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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. One boss is enough: My husband and I are both working from home, which was fine up until last week. I screwed up at work, in a way that was entirely my fault, and got chewed out for it in a Zoom meeting with my boss. My husband overheard and has decided to take an interest. Now he asks me at random times what projects I have going and whether all my work is on schedule. He manages 17 people and he says he’s “used to these situations.” How can I tell him that reporting to one manager is enough?
A: Exactly how you just told me: “I’m already handling this with my own manager. You’re not my boss, and I don’t want you to be.” It’d be one thing if you two wanted to talk about work more often, or if you’d asked him for his advice, but periodically interrupting you to ask for status reports—when he doesn’t even work at your company!—is unhelpful at best, and harmful to your marriage. He manages 17 people, but none of them are you.
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Q. Paying for college: In my past, I was happily married, a stay-at-home father, and a part-time professional. I invested everything in my children. As a result, they all flourished, won countless awards, and are in top-ranking public universities. My wife on the other hand thought all of the children’s achievements happened due to “natural selection,” and eventually her narcissism meant I was no longer good enough and my inability to “feed her” resulted in a triad of affairs. I, knowing this, upgraded my skills with an advanced degree. I am now back in the professional world and make a handsome salary. This complements my strong attitude toward savings, investing, and happiness that resulted in a now-multimillionaire status. Since I have divorced my wife, two of my children have become engrossed in my ex’s narcissistic lifestyle. Though I was the one who was cheated on and who endured a wide variety of abuse, both blame me for the divorce on “biblical grounds.” Neither speak to me. They have trashed me in our community, on social media, and to their friends. On each of the past two Father’s Days neither has texted, called, sent a card, or spent time with me. Though I sympathize that they have fallen prey to their mother, both will be expecting about $25,000 each for next year’s college costs. I would not even notice this amount being gone. My impulse is “don’t put your hands out for charity if you cannot speak to me.” I have paid cash for 100 percent of their college costs and both refuse to work in jobs. I understand if I do not pay for their school it will further cause a rift, but I also feel relationships should be on a “two-way street.” As it stands now, I get nothing but heartache from them. What are your thoughts on me withholding money?
A: If you don’t want to give your children more money for college, commit to that decision, and be clear when you give them the news. If you do want to give your children more money for college, don’t do so as leverage to try to get them to spend time with you, to disavow their mother, or in lieu of having an honest conversation about why your relationships with them have fallen apart—you can’t bridge an emotional gap with money alone. (I’m not saying money has never helped, just that it can’t be the only answer.) Whichever decision you make is up to you; they’re adults now and not in danger of homelessness or neglect, so it’s not a question of safety or child endangerment. It doesn’t sound like you stand to lose much financially or relationally either way.
I don’t know what your ex-wife is like, and it’s certainly possible that both she and your children have behaved selfishly or unfairly toward you. But I wonder why you think these two young adults have “fallen prey” to their mother, rather than simply deciding for themselves that they don’t like you. Even if you think they dislike you for the wrong reasons, it sounds like they’ve known you long enough to make up their own minds on the subject.
Q. Postponed wedding: Our wedding got canceled, but we got married anyway at city hall. My husband and I plan on having the reception next year once things settle down. I do very much want to have the father-daughter dance and a chance to wear my wedding dress. We plan to stage photos. We are not asking for gifts, just for family and friends to attend. We have gotten some pushback. People are saying it will be “fake” and that it is tacky for me to wear my dress after I have been married for a year. We should have just rescheduled the wedding, but we needed to get married for health care since my husband has an illness and lost his job. This is very hurtful. I didn’t get to have my father walk me down the aisle. I want to dance with him. Are we out of line?
A: I don’t see any harm in wearing a wedding dress at a future reception celebrating your wedding, especially given the circumstances that forced you to cancel your original celebration. (I also don’t see much harm in tackiness, a word that seems to be applied confusingly and haphazardly to so many different things as to be almost meaningless.) How can a party be fake? How can a party be authentic, for that matter? You can’t celebrate your wedding in person with many people right now because it’s a health risk, so you plan on celebrating with your loved ones once it’s safe and practical to do so. There’s nothing fake about that. I hope most of your guests do not push back—it’s certainly not unusual nowadays to have a small “official” ceremony and then a big party later—and that they turn out to celebrate with you as soon as they can. Wear your dress, walk down an aisle with your father, dance with your friends—have fun.
Q. Roommate trouble: I moved in with a male co-worker last year out of convenience. I have only ever lived with other women before. It turns out that we spend most of our free time together, cooking, doing errands, going out to eat, and hosting friends for dinner. He has invited my parents over several times. Spending so much time with him has made me realize that I have serious feelings for him. My friends have even said we seem more like a married couple than roommates. Our dynamic is more what I would expect out of a relationship and I think it is getting in the way of me pursuing actual relationships. I don’t want to tell him because I don’t think he feels the same way at all, and I have to live there for a few more months so I don’t want things to be awkward. I don’t think it is great to get involved with a roommate, and it was never my intention to feel this way. Do you have any advice on how to move past this? Is my only option to tell him directly?
A: If you’re fairly certain he doesn’t feel the same way—I assume it’s not just pessimism or self-deprecation at play here but a sincere read of his behavior—I think your best option is to keep things as light as possible and try to make it through the next few months before you get to move out as peacefully and as calmly as you can. You have three pretty significant reasons to at the very least wait to bring up the possibility of romance: You work together, you live together, and you’re pretty sure he doesn’t like you back. Telling someone you have serious feelings for them is not the only way to work through unrequited love. Time and distance are also excellent remedies. But at the very least, it would be easier to deal with outright rejection from him once you’re no longer living together—although, since you’d still be working together, there are still plenty of opportunities for awkwardness.
Q. Top surgery is about me, not my mom: I’m an AFAB nonbinary lesbian. (She or they is fine!) I’m 25 years old and live in a different state than my parents. They are totally supportive of me being gay, but I’ve yet to tell them about my new relationship to gender, or that I’m considering top surgery. I think my dad would be generally supportive, but I am most nervous about my mom’s reaction. My mom has always had a weird relationship with my siblings’ and my bodily autonomy: My mother and I are both fat, and she put me on nonconsensual diets starting at 6 years old. She got bariatric surgery when I was a teenager and was offended when I refused her offer for me to get it too. When she found out that my brother has tattoos, she complained to me, citing that she “worked so hard to make our bodies perfect” during her pregnancy. This not-so-stellar history makes me want to avoid the topic of surgery altogether with her, but I know it’s wishful thinking to hope she just wouldn’t notice if I got top surgery and that we would never have to discuss it.
How do I navigate this? It feels really itchy to try to invite her into such a tender part of my life, but I know I’m going to have to address it sometime if I ever see her again after this pandemic is up. Is the answer going back and fleshing out all the ways she’s caused me pain and discomfort in my body, even though I doubt she would properly hear me? Please help. I just want to feel like I can get a mastectomy without my mom signing the permission slip.
A: There are two different elements at play here—one is how to navigate your relationship with your mother, and the other is about an internal feeling of freedom. If you want to feel like you can get a mastectomy without your mother signing the permission slip, you can pursue that goal with or without her help. As a matter of fact, there is nothing in the world your mother can do to prevent you from reaching a goal of internal freedom, possibility, and self-determination, even if she proved completely hostile on the subject of top surgery and demanded you justify yourself to her at every turn. The history between you and your mother—she’s repeatedly attempted to stake a controlling interest in your body—is not one that suggests fruitful opportunities for respectful discussion, at least not right now. If you make your goal “convincing your mother to respect your decisions” or “convincing your mother that you’re doing something good,” I think you’ll experience a lot of unnecessary frustration.
But if your goal is to inform your mother about your plans on a need-to-know basis while also restricting the time you spend listening to her judgements and opinions about your body, I think you have an excellent chance of succeeding. You do not have to invite her into this. You can keep her updated, but she hasn’t demonstrated that she can be trusted when you invite her to discuss topics that make you feel vulnerable or itchy. This might feel counterintuitive or defeatist, but I think it’s strategically necessary: Go into this conversation assuming that your mother will not “properly hear” you. Assume that she will take it personally, assume that she will attempt to tell you what she thinks you should do instead, assume that she will try to offer value judgments about fatness, and then plan accordingly. You also don’t have to go into the history about how much her interference with your relationship to your body has caused you pain, at least not right now. You can absolutely have that conversation with her at some point, but you don’t have to do it right now just because you’re considering top surgery. And you don’t have to tell her when you’re still simply considering it, either; you’re 25 years old and you’re entitled to decide whether you want to hear your parents’ opinions on your medical procedures.
Q. Feeling slighted by in-laws after birth of second child: My husband and I recently welcomed our second child amid the pandemic. Many kind friends and family reached out with cards, flowers, or gifts. We were touched. Given the stress of having a baby during these times, it really lifted our spirits and made us feel supported.
As I was writing thank-yous, I suddenly realized that we did not receive a single gift or card from anyone on my husband’s side of the family. I can’t emphasize this enough: I do not expect people to spend lots of money when someone has a baby, especially for a second child. But the more I have thought about it, the more hurt I get that not a single one of my child’s grandparents, aunts, or uncles on their father’s side thought to send so much as a card. I’ve always gotten along very well with his family, and he is quite close with them as well.
It has now been months. My husband has shrugged it off. I feel slighted by their thoughtlessness and irritated that he doesn’t seem to care. Am I overreacting in thinking this was incredibly rude?
A: Have your in-laws acknowledged the birth of your second child in any other way? Have they called? Emailed? Texted? Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’re all having a very tough time during the pandemic and unemployment crisis and are simply too swamped to send a card. But if they haven’t done anything, then I think there’s real reason for you and your husband to (gently) bring it up and let them know you’d like more acknowledgement and support.
Q. Should I try to reconnect with her? Long story short, I’m wondering if I should try to reconnect, hopefully romantically, with an ex whom I’ve had an on-again-off-again kind of thing with for the past 10-plus years. Even though we’re on very good terms now, I cowardly avoided committing to her in the past, which I know has broken her heart. Do I even deserve the privilege of talking to her, and would it be fair to her if I tried to reach out? Or should I accept the path I chose and stay away from her?
A: Do you think it would be unfair if you asked her to reconnect and she said yes? I imagine rekindling a relationship where you believed yourself to be “getting away” with something you shouldn’t be could lead to guilt and resentment and doubt a little further down the road. Were you the only person who’s ever ended your relationship(s) over the past 10 years, or have you two both done your fair share of dumping? Have you two ever talked in detail about the ways in which you’ve broken her heart and how you might try to repair it together, or have you made the assumption and avoided asking questions because you felt guilty? You say you’re on good terms now, which means you certainly have grounds to talk to her about your desires and fears before assuming she’s been too hurt by you to ever trust you again. (It also means you’re not really staying away from her at present, so if that’s a choice you’re considering, I hope you’ll at least tell her before you stop talking to her.) Give her a chance to tell you what she wants and how she feels about the history of your relationship before making a decision.
Q. Re: Paying for college: If you pay their college please don’t hold it over their heads their entire lives. My parents died when I was young, and my grandparents paid for my college because the aunt who was raising me was struggling. To this day my grandmother will not let it go and tells me how I owe her for the rest of my life. Because I have not amounted to what she believes I should have, she holds this “gift” over my head. I dislike her greatly for it. That being said I call her weekly and visit whenever I go home. When we had a family reunion I rented my own car and drove her around because even though she could afford a car service she refused to do so. I did it because I love her, but it still was not enough!
A: Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m so sorry, and I hope the letter writer can see just how fruitless trying to use money to extract affection is. You might be able to get obedience or compliance with money, or even a show of gratitude, but it won’t ever make your kids love you.
Q. Re: Postponed wedding: No! This is not tacky! This is love in the time of COVID. I’d phrase it as “Finally, we can celebrate our marriage with our friends and family, since COVID changed our plans!” Stop talking about it with people, just send out invites when you are ready, and make sure it’s clear that gifts are not expected.
A: It’s such a strange complaint! I can almost understand charges of “tackiness” when it’s meant to point out stinginess or ingratitude, but I truly don’t understand what point of etiquette or hospitality the letter writer could be accused of violating here. Have the party! Anyone who thinks it’s tacky is welcome to stay home.
Q. Re: Postponed wedding: I think the confusion might arise because of the use of the word reception. While I don’t doubt having a delayed “reception” is fine, the term might be getting in the way. What we did is this: We got married where we live in D.C.—but I’m British. We told the Brit contingency that we’d love for them to come but we’d be having a party in London, so no pressure. We did this, we called it a party to celebrate our marriage. There was no confusion over what was happening. This subtle change will probably clear up a lot of the pushback.
A: I sure hope it’s just a case of misunderstanding! Although in that case, the confused parties should simply have asked for clarification before saying, “God, how tacky.” If anyone keeps saying it’s tacky after the letter writer explains that she’s not accepting gifts and simply throwing a party, don’t send them an invitation.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for your help, everyone. See you all next week!
From How to Do It
Q. My wife wants us to have sex with her brother: For as long as I have known her, my wife has been interested in “incest” role play. While it isn’t my cup of tea exactly, I have been willing and happy to support her in her exploration of this kind of fantasy and role-play. Often, she will have me dress up as her father, wear his cologne, etc., while she will wear her “high school” clothes. Recently, though, things have started to move in an uncomfortable direction. Read more and see what Rich Juzwiak had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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