Dear Prudence

My Mother-in-Law Makes Me Sleep on an Air Mattress

But my son sleeps upstairs in a spare bedroom.

A man lies with his eyes closed on an air mattress in a sleeping bag.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by mokee81/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Some housekeeping: I changed my name! Same me, new initials.

Dear Prudence,

My mother-in-law is generous and dotes on our 3-year-old son. We live less than an hour away and visit every Sunday. She invites us to spend the night on holidays, but never in the spare room. Instead we sleep on an air mattress downstairs. They let other guests (and our son) stay in the spare room. My mother-in-law has accused me of snooping a few times. I never have. I think she doesn’t want me upstairs. My husband defended me from those accusations, and my father-in-law apologized to me on her behalf. She has a hot temper, but she eventually apologized too. But she still makes sure I never go upstairs. If I need something for my son that’s in his room, she’ll go out of her way to get it for me. I feel resentful at the thought of another New Year’s on an air mattress on the floor in the living room. My husband doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but he doesn’t have a good reason for why she does it either.

—Not Welcome Upstairs

My main concern is that you visit your in-laws every week (that’s 52 visits a year!) under conditions of obvious suspicion and scrutiny. I think you and your husband ought to talk about cutting back. Surely you can think of other things you’d enjoy doing with your Sundays. Just because your in-laws love your son and you live an hour away don’t mean you have to dedicate every single Sunday to seeing them. You could cut back to one or two visits a month and still consider yourself an exceptionally tightknit family. As for not wanting to sleep on an air mattress on a different floor from your son—that’s a perfectly reasonable desire, and I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t politely decline to spend the night and drive home. You don’t have to make the announcement rudely or petulantly. It won’t ruin the holiday. It’ll just mean a good night’s sleep for you and a more enjoyable New Year’s brunch the next day.

Dear Prudence,

I come from a large, conservative family where I’m the youngest of six. I’m the only family member on my coast, and we mainly communicate via text and email. They frequently, often daily, send me lengthy emails about current social issues, explaining their perspective and asking me for mine. Many of them strike me as sincere; others less so. Whenever I’m home for the holidays, they question me about all kinds of political issues. Sometimes I’m up to discuss them, but sometimes I just don’t feel well-informed enough to have a conversation. Often up to 10 people question me at the same time.

Is it OK that these conversations exhaust me (white, straight, cis female)? I’d like to draw some kind of boundary here, but I feel like it’s white fragility, or some other kind of privileged fragility, to claim “exhaustion.” To be honest, though, when it comes to these sometimes daily emails, or family dinners where I’m outmanned by 10, I am exhausted. Valid? Problematic? Somewhere in the middle?

—Progressive Point Person

I’ll start by admitting to a bias of my own: I’m not especially interested in deciding whether a particular experience is “valid.” That said, it makes sense that you’re exhausted. (Also, I’m not quite sure what your identity has to do with it. White, straight, cis women sometimes get exhausted. That is not an experience they are disqualified from!) You are describing an endless, joyless interrogation that continues whether or not you are even on the same side of the country as your family. Perhaps they all find it genuinely interesting, instructive, and fun. But you are still entitled to put limits on it by virtue of being a human being with her own particular interests, needs, and desires.

We don’t even have to assume bad faith on their part in order for you to put a stop to it, either in person or online. You can tell them that you’d rather save political discussions for a fraction of your conversations, and you’d rather catch up on how work’s going, how the kids are, what movies you’re seeing, etc. If they try to push on that, you can politely decline to engage. You can also set up a filter for those emails and mass-delete at the end of the week or month. If they keep lobbing questions at you during holiday gatherings, tell them you’re going for a walk to clear your head and that you’d rather talk about something else when you get home. Family political engagement is fine, even laudable when you know you’re being consulted out of genuine curiosity and a desire to learn more. But if that engagement has no regard for your time or energy, never allows you to say, “I don’t want to talk about this right now” or “I don’t know enough about the capital gains tax to have this conversation,” then you have every right to cut it short. There’s nothing frail or privileged about declining to let your relatives set the terms of engagement every single time you talk to them for the rest of your life.

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Dear Prudence,

My wife has a job that requires her to work on her laptop in the evenings, and she usually does this in front of the TV. The problem is that she insists on doing this in the dark. She says the glare on the TV screen bothers her. Except for a small desk lamp, our house is plunged into darkness. This is especially true in the winter when there’s no natural light. If our daughter or I want to do anything that requires seeing, we have to go to our bedrooms. I’ve told her how much this lack of light bothers me, but she “forgets” and switches the lights off. I turn them on, but the second she passes the switch, off they go again. She’s turned off the lights while our daughter was reading or drawing, forcing her to stop. I don’t want to move a TV into the bedroom, since I’m not looking to banish my wife from the rest of the house. I just feel like I’m living in a coal chute.

—It’s So Dark

I don’t think asking your wife to work in the bedroom for a few hours every evening is banishing her. It seems to me like an ideal solution, because the alternative is that everyone in the house, including your growing daughter, who presumably needs play and stimulation, sits in the dark along with her. I’m sure the glare from the TV really does bother her, and I’m not suggesting your wife is in the wrong for wanting to work in an environment that doesn’t strain her eyes. But it’s not reasonable for her to insist everyone else spend their evenings in the dark or leave the common spaces and sit in their bedrooms. She might also want to visit her eye doctor to ask about glare-reducing glasses she could wear. But that’s a secondary solution, because if she’s turning off the lights while your daughter is trying to read or color, then the real issue is that she’s refusing to find a compromise that balances the needs of you two with her needs.

Dear Prudence,

I think my relationship to food is unhealthy, but I’m not sure what to do about it. I often forget to eat or drink. I don’t notice that I’m hungry until I’m starving. Today I ate nothing until 5 p.m., when I realized I was really hungry, at which point I ate yogurt to tide me over until my boyfriend came home for dinner. I don’t think I’m anorexic. I’m at a standard weight, but I do tend to neglect myself unless I’m reminded to eat. If my boyfriend’s here, I eat with him, but alone I tend to forget. I’m also embarrassed about my diet. I’m a lifelong vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean I always eat healthy—my favorite foods are bread and cheese.

Sometimes I buy more vegetables with the intention of eating healthier, but then if I fail to live up to that, I feel terrible about wasting food. I sometimes think I maintain a thin-ish physique by eating unhealthily but restricting how much I eat. I don’t weigh myself often, but I do scrutinize my reflection in the mirror every day to see if I’ve gained weight. I recently lost my job and started going to the gym regularly and now I’m worried that I might be putting my health at risk by exercising without addressing my eating habits. Additionally, my boyfriend and I have been discussing trying for a baby. I know I need to get my nutrition in check before becoming pregnant. But I’m not sure where to start. I know that whatever changes I make need to be ones I can stick with in the long term.

—Forgetful Eater

Since some of this sounds like genuine forgetfulness and not the product of self-loathing or restriction, you might try setting up periodic phone alerts that remind you to drink a glass of water or eat something quick and ready-made so you don’t catch yourself ravenous at 5 p.m. You might also try buying just one new fruit or vegetable each week, instead of an entire crisper’s worth that’s destined to slowly wilt in front of your eyes. Once you’ve gotten in the habit of eating a few extra blueberries every day for a while, you can consider introducing the occasional celery stick. If you’re not especially hungry but need to make sure you eat something before leaving for work or the gym, a spoonful of peanut butter, or half of a protein shake, or a banana will keep you from feeling faint. I imagine the temptation will be to become instantly healthy and “virtuous” by eating bowls of green vegetables after a lifetime of cheese, especially with the pressure of wanting to be perfectly pregnant looming over you. But as you say, these are changes you want to be able to commit to long term, and there’s nothing wrong with being healthy enough, at least for a start. If you have more specific questions about nutrition, bringing them up with your doctor (especially in the context of trying to get pregnant) is probably the next best move.

I’d also suggest you tell your boyfriend a little bit about what happens when you eat by yourself—not because he should start making himself responsible for your meal schedule even when he’s not around, but because he’s your partner and sometimes it helps to know your partner’s aware of whatever you’re presently struggling with. You might also find it worthwhile to start keeping a food journal—not of what you eat, but whenever you notice hunger or thirst in yourself (even if you find the mental act of scanning for hunger pangs challenging or overwhelming at first), what foods sound good to you, and what you’re afraid of. There’s plenty to learn more about here, but mostly I hope you’re not too hard on yourself as you seek to change aspects of your relationship to food. You don’t have to swear off bread forever and eat nothing but broccoli in order to have a healthy pregnancy—or a healthy life.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“You don’t have to figure this all out overnight and become a totally self-actualized person.”

Danny Lavery and special guest Sarah Schneider discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I recently started dating someone very caring and intelligent. We’re both guys in our late 20s and have been together for about two months. I know he ended a long-term relationship shortly before we got together. He was very upfront about this, and I know his ex is part of his larger social circle. He told me that he’d like to be friends with his ex but had asked for a break from communication in order to focus on his relationship with me for a while. His ex asked him for an exact date when they could resume communication, clearly not understanding that it’s not possible to put a time frame on these things.

Recently, I have seen his ex’s name pop up on his phone. I haven’t been snooping—I’ve just noticed occasionally while he is showing me something unrelated. Seeing this makes me insecure. It’s intimidating to know that he is communicating with someone he had such a long, recent relationship with, and it makes me worry. Besides this issue, I am really enjoying our relationship, and while it is new, I feel that it is strong. I want to talk to my boyfriend about how this makes me feel uncomfortable, but I don’t want to come off as controlling or overbearing. Should I just let it go? Should I bring it up?

—Jealous of His Ex

I’ve often advised people who are jealous of their partner’s long-standing, totally platonic friendships with their exes to let it go, but I don’t really think this falls into that category. You’re not asking whether you can tell your ex to dump a close friend just because you can’t handle it. You’re asking whether it’s OK to ask your brand-new boyfriend how he feels about his nascent friendship with a pretty recent ex. That’s a totally reasonable thing to do, and you have every right to do it. Let him know that you’ve noticed his ex’s name pop up when he’s been showing you something else on his phone, and that while you don’t want to pry, you’re curious to know more about how those conversations have gone, how he feels about the prospect of renewing a friendship with his ex, and whether he’s open to hearing you talk about anything you’re unsure or afraid of. He may very well feel as you do! Maybe he’s texted his ex back to say he’s not especially interested in reconnecting. As long as you’re not delivering ultimatums or asking your boyfriend to update you every time he gets a casual text about a group dinner, you can totally have this conversation without being controlling, and it’s not out of bounds for you to ask him about it.

Dear Prudence,

A few weeks ago, I had a falling out with my best friend from uni, “Mary,” over what basically amounted to poor planning. I’d canceled plans with her twice: once when I realized her early birthday lunch (with us and her other old school friends) fell on the same weekend as the event I’d bought tickets for at the start of the year. I felt awful, apologized, and offered multiple alternatives, but she turned them all down. The second was a dinner with Mary and her niece. They’d rescheduled a few times, and now it fell on the same night as another friend’s going-away party. I chose to go to my friend’s going-away party, since it would be the last time I’d see her for three months. Mary made a big deal out of it and said she would have skipped it for me. I think I could just as easily have seen Mary and her niece another time. I said I’d arrange something after I got back from my upcoming work trip. I’ve been back two weeks now, we haven’t spoken, and I miss her. How do I fix this?

—Poorly Planned Misunderstanding

“Mary, I’m back in town now, and I’d love to get together and resolve this. I really miss you, and I’m really sorry I didn’t prioritize our time together. I’m free [dates] this week. When are you around? I’ll come to you.” This woman is one of your best friends, and it’s a relatively low-stakes disagreement. All you have to do is listen, spend extra time reflecting if she feels like you’ve made rescheduling or bailing on plans a habit, and figure out how you need to change the way you agree to things or handle your schedule, and then move on. Don’t keep trying to relitigate whether you were right to go to your friend’s party; at this point, it’s weeks in the past and mostly moot. What matters is that your friend felt overlooked, and you want to let her know you care about her. This is manageable, and you two will be able to bounce back from this.

Classic Prudie

My 10-year-old niece owns two American Girl dolls. The dolls are a source of pride for her, because she “bought” them herself. My sister and her husband give her a weekly allowance in exchange for performing household chores. They require her to put a percentage in a savings account for college and donate another percentage to a local charity. My niece can spend the rest of her allowance on whatever she pleases. To my husband and me, who don’t make nearly as much as my sister or my brother-in-law, our niece receives a very large allowance for a young child. The allowance was large enough that she was able to purchase the two American Girl dolls over the course of 18 months. She enjoys bringing one or both of the dolls to family gatherings. My daughter, the same age as my niece, would love an American Girl doll, but my husband and I can’t afford it. I feel like my niece flaunts her dolls and doesn’t understand that she seems spoiled to others who aren’t as fortunate. Sometimes it’s difficult to spend time around my nieces and nephew because they have many more toys than my kids do, and my kids feel bad afterward. How can I address these issues with my sister without making her defensive and my niece without hurting her?