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Childless Burden

Prudie advises a letter writer whose husband blames her for being unable to get pregnant.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.
Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Q. Husband embarrassed by my infertility: My husband and I have been married for five years. We have no children because I have been unable to get pregnant, even with the help of fertility treatments. We are set up with an agency to adopt, but that has also been a lengthy and emotional process, which has included a match with a birth mother who ultimately broke the match because her mother didn’t like us.

Now that my husband’s sister-in-law just had a baby, he’s more desperate than ever to start our family. He has recently told me that he is “embarrassed” by the fact that we are almost 35 and childless, and he places the blame squarely on me being “unable to produce a child.” The truth is, while I have been diagnosed with a hormonal disorder, it hasn’t been proven to be the reason why we haven’t gotten pregnant. Nonetheless, I feel ashamed and hurt by these comments. I fear I may lose my husband over this. What should I do?

A: Couples’ counseling, get thee to a couples’ counselor yesterday. I know that dealing with infertility can put a strain on any relationship, and over the course of almost any marriage both parties will eventually (and inevitably) say cruel and hurtful things to one another, but framing your infertility as some sort of biological failure wherein blame can be apportioned as assigned is cruel, unnecessarily divisive, and ultimately unproductive. Be honest with your husband about how painful and unloving his words were. Make it clear that he cannot speak to you that way, especially if the two of you are planning on adopting and raising a child together—that’s no way to model familial affection for a little kid. If he can’t see the gravity of what he said, and if he’s not willing to apologize and mend his ways, then it might be time to consider parting from him, but here’s hoping he comes to his senses and tries to make things right before it’s too late.

Q. My dog: Three years ago, I asked my brother and his girlfriend to take care of my dog while I went away to school. The first year was fine, but midway through the second, my brother broke up with his girlfriend and moved out. I panicked and asked her if she would still take care of my dog (she had a house with a yard while my brother and I lived in apartments). She agreed but told me come pick my dog up in three months. I wasn’t able to meet the deadline and begged her for an extension. Then my dog had to have some expensive surgery (I gave her some cash later on) but since then, she has been later and later in responding to me.

I admit I wasn’t as diligent as I should have been but I had a lot on my plate with my final year of school and two internships. Now she refuses to give back the dog. She finally called me back after I bombarded with texts. She told me I was harassing her, she was going to call the cops, that I had “abandoned” my dog so it was hers now, and she microchipped and registered him as hers. I don’t know what to do. Please how do I get my dog back from her?

A: I’d encourage you to familiarize yourself with animal abandonment/ownership laws in your area; it’s possible (though not likely) that you still have some legal claim to the dog. That said, while I’m sympathetic to your feelings, I think you should put them aside and look at the facts. You asked someone else to take care of your dog for three years—a not insubstantial portion of the dog’s life—then, when given a deadline to resume ownership, you were unable to do so. If you didn’t register the dog as yours and never had him microchipped, then I think your brother’s ex owns the dog in a legal and a logistical sense.

Sometimes people have to temporarily give up pets through circumstances entirely out of their control, but it’s not like you were evicted or a victim of bad timing. You made a decision to prioritize your “final year of school and two internships”—which is, frankly, understandable—and now you’re experiencing the consequences of that decision.

You can be sad about this, you can experience regret, you can wish you had prioritized things differently, but you should use that as an impetus to behave differently if you ever get another pet in the future, rather than try to force this woman to give up the dog she’s been responsible for during the last three years and has clearly grown to love.

Q. Mother diagnosing everyone (especially me!) with mental disorders: I’ve come back to my childhood home for winter break, and my mother has been declaring my every action a sign of mental illness. (My three siblings have all diagnosed with some form of mental illness; I am the only one who is not, and I have talked to several therapists.) I twitched my leg? A Tourette’s tic. I’m stressed out about a problem I’m having? Anxiety. She has also self-diagnosed herself with OCD.

It really irritates me to have my every thought or movement dissected like this, and she’s even started diagnosing the people I tell her about stories from college. I’ve asked her to stop multiple times, but she claims it’s her duty as a parent, and also mentioned one time that “figuring out what people have gives her sympathy for them.”

When I was younger, we really struggled to get my siblings diagnosed and she did a lot of research and work to make it possible for them to get help, but now she seems to think that I need that too when it’s very clear to others that I am doing fine. I don’t know how much more I can take. I go to college nearby and visit often so this is not something I can just wait out. What do I do?

A: If visiting less often is an option, I think that’s your best choice. If you absolutely have to go home, that’s one thing, but if you merely find it convenient or enjoy staying someplace with an in-unit washer and dryer, I think you should curtail your visits. You’ve tried setting a verbal limit with your mother and she’s ignored you, the best and most effective way to follow up with that is to back up your words with actions. “Mom, I’ve told you not to diagnose me; if you can’t stop, I’m going to have to leave.”

If for whatever reason you can’t limit your visits, you can still leave the room, go take a walk, call a trusted friend who’s able to listen to you vent about these bizarre attempts to play armchair psychiatrist. If, when you’re trying to tell her about a friend you’ve made in one of your classes, she insists on diagnosing them as well, you get to say: “Mom, I’ve asked you not to do this. I want to be able to tell you what’s going on in my life, but not if you’re going to treat stories about my friends like case studies.” If she can’t let up after that, then you stop telling her stories about your friends.

What your mother doing is sad and bizarre, and I’m so sorry you have to deal with this right now, but your best way forward is to set big, neon-flashing limits between yourself and this behavior. Don’t try to reason with her about it, or let her draw you into an argument about why it’s OK because she enjoys doing it. Just make it clear that you’re willing and able to spend time with her, to whatever degree she’s capable of honoring your simple request—if she can’t do that, then you’re going to hang up/leave the room/cut the story short and wait to try again later.

Q. Should you tell?: I recently went on a series of dates with a guy that I was really clicking with. However, when it got more intimate, he was terrible! It was like he had no idea what he was doing and he didn’t seem to show a lot of concern for how it was for me. We’re in our 30s and have both had multiple prior relationships. We have a dinner date tonight and I’m thinking of canceling and telling him the truth about why, as I think I’d want to know. Should I?

A: Sure! It would be one thing if he seemed unsure and you thought you guys could try again with some more explicit instructions and requests, but if you think he’s a mostly indifferent lover, then don’t waste your time trying to turn him into a conscientious one. Cancel the date, tell him you just weren’t feeling the physical connection, and move on.

Q. Re: My dog: I wish you had left off the first sentence of your advice to the truly former dog owner. The ex was extraordinarily generous to not only keep the dog, but to pay for and take care of a dog that needed expensive surgery that the LW only gave some cash for later on. The letter writer needs to put the needs of the dog, who is well-cared for and loved, first and move on now, not explore legal options.

A: That’s fair! This woman has put her time and pocketbook on the line repeatedly for the dog; if we were watching a heartwarming movie about the emotional rewards of pet ownership, we’d all be cheering for the original poster’s brother’s ex to keep the dog. The original poster should move on; it’s unlikely that they have legal rights to the dog, given that they apparently never registered or microchipped him, but frankly even if they do, they ceded the moral claim a long time ago.

Q. Reverse baby pressure: I am 40, my fiancé is 49. He wants kids more than me. When we first met I was 37, and I told him that I would be open to children, but only if it happened naturally, no intervention. He agreed. He also agreed to be the primary caretaker.

I out-earn him and had no desire to leave my job. Shortly after our engagement he accepted a job out on the West Coast, with the intent to do that job for a year and then move back to the East Coast. As a result of many factors beyond his control, it actually took him almost two years to get back. In that time not only have I aged, but I am up for a promotion at my job. The job he will work here has him traveling for two weeks out of the month.

I told him at this point that I did not think kids were in the cards. I have showed him all the pregnancy stats and the risks to me. I also told him I did not want to be pregnant until married, and since I was not going to be able to take time off from work, he would have to adjust his schedule as originally agreed. He says he cannot do that. He is angry at me for not taking time off from my job and thinks it’s my fault. Now he says he is questioning his decision to marry me. I have explained that I will try to get pregnant but it is unlikely.

I am furious. I feel like he is looking solely for an incubator for his child and that I mean nothing to him. He’s never cared for an infant, has no idea how much time it takes, and no idea how it affects a woman. He also knows realistically he would have a hard time at almost 50 years old going out and finding a woman who is significantly younger than him who wants kids, and not be used for money. What gives? I feel like I am in “bizarro” world—shouldn’t I be the one asking for the child?

A: There is no “bizarro” world; the idea that it’s the natural order of things for only women to want to have children and for all men to have to be cajoled into the idea is patently untrue. You both seem to have been relatively honest with one another at the outset, only for you both to assume the other would eventually come around to your way of thinking, and since then you’ve both dug your heels in and gone on to assume the other isn’t doing his or her fair share of the work of trying to meet halfway.

It’s not quite clear to me if your partner is upset you won’t take time off work for the actual pregnancy, or if he’s trying to change the terms of your initial agreement by suggesting you take on child care responsibilities, but either way, you’re absolutely right not to want to contemplate having kids with him. You two might benefit from couples’ counseling to reassess your mutual goals and figure out how to communicate with one another better, but I think you should continue to be clear that you’re not interested in getting pregnant on the terms that he’s offering, and that you’re in no position to change your mind as long as the two of you feel this at odds with one another.

Q. Re: Should I tell?: Am I the only one thinking that it’s super premature to write off a guy based on their first intimate experience together? Unless he did something outright abusive, a couple’s first time together can be awkward so it may be prudent to give him another shot.

A: If your bar for sleeping with someone a second time is “he wasn’t abusive,” then that’s your prerogative, but that’s an awfully low bar.

Q. How do you tell your boyfriend he’s in love with someone else?: My boyfriend of nine years landed a great job about a month and half ago following a several-year struggle with switching careers. This should have been a good turning point for both of us, but along with the new job came the realization that he would no longer be working with a woman he’d grown rather close to in his old role. Ever since then, he has been more irritable with me, very sensitive to what I say, and suddenly extremely concerned with problems we’ve had in our relationship for many years. He keeps trying to tell me she’s a symptom of our problems—not the problem—and yet he’s told me how much he cares about her several times. He’s had a couple of multihour conversations with her late at night, and even bought her a very expensive Christmas present. What do I do?

A: Address reality. You don’t need him to admit that he’s in love with her or agree with your perspective. The subject of your letter is “how do you tell your boyfriend he’s in love with someone else,” which suggests that you’re fairly convinced at this point that he’s not simply lost focus or temporarily infatuated. Tell him what you’ve seen: That ever since he stopped seeing her on a regular basis he’s irritable, hypersensitive, and newly focused on the problems in your relationship. Moreover, he’s in the same breath reiterating how much he cares for her while also claiming she doesn’t have much to do with the problems you two are experiencing.

Whether or not the two of them ever slept together, he’s had an emotional affair (that appears to be ongoing). It’s not up to him to say whether or not his relationship with her is a problem or merely a symptom, it’s a problem for you because your boyfriend is currently pouring the most, and the best, of his emotional energy into his relationship with her. If you think it’s worth trying to work through this, and he’s willing to stop seeing her, then you can certainly give it a try; if you think you have sufficient reason to end the relationship, then I think you should break up with him.

Q. My friend prefers my husband’s ex: My friend Javi, who I know through my husband, throws parties every year for his birthday, but he never invites us. We asked him about it and he said it was because Sonya, my husband’s ex-girlfriend, was invited and he didn’t want it to be awkward for her. I was offended by it and decided that as long as I wasn’t invited to his birthday celebrations, he was not getting a birthday gift. I believe that’s a natural consequence to leaving us out.

The problem is, he keeps buying us and our son gifts for our birthdays, which wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t because this year we didn’t throw any parties. He even gave one to my son for Christmas. Now the one feeling awkward is me.

A: It’s always deflating when someone isn’t slighting us as much as we wish they would so we could get well and properly mad at them, isn’t it? The way I see it, getting mad is a nonrenewable resource, and we should all try to save it up for instances where we can really enjoy ourselves.

Javi isn’t a super-close friend of yours, and he appears to have a pre-existing relationship with your husband’s ex; once a year he doesn’t invite you to his birthday party, but otherwise he sounds friendly, approachable, and interested in your happiness. I think you have a good opportunity to let this particular resentment go. Maybe Javi’s never going to be your best friend, but if he wants to send you and your son Christmas presents and occasionally go to the movies together, then I think you should accept his casual friendship. That doesn’t mean you have to start getting him presents for his birthday—lots of adults don’t buy other adults birthday presents—but encourage your son to write him a thank you note when he receives a gift, and be polite and friendly when you two run into one another.

Q. When to walk: I’ve been in a long-distance relationship for a few years now. We met when I lived in his country for work. We see each other about six times a year for a few weeks at a time. While I love him dearly, I’m starting to crumble without having an endgame in sight. I’ve talked to him about this and he’s adamant that he’ll propose when he’s ready and not a moment sooner, that he wants it to be a surprise, et cetera. I have told him it doesn’t need to be some big elaborate thing; I’m more concerned about being together. There are other things to consider, like the considerable time the visa will take, which we can’t expedite.

I don’t want to keep having this conversation to be met with a vague ‘we’ll get there.’ I shouldn’t have to beg to take the next step. I don’t know how much longer I’m willing to hold out for this. How do I communicate this more clearly without issuing an ultimatum? I’m at a loss.

A: Issue an ultimatum! Ultimatums get a bad rap, but I’m not suggesting you force him to jump through a lot of elaborate hoops in order to prove his love. You’ve told him repeatedly that you’re anxious about the future of your relationship, and that you’d like to enter into an engagement together as equal partners after having talked about what you both want. He’s heard you say that, and his response was, “No, I want to create an elaborate surprise at some non-specific future date.” That’s not going to work for you and is in fact expressly not what you want. If you don’t want to continue having vague conversations about “getting there” someday, then it’s incumbent upon you to make yourself extremely clear. “I don’t want to be surprised by a big, showy engagement. I want to be with you, and I want to start taking steps towards living together, but I’m not willing to continue in a relationship where you hold all the cards in terms of what we do next. This is a deal breaker for me. Are you willing to compromise on this?”

Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for chatting, everyone! Remember to register and microchip your pets.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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