Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Can I please just have salad? I feel like I may be alone on this one but I find our celebratory food traditions utterly disgusting. I’m really put off by most Thanksgiving and Christmas spreads, loaded with stodgy, heavy food that I would never even consider eating. I also find the excess and waste deeply disturbing, a sorry reflection on mankind that is far removed from any celebration of the human spirit, and shudder to watch people jam 50,000 calories into their faces.
Usually, I just avoid these occasions altogether but, after the separation of the past couple of years, I am feeling a lot of pressure to attend family occasions. How do I make Christmas bearable? Is it OK to ask that people tone it down a little? Should I just bring a few light dishes that I like? What’s the etiquette for letting people know that their traditions are kinda gross?
A: There is no etiquette for accepting an invitation to someone’s home—well aware of what the event will entail—and then telling them it’s gross. Your best plan here is to resist the pressure to attend, stay home, and feel free to eat the low-calorie meal that will make you happy—or even start your own Christmas salad bar tradition and invite like-minded people to join you. I’d be curious to see how you might appropriately celebrate “the human spirit” as the host.
Alternatively, you could attend your family’s event this year, openly share all your views about how “deeply disturbing it is,” and you probably won’t have to worry about too much pressure to show up in the future.
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Q. Worried in the West: My sister was recently diagnosed with cancer and has decided to marry her longtime partner before she starts chemo, next week. She has had a terrible, practically non-existent relationship with our mom for decades. I thankfully have a relatively normal relationship with our mom, but it’s always tenuous and subject to cancellation due to her whim.
My sister has made it clear that not only is our mom not invited, but I cannot talk to her about the cancer or mention the wedding. My sister is worried, perhaps rightly, that if our mom finds out the venue, she’ll show up unannounced and make a scene. I’ve brought it up to my sister a few times and she’s shut down the conversation; I’m not allowed to tell our mom, even if she finds out and asks me about it.
How do I tell my sister that while I respect her decision to not invite our mom, she does in fact deserve to know about the wedding and cancer after the fact at least? As an added element, our mom has shared privately with me having had suicidal thoughts in years past due to the drama. Please help!
A: I’m so sorry you’re in this situation; it’s really tough to be stuck in the middle. But it’s not your place to tell your sister what your mom deserves to know—that’s her decision to make. She especially doesn’t need to be burdened by the idea that the boundary she’s chosen to draw might drive someone to suicide. That’s just not fair, and if your mom is in fact having suicidal thoughts, she needs professional help that you’re in no way qualified to offer her. Please see if you can point her in that direction.
I think you have two choices here. You can tell your sister that you’re not comfortable keeping secrets from your mom, and that she should only share life updates with you with that in mind. Or you can respect her wishes—and really mean it. You can even tell your mom that you’re honoring this request despite the fact that their fractured relationship makes you sad, so you don’t feel like you’re being dishonest with her. Neither choice is wrong.
What might make this easier is if you can acknowledge to yourself that this is a heartbreaking situation but also remind yourself that your mother’s and sister’s relationship is theirs to manage, and you aren’t responsible for—or really, even capable of—fixing it. You can be the best daughter and sister you can be without also working as a mediator.
Q. Friend of the only child: I have a very close friend (think: texting daily, intimate conversations, ride-or-die!) who is a classic only child and introvert. Everything has to be on her terms, and she is often inflexible and extremely picky. She knows this about herself and has had some therapy to address it. She is also very sensitive about her birthday, which is within a few days of Christmas, and is often overlooked.
This year is a milestone birthday. She asked me months ago if my husband and I would have dinner and a night in the city with them for her birthday. Sure! We recently had our 2nd child and it would be our first overnight without him, but we trust my parents or my in-laws to watch the kids. I made plans to be in the city that afternoon with my mom so we would all be in the right place that day. Then, my mom broke her leg severely and won’t be able to come to the city or watch the kids. My in-laws have made other plans for that night, and since they already do a miraculous amount of child care for us, we don’t feel comfortable asking them to change their plans. So, we are stuck without a sitter.
My friend, who also has a kid and knows how hard child care can be, is FURIOUS. And I am flabbergasted. I told her this is NOT what I wanted either, but we could have brunch on her birthday, I could take her to the Broadway show I was going to see with my mom, and I could spend the whole day AFTER her birthday with her, just not the dinner and overnight we had planned.
She’s so touchy about her birthday and her plans that she’s still very hurt. She’s mad that I even made plans for her birthday, even though we only discussed dinner and the play ends at 3:30. This, after months of trying to get together with her almost every weekend, and she always has some kind of excuse. I’m mad at her for being mad at me. How am I supposed to “fix” this without being resentful? Why am I doing all the work for this friendship?
A: This behavior isn’t excused or explained by being an only child or an introvert. She’s just self-absorbed, and you’ve done nothing wrong here. I actually don’t think you have to do anything to “fix” this, either. You’ve explained your situation and offered alternative ways to celebrate. The ball is in her court now. She can either decide to enjoy part of her day and/or the day after with you, or she can continue to be mad and sulk.
I’d also suggest taking a step back from doing all the work for this friendship. Reach out to her and ask her to hang out, and if she declines, let her be the one to initiate the next plan. Not going too far out of your way, not catering to her more than you do your other friends, and not giving her more energy than she gives you should be helpful when it comes to not feeling resentful.
Q. Feeling defeated: My husband and I have been married for eight years (10 in total) and have one child together. He is a great father and, what I thought, a great husband. Early on into our relationship, my husband cheated on me with a co-worker. I found out, it broke my heart, and with lots of begging and pleading, I decided to go ahead with the wedding and fix things. I chalked it up to cold feet and being young. Fast forward to two months ago, I found out he was having an emotional affair with another co-worker. I’m sure that it would have turned physical if I didn’t see the text pop onto his screen at 5 in the morning.
He wants to work on our marriage and me to forgive him, but I have lost all respect for him as a husband. If it weren’t for our young daughter, and the ridiculously expensive house we just bought, I would have left already. I can’t bring myself to break apart our family and have her not see her father daily, but I can’t stand him in a romantic way. I have no issues living with him as a best friend. I love him, but I just don’t want anything physical.
I’m 40 years old and am terrified of being alone, hurting our daughter, and changing her quality of life. I don’t know how to move past the hurt and don’t see myself loveless for the next 15 years. He’s gone into counseling and wants to prove himself. I’m confused and need direction. Is it possible to fix a relationship after two infidelities? Can you fall back in love with someone who willfully hurt you twice? And is it worth it in the end?
A: “I’ve lost all respect for him as a husband” and “I can’t stand him in a romantic way” are hard feelings to come back from—and how you got there is completely understandable. I’m also not particularly encouraged that he is in counseling only because he got caught. Someone who was serious about trying to remain faithful would have put himself in therapy after the first incident, even though you’d already forgiven him and moved on. He would have done it because he wanted to operate differently, but he didn’t. Make a note of that!
That said, it doesn’t seem like you’re ready to sign divorce papers. Why don’t you think about a trial separation? You can live separately, start counseling on your own, and see how it feels to co-parent without him. You can remain open to falling back in love and regaining trust in him, but something tells me you might begin to envision a brighter (non-loveless) future without him.
Q. Time to commit: I’ve been with my boyfriend for nine months, his divorce is final at year’s end, and I’m getting nervous about no “commitment talk” from him. FYI: I’ve told him I do not want to get married again, but I do want an exclusive, committed relationship. He hasn’t even used the L word yet.
I’m also 12 years older than him, and we’re both financially stable. Should I have a talk with him soon about our future? Should I stay or go?
A: It’s good that you know what you want. And yes, the next step is to have a talk with him. A good script would be: “I know your divorce will be final at the end of the year. Do you see yourself being in a committed, exclusive relationship with me then?” It sounds like you started dating while he was separated but not yet fully divorced, so he hasn’t had even a moment to really be single. He also probably hasn’t said he loves you because he doesn’t at this point. That’s reasonable, given the timeline, and it’s also reasonable for you to want to be with someone who has a little less baggage and is more available. Be prepared to believe whatever he tells you and act on that, rather than changing your mind about what you want or trying to change him.
Q. Re: Can I please just have salad? Of course you can just have salad. Salad was the big hit at my family’s Thanksgiving last week! Bring a nice salad to share and enjoy. But goodness, surely you realize there’s no polite way to tell people that eating rich food on special occasions is a sorry reflection on mankind. What etiquette could there possibly be for telling other people how to eat? You don’t want anyone forcing you to eat like them, and of course they shouldn’t. Please realize that has to go both ways.
A: I agree that the letter writer can just have salad, but I honestly don’t think they will enjoy these events or be a good guest if they’re so disgusted by everyone else’s consumption.
Q. Re: Worried in the West: Your mom sounds like she’s told you about her suicidal ideation to manipulate you into divulging private information about family members she has clearly lost the privilege of knowing. Because it is a privilege, not a right given to people who share your DNA, to know you. Your sister has made herself vulnerable and trusted you with this information. Why would you ever want to violate it and hurt her like that, and potentially ruin the relationship you have with her?
A: Well said, and great point about preserving the relationship with the sister.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: OK, we’re going to end it here! Talk to you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Could you please give me some candid advice about teacher gifts? I love my children’s teachers, and I know their jobs are incredibly difficult. But I’ve got four children, and four different teachers. We live in an affluent neighborhood, and I feel like the norm is to go over the top. Our family, however, is not as well-off and has trouble even affording Christmas for our family, and it really adds up. That said, I want to show them our appreciation. What do people typically give, and what is acceptable? Also, what should I do about crossing guards, bus drivers, office staff, etc.?