Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. My neighbor feels entitled to my breast milk: I have lived in the same apartment building as “Tara” for two years, but we have never been more than acquaintances. We started talking more when we both got pregnant, although still casually. I saw Tara a few days after she gave birth and asked her how things were going. She burst into tears and told me that she didn’t think she would be able to breastfeed. She sounded so heartbroken about not nursing (with comments like “my baby is unlucky to have me for a mother”) that I offered to give her a few of my stored bags of breast milk to at least ease her mind. She enthusiastically agreed, and later that day I dropped off four bags of milk. The next morning I had more than a dozen texts from Tara, wanting to set up a schedule for me to drop off more milk. The texts made it clear that she expected me to provide her with enough breast milk to feed her daughter exclusively.
I tried offering excuses, none of which she would accept. If I said I didn’t think I could produce enough milk for two babies, she replied that mothers of twins do it all the time. If I said I didn’t want to spend any more time pumping or nursing, she said I could pump on one breast while feeding my son on the other. When I didn’t give in, she started texting me pictures of her crying daughter with captions like “Faye is so sad that her bottle has yucky formula! She misses her yummy breast milk!” I don’t know what to do. Tara won’t stop texting me, and I’m worried that if I block her number she will start coming to my apartment to confront me in person. My wife and I do not have the ability or desire to move, but I can’t live with this. What can I do?
A: So this is … absolutely beyond out of line, and before you block her number, you need to make it clear with Tara just how unwelcome her behavior is: “These messages are totally inappropriate and need to stop. I will not talk to you about this again.” I’d recommend looping your landlord into the conversation if she starts showing up at your doorstep; my guess is that your landlord does not want someone harassing their tenants for loose breast milk any more than you do. You don’t need to move, but you do need to make peace with the idea that Tara is not going to be happy. As long as you get what you need (peace and quiet) it doesn’t matter if Tara thinks you’re the cruelest, most unfeeling mother in the world—she’s an unreasonable person with deranged expectations and horrifying judgment.
Anyone who hears, “I’m sorry. I can’t give you any more of my breast milk” and counters with “But mothers of twins do it all the time!” instead of “Oh my God, I’ve made myself a nightmarish imposition on a very friendly person and need to apologize and leave the room immediately” is not a person whose good opinion you should solicit or whose approval you should worry about. Tell her to never text you again, then block her number. If she tries to make you feel guilty when she sees you in person, decline to feel guilty. Her baby is fine (formulawise, at least); you are not actually hurting her in any way, and she has lost the right to engage you in neighborly conversation. Tell your wife and friends if you’re worried Tara is going to start hassling them next. If you see her on your way to your front door and she tries to wave you over, don’t talk to her. The idea is to stop getting into negotiations with Tara where she thinks the two of you are having a free-flowing exchange of ideas about parenting. You two aren’t friends suffering from a disagreement; you’re neighbors, and she happens to be a terrible one. No, it’s not fun to walk past someone who makes giant weepy eyes at you because you won’t give her your bodily fluids, but it’s certainly better than reading her texts.
Q. My friends are poaching my stuff: I live in a furnished apartment, supplied by my work to everyone who has had or will have my job. I am leaving this job and I am very excited to leave behind a well-furnished apartment as it was left for me, along with a few things that I have added myself! However, my best friends, who have the same job as me, have a different idea. They have told me (in a flippant but completely serious way) that they are planning to take several things from my apartment before my successor arrives. I have said I don’t want them to do this, but they have a spare key and are willing to use it for this purpose. The items they are looking to take or switch are similar and won’t be noticed, but they are not as good of quality, and regardless, I still want to leave behind the best possible situation for my successor, whoever they may be. Am I overreacting in being so protective of this furniture that isn’t even mine? Or if I am being reasonable, how can I make them respect my wishes?
A: On the one hand, I’m not worried about the large corporation that recently supplied you with a furnished apartment—it’s clearly doing fine, and if some future employee moved in and found the swapped-in desk or chairs not to her liking, I have no doubt the company will be able to replace it. But if there’s a chance you could get in trouble or be on the hook for replacements if you move out with obviously missing (or mismatched) furniture, then I think it’s fine to ask your friends for the keys back. If they’re unwilling, you can always tell the landlord you think there are a few spare copies floating around and that they should get the locks changed; this falls short of narcing on your friends to protect a company’s interest (bad) but also doesn’t risk your professional reputation just because your friends want a free mattress (also bad).
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Q. Pregnant on public transit: In last week’s chat, you suggested that presuming someone is pregnant on public transportation is “intrusive.” Obviously, asking someone if she is pregnant is inappropriate, but what is someone to do when she wants to be considerate for pregnant users of public transportation? I am an able-bodied person who is a frequent user of public transportation who is happy to stand to allow someone who is pregnant, injured, disabled, or elderly to sit. The last three are pretty easy to spot, but the first one can be a little tough to tell. I have had pregnant friends bemoan the fact that no one offers them a seat. But I have also heard from other friends who were offended when they were offered a seat on the incorrect presumption they were pregnant. If I see someone who is obviously pregnant, I will offer them a seat, and if asked by someone who looks pregnant but not obviously so, I give up my seat. But what should I do when I suspect someone is pregnant and I am not sure?
A: If the goal is merely to make sure a seat is available for someone who needs it, you can just stand up! If the goal is to make a bit of a show out of giving your seat to a pregnant lady so you can bask in goodwill, that’s where you run into trouble by, say, asking the merely potentially pregnant if she’s pregnant and wants to sit down.
You seem like a kind person who wants to be maximally helpful; I don’t think you’re only doing it for the laurel wreaths or approving smiles that are sometimes heaped upon seat donators. But you have to acknowledge that you cannot anticipate everyone else’s needs perfectly. A pregnant woman who hasn’t been offered a seat always has the still-polite option of asking, “Would anyone mind giving up their seat?” Whereas the nonpregnant woman who has just been offered the seat because you’ve assumed that’s the only explanation for her body shape has to either ride in discomfort or continue the already-awkward conversation by explaining that she isn’t pregnant.
If you decide all this anxiety (“Is anyone on this train pregnant? What if someone approaching the train is pregnant? Am I offending a pregnant person by asking these questions internally instead of doing something right now?”) is just too much and you’d rather stay standing the whole time, that might be the safest bet.
Q. Break from teenage drama: I was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. It was caught early and my prognosis is good. I’m scheduled for surgery in a couple of weeks and one of the biggest causes of stress in my life right now—besides having cancer—is my teenage son. He’s 17, and while he’s not a bad kid, he still does all of the typical teenage stuff: stays out way past his curfew, won’t do chores unless I threaten to take his car away, argues with me, and gives me attitude about anything and everything! Under normal circumstances I could deal with this, but with the added stress of everything going on it’s really taking a toll on me. His dad and I are divorced, and I am seriously considering asking him to take our son full time for a few weeks during and after my surgery so I can focus on getting better and not worry about the teenage crap. I know his dad would be fine with this, but part of me also feels guilty, like I’m throwing my son out of his own home. What are your thoughts? Am I a horrible mother for even thinking about it?
A: Sending a teenager to stay with his dad for a few weeks is a totally normal thing to do, without even getting into the extenuating circumstances of having cancer-related surgery. You should send him off to Dad’s house for a few weeks with the clearest conscience imaginable. That would be fine if you just wanted a break from dealing with him and your own health weren’t in question. But oh my God, yes, if you want to have a peaceful, empty house while you prepare for or recover from surgery, that is the most understandable impulse imaginable. Your kid will be absolutely fine, and you’ll be better equipped to deal with his 17-year-old antics once you’ve had a break to look after yourself. You’re not a horrible mother for wanting a little support parenting or for wanting some space from your frustrating kid. That doesn’t even put you in the “mediocre mother” category. You have cancer! You need peace and quiet! Your son is going to be at his dad’s home. He’ll be with one of his parents, in a safe and familiar setting, and completely taken care of. Good luck with the surgery, and I hope you can start recovery soon.
Q. Grandmother’s ring: My grandmother died recently. She left me, her oldest grandchild, her wedding ring. It has one large center diamond stone and several smaller diamonds around it. It’s really not my style, and if I’m being completely honest, I doubt I’ll ever wear it, though I love it, I will keep it safe, and I’ll treasure it for as long as it’s in my possession. Lately, I’ve been thinking it would be nice to have the ring turned into multiple diamond pendant necklaces; I’d keep the center stone for myself and give my cousins and aunts one necklace each of the smaller stones. That way, more of the family can enjoy my grandmother’s ring, which has a lovely backstory that looms large in our family’s lore. However, I’m worried that some people, like my mother, will be offended that I altered the ring, and I have no idea how my grandmother herself would feel about this. She loved that ring, and I feel like she’d want to keep it intact, though who knows? What say you? Keep the ring whole and have it sit unworn, or turn it into necklaces for my family to enjoy?
A: This is tricky because, as you’re realizing, just because a particular family heirloom has been left to you doesn’t really mean that other family members have stopped thinking of it as kind of theirs too. My instincts here probably line up with yours; I think your idea is more practical and democratic and acknowledges that tastes and styles change. But your grandmother just died recently, so your mother (and some of your other relatives) might still feel a little raw at the prospect of changing her ring so soon after she’s gone. Why not keep it somewhere safe and on display for a year or two before revisiting the question? There’s no rush, and you might find you get more family support if you ask some of them for their thoughts a year or two after the initial grief has subsided.
Q. Roommate expects me to pay for everything: My sister and I inherited our late father’s house about a year ago. We were already living together with a roommate and my partner, so we ended up all moving into the house together. My roommate is an old friend who is currently in grad school, and this setup gives her a chance to save money while she’s on a tight budget. She doesn’t pay rent, just her share of bills and food. We all acknowledge she’s on a tight budget and are happy to pick up the tab for some special treats and trips to the grocery store, but she has now started to expect that we will pay for things or offer to make a dinner, and then she will send through long grocery lists that we will have to source and pay for. This has started to drive me crazy, but I am scared to bring it up as it will make me look miserly: I inherited property, whereas she is struggling to make ends meet and has no family money. She is also very stressed out from school, suffers from depression, and is a fairly dramatic personality, so it feels hard to be honest when I’m in such a privileged position. But trying to ignore it or telling myself it won’t be forever isn’t working, and I find myself permanently on the edge of snapping at her over it when she suggests ordering pizza that I know I’ll have to pay for. My sister feels similarly irritated but also worries we are just being mean. Is there a kind way I can talk to her about this, or do I need to just quit being selfish and get over it?
A: Yes, you are allowed to say No sometimes even if you have said Yes at other times; it’s not selfish to want to occasionally be responsible for your own meals or to decline to spend an hour at the grocery store planning a very specific dinner just because your friend is in grad school. Here are some sample scripts:
“Hey, if you’re able to make dinner tonight, that’s wonderful, but I’m not available to go to the store for you, so if you don’t have time, don’t worry about it—we’ve got plenty of leftovers at home, and I’m sure we can all scrounge up something.”
“I’d love it if you could join us for dinner; I can’t treat tonight, so if it’s not in your budget to eat out today, I totally understand.”
“I can’t buy pizza for everyone tonight. Let’s make alternate arrangements for dinner.”
“That makes sense. You know your own budget, so if you can’t afford it, I understand. Thanks for letting me know.”
My guess is that the food is just part of it; it seems you are in general very worried about how you will bear it if your friend isn’t happy with you or doesn’t think of you as “generous,” and this will be excellent practice for finding ways to maintain appropriate boundaries even if it means someone else isn’t happy with you 100 percent of the time. You say yourself that your friend does not always have the most reasonable boundaries, so it will be, in fact, a good thing if she sometimes does not get what she wants from you. Good luck!
Q. Mismatched parents: My parents, nearing 80, live in a 55-and-over community where there are many opportunities to socialize. The problem is that only my mother wants to do so. As he’s gotten older, my father wants nothing more than to sit in his easy chair and listen to music. When they do socialize, he refuses to engage in small talk and sometimes paces around, glaring at my mother until she agrees to leave. My mother adapts, to some extent, by belonging to various clubs where my father’s absence won’t be noticed or can be ignored, but they (or rather, she) has friends who are couples who want to see my parents socially—as a couple. She doesn’t know how to respond to such invitations. Tell them that her husband is a misanthrope? Let them draw that conclusion on their own? There doesn’t seem to be another option. She’s talked to him about this and he denies it, but I’ve seen it happen.
A: I think your mother should maximize the amount of time she spends talking to her friends and minimize the amount of time she spends making excuses for her husband. If that means accepting a dinner invitation and saying, “I don’t think Cletherford will be able to join us,” then that’s fine. I don’t want her wasting her golden years worrying that her husband is glaring at their visitors on the front porch, or trying to come up with sweet-smelling excuses that don’t boil down to “my husband hates everyone.”
Q. Re: My neighbor feels entitled to my breast milk: The mistake was offering any breast milk. There is absolutely nothing wrong with feeding an infant formula right from the start. What should have been offered was advice that the mother should see a counselor or her pediatrician to get over her feelings of guilt for not breastfeeding.
A: Certainly if the letter writer had written a little sooner, I would have advised her not to give Tara any, but I still think Tara’s subsequent behavior is way out of line, regardless of whether the letter writer was wrong to give in before. But I think the suggestion to say, “If this is really hard for her, I hope you can talk to your pediatrician about your feelings of guilt” is a good one. Someone else pointed out that the neighbor’s behavior could be a possible sign of postpartum depression or anxiety, and a medical professional might be able to help meaningfully in a way the letter writer can’t.
Q. Re: Pregnant on public transit: The London Tube gives out free buttons with their logo and “Baby on Board.” This is a great way to let people know you’re pregnant. Of course, if you need a seat for any reason, you can always ask someone if they wouldn’t mind.
A: Good news for everyone in London. Maybe they’ll pick it up over here! Although if someone’s willing to wear a big I’M PREGNANT button on public transportation, my guess is she’d also feel relatively comfortable asking for someone’s seat, but life is a rich tapestry.
Q. Re: Pregnant on public transit: New York City Transit also gives these baby buttons out.
A: I don’t think buttons are going to completely fill the need for situational awareness and a willingness to share. At best, buttons might be lightly helpful in addition to asking or offering. Again, if you’re truly anxious about your seat and you’re able to do so, just stand and let someone else decide whether they need it.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone; see you next week, and keep your requests for other people’s bodily fluids situationally appropriate.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Grandma and Grandpa secretly baptized my child: My husband and I were both raised Catholic but are now essentially atheists. When we had our first child, our parents were all horrified to hear that he would not be baptized. My father was prepared to stop talking to us. After a while, things calmed down. I thought they made their peace with it. Turns out, my son was baptized by all of his grandparents as an infant without our consent. He is now almost 5 and we are just learning about this. My daughter was just recently born, and I foresee a similar fate for her, as we do rely on them for babysitting.
They do not yet know that we know. My husband and I were thinking of writing a letter. I don’t know what else we can do except express our feelings of complete betrayal and loss of trust. We wanted our children to be free from any religion and will continue to raise them that way, but this has really angered us. Read what Nicole Cliffe had to say.