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.
Q. This time around: When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I was really nervous about the prospect of fatherhood and wasn’t the kindest. After denying the pregnancy was even real, I asked her to abort and said if she didn’t I hoped she miscarried. She had a rough pregnancy health-wise and says she felt very alone. Now, five years later, I love my child dearly and deeply regret my reaction during the first trimester, but my wife will not move past it. She says it deeply hurt her, and she doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to get over it despite my explaining the fear that caused my reaction. I want another child, but she’s afraid of my reacting in the same way. She thinks I am a great father to our existing child. How can I convince her it will be different this time around?
A: It’s good that you now love your child and that you’ve been able to acknowledge, to a certain extent, your past wrongdoing, but you have not correctly identified the scale of your bad behavior. Being “really nervous” and “not the kindest” during a partner’s pregnancy is not the same thing as saying “I hope you have a miscarriage” or denying your partner is pregnant at all. They’re not even in the same ballpark. What you did was abusive, horrifyingly cruel, and wildly beyond the pale of normal behavior. If nothing else, I hope you realize that this was not a standard part of being a nervous first-time parent, and that absolutely nothing could have justified the things you said or did to your wife.
Your goal, at this point, should not be convincing your wife to have another child with you. Your goal should be repairing the enormous damage you caused her, making genuine amends, and becoming a different kind of person with a different relationship to fear and anger. Realize, if nothing else, that the reason your wife does not seem able to “get over it” despite your explaining your behavior was motivated by fear, is that the excuse you are offering is flimsy and pathetic. If all you do is flip from trying to force your wife to have an abortion against her will to trying to force her to have another child against her will, you will merely have shifted your method of abusing her. Listen to your wife when she says she does not want to have another child with you. Listen to her when she tells you how you made her feel during her pregnancy. Do not approach these conversations with an agenda or a list of excuses—simply listen. Seek help from a counselor in dealing with your anger management and abusive behavior. Accept the consequences of your actions, and deal with the fact that you may not get the second child you want because of your past actions. Don’t worry about convincing your wife “it will be different this time around.”
Q. To ask or not to ask: My partner and I have been struggling with infertility, and it may be that we need IVF in order to have a child. IVF is not covered by either my or his health insurance and will be extremely expensive ($10,000 to $18,000). We will be applying for grants, etc., but even the grants will probably not cover all the costs. I know my father would almost certainly help us out if asked. Mom is a different story. My mother and I no longer have a relationship because she tends to insult and belittle me. Lately, she has been telling anyone who will listen that she is retiring soon and won’t be able to take care of us children anymore … even as she and her new husband vacation in Mexico. However, I will probably see her later this month at my younger brother’s graduation. Do you think it would be worth it to ask her if she would help us pay for IVF? I think she might be insulted if we don’t ask, even if/when she rejects us. Also, this would be her first grandchild.
A: I don’t think I can advise you to do anything that might encourage your mother’s sense of entitlement when it comes to insulting and belittling you. In general, if you don’t have a relationship with someone, I don’t think you’re in much of a position to ask for a loan or gift. Morever, if your mother were to give you and your partner the money, it sounds like she would have no qualms about holding the debt over your heads and reminding you at every opportunity how much you owe her. I think you would quickly find the cash wasn’t worth the hassle that came with it.
Q. Office smells: I was hoping you could help settle an office dispute. I work in a small office of about 15 people. Our break room is small, and many of us eat lunch together there. Recently, a co-worker, “Alice,” brought tuna salad for lunch. Another co-worker at the next table, “Sarah,” was very upset that she had done so and proceeded to loudly tell Alice that her food smelled disgusting. She said that she was very offended that Alice had even thought bringing that would be OK, and that everyone who works in a public space should consider those around her. She ended by telling Alice that she should go somewhere else to eat. Alice came right back at her and said that she had a right to eat what she wanted, that Sarah wasn’t allergic to it, and that she could go somewhere else if she didn’t like her meal. Sarah ended up storming out in anger, and they haven’t really spoken since. While most of us have tried not to be drawn into the argument, the office is pretty evenly split about who was right. Personally, I feel that Sarah is overly sensitive about many things and that Alice had the right to eat what she pleases. If someone is allergic to a certain food or has genuine sensitivities to smell (like perfume) that make them ill, I can see being considerate and accommodating. However, Sarah simply didn’t like it and thought that it was rude to bring something with a strong smell to a public place. No one else was bothered by it. Who was right? What is the line between the right to eat what you please and the possibility of offending someone else? Thank you!
A: First the bad news: I will never be able to truly solve this dispute. As long as there are offices and food, there will be Office Food Smell Wars. Both parties will feel that God and Justice and All The Best Smells are on their side, and both parties will put passive-aggressive Post-Its on the communal microwave. The best I can do is try to help this latest salvo, but there is always another battle to be waged.
My ruling in this case is as follows: Tuna is no excuse for rudeness. It might have been fine had Sarah approached Alice calmly and asked her not to bring tuna salad into the office because the smell bothered her; it’s never fine to start a conversation with a co-worker about their lunch with that level of high dudgeon. Sarah might have been right had she been willing to state her request reasonably, but she flung herself off the moral high ground the moment she said, “I’m offended you even thought of eating tuna in public.”
Q. Re: To ask or not to ask?: Last year my husband and I went through IVF. Our fertility specialist actually recommended several places to look for money to pay for it. We ended up getting funded with a loan through Prosperity Bank (an online service where can people ask for or fund loans) for a very good rate.
A: It’s a good idea to explore your other financial options! The bank, at the very least, will not call you names.
Q. Not a playground: My husband and I retired on a wooded land my grandfather owned back in the 1930s. We have a fishing pond, have several animals (goats, ducks, an old pet pony), and an elaborate treehouse my father built for me as a child. The area has been developed with several gated communities springing up among the farms and newcomers who think our property is a park. We have fences and “no trespassing” signs—it does not stop them. I found mothers with their toddlers feeding the ducks on our pond, I caught one opening our gate so her daughter could pet our pony. All of this is within line of sight of our home! The treehouse especially worries us because it is behind our house and out of sight. We have found all kinds of trash and even beer cans in it. We called the sheriff twice to make reports, but these parents don’t care. One threatened to sue us after we found her 10-year-old son exploring our barn and marched him home! My husband has said we have to destroy the treehouse so our insurance doesn’t go through the roof when one of these kids falls and breaks their neck. This breaks my heart. I want to experience the joy of seeing my grandkids in it. My husband is getting geese and trained dogs for us in the future, but is there anything I can say to these people to make them stop?
A: Since so many of your neighbors seem drawn to your property like moths to a flame, I don’t think speaking to them individually is going to be your best strategy; you might consider replacing the fences you have now with something taller and sturdier and generally harder for children to climb over. If any readers have other successful strategies for keeping neighbors off their attractive-nuisance-style properties, please share them!
Q. Single mother: My father passed away more than 10 years ago rather suddenly. My mother dated a man for a while a few years ago, but she left him because his drinking was out of control. Her friends are all couples that have been married nearly 40 years, and she loves them, but she often feels like a third wheel (or fifth or seventh). My mom is awesome—she’s funny and intelligent and beautiful and has lots of friends and hobbies, but I know she’s missing consistent companionship (i.e. a man-friend). I keep steering her toward online dating, but she won’t bite. Aside from going to weird over-60 bars, what can I do to help her? Is it wrong to set up a profile and forward her the responses? More than anyone I know, she deserves to be happy, and I just want her to find someone that shares her interests and treats her well.
A: If your mother won’t bite when it comes to online dating, don’t bite for her. Your anxiety over her loneliness is well-intentioned, but she’s a grown woman who’s already demonstrated an ability to go out on dates when she’s been so moved in the past. It may be that while she experiences pangs of loneliness, especially when she’s out with friends in long-term relationships, she doesn’t consider the headaches of dating to be worth it. It may be that she’s afraid, or a little too comfortable in her daily routine, or any number of other possibilities, but I don’t think any of them can be helped by interference from her adult child. The most you can do is express love and support for her, then let her make her own decisions. She knows online dating is an option, and if she ever wants to try it, the internet will still be there. If she doesn’t want to, I think you should let well enough alone, and talk to her about her friends, or her hobbies, or about something new that’s going on in your life, instead.
Q. Re: Not a playground: I work in insurance, and in addition to taller fences that completely surround the perimeter, they should make sure that all gates are kept locked.
A: This should deter even the most determined of young mothers, who lives only for feeding ducks with her children.
Q. Why be good?: Now that my children are getting older, I’m struggling with how to convince them (and myself) that being a good person is the right thing to do. Being unrelentingly kind and generous and never raising a fuss, like my parents expected me to be, didn’t get me anywhere. Quite the opposite! My behavior made me the target of bullies for 13 years, got me dumped so many times, and got me passed over for raises and promotions, etc. It wasn’t until I stood up for myself in a big way that people started treating me with respect. So the bully? He left me alone when I slammed him into a locker junior year. No amount of ignoring him for 13 years made him stop. The exes? When my husband was on the fence about our future, I told him not to contact me again and that I was moving on. A proposal came the next day. The boss I bent over backward for but was horrible to me? She was begging me to stay the day I found a better job.
Being nice didn’t do anything but make things worse. I think that’s largely because we’re pre-programmed to take and take and take until a dramatic response forces us to back off. These days, I don’t take crap from people, and I establish that early on. The path has been a different kind of difficult, but I don’t get taken advantage of anymore, and I don’t regret it. So what do I tell my kids when these kindness and respect discussions come up? I don’t want them to have the same fate I did, but that goes against conventional wisdom. My husband and I both want our kids to have strong spines and call people out as needed.
A: I have good news for you: None of the behaviors you described above disqualify you from being a good person! It sounds like for many years you believed that “being a good person” and “never advocating for yourself or setting boundaries” were the same thing, and this resulted in a lot of frustration and pain. Telling your boss that you found another job, or letting a partner know that you’re moving on from the relationship because you have different goals—those weren’t rude or selfish things to do. I don’t recommend telling your kids to shove their bullies into lockers as their very first option, but it sounds like your reaction was understandable, given the circumstances. “Being nice” does not mean “never stating your needs or defending yourself.” You can be kind and stand up for yourself, and it sounds like you’ve been able to figure out how to do both as an adult in ways you couldn’t before. Kindness is not the same thing as endlessly absorbing whatever garbage someone else wants to send your way; teach your kids to be as kind to themselves as they are to others.
Q. Can I ask for more compliments?: I am in a wonderful relationship. But my partner doesn’t really communicate how he feels about me very often. I am an extremely verbal person and love telling him all the things I like about him often. My last ex was extremely verbal, but his actions never matched his words. My current partner does all the right things, his actions prove he cares about me and that he’s serious, which I know in many ways is way more important. Is it stupid to tell him I could use more verbal appreciation? I mentioned casually I was throwing a pair of pants away and he was like oh no I love how those look on you—I’ve worn these pants dozens of times in front of him and he’d never commented on them once. I don’t need constant verbal affection or validation but it would be nice to receive a little more frequently. I know different people express themselves differently and I’m trying to be understanding but at times I get frustrated because I feel like I don’t even really know why he’s with me. Is this stupid and should I just let it go or is it worth asking about?
A: It is never stupid to tell your partner about your emotional needs! Tell him how much it meant to you the other day when he told you he liked something you wore, that you love hearing affirming words from him, and you’d like to hear them more often. You’re not demanding anything; you’re letting him know one of the best ways to make you feel loved. You might then ask him if there’s anything in particular that you for him do that makes him feel valued, and thus spread sweetness and light all around.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.