Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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. No Facebook allowed: We have a vacation place in a popular tourist area. It’s pretty rural, there’s no cell coverage, and we had to go through a lot of engineering and effort to get ourselves workable internet service. My wife and I are both pretty strongly averse to social media. We’ve therefore blocked all the major social media services at our homes. We often invite friends to come stay with us—and we give a heads-up that there’s no Facebook et al. available.
Some guests have seemed put out by this. Is it so unreasonable? We believe that social media is monetized narcissism, that it distracts us, invades our privacy (we don’t want our property to be free content for these companies), and interferes with having quality time with our guests—that would be our answer if someone were to ask why we block the services, but we don’t volunteer the reasoning. I feel like they wouldn’t be likewise affronted by foregoing meat as guests at a vegetarian house. Is this so different?
A: I don’t know how similar not being able to access social media sites are to eating meat-free meals, but I don’t think you need to come up with direct analogies to vegetarianism in order to justify your choices. You and your wife have decided not to make that aspect of the internet available in your home, and as long as you let your guests know in advance, you’ve discharged your duties as polite hosts. If your guests want full Internet access, then they are welcome to pay for a hotel in your “popular tourist area.”
Q. Baby blunder: When my husband and I found out I was pregnant with our first child and were ready to tell our respective parents, we didn’t put much thought into whose parents we’d break the news to first. We happened to be at my in-laws’ house on Christmas Eve so we told them that night, and of course they were overjoyed. The next day, we expected the same reaction from my parents. Instead, the first words my Mom uttered—captured on video, no less—were, “You told [my in-laws] first, didn’t you?”, with a scathing look on her face. When I said “yes,” she was devastated and didn’t speak to me for two days. On the third day, I got a very tearful phone call saying how badly I’d hurt her, and that since my in-laws already had grandkids the news wasn’t as special to them. She said we should have told them first because I’m their daughter, and that “one day I’d understand.”
Were my husband and I in the wrong? Her reaction completely spoiled what should have been a joyous occasion, and I’ve had a hard time not being resentful toward her.
A: I want to try to be as generous as possible to your parents, but I don’t think that’s going to take me very far. You mother’s attempt to rank “how special” having a grandchild is to each future grandparent, according to her own particular algorithm, makes it seem like she’s going out of her way to get her feelings hurt.
If she wants to get hung up on the fact that her in-laws found out a full 24 hours before she did, rather than on the fact that you and your husband are going to be having a child—then that’s her choice. I personally think it’s a bad one! But it’s certainly not one you need to apologize or take responsibility for.
Q. Friends with exes: I am dating “Simone,” and we are on the verge of getting serious. She is pretty, funny, and the complete package, except for one thing. She doesn’t think people can be friends with their exes.
I can understand her perspective, because she got pretty badly burned by past boyfriends who cheated on her with their ex-wives or girlfriends. I have been lucky that all my relationships except one ended on good notes. Either we broke up over different life choices (wanting kids) or careers (moving for work). I actually ended up playing matchmaker for a few. Simone freezes up with my friends after finding out I dated this one or slept with that one in college. We have told each other about our serious past relationships, but recently she has been needling me about being a “player,” and dropping plans with my friends if one of my known exes is there. She says she trusts me and I have reassured her over and over.
One of my serious exes will be staying with me for a few weeks while she house hunts. She is married to my one of my best friends and they are moving back from out of state. I will not actually see much of her beyond picking her up at the airport. I will being seeing them socially when they move here. How do I prepare Simone? I want to be a good boyfriend here.
A: It sounds like Simone’s biggest reactions have arisen when she’s met a friend of yours whom you’ve later revealed to be an ex. The problem isn’t just that you’ve stayed friends with a lot of people you’ve dated or slept with, the problem is that you don’t share that information with Simone upfront. This is a pattern you’re about to repeat, inasmuch as you’ve made plans to let one of your exes crash with you for “a few weeks” but don’t seem to have shared that news with your current girlfriend yet. Which, by the way, I think is absolutely fine, but you do need to share this information with Simone before your houseguest arrives. I don’t think you have to do much in the way of “preparing” her other than being honest; if Simone wants to get serious with you, she’s going to have to accept that you’re close with some of your exes, but that you’re not trying to cheat on her with any of them. If she can’t accept that, it’s probably better to know sooner rather than later.
Q. I grew up weird: We were brought up in a very religious, weird family setting. My grandfather was a very loving mentally ill man who nobody questioned. He believed he was a prophet and all blindly followed. We had an “independent” church in the basement of our deep country land.
My mother made our lives worth it with her love and kindness, but to this day I still resent her for putting us through so much pain and confusion. I love her and I know she was a victim too, but where do I draw the line? I see a psychiatrist and therapist just to function. She didn’t harm us, but she was an adult and did nothing to protect us. How can I forgive her when she doesn’t believe anything went wrong?
A: You do not have to forgive your mother for your childhood. I know that there’s a lot of value placed on forgiveness in religious settings, as well as in a secular therapeutic context, but all too often what that means is that someone who was victimized or harmed in a profound way is encouraged to paper over their pain, offer unearned absolution, and perform happiness. You can love your mother, accept her flaws and limitations, acknowledge the ways in which she failed you, experience periodic anger and resentment, all while remaining in her life and seeing her as a complex, multifaceted person. Your only “job” with regards to your own childhood is to attempt to view it as accurately and as honestly as possible, and to take care of yourself in the present. You do not have to forgive your mother, nor do you have to pretend that your childhood was fine just because she does.
Continue to see your therapist and psychiatrist. Set whatever boundaries you need to with your mother. If that means not talking about your childhood with her right now, then that’s fine. If that means having a painful conversation with her about your childhood at some point and having a fight, then that’s fine too. The point is that you don’t have to forgive your mother in order to love her, so please don’t feel like it’s your job to get to a place of forgiveness unless and until you decide it’s something you’re ready for.
Q. Day care: I telecommute most days because of medical issues. Over the Christmas break, two of my long-term friends and co-workers had emergency childcare issues (a spouse left for family medical issues, and the daycare burned down). It would have seriously damaged all of our work, so I offered to watch their girls (12, 10, and 9), who aren’t old enough to be left by themselves but mature enough not to be a bother. We packed down into my basement where they watched TV and read books. I would periodically check on them but I never had any problems. Their mothers packed their lunches and snacks.
My husband mentioned the arrangement to his sister, and she flat out told everyone she expects me to do the same for her boys! Besides them being younger, my nephews are loud, active, and have severe behavior problems. There is no way they can be trusted to be left alone for any period of time. My sister-in-law does not take no for an answer and runs right over everyone else in the family. This will cause a fight. My husband’s idea is just not to take the girls, but that screws me over with my work! How do I get out of this?
A: You and your husband are going to have to give your sister-in-law “no for an answer,” I’m afraid. I don’t know how much longer you plan on providing emergency daycare for your friends, but the fact that you’re willing to look after three children temporarily in order to keep your workplace afloat doesn’t mean you’re suddenly on the market as a full-time babysitter for any and every relative in need of childcare. You say this will cause a fight, but it’s a fight you’ve got to have; your sister-in-law can and will take no for an answer if you and your husband refuse to give in to her. “No, that doesn’t work for us,” is going to be your constant companion. Not “I’m sorry, but…”, and not “The reason that doesn’t work is…” Just “No, that doesn’t work for us.” You don’t have to “get out of” anything because you haven’t promised your sister-in-law anything, and she’s not entitled to anything from you just because she has unrealistic expectations.
Q. How to put this delicately: My brother—the baby, the favorite, the only boy, et cetera— is getting married. My mother is insistent on looking “drop-dead gorgeous” on his wedding day, and she sends me nightly links to very inappropriate (both in style and for her age) dresses she’s considering buying for this event. I very nicely and politically rule them out for largely made-up reasons, but I’m hoping you can help me come up with a sentence or two to delicately communicate why 1) dressing this way is inappropriate, and 2) you should not be attempting to outshine the bride (I’ve literally had to nix several ivory dresses).
And now for some context! Her other children are married and she dressed tastefully for those weddings, and she only moderately gets along with my brother’s wealthy in-laws-to-be. I realize this shouldn’t be my problem, but here we are.
A: “Hey Mom, you should run these outfits past [Brother and wife-to-be]. Anything that’s not white or too bridal-looking should be fine, but it’s not my wedding, so you should check in with them instead of me. Good luck finding something!”
Q. I dropped off the face of the earth while dealing with an untreated mental illness: As a teenager, I lived briefly with a set of foster parents and their two daughters. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from undiagnosed PTSD stemming from the situation that led to my living with a foster family. Once I turned 18 and felt I had exhausted my welcome, I moved out on my own. As my mental health collapsed, and I found myself less and less able to maintain relationships, I withdrew from almost everyone. Nobody reached out to me during that time, including my former foster family. Several years later, I learned that the younger of the two daughters apparently hates me for “abandoning” her. I’m not sure what explanation she was offered by the family for my disappearance, but I gather it didn’t paint me in a very positive light. I’ve sent her a couple of messages, but after she ignored the first few, I took that as a cue that she no longer wanted to have any contact with me and stopped.
Is there anything else I can or should do to make amends with this young woman? I feel terrible about the whole situation.
A: While it sounds like your former foster-sister was probably a child during the time of your disappearance and can’t necessarily be expected to have had a fully rational view of reality, I don’t think you should be too hard on your past self. You were a teenager dealing with untreated PTSD and a deeply painful upbringing. You may wish you had handled things differently, but you were doing your best at the time with the tools that you had. I only wish your former foster-family could extend a little more compassion toward you. If she doesn’t respond to your messages, then you certainly can’t force her, but please don’t feel like you have to wear a hairshirt in order to get her attention.
Q. Grimy in-laws: My partner’s parents are lovely, kind, and giving people. They spend much of their time providing for others, especially caring for their nearby grandparents. They spend decidedly less time taking care of their home. Their house is covered in a layer of dust. There are cobwebs in every corner. Their kitchen has layers and layers of oil and food spills. Their floors are littered with debris. Worst of all, their bathroom is covered in black mold! My partner’s mother has a lot of health problems, some of which keep her from keeping up with chores, and some that I believe are exacerbated by the state of the house. I believe their home has been in this state since my partner was a child, but it’s certainly gotten worse given recent health episodes.
I want to help them fix their house, either by offering my time on weekends to clean or offering to pay for a house cleaning service to stop by a few times a month. However, I’m afraid that if I offer to do this I will offend them! I did a little extra cleaning when I spent the holidays with them, and they seemed a little off-put by my insistence on vacuuming the house. We have a great relationship right now, and I don’t want to tarnish it by giving them the impression that I find them dirty. My partner doesn’t want to take the reins here and I certainly don’t want to seem like a persnickety daughter-in-law. I know this problem will only get worse as they age and more health issues emerge. I’m seriously worried that they’re destroying their home and will lose it due to lack of upkeep.
How can I broach the subject without offending them? Or should I just mind my own business and let her children take the lead? Thank you for your help!
A: A bathroom that’s covered in black mold is several steps beyond being “persnickety.” While black mold may not be immediately dangerous, it can certainly exacerbate respiratory issues or lead to possible infection in children or people with compromised immune systems. Talk to your partner about the best way to broach the subject with your in-laws. If your mother-in-law has health problems and they’re both struggling to maintain their multiple obligations to their own parents, then it’s likely there is a way you can frame offering to pay for a cleaning service as a gift and a relief. That’s not to say you two should feel responsible for making sure your in-laws keep their house’s initial value—that day may already be long past.
Be sure, too, that when and if you hire a cleaning service, that you inform them ahead of time about the mold issue and make sure they’ve got the right equipment to deal with it, so that you’re not putting their health at risk either.
Q. Re: Baby blunder: You didn’t do anything wrong. Your mom’s reaction is manipulative and selfish. I don’t know if this is part of her personality, but it makes me wonder what type grandmother she’ll be. If you give in to your mom’s childish behavior, I predict future tantrums about spending time with her grandchild. “The subject is closed. Do you want to talk about something else, or should I hang up now?”
Q. Re: Baby blunder: So sorry you feel that way, mom. We happened to be at my in-laws’ house and we told them. That’s all. You’re still my mom, and I’m counting on your help when the baby comes, and I really hope you’re not going to bean-count every moment with the new baby, or I will be absolutely miserable. Love you!
A: These are both fabulous scripts that offer your mother an opportunity to focus on the (many!) joyful aspects of becoming a first-time grandmother. I hope she takes that opportunity, but if she doesn’t, I think it’s good advice to not try to soothe her tantrums.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you back here next week at our normal time on Monday.
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