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 email@example.com.)
Q. Christmas Hell: My problem is that the holidays are the only time that everyone gets together. It is crowded, hectic, and fun. Except my sister insists that her autistic son be involved in all activities with his cousins. He is sensitive to noise, flashing lights, and can melt down into tantrums that leave holes in walls. Last year, he threw a lamp into a TV while several of the boys played video games. My sons will do puzzles and spend time with him but have asked me why they are being punished by having to “babysit” him all the time. I keep biting my tongue, but how do I tell her I think she is the problem here?
A: There are, I think, two issues here. One is safety—if your sister’s son is getting violent and throwing things at the holiday gathering, your main concern should be calmly separating the children and making sure that everyone is unharmed. If he threatens himself or other children, it is absolutely appropriate for you to end playtime and for your sister to help calm him down.
The other is whether or not you should accommodate a neuroatypical child’s needs when you see him once a year. I think that is not only reasonable, but a good thing to do! Surely you want your children to be comfortable around, and friendly with, all types of people, regardless of their neurological makeup. Explain to them that being with their cousin while not playing video games for a few hours is not a punishment. Your sister’s not asking you to rearrange your whole world, she’s asking you to include her special-needs son (who it does not sound like is included in many things) once a year. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate empathy and compassion. Don’t miss it.
Q. Undeserving Promotion: I recently received a promotion to team manager at my company. I love this job and this a great career opportunity for me. The problem is that I am the only male in an otherwise female office, and I only received this promotion because upper management is chauvinistic and promoted me over longer-tenured and experienced women on my team. I am good at my job and have worked hard to get this position, but I recognize I would not have beat out my co-workers in a fair competition. Should I have a conversation with my team about the situation? I know there are hurt feelings and anger, but at the same time I want to be successful and declining would only result in my stalling at this company and an outsider being brought in to manage. How can I get this team that I need on my side?
A: Lucky thing! You’re riding the glass escalator, that invisible, soundless mechanism that propels men in “female-dominated professions [who] tend to be promoted at faster rates than women in those professions” straight to the top. You know you’re good at your job, but you also know your gender played an unfair advantage in getting you where you are now. I think you’re right in that declining the new position is not the best way to change the sexist environment management has created, but I’m not sure telling your team members, who now have to report to you, that you think you got the job unfairly is the right choice either. You’re in a position now to start changing that environment, so use this as an opportunity to mentor and promote qualified women. When you get the chance, use your position of responsibility to challenge management to recognize and affirm their female employees. You got help getting where you are, so help others in turn.
Q. Friends or More?: This semester I met a guy in one of my college courses, and we started spending time together. We hang out multiple times a week and talk or text every day. I found myself really liking him (he’s handsome, smart, and funny) and was confused as to whether or not he liked me. Two weekends ago, he took me out to dinner and he paid (something he insists on regularly doing). We ended the night watching movies at his house when he kissed me. We had sex and I stayed the night. Now I’m extremely confused! It’s been two weeks, but we haven’t talked about or even acknowledged what happened; however nothing has changed—he still takes me out, we talk every day, and we cuddle like a couple would. I want to ask him what’s going on, however I don’t want to ruin things. Even if he doesn’t want a relationship, I value his friendship, but if he wanted something more, I’d definitely say yes. What should I do?
A: You will not ruin anything by acknowledging that the two of you had sex and that you are a human being with feelings! Tell him, “I value your friendship, but if you wanted something more, I’d be interested. Is that something you want, too?” If he hedges or says no, you can let yourself be sad and figure out what sort of friendship you want to have with him in the future. If he says “I want something more,” congratulations! You now have a boyfriend.
Q. Re: Christmas Hell: Your advice to the person with the autistic nephew was great, with one caveat—has the sister investigated whether or not spending time with his noisy cousins is actually something that makes the kid happy? As an autistic adult myself, holiday parties are still a sensory nightmare that I get through from a sense of obligation, and as a kid I was usually permitted to retreat to another room and read until dinner if I preferred. If the nephew wants to be included, he absolutely should be so long as it can be done in a safe way, but he also shouldn’t be forced to be if he would prefer the quiet.
A: That’s a great point—it’s so helpful to hear from someone who’s had a similar experience. He shouldn’t be excluded from group activities if he likes being with his cousins, but neither should he be forced into stressful, overstimulating situations if he’d prefer to curl up with a good book. Sometimes the holidays can feel like a relentlessly forced group activity—a little alone time is a good thing for children and adults.
Q. Baby Showers After Stillbirth: About a year ago I gave birth to a stillborn baby just before my due date. The loss was a devastating shock after a healthy pregnancy. My husband and I continue to work through our grief, but my question for you is how I can tactfully excuse myself from baby showers from now on. Close friends and family members are sure to announce pregnancies in the next couple of years, and I know that I never want to attend (let alone host) a pre-birth celebration again. How can I communicate that my lack of attendance does not indicate a lack of excitement and love? I would want the expectant parents to know that they are in my hearts, but I simply don’t have it in me to celebrate a baby before it is born, given what happened to me. I can’t seem to find the right words to express this, without implying anything morbid or calling attention to my loss.
A: I’m so sorry for your loss. It sounds like you think you’ll be able to cope with your friends having children after they are born—you’re not going to avoid the children of loved ones, you just don’t feel up to participating in the pre-birth celebrations. How thoughtful and discerning of you, to be able to feel excitement and joy for your friends who are having children while also acknowledging your own limits. Hopefully the people who are close to you will be tactful and sensitive when it comes to any future baby shower announcements, but if and when you are invited, send a small gift and a kind note along with your regrets that you won’t be able to attend.
Q. Boyfriend’s Disturbing Statement: I’m pro-choice, and my boyfriend is noncommittal either way. I didn’t think that would be a problem, but he just said something alarming. He said that the recent Planned Parenthood shooting was clearly wrong, but that the killing of Dr. George Tiller was not so clearly wrong. That left me speechless. We have not talked about it any more, but I am disturbed that my boyfriend would think that way. Should I just try to forget that he said this?
A: No. Talk about it. No relationship was ever improved by ignoring an obvious point of contention. Say, “I’m disturbed that you would think killing a doctor for performing abortions is justifiable. What makes you think that?” His answer may mean you have to re-evaluate your relationship.
Q. Re: Undeserving Promotion: I really disagree with your response to the man who knows that he was unfairly promoted. If you sincerely disagree with an unjust system, you don’t first make sure it benefits you before you attempt to do anything to change it. Your advice about how to change it sounds rather mild-mannered and possibly unrealistic, since we don’t know if he’ll have the power to promote others in his new position. He should decline the promotion and explain that there are others more qualified, and that he cares too much about the company to open them up to a lawsuit based on gender discrimination. That could affect some real change.
A: One vote for turning down the job in favor of someone more qualified!
Q. Re: Baby Showers: I delivered a stillborn daughter two years ago. Just want to echo Mallory’s advice on this. I have been invited to a shower since, and I did go, but the person was very understanding and said they completely understood if I did not attend. Send a gift and note, and they will understand. I am currently 18 weeks pregnant and not out of the woods, and I have been asked if I would like a shower. I have decided not this time. Let’s have a sprinkle after the baby is hopefully born. Thoughts with you.
A: Thanks so much for sharing this.
Q. I Know It’s Wrong, but …: Things have been a little tough in my marriage for the past few years. We haven’t spent much time together, I get almost no help around the house, and the burden is on me to discipline and get some help out of the kids. I’m tired of doing the work and being the serious parent while he gets to be absent. Nothing ever seems to change despite my efforts to talk about it. While out of town about a year ago, I slept with a man that I had met previously through work. Although I feel extremely guilty, he’s interested in getting together again. He lives in a neighboring state and is married too, and it’s clear that it’s just for fun. The thing is, it WAS fun and really gave me a mental boost when I really needed it. I find myself obsessing about another rendezvous. My husband is a good guy, and I don’t want to end it. I just want some fun for a change and more support. Having someone pay attention to just me for a while felt great. I’ve tried to communicate my needs, but short of revealing this (which I don’t want to do), I can’t figure out how to show my husband how desperate I’ve become. He’s pretty resistant to marriage counseling. Do I just live with things as they are and hope I can cool off until this urge leaves me?
A: Is your husband a good guy? Do you really not want to end your marriage? All I know about him is that he doesn’t help out around the house or with the children, refuses marriage counseling, doesn’t change, and dismisses your attempts to talk about the problems the two of you have. Maybe there are things about your marriage that bring you great satisfaction you simply didn’t have time to mention here, but it doesn’t sound like things are going to improve if you adopt a wait-and-hope strategy. Desperation doesn’t wear off.
I can understand your reluctance to tell your husband you’ve cheated on him, but if you’re interested in staying together, I think you need to let him know you are desperate and considering an affair because you’re so frustrated with the way things are. If he’s still resistant to counseling after that, you’ll have a good sense of how invested in your marriage he is.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Great questions today. I’m out!