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Q. Embryos: My ex and I used IVF to have our son (she had ovarian cancer). We had multiple embryos made, but our marriage dissolved a year after our son was born. The embryos are currently on ice, and legally we both have to consent to their use. I pay for the storage. It was too painful a topic to talk about during the divorce, and neither one of us wanted to speak about the potential children we could have had.
Our son is 6 now. We have equal custody and a civil relationship, at least until my ex’s sister lost her husband in a car accident last year. It was an unbelievable tragedy, and the sister was injured so badly she had to have a hysterectomy. I would have done anything to help, but the sister is now fixated on our embryos as her only solution to have a child. She wants to hire a surrogate and have us donate the embryos to her. My ex is all for it. She sees it as a chance to bring light out of darkness and give our “children” a chance to live.
I just can’t agree to this. I love my son with every fiber of my being, but I don’t want more children with his mother. I also don’t want someone else raising my children. I would not be able to cope with this. I told them no. It has wrecked my relationship with my ex. Her parents have called me begging me to relent. Her sister has sent me several long handwritten letters that I refuse to read. Our son is confused and sad; he has overheard remarks about me “not letting” his little brothers and sisters be born. In our last conversation about it, I told my ex that unless she wanted to get lawyers involved, the discussion was over. She hasn’t brought it up since.
I feel tremendous guilt over this entire affair. I cared for my brother-in-law and mourned his loss. My former sister-in-law is a nice woman and doesn’t deserve the hand she was dealt. Am I being too selfish?
A: If suffering worked like a math problem, I might be able to make a ruling about whether you’re being selfish—”If Angela has suffered X due to a terrible car accident, and believes Y would make her Z-quantity happy, and Brian does not consent to share Y, how bad a person is he? Solve for miserliness.” But you can see, I think, just how quickly such an analogy falls apart when it comes to something as complicated as reproductive autonomy, co-parenting, consent, and family dynamics. It’s terrible that your former sister-in-law was in a car accident and that she had to have an unexpected, unwanted hysterectomy; she deserves excellent medical care, robust emotional support, and the opportunity to grieve. But it doesn’t negate the importance of joint consent when it comes to the future of the embryos you and your wife stored, and it doesn’t mean you can simply ignore your feelings about your relationship to whatever children those embryos might produce.
You did right to draw the line with your ex after she drew your son into the conversation (what an awful way to try to manipulate a child), and I think you should insist on only speaking through your lawyers about the embryos in the future. You may need to have a clarifying conversation with your son on your own—resisting the temptation to fight fire with fire or use him to get back at your ex—where you answer his questions in honest, age-appropriate language so he has a better understanding of what a stored embryo is besides “my little brother that Mom says Dad won’t let come live with us.”
The fact that you feel guilty is unsurprising—not because I think you should feel guilty, but because more than one of your relatives has pulled out all the stops trying to make you feel guilty, and guilt trips often work. But it would not be right to donate these embryos knowing as you do that you would be unable to think of them as your sister-in-law’s children, committing to a lifetime of (possibly antagonistic) co-parenting. You’ve done the right thing, I think; it just doesn’t always feel good.
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Q. My “small, unhealthy group” is deemed unworthy of affordable insurance: I work in a library, and this month is when we are reassessed for insurance premiums and have open enrollment. We’re on a high deductible plan that in my opinion isn’t that great to start with. I don’t make enough to pay for my deductible, so I basically have health insurance that I can’t use. This year, we saw our premiums increase by 25 percent. Because of this, my insurance premiums have gone from $0 a month to over $70. I’m going to have a hard time budgeting that into my already-tight finances. Family plans have been massively affected.
It seems like our director and head of HR have been trying to find us better rates, but every email we receive from our HR director has included some line about how this happened because we are a small, unhealthy bunch. It feels like she’s trying to make us more willing to accept bad rates by shaming us. “Unfortunately, due to employee health issues, companies are either refusing to quote or quoting higher than our renewal”; “There simply aren’t any other options for a small, unhealthy group”; “The best way for us to get our rates down is to take an active role in our health and wellness. Regular checkups and preventative measures make an impact on health costs. We can do this!” We’re in library work, and most of the staff are women. Some have chronic illness, and many younger women seem “at risk” because if we decide to have babies, it gets expensive.
I understand that I play a role in my health, but at the same time people can’t prevent chronic illnesses. I have friends on staff who can’t change their health issues and are hurt by this. It seems like a very targeted, ableist thing to be putting into emails, especially from the person I would normally take these issues to. Do I respond to this? If so, how do I address my concerns with my superiors?
A: I want to open this up to readers with more experience in HR and workplace protections, so please chime in if you have any suggestions. My first instinct is that any HR director who’s (apparently) telling “younger” employees they’re high-risk because she thinks they’re likely to get pregnant is asking for legal trouble, but I simply don’t know enough about the terrain. I know that plenty of companies have apparently legal but deeply invasive “wellness” programs that attempt to spin monitoring employees’ diet and activity levels as somehow good for said employees, so it may be that my instincts are out of step with what’s legal, customary, and industry standard. But it sounds awful, unpleasant, and completely unhelpful—how on earth is the entire staff supposed to get rid of their various conditions and diagnoses in time for your HR director to choose a new insurance plan?
Q. Heart and head in a fight to the death: Before you say I’m in the wrong, clingy, or hindering my child, I already know and I don’t know how to stop. My daughter is nearly 17 and autistic. She is genuinely amazing. Everyone who meets her can’t get over how funny and smart she is, to the point of exclaiming, “She got a B?! Is she OK?” Her counselors and teachers expect her to be valedictorian when she graduates.
This year she begins 11th grade and, like all kids and parents at this time, she’s beginning the college conversations, I want to throw up whenever the subject comes up. She really does have the chance to get into an Ivy League college, but I have completely undermined it by convincing her to attend a state college just because it’s close. Honestly, I don’t even know if it’s a good school.
I know that this is a crap thing to do. I’m so proud of her for so many reasons, and proud that she will become an adult so much better than me. But I’m terrified. I’ve really taught her as well as I can about the world, but she’s super easy to take advantage of, lie to, or manipulate. All of that means she could end up raped or murdered because she trusted the wrong person while away from home at college. Yes, all parents are afraid of that. But I’m a dual addict in recovery, which means I was once the predator, so I’m vividly aware of the evil out there that most parents wouldn’t think of.
My head tells me to trust her judgment and to allow her to soar the way I know she will. But my terror kicks in and I say and do stupid things. Even her older siblings lecture me about it, and the folks at my meetings tell me I’m being unreasonable. So, how can I learn to let her go? It’s apparent that I haven’t been a good mother all these years, but I’m really trying.
A: I think you’ve hit upon the real problem here: “She’s super easy to take advantage of. … She trusted the wrong person.” Your response to that fear has not been to arrange honest, challenging conversations with your daughter about how to simultaneously trust and verify her own instincts, what useful questions to ask when establishing trust, or how to protect herself emotionally, physically, and financially without becoming paranoid. It’s been to decide: “I’ll just take advantage of her myself. As long as I’m the one manipulating her, no one else can.” But of course, that’s not true, which you’ve already begun to realize.
There is no degree to which you can control your daughter’s future to your own satisfaction, because the desire to control is unsatisfiable. The fact that your other children, your fellow parents, and your own judgment are telling you that you’ve lost perspective and are about to do more harm than good is worth paying attention to. Ask them for further advice, to sit in on some of your conversations with your daughter, to hold you accountable when you feel tempted to try to micromanage the rest of your daughter’s adult life. Consider having a conversation with your daughter (mediated by one of these other people if you think that would help) where you honestly discuss some of your own faults with her. She is nearly 17 and probably already well aware that you’re not a perfect person. It might improve your relationship if you say to her: “I love you, I’m proud of you, and I want to be helpful while you consider your options for college. I know I’ve really stressed a state school in the past because I want you to stay close, but there are other reasons to consider it too, and it’s OK for us to sometimes disagree. You’ve probably already noticed this, but sometimes I have trouble letting go because I want to make sure life is easy and safe for you. I’m working on that.” (For whatever it’s worth, while I’m glad to hear that you’re in recovery, I can’t agree with your conflation of addiction with evil, nor that all active addicts are categorically predators.)
Let’s spend a second with the question of whether your local state college is any “good.” Ivy League colleges are not the only place one can get a solid education; talk to your daughter’s guidance counselor or call the department of student life and ask some questions! She’s a high school junior and there’s still lots of time before she has to make a final decision. You have not done anything evil or unreasonable by stressing the merits of a state school. You haven’t lied to her about her chances of getting into an Ivy League or tried to convince her she’s not actually “smart enough” to make it at a private school—you have, like many parents before you, encouraged your kid to choose some place in-state. On this front, unless you have left something substantial out of your story, I think you can go easy on yourself.
Teaching your daughter how to screen new people for trustworthiness, to take reasonable precautions, and to generally prioritize her own safety will set her up for a good life. Not a perfectly safe, hermetically sealed life, but a good one where she can rely on her own judgment, where she chooses to have you in her life because she likes and values your relationship—not because she’s so lost without you that she has no other options.
Q. Magnolia house: My husband and I moved into our home four years ago and now have a 2-year-old daughter. My husband comes from a magnolia house—every wall and piece of furniture is either magnolia, cream, or beige. He won’t let me decorate, as it would apparently “devalue” the house.
Last week, while he was looking after our toddler, she got hold of a black marker and drew all over a wall in our lounge. It looks awful. He took no responsibility and said we should leave it until she is older and we can guarantee she won’t draw on the walls anymore. I strongly disagree. I struggle to keep this home clean with a toddler and a dog; I don’t want to have to look at marker all over my walls! I want to decorate and even, maybe, introduce some color into our home. (I really want a green wall.)
He said this—both the expense and the hassle—makes him angry. I don’t understand how it’s that much hassle to paint one room; he wouldn’t need to do anything! Am I being unreasonable? Am I doomed to live in a magnolia house forever?
A: Obviously in the long run you two will have to hash this out, because “I am the king of paint in this house, and no one makes decisions about paint except me” is hardly a foundation for a happy, equitable marriage. But in the short term, if you just want to clean up the marker and paint an accent wall (and you’re willing to get into the fight you know will follow), then by all means, go for it. This is a fight worth having, and that’s a few years overdue. A single green wall! Your husband will surely survive the shock.
Q. Heartbroken in New England: Almost a month ago, I found out my 42-year-old husband has been having a virtual affair with a 21-year-old girl. When confronted, he showed no remorse and admitted that he loves her and has not been in love with me for years. I asked him to please stop this madness immediately and get counseling with me to try to save our marriage. It was like a slap in the face because he had never once told me he was unhappy with our life together. We have three small children and have been married for 13 years. Since their affair developed online, he has not actually met this girl in person yet. She lives across the country and is planning to come here and spend a weekend with him in September, then move here permanently in January to start a life with him. I’m beyond devastated, and I know our children will be too, because we have always provided a stable home. Since the affair began, he has also checked out on our children and stopped being the great dad that he was.
I have begged him to leave and find somewhere to stay because it’s making me feel ill to be under the same roof with him while he plans a future with her. He has asked if we can live in our home together as parents until we figure out the next steps, and I’ve expressed several times that he is asking the impossible of me. I have already spoken with an attorney to start filing for divorce and booked an appointment with a counselor, but I could still really use some advice. Prudie, what do I do about this man who has ripped my life away yet refuses to leave me in peace?
A: Decline to join your soon-to-be ex in his delusion that you two can happily live together “as parents”—while he abandons all his parental responsibilities!—until his new girlfriend gets here, then either serve him a notice of eviction if you can (ask your lawyer) or make arrangements to move yourself. I’m so sorry that your marriage has fallen apart in such a surprising and shambolic fashion, and it’s no wonder that you’re feeling jarred and off-kilter.
I think it’s safe to assume that you can count on him to behave selfishly and unpredictably in the near future, so don’t waste your energy trying to reason with him or repeat reasonable requests if you’ve already asked for something twice and he’s refused. That’s easier said than done, of course. I realize part of you is still catching up to the shock of learning that what you’d believed to be a happy, stable marriage is over, and I certainly don’t expect you to feel resigned, casual, and blasé about your soon-to-be ex’s about-face. But he seems committed to behaving unreasonably. Conserve your energy because you’re going to need it, assume he’s going to continue to behave unreasonably for a long time, and figure out how to get what you need (in this case: privacy, distance, and a place to live without him) without expecting him to help you get it. Good luck.
Q. Too many texts: I have a daughter who recently turned 18 and has asked me for advice. I’m stuck! My daughter babysat for her Spanish teacher in middle school once (she attended the same school for K–8), and the woman continues to reach out to her long after she’s left that school. I asked her if maybe the woman needed her to watch her children again, but she hasn’t asked her the last four times she’s texted. The texts are just the “Hi, how are you, how are things going” variety, and come about every couple months. It all sounds innocent, but my daughter hasn’t responded because she started to feel off as to why the teacher continues to reach out, particularly as it started when she was a minor. To be clear, they were not close, they had no real relationship to speak of outside of your typical teacher-student situation, and it’s been four or five years since the only time she babysat.
Should my daughter continue to just not answer these texts, or should she inquire as to why the woman is still reaching out to her? She doesn’t want to appear mean, but she has no interest in having any relationship with this woman and feels a little weird that she would use her number that was given under the pretense of contacting her to babysit to make random contact with her. Are we making too much of this?
I feel like a jerk telling her to ask the woman why she’s continuing to text when it seems harmless, but on the other hand, I think this same situation would be looked at differently if the teacher were male and texting when she was a minor, so I don’t want to dismiss it due to the gender of the person reaching out, as it’s contact that’s unwanted, period.
A: Your daughter is perfectly entitled to be annoyed or uninterested in chatting with her former Spanish teacher, even if she has nothing but the purest of intentions and the most anodyne of messages. (It’s possible that those “Hey, how are you?” texts were intended as generic preludes to follow-up babysitting requests, but that’s really neither here nor there.) She’s free to block her old teacher’s number, to continue to ignore her, or to respond to say she’s not interested in keeping in touch over text. Nor would it be mean to say, “I gave you this number to coordinate babysitting, but I’m not looking to babysit anymore, so let’s end this conversation. [Take care/any other nonspecific, blandly genial message here].”
Q. Solo vacations: My partner and I moved in together three months ago. Because of the pandemic and the high cost of living in our city, we live in a pretty small one-bedroom apartment, and we are both working from home for the foreseeable future. We’ve had a pretty smooth transition, but we do spend a lot of time together. I’m an extrovert who’s perfectly happy with this arrangement. My partner’s an introvert. Sometimes I can sense them getting overwhelmed by the amount of togetherness. They’ve already taken one vacation (for one night, within driving distance) and are planning a second one next month.
I feel frustrated by this. For one, I think nonessential travel of any kind is extremely unwise right now from a public health perspective. I also feel weird that I’m not invited on these trips. I know my partner isn’t doing anything wrong (they are very nature-y, and last time, they went camping in a state park) and I’m not worried at all about cheating. I just feel … left out, I guess, and concerned that my partner needs to escape me by taking these vacations. My work schedule is busy and unpredictable, so even if I were invited, I likely wouldn’t be able to join. Are solo vacations a normal part of a serious monogamous relationship? Are my feelings of jealousy and exclusion misplaced? Is it even worth bringing up?
A: I’m not sure how much your partner came into contact with others by camping overnight at a state park, but if you have specific health concerns and/or strategies for risk management, I’d encourage you and your partner to discuss them with a doctor together. I have to say, the prospect of having a partner who takes a night or a weekend to themselves every two months or so does not strike me as an attempt to “escape” or anything that justifies serious concern. Plenty of serious monogamous relationships involve structured, planned alone time, even if solo overnight trips aren’t necessarily de rigeur. I think you should let this one go.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk about these feelings with your partner! You certainly should, especially because it seems like you two have pretty different expectations and needs when it comes to spending time alone and together. But you should bring this up not in the context of “You’re taking too many vacations and it needs to stop,” but “I sometimes feel jealous of your solo trips, and I think you sometimes get overwhelmed by how much time we spend together. Let’s talk about it.” What do you do when you suspect your partner feels overwhelmed by togetherness? Have you ever asked them about it, or do you simply draw your own conclusions in private? What do you do when your partner is out of town without you, and how might you think of that time as an opportunity for you to do something you enjoy, rather than an interruption in the fun of living together?
If your partner doesn’t want to spend every waking minute together, that doesn’t mean they’re trying to “escape” you. It means they sometimes like being alone. Whatever feelings arise in you as a result are certainly worth bringing up, inasmuch as it’s valuable to discuss your feelings with your partner, even the feelings you feel complicated about or slightly ashamed of. Even misplaced feelings are worth discussing! But in this instance, I don’t think they’re a sign that your partner is doing anything wrong.
Q. Longtime crafter: For as long as I’ve known her, my wife’s crocheted, knitted, cross-stitched, etc. Many of the crafts she’s made adorn our house or the houses of friends and family. (She’s particularly good at blankets.) However, she recently got into “diamond painting.” It’s a new type of craft where you put colored dots of plastic on a gridded sheet, eventually making a pointillist picture. Some of the kits she gets are standard artwork, and some go into Lisa Frank territory, but in my opinion, all of them look chintzy and cheap. Now she wants to start putting them up on our walls as decorations and giving them away as gifts.
Prudie, her past work has been very gift-worthy, but I don’t think the diamond paintings are as good! Is there a way to gently guide her back to her old crafts, at least for anything that will be displayed or given away?
A: I realize I can’t speak for everyone and that my bugbears are not universal, but few things make me itchier or more defensive than realizing I’m being “gently guided” and that what I’d thought of as an open-ended, casual conversation was instead designed to herd me in a particular direction without my noticing. That doesn’t mean you should open the conversation with, “Normally your crafts are great, but these diamond paintings look like garbage, and I feel like I’m living inside John Waters’ condo—and not in a good way,” but you’ve known your wife for a while (also she is your wife) and I think it’s better to be direct, non-anxious, and non-precious about the whole thing. Don’t worry about whether other people may or may not want them as gifts—let your friends articulate their own relationship to chintz—but tell her you’re not wild about the diamond paintings and don’t want to display them on your walls. She may feel a bit put off, but I don’t think your wife got into crafting with the belief that you two would like every single style in the exact same amount, and she can certainly handle hearing, “Your blankets I love, your crochet drives me wild, but these diamond-point kits just don’t do it for me.”
Q. Re: My “small, unhealthy group” is deemed unworthy of affordable insurance: Insurance works in pools. If your risk is high, you will pay higher premiums. That’s just reality. You have a small group and people with chronic conditions—you are going to pay higher insurance premiums. Whether HR is being too blunt, I can’t answer. I’ve worked in small businesses in the past, and this scenario is similar to both places. I am now in a much larger organization, and I pay less.
A: Come now! I don’t think the letter writer was under any illusions on that front or believed the HR director was somehow inventing a problem that didn’t already exist. The question had more to do with whether it’s in fact the best use of the HR director’s time to email the employees chirpy little messages about how they should all “get healthier” as quickly as possible to bring down said rates—an eminently fair question, I think, and one that merits more serious consideration than “high-risk populations pay higher premiums.”
Q. Re: My “small, unhealthy group” is deemed unworthy of affordable insurance: Your HR needs to find other group(s) to bargain with. I work for a small university and we partner with five other small universities in our state to get better rates.
A: Thank you for this! I don’t want to lean too heavily on a stereotype, but all the librarians of my acquaintance are excellent at organizing, so here’s hoping.
Q. Hottie helper: I recently went back to work after the birth of my second child. My husband and I have been floored by how challenging it is to have two kids and two working parents in one household. We have arranged to have a young woman live rent-free in our basement, in exchange for being our family helper. She drives the kids to preschool, cooks occasional dinners, cleans the house, etc. It’s a sweet gig for all involved, the girl is a great fit for my family, and we are happy to help her out while she goes to college. There’s a hitch. She’s incredibly sexy and dresses in a way that leaves little to the imagination: skin-tight leggings, spaghetti-strap tanks with nothing underneath. I don’t get the feeling from my husband that he even notices, but it wigs me out. Should I just acknowledge this as a non-threat and work on my own insecurities, or address her and ask her to cover up? Read what Prudie had to say.
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