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.
Q. Almost stepson: I was with “Mike’s” mother, “Anne,” for three years. She was erratic and mentally ill. Mike was a toddler when we got together and never knew his biological father (no one did), so he called me Daddy. In the same week, Anne overdosed on sleeping pills and my brother-in-law died in a motorcycle accident. My niece and nephew are around the same age as Mike, so I stepped in and stayed with them for the next four years.
Mike now lives with his grandma, “Kate,” and young aunt, “Chloe.” I don’t do the day-to-day stuff. Mike knows I am not his biological father but still calls me Dad from time to time. I help Kate out—spoil the kids on their birthdays, get them bikes or video games, take them to water parks, do daddy-daughter dances with Chloe or my niece, etc. Kate and the kids are basically family to us by now.
I have a career, friends, and a life outside of my family. I have dated, but nothing serious until I met “Jess.” I love her and picture building a future with her.
My sister got remarried recently and my nephew was having trouble adjusting. I had planned to take Mike and my nephew to a football game and make it a guys-only weekend. Jess got an unexpected work function she wanted me to attend with her, only it was the same weekend as the trip. She got really upset and told me to cancel it. She told me I needed to stop “playing daddy,” and that my time and attention should be for my wife and kids, not some random strangers. I yelled at her and told her she was acting jealous of some fatherless kids and it was like she was trying to guilt me into breaking a promise to them. We made up later but haven’t talked about the fight.
I don’t think I am putting my family or Mike above my girlfriend. I don’t think it is fair to ask me to drop my plans on a dime, but what Jess said got to me. Am I cheating myself of having a family of my own because I am “playing daddy”?
I always kind of pictured that Kate, Mike, and Chloe would be at my wedding or be involved in my own kids’ lives. Am I being stupid here? I need an outside opinion.
A: My outside opinion is that your girlfriend threw a tantrum because she’s jealous of an orphaned 7-year-old. That’s not a good look for anyone, much less a grown woman.
Sometimes it’s helpful to subject a person’s behavior to the Reese Witherspoon test: Would an obvious villain in a Reese Witherspoon romantic comedy do this? (“This” being “Ask her boyfriend to cancel an already-scheduled trip with his young stepson and nephew, both of whom have suffered great loss at an early age, in order to come with her to a work party.”) If the answer is yes, then that person has done something so obviously, so categorically wrong, that a reasonable audience would be likely to hiss at her the next time she walked on screen.
It’s not “playing daddy” to be there for a little boy who has never known his biological father and has called you “Dad” his entire life. That’s not playing, that’s being. To suggest otherwise is an insult to adopted and blended families everywhere. You’re not cheating yourself of a “family of your own” because Mike and your niece and nephew are a part of your family, and always will be.
The fact that you two haven’t talked about this fight since making up is not a great sign, and the fact that Jess wanted you to let down Mike after you’d already committed to making plans with him is a sign that she lacks character and will make unreasonable demands on your time and attention in the future. She’s not caring, she’s not compassionate, she hasn’t apologized, and she got so jealous of a motherless 7-year-old that she called him (and your niece and nephew) “random strangers,” when in fact you’re the only father he has ever known. You should break up with her.
Q. Father confiscated candy given to adult daughter: Despite living a healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, balanced diet, active job when not in school), I am overweight and in the process of trying to lose a few pounds. My parents are supportive of this to a fault, passive aggressively telling me I don’t work out enough, encouraging me to weigh myself every day, and keeping me on a very strict diet and monitoring my caloric intake.
My best friend went on vacation and brought me back a gift, some candy from the country she visited. I put it in the kitchen cabinet to eat later as a treat, but I found the container empty the next day. My father told me he gave the candy to my (skinny) brother to eat, and that I shouldn’t be tempting myself by keeping sweets in the house. I understand his basic point, but the candy was a gift for me. Coupled with his controlling behavior about my diet and exercise regimen, I can’t help but see him as being overly strict. Should I confront him about this? I am a college-aged woman, if that makes a difference.
A: There is no reason for your parents to take charge of your diet and exercise routine. Of course you can, and should, say something. “Dad, I don’t want you to monitor what I eat or when I work out. I’m managing my own health and taking care of myself. Please don’t give away my food or try to supervise my diet for me. You may mean well, but it’s not helpful to me, and I’m asking you to stop.”
Q. Sister’s secret marriage: My sister has lived with the same woman as “roommates” for many years. They are both religious and think being gay is wrong, yet they essentially live as a couple. I got nosy and looked up their names in their state’s public records database and found they have recently been married. I’m sad she feels she has to live a double life. Should I ask her about it? Should I tell my mom?
A: I want to believe that you are motivated primarily by compassion and a desire to have an honest relationship with your sister, but the fact that you are asking me whether you should out her to your mother without her knowledge or consent gives me pause. It suggests that at least a part of you is interested in humiliating or exposing your sister as a hypocrite. No, you should absolutely not tell your mother that you found out your sister is married when your sister has clearly taken no steps to share that information with any of you. If you want to talk to your sister about her relationship, admit that you snooped in her personal life and ask her if she wants to talk about it. If she doesn’t, leave it—and your state’s public records database—alone.
Q. Old bag: I got hired onto a small company with no firm HR division. There about 15 odd women in my department and I started to keep track of birthdays and other personal events. I like to bake and garden, so it was actually a pleasure to give a small flower bouquet or cupcake to my co-workers. It was a bit haphazard (I didn’t get all events on time all the time), but we were fairly friendly with everyone.
Except for “Gretel.” Gretel has been with the company for 15 odd years and only liked maybe one person. She kept to herself, never helped anyone, and lives to complain. I hate her. She never contributed to anything and was too small-souled to even sign her name to a sympathy card. A new employee lost her sister and mom in the space of a week and Gretel refused to sign the card because she “didn’t know her well.” I mean, what kind of monster refuses to even sign a sympathy card?
Gretel had her first grandchild last month and mentioned it to everyone. She was upset that she didn’t get anything special and complained to our upper manager, who then pulled me aside to talk about it.
I am at a loss about what to do. I don’t like Gretel, none of us do. Part of me is furious at her utter gall and wants to rail at my manager for bowing to this small-hearted harpy, but I don’t want to lose my job. Should I just stop with the cupcakes and flowers? Or go on my way and make it a point to ignore Gretel?
A: Did your manager actually suggest that you would lose your job if you didn’t give Gretel some flowers from your garden? Were you instructed to come up with something for her? Or did your manager say, “Gretel’s upset that she didn’t get anything to commemorate the birth of her grandchild,” and now you feel an implicit pressure?
If it’s either of the first two options, then I think your best bet is to come up with a perfunctory card and reconsider whether you want to continue to head up the unofficial “party-planning and celebrations” committee. If your manager was simply letting you know about a possible root of future conflict between yourself and Gretel, I still think it’s worth reconsidering your decision. Gretel certainly sounds unpleasant, but in a small company with a 15-person department, excluding one person from your list of gift recipients is going to be very noticeable and could lead to an unnecessary sense of isolation. It’s not as if this were an informal, friends-only exchange—you say you’re keeping track of everyone’s birthdays and “other life events,” which is a lot of extra, unpaid work you’re taking in.
Q. Update—Cat at the rager: I wrote you about my acquaintance who would bring her cat to raves in a special cat backpack. She ended up breaking up with her EDM DJ boyfriend, so the raves stopped for a while. She wanted a healthier lifestyle, so she became a superintense vegan and doesn’t do molly and coke as much. She actually had two cats but ended up giving the older one away because it was too expensive to feed both of them the raw meat diet that she gives them. Then she got back together with her ex, and the last Facebook post of hers I saw was the boyfriend sitting naked on the toilet with the cat on his lap. Life is a rich tapestry.
A: I ... thank you for this. I have no response (other than I’m glad the cat is no longer being subjected to the sights and sounds of a rave, which, whether one is pro-rave or not, we can all certainly agree are designed for human, not feline, enjoyment), but please let us know what she (and the cat) are up to annually, for the rest of my life. Thank you.
Q. Love and moving on: I was in a terrible relationship for four years. One where my partner hit me on several occasions, destroyed the house, and slept around—which led to one fellow showing up at all hours of the night. I left her because the mental and physical abuse was unacceptable, and it was excruciating, mainly because I deeply care for her and remain very much in love. It’s been one year and I’m still having issues. I am randomly hit with waves of sadness from not having her in my life or waves of anger at myself for allowing the things I put up with to occur. I’m having trouble making myself emotionally available for someone else to be a partner, and I’ve withdrawn socially.
What advice can you give about letting go of old love and moving on?
A: Therapy! Therapy, therapy, therapy. I recommend it a lot in this column, and I think you are an excellent candidate for it. There are a great many specific therapies focused on processing traumatic events and abusive relationships, and you need more than just time to find a way to make your own peace with your past and figure out how you’re going to move into the future.
I don’t advise you to rush into dating just because it’s been a year. If you feel like you’re not emotionally available, then take your time and look after yourself. Call the friends and family members you’ve withdrawn from lately, and let them know how you’re doing. You don’t have to do this all at once if the prospect seems overwhelming. Even just telling someone who cares about you that you’ve been having a hard time lately might go a long way toward making you feel slightly less alone.
Q. Justified pettiness?: Several years ago, I had an exciting-but-short-lived affair with an acquaintance (“Alex”) whose wife (also an acquaintance, let’s call her “Emily”) had recently left him for another man. Alex and I ended the affair after a few weeks, quickly deciding that it wasn’t a stable relationship given that both of us were still technically married, and attempted to stay friends for a while before falling out of contact. During the few years that we didn’t speak, his divorce finalized, my divorce finalized, and I struck up more of a friendship with Emily (yes, partially because I am a flawed human who is drawn to self-destructive situations, but partially because she is a nice person who I genuinely enjoy). I would not go as far as calling us friends, but we do exchange polite texts and meet up for coffee every once in a while.
More recently, I’ve reconnected with Alex, and he and I are having a really nice time together. Our relationship is private but not secretive—we’re out and about publicly and often enough that anyone could safely assume that we are together. The problem: Either Emily isn’t so inclined, or she legitimately doesn’t care. It’s been months, and she hasn’t so much as alluded to the relationship to either of us. Before the rekindling, Emily would say things to me like, “I just can’t imagine Alex moving on. I doubt he’ll ever date again.” I have dreamed up the pettiest and most frivolous ways to tell her about his affair and our current relationship, but Alex assures me that no good can come of it, and that whatever satisfaction I draw from her revelation would likely double his grief trying to co-parent with her. I know he’s right, but ugh.
What do you think? A casual selfie of us on Instagram? Or should I go full crazy and tape an anonymous note to her door? I’m only kidding, of course, but I do desperately want to tell this woman how goddamn sexy I find her ex. Why can’t I let it go?
A: Oh, who knows why anyone is motivated to do something unnecessary and petty. Boredom? An unacknowledged resentment of even the perfunctory acqutaintanceship you currently have with her? A good old-fashioned animal hindbrain that wants to mark your territory? Latent desire? (You’re fantasizing about Emily a lot and want to drive home just how aroused you are to her—that’s not nothing, is what’s going on with you.)
You say that it’s been months and Emily hasn’t acknowledged the relationship to either of you, but based on what you’ve told me, you two aren’t in the habit of discussing your boyfriends with each other—you get coffee once a quarter and sometimes text politely. Why on earth would she notice whether you’ve been getting dinner a lot with the same guy lately? Presumably he’s not bringing you to dinner with the kids at his house, so it’s not like she would have found out from him, either. The fact that she and Alex are co-parents should be reason enough for you to get a hold of this latent desire to rub her nose in something. Don’t try to make the job of raising their children together any more difficult for either of them. If you’re happy with (just) Alex, then continue to enjoy your relationship with him, and figure out how to cross the bridge of disclosing to his ex-wife when and if you come to it, together.
Q. Best way to quit your job?: I’ve been working at my current company for four years. There have been ups and downs, but the biggest and most consistent disappointment is my boss’ (who is also the CEO) refusal to give market-value compensation and benefits to his employees. Compounding this, he doesn’t replace people who leave and just expects everyone else to absorb their job functions. Multiple times I’ve taken on the duties of co-workers who have moved on, including my previous department director’s, even though I was significantly more junior!
Now we’re acquiring another company, and the workload is going to shoot way up for at least the next six months. My boss expects me to manage an extra three people post-acquisition. When I asked him about compensation, he was extremely vague, promising more compensation “sometime in the future.” I’ve decided I’ve had enough. I am not willing to work all these extra hours and take on a new position for some vague promise of being compensated for it. I’ve started looking for other jobs.
My question is, how honest should I be about the reason I’m leaving? I know he’s going to be blindsided by my departure announcement. I’m worried being honest with him may sever ties and prevent me from using him as a job reference since this is the only professional job I’ve had since finishing college. Should I tell him the real reason I’m leaving? In general, how honest should one be when giving notice or an exit interview?
A: Ideally, an exit interview enables the company as an organization to learn more about what the individual employee experience is like, and where they can make institutional improvements. It’s also an opportunity for you, the exiting employee, to ensure you’re leaving on good terms and could use them as a reference for future job opportunities. This does not sound like an ideal situation!
Your first priority, in this instance, should be to protect your own future—life is long, and if you’re looking to stay in the same field, it’s possible that your soon-to-be-former CEO could either help or hinder your prospects. An exit interview, regardless of how reasonable the boss was, is never an opportunity to offer a laundry list of grievances. One always has to balance honesty with diplomacy. If your instincts tell you that your boss may overreact or even retaliate if you’re honest about your reasons for leaving, stick to a face-saving lie: “I was offered an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up.” Helping the company improve its practices is not as important as making sure you have a place to work and enough money to pay your bills.
Q. Re: Old bag: Hey, she might have been a standoffish, annoying person when she was young. Calling her names just because she’s older than you makes me think all the gardening and cake baking and cards are really just about you. You don’t sound like a very nice person.
A: Oh, Lord, I hadn’t even realized the letter heading read “old bag” in reference to Gretel. Yeah, that’s not OK. That is not a great response, even if you thought it was rude of her not to sign a sympathy card. If Gretel is a jerk, then call her a jerk—there’s no reason to knock her for her age and perceived looks/appeal/relevance.
Q. Re: Old bag: Sorry, Prudie, I disagree with bringing in something for Gretel just to smooth ruffled feathers. Unless you’ve celebrated other “first grandparents” before, I think that a line has to be drawn somewhere on when you’re expected to bring in flowers/treats, and that’s a pretty good place to start.
A: That’s a fair cop! I think the letter writer’s reference to “other personal life events” puts them in somewhat shaky territory, but it’s certainly subjective. My guess is that if Gretel were not unpleasant, the letter writer would likely have brought in some baked goods or flowers, and Gretel is hyperaware that the other 14 people in the department have gotten something to mark similar events.
It’s certainly not a situation I’d want to be in, and I think the best solution is to stop taking on all this extra work. If the letter writer wants an outlet for their baking and gardening, they should stick with friends and family members, and avoid the office politics.
Q. My co-worker’s perfume is causing me physical pain: I’m incredibly sensitive to perfume. I develop blinding migraines if someone wears excessive amounts of it, like my co-worker Erica does. My friend Tina has had asthma attacks after walking through a cloud of Erica’s perfume. The two of us, as well as four other co-workers, have spoken to our supervisors and HR about different physical reactions to Erica’s perfume. I recently met with my boss, and she told me that since perfume is subjective and others who sit by her aren’t bothered by it, she’s not in a position to tell Erica to not wear perfume. If I develop another migraine, she asked me to come to her so she can come to where I sit and smell the perfume for herself.
I’m feeling really dejected about the company’s response. I love my job and my company is usually hugely supportive. I can also appreciate that not everyone is affected by perfume. But I’m expending an incredible amount of energy ensuring that my performance doesn’t suffer when I have a migraine at work; sometimes, I can’t even manage that and have to leave early. I don’t know how to sustain this long term, and since Erica and I are on the same team and sit close to one another, avoiding her is very difficult. What should I do next?
A: Have you talked to Erica about it yet? You say you’ve gone to your supervisors and HR, but you don’t mention that you started by asking her, which makes me wonder if she’d be amenable to a politely worded request. If you don’t know Erica to be stubborn or malicious, I think the odds are good that she’d be willing to refrain from wearing perfume if she knew some of her co-workers were sensitive to fragrance and prone to asthma attacks and migraine. Perhaps she would be more receptive than your boss has been.
Q. Re: Justified pettiness: If the letter writer is pretending to be friends with Emily—after all, that’s what she’s doing, for whatever reason—then she should pretend to do what a real friend would do: have a gentle conversation with Emily to say that she is now dating Alex and hopes it won’t get in the way of their occasional coffee dates. If she is only interested in being cruel to Emily, maybe she should stop seeing Emily altogether and try to make some real friendships.
A: That is both reasonable and kind, and I hope the letter writer does exactly that.
Mallory Ortberg: These updates are the greatest things that have ever happened to me. KEEP ‘EM COMING. Thanks, and see you all next week!