Dear Prudence

Tale of the Tape

My family wants to screen an old home movie of them being horrible to me at Christmas.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I’m one of four children, and this year for Christmas, I offered to convert an old videotape from 20 years ago. This is the only existing video of the four of us kids, and everyone is excited to see it. Unfortunately, throughout the video, my siblings take turns making fun of my weight, calling me nasty nicknames, and talking about my lack of development (I was 13). My mom also comes by at one point and cackles at the jokes. To make matters worse, though I was 10 pounds overweight at the time, my weight has yo-yoed through the years, and I’m now over 200 pounds. There’s no “ugly duckling turned into a swan” redemption story here. The video validates my own memories of childhood, but it was still painful to see. Somehow it doesn’t feel like much of a Christmas gift to show my siblings (and mom) in full bully mode, but the idea of bleeping the insults out also makes me feel bad (and ruins the video). An added rub is that my older siblings have kids, so my nieces and nephews will see this too. Help?

—Wish I’d Never Looked

Get rid of the video. If they ask, tell them the tape was in worse shape than you realized, and the attempted DVD conversion wrecked it. You’re under no obligation to relive your siblings’ cruel jokes in front of the whole family for Christmas this year (and, surely, every year thereafter).

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My fiancé and I are going to his sister’s for Thanksgiving. I share three cats and a dog with my mom. Without fail, one of them will get sick just before I travel. Last Thanksgiving my mom had to put down our cat while I was away. She was not happy with me, and I felt really bad. Now it’s three days to departure, and the dog is barfing, and the cat is sneezing … I can feel the guilt already, and my mom is already starting to look at me sidelong. I don’t blame her for being resentful at being the de facto pet babysitter, but this is like a macabre joke: I swear, every time I’m gone, something happens with the animals! Any advice?

—Pets in Peril?

I want to give your mother the benefit of the doubt: Surely she is not intentionally hurting any of your animals, and your pets’ conveniently timed illnesses are only a series of improbable coincidences. Find a sitter when you travel, or board your animals at a kennel. Boarding expenses are almost certainly cheaper than veterinary bills. I don’t know if you live with your mother or just share animal custody, but consider taking the pets with you full-time when you and your fiancé get a place together.

Would it be possible for you and your fiancé to invite your mother along (with his sister’s permission, of course), or at least make separate plans to celebrate with her? It’s possible part of the reason she’s unhappy is that she has been invited to babysit four animals by herself for the holiday. 

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My mother has struggled with depression and bipolar disorder all my life. Recently, she stopped taking her medication and then restarted it without any doctor supervision. Today she checked herself into a hospital because she can’t handle it anymore. This is a great decision on her part, and she has a few friends helping her and keeping me updated. My father is also helping her, despite their having separated nearly a decade ago.

My concern is that I haven’t been doing enough to support my mother from afar. I’m an only child and live very far away from her, in an isolated place both difficult and expensive to leave. I’m 26 and am trying to get a career started, and I have little desire to go back to the place where my mother still lives. I knew it was risky (to say the least) to stop and start the kind of medication she’s on without a doctor, but I didn’t push too hard for her to go see one because I want to trust that she knows her needs best. I feel like this is a mistake I keep making over and over again.

—Helpless in the Hinterlands

This wasn’t a mistake you made but a choice your mother made. You’re not responsible for how she handles her depression. It was your mother’s decision to stop her medication without consulting a doctor. It’s not your obligation to put your life on hold to go look after her, especially considering that she’s currently under medical supervision and has the support of nearby friends and family. She’s not your fault, and she’s not your responsibility—she’s your mother. You can support your mother from afar by calling and telling her that you love her and that you’re proud she’s getting the help she needs. Accept that you cannot keep her from potentially dangerous situations, no matter how much you might want to. Work as hard as you can on building your own life.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I am 23, suffering from a degenerative disease, and mother to a toddler. My ex and I were a terrible match, but he adores our daughter, though he doesn’t put a lot of effort into their relationship. He has a solid income but is otherwise incapable of being a functional adult. He doesn’t pay attention to his bills or taxes and doesn’t clean, and he won’t even change the oil in his car until the engine blows (twice!). I have been dating a wonderful man for three years who loves me and my daughter and has asked me to marry him. He is starting a new job that will likely take him across the country, and he wants to be together. Despite his offer to fly her back as much as possible, I still feel guilty at the prospect of separating her and her father. Is it wrong to marry the good guy, who will take care of us, even if it means deeply altering my daughter’s relationship with her dad?

—Rethinking Remarriage

Get married, enjoy your wedding, take care of your health, and make sure that no matter where you end up, your daughter has regular visits scheduled with her dad. It will be hard for her to live far away from her father, but it would be much worse for her if you break up with your caring fiancé out of a twisted sense of guilt.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My girlfriend is the best thing to ever happen to me. Before we met her life was very difficult: She suffered abuse, homelessness, and a terrible marriage. Her chronic health issues went untreated, effectively disabling her. Despite this she is kind, generous, and vibrant. She receives a little bit of Social Security, as well as a decent amount from her ex-husband to care for herself and their daughter. This allows her to live comfortably and stay at home to raise her daughter, to whom she is completely devoted. She pays her bills, keeps some savings for emergencies, gives her daughter the best she can, puts money away for college, and spends the rest enjoying herself: nice clothes and jewelry, expensive meals, travel, etc. She doesn’t brag about it, but she keeps an Instagram where she posts photos of her life, travels, and some of the things she buys. I see nothing wrong with this, and if anyone deserves a comfortable life, it’s her. However, some of my family and friends have taken notice and often question where she gets her money or criticize her spending habits (though they don’t know her history). Should I explain? Tell them to shove off? Ignore it?

It’s not your friends’ money. It’s not even your money. It’s her money, and it’s none of their business. Frankly, even if she were buying skull-shaped islands and having her name terraformed into the landscape, it wouldn’t be any of their business. She’s taking care of her daughter, saving money, and occasionally taking pictures of nice dinners and posting them online. She sounds like a lovely person. You don’t have to share the details of her painful past with them. The next time your friends comment on how they think your girlfriend should be spending her money, tell them that if it’s too painful for them to be reminded that this kind person you love sometimes goes on vacation, there’s always the unfollow button.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Before my boyfriend of three years and I moved in together, I was invited to the wedding of a good friend. The wedding invitation specifically said that since it was an intimate affair (fewer than 50 people), plus-ones could not be included. While I was a little miffed that I couldn’t bring my boyfriend, I let it slide. Now, I’ve just received a save-the-date for another friend’s wedding. I feel that couples should be invited as a unit, especially if they are cohabiting. If the invitation comes, and it does not mention a plus-one, should I make clear why I will not be attending? Or should I ask about bringing a guest?

—Part of a Team

It’s fine to send your regrets if they don’t include your boyfriend or offer you the chance to bring a guest on the invitation, especially if you’re not very close with the couple in question. You’ve been together for years and share a home together—you’re not asking for the chance to bring just anyone; you’re asking to be treated as the committed couple you are. Hopefully this invitation will be addressed to both of you, but if it isn’t, feel free to send them your best wishes, along with your regrets.

Is it wrong to ask if you can bring a guest to a wedding? I’m trying to imagine how that could be considered rude, and I’m coming up with nothing. “Stabitha, I got your invitation and I’m so excited for you. I wanted to check in and make sure that it was all right if I bring Trimothy with me” is a perfectly civil thing to say. There’s nothing controversial about plus-ones or asking to bring a guest, but it sounds like you’re still angry about your boyfriend being left out of previous weddings and are expecting to be slighted again. You’re wasting your time getting anticipatorily miffed.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My wife is about to finish a graduate program. She has a job offer in our current city, but what she considers to be her best offer is across the country. I don’t want to move—I like it here, and our young son is thriving. My wife has switched careers already several times, so I think there is some risk she will soon decide she doesn’t like this one either. I am the primary breadwinner (my wife’s field is one that is poorly remunerated). However, I work remotely, and my wife assumes that there is no reason I can’t continue in a new location. I discussed this with my boss, and he said that if I genuinely thought I’d be unhappy moving, he would withhold permission from the firm for my move. Would it be wrong to take him up on this offer? I feel like it would be easier and kinder than having to tell my wife I don’t think we should move across the country for a dilettante’s low-paid enthusiasm of the moment.

—Happy Where We Are

It would be a mistake to avoid having this discussion. It sounds like a frank talk is long overdue. You’re clearly resentful of her multiple career changes—and may very well have a right to be—but she doesn’t seem aware of your feelings at all and assumes you’d be happy moving across the country with her. Rather than asking your boss to lie for you, tell your wife what you’ve told me: You’re reluctant to uproot your son, you’re happy with the city you’re in, and since she has a local job offer it doesn’t make financial sense to move far away for another one. But try to leave out the word dilettante if you can.

* * *

Hi Prudence,
I have a family member who is one of my best friends. Until recently we’ve both been single; she recently met a man on a dating site and within two weeks started talking about marriage. They have now been together for a month, and he is looking for a house for them to move into, and she is looking at rings. I’m slightly terrified. When I’ve mentioned how quickly this is moving, she just acts as if it’s all a joke, but according to other family members, she is deathly serious about him. The whole family has been champing at the bit for each of us to settle down with a man, any man. I’m trying to look out for her, but I feel like the one voice of sanity in a sea of cheering family members. The man seems very nice, and she hasn’t dated a nice guy ever, but it’s way too soon! How can you convince someone so hellbent on marriage to slow down?

—Putting on the Brakes

At least in a family of wedding-hungry maniacs, she has one relative who’s able to talk sense. But being the only person in her life who’s encouraging her to slow things down and get to know this man is an intimidating role. You don’t want to alienate her so much that she pushes you aside in favor of the wedding-planning committee, but you also don’t want to stifle your concerns for fear of spoiling her fun. At the very least, someone should sit her down and ask her if she’s thinking things through—or, better yet, help her think things through. Set some time aside to have a real conversation with her. Don’t let her put you off by claiming it’s all a joke when it clearly isn’t. Sit her down and have an honest, in-person conversation about your concerns. 

This new boyfriend may merely be impulsive, or he may be controlling and manipulative. As you point out, you just don’t know yet. He’s been around for less time than the Muppets reboot has been on the air. It’s awfully hard to argue with the rush of a first relationship, and if this is the first man who’s ever been nice to her, I can imagine how difficult trying to reason with her might be. Odds are good that you won’t change her mind with one conversation; she may even think that you’re trying to spoil her happiness by attempting to introduce it to reality. But she should know that there’s someone willing to listen if things don’t work out the way she thought they would. It’s possible to both hope things with this new guy work out and also not want to see her rush into anything before she really gets to know him.

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