Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
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Mallory Ortberg: “That’s all well and good for sheep—but what are we to do?” Well, we start with this: We chat.
Q. Second-class grandma: My son, Steven, and daughter-in-law, Julia, are expecting their first child and our first grandchild next month. I had what I thought was a good relationship with Julia, but I find myself devastated. Julia has decided only Steven and her mother will be allowed in the delivery room when she gives birth. I was stunned and hurt by the unfairness of the decision, and tried to plead with her and my son, but Julia says she “wouldn’t feel comfortable” with me there. I reminded her that I was a nurse for 40 years, so there is nothing I haven’t seen. I’ve tried to reason with Steven, but he seems to be afraid of angering Julia, and will not help. I called Julia’s parents, and asked them to please reason with their daughter, but they brusquely and rather rudely got off the phone. I’ve felt nothing but heartache since learning I would be banned from the delivery room. Steven told me I could wait outside and I would be let in after Julia and the baby are cleaned up and “presentable.” Meanwhile, Julia’s mother will be able to witness our grandchild coming into the world. It is so unfair.
I’ve always been close to my son, but I no longer feel valued. I cannot bring myself to speak to Julia. I’m being treated like a second-class grandmother even though I’ve never been anything but supportive and helpful. How can I get them to see how unfair and cruel their decision is?
A: You can’t! You shouldn’t! You are entirely in the wrong! I say this in the hopes that, after the initial flush of indignation fades, you will be braced and supported by the realization that you have been acting badly, and that you need to change. It’s difficult to admit when one’s been wrong, but there’s nothing quite so clarifying as figuring out how to do better.
Your daughter-in-law is giving birth, which is a pretty difficult, painful, and intimate process. She has every right to plan ahead for just how many people she wants to be in the room for that. This is not about you. You are going to get to see your grandchild the day they are born. You will get to be in your grandchild’s life for as long as you live. Nothing is being taken from you. You are not being snubbed. Your daughter-in-law and your son are drawing a totally appropriate boundary, and you need to stop trying to argue with them about it. Frankly, I can see why they don’t want you in the room, if But I was a nurse! and I’m a second-class grandmother is your response to Please hang out and read a book in the hallway while Julia is crowning.
Let this go. Do not rob this moment of its joy by keeping score and demanding more.
Q. Truth: I found out my husband had a months-long affair with an old neighbor. He ended it after we moved away. She emailed, wanting him to come back to visit her, and included naked pictures of herself. I found it after using my husband’s laptop to do our taxes. I was enraged. I confronted my husband, and we are now in counseling.
But I can’t get the other woman out of my head. She is a teacher at a Christian academy and a high-standing member of our old church. I personally gave her a key to our old house for emergencies. I hate her, and I hate the fact she gets to go along with her perfect fake life after ruining mine.
I have copies of her emails and pics. I want to send them to our pastor and her principal. Someone like her should not be teaching children and her husband deserves to know the truth. I haven’t spoken about this to our counselor or my husband. I think they will want to protect her. I am so angry I can’t see straight. I don’t know what I should do. Help.
A: Your anger makes a lot of sense to me! It also shouldn’t be what’s primarily driving your actions. Take a look at what you said about how you feel: “enraged,” “hate,” “so angry I can’t see straight.” You can’t stop thinking about the details of the affair, and you feel like your life has been ruined. The person most directly responsible for this is your husband, but all you say about him is that the two of you are in counseling right now. Your husband is the one who betrayed your marriage vows. He’s the one who cheated on you. What she did was not kind, was not honest, and was not the act of a friend—let’s not get confused about that. You’re angry with her, and rightly so. But hurting a friend and cheating on her spouse does not disqualify one from teaching children. One has nothing to do with the other. I’m afraid you might feel like your job is to forgive and eventually forget what your husband did, and that therefore the only safe outlet for your pain and anger is this former friend. That would be a mistake, I think.
Tell your counselor about your anger. Tell your husband. Be honest about it. Don’t try to downplay or soften it. Don’t rush to forgive your husband just because you live with him. It’s difficult to allow yourself to be angry with the people you love most. I do not think it will be ultimately satisfying if you try to displace the anger that should rightly fall on your husband entirely on her. I do not think it will address the root cause, and I think you deserve the chance to be honest about your feelings without trying to protect your husband from the consequences of his actions.
Q. Re: Truth: Being the other woman in your husband’s affair has nothing to do with how well she does her job. Just know if you do send those nudes to anyone you’re going to get sued under a revenge porn ruling.
A: Oh, thank you so much for bringing that up, that’s probably the most important point in the letter and I failed to address it—do not send this woman’s nudes to anyone else in order to humiliate and hurt her. Do not do it! It is likely illegal and it’s wrong. Find other ways to deal with your anger than “using someone’s nude pictures against them.”
Q. Bad sex: I let a friend set me up with her cousin. He was fun, mildly attractive, and we went on a few dates, but he was horrible in bed. Very bad. Think a 15-year-old fumbling with his first bra strap bad. I didn’t want to pursue the relationship any further and tried to let him down gently. Now my friend is bugging me for an explanation, and “I don’t want to” doesn’t seem to hold water with her. Apparently her cousin was very upset after I broke things off and keeps asking her, “Why?”
We are all in our late- or mid-20s, and this feels very high school to me. It is annoying. I don’t want to hurt this guy, but I don’t see how it will help anything to say “you suck at sex and I don’t want to waste time being your teacher.” I don’t want to lose my friend either. How do I get them to back off the subject without hurting anyone?
A: “I don’t want to” is the best reason in the world not to go on another date. If your friend refuses to let it hold water with her, then she needs to be brought up sharply. “I’ve told you before, I’m not interested in seeing your cousin again. I’m not sure why you want him to go out with someone who doesn’t really want to be with him, but it’s rude and dismissive of my feelings. It makes me feel like I can’t talk freely with you because you keep pressuring me about this, and I’m not interested in sharing personal details about my dates with your cousin with you. You need to stop bringing this up, because I’m not going to discuss him with you again.” That may sound harsh, but I promise you, it’s better than continuing to put up with her badgering until you finally explode and say something that would embarrass both of you.
I’m sure her cousin was upset; no one likes being rejected. But not getting a fourth date is totally common, and it doesn’t require an after-the-fact interview where the formerly-involved parties provide one another with a list of things to work on.
Q. Re: Second-class grandma: I only wanted my mom in the delivery room with my first one, too. It wasn’t because I didn’t love my mother-in-law, but because it was easier on me. I only had to worry about two extra people being there. I also wasn’t comfortable with my mother-in-law being right there while I was naked and pushing someone out of my body. Now, with the second and third ones, I totally would have invited whomever wanted to be in the room. It’s not personal. She still wants you there that day, at the hospital. She just may not be comfortable giving birth with a large audience like she’s 18th-century French nobility.
A: Yes! “This isn’t Versailles, and this isn’t about me” should be your mantra going forward, letter writer. Remember that your daughter-in-law is about to go through something incredibly painful, uncomfortable, and vulnerable, and that you—presumably—want her to feel as comfortable and non-overwhelmed as possible.
Q. “But you’re so pretty”: My daughter recently turned 13 and went straight through the ugly duckling phase into the swan. She also hates it. She is getting a lot of attention, especially from older men. She is very quiet and shy. It has gotten to the point that she doesn’t want to go out unless it is with her father, her older brother, and me. There was an incident where some neighborhood boys started catcalling her and following her while she was walking home from a friend’s. She got so terrified she ran into a neighbor’s backyard and beat on the window for help. Her brother then found the boys and ended up getting in a fight with them. The police got involved, but ultimately no charges were filed on anyone.
My extended family does not understand this despite knowing about the incident. My parents would not stop telling my daughter how pretty she was, and my brother made the tone-deaf comment that she “must be beating the boys off with a stick.” It upset my daughter so much that she pretended to be sick for the last three days of our trip, and I let her. We did have plans to come back over spring break but I am not doing it if it means hurting my daughter more. She is talking to her school counselor and we have enrolled her in a lot of girl-only activities, but I am at a loss on how to deal with my clueless family. I never had to deal with this myself as a girl, and my son is large and muscular like his father. I would take on the whole world for my daughter, but I can’t realistically. How, at least, do I make her family safe for her?
A: Telling a 13-year-old girl who was chased by a group of leering boys and had to hide inside of a neighbor’s house that she must have to “beat the boys off with a stick” isn’t just tone-deaf—it’s cruel, it’s dismissive, and it’s an attempt to normalize misogyny to a child. I’m so glad you’re in her corner. She needs all the help you can give her.
Talk to your parents and your brother. Tell them that they need to lay off the comments about her appearance. If their response is, “But she’s so pretty! And it’s a compliment!” then you say, “It’s not a compliment. You know that this is a source of anxiety for her, and you’ve been asked to stop; it’s not a compliment if you know it to be unwelcome.” If they can’t do that, then don’t visit. This is an opportunity to show your daughter that someone is looking out for her, that not everyone is looking to erode her boundaries and harass her, that you’re willing to stick up for her, and you won’t force her to be around family members who scrutinize her appearance and dismiss her feelings.
Q. Am I really crazy?: I moved in with my fiancé about a month ago and all was well at first—kinda. Small things that always annoyed me suddenly seem huge, and I’m afraid that I’ve lost my mind. I normally think of myself as rational, but lately I get upset when I feel like he is trying to control small aspects of my life (e.g., at dusk yesterday I had the light on, and he said that I should turn it off as soon as he walked in because it wasn’t dark enough. I got annoyed because I felt that the light wasn’t bright enough and exclaimed, “Damnit! Are you happy now?” as I turned it off. A shouting match erupted.) He claims that I have nothing to get angry about, especially since he does so much to support me. However, I don’t think that feeling like he is disrespecting my capacity as a sentient human being is irrational at all. Do you think that I’m making too much of small things?
A: I can’t figure out whether you or your fiancé are the primary source of contention here, but this sounds awful for both of you. If you two are screaming at each other within a month of moving in together, over whether the light should be on, then I don’t think that you’re talking about “small things” at all. I think living together is clearly not working, and you two should go to counseling to figure out what you expect from each other as roommates, and how you communicate when you fight. In the meantime, if possible, give yourself at least a few nights a week to sleep apart. I don’t know what the underlying tensions might be, but if you feel like you’re being disrespected as a “sentient human being,” and he thinks you have nothing to be angry about, then I think the tensions are serious, significant, and need addressing right now—before you get married.
Q. “But you’re so pretty”: The letter writer with the pretty daughter needs to get her in counseling and also find out whether she’s been sexually abused. Harassment is intimidating, but running to a neighbor’s house and banging on the window is an extreme reaction, as is not wanting to be called “pretty” and not wanting to leave the house without a guardian. Something else is going on here, and she needs help coping.
A: Being followed by a group of boys who won’t stop catcalling you is an extreme experience. If a pack of boys are dogging your steps home, they’re making it clear that they’re not interested in listening to your No, and that they’re willing to escalate their aggressive behavior—that’s legitimately frightening. Trying to find safety in that moment, and wanting to feel protected afterwards, is not an extreme response. The “something else” that’s going on here is a culture that sexualizes 13-year-old girls, and then dismisses their resulting fear, confusion, pain and bewilderment.
Q. Does not having a job make me a leech?: I am a 20-year-old college student who lives at home with my mom. I’m unemployed but have applied for jobs before and was turned down. My mom said I should put off finding a job until we get a reliable mode of transportation or move. The only income I have now is my financial aid. It all goes to rent, food, and bills. However, everyone tells me I need to find a job and stop relying on my mom. This includes my sister, who keeps changing jobs herself, and a brother, who lived with our mom until his mid-20s. I usually ignore them, but now it’s really starting to get on my nerves. It seems like my sister alludes to me being a leech in every conversation. I’ve told her I’m not a leech since I’m contributing to the household and doing something with my life. But she doesn’t think college counts for anything. I’m just sick of her and everyone else thinking that in order to be a productive citizen you must have a job.
A: You have a job; you’re a full-time student. If your financial aid contributes to rent, food, and bills, then you are contributing to the household in a real, significant way. If your sister doesn’t think going to college and contributing to household expense counts for anything, that sounds like her problem, not yours. Don’t waste time trying to convince her of how much work you’re doing or how much you contribute around the house. If she won’t let up, end the conversation; you don’t have to listen to her call you a leech whenever she wants.