Dear Prudence

My Happily Married Mom Won’t Stop Talking About Her Crush

Prudie’s column for Feb. 28.

A young woman rolling her eyes while her mother talks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Milkos/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
My mom, who’s been mostly happily married to my dad for 30 years, admitted to me that she has a crush on a relatively new friend. Last year she started mentioning him a lot when telling me about the social circle they met in. It felt weird when I noticed her mentioning him so often, and she finally confessed that this is her biggest (only?) crush since she fell for my dad. I love her and absolutely believe that she wouldn’t cheat. I also feel that she’s as entitled to her feelings as anyone else—but I don’t want to hear about this. It’s only a giddy, teenage-type vibe, but it makes me uncomfortable. I told her that, as her daughter, I’m not an appropriate person for her to discuss this with. She now sort of tries holding back but generally doesn’t have strong resolve. Now that I’ve met the crush (honestly quite a nice guy), she seems to think that it’s OK to talk about him again. She’s had issues understanding appropriate boundaries in the past, so this isn’t surprising. I’ve been about as firm as I can be without threatening to end our phone calls. But am I overreacting? She’s very sensitive and would take it badly. It’s a harmless crush, and she doesn’t have close friends outside of that community whom she can discuss this with. I think I also feel guilty because I have and in the future might want to turn to her for relationship advice. I haven’t had a relationship since I was a teenager, so I don’t know—would a 28-year-old typically talk to her friends instead of her mom? (I don’t have many close friends myself.) Is it fair to tell her about a crush if I don’t allow her to do the same?

Your mother’s behavior is not harmless, not typical, and not OK. Whether your mother is the type to cheat or not (after a few years writing this column, I’ve concluded there’s no single type of person who can be counted on to never cheat) is irrelevant; she’s sharing intimate information with you (that she’s presumably not sharing with her husband), forcing you into the middle of her marriage, and likely keeping a secret from your own father. The fact that she’s introduced you to the guy is even more inappropriate! Trying to gossip with your 28-year-old kid about the guy you have a crush on is selfish and cruel, and even if your mother is acting giddy, that giddiness is coming at your expense, which is why you feel guilty, uncomfortable, and burdened by it. So far from overreacting, I think you’re underreacting because you feel guilty that your mother is sensitive and hasn’t been able to make friends—probably because she’s not good at taking cues on when to stop and doesn’t respect other people’s boundaries.

I may sound like I’m being really hard on your mom. I don’t think she’s a terrible person or that you should stop talking to her. But just because your mother is cheerful or starry-eyed doesn’t mean that she’s behaving kindly. Moreover, giving your children occasional dating advice isn’t a quid pro quo situation, even when the kids are grown up (although I don’t think you should turn to her for relationship advice either). It’s fair for you to want to talk about someone you’re dating while also asking your parents not to share their barely restrained desire to step out on each other with you. Parenting is not a two-way street in that way. It’s time to get serious with your mother on this subject and tell her that while you’re happy to talk to her about her hobbies, her other friends, her travel plans, or whatever else is on the horizon, she cannot bring up her crush to you again, because it puts you in a very uncomfortable situation. Then, be as good as your word and start ending conversations kindly but firmly when she brings him up. If she cannot find a pre-existing friend to talk to about this, she can buy a journal, try to make a friend she didn’t give birth to, join a support group, tell her husband, hire a therapist, or go down to the nearest bar and strike up a conversation with a friendly-looking barfly—anyone but you.

Dear Prudence,
I recently went on three dates with a woman. The first two went fairly well, and after the second she texted me, saying she’d wanted to kiss me but didn’t have a read on me. I told her I’d like to go slow. After the third date, I felt sure I was not attracted to her after she claimed that the moon landing never happened. But I felt disappointed that I didn’t feel any attraction at all, even before she dropped that bomb. Is there something wrong with me if I’ve never wanted to kiss on a third date? For the record, I’m a woman who used to date men. But this is how it always went with them, too. I don’t like online dating, and for me attraction tends to emerge after being around a person for a while, but is that creepy? It seems like you just have to either immediately be attracted or you don’t get to be. And I have work and monthly social groups, and I’m new in this area. So I don’t know how I’d do it otherwise. I’m so confused! Why do all these online dates make me want to run away as soon as the idea of kissing (or more) seems imminent? Should I just accept being alone forever? It’s been over 10 years since I was actually involved with anyone, and I’m only 31!
—Waiting for Attraction to Kick In

There’s nothing creepy about not being attracted to someone, so please let yourself off the hook there. There are a number of different reasons online dating might not be for you. Lots of people can find it difficult to figure out how they feel about someone they’ve never met before, and even two or three dates aren’t always enough time to develop a stronger feeling than “I don’t object to you, I guess.” It can feel like an arbitrary race against time to try to develop romantic or sexual feelings for someone who’s only very recently entered your life. And for a lot of people, it can feel a little bit like trying to fall asleep knowing you have to get up in a few hours: If your brain keeps asking, “Are we asleep yet?” you’re never going to drop off into unconsciousness. It can be the same on a date: “She seems fine, but do we have butterflies? Oh no, is this boring? Are we working too hard to make this seem fun? Was that fun, just now?” And so on. You get the picture. It’s exhausting and doesn’t really create an atmosphere conducive to falling for someone, or even developing chemistry.

I don’t want to rule out the possibility that there may be something else underneath the surface. The last time I had a really hard time making it through otherwise delightful (but both inert and terrifying for me) first dates, I ended up transitioning, but I don’t think there’s necessarily some huge, identity-shaking revelation underlying this pattern for you, at least not based on what’s in your letter. You can certainly spend some time reflecting on what you don’t like about dating, what brings up fear or anxiety for you, what gives you energy and what takes it away, what desires or fantasies you may be afraid to acknowledge to yourself, and so on, but I think all you really need to do is say, “I’ve given online dating a fair shake, and I just don’t think it’s for me.” You know that going on these little spurts of dates isn’t resulting in either a long-term relationship or short-term pleasure for you, so why not call it off? You can still be open to meeting someone through friends or your monthly meetups or at the grocery store or wherever, but just take this particular strategy off the table since all it’s felt like is a slightly stressful waste of time. Not using dating apps is not the same thing as committing to eternal singledom; I can’t guarantee that this means you’ll meet Ms. Right in person next week, but I can promise you that you won’t have to keep trying to drum up energy to go on lackluster dates with near strangers.

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Dear Prudence,
I’m a transgender man with a part-time job at my university. When I started my job, I was only recently out and had just started testosterone. I emailed my boss and came out to him in simple, straightforward terms; he seemed receptive and said he’d inform my co-workers of my gender. However, for the first four months at my job, none of my co-workers gendered me correctly and sometimes awkwardly called me “they.” I assumed it was because they were conservative and pushed through it. It’s been over eight months now, and I now consistently pass. I recently learned from one of my co-workers that my boss gathered everyone together after I was hired and told everyone that I was nonbinary and used they/them pronouns, which isn’t true—I’d been very clear that I’m a trans man who uses male pronouns. I was furious. I felt so isolated and uncomfortable at my job for so long, and it took me months to get my co-workers to understand I was a man. Should I complain to my boss? Or to his supervisor? I’m one of three LGBT workers, and we’ve all experienced this kind of treatment.
—I’m Not Nonbinary

If your school has a Title IX office, check in with it before speaking to your boss so the staff is aware of the situation and can offer you and your fellow LGBT co-workers support in case you need to file a report. Then, check in with your boss. Be prepared to loop in his supervisor, regardless of how receptive he seems. It’s a good thing you emailed him when you started the job because you can refer to something you have in writing. Tell him: “I’ve recently learned that you told my co-workers I’m nonbinary and use gender-neutral pronouns. If you recall, when I emailed you about this eight months ago, I told you I’m a trans man who uses male pronouns. I’m not sure how or why this apparently changed. Can you explain this to me? I want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” If you have this conversation in person, be sure to send an email afterward summarizing what you said (“Just to summarize our conversation today, we clarified X and agreed that you’d do Y going forward”) so that you have a written record you can show to either your boss’s boss or your Title IX office in case this doesn’t lead to a simple, straightforward resolution. And anything other than “I’m sorry, I’ll correct this with your co-workers, and it won’t happen again” is not a simple, straightforward resolution.

Dear Prudence,
I’m in my late 30s, happily married, and a mother of two. My mother divorced my biological father when I was 6 months old and remarried when I was 2. Her new husband adopted me and has raised me as his own. He is my dad and a wonderful man. I have never met or wanted to meet my biological dad. I have not ever heard from him. My mother died three years ago, and it was devastating. A few months ago, I received an out-of-the-blue message on Facebook from a woman who said she was married to my biological father, found me when she was researching their genealogy, and asked if I had kids. I was caught off-balance and said yes, and she said: “So excited! He’s a grandpa! We always wondered!” She asked for my number, and I gave it to her, still shellshocked, without really thinking it through. He called, and it went very badly. He cried, said he loved me, called me his baby, wanted to come to my house. I was uncomfortable and surprised. He called again a few weeks later and claimed that my mother had cheated on him and that he didn’t believe I was his until recently. He couldn’t clarify what had changed his mind.

I’m devastated by these allegations of my mother’s infidelity when she’s not here to defend herself. I’m angry he thinks he can show up after four decades and say awful things about her. He kept texting me, “What did I do?” So I told him why I was hurt and asked him to leave me alone. Now he and his wife are guilt-tripping me, leaving countless voicemails and texts, claiming he has cancer, and asking if I can find it in my heart to meet with him “just once.” What is my obligation here? My gut tells me he’s irrational, but my heart hurts at the thought of hurting a dying old man.
—Dad Wants to Reconnect

I’m so, so sorry about what these people are trying to do to you. Their behavior from the beginning has been erratic, unpredictable, emotionally manipulative, and totally self-interested. At no point has your biological father asked you what you want, agreed to respect your boundaries, or offered any narrative of the past 40 years that explains his total absence from your life. It’s very sad that he has cancer, but for him to use that as a tool to pressure you to put up with more of their inappropriate behavior is unfair and cruel. The two of them have been nothing but intrusive and selfish in their dealings with you. I hope you are seeing a therapist to process all of the guilt and anger this has brought up. Please remember that he chose not to share custody or reach out to you as a child; he does not have a fatherly relationship with you. For him to act hurt at being denied something he chose to give up years ago is playing the victim.

If they won’t stop calling and texting, block their numbers, and tell your friends and family members to be on guard in case they try to contact them next. You do not have to put up with this just because he is old and sick and regrets the consequences of his actions. He’s trying to make you responsible for fixing something he did, and that’s not your job.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“I get the sense that this is like: ‘Here is a fun secret for you to keep from your dad!’ ”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
I am the mother of two beautiful girls, “Lily” who’s 8 and “Ramona” who’s 6. Lily is an introvert and a bookworm, while Ramona has enough energy for five kids and loves to play outside. Lily also enjoys trips to the park and other outdoorsy destinations, but she likes to bring a book wherever we go. Both girls are perfectly healthy and in a totally appropriate weight range, but because of Ramona’s more active appearance, my mother-in-law thinks Lily is overweight. And she mentions it every time she visits. She will always make a comment about Lily’s weight and compare her to Ramona. I have told her to stop a number of times, but she just waves me off and claims to be “concerned.” I have told her there is nothing to be concerned about, but she won’t stop. My husband won’t say anything to her and just told me to ignore her, but now Lily is starting to catch on and worry about her weight. Now I am ready to cut all contact and just be done, but when I said that, my husband got upset. I am at the end of my rope!
—“Itty-Bitty and Fatty Fat”

Spend a few minutes with your husband going over the research on eating disorders and negative body image among young girls and the effects they can have on the rest of their adult lives so he gets a clearer sense of just how damaging this kind of talk is to both of your girls. I promise you that Lily is not going to forget if her grandmother continues to bring up her weight throughout her childhood and her parents fail to intervene. Ramona likely won’t forget either. What Lily is learning from her family is that it’s OK for adults to talk openly about her body, it’s OK for them to appraise and criticize it, and it’s OK for them to compare her negatively to her sister. She’s also learning that if someone else tells her grandmother to stop making those comments, they don’t really mean it, because her grandmother keeps on doing it and nothing happens. The damage these sorts of comments cause is lifelong, and it’s absolutely imperative that you don’t just tell her to stop; you keep your girls away from her unless and until she can permanently cure herself of the habit of telling them she thinks they’re fat. Ideally your husband will get on board with this, but if he doesn’t, don’t wait around and hope that he’ll catch up. She’s not “concerned”; she’s cruel. Don’t let her get away with disguising her cruelty as concern on top of everything else.

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Dear Prudence,
I’m a year into cohabiting with my boyfriend, M. He works from home as a freelancer, while I have a full-time but flexible office job that allows me to work from home sometimes. M likes cooking three big meals a day, but I prefer to eat a small breakfast at home, then grab lunch and dinner out. M will always make me a plate, on the condition that I will clean up after him. The thing is that I simply don’t have time to clean up after every meal—I’m working! He uses almost every pot and pan we have in a single day, creating an overwhelming amount of work for me. I’ve asked him to use fewer dishes and rein in the splatter. I’ve taken us out to dinner and even turned down his meals so I don’t have to clean the kitchen every night. He takes it very personally and says I don’t appreciate his efforts, but they clearly come with strings attached! How can we make a compromise?
—Over-the-Top Home Chef

This is one of those classic “I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for you” scenarios. If your boyfriend could admit that he likes making three elaborate meals a day whether you join him or not, you two might be able to make some headway, but as it stands he’s pretending this is some sort of division of labor you’ve both agreed on where you’re reneging on your end of the deal. Tell him: “I grab meals out so that I don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about meal prep or cleanup. Unless we’ve agreed to share a meal together, it’s not fair of you to craft elaborate dinners and then offer me a plate in order to get me to do the dishes for you. I don’t want to get in the habit of scorekeeping and holding every dish in the house against each other, but you need to stop assuming that I’m going to share the big meals you make and do all the cleanup for you. I did not ask you to make three big meals a day for you, and that’s not what I’d ideally eat. I am happy to pick a few times a week when we plan to eat together and figure out a shared chef-and-dishwasher arrangement, but I’m not going to volunteer to clean up the whole kitchen every afternoon just because you’d rather make an over-the-top lunch than throw together a quick sandwich.”

Classic Prudie

“Over 20 years ago I had an affair with a married woman who became pregnant with my child. She reconciled with her husband and they raised the boy as their own. I have not had any contact with my biological son, at the husband’s request. No one in my family knows I have a secret son. Two weeks ago I found out my niece (my sister’s daughter) is engaged, and the groom to be is none other than my biological son! Prudie, I am livid that my son’s mother and her husband did not stop this relationship in its early stages. “No, Bobby, you can’t date that girl because she’s your biological cousin” is all it would have taken. I contacted the woman and she swore she didn’t know our son was marrying my niece since my niece has a different last name. I asked her what she planned to do to stop the wedding and she said she’s doing nothing! Our son doesn’t know anything, and according to her, cousin marriage is harmless! Prudie, how do I bring this up with my niece and her parents? I have never had any contact with my son, and I don’t think I should approach him about it. He doesn’t know his father is not his biological father. I don’t want my niece to live in incest because of my past mistake. Please help.”