of party four times but has only been on the VIP sleepover guest list once. Each time this happens, it causes all sorts of hurt feelings for her—“Bethany was invited to sleep over, but I wasn’t”—and frankly I can’t understand why any parent would allow their daughter to have this kind of party. Am I overreacting and this is just the new party trend that is perfectly acceptable?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.
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