Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, chatters. Let the advice begin!
Q. Pregnant: I agreed to be my sister’s maid of honor before I knew I was pregnant, and my due date is smack dead center in the week of her destination wedding. I very obviously will not be able to go, but I still want to help out before the baby takes over my life. I also have insisted my parents go on to the wedding. My husband and I just want it to be us for the birth and have everyone come in later. My sister, however, has retreated into toddlerhood. She makes pointed “jokes” about how I am trying to steal her thunder and abandoning her for the baby. I try to ignore her, but she keeps pouting! I suggested several dates for her bachelorette party only for her to want one I can’t do (I am painting the nursery).
I am very hurt and haven’t told anyone because I know it will blow up. I don’t have time or energy to deal with this. These should be joyous events, and instead I am doubting my entire relationship with my sister. What should I do?
A: “You’ve been making a lot of pointed comments about my pregnancy and I want us to be able to talk honestly about it, instead of trading barbs. I’m really excited for your wedding, and I want to celebrate you, but there are some things I just can’t do as I’m getting ready to have a baby. I’m not doing this to or at you. If you think I got pregnant in order to upstage your wedding, we either need to have a pretty serious conversation about how you believe I view our relationship, or you need to reconsider what motivations you’re assigning to me. I love you a lot, and I didn’t get pregnant to make your life more difficult, and I want us both to be able to support each other. There’s plenty of love, support and celebration to go around, and I’m not taking anything away from your wedding by being pregnant.”
Q. Grandparents’ shared email: My grandfather, who I was very close with, passed away unexpectedly in December, and my whole family is having a lot of trouble with the loss. My grandparents shared an email address that was in his name, and my grandmother has continued using it, so every time I get an email from her it shows up in my inbox as though I’m getting an email from my dead grandfather, and it’s a shock every time. I don’t get emails from my grandmother particularly often (usually only chain forwards or planning for family events), so I’m not sure if it’s worth asking my grandmother to change an email address she’s been using for as long as she’s known how to use the internet. How do I deal with this?
A: This does seem a little tricky! I can imagine that your grandmother may feel a sense of continuity in keeping the email account, and I can also imagine that she may find it equally awkward and painful. If it’s only once in a while, my inclination would be not to bring it up, and simply to acknowledge the jarring feelings that arise on seeing his name on a list of unread emails. But you could certainly say something like, “Grandma, I don’t know if it feels comforting to keep using the email in Grandpa’s name. But if it’s not, and you’d ever like help changing it, I’d be more than happy to do that with you.”
Q. Forgive and Forget … Not!: A few years ago a friend of mine breached my trust significantly. As part of what he called a joke, “John” told people that we were having an affair. This caused a lot of stress in my life (I was in a long-term relationship), and his behavior approached what I retroactively felt was almost stalking as he sought out information on my activities and whereabouts to support his hoax. I eventually found it all out, cut him off, and went on about my life. Our friends either stopped seeing him, stopped seeing me (apparently I was “over the top” when I said he was stalking me), or saw us separately.
Now one of my close friends, “Sally,” who I thought was in the first group, has revealed she is in a relationship with John and wants to “heal the divide.” John apparently was depressed during the period of the hoax and regrets it, and Sally thinks I should forgive him “for my sake.” I would rather not. I don’t wish John ill, but I don’t wish him well either. His “joke” upset me, caused friends to think I was a cheat and a liar, and his in-depth investigation of my life made me feel uncomfortably vulnerable. I think that “for my sake” I should continue to exclude him from my life. Since I found out about this, I’ve also started to feel paranoid and unsafe around Sally. It’s stupid. John was never dangerous, just creepy, and I stopped worrying about him years ago. But it’s hard to shake the idea that Sally might be creeping around to find out what I do and where I go.
Am I wrong to keep John at an unforgiving arm’s length? Why can’t I stop from tarring Sally with the same brush? I want to just stop seeing her too at this point, but she has been a good friend for a long time and the fact I know I’m just being paranoid makes me second guess myself.
A: I don’t think you’re being paranoid at all. John’s lie was active, ongoing, and designed to disrupt your life and your relationship. Moreover, he has not actually apologized for anything he’s done. He’s indirectly communicated through his new girlfriend that he “regrets” what he did (how nonspecific!) and that the time has come for him to be forgiven. That’s not a real apology, that’s a demand for social reinstatement.
You say that you felt he was “almost stalking” you. I’ll go a step further! He was stalking and harassing you. He invented a false romantic relationship between the two of you and tried to track your whereabouts in order to perpetuate his lie, causing you undue stress and anxiety. Now he’s attempting to worm his way back into your life by sending a former friend as an emissary to offer excuses and a vague sense of “regret,” rather than a genuine apology or evidence of any meaningful work he’s done to atone for having stalked, harassed, and lied about you.
That Sally knew you while all this was going on, has decided to date him anyways, and is now operating on his behalf in order to get you to “forgive” him is manipulative and wrong. You are not being harsh or inflexible by refusing to be around a man who tried to destroy your emotional life, nor are you “tarring” Sally with the same brush by wanting to end your friendship—she picked up John’s old brush and is tarring herself.
Q. Re: Pregnant: While the sister certainly seems like she is being a jerk, what kind of person makes painting a nursery an unchangeable date? There is a lot of questionable behavior on both sides here.
A: A person with a busy schedule who’s trying to juggle maid of honor duties with her pregnancy and presumably a job. If on the one hand you have someone saying “There’s one day I can’t throw a party because I have to paint my nursery,” and on the other hand you have someone saying “You are stealing the thunder from my wedding by deciding to have a child,” then I think the questionable behavior is pretty one-sided.
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Q. Rename dog: My brother introduced us to “Cora,” the woman he is dating. She is a single mother with a little girl. Her daughter has the same common name as our Lab (think “Katie” or “Lizzie”). At first we laughed about it, but when we went on a picnic together and I called my dog, the little girl also looked up. Later, as we were leaving, Cora took me aside and told me I would have to rename our dog because having the same name as her daughter was “confusing” and “more than a little insulting.” I was so gobsmacked I didn’t even reply.
We of course are not going to agree to this ridiculous demand, but I am on the fence between just ignoring her or telling my brother. My husband thinks we should tell him because telling a near-stranger they need to rename their dog is “bunny boiler”–level strange. We could use your tie-splitting vote.
A: I don’t think it will help de-escalate the emotional intensity of this situation if you tell this woman that she reminds you of a fictional would-be murderer, but I agree that you do not need to rename your dog because she happens to share a name with a human child. It’s best to respond to this sort of over-the-top demand with cheerful calm: “We’re not going to do that; I can assure you we did not name our dog Katie with the intention of confusing or offending any people with that name.” If she tries to bring it up again, reiterate that you’re not going to do that and that the subject is closed.
Q. Teacher: My wife was a student teacher while I was in high school. We never had any classes in common and barely knew each other existed. We didn’t meet and get married until our parents introduced us at a church bingo. How do I stop the stupid student-teacher innuendo? My wife still teaches at that high school, and if our history in any way comes up, I get a nudge-nudge “oh you were hot for the teacher” wink-wink. My wife finds it embarrassing, and I find it appalling. Short of asking “What the hell is wrong with you,” I want to ask them, “Do you really think she was sleeping with me when I was 16? How should I firmly but politely tell people to grow up?
A: “We didn’t know one another when I was in high school. We met as adults, and jokes like this are inappropriate and make me uncomfortable. Please stop.”
Q. Ex-lover: I am a lesbian and was in a committed three-year relationship with “Rose.” We broke up after Rose got pregnant. She cheated on me with an ex, a man who was engaged to a mutual friend of ours. Rose was planning to move out (I own my own place), but then she lost her job and her car got repossessed. I didn’t want her to be homeless, so I let her stay another few months so she could get some money together. Her ex left the state after his engagement blew up and rarely calls Rose. I feel like I am walking on knives when I enter my front door. Rose and I will have a laugh and it will be like it was, but then I will look at her belly and her betrayal comes rushing back. My deadline is coming up, but Rose doesn’t seem concerned. She doesn’t like when I question her financials (Did her folks send her money?) or her plans (Where is she looking to move?). Last week, I came home unexpectedly to find some friends throwing Rose a baby shower. The sight of the baby balloons made me so nauseous that I immediately turned around and ended up throwing up in my garage. I also ended up fighting with my friends who come to the baby shower. I asked why the hell they would do this to me, and they told me that “Rose is having a hard time” and “we thought you would be more supportive.”
I feel like I have lost everyone. The only one I can talk to is our friend, the former fiancée of the man Rose cheated on me with. She tells me that I am being taken for a ride, that Rose is a lying cheater, and I should kick her out now. What should I do? Wait for the deadline? Press Rose for more details about her move?
A: I agree that Rose needs support as she prepares to be a single parent, but I think that as the ex she cheated on, you are uniquely unqualified (my favorite phrase for situations like this one) to be the person who offers it. If you press Rose for “more details” about her move-out date, you’re implicitly letting her take the lead on when she moves out, and I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. Give her a move-out date (making sure that you’re abiding by whatever tenancy laws may apply in your state) and stick to it. You two are not in a relationship. You are not her co-parent. The only support you owe her is to communicate a move-out date and to behave respectfully in the meantime. It’s painful that so many of your friends believe that “being supportive” means cheerfully hosting a baby shower for your recent ex in your own home, so I hope you’re able to lean on other people in your life who don’t expect that from you. It’s neither cruel nor unsupportive to say, “Now that we’re broken up, we can’t continue to live together.” It’s just reality.
Q. Support: My cousin’s house burned down—a total loss. She and her husband are safe—they weren’t home—but their several dogs and cats were all killed in the fire. While I’m a pet owner myself and know full well how dear pets are, her situation is different. My cousin has been struggling with infertility for years, and those pets were very much her children. My cousin and I have always been close, but over the last year or so we have gotten even closer. I know she will want to lean on me in the aftermath of this and I am ready and willing to do everything I can to help. I’m limited by financial resources and a demanding Ph.D. program, as well as the fact that we live several hours apart, but we talk on the phone a lot.
I know that platitudes like “It’s all going to be OK” aren’t really helpful or comforting. So, what are some things I can do or say that would actually be helpful? Is it better to talk about trivial things and distract her, or should I try to help her think through what to do next? Help!
A: I think it would help to ask! “I want to do whatever is best and most helpful for you, and I don’t always know what to say in response to pain. Does it help you most if I ask you questions? Would you sometimes like to be distracted and talk about fun/light/easy things? You don’t have to answer right now if the idea of telling me how to respond to you feels overwhelming. I just want you to know that I want to talk to you about this in whatever way feels most useful.”
Q. Re: Grandparents’ shared email: Set up a dedicated inbox to receive messages from that address. Once a week or month or whatever, psych yourself up to see his name and go look for a letter from grandma. Do not bring this up to her; she just lost her spouse. Complain out, never in, to concentric circles of grief.
A: This seems like a practical compromise if you’re genuinely uncertain how she feels about the account. Thanks for this suggestion!