Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Family photos: My father passed away last year and I’ve finished up most of the legal matters, but I have boxes and boxes of family photos. My father was born very poor, but I doubt members of the British royal family have led such documented lives. I have hundreds of photos of him at every stage of his life. I have photos of my mother—including an album and 16 mm film from her first wedding, a marriage that only lasted eight months. I have photos of my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-great-great grandparents. I have school pictures, team pictures, travel pictures, holiday pictures. All these photos completely fill a large walk-in closet.
What am I to do with them? I don’t look at them. I can’t imagine anyone could look at them all. Throwing them away also seems impossible. This is my family history. I am its custodian. What if my twentysomething niece or nephew (I don’t have any children) want them someday? What about their kids? Should I just dedicate a closet to housing this material? Should I try to organize it (a gargantuan task, one I am not sure I have the time or energy for)? Should I bite the bullet and toss it? Help!
A: Why not hire an organizer to help you go through the photos and winnow things down to a manageable size? There’s a reasonable balance to be struck between “Keep a picture of every time someone sneezed or ate a sandwich” and “This is overwhelming, set fire to the past and sail on into an unencumbered future.” You can tell your nieces/nephews/other relatives who might have an interest in the process that you’re planning on keeping a smaller number of pictures and mementos, and that you’re happy to share anything they might want to keep. If no one bites, feel free to pare down your collection to whatever size feels right for you, whether that’s merely a smaller closet or just a few albums.
Q. Like a daughter: We took in my son’s girlfriend when she was 15, after her stepfather broke her arm and her mother threw her out because she wouldn’t lie to the police to protect him. She was the daughter people pray for: kind, respectful, and smart—she graduated fourth in her class despite everything she went through. My son and her broke up in their senior year, but she continued to live with us even while our son went off to college. (She went to community college and became a pharmacy tech.) They are both 23 now. We see her regularly and consider her part of our family. My son’s current girlfriend dislikes this. She says she will not come to visit us if we continue to have her over, and guilts my son for coming alone. He skipped Christmas and Thanksgiving last year on her orders.
This breaks my heart, but I don’t know what to do. My family is not going to give up what amounts to our foster daughter on the whims of this new girlfriend. We love and miss our son but are saddened by his cowardice here. My younger daughters are very angry with their brother and refuse to speak to him, even online. Our foster daughter has no one but us. I don’t want to lose my son over this, but I won’t let my family relationships be dictated by a girl he has been sleeping with for six months. What can I do?
A: Exactly what you are doing, I think. Continue to see your foster daughter regularly, gently encourage your son to reconsider his decision to allow his current girlfriend to dictate how he spends his holidays just because she’s uncomfortable with the fact that someone he dated in high school has a close relationship with his family, and let him make his own mistakes.
Q. Mom’s support of a child molester: My mother remarried when I was 17 to “Dan.” Dan was accused of molesting several neighborhood girls after I was 23 and married. The evidence was pretty damning: Beyond the girls’ testimony, he sent explicit photos to a 12-year-old girl and tried to get her to do the same. Dan plea bargained and served less than a year in prison. My mother stood by him during it all and even sold the house my dead father left her to pay for Dan’s legal fees. Her support of Dan broke our relationship. Our last serious conversation involved me begging her to see the evidence (the texts had just come to light), and I asked what she would have done if I had been one of those molested little girls. My mother said that wouldn’t have happened because she didn’t raise me to be a “slut.” Since then, I don’t visit and rarely call my mother.
I am pregnant now, and we know it is going to be a little girl. After we posted the news on Facebook, my mother sent me a physical letter explaining that she was sorry about our “estrangement,” excited to be a grandma, and hoped this would be a new beginning for us all. I miss her so badly, and never thought I would go through this without her.
My mother is still with Dan. Even if she only visits, and Dan never breathes the same air as my daughter, I am terrified. What would my mother have done if Dan had molested me? Would she have blamed me? Called me a whore and a slut? Would she let Dan molest my daughter if something happened to my husband and me? How many other little girls has Dan ruined? Doesn’t my mother share in his crimes?
I don’t know what to do. My husband says he will follow my lead, but that he will kill Dan if he ever steps foot in our house. I so badly want my mom here, but I don’t know if she should come. Help me please.
A: I’m so sorry you’re going through this as you prepare to become a mother yourself. This sounds extremely painful, but the one upside (although it’s not much of one, I’ll concede) is that things are extremely clear cut here. If your mother is willing to stay married to and actively defend a man who was convicted of molesting underage girls, then your mother cannot be around your daughter. Her desire to end your “estrangement” suggests that she thinks you two simply have a difference of opinion, but that “new beginning” she so desires is impossible as long as she refuses to acknowledge the harm her behavior has caused both you and others. The fact that she refused to look at the evidence and indirectly called Dan’s victims “sluts” makes it clear that neither she nor Dan are actively participating in any sort of meaningful rehabilitation or engagement with reality.
You have sufficient evidence that your mother absolutely would have blamed you had Dan molested you, and that’s reason enough to keep her out of your (and your daughter’s) life. I think therapy would prove extremely helpful to you as you deal with your grief and sense of loss as you prepare to have a daughter of your own without your mother’s help. But the way forward is clear: Anyone who has made it as clear as your mother has that she believes the children her husband molests are responsible for their own victimization should not be around children.
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Q. Trivial trivia concerns: I attended a trivia event with some fellow “mums of young bubs” for a girls’ night out. I was having a great time until I saw some of the women cheating by Googling answers. This made me feel uncomfortable (I’m an honorable soul), but the awkwardness grew worse when at the end of the night we won the second-place prize (a bottle of wine—each!) by only two points. We cheated on more than two answers, so we definitely cheated other tables out of prizes.
The girls had such a great time, and they want to make it a monthly event. I am torn. On the one hand, it was a fun baby-free night with new friends, but on the other, my conscience can’t cope with the cheating! What should I do? Decline any future invitations? Say I’ll go, but only if the others promise not to cheat again? Go and keep my mouth shut, and donate any ill-gotten prizes to charity?
A: There’s something so embarrassing about low-stakes cheating—if one is going to cheat, one ought to do it in Monte Carlo while Grace Kelly looks on. It hardly seems worth cheating when cheap bottles of wine are readily available for purchase at groceries, liquor stores, and bars. If you had an otherwise good time, feel free to go again, but stress that the real fun is in trying to figure things out, and that Googling answers is strictly off-limits. (Besides, if you don’t say something, sooner or later someone involved in the trivia event is going to spot it—that’s a pretty common cheating tactic—and it would be worse to get thrown out by a trivia organizer.)
Q. Re: Family photos: You can have all those photos digitized! You don’t even have to scan them all yourself; there are services where you can send the photos off and have them digitized for you. It might be worth the expense to avoid the guilt of losing what you consider to be potentially valuable family records, while at the same time clearing out that closet space.
A: Oh my God, how on earth did I forget about digital photos? Yes, that’s a great idea! That way you can still keep an album or two of the hard copies, but make the majority of the photos the internet’s problem.
Q. Re: Like a daughter: I’d be curious to hear what the son thinks of having his ex-girlfriend around. Is he fine with her being his “foster sister,” or does it make him uncomfortable? If the son would also prefer not to hang around his ex-girlfriend, then I think maybe the letter writer should consider a more nuanced approach that incorporates her son’s feelings. I feel terribly for the ex-girlfriend/foster daughter, but if the son is uncomfortable having her around, then I think some of the family dynamics need to be reconsidered.
A: The key here, I think, is that the son never had any problem with this family dynamic until he started seeing his new girlfriend. This woman has been a part of his family now for eight years. If that wasn’t a problem until his new girlfriend showed up, then I think the issue lies not with how the letter writer interacts with the foster daughter, but how the letter writer’s son deals with conflict in his romantic relationships.
Q. Best friend troubles: One of my best friends since teenage years (we’re in our mid-30s now) has consistently made terrible dating choices: abusive men, drug addicts, just plain jerks, you name it. She is a great single mother to a wonderful 6-year-old, and got back together six-ish months ago with “Jake,” a guy she briefly dated a few years ago. She recently moved in with him, and while he seems nice enough, even she admits he is not the sharpest tool in the shed and doesn’t have a lot of personality or interests. In fact, this is why she broke up with him in the first place. When I expressed surprise that they were back together, she made a comment about how she was just ready to “settle” because she was tired of being single.
She often looks to me for relationship advice, and I’m not sure if I should be encouraging her with Jake, because he’s better than some of the men she’s dated in the past, or if I should discourage her from “settling,” or just try to avoid commenting on her relationship altogether (although that would be hard). I definitely think she moved in too soon, but this type of behavior is a pattern for her, and from what I know Jake isn’t like some of the terrible men she has dated in the past. Part of me hates that she is “settling” to avoid being a single mom, part of me is waiting for him to reveal himself as a jerk, and part of me gets its—she’s had a hard life and Jake seems like a good guy who can help give her a break and support her. If she is genuinely happy, then I am happy for her, but I just feel like she is making a mistake in giving up on finding a partner that is more than just a convenience. I’m going to check out “their place” this weekend—what should I say or not say?
A: If she often looks to you for relationship advice, and her relationship history has been “terrible,” then I think it’s a good idea to keep a bit of distance on this one. I don’t mean to suggest that you’re in any way responsible for her previous choices, merely that this doesn’t necessarily merit intervention. You can certainly ask her questions about how she’s feeling about her situation—What does she like about him? How does she feel in this relationship? What does “settling” mean to her? What does she think he’s getting out of their relationship? Are there things she likes about him and their relationship beyond simply feeling secure?—but don’t try to offer suggestions or predictions, especially if this arrangement appears to be working for both of them.
Q. Not as young as you think: I am 34, with a Ph.D. and a successful, happy life. I am regularly mistaken for being much younger—often a college student. (I live in a city with many colleges, which probably doesn’t help.) Though I’ll be “thankful for this someday,” according to many well-meaning but semi-irritating strangers, I have struggled for years to think of an appropriate response to people’s surprise upon learning my actual age. For a bartender or checkout clerk, a smile and nod tends to be OK. (I’ve also tried, “Yeah, I get that a lot and I never quite know what to say,” but that never seems to help.) In a professional environment, things feel a bit weightier, as I don’t want people to assume my experience and skill set is below where I actually am. I have had well-meaning colleagues give advice that begins, “Since you are much earlier in your career…” when in fact I am just a few years younger than them. In short: What to say? Nothing, and let my work stand on its own? Casually mention my Ph.D. and postdoc? Thanks!
A: “I’m actually 34” is a perfectly appropriate thing to say when someone is mistaken about your age in relation to your career, especially when they’re trying to give you career advice that may very well not apply to you. When it comes to bartenders and grocery store clerks, I think your current strategy is perfectly appropriate; there’s no need to go into detail with a stranger.
Q. Re: Like a daughter: Keep re-enforcing that he and his girlfriend are always welcome. Welcoming current girlfriends is super important. Don’t let the girlfriend get traction in telling him that you are pushing him away and that you hate her. Keep inviting them both and keep the channels of communication open.
A: Yes! Don’t get drawn into this enforced dynamic where it’s “us against them.” Continue to make it clear that your pre-existing relationship with his high school girlfriend is in no way a comment on his current girlfriend, and that she’s welcome anytime she’s ready to stop manufacturing a threat that doesn’t exist. (Maybe don’t phrase that last part in exactly the same way.)
Q. Not a big deal when she cries: I’m a 23-year-old woman and have been dating my girlfriend for just over eight months. I’m over the moon about it, we’re happy together, and we communicate well. Here’s the thing: She’s a bit high-strung and tends to react to small issues in life with tears. We’ve spoken about it and she has reassured me that it’s not a big deal, and that when she cries it doesn’t necessarily mean that anything terrible is happening. I really struggle with this. I grew up in a household with a lot of abuse, both physical and verbal, directed at everyone. My self-appointed role as keeper of the peace meant that I spent my entire childhood on the lookout for subtle signs of distress in everyone so that I could try and mitigate it. Someone crying sets off all of my alarm bells for “something I have to fix,” and it is very hard for me not to overreact to her tears.
What can I do to fix this? She doesn’t need me to treat what is an everyday occurrence for her like an emergency, and I find myself running out of emotional energy and getting internally annoyed at her because there isn’t an emergency. It’s not fair to either of us. Help!
A: Therapy, I think! It can be hard to tackle a problem where no one is doing anything wrong, and you may find it helpful to figure out how to interrupt the anxiety engine of “Someone is crying, something is terribly wrong, a storm is about to break out and I have to prevent it” whenever your girlfriend cries. A clear goal like “I want to become more aware of the ways in which childhood dynamics play a role in my current relationship, specifically in finding ways to prevent panic and overreaction when my girlfriend cries” is likely to make therapy, even a relatively short round of it, fairly helpful and effective. In the meantime, if you catch yourself feeling irritated or indirectly manipulated when she cries, try to observe your own feelings neutrally as they arise: “I’m annoyed that she’s crying because I feel responsible for fixing it. Is that what she’s actually trying to do in this moment? Do I believe that she’s looking to me to fix her emotional state? What would it look like if I didn’t do anything in this moment, and just let her feel what she’s feeling?”
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, comrades! Today we sailed the Good Ship Advice just a little bit further together. Until next week!