Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
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 it, 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?
A. 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.”
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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?
A. 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. 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.
A. 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?
A. 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. 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).
A. 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.
A. 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: 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.
A. 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.
My mother-in-law hates me and makes no bones about it when she and I are alone. My husband doesn’t believe me, and she even gloats about that. We have to attend family functions at her home about once a month. (It used to be more frequent, but after I put my foot down, my husband agreed that monthly would be sufficient.) The problem is that after each visit, I wind up with a bad case of diarrhea; my husband does not. I don’t know if the other in-laws are affected, because if I asked, it would get back to her. I suspect that my mother-in-law is putting something in my food or drink.