Dear Prudence

Backup Mommy

Prudie counsels a woman disowned by a friend for declining to be the emergency guardian of her kids.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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

Q. Lost friends!: My very dear friend and her husband asked me and my husband last month to be the guardians of her three young kids if anything should happen to them. After a lot of thought, we declined. We have four kids of our own and we couldn’t afford to take proper care of her children, though we do love them. Since then, my friend has totally iced me! She literally pretends that I’m not in the room, and she won’t ask me for any favors. My husband learned from her husband that they have no living family anywhere close, and they now believe that we don’t care about them or their kids at all. I’m tempted to just apologize and agree to be the guardian (knowing that it’s very unlikely I’ll ever have to), rather than lose my friend. What should I do?

A: Whatever you do, don’t promise to take on the guardianship of three young children you know you can’t manage just because your friend is being rude about it and you think it’s unlikely she’ll die anytime soon. You can care very much about someone without being capable of becoming their primary caregiver in the event of their parents’ untimely death. You have an excellent reason for not being the best choice for future guardian and your friend should respect that. (You could, I suppose, ask them to care for your children should anything happen to you and see how they like it, but that seems childish. Satisfying, but childish.)

A request is not a real one if it does not come with the possibility of hearing “no.” Your friend may have phrased it in the form of a question, but in fact it was a demand. If she and her husband have no living family “anywhere close,” it stands to reason they have living family elsewhere, which means they have alternate options. You can care about your friend while also being honest about your own financial and physical limitations. You have nothing to apologize for, and your friend is behaving extremely badly.  

Q. Dad’s inappropriate bragging: Before meeting me, my boyfriend Dan slept around. He has always been upfront, and I don’t begrudge him his past. What’s weird is how often his father, Jack, brings up Dan’s flings. I’m guessing he enjoys bragging about Dan’s virility and maybe even gets a kick out of having an audience. I’ve asked Jack to make it stop, but things still slip out. Is this a normal thing for fathers to do? Jack also opines about the sexiness of Dan’s ex-girlfriends. I don’t know what to make of that either.

A: It is not normal. Many fathers go their entire lives without announcing how sexy their son’s old girlfriends are. He’s either a garden-variety creep or specifically interested in making you feeling insecure about your relationship (which is also creepy, just beyond the level of gardens). I’m tempted to encourage you to call his bluff and ask him loudly, “Just how sexy were they, Jack?,” but emotional brinkmanship usually doesn’t end very well. A direct approach, rather than a salt-the-earth policy, is probably best. Since you’ve already asked your boyfriend to intervene and nothing has changed, you’re going to have to get a little more direct. When he does it again, let him know that it makes you feel uncomfortable. If he continues, ask him: “Why is it so important to you to remind me of how much sex your son has had with other people? What are you getting out of this?” If he’s really shameless and doesn’t so much as blush, you might want to re-evaluate how much time you spend with him.

Q. Confused (now primary) partner: I’ve been in a super emotionally intense and sexually satisfying open relationship for over a year with a married man whose wife knew about and was OK with our relationship. A few months back, it became clear that their relationship was rocky and, after a month or so of therapy, he decided to call it quits. He took time to move out of their shared studio apartment and he moved in with me before I went on a long trip. Their lease is not up for a few months, but he is now seriously considering moving back in with her until he can find a place of his own. The idea of him going back there makes me furious but it is apparently all too complicated for me to understand. Do I have any grounds to draw a line or are my feelings irrational?

A: I want to give you some good news: You are allowed to draw lines even if your feelings are irrational. Part of the marvelous business of being an adult human is that you get to set your own boundaries for whatever reasons you like, without appending a sensible rationale to them. I highly doubt your boyfriend’s setup is “too complicated” for you to understand. You seem perfectly capable of understanding it. I think he benefits immensely from playing the two of you against one another and discouraging both you and his wife from asking too many questions by suggesting his complex, tortured desires are “too complicated” for either of you to understand. Either way he’s got a free place to stay. You’d like him to end his marriage cleanly and move on, but it sounds like he’s at least partly interested in trying to make it work (or at least work enough for him to have a place to stay long-term). The two of you may be at odds, and those odds may be insurmountable.

You say you’re his “now-primary” partner—is that because the two of you had an honest conversation about your commitment to one another? Or is it because he moved in after things fell apart with his wife? Go ahead and draw a line. My guess is he’ll cross it before you have a chance to finish setting it. My further guess is that he is the kind of person who enjoys pretending open relationships are too “complicated” for him to be direct and honest about what he wants and what he’s capable of giving. They’re not.

Q. No laughing matter: I’ve known Bobby since we were kids, and since we’re the only two people from our small town at our college, we hang out a lot. Bobby has a major crush on my roommate. She wants nothing to do with him. Last week while I was out of our room Bobby exposed his penis to her. He claims it was a prank, and to be fair, he’s been doing this for most of our lives. Our friends and I think it’s hilarious, but she’s pissed. She’s making a fuss with our resident adviser, and I think she wants Bobby to get in serious trouble. If she keeps pushing, Bobby could lose his scholarship and be forced to leave college. I sympathize with her situation but worry the punishment will outweigh the crime. What should I do when I speak to university officials?

A: It’s fine that you think it was funny, but because Bobby didn’t show his dick to you, your sense of humor or how long you’ve known him should have no weight on the outcome. “I’ve known Bobby a long time” is not an answer to “should Bobby get in trouble for exposing himself to women?” 

Q. Re: Flip-flop/confused partner: Wait … in your “Confused Partner” answer you claim that “you are allowed to draw lines even if your feelings are irrational. Part of the marvelous business of being an adult human is that you get to set your own boundaries for whatever reasons you like.”

But for “Lost Friends,” you excoriate the friend who has decided to cut a “very dear” friend out of her life, because in the event of a life-altering traumatic situation, she’d sit by and let the children be shipped away from their familiar home, school and friends to distant relatives. Why can’t she draw that boundary? C’mon, Mallory. Double standard, goose/gander, etc.

A: Oh, bosh. Surely you understand that every situation is not a cut-and-paste one. Slavishly applying one-size-fits all advice to every individual would be a terrible way to give advice. The LW is not suggesting she would “sit by” in the event of a family tragedy, she’s acknowledging the fact that she is neither financially nor physically capable of raising seven children—hardly an irrational position. In the unlikely event of a family tragedy, of course it would be additionally painful to have to move, but they would not be separated, nor homeless, nor put into the foster care system—they would be well taken care of. She’s establishing a perfectly rational boundary, and throwing a temper tantrum over it is no way to respond.

Q. Wedding task woes: When my fiancé and I got engaged, it became apparent that he wanted a large wedding with all his friends and family, and I wanted to elope. I agreed to have the large wedding because it was so important to him (the words “devastating my family” were used quite a bit) on the condition that he would handle at least 90 percent of the tasks involved. I have a very demanding job working 60-hour weeks, and I just don’t have the time. It’s now three months to the wedding, and he has barely done anything. The invites are supposed to go out in a less than a week (it’s a destination wedding) and he hasn’t even started stuffing or addressing the envelopes, despite the fact that I’ve reminded him several times. Now I’m feeling resentful and stressed, because it looks like in the end I’m going to have to do everything. And before you say “TALK TO HIM”—I have, several times. This results in his Googling wedding bands for 10 minutes, and nothing more. What should I do now? I feel like issuing an awful ultimatum: “Finish the invites by the deadline given, or eloping is the only option.” But then what does it say about our relationship that he’s pushed me to that point?

A: In order: That ultimatum doesn’t seem awful to me at all, and it doesn’t say anything great. This is an interesting experiment—or at least it would be interesting if you weren’t running it on your own relationship. I don’t know if he’s just the type who procrastinates, if he’s a habitual over-promiser and under-deliverer, or if he’s testing to see if he can get you to do his work for him by creating a last-minute sense of chaos. Don’t let him create a sense of panic in you that causes you to clean up his mess. I like your ultimatum just fine. I hope he rises to the occasion. If he doesn’t, I wish you the best of luck figuring out whether you have the same expectations of who does what work in a relationship.

Q. Dating a “still in the closet” guy: I’ve been seeing a guy I like for about a month. I knew he was in the closet when we started dating (we’re both in our 30s). Last week we were at a hockey game together and ran into two of his co-workers. I let him decide how to react and he chose not to introduce them to me. I thought I would be able to be more understanding of this if it happened, but it really bothered me that he was embarrassed to be seen with me. I told him how I felt. He isn’t ready to come out and I certainly don’t want to force him. I don’t exactly meet a lot of dateable guys—am I wrong to feel like we’re not compatible at this point in our lives?

A: I can understand not wanting to introduce you as his boyfriend after only a month of dating, but not introducing you at all? I predict a lot of hiding behind doors and ducking out of back entrances if you keep seeing him. It’s one thing to be closeted, it’s another to pretend someone you’re seeing doesn’t exist. If you don’t mind dating someone in the closet (for how long? Forever?), I don’t think you need to dump him immediately, but you should at the very least insist he introduce you by your name when and if you run into people he knows. If nothing else, it’s smarter closeting strategy—people are going to get a lot more suspicious if every time they see him with you, he starts stammering and shoving you out of view.

Q. Re: Wedding task woes: Hasn’t Carolyn Hax already given you an answer? Maybe you need to spend some time on the wedding and stop submitting questions to online chats.

A: Oh my gosh, I’m weirdly devastated by this? “I thought I was the only advice columnist you turned to in times of need.” But of course sometimes you want to hedge your bets to make sure someone gets to your question first. What did Carolyn say? Did she tell them to elope?

Q. Online chatting: I met this girl through Tinder (don’t judge) and we seemed to connect really well. We both had the same interests and had great in-depth conversations about relevant topics. I got her number and we were talking for a couple weeks. I enjoyed the friendship. But then one day in the middle of a conversation she just stops texting me. It’s been a week and I haven’t texted her because that will seem desperate, but at the same time I feel like I’m missing out on what could’ve been if I don’t investigate.

A: She stopped texting you because she doesn’t want to talk anymore. It wasn’t an accident. She didn’t lose your number, or drop her phone in a pool. If you try to investigate, she will give you a series of vague answers—“Now’s a really crazy time, I just started a new job, I’m going through a thing” that don’t make you feel better at all. I understand ghosting can be frustrating, but it’s something you just have to accept, especially if you’ve never actually met this woman in real life. For whatever reason, she doesn’t want to go out with you. You’re not missing out on anything. Feel lousy about it for a few days and then move on.

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone! I don’t know if I’ll ever get over knowing someone has played Carolyn Hax and self against one another. I thought what we had was special. But I’ll endeavor to overcome the pain before next week’s chat. See you then!

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If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.