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 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: I don’t know if you know that sort of feeling you get on these days when the sky’s a light blue, with cotton-wool clouds, and there’s a bit of a breeze blowing from the west? Kind of uplifted feeling, waiting for some charming girl to buzz up and ask me to save her from assassins or something. In the spirit of Bertie Wooster, and such a Tuesday, let’s chat.
Q. Dating rules for my bisexual teen: My 15-year-old daughter recently came out to me as bisexual, leaning toward liking girls more. I’m fine with it and hope my husband will be too when she feels comfortable talking to him about it. The extended family on both sides will be a mixed bag of reactions and I’m more than willing to be Protective Mom as necessary, but that will come in its own time. My question is: What are the dating rules for her and her girlfriend? She’s very close with her friends who are girls and often has sleepovers at our house and theirs. Her older sister had a boyfriend at the same age and while he spent time at our house, it was only for dinner and TV, not overnight. I think group sleepovers including her girlfriend are OK, but not if she’s the only guest at our house or vice versa. Is this a reasonable limit? I also don’t know what to tell her dad about this rule until she’s ready to talk to him. This is not the dating talk I expected to have so I could use some help.
A: Congratulations on being a supportive and loving parent! You’re already doing great, and I think your proposed rule is a perfectly sound one. Having separate overnight policies for friends versus romantic partners is enormously reasonable, and would hold true regardless of the gender of the person your daughter is dating. Let your daughter know she has your support whenever she feels ready to come out to her father, and in the meantime, as long as she’s willing to abide by the sleepover rule, you don’t have to explain its details to your husband.
Q. Move your laundry!: Need an official Prudie ruling. When in an apartment building with limited laundry facilities, how long must you wait before moving someone’s finished clothes out of the way so you can use the machine?
A: Everywhere I’ve ever lived with shared (and more than a little insufficient) laundry facilities always had some sort of notification system. If you threw a load of clothes in the wash and then wandered away, you’d write your apartment number on a whiteboard so whoever needed the machine next could come check on you and remind you that England expects every man to do his duty. If you weren’t around, they’d fling your clothes in the dryer and write a note under your name letting you know which dryer was ready to be turned on. If you failed to show up after that, you might wander down to the laundry room to find your wet clothes turned out on the folding table, and no one but yourself to blame. Consider asking your landlord to post a sign in the laundry room if they haven’t already, so that everyone’s clear on the building’s policy.
The length of a wash cycle is not a mystery. The machine helpfully flashes 34 MINUTES (or thereabouts) at you upon starting up; it’s incumbent upon the washer to keep track of how long they’re tying up a machine. My official ruling is this: if someone’s clothes are finished and they’re not there to retrieve them, go ahead and pull their clothes out (into a free dryer if they’re clean but not dry, onto a clean surface in the laundry room if they’re finished) with a clear conscience, regardless of whether it’s been 30 seconds or 30 minutes. Leave a note, if possible, and don’t just throw clean clothes all over the floor in a fit of pique, but if the machine has finished its cycle, it’s fair game. (Just make sure you get back to collect your clothes once the buzzer goes off.)
Q. Stepfather: I am a stepfather. I am extremely involved and at the same time supportive of my stepdaughter’s father. He does not want her attending any sleepovers. She is 13 and my wife and I feel it is important for her development to have this experience. How do we work this out with her father, who has expressed that she shouldn’t be allowed any sleepovers for the remainder of her childhood?
A: If your wife and her ex have joint custody, he is welcome to institute a no-sleepovers policy in his own home, but has no legal standing to prevent you from allowing your stepdaughter to attend sleepovers while she’s with you. It’s not a reasonable request; even if it were, your wife’s ex does not have the right to dictate her house rules. He can only set his own. The next time your stepdaughter gets invited to a sleepover while she’s staying with the two of you, feel free to grant her permission.
Q. Roommate having unbelievably loud sex: My boyfriend and I have a temporary roommate (we’re halfway through her six-month lease) and I am wondering if it’s OK to ask her to at least play music or turn the tv on when she and her boyfriend have sex. Our bedroom is several rooms away from hers, and it sounds like she is right next to us. This isn’t to mention how awkward it is when we’re sitting in the living room with guests (like, our parents for example!) which is next to her bedroom and they are seriously going at it. I know “you can be as loud as you want when you’re making love” but this feels really excessive, and it makes me feel gross to know so much about her sex life.
A: Sure, you can ask her to keep it down; you’re her roommate, not her neighbor. You can’t, you know, knock on the door every time you hear her having sex, but you can certainly mention once that the walls are fairly thin and you’d appreciate the courtesy of a fan, or some music, or at least some half-hearted muffling next time, especially if you’ve got guests over. If it doesn’t get better after that, at least you’ve only got three months left to go before she moves out.
Q. Former boss, current plus one?: A woman I worked with a few years ago recently invited me to her wedding. We were office friends while we worked together, but we didn’t really keep in touch after we both moved on to new jobs. Recently, I started dating my old boss, who was also this woman’s boss. My invitation to her wedding gives me a “plus one,” and I’d like to take my former boss/current partner. Do I need to ask if she minds me bringing her old boss as my date to the wedding? I don’t remember them having any problems with each other and my partner was generally well-liked as a boss. But I’ve definitely had employers who I got along with but wouldn’t necessarily want at my wedding. So would it be polite to ask my old co-worker about it ahead of time, or is that awkward?
A: You certainly can ask, but you’re under no obligation to. Neither of you work for your former boss anymore, and she’s clearly comfortable inviting old colleagues she doesn’t see much anymore to her wedding. If you want to feel her out, feel free to drop the fact that you’re dating your old boss in (non-wedding-related) conversation, but you don’t have to clear your plus-one with her, especially since you have no reason to think there’s any animosity between the two of them.
Q. Inappropriate co-worker?: I have a older (foreign-born) co-worker who is physically affectionate toward me in ways that make me uncomfortable. He began with “side-hugs” and then kisses on my forehead, and at first I thought I was respecting his culture by not objecting, but it has been more frequent and his kisses leave wetness behind. He regularly whispers that he “loves” me. I turn away, pull back, and have mentioned he is “hurting me” (loudly) when he has hugged me, thinking someone would overhear and step in. We were friends when this began, so I hate to cause him to lose his job, but both of us are married, and it creeps me out. I asked a co-worker/close friend who had been reprimanded for similar behavior speak with him, and he became angry with me for telling the man. I told him he was not listening when I asked him to stop, and I felt I had no choice. He said he understood, but a few weeks later, he was back at it. If I make an official report, he will be disciplined, shamed (his culture), and angry with me, possibly turning others against me as well.
A: This man ought to be disciplined, because he’s violating the rules of your workplace despite being told repeatedly to stop. If he is shamed, it will be because of his own behavior, and if he gets angry over being reported, he will have to find an appropriate way to deal with his anger that does not involve you. You are not being culturally insensitive by asking him not to kiss you and say “I love you” at work, and he has left you with no choice but to escalate the issue to your boss and HR since he has refused to stop after multiple requests. You’ve given him more than one opportunity to stop, and he’s chosen not to. Moreover, he is clearly aware that this is not appropriate workplace behavior, regardless of cultural background, because he’s not doing this to his boss or anyone who could potentially discipline or fire him. He’s only doing it to you, even though he knows you don’t like it. If you’re afraid he will try to retaliate or make work more difficult for you, please share that information with your boss as well and ask for additional support. No reasonable colleagues would turn on you for refusing to submit to unwanted hugging and kissing at work.
Q. Fly in my soup: My parents want to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant in town for my dad’s birthday, which I’d usually be delighted about. It’s a relatively small establishment, and the owner (who is also the head chef) usually has a pretty good idea of who the guests are each night. Why do I know this? I have a history with him. We were only seeing each other for a few weeks, but things didn’t end well. What makes it even more awkward is that when we were still together, we were making big plans to dine there with my parents, but broke up before it became a reality. Should I message him to let him know my parents and I will be there, or just make the reservation and show up? Or can you think of a third option that’d feel less silly? My parents both laughed off my concerns, which is probably the reaction I deserved, but doesn’t make it any less awkward!
A: If you really don’t feel comfortable going, then don’t go, even if your parents think your reluctance is silly. If you think you’d still like to go even if it means making uncomfortable eye contact with an ex, remember that you won’t have to spend much time face-to-face with the head chef. Presumably even if he knows you’re on the guest list for a particular night, he’s not obligated to come out for a prolonged chat, given that he’ll be fairly busy in the kitchen. There’s nothing weird about not wanting to run into an ex you had an unpleasant breakup with. If you think the prospect of seeing him would ruin the dinner, then either make alternate reservations, or make plans to meet up with your parents somewhere else for drinks and dessert afterwards.
Q. Re: Stepfather: You aren’t a legal expert, and you don’t know the terms of their custody agreement, so you really shouldn’t weigh in on that aspect. But, more importantly, the stepfather didn’t seem to be asking what his rights were, he was asking how to navigate a thorny issue. You didn’t give him any advice to help on that front.
A: It’s true I’m not a legal expert, although it would be quite uncommon for any custody agreement to allow one parent to ban the other from letting their child have sleepovers with friends. That said, it’s not a subject they need to debate with him, and if his position is that his daughter should not be able to attend sleepovers until she’s an adult, it’s not a reasonable one. They simply don’t need his permission, and should make it clear that while he can make the rules in his own home, he can’t dictate any of theirs, as long as they don’t compromise their daughter’s health or safety—which sleepovers don’t.
Q. Pandora’s Box: My parents are in their late 80s. When I say they are wonderful people, I mean that sincerely. They have been fair, generous, and loving to me and my siblings and their grandchildren. They are both in declining health—my father probably only has months left to live. I have taken over more of their personal accounts and business—no problem, until I opened my mother’s email account for the first time recently to find a receipt. I decided to clean out her inbox and then check other folders for other things that might need attention. Oh I wish I hadn’t done that! It appears that my mom and dad have been having threesomes and god knows what else for a long long time. To say this discovery was a shock is an understatement. I feel I can’t tell a soul about this, even my husband. I feel like I can’t say a word to either of my parents—what good would it do? My mom has dementia, and my dad doesn’t need this in the last months of his life. My main emotion toward them now is anger. I’m mad at them for being so indiscreet, I’m mad at them for putting me in this position. I’m mad that they were so careless as to use email addresses that identified them so easily. Most of all, I’m mad that I have to fight through feelings of being creeped out while I’m taking care of them in the last months or years of their lives. I’m no prude and am just fine with most things between consenting adults, but my parents?? I realize I sound like an adolescent but really! Ugh! I know I can work through this, but I’m pleading with your readers—if you’re leading an alternative lifestyle that might shock your relatives, please don’t leave a trail of incriminating emails for cryin’ out loud!
A: It is a great idea to cultivate a sense of privacy and plausible deniability, but I hope you will not be too hard on your dying father and your mother, who is struggling with dementia, for not setting their emails to auto-delete. They’ve made it to their 80s without your learning anything about the state of their marriage, which means they can’t have been that indiscreet, and your shock and anger, while definitely understandable when dealing with one’s elderly parents, carries with it more than a note of unnecessary moral panic. They did not intend to put you in any sort of position; they are dying and they are losing their mental faculties, and not everyone can anticipate the exact moment they will fall into decline. Find a counselor you can trust as you work through this, so that you are not dealing with these feelings alone as you struggle to care for your parents in their final months, and grant them a little grace for not knowing they were dying sooner.