Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My wife wrote a secret book: My wife is an accomplished author who also holds down a fulltime job in an unrelated field, mostly for the benefits. When we had our first child last year, we agreed that she would pause her writing career—something had to go with a new baby at home.
Except, it turns out she didn’t pause it. She got a great idea for a new novel, wrote it secretly during her lunch break at work, and sold it for $100,000. I feel so many things right now; it’s hard to be mad at someone when they casually tell you your son’s college education is now paid for, and her lunch hour is technically hers to do as she wishes. But she went against our deal! She could have been home an hour earlier every night this year if she hadn’t done this project, and when I think back on all the times she’s been tired or grumpy in the past year, I now blame the book (even though it could have just been caring for a newborn). How do I trust her to keep to her word? How should I feel right now?
A: Her lunch hour isn’t “technically” hers to use as she wishes—it’s 100 percent completely hers to use as she wishes! And she didn’t break her word to you in any way that matters. When she said she would pause her writing career, there’s no way she interpreted that agreement as a ban on writing—it was a deal to use her time at home to focus on the baby. Even with that deal in place, she didn’t owe you and the baby every ounce of her energy or a full accounting of how she spends every minute of her day. Plus, I’m positive that there are a lot of things you could have skipped out on to be home more and less tired.
Do some soul-searching about what’s really upsetting you here. Are you jealous? Intimidated? Burnt out on parenting or disappointed in your own productivity? Whatever it is, work it out on your own—or with the help of the therapist if that’s available to you—before you ruin this moment for her and damage your relationship with a complaint that doesn’t make sense.
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Q. Troubled (but according to my friends, envied) stay-at-home dad: Our nanny is secretly a porn star.
We had an inkling our nanny was doing some side work. She’s cheap, to a point where we couldn’t really understand how she was able to support herself in the city. My wife and I joked that maybe she was a stripper or had an OnlyFans account on the side…but when doing a deeper dive of her social media accounts, we discovered we were right about the OnlyFans account—except there was A LOT MORE. In short, she’s a full-on porn star. In every sense of the word.
Now, we totally support someone doing what they have to do to make ends meet, but part of the pretense in which we hired her was that she told us she stayed home a lot and wasn’t exposing herself to many people (this was important to us, re: COVID).
When she’s directly touching and handling our children, at what point should we be concerned here? Or are we overreacting? Is she crossing a line? Are we? We’re so lost on how to feel about this.
A: If you take the X-rated twist out of this story, it’s clear where you went wrong: You agreed that your nanny wouldn’t have contact with “many” people but failed to define “many.” Did you expect her to completely refrain from dating for two or more years? Date but not have sex? Have sex with one person a month? Two? Honestly, when it comes to COVID and what we know about transmission, I don’t think having sex on camera makes her that much more of a risk to your children than, say, regularly having coffee while talking and laughing in an unventilated small space with a friend. I’d be more worried about whether she’s vaccinated and wears a mask when she’s indoors with your kids than I would about the exact nature of her contact with the outside world. And do you really want to police that? If you’re simply grossed out by her line of work, or feel it makes her a bad influence on your children, be honest with yourself about that instead of pretending this is about pandemic precautions.
Q. Embarrassed friend: I have a good friend of seven years, “John.” John had never been to the theater before, but this year he purchased season tickets at our local venue. I adore musical theater and it’s a rare treat for me, so when John had an extra ticket to a show last month and invited me, I was delighted!
He had an extra ticket again this month and also invited me again. Last month it was he and I, his mom, one of his kids, and one of my kids. This month it was he and I, one of his kids and that kid’s boyfriend, and John’s new partner “Julie.” John and Julie have been dating for a couple months and I had only met them very briefly once before.
And they are nice people. But Prudie, I was horrified by their manners at the theater! Julie kept making very loud exclamations like “oh no!” and “no way” during the performance. She was also talking to John, and dropping things and then making a ruckus trying to find them. The people in front of us kept turning around to look at them. I was SO embarrassed and had a hard time staying immersed in the show because of it. And John didn’t seem fazed and didn’t shush them or anything, and even turned on a flashlight to help look for something Julie dropped!
Now John tells me that he was concerned that I wasn’t having a good time because I seemed particularly unexpressive. I assured him that I loved the show and was so thankful that he brought me! And then he said that he had been afraid that I was upset that he brought Julie… oh my god. I would never be upset that John invited me and a partner to the same show, there’s no reason to be.
But I’ll also be declining future invitations if Julie is also going, so I don’t know what to say to John. Can I say, “I wasn’t upset that you brought Julie but their poor theater manners embarrassed me and made it hard to focus on the show?” Or is that tactless and I should just say, “I’m not upset that you brought Julie” and keep the rest to myself? Even though he will likely catch on at some point that I’m avoiding Julie and not know why?
A: If you’re committed to declining invitations that include Julie, your options are 1) leaving John with the impression that you hate Julie or that you secretly love him and don’t want him to be dating, or 2) telling the truth. It doesn’t look great for you either way, but my vote would be for honesty. I think you can say this relatively nicely. “Remember when you asked me why I didn’t seem like I was having a good time at the theater? The truth is, I was distracted because Julie was talking a lot and making a lot of noise. I think I’m especially sensitive to these things. She seems really great and I just wanted to clear this up to make sure you didn’t think I had a problem with her in general.”
Q. Gifting woes: I hate gifts. I hate getting them, I hate giving them. I hate making lists of what I want, I hate wrapping. I just can’t look convincingly excited when I get something I don’t want. I have extremely particular tastes that most people can’t figure out, I hate waste/junk, and there has been more than one time when I haven’t gotten something on my list and it’s been sold out by the time I could get it. I’d just rather buy most of the stuff I’ve wanted. Luckily, my husband is really good about figuring out one or two things to get me when appropriate, and that is absolutely fine with me. My husband also lets my kids make “coupon” books instead of getting me gifts. The coupons are for things I actually need help with, and it’s honestly really, really, great.
The problem is, I keep hearing mothers complain when they get their own coupons. My kids are very young, but I’m worried that we are instilling in them a sense of giving that is not really compatible with larger societal values and that this is going to be harder for them down the road. Should my husband and I start considering helping our kids develop more mainstream skills around picking and giving gifts? My husband loves getting gifts from his list, so my kids have some rubric to get things for him. He, however, likes to get stuff we can all do together as a family, which I think is very different from the individualized gifting experience of other households. Do you have any advice?
A: You’re giving your kids the skill of giving people what they actually want or need, not what you want to have or what society says they should have. The fact that other mothers complain about coupons doesn’t mean coupons are crappy gifts—it means their families are not paying attention to what will actually make them happy. That’s not your problem. Plus, your kids surely understand that your husband gets things that he wants from his list and you take their preferences into consideration when buying for them. You’re doing great.
Q. Name quandary: I’m pregnant with a baby girl. I was very close to my grandmother, and I really want to honor her by giving my daughter her name. However, in my native language, the name translates to “Ivory.” We live in the United States, where very few people are familiar with my language (which only has about two million speakers worldwide) or would know the meaning of the name. However, I am a little hesitant to use the name because I’m worried about the underlying racist connotation it might carry, regardless of how many people might understand it. What do you think? Am I overthinking this?
A: Honestly, I don’t personally know many people named “Ivory” but the three I do know of (a friend of a friend; Ivory Toldson, who is the director of education innovation and research at the NAACP; and Keenan Ivory Wayans) are all Black. I don’t think their parents would have given them a name that they thought was racist, and I seriously doubt the name would strike most people that way.
But—and this is a big but—I don’t think you should choose a name that gives you anxiety, even if it’s way off in the corner of your mind. When you announce your daughter’s birth and introduce her to people, it should be a joyful experience and it would suck to be wondering, “What if someone thinks her name is racist?” So I lean toward skipping it, using a variation (Ivy? Or maybe the non-translated version), or making another choice that doesn’t tempt you to overthink.
Q. Re: My wife wrote a secret book: Her lunch time is hers to do what she wants with—eating or writing. And the “tired and grumpy” is from the newborn. Writing is probably how she de-stressed. You trust her by realizing this is no big deal. And have you tried feeling proud of her for keeping a full time job that provides benefits for the entire family (including you), taking care of a newborn, and writing a novel that actually made money? You sound jealous to be married to this kickass woman.
A: I also got a strong whiff of jealousy. At a time when many moms have had to leave the workforce, and many families are struggling, the letter-writer really doesn’t know how good he has it.
Q. Re: My wife wrote a secret book: This sounds less like your wife betrayed you and more like you’re upset that you can’t control every second of how she uses her time. No one can tell you how to feel—sure, maybe it hurts that she felt the need to keep this from you, but maybe you should also ask yourself why she didn’t feel she could tell you about it? Maybe she knew you wouldn’t negotiate and that would stifle her momentum on her great idea. Do you have a history of trying to get your wife to stop writing, and if so, why? This obviously is her passion, and she’s very good at it, so consider that you told her she had to give that up to take care of your kid. Splitting hairs on the matter is punitive and unloving and just makes you appear controlling. Try being happy for her that she found a way to make room for her passion using time that already belonged to her, and work on some flexibility yourself.
A: +1 to all of this.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Thanks, everyone! We’ll wrap up here. Make sure to let your significant others know exactly how you’re going to spend every minute of your lunch break (or don’t).
From Care and Feeding
My 6-year-old loses his dang mind around holidays and his birthday. He is a sweet, smart little boy who is usually pretty well-behaved, but when we near Christmas or his birthday it’s like he loses impulse control. He picks fights with his younger brother, screams while his baby sister is sleeping, slams doors, throws toys, generally doesn’t follow our instructions, that kind of thing.
I feel like this stems from being overwhelmed by excitement and anticipation for an event he loves, and I’m sympathetic that he’s just having big feelings he can’t quite manage. On the other hand, it’s hard for us to get excited about him receiving a bunch of holiday or birthday gifts when he’s making life harder for the rest of the family. We do the usual stuff—timeouts, revoking privileges with devices, etc. It doesn’t seem to get through. How do I work on this with him?