Dear Prudence

True Colors

Should we adopt a nonwhite baby to teach my racist family a lesson?

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are looking into adopting a child. We’ve been discussing some of the details—gender, age, foster care, and race came up during this conversation. I know that the two of us, my parents, and his family would welcome any child with open arms, but over the years I’ve had to correct my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins when they use racist terms or make racist statements. They live close by, and we see them frequently, so they would be involved in our child’s life to some extent. I can see how growing to love a nonwhite child could act as an agent of change for them, but I don’t think that’s a fair situation to knowingly put a child into. My husband thinks we shouldn’t worry about it and assumes they’ll stop the comments if we bring a child over. What do you think?

—Racist Family vs. Transracial Adoption

I think you’re right: Using a child as some sort of carrot to trick your racist relatives into becoming more open-minded is unfair. I’d go a little further and call it abhorrent. I can’t imagine why your husband thinks that your relatives would suddenly abandon their racist comments if you brought a child over to their house; presumably they have seen children of other races before, and it hasn’t stopped them yet. A child is not a bargaining chip or a learning tool. Your focus, if you adopt a child of a different race, should be on nurturing and protecting your child from bigotry, not deploying him or her as an anti-racist Mr. Fix-It. I encourage you to seek out the opinions and experiences of transracial adoptees (rather than other white adoptive parents), and ask yourself honestly whether you’d be capable of respecting and supporting a nonwhite child’s identity before proceeding.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My wife and I have been married almost 40 years. Early on, we adopted a sweet puppy. Two years later, we had our daughter. I thought my wife gave more affection to our dog than our daughter, but did nothing about that. Then my wife brought in another dog. And another. And cats. And birds. Along the way, we had a son. We have never taken a vacation in our married life. My wife’s reasoning was, “Who would take care of the pets?” Our children have children of their own now, but we can’t visit as a couple because, “Who would take care of the pets?”

I’ve always felt well down on the list for my wife’s affections. So have our children. It takes her four hours in the morning just to address feeding and grooming. I feel like I’m coming to an end in our relationship, and when I try to address this, she accuses me of being selfish and dismissing the animals’ needs. I love my wife and don’t really want to divorce, but how do I cope with being odd man out in my marriage even though I have rationalized that nearly the entire span?

—Pet Overload

The answer to your wife’s question, incidentally, is “a pet sitter.” A pet sitter would look after your pets. There are thousands of them. I feel terribly sad for the way you have let your adult life happen to you: You watched your wife neglect your children in favor of an increasingly oversize animal collection and sat idly by for decades. Now you’re on the verge of giving up the prospect of enjoying your retirement years in exactly the same way. For whatever reason, you didn’t successfully advocate for yourself and your children or establish any sort of boundary with your wife. I don’t think she’s likely to change now. If you’re interested in doing anything with your life besides watch her feed the livestock, I think you should move out, file for divorce, and figure out what it is that you want to do. If you’re not willing to take that leap, I don’t see much hope for you or your needs in this relationship.

But whatever you do, visit your grandchildren. Tell your wife that she’s welcome to join you, but you’re going with or without her. Bring presents. Take pictures. Tell them they are the best grandchildren you could have ever hoped for. Just because they’re low down on the list of your wife’s affections doesn’t mean they have to be at the bottom of yours.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
What’s your opinion on discussing your sexual past with a romantic partner? My boyfriend and I have been together for over two years, and we rarely argue because we’re open and honest with one another. We’ve only ever discussed previous partners in vague, general terms because it always seemed unnecessary (and frankly I’d rather not know too much). Recently, I have begun to feel guilty about my sexual history. The year before I started dating my boyfriend, I was going through a difficult time and had sex with more men that I’d care to admit, many times after heavy drinking and sometimes during blackouts. I never saw any of them again and deeply regret that I ever slept with them. I guess with all the honesty in our relationship, I feel I am being dishonest by not telling my boyfriend about this dark part of my sexual past. Does he need to know? Or can I just leave it behind? I don’t want to hurt him or his trust.

—Can’t Forget the Past

Your boyfriend’s trust has nothing to do with this—the fact that you previously had sex with other people, even a lot of other people, doesn’t breach any promise you’ve ever made to him. There are, I think, two issues here: One is whether you are obligated to disclose your sexual history with your boyfriend because you are generally frank with one another. The second is how to handle the fact that you regret a lot of the sex you had during the difficult period in your life just prior to your current happy relationship. To the first, I’d say that you’re under no obligation to disclose anything you’re not comfortable with. You’re not being dishonest just because you haven’t catalogued every one of your sexual partners to him. It also doesn’t sound as though your boyfriend has even asked to be told; I think you’re being harder on yourself than you need to be.

The second issue is a horse of an entirely different color. Discussing this part of your life should not be seen as an admission of wrongdoing. If you want to express your sense of conflict and regret, it doesn’t even have to be to your boyfriend. Confiding in a close friend, or even a therapist, would do a lot of the work. Whether you decide to share some of this information with your boyfriend or not, I urge you to consider that part of your past not as a strike against your character, but as a time when you were doing your best to cope with anguish and despair. You can regret past actions that were in response to your feelings—you don’t have to pretend to love the way that you drank or the men that you slept with—without castigating yourself for having done them. It’s a time that left its mark on you but does not have to redefine your current relationship.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been dating a woman who lives at home with her parents. That alone wouldn’t be a big problem, except that her parents are very religious and often try to control her behavior as a condition of living at home—including forbidding her from having sex. She’s planning to move out eventually, but it’s not clear when. She’s in her late 20s, and I’m in my early 30s. I like this girl, and we connect well, but I bristle at having to deal with someone else’s controlling parents and feel like we’re sneaking around like teenagers. Her willingness to put up with their behavior is kind of a turn-off. But I feel she has so much potential to thrive on her own, and I’d like to help her so if I can. Should I give up on this relationship or hold out hope that she’ll put her parents in their place and get a place of her own?

—Home Not Alone

I’m of the belief that dating “potential” is almost always an exercise in frustration. You hate the dynamic she has with her parents, and, more tellingly, you dislike the way she compromises with them. Her plans to move out are vague and indefinite, and if you continue in a relationship where you’re unhappy with the current state of affairs, but hoping you can help her to change, you’re making a mistake. It’s not at all clear that she wants the same things you do—her idea of independence may be significantly different from yours. If you end things now, you can leave on an amicable note (and perhaps leave the door open for a possible reconnection if and when she eventually gets a place of her own). But if you keep seeing her like this—trying to be both life coach and romantic partner all in one—you’ll likely find yourself resenting both jobs.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I am a lawyer and have a unicorn of a legal job—Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, with a good salary and full benefits. I started out at a big corporate firm where I was overworked and miserable, and thought this opportunity would be the key to happiness. Three years later, I’ve realized the law (primarily the constant conflict and lack of creativity) just isn’t for me. I am considering going back to school for a master’s related to my undergraduate degree, a field in which I think I would be happy and excel.

My hesitations are twofold: First, I’ve already spent seven years in school and amassed massive student loans which I will be repaying until I’m almost 40 (obviously much longer if I go back to school). I’ve already made the wrong major/career choice once, and I’m genuinely worried I’m just thinking about going back to school because that’s where people go when they don’t know what else to do. Second, I’m in my early 30s and planning on having kids in the next few years, right when I would be finishing my program, presumably unemployed and without any kind of maternity leave benefits. I am sometimes tempted to stick it out in this job in order to ensure my kids will not have to struggle the way I am now.

—Job Moans and Student Loans

I think you should follow your dreams very cautiously. I just can’t imagine that adding to your already-massive pile of student debt would in any way improve your future. You don’t say that you loathe your job, merely that the law isn’t what you want to do with the rest of your life, and I think if you find your current position at all bearable, it’s not worth going back to school full-time right now, especially if you plan on having children the moment you go onto the job market.

You have more options, by the way, than just a) sticking it out as an unhappy lawyer indefinitely and b) chucking it all to rack up a few more tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt. Consider looking for a job in a different field that can make use of your law degree (it’s not a stretch to say every kind of business needs a lawyer). If you’re set on leaving law completely, go to class part-time in order to confirm that you actually like the field you’re planning on going back to school for. Schedule an appointment with a career counselor to see if they can offer specific suggestions on how to redirect your career path. I can understand why it’s be tempting to abandon it all for the (comparative) freedom of graduate school, but there’s nothing particularly freeing about debt. Arm yourself with as many options as possible before making your next move.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have a question that I think I know the answer to but will ask anyway. I had a tumultuous relationship with my ex. We moved in together quickly, he moved out eight months later due to something I did, then we spent the next few months figuring out if we wanted to be together at all. We did. I moved back in with him, then three months later, he broke up with me after several “failed attempts” to make it work (his words).

I decided to move back in with my family on the other side of the country. I had everything planned and he recently got in touch with me saying I was the love of his life and he wanted a second chance. He said that he gave me a second chance and it’s not fair that he doesn’t get the same. My instinct tells me to move on and that the relationship is broken to the point of not being able to fix it. But what if I’m the one making the biggest mistake of my life? For the record, my friends warned me that he would do exactly this. And he has a history of being very impulsive.

—Third Time’s the Charm

In order for this to be a mistake, you’d have to face the prospect of losing something you wanted, and I’m not sure this man has what you want. You don’t even offer the usual justifications for an up-and-down relationship (“I know it’s terrible, but the sex is great/I’ve never felt this way with anyone else/he’s so good at Minecraft/etc.”). He says you’re the love of his life (but will happily change tactics to suggest you’re being “unfair,” an argument that puts me in mind of Dennis Duffy claiming that he both loves Liz Lemon and has squatters’ rights), but is he really the love of yours? How many great and enduring romantic partnerships do you know that start with “He moved out twice and ruined my commute”? You’re not obligated to take him back just because he once took you back. What on earth does this man have to offer you that you haven’t seen already? You know what you can expect from him: a lot of back and forths, a lot of impulsive, hurtful choices, a lot of breakups, a lot of tears. Go home, and choose something else instead.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’m a humanities Ph.D. who had to move abroad to find work, and I’m starting another year in a country confronting a complicated, terrorism-related political situation. Increasingly, I’m exploring opportunities in other industries, and I wondered if you had any thoughts about how you know when to give up on a vocation.

—When to Change Careers

This job-related letter has a clearer answer: I think that if you had to leave your home country to find work, are facing the prospect of at least a year working amid turbulent and chaotic political upheaval, and are already looking at other jobs, then it’s time to admit you are already in the process of giving up on your vocation.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been dating my kind, sweet boyfriend for about four years. He treats me well and believes in equality for all humans. He has one frustrating habit that I can’t make peace with, though: He reads a website that I am morally opposed to. It’s a site geared toward young men featuring bro-y, stream-of-consciousness pop culture content with seemingly little editorial review or journalistic integrity. While the news stories are fine, I can’t make peace with some of the other content on the website, like user-submitted photos of bikini-clad college students. And what’s worse are the comments: so derogatory, homophobic, and racist that they make my stomach churn.

He’s only interested in the news stories, but I still don’t like his reading the website because it helps keep them in business and further promotes this type of culture. I also think it looks bad when he shares articles from this site on social media. I imagine some people assume he is one of those horrible commenters. Because we’ve gotten in so many tiffs about the site over the years, tell me: Am I wrong to ask him to stop reading it? He hardly sees my point of view on this, arguing he’s not part of the problem because he doesn’t look at that content. I hate that I think a little bit less of him when he defends the site so vehemently. How can I make him see where I’m coming from? Or is this something I should just try to accept about him?

—Reading Habits

This is something you should have let go of a long time ago, I’m afraid. There are precious few websites (even straightforward news services) that don’t have derogatory, homophobic, racist, stomach-churning comments sections, and you’re simply mistaken if you think friends of your boyfriend will assume he must be one of them simply for sharing the occasional link on Facebook. Most of us, however committed we are to our ideals, will find ourselves every now and again reading an attention-grabbing headline from the Daily Mail or some other lowest-common denominator. That’s not the same thing as frequenting a site like the white supremacist Stormfront. Your boyfriend isn’t reading or sharing any of the content you find objectionable (and the bikini-clad photo galleries sound, at worst, crass, not exploitative or violent), and it’s unreasonably paranoid of you to think that he’s somehow associated with every random who leaves a comment on the site. You’ve argued your case to him extensively, and you haven’t changed his mind. It’s a little troubling that you think, after years of having the same argument, you can somehow wear him down into seeing things the same way you do.

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