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: Morning, everyone! I’m game if you’re game. Let’s spread some prudence.
Q. Midlife crisis?: For the past year or two—but especially over the last few months—I’ve been having what I can only describe as a midlife crisis. I’ve lost complete interest in my job (though I’m still productive), don’t want to deal with my kids anymore even though I love them like crazy (I’ve been a single mom for 10 years with no help from their father), and basically just want to travel the world with no responsibilities. I know all of this is unreasonable, and with my financial situation, unrealistic. But ho boy, I just want a break from real life for a year or two. As I’m unlikely to get the break, what can I do to get past this feeling of wanting to throw it all away and become a beach bum?
A: I don’t think your primary goal should be to get past this feeling! I understand, of course, that wanting to turn your life into “Margaritaville” is neither a productive nor a useful desire, and that you want to be able to do your job and care for your children without constantly looking for cheap plane tickets in an incognito browser. Some of this is standard-issue midlife crisis, sure, but plenty of it also has to do with the very real challenges of your situation. Being a single mother and having a full-time job on top of everything else is incredibly stressful and difficult, and I think you should pay attention to the fact that you’re feeling burnt out and overwhelmed.
I don’t know what help is available to you, or whether you can afford any additional professional help with either child care or domestic chores, but even if you have a close friend or family member you can share some of this stress with and ask for help getting a night off so you can take a break, I’d recommend you do so. You’re right that you can’t take a full year off from your commitments, but if you can start to schedule in a day or two a month where someone else can help to shoulder the burden, you might feel less like heading for the hills.
Q. Husband’s having an affair and I don’t care: I just discovered my husband of 15 years is hooking up with women he finds online. We’ve had issues that all couples who’ve been together for a long time have: full-time jobs, medical issues for us both, dealing with my aging and infirm parents, carting the kids to hell and back. I’m disappointed that he appears to have chosen the nuclear option rather than discuss his dissatisfaction. But other than that, I feel nothing. No anger, no sadness, just ... whatever.
I can’t bring myself to bother to tell him I know. The kids still need rides, my parents still need care, I still have to work, and he still needs things I no longer give. I don’t know why I can’t give a damn.
A: Indifference is a fairly understandable response given the situation you’ve described. It’s certainly a sign, if nothing else, that your romantic connection is no longer a meaningful component of your marriage. You don’t need to force yourself to get angry in order to talk to your husband about it. Whether or not you two decide to separate, or to redefine the terms of your partnership, it’s still something you should talk about, if for no other reason than to set limits, make sure that he’s behaving safely, sanely, and discreetly so that his extracurricular activities don’t interfere in your mutual commitment to your children.
Q. Unwilling teetotaler: Recently, I had to give up alcohol for medical reasons—it may or may not be permanent. One side effect is I don’t have as much tolerance for family events or weddings that used to seem fine (or even great) with a few beers. My husband’s family is large and we are obligated to go to a lot of family gatherings. Unfortunately, I’ve found that without alcohol, these events range from boring to someone-please-shoot-me.
My husband admits that these events aren’t fun without alcohol, and he is sympathetic, but he is unwilling to forego drinking to see what it’s like for me to sit through these events sober. I just want him to have a more realistic understanding of how painfully boring things can be without a cocktail. I stay home as much as is possible, but sometimes there are events you do have to attend. I’d just prefer we stay for an hour or two rather than a beer-fueled five or six. Am I being unreasonable?
A: Not at all! Unfortunately, I am not your husband, so the fact that I think your request is reasonable won’t go very far when it comes to negotiating how much time you two will spend with his family.
I don’t think it’s worth your time and energy trying to convince him to go teetotal during family get-togethers in solidarity with you, but if you’d prefer to leave after two hours, I think that’s a perfectly reasonable request. If he wants to come with you, so much the better, but I think you should give yourself permission to make an appearance, catch up with your in-laws for an hour or two, and then leave—if the events are as beer-fueled as you say, then most peoples’ memories of the latter half of the gathering is going to be fuzzy anyhow, and you’ve done more than your fair share when it comes to family togetherness. There’s certainly a long-range conversation to be had about what relationship you want to have with both drinking and your in-laws, but in the short-term, I think you can leave after two hours without having to worry about seeming rude.
Q. I’ve got bedbugs: I’ve got bedbugs in my house. No idea where they came from. I’ve been sleepless, anxious, irritable, paranoid, depressed—you name it. But I cannot tell a soul. I feel like a leper. I don’t want to go to someone else’s house for fear of accidentally giving them bugs, and I don’t want them to come to mine for the same reason. I don’t even want to be in my own house.
I feel dirty and unclean and every little brown speck gets my heart pounding. Bedbugs are an absolute nightmare. People have noticed my moods and puffy eyes. They can tell something’s going on with me, and I wish desperately that I could talk about it. For all I know, I might know many people who have had these nasty critters, but if they did, they didn’t talk about it, just like I’m not.
I’m meeting with a psychologist just so I can have an outlet about this, but in the meantime, I’ve been at a loss how to handle people’s concern. I’m grateful for it, but shudder at the thought of seeing revulsion if I tell them what’s really going on. I feel like I’m going crazy.
A: If anyone in the comments has experience dealing with the psychological side effects of bedbug infestation, please let us know what’s helped you. (Letter writer, I’ll assume you’re not looking for practical advice on how to get rid of them unless I hear otherwise from you.)
I understand not wanting to share this information with everyone in your life, but if you have a close friend or two who you think might be able to listen without overreacting, I’d encourage you to talk about it with them. When it comes to feeling like you’re lying when acquaintances or co-workers ask, “Are you all right? You look exhausted,” consider giving them a version of the truth like, “I’m having trouble sleeping lately” or “I’m dealing with a bug infestation at home and it’s really anxiety-producing.” That doesn’t necessarily set off everyone else’s bedbug panic button, but might make you feel less isolated and alone.
Q. When to ask a partner about their thoughts on children?: I’m a 28-year-old woman who has been dating an exceptionally wonderful man for three months. We have similar ambitions and interests, and while it’s still early, I like him more than I’ve liked anyone I’ve dated in years. While out to breakfast with him a few weeks ago, he commented on some children who were speaking loudly at another table, joking “Ugh, I hate kids.” He has expressed similar sentiments a few times since.
Prudie, the one constant in my vision for my future has always been that I want kids—not an unreasonable number, and not necessarily biologically mine, but at least one or two. His comments have led me to believe that he may not share that goal. I really like this guy, and three months seems ridiculously early to ask “Hey, do you want kids?” but I’m afraid of becoming (further) emotionally invested in someone whose vision of his future is incompatible with mine. When should I bring this up?
A: Now seems like a great time. Honestly, your boyfriend has already broached the subject—albeit jokingly—and this is important information you should know about each other. It’s not too early, and it’s not inappropriate. It’s relevant to your relationship, and you can ask him today.
Q. Bad dog: We have new neighbors that moved in a couple of months ago. They are nice people and have a toddler that my son loves to play with, but they also have a dog that is insanely aggressive toward kids. We have a dozen or so kids on the block and he’s lunged at about half of them. (He even hit my own son with his snout while his back was turned, leaving a bruise, not a bite.) Luckily, he’s been on a leash every time which has prevented a serious attack. Recently, the dog has been digging his way out of the backyard. The owners have fixed the holes when they happen, but now all the neighbors are even more scared of what could happen.
The owners don’t seem to be overly concerned about fixing his behavior or doing more to keep him contained. We are all concerned that it will take a kid getting seriously hurt for something to change. What can we do or say to get them to take their dog’s temperament more seriously? When is it appropriate to call animal control?
A: Have any of you spoken to the owners about the concerns you’ve listed here? It sounds like someone has alerted them to the sinkholes in their backyard, but I’m curious if anyone has expressed concern about their dog’s aggression and the odds that someday he might hurt a child, and his need for greater training and supervision. If you bring this up to them, and their response is lackluster, then I think it’s appropriate to escalate to animal control, which can make more specific recommendations, levy fines, and put a little more weight into their suggestions than you can as a neighbor.
Q. Outsider tortoise at a table full of hares: This may seem a nonproblem, but it’s important to me: I’m a slow eater. I don’t make people sit at the table for hours as I languidly pick at my plate, but I’m often finishing my first helping while others are on their seconds, thirds, or beyond. In fact, I rarely get a chance for additional helpings, even when I’m the hostess. (Which I frequently am, making tons of food.)
I’ve brought this up with several friend groups only to be told that I just need to eat faster, be like the group, and check my privilege. I admit that I grew up an only child in a middle-class family who never had to fight for food, but I prefer savoring to shoveling. My old-fashioned parents had a rule about not taking seconds until others at the table had finished firsts, but I’m aware of the privilege that implies. Am I being elitist and selfish? Is there a safe, appropriate way to discuss this? Do I have other choices besides eating faster, being hungry, or finding new friends?
A: If you’re regularly not getting enough to eat when you’re sharing a meal with friends, consider the possibility that you are not putting enough food on your plate to begin with. Of course one’s upbringing and history with food is relevant, but you also don’t have to litigate your own childhood every time you have dinner. If you don’t feel comfortable eating faster, and your friends are finishing everything in sight before you have a chance to get more food (and assuming your friendship with them is otherwise strong and positive), I think the easiest solution is simply to serve yourself larger portions and take your time.
Q. Re: I’ve got bedbugs: I had bedbugs in a previous apartment and had to move out after rounds of unsuccessful treatment. On the psychological side, I hear you! Many sleepless nights were spent searching images on Google and reading forums. It helps to know that bedbugs are becoming a common problem that other perfectly clean and normal people have had the misfortune of dealing with. The bugs live in mattresses and bedding and cannot live on your skin. They die when subjected to extreme heat, so take a load of laundry to a laundromat, throw it in a dryer, and live out of your basket at a friend’s house to recoup on needed sleep while exterminators work on your house.
A forewarning: Lack of sleep can induce “flare-ups” even after the bugs are gone, tricking you into thinking that you have them again! Sleep is the most important thing (ironically) and will help immensely.
A: I’m so glad that you, at the very least, no longer have bedbugs in your home, although I’m sorry you had to move apartments in order to achieve that. Thanks for the recommendations, both for sleep and for high-heat dryers.
Q. Toxic grandmother: My grandmother is a piece of work. Always trying to buy my love, offering to pay me to lose weight, and constantly suggesting men (whom she barely knows) for me to date because she wants great-grandkids like, yesterday. I now have a partner of my own, and ever since she found out, she has been hounding us constantly to come to dinner. We live several hours away from her and both have busy work schedules. She has been calling, leaving messages, texting.
My mom told me to just ignore her, but that backfired—she has started sending more texts, many of which could be construed as emotionally abusive. The final straw was when she wanted me to ask him to cancel his Thanksgiving plans to come visit her instead. I don’t want her to meet him now and probably ever, simply because she’s a toxic person and will embarrass me to no end. But she won’t take no for an answer. What should I do?
A: If you don’t want your grandmother in your life—and it sounds like you don’t—then it will be easier and more straightforward than if you wanted to renegotiate the terms of your interactions but still leave the door open for future meetings. Since you don’t want to introduce her to your partner at all, you can simply say, “Grandma, I’ve told you no and your response has been to bombard me with messages and ignore my limits. I’m saying no again, and I’m not going to respond to any future requests. If you can’t respect that, and you keep sending me abusive texts, I’m going to block your number.” Feel free to block her email address as well.
Q. Re: Midlife crisis: Given you’ve been a single mom for 10 years, you have a kid who is at least 10. This is a good age to start talking about life balances and “me” time. A 10-year-old can safely supervise kids while you are in another room watching Netflix or reading a book. Or your kids can learn that everyone begins their evening with a half-hour of “me time,” where they get to spend some time alone focusing on them. Drawing, reading, whatever. Big chunks of time can be hard to come by, but small chunks of time are often doable.
Also: libraries. Take your kids on a Saturday, let them all find a book they like, and you all go home and read throughout the week. It’s great for the kids, and it gives you some downtime. Plus, nothing lets you vicariously travel the world or another universe like a book.
A: This is helpful and specific! While it’s not a substitute for a desire to have an entirely responsibility-free life—when the soul cries out for wide-open spaces, a trip to the library cannot quite answer it—it’s a worthy and sufficient response to the fact that the letter writer seems to be spread too thin and needs some time to herself when she is not primarily responsible for someone else.