This week’s Dear Prudence live chat is hosted by Dan Kois, a Slate writer and host of Mom and Dad Are Fighting. Dan’s also the author of How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Dan Kois: Hi-diddly-ho, Pruderinos! I’m happy to join you for another week of seemingly unsolvable problems and the golden light of common-sense advice shining upon them like blessed sunbeams from heaven. Let’s get to it!
My wife and I recently had a baby. My workplace is still on lockdown and everything’s being done virtually, so instead of physically showing around baby photos, I passed around several by interoffice email. There was the usual round of congratulations and well wishes, mostly expressed over Zoom and the in-office Skype application.
However, there was one particular co-worker, “Zack,” who had a few polite comments in the public-facing chat but sent me a couple of emails to my work address from his. He had noticed in the baby photos that our child had a transverse palmar crease on her left hand but not her right. Until he used the term, I had no idea what a transverse palmar crease even was, or that there was a name for it. He is absolutely insistent that this, while not in and of itself dangerous, can indicate all sorts of developmental issues in the future, and practically barraged me with links for support and resources “in case things turn out poorly.”
Now rather alarmed, I did some follow-up research myself, including asking a cousin of mine who is a pediatrician, and it all comes out the same way: It’s extremely rare for this to be on one hand but not both, but it doesn’t mean anything, and there is absolutely no danger. I’m now a little bit annoyed with Zack for scaring me like this, but mostly I’m taken aback by his delusion. He still insists my child is at risk and seems sincere in a desire to offer help, but more and more I just see it as insane. And it’s strange, because I’ve worked with Zack for close to six years now and otherwise he’s an extremely balanced, perceptive, even insightful man.
I don’t really know what to do here. I don’t want to hear more about it. I very much doubt simply asking him to stop will lead to him stopping. I don’t want to get him in trouble for this; he is, after all, just trying to help. I’m also wondering what other kinds of insanity lurk in his head, and I’m wondering if I should contact someone. What do I do?
—Very Confused Father
Congratulations on your new baby! I, too, am very confused by Zack’s insistence in warning you about this totally unimportant detail about your child. I’m not sure from your letter if you are using “insane” to mean, simply, “A Lot,” or if you truly are alarmed about Zack’s mental health. It seems like up ’til now Zack has been a model co-worker and perfectly normal dude. I’d give him the chance to return to that position. Call him on the telephone, thank him for his concern, tell him you talked about it with a pediatrician and that you are 100 percent satisfied that there is absolutely no danger in your child’s case. Clearly state, “I don’t want to talk about my kid anymore, Zack.” And then change the subject to something extremely boring and work-related.
My hunch is if you are crystal clear, Zack will take the hint and keep his amateur palmology to himself.
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I’m 10 years divorced and have been living with my boyfriend for the past five years. We plan to be together, but I’m scared of formally getting married. His parents are deceased, and he inherited his mother’s engagement ring.
His adult sister (and his only sibling) has decided to move across the country next year with her boyfriend of six months, after her daughter turns 18. They plan on getting married, as it makes sense for moving, school, and health insurance. Her boyfriend hasn’t formally proposed or gotten her a ring.
We haven’t met him yet because of the pandemic, but we are all vaccinated and going to meet at the beach next month. I feel like my boyfriend should pass the ring to her boyfriend to propose to his sister. Right now it’s just sitting in a drawer, and while I like to sneak and try it on and daydream about culturally acknowledged milestones, it doesn’t seem right to have him keep it in a drawer when his sister is getting engaged now. What do I do?
—Wringing Hands About a Ring
Why the hand-wringing? It sounds like you’re right, and the ring should find its way into (and onto) better hands. Your letter doesn’t really suggest what conflict might arise about this obvious solution, but your letter also doesn’t really get into what your boyfriend thinks about your fear of marriage or this ring sitting in his dresser drawer. My hunch is what worries you about this thoroughly normal transfer of property is that giving the ring away will formalize not getting married just as much as wearing the ring would formalize getting married, and you’re nervous about having that conversation with your guy.
Well, have the conversation. Tell him you love him, you want to be with him always, but as he knows by now, you’re not interested in a ceremony and a ring. But what a gift he could give his sister and her beau by sharing this lovely memento of their parents!
Now, given the 18-year-old daughter and your 10-year-old divorce, it sounds like everyone involved has plenty of miles on them. So I would recommend against secretly slipping the sister’s boyfriend the ring without talking about it with both of them. Surprise rings are for 22-year-olds getting engaged on the Jumbotron; a fully grown person will be happy to be part of the discussion about this process, and likely has her own thoughts about what role a keepsake like this might have in her future life. Once you’ve talked it through with your boyfriend, discuss it with everyone, perhaps over a bottle of rosé on the beach.
My wife and I have been married for 10 years, but she recently asked me for an open marriage. I can’t say I love the idea, but I think I could be OK with it, so long as it’s open on both sides—then the give-and-take is more balanced. But she insists that she only wants to open it up on her end and has accused me of being selfish. She keeps saying, “If you truly love someone, you want the best for them, even if it’s not with you”—basically arguing that I should stay monogamous because that would make her happy, while she isn’t monogamous. And I understand the beauty of selfless love, but it also doesn’t make sense to me?
It feels like she’s accusing me of being selfish for being sad that she doesn’t want to be with me as much as before and for wanting to adjust my feelings accordingly. It mattered to me to know that she wanted to be with me and that we were together, and I don’t understand how I am being selfish when those things matter to me in the breach, too? How could they not? I don’t get it, and it has my head in knots. Am I unreasonable for taking my stance? Am I being selfish for doing so?
—Opening Up Is Hard to Do
Mayday! Mayday! This marriage is going down! Save yourself, buddy!
No, it is not reasonable for your wife to insist that your marriage be open, but only for her. It is in fact wantonly cruel. I tip my cap to her justification—“If you truly love someone, you want the best for them, even if it’s not with you”—for its remarkable mealy-mouthedness. An actual sign of truly loving someone is not doing things that make them extremely unhappy!
Now, it sounds like your heart isn’t really in this open marriage, even if it were open for both of you. Given your doubts, I wouldn’t recommend pursuing such a thing even if your wife was being loving, transparent, and kind about it. Instead, she’s demanding that you allow her to behave however she wants, no matter how it hurts you, and insisting that you also behave however she wants, no matter how it hurts you. Sit down and have a long talk with her, preferably with a couples therapist in the room, and start to think about whether this person has a future with you, or if you’re better off hitting the EJECT button ASAP.
I am a gay man who works long hours counseling abused and homeless LGBTQ youths for a living, thus very liberal by default. My mother, however, is an extremely conservative woman whose bills are paid for by her rich boyfriend and who bought her house using the money she got in a divorce settlement. Every time I talk to her, she always makes some hateful, ignorant Fox News talking point, but doesn’t understand why I find it upsetting, since she thinks she’s always correct. Her presence in my life is actually starting to cause me anxiety and resentment, but I know if I were to cut her off it would absolutely destroy her. I would never want to be my own mother’s main source of suffering, so how do I work toward seeing past our so deeply ingrained differences and ultimately not be some total garbage human of a son?
—Potential Total Garbage Human of a Son
Sir! You are beating yourself up far too much over the awful behavior of others. Not wanting to be maligned and treated cruelly by someone you love does not make you a “garbage human.” I admire your desire to avoid hurting your mother, but you ought not sentence yourself to a life full of Fox News bullshit out of oversensitivity to your mother’s feelings.
Tell her that you love her, and want to remain part of her life, but that if she continues bringing up politics and making hateful statements, you’ll need to stay away from her for a while. And stick to your guns should she offend. Your mother is unlikely to change her beliefs anytime soon, but she is a grown woman and is perfectly capable of changing her behavior. It’s sad that that’s likely the best you can hope for in the short term. But you, a certified non-garbage human, certainly deserve that.
Kois: Hey readers! The one thing that gave me pause about “Wringing Hands About a Ring” was her passing mention of the daydreaming she engages in while sneaking the ring onto her finger. Did anyone else get the vibe from that letter that maybe, possibly, the letter writer wishes she could get over her anti-marriage feelings and become a person who’d be overjoyed to be married again? If so, how should she deal with those emotions?
Q. Re: Wringing about a ring: The letter writer says she is scared of getting married, not that she doesn’t want to get married. I think she should take some time to explore (in therapy, perhaps) whether she does or does not want to marry her partner. No one else seems in a hurry to do anything with the family ring except her. Once it is passed to the sister, though, it will be gone.
A: This is a great point and I think it’s definitely worth exploring! I still think they should ask the sister if she wants the ring, though. It was her mom’s!
Q. Re: Opening up is hard to do: This was me five years ago. I didn’t want an open marriage, but my wife did, and I seriously considered it and under what conditions I could be comfortable with it. When I tried to talk about what that would look like, she’d say some version of “no,” and eventually dropped it. And then she decided to have an open marriage anyway, without telling me.
She’s asking for a significant adjustment from you, and if your well-being is a priority, she should be willing to go the extra mile to make you comfortable with it. If she won’t even consider the basic condition you suggested, get out. She’s not proposing an open marriage—she’s proposing a whatever-she-wants-is-all-that-matters project.
A: Exactly! If you don’t take my advice, take the advice of this guy who was stuck in your exact situation. Pop that chute!!
Q. Friend obsessed with my baby: I had my daughter about six months ago. In my circle of friends I’m the only one to have a baby, so needless to say, she gets a lot of attention. One friend in particular seems to be a little obsessed with her, and it kind of freaks me and my husband out. She’s constantly buying things for her, referring to herself as her godmother (she’s not, my sister is, and she knows it). She asks for pictures of her throughout the day to help get her through work, and mentions that while she’s looking for a new job, she would never relocate because she wants to be near my daughter. And recently when she comes over, she asks if she can wear her in my baby carrier so people will think she’s her child! I appreciate that she is so supportive of us, and I know most people find their childless friends grow absent once they have a baby, but this is just a little over the top. My husband and I nervously joke about her stealing her someday. Are we right to feel a little strange about my friend’s attention? Or am I just being possessive and overprotective?
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