Dear Prudence

Help! My Girlfriend Insists That Her 8-Year-Old Daughter Sleep in Bed With Us.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A man sleeping in bed, and a girl sleeping in bed.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ulkas/iStock/Getty Images Plus and master1305/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

I have an amazing girlfriend. She’s intelligent, funny, successful, and incredibly caring. Plus, she has been phenomenal with my teenage daughter. My girlfriend is also a mother, and has an 8-year-old daughter. I don’t have the same level of emotional intelligence as my girlfriend, but I get along well with her daughter. We read, watch movies, and play board games together.

There is one recurrent issue that’s coming between my girlfriend and me: Although her daughter has her own bedroom, my girlfriend lets her sleep in bed with us frequently. My girlfriend also gets up early, leaving me in bed with an 8-year-old girl. I would never in a million years do anything, but I also don’t think that situation is remotely a good idea.

My girlfriend insists her daughter is just scared, and does not want to leave her alone at night. Their bedtime routine already involves soothing her daughter by putting her to bed in her own bedroom and falling asleep together, but her daughter will wake up in the night, open our bedroom door and climb into bed next to us. I offer to carry her back to her own bedroom, but get looked at like I’m being cruel.

I feel bad continuing to raise the issue, especially since my girlfriend takes it as an attack on her daughter. But it’s been five months since I expressed my concern and there’s been no real improvement. I know blending families with children can be difficult, but how do we resolve this?

— Uneasy Sleep

Dear Uneasy,

I was stuck on how to answer this because when I first read it, I absolutely shared your view that an adult man sleeping alone with a little girl who is not his daughter is totally inappropriate. But then I thought, “Am I being weird?”

So I shared your question with the public, and the responses clarified for me that there indeed is not a consensus about this. I found support for positions along the lines of “No big deal, get over it” and “What’s the issue? Calm down”:

“is it interrupting his sleep? otherwise let her be” —@JWJones252

“I was that 8 year old kid who used to do this to my parents when I got scared. Him making it an issue is only going to create a bigger wall between him, his girlfriend, and her daughter. He needs to find a way to deal with it, be more welcoming, understanding, or find another gf” —@Black_Ted_Mosby

I can’t find the tweet anymore, but someone said that if you’re not a pedophile, it shouldn’t be an issue.

Still, many others were aghast that this had happened for even one night, in part because of the fear that the situation could put you at risk for allegations of abuse—something I hadn’t even thought of.

“This is untenable, putting you at risk for ruinous accusations. Protect yourself. Get up yourself when GF gets up. If necessary, sleep elsewhere the whole night. Couch? Air mattress? Cot? Guest room?” —@jenmoser

“I have seen men get arrested in this situation. Watched from my desk as they took a work colleague away. The mother got angry with him and had him charged with indecent behavior. If I were this guy, i would move out. That still might not save him.” —@NOLAHistoryGuy

“As a single mother, I gasped at this. I’m not against co-sleeping, but would never have co-slept with my kid and a boyfriend when we were in that stage. I don’t see in the letter how long they’ve been together, but he’s stated he’s uncomfortable with this and I agree.” —@saltysuburban29

With all these differing views, let’s put aside the question of whether it’s objectively OK to spend a couple of hours asleep in bed with your girlfriend’s daughter in the mornings. Whether it’s right or wrong, you should take responsibility for getting yourself out of a situation that’s uncomfortable for you. Your girlfriend, meanwhile, will likely make her daughter’s emotional well-being and their relationship the priority—as she should.

Several people pointed out that especially amid a pandemic that has upended routines, a lot of kids are feeling especially sensitive and in need of comfort, and thusly we should defer to your girlfriend when it comes to what her daughter needs. “My now 8yo came back to bed with me early on in the pandemic my therapist and his doctor all say ‘it’s fine’ kids are stressed and scared and under a lot of pressure, any extra consolation is fine and good. And s/he will grow out of it soon,” wrote @Lyzl. “Also, as a single mom/daughter situation, the daughter needs to know she’s still loved and special. This won’t last forever, can’t he go to a guest bed (if one is available) for now? I mean school just started kids are a mess.”

“She is 8! And life is scary,” said @estoydestroyed. “It always has been, but especially now. If mom & daughter are comfortable co-sleeping, moving the daughter is not the solution.”

So, as you navigate this difference of opinion, I think it will do a lot for your relationship if you can really communicate to your girlfriend that you understand that she sees herself as looking out for her daughter, and you respect that. Make sure you’re very clear that you appreciate her value in the security, sense of routine, and closeness that the daughter is getting from co-sleeping.

And then, see if there’s something the two of you can agree to offer the 8-year-old that can give her that same kind of comfort, but does not involve the two of you in bed alone together. To be honest, I’m not particularly hopeful about this given that she looked at you like you were cruel for offering to carry the kid back to bed—it seems your girlfriend’s very protective of her—but you should explore whether there’s any room for compromise here. For example, several people suggested some kind of cozy pallet on the floor as a compromise:

“These are reasonable concerns imo. If I were giving advice, I’d suggest a. an air mattress or blanket on the floor to start the process of getting her into her own space and b. an agreed-upon “cuddle night” for 8 yo and mom, in order to make space for the child’s emotional needs” —@booksyarnlogic

“Create a special designated ‘sleepover spot’ on the bedroom floor for the little girl. Fun pillows, special stuffed animals, etc. It allows for a middle ground between ‘kicking her out’ and letting her sleep in bed alone with the bf” —@CaseySplinter

Others thought you could ask your girlfriend to bring her daughter back to her own bed when she gets up early.

“A small step would be to get the girlfriend to agree to not leave him alone in the bed with the 8-year-old. When she gets up early in the morning, she has to take her daughter back to her room.” —@dwhite10701

Whether or not you come up with a different plan, it’s her kid, and if she decides the kid needs to sleep in the bed for the entire night, you shouldn’t push back on that. Perhaps after a conversation with her and hearing about her concerns for her daughter’s emotional and mental health or her approach to parenting, you’ll end up agreeing with her (and the others who argued the same)—that what’s best is for her daughter to sleep exactly where she wants to for as long as she wants to.

But that doesn’t mean you still need to sacrifice your comfort or stay in a situation that your gut is telling you is inappropriate; you can defer to your girlfriend on parenting while still being firm about your own boundaries. This might look like sleeping somewhere else until this phase is over, heading for the couch when the kid climbs into the bed, or simply asking your girlfriend to wake you up so you can get out of bed when she does.

“Tell her he loves her daughter but he’s just not there yet. And then sleep on the couch. Though the plan should be for her to sleep on her own, he needs to accommodate until she can. Doesn’t have to be a referendum on their relationship (yet).” —@stlouilmette

“Dude needs to get out of the bed when the 8-year-old girl comes in. That’s all. Forever. Healthy boundaries, healthy relationship.” —@thechelseagrin

The bottom line is that you should give your girlfriend a lot of deference when it comes to be the kind of mom she wants to be and make sure she knows that you respect her parenting. But make it clear that you respect yourself and your comfort too, and will do what you need to to stay out of a situation that feels wrong. This is a good approach to the bed dilemma and also sets the tone for the many other tough decisions you’ll likely have to make together in the future.

Classic Prudie

Q. Are wet dreams a red flag?: I have been dating a great guy for a couple months, but it seems like once or twice a week he gets up because he had a wet dream. He said this is normal, but I can’t help to feel self-conscious about not being enough for him.

We have talked about it, and he says I am doing great, but recently I totally pumped him dry and was still jarred awake at 5:30 a.m. by him having to get out of bed and clean up. I am at my wits’ end and think there must be something more than meets the eye in this. Am I crazy? Should I give him the benefit of the doubt and try harder? Or is this just normal?