Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Fed up with body comments: Second-time, sleep-deprived new mom here. About a month ago, I burned part of my body on a too-hot water bottle in bed that caused a painful 2-inch blister and now scab. Recently, embarrassingly, I picked at the scab (bad habit dating back to childhood) and needed to re-bandage it.
My mother-in-law, a former nurse, saw the bandage and asked what happened. I said, “Oh, that happened a while ago,” and changed the subject. Today, she saw the uncovered injury and again asked what happened. I said, “Oh, nothing, I burned it.” And she started talking triumphantly about how she KNEW it was a burn because of her years as a wound care nurse. I grumpily said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I was embarrassed that I had re-injured it and also that I hadn’t covered it with clothing (after the previous comment) but she had shown up at our door that morning unannounced.
After she left, my husband was angry with me for speaking to her so “gruffly.” He didn’t agree with me that she had no business commenting on my body. What the hell? I lost my temper and yelled that just because you were once a nurse doesn’t give you the right to make observations about other people’s bodies. This after a few days of my father-in-law joking that our baby girl was gaining too much weight and getting too heavy with every ounce of formula we fed her.
Am I right to think they should both lay off commenting on female bodies?! (Anybody!) I wish I had calmly said to her, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t comment on my body.” I also wish I had calmly shared my feelings with my husband rather than yell. I don’t really want to talk to her about it—I’m hoping she got the hint even though I didn’t handle it ideally. But what can I do about this fight with my husband? For what it’s worth, he is also sleep-deprived and definitely pulls his weight with the kids and the household, so that’s not an issue.
A: I see these two kinds of body comments as very different and think your anger at your mother-in-law was misdirected, and that your father-in-law is weird, gross, and inappropriate for joking about your infant daughter gaining too much weight (and I think that would be the case regardless of her gender). But it’s not generally considered to be out of bounds to check on a loved one who is visibly wounded and bandaged. If you don’t want anyone to say anything about your body—if no questions or concerns are welcome even if you show up with crutches or a neck brace—you need to make that clear in advance, because it’s a bit unusual. So do that, whenever you feel up to it.
In the meantime, tell your husband you wish you’d shared your feelings rather than yelling. And just as important, tell him that this is a hard time and you need more support—and possibly even a check-in with your doctor about postpartum depression, just to be on the safe side. I hear you when you say he pulls his weight, but if you are injuring yourself, feeling shame about it, re-injuring yourself, and breaking down over relatively harmless comments, it could be a sign that sleep deprivation and hormonal changes are taking a bigger toll on you than you realize. And whether your mood is hormone-related or not, I can’t imagine you enjoy feeling undone over a stray mother-in-law remark. That’s no way to live, and having some tactics to navigate conflicts like this could make your life happier.
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Q. Cut off: My two sons, aged 40 and 45, had a terrible falling-out over a business they were in together. As a result, the younger son has pulled away from the entire family; he has three children and he won’t let me see them or answer any of my calls or texts. It has been almost two years and it is driving me into a deep depression. I have tried to reach out but neither my son nor his wife will answer my calls.
We were a very close family and this is devastating. My son did tell me he is working on himself and he has to do it alone. I’m not sure what that means. I feel I should be able to fix this but I am not able to. This is just the tip of the iceberg; they are also in a huge court battle. I have talked to a few counselors but no one seems to have any real advice, just to give him space and time. The problem I’m having is not seeing my beautiful grandchildren. I took care of them since they were born and now I am just completely cut off.
A: This is really devastating, and I can’t imagine how hard it is to lose contact with your grandchildren. But it sounds like you’ve done everything you can and need to move past trying to change minds to focus on acceptance. I hope the situation isn’t permanent, but at this moment, it probably feels a lot like death. So, when you talk to counselors about it, be open to getting help with the grieving process and managing your feelings of loss rather than seeking “real advice” to change the situation. Unfortunately I don’t think that exists. I know it won’t be the same, but maybe you could seek out opportunities to spend time with other children—maybe volunteering or tutoring—to try to fill the gap in your life until things get better.
Q. My not-so-chemical romance: Can you develop chemistry? I’ve been dating a guy for several months now. At first, it was just periodically because we were so busy, but it’s gotten more serious. We also went out in a lot of groups or did a lot of activities.
I’ve realized there’s just no chemistry. Conversations are a big deal to me, I don’t think they are to him, and ours seem pretty forced and a bit boring. Out of all the relationships I’ve ever had, romantic or not, I feel like I’ve never had anywhere near this little chemistry.
The thing is, I feel comfortable with him and he treats me really well. I feel like I can let go and not worry too much about being too weird with him. I’m starting to really wonder what chemistry is. I felt attracted to him and happy to be around him when we first started dating, but now I just feel comfortable. Is that normal?
A: I think the question should not be whether this is “normal” (a lot of unpleasant things, including stuff you wouldn’t want for yourself, like a long but fairly miserable marriage, are “normal”), but whether it’s what you want. And this is one of those situations in which the fact that you decided to write to an advice columnist about it says a lot. It’s probably not.
Now, if you wrote to me saying you were worried that your sister or friend was in a relationship with a guy whom she found kind of boring, I would tell you to mind your own business because she’s made a choice to prioritize comfort and being treated well and it works for her, and plenty of people have low-chemistry relationships that make them happy. But this is about you, and it’s obviously nagging at you and keeping you from enjoying the relationship as much as you could. Maybe you’re a person who needs more passion and excitement to be happy in a serious relationship. Or maybe you just don’t feel like being in a relationship that’s past the high-chemistry stage and more settled and comfortable right now, even though you might in the future. But the reality is relationships are supposed to make you happier and it seems like the forced, boring nature of this one is keeping that from happening. It’s not a fit right now and that’s OK. When it’s right, you’ll know and you won’t have to ask what’s “normal.”
Q. Yes, we really are mad at you and not telling you: My husband’s mom recently and unilaterally divorced his dad, and it’s not amicable. Dad-in-Law has talked things through with us and told us his story while trying to badmouth his ex as little as possible, and he was very worried about his son. Mom-in-Law, though, has been railing against her ex as much as she can, alienating my husband and me, who don’t want to listen to her ranting and crowing about how happy she is now that her ex is gone. My husband has decided not to talk to her except on holidays and such, and he just ignores it all. I’m more angry than he is; I had considered his family better than the one I grew up with and gotten very close to them, and I’m quietly burned that his mom threw it all in the trash. That said, her marital life isn’t my business, and I’ve kept quiet.
Recently, she asked me why her son doesn’t call her more, and if it’s because of the divorce, and if he’s mad at her. I don’t feel right telling her that yes, this is why we don’t talk to her more, but her son sure isn’t going to say anything, and I feel guilty leaving her in the dark and not telling her how she could fix this if she tried to. I was very close to her, so it’s not like she’s overreaching by calling me on the phone. What do I tell her?
A: Ask your husband if he’s willing to do you the favor of having an honest conversation with his mom so that you’re not in an awkward position and so that you might have a chance of repairing a relationship that meant a lot to you. If he really doesn’t want to, it’s his mom and you have to respect that. But if he agrees, you can say: “You asked about why [Husband] doesn’t call you anymore and whether it’s because of the divorce. I don’t feel comfortable answering that question for him, but I do think you should ask him about it because I would love to see your relationship improve so we can have you in our lives more. Why don’t you write him an email or give him a call?”
Q. Not a gift grab: I may be overthinking this, but recent debates over how destination weddings are perceived have caused me to question our christening plans. My husband and I are expecting a second child in very early February. We plan to have the christening ceremony and reception in early April, as his parents will be here from Australia and that is honestly the best time to have both sets of grandparents available to attend. For our first child, we were living in San Francisco and invited our families and close friends who lived in the area. We still keep in touch with those close friends but now we live in Los Angeles.
Is it OK to still invite them to the second christening, knowing if they attend that they would have to travel? I do not want it to seem like a gift grab. Family across the country and abroad will still be invited even though we do not expect them to attend (as I believe it would seem more rude to exclude them and not give them the option; plus, our extended families have always invited relatives to milestone-type events like weddings, other christenings, etc., even though we are all spread out). I am worried doing a birth announcement instead would come across as not valuing our friends if they were to learn we had a christening and had not invited them. Also per paranoia/reality, we do not plan to send invites until after her birth obviously, so it will be a short-notice invite for everyone, but again that is the only time we can have both sets of grandparents together.
A: You know the traditions and expectations of your social circle best, but I personally can’t imagine anyone feeling snubbed by not receiving an invitation to an out-of-town christening for a friend’s child. In fact, I can’t think of a time I’ve heard of someone traveling for a christening for a baby that is not their close relative or godchild. But again, you know your people and what’s normal in your community. So if your gut and your experience are telling you that invitations are expected, send them with a simple “please, no gifts” on the invitation to ease your mind.
Q. Re: Cut off: Letter writer, you are going to counselors asking how you fix your sons and get to see your grandchildren again. You need to stop doing that. You need to go to a counselor and ask for help for YOU to let them make their own choices and be their own people, and for YOU to process that you have been cut off (likely for a reason). FIX YOU.
A: I want to give the letter writer the benefit of the doubt, so I don’t assume that she’s been cut off for a reason. But your advice still works. She has to focus on herself and how to cope—and give up on the thankless work of trying to change others—if she’s going to get through this.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Thanks, everyone. That’s all for today! Talk to you on Monday.
From How to Do It
I am a gay man in my late 20s. I am in a relationship with a guy that I love very much, and we’ve been officially dating for about a year. I am a chubby guy, and I am comfortable in my body, for the most part. I know that my weight was a key factor in my boyfriend being attracted to me at the start of our relationship. Recently, I’ve started to think about getting healthier. I am going to be 30 soon, and if I don’t do it now, I feel like I never will. My worry is that if I lose the weight, the man I love may no longer be attracted to me. I have brought it up with him, and he says that it wouldn’t happen, but I still can’t shake this feeling. I know I need to take care of my physical health, but I don’t want to lose the man I want to spend the rest of my life with. Should I just take care of me and worry about the consequences of my weight loss if it happens?