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, everyone! Dear Prudence Australia was a resounding success, and I’m back and extremely jet-lagged, ready to solve your problems with a slightly muffled sense of time. Let’s chat!
Q. My husband’s going to the clink: My husband, who’d never been in any trouble before, had to accept a plea bargain for a year in prison. (The case has been covered in the news.) It’s terribly unfair, but the alternative was to risk 20 years, so he took it. He is terrified of prison in general, but in particular he heard horror stories about the local prison (20 miles from here), and he asked to be sent to a different one instead. He was assigned to a prison 350 miles away. He still expects, however, that I will visit him with our four small children every weekend. We are of average means, so this will entail a 700-mile road trip each weekend for a year. I just don’t think this is a fair request. What should I do?
A: “We can’t afford that. We can afford to visit [X number of times] per month.” At the risk of sounding flippant, you have the upper hand in this situation, since you’re the one with access to a car.
Q. Letting go of resentment and anger: I worked as a reporter at a newspaper that was recently sold. The day before the new company assumed ownership, I was laid off along with two other people. Most people who worked for the newspaper either were laid off or left rather than accept the job offers from the new owners. I was lucky enough to be hired by another publication that was expanding into my area the Monday after I left my former job. So I was unemployed for all of two days. I received support from a lot of people who are happy I’m staying in the community. But they also have choice words to say about my former employer. I’m also finding that I’m beside myself with anger sometimes, especially due to recent actions the new owners have taken and things they’ve allegedly said about me, and I’m finding it difficult to move on even though I am much better off now professionally than I had been before I was let go. Do you have any tips for getting over being resentful of the new owners or anyone they hired to replace me? The only thing I can think of is to not look at or read the newspaper, which I’ve been trying to do but sometimes the temptation is too great. Any advice would be welcome.
A: I think anger and resentment are extremely appropriate responses here! I understand not wanting to let resentment rule your life for the foreseeable future, and I certainly understand wanting to appreciate your relative good fortune at being hired again so quickly, but this was a real blow, not just to you personally but to all of your colleagues and everyone who was once served by that newspaper. In the long run, I think your decision to not read your former newspaper is a good one; it will help to get distance and not stay intimately up-to-date with your former employer. But if it’s only been a few weeks or months, don’t be surprised that you’re still upset on multiple fronts (yours, your former colleagues, the paper-reading public, etc.), and certainly don’t beat yourself up over it.
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Q. Untouchable time off: I have been working at a company that gives vacation and sick time based on how long you’ve been employed. Having worked here for 11 years, I earn 10 hours of vacation and sick time each month, and I have a healthy bank of earned paid time off. My boss, however, gives me a hard time when I want to use that time off. If I’m sick, I usually hear about it the next day, and if I come to work sick, that’s remarked upon as well. Vacation days have to be carefully arranged around various obstacles to the point where it’s a hassle. On top of this, I have two children under the age of 12 who occasionally need me to stay home with them when they’re sick or take them to doctors’ appointments.
I’ve tried different ways of asking for time off: giving notice months in advance (this request was forgotten), being upfront and honest (I was told that needing to take my car to the mechanic was low-priority and I should do it after work), and asking my boss what day works best for me to be out of the office (I was told the best time would be a day that meets multiple requirements). This is time off that I’ve earned, and it’s frustrating to be made to feel like crap when I want to use it. Meanwhile I’m rapidly approaching the point where I’ll need to “use or lose” my accrued hours. Other than this issue, I really like my boss, but I don’t know how to handle this.
A: These sound like slightly distinct issues, worth treating separately. Your first problem, that your boss sometimes comments on your absences after you’ve taken a sick day, is irritating but fairly low-level—you can choose to ignore it or say something like: “Yes, I’m glad no one else had to catch what I had. I’m ready to focus on work now.” The other, that your time-off requests are sometimes forgotten or that you’re given essentially “impossible” days to take time off to tend to your kids or make sure your car is running reliably, is more pressing. The good news is that it sounds like you have company policy on your side, so if you ever need to escalate over your boss’s head, you’ll likely have support. I’d love to hear from some readers here—it’s been a few years since I worked in an office, and I want to know what’s worked for you when it comes to making sure you get the time off you’re entitled to.
Q. My anti-bigotry savior complex: I’m a straight white woman who has developed something of a complex where I believe I am the personal savior of straight white men from themselves. I often interact with men who say something sexist/racist/homophobic/etc., and my response is always to jump on the comment and try to explain why it is problematic. This strategy, I think, is a good one in each individual moment. The problem is that I tend to keep associating with these people, even though they are generally unsavory and say things that I find offensive, because I feel they need to be exposed to someone who will challenge them on these views. I also feel that as a straight white person I ought to shoulder as much of that responsibility as I can to reduce the burden on the targets of those types of abuse. Most of the time it seems like my efforts are completely fruitless, though a couple of guys have told me that I changed the way they understand consent and male-female power relations, which has fueled my sense of obligation to talk to insensitive people about my experience and try to foster empathy.
Maybe I can actually protect some people from future harm by these assholes. But Prudie, it’s emotionally draining to spend time with these people, constantly worrying about when they’re going to make the next hurtful comments and constantly exposing myself to attacks. Also, most of the time it seems like it just doesn’t work. I’ve spent some time asking myself what I get out of these relationships. Maybe a sense of power or importance? It makes me feel smart? It eases my white guilt? It also largely sucks. Where is the line here? How much obligation do I have to try to “fix” people? Is there a middle ground I can aim for?
A: I think you are asking yourself the right questions in trying to figure out what you’re getting out of prolonging these relationships. If you’re not just challenging active bigotry in the moment but finding yourself going out of your way to deepen your connection to these men after they’ve made it clear that they believe something sexist/racist/homophobic, as if you’re both Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear slowly wearing down Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets until he believes in the power of community once again, then I think you’ve definitely gone past “challenging racism” and well into something maladjusted.
A lot of this would be useful fodder for therapy, but that’s a long-term and potentially pretty expensive project. And I think you’ve got a pretty straightforward answer to your question already: It gives you a sense of a worthwhile project, the idea that you are saving countless other people from racism/sexism/homophobia in the future, making up for whatever you believe you have you have to make up for by dint of being a straight white woman. I think the “line” here that’s most important for you to draw is to ask yourself, “Does this take time away from building friendships with the kind of people I actually respect and admire, whose companionship I actually value?” If the answer to that is “Yes,” even just some of the time, I think that’s a good litmus test for when to let a particular guy go his own way. Take it a step further, even: Once you’ve said, “Hey, that’s sexist,” or whatever, to some guy’s latest nonsense, ask yourself, “Do I have any interest in spending more time with this guy once I set aside my desire to protect society from his bigotry? Do I find him funny, or charming, or thoughtful, or feel like he’d be an interesting, caring friend to me?” If the answer to that question is “No,” then don’t befriend him.
Q. Babysitting help: Due to some difficult family circumstances, about a year ago I gained custody of my younger sister. I’m in my early 20s and still in school, and I hadn’t been planning on a kid. All of my friends have been very supportive, and some even take her for sleepovers so I can get a breather. I’m generally cautious about accepting help, not wanting to burden others with a kid, and I feel guilty when I do take them up on their offers to help. Recently, another friend offered to help out and I took her up on it so I could go on a date (which I already felt guilty about doing). We were initially going to hang out that day, but I asked whether she’d mind if I went on a brunch date. She said it was cool and I made plans. That same evening, I got a message from her telling me to keep it to a maximum of two hours. I then told her we’d just come by after my day date—I wouldn’t have been out for more than 2½ hours anyway, but I felt slighted that she assumed I’d be gone for longer and felt entitled enough to tell me what to do because she was doing me a favor. I feel like she could’ve framed this differently and asked me how long I was planning to be away and then let me know if that worked for her or not. This bothered me a lot, as I already don’t have a lot of freedoms. How can I address this with her? Is it fair of her to provide me with conditional help but not let me know the conditions until after I’ve accepted it and can’t make backup arrangements?
A: I think you can have this conversation relatively easily with your friend—I know you’re under a significant amount of stress, and of a kind that’s fairly unusual for someone your age, so it makes sense that this particular request (which was officiously delivered) made you feel like you were being monitored and restricted. But I think she’s just a little clueless about exactly how much work being a full-time guardian has entailed and didn’t necessarily intend to make life harder for you. Wait a day or two until the whole thing feels a little less immediate, and then tell her what you told me (preferably in person rather than over text, because I think part of what sparked all this was the sense of being the recipient of an official, written proclamation instead of part of a discussion): “I really appreciate you being able to babysit, but I’d rather we could have just talked in advance about how much time we’d both envisioned for my date. As it happened, I planned on spending roughly that same amount of time on brunch anyways. I wish you’d just asked how long I thought we’d be and then let me know if it worked for you. Getting a text letting me know how long I could take for my date after we’d already agreed made me feel a bit like I was being monitored.”
Hopefully your friend will be able to have this reasonable low-stakes logistical conversation with you without getting defensive or overbearing! If it helps, you can preface everything with a brief reminder that you’ve been under a lot of stress lately and appreciate her patience and understanding. It might help to keep a sense of proportion, because what you’re asking of her (should she ever agree to babysit in the future) is pretty simple and straightforward. Good luck!
Q. Will I be punishing my mother? My mom and I have a pretty good relationship. I moved in with her to finish grad school after coming down with an undiagnosed chronic illness. Grad school took longer than I expected, but my mom was OK with it. I finally have a diagnosis and I haven’t responded to standard protocol or meds. I have a good doctor and a plan, but it could take a year or more until I’m back to anywhere near 100 percent. The problem is, my mom is planning on kicking me out soon. She doesn’t seem to understand the severity of my issue or the fact that working full time could trigger my autoimmune disease to get worse, like it did in grad school. My mom recently came into a little bit of money, so that is not an issue. I’ve even lent her a significant amount of money over the past five years and was her sole caretaker while she recovered from a heart surgery. My mom thinks that me moving out is the kick in the pants I need to stop being lazy. I’m worried I will become sicker, and homeless.
We’ve gotten into a lot of fights lately when I tell her I don’t think I can do a full-time job, and it’s becoming very stressful for me, which triggers my illness. A friend recommended that I tell her she needs to think about the type of relationship we are going to have after I move out, and that it might be strained. I realized that it’s possible I will be very bitter when I move out and might want to cut her out of my life completely. I know some people do this for their mental health, but I can’t help thinking I will do it out of spite just to punish her. I need support that my mom can’t seem to give even after I’ve told her what I need. What’s an appropriate reaction? Is cutting her off to punish her too extreme?
A: I think the best use of your energies right now is in finding short-term accommodations should your mother decide to kick you out, learning more about your rights as a tenant in whatever state you live in, applying for disability just in case (since that can often be a long and drawn-out process, it’s better to start early), and looking after your own health—not in trying to parse your own motives should you stop speaking to your mother after you move out at some point in the future. Things are strained between the two of you now. It’s not just a hypothetical.
That said, I know you’re worried about what your relationship with your mother will look like in the long run as you currently struggle balancing a mixture of dependence, frustration, resentment, and need. Acknowledging that your relationship has deteriorated over the past few years and taking a little space to look after yourself and deal with some of your resentments isn’t exactly cutting off your nose to spite your face. I don’t recommend cutting off your mother in order to punish her, but that’s mostly because I don’t think punishments work very well for adults, and it would be unlikely to induce any real change or reconciliation. But taking a cooling-off period is not inherently punitive, nor is making your health and the decisions you make about it more private and subject to a “need-to-know basis” where your mother is concerned.
Q. Deceased child: My wife and I are at the age where people often ask the question,“Do you have children?” I had two children from a previous marriage. My son passed away five years ago at the age of 40. I never know how to handle the answer. “Yes, I had two but one passed away.” Or, “I have one child,” meaning my daughter. To say I only have one child is to deny the existence of my son. Yet bringing up his death always seems to sadden people and throw cold water on a conversation. Suggestions?
A: I think you have a lot of freedom here to decide what you feel comfortable sharing, and to let your own comfort be the baseline for whatever decision you make. If you decline to mention the death of your son to someone you don’t think you’ll see again, or whom you don’t trust to handle the disclosure gracefully and kindly, I don’t think of that as denying his existence—it’s more like protecting the ways in which you do want to talk about him. For what it’s worth, I think saying “Yes, I had two but one passed away” is a perfectly appropriate way of talking about your children. I don’t think there’s a possible way to bring up the death of a child without making people sad. That’s not to say that other people in that situation don’t have a responsibility to manage their own sadness to an appropriate degree so as not to make you, the actual sufferer of that loss, feel uncomfortable or put-on-the-spot, just that I don’t think you should assign yourself the impossible job of finding a way to describe your son’s death that makes everyone around you feel immediately comfortable.
Q. Re: Untouchable time off: I’ve felt a similar pressure to this and learned that the underlying fear is: “If I take what I deserve, I’ll get fired, or my boss will like me less.” It helped me to phrase PTO emails as “I need to take vacation day,” rather than “Is it OK if I take a vacation day,” and to not say why I am taking time off. If there is questioning about it, say that it is personal and you do not wish to discuss it. It takes practice, but the writer needs to ignore any commentary or pushback and simply stick to: I need time off for personal reasons. If there are consequences for taking time that you have earned, take it to HR. You aren’t supposed to have to give an explanation for taking your vacation time. The only explanation your boss needs is that you want to take time off.
A: I think that’s useful, especially since the letter writer says they have an otherwise good relationship with their boss, so I think the odds are decent that they’ll be able to come to an at least somewhat workable compromise. When it comes to this request in particular, just framing it as “I need to take off X days before Y cutoff date, per company policy” should go a long way.
Q. Re: Untouchable time off: It sounds like their boss is a pain when they take time off but not to the extent that they just can’t take the time? If it’s a guilt-trip issue only, unfortunately they just need to keep repeating in their head that this is their boss’s problem, not theirs, and that they are entitled to the time—don’t take their boss’s feelings on it. But if it’s that they are actually unable to schedule the time off, I would make a request in writing, outlining how much time they have, when it will expire, and when they would like to take it. If possible, include a plan for how work will be covered leading up to the time off (and when they are away) to minimize the impact. State it as a request obviously, offering that the boss should suggest alternate days if what they have requested will not work because of the needs of the business. They should save whatever response they get, should they need to escalate things over the boss’s head.
A: Yeah, the part where the boss forgot their request—or “forgot” it—is genuinely a pain, but I do think at least some of this is within a boss’s remit, even if their ruling is inconvenient or frustrating. Even a really thoughtful, conscientious boss might sometimes say: “This day is really busy for us. Is there another day that same week you can take off instead?” But when it comes to pushback about sick days, I’d be upfront: “Yes, I took a sick day until I’d recovered enough to work. I’d prefer not to discuss my health now that I’m back in the office. Can we talk about something else?”
Q. Update—Re: “My Teenage Pregnancy Nearly Destroyed My Family” (May 25, 2019)—from Ian, the stepfather: My wife, Sheila, came across your column from May 25 and immediately suspected that the letter writer who was pressured into having an abortion was our daughter Rose. Rose confirmed this. I’m “Ian,” Rose’s father. Rose’s pregnancy would always have been a disappointment, and I stand by my belief that she did not comprehend the enormity of the decision she faced. But the way I approached her confession, and the way I treated my family afterward, was unacceptable. There are not words big enough to express how terribly I behaved. I am a recovering alcoholic. Rose and her siblings did not know this until very recently. Rose’s teenage pregnancy occurred weeks after Sheila discovered my alcoholism. I was at rock bottom, full of shame and fearful of losing my family. When Rose told us she was pregnant and wanted to keep the baby, I unleashed that rage upon her. I saw her baby as both the camel that would break my back and as the perfect lightning rod for my fury. I felt so angry that I realized I was a hair trigger from violence. I told Sheila that I would divorce her if Rose had her baby. I didn’t care if Rose knew about the threat or not. I knew that I was being cruel. I felt so sick about my behavior that I couldn’t stand to be near Rose. I was still angry. Rose had an abortion, and I went to rehab.
When I returned home (Rose’s memory of that period was incorrect: She thought my absence during rehab happened before the abortion) I threw myself into being the father my children deserved. I’ve remained sober since, but I was still invested in protecting myself. I never apologized to Rose. I never explained my motivations or that my anger was cruelly misdirected. I convinced myself that if I were a good-enough father, I could fix what I’d broken. I’m not saying that teenage pregnancy is positive or that Rose was responsible enough for a baby. I don’t think she appreciated the enormity of having a baby 17. But I handled everything in the most frightening, hateful way possible.
Shortly after you published Rose’s letter, our family had its first honest conversation in a long time. Rose was heartbroken and furious with me. She is also angry with her mother. We understand and respect this. Rose is seeking counseling, as are Sheila and I. We are exploring the possibility of family counseling after Rose’s baby is older, but that is entirely up to Rose. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for publishing Rose’s letter. I have been living so many lies, and I have caused the people I love most unforgivable pain. Seeing evidence of Rose’s suffering and her pain was what jolted me out of complacency and selfishness. I’m grateful to you for that.
A: This was remarkable and unexpected. Thank you so much for writing to me. I’m so glad to hear that Rose was able to speak honestly with you about how you hurt her, that all of you are seeing therapists, and that you’ve been able to listen to Rose’s pain, take responsibility for your own anger, and try to start making amends. I wish you all a lot of healing and a great deal of patience with one another. Thank you so much.
Q. Should I dognap my neighbors’ neglected pup?: I recently moved to a neighborhood where it’s relatively common for people to allow their dogs to roam the neighborhood freely— a practice that seems outrageous to me. There is one dog in particular that keeps showing up in my yard. Though he is very sweet, he is not neutered, does not have a collar or microchip, and was filthy and covered in fleas when I found him. He seems to be well-fed and otherwise healthy. I took the dog in, put up a few lost dog signs, and learned from another concerned neighbor who the owners are. He said they have ignored his repeated requests to keep their dog on a leash, and he witnessed several near-accidents as cars swerved to avoid the dog.
Should I give this dog to a good home? My gut says this is the right thing to do, but I’m worried that I’m stealing a dog from a family. On the other hand, if I find this dog dead in the street in two weeks I will feel responsible. Read what Prudie had to say.
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