Dear Prudence

Help! My Mom Thinks It’s Her Job to Tell Me I’m Not Special.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

A mom with a judgmental look on her face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Danny Lavery: Happy noon, everyone! Let’s chat.

Q. Just let me have fun trying: I’ve recently moved back to my hometown and decided to use the small town move to get more involved with community art hobbies (think submitting art to contests at the fair where the only prize is a ribbon and trying out for community theater productions to be part of the choir and help paint sets). I have no desire to be “discovered,” nor do I believe myself to be fantastically talented. I consider it to be a great way to have fun, get out of the house, and feel some creative accomplishment. The problem is that my mother lives here too and seems to be of the impression that it’s her job to crush my “dreams.” When I mentioned thinking about trying out for the current community play and not knowing what to sing for auditions, she actually said: “Oh no, honey, don’t go sing. They’ll laugh at you!” She’ll talk about how I should keep my art to myself because “People in our family aren’t good at art.” I’ve explained that it doesn’t matter how good I am—it’s just that I enjoy doing it. But that doesn’t seem to help. She seems to take any small thing I want to try and assumes if I get any good feedback I’ll quit my job and move to L.A. So clearly it must be her job to remind me I’m of average talent at best. Any suggestions to get her to back off with the insults she labels as “help”?

A: “What an odd thing to say. I’m really looking forward to it, and I know I’ll have a great time,” followed by a change in subject. If you really want to stir the pot, you could always send her that one clip from Carrie, but that’s probably needlessly provocative.

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Q. I love Lucy: Until recently, I identified as a straight woman and kind of just assumed that all women were secretly attracted to women a bit too. Don’t ask for my logic here—just a lot of internalized homophobia, I guess. I’ve accepted that I’m actually bi, and I really love the idea of dating a woman. Specifically, I want to date one woman: “Lucy,” my childhood best friend. I’ve realized I’m in love with her and have been for a long time. Lucy is out as a lesbian now but was closeted through high school, though I knew she was attracted to women because I found out she’d had a massive crush on me. I never told her I knew, but I think I did take advantage of that a bit. I’d make out with her at parties for guys’ attention, make out with her in private sometimes “for fun” … then we went to college together, and she finally came out as gay. We stayed incredibly close throughout college, occasionally hooking up and then never talking about it. We had a huge fight in the last year of college when she accused me of “using” her and said I was taking advantage of her long-standing feelings for me by hooking up with her whenever I was down after a breakup. She wasn’t 100 percent wrong, and we did make up after this fight. We were never quite as close again afterward, though, and drifted away a lot when she moved out of state to do her postgraduate degree. Fast forward three years later, and I am still thinking about her every day. I’ve reached out and we’ve had very friendly catch-ups on social media, but I’m worried about pushing for more contact. The last time I saw her was at her wedding last autumn, to a woman I can’t stand and who was visibly cool toward me. I assume she knows something about mine and Lucy’s past.

I am going to be in Lucy’s city next month for work—obviously, I’ve suggested meeting up for coffee, and she’s responded positively, though her message implies her wife would be joining us. I don’t want this, as I want to tell her that I’ve realized my feelings for her. I’m filled with regret—back in college, a friend showed me Facebook messages that suggested Lucy was in love with me for years, from high school to college, and I didn’t do anything because I wouldn’t admit my sexuality back then. Now I’m bitter at missing that opportunity with someone I think I’ve loved since childhood. I have no idea if she still harbors any feelings for me after these last few years of distance, but I feel like if there’s even a chance that she does, I need to find out. Would it be totally wrong and crazy to message her and tell her my feelings? I know she’s married. I know it’s been a long time. But I think about her every day and can’t go on silently. What should I do?

A: I am so sorry for the ways in which you’ve experienced pain, shame, and repression as a result of homophobia, and I’m so glad that you’ve finally been able to come out as an adult. But you have hurt Lucy in some very real and serious ways over the years, and trying to get her alone so you can tell her you’re in love with her now would only be a continuation of that pattern. I don’t believe Lucy wants her wife to come to coffee (which you initiated) because she still harbors feelings for you—I think she wants her wife there as support because you have a habit of steamrolling over Lucy. Lucy hasn’t sought out contact with you since her wedding; you say that you’ve “reached out” and “suggested meeting up” and that the contact has been friendly but you’re worried about “pushing for more,” which tells me that Lucy’s not dropping serious hints about missing you or wishing she could divorce her partner.

The fact that you have finally achieved a sense of peace about your sexuality and come out is an unequivocally good thing. But it doesn’t change the fact that when you were closeted, you used and hurt a dear friend as a result of your own pain. Lucy has “drifted away” and married because she decided she no longer wanted to be treated as a secret. She’s built a life for herself that works, and while she may be willing to occasionally respond to your messages and even meet for coffee, I don’t think there’s any reason to think she returns your feelings. I don’t think you “missed an opportunity” to be with Lucy—I think you treated her badly when you were with her. That doesn’t mean you are an irredeemably bad person, or that you don’t deserve support and love from your own community as a newly out person, but instead of telling Lucy, “Good news! I finally figured things out and I’m ready to be together, even though by all accounts you’re happily married and living far away,” you should offer her a heartfelt apology for how you treated her, wish her and her wife the best, and then move on.

Q. A feminist changing her name: I am a nearly 40-year-old woman who has long believed that the tradition of women automatically changing their name when they marry is outdated and sexist. I would never directly express this to any woman who has changed her name—that’s her decision. But I have always known I would never change my name and said as much when asked. I also have a very successful business and am well-known in my industry by my name. It would be nuts to change it. But I am getting married later this year and decided to take my husband’s name. I have my father’s last name, and he was an alcoholic monster who abused my mother and sisters, abandoned us, popped back in and out whenever he felt like us, and generally made our lives miserable for fun. His family was no better and I have no relationship with any of them. I now see this as a moment to cast that name aside for something fresh, new, and without baggage. My question is, how on earth do I explain this decision to friends and colleagues without having to explain the pain of my childhood? I feel like a hypocrite, truly, but I am certain I will be asked why I made this decision given my career, my age, and my political leanings.

A: “I never thought I’d want to change my last name, but I feel a much stronger connection to [Last name] than I do to the last name I was given at birth, so I’ve decided to change it.” If you feel comfortable going into a bit more detail, you can say something about the relief or excitement or increased sense of autonomy over the name change, but you’re certainly under no obligation to if you fear that this would lead to disclosing more about your childhood. I hope your friends respond with enthusiasm or, at the very least, politeness. And congratulations! As someone who has changed both their first and last name, and was more than a little surprised to find myself doing it on both occasions, I think I have a sense of what you’re feeling. I’m so glad you’ve found a new last name that suits you and your needs.

Q. Too high a price? Do you think it’s possible that two people who feel differently about having kids can stay together? What I mean is that, if one is willing to sacrifice the idea of having kids in order to remain with someone who strongly wishes to remain childless, is there ever a situation where that could actually work, or would it be an albatross around the relationship’s neck? Would it just lead to inevitable resentment later down the line? For context, I am a woman in a straight relationship and I’m the one who doesn’t want kids. My partner has expressed a desire to be a parent multiple times, yet he seems to backpedal his desire whenever I try to acknowledge our difference here. I want to be able to take him at his word (that it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make) but the evidence suggests he’d be missing something really important if he pursued a life without parenthood. I am not sure where to go from here.

A: I do think it’s possible for two people to compromise over the question of having kids in a loving, respectful, ultimately satisfying way. I can’t promise it won’t ever lead to resentments down the line, but you really can’t ever guarantee that. The most you can do is be fully honest with one another about your desires, your expectations, your deal-breakers, and your feelings, and trust each other when you say, “Yes, I’m willing to do [X].” The most important thing you can do right now is ask your partner questions: How strongly has he wanted children in the past? When he envisions a life without children, how does he feel? How can the two of you find ways to acknowledge the grief or sense of loss that might result from such a decision, and what makes him feel confident in making it? Is he actually prepared to commit to living child-free with you, or is he simply downplaying what he actually wants because he’s afraid of losing you? Ask a lot of follow-up questions and express your own fears to him: “I’m worried that you really do want kids more than you’re letting on and that if we don’t talk about this more seriously and in greater depth, you’ll just go along with what I want.” See what he has to say about that; he may be able to reassure you on that front or you two may decide it’s time to part ways. It’s possible that this can work out, but only if you two know pretty clearly and in great detail what the other is thinking.

Q. Tips for remembering pronouns? One of my children is nonbinary and wants to use they/them pronouns. I have been trying to do this for about a year but I still slip up.
Unless I’m very tired, I remember to correct myself. I feel like I’m failing my kid by not remembering their pronoun correctly, even though they metaphorically pat me on the head and say they know my memory isn’t the best. I work on thinking of them with they/them and practice when I’m alone. Are there other tips you might have that would help me remember? I’ve had a lot of years using the wrong pronoun and it just keeps slipping out; shouldn’t it be easier to do this right for a person I love?

A: One thing that may help is to stop thinking of using they/them to refer to your child as something that “ought” to be easy and intuitive. Sometimes it’s easy to convince ourselves that if we really care about someone, or if we really know them, any change or relational effort should come naturally to us. That’s not necessarily the case, and it’s perfectly fine to admit to yourself that this is work, work that requires effort, intention, gradual improvement, mistakes, etc. Continue to correct yourself when you do slip up, continue doing the mental and emotional work of engaging with your child’s identity and experience, and with practice you will find that gender-neutral pronouns will come more and more easily to your mind and to your lips.

Q. Signed, your fellow gay relative: My younger cousin came out to her parents, and her mother is handling it badly (think hysterics and guilting). I’ve been out to my immediate family since high school and fortunately wasn’t treated that way. My sister, from whom I heard this about our cousin, has suggested I reach out to let her know she’s not alone in the family and offer an ear if she wants one.

I think that’s a lovely idea, but have no idea how to approach it when I’ve essentially never had a relationship with her. This wasn’t for bad reasons—our age gap is just awkward (she’s in college, I’m near 30) and we grew up living far apart. She always seemed like a great kid from a distance, but I can’t remember ever even having a conversation with her. How do I make “knock knock, it’s me, your gay relative” our first one? I’m not sure that information about me has ever made it to her at all, and if it has, I suspect it wasn’t framed very positively. Do you have thoughts on how I (or my sister, who’s a bit closer to their side and has offered to help) might make contact in a way that wouldn’t freak her out?

A: I think acknowledging the inherent awkwardness of this conversation is a great way to start: “Hey, I’m sorry to message you out of the blue, but I came out to my family when I was close to your age and I’m here to talk if you ever need someone. I know we don’t know each other very well and hope you already have a lot of support from your friends, but I’m rooting for you.” You can also ask your sister to talk to your cousin first and see if she’s interested in talking to you before sending anything. I think having your sister check in first is probably the way to go, because I don’t know if your cousin is yet aware that the rest of the family knows she’s come out—did she tell her other relatives herself, or does she still think it’s just between her and her parents? If you only know because her mom has freaked out to other people, it might be distressing for your cousin to learn she’s out to more people than she thought she was.

Q. Telling my ex I’m getting married: My ex and I broke up many years ago when we realized we weren’t on the same page about starting a family. It was a sad breakup—I’ll always care for them—but in the end the right decision. Since the breakup, my ex has occasionally reached out and at a few points expressed that they regretted losing me and feel like they’ll never connect with anyone else the way they did with me.

I’ve now been with a new, wonderful partner for three years and we’ve decided to take the next step and get married. We told our parents the good news on my birthday. On that same day, I also received a lovely and short “happy birthday” greeting from my ex. They do this every year, and it’s a nice reminder of a person I care about but who is no longer central to my life. We don’t engage too deeply in our personal lives in these exchanges. Should I write back and tell them that my new partner and I are getting married? I guess what’s stopping me is that I’m afraid of breaking their heart again.

A: I’m of two minds about this! On the one hand, it doesn’t sound like your ex is under the misapprehension that you two are about to get back together and your contact is usually brief and infrequent, so there’s an argument to be made for just saying, “Thanks, hope you’re well,” and moving on. On the other hand, your wedding is presumably a pretty significant event you’d normally mention to even a passing acquaintance at some point, and it might spare you both a little embarrassment if you tell them now so they don’t express further regrets to you in the future. I’ll come down slightly on the side of “go ahead and say something,” if only because it might feel weirder if you decide to mention your marriage three years from now rather than when it’s on the horizon. Keep it brief and pleasant, and don’t speculate about how hard it might be for them to hear. Just say something like: “Thanks so much! I hope you’re doing well. I’m getting married in [X] months, [something bland and upbeat about the planning process].”

Q. Re: Too high a price: I also think it’s worth asking your partner how he is planning on getting that desire or need met. Is he excited about fostering relationships with kids as a mentor in your communities or with your friends and family? Does that feel natural and exciting, or like a second-best option? Is it kids and their energy and worldview he loves, or the idea of passing down his genes and family experiences? What is it about kids that make him want them and how is he prepared to seek that out without reproduction and without you in the picture—or are you OK with that level of kid time yourself?

A: Those are really helpful, detailed questions. Thank you. I think one of the things people get afraid of before having this type of conversation with a partner is the idea that “if you want kids but decide not to have them, your only option is to feel quiet, private agony for the rest of your life.” But like any choice, there will be upsides and downsides, unique opportunities to channel your desires in new and meaningful ways, ways to process your feelings with others, etc. If you two decide not to have kids, there are a ton of ways he can still take care of the children you’re bound to encounter from friends and family. It’s not just “we don’t have kids and we never interact with young people ever” or “we have three kids” as options.

Q. Update—Re: Spouse never initiates sex (March 15, 2018): I wrote to you about two years ago, complaining that my spouse never initiates sex but is happy to have it whenever I initiate (quick backstory: three kids, both of us work, tired often, but looking back it has always been like that—it’s just that pre-kids sex happened naturally after a romantic evening, and now it has to happen after loading the dishwasher, more or less, or rarely to never). After many talks, I had gone on a quiet “sex strike,” which resulted in months of no sex—that’s when I wrote in. You essentially told me to get off my high horse, stop the passive-aggressive approach to this, accept him as he is (noninitiator), and enjoy the “outcomes” of initiating. Well, you were 100 percent right. I stopped. We’ve since been having sex regularly about once a week (what I manage), and it’s been SO much better to stop expecting him to do something that just doesn’t work for him! One reader’s comment struck me in particular: The reader asked if he ever initiates other things. I realized the answer is more or less no. He’ll use a wallet until it falls apart; he will consult me about what I want for my birthday; he will follow the kids’ leads on games, not initiate. This was never about me or sex—it’s just who he is, and it stems at least in part from being a truly considerate person. And he’s wonderful, and I love him, and I was being an ass, and thanks for pointing it out :).

A: Oh, I do hope that I didn’t use the expression “high horse” in my reply—I don’t think it’s selfish or wrong to want your partner to initiate some of the time! But I am so glad to hear that you were able to abandon that particular strategy of avoiding your partner in the hopes that he’d intuit what was bothering you, because I don’t think that was making you feel any happier or more wanted. I think you found a better strategy, rather than stopping “being an ass,” and I’m really glad things are better now and that you’re having more sex. Congratulations!

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Classic Prudie

Q. My friend says she got pregnant from sitting on spermMy best friend, “Kris,” and I are sophomores in high school. We’ve been best friends since grade school, and so I’m really in shock about what’s happening to my friend and how she’s dealing with it. Kris and I are in the same history class. There’s this really awkward boy in our class named “Herman.” Sometimes when the teacher goes out of the room, Herman covers his lap with his coat, puts his hands under the coat, and wiggles around a bit. No one ever says anything, but they make fun of him a lot out of class. Last week, Kris confessed to me that she’s pregnant. She says that when we were doing group work in class, she sat in Herman’s chair, and the chair was wet, but I don’t believe her. That’s not even possible, is it? I think she’s making this up because her parents are very religious and are going to flip out. Now I’m really confused. Should I just tell Kris I don’t believe her, and that what she’s saying is wrong, or should I go to the principal or counselor or someone? Kris says her parents don’t know yet. Read what Prudie had to say.