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 email@example.com.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail 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. Vacation squabbles: My husband and I had a tiff recently, and although I already apologized and assumed the blame, I need a neutral opinion before my brain will let this rest. The argument began after I suggested we try hiking the Appalachian Trail in weeklong chunks. He said he’d like to try that, but he wouldn’t be willing to use one of his vacation weeks, and he’d like to do a more elaborate trip with his vacation time. I then asked if he would be all right with me going backpacking with some friends instead, since I am a teacher and have all summer off and plenty of time to do it all. He was hurt that I would want to go on a fun trip without him and felt that it was selfish of me to want to go out and do something we would both enjoy while he was stuck at work. I said that of course I would rather go with him, but if he can’t go, I would still like to have the experience. His compromise in the end was that we could alternate choosing our yearly vacation destination and if I chose backpacking, then so be it. Of course, I would probably not choose backpacking in the U.S. if we had the opportunity go abroad, and he knows it, which means this trip will probably never happen. Am I being selfish for wanting to do it all?
A: I don’t think either of you is being entirely reasonable, but the good news is that there’s plenty of room in the middle. If you’re contemplating spending the majority of your summer hiking various portions of the Appalachian Trail with the occasional return home to shower and resupply then, yes, I can understand your husband’s reluctance to sign off on the idea. But I also can’t imagine begrudging a partner the very idea of an occasional solo trip with friends just because he or she might have fun solo. I think you should argue the case for a compromise with your husband—there’s no reason you can’t take a weeklong trip somewhere exciting together while also planning a backpacking excursion with some friends for a three- or four-day weekend for yourself later on.
Q. Should I have my first time with a friend?: I’m traveling for college at the end of the summer, and I’m still a virgin. I had many boyfriends during the past years but never had sex with any of them—not because I wasn’t ready, but because it just didn’t happen. Last summer I met someone, and we went on several dates but at the end had an on-and-off friends-with-benefits relationship. Right now I feel ready to have sex with him, but since it’s my first time and since he’s not my boyfriend, I’m scared I’m going to regret it when I get older. I really want to have sex; not because everyone is doing it—or else I would’ve done it a long time ago—I just can’t stop thinking about it and feel more than ready.
A: I think “really wanting to have sex” is a pretty good reason to have sex! I can’t promise you that you’ll never regret any of the choices you make now when you get older, but I’m reasonably certain that it’s impossible to make any decisions based on the odds that you might change your mind about it later. You don’t know how you’ll feel about it later! For what it’s worth, absent any issues of coercion or serious complications, most sexually active adults don’t spend a lot of time wishing they could change the circumstances of the first time they had sex. That’s not to say it never happens, merely that however you spend your first time, it isn’t going to set the tone of your future romantic life. If you trust this guy, and you feel more than ready to have sex, then go for it! If you decide you’d rather wait, that’s fine too. Whatever choice you make right now isn’t necessarily going to be perfect and regrets-free, but that’s all a part of the delightful cost-benefit analysis (and paralyzing self-scrutiny) that comes with being an adult.
Q. Relationship at work problem: My significant other and I work at the same company but in different departments. I have been experiencing envy in a way that is detrimental to our relationship. She is young, been working here for four years, and has seen a promotion and outrageous raise every year she has been here. She has a relative in a high position at the company and has had the chance to work with certain people who have given her more opportunities than most here. I have been struggling to get out of my entry-level position for two years to no avail. Long story short, last year I wanted to apply for a new position within the company but was blocked for political reasons, and she got the job with no prior qualifications other than being familiar with the company and the person who hired her. She is getting all the skills, knowledge, salary increases, and networking opportunities to set her in a promising direction, while my own boss seems to be doing everything she can to prevent me from learning anything (while at the same time praising my work). It has caused a bitter rift between us, and I’m not sure how to handle it. I know leaving this company is a step in the right direction, but now I see my significant other as the competition, and it frustrates me to no end that she is “winning.” I worked hard at a graduate degree at an Ivy League institution while she went to a humdrum state school. I know that if the universe were a fair place, our situations would be reversed, but it isn’t. How can I work toward letting this go before it ruins what we have?
A: I am not nearly as confident as you are that in a wholly fair universe you and your girlfriend would swap places! I am also not confident that this attitude of yours has not already started ruining what you two have, especially if you consider the fact that you went to an Ivy League to be some sort of evidence that you deserve to best a mere state-school graduate for the rest of your life. That’s the sort of misguided sense of entitlement that makes a person sound like a villainous boyfriend from Gilmore Girls, and is not going to serve you well in life. I suggest abandoning it.
Your girlfriend’s success is not coming at your expense. You two are not, and never have been, in direct competition with each other, especially since she works in a different department, and if you continue to think of her as somehow “beating” you by being recognized and promoted at her job, it will only serve to further distract you from finding a solution to your actual problems. It’s good that you are starting to recognize that any solution will necessarily have to begin with letting go of this irrational resentment, but I’m troubled that you still seem committed to some sort of belief that you objectively deserve what your girlfriend has. Maybe you weren’t blocked from that promotion for purely political reasons. You might also have a genuinely bad boss, but I’m guessing that if any hint of the attitude from your letter shows up in the way you treat other people at work, there’s a reason you’re not being promoted. Focus on what you need to do to take care of yourself, whether that’s applying for other jobs outside your company, finding a mentor, asking some of your colleagues for advice on how you could be doing your current job better, seeing a therapist, or even just starting every day by reminding yourself that professional success is not a zero-sum game and having graduated from Boat Shoes Academy is not a guarantee of anything.
Q. Door closed: I love my sister. She is a dear woman, but her children are shameless users. I live in a very popular city, near my parents as they age. I often play host to the rest of the family for holidays and when they are in town. All the grandchildren are grown or near so. My sister’s offspring are the only ones without even a modicum of common courtesy or self-reflection. Collectively they have inability to clean up after themselves, offer any thanks, or think about anything but their own desires.
I have bitten my tongue about their bringing over guests I didn’t know about or ruining my good towels with hair dye for my parents’ sake. They adore their grandchildren. My nieces stayed over several days but had made plans to meet their grandparents for dinner. My parents dressed up, went to the restaurant, and waited. My mother called me worried the girls were dead in a ditch. I checked their Instagram. They decided to ditch their grandparents to go to the beach with friends.
I told my parents the truth, and then packed the girls’ bags and left them on the porch with a message they needed to drive home. After the rest of the family found out, they closed their doors. These particular nieces and nephews are welcomed at family events but will have to stay in hotels and eat out. My sister is very upset. We have complained about the children’s behavior before, and there is always an excuse, but a teenager is not a toddler. I need to know how to handle my sister. She keeps bringing up the subject, and the truth is not going to change.
A: “Stop bringing up the subject. It’s not going to change. I’m not going to convince our parents—or anyone else in the family—that any of us are required to host your grown children if they can’t meet the basic level of self-awareness and politeness necessary for guests to observe. I’m not going to discuss this again with you; your children can make their own travel arrangements without you.”
Q. Re: Vacation squabbles: I believe she only wanted to spend one week hiking this summer, and he objected because it was something fun and he’d theoretically want to do it as well. The guy sounds selfish. She said she “apologized” but can’t “rest” her brain. There’s a reason for that! He is being unfair and she should not feel guilty advocating for herself.
A: Yeah, the premise of the trip felt unclear enough that I don’t want to assume bad faith on the husband’s part, but if he objects to the mere idea of her having a good time without him, then that’s definitely a problem. You should want your partner to have a good time without you sometimes, because that person is a whole person who deserves happiness extrinsic to his or her relationship with you! That’s why we like it when our partners leave the house and have outside friendships and don’t wall them up inside our wine-cellars like a Vestal Virgin who has violated her oath to Hestia.
Q. Appropriate to offer to babysit for co-worker?: My husband and I moved across the country six months ago, and we both really miss my young nephews. My husband has co-workers who have kids. Would it be too freaky to offer to babysit them? We’re not ready for kids of our own yet but miss that occasional silly play time.
A: This is the most easy and delightful question I have gotten all day. Yes, you and your husband should offer to babysit his co-workers’ kids if you want to! You and your husband would get some low-investment fun playing with a few little guys, his co-workers would get a night out, and sweetness and light would be spread everywhere. There is nothing “freaky” about offering to babysit the children of someone you know. It is so far from freaky, in fact, that people often pay would-be babysitters money for doing so.
Q. Re: Relationship at work problem: Your girlfriend has been at the company for four years, and you have been there for only two (if I am reading your post correctly). That carries way more weight in a company than degrees you got before you started there. (Degrees help you enter a company at a higher level but then lose most of their benefit once you are in the job.) It’s no surprise she is getting opportunities because she has more seniority there.
A: Very worth bearing in mind! It’s also just rarely helpful to compare the progress of your career to someone else’s, especially someone else who doesn’t even have the same job. It’s a waste of time to think, “My girlfriend has gotten X and Y opportunities that may or may not have been merited.” It’s extremely helpful and practical to think, “I want to accomplish X, and plan on doing Y and Z in order to set myself up for success.”
Q. Sibling omission: Throughout my childhood, my older brother abused me sexually and physically. It wasn’t until after he left the house that I was able to communicate what was going on and begin to get a handle on how to move on. Now as an adult, I am occasionally asked by new acquaintances, co-workers, and friends about my family members. For such a ubiquitous line of conversation, I struggle with the right answer. I have alternated between saying a misleading “I’m the only daughter” or “I’m an only child” to avoid additional questions or stating “I have an older brother,” usually followed up with “We are estranged” to not invite any further questions. I’m thrown by how to answer it in a truthful way that doesn’t include me acknowledging him.
I am currently in the process of moving and anticipating the “get to know you” small talk all over the place. What’s the best way to answer this innocuous question? Is it OK to lie for my peace of mind?
A: It is absolutely OK for you to lie about this. The nature of your estrangement from your brother is deeply painful, and if you’re at all concerned that you won’t be able to answer distressing follow-up questions with equanimity, please feel enormously free to say, “I’m an only child” to anyone who asks. You don’t have to discuss your brother with anyone you don’t want to, and it’s an unfortunate reality that one can say “I have a family member, but we don’t speak” and what other people hear is “Please ask me extremely personal questions about why that is. Feel free to heavily imply that I ought to reconcile with him, too, despite not knowing either of us.”
Q. Re: Vacation squabbles: This letter hits home, because my husband and I had the same squabble last week. He gets a pretty epic amount of vacation time, and it’s use-it-or-lose-it. I ... do not. And because of major surgeries and health scares between myself and both my parents, what little time I have gotten over the past year was used up. Last week I also had terrific insomnia, I was exhausted, I desperately needed a break I couldn’t take—and that was when my husband told me cheerfully that he was taking off three weeks this summer. I lost it. It’s totally not his fault of course—he earns his vacation and should take it—but it was like dancing around a starving child while eating a sandwich. Ugh.
The solution we worked out is that we would put aside extra money, and I would take unpaid leave with him. Obviously this wouldn’t work for most people for a whole summer, but a week or two is doable with some planning.
A: Sounds like a healthy compromise.
Q. I lied to my mom ... how do I keep lying so I don’t get in trouble?: Last year, my mom was going through a rough time. She was depressed, and she came to me and said that she wanted to try her hand at writing. I write fan fiction, and my stuff is pretty good. So I created an account for her, and we published her writing as a fanfic. It didn’t do well. No follows, no favorites, no reviews. I didn’t want her to give up on her dream, so I created a few fake accounts and wrote a few reviews, followed her story. She was so happy. But then after a while she wondered why her number of readers wasn’t going up. So I showed her my page and pretended my readers were hers. I have more than a thousand readers, and she got extremely happy.
This went on for some time. She kept writing, and I kept posting her stuff. I kept writing and posting my stuff. My number of readers went higher and higher. Hers didn’t. Now she wants to get her story published. I wouldn’t mind, except she keeps mentioning the number of readers that she already has. I’m trying really hard not to panic, but I’m sure that I’m going to get caught. People are going to read it, and they’re going to tell her that it isn’t good. Then she’s going to bring up the number of fans that she thinks she already has, and they won’t believe her, then she’ll show them and the truth will come out and then she’s going to hate me and I don’t want her to hate me. How do I get out of this?
A: First, the good news: Generally, if someone has written a bad novel/short story/fan fiction, they will not be told “You have written something bad.” They will be met with silence, and politeness, and unreturned emails. If someone does read your mother’s work, gives her some painfully honest feedback, and she says, “But many people read my fan fiction”—they are not going to respond by saying, “That’s impossible; someone must be lying to you.” They will say some polite variation on, “Well, there’s no accounting for taste; this just wasn’t for me. Best of luck with your project.” No one, I can promise you, is going to pull up your mother’s A03 account and demand an immediate audit of her readers. Your subterfuge is safe, at least for the moment.
The downside of that, obviously, is that your mom is going to experience some disappointment if she wants to pursue her dream of getting published, and it sounds like it’s really difficult for you to refrain from intervening if it looks like your mom is about to be disappointed. That’s a laudable impulse, but it’s one you’re going to have to start checking. You cannot keep this up indefinitely. You cannot start your own vanity press and disguise yourself as a publisher who loves your mother’s work and pay for a national book tour just to protect your mother from hearing “Sorry, it’s not for us.” So start to wean your mother off of your professional support. You can offer her a tutorial in managing her own page so that she doesn’t need your technical support every time she wants to update her work. If she says, “This story seems way less popular than my last one—I wonder why,” just say, “Huh! That happens sometimes.” I don’t recommend confessing your well-intentioned ruse, as that would be needlessly upsetting to you both, and because it will be so much easier for you to simply drop all the extra work you’ve been doing.
Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for this week, everyone! May all of your homes be temperate and your roommates mindful of the utility bills.