Dear Prudence

Bitter and Trying

Prudie advises a letter writer who feels anger toward other parents after her own fertility struggles.

Woman looking bitterly at another woman holding a baby.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

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Q. IVF PTSD: Last year, after trying on our own for a year, my husband and I underwent an in vitro fertilization cycle, despite being told that our chances were very, very slim. I went in for weekly and then biweekly transvaginal sonograms, changed my diet, went to therapy to deal with stress, and administered several shots each day. And it was worth it: Against all odds, we now have the most gorgeous baby.

Physically, the pregnancy was mostly uneventful, but after struggling to get pregnant in the first place, every day was scary, and I frequently had thoughts of something terrible happening. One would think that all the angst, depression, and anxiety of fertility struggles would evaporate with a successful pregnancy. But for me, they haven’t.

I still struggle with the unfairness that we had to go through so much to have a child when others have one or many so easily. When I see parents in the park ignoring or being snippy with their kids, I feel rage; it seems they don’t know how lucky they are. I struggle, despite being pro-choice, to be supportive of those terminating a pregnancy for nonmedical reasons. It feels almost like PTSD, and I don’t know how to get past it, especially as we are now, once again, hoping for another miracle. What can I do to move forward?

A: When you find yourself assuming people you don’t know had easy roads to parenthood and take their own children for granted, meet that fantasy with the following response: “I don’t know this person. I don’t know what her life is like or anything about her relationship to her children outside of this five-minute window today. This person cannot help me with my own feelings of anxiety and fear.”

I understand your reflexive instinct to turn your pain inside out and use it to scrutinize other people’s actions—it’s an instinctive response I often share!—but it’s not going to get you anywhere. Whether someone else has an abortion has nothing to do with whether you yourself have a child. You know that on some level, but grief and anxiety have a tendency to cause magical thinking—the idea that an action wholly unrelated to a particular course of events can somehow influence its outcome—as well as the belief that everyone else should act as we do. The thought goes: “If I have struggled to have a child and it’s caused me pain, then having a child must be equally important for other people to do, and no one should delay or decide against doing so.”

I hope this doesn’t sound harsh. I don’t think any of us are responsible for the irrational thoughts we catch ourselves thinking when we’re in pain, and you seem very aware that this is not a helpful, generous, rational approach to dealing with others. It makes sense that this pain has lingered, that it did not magically evaporate when you finally had a child—pain and anxiety almost never dissipate entirely when the hoped-for outcome finally arrives; they just find a way to suck the joy out of that too. You cannot push these feelings away nor will them out of existence with positive thinking.

If the feelings come up, acknowledge them as neutrally as possible: “Right now, I’m afraid I’ll never have a second child. I’m remembering how scary it was to try to have the first. I feel alone, as if the world is full of happy-but-careless parents, and no one else shares, understands, or cares about my pain. I’m scared of how badly I want a second child because that does not guarantee I will get what I want. I don’t know how to experience joy for other people right now, because I’m so stuck here.”

I recommend therapy, certainly, but any time you can take to set aside each day to acknowledge your feelings and not try to fight your way past them, whether that be in a journal, in private meditation, or in conversation with someone you trust, may prove helpful.

Q. Kids in the yard: My backyard is defined by a series of high hedgerows, and I have a small fence and gate around my garden and greenhouse. I have new neighbors, and their kids tend to trespass and use my backyard as a play area. I have found them helping themselves to my garden and found broken pots along with ripped-up flowers. Beyond the destruction, I have found my shed door open and tools scattered around.

I am worried the kids could seriously injure themselves. Talking to their mother does nothing. I have spoken with her three times about her kids trespassing in my backyard, only for her to parrot some twaddle about free-range kids and alluding that I was overreacting to the kids picking some flowers. She denied her children would ever break into my shed.

I have gotten a padlock for my shed and greenhouse, but I am stumped. I have never had a problem with a neighbor like this before. I can’t afford to fence in my entire yard. My friends told me to get surveillance, maybe an electric fence for the garden, and to call the cops every time I see the kids out there. I really don’t want to start a feud, but I feel like I am running out of choices here.

A: You say you can’t afford a fence for the whole yard, but it’s possible that you could be legally responsible for any injuries these kids (might) incur on your property, which I’m guessing could cost a lot more than a fence! (Any readers with legal expertise, please feel free to weigh in on the letter writer’s possible legal responsibilities.) The padlock was a great start; keep your shed and garden gate locked whenever you’re not using them. That should go a long way toward minimizing your legal responsibility, although it won’t necessarily protect your flowers if the kids want to rip them up.

I agree that this sounds frustrating, especially given that your neighbor’s interpretation of “free-range” apparently means “I consider your backyard to be an extension of my own,” but I can’t imagine that calling the cops on a regular basis over some broken flowerpots is going to improve your quality of life or actually solve your problem. Focus on determining the extent of your legal responsibility, make sure all of your bases are covered, tell the kids to stay out of your yard whenever possible, and start saving up for that fence.

Q. Hand-washing: My partner and I are big fans and lucky to not need too much serious advice right now, but we wanted to ask you about the universality (across genders) of always washing your hands after you pee. We both almost always do, but once in a blue moon I don’t wash my hands after I pee, and she thinks it’s gross. My thought is that especially right after I shower, if I don’t get any urine on my hands and my penis is clean, it’s not a huge deal if I don’t wash my hands. Yeah, this all reads really weird, but humor us.

A: I live to serve; I will humor you. I think it is unlikely that you are going to be patient zero of a new bacterial outbreak if “once in a blue moon” you don’t wash your hands after peeing—it is not the worst thing in the world—but I also think that you should start washing your hands every time, instead of almost every time. I don’t mean to impugn the cleanliness of your penis (although, you know, it’s not as simple as “Hey, I don’t see anything on it, must be clean as a whistle!”), but you’re touching plenty of other bathroom surfaces (like the handle of the toilet) that may be covered in salmonella and other germs. The good news is that since this only happens “once in a blue moon,” it will require a relatively small adjustment in habit in order to change. Wash your hands, my guy.

Q. Kid: About 20 years ago, I briefly dated “Ellie.” She was separated from her husband, and she and I met when I was in between jobs and doing drugs. Ellie then dropped me and reunited with her husband. I didn’t think anything about it at the time. I have since sobered up, started a successful business, and have married a wonderful woman. We have a 5-year-old son together.

Out of the blue, I have been contacted by a young woman claiming to be my daughter. Ellie is her mother, but the man who raised her is not her biological father, and she wants me to take a paternity test to determine if I am. I don’t know how to react to this. I don’t want to really deal with my past. Those days were a bit of a haze, and Ellie was sleeping around when I met her. Even if there is a biological connection, the man who raised her is her father, and any issues this girl has need to be addressed by Ellie, not me. I don’t know if I should tell my wife or simply tell this girl no. I don’t know if I can give this girl the answers she wants or any sort of peace.

Do I owe it to her? I like my life and love my wife and son. I am not looking to add anything else to it.

A: Since this could (potentially) be a legal issue, I think it’s worth spending a few minutes talking with a lawyer or researching what the laws are in your state about refusing a paternity test. So far you’ve simply been asked, rather than issued a court ruling, but I simply don’t know if this young woman could possibly have the legal right to demand a paternity test, and you should try to find out about that!

But, hypothetical future legal issues aside, I think you should speak to your wife. This didn’t happen while the two of you were together and can’t serve as any sort of threat to your marriage; enlist her counsel and support as you try to figure out what to do.

You say that you like your life and love your wife and child. That’s great! That’s also not really relevant. You are not being asked to renounce your life, or to pay child support (since she’s already of age, isn’t asking for money, and mostly just seems interested in learning more about her origins, although again, that’s worth speaking to a lawyer about), or to disavow your son. You aren’t being asked to co-parent a child. This young woman isn’t asking that you start meeting her for coffee and conversation every week, or asking to call you “Dad”—she just wants to know if you might be her biological father, and it sounds like you think there’s a reasonable chance you might be. Whether or not you want to deal with your past is not the point. No one wants to deal with the past! It would be great if every day we could wake up anew and everything we’d ever done before was consigned to the ash heap of history, never to be brought up again, but that is not how life works.

Talk to your wife, consider the best- and worst-case scenarios, figure out what you are and aren’t willing to do for this woman (you can, if you decide to do the test and do turn out to be her biological father, offer her a brief outline of how you knew her mother, your family medical history, and say, “I’m not available for any further relationship”), find out what your possible legal obligations are in taking the test, and go from there.

Q. Re: Kids in the yard: Leaving aside the terrible prospect of the children being potentially injured while playing on letter writer’s property, it is important to keep in mind that the letter writer is potentially liable in a civil lawsuit if the children are injured on her property. It already appears as if the kids are totally unsupervised by their parents, so this is more than an abstract concern. This mother may consider herself a “free-range” parent, but only time will tell whether she becomes a litigious parent in the future if the kids get injured on her property.

To that end, posting “No Trespassing” signs on the letter writer’s property as well as documenting her efforts to stop the trespassing by making police complaints may seem like going nuclear when it comes to neighborly relations, but I’m afraid to say that those are very prudent measures to take in order to, at a minimum, avoid a lawsuit down the road. The letter writer has tried the friendly approach and has been rebuffed. She has no other options here.

A: It’s frustrating to learn that one is liable both legally and civilly for the kids of a neighbor one dislikes, but knowledge is power, at least in this situation. I’m still on the side of “don’t call the police”—that’s a default for me, for a number of reasons, unless I think there’s sufficient reason to overcome the default—but the No Trespassing signs (and the fence! Get that fence!) sound like a good place to start in protecting yourself.

Q. Black mold: My mother has a mold problem—or as she likes to call it, “a mildew problem.” She says she cleans it up every time she sees it, but we’ve found huge patches in unused areas in the past. My husband has stayed in the house five times and gotten ill every time; I get ill from the house as well. We have a 2-year-old who could possibly have asthma. My brother is getting married soon, and guess where my mother wants to my family to stay?

I refused due to my family’s needs, and she’s angry, stating it’s just mildew and she can clean it up. It’s clear the source isn’t being treated as this has gone on for several years. I’m less concerned about the hotel bill and more concerned about the health issues posed to my parents, one of whom has cancer and the other emphysema. Is this a solvable issue?

A: You are already taking steps toward solving it, for which I congratulate you! The fact that your mother is angry has not dissuaded you from getting a hotel when you visit, and that’s no small feat. Hold firm, and encourage her to get a professional estimate on the problem.

“I know you’ve cleaned up patches in the past, but since it’s always come back and induced illness and asthma flare-ups in my family, I think it’s likely there’s more that can’t be seen with the naked eye. I think you should have someone come out and try to estimate the damage, because I’m concerned about the health risks it poses to you. In the meantime, I’m going to continue staying in a hotel.”

Q. Am I abusive toward my girlfriend?: My girlfriend, Tracy, and I have been together for five years. When we first got together, our relationship was fantastic. We felt a deep connection, spent frequent quality time together, and communicated without any trouble at all. Then three years into our relationship, I was severely physically and sexually assaulted when walking home. Since then, I’ve experienced flashbacks, difficulty sleeping, bouts of irritability, anger, and I have lost my motivation and zest for life. Nothing interests me anymore and everything feels like a chore.

At times, I explode, something I never used to do. For example, Tracy came home from work and started venting about her day. At one point she dropped something, and I became startled and jumped. She looked at me in surprise and asked what was wrong. I flew into a rage, screaming at her that she was an idiot and stupid for asking a dumb question and threw my glass at the wall. Later on I apologized and cleaned up the mess.

These incidents are becoming more commonplace, occurring maybe once or twice a month, though they don’t last for long. I always apologize afterward, and I try so hard to control my behavior, but I can’t. I have never hit her and never would, but I know I am still in the wrong with my behavior. I have tried antidepressants and I have tried seeing two different counselors to talk, but nothing has helped.

I don’t know what to do. Am I abusive? Can I change? What should I do? Should I break up with my girlfriend for her own well-being?

A: In order: Yes, you are being abusive toward your girlfriend. The fact that you are aware that your behavior is wrong and desire to act differently is a very good indicator that you are capable of change. There are many things you should, and can, start doing right now in order to stop abusing your girlfriend. There is help for people who commit abuse and want to stop. Ending your relationship should, at the very least, be on the list of potential outcomes if you do not trust yourself to continue to date her without screaming and throwing things.

You say that you have never hit her and you “never would,” but it sounds like you never thought you would scream at her or throw a glass at a wall just because she dropped something, either. I don’t think that you can actually predict whether or not you’re going to escalate from physical intimidation, verbal abuse, and indirect violence (throwing a glass at a wall, at the very least, communicates to the other person, “Next time I might throw this at you”). Seeing a counselor “to talk” is a step in the right direction, but you require more specific help than simply talking. Look for programs and therapists in your area that offer support for people struggling with anger management, post-traumatic stress disorder, and trying to stop the cycle of abuse (“I always apologize afterward” is part and parcel of the cycle).

Q. Relationship issue—urgent help needed: Back in October, my boyfriend essentially ended our three-and-a-half-year relationship. He said he couldn’t do it anymore, wasn’t happy, and found someone else even though (as he would admit) I gave him no reason to be unhappy. He stayed around to offer me moral support; my college graduation was coming up in December and I was a mess. But he replaced me with a girl he’d known for six months, pushing me off and rescheduling things with me for this other girl even though he and I were still together in the barest of senses.

Emotionally, I was drained. I felt alone and abandoned, and almost needed to hospitalize myself. The one time I called him needing support, he sent me to voicemail because he was with this other girl. He didn’t attend my graduation. He brought her to a family Christmas dinner that for the three previous years I was never invited to.

Three weeks after my graduation, he contacted me saying he’d changed. I believed him, but now he still wants this other girl in his life. He’s trying to force a friendship between her and me. And now, I have somehow agreed to hosting a small dinner that he’s determined to bring her to. I’ve somehow invited this girl into my home. I want to hate her even though she isn’t fully at fault.

Do I go through with this? Do I tell them to not show up, and block his number, Facebook, et cetera? He has been making leaps in trying to repair our shattered relationship, but I really feel like this is just another dealbreaker on his end (and there are others associated with him).

A: Your ex-boyfriend broke up with you. He didn’t “essentially” end your relationship.
He ended it, in every possible sense. Accepting “moral support” from this guy (*extremely “Linda Richman from Coffee Talk” voice*: It was neither moral nor supportive!) was not a good idea, and you will do yourself a favor by ceasing to accept it now. You cannot receive effective support after a breakup from the person who broke up with you. Out of all the people in the world, they are the most uniquely unqualified to help you get through the aftermath of a breakup.

This man is not your friend. He has not changed. He does not actively will your good, he does not care about your well-being, and he will continue to hurt you as long as you remain in contact with him. He has not been “making leaps” in trying to repair your shattered relationship. He broke up with you, got a new girlfriend, and is taking advantage of your emotional vulnerability and love for him to keep you on the line. He is not your boyfriend, and he is not your friend. Tell him not to attend, that you need to get over him, and that friendship between the two of you is not possible. Block his number, do not convince yourself that you are obligated to become friends with his new girlfriend, and spend time with your real friends as you mourn the loss of your relationship.

Q. Ultimatum: My boyfriend graduated the year before me with his master’s and has shown no ambition to move on from our small college town (he manages a pizza place). We both have looming debt that we need to start paying back, plus I would like to discuss marriage and children. My boyfriend drags his feet and puts off the conversation—“next weekend,” “after the holidays,” et cetera. My degree means I will have to move for work but where depends on him (and having kids means I’d rather stick close to family and stay in state). My mentor has offered me a few “ins” at companies on the East Coast; it would mean more money but a big move.

Can I tell my boyfriend that he has to make up his mind? I love him, but if I have to lose him because we have differing life directions, I can deal with that. I can’t stay still, though.

A: Of course you can offer your boyfriend an ultimatum. There are manipulative, unkind ways to offer ultimatums, and there are reasonable, reality-honoring ways to say, “Here is what I want; if you want it too, let’s do this together, if not, we should break up.” You say you love him, but you’re willing to end the relationship if you don’t want the same things, which is exactly the emotional position a prospective ultimatum-giver ought to have before offering said ultimatum! Do it, and good luck, either way.

Q. Left out: I am friendly to my work colleagues, and they are friendly to me. We all get along fine. However, a group of them often arrange outings (meals, theater, et cetera), and I am never invited. It makes me sad listening to them talk about their plans for the weekend or seeing them head off for a meal, never thinking to ask me along. I feel that they are all closer to each other than they are to me, and I don’t know how to change that. I would feel awkward trying to angle for an invitation because even if it worked, I’d feel I was only there on sufferance.

What should I do? Arrange my own outing and invite them? But what if no one says yes? Or I pick the wrong thing and no one has a good time? Or they all come along, but still fail to invite me to the next outing? I know I’m overthinking this, but I feel like the loser kid at school again.

A: It is more than a little impolite for your co-workers to repeatedly and publicly talk about their plans for socializing together in front of you! I’m sorry you have to deal with that. If there are one or two people you think you get along with the best, you might try inviting them on a coffee run or for a quick after-work drink in order to get to know one another better; if that goes well, you might consider organizing a slightly larger trip to the movies or dinner outing. But if you continue to get the friendly brush-off, I think you should focus your energies on your nonwork friendships.

Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for this week, everybody! Keep to your own yards and wash your hands.

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

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