Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning to friend and foe alike! Let’s get all our problems sorted out together.
Q. Valentine for my toddler: My 3-year-old daughter’s best friend at day care is a boy. They have been together since they were little babies and are inseparable. His family and some of the nursery staff have encouraged the idea that they are boyfriend and girlfriend—when we went to his birthday party, even his extended family said, “Oh you’re Sally’s mom, his little girlfriend!” I know this is fairly common in the way people talk about children, but it’s something I think is creepy and weird. I’ve let it slide because my daughter refers to George as her “best friend,” not her boyfriend, so I don’t worry it’s rubbing off. But today she came home with a valentine from “him”—a proper card, not just the kind every kid in class gets, and a chocolate rose. Apparently it was a big thing when he gave it to her in the morning and everyone thought it was so cute.
I’m at a bit of a loss what to do, and I feel rude not thanking his parents for sending a little gift. I’m torn between thinking it’s harmless and being blown away by how weird it is. I don’t know if there’s any way to react without being that parent. I don’t see George’s parents, but I do have his mom’s number. Do I just ignore it? Is there anything I could or should say?
A: Compulsory heterosexuality starts so early, doesn’t it? I think it’s fine to mention to the nursery staff, “Hey, I don’t want you to encourage ‘boyfriend and girlfriend’ dynamics between George and my daughter. I think it’s great that they’re friends and there’s no need to foster anything else. Thanks for understanding.” That’s a pretty easily achievable request!
Q. Must I promote my friends’ awful film?: My filmmaker friends poured their souls into an independent movie. It was recently released and it’s terrible. They would like their friends to give it a big push on social media. They follow me on certain social media platforms, so they can see if I followed through. Is there a diplomatic way to get out of this?
A: If you’re looking to be diplomatic, I think your best bet is to say something broadly supportive but strictly true just once, along the lines of “My friends made a movie. Check it out,” such that it highlights the accomplishment of having finished a project rather than making specific claims about the movie’s quality. If anyone else has creative friends whose enthusiasm outweighs their talent and has found a particular phrase useful in threading this needle, please share!
Q. Gift giving: My husband and I agreed not to give each other gifts for Valentine’s Day, so I bought him nothing. He bought a few small items and left them on the counter for me to find when I got home after 8 p.m. I tried to joke it off by saying, “I thought we agreed to not buy gifts.” His retort was snotty: “So I’m guilty of getting you something nice. I’m sorry.” After putting the kids in bed, an argument ensued. I told him I appreciated the thought behind the gift and thanked him for it, but shared that it makes me feel guilty for not reciprocating. He continued to apologize for buying something.
I want him to understand that I’m hurt that he reneged on our agreement, not that he bought something. (This isn’t a financial issue.) I know it is nuanced and I seem ungracious, but he doesn’t see the difference. Can you help?
A: You do not seem ungracious. You seem legitimately confused by your husband’s sudden change in attitude and policy. It’s additionally complicated when you ask a sincere question (“I thought we agreed not to buy gifts”) and are met with a clearly charged, clearly angry, but indirect answer: “Oh, I’m on trial now for being affectionate?”. To which the necessary response is, “I’m not angry or ungrateful that you got me something. I’m genuinely confused, because the last time we spoke, we agreed not to buy gifts, and I’m not sure what changed your mind. It’s not that I don’t like receiving gifts from you—or that I don’t want to buy you any—I just don’t want to have to guess what you’re thinking or play catch-up. You’re clearly upset about something, and if you tell me what it is, then we can figure it out.”
Q. Re: Valentine for my toddler: Please take Prudie’s advice and put a stop to this. When I was in kindergarten, I had a male friend (I am female) who was my best friend until this kind of weirdness about being “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” ruined it. It was always adults pushing this odd joke, and pretty soon we didn’t want to hang out with each other anymore because of it. I lost my first buddy because of this.
A: I’m so sorry! There’s just no reason for adults to push a romance on little kids who are developing early friendships. In an absolute best-case scenario, the kids in question don’t really understand or derive any benefit from hearing adults call them “boyfriend and girlfriend,” but there’s also a lot of potential for discomfort and confusion. If there’s no real upside, and multiple downsides, then adults should knock off trying to frame childhood friendships as romantic pairings.
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Q. Boundaries with seriously ill former friend with benefits?: I have a friend who is a former friend with benefits. The physical part ended over five years ago, and he made it clear at the time he wasn’t interested in more. He’s had a hard life since then, wound up with drug issues, and now is seriously ill with a rare heart infection that’s also caused a few strokes, an aneurysm, and kidney damage. The meds to combat his heart infection may make his kidneys fail entirely, and he may need a risky surgery. He’s been hospitalized for weeks, and the chance he’ll die is significant.
My issue is that since he got ill, he’s used all my visits and texts with him as a chance to profess both sexual desire and deep love for me. I care about him a lot, he’s a good person I connect with underneath all the trauma, but I’ve told him point-blank that I’m not getting into a romantic or physical relationship with him for a lot of reasons. He will not stop asking, telling me he has nothing to lose. I’ve avoided talking to him for almost two weeks and feel awful, because he is very alone and scared, but I cannot take the constant violation of someone just not letting up about something I said no to over and over. How do you draw boundaries with someone who may literally be on death’s door?
A: That sounds deeply distressing. Obviously contemplating your own imminent death is painful and frightening, but just because he has “nothing to lose” doesn’t mean that he gets to unilaterally push you into a relationship with him. You were right to draw this boundary, and I think you should stick to it. This is good for both of you—it’s better for him not to spend this stressful and dangerous time trying to persuade someone who’s not interested to change their mind about dating. Continue to make it clear that you care about him and hope he pulls through, but that you can’t offer in-person or conversational support if he continues to try to pressure you into dating him. That may feel cruel, but it’s the kindest thing you can do for both him and yourself.
Q. Re: Gift giving: As a man married for 39 years I can tell you what the gift-giving husband was thinking. Even though we are told by our spouse not to get them anything, we are hammered by advertising, internet, and all the pundits saying, “Just because they say they don’t want anything you better get them something!” He was covering his bases. I agree he should have just told her the truth. “I know what we said but I am always concerned I am not reading all the signals correctly.” Too often we feel pressured to make the evening full of romance and magic. The pressure only increases when we really do love our spouse and want to make them happy. A little extra communication and assurance on her part that he is not missing signals would go a long way. My wife and I had this conversation many years ago about Valentine’s Day, birthdays, and Christmas. Funny how love and respect are the only presents we need and share daily.
A: I think it is almost always better to swap out the “Don’t take other people’s words at face value and pull a lot of last-minute surprises on your partner” mindset for “Talk openly and often about what matters to you and what expectations you have.” Surprises aren’t always a bad idea—but they are often inferior to clarity! I’m glad you and your wife have figured out what you want from one another, and how best to give it.
Q. Re: Valentine for my toddler: Oh my god, I so disagree with Prudie here. I’ll admit it is weird and slightly creepy, but it is harmless. Either your daughter will continue being just friends with George, or she will eventually have a “boys are icky” reaction and stop being friends with him. None of this will harm her. What will harm her is if you continue to micromanage her and not let her have her own reactions to things.
A: I’ll merrily disagree! I think it’s pretty likely that if the adults in question were trying to foster a “boyfriend-and-boyfriend” dynamic between two little boys who were friends, there would be a strong reaction something along the lines of, “They’re just little kids! Stop projecting onto them! That’s not age-appropriate,” et cetera. Of course I think the letter writer should bring this up in a casual, level fashion—this is not the biggest deal in the world by a long shot—but it’s just not the sort of thing adults need to be saying to kindergarten-age children. Let “Aww, these 4-year-olds are dating” die with “He just pulled your pigtails because he likes you.”
Q. Don’t set me up: I am a young single woman who works with a lot of older married women. Most of them are very nice, but several have taken it into their head that I am their niece or daughter, and that they need to set me up with a “good man.” At first I welcomed it because I recently moved to the area and didn’t know anyone, but the pickings are slim. Male with a pulse seems to be the only criteria they have. If it is not their 40-year-old divorced nephew (I am 26), it is their unemployed, overweight son who lives with them. The others are just awkward and uninteresting to me—we either have little in common or I feel no attraction to them.
I went on a few blind dates that went nowhere, only to get grilled about it at work. My co-workers do not accept my refusals. Either it is “He really likes you” and “He is a good guy. You should give him another chance” or the crowning glory: “You have too high standards.” I am getting to the point where I am going to lose my temper and tell them, “You really want me to date your son out of pity then?” I don’t think I am being out of line here to want to date someone who I can talk to and want to kiss.
My friend told me to make up an imaginary boyfriend and then fake a breakup in a month or two after they lose interest. How do I get these matchmakers off my back without compromising my work life? Other than this, I genuinely love to work with.
A: “I’ve realized it’s not a good idea for me to mix my personal life with my professional life. I don’t want to be set up and would prefer to focus on work. Thanks for understanding.” Then cheerfully, blandly refuse to engage any further on the subject! If any of your “well-meaning” older male colleagues try to press the issue, stick with a simple, “I don’t want to discuss my dating life at work.”
Q. Re: Must I promote my friends’ awful film?: In college I did movie reviews for the school paper. A friend/classmate made a (terrible) movie he invited me to cover. Instead of a review I ran an article along the lines of “How cool is it that a classmate made a movie?” He seemed happy with that and I’ll take my opinion to the grave.
A: Not everyone is going to be willing to strike that balance (I’m sure there are some advocates for bold, painful honesty in this situation), but if it’s minimum effort and maximum plausible deniability you’re liking for, I think that’s the framing to stick with.
Q. Funeral etiquette: My Aunt “Terry” is in hospice care and is not expected to survive the week. My mother recently told me that I will be a pallbearer at the funeral. I was not particularly close to aunt Terry. Attending the funeral will mean flying cross-country, and I just visited my aunt to say goodbye and to support my mom.
Am I a terrible person for wanting to skip the funeral? I have several legitimate reasons for skipping it (crazy demanding work, a ton of upcoming events that I am hosting, et cetera), but the truth is that I just prefer to stay at home with my wife and kids. Should I stay or should I go?
A: I think you should go. I can understand why you’d rather focus your energy on things that are exciting and energizing and connected to the stuff of life, like work and throwing parties and raising your children—who wouldn’t rather throw a party than go to a funeral?—but it’s worth taking the time and the inconvenience to go. You may not have been terribly close to your aunt, but she’ll only die once, and it will be meaningful for your mother to have you by her side at her sister’s funeral. You may not look back and think, “Wow, I had a great time at Aunt Terry’s funeral—I’m so glad I went,” but I don’t think you’ll ever regret attending.
Update, April 25, 2018: The headlines for this piece have been updated to reflect the genders of the kids involved in the first letter.