Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Surrogate: I am married with two children of my own. My brother and his wife have been consumed for the past five years with their infertility struggles. Surrogacy was their last option. We wanted to help with their heartbreak, and I volunteered to be their surrogate. It was successful, and I am four months along.
My sister-in-law will not stop hovering. She constantly emails me healthy pregnancy articles or questions my eating habits or “just stops by.” My brother, my husband, and I have explained to her that this might be her baby, but it is my body and my life. I am following the orders of the doctor, and I would be happy to see her for Sunday dinner or once a week for coffee, but her constant interruptions and explanations are stressful to me. My sister-in-law agrees and then in a few days will find another way to intrude. The last time, she came over and secretly replaced all our cleaning supplies with “natural” ones. I am sympathetic to her nervousness, but I am ready to ban her from the house altogether. I can’t stand to think of what she will be like in the next five months. I have always had easy pregnancies (no morning sickness) and easy births. The doctor says the baby and me are fine. How do I reassure my sister-in-law and keep her from driving me nuts?
A. Set a filter for her emails (or at least any emails with key words like “healthy foods” or “diet tips”) so that they bypass your inbox and you can check them once a week or once a month at your leisure before deleting them. If she has keys to your house, ask for them back or have a locksmith come out and change them. If she doesn’t (did someone else let her in? Did you leave a back door unlocked?), make sure that your house is secure before you leave. Encourage her partner to help manage her anxiety and maintain the boundaries you’ve all agreed upon.
Screen her phone calls if necessary. If she tries to get in touch more than once or twice a week, let her know that you’re busy but you’ll see her (at a regular, agreed-upon check-in time).
Q. Giving money to a stranger in need: I recently found out that a friend of mine has been cheating on his wife for years. I knew he was in a long-term relationship. I knew that she existed, though I never met her (the dude and I were coffee shop buddies; he’s a barista), but he always implied or said outright that they were in an open relationship. In October, he told me that they just got married because they found out she was pregnant. The marriage part was a lie—they’ve been married for two years! And never once was their relationship open! I found this out because she called me out of the blue and wanted to warn me because she thought I was one of his many partners. I’m not (thankfully), but I learned the truth and told her what I knew about his other relationships.
Here’s the thing: She is 24, has been with this dude for 10 years, and is about to have his baby. She’s had to pay his legal costs because apparently he’s also involved in something criminal. She’s in debt, has kicked him out of their apartment, and is preparing to move in with her mother. I know I have no responsibility here, but … can I throw money at her? I cannot imagine what she’s going through, and I feel so much pain for her. She has a safe place to live, but she’s due in March and has no money! Is it at all appropriate to offer her some cash? I can afford it, and I want to help, but I’m just not sure how to navigate this or if this is at all appropriate.
A: You have very exciting conversations with your baristas! (Hopefully he is on his way to becoming an ex–coffee shop buddy.) I think since you’ve already had a pretty emotionally intimate phone call with this woman, you have grounds to follow up and tell her that you’re thinking about her, hope she’s doing well, and wanted to know if there’s anything she needs that you could help her with. If she seems reluctant to ask you for anything, I think you can take her cue and assume that she’s getting enough help from her own family and friends, but if she seems receptive, you can offer to run an occasional errand or bring something to a baby shower. Only after you’ve gotten a stronger read from her do I think you should offer money, because you don’t want to risk offending her. But it’s a generous impulse, and I hope she has a lot of people in her life who care about her right now.
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Q. Santa doesn’t come to our house anymore: My husband and I have a 4-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, whom we are raising Jewish. My husband’s family is interfaith: His father is Jewish, and his mother is secular but celebrates Christmas and Easter. I grew up celebrating Christmas, but I converted to Judaism before our daughter was born. Our stance is that we will happily join holiday celebrations with family and friends in their own homes, but it’s not something we’ll be doing in our home. This includes no Santa for our children. Since my son was only 2 when I converted, he never actually had any experience with Santa. Even now, although he knows who Santa is, he has never expressed any real interest or any sadness that Santa doesn’t come to his house.
The problem is with my mother-in-law. Over this past Christmas, she repeatedly questioned our choices, going so far as to say how selfish we are for depriving our children of Santa. We tried to explain our reasons and emphasized it is our decision, to which she responded, “We’ll see.” She has a history of lacking a filter and her occasional insensitive remarks are something of a family joke. She isn’t a cruel person and generally is very supportive of us as parents.
We mostly think this is about lingering tensions from her own marriage about religion. In light of all that, my husband is more willing to look past this. He said he would talk to her, but he’s conflict-averse and has been dragging his feet. His feeling is that she didn’t mean to be cruel, her lack of filter isn’t going to change, and maybe it won’t even be an issue next year. I don’t want to make a bigger deal of this than it is, but what she said did hurt me, both in how she dismissed our religious choices and how she questioned our parenting. I agree with my husband, but I still think she should be aware that what she said is hurtful, and I don’t want her to question our religious choices ever again, especially within earshot of my children. What do you think?
A: I think if you want your mother-in-law not to say something along those lines again, you and your husband need to have a follow-up conversation with her. Ideally he would take the lead on this, although it sounds like he’s hoping it will all just go away if no one says anything. My experience with in-laws in this column who have a history of making digs at how the next generation is raising their kids, especially when it comes to religion, tells me that his hope is nothing more than a pipe dream. Put it to him like this: “Based on the last time we talked about this with your mother, we know that she doesn’t really think it’s our decision to make and hasn’t agreed to let it go. I understand that she feels a certain way about her own marriage, and I’m not suggesting we gang up on her and start yelling, but I don’t want to wait for her to say something out of line again. I’d rather revisit the subject when we’re feeling calm, not angry over a surprise stunt, and make it really clear that this isn’t part of a ‘family joke’ that we can all laugh about later.”
If you’re willing to visit your mother-in-law while she celebrates Christmas, you and your husband can assure her that she’s not going to lose out on that and that you’d never ask her to change the way she celebrates holidays in her own home. But I think it’s wise to address now, especially if she’s implying that raising your children in a Jewish home is “depriving” them of anything—that’s something that needs to be nipped in the bud now.
Q. Rent: I go to school and work full time. I pay my mother rent for my one-bedroom with private bath. It has two small closets. Her boyfriend lives with us. His ex is moving, so his daughter needs to store her mountains of stuff, and she wants to store it with us (rather than pay for storage). While I was at work, she went in, removed all my clothes, and stuffed one of the closets with her boxes. I came home to my clothes thrown on my bed. I freaked out and got into a fight with her. I told her to never come into my room again and to remove her stuff or I was going to trash it. She cried for Daddy, and I started fighting with him. I was “unfair” and “not thinking of family,” and I told him she wasn’t family and to not be a cheapskate and pay for her storage. My mother came down defending him, and I reminded her I was paying rent and he wasn’t.
Now everyone is not talking to me. I personally locked my room and bought a minifridge. All the boxes line the hallway. No one likes it, but it is all my fault. My mother complains I am being “difficult.” I asked her why I pay rent while her boyfriend’s daughter gets free storage. I am not sorry. We are both the same age, and she is throwing temper tantrums over stuffed animals (she has hundreds in several boxes). Moving out is not an option. I don’t have a car, and I am right on the bus line to school and work. I am saving, but I am paying for school myself. What do I do?
A. Honestly, I think you’ve behaved remarkably well, given the provocation. You pay rent for your bedroom and bathroom, and you’re entitled to use the closet there, so I think you were right to lock it. In the long run, you can let your friends/classmates/co-workers know that if they ever hear of a room becoming available somewhere along your bus route that they should tell you about it, but in the short term, all you need to do is stay polite to your housemates, pay rent on time, and keep your living space relatively clean. While you’re at it, keep track of your rent payments to your mother (I assume you two don’t have a formal lease), just in case you ever need to establish your legal rights as a tenant. But hopefully it won’t come to that. If they continue to give you the silent treatment, stay cheerful and then make plans to visit friends or read or watch TV in your room. Refuse to have the same argument over and over again, and have a script ready in case someone else tries to guilt you out of your (very reasonable!) position again: “I’m sorry she’s having trouble finding a place to store her things. As I’ve said before, I use my own closet in the room I pay rent for. I hope she’s able to find someplace soon.”
Q. Online master’s degree? The bio for Martha Rynberg in the “Friendly Flakes” edition podcast episode about getting an online master’s degree in cat hair management was gross and classist. I don’t have an online master’s degree, but plenty of people are pursuing them to seek slightly more affordable or more feasible avenues to higher education, and it sucks that you two think it’s mockable.
A: I’m sorry to hear that! It struck me simply as a reference to talking a lot about cats online with other people, but it’s always possible for me to miss something, and I certainly have no desire to diminish the work it takes to get a master’s degree, whether online or in person.
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Q. Roommate meltdown: My roommate has mental health issues that cause her to spiral into depression and self-loathing at the drop of a hat. A simple broken plate can lead to a rant about how worthless she is, yelling and slamming her hands on her desk, and sometimes even cryptic hints at suicide. She is in therapy and on medication. I’m constantly stressed, but neither of us can afford to move right now. My main issue currently is that I can’t ask her to clean up or take issue with something she does without making her spiral. Normal, everyday roommate issues fester because I can’t bring them up without risking a meltdown. How can I keep myself sane while saving up to move out, and how can I tell her I’m leaving if I’m afraid she’s going to flip? I care about her, but I can’t live like this.
A: If your primary goal is to maintain your own sanity while you save up enough money to move out at the end of your lease (and I think that’s a reasonable one!), I think you should act as if you live alone—not when it comes to having friendly conversation in the living room, but when it comes to chores. It’s an effective short-term strategy, and I think it will be way less stressful than trying to find increasingly more gentle ways to ask her to take out the trash or managing a mental health episode. That wouldn’t necessarily be my advice if you two had to live together for the next five years, but I think it’s your best way forward. When it comes to eventually giving your notice, I think you wait until you have something else lined up (so you’re not having a confrontation over a hypothetical situation) and then give her as much notice as possible. If she starts yelling at you or hitting furniture, leave the room or the apartment and tell her you’ll talk later. She has a therapist she can call, and you shouldn’t make yourself responsible for her well-being; you have a right to leave conversations where you’re being shouted at, even if she’s also suffering emotionally.
Q. How do I tell my (somewhat estranged) best friend that I’m engaged? I have been close with Kate since college, but we no longer live in the same city. Her last relationship ended badly about six years ago, and she hasn’t been on a date since. However, any time I’m in a relationship, she shuts down and almost seems angry that I’m with someone. She always acts like any distance between us is my fault. For example, when I started dating my current boyfriend, she said, “So I guess I won’t hear much from you for a while.” But I do try very hard to balance my time among relationships, family, and friends. In the past year and a half, I’ve texted Kate many times, but her answers are always short and don’t reciprocate for conversation like they do when I’m single.
Anyway, I got engaged last night, and I really want to share this news with her. But it feels so awkward. I don’t feel the closeness with her that I used to, but she’s important to me. If I don’t reach out to her, I know she’ll feel snubbed. If I do, it will feel like it’s coming out of nowhere since she hasn’t really spoken to me since this relationship started. How do I handle this and preserve this friendship?
A: There may not be a friendship to preserve, given that you two have barely spoken in the past year and a half. But I think it’s lovely that you want to try again, and I hope she’s able to turn it around. Since you know she has a tendency to get terse and nonresponsive over text, I think you should call her; if she doesn’t pick up, leave a message and try again in a day or two. If you’re able to get her on the phone, tell her that you’ve missed her, that you’ve tried to re-establish contact in the past but haven’t wanted to push when she’s remained distant, and ask if she thinks there’s any chance she’d be willing to make time to see you again. If she stays defensive or claims that it’s actually your fault that she doesn’t respond to your overtures, I think your only option is to gracefully let the friendship end. But I hope she’s willing to listen and try again—it sounds like you really care about her.
Q. Stuck in the middle: I am very close friends (at this point more like family) with a married couple, and I have individual friendships with each partner, as well as spending time with them and their child as a unit. Recently, something has come up in their family that is a major point of contention between them, and they have now separately vented to me about the issue and how the other partner is very much not on the same page. It’s honestly an issue with no clear answer; I can see both sides, and that’s the problem. I’ve tried to ask helpful questions when talking to each partner, but ultimately I come away feeling like I know too much, and I’m completely unable to help because I feel like by supporting one partner I’m betraying the other. I’m very clear when speaking to them that I see both sides, I’m supportive of what I agree with, and try to gently bring up good points I think the other partner has made. They both know that I am hearing the details of this problem from each of them, so no one is concealing anything, but I still feel like I’m in a weird spot. I just love them and want to be a supportive friend. What else should I do? Stay out if it? Quietly walk backward into a hedge when they mention this situation again?
A. It’s great that you are all friends, and it is also completely fine for you to tell them that you don’t want to hear about this anymore! Just because you are “like family” to one another doesn’t mean you have to endlessly act as a sounding board to both of them about an issue they don’t know how to resolve. It’s great that they can both talk to you about what’s on their minds, but there’s got to be a limit at some point, and they can’t both call on you as a referee on something so intimate and marriage-specific. Just tell them both (separately if you prefer, gently if you like) that you hope the two of them can figure out a way to resolve this issue, but you’re no longer available to talk about it—not because you don’t care, but because you’re starting to feel like you’re being put in the middle of something that should really just remain between them. You don’t need to “stay out of it.” They need to stop trying to drag you into it.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! Remember, next Monday is a holiday, so the live chat will be on Tuesday. See you then.
I recently broke up with someone who I thought was my soul mate. I’ve always disliked the word, but when I met him there was an immediate connection that I had never felt. It was like you had known this person for years and found them sexier than anyone you had ever met, while being completely intrigued. In the course of a couple of years we had some amazing memories together, but we also fought constantly, and there were countless small and big lies on his part, including nights spent with his ex. The thing is I still love him so much and feel like I am never going to feel that connection again. That feeling is pretty rare, I think. I’m not new to breaking up with people or people breaking up with me—this one just feels … not right. I can’t shake the feeling that I’m making a mistake (my mind says I gave up too easily), but during our relationship I cried at least a few times a week due to our fighting. That’s a shit way to live. How do I move on from this? Why is it that the strongest connection I’ve found (nothing even comes close) has hurt me to my core? Am I only satisfied by emotional pain?
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Update, Feb. 12, 2019: This post has been updated with a new lead question. The previous lead question and its follow-up were reproduced from Part 1 of this week’s chat and have been removed.
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