Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! It sounds like roughly 90 percent of you are plagued with gift-giving and -receiving anxiety this week, and I hope all the presents you get this year are returnable and come without painful emotional strings attached.
Q. Distant Daughter: My 18-year-old daughter is in her first year at an Ivy League university (we are paying for it). She only calls when she needs something or wants me to do something for her. I try to text her a few times a week, saying “How’s it going?” or something funny, or send an emoji. I call her about once a week to say hi for five to 10 minutes. She complains to her older sister that I call her “all the time” and I text her “when she’s in class” (I don’t know her schedule, and why is her phone on in class?). I don’t expect replies from her. I’m so hurt by her attitude that I feel like not contacting her at all until we see her at Christmas (last time I saw her was September when I dropped her off) and certainly don’t feel moved to buy her presents. I still have her little sister at home and a busy, full life. I’ve always tried to be a supportive parent, and give my kids what they need, to not use them to get what I need. I have a great relationship with her older sister, and thought I did with her too. I know I shouldn’t “punish” her by giving her the cold shoulder for not wanting to talk to me, but I just don’t know how to handle it and be the parent in this situation. Thanks for your help!
A: The important thing to acknowledge is that you do expect replies from her when you text or call. It’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. You are hurt precisely because she does not reply when you get in touch with her, which is why you’re thinking of not buying her any Christmas presents in order to jolt her into paying attention to you again.
I’m sure that it’s painful to feel like you’re in a one-sided, unrequited love situation with your own child—especially when you’re paying for her education—but it’s also very normal for a first-year college student not to talk to her parents every week. Texting her every other day isn’t working: It’s making her feel pestered and you feel ignored. Quit texting her, and focus on the “busy, full life” you have at home. I think giving her the cold shoulder and/or forgetting to buy her Christmas presents is not only unkind, but unproductive; neither of those things will get you what you want, which should be a long-term, healthy relationship with your daughter. A check-in call once every other week or so sounds more manageable for the two of you right now. Your relationship with her older sister is not an indicator of what your relationship with her should look like. Trust that if you give her space (not begrudgingly but freely), you will be able to build a stronger relationship as she moves into adulthood.
Q. Mom Gives Gifts With Strings Attached: My mother, whom I love dearly, has developed a horrible habit of giving me gifts with strings attached. She will give me something and tell me never to get rid of it because it cost money. Whenever I mention that I am purging or doing spring cleaning, she immediately panics and asks about the stuff she has given me and reminds me never to get rid of anything. Recently, we had a blowup over an old cabinet she gave me before she moved away. It is in my kitchen and is just in the way. It isn’t a functional piece. I mentioned to her that I would like to sell it and use the money for car repairs, but she went ballistic, yelling that it cost her money and that she would prefer I give it back to her. I tried explaining that when she gives something as a gift, it is no longer her property and she doesn’t get to call the shots on what happens to the item, but that just made her angrier. Refusing further gifts seems harsh, but I am at my wits’ end. What should I do?
A: This is a deeply unpleasant ritual. You’re not selling every carefully selected present she buys you for cash; it sounds like she regularly donates old junk from around her house to you, then insists you keep it forever. This wasn’t a family heirloom; she gave you an old cabinet that you don’t use or need. You know that it cost money, which is exactly why you’re planning on selling it for money to fix your car, which is much more important than a piece of furniture. Whether or not you decide to return this particular cabinet, she needs to stop using you as a free storage facility. Absolutely refuse future gifts from her! Refuse them like you are a gift-refusing machine whose only function is to refuse unnecessary, emotionally manipulative gifts.
Q. Girl’s Best Friend: A few years ago I inherited an heirloom from my grandmother, a beautiful diamond ring in a gold setting. I’ve never worn it because it seemed over-the-top or fussy, as I’m young (23) and the diamond itself is quite large. With holiday parties coming up I’m thinking it might be fun to wear the thing, but I don’t want to be embarrassed if everyone I talk to says “Wow, some rock!” or thinks I’ve gotten engaged. I’m curious to know when most women decide to don their fabulous jewels. Seems a shame to let it sit forever, collecting dust.
A: The time to don your fabulous jewels is the minute you receive fabulous jewels, you lucky, lucky creature. Put that over-the-top ring on your exquisite hand (right hand if you don’t want to fend off engagement rumors all night) and practice purring “My dia-monds” in your best Eartha Kitt voice in the mirror before swanning off to whatever holiday party is fortunate enough to have you in it.
Q. Old Friend Is Ill: I recently found out via social media that an old friend of mine is seriously ill. She is older than me and acted as a sort of mother figure when I was attending a conservative church as a teenager. I’ve since moved across the country and come out. I now live with my lovely girlfriend. I was too scared to come out to my friend and face rejection; we subsequently lost touch. We haven’t spoken in years. I know for a fact that she is pretty homophobic and also firmly believes that people shouldn’t live together until they’re married. I was really upset to hear about her illness as I still do care about her, but what on earth can I do? Writing a card or a letter would be nice, but would I have to come out in the letter and explain that I’m living in sin? Or should I just let it go and wish her well from afar? I want to let her know I’m thinking of her, but I also want to protect myself from rejection.
A: I hope very much that your old friend wouldn’t take your good wishes for her health as an invitation to critique your sexual orientation, but I think you’re right to want to protect yourself from that possibility. You’re not looking to re-establish your old closeness or have a conversation about homophobia, but you do want to let her know you’re thinking of her and you’re sorry that she’s ill—I think a letter is a lovely way of getting in touch, and there’s no need for you to come out to someone you don’t intend to see or talk to much in the future. Something short and sincere along the lines of “I’m so sorry to hear about your illness, and I want you to know that you’re in my thoughts” should be appropriate.
Q. Re: Girl’s Best Friend: A girl’s second best friend is an insurance policy that covers the heirloom jewelry.
A: Any excuse to say “I’d like to insure my dia-monds” is a good one.
Q. Friendship Killer: Over the summer I attended a friend’s bridal shower during which I realized I wasn’t particularly close with the bride anymore and barely knew her husband-to-be. After the shower I RSVP’d no to the wedding, and it set off a flurry of texts from her. She was disappointed and asked to hang out with me immediately, after I hadn’t seen her the entire year prior except for her shower, despite my reaching out several times. Ultimately she resigned herself to it when I explained that we just weren’t that close anymore and I had only met her fiancé twice despite their two-year relationship. My question is this: Since our text conversation weeks before her wedding, I have not heard from her at all. I didn’t intend the decline to be a friendship-killer, I simply didn’t feel my attendance was necessary at her very large wedding given that we had drifted apart. Do I need to be the one to reach out again and try to rekindle a friendship? Or do I just resign myself to the fact that we weren’t close prior to the wedding and I almost assuredly gave up the friendship when I did not attend the wedding?
A: You should resign yourself to the fact that you are no longer friends. You were very unkind to her, I’m afraid. It’s certainly possible not to go to someone’s wedding and still maintain a solid friendship with them afterward, but what you did is something else entirely. If you really want to reconnect with a friend, you say, “I feel like we’re drifting apart and I’d like to see you more.” You don’t go to her bridal shower, tell her you’re not coming to her wedding because you don’t see her enough, then turn down her subsequent attempts to see you before the ceremony and ask to get coffee six months later. She made a good-faith effort to spend time with you when you told her you felt like you’d drifted apart, and regardless of whether she’d been flaky or absent the year before, you made the decision not to reconnect. What’s done is done, and you’ll have to live with it.
Q. Bad Mole: I absolutely hate unsolicited advice and almost never give it, but I have a problem with moles. I am extremely fair and have had had multiple minor surgeries to remove precancerous and cancerous moles. As a result, I’ve obviously done a lot of research into skin cancer and good vs. nefarious moles. When, if ever is it OK to tell someone they should visit a doctor? If I see something that looks truly troubling, I always feel like an asshole when I keep my mouth shut. Obviously I would never approach a stranger but what about family members or friends?
A: Good on you for recognizing that telling a stranger “Your mole looks weird” is unlikely to result in hearty thanks and a quick trip to the doctor. If it’s someone you’re close with, a quick “Hey, you may want to get X looked at the next time you have a checkup; I’ve had a similar mole that ended up being precancerous and needed to have it removed” is both reasonably polite and noninvasive. You’re an enthusiastic layperson, not a doctor, so the most you can offer is a recommendation to get it checked out. If they don’t seem receptive, drop the subject.
Q. Re: Old Friend Is Ill: I wouldn’t even bring up your personal life, but if she does, go with it. I have late-stage cancer myself and no longer try to pass judgment of other people’s choices. You’re just an old friend sending along best wishes. You can skirt the issues that don’t apply.
A: Ah, thank you so much for sharing this.
Q. Re: Distant Daughter: YIKES! I’m a very recent empty nester too, and believe me when I tell you she still loves you and needs you. She’s also dealing with freedom for the first time (a big change for her I guess from the wording of your letter) and is working out self-management. Cut her some slack. Think about how often you reached out to your parents when you were a teenager. Probably as little as you needed to. Calm down. Continue to be there for her, but let her figure herself out already!
A: That’s great advice—thanks for sharing!