Dear Prudence

Robbing the Cradle

One of my colleagues is stealing my breast milk.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I recently returned to my job at a large company after maternity leave. I share two lactation rooms with several other women and store my milk in the minifridge there during the day. A while back I noticed that the milk I pumped and recorded didn’t add up at the end of the day by roughly an ounce. It happened a total of three times over about two months. I finally said something to another nursing mom who had the same experience and thought she was going crazy too. We went to HR, which took our complaint very seriously, and the other women pumping verified they had similar experiences. HR added a secure keycard entry to the doors in addition to the lock on the inside. HR also started monitoring the room and discovered a man trying to get in (but he couldn’t because he didn’t have the right keycard). They questioned him but couldn’t pin anything on him.

I am struggling not to be creeped out that some weirdo was stealing milk I pumped for my baby for who knows for how long. HR can’t tell us who it was, or punish him, because he wasn’t caught doing anything. The room feels secure, but I’m struggling to relax enough to pump effectively, as he’s probably still nearby. (There are around 700 people working here.) How do I get over it, knowing he still works here and I may never know who he is?

—Pumping Mom

This is so unsettling—of course you’re having a hard time relaxing. It’s very difficult to accidentally take breast milk that doesn’t belong to you, and you know that you’re likely working in the same building with the man who has repeatedly stolen yours. I’m a little curious that HR seems to think it can’t do anything about the guy who tried to get inside the lactation room. Presumably those rooms are labeled from the outside, and anyone who’s not either using them to pump breast milk or required to clean the rooms has no reason to be there. If the other new mothers are also having a hard time feeling comfortable pumping in the workplace, it might be worth bringing this back up with HR, if only for your own peace of mind.

In the meantime, buy a cheap combination lock for the minifridge and share the code with your fellow new mothers. It’s a $5 investment that might help you feel more secure.

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Dear Prudence,
I have a 5-year-old nephew whom I adore. However, my younger brother has very specific ideas on what boys can do and has directed his son’s behavior accordingly. My nephew used to adore watching “magic girl” cartoons with my daughter and would ask to buy the pink toy cars at the mall. Now, when his father’s around, he won’t even touch pink markers. I had to interfere when he hit one of his friends, then broke down crying, because she wanted to play Barbies with him. I don’t know how to broach the subject with my brother, and I know if I so much as bought my nephew a pink toy, my brother would perceive it as deliberately undermining his parenting. Do I have any right to address this issue, or would stepping in at all be too invasive?

—Boys Like Pink Too

I think your best opportunity to help your nephew is by providing him a safe, nonjudgmental environment and being available to answer questions and offer support. You can ask your brother why he’s so opposed to letting his son occasionally use a pink marker—it’s just a color, after all—but anything more than asking open-ended questions is almost certain to result in his shutting down or, worse, shutting you out. As long as your nephew knows that at your house he won’t be judged or criticized for liking something that’s “for girls,” you’ll have an opportunity to help him. Keep that line of communication open. He’s going to need it.

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Dear Prudence,
My girlfriend and I have been together for a while now, and we are very much in love. She’s an incredibly supportive person and shows me that she loves me in many ways. But she has recently started yelling at me when I do things that she doesn’t like. Often it’s over mistakes that I’ve made that I would consider small but that cause her a lot of anxiety. She’ll scream at the top of her lungs and will often curse at me as well. It doesn’t help the situation when she yells, and I think it usually makes it worse because I freeze up and continue being unhelpful to her because I can’t really think while being yelled at.

I don’t see yelling as very productive. I don’t really do it, but it’s less of a conscious choice for me. Yelling is just not in my personality. She sees yelling as something necessary in romantic relationships, because for her it indicates passion. Am I being too rigid in thinking that yelling doesn’t have a place in romantic relationships?

—Keep It Down

Some people hold a place for occasional yelling in their relationships; some don’t. But what you’re describing isn’t a lively disagreement or even a volatile relationship—it’s a serious red flag. Notice how you’re already trying to make excuses for her reactions when she flips out over little mistakes. You’d consider them small, but they “cause her a lot of anxiety,” implying that she can’t help it when she starts screaming at you. For what it’s worth, I don’t think cursing at your partner when he forgets to pick up milk from the store is a sign of passion. Someone who’s really passionate about you wants to go on last-minute weekend trips and sends you long, luxuriously written love notes. She doesn’t hurl invectives at you when you leave your shoes in the hallway.

You’ve also blamed yourself for freezing up when you’re being verbally abused (a perfectly normal and understandable response) because it’s “unhelpful” to her. This suggests that your girlfriend has already tried to make you feel responsible for her out-of-control and unjustifiable behavior. I don’t think your girlfriend qualifies as an “incredibly supportive person” if she screams and curses at you regularly, then tells you she’s just passionate when you ask her to stop. She may say she loves you, but her behavior is anything but loving. Consider the possibility that she yells at you precisely because you can’t think when you’re being bombarded with sound. She wants you to feel bewildered and overwhelmed and to shut down, because she wants to abuse and control you. Getting you to shut down is exactly the point of her tirades—it’s a feature, not a bug, in her system.

You are not being too rigid, and you should not have to put up with this behavior from your girlfriend another minute. She’s a grown woman who’s capable of restraining her anger. If she can’t talk with you about minor issues without losing control and cursing at you, then she’s not ready to be in a relationship—with you or with anyone.

Dear Prudence: How do I end my friendship-with-benefits?

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Dear Prudence,
Recently I was at a nail salon getting a manicure from a pleasant woman. She told me about her life, her family, and her adjustment to life here in the U.S. since she arrived from Vietnam. She told me she had recently moved from an apartment into a house with her family and how great it was there. Then she looked me dead in the eyes and mouthed “No blacks.” (I’m white.) I was shocked. There were multiple black customers around me in the store, but I don’t think any of them heard. I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I didn’t in any way affirm what she said, but I also didn’t challenge her. What should I have done?

—Sorry I Tipped First

If someone says something over-the-top, old school, classically racist to you, it is absolutely appropriate to say, “That’s racist,” get up, and leave, even if one of your hands looks a little ridiculous mid-manicure. Hopefully this is not a situation you will find yourself in often, but if it ever does come up again, at the nail salon or elsewhere, you don’t have to second-guess yourself and sit there in silence wondering if you really heard what you heard. Nor do you have to cause a big scene and make sure everyone around you who might not have heard what you did picks up on it. You can simply call it what it is—racism—and leave.

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Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend just had a stroke. We have been dating for a while, but he is still married. He kept telling me he was going to get a divorce and that we would marry, but he never got divorced. Now he is in the ICU, and his wife will not let me near him. I feel like it is time for me to leave his family in peace. What do you suggest?

—Outside Visiting Hours

Your instincts are right, I’m afraid. There’s nothing you can do for him right now. It is entirely possible—perhaps probable—that he never had any intention of leaving his wife and has been stringing you along. Regardless of what his plans were, you have to respect his family’s wishes. Focus on mourning your own loss. It might help to talk to a grief counselor, since you’re not able to share it with him or his family. But you’re going to have to accept that you have no legal standing to visit him, and let him go.

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Dear Prudence,
I work in an office where my co-workers and I all work for different contractors. We sit right next to one another doing the same work every day, and we all have the same degrees and knowledge base. Each of the contracting companies offers different payments and benefits. I recently found out that someone hired a year after me by a different company is making more than $10,000 a year more than I am. I know employers frown on discussing salaries, but can I use this information to negotiate my salary? I understand there is always this kind of risk when working with a subcontractor, but I think this pay difference is absurd. We live in an expensive area. I hear my co-workers talking about retirement savings and buying homes, yet I feel like I will never get ahead. I love my job and don’t plan on leaving. How do I approach this without hurting my relationship with my employer?

—Paycheck Envy

This pay discrepancy should absolutely inform your decision to ask for a raise now, but it shouldn’t be the only evidence you present to your manager. Build a case for yourself based on the cost of living in your area, comparative salaries at other companies, and the quality and quantity of work you’ve done for them already. You might say something like, “Given my contributions over the last year [such as X and Y], and given my understanding of what this company and its closest competitors offer others in a similar position, I think it’s fair to ask for [X amount].” But don’t go to your employer and say, “I know Steve makes $10,000 more than I do, so you should pay me another $10,000 a year.” It’s too easy for them to come back with, “We’re not negotiating Steve’s salary; we’re negotiating yours.” Besides, you’ve got stronger evidence to bolster your case than that. Good luck.

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