Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Happy new year, everybody! Let’s get ourselves sorted out.
Q. Won’t let me quit: I hate my job. I have had many jobs over the years and I’ve never loved any of them, but this current gig is a whole other level of hell. It’s a small company and we’re struggling in the pandemic. I have told my wife that I need to quit, but she won’t support me in that decision. She basically answers me with a very sympathetic, “Wow, that really sucks. Sorry about your luck.” She wants me to stick with it until they fire me or we shut down, so that I can collect unemployment. She is happy for me to find another job, but the last thing I want is another “desperation” job where I have to take whatever I can get for whatever they’re willing to give me. That led me to where I am now.
I have asked my wife for her to return to the full-time workforce. She has been staying at home with our kids since our youngest was born three years ago. She deftly avoids that scenario and offers to help me write my cover letters and sift job postings. The help I need is for her to go back to work so I can quit the job I’m in. She says she doesn’t necessarily want to return to her previous field and isn’t sure exactly what she wants to do. I am on the verge of telling her that she can either support me or leave me. But I fear that she will call my bluff and leave me. What should I do?
A: If your wife is not willing to go back to full-time work and start singlehandedly financially supporting your family—given that your youngest is only 3 years old and she’s been out of the workforce for years, I don’t think her position is unreasonable—and you don’t want her to leave you, then I don’t think you should offer her an ultimatum along the lines of “support me or leave me.” Generally speaking, it’s a bad idea to offer ultimatums you’re not actually prepared to follow through on.
I can’t agree that your wife is being unsupportive, either! She’s offered you sympathy, encouraged you to look for work elsewhere, volunteered to help make looking for work easier, and is caring for your children full time. You’ve decided that anything short of acceding to your request/demand is unsupportive, but I think there are a few assumptions you’ve made that are worth rechecking. Is there a reason you can’t look for nondesperation jobs while you continue to draw a paycheck at this one? I realize stable, decently paying, enjoyable jobs don’t grow on trees, but I think you should take her up on her offer to help you look for something better, even if that process takes a while. That same process would probably also take her a while, so no matter which one of you were to start looking for work right now, you’re looking at a waiting period. You can also revisit the question of when and in what capacity she might revisit the paid workforce, of course; it’s a reasonable conversation to want to have with her. But I’m not sure your wife, who’s been out of the workforce for years, would be able to find a job that allowed her to support the both of you (plus your children) anytime soon enough for you to be able to quit your own job, so I don’t think it’s the solution to your problem you seem to think it is.
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Q. Nothing to teach? I’m a high school English teacher at a private school; I have pretty much complete control over which books I choose to teach. I’ve been teaching for 15 years. My younger sister “Jade” works at a social justice–oriented nonprofit and lately has been getting more interested in conversations about which books I teach and why. I’ve always politely engaged in these conversations—though they do annoy me—for the sake of having something to talk to Jade about; we don’t otherwise have much in common.
Lately, these conversations have moved beyond genuine interest and more into criticism and harping. Every book I teach seems to have some sort of reason I shouldn’t—think “This European author from the 1700s was anti-Semitic,” etc. I did a curriculum audit a few years ago and don’t include texts that are explicitly racist or homophobic. But clearly that wasn’t enough. Jade won’t get off my back for not having every single author be blameless by today’s standards. It’s super frustrating because if I change a book, it takes hundreds of hours’ worth of work to update my curriculum. I don’t have unlimited time—I have two young children and am just trying to figure things out. How do I get Jade to focus her activism on something else?
A: You can just stop discussing your syllabus with Jade! If she can’t grasp the difference between reading a historical text and instructing your students to adopt a particular 18th-century author’s values as their own, she may very well be missing some of the core aspects of what “teaching” is, or what thoughtful engagement with history looks like, and you don’t have to entertain her opinions about your work just because she’s been rude and insistent about sharing them with you.
Tell Jade these conversations have been getting repetitive, that you’re completely clear on her opinions on the subject, and that you will continue to teach your students how to read critically and thoughtfully without her input but won’t be discussing it with her any longer. She won’t like that, obviously; she may try to frame it as if you are burying your head in the sand or secretly agree with Charles Dickens’ views on sexism. But you do not have to accept that framing, and you can just let her be wrong without going another round with her.
Q. Veg fest: Last week, my 16-year-old daughter announced that she wanted to become vegetarian. I have some reservations about this based on friends whose health worsened on the diet, but I want to support her. I looked through my recipes and pulled out everything in which I could easily make a vegetarian version and add meat to. The list is small. My daughter also searched for recipes and has been sending me intricate recipes.
I hate cooking. Most of what I cook is casseroles or other recipes that are really easy to make. I’m considering telling my daughter that if she wants to become a vegetarian, she is going to have to be in charge of making her food from now on, or at least some of it—maybe she’d have to cook the vegetarian part of dinner two or three times a week. Does this make me a bad parent? I want to support her but I’m not going to deprive the rest of the house of food I think is important to have. Is there something else I should be doing?
A: Telling your 16-year-old that you’re willing to revise some of your standby recipes to make them vegetarian and that you also expect her to start cooking some of her own dishes a few times a week is a perfectly reasonable and loving thing to do. (That said, there are tons of vegetarian casserole recipes out there, and I doubt anyone in your household is going to suffer from the occasional meatless dinner.) Even if your daughter weren’t a vegetarian, it would be a good thing! In a few years, she’s going to be responsible for her own meals anyway, and she’s certainly old enough to use the kitchen and follow a recipe without parental supervision.
The most important issue here, I think, is that you hate cooking but are also (apparently) responsible for making most of the household meals. Telling your older kids to take charge of making a few side dishes or entrees each week is a great way to address that problem! It’ll ease some of the burden on you and introduce variety into your dinners. If something turns out disastrously bad, you can laugh it off, have a bowl of cereal or something easy at hand, and try again the next day. I’d advise you against framing it as a vegetarian-specific rule, however. A better rule might be that anyone who’s interested in adding to the weekly menu rotation should take initiative, ask for help getting ingredients or planning their additions, and cook either with you while you’re making the rest of dinner, or on their own if it’ll take longer. This isn’t a punishment for being a vegetarian; it’s a basic life skill that every teenager should start to cultivate. (And it can be fun!)
I’d also encourage you to be circumspect about your own concerns. Vegetarianism is a perfectly common and healthy diet with an ancient history, although it’s possible to eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet just as it’s possible to eat an unhealthy omnivorous diet. If you’re worried about a particular vitamin deficiency, you can take your kid to her pediatrician and ask about a multivitamin/check her iron levels and otherwise make sure she’ll be able to get a balanced diet. But beyond that, telling her “a lot of my friends went vegetarian and then their health suffered” is likely to just put her off.
Q. Can I keep my ex’s music? I had a whirlwind co-dependent romance from February to May that ended with me breaking up with my ex. During our time together, I became very invested in a lot of her interests, particularly a set of bands. I genuinely love this music and think I would’ve fallen in love with it without her being involved. That said, it’s hard for me to listen to it and not find myself transported back to all the time I spent listening to it with her. (Is this representative of my inability to get over her in general? Yes.) Is there a way for me to be a fan of these bands while trying to move on?
A: I am a big fan of listening to music that expands upon one’s sadness! Listen to this music and feel sad! If you need to set a time limit per day (or per week, or what have you) because you find such intensity overwhelming, then do so, and make sure you bookend it with music you don’t associate with your ex. But there’s nothing weird, or unusual, or inherently counterproductive about listening to music that reminds you of a short, intense, torrid relationship. As long as you’re still able to do things you enjoy, keep in touch with your own friends, and generally look after your own well-being, don’t worry if you’re not over someone you broke up with in March, or that you still listen to the bands you loved together. Eventually you will develop a relationship all your own to these bands, even if there’s always a bittersweet association with how you came to hear of them. If it’s getting really painful, take a break—but as a rule of thumb, if you feel the same sort of catharsis and relief from listening to this music that you do from a good cry, consider it a good thing, and part of the human experience.
Q. I’m not though? My cousin recently transitioned and our family reacted badly. Her parents threw her out (she’s 28, but she was furloughed and then let go from her job) and the rest of the family bad-mouthed her all over town. My grandmother—the only one of the family I still speak to—gave my cousin my contact details and said I might be able to help. I’m happy to.
The only problem is that my cousin, who’s been living here for three months, is convinced I’m trans. I’m not. I’m just not very feminine. My hair’s buzzed (it’s usually short, but pandemic and a set of pet-clippers leads to certain decisions), I’m a mechanic, and I don’t wear makeup or many girly clothes. I’m also not that pretty, I guess. I get that people make assumptions and mostly I don’t care. (My family threw me out for being a lesbian. I’m not, but they were awful and homophobic, so I went.) It’s just that my cousin is convinced I’m too scared to come out or something and just won’t let it drop. How can I put this that is firm enough to make her listen?
A: Lord save us all from “well-meaning” busybodies who think they’re helping by insisting they know when someone else needs to come out. It’s awful that your cousin has lost her job and that her family is so transphobic, but none of that has anything to do with how inappropriately she’s been treating you. She needs to stop immediately, apologize, and commit to not doing it again in the future. That includes any hints, sly little remarks, or “jokes” about how you need to come out, too. You can be straightforward and unapologetic as you bring this up: “You need to stop telling me to come out or assuming that you know my identity better than I do. It’s exhausting, rude, and unhelpful. You are not freeing me from a prison of my own making or helping me come to terms with myself—you are badgering me relentlessly because you’ve made assumptions about my identity based on what I look like. I need you to stop. If you can’t, then I don’t think we’ll be able to continue talking. I don’t want to stop talking to you, and I hope you don’t either, because otherwise I’ve enjoyed our relationship [feel free to drop that last part if it’s not true; I’m assuming you otherwise like her but maybe you don’t!]. Can you do that?”
Q. Potentially offensive Christmas present: My extended family has always done a Secret Santa exchange. There are several aunts, uncles, and cousins dispersed around the country, so it’s a nice way to connect since we don’t see each other every Christmas (which is especially true this year).
I was assigned an aunt I rarely see and thus wasn’t sure what to buy her. I was concerned about mailing it in time, so I bought something I thought was safe: a T-shirt with a design based on our home state and some local artisan chocolate. I asked my mom what size to buy, and she said XL. I was worried about offending my aunt, but she and my mom are roughly the same size, and my mom said it didn’t make sense to buy her something that wouldn’t fit and she couldn’t exchange. That made sense to me, and I felt fine about it until Christmas. My aunt sent me a text thanking me for the chocolate, but didn’t mention the shirt at all. They were in the same package and there’s no way they could have been separated. Now I’m anxious I offended her, especially after I told my sister about it and she shared that the exact same thing happened with my uncle a few Christmases ago. She mailed him a shirt that was too big and my aunt asked her to exchange it (which my sister then had to facilitate over mail). Am I overreacting? Is an apology due here, or should I just leave it alone?
A: I don’t think you have sufficient evidence to assume an apology is necessary. If you did offer an apology based only on the thank-you text, you might end up offending your aunt by assuming she was offended about the size of the shirt you got her. Since your goal is to avoid offending her, I think either of the following options is fine: 1. Accept her thank-you text, and decide not to get her more shirts in the future without further intervention, or 2. Respond with something like this: “I’m so glad you liked the chocolates! I hope the shirt arrived too; I don’t know if it’s the sort of thing you’d wear, so if it’s not to your taste please don’t feel obligated to wear it.” But what happened with your uncle was perfectly fine and straightforward—he got a gift that didn’t fit him, and he asked for help from the gift giver in exchanging it for one that did.
Q. Re: Won’t let me quit: You may think the wife is sympathetic, but you sure aren’t being so. I don’t think it’s at all problematic to ask the wife to take over financial duties while her husband gets a job that isn’t soul-sucking and destructive. “Support me” can mean “please bring in some cash to tide us over while I find something else,” not just “hey, get a high-paying job so I can quit for good.”
Three years of nothing on your résumé is a long time, but she can find something that is good enough for her husband to have a little less stress in his life. She can figure out her potential career field change after her partner isn’t at the end of his rope. Relationships go both ways.
A: It’s not quite a question of being “problematic,” I think, so much as a combination of impractical and closed off to compromise. I don’t know what their previous conversations about her (eventual/possible) return to the workforce had looked like, but it seems like his request that she go back to work full time has been a little—if not out of the blue—at least abrupt and hasn’t been accompanied by a willingness to discuss their other options. And, as someone else pointed out in their response, “One of the side effects of workplace discrimination against women is that many women don’t recover their full earning potential after having children … that’s not to say women with children don’t go on to have fulfilling, potentially high-earning careers, but I can say from experience that she will find many workplaces are reluctant to give an interview or hire someone who was out of the workforce for three years raising children (I’ll save my rant about how unjust that is for another day).”
That’s not to say that the letter writer can’t revisit this issue in light of his own (serious!) struggles at work, or that his wife will never be able to find a job that pays well, but it does mean that if he expects she’ll be able to find a job that can support their entire family in the near future, he needs to revise his expectations.
Q. Bewildered mom: I have a beautiful, awesome 17-year-old daughter. She does well in school and she doesn’t get into trouble. This morning I dropped her off for band camp and she accidentally left her phone in the car. When I discovered it, I texted her with it, saying I had her phone. Then a few texts caught my eye, and I snooped. It turns out my daughter is sexting with a couple of boys, sending naked pictures of herself over her phone. Should I pretend I never saw it but somehow subtly offer some advice about the dangers of sexting? I don’t want her to feel the shame of knowing I know. But even worse, I don’t want her to feel the shame of the entire world knowing if one of these boys decides to be an ass. These boys have sent pictures of their junk, too. If she were in a serious relationship, I could understand her having sex, but it’s the sending of pictures that really has me bothered. What do I do? Read what Prudie had to say.
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