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 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.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everybody! Let’s get involved in one another’s business, shall we?
Q: Foster parenting a dating dud?: I’m a 30-year-old single female. It’s always been an aspiration of mine to become a foster parent. There is a tremendous need for it in my county, and I want to help kids and their families. Another desire of mine is to get married and build a family with said husband. Most of my friends and family have been overwhelmingly supportive as I’ve been going through the necessary trainings and background checks to be a foster parent, and I anticipate having my first placement within six months.
However, one friend suggested that I’m setting myself up for old maid status by putting a “barrier between myself and a man who’s interested in me.” My initial response was “good, it’ll help weed out the men not cut out for me,” but upon further thought, perhaps I’m being cavalier? Anyone dating in 2018 knows it isn’t easy. I want love with a life partner, and I want to share love with kids in need—must it be mutually exclusive?
A: Is your friend Rachel Lynde? I’m not sure how helpful your friend is, but she certainly has a way with words. I certainly don’t encourage you to think of any children you might foster as tiny little engagement-ring-blockers. The idea, I suppose, is that it’s only possible to snag a husband if one is as commitment-free and unencumbered as possible, and your hypothetical future mate, who might have been interested in you had you two met at a coffee shop, is going to be scared off if he sees you’ve started parenting without him. There’s some truth to that, in the sense that single parents often have a more challenging time dating than the childless, whether that be arranging for child care in order to go on dates or figuring out how to broach the topic with a new boyfriend or girlfriend without making it sound like they’re looking for a just-add-water stepparent.
This is fairly common knowledge, but I think it bears repeating: Not everyone finds the love of their life, or even a middling-to-good love of their life. Some people are really lovable, really responsible, really earnest, and really want to settle down with someone, and it just doesn’t work out that way. I have no idea if you’ll meet a guy you want to marry, and who wants to marry you; much less whether or not it will happen if you start fostering children first. Probably starting to foster children will make it more challenging, not less, but it’s not the same thing as “setting up a barrier” against marriage. You’re not Sleeping Beauty trapped behind a marriage-repelling wall of briars. You’re saying that you’re ready to start being a foster parent, husband or no husband. You can either wait to find a husband and settle down together (which, as you well know, there’s no guarantee you will) before you do so, or you can start now; I think it makes a lot of sense that you’ve decided you’re ready to move ahead, with or without the husband. If he comes along, that’s great. I hope he does! But if he doesn’t, you won’t have put your life on hold for him.
Q: How do I politely turn down charity?: I’m a nearly 40-year-old single parent (by choice) to a delightful toddler. Last year I moved to a small town for a change of pace and a less expensive lifestyle. I invested a good deal of my savings into opening my own business. I’m by no means wealthy but live a happy, comfortable life.
Over the holidays I had some minor car trouble and asked some friends and family to help diagnose the problem via social media. I took their suggestions and did the repairs myself with very little effort or expense. A few days ago, I noticed the facilitator of a mom-child group I attend post on Facebook asking for donations for a “single mom” with a small child and a remarkably similar car problem in need in the community.
Mutual friends have confirmed this mom is me. It was my birthday and I was out for a drink with close friends when I learned about this and didn’t have an opportunity to respond. The next day I was out of town and again busy, but several people have contacted me to ask about my “car problems” and wondered if I “need anything.”
I find myself so angry and humiliated that I don’t know how to respond. This woman has always seemed like she feels bad for me for being a single mom, but we’re not personally close and I enjoy most aspects of the group she facilitates, so have never felt the need to go out of my way to correct her perception. I understand her intentions may have been good, but when other moms in the group have had similar problems, there was no hat passed around.
How do I politely say that just because I don’t have a husband doesn’t mean I am struggling financially or otherwise? I have a handle on my household finances and don’t appreciate her painting me as financially unstable in my new community as I’m establishing myself as a small-business owner.
A: “Hey, [mutual friend] mentioned that you had started a fundraiser on Facebook for my car problem. I’ve already done the repairs myself and don’t need anything beyond the help diagnosing the problem I’ve already gotten, so please don’t continue to raise money on my behalf. I’m sure you meant well, but in the future, I’m not comfortable having any fundraisers set up in my name when I haven’t specifically asked for help.”
Q: Not the same: My 20-year-old brother came out as gay last year; it wasn’t the biggest surprise and it didn’t bother anyone. His current relationship does. My brother is currently dating a man who is five years older than our own mother. He showers my brother with extremely expensive gifts, plies him with alcohol, and has taken him on spur-of-the-moment trips to Las Vegas.
All of this gives me the creeps and has the rest of our family very worried. My brother gets very defensive any time someone brings it up. My brother has missed school and family events because of this guy. Half the time, he doesn’t even tell anyone where he is going or what he is doing. My brother tries to deflect our concerns by making it about him being gay. When I point out that he called the thirtysomething guys crawling around the college bars for co-eds “creepy” and “pathetic,” he insists it is not the same.
I am really worried about my brother and something happening to him. I have met this guy twice and his behavior around my brother is more like how someone treats a pet rather than a partner (talks down to him, et cetera). What can I do? Is there any way to get through to him?
A: It’s so difficult to figure out how to offer support and also be honest with someone you love who’s in a damaging relationship without making them feel defensive and retreating even further into isolation. I think you should be judicious about expressing your concerns with your brother, since he’s already got his hackles up, and make it clear that you’re not trying to tell him what to do.
If something comes up that troubles you, whether that be the fact that he’s missing school or some aspect of the serious imbalance of power in their relationship, then I think you should raise it but be prepared to back off if necessary. “Hey, I’m worried about [X] and I haven’t seen you much lately. I miss talking to you. I don’t want you to feel like [terrible boyfriend] is an off-limits topic of conversation, or that every time we talk I’m going to try to convince you to leave your relationship, but I’m worried about how much school you’re missing, and I don’t like the way he talks down to you. How are you doing? I’m here to listen, and I promise I’ll drop the subject if you really don’t want to talk about it right now.” Then be as good as your word.
If your brother really doesn’t want to talk about his boyfriend, as painful as that might be for you right now, talk about something else. Keep the line of communication open between the two of you. This doesn’t mean you’ll be able to convince your brother this relationship is unhealthy overnight, but try to think of the work you’re doing now as laying a foundation for when your brother eventually does feel ready to leave.
Q. Difficult to endure: I’m a middle-aged woman with a genetic disorder that makes me very physically unattractive, and I’ve therefore never been able to date. I have managed to cultivate a few platonic friendships with men, however, which I value. But these friends have a habit of pulling back and limiting contact as soon as they’ve have their first experience of being ridiculed by other men for being seen with me in public.
I don’t know how to address this—these aren’t shallow people, and I understand it’s distressing for them when I’m mistaken for their date or partner. I’m used to being harassed just for existing, but this is new to them. Do I wear an “I’m not his girlfriend” T-shirt?
A: They are shallow people if their response to being ridiculed by other men for simply being seen next to you in public is to start acting like they don’t know you. The appropriate response to being harassed by another man (whether he’s a stranger or someone you know) for standing next to your friend is not to retreat in silent embarrassment, it’s to say, “What the hell made you decide to say such a vile thing out loud?”
I’m so sorry that you’re this used to being harassed in public, and that the kinds of men you’ve been able to establish meaningful friendships with have proved to be superficial cowards once they’ve gotten a small taste of what you experience on a daily basis. I understand that your last suggestion was made mostly in jest, but it’s absolutely heartbreaking that you feel on some level an implicit responsibility to tell strangers “Don’t worry, I know my place.” A good friend would rise immediately, publicly, loudly, and enthusiastically to your defense if someone tried to tell them they should be embarrassed for going out in public with you. Any friend whose response is to clam up and stop returning your calls doesn’t deserve the name.
Q: Cream cheese hero: While out of town with my boyfriend, we went to the breakfast buffet at our hotel. We were the only ones in the room of the help-yourself-style breakfast. They were out of cream cheese at the time and I found myself disappointed. Trying to be helpful, my boyfriend went into fixer mode and helped me look around the room to see if I’d missed it or if we could find a stash to replenish the supply, which included him quickly checking in what I’d assumed to be an unlocked closet/storage area. I’m the type of person who assumes that if a door is closed, the staff probably doesn’t want you in there, so I mildly protested to this. After the fact, he mentioned he’d actually jimmied the lock open rather easily with a credit card to get into that room.
The effort to solve my problem is sweet in spirit, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s the most mild breaking and entering I’ve heard of, but it still sort of counts. He sees it as a pretty benign thing, somewhat akin to being resourceful and self-sufficient, and the worst that would have happened if he’d been caught is they would have asked him not to do that. He’s got a mild streak of “let’s toe the line when the stakes are super low and it wouldn’t really matter” attitude while I’m more of a “follow the rules because it’s polite and makes things run smoothly” person. I don’t think he’d do something like that again if I asked him not to, but the question is: Is this a red flag or a harmless, if mildly misguided, thing?
A: My money’s on charming, but charming doesn’t always mean harmless, and with the obvious caveat that I’d be totally embarrassed if someone I was dating broke into a storage closet at a hotel buffet. It’s not a red flag, I don’t think, but if he has a habit of cheerfully disregarding rules and locks (it’d certainly be different if there had been an employee working who could have been alarmed or confused by someone breaking into a storage closet), it might certainly turn yellow, especially if that disregard leads him to steamroll over other people. But on its own, this story doesn’t lead me to think you should be worried about your boyfriend.
That said! You are well within your rights to be a cautious person who does not break rules, and you do not have to keep quiet if he does things that bother you just because his way is more “fun.” If you don’t like something he says or does, if it embarrasses you or seems inconsiderate of others, then speak up, and have a good old-fashioned argument about it.
Q: Re: Turning down charity: You absolutely have to contact the mom soliciting donations and offer a donation! I would act oblivious as to where the money is going and enthusiastic about helping a neighbor in need. Don’t get sucked into small town drama and hold your head high.
A: Oh my god, that’s beautiful and petty, which is one of my favorite combinations. Thank you for this. (I still think your best bet is to be direct, but this is definitely my second choice.)
Q: The furious ex: I have reconnected with the man I would genuinely describe as the love of my life. We dated in high school and lost contact when we went off to college. He is divorced with two kids and fighting to get full custody of them. His ex has been diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder and will alternate between cursing him out and begging to him to take her back (I have heard the voicemails). She consistently lies and tries to use the kids as a weapon against him. We have gone out on a few dates, mostly as friends, and I am falling in love with him again, but I don’t know if I can deal with all this. I think I would be a good stepmom, but their mother would go ballistic on me. What should I do? Hang back and wait? Be a friend despite my feelings?
A: I think you should try to get a sense of what your would-be boyfriend’s strategy is for dealing with his ex-wife. This isn’t a boundary that you’re solely responsible for setting—if he’s trying to date again, he should have at least some sense for how he manages his interactions with her and tries to ensure that she doesn’t harass anyone he’s seeing.
It’s great that you think you would be a good stepmom, but I worry that the fact that you guys dated in high school and you consider him “the love of your life” has pushed you eight or nine steps ahead of yourself. He has not asked you to help co-parent his children, and you’ve only been on a few friendly dates. If you want to go on another date, then go on another date—don’t emotionally go on the next 20 dates at once. Talk to him about your feelings, don’t rush into being his second wife before he’s even asked, and figure out how you two will deal with any possible interactions with his ex together.
Q: Re: Foster parenting a dating dud?: Never put your life on hold until you find a husband/wife. The best catches want to marry a whole person, not someone waiting for someone who will give them permission to become complete!
A: An enthusiastic and wholehearted recommendation for moving ahead! I think it’s often rare in life that we have a really clear sense of what we want, as well as a strategy for how to get it, and if you’ve got that right now when it comes to being a foster parent, then you should seize the opportunity.
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