Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: I’m here, I’m upright, I’m doing my best. Let’s see what we can do with that.
Q. Childish attachment: I’m a man in my 30s and have been married to my wife for six years. During that time, we have had a very painful journey in trying to have a child. Our first daughter was stillborn and our second lived for only six hours before also passing away. My wife then had a miscarriage during the third pregnancy. She decided she wanted to stop trying to have a biological child and explore other options someday.
This was last year, and since then she’s developed a bizarre habit that worries me. We’re fans of a sci-fi TV show and my wife’s sister gave her a realistic plush toy as a birthday gift. Since then, my wife has slept with it every night. She never slept with a stuffed animal before. She doesn’t bring it in public or around anyone else, so it’s not embarrassing in that way—but I just think it’s childish and weird.
I’ve brought it up a few times and she insists that for some reason she can’t even articulate that it brings her comfort and is a “baby that she’ll never have to bury.” After asking her to put it away yet again, she got mad and slept in our guest room (with the toy). I waited until she left for work the next day and then threw it in the trash. She ended up going through our garbage shed that night to get it back and was furious and crying.
How can I get her to see that this is inappropriate for a 29-year-old adult woman and that she needs to find a different and more healthy way to grieve? I know she is in pain—I am too—but this is dumb and unreasonable.
A: It sounds to me like your wife was perfectly able to articulate what this little toy means to her—it’s small, cute, easy to cuddle, and can’t suffer or die. This woman has gone through labor twice, only to lose both babies on the other side of it, suffered a subsequent miscarriage, and now she sleeps with a plush toy at night. There’s nothing dumb or inappropriate about that. It’s just a stuffed animal. It makes her feel a little better.
Throwing it in the trash because you found this sign of comfort embarrassing was a truly ghastly, superfluously cruel thing to do, and your wife has every reason to be furious with you. Apologize to her as quickly as you can, and don’t throw away any more of her things, especially not harmless creature comforts. “I know she is in pain” is a full sentence; stop appending “but it’s stupid to take comfort in a little gift from a sibling, so I’m throwing it away the next time you’re at work” to it. I hope this is an out-of-character moment of coldness for you, and not an indicator of your general approach to your wife’s suffering.
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Q. COVID Christmas etiquette: How do you say to loved ones that you don’t want to gather during the holidays? My parents, who are quarantining, want myself, my partner, and child to come over for Christmas. If it was just us, I might consider it with masks as no travel is involved. But my parents want my brother’s family to join as well. I do not trust my brother to be following CDC guidelines and have heard him make comments that he “really understands where Trump is coming from” and doesn’t want the government interfering with his freedoms.
I’m not sure how to tell my mom that I’m not comfortable being around my brother. My mom is very protective and defensive about my brother and denies anything I tell her about his beliefs and behaviors. What is the correct etiquette here? I don’t want to hurt feelings but also do not want to get COVID.
A: The correct etiquette is to politely say, “Sorry, we can’t risk an indoor gathering with multiple households this year.” Don’t worry about getting drawn into an argument about “comfort.” It’s not a question of comfort, but of numbers, separate households, and indoor transmission. If your mother gets defensive, treat her gently but nonanxiously: “I’m sorry to hear that—we’re sad we can’t get together in person, too. But we’d love to open presents together over Zoom [or whatever level of remote contact you’re interested in offering that day], and can’t wait to get together next year.” It’s that simple!
I realize, of course, that this family dynamic is not at all simple, but your path through this particular issue ought to be. This is not time for a debate about how trustworthy your brother is, or whether you care about “family” in the abstract, but for “Sorry, it’s not possible,” repeated cheerfully as needed until you can get off the phone. You can apologize in the sense of “Oh, isn’t that too bad?” but not in the sense of “I know I’m letting you down, and kind of getting away with something.” It’s one Christmas. There will be another one next year, and presumably many years after that.
Q. Paging Dr. Selfish: I am a pediatrician in a large city. Like almost every other front-line health care worker, my job has fundamentally changed since COVID started, and I’m struggling to get through the days and keep my family safe. Where I work, we are a small group of doctors who share patients and responsibilities, including rotating who works weekends and seeing sick patients throughout the day. One of my co-workers just announced she is three months pregnant. She has decided she would not like to see any patients who have any potential COVID symptoms or exposures—which is basically every sick child—since rates are slowly increasing. While the rest of us are running around trying to see all the patients, she is on her phone.
On one hand, I completely support lowering her risk as much as possible, since she is pregnant and potentially higher-risk. On the other hand, some of the doctors in the office are older and also at-risk and have been seeing patients. This will effectively mean the rest of us will have to pick up her weekend shifts for the remainder of her pregnancy and maternity leave. We have full PPE available at all times and work in an office, so there are no at-risk procedures. My doctor friends that work in the hospital say their pregnant colleagues are working alongside them with full PPE and no special accommodations. I know she feels a little bad she won’t do more, but I can’t help but feel like this is an unreasonable ask since it’s an essential part of our job (we can’t work virtually). No one else seems to be complaining or upset about it. Am I selfish for not wanting to work more for less to accommodate a pregnant co-worker? I feel bad but also resentful that there is no end in sight and this doesn’t seem to be the norm in medicine.
A: I can understand your frustration, as you’ve been put in a terribly difficult situation with no end in sight, but I don’t think that just because other pregnant doctors are being forced to work in higher-risk situations at other hospitals means your colleague should assume those same risks. Can you and your co-workers (and possibly the administration) come up with other strategies, like asking your pregnant co-worker to take on more of your paperwork and other no-contact duties? Could you personally say you’re not able to take on more of her own work, and push for management to solve this problem another way? That doesn’t force her to go back to seeing sick patients face-to-face, but also sets a reasonable limit on how many hours you can work per week. Happy to print responses from other health care workers who’ve faced similar challenges, too.
Q. Letters: My mom got sick and died when I was a baby. She wrote me letters for every birthday and life event and sealed them. My grandma would give them to me once a year. Growing up, it was a comfort to have my mother’s words.
My father remarried when I was 13. My stepsister “Liz” was three years younger than me. We never got along; Liz was spoiled and I got scolded for not trying harder to be a good influence on her. My grandma died when I was 16. I took it hard. I got the box of unread letters my mother left me and kept them in my closet. One day, our parents were late coming home from work. Liz refused to start her homework and kept watching TV, even though the rule was that homework had to be finished first. I knew I would get in trouble if Liz didn’t start. We argued. I took the remote and unplugged the TV. While I was starting dinner, Liz went into my room, stole the letter box, and turned on the fireplace. She burned everything. She called me to see what she had done. She was so gleeful. We ended up getting physical. My father had to pull me off Liz. She had busted my lip, but I broke her nose and there was blood everywhere. My father called my aunt to come get me. I never went back home. My father chose his wife and his wife chose her daughter. Liz made a “mistake,” but it was no excuse for me to be violent. She and Liz are dead to me.
It has been five years. I don’t know what to do about my father. He sometimes makes attempts to reconnect but they are always half-hearted at best. My aunt says that I need to move on and let go or I am going to make myself an orphan. I don’t know what to do.
A: I’m not quite sure what your aunt means by advising you to both move on and let go—presumably “moving on” in this situation would mean accepting that your father’s attempts to reconcile are perfunctory, mourning that loss, and ending even that occasional contact, while “letting go” seems to have to do with forgiveness. If, as I suspect, she was rather inelegantly suggesting you both “move on” from Liz burning your mother’s letters and “let go” of the same, you don’t seem to have any interest in doing so, and should feel free to disregard her advice. I’m not anti-forgiveness, but certain preconditions have to be met before real forgiveness is possible, and I don’t see any of them here; moreover, your aunt’s attempt to leverage your mother’s death to pressure you into forgiving your father is rather grotesque.
I wonder if it might be productive to consider what you might need to hear from your father—if not to fully reconcile, to at least part on slightly less painful terms? You don’t have to approach him with any of your thoughts, but it might help to consider what, if anything, he could say to you now that would feel meaningfully restorative. If after careful reflection you realize the answer is “nothing,” that’s useful—albeit painful—knowledge; if it’s something else, you might consider telling him about it the next time he half-broaches the subject. Even if he’s unwilling or unable to do it, you might feel better for having offered him direction.
Q. Leading the followers: My friends collectively have a really aggravating habit: They must have a consensus, as in they won’t go anywhere or do anything until everyone agrees. But here’s the kicker: Not a one of them is willing to convince anyone that their position is best. This leads to my friends talking at each other with nothing getting done. Once after a dance, we were standing out in the parking lot for 30 minutes trying to decide where to go for dinner, and if I hadn’t decided for them, we would likely still be in that parking lot. Another time we were mulling over which hike to go on. Everyone had a different opinion, but did anyone try to convince anyone else that their hike was the best option? Nope! Did anyone surrender their choice and go to someone else’s choice? Nope! They just kept talking in a circular fashion and if I hadn’t again picked for them, we would never have gone on any hike.
Why do my friends do this? I have no idea, but their inability to take charge, make a decision, or lead in any discernible way is starting to frustrate me. I don’t mind doing any of those things, but I don’t want to do them all the time, and I’m beginning to chafe at being my friend group’s sole decision-maker and leader. What do you advise I do to stay sane through this bizarre behavior of my dear friends? Should I just stay out of it? Let them talk each other to a standstill and hope a decision comes out of it somewhere? At this point, associating with them is becoming an exercise in frustration, which saddens me because I actually do like these people when we aren’t trying to make decisions on what to do or where to go as a group.
A: This is definitely aggravating, and it’s also really difficult to change, especially since it’s a shared dynamic. There are ways to work around it, but they don’t completely remove the problem, which means they may feel somewhat insufficient. It could help to present the group with, say, two options; that would narrow down the list of possibilities from “an overwhelming infinitude” to a straightforward binary without making you feel like you have to make the final decision every time. That’s still extra work, of course, but if it cuts down on those half-hour brainstorming sessions in parking lots (and you otherwise enjoy their company), it might be worth work doing. You might also get somewhere if you talk to them individually about this habit and ask them yourself: Why do they do it? Do they have a sense of why it’s so difficult to make a decision in those moments? Do any of them share your frustration and want to change, and if so, do they have any sense of what might need to happen to facilitate such a change?
You can also try to set up the occasional get-together with other people who strike you as more confident or assertive, not because you need to phase this friend group out of your life, but so you have more options than to either be alone or lead around a bunch of people saying “I dunno, what do you want to eat?”
Q. Birthing away: My husband wants me to give birth overseas in the middle of a pandemic. Should I seriously consider it? His sister’s wedding is in July, and I am supposed to visit in May with our 3-year-old and stay until after the wedding. By then I will be past 36 weeks and unable to fly back, so I want to cancel my trip altogether. He feels like I’m being unfair, as his family does not get to see our children often. His mother’s feelings mean everything to him and he is worried I will break her heart if I do not go.
His solution was giving birth there. Under different circumstances I would consider it because his family has missed out on the births of our other two children, but during this pandemic, I feel like my hesitance is justified. We live in a low COVID area—less than 1,400 total cases versus their 350,000. Please help.
A: You should not be considering your husband’s request! Do not entertain it for a moment, do not allow it to cross the threshold of possibility, do not tell him you’ll “think about it.” It would be a wildly unreasonable request even without the pandemic—”Hey, do you want to fly across the country in your third trimester and then stay in my parents’ guest room for two months, and then give birth in front of my entire family? Anything less would break my mother’s heart, and as you know, her needs are just a step ahead of yours and the unborn child you’re carrying on my list of priorities.” In the present context, it’s absolutely unhinged. If your husband truly thinks you’re being “unfair” by not wanting to fly to a higher-risk country a few weeks before your due date and waiting for your water to break while couch-surfing, he has a deeply idiosyncratic definition of fairness. This is a truly deranged request, and you should put your foot down. Don’t be “hesitant”—this is a nonstarter.
By the way, there’s nothing at all unusual about keeping in-laws/grandparents/extended family out of the delivery room; childbirth is famously challenging, exhausting, and intimate, and it’s completely natural to want to minimize the number of spectators, even if you love them. Your in-laws didn’t “miss out” on your first two deliveries. They were nonessential to the process. Cancel the trip, get support from your own friends and family if your husband tries to wear you down, and stay home.
Q. Boyfriend’s smartphone addiction: I feel like my boyfriend spends more time with his smartphone than with me. It’s the first thing he looks at when he gets up and the last before he goes to bed. I feel like I can’t talk to him anymore because he’s always looking at social media on his phone. I’ve talked to him about it several times but nothing has changed. How can I keep his phone from destroying our relationship?
A: You can’t keep his phone from destroying your relationship if your boyfriend chooses to prioritize his phone over you. The most you can do at this point, I think, is stress just how close this has come to being a deal-breaker, but if that doesn’t motivate him to try something new, I can’t advise you to beg or bargain for scraps of his attention. “I feel like you spend more time with your phone than with me. We’ve talked about this more than once, and nothing’s changed, and it’s significantly affected my ability to connect with you. It’s making me question the future of our relationship, and I want you to know this is getting really serious for me. What are you willing to change?”
Q. Re: Childish attachment: This letter writer is being incredibly cruel. She had two full-term pregnancies that resulted in the incredible trauma of two babies’ deaths. Followed by a miscarriage. That takes a terrible toll on someone’s body, let alone their spirit and mental health. And all of this before she ever turned 30? And he’s upset she wants to snuggle a stuffed animal? I have nothing but contempt for him.
A: It’s really ghastly, and I hope his wife is getting a lot of support from her sister and other people—she deserves it. The immature and childish response here is coming from him! Throwing away a small, harmless toy that comforts your grieving wife because you think it’s embarrassing? That’s the act of a vindictive child, and I hope he never does something like that again.
Q. Re: Paging Dr. Selfish: Oh wow, sorry, but to me this is just classic medicine. In my experience as a spouse of a pediatric fellow, the profession is extremely oblivious to this option, from Prudie’s reply: “… and push for management to solve this problem another way?”
In my spouse’s hospital, the way you accommodate pregnancies or new moms who need to breast feed, for example, is that everyone just picks up the slack. It seems like there’s never any discussion of the possibility that the organization could do more to plan for these kind of foreseeable events. I think it’s partly a function of personality type—to doctors, the solution to any problem in their lives is just to work harder. In hospitals, the decentralized governance of the workplace also seems like a factor.
A: That is dispiriting, especially given how everyone involved in this instance is a pediatrician! You’d think pediatrics would have some sort of plan in place for something as commonplace and frequent as pregnancy or parental leave, beyond just “Everyone else works extra as needed for the same amount of money and with the same number of hours in a day.” Not a great system!
Q. Re: Paging Dr. Selfish: It sounds like this is a private practice that may or may not have a formal connection to a hospital. Pregnancy causes a suppression of the woman’s immune system (necessary in order to keep the immune system from attacking the fetus) so pregnant women are more susceptible to COVID, and that doctor is doing the right thing. The letter writer also has a point that they have a family that may be getting exposed. But unless the letter writer has specific immune or other health issues in their family, the letter writer may just have to suck it up until the pregnancy is over.
A: I’m sorry to say that seems to be the consistent response! Another reader wrote in to ask if weekend rounding was hospital-based, or in the office: “If it’s in the hospital, she can divvy up her census with her co-workers and see the non-COVID patients. For the week, maybe something to bring up with your administrator is doing telephone visits only for sick patients. Our office adopted that as a policy so we only see well visits and things like diabetes and hospital follow-ups,” which seems better than nothing.
Q. Ms. Jeeves: For nearly a decade, I’ve been an assistant to a very successful man. He is an extraordinary manager and I feel very loyal to him. Last year, I accidentally found out he had a fling with a colleague at a conference overseas. Subsequently, for the first time, his wife invited me to spend Christmas with them, a sign of high esteem. It was a wonderful holiday with a large extended family and I enjoyed myself immensely. Over the course of the following year, however, my boss has continued this affair and seems obsessed with his mistress. They attend conferences all over the world and take glamorous side trips. They are constantly in touch. He is incredibly cheerful when he comes back from these events.
I’ve been invited for Christmas again this year, and it breaks my heart to think of looking into the eyes of his wife and his mother-in-law, who are both warm, affectionate people. I doubt he’s in an open marriage—years ago he made a joke about his wife killing him if he ever cheated on her. I feel I have been complicit by keeping silent. I am estranged from my family and don’t spend the holidays with friends, and my boss knows this. If I go, I would feel tempted to pull the wife aside and tell her, or else just burst into tears, which would be the end of my job. But if I don’t go, it won’t be very good for my job, either. What should I do? Read what Prudie had to say.