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.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the new Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. Gay, straight, or indifferent …: Nearly a decade ago, I met my best friend, L. He’s male, I’m female, and we have been the closest of friends ever since, speaking daily, and being involved in each other’s families. At first, we both thought something more might come of this friendship, but instead we remained friends and he came out as gay five years ago. Four years ago, I married a wonderful man with an unfortunate jealous streak who has been wary of L from Day 1 because he knows we flirted with a relationship in the past. L and I have both struggled with mental health issues, but we are both doing well now. We speak very openly about these struggles with one another, which is also something that bothers my husband. (He still sees mental illness as something of a stigma.) Recently L moved across the country and has now asked me to join him. He wants to settle down and have a family and long-term relationship while carrying on an open sexual relationship. L is the man of my dreams, and I already struggle in my marriage in a variety of ways, including with infertility, which L has supported me through all along. The problem is—I’m actually considering it. Help?
A: Oh, dear. I think there are two rather distinct questions here that need to be sorted out. One is whether or not you should leave your husband. The other is, should you leave him, whether or not you should do a full “Madonna in The Next Best Thing” or even “Jennifer Aniston in The Object of My Affection” and move across the country to start a family with your gay best friend. I don’t know if your fertility issues (or any of your other problems) would be magically fixed once you left your husband and tried having a baby with someone else. It sounds a bit like you’ve decided any relationship you have with L would be perfect and free from problems like jealousy and infertility—he’s an escape valve from a marriage you seem only half-heartedly committed to.
If you genuinely believe you and your husband are fundamentally incompatible beyond hope of reconciliation—he’s jealous, you’re unfocused; he believes your mental health issues are shameful and you’re trying to shake the stigma of your diagnosis; you’re considering leaving him and moving across the country to start a family with someone else—by all means, file for divorce, and start considering what accepting L’s offer might look like and what you’d want your life as platonic partners and co-parents to look like. But if you’re just looking to escape the mundane problems of any long-term relationship by fantasizing about running away and having a baby with someone you think will always understand you and never display human flaws, consider staying in your marriage both physically and emotionally. If you’re unhappy with your husband’s jealousy, tell him. If you want to have more honest conversations about mental health, initiate them. If you need to grieve your difficulty conceiving, see a therapist, tell your partner, cry; don’t upend your entire life just to avoid feeling pain.
Q. Should I call CPS?: My neighbors who live down the lane let their kids run wild. I know it is summer, but I have seen them out playing in the nearby woods at 10 p.m. The road that runs by the woods is twisty and not well lit. We had two hit and runs in the last year. These kids have been caught trespassing in other neighbors’ backyards—letting dogs out, swimming, or using trampolines. Apparently their parents don’t care. The only one I ever see around is their bored teenager who sunbathes all the time. I have never spoken to these neighbors, but I am worried. Should I call CPS, or am I overreacting?
A: I’m not quite sure what you would tell CPS—“I’ve heard some kids are using trampolines unsupervised” is hardly an emergency worthy of state intervention. One considers calling Child Protective Services when children are in imminent danger, and what you’ve described here doesn’t qualify by a long shot (kids playing outside in the woods at the height of summer, even at night, is hardly something to worry about). CPS is not a toy, and you shouldn’t give them a call every time you disagree with someone’s parenting techniques. Since these kids aren’t breaking into your yard, let your other neighbors worry about their own properties. If you’re concerned that your neighbors’ kids are playing too near the road, by all means knock on the door, introduce yourself, and offer a kindly warning about last year’s hit and runs—hopefully without implying their kids are playing Russian roulette. The chain of escalation isn’t “Never speak to your neighbors, then immediately call the cops if you hear their kids are swimming in other people’s pools.” Have a friendly conversation with them, and save CPS for cases of mortal danger.
Q. Ex-co-workers blew me off: A couple of years ago, I worked at a very small office with a handful of other women I considered peers and friendly acquaintances. I considered the business owner an actual friend. The business shut down in 2014, everyone found new jobs, and life went on. I didn’t expect we’d keep in close contact, as our schedules varied greatly, though I did meet with the former owner for lunch a few times. My current company is hiring for a role related to our former positions, so I messaged my old co-workers on Facebook to say hi and see if anyone could refer potential candidates. I got zero response. No one even replied with a simple, “Sorry, I don’t know anyone on the job market, bye.” I feel really hurt by this, especially getting ignored by the business owner for the second time in a similar way now. FWIW, they’re all very active on FB, much more so than I am, and I see they’ve been liking, posting, and commenting away (including on each other’s posts) without acknowledging my message. It’s very tempting to send a “Thanks for nothing, you jerks” message, but I also recognize there’s no upside to such a move, and it would probably just open me up to more hurt feelings. So how do I stop feeling so disrespected and sad?
A: You haven’t talked to your former co-workers in months, and you got no response when you asked them for a favor on Facebook. That’s an awfully venial sin, and I think you’ll have to deal with your outsize feelings of grief on your own. Former co-workers often drift apart, and while it would certainly have been polite, even friendly, for yours to reply to your request, they certainly don’t owe you anything. No good can come of nurturing this grievance. I gently encourage you to log off and take a nice long walk rather than Facebook-stalk a group of women you used to work with whose friendships with one another you now resent.
Q. Re: Should I call CPS?: If these children are trespassing—letting out dogs, jumping in your pool, why not call the police?
A: They’re not jumping in the letter writer’s pool, and as best as I can tell, the letter writer has not witnessed any of these shenanigans. The only thing they’ve seen is the children playing in the woods after sunset, which as far as I’m aware, is not a police matter.
Q. Bust neighbors on unschooling?: A pleasant new family moved in next door. The parents clearly love, and take care of, their children. However, the children have never attended school, and they aren’t following any curriculum of any kind at home, either. They are “unschooling,” which is legal in the state where we reside, so long as the kids sit for an annual academic exam (which they have never done). I fear some of this stems from the fact they have daughters; the father has made remarked a few times that he’s glad he doesn’t have boys, because then he’d have to expect so much more from them. The oldest is middle school age, with the younger one elementary age; they can do some basic writing and the older one reads the occasional book. I don’t want to lose friendship with my neighbors, but their off-the-grid system of noneducation for their daughters is horrifying to me (and illegal, as it’s being implemented). Should I just mind my own business?
A: I think you can balance minding your own business with trying to be a resource to the children whenever possible—let them know if they ever want to borrow a book or go to the library, you’d be happy to take them (assuming their parents don’t object). I can’t encourage any sort of external reporting when the children in question seem healthy and well-cared-for, although what these parents are doing sounds like a terrible disservice to their own children. If they’re repeatedly skipping their single state requirement, I imagine they’ll experience a consequence soon enough without your having to report it. In the meantime, you may be able to provide the children an example of what a well-rounded, well-read adult looks like.
Q. Don’t want my dad as counselor!: I recently got engaged to my dream guy, and I’m over the moon with excitement and anticipation about this next stage in life. The problem is my dad. He’s a pastor and for years has talked about performing my wedding, which includes six months of premarital counseling. My fiancé and I both want premarital counseling (for various reasons including sexual assault in my past) but are uncomfortable going into that much detail into our intimate lives with my father. Additionally, since my dad is a pastor by trade and not a professional counselor, I would prefer to go to someone who is licensed in that area. My fiancé supports this, but I have no idea how to talk to my dad about this. My dad is weirdly invested in this, and I don’t want to hurt him (because he will take it personally), but I am sure that I want an actual counselor for this. How do I kindly, but firmly, talk to my dad about this?
A: “Dad, I love you, but you’re my father, not my therapist, and I can’t talk to you about every detail of my life with my partner.” If your father tries to push the issue—and I hope very much that he doesn’t, because it would be beyond weird and intrusive to try to act as a marital counselor to one’s own daughter and future son-in-law—hold absolutely firm. Enlist your fiancé’s moral support if your father pushes back, and remember that you are not responsible for your father’s creepy dreams. What he’s asking for is deeply unusual and not at all healthy—how on earth could your father act as a neutral third party when he’s your father?
The strange upside to this is that the more your father presses, the more evidence you’ll have that he’d make a terrible premarital counselor. Hopefully he’ll learn to let it go, but if he doesn’t, you’ll have to hold your ground all the more firmly. The worst thing you could do is give in and endure six months of an extremely unhealthy dynamic because he won’t stop complaining that you won’t let him be your therapist as well as your parent.
Q. Re: Bust neighbors on unschooling?: I have a pretty serious quibble with your definition of well-cared-for. Yes, they love them, but denying them any real education (it doesn’t even sound like there’s any real home-schooling going on) isn’t exactly taking good care of your children.
A: The letter writer describes the parents as loving and attentive. I agree that their approach to education is lousy, but the children can read and write and are generally safe. That’s not the highest of bars to clear, to be sure, but my concern is that contacting any sort of state authority is using a sledgehammer. I think one needs a very strong reason to directly interfere in how someone else raises their children, and while this situation is troubling, I’m not sure that the children are in the kind of danger that would warrant contacting CPS.
Q. To gift, or not to gift: My husband’s cousin in getting married next month, and we’ve been invited to the backyard wedding/reception via a FB invitation that asked we bring a dish to pass and BYOB. This cousin has been with her fiancé for six-plus years, and she and her fiancé are established in a home with their two children. We would rather make other plans but feel pressured to make an appearance. The problem is that we’ve been asked by several relatives if we want to “go in on a gift” as the bride-to-be has some things she’d like for their home. Seriously?! My husband thinks we should toss $20 in a card and consider that a payment for a “free meal.” I reminded him we have been asked to bring a dish and our own drinks so we are contributing already. If I have to bring food and drinks, I’m inclined to get them a card, no money or gift. I’m already not a fan of the bride-to-be but this whole event feels like a new level in greediness. I don’t like the idea of rewarding bad behavior. Thoughts?
A: Oh my god, please don’t go to this wedding. You dislike the bride, resent being asked to bring a gift, are begrudgingly “making an appearance” like you’re Liz Taylor stopping in on Cannes as a favor to an old, down-on-his-luck friend, and are tallying up every bottle of wine you’re dragging as if you’re the family quartermaster. A few of your relatives have asked if you want to chip in for a group gift; that’s hardly bad behavior on the bride’s part (what, exactly, is her bad behavior? Is it that she’s already been with her partner for six years before getting married?). I think everyone will have a better time, yourself and husband included, if you claim a prior commitment you can’t get out of and stay at home.
Q. Re: Bust neighbors on unschooling?: You certainly could report them to the local school district—which is usually tasked with enforcing school attendance. The school would know what agency should be overseeing their home-schooling exams.
A: That does sound like a good option—it’s not a last resort like calling CPS, but it would hopefully force the parents to meet at least some state standards before their children turn 18 and find themselves on the job market (or trying to navigate higher education) with no sense of preparation and few marketable skills.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.