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 email@example.com.)
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: Good morning! Some perennial advice: If you feel yourself about to say something terrible, stuff your mouth full of delicious, dry saltines until you can’t speak. This will buy you at least a full minute of silence, and perhaps the urge will pass in the meantime.
Q. Dreading an awkward Thanksgiving: One of the highlights of our Thanksgivings is when my wife brings the turkey to the table wearing a Mrs. Claus costume. She has done it for years and the table is always full of smiles! A couple weeks ago I accidentally walked in on my daughter and her boyfriend, and he was wearing the Mrs. Claus costume. I haven’t told my wife because she would freak, but I have talked to my daughter. I’m not upset with her being active—she is 17 now—but I am losing sleep thinking about how tense Thursday will be when my wife brings out the turkey since he will be with us, especially if I have a bit too much to drink.
What can I do? Do we need to have a family talk, or should I just see what happens?
A: Life is such a rich, rich tapestry. “Become an advice columnist,” they said. “Help people deal with the thorny issues that plague us all,” they said. (I know this isn’t the point of your question, but I feel like having a Christmas-themed outfit as the highlight of your Thanksgiving meal is pulling focus! But, you know, follow your bliss, jam whatever holidays together you want.)
If you’re worried about what you might say if you have too much to drink on Thanksgiving, don’t have too much to drink; stick to seltzer or sparkling cider. If you want to tell your kid not to raid your wife’s closet before having sex with her boyfriend (a very reasonable request!), tell her to knock it off and make sure she’s using protection. That’s pretty much all you have to do! (That, and tell your kid to make sure the Mrs. Claus outfit has been thoroughly cleaned before your wife puts it on.)
If there’s one thing I know about this weird country we live in, it’s that periodically people like to sexualize a Mrs. Claus outfit. Rich tapestry.
Q. Adopted girl: My good friend and her husband recently adopted a little girl from a Russian orphanage. The girl was badly in need of medical care and surgery, which my friend provided for her. The girl is now blossoming beautifully. The problem is, my friend has a strange rule that bothers me: The girl is under no circumstances allowed to speak a word of Russian.
When the girl first came over, she only spoke Russian, but she is learning English quickly. It has gotten to the point where they now punish her if they catch her speaking Russian. When I asked my friend about this, she said that “she is an American now.”
I know it’s not my right to butt into their parenting, but this breaks my heart. They are denying the girl so much of her heritage. And her ability to speak both languages, I think, would be an asset and a gift. Is there anything I can say to my friend that might make her rethink this?
A: There are a number of things you might say—that numerous Americans speak more than one language, that punishing a little girl for speaking the language she grew up with is capricious and cruel, that in trying to erase this child’s past she’s only causing unnecessary pain—but I’m afraid your friend might be in no state to hear them if she thinks of a native language as something to be punished out of a child. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. You’re already reasonably aware of your own limitations as a concerned friend. You can’t force your friend to see her daughter’s heritage as less of a threat and more as part of her kid’s identity, but you can ask her why she thinks it’s necessary to punish her for occasionally speaking Russian, and encourage her to take a less retributive approach. If she’s not receptive, you’ll have to back off, but at least you’ll know you tried to advocate for the girl.
Q. Making amends after suicide attempt: About two months ago, after 12 years of mental illness, I attempted to take my own life. Thankfully, it didn’t work. I spent a month in an inpatient unit, and successfully completed an outpatient program.
When I attempted, I was at a residential treatment facility. I left, and now, after much deliberation, I’m going back to complete treatment. The doctors have told me to make a “repair” to the community. I don’t know how to address the broken trusts and friendships without saying, “I’m sorry for trying to kill myself,” and I think that is a ridiculous statement. Any advice would be much appreciated.
A: I’m not quite sure what your doctors meant by “repairing” your community at the treatment center, but I agree that you do not have to apologize for being suicidal. If you’re anxious about what your return might look like at the treatment center, and if you want to thank your friends for their support and let them know you’re looking forward to seeing them again, that’s one thing. It’s also fine, if you feel up to it, to acknowledge that they have likely been concerned for you, and that you’re doing your best to continue to seek treatment for your health and well-being. But that’s about the extent of it. You are already “repairing” things by committing to taking care of yourself.
Q. Kissing stepmom: I’ve known my stepkids (12-year-old girl, 8-year-old boy) for four years and have lived with them for one. In the past year since I moved in with them and my husband, we’ve experienced a lot of new stepparent drama, but we’ve all survived and become fairly functional. I still feel the exhaustion of our first year as a family, during which at least one of us at a time would nearly always be in tears, and I definitely haven’t entirely let go of that stress. My stepson, who once would only speak to me to say, Where’s Daddy?, has become very affectionate with me, and now frequently hugs and kisses me.
My problem is with the kissing: He always tries to kiss me on the lips. I know that some families see nothing wrong with this, but my feeling is that at 8, he’s too old to kiss adult women on the lips. For one thing, I work for myself, and when I catch a cold, I either suffer lost wages or miserable work days; I make sure never to share glasses or bites of food with the kids. For another, it frankly just creeps me out to see a child’s face homing in on mine for a kiss while making full eye contact; I’ve taken to swerving and giving him a kiss on the cheek and a hug, or kissing my hand and putting it on his face in a silly way, but I can’t do this forever.
A friend points out that this is an opportunity to start teaching about consent (When he’s playing too roughly with his sister, my mantra is, “If everyone’s not having a good time, you have to stop.”) My concern is that now that my stepson feels comfortable and safe with me, how do I tell him that I don’t want his “love”? I know he kisses his mom this way, and I think he sees it as a way of making me equal to her—a third parent.
I just don’t know how to frame a conversation with a child about this. How do I address this? Also, for the record, what’s your opinion? Creepy or not?
A: “Hey, kiddo, don’t kiss me on the lips, kiss me here [point to cheek].” Your 8-year-old stepson isn’t trying to be creepy—he’s 8, and he’s just doing what he normally does with at least one of his other parents. But that doesn’t mean you can’t say no.
The best reason not to kiss your stepson on the lips is because you don’t want to be kissed on the lips. It doesn’t matter if some other families do it and feel comfortable, and it doesn’t need to be objectively, unilaterally creepy for you to say that you don’t want to do it. Tell him not to do it in the same casual, judgment-free tone you would tell him, “Hey, don’t put the mugs back in the silverware drawer, the mugs go in the cabinet.” And it’s never a bad time to explain in an age-appropriate way to a kid that you shouldn’t touch someone else in a way that they’re not comfortable with.
Q. Mother—butt-in—law: I’m lucky enough to adore my mother-in-law, and I truly believe she feels the same. However, she’s got a bad habit that is driving me bonkers. Imagine being in the middle of a story and—Oh my, did I tell you what Judy did at the office today? It doesn’t matter if you’re responding to what she said, or having an intense conversation with someone else that doesn’t include her—she will loudly interrupt and talk over you, and it may or may not be related.
She grew up the youngest of many siblings, so I get it. But any tips? At a recent birthday dinner, I gave her half a moment, then kept talking simultaneously. I got a lot of supportive comments about how shocking that particular interruption was, and good for me for continuing, but countering rude behavior with more of the same is not how I want this to play out.
A: “Hang on, I wasn’t finished talking.” It sounds like your mother-in-law doesn’t realize how rude she’s being, so you should let her know!
It may take time and repeated self-correction for her to break herself of this habit, but it’s not rude to tell someone when they’re interrupting you. You can say it politely, but you should let her know when she’s interrupting, and that she’s going to have to wait her conversational turn. The subtleties of speaking over her are going to be lost on her, I promise, if she’s already not aware of how often she interrupts you and others.
And acknowledge it in the moment; since you consider yourself close, feel free to also pull her aside and say, “You may not have noticed this, but you often interrupt me and others when we’re speaking, and it sometimes makes conversation difficult. I don’t think you do this on purpose, but I’d want someone to tell me if I was doing this so I could change.”
Q. Re: Adopted girl: Another tactic is bringing up how helpful being bilingual is when applying for jobs or college. It’d be a huge help to her later in life, on a purely practical level!
A: Part of me resents the idea of having to justify connecting with one’s native language by framing it as a potentially useful career move—she has the right to stay in touch with her roots regardless of whether it will make her money in the future—but I think this is a practical and pragmatic strategy, and anything that might incline the letter writer’s friend to reconsider her hard-line stance is worth trying.
Q. Noisy neighbors: My partner and I rent a basement condo in an East Coast city. We are generally understanding about noises, but the new upstairs tenants are driving us a bit nuts. They engage in lovemaking at least once a day, and tend to do so at all hours. We can hear rapid bed squeaks and moans in the evening, in the middle of the night, and early in the morning. It even happens in the middle of weekdays when I’m trying to get work done, and has proved to be quite the distraction.
I understand that dealing with noise is part of living in a city, and I’m all for folks taking care of their sexual needs, but it’s affecting my sleep and distracting me from my work! Is there a polite way to broach this subject, or do we just have to suck it up? It’s gotten so bad that we’re considering moving.
A: I hate to start with something so obvious, but have you tried a good pair of earplugs and a fan or white noise machine when you’re sleeping? That can make a significant difference. Beyond that, I’m afraid that even if you moved, the odds that you might live near another couple who regularly has sex is high enough that I’m not sure I can recommend it. I’m afraid the “sex-related noise as part of the cost of city living” is pretty standard. Noise-canceling headphones might help you focus on work when you start to hear the bedsprings squeak, too.
Q. Letting go is hard: I hate my ex-girlfriend. We both did horrible things in our relationship and I am no saint, but she was a manipulative, suspicious, look-through-my-phone type of person, and I can’t seem to get over it. I have a tendency to hold grudges, but this feels different—it’s been two years since we broke up. It’s affected my ability to move on and trust any type of relationship.
For what it’s worth, I’ve been to therapy and I think it helped, but do you have any more advice on how to forgive and forget? I don’t want this girl in my life, but I also don’t want this cloud of negativity.
A: I also often don’t want to experience my own feelings, but I don’t think it will be very helpful to you to try to push past this, or to pretend that you’re not still in a rough place. If you’re currently feeling like any relationship will be toxic for you, then you shouldn’t try to get into a relationship. That’s a perfectly reasonable response to your current emotional state. I’m glad that therapy has proved helpful for you, and I hope you can continue to find ways to talk about your difficulty letting go of old grudges, whether it’s with a mental health professional or with friends.
You might find journaling helpful when some of these feelings come up. Ask yourself what these grudges might be protecting you from, what you’re afraid of, and how you would want to feel and behave in a future romantic relationship. Don’t try to rush yourself into feeling “better” about your last relationship or to get into another one. I’m not sure that “forgiving and forgetting” is always the best way to think about moving on after a painful breakup. You don’t, I think, want to forget what your last relationship was like, because you want to learn from it and make different choices in the future.
Q. Re: Mother—butt-in—law: I come from a loud family where you either interrupt or don’t get heard. Your mother-in-law probably won’t even notice if you interrupt her back, like Prudie suggested, and will be very comfortable with you insisting on finishing your thought. As an interrupter myself, I do try to be polite, but sometimes I get excited and forget to wait my turn. I always appreciate friends who tell me to chill for a minute, as opposed to those who seethe at me in silence. Interrupters expect you to interrupt them back, so don’t be scared!
A: It’s a good reminder that (well-meaning, unconscious) interrupters are unlikely to be extremely sensitive about having their behavior pointed out, but I don’t think the letter writer wants to have the kind of relationship where the two of them both spend equal time interrupting one another. The letter writer wants their mother-in-law to stop interrupting, and I think that’s a reasonable request.