Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Fed Up: I am a breastfeeding mother of a toddler. As it tends to go with breastfeeding, I am often very hungry and need extra calories to nourish both myself and my child. I am not overweight—in fact, I now weigh slightly less than my pre-pregnancy weight. I guess you would say I’m an average build (5 feet and six inches tall and about 142 pounds).
The problem is my husband’s mother. She is from a culture where apparently it’s OK to comment on weight (my husband has confirmed it’s a cultural thing), and she is thin. Over the years of knowing her, I have been the target of more than one of these comments—even two weeks after my child was born! I know she feels I eat a lot of food, I eat too fast, and she clearly doesn’t have the same need for snacks between meals that I do. Once, she made a comment to me about how another family member “made an effort” with what she ate. This was when my baby was under six months and exclusively breastfeeding, which requires 500 extra calories per day. I find it hard to forget comments like that, and I also find it hard to stand up for myself with her.
When she comes to visit (and it’s usually for a week at a time because of the distance), I am aware of what she thinks, even if it’s not said directly every time I see her. It’s gotten to the point where I take less at meals than I’m really hungry for, and then I end up sneaking food—either going to the laundry room under the guise of doing laundry, to quickly shove some of my husband’s chips into my mouth, or keeping whatever is convenient and won’t spoil in my bedside drawer—last time, it was a bag of chocolate chips. Normally, when she’s not visiting, I would have a bowl of fruit, or avocado toast, or something like that if I was hungry—not to say that all my snacks are perfect, but at least the option is there to eat freely and more healthfully, in my own kitchen.
I have been overweight earlier in life, and I am sensitive to comments about weight in general. My husband is quite thin, but he definitely doesn’t make me feel bad, and I’m thankful for that. He did once tell her not to mention my weight as I was really sensitive about it, but it hasn’t changed anything. I’m not sure how to address this, or better yet, how to stop caring and eat how I want.
A: As much as you know your mother-in-law is wrong, I can tell her remarks combined with the messages you’ve absorbed from living in a society obsessed with weight and are really getting to you. It’s not just that you’re hiding chocolate chips—you’re justifying your eating to me by explaining the precise number of extra calories you need, you’re explaining that you’re actually thin, and you’re reporting that most of your snacks are actually healthy. You shouldn’t need to do any of this. You get to eat the food you want. It doesn’t matter how many calories, or whether your choices are “perfect” or anywhere close. Not caring what this woman says and eating whatever you want is a great goal, but that falls into the “lifelong work with a therapist” category—it could take some time to get there. For now, your husband has to speak up again. Not: “Don’t mention my wife’s weight because she’s sensitive about it.” But: “Don’t mention any judgment about anyone’s body or the food they’re eating because that’s not the kind of home we want to raise our children in.” And he has to attach some consequences to this. She’ll figure out how to be quiet if comments about your meals or your size lead to less time with her grandkids.
Q. Refrigerator Wars Are Killing My Marriage: My husband has this horrible habit of standing in front of the fridge with the door open looking for something to eat. I see him doing it from the living room, and as the minutes tick by I try, I really try, to say nothing and just wait it out. And the frustration builds, then boom!! I run in there and say “Why???? Do you do that?!”
Then off he stomps to the bedroom for the night to sulk. What’s the answer? I picture the temperature in there reaching room temperature rather quickly—then the compressor with the electric bill kicking in. Am I neurotic?
A. Congratulations on this ridiculous fight. If this is what’s killing your marriage (and I don’t think it’s actually killing your marriage) you two are doing great. You’re not neurotic, but you’re making a big deal out of a minor annoyance. Find another way to save a little power. And please let this man explore his snack options in peace, just like I’m sure he lets you do your little annoying things without running up and yelling, “Why???”
Q. Don’t Want to Be an Only Child: So I was adopted and have vague memories of my birth parents since it was an open adoption. But my parents moved overseas and my birth parents went through other stages of life. They basically became background noise to me—a Christmas card or a random Facebook post.
I received a very big inheritance from my grandmother and then found out my much younger biological half-sister needed medical treatment. It was a GoFundMe. So I donated the complete asked-for amount.
Now, all my biological relatives want to “talk” to me. With hat in hand and sob story at the ready. I cut off all contact. Except for my half-sister. She is only 15 and doing well but she keeps funneling messages from the rest of the family and dropping “hints” about college.
A: I don’t know how big your inheritance is, but if you want to help your half-sister with the cost of college, you should. And if you don’t, you absolutely don’t have to. I would just play dumb and ignore the hints, and if she says “School is going well, oh, by the way, uncle John could use a new car” you can simply reply, “I’d love to help but it’s not in my budget.” Remember, your budget is whatever you make it and if it involves saving 3 million dollars for retirement, that’s your business! But keep talking to the 15-year-old about other subjects. It sounds like other adults are pressuring her to ask for money, and it would be a shame if you lost your relationship with her over this.
Q. Boyfriend of a Health Freak: I recently moved in with my boyfriend of five years, “Adam.” He is very fit and in great shape. In general, he tends to eat very healthily. He is picky about food, particularly when he’s stressed. For example, while on a weekend trip, he skipped breakfast at the hotel because the buffet didn’t have anything healthy enough, then ate nothing in the subsequent six-hour train ride because there were only pre-packaged pastries available which he deemed too unhealthy.
But there’s a lot more I didn’t notice until we started living together. I now believe that Adam has an eating disorder. He eats a very limited range of “safe” foods and gets stressed if they aren’t available. If we’re going out to eat somewhere, he will have only a protein shake during the day. If we go to a new restaurant, he looks up the foods they have on the menu and enters them into a chronometer to estimate the calories. He runs five miles a day no matter the weather and lifts weights four days a week. The only time I’ve seen him miss his routine is when he had COVID. On top of all this, he also does 48-hour fasts once a month.
I really don’t know how to bring this up with him. I tried to broach the subject of his fasts being unnecessary and he said I don’t understand because I’m naturally thin. It’s true that the only exercise I do is swimming a few times a week at the community center, and while I’m health conscious, I don’t worry too much or count calories. I’ve been unhappy with my body in the past because I’m not muscular, so I know how isolating it can be to be a man with body image issues. But I don’t know how to help him. What can I do?
A: Your question is a reminder that there’s a lot of overlap between what some people would call “healthy” and what other people would call a disordered relationship with food and exercise. You can tell him you’re concerned and offer to help connect him to eating disorder resources. But only once. After that, it’s probably not a great use of your time to put yourself in the position of taking on the responsibility of monitoring his movement and calorie intake in an effort to help. That’s too big a job. He’s the way he is for a reason, and I guarantee that reason is something deeper than your saying “Hey, you should worry less about this stuff” can undo.
Instead, you can let him know how his habits affect you as his partner. You can’t be spontaneous. Your dates are less fun. You’d sometimes love to stay in bed and cuddle instead of watching him jump and get his miles in. He’s going to have to decide whether that motivates him to make a change and whether he’s ready to do so at this point in his life. And both of you are going to have to decide whether this lifestyle difference means you’re not compatible.
Q. Out of House and Home: I am having a conflict with my husband involving our in-laws. We live on the east coast in a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom. Our second bedroom is laid out as an office. When we moved in together four years ago, I wanted to convert the second bedroom to a guest room, but my husband insisted that he needed an office and specifically stated that he did not want guests staying for an extended period of time.
His father and stepmother live on the west coast. They are traveling here next year for a sporting event and will be coming for a week. The event is expensive tickets will be $3,000 for the father and wife—plus the costs of travel. They have announced they are staying with us and apparently expect to sleep in our bedroom while we sleep on an air mattress in the office. His father has repeatedly stated that it is important we are “all together” since we do not see them often. I have told my husband this is unacceptable. If they have enough money to travel here for this event, they should stay in a hotel. His father is retired, but they are certainly financially comfortable. I’m also uncomfortable with sharing a bathroom and losing my bedroom for a week.
After saying he “understands” my position, my husband now says he is uncomfortable discussing it because of how much money they are already spending. Meanwhile, hotels are only going to get more expensive. Without telling him, I booked a fully refundable and reasonably priced hotel across the street from us. I realize this is underhanded, but since it was refundable until the day before the reservation, I figured it would at least give me some peace of mind for the short future—even though I acknowledge it is sure to result in a fight.
Where do I go from here? How do I handle this conflict and am I in the wrong? I feel like I’ve been gaslit since I was specifically told that we didn’t have a guest room because my husband didn’t want extended guests. My husband knows my family would never stay with us in this way—they always book hotels—so he is now claiming he would have no problem if they did! Please help with a script to get my point across without devolving into accusations and yelling.
A: “So, I know you are uncomfortable asking your parents to stay in a hotel. And you know I’m really uncomfortable having them stay here. So… I did something underhanded that I’m not proud of—I booked a room across the street. But hear me out. I am just really, really not up for hosting them, and I am willing to take all the blame and deal with all the awkwardness. Tell them a white lie that I have gastrointestinal issues and am embarrassed to share the bathroom. Or if you want, I can be the one to have that conversation. Since you already kind of said yes to having them stay here, we can offer to split the cost.”
Q. Re: Out of House and Home: “I have booked the hotel, either your parents use it or I do. If I use it you will be hearing from my lawyer.” Or “I have booked the hotel, either your parents use it or you reconfigure the office to be a guest room for your parents to use. My parents will be using it also, if they wish.”
A: “You will be hearing from my lawyer!” LOL @ throwing this line out in a fairly low-key marital debate but OK!
Great point about the guest room—I had totally overlooked this. It doesn’t solve the shared bathroom problem, though.
Q. Re: Fed Up: Let your husband know what this is doing to you. You should not have to sneak chips in the laundry room. If he won’t step in and protect you and your (mutual) child, then you will have to. Practice saying calmly and firmly “My body and habits are not up for debate or discussion. Please stop commenting on them.” And then practice leaving the room when she does it again.
A: I agree. The husband has to understand how serious this is.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: That’s all for today. My editor tells me the youth are fighting about who pays for birthday meals over on TikTok so I’m going to go look into that and see if I’m on the right or wrong side of history. Talk to you next time!
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