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.)
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Q. Discovering a family secret: A few months ago, I took a DNA test to find out my ethnic heritage and after looking at the results online, I saw that I shared a significant amount of DNA with a person who lives across the country (enough to be close relatives). I just received a message from that person explaining that my grandmother had a child decades ago and gave the child up for adoption, therefore one of my parents has a half-sibling and I have a half-cousin I had no idea existed.
The person who contacted me said that they contacted my grandmother in the past to see if she wanted to communicate; she said no, and they didn’t ask again. They then asked if I would like to communicate, but if I do not, they will not contact me again. I am interested in meeting a new cousin, but it is obvious that my still-living grandmother does not want me or my siblings to know about this part of her life. I have no idea if my father or uncle know about their half-sibling, or if my grandfather knows about his wife’s previous child.
Because my grandmother refused contact, should I do the same to respect her wishes? Should I risk my family dynamic falling apart to meet this cousin? Would it be acceptable to wait for my grandparents’ deaths to contact this person?
A: This is tricky! I can’t imagine the circumstances under which your grandmother surrendered her child for adoption were easy or ones that she’d like to remember, and I can understand your reluctance to reopen old family wounds. Yet this newly discovered cousin has also been fairly upfront about the fact that they’ve accepted your grandmother’s decision not to get in touch and has said they’ll respect your choice if you also decide not to meet or talk further. You two are also relatives in your own right, and if you want to exchange a few friendly messages catching one another up on your respective lives, I don’t think that’s necessarily violating your grandmother’s trust or her choice.
If part of you is anxious about potential fallout, ask yourself what you’re hoping to get out of this connection. Is it simply to satisfy a mutual sense of curiosity and wish one another well? You don’t sound like part of you wants to bring this cousin to the next family reunion and force everyone to deal with old trauma. You don’t have to share the fact that you’ve occasionally emailed this person with the rest of your family if you think it would be too painful.
Of course, if the idea of keeping even limited contact with your cousin private from the rest of your family sounds overwhelming or impossible, then you may want to write back and say you’re glad to hear from them, but you’re not able to start talking right now. I don’t think either option is a bad one—it depends on your particular family dynamic, and whether you feel comfortable at the idea of getting to know a brand-new cousin without sharing the details with your other relatives.
Q. Amazon Christmas: Every year, we’re expected to buy presents for my husband’s family’s kids (five total). This year my sister-in-law sent a group text with her kids’ Amazon wish lists. We are not close to these kids and only see the cousins at Christmas. They all receive hundreds of dollars worth of presents without our contribution, and not counting their “big” presents from Santa on actual Christmas. I suck it up and get the presents each year even though it’s completely a one-way exchange, since we don’t have kids, and despite making half what these families do. But this year we just experienced a miscarriage. Now it just hurts that they are asking for presents for their kids while we have nothing. I’m tempted to be petty and send back a wish list like, “I know no one asked, but this is our list.” How should I handle this annual situation?
A: “I’m so excited to see everyone for Christmas! We don’t have the budget to buy big gifts for all the kids this year, but I’m so looking forward to [insert beloved family tradition here].” Get all the kids a nice card and something you can afford—a box of See’s candy, a coffee shop gift card, or even just something relatively inexpensive for the family as a unit rather than five (!) individual, over-the-top gifts.
This is, I think, a perfectly appropriate thing to do regardless of the fact that you and your husband have suffered a painful loss this year. That doesn’t mean you two can’t celebrate the rest of your family’s joy, but you shouldn’t have to go into debt buying big presents for every single relative, full stop.
Q. The other woman: My girlfriend and her best friend refer to each other as “wife.” It grates on me a bit—especially as I don’t like the best friend much anyway!—but I remind myself that it’s playful and not directed at me, and try to let it go and just make the most of any situation when the three of us are together.
Recently, though, my girlfriend posted on social media about the great day she’d had spending time with her “wife and her girlfriend,” and I had a strong, instinctive reaction—like Nope!—that really threw me. After some digging I’ve identified the nope feeling as not only jealousy but humiliation.
I don’t really know what to do with this—I don’t think that my feelings are super-rational and I don’t know whether I’d be making too much of it to bring it up. What do you think?
A: Bring it up! (That is almost always my answer: BRING IT UP. WHATEVER IT IS, HAUL IT FORTH FROM THE DEEP AND PRESENT IT TO THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE.)
You’re not trying to tell your girlfriend what to do or even to share the fact that you’re not as wild about her best friend as she is. You just want her to know that as her girlfriend, it makes you feel hurt and embarrassed when she refers to her best friend as her wife—especially when she does so publicly and in reference to her relationship with you, too. She may not mean anything by it, but by telling her how it makes you feel, you’ll give her the opportunity to, at the very least, re-evaluate how she expresses her closeness to her friend with and around you.
There are a number of possible compromises available to both of you, and I think you’ll feel a lot less anxious about the playful “wife” language if your girlfriend can reassure you that she loves and prioritizes you and your feelings. The conversation you want to have with her isn’t “You can’t say this anymore,” it’s “Sometimes you say X, and it makes me feel Y. Sometimes I feel embarrassed for having an emotional response to this language, but I want you to know when I feel vulnerable or insecure so that we can talk about it together.”
Q. Good grief: A year ago, I lost my mother to a brutal battle with cancer, and I’ve been attending a grief support group once a week. Most of the group is widows, but there’s one woman who lost her father. However, she mostly uses these sessions to rant about her divorce, including telling the others “At least you had a spouse!” I’m single, so she likes me because we’re “in the same boat,” but she still tells me, “At least your mother wanted you.” The moderator initially tried to shut her down, but she threw a tantrum, so now he just lets her rant until she loses steam and we can move on. There are no other support groups that work for me travel- or time-wise, and I like the other attendees, so I don’t want to quit. Is there anything I can say to her, at least when she singles me out?
A: That is not excellent moderation, on the part of the moderator, to try to address this member’s disruptive and insensitive behavior once, then give up when she reacted angrily. It might be worth speaking to the moderator again and asking for help and support in reminding this woman that it’s unhelpful and unkind to tell other members why their unique losses “aren’t that bad.” If the moderator is at a total loss for how to proceed, you might ask the staff at whatever organization runs your particular support group if they have any tips on how to deal with a member who repeatedly disrupts meetings. But if nothing else, you can say, “Please don’t tell me how to feel about my own loss.” If she throws a tantrum again, ask the moderator for help in either redirecting the conversation or asking her to take a few minutes to step outside and compose herself so that she can rejoin the group without interrupting, steamrolling, or ranking other people’s grief against her own personal scale.
Q. When to draw the line: When I was in law school, I became friends with a classmate. We are both of South Asian origin. He has some great qualities but is also highly inappropriate. For example, while at law school, he used the N-word. I explained how inappropriate that was, and he accepted that and stopped.
I am now a lawyer, while he just finished his master's in law. He has had some personal setbacks, such as his mother passing away from cancer (she raised him as a single mother). He has serious issues with insecurity, as he is cross-eyed and had stunted growth, and has been subjected to cruel criticism from his extended family because of this. I have tried to include him in my circle of friends, but, to be honest, it is embarrassing. He has no table manners, chews loudly, and talks with food in his mouth. I feel embarrassed to tell a grown man that this is not OK. I do, whenever possible, voice concerns I have with things he says. But he has no social skills. Last time I invited him for a dinner I hosted, he made comments to my friend about how her boyfriend hadn’t yet proposed to her. He meant it innocently, but we all found it inappropriate.
He suffers from depression, and I have told him to see a therapist, but his extended family tells him that is taboo. I know he is sad, lonely, and needs help, but I really can only deal with him one on one, and feel guilty that I am ashamed for my other friends to meet him. What, if anything, should I tell him about his unconscious behavior?
A: Wow, OK, there’s a lot here, but let’s set some of these details aside and focus on what’s relevant to your relationship to this guy and what you can reasonably expect to address. You’ve encouraged him to see a therapist, but whether he decides to see one, or how he chooses to navigate that with his family (if he decides to share that information with them at all) is entirely out of your hands. You’re not, and can’t be, responsible for that. In the past when you’ve challenged him on his racist speech, he’s listened and changed his behavior, which indicates that if you were to do the same again about his comments on your friend’s engagement, he’d probably be receptive. That’s a good thing! It’s not clear whether his difficulty with social interactions may be related to some of his medical and mental health issues. Don’t attempt to armchair diagnose him, but do bear in mind that whatever feedback you offer him about his public behavior, it seems to stem more from dealing with numerous internal challenges than intentional rudeness. You can reasonably address what he said to your friend and make it clear that sort of comment is out of line and that he ought to apologize for it, regardless of whatever personal setbacks he’s experienced in the past.
As for the rest of it—the fact that he has bad table manners, that you seem to feel in some ways responsible for the fact that he’s not receiving treatment for his depression, that you also appear to feel responsible for mitigating the way his family treats him—some of this you can address, and some of this you can let go. You can talk to him briefly and kindly about his table manners (“You may not have noticed this, and I don’t want to embarrass you, but I’ve noticed you often chew with your mouth open, and it’s distracting; I’d want someone to tell me if I were doing it”). You can say, “I’m sorry, that sounds painful,” when he talks about his family’s rejection, without getting into a 45-minute conversation where you try to help him manage his relationship with them. Figure out what you’re capable of giving him—maybe that’s a monthly phone call and the occasional dinner, maybe it’s more one-on-one time and only occasionally spending time with him in a group setting—and don’t push yourself in the direction of responsibility burnout.
Q. Dating and being a dad: My ex and I were ending our three-year relationship when she discovered she was pregnant. She decided to continue the pregnancy against my wishes. I thought neither of us were in a proper place to be parents. The company my ex was working for folded, leaving her unemployed when she was five months pregnant. I offered to have her move into my house until after the baby was born so she could save money. We discussed terms and agreed to strictly be co-parents and that she would look for permanent employment when the baby turned six months old (she had been doing temp work on and off).
I love my son, but my relationship with his mother is deteriorating. My son is 10 months old, but his mother has made no efforts to find another job. She has made repeated romantic overtures, like telling other people we are getting back together or trying to kiss me. I have rebuffed her and then she gets upset and we fight. I have tried to start dating again. My ex calls me excessively if she thinks I am out on a date. I once caught her going through my phone. I have started avoiding my own house and spending the night over at friends' just so I don’t deal with the third degree from her.
I am trying to do the right thing here. I want to be a good dad to my son and have a respectful relationship with his mother, but she is making it impossible. I do not love her, I don’t want to be with her, and I don’t think it is fair she should dictate my life when we are not even together. I don’t know what to do. Is there a way out?
A: If the two of you do not have a court-ordered custody agreement, you may find one extremely helpful as you continue to navigate a co-parenting relationship, even if you have never been married. In regards to your ex’s repeated attempts to push you back into a romantic relationship you’ve made it very clear you’re not interested in—there absolutely is a way out. What she’s doing, from going through your phone to lying about your relationship to your friends to attempting to kiss you against your will, is so not OK. It’s not just inappropriate and disrespectful, it’s a constant infringement on your boundaries and physical autonomy. You may find it helpful to hire—if you’re able to afford it—a professional custody mediator who can help you articulate your mutual goals as co-parents. Since you and your ex clearly cannot continue to live together, coming up with an alternate custody agreement will be crucial, and you deserve all the help you can get finding ways to hold clear boundaries while remaining as civil as possible for the sake of your son.
Your current living situation is absolutely untenable and cannot continue. That’s not to say you should—or even can, legally—demand she move out immediately, but you cannot continue living together in the long run. Whether you or your ex decide to move out, whether you work out some sort of child support agreement with her as long as your child is an infant, whatever that may look like, you should start taking steps now to establish a two-household co-parenting situation. Based on your ex’s past behavior, I’m assuming she’s not going to be thrilled about that. That’s why the mediator and the court agreement will be so valuable to you. You two have shared legal, familial, and financial responsibilities to one another as co-parents, but that’s it.
Q. Mean girls?: When my friend Ivy had the latest in a long line of miscarriages, I understood that she didn’t want to hear about my unplanned baby, or our friend’s fourth son, or the friend whose IVF finally took. The thing is, it’s been nearly three years, two more miscarriages for her, and our friend group—now with a lot of parents—tends to meet without Ivy. It’s just easier if we want to talk about the kids, or even just have a BBQ with the kids there. We try to organize nonkid events too, but it’s difficult to do it often, and Ivy is always annoyed and sad to find out we’ve been hanging out without her.
I do see Ivy one-on-one sometimes, but it’s hard to spend an hour without mentioning my kid. I know that sounds pathetic, but I’m a single mom and other than work, any “What have you done lately?” questions involve the kid. You do get a bit boring, you know? If I do mention my kid, Ivy gets upset and cuts the date short—which then puts my back up, because I’ve burned an afternoon of babysitting to get here.
I don’t want to lose Ivy as a friend—and I don’t think she wants to lose the rest of us, either—and I’m so sorry that she’s not had a baby when she wants one so much. However, I’m just not sure how to fix this. Things will only get harder as the children get older. Is there any way to fix it?
A: “I love you, and I miss getting to spend time together. I know that you’ve suffered several miscarriages and that’s been incredibly painful for you, and I want to make sure that I support you in any way that I can. Sometimes you’ve had to cut our get-togethers short when I’ve talked about my kid, and I don’t always know if it would feel welcoming or insensitive to invite you to events where our friends bring their children. I don’t know what this balance might look like, but I want to be sensitive and compassionate to what you’re going through while also being able to sometimes talk about my life, including my kid. Can we talk about that?” There’s not going to be a perfect, immediate fix where you and your friend will be able to hash out exactly how many minutes she can spend around children or children-related conversations every week, but it may help you both to express that this is really hard for you.
You can’t pretend that you don’t have a child, or that your child isn’t an enormous part of your day-to-day life. If Ivy absolutely can’t deal with hearing about your kid, then it’s up to her to communicate what she’s available for and what she’s not, and to find ways to attend to her own emotional health before she has to walk out halfway through dinner. You can’t fix this—it’s just a painful situation without a single solution—but you can talk about what’s working, what isn’t, and what might be possible in the future.
Q. Re: When to draw the line: A number of years ago “Manners classes” were the hot thing for young professionals. They taught how to navigate formal dining situations, et cetera. This would definitely help his social interactions and, as a “class for professionals,” would probably fly with the relatives.
A: That’s worth pointing out! I think the letter writer should mention it once as a possibility, but then leave it up to his or her friend; the letter writer is already taking on a lot of responsibility for helping their friend, and I want to make sure they don’t try to manage his or her life by proxy.
Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, Earth dwellers! See you all next week.