Dear Prudence

Dear Prudence Live Chat

For August 8, 2022.

Update, Aug. 8, 2022, at 1:30 p.m.: The chat is complete! Find the write-up in the Dear Prudence archive, and continue the conversation on the Prudie Facebook Page. Submit questions for next week’s chat here.

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Jenée Desmond-Harris

Hope everyone had a great weekend! Let’s get the chat started. 

Q. Child-Free By Choice

One of my closest friends recently revealed to me that she is pregnant and I’m afraid I didn’t react very well. The news was highly unexpected—she is not in a relationship, she doesn’t have a lot of money or a great career, and she got pregnant with a casual hookup, the third time they met, who has thus far given no indication of wanting to raise a child with her. I knew that she, like many women my age, had a deep desire to become a mother, but I had no idea it was so deep that she was willing to become a single mother after a birth control failure. 

I am child-free by choice. My parents instilled a deep fear of unplanned pregnancy in me at a young age, as well as a deep disdain for unwed mothers and deadbeat dads, which—for better or for worse—I deeply internalized. (No offense intended to anyone reading this). What is, for her, a dream fulfilled, would be for me a nightmare.

I was highly shocked when she shared the news and, to be honest, it felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I could not honestly be happy for her, and the most I could say to her was “I wish you luck.” I am ashamed to admit, but first I bombarded her with logistical concerns (financial matters, career implications, childcare) before telling her: “I know this is selfish of me, but I’m afraid this means our friendship is over.” She assured me that everyone she had told so far had been highly supportive, that for my logistical concerns, she had a plan, and that we could still spend time together regularly—she’d just have a baby in tow. During our conversation, I wanted to cry.

I think part of why I had such an intense emotional reaction was the unexpected nature of the news. Had the pregnancy been planned, had the circumstances been different, or had I had more time to digest the news, I might have been able to respond more positively. As it is, I’m feeling guilty for not being more supportive during what is most certainly a challenging time for her, but I’m also finding it hard to be sincerely supportive when the choices she’s made are so deeply opposite of the ones I would make.

I guess I’m looking for three things here: 1) a judgment call on whether my reaction was inappropriate, 2) validation of my feelings, that you don’t have be happy when people you know become pregnant, and that it’s okay to mourn a friendship that—even if it doesn’t end—is definitely about to change, and 3) a script to apologize to my friend for my inappropriate reaction, without resorting to any insincere “congratulations” or “I’m happy for you.” I’m afraid she took my “our friendship is over” comment to mean I wanted to end it, which wasn’t actually my intention. Can you help?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

 I’ll respond to your questions in order:

1) Yes, your reaction was inappropriate. Maybe, maybe if your friend had asked, “Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” it would have been appropriate to unload. But she didn't open that door, so you really overstepped—especially when bombarding her with logistical concerns. What you did broke the rule about not offering advice unless asked and the rule about not immediately making other people’s emotional personal news all about you. (Did you not know those rules? Now you do!)

2) I can absolutely validate your feelings. You don’t have to be happy at all, and it’s absolutely OK to mourn the current version of the friendship. But! See the second rule above. You don’t bring this up in the same moment you receive the news of the new baby. Wait a few days or weeks. Make it a separate conversation, not one that replaces an exchange about how your friend’s dream is coming true. And by the way, you don’t have to be happy that she’s pregnant, but a good friend would be excited that she’s thriving and living the life she wants to live. If you’re unable to find that inside yourself, I do think there’s a problem with your friendship and/or with your selfishness. 

3) “Hi friend. I wanted to reach out and sincerely apologize for the way I responded to the news of your pregnancy. Instead of celebrating something that makes you happy, I dumped a bunch of feelings and concerns onto you and really ruined what should have been a special moment. I’ve thought about it and I’ve realized I was seeing the situation as someone who doesn’t want children instead of seeing it through your eyes, as a dream come true. Not only that, I also panicked about how our friendship will change because I value it so much and I know this will create a shift. But that was the wrong time to make everything about me and my feelings. As your friend, I value your happiness so much and I should have stayed focused on how this is going to bring joy to your life. Once things settle down, if you are open to it, I would still like to talk about how we can stay close and how I can be there for you in this new phase of your life. Again I’m really sorry for my first reaction and I’m going to work on being more sensitive.”

Q. Let Her Finish!

A dear friend, let's call her Liz, interrupts A LOT and I think it's gotten worse recently. She doesn't mean to be rude—she grew up in a home/culture where collaborative overlapping is the norm—and I'm pretty sure she's trying to convey that she's actively listening, but it's been getting really hard to have coherent conversations. 

For example, if a friend is telling a story and mentions they had to get from point A to point B on the bus, Liz will ask, "Which bus did you take?" The friend will say they don't remember and try to move on, but then Liz will ask, "Was it the 22? I think it could have been the 22 or the 30, I would also say 19 but you said this was a Tuesday and it doesn't run then." The storyteller will say it's not relevant to the story and try to move on, but Liz will find a new detail to latch onto. Eventually, the storyteller gives up or finishes the story once Liz is out of the room. 

I've been struggling with how to best address this. I struggle to find the right words at the moment (especially since the storyteller often says what I would say: "It's not relevant to the story") but having a big conversation with Liz about the pattern seems like a lot and I don't know how I'd phrase it. Especially since I know Liz means well, I'm having a hard time thinking of ways of conveying this clearly and kindly. Any advice?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

This does sound pretty annoying. If you do address it, you should focus on her interactions with you, not with other friends, who can handle it in their own ways. And keep it as specific as possible. So rather than “Liz, you’re always getting fixated on random details and derailing conversations and we all hate it!” which, I agree, would be a lot, try: “Liz remember when I was telling the story about how I had to take my dog to the vet? You started asking me about what kind of pet insurance I had and running down a list of companies, looking different plans up on your phone, and reading the results out loud. I actually never got to finish telling everyone what the diagnosis was. I really do appreciate that you care about the details of my life but could you try to make sure I get a chance to finish my stories when we’re together?”

Q. Impolite Politeness

Hello, Can you help settle a mild disagreement between my wife and myself? An acquaintance told us she and her boyfriend got engaged. To which, I said congratulations and asked the normal "How did it happen?” All sounded good. Then later, I said "Your families must be thrilled," to which she said "not so much" and trailed off. I took the hint and didn't ask any follow-up questions. Later, my wife and I talked and I told her what happened. She said it was similar to asking if a woman was pregnant (which I would never do). Who is right here? They both have great jobs and are of an "appropriate" age to be married if that helps.

Jenée Desmond Harris

You’re right and your wife is wrong. You obviously touched on a sensitive topic, but you had no way of knowing. It’s not as if you said “Tell me all about the prenup” or asked, “Do you plan to lose weight before the wedding?” You made a comment about a topic that for most people would be lighthearted. Except in this case, it wasn’t. Your acquaintance let you know with her vague response, and you responded perfectly and respected her by not pushing. You can tell your wife that, yes, if the goal is to totally avoid conversations about sensitive topics, you would never ask a follow-up question about anything even remotely personal. But that would basically keep you from speaking to friends, and I assume that’s not how you want to live.

Q. Garlic Allergy in a Garlic-Obsessed Family

My family is having a party for someone's birthday in a few months, and we are fighting over what to do for food. I have severe allergies to garlic and will have a severe reaction, when exposed to any amount, including finely processed garlic. My family has already told me when it comes to their own cooking, that they will not follow my garlic allergy needs and they disrespect my request to not use garlic, all of the time.

They would like to cater food and the places that they want to cater the main meats from use garlic in their cooking process. I would prefer that I or someone in my very immediate family, who understands my garlic allergies, cook the food instead so that I can guarantee it is safe for me to attend the party. Every time I am with them when it involves food, I have an allergic reaction to garlic, and it gets worse every single time.

This has happened before for a birthday, back in April of this year, they wanted to cater from one of the same two places, for a much smaller party. I said I wouldn't attend and they said they were fine with it, until that morning of the celebration. That morning, they decided oh, we want you at the party. It's not right that you won't be here, for your mother's birthday celebration. That's right, they wanted me excluded from a party for my own mother, up until that morning. This was for my mother's 60th birthday celebration. So then it was a rush for us to make the food at the last minute, thankfully it was for a very small amount of people, so it was possible.

However, if they decide this morning that I absolutely have to be at my grandmother's milestone 90th birthday celebration, with a good 60 guests, that would not be possible to do at that absolute last minute. I don't know what I should do about the party. I do not feel comfortable, for my own safety, and my own health, attending the party since they want to cater food. My mother and I have already fought with them a lot over this party, trying to argue about my food allergies, but they just do not care. They have also already said that they are OK with me not attending the 90th birthday celebration.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

I’m answering this assuming that you would have an allergic reaction from simply being around garlic (If it’s just that you can’t eat garlic, attend the party and bring your own food.) 

You don’t really have a choice here. You can’t force the people hosting the party to prepare food for 60 guests instead of getting it catered. A truly caring and loving family would work around your allergies and figure out a way to request that the catered food not include garlic, or divide up the cooking. But sadly, your relatives either don’t take your condition seriously or don’t really want you to be there. You’ll have to skip this one, but I strongly suggest planning a private celebration with your grandmother. Just the two of you and a garlic-free meal. The silver lining is that you’ll have more quality time with her than you ever would at a huge gathering.

Q. Pandora's Box

My husband died three years in the middle of our separation. His original will was still in effect where I was his primary beneficiary. We had been married for 10 years. He had been married before but got divorced when his girls were teenagers. We got married when they were in their 20s.

I tried to be fair to these two daughters; offering them all the sentimental items they wanted as well as the more expensive ones (my husband's sports car and motorcycles). But they gave no quarter and tried to sue me for everything in the estate including my own house!

The lawsuit was short but bloody. I had the lovely experience of one of my stepdaughters calling me a “gold digging whore” in open court. They ended up getting exactly what the will left them and not a penny more. The entire experience left me feeling hollow and bitter.

While time doesn't heal all wounds, it does give perspective. I just buried my own mother and thankfully it was peaceful. I still have several memorabilia from my late husband's family: a Japanese tea set his father brought back from the war, a painting his late sister did, and jewelry my late mother-in-law gave me (none of which I wear). None of it is overly valuable beyond sentiment.

Part of me feels it should go back to his family but the rest of me could happily go the rest of my life without speaking to my stepdaughters again. We were never close but in my wildest imagination, I never thought they held me in such contempt. Other than a few cousins and a younger niece, there aren't any other family members I can use as a messenger. What should I do?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Send a note to the cousins. “I have a few special items from Dan's. The girls and I had a falling out so I’m not comfortable reaching out to them, but I did want to see whether someone in the family might want to collect and distribute these things. Please let me know if you’d like me to put them in the mail.”

Q. Comfort Over Convention

I was wondering what your take might be on leggings at the office. For good or ill, while working remotely during the pandemic, I got used to wearing comfy, stretchy pants (and sports bras instead of underwires, too). I work in a fairly creative industry without any real dress code, and when I returned to the (small) office full time, I kept on pairing my "athletic" wear with pretty, flowy tunics and blouses (long enough to cover my butt).

No one has said anything about it to me directly until recently! But at an office happy hour, an older woman took me aside and chided me about my "revealing," "unprofessional" pants. She has no involvement with HR or management—in fact, she's about at my "level"—so initially I shrugged it off (I mean, people wear jeans to the office all the time). But it's been bothering me a bit.

For the record, I am not in a client-facing position often, and when I am, I "dress up" a bit more, I wouldn't consider wearing leggings to a pitch meeting or brainstorming session where people outside my office would be there! They're just really comfortable and practical for everyday wear (cheap, too, although they're nice thick ones). Also, not that it should matter, but I am in my late 30s, relatively thin, and in pretty good shape, so I'm confident this isn't an issue with my coworker(s?) being offended by my size. What say you? Am I out of line or is "Florence" just old-fashioned?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

Things changed during the pandemic. Florence is honestly lucky you don’t show up in bike shorts and a sports bra. At this moment in 2022, amid a pandemic and everything else going on in the world, you have gone above and beyond by covering your butt. Don’t give her comments another thought. And forgive her—she’s probably in a bad mood because she’s uncomfortable in her stiff pants.

Q. Do-Over

When we married we had a very small beach wedding, basically an elopement. 12 people were there. My closest friends weren't able to join because of the distance and cost. 

This isn't the wedding I wanted to have, but it is the wedding we had. We did have a reception a couple of months after with our shared friends and extended family. However, this happened in the state we currently live in, and none of my oldest friends were able to come due to the cost of travel, kids, etc.

I'm seriously considering throwing a "wedding" for our 10-year anniversary. Today is our 7th and this has been on my mind for at least a year. Another girlfriend and I discussed it and she said the same thing. Our weddings weren't exactly what we wanted and if given the chance we'd do it over again! 

We aren't religious and neither of us is particularly versed in etiquette around these subjects. My questions are this: Do we call it a renewal of vows? If not, what then? What are some secular marriage ceremonies? I read your column and see people expect bridesmaids and groomsmen to do certain activities together like dancing. I am just clueless about that stuff. Neither of us has any strong familial cultural traditions either. 

Jenée Desmond-Harris

“Renewal of vows” works perfectly. If your vows are secular, the renewal will be too. You use the invitation or website to communicate that this will be more like an actual wedding ceremony than, say, a brunch where you stand up and recite a few words. Make the invitations nice and fancy, and try language like, “We’re finally having the celebration we weren’t able to have ten years ago and we’d love for you to be there.” 

Now, I have to warn you. Weddings are touchy subjects! Second weddings are even touchier. You can do whatever you want without worrying about what anyone thinks. But if you don’t want people grumbling about being inconvenienced so that you can celebrate yet again, consider not having a bridal party (or making the experience really easy for the bridesmaids and groomsmen), making clear that you don’t need gifts, and being very understanding if people—especially the people who attended the first wedding—aren’t able to be there. 

Aside from standing up and saying vows and providing people with food and drink, there’s no tradition you have to include to make it a wedding. Although speeches by loved ones are a really nice touch that could honor the decade you and your spouse have spent together.

Q. Bring Your Own B.S.

My long-time partner "Rob" has two undiagnosed conditions: anxiety and alcoholism/alcohol misuse disorder. Both seem to run in his family, as does avoidance. 

Rob has a drink in hand from the moment he's home until bed but rarely seems visibly drunk. He says he's too busy for therapy. He scoffs at AA. Several times a year he gets concerned, swears off drinking, then goes back to it. This typically lasts a few days or less. During these cycles, all he talks about is how he is not drinking. I say little beyond "If you want to quit, you should" or "It's great you made it three days." I quit drinking on my own a few years ago and saw a therapist.

Recently, an old friend had a serious drinking-related health issue. Rob is terrified and wants to switch to weed. It's not legal where we live. I have a small stash of low-dose edibles that work perfectly when I'm really under a lot of stress, and use them less than monthly. I've suggested he talk to a therapist, maybe try one meeting, etc., instead of replacing one daily substance for another. He gets angry, defensive, and shuts that down. He has a big job and a lot of stress. But so do I.  

Now he's pestering me to give him edibles and claiming I "refuse to help." I'm OK sharing some but not all, especially as he's unwilling to look at what's under all of this. He knows guys he can get weed from but says he'll do it later, presumably after he goes through mine. Replacing my stash will be an effort I don't feel like undertaking and I know he won't. Based on history, this too shall pass but if it doesn't, what's a good course of action?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

This is so, so hard but the sooner you can accept that nothing you can do will change Rob’s relationship with drinking, the happier you’ll be. Do not become his edibles source. That will only rope you in more—and raise your hopes that you can do something to change his entire personality. In fact, don’t do anything other than putting some serious thought into whether you can be happy in a relationship with Rob and all of his excuses, stress, and avoidance.

Q. Don't Want to Be the Ref

My husband and our teenage daughter do not get along. He has very little patience for her demeanor and her busy social life and she cannot stand his demeaning stance. The sad part is that they are both incredible human beings who are really nice to everyone around them. Their personalities together just do not mesh. I have counseled them both individually numerous times over the years but nothing has worked. I feel that their relationship has soured for life. He doted and indulged her when she was young, but lost all his patience for her when she grew up. It hurts her deeply and in turn, she lashes out. It's a vicious cycle. I am done playing referee. College is around the corner. Can this be fixed or shall I just give up?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

The relationship can be fixed. But I don’t think your refereeing will do it. Use this time to nurture your relationship with your daughter. Don’t damage it by trying to coach her on how to be close to her dad. Be the mom she needs. Part of that, I think, is remembering that she and her father don’t bear equal responsibility for the distance between them. She’s a kid. She should be allowed to have a busy social life and an unpleasant teenage demeanor—both extremely normal things!—without losing her father’s love and affection. You know how you’ve been patient with her and remained close to her? If he’s such an incredible and kind human being, why hasn’t he been able to do the same? Encourage him to get over himself. If he can’t and their relationship is in fact soured for life, always be there to remind her that it wasn’t her fault.

Q. Bro, You Stink

What's the best way to tell someone they stink? My brother, Steve, is a lovely person who will help anyone in a crisis. The trouble is, he refuses to take care of himself. 

We recently went on a week-long family trip together. By the second day, Steve overwhelmingly stunk. He didn't seem to notice until my father directly told him to take a shower in the evening. Throughout the trip, Steve wouldn't shower regularly or wash his clothes unless we bugged him about it. 

This isn't a new problem. In college, he was made to sit in a different part of the church van due to odor. Steve’s in his 30s, so I would have hoped he would have figured it out by now. What’s the best way to break it to him? In the past, trying to get him to meet basic hygiene or care standards caused Steve to react like you were baselessly nagging him. 

Jenée Desmond-Harris

You don’t have to tell Steve he stinks. Steve knows he stinks! He was told to shower this summer because he stinks. He had his own personal church van seating because he stinks! Believe me, he has it figured out. He either doesn’t care or has a larger issue that means he can’t take care of his own hygiene. If you’re going to nag him, your time would be better spent asking after his mental health. Nudging him to consider looking into whether he could get a professional diagnosis and corresponding treatment related to his mood or his ability to manage daily life. But, he’s an adult and whether he does so is his business. So if that doesn’t lead to any results, look into getting one of those little vials of essential oils that you can pop into your pocket when you’re going to spend time with your brother and sniff as needed.

Q. Re: Child-Free By Choice

Wait, you can't be friends with or happy for someone who makes different choices than you? Do you hate everyone who likes your least favorite food? What about the people who love Mondays? This has nothing to do with pregnancy. You need to go to a therapist to work through your rigidity and lack of respect for others (and, my guess, yourself).

Jenée Desmond-Harris

This is a tad harsh. I think the letter writer showed a lot of self-awareness about her reaction and was honest about the fact that sincere support feels hard for her right now. I do agree that being happy for people who make different choices is part of being a good friend, and I think her letter was an indication that she wants to work on that.

Q. Re: Child-Free By Choice

Maybe she didn’t take your comment as you wanting to end the relationship. Maybe she wants to end the relationship because of your cruel reaction.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

This is possible. And I should have mentioned that she really might not get over the initial reaction. But I hope the conversation script helps to clear things up and repair the relationship. 

Q. Re: Impolite Politeness

How did it happen? That, more than the families being thrilled comment, is the part that oversteps. Is LW asking if it was an accident?!?

Jenée Desmond-Harris

This is about an engagement, not a pregnancy. So I’m assuming LW is asking how the proposal happened—at a restaurant, on a hike, at sunset, at home with the dog, etc. Which seems totally appropriate to me.

Q. Re: Garlic Allergy in a Garlic-Obsessed Family

Your garlic allergy is not the problem here. The problem is your lack of a spine. You are an adult. If you do not wish to attend an event for any reason, and your parents push the issue, you should tell them you are not attending and end the conversation. 

Jenée Desmond-Harris

I read the letter as saying the LW and their mother were on the same side, trying (and failing) to push the other relatives to make the party allergy-friendly. Nothing there indicates spinelessness.

Q. Re: Comfort Over Convention

It's never OK for a non-HR or non-supervisor to comment on dress. But I disagree that leggings are fine in every office. It might be worth asking HR if there's a policy. Also—pretty much a bummer that LW throws out some specifics about their body as proof of the appropriateness of the leggings. If it's okay for a slender person it's okay for a fat person.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

The comment about being thin and in good shape went right over my head, and you’re absolutely right. This has nothing to do with the size and shape of their body. 

No, legging aren’t fine in every office but LW isn’t a Supreme Court clerk. This is a creative industry. I think it’s very safe to say they’re fine.

Jenée Desmond-Harris

We’re going to wrap it up here! Remember to be (or at least pretend to be) happy for friends who share good news and refuse to let your colleagues leggings-shame you. I’ll talk to you next week.

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