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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Breastfeeding weirdness: One of my co-workers, “Kristen,” has recently given birth, and she frequently breastfeeds on Zoom calls. She says that it is the best way to keep the baby quiet, but due to camera angles and movement you can sometimes see her breast, or part of it, as the baby feeds. One of our co-workers is really creepy about it behind Kristen’s back. In a separate chat, about a different project Kristen isn’t involved in, he told us he had taken screenshots. Although he backed down and said he was just kidding when I challenged him, he makes jokes about her sexual attractiveness and how lucky the baby is. I told him he was disgusting and I didn’t want to hear anymore, which he has gone along with—although he said I had no sense of humor—but other people say he still says things to them.
How do I deal with this? I can’t imagine telling Kristen, who is very sweet and prim, about it, and I don’t want her to feel awkward or that she can’t feed the baby. Would it be OK to just pass on the screenshots I took of him being gross in the chat, even though it was a semiprivate conversation, to our supervisor? Although I told him to stop in there and he did, so I don’t know if the supervisor would do anything. Other people have said it isn’t my business and I should just let it go, but that doesn’t feel right.
A: I think your co-worker has made it your business. You didn’t ask for this information—he volunteered it cheerfully during a conversation about a work project. Moreover, he’s only stopped talking about it to you, and is still making lewd and unprofessional comments about Kristen’s body to the rest of her colleagues, which makes it clear that he’s uninterested in actually stopping. His claim that he was “just kidding” about taking screenshots doesn’t hold water. (And what would the joke have been? “Wouldn’t it be funny if I took pictures of our co-worker while she breastfeeds her infant?”) It seems fairly clear he only tried to pass it off as a joke once you objected to it.
If your co-worker was making offensive sexual comments about Kristen in a “chat about a different project Kristen isn’t involved in,” then that conversation was not “semiprivate.” It was a work conversation, with his co-workers, about work. Kristen is trying to keep a newborn baby quiet and happy while working from home, which is incredibly difficult, and your co-worker has used that as justification to gossip and objectify her, possibly even to take pictures of her. This is an issue not just for your supervisor to address but for HR to take on as well.
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Q. Moral dilemma: I work in a nonprofit where I have access to clients’ personal financial information. It has come to my attention that a couple of clients are taking advantage of government assistance to which they are not legally entitled. While double-dipping, they are benefiting from deep subsidies that are based on their legally obtained low income. I have proof. I signed a confidentiality agreement for this job, but as a taxpayer I am deeply offended. Morally, am I justified in reporting this information to a snitch line?
A: I’ll be honest: I don’t know what double-dipping means in this context. And I can’t really think of a good reason why a nonprofit should have access to people’s personal finances. Maybe there are some, and I just don’t know any. But I do know that poor people, especially when they rely on government assistance, are often hyperscrutinized and even penalized by losing access to necessary programs if they start to rise above the poverty line. You say a few low-income clients are getting some money from “deep subsidies.” I think if a real person were in immediate harm, that would be one thing, but your offense seems to stem from a general stance about “taxpayers,” and to my mind, it doesn’t rise to the level of “calling a snitch line.” That doesn’t mean you have to like it. But if you’re looking for reasons to get offended as a taxpayer, I suggest you start with the United States’ massive defense budget.
Q. Uncomfortable: I have moved into a new townhouse that backs up to a large circular park with a running track. I am a young woman in my 20s; I go running every morning. One of my new neighbors gets out on his balcony around the same time. I didn’t think anything about it until a middle-aged woman stopped me while I was checking the mail. She introduced herself as my neighbor and instructed me to wear more clothes while I was exercising because it was “shameless” and distracting for her husband. I was so shocked I couldn’t even say a word. Now I don’t know what to do, because one of my neighbors is a pervert and his wife is an enabling witch. My running clothes are not even that revealing unless someone thinks a few bare inches of skin above the belly button is risqué. I am half tempted to yell at my neighbor if he was enjoying the show one of these mornings. I am angry and embarrassed, and I have no clue what to do. Running is my favorite form of exercise and meditation. I purchased this place because it was so close to the park. I don’t want to have a feud with a neighbor before I have even picked out paint for my new bedroom. What do I do?
A: It seems like the theme of today’s chat is “people creating problems where problems need not exist.” I’m so sorry that your neighbor harassed you for running and blamed you for her husband’s emotional state—it was wildly inappropriate and sexist, which, of course you know, but it bears repeating. The most important thing here is to make sure you feel comfortable when you’re running. If that means ignoring your neighbor when she attempts to speak to you again, that’s fine; if it means telling her politely but firmly that you’re not responsible for her husband, nor are you interested in hearing her opinions on your running outfits, that’s fine too. You’re not “starting a feud” by refusing to bow to unreasonable demands.
Q. So[m]ber bride: My parents are alcoholics. My mother is particularly difficult because she can only have one or two drinks before she is sloppy, emotional, and mean. Neither of my parents has an interest in changing or addressing their alcoholism. For years, I have asked them to at least not show up to certain events (like my 9 a.m. college graduation) wasted and begged them to not drink during some occasions. This request usually starts a big argument and they never listen or follow through. They act like it is a funny game. I am now in my mid-30s, and I’m at the end of my rope. I briefly cut off contact with them last year, saying we couldn’t speak until they demonstrated change. We didn’t talk for five months, but I caved during the pandemic. I felt guilty, and they are in their early 70s. My fiancé and I are in the early stages of wedding planning, and we keep trying to create ways to minimize their participation and presence. We both agree that it seems inevitable that my mother will make a scene. If she’s not falling down drunk, she will throw a hissy fit and cry. If we ban her from drinking she will sneak it or bitterly and loudly complain to anyone who will listen. I’m mortified and stressed just thinking about it. My dad says this is just the way my mother is and that I’m overbearing. It doesn’t feel like not inviting them is an option, but I also don’t want our day ruined by her behavior. What do we do?
A: Why doesn’t it feel like not inviting them is an option? Aside from “Well, they’re my parents and you’re supposed to have your parents at your wedding,” or a fear that they’ll try to retaliate if you set a boundary, or a general sense of guilt and a feeling that it’s your responsibility to give your parents whatever they want—do you actually want them there? Do you enjoy their company? Do you want to spend your wedding day monitoring your mother’s highball glass or sending a bridesmaid over to escort her to the bathroom?
I understand that you’ve felt more worried than usual about your parents’ health in the past few months. And I can relate to a feeling of overwhelming guilt when it comes to parents who are unwilling to change. It can feel like a monumentally impossible task to tell a parent “No.” But you’re not talking about a cheerful drunk, or the fear that she might get a little gossipy—your mother gets cruel after a single drink, and she never stops at a single drink. You say, “They never listen or follow through,” that they’ve insisted this is “just how [they] are,” and I think you know pretty conclusively that they’re not going to change anytime soon. What would you need, in terms of practical and emotional support, for not inviting them to become an option? Seek that out, whatever it is, from as many fronts as possible—therapy, Al-Anon, your partner, your friends, wherever you can find it.
Q. Love my niece: At 24, my husband and I took custody of his 10-year-old half-sister, “Stella.” Her mother dated a series of child predators, and by the time she came to us, Stella needed full-time care. I quit my master’s program. We gave my cat away because Stella could be violent. My husband and I lived in a state of school meetings, counseling, and hopelessness. It was worth it, because Stella is now a bright and brilliant young woman at 20. My husband is talking about babies now. I am running on maternal empty. I don’t want children. I don’t want to give up the rest of my life to repeat what I have lived through. There were a lot of dark times with Stella. It turned out all right, but what if it hadn’t? The question keeps me up at night. I want to go back to school; I want to travel; I want to have pets again. I don’t want my life held hostage again. I love Stella. I love the woman she grew into. I love my husband. I don’t want to risk the rest of my life. How do I tell my husband without making it seem like I regret Stella?
A: There is a world of difference between “I’m exhausted after 10 years of full-time parenting and dealing with trauma” and “I wish we’d never raised Stella.” Nor is “I’m tired, and I’m done having children” the equivalent of “I wish your sister didn’t exist.” Please don’t feel like you have to justify your lack of interest in children by making a big show of loving Stella—it’s so clear that you love her, and it’s also clear that you’ve been through the mill, not because Stella was a uniquely difficult child, but because she was dealing with the aftermath of years of abuse.
Please don’t apologize for wanting to go back to school, to travel, to focus on the things that you enjoy. This discrepancy may be difficult for your husband if he does want children, but just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s wrong. You don’t want children, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of that. Some people in your position might still want children; others might not. The point isn’t “Anyone who had been in my position would (or wouldn’t) want to start over again”—it’s that you don’t. And it’s not a referendum on your love for Stella to say you don’t want kids now.
Q. Intimacy anxiety: I am a 32-year-old woman with a decent amount of relationship experience; I have had two long-term relationships, including a marriage that ultimately ended amicably, and a few casual things with friends. I haven’t been with anyone for about a year now, and I started dating a friend I’ve known for a few years. He told me he is a virgin, and he is anxious about intimacy. I respect him and enjoy our time together, and I would never want him to feel pressured to do anything, but it’s been a few months and we still haven’t had sex of any kind. He’ll initiate a pretty passionate make-out session, but as soon as we get to the point where things would typically go further, he tells me to slow down and we end up just cuddling. There have been many nights when I’ve felt extremely frustrated, but again, I never want him to feel pressured, so I bottle up that frustration so as to not exacerbate his anxiety. I am starting to feel like I’m neglecting my own needs. I don’t know how to tell him about my frustration without upsetting him or making it seem like I’m guilt-tripping him into sex. How should I approach this without seeming predatory or coercive?
A: Having the conversation when you haven’t just been making out is the first step, I think. Set aside some time to talk about your sex life when you both know sex isn’t on the table. Talking about your own desires, and acknowledging possible incompatibility, is not predatory, nor is it coercive: “I really want to have sex in the near future. Do you? If so, what do you need from me, or what do you want to talk about, to make that possible?” This is part of why the “What are you into?” conversation can be really helpful, I think; if you two can speak frankly about what appeals to you, what you like, what you don’t like, what you might like, what you’ve fantasized about, and what kinds of sex you might prefer, while knowing you’re not about to start having sex then and there, it can free up a lot of emotional room, so to speak.
Be patient and nonjudgmental if he needs a little time to sort out his thoughts. But be patient and nonjudgmental with yourself too—if he avoids the conversation or remains vague, and that in turn makes you question whether you see a romantic future with him, that’s neither punitive nor an attempt to guilt-trip him into sex. It’s an attempt to see if you two want the same things! And if you don’t want the same things, and can’t find a meaningful compromise that suits you both, then breaking up or going back to being friends is probably the best solution.
Q. Always interrupting: Eight years ago, I was in an abusive marriage that I left. Since then, I have done a lot of work on my self-esteem, creating healthy boundaries, etc. I’m definitely much better at seeing red flags and holding men to higher standards in how they treat me. However, I’ve been single for these eight years and would really like an opportunity for love again and to test all these relationship skills I’ve been developing. I recently started talking to a man on a dating app, whom I haven’t met yet because of COVID, and I’ve developed a level of something, through chatting on the phone and video, that I haven’t had in a long time. We also have a lot in common, want similar things on the same timeline, and are very much attracted to each other, from what can be determined by video. I have one big problem though: He interrupts me a lot. He also often changes the subject back to himself when I’m talking. It’s not so bad that he doesn’t seem interested in getting to know me, but it’s annoying and disrespectful, and it makes me feel like I’m possibly entering into something where my passive nature will be overtaken again. Should this automatically be a deal-breaker? He seems like the type who would be sympathetic if I brought it up, but is it something that I can reasonably expect him to change, assuming he wants to? I know no one is perfect. Considering how good everything else is, am I setting unreasonable standards out of fear of being dominated again? On a scale from abusive to perfect, what is reasonable?
A: It can be a deal-breaker if you want it to be. I also think there’s room to have a conversation with him first. Aside from universal red flags that indicate incoming abuse, lots of people have unique screening patterns for fledgling relationships, and it’s not necessarily a question of what’s “reasonable” but what the individual is willing to deal with. If you were to say to yourself, “I’ve been through enough in my life that I’m going to have pretty high expectations about interruptions and politeness from anyone I date—I’m just not interested in reminding an adult man that it’s rude to interrupt and change the topic back to yourself five times in a single conversation,” that would strike me as eminently reasonable. If you were to say, “I’m willing to bring this up politely but directly with him and see how he responds—if he’s dismissive or defensive, I’ll know we’re not compatible, but if he corrects himself, I’ll give it another go,” that would make sense to me too. The question is really how much time and energy you want to expend on this. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you’ve been interrupting me a lot lately. Can you please stop?” should be met with some version of “I’m sorry/I got carried away/I do care about what you’re saying/I’ll work on that.” If that’s not his response, it’s time to move on, I think.
It’s great that you’re attracted to him and you have a lot in common. I don’t think he’s the only man in the world you’ll be attracted to or have a lot in common with, so don’t approach this from the mindset of “I might never find someone like this again—better tread carefully.” Honestly, this is what the early dating process is for: namely, screening for and weeding out people who may very well be perfectly nice but just aren’t for you. It doesn’t have to be a red flag for you to not want to set up another video date. Frequent interruptions and changing the subject are not great indicators! If it’s “annoying and disrespectful,” I think you should take it pretty seriously.
Q. Re: Moral dilemma: The U.S. military budget, while bloated, is not illegal. Double-dipping into programs one is not entitled to is illegal. The letter writer may have a legal obligation to report such things. They can’t ignore this because you are at war against the rich. Letter writer, I suggest you see if your profession has an ethics board you can query for advice. I’d hate to see you in legal trouble over this later.
A: I think the fact that the U.S. military budget is “legal” is not an argument for approving of the budget, nor do I believe there is a war against the rich going on—or, if there is, the rich are winning and certainly not in need of assistance.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for bearing with me today! I’ll see you all next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. My parents make me feel guilty for not being a stay-at-home mother: My husband and I both work full time and have two children under 5. My parents strongly disagree with me (a mom) working full time outside of the house. They are both passive-aggressive and full-on aggressive about their disapproval. When they visit and insist on watching the kiddos, they point to normal toddler behavior and dissect it as ways in which my kids are suffering because I—but not my husband, ahem—am not staying home with them. I don’t question my decision—I love my work and my kids are fine—but my parents stress me out and I don’t know how to make it better. Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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