Danny M. Lavery is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Tattoo etiquette: My girlfriend and I have been dating about a year and a half and it is going tremendously; I imagine we will be together a long time to come. I have a considerable amount of tattoos (a full sleeve and several others); I like to get lots of pieces by different artists and it is a huge passion of mine. My girlfriend loves my tattoos. I recently got one from an artist I have not been to before who has a very unusual style. I love it, but my girlfriend does not like it so much—she has never been rude about it, but I just got that vibe from her. Before I got it, I said it was OK for me if this wasn’t her cup of tea, and she tactfully said it wasn’t her favorite but there was no pressure to change it. Since I’ve gotten the tattoo, she has been really positive and said it looks great. I have zero problems with how she handled it—it’s not her thing, but it’s my body and she’s very respectful.
But recently, I got a bonus at work and am planning on getting a full back piece (and advice on the wisdom of spending a bonus on a back tattoo may once have been reasonable, but that ship has sailed). I have a few ideas but the one I am feeling most excited about would be to go back to this artist and get him to do one big piece on my whole back. I know if I brought it up to my girlfriend, she would be totally lovely, and if pushed, say the same thing that it just isn’t her cup of tea—but is it OK to get a HUGE piece of art you know your partner doesn’t like on your WHOLE BACK? She’s going to be the one who does most of the looking at it! I just can’t tell if it would be untactful on one hand, or if I might feel bad about how it looks down the road because I know the person I love (and whose taste I am usually very in line with) doesn’t like it.
A: Yes, it’s fine to get a tattoo even if your (polite, respectful) partner makes it clear that they prefer most of your other tattoos. That fine-ness exists at scale! It’s fine on part of your back or most of your back, it’s fine if it’s huge or merely quite big. Your girlfriend seems totally able to handle liking some of your tattoos more than others without having a big freak-out about your long-term compatibility, and she does not see herself as a co-owner of your back merely because she looks at it more than you do. Get your tattoo; it’s fine!
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Q. Neighbor’s kids: I am a stay-at-home mother of a toddler. My husband has two older children from his first marriage and we get them alternating days of the week. Our neighbor across the street is “Wendy.” She is a single mother. She has three children of a similar age to my stepchildren. I don’t mind that Wendy never reciprocates having the kids play at her home, but I draw the line at being her free on-call babysitter when my stepkids are not here. I will have just put my baby down for a nap, only to hear the doorbell ring with Wendy’s kids on my front porch and their mother nowhere in sight. Wendy will show up hours later and claim she thought she saw my stepkids, her phone was off, and she was only running “a few errands.” It doesn’t happen every week, but enough to be annoying. My husband and I don’t want to start a feud and her children are the only ones close in age to my stepkids, but this is ridiculous.
We told Wendy that she needs to call us and not just send the kids over, that her behavior wasn’t OK. She ignored our request and I was stuck watching her children for three hours on a Saturday. I was fuming since I had plans with a friend. When Wendy rolled up in her car, I went out and told her if she ever tried to pull this stunt again, I would call the police for child abandonment. Wendy called me a “crazy bitch.” My husband doesn’t blame me but wishes I had waited until he got home to confront her. What do we do now? How do we explain this to our kids? And do we really have to go that far to stop this behavior?
A: No, you did not have to go that far, and in fact you should not have—the appropriate first follow-up to “Wendy, you can’t just send the kids over for babysitting” is not “I’m calling the cops” but something more like “Sorry, kids, you’ll have to go back home; now’s not a good time.” The possibility that a few “older kids” will spend a few hours at home without parental supervision is not a crisis that warrants police intervention, and it was a wildly unreasonable (not to mention potentially dangerous) escalation. No matter how frustrated you felt with Wendy—and that frustration is certainly warranted!—that doesn’t justify your response. I don’t think it’s likely you’ll have to say much to her kids now, as I’d be surprised if Wendy would try to send them over again after this, but in case it happens again, just tell them you can’t babysit without discussing it in advance and send them back home. In the meanwhile, talk to your kids about the value of a proportionate response.
Q. The dude’s husband: I’ve been with my husband for five years, married for three. I fell in love with him because he was wildly funny, creative, deeply caring, and a good communicator. Over the past few years (and maybe especially over the past year of being homebound and isolated due to the pandemic), I’ve noticed more and more of his speech is made up of movie quotes (think Coen brothers, Tarantino, Kubrick-type stuff). These are movies I either am entirely unfamiliar with or have maybe seen once, and certainly don’t know back-to-front to the point of getting anything out of the reference. I’ve tried being honest in the moment (not laughing, looking confused, saying “I have no idea what you’re talking about”) but he’ll just explain it to me and go on about how I need to see whatever movie he’s referencing. Maybe he’s always been like this and I’ve only just noticed due to working from home for the past year; maybe it’s a crutch he’s leaning on due to pandemic anxiety—regardless, I find it annoying and deeply unsexy, and I miss having authentic conversations with him. Any thoughts on how to encourage him to stop, convey my feelings sensitively, or make peace with the fact that I accidentally married The Dude from The Big Lebowski?
A: I don’t think this requires a carefully planned approach! I think you can just tell him what you told me: that he’s started quoting movies more and more often lately in lieu of speaking in his own words, and that it’s starting to make conversation frustratingly difficult. It’s one thing to address it directly in the moment, but if all you’re saying is “I don’t know that reference” and not “I don’t know that reference and you’re starting to alienate me because I have to wade through four allusions to Point Break to figure out if you want to take a drive this weekend,” now’s the right time for a bigger-picture conversation. It’s too much, and you want him to scale way back—a perfectly reasonable request to make, and not one that requires you to bite your tongue because that’s just how he is.
Q. Don’t use that acronym: My boss wants to hire for a new position that would have a title that would acronym to something that looks like a homophobic slur with two vowels repeated. It’s pretty obvious, and many people in my working group can see the problem. I know that someone brought this to my boss’s attention, but his first response seems to have been that people won’t necessarily shorten the title, that such a title has been used in similar workplaces, and certainly no one would use that acronym to call someone a homophobic slur by accident. I’m aghast at this response. Why risk it? It would be a PR nightmare if someone decided to make a thing about it and I know homophobia doesn’t align with this person’s core values. Any advice?
A: I’ll welcome additional reader feedback on this one! If your workplace is one where almost no one uses acronyms, where most job titles are either spoken/written out in full or go unsaid, then it might be fine to stop worrying about this. But it’s also fine for you to bring your concerns collectively to your boss, since there’s always greater strength in numbers: “We know someone else has brought this up, and we want to add our concern over this job title—even though it’s unintentional and unlikely to come up often, the potential embarrassment and appearance of homophobia seems worth avoiding by tweaking the name now instead of later.” Unless this is the kind of government job where certain titles can’t be changed without an oversight committee’s permission, this should be a fairly straightforward fix, especially since it’s a new title.
Q. Pushy sister-In-law: My sister-in-law is heavily involved in a multi-level marketing/pyramid scheme. She first got involved with this company, which sells workouts and supplements, at the beginning of the pandemic, and since then has not stopped posting about it on social media several times a day, and even asked my husband and I (on multiple occasions) to join her groups, either as participants or “coaches” (which would mean we would get roped into the scheme, too). This seemed very strange since she does not seem like the kind of person who would ever fall for this. At first I just politely declined since I hate MLMs and how they target vulnerable people, but after she asked a couple of more times I muted her on social media, since I am sick of seeing the same stories over and over again.
We are seeing her again in a few months, for the first time since the pandemic started, and I’m nervous she’ll bring this up in person and be pushy about it. Should I just tell her what I think? I found dozens of reviews online confirming my thoughts about the company she works for. I’d rather keep the peace, but I do not want to hear about this every time I see her, or even worse, have her con my mother-in-law into it. Thoughts?
A: “I’m just not interested in joining! I think I’ve been pretty clear so far, but now that you know I don’t ever plan on signing up, I’m sure you’ll be willing to drop the subject. I appreciate it.”
Q. Abusive parent may be trans as well? The person I called my father for 35 years was not exactly what I would call a great person; there is a long history that my siblings and I agree was filled with emotional and verbal abuse, sometimes physical. He is, however, our only remaining parent, due to my mother passing in 2010 from cancer.
Well, I’m hesitant to use “his” and “he,” really. Last year, I realized that I (assigned male at birth) was in fact transgender, but I was not in a position to really explore what that meant or to try to express my truth more honestly. Yet, over the past couple of years, I found that my remaining parent, an incredibly conservative individual, was starting to exhibit a more feminine side. I had a suspicion confirmed when I moved a package of theirs to the porch and found it, and packages from makeup companies, were for a “Lauren.” I want to support my parental figure the best I can, but at the same time I’m hurt that my own family member is more readily able to express their gender identity than I can, and that my first coming out as genderqueer years prior was met with demeaning comments. I’m not sure how exactly to process this.
A: Your father has not made any disclosures to you, has not asked you for any support, and there are a number of non-transition-related reasons he might have received a package addressed to “Lauren;” the best things you can process right now are your own needs and goals as you think about your own transition, whatever that might end up looking like for you. You do not need to make guesses about what your abusive father might “need” from you based on your interpretation of what you believe to be clues. You deserve (and have every right to!) support yourself first. Don’t give yourself a job that you haven’t been asked to do, especially when it comes to a parent who abused you growing up. Keep your distance and look out for yourself.
Q. Selfish masturbator? My partner and I are at odds in an area of our sex life. He has a higher sex drive than I do and is more sexually adventurous. While the sex that we do have is overall quite satisfying for us both, we don’t have it frequently enough for his liking. I’m sensitive to our gap, and as the one with the sensitive breaks, I have done some work on my own to educate both myself and him on what works/doesn’t work. He’s receptive to my point of view, but in actual practice, he has not consistently been willing or able to do the things I’ve requested (e.g. helping remove distractions, touching me in certain ways, putting in certain kinds of efforts when it comes to seduction). While this disappoints me, I really am satisfied, so I don’t push the issue. I understand his feelings and consider our sex life a work in progress and something we’ll always have to put work into, and I feel comfortable with the idea that it will probably always be.
Here’s the specific issue: I masturbate a few times a week. We have sex a few times a week. This works for me. He doesn’t like that I masturbate, and sees it as robbing him of a sexual experience with me. I don’t share this view. To me, it’s not a substitute for sex—it’s a separate type of experience where I can be focused on myself and/or enjoy specific stimuli (books, audio, video). It feels separate to him or us and I feel like I really want that time for myself. In addition, I don’t think it would actually result in us having sex more frequently. What does seem to be a way for us to have more sex would be for him to actually put into practice some of the things we’ve talked about and that I’ve requested.
I haven’t said this to him, because I’m not sure it’s a constructive response. Am I being selfish here? Is it wrong to ask him to make an effort as a way to solve “his” problem? Is there something I’m not seeing? Any ideas for us to find a happy medium?
A: You’re certainly not being selfish. “I don’t like that you masturbate, and consider it the equivalent of ‘time theft’” does strike me as enormously selfish, entitled, and disturbing. It gives me serious pause about your boyfriend, as does the fact that he’s apparently “receptive” to your point of view that you don’t always want to have sex on demand, and that he requires “education” that you seem to think you owe him because you’re “the one with sensitive breaks”—more than merely suggesting that he’s doing you a favor by putting up with your sex drive. There’s also the fact that he knows what you want specifically before having sex (basically attentive foreplay, based on what you wrote above), but instead of doing so, he’s decided to “blame” the fact that you occasionally masturbate for the problems in your sex life that seem more obviously tied to his selfishness and lack of reciprocity. I do think there’s something you’re not seeing, or at least haven’t seen yet: I think your boyfriend is an asshole, not just “sexually adventurous,” and you can do much better than someone who treats you alternately with dismissal and entitlement.
Q. Family death sentence: My mother died in 2019 and my father planned a small, family-only memorial for about two dozen family members. However, he made clear to me that he did not want my daughter’s live-in-boyfriend’s 5-year-old son invited, due to the child’s generally wild and undisciplined behavior. I conveyed this to her, and my daughter and her two children (my grandchildren) ultimately failed to attend. For the next year or so, my father and I were frozen out of her life (she lives two hours away). My siblings and their families have made clear that they find my daughter’s actions unforgivable. Although deeply hurt, I’ve never given up on having a relationship with her. Her boyfriend moved out six months ago, and ever since then, she has been much more friendly with me—phone calls, sharing family/grandkids news, etc.
Now, my niece is getting married near where I live. My brother and his family have invited me and my two sons’ families to attend the wedding, but my daughter has not been invited. I deeply resent their decision to “banish” my daughter and her children from “the family.” Do I attend the wedding?
A: I think you should at least consider it, yes. Without spending too much time going back and trying to litigate whether the inciting incident merited estrangement, it does sound as if your daughter also “froze out” your siblings and the rest of your relatives during those two years she didn’t speak to you. If she’s since resumed tentatively friendly relations with you, but hasn’t yet reached out to any of them, it stands to reason they would not invite her to a family wedding. You may want to privately encourage both sides to consider mending fences, but I don’t think you should try to force anyone into a reconciliation they’re not ready for, or expect that your siblings won’t have feelings on their own behalf about their relationships with your adult daughter independent of her relationship with you. Go, have a wonderful time, enjoy your renewed closeness with your daughter, tell her you’re available if she ever wants to talk about how you can make sure your future relationship doesn’t repeat the problems of the past, and be well.
Q. Re: Neighbor’s kids: Prudie, respectfully, you’re off base on this advice. The letter writer said the children are “older” than her toddler, not old enough to be home alone. She also mentioned that she and her husband have tried setting boundaries with the mother and she’s ignored them. While she could have said that next time she’s sending the kids back home regardless of whether their mother was there or not, this woman is clearly not getting the reasonable message that Wendy’s way out of line, and truthfully, that kind of repeated stunt could rise to the level of child abandonment if the kids were turned away on the spot. Furthermore, as a mom myself, I can understand why the letter writer wouldn’t just send kids back to an empty house if they’re not old enough to be home alone—I would be terrified for their safety and wouldn’t be able to live with the possible consequences if something happened when their mom believed they were with me.
A: It’s true that I took “older” to mean “on the older side” generally, rather than just “older than toddlers,” so I think you’re right to point out this could mean a wide variety of possible ages. The question at that point becomes “Is it reasonable/safe to call the police for child endangerment because these children may be home alone for a few hours?” to which my answer is still “No.” At that point—and again, this is assuming that Wendy will still try to use the letter writer as a babysitter after the letter writer has threatened to call the cops on her, which I think is unlikely, though not impossible—I’d encourage the letter writer to ask the kids if they have another relative she can call. Although they’re not likely to have their grandparents’ or cousins’ phone numbers memorized, she might be able to look them up based on what the kids do remember and get in touch. Other options might include calling the kids’ school or day care and asking for help or getting your husband to speak to Wendy (since things haven’t entirely soured between the two of them and he might be able to get somewhere she hasn’t).
There’s a lot of room between “Is Wendy acting responsibility?” and “Is it going to help these kids to call the cops?” and while I don’t want to speak too nostalgically about the latchkey-kid days of the ‘80s, I think there are a number of ways to make sure these kids don’t have to spend time home alone without thinking CPS/911/the possibility of foster care or state retribution for Wendy’s (genuinely frustrating!) demands and flakiness are your next best options.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.
If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.
From Care and Feeding
I am a 34-year-old woman in a same-sex marriage. Four years ago, we went through several rounds of fertility treatment. After the third try, we were terrified and delighted to learn that I was pregnant with twins. Unfortunately, I had a lot of complications during my pregnancy and we lost one of the twins. I gave birth to a happy, healthy baby girl. Now she is a toddler, and we have spent the last eight months going through the process to adopt. We have just learned that we are no longer eligible to adopt (our city government now wants only families who will foster).
This leaves my wife and I in a strange and confusing situation. We both feel deeply ambivalent about whether to continue trying to have another child. We would love for our daughter to be a big sister. On the other hand, it’s a lot of money to try to get me pregnant again, and then there’s paying for day care, diapers, etc. We are currently financially stable, even considering international travel and remodeling our house. But I know another child in our lives would have us living paycheck to paycheck. It feels like my mind changes every other minute from We have to have another kid to Things are great the way they are, and my wife has said she is having the same thoughts. How do we possibly make such a huge decision when we both feel so torn! It feels like either choice will leave me having regrets. Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.