Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. I was sober: Just over a decade ago, I was involved in a road accident that resulted in the death of a child. A (very thorough) investigation ruled that I was not in any way at fault. I was extremely upset to discover, therefore, that one of the child’s family members recently posted a memorial in which they referred to the child’s death being due to a drunk driver.
Prudie, I was not drunk, I was not driving irresponsibly; there was literally nothing I could do and I have lived with that moment every day ever since. It weighs on me, I still go to therapy, I no longer drive and, I insist, I WAS NOT AT FAULT. What should I do? I really, really want to respond and set the record straight, and yet I am also aware that this family has suffered a great deal and am reluctant to cause further harm. I just know that there are people who are aware of the incident who will read that post and possibly reframe what happened, and I am aware that while I still struggle with guilt, I also (rightly or wrongly) carry a large amount of anger toward the family in question (the parents were irresponsible) and don’t entirely trust myself to express my feelings in a concise and unemotional manner.
A: This is awful, and I’m so sorry for you and for the child’s family. I’m not sure where they posted the memorial or how many friends and contacts you have in common, but hopefully there’s not much overlap. Can you just let them have their version of reality? I know that will be very hard, but they’re in a lot of pain and I can’t imagine they would change their story based on your request. If you live in a small town or have a lot of people in common and you’re truly worried about your reputation, you could do your own post delicately clearing your name (sandwiched between expressions of sympathy for the family). Keep in mind that there must be some public records or reporting about what happened, so anyone who’s truly interested in what you have or haven’t done wrong will be able to piece things together. But for now, I would keep it to myself.
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Q: Am I enough? I have spent the last 12-plus years building a career in international development and paying off debt (I’m now officially debt-free!). By my own choice, I worked in places that didn’t facilitate a social life and were frequently isolated. Even when I came back to the U.S. for a few months at a time, I have never been able to meet anyone who I would like to have a relationship with, specifically the type that leads to marriage and kids. Now, I am officially in my mid-30s and just got a job that I have been waiting forever for; it has good pay, benefits, retirement, job security, and the opportunity to travel internationally for the rest of my professional career. It checks a lot of the boxes that I care about in my career, including built-in support to have a family abroad (like paying to move your family with you, paying for international schooling, providing generous housing, etc.).
That said, I still haven’t met anyone who I would like to have a family with, and the number of people who would want to live life like me (one where we change countries every two to four years for the next 20 years) is also pretty small. At this point, I am starting to lean toward having kids on my own. I don’t want to give up, but I am acutely (unfortunately) aware of my biological clock. I have the money to try to have kids by myself (I’d explore all the medical options and adoption), but I am worried that I am underestimating how hard it is to be a single parent. I haven’t tried to sugarcoat it for myself; I know that everything is twice as hard when you don’t have a partner and I am worried that something could happen to me and they wouldn’t have another parent be there for them.
Is it selfish to want a family despite the challenges and risks of doing it alone? I am not sure I can wait for much longer to meet a person who may not exist, but I don’t want to give my theoretical kids a harder life because they will only have me. I’ve always thought that having kids was one of the great joys in life and I just want to be sure that I am not a bad parent before they get here.
A: Have a kid. Have a kid. Have a kid.
You have a great career and are in a good place financially. Plenty of people who have much less stable lives manage to do a great job raising children on their own. I’m not saying it will be easy. You will need support. You’ll have to work hard to figure out how to pay for child care or surround yourself with other single parents who can serve as your community. At times you might even really struggle. But I can’t imagine that that struggle could be worse than the struggle of yearning for a family and knowing you didn’t have one because the right partner didn’t show up at the right moment. And of course, it’s very unlikely that you’ll never meet anyone; there might be a blended family in your future. But for now: Have a kid. Do it.
Q: Aggrieved and grieving: My mom died earlier this week after a yearslong battle with cancer. She was a nurse who helped people personally and professionally. My problem is that my husband’s two sisters did not reach out in any way to send their condolences about my mom’s death. I have known them for 20-plus years. My mom visited their dad at home and in the hospital when he was dying nine years ago. She put up one of their families overnight after their baby son died years ago. My mom was interested in their lives and would have gone out of her way to help them.
Neither of them could even be bothered to leave a comment on my Facebook post about my mom, not a “So sorry for your loss,” not anything. We’ve never been close, and my husband is not close with them either, but we’ve been cordial, seeing each other a few times a year. What gives? Right now I feel like never seeing them again and preventing my kids from ever seeing them again, which would be hard, since my mother-in-law lives with one of them, and the same one has a sweet daughter the same age as my daughter. I don’t know what to do. In anger I unfriended both of them, and one of their husbands, on Facebook.
A: I’m so sorry about your mom, and I can completely understand the desire to cut off people who treated her death like it didn’t matter. But before you burn your relationship with them to the ground, how would you feel about reaching out to say, “Can I talk about something with you? I didn’t hear from you when my mother died, and that’s really been bothering me. I was so hurt that I unfriended you on Facebook, but now that I’ve calmed down, I wanted to reach out to you and see if maybe there was a misunderstanding.”? The worst that can happen is they respond, “We don’t even like you and didn’t care about your mom,” and then you can go your separate ways in peace. But maybe there’s an explanation here. After all, people can have a lot going on in their lives that we don’t know about, and not everyone sees everything that’s posted on social media. If it turns out one of them has been distracted by a personal tragedy of their own and hasn’t been online in six months, and then sends a flower arrangement the minute they hear the news or learn how upset you are, that will be good information to have and might change how you feel.
Either way, do not stop your kids from seeing them. That’s an overreaction and would just make you the bad guy.
Q. Unsolicited advice: My friend’s husband is what I would call a bum. He’s barely had a job while they’ve been married, he refuses to get a real job, and they’ve relied on her family for support for most of their three-year marriage. He’s trying to start a bunch of podcasts surrounding his business and I’m pretty sure he’s going about it the wrong way. I don’t have a podcast but I do have a business, and everything I’ve heard from other business owners about successful podcasts just doesn’t apply to him. His interests are just so narrow that I don’t think he is going to ever get enough of a following to make money.
My friend always complains about him, but she’s super supportive of his business ideas. My question is: When she complains about him, should I tell her that every business person I’ve talked to about this says he’s going about this in the wrong way? She asked me if I knew anything about podcasts and I said no, so she hasn’t asked for any advice again. I’m worried about giving her unsolicited advice, but I’m also worried about her being so stressed out as the only breadwinner of the family. What do you think I should do?
A: Don’t tell her. I know you must be about to explode watching him make a mess of this, but keep the feedback to yourself. If you share what you really think is the worst-case scenario (based on your informal research), you might piss off one or both of them and put your friendship at risk. And the best possible outcome is that he’ll listen to your advice and drop the podcast plan, but then he’ll just go back to whatever “bum” behavior he was engaging in before this endeavor—his history doesn’t suggest that he’d suddenly start being a productive professional if he only knew that his approach to this one thing was misguided.
Plus, your friend isn’t the only breadwinner—her parents are bringing in money, too! Because this couple has a safety net, I’m not that worried. Maybe he’ll get his act together. And if not, they’ll either continue living with one main income and some bonus money, or she’ll eventually get frustrated and leave. In the meantime, you should just be a good friend and tell them you’re ready to subscribe, rate, and review.
Q: Moneybags: My parents had a terrible divorce when I was 10. They both cheated and remarried their affair partners within the year. I gained two stepsisters and a half-sister.
I was lucky my stepsisters were older and happy to play with my spoiled self when they visited. They taught me how to dye my hair, gave me their cool hand-me-downs, and threatened to beat up the neighbor boy who kept trying to snap my bra. My half-sister, meanwhile, was an infant who sucked up all of my dad’s attention and my stepmother resented I wasn’t her happy, little built-in babysitter. By the time I was in high school, I rarely visited my dad’s.
I still talk to my stepsisters every week. My half-sister and I are not even friends on Facebook. If I visit my dad, it is us catching lunch while I drive down to see my grandparents.
I came into some serious money. Not retire-now money, but retirement will not be a problem. After taking care of myself, I bought my mom and stepdad new cars and paid off the mortgage of one stepsister and college loans of another. I didn’t even think of my half-sister. I know she was getting her master’s at a very expensive school, but we haven’t talked in more than a year, her parents both live an expensive lifestyle, and I have never known a college student not to bitch about costs.
But apparently she is up to her eyeballs in loans. She also freaked out when word came down about what I had and what I did for my stepsisters. She feels rejected by her “only sister” and is crying to everyone on my dad’s side. I am close to our grandparents and one aunt, and they said they don’t understand how I can be so generous to my stepsisters and not my blood.
I didn’t know about my half-sister’s reaction. I might have done things differently if I had, but these crocodile tears are something else. I didn’t make much of an effort, but neither did she. She is an adult, and only wants a sister when she sees green. And I do resent having to take a verbal knife to all the emotional scar tissue with our father. We aren’t speaking now and I was very happy with our occasional lunches. Now we don’t even talk.
A: “Only wants a sister when she sees green” is a perfect assessment. You don’t owe her a thing. I hope you can get your dad and the people on his side of the family to understand this, and if they can’t, I hope you have the support of friends who value you for more than your money. Whatever you do, don’t try to buy your half-sister and father’s forgiveness.
Q: Don’t understand the judgment: My husband has a tendency to make judgmental, insensitive comments about others (about their weight, how they dress, etc). For example, he was scrolling through his social media news feed and said out loud how he wished there were an eye-roll emoji because he saw a photo of a guy and his friend on a plane. I asked him what the problem with the photo was, and he went on a tangent about how the guy is dressed in a tank top, and questioned why someone would dress like that on a plane, how this guy must not have been raised with values, and so on. I pointed out to him that the way others dress isn’t really my business, and questioned why it was such an issue for him. He responded by getting mad and throwing a tantrum, saying the guy in the photo was acting selfish by wearing whatever he wanted, and bringing up a memory about how his ex-boyfriend years ago dressed inappropriately to meet his parents so he made him stay home. Am I wrong to feel that his need to judge others’ appearances, especially a complete stranger, is odd? Please give me some perspective.
A: There are two kinds of people in the world: very nice people like you who find it boring and inappropriate to sit around judging strangers and slightly less nice people like your husband (and me) who absolutely thrive off this stuff. But the thing we in the petty, negative, gossipy community have to understand is where our comments are appreciated and where they’re not. Personally, I know exactly which friends to text when I want to critique someone for something that is absolutely none of my business, and which ones to avoid chatting gossip with because they live by the “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything” rule. Your husband needs to learn this skill! In the meantime, don’t lecture him for being judgmental and insensitive—just give boring responses and don’t engage. Eventually he’ll tire of sharing this kind of thing with you, and hopefully he has someone else in his contacts who would love nothing more than to stop everything to engage in a lively takedown of tank top–wearing travelers.
Q. Re: I was sober: Lawyer here. Sadly, your advice is kind but inadequate. The letter writer NEEDS to get this taken down. It is the kind of thing that can be an albatross around their neck. What the parent is doing is textbook defamation. They know the fact they are putting out there is untrue but they are saying it anyway, and it is a fact that could devastate the letter writer’s reputation to a negative extent. This is even worse if it’s a small town. While I commend your optimism that people will search out readily available facts on their own, I think the past year of COVID has shown that isn’t true and when misinformation sinks in, it can become its own truth. While I cannot comprehend the grief of this parent, it does not excuse what they are doing.
A: It feels like a little bit of an exaggeration to say this could “devastate” the letter writer’s reputation. One memorial without their name? What is the worst possible thing that will happen? But letter writer, if you do want to have it taken down, listen to this person who says you have a case for defamation and get a consultation with a lawyer.
Q. Re: Aggrieved and grieving: As someone who has been through my share of loss, I’d encourage you to set this aside for now and focus on your grief and healing. There’s nothing you need to do about it, and your feelings are raw; it’s really easy to displace anger onto people who don’t react the way you want them to, and there will be many of these. Often people just don’t know what to do or say, especially if they haven’t experienced it. Also your mom died just a few days ago and they may yet come through with expressions of condolence.
Find any consolation where you can, and think about this later if it still bothers you.
A: Yes, this is a very sensitive time. I guess it’s up to the letter writer to decide whether they want to use this moment to clarify who is really there for them, or whether they want to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: That’s all the time we have today. Thanks as always for the questions and the feedback. I’m signing off, but I’ll see you back here next week.
If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.
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From Care and Feeding
I live in a large city and am lucky to have the choice of multiple different public elementary school options. My child will be entering kindergarten, and it’s the time of year where I’m supposed to attend open houses and put together a ranked list of my preferences for a school choice. Apart from the obvious differences, like physical building features or different art/music/after-school program offerings, I am at a total loss for what I should be looking for to compare these schools. What kinds of questions should I be asking the principals and prospective teachers?