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 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! We should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque. Let’s get reoriented together.
Q. Baths: My boyfriend’s sister “Clara” recently got divorced and moved into a fixer-upper with her kids. She has been working on it for a while but it has been a slow go. My boyfriend and I took a week of our vacation to come down and help her out. He worked on landscaping and fixing the porch while I painted and replaced tiles in the kitchen. I have extensive experience in home renovation since I worked for my uncle flipping houses in college. I worked on that kitchen every day—I was even able to update her cabinets cheaply with finds from a charity store. I also took long baths around 9 every night. I run and asked Clara if I could use the tub after the kids had gone to bed. I usually was aching after everything and liked to rewind with a book and a bath. She said it was OK. I did finish the kitchen before we left and Clara thanked me. I was pretty pleased with myself until Clara added me accidentally to the wrong group chat. She was texting her other sisters about what a horrid houseguest I was. I obviously was “raised in a barn” because who takes baths every night in a stranger’s house? How could I even ask that and do it every night!
I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I thought my boyfriend’s family had been warming up to me. I come from a very different background than him and I know my boyfriend has had fights with them over me. I hoped that was in the past. Clara has bragged about my kitchen remodel on social media but didn’t mention my name. She just did a general thank you to friends and family. I have not showed the messages to my boyfriend yet. I know he will back me no matter what and get upset with Clara. The holidays are coming and we were going to go see his family. I don’t want to ruin that. Should I apologize to Clara or ask her to apologize to me. Did I cross some taboo as a guest?
A: There’s an important distinction to be made here: You were not a guest in Clara’s home. You were an unpaid interior designer, house painter, and construction worker. It might have been strange to ask to take a bath in her home had you been a professional contract worker, but you and your boyfriend (her brother!) performed an extremely generous favor, and it was not inappropriate for you to ask if you could use her bathroom to clean yourself up after spending all day remodeling her kitchen. Clara was astonishingly rude to say “Yes” to your request, then complain about the fact that you needed to get clean after a day of refurbishing her house for free.
I think you should show the messages to your boyfriend, especially because you’re already sure he’ll back you up. You have nothing to apologize to Clara for, but if you want to clear the air (and frankly, make her stew in the knowledge that she made an embarrassing error including you in that group chat) before the holidays, I think you should kill her with kindness: “I’m sure you didn’t intend for me to see the messages you sent your sisters about my using your bathroom, but you did. There must have been some miscommunication. After a day of remodeling your kitchen for free, I was often tired and dirty, and needed to get clean. Since you said I could use your bathroom, I assumed you meant what you said. In the future, if something I’ve done bothers you, please tell me directly.”
This should go without saying, but I think you should also decide that your days of helping Clara remodel—or being anything other than icily and distantly polite to her—are over.
Q. It’s petty but I’m fed up!: My daughter has been friends with “Eve” since kindergarten, they are now in third grade. She adores her friend and wants to see her all the time. They play great together and have play dates once or twice a week—always at my house. Eve’s mom never invites my child over, and my daughter has been in their house all of five times. It didn’t bother me at first but now it feels like a thorn in my side.
Eve recently got a pet that my daughter wants to see. My daughter asked to see said pet and was “allowed” to go over one day after school for an hour. Eve’s mom has Eve’s cousins over all the time (same age) for play dates and never invites my daughter to join in. This is starting to piss me off. The cherry on top is that Eve’s mom regularly uses me as free “child care” if there are any issues in her personal life. I always say yes because I know how much my daughter loves Eve. It also seems like she is doing me a favor by allowing her daughter over. It’s all getting to be too much. Any advice on how to make this a bit more even and fair?
A: I do have a few suggestions! One is that you do not have to “always say yes” when Eve’s mother asks you to babysit at the last minute. You should say no a lot more often! Yes, your daughter loves Eve, but it also sounds like your daughter gets to see Eve all the time. Your daughter is in no danger of an imminent Eve deficiency, and you’re rapidly approaching total burnout. Your needs and feelings matter in this situation, too. It’s OK to prioritize your own schedule—your daughter is a kid, and if she had her way, she’d probably spend 100 percent of her time with her best friend on a deserted island living in an old race car. It is OK for you to make some decisions that don’t thrill your daughter if they make you feel more relaxed and happy. Start saying you’re unavailable when Eve’s mother asks you to step in, and I think you’ll find that goes a long way towards feeling like you’re not always under her thumb.
As for play date locational reciprocity, I think you’re slightly more limited in terms of what you can ask for. You simply don’t know Eve’s home situation, and while you can certainly say to Eve’s mom, “Would it be all right if the girls played at your house next week? I can’t host this time,” if she says no, you can’t pry or try to talk her into it, or use the fact that Eve’s cousins come over to their house regularly as a reason your daughter should, too. The most you can do is decide your own boundaries with Eve’s mom. The good news is that you have a lot of opportunities to start saying no.
Q. Burnout: I am a Type-A personality, very competitive and goal-oriented. I took the hardest classes in school, received two degrees in college, and started working 80-hour weeks at 23 as a consultant—and loved my life. Now I am 36, successful, with a loving family and on track to make partner in the next year or two. My problem? I suddenly find myself waking up and not wanting to do anything. I guess you could call it burnout, but I am not unhappy, just ... lazy.
After working so hard for pretty much my entire life, my logical side says walking away now when I am two years or less from partner seems stupid. It’s not one of those things you can take a leave of absence from and come back on the same track. But at the same time I am struggling to motivate myself. I have no alternative thing I want to do—other than sleep and read and watch TV. I fantasize about running a bar on an island in the Caribbean (of course, real bar owners would work more than my fantasy-self) which isn’t realistic, of course, as my family depends on my income. Is this a mid-life crisis? How do I get back my motivation?
A: I don’t “guess” you could call it burnout, and I certainly wouldn’t describe a desire to stop working 80-hour weeks after 13 years of so doing as “lazy.” You sound burned out, friend! I feel burned out just from reading your letter!
You seem pretty aware that some of your escapist fantasies aren’t especially likely, but your desire to just “get back” your old motivation does strike me as a little far-fetched. There’s a balance to be struck between “running away and reenacting the middle sequence of the movie Cocktail” and “go back to the old way of putting work before my own health and happiness.” It is possible to both support your family financially and decline to pursue making partner in the next year with singleminded zeal. It is possible to consider finding a less highly-pressurized position at a more relaxed company. It is possible—it is desirable—to make time for reading and watching TV, and it is absolutely necessary to your continued physical and mental health to prioritize sleep. You are a human being who deserves to have an enjoyable life outside of work. Your value extends beyond the amount of money you can generate for a company.
Having motivation isn’t a bad thing. I don’t mean to inspire you into a Family Man-style epiphany where you throw your work phone out of a window, necessarily, but I don’t think your response to your newfound feelings should be to squash them and get back to CRUSHING IT 24/7. I think you should pay attention to what your body is asking for: Rest. A new sort of work-life balance. To be a person, not just a worker. It’s not “lazy” to want a full night of sleep, or to read a book once or twice a week. That’s being human.
Q. Brokey McBroke feels inadequate: I recently began dating a wonderful man. Kind, supportive, shared values, the works. There is one issue that has been on my mind and it’s my financial situation. I’m a doctoral student with no income living as frugally as possible. I gave up a lucrative job to do this and would do it again. My boyfriend is well-off. He’s got a good career, loves what he does, and is generous when we go out. I find myself making unexpected comments about my situation and I feel bad now that I’ve made them because I don’t want him feeling like he has to provide. That said, I am grateful he offers to pay for meals and random expenses and I tell him.
How do I get over feeling inadequate? For background, I grew up in a family where money was always tight so I’ve always been money-conscious.
A: A good antidote to “making unexpected comments” about something that bothers you is to have an intentional conversation about something that bothers you. If you’re letting little hints and asides slip through more than once, it’s probably a sign that you’d really like to talk with your boyfriend about the ways your income disparity makes you feel. You don’t necessarily have to change anything about the arrangement you have now, but simply saying “I worry about money sometimes, and I’m anxious at the prospect that you might think you have to pay for me whenever we go out.” These are all things you can and should talk about, including your family’s history with money, if you trust your boyfriend and think he’ll listen to and respect your point of view. If both of you know he doesn’t have to treat you, but that he often can and enjoys doing so, and you’re both mindful of the fact that you have to stick to a tight budget, then you can keep on as you are, but with the added bonus of no longer feeling like you can’t talk about money with one another.
Q. Free time: I work full-time and go to school part-time. My schedule is fixed and tight but I do my best to make my boyfriend a priority. He works full-time and lives 30 minutes away. More often than not, he drives to see me as I am busy and live in a college town with restaurants, theaters, and events in walking distance. My boyfriend lives in the suburbs where there isn’t even a sidewalk. We see each other twice during the week and on weekends but my frustration keeps mounting. We make plans for 7, and at 4 my boyfriend will randomly text me that he is already coming up and ask if he can see me. I get off work at 4 but still need to shop, go to the bank, do laundry, study, shower, or just decompress for an hour by watching TV alone.
I have tried talking to my boyfriend, and he agrees but still does it. I have told him I couldn’t see him until the time we agreed to and he will go to a sports bar and wait on me. I hate it. It makes me guilty, and then I feel guilty about feeling guilty. My boyfriend loves me and wants to be with me but he ignores our schedule and it drives me up the wall. If we have a date for Friday, he doesn’t understand I don’t want to see him till Friday—I have barely enough energy to properly be an adult most week days as it is. I have tried to encourage him to get a hobby or join a group in his neighborhood, but everyone is either in their 40s or has very small kids. What can I do? I have gotten into the bad habit of turning my phone off or ghosting him until it is near the time of our date. I feel awful but I don’t know what to do.
A: If he texts you three hours before you agreed to meet and you don’t want to see him, you should do exactly as you’ve been doing and text back: “No, I’m not free now, but I’ll see you at seven.” I know saying “Just don’t feel guilty!” isn’t a perfect fix for the fact that you do feel guilty when you can’t or won’t rearrange your schedule at the last minute to accommodate your boyfriend’s oddly aggressive whimsy, but you genuinely should not feel guilty. The fact that your boyfriend sometimes finds himself at loose ends is absolutely not your problem or responsibility. You say that you’re trying to get him to expand his social life and go into reasons why he can’t connect with his neighbors, but it is not your responsibility to make sure he has a social life outside of you.
Q. Re: Baths: Personally, I’d send Clara an itemized bill for the kitchen remodel, including your time and whatever materials you bought. Add that you know you used her hot water and so on for the long baths, so if she would just let you know her costs you can subtract them from what she owes you. Just to make it more fun I’d say this on the same chat she mistakenly added you to, but that’s just me.
A: I’m so tempted to offer this advice, too (there were also a few suggestions that the letter writer should text the whole group back and apologize for spending their vacation remodeling her kitchen). In a movie, it would be a supremely satisfying moment! Also, I now have a personal vendetta against Clara and long to see her get her comeuppance. But the letter writer does have to continue interacting in some form with their boyfriend’s family, and I think Clara’s behavior has been so obviously petty and selfish that simply acknowledging it and asking her to speak more directly about any complaints in the future will be sufficient.
But letter writer, if you do bill her or respond triumphantly to the group thread, please send screenshots.
Q. One cat, two cat: My roommate no longer lives with me, in most senses of the word. She has slowly moved into her boyfriend’s house, and while she used to spend a reasonable amount of time at “home” in our apartment, the most she does now is come home during an off day to clean and do laundry, or pop by for a 30-minute stop-in for fresh clothes or a meal. Honestly, I have no problem with her not living here. I’d like to see her more, but it’s not a deal-breaker for me as long as she pays her bills. However, her cat does still live in the apartment. Therefore, I have been tasked with making sure she is fed and watered, has clean kitty litter, is played with, given attention, et cetera.
When we moved in, I adopted my own cat—a low-maintenance grandpa who does not need excessive amounts of attention—but her cat is quite the opposite. My roommate’s cat steals, breaks, and generally gets into my belongings, demands attention (because she doesn’t get any from her actual owner), and fights with my cat when she doesn’t get the attention she wants. But even if she was well-behaved: She’s not my cat. I adopted one cat, but now I have two, and I would not have chosen to adopt the cat I have been “gifted” by my roommate. Living with her would have been fine, but I am not comfortable or happy being solely responsible for her care. My roommate has already mentioned that at most, her boyfriend would only allow her cat to “visit” once every two weeks. How can I make this work without hurting my roommate’s feelings—or completely ignoring her neglected pet?
A: I don’t think that “not hurting your roommate’s feelings” is the highest possible good to be achieved in your situation! Of course you should be polite when you speak to her. There’s no need to call her names or go out of your way to insult her, but beyond that, not hurting her feelings should not be your aim. Your aim should be to communicate the following: That your living situation has recently and obviously changed, that you are now the default primary caregiver for your roommate’s cat, that this situation cannot continue, and that you are asking her to come up with an alternate solution. The fact that your roommate’s boyfriend seems uninterested in letting the cat move in with them is not your problem to solve. If your roommate’s response to this conversation is, “But my boyfriend can’t take her in,” then your response gets to be, “I’m sorry to hear that! But the cat is yours, and this current arrangement isn’t working. What are you going to do instead?”
Q. Re: It’s petty but I’m fed up!: Please don’t take this out on Eve. Growing up, I had a troubled home life. My mom never let us have other kids over and very rarely let us go to friends’ houses (and only if she approved of their family, which was a select few). If these kids’ families had told us we had to reciprocate, we would have been even more socially isolated and would never have gotten a reprieve from the yelling or seen what a normal family looked like. Please consider if Eve might need help and if you’re able to provide it.
A: It’s always helpful to remember that it’s possible there’s something going on at Eve’s house that her mother might not want non–family members to see. There’s no overt signs of domestic trouble in the letter writer’s question, but it can be very easy to assume we know the full extent of someone else’s home life, and it’s a good reminder that there are a number of reasons Eve might not be able to have your daughter over as often as she comes to see you.