Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning from the East Coast! Hope to see some of you tonight in D.C. for the live show. In the meantime, let’s chat.
Q. Sure that he’s not sure: I’m a 32-year-old woman. Since my mid-20s, I’ve known that I want to be a parent in some capacity (while I’d love to experience pregnancy and childbirth, I’m also keen on fostering, adoption, or surrogacy). When I was 28, I ended a six-year relationship because my partner couldn’t say that he wanted these things. Within a few days of that, I began dating someone else, and now we’ve been together almost four years. I feel that I’ve been very explicit in what I wanted from day one, and my current partner has never said, “Nope! Not what I want” when it comes to family and kids. When pressed, he says that it’s something he wants but he has no clear picture of when or who or how.
I know that I can communicate and get what I need, and I do in every other way (he’s moved across the country with me, and we’re looking at houses to buy). But I find myself feeling unheard and guilty, and I’m worried that he just doesn’t want to start a family and doesn’t know how to say that, which brings me to a constant state of waiting for him to want a family while also looking into sperm banks. How long do I wait for a good guy to figure out what he wants, when I know exactly what I want?
A: I think this is something to sort out before you two buy a house together. You’ve been explicit for four years, you’ve ended a relationship over this before, so you definitely have the muscle memory to do what you need to do! But if you want to have kids in the next few years—either with someone who’s very excited about the prospect of having them with you or by yourself—then I think it’s definitely time to start getting specific. I have no idea if your boyfriend secretly doesn’t want kids or if he’s just genuinely agnostic on the question; the great news is that you don’t need to worry about that in order to make a decision.
You: “I want kids in the next [specific number of] years.”
Boyfriend: “That’s probably a great idea! I don’t really have a clear picture on how I might come to have children someday. Oh look, a butterfly.”
You: “This is a priority for me. I’ve had a wonderful couple of years with you, but I don’t want to keep investing in this relationship unless you’re on board with actively trying to have a kid in the next X number of years. So unless you can see your way to committing to that, I think we should break up before we buy a house together.”
Take vagueness and uncertainty for the “No” they really are! If your boyfriend comes back with some version of “Oh wow, this is all so sudden, I’m not really sure what I think, I just need a little more time to figure myself out,” that doesn’t mean he’s a bad person or untrustworthy, but I don’t think you need to take those statements at face value, either. He’s had four years to figure out what he wants, knowing this whole time that you want children. That’s a lot of time! People break up over the kids question all the time. It’s an incredibly good reason to part ways with an otherwise highly compatible person, and now is the perfect opportunity to do it, instead of making a huge purchase together.
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Q. Sex, drugs, and boundaries: What are appropriate boundaries related to sex and drug use, and am I crazy for mine? Last night I hung out with my boyfriend. He didn’t work that day, but I did, so I went to bed a couple of hours before him. He stayed up and smoked weed before joining me in bed. I woke up, he started making some moves, and I asked if he’d been smoking or was high. He said yes, and I said that I’d rather not have sex, then. I was sober, and something about having sex with someone who’s high seems off. He said that was silly since he was giving consent, but I think that if it had been me and I was drunk and my boyfriend had sex with me anyway, it would be highly questionable territory, and I feel like the same standard applies here.
We’ve only been a couple for a few months and I don’t really have any experience with dating someone who uses drugs. He sounded like he’d never heard of someone having the kind of boundary I set, so I’m wondering: Am I being a prude? He didn’t push the issue, but I feel like he’s kind of annoyed or pissed with me. I just want to make sure I’m not being ridiculous.
A: There are a number of appropriate boundaries related to sex and drug use, and you get to choose whatever boundaries make you comfortable! That sounds, I guess, very gentle and woo-woo, but it’s absolutely true; the whole point of having your own boundaries is staking out what you are and aren’t comfortable with, not necessarily making objective claims about what everyone else in the world ought to do. Smoking weed isn’t exactly the same thing as getting drunk (although it is an altered state) and if your boyfriend feels comfortable having sex while he’s high, I don’t think you need to assume he can’t speak for himself. But if the idea of sleeping with your boyfriend while he’s high doesn’t make you feel comfortable and enthusiastic, that’s sufficient reason not to do it! It doesn’t mean you just need to become more comfortable with weed; it’s not a moral position you need to be talked into or out of. It’s just not a circumstance that makes you feel sexy and excited, and your boyfriend should let it go. Sulking when you hear “Let’s have sex later” is a really unattractive move (rather than, “Of course; let’s talk about this more later”), and if he doesn’t knock it off, I think it’s worth dumping him over.
Q: Unsolicited advice: My roommate offers unsolicited advice in almost every conversation we have. She even sometimes interrupts phone conversations I’m having with other people to tell me what to do and how to do it. This ranges from trying to explain how my skin care regime should be (no thank you!), how I should cook something for myself, properly setting up my room, or dealing with issues at my job. I’ve learned my lesson about ranting around her, as she’ll try to fix whatever problem I’m having. It’s never malicious, more like she truly doesn’t understand how other people approach things differently and wants to tell you how she does it correctly. I’m sick of this and indifferent “hmm” in response doesn’t seem to work. How do I tell her to stop telling me what to do?
A: If she interrupts you during a phone call, all you have to do is say “Sorry, I’m on the phone, it’ll have to wait.” And if you plan on telling her a story about a problem of yours (I think it’s wise that you’ve cut back), you can preface it with a gentle, “I’m not looking for advice right now, just a chance to talk through something that’s been troubling me.” But I think this is a pretty easy fix! You say it doesn’t seem malicious and that she just doesn’t have a sense of how it comes across, so the solution is to let her know how it comes across in the moment. You don’t have to be rude about it, and it’s not aggressive to interrupt someone who’s telling you how to cook or rearrange your room or wash your face and politely say, “Thanks, but I’m happy doing it this way.” If she doesn’t get the message, you can be more specific and say, “Sometimes you offer me advice about [this subject] and while I know you mean well, I really don’t want you to. Do you mind stopping?”
Q. Netflix: I am 10 years older than my half-sisters and manage all the online subscription sites. ”Kylie” is thoughtful and never shares my password; “Kaylee” spreads it around as often she does her bed. I am tired of not watching the programs I pay for because Brad/Chad/whoever keeps using my password even after Kaylee broke up with them. Kaylee lies to me and promises not to share and then does so. I got sick of it and blocked her entirely. I told her that when she proves to stop being a liar, I will let her back on. Kaylee stamped her foot and complained to my stepmother. She is now throwing a fit and it is affecting my relationship with my dad. My stepmother thinks I am “playing favorites” because Kylie and Kaylee get treated on their behavior rather than “equally” (ask me which of my sisters has failed and repeated college without paying for it!).
I have tried to be diplomatic, but my last conversation with my father devolved to me comparing my actions at 19 to Kaylee’s. My dad responded, “You are not Kaylee.” I asked him if that wasn’t a problem—expecting the best from his oldest daughters and the worst from his youngest. He couldn’t answer me. Kaylee isn’t a child; she is almost 20. I love my family, but it has become obvious that Kaylee lives by different rules than Kylie and me. What do I do here?
A: Look, it’s fine to not want to share your Netflix password, but “spreading it around as often as she does her bed” is a wildly irrelevant and completely unnecessary thing to say. I invite you not to worry about how much (consensual, adult) sex your younger half-sister is having. I get that it’s frustrating to do a younger sibling a solid, watch them abuse your favor, and then run to your parents when you try to set a boundary, but you need to separate out your feelings about a shared streaming service from your feelings about how your parents treat her from your feelings about her sex life. Rather than dangling the Netflix password as an alternate carrot-and-stick for pleasing you, you’re well within your rights to just (calmly!) say you’re not able to share it going forward and to ignore any tantrums she may throw on the subject. If your parents try to get involved on her behalf about a limit you choose to set with your own accounts or things, you can tell them, “This is between Kaylee and me, and I’d appreciate it if you let us handle it ourselves.”
This is definitely worth seeing a therapist over, I think. It may be really helpful to spend some time talking about how your parents’ lopsided treatment of you and your siblings has affected you, and sorting through your various resentments to try to figure out which ones you can try to let go and which ones you might have grounds to bring up with the rest of your family. You don’t need to stake these conversations on your Netflix password (and you certainly don’t need to get drawn into arguments about not sharing the account), but I really don’t want you to get so angry about years of favoritism that you look for any excuse to lash out and criticize your sister for going out with a lot of guys instead of talking to your family honestly about the dynamics that have caused you real pain over the years.
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Q. Anxiety over firing employees: I’ve been managing employees for more than 15 years. When I first began hiring people, I didn’t have much of a clue of what to look for and did not make some of the best hiring decisions. The first person I hired was also the first I fired. Over the years, I have gotten much better finding and interviewing good candidates. But I recognize that it’s impossible to avoid situations that lead to the need to terminate employees. This ends up being a source of great anxiety for me.
For instance, I have an employee currently who interviewed well and started out strong. This was a new position and having someone in that role was better than having no one. However, in the past year she has demonstrated a terrible track record for attendance and also with timely and accurate work. She works from home two days a week and finds a way to come in late, go home early, or call in sick several of the other in-office days. I estimate that I’m getting at most 10 hours’ worth of actual work product from her a week. She is in a position that requires communications skill and has a master’s degree in communications, and yet I get work from her that is full of typos, bad grammar, and in general doesn’t make much sense or isn’t relevant to what I’ve asked for. I have to edit it and I really don’t have the time. It’s obvious to me that it’s time to part ways, and yet I find that I have so much anxiety over letting her go. I am committed to terminating her, which I will be doing next week after I get the appropriate things for human resources lined up.
However, I’m losing sleep over this in the meantime. I keep playing over and over in my head what I will say and even though she shouldn’t be surprised because she barely works, I somehow know that this will still come as a total shock to her. She is the only breadwinner in her family and so I feel extra bad even though objectively, I know it’s her own doing. How do I get better at just ripping the Band-Aid off and not losing sleep over this kind of stuff?
A. I think it is good to lose sleep over firing somebody, and I don’t want you to get to a place in your life where you can do it casually, even if the person in question has been lousy at their job. It’s still their livelihood! You say that she’ll be shocked by the news, which makes me wonder why you haven’t had a conversation with her about this sooner—not just “I’m worried about your attendance” or “You need to proofread your work because it’s coming to me with a lot of errors,” but a formal performance review and clear statement of consequences: “If X doesn’t improve by Y date, we’re going to have to let you go.” That would probably go a long way toward making you feel less anxious, not to mention giving her an opportunity to improve.
I wonder if you’d ever asked her what was causing her to miss work and if there was anything you could do to help or support her; sure, maybe she was just indifferent, but it sounds more like she’s stretched pretty thin and trying to keep her whole family afloat. Even if she didn’t get better, at least you’d know at that point that you’d done everything you could to avoid firing her and starting the headache of finding and training a replacement. Maybe it’s way too late in this particular scenario and you just have to fire her next week. But I think you should pay attention to your current sleeplessness and let it motivate you to change how you approach underperformers in the future, not seek to get rid of it.
Q. The almost cheater: I recently got caught flirting with someone that was not my long-term boyfriend. My boyfriend went through my phone a few nights ago and drunkenly woke me up in the middle of the night to inform me of what he found. I had been texting someone I met recently, told him I was single, and then told a few friends about it. All of this is in writing. Also in writing were my excuses as to why I wouldn’t see him, none of them being that I had a boyfriend. When my boyfriend brought it up, I didn’t really have time to make an excuse. I denied it for less than a minute, saw the hurt on his face, and fessed up. I didn’t ever meet this guy aside from the one time. I’ve never so much as touched him and wouldn’t, but the messages do not clear me for that (which is, like all of this, my fault).
The issue I am having is that my boyfriend is not taking responsibility for going through my phone while I was sleeping instead of asking me about this like an adult, and now he is dealing with my dishonesty, unsure of whether or not I am telling the truth, while I am dealing with his dishonesty. Where do we go from here? Should I just let him look through my phone every few weeks? Should I stand my ground that it wasn’t OK and ask that he take responsibility? I am trying to proceed cautiously, because I know I am the one that put us in the situation in the first place.
A. Oh boy. I get that it would feel like a relief to seize on the fact that your boyfriend went through your phone because it would serve as a distraction from what you did, but I really don’t think that’s the point here. Reading between the lines here, my guess is that you were distant and evasive about all the sudden secret texting you were doing and your boyfriend panicked. Sure, he shouldn’t have gone through your phone, but be honest: You say he should have asked you “like an adult,” but if your boyfriend had asked you, “You seem a little distant and furtive about your phone lately. What’s going on?,” would you REALLY have said, “You know, I just met this guy, and for some reason I lied to him about being single”? Maybe you would have! But I doubt it. Even when he had evidence that you’d been trying to cheat on him, you still tried to see if you could get away with denying it; even now, you’re claiming you would never have touched the guy. You don’t know if you would have! You do know that you were well on your way to touching him, though.
Certainly in the long run, if the two of you are going to get past this, you will both have to re-establish trust with one another, and your boyfriend should be able to commit to not going through your phone when he’s worried you’re keeping something from him. And the answer to your current situation is not just, “Here, have my phone for a couple of weeks as a substitute for difficult, honest conversations.” Reading your partner’s texts can never make up for a lack of real intimacy! But if you’re seizing on this because you want to make this situation out to be “well, both of us are at fault, really—let’s call it a wash,” then I think you should knock it off.
Q. Update: My day care provider is being a boob, literally!: Thank you to you and your readers for the advice. I was reading the comments and some of them got a little hostile, but I appreciated the sentiment. And trust me, I wanted to plant my fist in her face AND press charges! The police won’t pursue anything at the moment, but now they have a file on her just in case this happens again. Also, just to clear up something: The door I used has a keyless entry where I put a code in, which unlocks the door, and I walk in. It is supposed to chime to let everyone in the house know someone has entered, but the chime is either broken or unplugged since it had not chimed about two weeks after I started bringing my daughter in—a red flag I didn’t catch, sadly.
I did end up speaking with my CalWORKs case manager, which is a public assistance program here in California for children that have been adopted from foster care (among other services). I also spoke to the Resource and Referral Service Center that the day care is under. They are going to do an investigation and speak to other parents, so they can make their own informed decisions on whether to stay there. I am not sure if she is going to get her license yanked; that would be up to the state.
Also, on the advice of your readers—I didn’t think of this—I took my baby girl to the doctor. The doctor said she is fine, but that she had a little bit of thrush starting. The doctor was unsure if that is from the breastfeeding or just bad timing. Currently, my baby is in the process of being enrolled into an infant/toddler head start that I KNOW will adhere to what I want. Thank you again for your kind words and good thoughts.
A: Thank you so much for giving us an update! I’m glad your daughter is doing well and that you feel comfortable with her next day care provider, and I’m relieved to hear someone’s going to be following up with the old one.
From Ask a Teacher
Could you explain the value teachers see in giving kindergartners’ homework? If I don’t make my child do it, will his teacher think I’m a terrible parent?
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