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’sSlate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the 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.
Mallory Ortberg: Here we are, together again at last. Let’s chat.
Q. I lost weight but my life didn’t change: I’ve been overweight most of my life. During my childhood and teen years I was always just 20 to 30 pounds overweight but when I got into college my weight spiraled out of control. I graduated from college morbidly obese, weighing over 300 pounds. I continued to gain and, at my heaviest, was 420 pounds. I finally hit rock bottom when I realized I had nothing in my life but food. I started to eat right and exercise. I got results and was encouraged by family and friends to get bariatric surgery. The surgery was a tremendous help and I now weigh well within normal limits. My problem is that all my life I have told myself that once I lost weight things would get better for me. Not just better, but amazing. I’d meet a great guy, I’d get a great job, I’d go on amazing adventures instead of sitting around the house. None of that happened. Not even close. I still have nobody special in my life. I have the same dead-end job I did when I was heavy. I don’t go skydiving or surfing or all the great things I thought I’d do once I wasn’t heavy any more. I’m kind of waiting around for my new life to begin and can’t figure out how to jump start my dreams into reality. Can you help?
A: Kate Harding wrote once about what you’re experiencing:
The Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person—one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.” See also: When I’m thin, I’ll have no trouble finding a partner/reinvigorating my marriage. When I’m thin, I’ll have the job I’ve always wanted. … You can be anything or anyone you want to be, in theory. The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely—and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t feel happy about your weight loss, or your new relationship to food and exercise, merely that your size is not a guaranteed road to personal satisfaction. What Harding described, and what you’re coming to realize, is that your weight is not necessarily the cause of, nor the solution to, problems related to your job, your love life, or the number of adventures you undertake. People of all sizes have great jobs; people of all sizes have miserable jobs; people of all sizes are in happy, healthy relationships; people of all sizes are single; people of all sizes are in unsatisfying, unfulfilling relationships—you get the picture. Perhaps you neither surf nor skydive because you’re afraid to, or because they simply don’t interest you. I can’t answer that question for you; it’s up to you to figure out what it is that you really want and how to get it. That may involve journaling, therapy, career counseling, talking with friends, all or none of the above. The real loss, I think, is that you spent so much of your life thinking you did not deserve a great job, or to pursue your interests, or to invest in your own happiness because of your size. There is no “new life”—there’s only your life, and it’s just as much yours, and it’s just as important, at a size 6 as at a size 16, or 26, or any other.
Q. Are we the smelly family?: My son has a buddy who lives across the street. My neighbors’ house has a distinctive, clean laundry smell about it. The interior of their house smells like it, as do all of the human people in their family! After my son spends some time there, he also comes home smelling like their home and family. Which is fine! It’s not a bad smell! But it’s got me wondering what OUR home smells like and what THEIR children go home smelling like after hanging out at our house. I’m sure it’s dog. Wet dog, stinky dog, hairy dog, all dog. But I don’t know. Am I panicking for no reason? I just don’t understand how their house smells so good. They have a dog too! Is there some grown-up, good-smelling house secret I don’t have? I’m a terrible adult.
A: My official ruling is this: If you are sufficiently panicked about what your home smells like that you write to an advice columnist, you (this “you” extends to the other members of your family as well) should clean your house. Give your dog the occasional bath if it smells; dry your dog off with a towel if it’s wet. The secret to a good-smelling house is to clean it semi-regularly; there are no special house-smelling secrets that the rest of the world is keeping from you.
Q. How to rekindle a friendship?: A decade ago I had a best friend. Maybe the closest friend I’ve ever had; maybe we were a little in love but not self-aware enough to know we were queer. We spoke on the phone an hour every night, saw each other almost every day. My husband was emotionally abusive and controlling, and when the abuse turned physical I fled the state to live with family. I think she was deeply hurt by this; we had strained phone calls in which we tried to pretend everything was the same, but eventually stopped. We’ve almost reconnected a handful of times over the years, shouting into the void at each other on holidays. Now, she’s moving to the town where I live—and I’m so excited. I love her and I want my friend back, and I want us to reconnect. But here’s the thing: All this time, she’s remained friends with my abusive ex, whom she barely tolerated (it seemed) when we were together. The closer it gets to her moving, the more conflict I feel: hurt, resentment, anger. But I still care deeply for her. Part of me wants her back: Part of me wants to let her have it. What’s prudent here?
A: I think a necessary baseline for a friendship is “Would this person continue to spend time socially with someone they know has physically and emotionally abused me?” If the answer is “No,” you may proceed. If the answer is “Yes,” you cannot trust them. This is not a question of not getting caught in the middle of someone else’s argument. Your ex-husband endangered your safety to such an extent that you had to leave town and move in with your family; your former friend knows this, and yet has kept him in her life. Whatever her other wonderful qualities may be, she is not trustworthy. You should work out these conflicted feelings of desire, resentment, and regret in therapy, and keep a polite distance from her, for your own safety.
Q. Anti-vax friends: My friend has not vaccinated her children. This greatly stresses me out as I am going to have a baby in a month. I don’t want the children to be around my newborn or my other two toddlers (who are fully vaccinated to their ages). I have been friends with the mother for over a decade and I love everything else about her. Is it rude of me to request she doesn’t bring her kids around mine?
A: It is not rude. It is a sensible and potentially life-saving strategy.
Q. Family day care woes: I am retired with two grown children, who each have two young children of their own. A few years ago our daughter lost her husband in an accident, and she has struggled financially ever since. I offered to watch her children while she works, because the cost of child care in our area is prohibitive. Her oldest is now in first grade and the youngest will go to preschool next year, so we are almost done with doing daily child care. However, our son has started expressing that he would like me to watch his children as well. He and his wife both work and are financially solid, but he constantly bemoans the cost of day care and that his sister doesn’t have to pay for it, and that our daughter’s kids get the benefit of being cared for by their loving grandma while his kids do not. He’s begun telling my husband that we aren’t treating our grandkids fairly and he doesn’t like that his sister’s kids are prioritized. The complaints have gotten to the point that my husband wants me to stop watching our daughter’s child and secretly pay the cost of sending our grandchild to day care, to shut our son up about how they aren’t being treated equally. I think our son is being callous to suggest his sister somehow cheated the system by being a widow with two small kids, and I want to tell him so! But we don’t want to damage our relationship with either of our children and any of our grandkids. Do we owe our son free child care? How can we end this argument?
A: Your son is being an absolute ass, but I commend your desire to break the news to him gently. No, you do not owe your son free child care. You offered to help your daughter because her husband died unexpectedly young and she could barely make ends meet. Your son isn’t remotely in the same situation, for which he is, presumably, very grateful, and if he isn’t grateful, he ought to be. He doesn’t like the fact that his sister’s children are “prioritized,” but they probably don’t like the fact that their father is dead. It often happens that life is not arranged to our liking. Your husband’s proposed response is both cowardly and duplicitous, and he should be ashamed of himself for suggesting it. You should be ashamed of him too—the men in your family aren’t about to win any awards for self-sufficiency, honesty, or compassion. Here’s hoping this is an extremely out-of-character lapse in judgment for both of them, rather than part of a larger pattern.
In circumstances like yours, I think the truth is enough to condemn your son’s behavior without adding too much in the way of commentary. Tell him, “I’m not going to stop helping your sister just because you think it’s unfair that she was unexpectedly widowed at such a young age. You can afford childcare; she cannot. You have a partner who can help you look after your children; she does not. When you snipe at me because you think your sister has somehow “lucked out” by losing her partner and having to do her best as a single parent, it diminishes my respect and affection for you. If you continue to see her widowhood as some sort of ‘advantage’ she has over you, I’m afraid your misguided self-obsession will prevent us from having the warm, loving relationship I would like to have with you.” Do not give in to your husband’s milquetoast suggestion that you secretly pay for your daughter’s childcare costs, as if you had been doing something shameful. Do not allow your son to convince you that by turning down his request, you are somehow “damaging” your relationship with him—he is the one doing the damage by making incredible demands on your time and energy. He has seized upon the fact that you did a wonderful, kind thing for your bereaved daughter as some sort of justification that you now “have to” do the same thing for him. You do not.
Q. My family abandoned me for undermining their racist plot: My family is racist. You probably get that a lot. When I was 15 I overheard my aunt refer to her neighbors as the “n—ers across the street.” She described how they had asked her to house-sit while they were on vacation, and she was planning on hiding drugs in the house and calling 911 so they would be evicted and she wouldn’t have to see them anymore. I also went to school with their daughters and we spent a lot of time together. For weeks I struggled over what to do, when by chance I ended up getting a ride from the woman across the street—she was worried about my riding my bike in the dark. So I spilled everything. The next day she confronted my aunt and unfortunately for me, used my name. I was kicked out of my home. I have spent every holiday for the past 10 years alone. My entire family dropped me and while they maintain some contact, it’s always been pretty clear I am no longer fully welcome. I am angry at my family for being crappy most of all, and at the mother who could’ve simply found another house-sitter or at least considered what might happen to me when she named me. Therapy has not helped. I often question whether I did the right thing at all. I have no family left and feel very alone. Did I choose wrong? How do I move past this?
A: For what it’s worth, although I do hear from a fair amount of readers who have racist family members, your family is far above the “you probably get this a lot” level. “I’m planning to plant drugs in our neighbor’s home and accusing them of crimes they didn’t commit” is varsity level racism. While your aunt’s elaborate drug-planting fantasy was probably unlikely to succeed, it’s not unheard of, and her actions would have done a great deal more than get her neighbors evicted—it could have resulted in prison sentences. You were given an unbearable secret to carry by an adult who should have known better, and you should not waste time wondering if you should have kept it to yourself. If your family has spent a decade punishing you for failing to keep a racist conspiracy secret, then your family is not worth knowing better. If therapy hasn’t helped, then you need to find a new therapist—if ever a situation called for long-term, intensive therapy, yours does. You have wasted years blaming your neighbor for using your name, when all responsibility lies with your aunt and the family members who enabled her.
I hope you can also extend a little compassion for your former neighbor, who had suddenly discovered that a seemingly-friendly neighbor harbored such racial animus toward herself and her family that she’d been announcing her plans to have them arrested on trumped-up possession charges to everyone within earshot. The reason she didn’t consider what might “happen to you” when she named you is because she was preoccupied with her own safety and the well-being of her children. You were not the most wronged person in this situation. What she learned was shocking and no doubt terrifying; you should let go of your grudge toward her for not being more discreet about using your name when she was worried about being framed and sent to prison.
Q. Abortion secret: My boyfriend and I have been together for a decade, and we have an 8-year-old son together. We are planning to make it official this year but I have a secret weighing on my heart. When my son was 4, my boyfriend and I hit a huge rough patch. I had lost my job and I found out he was cheating on me with a girl from his work. I kicked him out of the apartment and then I found out I was pregnant. I panicked. I barely had enough money saved up to cover next’s month rent, let alone a baby. I had to take out a short term loan to cover cost of the pills. I couldn’t confide in anyone and I had no confidence in my boyfriend. My boyfriend came back to me in the end. He told me he missed me and our son. It took a long while but we were able to get to where we are now. I love him but I never told him about the abortion. Now, we are looking at marriage and buying our first house, he talks about wanting another kid, how neat it would have been for our son to have a brother or sister. Realistically, it is not going to happen because of age and various health issues between us. I feel guilty when he talks about wanting more kids. I don’t feel guilty about the abortion because I did what I thought was best for my son and myself at the time. I didn’t know that he would come through in the end. Should I tell him? I feel it bubbling up when he talks about wanting more kids but I don’t know what will happen if I do.
A: These are two separate conversations, I think. Sharing the story of your abortion and that rocky time in your relationship when you felt like you couldn’t trust your boyfriend is optional. Telling him that you don’t want to have any more children is not. It is possible that your desire to bring up this years-old abortion stems from a discomfort with telling your boyfriend that you think it’s too late for you to have another child now. It would certainly act as a diversionary tactic. I think you two should have a frank conversation now where you are honest about the fact that you don’t think it’s physically possible for you to go through another pregnancy and stay healthy, and deal with the fallout from that reality together. Later, once that issue has been broached, if you decide you want to share this information with him because you feel that you can trust him now, you can have a talk about your abortion, but don’t try to have both conversations at once.