Should I Teach My First Grader to Swear?

My son will be entering 1st grade in the fall and the worst swear word he knows is “poop.” Should I give him a heads up of words that some of his colleagues might start using soon or is this just silly?

– Dad

Dear Dad,

I’m going to answer your question; I am.

But first I want to tell you that you are not being silly. You are sweet.

I still remember sending my innocent children to First Grade. They were SO cute and little and innocent and I was utterly petrified. The world awaited.And sometimes the world can be really poopy.

And when our kids go out into that big world all vulnerable and small and anxious and hopeful, it’s hard to see much more than the poop.

What if the other kids are mean to them? What if they don’t fit in? What if they fit in too well and fall in with a boring stupid crowd that only cares about popularity and starts drinking at age 7? What if he falls down and skins his knee and cries and is embarrassed and the teacher is sort of mean about it?

What if the world is cruel and makes my kid feel stupid?

Such a human fear. And I can’t reassure you. The world is sometimes going to be cruel. And sometimes, kids make each other feel stupid.

And the thought of that is just excruciating, isn’t it? So we worry about stuff like cussing.

As for the answer to your question: I am ill-equipped as I’m a terrible example with a mouth like a longshoreman. My kids knew every single word on the Naughty list before they went to First Grade. This was not a decision on my part — my lack of verbal self-control made that decision for me.

So I asked my nearest kid experts what they think you should do, and the resounding answer was: don’t.

See, the world can be cruel and awful and full of poop.

But it also contains hidden delights, and one of them — one I robbed my children of — was the firm belief that the word you just learned from your peers: that dark and powerful and forbidden word — is a word that even your parents don’t know. You have a secret from them. You are becoming your own person. A cooler person. A person more in-the-know.

And maybe some kid will mock your kid for not knowing the words. But mostly, they will whisper them among themselves, awed by their power. And it will make them feel tough and cool, which is what cussing is for.

And it will help them start those first steps away from you — which every parent dreads and embraces and fears and desires.

Don’t do it, Dad. My kids have spoken.

This letter first appeared in bitterempire.com on May 26, 2016.

How Do I Love Myself With So Much To Work On?

How does one reconcile loving oneself exactly as one is right now and knowing that one needs to do some fairly serious self-work?

– One, not with everything

Dear One,

Oh oh oh oh oh you ARE a Dear One. My heart goes out to you — because there is so much pain and confusion packed into this one short question, but also because I’ve asked myself this so many times. How do I love myself and fix myself, too?

Ain’t that the question?

Or maybe it isn’t.

Let me tell you this: I know what it is like to wake up most mornings filled with self-loathing. And I know what it’s like to work very very hard on the many things I have to do in my self-work.

And I also know what it’s like to feel deeply ashamed of the fact that I don’t love myself.

The shame comes from everywhere I turn: online, in magazines, in self help books, and in the damn memes people share on Facebook. People are screaming at me YOU CAN’T LOVE ANYONE ELSE IF YOU DON’T LOVE YOURSELF FIRST or HOW CAN YOU EXPECT ANYONE TO LOVE YOU IF YOU DON’T LOVE YOURSELF LOVE YOURSELF NOW NOW NOW NOW OMFG WHY DON’T YOU LOVE YOURSELF YET?!?!?!?

There are so many reasons people don’t love themselves. Basic low self-esteem. Terrible damage from bullying or abuse. Racism. Depression.Poverty. Trauma. None of these things are the self-hater’s fault. And hating yourself (or just not loving yourself entirely) is already unpleasant enough as it is. We can’t get away from the inside of our heads. We can look at our bellies or our crankiness or our social awkwardness and think we will ALWAYS wince at them, and this is saddening and upsetting and just plain stifling and depressing. It’s bad enough to live with self-hate.

I think the worst thing about a lack of self-love is how isolating it is. It feels like we’re alone in the middle of an ocean of humanity that can’t see us for what we really are with nothing but the hateful words in our heads for company. We don’t need to feel guilty for it on top of everything else.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is this: if you can’t love yourself entirely right now, please forgive yourself for it. Don’t believe all this bullshit that says you somehow don’t deserve love if you don’t love yourself, or that you somehow are lacking in the love you offer to friends, lovers, and family if you don’t 100% think you are the cat’s pajamas.

Because you deserve love. You deserve love because you are a human being.And you deserve help for the issues you need to work on, and sure you also deserve self-acceptance and self-love but you’ll only get there AFTER you’ve spent the time working on the stuff you have to work on. Some of the most famously self-loathing people like the dearly departed Robin Williams had families who got oceans of love from them. We can be broken and wish we were better and stronger and kinder and smarter and all that stuff, but we can still show and give love with the best of ’em. We can; we do.

If you were all filled with self-love right now, you’d either have already done a lot of the work you need to do or you’d be a narcissist. You know who loves the shit out of himself? Donald Trump. You do not want to be that guy.

So I think what you need to do is not try to love yourself exactly as you are, but try to trust yourself that even if you don’t love yourself perfectly right now, you are worth the work. You are worth the therapy or the talking it out with friends or the self-reflection or the journaling or the yoga or the exercise or the meds or whatever it is that helps you do that self-work.

You can trust that there is a part of you that DOES love yourself, or at least wants to very badly, and that part is going to lead you to the help you need.And then you power through. You slog through. You churn through. And you feed yourself with tiny moments.

Even I, in my towering miserable Irish depressed self-loathing, have my moments. When I am biking in the sun. When I am learning something new. “Oh my god I love myself when I am doing this,” I will catch myself thinking.

Are you really good at organizing a desk drawer and feel a sense of accomplishment when you do it? Are you skilled at explaining something in a way they’ve never thought of it before so they finally GET it? Do you love to learn new dances? Are you really, really nice to your pets?

Take those moments of feeling good about yourself and enjoy them. Point them out to yourself. “I love myself when I write great thank-you notes,” you might say. It might last for five seconds. But feed yourself with those tiny moments.

Because as much as our popular culture annoys the living crap out of me with its unrealistic demands for how we’re supposed to feel about ourselves, Dear One, self-love is what I want for you, too. Maybe it can only be tiny bits of self-love in eentsy beentsy moments right now, and maybe you’ll never get there to the complete acceptance you hope for. But working on things, even if you don’t know why you’re doing it, can at least get you closer. You are worth it. You are worth all kindness and the work and the trying and the growth and the love love love.

And I wish I could give you a big hug and tell you so — from one person with a lot of work ahead of her to another.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on May 12, 2016.

What if My Husband is in Love with Another Woman?

How do I ask my spouse of 15 years if he has fallen in love with someone else?

Specifically I think he has fallen in love with a pretty, together, and much-younger woman at work. Let’s call her Hannah. I don’t think the feelings are reciprocated.In fact, I think my husband been trying to hide or even suppress his feelings for her–presumably in part because he is her direct supervisor, and expressing them could cause massive problems for both of them.

But then they went on an extended work trip together, and ever since then he’s been different: paying a lot more attention to his appearance, doing a lot more social drinking with work friends (including Hannah), and generally more impatient with me. Most weekends he stays out into the wee hours with these friends. This isn’t anything secret: I’m actually invited to all of these gathering, though I generally take off after a few hours. Heavy drinking and staying late at bars just isn’t my thing.

I am casual friends with Hannah through these hangouts. Lately she’s been expressing some irritation with my husband, along with a desire for there to be more separation between her work life and her social life. Having her direct supervisor constantly hanging around in her immediate social circles is causing her considerable discomfort, and Hannah is starting to very pointedly organize parties and get-togethers with their mutual friends that explicitly exclude my husband.

… which has resulted in my husband sulking and being quietly upset and complaining that he feels like he has no friends. He feels like he’s in high school all over again, and the cool kids are purposefully excluding him. He feels he’s expected to be “made out of marble” and is not allowed to even have hurt feelings, just because he’s a supervisor.

I’m not accusing him of being childish, for the record. I think he really is feeling lonely and isolated, and is missing his social life and old friends from before we moved to this city. But I also feel like his reactions to the current small drama are more extreme than the situation warrants. He looks to me like a guy who’s being pushed away by a woman he has feelings for, and is feeling sorry for himself.

And this suspicion doesn’t make me feel great. I am profoundly jealous.

There has been a gradual cooling in our marriage over the last several years, and I get a lot of the blame for that.

I created the distance between us myself, for reasons I couldn’t talk about at the time. I did suggest marriage counseling during that period. My husband was visibly hurt by the suggestion: it was as if even mentioning marriage counseling was somehow tantamount to requesting separation.

So now I don’t know how to broach my suspicions about his feelings for Hannah.I’m afraid he’ll be profoundly hurt and angry if I’m wrong; I’m afraid he’ll decide to cover it up if I’m right. Or he won’t try to cover it up, and he’ll just straight-up admit it.

Mostly I’m terrified that he’ll admit it, that he’s in love with someone else. And then everything will change.

This is not a great time in my life for major life upheaval. Yeah, I know: there’s never a good time. But really, it’s not a good time, and this conversation blowing up in my face could derail not just my marriage but also my own career, and basically my entire life.

So I don’t know what to do, or how to do it.

What do I do?

– Marital Limbo

Dear Marital Limbo,

First of all, I’m so sorry you’re going through all of this jealousy and suspicion and pain. Jealousy is such a hideous monster: it grabs us by the throat and won’t let us go. It makes us imagine all sorts of scenarios and it stabs us in the gut while we’re imagining them and it makes us say and do things we never would, otherwise. When I am jealous, I feel as if I’ve been taken over by a mind-controlling alien. It is such a hideous, out-of-control, terrifying feeling.

And reading your letter, it sounds to me that you and your husband are both already utterly terrified of feelings. He can’t seem to handle his feelings for this woman or talk to you about them; you can’t even broach the subject because you feel it has so much power.

Even if your worst suspicions and worse are true — it’s all about feelings.

So. If he is in love with this other woman: so what?

This is a genuine question.

She obviously doesn’t share those feelings, so he is not going to leave you for her. So what do you mean by ‘everything will change?’

Does the very admission of extramarital feelings truly destroy a marriage?Why? This is all just feelings.

But, from reading this letter, it seems to me that the word ‘just’ can never be paired with ‘feelings.’

It seems to me that the two of you are so terrified of feelings that you can never even admit they exist. Your husband is so terrified of talking about his feelings that he was hurt simply by your asking about counseling (and his hurt feelings were apparently so powerful that you  . . . dropped the topic? I’m not sure from your letter if you succeeded in going to marriage counseling).

If you are terrified to even bring this up, I can see why you might fear that talking about feelings would be a nuclear bomb in your relationship.

But I don’t know a single monogamous couple who has not, at one point or another, realized that one of them was getting a huge crush on someone else, or was falling in love.

Our society sells us this stupid idea that when you are married you will never ever feel anything sexual or romantic toward anyone else ever again, or that you at least have to act as if this is the case.

That is just utter and complete bullshit, and believing this can really throw someone for a loop when they DO get a crush, instead of just rolling with it.If we didn’t expect to have feelings for only one person for the rest of our lives, we would not feel so guilty and horrified when we did get crushes. We would just think: huh! I want to have sex with this person very much, but I made a commitment to only have sex with this one person, so I’m going to enjoy/hate these other feelings until they go away, and until they come back with someone else. They end. Just feelings. No self-hatred and recrimination and fear and hiding and shame.

Feelings happen. They do not have to destroy everything.

What, exactly, do you fear about this? Hurting more, yourself? You are really hurting right now, clearly. And I think you know that you are definitely right about his feelings — his confirming them might hurt more, but I’m guessing some measure of relief will come with his admission. Either way, refusing to address your feelings doesn’t seem to be saving you from feeling them right now, and quite painfully.

Is the fear about hurting his feelings? I noticed that when you said he was upset about people making plans without him, he said he felt he wasn’t ‘allowed to have feelings,’ which I found interesting. I think what he means is not that he’s not allowed to have feelings, but that his feelings about friendships should somehow supersede her feelings about having some social time away from her direct supervisor. That she should care more about his feelings than her autonomy, and due to considerations for his feelings she should just invite him everywhere.

And why shouldn’t he think this? Our society does not teach men how to deal with or express their feelings — so they outsource this to the women in their lives, which he is currently doing. Whether he’s conscious of it or not, you have been twisting yourself into all sorts of knots worried about hurting his feelings. You didn’t say what the reason was that your marriage began cooling years ago, but I’m guessing it has to do with feelings, and you were so anxious about them that you did not tell him something that you both probably needed to address years ago. You are so concerned about his feelings that he got out of counseling just by looking hurt.

You are treating his feelings as if they are simultaneously the most fragile and the most powerful force in the universe: they must be wrapped up in asbestos and carried gently in tongs while wearing radioactive-shielding gloves, and they must never ever ever ever EVER be jostled.

I say, jostle them. He needs to figure out how to handle even the hint that he might have to discuss his feelings if he’s going to become an adult and stop sulking when things don’t go his way (and seriously — I know you’re not accusing him of being childish, but that’s what sulking is: being childish). And you both need to address the gradual cooling off of your marriage.

All marriages cool in the ardor department. This is natural and doesn’t have to be the end of everything. Some cool in the companionship department, which is far more worrying. Staying silent and never addressing the cooling is a great way to continue that cooling until it becomes a freeze.

What I’m trying to say, here, is that desperately trying to avoid an explosion might actually result in ending your life together as you grow further and further apart.

I know silence seems safer than talking. But seriously — feelings will not kill either of you; they will just upset you. And you are both already upset right now as things are.

You asked me what to do: talk to him.

Ask him if he’s noticed the cooling in your relationship. Ask him what is so terrifying about counseling. Talk. Listen. Listen some more, and feel the fuck out of those feelings. You could ask him about Hannah, but if it comes out as an accusation you will discuss this side issue instead, and she is most definitely a side issue.

The other thing to do: stop treating him as if hurting his feelings will end his life, the world, or your marriage. It’s not his fault society encourages us all to coddle men and their feelings, but it’s not your fault, either — and right now it is tying your hands and endangering your relationship, this walking on eggshells. His feelings are not eggs. They are feelings. Your jealousy is a hideous, horrible feeling, but it has not destroyed you.

How you do it: you sit him down and you say: I am afraid of my feelings and of your feelings, and this conversation is terrifying. But I think we are drifting apart and I want to stay with you. I think counseling is a way for us to stop being afraid of our feelings, and that we should get counseling.

And when he starts sulking in an effort to control you, pick up the phone and call a marriage counselor anyway, because you are done letting his feelings or fear of his feelings rule your actions.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on April 28, 2016.

How Do I Handle Terrible Parenting?

Last week someone brought their twins into the office. They are, I dunno, less than a year old? The boy is starting to walk, the girl hasn’t yet, so however old that would make them.

And the boy was crying.

And the mom commented that when the boy cries, the dad says, in a sing-songy voice, “We’re not raising a wussy!”

I don’t even know these people (I’ve only been at this job for about 2 months). Do I point out how fucked up that is? What’s the protocol in a situation like this?

– Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

Dear Someone Who’s Thinking of the Children,

A friend of mine recently posted something on Facebook asking about why no one wants to hear advice or opinions from people who don’t have kids when it comes to child-rearing, and I wrote something snotty about how if you ever have opinions about how someone else is raising their kids, you have to keep them to yourself.

Raising kids is hard; judgments are easy blah blah blah fickety blah.

Then I get your letter.

And I honestly think this woman was hoping you would say something.

Because as you wrote, that is some fucked-up shit.

Now, if someone is reading this and thinking: “What’s the big deal? Who wants to raise a wussy?” I suggest you consider that ‘wussy’ is just a sneaky way of saying ‘pussy,’ and I further suggest that you google ‘toxic masculinity.’

Children who cry are not ‘wussies.’ They are ‘kids.’

Kids show pain, discomfort, anger, sadness, or just plain being overwhelmed by crying. It’s what they do.

Parents need to be strong enough to handle their kid’s emotions. They need to create safe spaces for their kids to experience sometimes overwhelming and scary feelings. They need to be compassionate enough to allow and encourage their children to express those feelings — and crying is how they express them at that age. Convincing a kid of any gender that crying makes you a ‘wussy,’ is telling that child: who you are is a weakling. There is something wrong with you just for being a kid. Stuff it down. Wall it off. I don’t love you for who you are.

The fact that the husband only does this when the boy cries is a whole other layer of shit. Teaching boys that it’s not manly to cry can cause genuine, lasting damage to their health and happiness.

A recent Rutger’s University study showed that

. . .men who held traditional beliefs about masculinity – that men should be tough, brave, self-reliant and restrained in their expression of emotion – were more likely to ignore medical problems, or at least put off dealing with them, than women or than men with less traditional beliefs.

Ignoring medical problems and putting them off can result in shorter lifespans– which men have, when compared to women.

Oh hai.

So this guy is contributing to his kids’ eventual early death. No, seriously. He is. Not to mention damaging his ability to genuinely connect with others, form lasting friendships, and be a good life partner.

Now. What do you say?

While, as I said, I HATE unsolicited parenting advice, natural reactions to horrible shit seem like the way to go. Especially since the mom told you. I think she wanted to see your reaction.

I wish I knew what sort of tone she used. Was she laughing nervously? Saying it flatly? Saying it as if she disagreed with it?

Maybe it doesn’t matter. The way we set expectations in society is by reacting to things that we wish to censure in a censorious manner.

Gasping in horror and saying: “That’s awful!” seems like a reasonable thing to do — and if she already thought it was awful, you’re backing her up. Alternatively, you could say: “Really? How do you feel about that?” and have a conversation with the mom.

Talking about these issues is a great way to help people think about them, and a great way to possibly reflect what the mom was already thinking.

In any case? FUCK that dad, seriously.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on April 14, 2016.

How Can I Get Over Comic Sans?

This probably isn’t in-line with your normal column, but I work with someone who is incredibly talented, incredibly professional in every way but one. She uses comic sans for her emails.

How can I get over myself so that I don’t wince every time I open one of her missives? It’s not like the font will kill me, and it’s not like her communications are unprofessional. It’s just…comic sans. I want to live and let live here, but sweet dancing mermaids, this is distracting. It’s just a font. Why do I react this way?

– Wants to get over it

Dear Wants to get over it,

I love this letter so much. I love that you already know that the problem here is you.

That said? I am at a bit of a loss for how to get over it, since the use of Comic Sans makes me immediately assume the sender of the email is twelve, tone deaf to office norms, kinda stupid, or just trying to be irritating.

As you can see, the problem here is also me.

So when I have an inexplicable problem, I try to look at the roots of it, so I can dig it up.

What is it about Comic Sans that makes us so crazy?

It is a font that does not take itself seriously. I remember when it first came out; it was playful! Fun! It said: ‘Computers aren’t just for nerds and lawyers. Let’s make cute invitations and stuff with these helpful templates!’

Comic Sans was a little shocking that way, at the time. A breath of fresh air, maybe, or a fart of obnoxiousness. Either way, it was NOT Times New Roman or Arial. It was its own thing.

Over time, though, it started to be the default font for people who didn’t want to ruffle feathers. Who perhaps felt that it would be cute. Or charming. People who didn’t take themselves all that seriously, or didn’t want anyone to think they did. Folks with a sense of fun. People-pleasers.

You know — women.

I am thinking and thinking about this and I cannot remember receiving a single email in Comic Sans from any man, ever.

The reason Comic Sans bothers me so much is that it reeks of casualness, sure. Yes somehow I don’t mind people wearing jeans and Vans to the office. So if I’m being honest, and it’s hard to admit but honestly honestly: it’s because it has become a female font.

I find myself wanting to write back to women who use it: STOP IT! Don’t you want people to take you seriously? Do you really think that Sojourner Truth stood up to make her speech in front of all of those white men so we could use Comic Sans?!?!? While you’re at it, stop uptalking and bringing in cookies for the office!

Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, Bitter Butch. You want women to fit into the workplace by not doing all those WOMAN things. Shame on me.

I am not trying to accuse you of the sexism I have been perpetuating, Dear Writer. As a matter of fact, since you see the problem is yours and not this woman’s problem, I would venture to say the exact opposite. However, perhaps taking a good hard look at that font and why it elicits this reaction in you will help you to get to the bottom of your problem and uproot it.

Or.

You could set your email preferences to plain text and never see this women’s goddamned insufferable font again.

The letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on March 24, 2016.

How Do I Say ‘No’ To Unwanted Invitations?

I’m a woman who recently received a text out of the blue from someone–let’s call him A. A and I know each other loosely on a professional basis and share an interest in empowering our communities. Our conversation went something like this:

A: Would you like to have lunch?
Me: Yeah, it’d be great to touch base again. What are you doing in town?
A: I’m at a seminar. I just took photos with a bunch of millionaires.
Me: Okay, where do you want to meet for lunch?
A: Would you like to attend the seminar with me?
Me: No. Just lunch.
A: Okay. Can you meet me at the seminar location and we can head to lunch from there?

At which point I stopped texting and asked my Facebook Family: How do you graciously tell someone you don’t want to go to a pyramid scheme meeting? Or a recruitment meeting? Or a religious conversion meeting? Because I’m pretty that was the trap being laid out for me.

I am a worrier, and I don’t like hurting people’s feelings. But I have no interest in get-rich quick schemes and wasting my Saturdays. Am I just jumping to conclusions? And, if my hunch is right, how do I say NO?

– Worrier who doesn’t like to hurt feelings

Dear Worrier,

First: of course your hunch was right. You are 100% correct that he would have tried to rope you into a pyramid or get-rich-quick scheme.

And you don’t need my advice on how to say ‘no;’ you said no. Clearly. “No.Just lunch.”

The person who needs advice is the one who didn’t write to me. The one who would not take the clear, unambiguous no you gave him for an answer.

My advice to him would be this: when anyone says ‘no,’ that’s what they mean. When a woman says ‘no,’ she has fought against decades of conditioning that it is not nice to say no, or to risk hurting someone’s feelings, in order to say that ‘no.’ She really really really REALLY means it.Respect it.

Since he didn’t write to me for advice, I will tell you that you did exactly the right thing. When someone keeps pushing after you’ve said ‘no,’ they no longer deserve another moment of your time. You stopped texting. That was the best response.

You second-guessed yourself afterward because that’s what we do when someone acts irrationally, as your friend did by pushing and not taking an answer: so many of us, and I’m afraid women in particular, react to someone else being irrational by questioning our own judgment. That person must have acted like my ‘no’ didn’t matter because I was wrong! I misjudged him! I did something wrong!

But you didn’t do anything wrong. And, what’s more, even if your hunch had been wrong (which it wasn’t; he was totally going to say ‘while you’re here why don’t you step in for a minute,’ and hold your entire afternoon hostage), you STILL did nothing wrong.

Here’s the thing: invitations are not summonses. You owe no one your time, just because they ask for it. So even if he just wanted a ride to lunch (which he didn’t), you acted perfectly correctly.

Something has happened in our American society in which invitations have become court-ordered appearances. If we are invited to a party, an event, or a sales pitch (calling it a Tupperware or Candle ‘party’ does not actually make it a party) – we are expected to give a reason that we can’t go. And it’s perfectly polite, somehow, for the person throwing the sales pitch/shower/party/fundraiser to demand that you justify your reason, and question your reason, and pressure you to go.

None of this is okay. None of this is polite. Miss Manners, who is by definition infallible in questions of etiquette, says that no explanation is necessary when turning down an invitation of any sort. “I’m sorry, but I can’t make it,” with no other comment necessary, is perfectly polite.

I myself have had to be a broken record when responding negatively to invitations when the person inviting me kept changing the parameters to get me there: “No, I really can’t; it’s impossible. Sorry; I can’t attend. Sorry.”

Once, with a particularly pushy friend, I actually blurted out: “Because I don’t want to,” which was deliciously satisfying. Especially since the person had gotten so pushy I didn’t care if I hurt her feelings.

(Yes, readers – women do this to each other, too.)

And if the person still will not accept this ‘no,’ refusing to further engage like you did by failing to respond to any more texts, emails, calls, or FB messages is the perfect response. It says, loud and clear: “Nope! You don’t get to waste my time anymore.”

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on March 10, 2016.

How Do I (Gently!) Correct A Family Member Who Is (Probably Accidentally!) Misgendering Me?

My father is an immigrant from Africa. I recently reconnected with a cousin on Facebook who is still in the old country and who I have never met in person as he is quite a bit younger than me. I’m really enjoying the connection and I’m I am helping him pay for school. However, I am a masculine Butch woman and though he has seen and commented on my Facebook pictures (including my wedding pictures) he doesn’t seem to realize that I am not a man. How do I tell him without making the situation more awkward than it is? I would like to have an authentic relationship with him, and I am out to everyone in my life but don’t see these particular relatives much.

Not a Man

Dear Not a Man,

Because you mentioned being ‘out’ to everyone in your life, I’m going to assume that you are married to a woman. But for the record, readers: Butch masculine woman  homosexual woman! But I’m assuming from your language that in this case, it does.

How frustrating and upsetting to be entirely yourself everywhere and then to find yourself having to come out of the closet AGAIN. It’s bad enough that we have to be coming out of the closet in small ways every day — we are mistaken for a different gender than we are, or someone assumes we are not what we are and we have to set them . . . straight, as it were. No no I don’t have a husband. No, she’s not my sister. Yes, that’s OUR daughter.

But this one also comes with it more emotional risk than those everyday uncloakings. You’re enjoying the new connection, and you fear that it may be based on an untruth. And since you don’t know that family very well, you may have no idea what his general attitudes are about queers are. And if you’re like me, you assume everyone is homophobic unless proven otherwise. (I also assume they are sexist, racist, and classist. Then people can pleasantly surprise me if they want to!)

You don’t say what makes you think your cousin believes you to be male; I, unlike my readers, have access to your name and I googled it — I can see how your name doesn’t necessarily make this clear, and photos on people’s phones are tiny.

Also, if your cousin is assuming that everyone is homophobic unless proven otherwise like I do, he might not really know but figured mistaking a butch woman married to a woman as a male heterosexual was less risky than the reverse.

I don’t know how vague your acquaintance level is with this cousin, but if he’s a first cousin I’m guessing that he has a pretty good idea of what gender you are, but is unsure enough to just fudge it a bit in case he’s not correct.Or, for all you know he thinks you may be a transsexual.

I’m grasping at straws here — if he were really confused about your gender, and if you have your gender specified on FB, he can just check it. I’m putting my money on him seeing you had a wife and a gender-neutral name and just going with the statistically most likely gender you might be.

I am doing all of this musing to point out that there are many reasons beyond him being stubborn or homophobic or oblivious that he might be using the wrong pronoun with you.

And I’m also wanting to acknowledge that, with family, it’s not just always about how it might be awkward. There is the real possibility of rejection. Of having to deal with hate or confusion or just plain stunned silence when you’d been really enjoying the conversation.

Regardless, my answer for you will be the same: you respond to his comments on your wedding pictures in ways that make it very clear this is a same-sex wedding. You didn’t say which country your father emigrated TO — if it’s the U.S., you can say something about laws changing and allowing you to marry your same-sex partner. If it’s somewhere else, you can use some other excuse to mention that you are a same-sex couple: “with my name, the florist was so surprised to have two women show up at her door!”

And then there’s the good old grab-the-bull-by-the-horns PM: “Hey, cuz! I’m getting the feeling you think I’m a guy. I’m a woman. Glad to clear that up for you! How are things?”

I’m thinking it’s not necessarily ‘awkward’ that you fear, but ‘painful.’ Oh, I hope you’re wrong. And fear of rejection or ridicule by family is a powerful thing.

But as you know probably better than most, there’s nothing more painful than feeling like you can’t be yourself, so get it over with. Speak up. Good luck. I hope it goes well.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on February 25, 2016.

How Do I Deal With ‘Ladies Only’ Baby Showers?

I got invited to a baby shower in honor of soon-to-be parents who recently moved out of town. Yay, I thought, it’ll be so nice to see them and congratulate them.Then I reach the end: “This is a ladies-only event (sorry gentlemen!)”

WTF? The invitation lists both parents names, the registry lists both their names, but only the female friends are invited. I don’t even know if the future father is invited!

I am a cis female, and work in a fully male-dominated field, which means I put up with pretty constant low-level gender crap all day. Little things like people apologizing specifically to me for cursing in a group setting (I curse plenty in group settings, so I feel confident it is my odd gender that makes me singled out, rather than my personality), and similar things that delineate gender roles. It cuts both ways: I recently sat bug-eyed while a (female) executive complained that young men these days are taking 6 weeks of leave after a baby, because c’mon what does the father need to do?

My point is, it is near and dear to my heart that our society NOT accept these precise gender instructions, and morally repugnant to me to explicitly forbid one gender. It’s a baby shower: I don’t think we’ll be using our vaginas for anything at the party.

My question is: what should I do? If the friend were still in town, or if I knew the person throwing the shower, I could casually joke about it in a way that they might gather was a real objection; I manage this all the time for ladies lunches and the like. But here I’m not sure what to do. Not go and not say anything? Bring my husband along and feign ignorance so they have to tell him to his face? Not fair to him, not his fight. Write scathing commentary on the evite? I don’t want to taint a friend’s party. Suck it up, say nothing, and be part of the silent majority, which is to say, part of the problem? I don’t like any of my options.

The Work of Babies Isn’t Just for “Ladies”

Dear WBIJL,

First, I really wish people would put more thought into milestones and parties like this instead of just doing things the way they are always done. It puts people like you, who actually think things through, in the awkward position of being the Angry Feminist Who Ruins Everyone’s Fun.

Nobody gives a crap that they ruined YOUR fun. And they don’t have to care or think about it, because they are Doing What Everyone Always Does. Also Stop Being So Uptight, ‘Lady.’

Now. Before I answer your question, I want to talk to the person who just read your letter and rolled her eyes. Or the man who said to his pregnant wife: “PLEASE don’t invite me to the shower. Ugh. All that pink and cooing over baby booties. NO thank you.”

It seems fairly harmless that a thing like a baby shower would be all women.Tradition! Games men wouldn’t like! It’s always been done this way! This is really just harmless ‘girl’s’ fun! Why is she making such a big deal out of nothing? Men don’t like that stuff anyway. Who makes a big deal over a PARTY?

But do you see how much attitudes like this materially affect parents? A female executive was huffing about men who take 6 weeks of paternal leave at her company, when under the Family and Medical Leave Act, both parents are entitled to 12 (unpaid, and only at certain employers goddammit) weeks.  You can bet bosses remember which parents are so obsessed with fatherhood that they take half the legally-allowed leave and abandon their careers to just sit around at home doing nothing (because apparently it’s impossible for men to feed, change, bathe, or care for infants so what could they be DOING) when promotion time comes!

In addition, the vast majority of fathers are raising babies with a woman.When they feel pressured to take less parental leave, their coparents get more of the work of baby raising, and have to spend more time alone during the really exhausting first few months, and lose more earning potential.That’s bad for all parents, regardless of gender.

Not to mention the big huge fat lie that society perpetuates about how mothering is REAL parenting and fathering is just sort of sitting around goofing off and adorably screwing up the laundry. See? Men need to get paid more because they’re good for nothing but working at a job. Women should stay home and take care of babies because that’s what we naturally do better. Tradition! It’s what girls like anyway!

All of this is a steaming pile of patriarchal crap that keeps women down and screws over fathers as well.

So that’s why someone like this letter writer cannot just take a deep breath and show up at the shower and take bets on the size of the mother’s belly and play the baby food game with a tight smile on her face and a sick feeling in her gut, setting aside the fact that she is contributing to the very sexism she deals with every damn day in her male-dominated job.

Okay. Now, for you, WBIJL: you politely decline the invitation and you write a note to your friends saying that you’d LOVE to attend anything that includes all of the genders who actually take care of children in real life, and that you wish them both well in their JOINT PARENTING ADVENTURE, and then you buy them some crap from their registry and call it a day.

Rigidly gender normative showers are pretty awful anyway. You won’t be missing much.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on February 11, 2016.

How Does a Girl with Resting B*tch Face Make Friends?

I’m a generally nice person. I don’t take a lot of crap and I don’t like people, but I’m not mean. I’m interesting and smart and I’m not totally unfortunate looking- but I have RBF- resting bitch face. Constantly, but worse when I’m tired, which is all the time. It has led to some awkward social situations– which honestly, all social situations are awkward for me.

When I say I don’t like people, I should clarify. I like persons and individuals just fine, but people as a whole aren’t my thing. I am more than willing and eager to make individual friends, but in order to do that, you have to deal with people, and my RBF makes me not approachable. Also, my social awkwardness doesn’t help. I think I’ve missed out on friendships because of it, but I’m not sure how to approach the problem. I don’t do bubbly and I’m generally serious. Half the time, I’m more than thrilled to just play Dr. Mario by myself rather than go to a Girls Night Out, but I wonder if maybe that’s not healthy.

So what do I do?

RBF

Dear RBF,

Let’s put one thing to rest right now: it is PERFECTLY healthy to prefer staying home and playing Dr. Mario by yourself rather than go to a Girls Night Out. Anyone who says otherwise is an Extrovert Propogandist who thinks extroversion = healthy and introversion = unhealthy, and that person is WRONG. Also an oblivious asshole, but that might be for another column.

The only way I see this as a problem is that while it’s perfectly healthy to stay home and game, it’s probably not the best way to make friends (unless it’s a multiplayer game. People who game together online can be friends.Meatspace is not the only friendspace.) So let’s address that.

First, I want to debunk some other assumptions you’re making here that I think are incorrect, as well, such as the idea that in order to make individual friendships you need to deal with ‘people,’ as you define them: people in groups.

I myself have many friends. Many good, close friends. I do not think I have ever in my entire life been on something called a ‘Girls Night Out.’ Honestly the idea of it makes me very very very nervous. So, number one: you can make friends without ever going to a Girl’s Night Out! I promise.

I want to address something else you said: that you are always tired. Why are you always tired? This is a serious question and it affects friendships. If a person is feeling overwhelmed by her life, or sleep deprived, or just exhausted (especially if groups of people exhaust you and you’re forcing yourself to go out into them?), it’s very hard to start and maintain friendships. I know it’s easy for me to say ‘take care of yourself before you assist others’ and whenever someone blithely suggests that this overworked insomniac ‘get more sleep,’ I want to punch them. But I think you should maybe spend some time thinking about what it is that makes you tired all the time and address it — not necessarily for the RBF, but for the ‘being in a good place to start friendships’ area. One quick fix: if you are under the impression that being out with ‘People’ with a capital P is something you should force yourself to do because it’s ‘healthier’ than staying at home, and it exhausts you — stop it. Good lord. Friendships should be sustaining, not draining.

You also gave me some other information that seems to be getting in the way of you seeing yourself as friendship material: that you are not ‘totally unfortunate’ looking, that you don’t do bubbly and you’re usually serious; that you’re socially awkward.

You do not have to be socially adept, gorgeous, and bubbly to make friends. If this were a requirement, most of us would not have friends. (Plus I’d want no friends because bubbly sets my teeth on edge, and serious makes me lean in.) Because while it’s not entirely true that there is someone for everyone, many many people value seriousness, introversion, and thoughtfulness in their friends.

So. I hope I have convinced you that you are perfectly healthy for being a serious introvert (even a socially awkward one; some of us find that very charming), and that you are good friend material.

Now I’m going to say something that you don’t want to hear: if you don’t like being in groups of people, if you look somewhat formidable (isn’t that better than RBF? “Somewhat Formidable?” I like that better), and you are socially awkward, you are going to have to make the first move.

I know this idea can be somewhat terrifying for socially awkward people, but hear me out: people you meet in your everyday life that seem interesting? If you find walking up to them and saying hi excruciating, especially in a group situation, you can contact them electronically and ask them if they’d like to get a drink/have lunch/come over and play Dr. Mario. That takes a lot of pressure off of both of you.

I have made several really great friendships with quiet, shy people this way: they approached me on FB or in an email after having met me somewhere (other parents of kids my age, writing retreats, we’re both members of the same online community) and asked me if I wanted to grab lunch. And we did, and we’re still friends years later.

Many, many people prefer one-on-one time with friends rather than large groups getting together. Giving someone one-on-one time is a wonderful gift. Although I like groups just fine, even this raving extrovert prefers one-on-one time with a dear friend.

Is there someone you know through your faith community you’ve always thought sounded interesting? A parent group? A hobby group? Work? (It’s okay to be friends with coworkers! It is!) A neighbor? Drop them an email or FB message. Do it! You can start some wonderful friendships that way.

You can also have good, sustaining friendships online. I have several friends whom I would consider my nearest and dearest whom I see maybe once a year. Some of them, I have never actually met IRL, or haven’t seen in decades. That does not make them any less dear to me. And, if the idea of gaming did not make me want to go join a hippy commune that has no electricity or running water, I’d be able to game while texting or emailing them, from my own home, in bliss.

There are all kinds of ways to make and sustain friendships. Don’t buy whatever narrative someone fed you about bubbly groups of women out on the town. Make your friendships and your friendship style fit your life, your hobbies, and your joy.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on February 4, 2016.

How Might Disability Affect My Job Search?

I’m hoping to be making a major career change within the next thee months. In addition to all the usual terror and uncertainty that entails, I’ve never had to navigate disability in a formal workplace, and could really use some wisdom. I have chronic pain and noticeable gait changes caused by some sort of vaguely diagnosed autoimmune arthritis.

I’m youngish, reasonably fit, and look “healthy.” I don’t yet use any mobility devices beyond my trusty bicycle. My guess is that I get read as “injured” at least as often as “crippled.” This ability to pass is both good and bad, and I wish it wasn’t an asset in a job search, but it probably is.

In terms of accommodations, I imagine needing pretty basic things, such as a comfortable workstation and the ability to take frequent breaks to move around if I have a desk job. In a more active job, I would need occasional sit-down breaks. I would benefit from reduced hours or the flexibility to work from home during a few bad weeks a year. (In an ideal world, I would work four-day weeks, but wouldn’t we all?)

I’m looking for any tips on how to handle this in interviews and how to proceed once I (hopefully!) have a job offer in hand. Are there questions I can ask about workplace culture that would give me a little insight into if a company is going to be a decent place for me to work without crossing over the “don’t-say-you-are-disabled-because-discrimination!” boundary? Do I need legal disability status in order to ask for accommodations? Any resources you can recommend so that I will be well-versed in my rights if (when?) I encounter difficulties?

But really, Dear Butch, I could also use a pep talk from someone who has been there. I’m feeling a bit defeated before I even start and I know my lack of confidence in myself is going to derail everything about this process if I let it.

Pounding the Pavement with a Limp

Dear Pounding the Pavement with a Limp,

First things first: the pep talk!

I know it can be very discouraging to hear the statistics about disability and employment. And I’m not going to pretend that you won’t encounter disablism when looking for employment.

I was utterly terrified to hit the job market years ago when I was laid off from a large firm and had to face a job search with a visible impairment. I’d heard stories. I had my own fears about accommodations I might need and my own anxieties that these were ‘special rights’ instead of just accommodations I needed to do the great job I always do.

But you know what? The job search, and subsequent job searches, went just fine. I made a few decisions that I’ll explain further down, but I’m going to go ahead and say that, at least in my area, walking with a visible limp and using a cane or crutch to move did not seem to hurt my chances at all. As a matter of fact, every interview I had in that state resulted in a call back or a job offer.

Disablism is REAL, you guys. But it, much like disability itself, is on a spectrum and, as you say, the unfortunate result of disablism is that a person with a limp or a cane is less worrying to a potential employer than someone who uses a wraparound wheelchair and communication device.

In the world of disabled people, you and I are the privileged ones. For real.

Gosh that was a weird pep talk.

TL;DR: You are going to do great! You will not face nearly as much discrimination as you fear!

Which leaves the rest of your questions.

Yes, you need to meet the federal guidelines for what a disabled person is, which you do. From the U.S. Department of Justice’s ADA Guide: “An individual with a disability is defined by the ADA as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Look it up if you want more details, but ‘walking’ is considered a major life activity, and being in constant pain substantially limits this ability.

The accommodations you describe actually just sound like good ergonomic practices to me, regardless of impairments. Everyone should be able to get up and move from their desks regularly, or sit down and take a break from physical labor, regularly. This is often written into contracts when a union is involved, and smart companies know they save on Worker’s Comp claims when they follow these guidelines.

A reduced work week is something that is often advertised from the get-go, and these jobs are sometimes hard to fill. Many companies that have 30 or 32-hours-a- week jobs struggle to fill them because people are looking for full-time work.  That said, a 40-hour work week can be possible with breaks and working from home, but only for some jobs.

If you apply for a job that requires you to be on-site such as a hostess/greeter, asking for work from home would not fit under ‘reasonable’ in ‘reasonable accommodations’ per the law. If you have a desk job that involves answering phones, ditto. But if you have a desk job involving writing reports, inputting data, or the vast majority of other office jobs that I know of, email and LAN and all sorts of other commonly-used technology can make working from home a few weeks a year barely register as a blip on a company’s radar.

That is, a reasonable company.

Sometimes I feel like my disability is a superpower: companies that want someone to keep a chair warm and Always Be Available Just In Case and pressure people not to take vacations are terrible places to work, and I can easily rule myself out from the get-go.

As for how to ascertain a company’s culture: there are a few ways to do that.

What I always do: is bring at least one crutch to an interview. Both, if possible. I look visibly disabled, and I move through the hallways and watch reactions. Does anyone stare? Do people look away fixedly? Does the interviewer’s face fall when she comes to meet you?

These are all important data points.

If you’d rather not boldly announce your disability like this (and many, many people don’t; a friend of mine who works in a very different part of the country and in a very different industry, who uses a wheelchair nearly full-time, always manages with a cane for her interviews and just shows up in a chair the first day of work and that’s a perfectly legitimate choice, as well), the key way to discover how a company deals with disability is to use this phrase: work-life balance. How do they offer it?

Seriously.

Do they hesitate when they answer? Do they claim that giving you 10 sick days constitutes good work/life balance? Or do they describe their sabbatical program, how they worked with one woman to take time off for the trip of a lifetime, how the company all pooled their sick days together to help a dad of triplets to take more time off after their birth? Do they have formal job-sharing or reduced or adjusted workweeks?

These sorts of policies that acknowledge employees as full, rounded people who matter are the policies and practices that tell you the place will be a good place for a disabled person to work. They will be more likely to see you AND your disability, instead of just your disability. They will already have the systems in place for working from home when needed, and for cutting back on hours or moving them around. They will be able to see your skills and your personality as an asset to them, whether you need accommodations or not.

Good luck. I know this is all very nerve-wracking — searching for work as a member of any minority group that deals with discrimination is. But it is possible, and I think you are probably in a very good position to do it. I hope you can take your time and find the place that is right for you — and more importantly — that you see yourself as the asset you are. No one is doing you a favor by hiring you. They are getting themselves a great, talented employee. Don’t ever forget that.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on January 28, 2016.