Danny M. Lavery, 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 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.
Danny M. Lavery: What a week, friends. Let us soldier through it, and emerge finer and better for it on the other side.
Q. Infertile boyfriend’s sperm sample: My boyfriend, who I love very much, underwent treatment for cancer a few years before I met him (he’s thankfully healthy now). We’ve talked about marriage and children, but we’ve run into a major problem. His treatments left him unable to have kids. He froze a sperm sample before his treatment, but the problem is that the sample is only viable for a few more years. I love this man, and I want to marry him and have kids with him, but this ticking clock means I would have to try to have a kid in the middle of medical school! And there is of course the chance that it may not work. For religious reasons, adoption is not an option, and neither is sperm donation or similar recourse. I never wanted to have kids until after I finished school, and the prospect of this being our only chance is terrifying. But I also have a more selfish desire that’s leaving me feeling so guilty—I always pictured having a larger family, at least three kids, that kind of thing. I know it’s unreasonable to have a set view of what I want my life to look like, but I just know that I want multiple children. And I don’t think I can have that with my boyfriend, and that is deeply saddening. I’ve read many indignant responses to Prudence letters about people who married without agreeing on a major deal-breaker like kids, and I feel horrible for considering this, but do I need to be thinking about ending this relationship? I don’t want to! But I don’t want to wake up one day resenting him because of this. He doesn’t deserve that. I feel so hopelessly stuck, because I want to spend my life with him, and I don’t want to put us both through pain later on. Help!
A: I think that it’s a great idea to have honest conversations about children before getting married. I also think it’s impossible to promise someone, “What I want right now will never change, and as long as I promise you I do (or don’t) want a child (or a specific number of children) before we get married, we will never have to experience fear, anxiety, uncertainty, or the pain of not getting what we want, when we want it.” My inclination is to discourage you from trying to get pregnant now just because you’re afraid of the future—a scarcity mindset is not a welcoming environment for children, and it’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to bringing new life into the world, but that’s not to say that you can’t consider it.
The best thing that you and your boyfriend can do right now is to honestly discuss your options, your hopes, and your fears. Tell him what kind of family you want to have. If you are frustrated that adoption or sperm donation is not an option, say so. If you feel that you could be a good parent at a different time in your life but that you could not be one right now, acknowledge it. Tell him what your worst-case scenario would be. Would it be losing him over this? Would it be having children in a hurry right now because you felt like this was your only chance, then coming to regret it, and resenting your husband for it? What does his worst-case fear look like? Where do you two differ? Where do you two connect? This needs to be the first of many conversations, not the last. It may be that you two simply cannot compromise on this point, and a breakup will be inevitable, but you have a lot of other options to explore before calling it quits. You may find more points of connection than you can see at present.
Q. Family fundraisers: My brother-in-law sends emails which contain content written by one of my nephews. They ask us to send money to their worthy cause—school- and team-related expenses. All grandparents have passed away and, as their aunt, I like to be a considerate, supportive family member. But I’ve come to resent the ask. I’d like a response from the child—a thank you. This is a very busy family with a lot going on. But I they express very little interest in me or my life and seem to expect that I will jump on their requests. And thank it’s OK that I don’t hear any acknowledgment from them; I only hear from them when I receive the next request. So, do I continue to be a supportive relative or do I say something? If I say something, to whom do I say it? How do other people (grandparents?) handle this situation?
A: The usual polite subterfuge, in cases like this, is to innocently ask whether the donation has been received. “I sent Klonathan a check for his school fundraiser last month, but I haven’t heard from him since and I’m starting to worry it got lost in the mail. Has it arrived?” I find this method excessively subtle, however, because there’s every chance your in-laws won’t hear it as a politely disguised request for a thank you, and will instead say something like, “Yes, it did! Here’s our next request, while we’ve got you on the line.” So to the original script I’d add, “I love helping out when I can, but it makes me feel a bit nervous and embarrassed to have to ask whether or not my check has been received. I’d love to hear from you in between fundraising requests, because you’re my family and I care about you. I know you’re busy, and I don’t expect a letter of commendation, but it would mean a lot to me to have my donations acknowledged—I want to feel like I’m a part of your life.”
Q. Unwilling uncle: My partner’s sister has just given birth to a baby boy. I’m not particularly fond of children and my partner, who is currently abroad for her graduate degree, isn’t especially close with her sister. Although our long-distance is working out fine, logically I see my in-laws a lot less (work, distance, etc.). My partner’s sister has written a long letter detailing how she hates it that I can’t be a part of these early formative years and that she will therefore write me handwritten letters, six pages long, with pictures all about the little guy. I sent the first one on to my partner, only to hear that she got one as well. I realize the spirit in which this is done and I know how young parents are. But to be honest, I haven’t opened them since and I really don’t feel the need to do so. Should I gently tell her to only send them to my S.O. and that I will hear everything that way, or should I just discard the letters and play schtum?
A: I don’t think there is a kind way to say to your partner’s sister, “Please don’t send me updates on your newborn.” She’s not asking you to babysit every week or to respond with a six-page letter of your own. Skim them, say something gracious to her (you don’t have to be particularly fond of children in order to rouse yourself to the level of, “She looks so cute! Thank you so much for the pictures”; this is a fairly low-level social task), and then go about the rest of your day.
Q. Cut the cord: I work full time and am trying to piecemeal my way to a degree. I am very financially conscious. I own a car but bike to work, live with various roommates, cut coupons, and try to save as much money as I can. My sister is a single mom who lives with our mother. Both of them work, but they are constantly short every month. Gas, water, or food—I am constantly giving them $20 here and $40 there.
Last month, I sat down with my sister to see if we could set up a budget. We ended up fighting so badly I had to leave the apartment. My sister has been letting her lazy, spineless boyfriend mooch off her. He works part time and doesn’t have a car so my sister has been driving to and from his job over 30 miles away instead of his catching the bus. He doesn’t pay her for gas or the food he eats. Between that and her other wasteful spending habits (going to buy clothes at the mall instead of the thrift store), I blew up. I admit it, but I feel cheated. The money I give them means another meal of ramen for me. My mother just cries and wants us to make up, but I am so frustrated. I don’t want to keep giving them money, but what happens if they get evicted? How do I keep my boundaries without failing my family?
A: I wonder if you could give the money directly to your mother, or if she shares your sister’s worrying spending habits (or would be likely to cave and give it directly to the boyfriend if he asked for it). If that’s not an option, and you aren’t willing to cut them off entirely for fear they might get evicted, you might give them grocery store or gas station cards rather than cash. It’s entirely fair of you to want to limit your giving to covering necessities, but it may be impossible for you to try to convince your sister to dump her boyfriend. This compromise isn’t perfect (so few are), but it might go a long way toward minimizing your sense of frustration, and increasing the utility of your donations.
Q. Re: Infertile boyfriend’s sperm sample: As someone who had to undergo IVF treatment in order to have children I can tell you this—if you are serious about having children with this man, you can create embryos with your eggs and his sperm (you only need one sperm for one egg!—large family plans remain possible!) and freeze those embryos for later use. Frozen embryos are viable for many years and have relatively the same success at producing a live birth as unfrozen embryos. Of course this is assuming that you are all right with undergoing IVF treatment.
A: Thanks for mentioning this option! It’s not cheap or quick, but it’s worth discussing, at the very least.
Q. No one visits: I moved to the coast a few years ago. It’s a small town and about 1½ hours from most my friends. I make a habit of visiting most of them at least once a month. They always say they are going to come visit me but only one friend actually has. I make excuses for most of them because they all have kids, and when I come to town, I can visit multiple people at once—but I do have to plan and go out of my way to see them and we have a good time. Is it too demanding of me to ask them to come to me? I always offer up my spare bedroom. Or are they just not as good of friends as I thought? What can I do to get people to want to visit me?
A: It’s not demanding to ask them to come visit you, but you have to take into account that not everyone can do so, and that you may hear “no” more often than you hear “yes.” The trip to see you is not one that can be made casually, and many people, especially those with young children, are not able to drive up the coast on short notice for a purely social visit. It’s not necessarily a referendum on how much your friends care for you. Extend a more detailed invitation, if you like—tell your friends you miss seeing them, and that you’d love to find a date on the calendar when they could come see you—but don’t assume that if they can’t make the drive up, that it’s because you like them more than they like you. You moved far away, and as a result you see your friends less often; one is a natural consequence of the other. You cannot “get” people to want to visit you. You can only ask, and let them make their own decisions. Consider cultivating friendships with people who live near you as well.
Q. Re: Cut the cord: I think she was asking for permission to say no to the requests. She needs to prioritize her own finances and stop paying for her sister and the boyfriend. It would be frustrating to pay rent for someone who was blowing their money on luxuries that the letter writer personally can’t afford.
A: I hear that! It’s tricky, because I believe she genuinely wants to keep her family in their apartment, and that eviction is a real possibility for them. Her sister’s financial habits are frustrating but not wildly destructive—she’s driving her boyfriend to work and buying clothes at the mall; she doesn’t have a secret yacht habit or routinely buy emeralds on credit. There’s also the difficulty of her mother. It’s one thing to cut off a sibling, it’s another thing entirely to contemplate the possibility of your mother not having a place to live, especially if your relationship with your mother is otherwise good. I don’t want to encourage the letter writer to do anything lightly. I think a compromise is achievable and desirable here, although of course the letter writer is free to decide she’s not able to continue offering her mother and sister financial assistance if she feels like it’s damaging her own future or that her gifts aren’t going to good use.
Q. He “notices” other people: My husband and I (both late 20s) were friends for years before we began dating and eventually married. We tend to communicate very openly, which is a feature of our dynamic that I cherish; however, there’s a problem. It’s super petty, but it needs to change. When we’re out and about, walking or driving, my husband feels no qualms about pointing out other women who look good. It’s nothing overtly sexual or creepy—more like a stream-of-consciousness, “Wow, that woman had the most incredible eyes” or, in midconversation with me, “she is really beautiful.” Shortly after our marriage, he caught himself doing this around me and asked if it bothered me. I said that it didn’t. But Prudie, it DID. It’s not like this is a constant occurrence, but over three years of marriage, it’s happened enough times that I’ve realized I am irrationally, deeply bothered by it.
For all his openness, my husband very seldom makes comment on my physical appearance. When asked, he said that he was afraid of objectifying me or reducing me to my physical qualities. I want to hear that, but our many years in relationship have shown me that he values me for who I am as a person. What I need is validation that he values me as his wife. Hearing that he finds me attractive would go a long way toward that end. It drives me up the wall when he says laudatory things about everyone’s appearance but mine. I get that he’s going to notice other people. He’s married, not blind. But is it fair to ask him not to mention them to me? Is it fair to tell him it’s OK to objectify me, just a little bit?
A: If your partner asks you if something bothers you, and something bothers you, the best thing you can do is say, “Yes, it bothers me.” Otherwise you create a situation where they think everything is fine, continue with the offending behavior, while you build up a secret reservoir of resentment that will eventually come pouring out, to their shock. Tell him what you just told me: “A while ago, you asked me if it bothered me when you compliment other women’s appearances. I said no, because I [didn’t want to seem needy/wasn’t ready to be put on the spot/was embarrassed/fill in your own reason here], but actually, it does hurt my feelings. Not because I want us both to pretend other people aren’t appealing, but because you so rarely compliment my own appearance, and that makes me feel like you don’t find me attractive. It would mean a lot to me if you would tell me when I look nice, and to cut down on your laudatory remarks about the fine eyes of others.”
And hell yes, it’s OK to tell your partner to objectify you. That’s part of the fun of having a partner.