Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. (R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave.)
Q. Stroller stress: I was gifted a very expensive stroller from my former employer when I got pregnant with my son (I had been working for them since I was a teenager). The problem was, by the time my son was 3, he had outgrown it. It seems that I gave birth to a little giant.
My sister-in-law was pregnant at the time, so I offered to loan it to her. Unfortunately, she ended up miscarrying at the six-month mark. It devastated our entire family. It has been months and everything for the baby is still packed in the nursery. My sister-in-law can’t even bring herself to open the door.
My heart bleeds for her, but the problem is I recently found out I was pregnant again. My cycle has always been irregular and my husband and I have to regularly use condoms because of the adverse side effects birth control has on me. Money is very tight. Even with me watching a neighbor’s children weekly for cash, my husband and I struggle sometimes. There is no way we could afford another stroller like that right now and it is gathering dust.
My husband and I are arguing about what to do. He feels that even telling his sister about our pregnancy will hurt her, let alone asking for the stroller back. My view was it was a gift to me and loan to her and we all were crystal-clear about that fact. I am very sorry about her loss, but in a little over four months, we are going to have an absolute need for it.
What should we do? I am half-tempted to just go over and sneak it out of the house, but that feels cowardly. I don’t want to hurt my sister-in-law here.
A: You’re being practical and compassionate but also putting the stroller before the … well, strollers don’t have horses but you get what I’m saying. You can choose not to tell your SIL about your pregnancy if you’d like, and that may be the thing that she needs right now, but she’s going to find out eventually. So your husband’s objection is moot. You’re five months pregnant, so I assume there’s a point coming up very soon when the rest of the family is going to find out, if that hasn’t happened already. Prior to that, it might be helpful to reach out to your SIL and her partner, if she has one, and have a conversation about how they’re doing and how you can be supportive. Miscarriage doesn’t have to be a silent burden for parents.
I think, with regard to the stroller itself, you’re letting your anxiety about money create problems that don’t yet exist. Four months is a long time and anything can happen in your SIL’s emotional life. The main thing that will happen is that she’s going to eventually find out that you’re pregnant. She may volunteer to give the stroller back without prompting. If not, you have four, really five, or even six months before you have to have the conversation about getting the stroller back; you won’t be strolling with a newborn straight out of the hospital, so there’s a little wiggle room for when you actually get it. You will get the stroller back (or perhaps save enough money to get another, more affordable one) and your SIL will start to heal from this loss. You have time and time is what you both need.
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Q. House of slobs: This is a low-key problem where the only thing at stake is my sanity. My family has agreed to abide by your judgment. After blowing my top at my husband and two teenage sons for being absolute slobs, I told them they are responsible for cleaning their own bathrooms (one downstairs bathroom, one upstairs bathroom the boys share), and I will clean the bathroom in the master bedroom.
Predictably, they let their bathrooms get filthy and started using mine. I lost my temper after I saw the seat up, stepped in a puddle of urine, and saw someone had gone No. 2 and left evidence in the bowl instead of swishing it with the toilet brush. (They also used up all the toilet paper, left their dirty clothes on the floor, and left hair all over the sink from shaving.) I told them no one was allowed to use my bathroom, that if they wanted a clean bathroom, they should clean their own. This is including my husband.
My husband said I’m overreacting. What say you, Prudie? Can I keep my bathroom? We both work full time but I do the lion’s share of the housework already.
A: No offense, but your teenage sons and husband need to get it together. It would be one thing if they simply didn’t see the mess, which is still a little distressing but whatever—to each their own puddle of urine. But they clearly know the difference between messy and not messy because they migrated to your bathroom and started peeing all over the place in there.
Human beings are, alas, disgusting filth machines and there is no greater shame than the mirror the bathroom holds up to our wretchedness. The only recourse, as you know, is cleaning it up and pretending that we are somehow new beings, poopless and godlike. You get this. You’ve explained it to them. I’ll bet you’re the kind of person who has a bin from the Container Store marked “Bathroom cleaning supplies!” that you leave out helpfully. And yet still they think that the urine unpuddles itself. This isn’t Hogwarts and you can’t magic the poo away. If they can’t or won’t get that, then they have to sit in their own wretchedness for the rest of their days. All of them.
They are banished from your bathroom. I have spoken. May God have mercy on their toilet bowls.
Q. Second fiddle: I have been dating “Paul” for three years. He has been divorced six years and has two adult sons and an 18-year-old daughter “Dee.” He and his ex were married for 20 years.
When I met Paul, he was in constant contact with his ex because of Dee’s legal and school troubles. Half the time we were together, Paul would get a call from his ex about Dee. They also spent the holidays together because the kids wanted it.
Paul told me he loved me and to be patient, things would get better. And they did for everyone but me. Dee straightened out her life and is currently attending community college. She lives with friends, so her mother has an empty nest. She still calls Paul all the time. Even if Paul doesn’t take the calls in my presence, I know he returns them and has gone over to her house to help with home repairs. His mother’s birthday is coming up and his ex will be in attendance even though the kids are not going to be there.
Paul and I have fought over this. I feel completely sidelined as Paul’s partner. If we are going to have any kind of real future, we have to be a “we,” not “we and she.” I understand she will be a part of Paul’s life because of their kids, but she can pay a handyman. And I don’t understand why his ex needs to attend a family event for a family she hasn’t been a part of for six years, especially without the kids. Paul tells me that his mother’s guest list isn’t my call and there is “nothing” between his ex and him. He isn’t cheating on me with her.
I agree that Paul isn’t sleeping with his ex. Their interactions are friendly, not flirty, but I am tired of playing second fiddle here. Paul claims he wants us to get married. I love him, but I need a second opinion here.
A: While I understand wanting to feel like all of Paul’s attention is on you, it doesn’t really sound like you’re playing second fiddle. Is he leaving repairs at your place to do handyman work at his ex’s? It sounds like Paul is negotiating the demands of a family and a relationship. Paul and his ex have 26 years of history and three children between them. That’s not going to go away and, from what Paul is telling you, he doesn’t want it to. I think you ought to accept the messages you’re getting from Paul, his mother, and the rest of the family that the ex is not a threat to you and that she is going to keep being a part of their lives. It’s up to you whether you accept this or not. But you’re not going to change them.
Q. Regret being the mom friend: Is there a way to establish boundaries when you never have before? I am in the middle of a stressful life transition that is eating up a lot of my time. I’m managing, but it’s hard. Most of my close friends have not been great about it, and don’t seem to realize that this means I’m not available as much anymore. I’ve gotten messages telling me I don’t hang out enough with them, or texts telling me to drop everything so they can vent about their day on the phone.
I’ve been good about saying no in the moment, but that doesn’t stop them from complaining. Some of them are kind of socially awkward, and it may be genuine cluelessness on their part, but it still sucks that they don’t seem to care and don’t listen when I try to explain why I’m not available. When I do meet up, we only seem to talk about their problems, and it doesn’t stop them complaining later. It feels like I’m starting to realize how much I let things slide before, and I’m wondering if it’s worth it to stay friends, or if this is a wake-up call.
A: One of the unexpected side effects of life transitions is how much they shake up seemingly unrelated aspects of our worlds. You’re in need of not only friends who get it, but friends who are actually going to be there for you. They may not know how to be the kind of friend you need, and while you don’t have to teach them, it’s useful to be explicit with them about ways that you want their support. They may be hearing “no” a lot but not connecting it to places where they need to step up.
Try a conversation or a text that lays out your requests, like “Things are really tough for me right now and it would be really helpful if you could check in on me and how I’m doing. I may not have the energy to get back to you, but it would mean a lot.” Set an expectation and see if they can meet you there. If they can’t or won’t, you may be outgrowing the friendships.
Q. Re: House of slobs: Letter writer, not only should you keep your bathroom, but you should procure a padlock to which only you have the key. After reading your account, I do not trust your husband or sons to abide by Prudie’s wise judgment—I think they will continue to sneak into your bathroom.
Frankly, this should inspire a serious convo with your husband about division of labor as well. He should now realize the high value of all the housework you do (on top of a full-time job!) and should be eager to help share the load you have been unfairly burdened with for your marriage. I say “should” but realize he may not—so make him realize it. Tell him the status quo of him benefiting from your extra labor cannot and will not continue and find a way to equitably redistribute.
The fact that you call the stakes of this problem—your own sanity—“low” tells me that you need to stand up for yourself more. Teen sons should help as well, but your husband is another fully grown adult and the fact that he hasn’t been helping up to now is unacceptable. You deserve better.
A: I completely and wholeheartedly agree. I know that a lot of couples struggle with an imbalance around household labor, but this is taking it to an extreme. The letter writer’s husband isn’t pulling his weight and it’s created a monstrous situation in the house. These frat boy antics are, I guess, to be expected from teens (although this is also not a hard-and-fast rule—let’s hear it for neat teens!), but a grown man needs to be taking on much more of the work around the house. It’s frustrating that he doesn’t already know this, but a lot of men are socialized to assume someone else is going to do it. Someone else is you, buddy!
Also! I didn’t say this in the original answer, but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that letter writer should also retake control of the main-level bathroom. I presume this is the one guests use. If the husband and the boys can’t be presentable, there’s no reason guests should suffer. The three other members of the house should have to share the one bathroom until the situation improves.
Q. Re: House of slobs: That poor letter writer needs and deserves a blunt response: “Your husband and sons are behaving badly and you are not overreacting. They each owe you an apology and to start cleaning up their own filth.”
Many of us have had these kids as roommates in college and it’s neither cute nor funny. Raising kids includes teaching them to be civilized adults before you unleash them on the world.
A: The only thing I’d add is that the responsibility to teach the teens can’t fall to the letter writer. It seems like she’s already made this attempt and now the husband needs to step up and retrain his kids. Changing the extra labor that letter writer has to do won’t actually fix her problem.
R. Eric Thomas: That’s all we have time for today! Thanks for your questions and comments. Be good to yourselves!
From Care and Feeding
My nearly 2-year-old has been cared for full-time by his grandmother since I went back to work a few months after he was born. For me, the benefits are solely financial, as my mother-in-law is unusually sensitive and can be volatile. She is also very clingy.
His eventual enrollment in kindergarten—still years away—is already a sore subject for her. She has tried to talk us into agreeing to let her home-school him. When we refuse, she says she will follow him wherever he goes as a volunteer, or she’ll get a paid position at the school.