Q. Other people’s children: My good friend “Elaine” can’t have children of her own. To compensate, she dotes on her friends’ children, especially my daughter “Alexandra.” Our other friends think Elaine is amazing—she’ll happily babysit, brings back gifts when she travels for work, invites us to go to children’s plays with her—but her actions have always seemed desperate to me. Recently, Elaine greeted us at a party and asked if she could hold Alexandra. I joked, “I don’t know. I’m worried you’ll run off with her.” Elaine was embarrassed, at least, and left the party with her husband shortly afterward.
Now I’m not sure what to do. Sometimes, it seems like I made a casual comment that Elaine took too seriously. Other times, I think the comment spoke to an underlying fear I have that Elaine’s interest in other people’s children is dangerous. The one thing I can’t force myself to do is feel that badly. I am worried, however, that Elaine will tell our friends what I said. None of them think she’s weird, and when I’ve tried to talk about it with them, they’ve hinted that I’m being unkind. What do I say the next time I see Elaine?
A: Apologize to her. The behavior you’ve described here—happily babysitting, bringing gifts for her friends’ children, asking to hold babies—is perfectly socially appropriate, and your “underlying fear”—that Elaine’s affection for children is inherently dangerous because you think it means she’s trying to kidnap them—is absolutely unjustified and unwarranted. Your discomfort with her sadness is clear and palpable in this letter, and I don’t think your comment was “casual” at all, or that Elaine took it too seriously. You clearly resent her for wanting something she doesn’t have, for reminding you that life is sometimes chaotic and desires often go unfulfilled.
Your friends have hinted that you are being unkind because you have been unkind. If you don’t want to spend time with Elaine because the simple fact of her desire makes you feel guilty about your own life, that’s not on Elaine, and it’s incumbent on you to take responsibility for your feelings and actions. You threw the most painful reality of Elaine’s life—that she wants children, doesn’t have any, and dotes on her friends’ children to fill that void—into her face, in front of all of your friends and your daughter at a party. You humiliated her because she asked to hold your baby. You owe her a sincere apology. Whether or not she accepts it is outside of your control, but you owe it to her nevertheless.
Q. Move in: My husband and I have a two-bedroom house. We have a lovely, strong marriage, but we sleep separately. I am an incredibly light sleeper who must have perfect silence and a lot of blankets; my husband tosses violently and sounds like a chain saw when he snores. I have been hit and actually kicked out of bed by him. We can deal with each other on short trips to see family and friends, but anything longer than a few days leaves me tired and irritable. Drugs leave me feeling groggy all day.
My sweet mother-in-law is in the hospital for the second time after falling and breaking her hip. My husband’s siblings all live out of state. They think she needs to move in with my husband and me, as we are local and have a “spare” bedroom. They don’t know about the sleeping patterns of my marriage because my sister-in-laws are judgmental harpies—“Only unhappy people sleep apart,” etc. I still get grief from them for offering visitors a choice of cereal rather than making a “real” breakfast from scratch.
I will not give up my bedroom, but I am running out of arguments for why my mother-in-law can’t move in with us. My husband is having trouble not bowing to the collective will of his siblings, and I am about to lose my temper with all of them. And my mother-in-law is still in the hospital! What should I do?
A: Your problem isn’t “How do I convince my judgmental in-laws that our reasons for not hosting our mother-in-law are sound,” it’s “How do my husband and I figure out how we can and can’t help his mother after her accident?” Whether or not your husband’s siblings think it’s a good idea for her to move in with you is beside the point. They can’t extend an invitation on your behalf, and if your husband shows signs of making a decision against both of your interests (and, possibly, against his own desires) simply to keep the peace, then I think the two of you might benefit from a few trips to a couples’ counselor for the purpose of figuring out how to set boundaries with his siblings. If you would otherwise welcome your mother-in-law for an indefinite stay, then the two of you might try to figure out whether an alternate sleeping arrangement is possible (for example, setting up a studio bed in your living room), but if you don’t want her to move in with you at all, then you should both practice saying, “That’s not going to work for us. We’ll have to figure something else out” without feeling the need to go into detail about where the two of you sleep.
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Q. Can’t compete: My ex and I have both remarried, but my husband came with four other children. The kids have to share rooms, and money is tight. Birthdays are homemade cakes and barbecuing in the backyard. My ex and his wife try to buy our children’s affection. Every weekend ends with shopping bags; every vacation is exotic and expensive. When I try and limit the affluenza, my ex finds another workaround. I tell them I don’t have video games in my house; my ex spends thousands of dollars on a setup for the kids to play at his house. I want the kids to do chores; my ex pays them $50 a week to do the dishes at his house.
We keep arguing back and forth, with my ex telling me I don’t get to dictate how he spends time with his kids. His wife gets to be the fun one, while my husband has to be the one making them do their homework. I have to compete with Disneyland on a daily basis. What can I do?
A: Your ex isn’t wrong, in the sense that you have little to no control over how he spends his money on the kids when they’re with him, and I think you’re already aware of that. You’re not just low on cash compared to him, it sounds like you’re low on energy at this point, because it must be exhausting to keep going round for round with him every time he buys the kids something ridiculously extravagant. I can imagine it’s frustrating watching him try to buy your children’s affection, especially if it means they sometimes come home chafing at the prospect of homemade cakes and barbecues, but you’re not going to get him to spend any less money, and you’ll only wear yourself out.
Don’t join his competition; let Disneyland be Disneyland and you be the same kind of parent you’ve always been. Eventually, even the most Disney-happy child realizes that they wouldn’t actually want to live at Disneyland all the time, and I think your kids will only appreciate the stability and the sense of connection at your house more and more with time. The next time you catch wind of his more over-the-top purchases, take a deep breath, remind yourself that his house is his house (and that your kids don’t just love you for what you can buy them), and fall back on the phrase, “That sounds great; hope you enjoyed it. In this house we [do our own dishes for free/don’t have scrimshaw toothbrushes].”
Q. Daughter hates turkeys, and neighbors let them roam free: My 10-year-old daughter, “Alexa,” is terrified of birds, turkeys in particular. Our neighbors let their three turkeys roam our rural neighborhood. The turkeys are well-behaved and capable of fending for themselves and returning home, so no one seems to care that much. But Alexa refuses to play with the other kids in the neighborhood unless everyone comes to our backyard. The other kids love the turkeys and will run to pet them. The turkeys are inquisitive and will happily approach people like dogs would. Alexa has frozen when this has happened and has cried when one of them touched her.
Our neighbors seem confused by the phobia and aren’t interested in restricting the birds’ movements. We’re seeking treatment for Alexa for the phobia, because that seems to be the only option available to us. Is it unreasonable to talk to our neighbors again, to ask them to try to keep the turkeys at home during certain hours? Is there a script for asking your neighbors to help you with your child’s phobia?
A: I’m glad that you’re seeking treatment for Alexa and hope that it proves helpful. My guess is that keeping the turkeys cooped up 24/7 would be an expensive and difficult prospect for your neighbors, and it’s not a reasonable request to make of them. In the meantime, your strategy of inviting other children over and getting Alexa help for her phobia is a good one, and I think you should continue with it.
Q. Aftermath: I am the stay-at-home mother of three who just had to listen to my husband confess to screwing “Jane,” the wife of his business partner. People we considered old friends. Jane thought she was pregnant, and my husband panicked. It was a false call, but now I have to make nice and smile, or else bring the entirety of our lives burning to the ground.
I have secretly gone to a lawyer, but it would be devastating for me to divorce my husband now. Revealing the affair will destroy the business and our lives. My baby is still nursing. I have no resources to care for three children under 4—I am stuck. My husband has begged me to forgive him and keep his secret. This means I have an obligation to socialize with Jane. When she smiles and simpers at me, it’s all I can do not to slam a wine bottle into her face. My husband promises he has ended the affair, and I have full access to his email and texts. I don’t want this. I want my old life back, to trust my husband and friend again—and I can’t. I can’t keep this up, and I have to.
A: While going back to your old life is an impossibility and leaving your husband this minute sounds financially destabilizing, that doesn’t mean your only option is to be friendly with Jane, to swallow your betrayal and rage, and to protect your husband’s feelings at the expense of your own. Whatever your role has been in helping your husband develop his business, dial that down to the absolute bare minimum so that you see Jane as little as possible. Your job right now isn’t to maximize your professional usefulness to your husband, it’s not to assault Jane. You don’t have to do more than politely acknowledge her and move on when you run into her at social events, so don’t torture yourself by forcing a conversation and enduring her smiles. This “obligation” to socialize with her is not a real obligation. You may not be able to leave your husband right now without incurring financial disaster, but that doesn’t mean that everything has to stay as it was, or that you owe it to him to keep up appearances. Do what you need to do to stay sane in this marriage right now, whether that be sleeping in separate rooms, finding a therapist, spending time by yourself and with friends, or staying in regular touch with your divorce lawyer and coming up with a five-year plan so that when you are ready to leave your husband, you’re not penniless.
Q. Dog drama: Last year, I moved with some friends into an amazing apartment, with a private backyard in a large city. I have a dog, and so does my roommate “Sarah,” but the dogs are both older, well-behaved, and get along. Everything was going great until a few months ago, when my other roommate, “Jill,” told us she was going to be dogsitting for her aunt while the aunt goes through chemo. (Her exact words were, “I didn’t ask you first because I knew you’d say yes.”) I wasn’t thrilled about having three dogs in our small apartment, but figured I could handle it temporarily. Big mistake. The new dog is a puppy and not well-behaved. She pees and poops on the floor every day, even if you let her outside. She chews up our shoes and clothes, knocks over the garbage, climbs on the coffee table, and whines constantly. Jill does nothing to train her. I’ve seen Jill walk past puddles of pee in the hallway, and she is constantly borrowing my leash, treats, etc. Sarah and I have had conversations with her about this. Things will improve for a couple days, and then I’ll open my door to find dog waste again. It’s really stressing me out. Sarah has been avoiding coming home and our house constantly smells. I’m embarrassed to have people over.
Now Jill has informed us that she’s keeping the dog. I almost blew up at her when she told us. I never agreed to live in a tiny apartment with three dogs, and I have no interest in training a puppy. Our lease is up for renewal next month and I absolutely cannot live another year cleaning up after a puppy. I really like Jill, but that dog has got to go. I’ve been looking into moving, but frankly I’m not going to find another apartment in this area for my price range with a private yard. I’m trying to be sensitive, as Jill is suffering from depression and I know the dog brings her joy, but I just can’t live like this anymore. Any advice?
A: I’m glad to hear that your lease is up next month, because I think the only way things are going to change is if you find someplace else to live. It may be frustrating to have to find a place without a private yard, but at least you won’t have to open the door to puppy carnage on a daily basis. And, in the future, when roommates abruptly bring home a pet, don’t immediately acquiesce just because they attempt to prevent any discussion by saying, “I knew you’d say yes.”
Q. Re: Can’t compete: I was in your position 20 years ago, only I was a single mom. I ignored what the “other camp” did; I never, ever talked negative about them; I shared where our money was going and why; and I did what you are doing—homemade cakes and experiences that did not cost much. Take the high road. Do not obsess over this. In the end, you’ll be able to bond with your children over your shared journey. Trust me!
A: Someone else pointed out that it’s possible that the letter writer’s ex feels that he can’t compete with her, that this is why he’s going overboard in trying to buy his children’s affections, and that homemade birthday cakes and backyard barbecues are more fondly remembered than expensive toys—that’s an excellent point.
Q. Holding my tongue: My best friend lives in another country, but we have been close forever and talk almost every day. In recent years, she made some comments implying that I talk about myself too much. I heard this and really made an effort to be a better listener. Nowadays, we spend a lot of time dissecting her issues, successes, problems, and grievances, and I strive to be an engaged and responsive listener. The problem is that any time I bring up something in my life, she is dismissive. If I go to her for advice, she will give a curt and uninterested response; if I share a brief, related anecdote in conversation, she will say something like, “Anyway, back to me … ” I love and value her friendship so much, but I am tired of not being able to talk about myself at all. How do I fix this?
A: “You told me a few years ago that I talk about myself too much, and I’ve really worked on that since then. I think we spend a lot of time talking about what’s going on in your life, and I’ve become a more engaged listener. But I’m not sure you feel the same way, because whenever I ask your advice, you seem checked out, and when I try to share stories from my own life, you’ll say, ‘Anyways, back to me.’ Is there something I’m missing? Do you still feel resentful over ways in which I’ve monopolized conversations in the past, and do you think it would be helpful to talk about that now? I want us to be there for each other when we talk, and I’ve been anxious about discussing this with you because I value our friendship so much, but I feel stifled when we talk.”
Q. Not OK—please stop asking: I am several weeks into a protracted illness. While the odds of survival are in my favor, I am in a great deal of pain and unlikely to see any improvements for the next several months, if I see them at all. My loved ones are aware of my condition, and several of them have taken to asking if I’m feeling better, sometimes as often as once a day. The answer is, No—I’m not feeling better. I’m in agony, I’m angry all the time, and I’m more terrified of living in this condition long-term than I am of dying. I know my friends are trying to help, but forcing me to think about my condition is doing significant damage to my fragile mental health, especially because dissociating from my pain is the only thing holding me together right now. Three or four people are asking me for updates every day, and telling them over and over that nothing has improved is exhausting. My inability to talk about this is cutting me off from the support system I desperately need. I’m doing everything I can medically to get better as quickly as possible, but it is going to be a long time before anything changes. I feel like I’m constantly being asked to justify still being sick. How do I ask my loved ones to please stop checking on me?
A: “I know a lot of you have been asking about how you can support me, and I have something specific that I’d like you to do for me that would help a lot. Please don’t ask me how I’m doing. I’m not feeling any better and I’m unlikely to feel better anytime soon, and part of what I’m dealing with right now is the anger and frustration that comes with trying to manage a chronic and painful condition. Trust that if anything changes on that front that, I will tell you, but in the meantime the absolute best thing you can do for me is not to ask that question. I want to be able to talk to you, and it will be so much easier if I’m not dealing with the stress of having to say ‘still sick and miserable’ in conversation multiple times a day. Thank you so much.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for the help, everyone! See you next week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
“In the summer of 2011 my wife and I purchased a top-of-the-line Jopen vibrator. We used it a few times and were just beginning to really integrate it into our sex lives when my wife died suddenly of a heart attack. (The vibrator had nothing to do with that.) Now, more than a year later, I’ve begun to date again. I’ve met a woman with an open mind, and I’m thinking she might be interested in using the vibrator. But I’m not sure how, or whether, to suggest it. Is it creepy to offer a dead woman’s vibrator to someone else? And if so what else can I do with it? Sell it on Craigslist? It’s an expensive piece of equipment, barely used, and it should be employed (and loved) once again. All of my wife’s other major possessions found wonderful new homes with dear friends of hers. But then again, a vibrator’s got a different—well, vibe about it. Sell it, toss it, or share it?”
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