Dear Prudence

Very Early Retirement

I’m 26 and want to stop working. Can I ask my boyfriend to support me?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a 26-year-old woman living in a quaint tech town. I have been a social worker since graduation, most recently with hospice patients, and the experience made me feel I was headed for a nervous breakdown. I saw terrible things with the families and the job filled me with deep sadness. I’m working on changing careers but struggling to find a field that interests me. I’m happiest in my quiet home, cleaning and making beautiful meals for my partner. I walk my dog, go to the gym, volunteer cleaning up a local forest and do things that promote tranquility. He makes enough at a tech firm to support the both of us, but I am paying my share of bills with my meager savings. We have no children and don’t see any on the horizon. He was supportive of my quitting, assuming I would quickly find another job. But social work now terrifies me, and I don’t know want to do for a career, if anything. Is it wrong to ask my partner to support my quiet at-home life for the sake of my mental health? Am I crazy to drop out of the workforce so early? What do I say to my worried family members when they grill me about my plans for the future?

—Modest Ambitions

Dear Modest,
You thought you wanted to spend your career helping the sickest and most vulnerable. You don’t. There’s no shame in that, and better to find out now than to be a burnt-out and ineffective healer. But unless there are extenuating circumstances, everyone should have the ability to support herself. Even if you end up someday being a stay-at-home mother, at this point in life you need to be building work experience in a field that enriches rather than terrifies you. To begin exploring what field that might be, contact your alma mater. Many colleges offer free career advice to their graduates—you could do it by phone or Skype. If you could use more help, see if your boyfriend will loan you money for career counseling. (Since he’d like you to be gainfully employed, he has an incentive to make it a gift.) Maybe the hospitality industry, or property management, for example, would allow you to use your considerable skills. Meanwhile, there are steps you can take right now. You’ve discovered you love doing things that lots of people hate, so share this love in exchange for cash. In your tech town there are going to be those eager to outsource dog walking, meal preparation, and other domestic tasks. Talk to companies that offer these services to busy tech executives, or start your own one-woman business. Sure, preparing a meal for another family is not the same as noodling around your own kitchen. But you may discover you get satisfaction making life more pleasant for stressed-out thriving people, instead of easing people to their last meal. You made an early career choice that was inimical to your psychological needs. But that should not result in your withdrawing from the workplace. Instead draw on the insights your difficulties gave you, and the satisfaction you are now experiencing, and move toward doing something that will fulfill your psyche and your bank account.


Dear Prudence,
My wife is CEO of a small company and puts in long hours; we’re both textbook workaholics. A few weeks ago, she mentioned that she’d been noticing two small lumps in one of her breasts for a couple of months, but she hadn’t had them examined because she didn’t have time. Since then, I’ve been urging her to make an appointment with a doctor. She always finds an excuse to delay, and as of this morning, she screamed at me to get out of her face, quit nagging her, and not bring up the subject again. What can I do to persuade her to take the lumps seriously and have them examined, when she perceives so many other things as more immediately urgent, and now reacts with intense and almost abusive anger when I try to remind her?


Dear Worried,
Your wife may be screaming at you for bothering her about something that’s none of your business, but it is your business, and no matter how busy she is, this must be attended to. She’s the one who told you about the lumps, so despite how she’s acting now, her worries were big enough she couldn’t keep them a secret. Telling you may have been an (unconscious) ploy on her part. Now that you’ve taken on the burden of being concerned about what those lumps might mean, she’s offloaded her fear onto you, and can bury her denial in work. It’s not working. Yes, she’s behaving terribly, but you have to try to get past this. Pick a moment when things are quiet and calm—maybe when you are on the couch watching TV together. During a commercial put the sound on mute, take her hands, and say you have to talk. Tell her there’s no one more precious to you than her, and you simply can’t ignore an important symptom that requires a trip to the doctor. Say most breast lumps are benign, but when someone finds one (or two) it simply must be checked out. Tell her letting this go is not an option. Say that in the morning she—or you if need be—are going to call her gynecologist to make an appointment, and that you will go there together. If she refuses even this entreaty, then say you are calling her doctor to report that you’re concerned she found two lumps in her breast, and you are hoping the doctor will contact her and insist this has to be looked at.


Dear Prudence,
I have a neurological condition that affects my memory. In most ways, this doesn’t hinder my life too much. I graduated from an Ivy League university, got a master’s degree, and have a career I love. At the same time, the things I forget sometimes terrify me. I worry that friends think I’m uncaring because I never remember what they’re up to from one conversation to the next. I often ask questions which reveal I’ve forgotten some important thing they shared with me the last time we talked. (For example, I might forget that their wife is pregnant or their father is sick.) Often in conversation, a friend will say something like, “Remember when we did X together?” The answer is almost always no. I feel weird and dishonest saying, “Yes, I loved that night!” but I also don’t want to get into a whole medical explanation for why I’ve forgotten a memory they clearly value. Any advice for how to handle these situations? 


Dear Forgetful,
Everyone has had the kind of experiences you describe—from forgetting someone’s important family news, to going blank about that hilarious night at the karaoke bar. But if your memory is truly more faulty than most because of a medical condition, I advise that you be more candid about this, at least with those people you are close enough with to have warm memories worth sharing. I’ve heard from people with medical conditions they don’t want to disclose who say they feel they successfully cover their symptoms. I’m sure many people do. But there are also going to be times when such a condition, let’s say a hearing impairment, can be misinterpreted as rudeness. I’ve advised that it’s better in most cases to be honest. This can be done in a low-key way, and the person doing the revealing can control how much she wants to talk about it. I think it will be a relief for you to be able to tell people, “I’m sorry, of course I knew Cynthia was pregnant—I just had one of those occasional memory lapses I told you about.” Knowing your condition will not change anyone’s understanding of you as a highly functioning, successful individual—it’s more likely to increase their regard about how you’ve dealt with this challenge. But if you absolutely don’t want to do this, then you can just say, “I’m sure you’ve known me long enough to know that a steel-trap memory is not my gift.”


Dear Prudence,
A former co-worker, “Charlotte,” and I had a great working relationship. She left for a new position elsewhere because she began dating the company’s president, my direct supervisor. Our company is very small and she’s been giving the president feedback on different projects. Her help makes me uncomfortable. She isn’t an employee anymore, but the president and vice president take her advice, even if she’s unqualified to give it. She now wants to take me out on “girl dates,” has offered unprompted to teach me to wear makeup, and invited me to go shopping with her. At a group dinner, she told me my boyfriend would do better if he acted “more normal.” I think we are incompatible for friendship. I don’t want to snub her and potentially ruffle the relationship I have with my boss, but I also don’t want to keep dealing with veiled insults. I feel trapped and obligated to spend time with her to keep a job I otherwise love. To make matters worse, she’s started emailing me with assignments to complete! Help!

—Not That Type of Girl

Dear Not,
If the assignment is, “Let’s get those eyebrows waxed,” just ignore it. If the assignment is, “I think you should start a Twitter account for Derrick and post his business insights on it,” that’s something else. If the latter, you must discuss this with your boss. You can say you enjoyed working with Charlotte, but now that she’s no longer with the firm, it’s imperative that you clarify the lines of communication regarding your work. Tell him it makes you uncomfortable to be given tasks from someone outside the company. If your boss wants you to report to his girlfriend, then that should make you think twice about how much you love this job. You may have gotten along with Charlotte when she was a work colleague, but I agree she is an insulting and obnoxious “friend.” You can tell her that you’re so happy for her and your boss that their relationship has blossomed, but you make it a rule to limit the mixing of your own work and social lives.


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