Dear Prudence

Toy Story

Prudie advises a letter writer who is considering legal action after her mother gave away a prized doll collection.

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 prudence@slate.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.

Q. Dolls: Before my paternal grandmother died, she would buy me an original American Girl doll every year for Christmas. I had the dolls, the books, and most of the accessories. My fondest memories of my time with my grandmother were playing with those dolls. I took very good care of them, and when I went off to college, I packed them up to be stored at my mother’s house. I have graduated and have my own place, so I went back to my mother’s to get my stored stuff. My mother gave away several of my dolls! A co-worker helped her out and mentioned her young daughter liked the dolls, so my mother just gave them to her! I was heartbroken, and we fought. My mother didn’t think it should matter since I had “so many.” I told her those dolls were worth a lot and she had no right to steal my things. I wanted her to tell me the name of her co-worker so I could get my dolls back. She refused and said that it was out of the question, that I would be embarrassing her.

My mother never liked my grandmother or how close I was to her or my father after the divorce. I can’t get over this. I took everything away from that house, and going through the boxes makes me cry. I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I think I should call up my mother’s office and figure out who has my dolls—there are only two or three women who have girls the right age. I could take my mother to small claims court, but that would ruin everything more. These dolls and a few pictures are all I have left of my grandmother. What should I do?

A: I’m glad to hear that you’ve already decided against taking this to small claims court. Whether or not you have grounds to extract a few hundred dollars from your mother there, it wouldn’t bring your dolls back, nor would it help the two of you repair your relationship. While I understand the strong attachment you had to these dolls, I can’t encourage you to find this little girl’s mother and demand she give them back, either. It’s certainly not this little girl’s fault. It would be wildly inappropriate for you to call your mother’s office and try to “find out” which of her co-workers has a daughter of doll-owning age. Please find a therapist who can help you work through these feelings of resentment and grief, and do not attempt to harass your mother’s co-workers.

I’m of the opinion that, post-college, if you’re living elsewhere, using your parents’ house as a storage unit with an open-ended, indefinite lease does not qualify as “taking good care” of something you don’t want to lose. That doesn’t mean your mother was right to give the dolls away, but it’s incumbent upon you, the owner, to take responsibility for where and how they are stored. It sounds like you’ve already removed the remaining dolls from your mother’s house; I encourage you to find a safe place to store them, along with the pictures of your grandmother, in your own home.

You have the right to be angry with your mother. You can have whatever conversations you need to with her about how her actions made you feel and how you’ve long believed she resented your closeness with your grandmother. If you cry when you go through the boxes of your few remaining heirlooms, go ahead and cry. All of those are appropriate responses to your situation. But taking your mother to court, or demanding a little girl give you her dolls, are not.

Q. Ungrateful child: I am 32 years old and a single mom to a 3-year-old daughter. I’m in graduate school and scheduled to graduate in May. I already have a job lined up after graduation. My daughter and I live rent-free with my parents, although I do pay a minimal amount for utilities and groceries, as well as take care of my other bills. Recently, my mother’s health has dramatically declined (debilitating arthritis, et cetera), and my father is not doing well either. They are only in their mid-50s. Rather than being grateful for what they’ve provided me with, I find myself resenting them. Whereas my mom and I used to be close, now we argue constantly. She thinks I’m ungrateful for the free child care and housing they’ve provided me. I think she uses it as a method of guilt-tripping me, and I wish she could recognize how hard I am trying. The stress of arguing can’t be good for her health, and it’s bad for my mental well-being. I should be more grateful, and I should be more understanding. What can I do to adjust my attitude and ensure we can live peaceably for the next six months until I can move out?

A: This is challenging! Six months is a short enough time that you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and might not think finding temporary housing is worth the hassle, but it’s also long enough that you can’t just grit your teeth and muscle through it.

There are some pretty basic tools you can use when a conversation with your mother threatens to turn into a fight. You can say, “Hey, things are getting really heated, and I’m sorry I lost my temper. Let’s take a few minutes and talk about this later, when we’re both more settled.” You can take a walk and get some air when you find yourself getting stressed out. You can ask friends if they’re available for occasional child care—even a few times a month will help if your mother is feeling ill and overwhelmed running after a 3-year-old. I can’t promise this will make the next six months feel like a beautiful dream, but you’re coming from a good place to start with—you have sympathy and compassion for your mother’s situation, which does sound stressful, but you’re also clear on the fact that your parents’ generosity doesn’t entitle them to ask you for anything they want, at any time.

Q. “But what was she wearing?”: My lovely husband of 33 years has always supported me and our two grown daughters. He’s progressive politically, except for one bump in the road: He’s a “But what was she wearing?” kind of guy when it comes to rape and sexual assault. I’ve gone ballistic on the subject but to no avail. Now, because of the #MeToo stories, he wants to know if I was ever sexually harassed, and I told him about things that happened to me. His response is that it’s just because I was good-looking at the time. Yuck! Where is the responsibility on the male to just act like a decent person?

A: I mean, I’m right there with you—it is incumbent upon all adults to behave professionally at work, appropriately in public, and respectfully in private, regardless of what someone else is wearing or how good-looking (at the time!) she happens to be. Your husband ought to see that, and the fact that he doesn’t is frankly troubling. For him to push you to talk about your own experience with sexual harassment only to pull out the rug from under you by dismissing it immediately—and while getting in a nice little dig at your current appearance—suggests that he’s not interested in listening so much as he’s interested in shutting you down. If he thinks that “good-looking” women deserve to be sexually harassed by anyone who finds them attractive, that’s more than just a progressive bump in the road—that’s a significant red flag about his character.

Q. Finally figured out what annoys me about my friend: I have a longtime friend, since high school. We’re in our 60s. A group of seven of us from high school get together several times a month. This friend is generous and kind. She hosts or coordinates most of the events. However, she is pretty unyielding when others make suggestions about activities and doesn’t participate. The group frequently communicates in group texts and on Facebook. Whenever there’s a group conversation or a one-on-one conversation, she always brings the conversation around to her. Recently, we were chatting with a friend in the hospital following surgery. The spotlight hog interjected about how her Christmas decorations looked and, as an afterthought, asked the hospitalized friend how she’s doing.

I’ve gotten very frustrated with this friend but really enjoy my other friends in the group. How do I deal with her without blowing up?

A: You’ve known this woman for more than 40 years, so you should be able to have a difficult conversation about communication styles. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy—it sounds like part of your friendship’s longevity is due to not addressing difficult topics—but you have a solid foundation together, and you can do this. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you often find ways to make a conversation come back to yourself before someone else has gotten the chance to speak. A specific example is when [mutual friend] was in the hospital recovering from surgery, and you started talking about your Christmas decorations. Later you asked how [mutual friend] was doing, but it was an afterthought. I find this frustrating and it makes me want to spend less time talking with you. If I were doing something like this, I’d want my friends to tell me so that I could make a change. I care about you and I know it’s not always easy to see patterns in our own behavior. I’ve been anxious to talk about this with you, because I don’t relish causing you pain, but this behavior is really limiting our friendship, and I don’t want that.”

Q. Re: Dolls: My parents did this as well. I had a collection of stuffed animals I adored and took a lot of emotional comfort in as a child. I came home for winter break and found my parents had donated them all—every single one—to the kids of their friends. I was heartbroken, and there was nothing I could do to get them back, and it felt incredibly cruel to me. I agree one shouldn’t use your parents’ home as a storage space indefinitely, but they should be courteous enough to give you a date by which to go through your stuff and move it yourself. More than that, parents, don’t assume because your kids are grown that they don’t still have attachments to their childhood toys.

Letter writer, I watched Toy Story 3 (particularly the bit at the end where Andy gives away his toys) over and over again to assure myself that the kids who now had my stuffed animals would give them a whole new lease on life. It still hurts that they’re gone. It’s OK to be angry at your mother.

A: Thanks for this—sometimes it can be difficult to know what to do with a powerful feeling of anger and hurt that’s not either “just get over it” or “lash out as quickly as possible against the person who hurt you.”

Q. Second date surgery: This is a fairly straightforward situation, but I’m not sure how to handle it. I’ve met a sweet guy, and we’ve exchanged numbers and have already gone on a first date. We have our second date tomorrow night, and three days after that, I’m having a laparoscopic (small incisions, in and out in a few hours) surgery. I’ll be on bed rest for a least a week, and since the surgery requires cutting into my abdominal muscles, it’ll be a while after the recovery before I’m able to sit up comfortably for a long period of time. I really don’t know how to explain all this on a second date without sounding like I have a weak constitution (I don’t—it’s gallbladder removal, which is one of the most common surgeries), or like I’m going to be incredibly needy for the next month or so after surgery. How should I broach this subject so the guy doesn’t think I’m not interested in seeing him again while I’m recovering, and so he doesn’t ghost me because he thinks I’m too much to handle?

A: If he thinks getting your gallbladder removed is too much to handle, then be grateful you’ve managed to weed him out early! Sure, the timing is weird, but reasonable adults generally understand that things like minor yet important surgery can’t always be planned around one’s future dating life. Just let him know, “Hey, in a couple of days I’m having my gallbladder removed, so I’ll be on bed rest for a while, but I’d love to go out again once I’m back on my feet.” Honestly, if you two really like each other, I think it will feel more fun and charming than anything else—for your third date, he might come by a week or two after your surgery date and bring tea and soup. Or, if that doesn’t appeal, you can stay connected over the phone or via text, and go out once you’re sufficiently recovered to visit a restaurant again.

Q. Not all in: I’m married with a child, and I’m not all in. I don’t want to move into a home I own and make it communal property. The marriage is fairly happy. We get along, and I love her, but I have my doubts to whether we’ll make it for the long-term. I have more than $100,000 in equity in the home and consider it part of my retirement plan. The home would be perfect for our family, but I don’t want to forfeit my sole ownership of the property. If we were to live there and separate, the property would be a communal asset, and she would get half. I would like her to sign a contract clarifying ownership of the property but am sure that it would be met with copious tears and as an acknowledgment that I think the marriage might not last forever. How might I proceed to move forward with the move, protect my assets, and not signify my belief that we might not be together forever?

A: If your wife were controlling or abusive or prone to extreme financial mismanagement, I could understand wanting to protect your assets before leaving, but you’re not currently contemplating divorce—you’re trying to figure out a way to hedge your bets in the middle of a marriage to a woman you’ve already had a child with. You could get a post-nup, but not every state enforces those, and you’ll of course have to deal with the possibility that your wife will be hurt and angry at the prospect.

I’m not sure what kind of contract your wife could sign, if you bought a house, that would clarify you owned it. Even if you purchase it individually and don’t put her name on the mortgage, she might still have a case for calling it community property if you two divorced, depending upon what state you lived in. I’d advise you to consult a lawyer if you want to know more about how your state might view a home purchased during your marriage. That said, I think your best bet is to identify, with your wife, what issues are causing your doubts about your marriage’s longevity and to invest in a marriage counselor right now rather than a divorce lawyer later.

Q. Dating a 30-year-old virgin: I just found out that the 30-year-old guy I’ve started seeing is still a virgin (and not by choice). This really surprised me, because he is nice and charming. Is it a red flag that none of his previous girlfriends have wanted to take him to bed?

A: No. It just means that he’s a virgin. If he hasn’t done or said anything that you consider a red flag, then you’re in the clear. Talk a lot, figure out what you both want, communicate your limits and interests and desires, and have fun!

Q. Name: I am getting married this spring. This winter I have tried very hard to integrate my 6-year-old daughter and myself into my fiancé’s family since we don’t have much of one (only my grandmother is alive on my side, and my ex is worthless). My fiancé loves my daughter and has plans to adopt her after the wedding. His parents are very accepting as well. My problem is my sister-in-law to be, who is pregnant and very self-involved. Beyond referring to her baby as the “first grandchild,” she is having a girl and chose a name very similar to my daughter’s and my own (think Eliza, Lisbeth, and Elizabeth). She wants to refer to her unborn baby by the common nickname that both I and my daughter use, and she wants us to change how we are addressed because it would be too “confusing for the baby.” I laughed it off when she first brought it up, but she has been unrelentingly insistent. It is annoying to be called by my full Christian name when I haven’t gone by that since Catholic school, but I would be OK to suck it up in the name of family harmony—but not my daughter. My fiancé and I left my daughter in the care of his parents and sister for a romantic weekend, only to get back and find my daughter in tears because she wasn’t allowed to be called by her name anymore. My future sister-in-law refused to address my daughter by her nickname, even when my daughter objected. She even told my daughter that it wasn’t her name anymore, as it belonged to the baby.

I am beyond furious. My fiancé wants to chalk it up to his sister’s hormones, but right now all I can think of are my daughter’s tears. How exactly are my in-laws going to react when their biological grandchild gets here? They just waved their hands while their daughter stole my 6-year-old’s identity! My fiancé thinks I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Am I crazy or is this out of line?

A: This is a very long letter about something very simple: “No, I’m not going to change my name, or my daughter’s name, because you want to name your child the same thing. This conversation is over.” You do not need to justify or explain your choice. The fact that your family has thrown their support behind your sister-in-law’s bizarre demand does not make them right; it merely makes them all equally deluded and manipulative. The fact that your fiancé thinks you are “making a mountain out of a molehill” for not wanting to change the name you’ve always had to humor his sister’s whim says something about how much time and energy he’s invested in giving in to her demands over the years—don’t join him.

Q. Re: Ungrateful child: Please also recognize that you’re grieving the early loss of your mom’s vigor and her ability to do and be everything you imagined (for herself, for you, for your child, et cetera). And she’s grieving the same things as well! By acknowledging this new factor, you can build a safe place for each of you to process your feelings. You may also benefit from a few counseling sessions (your campus may offer them for free), so you can gain guidance into how to more effectively channel your emotions and regain a healthier relationship with your mom.

A: That’s a great reminder of some other issues that may be at play. Take advantage of whatever resources your campus has to offer!

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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