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. Fiancé worried my genes will affect his son’s “package:” I have recently become engaged to my longtime boyfriend. Whenever the topic of children came up, he would insist he only wanted girls because his siblings were all brothers so another male in the family would be boring. Last week, however, he forwarded me an email from his brother (also his best man) with some information I needed for wedding planning, but the email was part of a much larger running conversation. I was mortified when I read his real reason for not wanting a son is that my “Asian genes” would mean his son would have a “small package!” My brother was bullied by jocks using this idiotic stereotype in high school so I was incredibly angered, but I haven’t said anything about what I read yet. He has begun asking why I am so distant lately, but I have no idea how to confront him!
A: I can understand why you have no idea how to speak to him about it, because finding out your almost-husband is a racist who’s bizarrely fixated on the size of his hypothetical son’s dick has got to be jarring and shocking for you (not to mention the fact that he’s dumb enough to forward you an email about it). I imagine that, were you to bring this up to him, he will likely sputter and try to explain why you’re overreacting, or that what he said wasn’t that bad, or that he’s not “really like that.” He is really like that. That’s why he said it. Is there an answer he could give you that would make what he said seem reasonable, kind, loving, intelligent, or in any way acceptable? I certainly can’t think of one.
He has given you a valuable insight into his character, how he sees the world, how he assigns value to people based on race, and how he sees any future children the two of you might have together. If what you saw doesn’t seem like something you want for yourself or for any children you may someday have, I think you should consider yourself lucky you got to see this before you married him, and call it off.
Q. Am I just jealous?: I thought I was happy with my life and making good progress. I have a job I like, my husband just went from contracting to permanent at his company, we are starting to look for a condo, we are saving for retirement. Then all of a sudden some of my friends are making major life changes, and I suddenly feel like I am failing or pathetic by companion. One is moving from the Bay Area to Sacramento to a house she and her husband bought, one is moving to Portland, one is going to grad school in France, and one is going to Ireland. While my husband points out that some of them are just running away from their problems and that none of them are saving for the future the way we are, I feel like I am somehow failing.
We are all in our 30s. Some of it is the idea of losing some friends who, while I didn’t see as often as I would like, will leave an absence for me, some of it is this feeling like I should be doing more. What is wrong with me? Am I just jealous that they are having an adventure and I am playing it safe?
A: Nothing is wrong with you, aside from, probably, “the human condition.” It is a fairly natural thing, to take the choice someone else has made as a pointed remark aimed at one’s own choices. They almost never are, of course, but that doesn’t stop us from making the assumption regardless. It does not help this impulse to assume someone else is “running away from their problems”—you don’t have access to the inside of someone else’s head like that.
It’s natural to feel a sense of loss at the prospect of a friend moving away, even if you’re also happy for them. It’s also natural to want to check in with one’s own progress and to ask, Do I want more adventure? Am I satisfied with my choices? Is there something I want to do differently? Maybe the answer is No, not really, and you’re simply experiencing the natural pang of dissatisfaction that comes with making any choices, not just safe ones. In saying yes to anything—a relationship, a job, a home—one necessarily says no to a lot of other things, and sometimes we like to think of ourselves as someone who might just move to Ireland tomorrow, or become a professional kickboxing announcer, or whatever, and realizing that life does not contain infinite possibilities and choices is always an ego-bruiser. If you want to do something a little exciting, you can; you don’t have to save for retirement every single day. If part of you just wants to feel a little sad and lonely and mourn the loss of some of your social circle, then you can do that too. Nothing is forbidden to you.
Q. Cat-obsessed mother-in-law: My mother-in-law really loves cats. She has about 10 of them and treats her particular favorite like you would a human child. I also really love cats and do not have a problem with her obsession! What I’m struggling with is my mother-in-law’s obsession with my cat. She asks about the cat every. single. day. When she visits, she literally follows him around, pursuing his affection (if you know cats, you can imagine how well this goes over). Her feelings get hurt when our cat hides when she visits (he actually doesn’t hide from anybody else but her). She pressures us to bring the cat on our visits, which is incredibly stressful and not enjoyable for him. She’s also made weird comments about how she looks out for our cat and makes sure he’s safe.
I’m trying to grin and bear it and treat it like a quirk. It really does get to me, but I’m trying to be Zen. But it’s so annoying. Do I have any right to ask my husband to ask her to tone it down? This will hurt her feelings and will likely make her think I dislike her. Is this a huge red flag for how she’ll treat our future children? Is learning to be Zen about my mother-in-law’s quirks truly the best course of action?
A: Learning to be “Zen” is not the same thing as passivity or never saying no to someone. It is completely reasonable to say, “No, we’re not bringing Meowcutio when we visit; travel is stressful for him and he doesn’t enjoy it.” If your cat hides from your mother-in-law when she tears through the house seeking total skin-to-fur union with him (yikes! I’d hide too), you, or better yet your husband, can kindly say, “When he hides, it’s because he’s feeling stressed out, and it doesn’t help to try to find him. Let’s go back to the living room.”
Q. Literally can’t even … clean my house: I’m a stay-at-home mom who also works part time from home online. My kids are both under 3. My goals for each day are this: take care of the kids, clean the house, work. Sadly, by the time my husband comes home from work, I am spent, and have usually accomplished nothing but taking care of the kids and getting some work done—the cleaning seems to get shot to hell 99 percent of the time! My husband is nothing but helpful—he comes home, straps a kid onto his chest and starts dishes, laundry, et cetera. He isn’t judgmental of my lack of housekeeping, but I feel unaccomplished at the end of every day. Some days are worse than others, but I feel inadequate and unmotivated. When my kids both nap (rare), I am exhausted and usually crash into a short nap myself.
How can I better manage my time, get more energy, and stop beating myself up about what I don’t accomplish? Day care is unaffordable and not a good option for us right now.
A: I want to gently encourage you to reframe the sentence “have usually accomplished nothing but taking care of the kids and getting some work done.” The situation you’ve described does not sound like one where you’re failing to pull your own weight around the home.
You’re being hard on yourself for taking on the bulk of child care and not also having the energy to do the bulk of the cleaning around the house. Just because your husband works outside of the home does not mean that every task that needs doing within the home is automatically yours, and you should not feel guilty over the fact that he regularly handles the dishes and the laundry. If your husband is happy over the way the two of you split household tasks (and keeping two children under 3 alive, fed, and relatively clean throughout the day is a monumental task), then I think the best thing you can do is free yourself from the mistaken belief that you are somehow failing to do your part at home.
When you take those short naps of your own, don’t see it as a weakness. The fact that you’re often tired (and that your kids rarely nap!) is not a sign that you’re not doing enough. It’s a sign that you need rest.
Q. Zero-sum maid of honor: I got married last year, and my best friend served as my maid of honor. Since she’s very organized and an event planner, I thought she would do a great job, but she did not. She threw everything together at the last minute and asked the other bridesmaids to take on the biggest share of throwing my shower, bachelorette, et cetera, and then took full credit, and never asked if I needed extra help with anything. I did gently confront her about it at the time, but she took serious offense at being criticized, so I backed off. My wedding was wonderful, so I let all my animosity go—until now. She is engaged and wants me to return the favor and be her maid of honor. She keeps saying things like “You’re a pro since you’ve done this already,” and “I’m going to need so much help with XYZ,” and “Can you just plan it all for me?”
The frustration at her is rushing back, and I’m so tempted to pettily be the same kind of maid of honor she was for me (lazy and unavailable) or just refuse the job altogether. Plus it sounds like she’s going to ask me to do about five times the work that I ever asked her to. I know that serving as someone’s maid of honor shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, and I do care for my friend, but I don’t know how I’ll stop my frustration from slipping out when the daily wedding planning calls start coming. What should I do?
A: This is, if nothing else, a reminder to not put off difficult conversations with a friend because everything “sort of worked out,” and to not confuse genuinely letting something go with letting it fester. There’s a conversation to be had here about resentment and expectations, some of which should probably wait until after your friend gets married, because tensions and expectations are already running high between the two of you. That said, just because you’ve agreed to be her maid of honor doesn’t mean that you have committed to a full-time unpaid wedding internship.
Figure out what you are and aren’t willing to do, and when she makes a request, communicate your plans to her clearly—“I’m happy to help plan the shower, and I’m delegating X tasks to Y people, and I won’t be able to do Z errand for you.” If you can’t handle taking daily calls about her wedding, then let her know—that’s a perfectly reasonable boundary to set. “I’m not going to be able to take a call from you every day about the wedding. Let’s set a time to talk this weekend.” This will be good practice for the more big-picture conversation you two will get to have in the future.
Q. How do I diffuse this?: I’m a female truck driver who has one pickup and one delivery customer, so I see the same people multiple times a day. I apparently read one fella’s signals wrong and asked him to accompany me to a concert. Before I even got the whole question out he looked panicky, was shaking his head, and said, “No, thank you.” I really regret asking him because then he got super weird—he even started using his co-workers as chaperones! I didn’t have a chance to let him know I was cool with his refusal, as he kept getting the chaperones. So I wrote him a note and stuck it where I knew he’d find it. He stopped with the chaperones, and we were almost normal.
That was a couple months ago. A few days ago I discovered that one of my co-workers was talking about me with this man—he’s so freaked out it’s ridiculous! I have been nothing but polite, decent, and respectful, yet that doesn’t seem to mean anything to him. Do I speak to him? Ignore it? Help!
A: I think the wisest course of action is to ask your co-worker to refrain from speaking about you with your customers, continue to be polite and respectful to the guy you asked out, and not to press the matter further. Sometimes people don’t give us the benefit of the doubt, and even though this guy privately seems to think of you as much more overwhelmingly into him than you know yourself to be, as long as he does his job when you two interact professionally, you don’t have to worry about correcting his perception of you.
Q. Re: Literally can’t even … clean my house: I could have written this exact letter a few weeks ago! I was feeling incompetent and inadequate, and definitely felt constantly that I wasn’t doing enough. I mentioned this to my doctor and he diagnosed me with postpartum depression. He started me on a low dose SSRI [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor], and I started therapy with a wonderful counselor. My life is so much more manageable now. I would suggest checking for a hormone imbalance or other things that may be causing these feelings. Postpartum depression doesn’t go away just because your children grew up a little. The imbalance stays and can get worse as time goes on.
A: Thanks for this! I don’t want to in any way suggest that I think the letter writer is in need of a diagnosis of any kind, but it’s always helpful to share a variety of similar experiences, and if anything resonates for the letter writer in reading this response, then it’s all to the good. I’m so glad you’ve gotten the help and support you need.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week. Stay wise.