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.)
Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone. Let’s get started.
Q. Taking My Granddaughter to See The Nutcracker: My 11-year-old granddaughter has been determined not to view The Nutcracker since she was very young. We have no idea why, and as long as it never was an option to take her, it wasn’t an issue. This year she will be visiting during the time the ballet will be presented in my town. Her mother and I both are happily looking forward to going. My granddaughter simply refuses to discuss it. Is it wrong to purchase a lovely dress for her to wear and tell her that her going with us is what we would like as a Christmas gift from her this year? It would be a dream come true for me to have my daughter and granddaughter both attend with me.
A: I have so many questions for you—why does your 11-year-old granddaughter hate The Nutcracker? And why is it your only dream to take her to see it? Does she hate all ballets, or just this one?
You could probably make her go, as you and her mother outnumber her, and she’s too young to drive herself home during intermission, but that’s not a recipe for creating a delightful holiday memory. Your best bet, I think, is to ask her why she feels so strongly about this and to really listen to what she has to say—don’t lead with, “But WHY don’t you want to share this wonderful experience with your loving grandmother, you ungrateful child?” Maybe her reasons will seem ridiculous to you, or maybe they won’t, but at least you’ll have tried to understand each other. It’s one thing to make an 11-year-old eat her vegetables or do her homework or be polite to guests, but I’m not sure what any of you would get out of a forced march to The Nutcracker. If she’s as determined not to go as you say she is, go with her mother and have a great time, and find another holiday tradition to share with your granddaughter.
Q. A Happy Chore?: My wife and I split household and child-rearing duties. This has generally gone smoothly, but for one issue. Some of the tasks my wife performs I tend to think are more like hobbies than real chores. For example: designing the family holiday card (do we really need this?) or “managing the family’s social media” or “tending the herb garden” (we can buy herbs if there is a genuine need). Meanwhile, nobody in history even did taxes or shoveled snow for fun. What do you think counts as a chore?
A: If she’s doing these things in addition to her fair share of taking out the trash or unloading the dishwasher, I think it’s fine. If she’s refusing to help sort the recycling because she “sent out Christmas cards this year,” you should probably have a frank conversation about the division of labor in your house.
Q. Secret Plastic Surgery: A few years ago I had a cosmetic procedure to improve the appearance of my breasts (they were uneven in size and shape). I had the procedure because I was really self-conscious about it. I don’t really regret my decision, and to be frank, half the time I forget I even had it done. A few nights ago, my boyfriend and I were watching a medical drama on TV where they were performing an operation, and he asked me if I have ever had any surgery. I instinctively said no but then realized that’s not true. I’m not sure whether to tell him now that I misspoke and have in fact had a procedure done, and not only that but the type of procedure that I had (which I know some people may judge as fickle and vain). I don’t think it’s a big deal at the moment since he doesn’t know and doesn’t seem to have noticed, but I know it will eventually come up in a few years if we decide to have kids or if other medical needs arise. Is it worth telling him now? If so, any tips for how to tell him?
A: I think it’s entirely up to you. It sounds like this is something you did before you met him, so it’s not as if you have to come clean about that “vacation” you took without him a few years ago. It’s not the kind of revelation that would change the foundation of your relationship, so if you decide it’s something you’d rather keep private, it’s not something he necessarily needs to know.
If you do decide you want to share it with him, I think a straightforward approach is best. “When you first asked me if I’d ever had cosmetic surgery, I was taken by surprise, because I haven’t told many people, and I said I hadn’t because I felt self-conscious. But I trust you, and I wanted to let you know that a few years ago I had a cosmetic procedure done on my breasts.” Be honest, but don’t treat it like a huge, shameful disclosure that changes everything—he’ll likely pick up on your emotional cues. If he sees you talk about it comfortable and openly, odds are that he will too.
Q. Two Hands Clapping in a Forest: Can you advise me on the correct emoji skin tone to use if, say, using the clapping hands to applaud a friend’s good news announced on social media? On the iPhone’s five-color scale, my hands match the second-to-lightest shade, but in the “human diversity as it exists in the world” scale, I’m a pale white person, and I wonder if the nonobnoxious thing to do is just to go with the one that’s clearly intended for pale white people, rather than be the white person who can’t tolerate there being so much as an emoji that’s not for her. Thanks for the input!
A: Say, “Congratulations! I’m so excited for you.”
Q. Abandoning Mother for the Holidays: My 66-year-old mother has lived alone since an acrimonious divorce with my dad 20 years ago. She is still very bitter and talks about the divorce frequently. My younger brother and I are her only living relatives. She is a very negative, sickly person, and being around her is difficult, but we make an effort. During the holidays, she expects me to coordinate getting my fiancé, my brother, and his wife over to her house on Thanksgiving and Christmas. She never actually says what she wants or extends an invitation; she just assumes that I will make it happen. And if it doesn’t happen, or if it doesn’t happen on THE DAY, she does her best to make us feel guilty for leaving her alone on the actual holiday. This year, my fiancé and I accepted an invitation from friends to go away for Thanksgiving weekend, and we planned a trip to Spain during Christmas. I informed my mother about our plans yesterday, and she started crying and hung up on me. What do I do? I feel like a horrible person for leaving her alone on the holidays, but if she didn’t want to be alone, shouldn’t she do something about it? My brother and I have both invited her to join our alternate holiday plans in the past, but she always turns us down. If I offer an alternate date to get together, she will see it as a consolation prize. I’m 38 years old, and I am tired of spending the holiday season sick to my stomach with guilt because my mother refuses to take the initiative to make her own plans.
A: It seems like your mother sets up situations where you’re almost guaranteed to disappoint her, no matter what you do. I’m so sorry about that. It also sounds like you’ve been stewing over it for a while and finally made a clear move designed to send a message. If you only told her about your Thanksgiving plans four or five days before the holiday, I can understand why she would be upset. What’s done is done, and I don’t think you should change your plans this year, but I think it’s also time for you to be honest with her about how her holiday demands make you feel. It sounds like she’s a very lonely person, which is sad. It also sounds like she wants to make her loneliness your fault, which is unacceptable.
If, in the future, you communicate a clear time to celebrate—“Mom, I’ve got plans with my own family this year, but I’d love it if you came out the week after Thanksgiving, and we’d love to celebrate with you”—and she turns you down because she sees it as a “consolation prize,” then she’s making a clear choice to be miserable when having fun is a viable option. It’s a shame, but it’s not a choice you should feel responsible for.
Q. Re: The Nutcracker: Certainly there is no reason to force this child to go, but this sounds like one of those weird, childish resistances that really has no reason behind it. As a mom I use an arsenal of bribery, persuasion, and sometimes simple “because I said so” to get past these kinds of resistance, and most of the time my kids end up really loving stuff they wouldn’t try without my push—like Indian food and archaeology shows on TV. I say never be afraid to push a child into trying something new. She has no idea if she will like The Nutcracker, and it may be worth it to push her to find out.
A: I’m hearing two types of responses to this one—some from people who think it’s a good idea to push the granddaughter, who may end up valuing this experience, and others who suspect Grandma has a history of pushing the girl into doing things she hates and is running the risk of alienating her completely by not listening to her.
Q. Is It Cheating?: I’m not sure what to do—I think I may be falling for my co-worker but am married, but I am absolutely sure I won’t act on it. My marriage is strong—great relationship, great sex, great man. But I’ve met someone who conceivably could be a best friend if he were female (or I were gay). We talk about everything, and he understands me. I think about him all the time, and we are really close, although he hasn’t shown any interest beyond being my friend. Is it too dangerous to keep being his friend, knowing full well that we’ll never act on any attraction that exists? He makes me happy, and I don’t want it to end, but my marriage should be the priority.
A: I’m a little confused: You’re “absolutely sure” you won’t act on your feelings for him but only “think” you’re falling for him. You seem to be sure about what you will or won’t do but unclear about how you feel. That is not a recipe for certainty.
If your marriage is your priority, then I think there are a few clear-cut things you can do right now. You’ve already decided that you’re not going to sleep with your co-worker, so you have at least that degree of clarity, which is always helpful! You two haven’t talked about any attraction that may exist, and you say he hasn’t demonstrated a romantic interest in you—your feelings for your co-worker may very well be one-sided. It could be incredibly embarrassing and damaging to your career if at some point you made a move, believing him to feel the way you do, when in fact he only ever saw you as a good friend.
Treat him like what he is: something appealing and more than a little dangerous to you. You don’t have to drop him cold, but you can certainly minimize the time you spend together outside of work. If you find yourself completely unable to get him out of your head, it may be worth your while to talk to a therapist for a few weeks about tricks for redirecting unwanted thoughts (there are plenty of things a husband is good for, but asking him to help you stop thinking about your co-worker doesn’t fall under his job description).
Q. Re: Two Hands Clapping in a Forest: I already did say that one-on-one; I just wanted to add something to Congratulations Twitter, basically. But in principle you’re saying: Just don’t use those specific emoji?
A: I think “Congratulations, I’m so happy for you” is a great response. If you feel moved to say more, send her a personal note about how excited you are for her news and how much you think she deserves her good fortune. You are overthinking the clapping-hands thing.
Q. Re: A Happy Chore? You blew it on this one. I bet the wife doesn’t see Dad as splitting chores at all, especially not if he’s trying to add up the value of things that make a house a home and a family, like having a garden and a holiday card. I bet if they added up the things that have to get done on a daily basis, they are not even. He is trying to add in snow shoveling, which hasn’t had to be done anywhere since last winter. And taxes have to get done but not on a daily basis. You can’t have two people do that. He is not talking about chores that can be split even done regularly, and she is right that she does lots of things for the household.
A: It’s certainly possible! The letter writer didn’t include a breakdown of how the daily/weekly chores get parceled out in his house, so I’m hearing from a lot of people on both sides who are sure that either the husband or the wife is shirking his or her fair share of housework. Taxes and Christmas cards aren’t what keep a household running on a regular basis, but it’s clear that at least one of the members of this marriage is feeling frustrated about who’s doing what chores, and a talk is definitely in order.
Q. Odd Mentorship Situation: I am 22 years old, just about to finish college and make the next step. I am thinking about law school. There is a gentleman (62 years old) that I have developed a relationship with through work—I am a server and bartender at a nice restaurant. We text, get drinks every now and then, and he encourages me and says that he may be able to help me with work experience before I even get through law school. I feel as if he could really help me with my career, as he is quite successful. But he has said a couple of inappropriate things, and I have merely brushed them away without setting clear boundaries. I worry that he might be interested in me sexually. Any advice?
A: If he’s already said a couple of inappropriate things to you, it wasn’t by accident. I’ve had friendly mentors who helped me out earlier in my career, and I’ve gone out for drinks more than once with younger women looking to start their own businesses and writing careers, and I’ve never made or received an “accidental pass” at or from any of them. When I hit on someone, I hit on someone. When I talk to someone about work, we talk about work. I never confuse the two and try to employ an attractive stranger I meet at a bar. He’s testing the waters. If you brush these things aside without making it clear that you’re not interested in him sexually, he’s almost certainly going to escalate. He hasn’t made any specific promises about jobs he could help you find or other people he’d like you to meet, and I’m willing to bet he doesn’t intend to. He’s not taking you to lunch with interesting people in your field, and he’s not taking you to industry events. He’s texting you privately and meeting you one-on-one in bars. He’s not looking to expand your professional circle; he’s trying to see if you’ll go out with him if he blurs the line between a meeting and a date.
There will be plenty of people interested in helping you professionally whether you go to law school or not. This man almost certainly isn’t one of them.