Dear Prudence

Smother Mother

My clingy mom still has me sleep in her bed. (I’m a college senior.)

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I’m a senior at a local university, commuting from home, and my younger sister is leaving soon for a distant school. It’s just me, my sister, and our mother in the house, and I’m worried that I’ll be smothered now that Baby Sis is going away. Mom’s a single parent and does everything she can to keep us close so that she’s not lonely (this includes asking us to sleep in her bed for weeks at a time, and it’s been this way for years). Now that my sister is leaving and it’s just me, I already feel bad about leaving Mom to do homework on campus or stay after class or anything else that keeps me out of the house. At the same time, I don’t want to be stuck at home with Mom for my entire senior year. Is there any middle ground so that I can get out of the house and be a little more independent while making sure Mom’s not too lonely?

—Lonely Mom, Stuck Daughter

I would argue that it is not your job to make sure your mother isn’t lonely. Studying on-campus, going out with friends, and generally being out of the house are entirely normal behaviors for a college senior, and you’re not neglecting your mother or in any way causing her loneliness by trying to build a life of your own. There’s no need for you to look for a middle ground here; your mother has to figure out how to be happy without clinging to her grown children. Children are supposed to leave their parents. Leaving isn’t abandonment, and you should not feel bad for a minute about leaving your mother to lead a normal life. Your mother’s loneliness is way beyond your ability to fix, and she should seek professional help. Even if she refuses, consider seeing a therapist on your own and getting support in building a life that doesn’t involve sleeping in your mother’s bed just because she can’t stand the thought of sleeping alone.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I got married five years ago. I knew I was the rebound relationship, and I knew my husband didn’t love me as much as I loved him. He’s always stayed half in love with the woman before me. She broke their engagement six weeks before their wedding and broke his heart. He married me six months later. Last night I was on the computer, and an email arrived for him. It was from his former fiancée. She apologized to him, said it was the biggest mistake of her life, and asked to meet. I replied saying, “Not interested” and signed my husband’s name. I am overcome with guilt. I have the horrible feeling that if my husband had seen the email he would have left me and gone to her. I don’t know what to do. Should I tell him or hope he never finds out?

—Rebound Life

What an assortment of exciting but ill-advised choices you and your husband have made. Since I can’t go back in time and urge you not to marry someone you knew considered you to be a consolation prize, I’ll stick to the matter at hand: Yes, your husband is probably going to find out. All he has to do is look at the “Sent” folder in his email, and he’ll see a terse rejection he never wrote staring back at him. She could just as easily write him back, apologizing or asking for another chance, and he’d still find out, even if you broke back into his account and scrubbed his Sent folder clean. That outcome would be, let’s say, suboptimal. If you truly believe the only thing keeping your husband in your marriage is ignorance of that email his ex-fiancée sent him, then you must not have a great deal of faith in your relationship. So why not risk it all and tell him what you found and what you’re afraid he’d do if he knew he had a second chance with his ex? Worst-case scenario, he leaves you for her, which you already think he might do. Best-case scenario, you confess you’re afraid he’d always prefer her, and he tells you he’s happier with you, and the two of you feel both better-known and better-loved for having discussed it. Either situation—a clean end to a failed experiment or a more honest future together—would be preferable to what you have now.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I recently lost my brother, who was not the first of my siblings to die. In addition to the appalling way he died, the loss of no longer having him to talk to is so painful. I’ve lost part of my childhood and part of who I am. There is another thing I wasn’t prepared for: I have taken care of my siblings all their lives because of our abusive, violent, mentally ill, drunk parents. Now there is a huge space in my life where that used to be. In an obvious way that’s a good thing to not have to do anymore. But I don’t know what to put in my life in its place. And I feel such guilt for even thinking that, now, I can put my mental energy in a place I’d have liked it to be all these years. How do I finally do what I want with my life, and how do I not feel like I am still abandoning him, which I know logically makes no sense?

—Loss

I’m so sorry for the many losses you’ve experienced over the years. You’re facing the prospect of completely reorienting your life. Your focus for decades has been on nurturing and caring for your siblings under the shadow of abusive parents, and now you’re dealing with the loss of that caretaking role and the death of one or more of your siblings. That’s a massive readjustment, and I think you ought to consider a round of intensive therapy. You’re not just grieving but also dealing with losing a core part of your identity. You have to figure out how to take care of yourself as lovingly and as attentively as you once cared for your younger siblings, and that’s going to require a lot of support. Your attention now should be on your own well-being—not just filling the empty spaces that used to be taken up by your siblings’ needs but on believing yourself to be worthy of the same care, attention, and love you once lavished upon them.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My fiancée is 46, and I am 38, but it seems like he is turning into a cranky old man. When we first started going out a year ago, he was very active, but now I am wondering if it was a show put on for a younger woman. Now I am not sure I should continue the relationship. I am a very active person and have tons of friends, but all he wants to do is lie around in bed. He does not have a lot of friends. I have to drag him out to do anything, and he wants to go to bed early and sleep in late. He is also constantly complaining about physical ailments (his neck, his back, his legs), but when I encourage him to seek medical treatment, he won’t. Honestly, I think he just likes to complain.

He also has become angry and bitter, and it’s bringing me down. I have tried to turn his perspective around, but it never changes. Sex has dwindled to once every two weeks, from every other day (I have a very high sex drive), and he never initiates it. He says I make him happy, but if this is his definition of happy, I don’t know what his definition of unhappy is! Before you say he is depressed, I don’t think that is the case, and even if it was, he would never seek help. He is otherwise kind, loving, and stable, and I am attracted to him. However, this has been getting worse and worse. What do I do?

—How Old Is Too Old?

Please don’t marry this man. Whether he’s depressed or not, you clearly can’t stand him, and the two of you will bring each other nothing but misery. You could barely bring yourself to say a single kind word about the man you’re planning on marrying—“stable” and “kind” don’t do much to counterbalance the part of your letter where you two don’t have the same definition of “happy.” You don’t love him. Give him back his ring, wish him the best, and find someone you like or can at the very least have a conversation with.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
About two years ago, I stopped speaking to my mother after decades of emotional abuse. She is needy, emotionally unstable, mean, and narcissistic; it had gotten to the point where I would have an anxiety attack just from seeing her name pop up on my phone because I knew I was in for an hour of being yelled at. I said that I would be willing to work on a relationship with her if she would agree to get some counseling and to stop sending me abusive voicemails and emails. She never responded but told everyone in her family what a horrible daughter I was.

Since then, I am a much happier person and have realized I don’t miss her at all. The problem is my children: I have two, ages 7 and 9, and because my mother lives halfway across the country, she hasn’t seen them in two years. I set up a separate iPad for them so they could text and call her anytime without me having to be involved, but all she does is send them needy, guilty texts about how she hasn’t seen them in “forever” and how sad she is that they are growing up without her. What do I owe her with regard to her grandchildren? It took years for me to come to terms with how she treated me as a child and as an adult, and I am happier without her in my life. But do I have an obligation to arrange for my kids to visit her or contact her more often?

—Bad Grandma?

You’ve been more than generous in trying to make sure your mother can have a relationship with your children even after deciding you yourself cannot have a relationship with her. How sad that she’s not able to enjoy the time she has with them by getting to know them, but instead tries to guilt and manipulate them into getting you to remove the hard-fought boundaries you’ve set up. You don’t owe your mother regular visits with your children, and they don’t have to respond to her harangues if they don’t want to. Family members aren’t entitled to relationships simply by virtue of blood—they still have to earn them by displaying at least a modicum of love and respect. Ask your children how they feel about talking to Grandma. It may be that they enjoy some of their conversations but don’t know how to respond when she tries to complain about your cruelty. Or it may be that they dread the iPad you set up for them and wish she’d say something nice or nothing at all. If that’s the case, make it clear that they are not obligated to get a weekly guilt trip from Grandma, and find another use for that iPad.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I apparently work for people who have managed to achieve adulthood without picking up on basic cues about when someone is busy and not wanting to be interrupted. Most of the time at work, I am very approachable and collaborative, but sometimes I have a deadline I’m trying to meet. On those days, I close and lock my door, turn my back to the doorway, and focus intently on my work. I’m somewhat introverted, so when I am interrupted, it is very jarring and takes me a while to regain my focus. Some very social people in my office, however, will come to my door and knock persistently. When I turn around, they will say they “just wanted to speak” or are “just saying hi,” or they will start in on some personal matter, completely oblivious to the fact that they just interrupted me.

I have tried putting a “do not disturb” sign on my door, but a handful of people will ignore the sign, or they think it is a great joke to vandalize or steal it. I’ve tried ignoring them when they knock, but this is hard because once they knock or call my name, they’ve already broken my concentration and the damage is done, and my boss will sometimes need me for something, and I have to be responsive to her, so I can’t just refuse to turn around.

I don’t want to hurt the relationships I have with the people I work with or become known as the office bitch. On the other hand, I feel like they are putting me in an untenable position, and I am on the verge of snapping at them when they ignore basic workplace courtesy. Also, I think there may be some unconscious sexism at play, because the people interrupting me are all men, and my director and I are the only female managers in our office. Any advice on how to handle this would be appreciated.

—Leave Me Alone

I ran back to official friend of the column Alison Green, of Ask a Manager, for help on this one, because I don’t generally mind interruptions, but the Midwesterner in me also can’t imagine knocking on someone’s closed, locked door just to “say hi,” so I am currently paralyzed in a ball of social anxiety. Alison writes:

This would drive me crazy. Who knocks on a closed office door just to say hi? I wonder if what’s happening is that other people in her office close their doors more randomly—that it isn’t actually used as her office’s signal for “busy—do not disturb.” In any case, I’d say that her best bet is to address it with people individually as it happens. So if someone knocks and interrupts her, after she sees what they want, she should say, “I’ve got my door closed because I’m on deadline and need to focus. When you see the door is shut, would you mind only knocking if it’s an emergency?” As long as she’s being reasonably warm and accessible at other times, asserting some boundaries when she actually needs them shouldn’t alienate people.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have been seeing my boyfriend for six years and have lived with him for a year (we’re both older, and all our children are grown). He is kind and tries hard to make my life easier. He is something of a difficult person, as am I, and it isn’t always easy for us to resolve problems that inevitably arise. One of his daughters lives far away and visits seldom. She has a 1-year-old whom I have never met. When she visits, she stays with her mother, and I haven’t wanted to visit my boyfriend’s ex-wife. It makes us both uncomfortable.

I have asked if we can meet her elsewhere, but the answer is always no. Last time she said yes and then locked her keys in the car. Now she is staying at a vacation rental near us—and her mom is staying with her, although she has a house nearby. His daughter says there is nothing she can do. She’s asked her father (but not me) to be part of family portraits being taken in a couple of days. I feel hurt that I’m not considered enough of family to be included in these meetings. Am I being unreasonable? Should I expect to spend time with my boyfriend’s ex in order to meet his grandchild? Is his daughter setting a parent trap? So far I have tried to let this go so that he can see his daughter and grandson without any drama from me. But I really am very hurt to be excluded—and I love kids.

—Out of the Picture

You’ve asked several questions, so I’ll try to answer them in order. To begin with, yes, I think it is a bit unreasonable to expect to be invited to join in your boyfriend’s family portraits. Even though you’re a part of his life now, you were not involved in raising his children, don’t know his ex-wife, and have no relationship with his grandchild. You’re not a part of her family, and it would be inappropriate to demand a place in it. You don’t have to suspect your boyfriend’s daughter of trying to reunite her long-estranged parents just because she’s not eager to introduce you to her son.

That said, your desire to get to know your boyfriend’s daughter and grandchild a little better (or at all) is perfectly understandable. Let go of your hurt over being left out of his family photos and ask if you can come by after the portrait session is over to meet the kid and say hello. There’s no reason you and your boyfriend can’t have a cordial, if casual, relationship with his former wife. She’s not just his ex; she’s the mother of his children. You’re not likely to get anywhere with his daughter if you demand a relationship with her that pointedly excludes the possibility of being in the same room with her own mother. Bear in mind, however, that you are not this boy’s grandmother—he already has one—and that no matter how much you “love kids,” if his mother decides she’s not especially interested in having a relationship with you, you’re not entitled to push.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I work at a small department in a university, where my co-workers and I are friendly and share things from our personal lives frequently. After I was promoted and hired by a new manager (still in the same department), I began dating the lovely gentleman, Eric, who used to supervise me. Eric and I still work together, and in many respects, my work has not changed, although my boss has. After a happy year together, with no one in my small department seeming to notice, Eric and I are planning on moving in together. I’ve been looking for positions outside my department, as I recognize a job furthest from my previous boss and current partner is the most professional option, but this transition has taken longer than expected. There is nothing improper about our relationship according to my company, and we have disclosed our relationship to HR, but I haven’t said anything to my co-workers. Should I come forward with this relationship to them? I’m tired of holding our professional yet friendly relationship at arm’s length, as I like my co-workers and am sad to leave out a very important part of my life. But I also don’t want to be the guy who invites the boss as my date to our happy hours, sushi dinners, and hikes. Any advice?

—Workplace Dates

If you’ve already disclosed to HR, and you two have demonstrated that you’re both in this relationship for the long haul and that you’re capable of working together without displaying favoritism or making out in the conference room, you’re ahead of the office-relationship curve. And I hope you are soon able to find a job elsewhere that means you don’t have to tiptoe around your co-workers! But I’m wary of your desire to stop holding your boyfriend “at arm’s length,” because I think “at arm’s length” is a very appropriate place to keep boyfriends in the office. You’re right that bringing Eric along as your boyfriend while he presumably still manages your other co-workers could introduce an uncomfortable element to your out-of-the-office get-togethers, and I think you should stick to the principle of being co-workers at work-related events—which includes socializing with co-workers. That doesn’t mean you have to keep Eric a secret—you are moving in together, after all—but wait until you’re out of the office professionally before you make your introduction as a couple at the next all-hands hiking trip.

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