Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Let’s clear the decks! Lay your problems on me, and I’ll see what I can do.
Q. My mother-in-law’s big lie: My wife and I have a 3-year old with a rare genetic condition that makes him extremely vulnerable to respiratory illness (he nearly died of croup when he was only a year old). Due to his medical history, my wife and I have taken the risk COVID poses to him very seriously, and we’ve been fully locked down since the start of the pandemic. Luckily, he seems to be thriving in quarantine, and although our extended family hasn’t been able to physically interact with him, we keep them regularly updated with photos, videos, and calls over FaceTime and Zoom.
However, we’ve recently come to learn that my wife’s mother has been telling strangers that her grandson died of COVID. She’s a retired widow who spends a lot of her day arguing in the comment sections of Facebook posts, and when she’s arguing about the severity of COVID, she has repeatedly claimed that it took the life of her grandson—which, as you might expect, tends to shut down the exchange.
The first time my wife saw this, she privately messaged her mother about it, who conceded that it was a rash debate tactic and promised not to do it again. However, not only has she continued to make the claim in subsequent arguments, she’s been receiving notes of sympathy from her friends who see the exchanges. This has been fairly distressing for my wife, who is dreading the day that one of our mutual friends sees her mother’s comments and asks us about them. Is this something we should just let go, or is it worth escalating the issue?
A: Oh, wow. Yes, this is worth escalating! Your mother-in-law is telling people your child is dead, and all you’ve done so far is send a single brief Facebook message asking her to stop—you have plenty of room to escalate here. That’s not to say you or your wife are at fault for not doing more—it’s perfectly understandable that you’d find yourself at a loss for words—just that you should feel enormous freedom to increase the size and scope of your response.
Talk to her about it, talk to her friends and your shared relatives about it. Make a fuss! Talk about how distressing and upsetting this behavior is, how much unnecessary work it makes for you, and the importance of making sure it stops now and permanently (“Mom, it hurts me when you pretend my son is dead” is a fairly defensible position). She doesn’t need to cut down or scale back on lying about her grandchild’s death to score cheap points in Facebook arguments. She needs to stop at once and for good.
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Q. Mooching friend: My good friend has been eating my food, drinking my booze, and smoking my girlfriend’s weed on a nightly basis without a hint of potential reciprocation. Most nights he comes over, and is welcomed, a couple drinks in on an empty stomach. From there, he will treat himself to weed and more drinks. Mechanically, around 7:30 he will suggest, “What say we make some dinner? I have no food at my house.” I, also needing to eat, feel I have no choice but to oblige—I’d feel like a bad host denying a good friend a simple bowl of pasta. I enjoy his company, even as frequent as it is, and he is very helpful in the cooking and cleaning process. But, as a college student, I don’t feel that I have the financial ability to sponsor the basic needs of another human being and, above all else, it would be nice to be invited for dinner and a beer at his apartment—just once.
My friend has also had a rough couple of months, coming off a crushing breakup, dealing with emotionally abusive parents, and lacking a fulfilling structure of friends outside of me and my girlfriend. How do I get my friend to reciprocate these various favors?
A: Tell him what you need from him. Are there some nights you don’t want to welcome him over? Do you want to limit how often you share your weed and liquor with him? Do you want him to chip in to defray the cost of expenses? Do you want to ask him to invite you over once in a while? Then ask him! You don’t have to mentally argue yourself out of a straightforward and simple conversation about reciprocity by tallying everything difficult that’s happened in his personal life over the last six months, or counting how many other friends you think he has. You have something you want from him, and you should tell him so he doesn’t continue to assume that things are fine the way they are.
Q. I don’t want to venture back out! For the last year, I’ve mostly been a hermit. I leave the house two to three times a week to go on a solo hike or a long solo drive, but I’ve been happily a homebody throughout the course of the pandemic. My only socialization is with the folks in my building (when we see each other in the laundry room, etc.) or on Zoom/phone calls with long-distance friends and family.
Now that my state is starting to reopen and more and more people are vaccinated, I’m finding myself really anxious and stressed about the idea of resuming the frenetic, heavy-socialization style of my life pre-pandemic. I don’t want to go to events or gatherings. I love my quiet little life. I’m in better physical and emotional shape than I’ve ever been in, thanks to the reading and writing I get to do in my alone time. I tried to implement this in the past but always felt FOMO or that I was missing out on relationship-building with people in my life if I spent too much time alone or missed events. But now I’m dreading returning to these events. Is this normal? Should I see a therapist? Or is this just a typical part of post-pandemic life all Americans will have to someday face?
A: Three big questions, with a number of possible answers! I’ll do my best. Is it normal to feel fear and anxiety at the prospect of (possibly) resuming a very active social life after a full year of near-total solitude? I think so. I don’t think it’s the only possible response, and I know plenty of people who are nearly frantic to talk to strangers about the weather in line at the post office, but it seems reasonable to me. And you can always see a therapist! It doesn’t just have to be because “I’ve decided my feelings about a certain subject are wrong, so I must see a therapist until I am fixed.” It can be “I’m experiencing a new sense of anxiety and trepidation about a part of life that used to feel normal, and I want help figuring out how to handle those new feelings.”
Many Americans will have to face some sort of reentry, but not all Americans have been able to stay at home throughout the course of the epidemic, so I don’t think you need to worry that you and 328 million other people are all going to be experiencing the exact same kind of reentry at the exact same time. You don’t have to resume everything about your pre-COVID 19 life (and it certainly doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a single, sudden day where things go “back to the way they were before”), but consider whether you experience the same reaction to the possibility of going to cocktail parties three times a week as you do to the possibility of inviting a good friend to join you on one of your hikes.
Q. Don’t want to “be friends”: I’ve been online dating for about a year (I’m a straight fortysomething woman), and I don’t know how to kindly, respectfully extricate myself when a guy won’t quit texting me after we’ve met face to face a time or two (socially distanced). If I tell him I don’t feel any chemistry, he wants to “be friends,” which seems to mean boring text messages (hand-waving emojis, links to news stories or Reddit posts), sometimes on a daily basis. The truth seems cruel. I’ve tried not replying, but that doesn’t seem to deter many of them—some of them persist and others want to “talk about why I didn’t reply.”
Should I just block them? Is there some other script I can use? I don’t get it; I’m just average-looking, and I feel like I need to meet lots of people to have a chance at finding someone I click with, but if we don’t click, I move on! I want to be nice, but I don’t have time to “be friends” with everyone. I don’t even give out my number until after the first date—should I wait to do that until after the second?
A: The truth is not cruel! I’m sure there are times where the truth can be cruel; at that point it’s worth considering whether that cruelty is necessary, but in this particular instance, the truth is not cruel. Being disappointed or not getting what you want from someone you’ve been on one or two dates with is not the same thing as “experiencing cruelty,” not by a long shot. You are not being cruel for not wanting to trade cute videos and news articles with every guy you go on a mediocre date with; they want something from you that you are not prepared to give, and they will absolutely survive the loss of your company. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not looking for new friends, so I won’t be available to text in the future” is a perfectly reasonable response to an emoji-laden attempt to kickstart a friendship out of an inert date. Block anyone who doesn’t take “No” for an answer.
For whatever it’s worth, I don’t think you have to attempt to justify the unreasonable behavior of others according to a scale of “average” looks; I don’t think you need to offer self-deprecating information just because some men act entitled to your company, but more than that, you’re entitled to decline overtures of friendship no matter how hot you are.
Q. Learn to drive: My roommate is in their 30s and never learned to drive. As far as I understand it, they had an anxiety-inducing first introduction to driving and never really got over it. They rely on public transit, which has been vastly reduced during COVID. They are also a health care essential worker. Currently they are also going back to school to train to be a licensed practical nurse, which is great! We had talked about them learning to drive before going back to school, but again COVID threw a wrench in the works. Right now they only work weekends, 7–3, which means I get up at 5:45 a.m. on weekends to drive them to work.
I want them to learn to drive, but how can I approach this? I’m even fine with them using my car since I’m working from home (and they can’t afford a car right now, which has partly been an excuse for not learning). I don’t think they realize how much this interferes with my life (I also work full time and am furthering my education part time). They say it’s “only” a half hour a day—yeah, because they aren’t a driver and don’t take into account the drive home after I drop them off! It’s really wearing on me and I don’t want to snap at them.
A: “I don’t want to snap at you, but I’m not going to be able to keep driving you to work on the weekends. ____ will be my last day.” If you can give your roommate a week or even two weeks’ notice, that would be generous, but you don’t have to brainstorm replacement ideas for them. If you got hit by a bus tomorrow (God forbid!), or were assigned to a conflicting weekend shift of your own, or lost your job and had to move back in with relatives on the other side of the country, your roommate would still have to figure out how to get to work without you; you are not the only option in the world. They can talk to their colleagues about carpooling, apply for different shifts so they can use public transit again, ask management to reimburse them for calling a car (San Francisco currently has a reimbursement program for essential workers taking taxis or ride shares to work, and your city may have something similar available). But that’s your roommate’s problem to solve. Yours is just to let them know you can’t keep driving them—not to argue about whether it’s reasonable, or whether it takes an hour or a half-hour each day, or to figure out how fast they can get their own driver’s license. If you convince yourself that you’re only allowed to stop driving them once you’ve come up with a permanent alternative, you’ll probably never stop driving them! But all you have to do is be honest and upfront about when you’re going to stop.
Q. Should I go to my estranged cousin’s wedding? I just recently reached out to my aunt after not speaking to that side of the family for 15 years. There was a falling out with one of my parents (that had nothing to do with me) that led to the rift when I was in my early 20s. I have since stopped speaking to that parent and decided that it was time for me to reach out. My aunt was very happy to hear from me and seems very excited about me going to her child’s upcoming wedding. While I’m excited to see everyone too, it feels a little weird to use my cousin’s wedding as my family reunion. The wedding also involves some travel (i.e., a short flight, rental car). I’m happy to make a trip of it and do some nonfamily things while I’m there, but I was wondering if it’s disrespectful to go to my cousin’s wedding when I haven’t even seen or spoken to this person in well over a decade. I’m a little worried that my aunt just forced my cousin to invite me. With everyone spread out, there won’t be another event anytime soon for me to see everyone.
A: There’s nothing weird about treating a family wedding as an ersatz family reunion! Weddings often do function as ersatz reunions; it’s perfectly common and ordinary and not at all an indicator that you have suspect or ulterior motives. You can safely assume that your aunt and cousin (and other relatives) who have expressed excitement in reconnecting with you really mean what they say. There’s no reason to believe your cousin was “forced” to invite you, or even that your aunt has the power to force your cousin to do anything. Take this gesture as it was intended, as a gesture of hope for the future and the possibility of reconnection. It might feel a little surreal to see them for the first time in years at a big-deal event like a wedding, and it’s certainly no replacement for a one-on-one intimate conversation about your past estrangement, but that’s no reason not to celebrate.
The only question is whether you can attend this wedding in relative safety. Will it be outdoors, will attendees be masked, what kind of travel restrictions do your respective states currently have in place, will the venue be contact-tracing, will you have been vaccinated before the ceremony, etc.? But those are logistical questions and have nothing to do with whether you should accept the spirit in which the invitation was given.
Q. Re: My mother-in-law’s big lie: Goodness, how horrible! I don’t think you or your wife owe it to her mother to be discreet about this. You could respond to her posts with a picture of you and your boy smiling in a recent photo and emphatically claiming you are happy to report he is still alive, and can’t fathom why she would claim otherwise.
A: It won’t substitute for a direct conversation, but it makes for a great pincer movement if you want to cut off future action. If you’re able to comment on these posts (I don’t know if they’re taking place on her own page or places where you’re able to leave comments of your own), it would certainly make it more difficult for her to make such claims in the future. It’s a slightly more dramatic confrontation than the sort I usually advise, but it’s certainly called for here.
Q. Re: Mooching friend: ”Great! We just got a new eighth and fresh pasta, can you bring over a 12-pack?”
A: I think that’s a great strategy for future get-togethers (and if your friend can’t spring for a 12-pack, ask what they can spring for, so there’s a general sense of back-and-forth even if you’re not spending the exact same amount of money). You don’t have to have a big, serious, come-to-Jesus conversation first—this really can be a fairly low-level, low-stress discussion—but I do recommend telling your friend directly that you want him to take initiative in bringing something with him once in a while, and in preparing him for the change in policy so he’s not surprised when you go from saying “Yeah, sure thing” to his every request and start occasionally saying, “Tonight’s not good for me, how about Friday?”
Q. Clean food army: My daughter Bella has a great playgroup that meets once a week after school. We were REALLY lucky to get into this group. The girls come from some of the wealthiest families at the school, and since our family is more working class, we love that Bella is able to see how the other side lives and maybe even look for something to aspire to one day. So far Bella has had so much fun with all the girls. But last week I got a nasty email from one of the mothers. I sent some homemade cookies and store-bought veggies and dip for the snack last week, and apparently this was not up to snuff! The mothers said that my vegetables were clearly not homegrown and organic and that they could taste the pesticides and preservatives on them. They asked if I knew that ranch dip is high in cholesterol and saturated fat which leads to heart disease. I was in tears reading this email. Their assumption that I had no idea how to feed my daughter was so insulting. I emailed them back saying that I was unsure what particular brands of veggies, dip, and baking items to buy, and received another email suggesting I start a garden. Prudie, we live in an apartment complex. I am unsure how to respond.
I really, really want my daughter to be happy and have friends with the right values and aspirations. But I have no idea how to make these women happy. I went to the farmers market an hour away last weekend to look for some appropriate items to send for next week, but the market was so expensive. I don’t want my daughter to get kicked out of this playgroup, especially now that she’s so happy. How can I handle these clean-food moms?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.