Dear Prudence

Part-Time Mother

Prudie counsels a letter writer wondering whether to give a troubled ex joint custody.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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

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Q. Best for my kid, or me?: For the last three years I’ve had full custody of my (now) 9-year-old daughter. It hasn’t been easy. I was never enthusiastic about having a child and, while I adore her now she’s here, being a parent hasn’t come naturally to me. My ex now wants to resume joint custody and I think that would be for the best. The issue, however, is that I have custody because my ex had a breakdown of sorts. She never intentionally hurt our daughter, she just did things impulsively without considering the consequences (like once leaving her with a neighbor for an hour while my ex went to get some groceries, then not coming back for a week because she went to Vegas on a whim). My mother, my now-partner, and many friends think that I would should fight to deny her custody and limit the time she spends with my daughter. I know my ex loves our daughter and in many ways she’s a better parent than I am. She’s also been to the doctors and gotten her life back together. Yet everyone in my life is telling me to turn this into a fight.

A: Why not work together with your ex and start slow? You don’t have to go from sole custody to shuttling your daughter back and forth every week right away. Since your ex has gotten help for her previously unpredictable behavior (and, crucially, never actively harmed her), it sounds like you have a fairly solid case for gradually re-establishing trust. If you don’t believe your daughter will be endangered by spending more time with your ex, then you should consult your lawyer about updating your custody agreement to allow your ex more supervised visits. If your ex is genuinely remorseful for her past behavior, she’ll likely be eager to prove her newfound reliability. If those go well, you can start scheduling the occasional overnight, periodically checking in with your own daughter and current partner along the way. If you don’t believe your ex to be a threatening or destabilizing presence in your daughter’s life, you are not obligated to become combative just to please your family and friends.

One word of caution: Make sure you are not intentionally overlooking any red flags merely because you’re relieved to have the burden of primary custody lifted. If there’s a part of you that wants your ex to be better than she is just because parenting doesn’t always come naturally to you, strive to correct for that bias, and remain objective about what would be best for your daughter.

Q. Church-going atheist: I was raised Lutheran by my mother (my father is an apathetic atheist and did not object) and attended the same church my entire life. Two years ago, I moved out-of-state and became a C&E (Christmas and Easter) attender. Since then, I’ve had to field questions every time I return to visit about whether I’ve found a new church. Plot twist—I’ve been an atheist for about seven years now. However, part of me still enjoys participating in church activities in the times where I do get to make return visits. At the same time, I feel horribly guilty because I’m essentially living a lie by doing so. How can I properly field these questions without outing myself as an atheist who weirdly still manages to give some priority to attending church, and how can I deal with these feelings of dishonesty?

A: It’s certainly a holdover from a particularly Protestant outlook to be asked, “Have you found a church to attend in your new neighborhood?” but to hear, “What is the inward condition of your soul and its relationship to God?” It is not, I think, fundamentally dishonest to decline to disclose your up-to-the-minute beliefs about the existence or nonexistence of the supernatural. Bear in mind that there are numerous churchgoers who may entertain regular doubts about whether God exists—there are even numerous churchgoers who are ambivalent about God’s existence or are quite certain there is no God, but who still gain something from participation in religious life, or who are open to the possibility of something numinous without feeling prepared to make any specific claims.

If it’s important to you to share that you’re an atheist with the people you’re close to, that’s fantastic, but you are not being inherently duplicitous by periodically enjoying church services. If a family friend or an old acquaintance is making idle conversation and asks where you spend your Sundays, it is not dishonest to say something like, “I don’t attend regularly, but I’ve enjoyed Easter services at St. Gregory the Equivocator.”

Q. I don’t want your knitted goods: I’m a knitter. I’m not the best knitter but I love it. My article of choice is socks. They take me weeks to do because the yarn is so thin, longer now that I have kids, and I give them away as gifts. A friend who has recently started crafting has admired my socks and asked to trade something she is making for a pair. It is not a fair trade as I could make what she is offering in a couple of days, and with colors I prefer, and I don’t really like being commissioned for knitted goods as it turns it from a hobby into work. My gifts are finished when they’re finished and dispensed at random to nearest and dearest. (This is done quietly as I am no Oprah and hardly prolific these days.) This friend is lovely but an outer-circle friend. At the same time, I’m grateful for her compliment. But I don’t want to accept things I don’t need when I’m trying to minimize the stuff I own. That said, if someone gave me a gift of something they had made with their own hands I would be touched. I am confused by my feelings. I don’t want to hurt her feelings by turning her down and coming across like I don’t like what she makes but I don’t want to spend weeks making something where the joy has been taken out of the process for me. How to I decline gracefully with feelings and good will intact?

A: Would you ever consider making this casual acquaintance a pair of socks as one of your periodic gifts? If so, you might decline her request with a counteroffer of your own: “I don’t like knitting exchanges, because it takes all the fun out of making something for me when it feels like a transaction—but I’d be happy to earmark the next pair of socks I knit for you.” If not, just turn her down kindly: “Thanks for offering. I’m touched, and I’m so glad you’re enjoying [sconce-molding/candle-weaving/bracelet engineering], but this is just a hobby for me, and I don’t like setting work schedules or transactions for my crafts.”

Q. Re: Church-going atheist: Lots of atheists attend our church in an out-of-the-way rural county. The church is the focal point of social activity around these parts, and our Good Reverend is well-aware of this. Be true to your own self, and let things fall as they may. Those who judge you harshly are unworthy of friendship, and those who will treat with you as you are, those are the folks worthy of your time.

A: This is a great reminder that the letter writer is far from alone. Not everyone who attends church does it for the same reasons, and there more be more people than you think sharing your pew and your private atheism.

Q. Affair: I got involved with who I thought was a great guy. He lived in a different city but worked often in mine. We had great chemistry, great times together, and I was honestly falling in love with him until I discovered he was a lying, cheating dirtbag. He left his “family” cellphone out to charge. The screen picture was him with his wife and kids. We fought and I kicked him out. I then found out his real name (I knew him by a nickname) and found his wife’s real name and address. Should I tell his wife? I have messages, emails, and his dating profile to prove his lies. I raised by a single mother. Her finding out about my father’s affair gave her enough time to secure marital assets before my dad hide them. Plus the lying POS tried to pressure me into not using condoms several times. I need an outside perspective. If it was me I would want to know, but that is me. What do you say?

A: Someone who’s that bad at covering his tracks (really, he couldn’t even remember to change his screensaver when he was with you?) is probably going to get caught sooner rather than later. That said, if you feel morally obligated to tell his wife, I think you should. Bear in mind all the usual caveats—she may not thank you for it, she may not even believe you, it may result in a painful and drawn-out divorce, and you might feel pain at being a part of that, however indirectly and innocently. But based on the information you have about this guy, it’s likely they are not in an honest open marriage, and it’s possible he’s risking her health if he’s trying to convince other affair partners to have unsafe sex with him. Get in touch with her once, try to give her the necessary information in the least inflammatory way possible, and if she doesn’t respond, back off.

Q. Friend’s child boundaries: I have a very close friend I’ve known for over a decade. I’ve known her son since he was a baby (he’s a preteen now). She’s an amazing friend but really weird in expressing some of her affections. She tends to sexualize everything (she doesn’t have any siblings so I don’t think she gets the platonic aspects of friendships). The issue is that she thinks it’s totally normal and great to sexualize my relationship with her son like telling me that her preteen son thinks I’m “hot.” She expects me to be flattered but I find the way she told me and her expectations disturbing. Even if it’s true, kids are kids and harmless crushes shouldn’t be taken seriously by adults. She didn’t share it as a “isn’t it cute” kind of way but more like telling me another man found me attractive. She’s guided her son’s thinking (of seeing me in this light) from her own comments about my looks and seems proud to share this while I feel really weirded out. I’ve tried to approach my relationship with her son as being an aunt and a loving supportive adult in his life. What’s a good way to deal with this?

A: Clearly and loudly. These are not comments that ought to be deflected delicately or with tact. I’ll take you at your word that your friend just struggles with appropriate boundaries, and not that there’s something else more worrisome going on, but you should nip this in the bud, not least because it’s likely humiliating to your friend’s son. “I’m really uncomfortable that you would say that to me. You’re talking about a child who’s like a nephew to me, and it’s incredibly inappropriate to discuss my looks or a kid’s crush in these sexual, adult terms. You need to stop right now.”

Q. Re: I don’t want your knitted goods: This is an issue near and dear to me. Simply say, “It takes me weeks to make a pair of socks and my enjoyment of it depends on having an open-ended process without an endgame. I would be happy to spend a couple of hours with you to show you how I do it and get you started on your own pair. It’s a long process but you may enjoy it!”

A: That’s nicely put! Although, of course, the LW may not wish to spend a couple of hours teaching the friend in question—but if they do, this would be a tidy little alternative.

Q. Neighbor’s car getting tickets: A new neighbor moved in across the street a few months ago. I haven’t had any contact with him but he looks to be in his early 20s, and his car has out-of-state plates. I live in a city neighborhood with weekly street sweeping, frequent roadwork, and stringent residency requirements, and as a result ticketing is quite common for people who aren’t obeying signs. This new neighbor’s car has received a minimum of two parking tickets per week during the entire duration of his residency. My SO and I have even made a game out of looking to see if he’s received any tickets each day. Half of this problem could be avoided if he just went to the DMV to register his car in-state. I want to leave him a note since he seems young and perhaps doesn’t know how or where to register his car. My husband thinks it’s not my problem and that he needs to figure it out on his own. Would it be reasonable and kind to leave a note for him even though I don’t know him?

A: I think it would be particularly kind! I don’t know if it’s reasonable or not, but I don’t think reasonable is a necessary metric here—it certainly isn’t inappropriate or overbearing. I once had a neighbor who texted me twice a month for three months until I finally memorized our street sweeping days, and it was an act of unnecessary generosity I’ll always be grateful for. Feel free to leave a polite note about how he can easily resolve his problem (you don’t have to sign it or offer your contact information for follow-up questions, just point him in the general direction of the DMV) and pat yourself on the back for being a thoughtful neighbor.

Q. Surrogacy: I am close with a cousin who is suffering through secondary infertility. I do not currently plan to have my own children and I am fairly young and in decent health, but for months I have thought about being a surrogate for her and her husband. I know they have considered other options but the costs of multiple thousands of dollars at one time is too much for them. How do I bring up wanting to help them—or should I, even?

A: I don’t want to presume you haven’t already done some research about exactly what surrogacy entails financially, physically, legally, and relationally, but make sure you spend plenty of time considering all possible outcomes and figuring out your own limits before broaching the subject with your cousin. Consult your own OB/GYN first to find out what you might be able to expect in terms of required medical procedures and injections as well as what risks you may potentially be running. Consider writing down how you would plan to maintain a degree of emotional detachment after giving birth, how you would tell family and friends (and possibly your employer if you took medical leave), hopes and fears and worst-case scenarios, and what degree of input or involvement from your cousin you’d feel comfortable with during a possible pregnancy.

Consult a lawyer too—you’re considering taking on a life-altering medical and financial risk, and while I don’t mean to dissuade you, I think you should learn as much as you can about the legal processes that surrogacy will necessarily entail and make sure you have someone to advise you on issues like compensation for maternity clothes and doctor’s visits and time taken off work, as well as whatever specific terms you and your cousin might want to lay out before coming to an official agreement. Being a surrogate isn’t just an act of generosity for a loved one; it’s also a serious legal and financial relationship. How many impregnation cycles would you be willing to undergo? Would your cousin want to help you choose an obstetrician? Do you and your cousin have similar views on embryonic reduction? Would you be willing to try again after a miscarriage? What if you had repeated miscarriages? Would you feel responsible for your cousin’s happiness (or pain) depending on whether or not you were able to carry a child to term?:

I realize this all sounds daunting, perhaps even like an attempt to dissuade you, but I think what you’re contemplating is, in fact, a lovely idea. If you try to answer some of these questions for yourself before mentioning anything to your cousin, I think you’ll be in a solid position to make good choices together. Assuming you do all these things, and still feel prepared to make your offer, I think you should be direct in your offer. Tell your cousin that you’d love to act as a surrogate for her and her partner if they’re willing, and let their response dictate whatever conversation you have next.

Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for this week, friends. See you back here soon!

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