Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers on Mondays at noon ET. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Welcome, everyone! I can’t wait to hear about what’s going on this week. Tell me about it.
Q. Battle of the Sexes: My husband of 15 years has had a pretty hard time with not having great men in his life. His father used to hit him, his siblings, and his mother. His sister and her toddler were killed by her boyfriend. And his high school girlfriend killed herself after admitting to my husband that her grandfather had been raping her for years. When we first met, I loved dating a man who was so involved in women’s issues but now I feel it is too much. I’m a woman who has had great male role models in my life, my dad, my brother, my uncle, my teachers, my granddads, etc. I know how amazing men are and how much good they can do.
My husband is caught up on the idea that masculinity does more harm than good and should be treated as dangerous, which I feel is a big leap. We have four kids, boy/girl twins (11), then a 9-year-old boy, and a 6-year-old girl. My husband has done a lot of “research” and has come back to me with studies showing girls do better in single-gender schools but boys do better in coed schools. He believes all-girls schools give girls a chance to thrive in a classroom where teachers aren’t being distracted by the class clowns (normally boys) and can speak up more. He also reckons boy schools enforce toxic cultures and sexism and research has shown boys learn better with girls in the environment.
Our two girls are currently enrolled in a single-gender private school ($20,000 a year each) while our boys are enrolled in our local public school (we live in a great area and the public school is state of the art, I would be happy to send all four kids there). So my husband is spending $40,000 a year on private school. Then on top of that is sports. Our husband won’t let the boys play sports. He says all-boy sports clubs are a cesspool of bad behavior. So our sons do piano lessons, after-school dance lessons (ballet and jazz), and art club—just like our daughters. Our daughters picked them and now they all do it. The boys don’t seem to really mind the art, music, and dance lessons, but I would love them to be given free choice like the girls.
But these are the only issues in our marriage. Our sex life is great, we have an awesome shared social life, and my husband does far more than most of my friend’s husbands in terms of cooking, cleaning, and very hands-on parenting. My husband works full time and I don’t work anymore, due to a serious back injury when I was pregnant with our youngest. But I wouldn’t say I’m a “housewife” (credit to my husband) as I can’t do much cooking or cleaning because of my back, he does most of it. I know I’m blessed—my husband earns more than enough that my back injury hasn’t crippled like it would other families financially and he is a good dad who does honestly love and adore our sons.
A: Your husband has seen a lot of really awful stuff and is coming from a good place. But as much as he’s thought about the kind of man he wants to be, how has he missed how controlling and domineering he’s being as he single-handedly makes decisions for the family, without the input of his wife? Modeling this dynamic for your children is reinforcing the patriarchy much more than, say, soccer lessons would. A great way to reject traditional masculinity would be to…wait for it…listen to the views of the woman who should be leading the family along with him. Tell him that. Also please urge him to do less research and more therapy. He’s dealt with many painful experiences, and it would be better for everyone if he could heal to a point where he is excited about the possibilities of raising wonderful sons rather than terrified of raising bad ones.
Q. Winter Blues: I’ve grown to dread the holidays. My husband and I have been together for several years and rotating who “gets” Christmas has become a nightmare. We’re both only children, and both sets of parents refuse to travel on Christmas, so it’s up to us every year to choose. It’s impossible logistically to do a Christmas Eve/Day split due to the distance between the parents’ homes.
My husband and his family are very passionate about Christmas and every year there’s a guilt trip about “how it might be his grandparents’ last.” They have also been doing a big party every Christmas Eve since my husband was born. My parents and I don’t have any traditions, but if I don’t visit they are totally alone (which I recognize is not something I can control). They absolutely flip out every time we don’t come for Christmas, even though we come for New Year’s a week later (“Well then you might as well not come”). Last year we were supposed to go to my parents’, but we didn’t because of a bad fight. We’ve somewhat patched things up, but my husband is still very hurt and angry about what happened and doesn’t want to go to their house for Christmas this year. I don’t know what to do—I feel like no matter what I do, I’m making someone mad. Is a solo vacation an option?
A: I’m convinced we weren’t meant to live like this, all spread out thousands of miles away from our families. Aren’t you jealous (in some very narrow ways specifically involving holidays) of people who marry someone from their high school and never leave their hometown? But here we are.
Without knowing the details of last Christmas’ fight (Were there deeper issues behind it? Do your parents need to apologize?), I’d say you should simply agree to switch on and off every year—one year with his parents and the next with yours. Then you never have to think about this again or make another announcement. No one can dispute that this arrangement is fair. Also, your parents would not be “completely alone”! They would be with each other! They could even be with you and your in-laws if they agreed to travel. Not to mention, they’re free to get together with friends, volunteer, and/or take advantage of some of the amazing technology we all embraced during the pandemic and have a series of festive video chats. Or celebrate Christmas a week early with you! There are a lot of options (including, yes, a solo vacation if that’s what you want) here that don’t involve your feeling guilty about the realities of geography and having more than two people in your life.
Q. Teeth or Car?: I am saving up to buy a car for me to drive as I don’t have one at this point. My husband got a new job this year and his tax return is fairly significant, which means I have enough to buy the second-hand car I’ve been looking at buying and my husband is all for it. My husband has needed severe dentistry work for years. He has in the past put his wants above getting his teeth fixed, he has purchased gaming consoles, new computers, etc.—nothing was really needed but it was all stuff he wanted. That was all purchased with savings that were meant to be for a car.
My mother-in-law is putting a lot of pressure on me to not buy a car and get my husband’s teeth fixed. But without that car I am isolated, I am unable to do basic day-to-day chores outside the house, and I can’t even take my kids to school. I have to rely on other people to drive me around and I need some sense of independence. I know he needs this dental work done but he’s needed it for years and hasn’t done anything about it. Whereas I need this car too. We can’t afford to do both. What should I do?
A: I get that your husband has bad teeth, but is his mouth in such disarray to the point where he can’t use it to talk to his own mother? Come on! She doesn’t belong in this conversation with you, and he needs to be the one to tell her that. Perhaps you can drive him over for a chat about boundaries in the new car that yes, you should absolutely buy.
Q. To Strip or Not to Strip: My 20-something son brought a college friend home for Thanksgiving who was a very polite guest: Before leaving, he stripped all the sheets and left them on the bed with his used towel. This caused a guilty realization that I’ve never coached MY kids to do that! But I also felt it was a bit like peeking at someone’s underwear. What if the sheets had a rip in the corner or the mattress had a stain? It felt slightly invasive and potentially embarrassing (maybe not this time, but it could be). Is it weird that I kind of wished he hadn’t? Is it common etiquette to strip beds and are we rude for not doing so? I’ve had guests ask about stripping beds and I always say, “Don’t worry, just leave it!” My own track record as a guest is 50/50: sometimes I ask/strip and other times I just slink away. And while we’re at it, what should guests do with wet towels? I get a little nutty when kids and guests drape them on doors, furniture, or other surfaces that can get damaged by moisture. How best to communicate about these things as a host or guest? What are the protocols?!
A: A real, old-fashioned etiquette question. I love it. When it comes to what to do with bedding, I think the answer is to ask first. Or rather, announce and be open to being talked out of it: “Should I put the sheets from the bed in the hamper or throw them in the washing machine? Warm or hot?” And give the host a chance to say, “No, please leave them.” At this point, insisting would be wrong because they truly might not feel like dealing with the laundry right away. If that’s the case or if, God forbid, they don’t plan to change the bedding between guests, you don’t want to make their life harder—that would be the opposite of politeness.
Wet towels should get the same treatment and if the host says “Don’t worry about it,” fold them neatly and place them on the edge of the bathtub. To avoid having them draped throughout your own home, simply say to guests: “Here are some clean towels for whenever you want to shower—and there’s a hook in the bathroom where you can hang them when you’re done.”
Re: Q. Winter Blues: My husband and I have never lived near either one of our families. When we first got married we decided Thanksgiving was up to us (and we always stayed at home) and we’d switch Christmases. Once we had kids we created a new plan. A three-year rotation. His family, my family, stay home. It has been great! No racing around to several houses/parties. A calm year with our family of five. While I get that the whole big family thing might be fun, small is great too! Just set some boundaries and let everyone know what the plan is. Will they like it? Not your problem.
A: Yes, whatever the plan is, it should be just that: a plan! Something that is set up in advance and doesn’t require a bunch of guilt-ridden decision-making every year.
Re: Q. Battle of the Sexes: Has she ever pointed out to her husband how deeply messed up it is that he is perfectly fine with expecting other girls (who don’t have the privilege of same-gender private school) to socialize his boys while his precious daughters get the benefit of his research?!
A: I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think he’s “expecting” other girls to do anything, he’s simply not thinking about the ones who aren’t his kids. Very few parents will refrain from making what they think is the best choice for their children because others don’t have the same privileges.
Re: Q. To Strip or Not to Trip: My mother always taught us to ask our hosts about what we should do with used linens and towels. I always offer to do it and to bring the linens etc. to the laundry room or laundry hamper so it is easy for the host to say yes. If a guest who is a young person (ie. a friend/girlfriend of my 21-year-old son), hasn’t volunteered/inquired, I ask if they can do it.
A: You just made me sit here and think about all the times I probably didn’t do this as a young person. Whoops.
I took an at-home DNA test three years ago and loved it—I learned more about my family history and some potential health issues. I eagerly suggested to my husband that he take it as well. Well, he just took it and discovered a family secret.