Today we welcome Jenée Desmond-Harris as Slate’s new Dear Prudence. She takes over from Danny M. Lavery, who held the role for five years, and was previously a senior staff editor at the New York Times. Submit your questions for Prudie here.
My family hired home companion care for my mother, who is 82 and has difficulty with household chores. She is also experiencing some cognitive decline: forgetfulness, difficulty keeping track of things and information, poor executive functioning, etc. This week, she accused her caregiver, who is Black, of “taking my bathing suits.” There are no bathing suits, but Mom is insistent. I asked why her caregiver would steal old-lady bathing suits, and Mom said “to sell them on the internet.” When I pointed out that used bathing suits are akin to used underwear and that no one sells them secondhand, she said, icily: “Cultural differences.” I told her that was a racist thing to say, and she hung up on me. While Mom could eventually be convinced that there were no bathing suits to steal, I can’t guarantee that she will be civil to her caregiver. I am torn between taking a job away from a working person or potentially subjecting them to racist abuse. Do I give the caregiver the option to stay or go? How much do I share with them about my mother’s true feelings and accusation? Or do I tell the home care agency that we are canceling the service, but it has nothing to do with the caregiver?
—Between a Rock and a Bathing Suit
Dear Bathing Suit,
I don’t know if a person experiencing cognitive decline uttering the phrase “cultural differences” is a definite sign of racism, but I’m pretty sure you have some background information on your mother’s worldview that informs your assessment. So let’s go with “Yes, she’s being a bigot.” (Also, secondhand stores do sell swimsuits, but that’s neither here nor there.)
But you don’t really have to do anything. If there’s one thing my research (read: years of casually scrolling social media posts from friends who work in health care) has taught me, it’s that people of color who work in the medical field deal with racism from older white people all the time. Whether they cry about it or laugh it off or mock the perpetrators, it’s tragically part of the job in many cases. So definitely don’t fire this woman because of your discomfort. If she decides to quit, she will quit on her own. It’s not your job to do that for her. And she may need the money more than she needs a pleasant client.
But you’re a good person and you don’t want to just act like this is OK. I get it. So how about a quick chat or a text along these lines: “You may or may not have noticed that my mom is kind of racist. I’m mortified, and I’ve been arguing with her about her comments, but I doubt I can get her to change, given her condition. I know you’ve probably seen it all before, but you don’t deserve to hear these remarks, and if there is anything you want me to know or anything I can do to make your job easier or if you just want to vent about it, please let me know.” And throw in a gift card.
It’s been a year and a half since my husband of 10 years announced his dream to move to the woods and live like a caveman. We’d had a string of tough years but nothing I thought would result in that. Around that time, he also met and started what looked an awful lot like an emotional affair with an acquaintance who shared his interest in “simple living.” He also told the woman he was intending to leave me. They were never intimate as far as I could see, but we had an awful year with a lot of fighting. Then the acquaintance abruptly moved away, and for all I know they no longer speak. I go to therapy to try to process all this, but all it does is convince me I’m not crazy to be upset. His excuse amounts essentially to a temporary insanity defense (which is convenient, as there’s no accountability for that!). He is otherwise a dedicated, loving, and totally unshady partner. He has a therapist, but it hasn’t seemed to help him comprehend the depth of betrayal I feel. We’ve returned to what amounts to normalcy, but I can’t stop thinking about this awful experience. I feel I might never trust him again. What should I do?
—Not a Flintstone
Dear Not a Flintstone,
A year and a half is way too long to feel betrayed and uncertain, and I know these feelings must be taking a huge toll on you. And I don’t think the way forward is to try to force yourself to be OK while he offers nothing in return. And part of his being “dedicated and loving” has to be working to rebuild your trust, right?
If you really want to make this work, you need answers from him, starting with: Are you satisfied with our relationship? What was going on for you when you formed such an intense connection with this woman that you were willing to leave me and live in the woods? What exactly happened between the two of you?
Are you still in touch with her in any way? What’s your plan to make sure “temporary insanity” doesn’t happen again? Are you aware of how hurt I still am? What can you commit to do to repair the trust that you destroyed?
If we could talk, I’d also ask you to say a bit more about that string of tough years you mentioned. How tough were they? Did the toughness involve him mistreating you? Is there any chance you’ve mischaracterized a relationship that’s actually been on a steady decline for some time? I’m hopeful that you two will be able to work things out and come out of this stronger, but to do that you’ll need to be honest about how you feel and what you need. You’re very clear that you don’t want to live in the woods like a caveman. I want you to feel just as confident saying you don’t have to suffer silently in a marriage to a man who has the emotional capacity of one.
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My fiancé and I met in the U.S., where we both work and live, and plan on getting married this fall. He’s originally from a developing country, where his elderly parents and much of his family still reside and which I’ve visited multiple times (and do enjoy!). An issue that’s repeatedly come up is his desire to move back there within the next few years to take care of his parents. I understand this—they are elderly, older than my local parents, and he misses his culture—but I can’t wrap my head around giving up our house and jobs to go somewhere with terrible infrastructure, shakier politics, and riskier health and safety concerns. Our relationship is otherwise solid, I love him, and I do want to spend the rest of our lives together. I just don’t know what middle ground there is here to get what we both want—without robbing him of time with his parents (they refuse to move here) and without having to force ourselves to start from scratch should we return stateside.
—To Move or Not to Move
My knee-jerk reaction is that this is a major issue and if you don’t want to live in the same place, you’re simply not compatible and you should call it all off. For most couples, not wanting to live in the same country as your future spouse is a deal-breaker, with no middle-ground options. And a divorce over this conflict, if it comes to that, will be an expensive, emotionally taxing hassle. But that’s easy for me to say, right? I don’t love this guy or want to spend the rest of my life with him. I haven’t put a deposit down on a venue and asked 100 people to send in their favorite songs for the reception playlist. And plus, your question was “to move or not to move?” not “to get married or not get married?”
So maybe there’s a compromise here. Two years abroad? Three? Could you wait to move until his parents are really in need of help with their daily activities and then move back home and plan to eventually retire abroad? The increased openness to remote work has created a lot of options that didn’t exist before. Maybe your husband could move and you could visit him for long stretches?
I also have kind of an unconventional idea, which might work if there aren’t any visa issues to deal with. Go ahead and have your wedding, but don’t get legally married. Don’t sign anything. Nobody has to know. Have an understanding that you want to stay together but you’re at an impasse about geography. Then see what happens. Between now and “the next few years,” you might change your mind, he might change his mind, there might be another pandemic that makes moving impossible, or God forbid, his parents could pass away. Hopefully you’ll end up on the same page before decision time, and when you do, you can make your marriage official. But if you find you can’t agree, do not pack up and leave the country to make him happy. You’ll make yourself miserable, and that defeats the entire purpose of marrying the person you love.
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My fiancé has been divorced for two years. He has shared custody of his 7-year-old daughter, “Cat,” and I have an 8-year-old girl. We have been trying to slowly integrate our girls into the new family situation. Cat has a bedroom at my house, and her father is maintaining his apartment until the lease runs out. We were on the road to success until his ex was forced to take custody of her 5- and 10-year-old nephews. My fiancé and I stepped up to help with child care on an “emergency” basis, but his ex keeps milking it. We have to take two cars to go anywhere, our limited budget for treats is gone, and there is a fight every night the boys stay over. We only have three bedrooms and neither of the girls want to give theirs up. The boys have been careless and destructive of the girls’ toys, and the youngest wets the bed. They aren’t bad kids, but it is too much. My fiancé feels guilty because these boys were family once. I told him he needed to figure out what matters more: his future family or his old one. He told me that our family was his focus, but the boys still come over on the whims of his ex. It is stressing out everyone. Even Cat complains she just wants it to be us again. What do I do?
The boys are not his “old” family—they’re his current family. He’s probably known them since they were born, and his divorce didn’t change that. And it sounds like the chaos they’re creating is in the normal range, especially for kids who have had a difficult year or so and been separated from their parents.
You can decide not to marry him if you really don’t like the sacrifices he’s making to care for them and the effects they have on your family. That would be totally fair, and it’s what you should do if you truly never want to deal with these children. But to stay together, I would suggest doing two things. First, let a little bit of your husband’s compassion rub off on you. He’s offering love to innocent children who really need it and support to his ex who took them in. I don’t know what your values are, but when you think about the kind of person you want to be, the kind of impact you want to have on the world, and the lessons you want to teach your daughter, does turning your back on two kids because they are expensive, bicker, and wet the bed line up with that? Is there a way you can reframe how you think about the situation so it feels rewarding and meaningful? Second, make a compromise. Every other time the boys need care, have your husband take them over to his apartment for a boys’ night and a sleepover. They’ll probably love it, and you and the girls can get a little peace and quiet. It sounds like it’s been a really stressful year, especially for you, and I hope you can find a way to make this work for your whole family—5- and 10-year-old members included.
I moved to a brand-new city in November 2019. I met and fell in love with someone the next month. Our relationship was fun, exciting, and fulfilling. I asked him about a year into dating if he thought he could see us married at some point, and he said yes. But the pandemic put a lot of stress on us, and he broke up with me in February, citing reasons like I only wanted to hang out with him and not my friends (hello, we were in a pandemic) and thus relied on him too much. The worst part was that he said he had lied about wanting to marry me. The next day, he apologized and said he would enter therapy to process his emotions. A few months have gone by with zero contact, and I have started therapy and have been able to hang out with my friends at least a couple times a week now. I just wish my ex could see me as I am now because I’m doing so well and am truly happy. Should I reach out?
—Pandemic Love Story Goes Wrong
Dear Love Story,
You’re happy. Please try to stay that way. That means not calling an ex who was dishonest with you and unfairly critical of you, misled you about the possibility of a future together, and ghosted you. I speak Dysfunctional Relationship, so I can do a translation of “You want to hang out too much and you rely on me too much” for you: It means “I don’t really like you.” I’m not sure what kind of phone you have, but if you poke around under the entry for his name or your settings, you should find the word Block. Go ahead and hit that button so that even if he ends up contacting you, he can’t.
I know what you’re thinking: But what if he was my soul mate? What if this was all a misunderstanding? What if now that I’ve fixed this minor pandemic-related issue, he’ll love me as much as I loved him? Free yourself of these worries. The way you know you’re meant to be with someone is that they treat you well and make you happy and everything falls into place. I think “relationships are work” is one of the most damaging messages out there, because it can be misinterpreted to cover a lot of stuff that nobody should put up with. The “work” is supposed to involve being considerate, figuring out how to operate as a team, and occasionally compromising, not chasing down a person who has made it clear that they’re OK with never talking to you again.
In a fair world, this guy wouldn’t have been allowed to criticize you for limiting the people you spent time with for health and safety reasons, and he would be required to provide an update on the therapy he entered into for the benefit of your relationship. But sadly, the world is not fair. So not fair. I’m sure you’ve noticed this, but it’s always hard to remember when it comes to dating. The partner you want should make you feel just as valued and secure as your closest friends, and then some. You know you’re a good person and a pleasure to be around, and your friends have reminded you of that. Next time you want to contact your ex, reach out to one of the people in your life who has shown you that they agree.
My husband owns a small business. A few months ago, he had an employee research and call to place a large order for some products for a project. The vendor sent a lovely gift to the business worth several hundred dollars. My husband feels that the employee should get the gift, since they made the call. I feel we should keep the gift, since we spent the money and paid the employee for doing their job. Now he’s making me feel guilt for being selfish. The gift is expensive enough that I can’t justify spending the money on it in my personal life. What should I do?
—Damned if I Do
I’m dying to know what the gift is. Is it one of those fancy coffee mugs that keeps your beverage warm all day? A new Apple Watch? Is it a Peloton?? I’d be tempted to keep any of those things too. But, sorry, you have to let the employee keep it.
First of all, you said, “My husband owns a small business” not “My husband and I own a small business,” so I’m guessing this isn’t even your workplace or your decision to make. That should be enough to settle it.
But beyond that, letting the employee keep it is the right thing to do. The vendor intended it as a thank-you for the work, so it should go to the person who did the work. When I was a young lawyer in my past life, clients would send bottles of wine around the holidays. I’m trying to imagine how I would feel if a partner had come into my office and said, “I brought this client in, so I’ll be taking this to my wife, thanks!” I hope that sounds as wild to you as it does to me. Plus, think about the big picture: You want this business to be successful, and that probably depends heavily on hiring and retaining a dedicated, motivated team. Rewarding employees for a job well done is a part of that. Give it a couple of years, and hopefully they’ll be bringing in enough money that you can buy your own gifts. Until then, take pride in your husband’s generosity.
My stepson died last month, and all I can feel is relief. I have watched him destroy himself for more than 15 years and do his best to do the same to my family. He lied so much I think his mouth forgot the taste of truth, and it killed a little more of his mother every time. We tried counseling, rehab, and prayer, but nothing stuck. Then he struck his younger sister when she took his keys away to keep him from driving drunk. I threw him out that night and never saw him again. My wife is devastated, her son has died, and I feel guilty about my relief. My stepdaughter has confided in me that she feels glad that he is dead, that sometimes she thinks her mother loved him more than her, and worries that makes her a bad person. I don’t know what steps to take—I think counseling, but I know nothing good can come from sharing these truths. My wife is as fragile as glass, and my stepdaughter has a scar over her eyebrow where her brother hit her. How do you move on from here?
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