Dear Prudence

The Best Dear Prudence Letters of 2018

Prudie’s end-of-year recap.

A pregnant woman knitting and a distraught bride.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus; Ljupco/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Prudie is taking the week off, so this week’s column recaps some of our favorite letters from 2018—the dilemmas that most stirred your hearts and provoked your outrage. See you in 2019! —Prudie editors

Q. Second-class grandma: My son, Steven, and daughter-in-law, Julia, are expecting their first child and our first grandchild next month. I had what I thought was a good relationship with Julia, but I find myself devastated. Julia has decided only Steven and her mother will be allowed in the delivery room when she gives birth. I was stunned and hurt by the unfairness of the decision and tried to plead with her and my son, but Julia says she “wouldn’t feel comfortable” with me there. I reminded her that I was a nurse for 40 years, so there is nothing I haven’t seen. I’ve tried to reason with Steven, but he seems to be afraid of angering Julia and will not help. I called Julia’s parents and asked them to please reason with their daughter, but they brusquely and rather rudely got off the phone. I’ve felt nothing but heartache since learning I would be banned from the delivery room. Steven told me I could wait outside and I would be let in after Julia and the baby are cleaned up and “presentable.” Meanwhile, Julia’s mother will be able to witness our grandchild coming into the world. It is so unfair.

I’ve always been close to my son, but I no longer feel valued. I cannot bring myself to speak to Julia. I’m being treated like a second-class grandmother even though I’ve never been anything but supportive and helpful. How can I get them to see how unfair and cruel their decision is?

A: You can’t! You shouldn’t! You are entirely in the wrong! I say this in the hopes that, after the initial flush of indignation fades, you will be braced and supported by the realization that you have been acting badly and that you need to change. It’s difficult to admit when one’s been wrong, but there’s nothing quite so clarifying as figuring out how to do better.

Your daughter-in-law is giving birth, which is a pretty difficult, painful, and intimate process. She has every right to plan ahead for just how many people she wants to be in the room for that. This is not about you. You are going to get to see your grandchild the day they are born. You will get to be in your grandchild’s life for as long as you live. Nothing is being taken from you. You are not being snubbed. Your daughter-in-law and your son are drawing a totally appropriate boundary, and you need to stop trying to argue with them about it. Frankly, I can see why they don’t want you in the room, if But I was a nurse! and I’m a second-class grandmother is your response to Please hang out and read a book in the hallway while Julia is crowning.

Let this go. Do not rob this moment of its joy by keeping score and demanding more.

Dear Prudence,
My daughter-in-law enjoys knitting and crocheting. For her birthday, my husband and I gave her a generous gift card to a local yarn store, for which she thanked us and seemed very pleased. Imagine my dismay, however, when six months later for our anniversary she gifted us with a lovely bedspread, which she told me she made with yarn purchased from the gift card! I told my son that we’d in effect paid for our own present and that he needs to communicate to his wife how improper and stingy this move was. He refuses, saying that her labor and time were also part of the gift. We haven’t spoken much since except to discuss our grandchildren, and our DIL has been outright cold. I’m considering writing her a letter directly explaining why this was an improper gift and expressing my sadness that her own parents didn’t teach her gift etiquette. My husband wants me to drop the whole thing and pretend like it never happened. Prudie, I don’t like the idea of moving on as if nothing happened.
—The Gift We Gave Ourselves

But nothing did happen. You received a thoughtful gift that cost more time than money. That’s it! If someone gives you a present you don’t like, you smile and say, “Thanks, how thoughtful,” and then stash it in the back of your closet. You don’t ask your kid to complain to the gift-giver via backchannel. It’s fine if you like to give expensive presents—and can afford to do so—but that’s not the only way to show someone that you care. Even if you don’t like knitwear, your daughter-in-law spent countless hours over the course of a half-year working on something very detailed for you, and you say yourself it was a lovely bedspread. Whether she got the yarn with the gift card you gave her or spent her own money is beside the point; you’re acting as if she re-gifted something when that clearly wasn’t the case. Your daughter-in-law’s gift was thoughtful and intricate; yours was financially generous and relatively generic. There would be no reason to compare the two if you hadn’t insisted on doing so in the first place.

You are grown adults with plenty of money; if there’s something you want for yourself, go ahead and buy it—this kind of petty scorekeeping around gift-giving is barely excusable when little children do it. Writing her a letter to express “sadness” that her own parents didn’t teach her proper etiquette would be wildly inappropriate, out of line, and an unnecessary nuclear option. And it’s a guaranteed ticket to make sure you see and hear about your grandchildren way less than you do now. You still have time to salvage this relationship—don’t die on this hill. Let it go, apologize for your churlishness, and take yourself shopping if you want a pricey gift this year.

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Dear Prudence,
Several years ago, our daughter, now 16, was fondled by an older cousin. We called the police, and the boy received probation.

My husband gets up early in the morning. He sets his work clothes out in the dining room so he doesn’t disturb me. For years, he got dressed in the bathroom. Two years ago, I caught him walking through the house naked. He said it was OK since no one was awake yet. I reminded him that our daughter gets up very early and asked him to please get at least partially dressed in the bathroom. He agreed, but I caught him a few weeks later still walking around naked. When I talked to him about the situation, he again said he’d get dressed in the bathroom.

I just learned that my daughter has seen him naked multiple times, including when he yelled out for her not to look and then walked out of the bathroom to grab a towel from the linen closet. On at least two other occasions, she came down to use the bathroom and saw him. I asked her if he might not have noticed that she’d come down, and she said that he’d turned in her direction, so she doesn’t know how he couldn’t have noticed her there. Granted, he was 20 or 30 feet away, but his behavior is downright creepy. Also, he never said anything to me about her already seeing him nude. The poor kid’s been diagnosed with PTSD. She’s planning to confront him the next time she goes to her psychologist, but is there anything else I should do in the meantime or afterward?
—My Husband Forgets We Have Kids in the House

Why on Earth are you letting your underage daughter take responsibility for confronting your husband about repeatedly exposing himself in front of her? That’s your job. You’ve known for at least two years that he has a habit of wandering through the house naked early in the morning. You asked him to stick to getting dressed in your bathroom, reminding him that your daughter—a victim of molestation—also got up early, and yet several weeks later, despite knowing and agreeing to all of this, your husband did it again. Now you find out that he has continued doing the exact same thing for years, that your daughter has been profoundly bothered by it on multiple occasions, and that he’s been keeping this from you—and your plan is to let her take the lead on this conversation? She’s 16 and traumatized, and you’re her parent. This is something that you need to talk about with him now. There is absolutely no reason for him to continue doing this, and you have to take seriously the possibility that he has been getting something out of this. It’s not hard to throw on a shirt and a pair of shorts before walking through the house, it’s been made clear to him that casual adult nudity is not a normal part of your household routine, and the sheer repetition and secrecy around this behavior suggests that it’s more than mere carelessness. Do not allow him to put you off again. Continue to check in with your daughter, prioritize her safety and well-being, and have a plan in place for how you will protect her if he doesn’t stop, even if that means staying in separate homes.

Q. Wedding dress feud: I am getting married in a just a few short months. Everything has been going wonderfully, the only snag in the whole proceedings has been the wedding dress. I found a perfect dress six months ago. My fiancé’s mother found the perfect dress for me as well: her old one that she got married in. I politely told her that I appreciated the possible heirloom but had found my own dress. I figured that would be the end of it and that she would give it to one of her daughters. Apparently, that was not the end of it. She was so hurt over my choice that she told my fiancé that she wanted nothing to do with the wedding and has not helped since! Fast-forward to now, she has been calling me every single day. Thirty to 50 times a day. Begging me to wear her dress and end the feud. She says she won’t stop until I agree.

I am at my wits’ end. My fiancé is no help. He says that I should just wear the dress for the ceremony and then change into my own dress for pictures at the end.

A: Oh, my God. This woman is calling you 30 to 50 times a day about a dress you plan on wearing once, after receiving a clear “No,” and your fiancé doesn’t think this is a problem. This is an enormous problem, not because of the dress, but because of what it suggests about the dynamic you’re going to have to deal with if you go through with the wedding and marry this man. Can you live with the kind of marriage where your husband’s response to 50 daily phone calls from his mother is “no big deal”? This is an enormous red flag, and you absolutely have to pay attention to it. If your husband-to-be isn’t willing to help you set a boundary with his mother, if he’s not willing to see a counselor with you about this, if he’s not committed to making sure his mother doesn’t dominate your marriage like she’s dominating your wedding, then please don’t marry him.

Q. Boyfriend believes he’s 6 feet tall: I met my boyfriend, David, on Tinder five months ago, and it was a match made in heaven. He’s compassionate, attractive, and a bombshell in bed. Recently, at our physical, I learned something. David is 5 feet, 8 inches tall. On his Tinder profile, he lists himself as 6 feet. On our first date, I asked him [if he is] really 6 feet. He got agitated and said yes.

I feel lied to and betrayed—why is he so insecure about his height? He takes so much pride in being tall. Always bragging to our friends and acquaintances, commenting how he won’t fit in that car, asking if I need help getting something off the top shelf. When the doctor read off his height I thought I saw his eyes start to swell up. Now he’s attempting to stick his height into every conversation. I have been afraid to bring it up, but this is really bugging me. I see marriage in our future, as we’re both almost 40—but this needs to be settled first.

A: This is not a situation where you need much of a strategy beyond “acknowledging reality.” Talk to your boyfriend. “Hey, it’s clear that this hits a really deep nerve for you, but I’m not sure why you keep bringing up your height and insisting that you’re 6 feet tall. It was obvious at the doctor’s office that you felt very strongly about hearing your height spoken aloud. What’s going on?” If he wants to talk about his feelings about his height with you, that’s going to be a lot more useful to him than pretending he’s 4 inches taller for the rest of his life.

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. How to ask for an open relationship: I’ve been with my wife for eight years, married for three, and we recently had a baby. I love my wife, and I adore our baby girl, but while I love my wife, I’m not “in love” with her anymore, and I’m no longer attracted to her physically. Our relationship is more like two roommates who share parenting duties. She is my best friend, and I love her like a sister. I don’t want a divorce. Instead, I want to ask her if I can open the relationship.

Of course if we open it, I’d be happy to let her date as well. How do I gently broach the topic without hurting her feelings? I love her and I want to be happy, and even though I’m no longer attracted to her, I want us to continue to be a family. She knows something is wrong, but I’m not sure how to tell her how I feel.

A: Oh, dear. I’m not sure the things you want—to inform your wife you’re no longer attracted to her, nor in love with her, that you think of her as a sister, that you’d be totally cool if she decided to get a boyfriend, that you’d like to sleep with other people, and to keep from hurting her feelings—are compatible or even possible.

If you reread your letter, I think you must be aware on some level that you are not on the verge of breaking news of some cool, exciting new opportunity to your wife. You say she “knows something is wrong,” which suggests that she does not “love you like a brother” and has also fallen out of romantic love with you, and that she is not likely to be excited at the prospect of starting an open relationship together. Whatever you ultimately decide to share with her, I think you should be realistic about the odds that your confession will result in a divorce, whether you want it to or not.

The two of you just had a baby—not always the most exciting, sexy time in a relationship—and I’m inclined to think that if you sit on this confession for a little while, you may feel some relief over not rushing to share all of these feelings with her as they arise. That doesn’t mean you two can’t have serious conversations about your goals and your feelings, merely that you don’t have to share every single impulse that’s currently floating around in your head.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe will return next week to discuss a letter—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
I’m in a pickle, or rather my son is. He is 17, is about to graduate high school, and likes to smoke pot, which is illegal in my state. He has been through a teen-intervention course for having pot and paraphernalia in his vehicle (teen court, tour of the jail, the works), and we thought that would scare him, but once he met his community service requirements, he started smoking again. This past December, between his work and holiday money, he spent about $500 on pot. He wants to move out and live on his own when he is 18—he says his goals are to just “work and smoke pot.”

We have a college fund for him and are paying for his car. He can’t afford to take over car payments or get a loan. I refuse to have him drive a car that is in my name when he has been smoking. So we’re considering cashing in the college fund so he can pay off his car and get started. On the one hand, he can figure out how to pay for college himself—lots of kids do! On the other hand, I feel like a crap parent for making it hard on him, and I don’t want illegal drugs in my home. My question is this: Do I accept the decision of a 17-year-old who is pretty mature and competent, or give it more time and hope for a change? We’re getting close to when he wants to move out, and I really don’t want the liability of a car in my name being driven around by him or his friends with pot or paraphernalia in it.
—Hard Line?

If you set aside the money for college, it’s perfectly reasonable to leave it as is unless and until he decides to attend. If your son wants to move out and work and smoke pot—which, as goals go, is probably achievable—he can do so, but that doesn’t mean you have to buy him a car in order to facilitate that dream. If he can “figure out how to pay for college,” then he can figure out how to buy a car, or briefly stop dropping $500 a month on weed (!!) to save up for an apartment to smoke weed in. I think the better option is to figure out how you’re going to stop paying your son’s expenses once he turns 18 and set up a clear plan for turning over financial obligations like car payments. If he later decides he wants to try college, the money will still be there—you’re not taking anything away from him or trying to stop him from working instead. The struggle for you, I think, will be to let your son make his own decisions without trying to either shield him from consequences or steer him into choosing what you want for him.

Dear Prudence,
I did something really stupid and insensitive. Now I’m worried I might have ruined my personal and professional life. I work in an office where most of my co-workers are friends. Recently I snapped a picture of my co-worker “Shannon” and shared it in an online community where we discuss the obese people in our lives. (The picture was taken at work, but I didn’t upload it there.) Shannon’s picture got more attention than I anticipated and made it to a news feed for a broader audience. Someone from work saw it and told Shannon (outside the office). If I were Shannon, I wouldn’t have brought it up at work because I’d be too embarrassed, but she mentioned it in the break room. Shannon’s friends are on the warpath and are pushing her to go to HR. I didn’t use my main account to post the picture, but someone could potentially identify me. I’m not sure if I should go to Shannon and apologize (I am deeply sorry I’ve hurt her), go to HR pre-emptively, or just stay quiet. If people find out I did this, they’ll hate me. I didn’t say anything mean about Shannon when I posted the photo, but others did.
—Nosy Co-worker

There’s a lot of evasion and justification in your letter. What you need to do if you hope to live a better life than the one you’re living now is to acknowledge your own actions and motivations. This online community doesn’t exist to “discuss the obese people in [y]our lives,” it exists to spy on, record, and mock them. You “didn’t say anything mean about Shannon” when you posted, but you took a creepshot of her without her knowledge and uploaded it to a forum where people go to mock others for their appearance. You did not do something stupid and insensitive, you intentionally (and, it seems, persistently) participated in a cruel game whose sole aim and focus is to make fun of fat people when you think they can’t hear or see you. The fact that people said mean things about Shannon was not an unforeseeable accident, it was the logical conclusion of the actions you took. The fact that you didn’t upload the picture at work is not the mitigating detail you seem to think it is. You took a picture of your co-worker at the office without her knowledge or consent and posted it online for a group of strangers to tear down her appearance. You made this a work issue, because now Shannon is wondering which of her co-workers she can no longer trust. It didn’t occur to you to apologize to Shannon before you realized that there might be social consequences for your actions, which suggests that you are not so much sorry for what you’ve done as you are afraid of being exposed as untrustworthy, unkind, and unprofessional. Rather than wait to be identified, since you already know that’s likely to happen, spare Shannon the further agony of wondering who did this to her and tell HR that you’re the one who did it. You can state that you’re willing to apologize if Shannon wants to hear it and someone can be there to mediate the conversation, but don’t force an apology on her if she doesn’t want to talk to you, and be prepared to experience the subsequent personal and professional consequences. Use the pain of the present moment as motivation to behave differently in the future.