Dear Prudence

The Gift-Giver Proxy

Prudie advises a letter writer expected to do all the Christmas shopping on her mother’s behalf.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Mom Wants a “Personal Shopper”: Every year as Christmas approaches, my mother asks me to be her “personal shopper.” This means she sends me a check and expects me to use the money to buy gifts for my children, my husband, and me. She claims that she doesn’t want to inflict unwanted gifts on us and that I will know better what everyone wants. But this is just one more thing for me to take care of during the busy holiday season. She’s retired and has plenty of time to shop. Also, part of what’s nice about getting a gift is knowing that the giver went to the trouble of picking out something he or she thought you would like. I’ve tried telling her that we’ll like whatever she picks out and even suggested that if she’s worried about not getting the “right” gift that she just send a fruit basket. But once again this year, I got a check in the mail from her, and I’ll have to do extra shopping for my family. I’m almost at the point where I’m ready to make a charitable contribution for the amount of the check. How should I handle this now, and what can I do to put a stop to it?

A: There are so many people who could lease warehouses to hold the useless, ridiculous, insulting gifts they are given by their loved ones. A big check might be lazy on your mother’s part, but it actually does mean that while you’re out doing the shopping (and you do Christmas shopping, right?) you can get something you know everyone will like and say it’s from Nana. If what you want to do is explain to the kids that with Nana’s generosity, you would like them to help you pick out a charity all of you would enjoy supporting, then that’s a lovely gesture and a good lesson for them. Instead of being mad at your mother, appreciate that her open checkbook will make the new year a little better for others.

Q. Jekyll or Hyde?: I have been dating a wonderful, charming, and intelligent man for the past three years. However, every time we discuss moving forward in our relationship, I’ve noticed that his behavior changes to boorish and inconsiderate. He becomes a little obnoxious, drinks too much, and generally seems to want to show me how awful living with him would be. While I would like to move forward with the kind, sweet person I got to know, this new troubling persona gives me cause for concern. Prudence, how do I know I’m not making a huge mistake by moving in with him?

A: Since I know you’re making a huge mistake, I’m not sure why I should try to convince you otherwise. Your trying to move forward results in his pushing back in a boorish, insulting way. So it doesn’t make sense to be trapped in a house together when you inevitably ask, “Can we talk about the future?” People should not move in together in hopes that their partner will come around on some issue. You both already have to be on the same page of whatever is contentious between you before your put your joint signatures on the rental agreement.

Q. Aquariums and Studio Apartments: My partner is a reefer, a person obsessed/addicted to salt-water aquariums. He has already had two aquariums in the past four years. Each time they ended in tragedy. He is Buddhist and when something dies in the tank he goes through a period of mourning. The worst part is we live in a studio apartment. The equipment used to maintain the aquarium, even a small one, takes up a lot of space and makes noise. I’m not a light sleeper but a pump whirring all night long gets annoying fast. Once he set up a new system and it sounded like a dish washer. I’ve just gotten back into a normal sleeping pattern and now he’s talking about getting another aquarium. I’ve gone so far to say, “If you get another aquarium I’m moving out,” but he is still pressing the issue. I am deeply in love and don’t want to move out but what other options do I have?

A: It’s one thing to have a partner who has a beloved hobby that makes you miserable. It’s another thing to have a partner with a beloved hobby that makes him miserable. Whatever you do, don’t take your guy out to Long John Silver’s for the fried fish platter. You two live in one room, so that means you’re sharing sleeping quarters with the fish, and your partner’s insistence on the burbles and gurgles make you wish your guy was sleeping with the fishes. It’s perfectly reasonable for you to insist that until you can afford a separate room for your piscatorial friends, your apartment has to be mammals only.

Q. Re: Personal shopper: Why not just cash the check and give hubby and kids a card and money from Grandma? Most people—especially kids—like to get money as a gift.

A: And that’s what we call a win/win! Thanks.

Q. Reusing Guest Bed Sheets: Is it OK to reuse bed sheets between guests without washing them? My husband and I recently went to visit a college friend of mine who offered to let us sleep in her home for the night. When the time came to leave the next day I offered to strip the bed for her. She just said to fold up the sheets so she could put them back in the closet as “we were the first ones who used them.” This grossed me out to no end. This was the first and last time I will be staying with her for sure. But I was curious, is this standard practice? I always wash my guest sheets between guests.

A: Yes, one should wash the sheets between guests. But how do you know you’ve never slept on used sheets before? This reminds me of a long-ago Joan Rivers joke about hating to do laundry: “So I told Edgar we had three sets of sheets: white, gray, and black.” If you ever do stay with your friends again, and those white sheets are now black, I can see booking a hotel. Otherwise, if you stay again, just agree with your friend when she says, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

Q. Christmas Presents: My husband and I recently moved states and are now living close to his extended family. As I left my old job and haven’t got a new one yet, money is tight. My family agreed to stop buying presents a few years ago, as we felt it was too difficult on those in the family who are on a tight budget. But we have to buy for everyone in my husband’s family—about 15 people, some of whom I’ve never even met before. He says he can’t opt out without causing a family spat, but the financial stress and resentment makes him hate Christmas. And I resent that we’re spending so much money on his family, and none on mine. How can we resolve this?

A: Here’s another Christmas win/win. If not going broke to buy unnecessary presents for the hoard means you are so unwelcome you can’t join them for Christmas, then don’t buy the presents and have a pleasant day to yourselves. You’ve got time now for your husband to announce to his family that you two sincerely don’t want gifts because unfortunately you can’t exchange them with everyone this year. Then you show up with big smiles. If you’re met with hostility, next year make other plans. I understand families have a psychological hold on people. But your husband is too old for his parents to threaten to ground him. So he needs to stand his ground, and everyone needs to just enjoy your presentless presence.

Q. Posting a Controversial Article on Facebook: There’s this controversial article I just read that I found very enlightening, and I want to post it to my Facebook wall. The problem is that some of my well-meaning friends might take offense at it given its sensitive subject matter. The article in question has to do with the college rape conversation our nation has been having recently, so pretty heavy stuff. I don’t want to alienate any of my friends, but I also think the article is well-argued and that it contains truth which should be widely promulgated. What should I do?

A: You might get some heat. You might be surprised at how much support you get. I am! (This is in reference to my story today on the bad policy that’s being made regarding campus sexual assault.)

Q. Ashamed of a Religious Past: I grew up in an extremely religious household and then went to a Bible college after high school. My intention was to be a pastor. After two years on my own though, and a lot of reading in nonreligious subjects in my spare time, I realized that I didn’t believe anymore. So I left the college, but then realized that few other places than religious colleges would accept my two years of credits. In the end, rather than start over, I went to another religiously affiliated school—and lied on the statement of belief—just to be able to finish in four years. Now, about six years later, I’m still ashamed to answer when people ask where I went to college. I feel like they’ll make assumptions about me that aren’t true. How do I answer their questions without feeling so much embarrassment?

A: You stop feeling embarrassment. Sure, your degree might make people make assumptions, but so what? They’re going to think you are probably religious, if they even give it a thought. Very few people are going to care as much about your college degree as you do. Since you didn’t become a pastor, your religious views are your own business. If people get to know you, they will know you fully, and maybe file away the fact that you don’t seem like the typical [fill in the blank] graduate. More likely, they never think about it at all.

Q. Follow-Up From Fat Shaming Cousin: I wanted to give a follow-up from your advice last week which I appreciated, from you and your kind readers. I did apologize, not a full apology, it was more of: I am sorry I lost my temper and threw things at you, but you were being mean and obnoxious. A lot of readers wondered why the family didn’t step up, most of them just put up with my cousin in stoic silence, since the events we see her at are Thanksgiving, Christmas, weddings, and funerals. So for me to stand up for myself was pretty shocking to them and they had no idea how to react. But, good news, they are all standing behind me and at this point, no one has plans to invite her to anything in the near future. Thank you again!

A: Thank you for letting us know! (Many readers supported your tossing the mashed potatoes at the cousin who called you Shamu.) How nice to know that your family has shaken themselves out of their stupor and have your back. Your formerly fat cousin can now spend the holidays eating nothing in peace.

Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

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