Mum’s the Word
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 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. My mom sucks: For years, my mom has involved my siblings and me in a number of different manipulations, including lying to my dad about bills, how much she was spending, credit cards she had, where she is—pretty much you name it. As an adult, I recognize her as a wildly manipulative person who is always pretty negative—critical of literally everyone—so I just minimize my time with her. I don’t think it’s negatively affecting my life. When I have to see her, I just roll my eyes at what she says and minimize our time together.
Last year, my sister discovered that my mom had been either planning to have an affair while on vacation or at least indulging in that fantasy via chat with the man she was planning on cheating with. My sister told me but not my other siblings. I’m not at all surprised by it. When my sister confronted my mom, my mom pretty much shrugged it off and never took responsibility for it, and after the confrontation, she has shown no humility and has not changed her manipulative ways. This all bothers me. Lately, my other siblings (who don’t know) have said to me, “You seem to have really cooled on mom lately” or similar things. I don’t feel like it’s my place to tell them what my sister found out, but I also don’t think my mom deserves me having to carry this secret. Any advice?
A: I think the less involved you get in your mother’s life, the happier you will continue to be. Your siblings already know that she’s manipulative and has a habit of lying, so it’s not as if this revelation will provide shocking information about her character they hadn’t already known. If someone else brings up your increased estrangement from her, you can simply agree and say that you find things work best between the two of you when you can keep a polite distance.
Q. Bridesmaid jitters: My best friend asked me to be maid of honor in her wedding. I was obviously ecstatic. Long story short, she and her fiancé met at Mardi Gras, and the plan was for that to be the theme. To kick off the festivities we rehearsed a performance where the wedding party will re-enact Mardi Gras, and the groom and groomsmen will throw beads at us, after which we remove our tops. Our dresses are custom-tailored for this at my friend’s expense so they can still be worn comfortably with our breasts exposed for the night (and yes, the guests are all aware of the wedding’s nature). I was fine with this, but as the wedding closed in and the number of attending friends and relatives really sunk in, I gradually became more embarrassed (my toast would come after we remove our tops). What makes me conflicted is my friend was constantly making sure we were comfortable with the arrangement and despite my growing apprehension I kept assuring her that I was thrilled. It is now extremely close to the wedding day, and there is no way she’ll be able to replace me. Should I suck it up even if I would be humiliated, or do I ruin my friend’s wedding by selfishly backing out last minute?
A: Although I cannot bring myself to believe this is a true story, I want to believe, and that is what matters. One of the truths I think is worth repeating in this column is that literally anyone, at any time, for any reason, can change her mind about how much of her body she wants other people to see. For absolutely no reason other than “I particularly wish it.” I do not believe that your friend’s wedding will be ruined if you do not flash the audience; if she thinks it will, she has lost sight of what matters. The fact that she asked if you were comfortable before is a good sign. It does not mean you are not allowed to change your mind later; it means that she is genuinely interested in making sure you’re consenting and comfortable with the situation. Her earlier open-mindedness does not mean you are not allowed to say no now. You are entitled to change your mind about public nudity— everyone is!—and you don’t have to say anything more than, “The more I’ve thought about it, I’ve realized I’m not comfortable with taking my top off during the wedding, and I wanted to let you know that I won’t be able to do it.” If she’s really your friend, she’ll understand. But anyone who hears, “Actually, I don’t want to take my shirt off” and responds by complaining or badgering or cajoling is officially a Bad Person and someone you should feel very comfortable saying no to.
Q. Re: Bridesmaid jitters: FAKE FAKE FAKE
A: PROBABLY BUT I LOVED IT SO MUCH. If we all believe very, very hard that it’s true, perhaps it will become true, and we will all be better, happier, and nobler for it.
Q. Resenting husband over unwanted pregnancy: My husband and I have two children, and I was very happy with that. When I got unexpectedly pregnant with our third, I wanted an abortion and even made an appointment. He wanted to keep the baby and threatened to divorce me if I chose otherwise, and I acquiesced. Now our daughter is 2, and I regret keeping her and resent him. How do I get over it and become comfortable with our life as a family of five?
A: I know you’ve asked for advice specifically on how to accept the reality of your current situation, but I want to treat your relationship with your daughter and your relationship with your husband in two very different ways. I’m so sorry that you were pressured into giving birth to a child you did not want. No one should have to go through that. I also want to commend you for recognizing your own feelings of resentment and for looking for healthy, productive ways to deal with said feelings that don’t negatively affect your daughter. None of this is her fault, and it’s impossible to parent well from a place of frustration and bitterness. It is crucial that you put genuine effort into repairing your connection with her. Even at a young age, children can pick up on whether they’re wanted by their caregivers, and your daughter deserves to be brought up knowing, at the very least, that she is safe and welcome and appreciated in her own home. Making an appointment with a therapist you can trust should be at the absolute top of your list. Be as patient as you can with your youngest, and be mindful of how you treat her, especially in comparison with your other children. If the best you can do right now is go through the motions of loving her, then go through the motions as thoroughly and as patiently as you can.
That’s your daughter. When it comes to your husband, I’m not sure that your goal should be to “get over it” and become comfortable with him again. Here’s a man who pressured you into having a baby he knew you didn’t want by threatening to divorce you. What a ghastly, cruel, controlling thing to do. I don’t know if you are financially or emotionally prepared to leave him, especially with several young children at home, so I don’t want to tell you flat-out that you should leave him right now, but I don’t think you should be looking for reasons to forgive and forget what he did. His behavior was unconscionable, manipulative, and selfish, and I don’t think he could possibly be a good partner for you.
Q. Three’s too much company: My roommate’s girlfriend has been hanging out at our apartment a lot. They spend six nights a week here, and she’s here when my roommate isn’t around but I am, and also when neither of us are around. When we renewed our lease, I told them I would be willing to add her onto the lease as a paying roommate, but she declined and kept her own apartment. So I had a talk with roommate and expressed my concerns. My roommate was very sympathetic, but essentially nothing has changed (except now she spends only five nights a week here). I like the girlfriend as a person. But I do feel constrained in my own apartment as I often find myself retreating to my room to give them space or to simply avoid awkwardness when she’s around and my roommate is not. Plus, the not paying rent but essentially living here just irks me. Am I being childish, or are these concerns legitimate? If so, how do I approach my roommate again?
A: Someone who spends five nights a week in your apartment is a roommate. The Roommate’s Girlfriend is an eternal problem, and you are not alone in your quiet resentment; apartments the world over are full of inwardly irritated leaseholders who think their roommates’ boyfriends or girlfriends are perfectly nice but feel their blood pressures skyrocket every time they come home to find the freeloaders already stashed on their couches. (According to a super-scientific poll, five nights a week is the cutoff between what is and what isn’t acceptable, so your frustration is backed up by the voice of the people.) That you asked your roommate’s girlfriend if she wanted to join the lease was a very clear sign that she should, if not take you up on your offer, at least offer to contribute financially to the household she’s unofficially joined. The fact that she hasn’t puts you in a difficult position. Go to your roommate again and take him or her up on that sympathy he or she offered previously. Figure out a reasonable financial contribution that the girlfriend can offer if she’s going to spend almost every single night of the week at your place. If, after yet another discussion, she still isn’t willing to chip in for groceries or utilities occasionally, it might be time to start looking for another apartment.
Q. Should I speak up about past sexual abuse? From ages 5-10, I was sexually abused by my mom’s drunk boyfriend. He left our lives in 1999, and I’ve never seen him again. A few months ago, I looked him up on Facebook—I’m 99 percent certain it’s him. He also has a LinkedIn profile. From what I can see, he’s turned his life around. It seems he went back to college and got a degree. He’s had a job for several years now, and he’s actively involved in the community. What stopped me cold: It says he mentors children in his profile. This sent chills up my spine. I never came forward about the abuse, so he was never prosecuted. I am over the damage done to me in my youth. However, I would feel terrible if my silence allowed other children to get hurt. I honestly mean this man no trouble or harm if he’s truly changed his life completely around, but how am I to know if he has? What if he hasn’t changed but only bettered his image to have easier access to children? Do I open this can of worms (and potential old wounds), or do I just let sleeping dogs lie? How do I handle this situation?
A: I think getting a college degree and having a job are not the same as turning one’s life around, especially if that life has, up until that point, involved sexually abusing children. Obtaining employment is entirely distinct from taking responsibility for behavior that has harmed others. That’s an important distinction no matter what you decide to do. Bearing in mind that 99 percent certainty is not 100 percent, and that it is possible this is not the same man as your abuser, I think you should consider carefully all possible outcomes of every potential action you take. Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat at online.rainn.org for more advice on your options and to find out what resources are available to you. This recent discovery has clearly reawakened a host of old feelings, and I encourage you to seek therapy with someone who specializes in trauma and sexual assault, even if you decide not to do anything with this information.
Something important to remember is that you are not responsible for what anyone does or might do in the future. If this man decides to commit another crime against another child, it is not your fault. Your primary concern should be for your own well-being. Ask yourself what you might hope to accomplish if you decide to report. Will you feel safe? Do you have a support system or people you can trust enough to tell what happened to you? What would be the most desirable outcome? What will it feel like if you decide to report and nothing happens? I say this neither to discourage nor encourage you to take a particular course of action, but because I want you to take your time and act deliberately, as well as in your own best interests.
Q. Using religion like a club: My ex-husband and I have been divorced for six years. During the time we were separated, he found his faith again, and before the final divorce decree was signed, he decided that he wanted the kids to be raised Catholic. As a nonpracticing Catholic myself, I acquiesced and allowed the court to add in a clause that I would allow him to pick up the kids for Sunday Mass unless I wanted to take them myself.
Fast forward six years, and we have problems. One, the girls don’t want to go. They don’t believe in church, they hate going, and they are constantly begging me to try to get them out of it. More importantly, though, is that he uses church to control what goes on in my home. If I want to take the kids away for the weekend, we have to be back by church. If one of them has a slumber party, he tries to force us to cancel the party if it means that they won’t be able to attend church. Lots of times they don’t even go on his weekend. It’s worth noting that we have 50/50 custody and the girls are now 14 and 13. What should I do?
A: I think that for now, you should continue to abide by the agreement that you signed. You have a tricky line to walk here, since you shouldn’t undermine your ex-husband’s parenting choices (as long as they don’t endanger your children’s safety), but someone should also be listening to them about what religious practices they do and don’t want to pursue. Forcing someone to attend church against their will is a terrible idea, but I don’t think the answer (yet) is for you to start whisking the girls away on Sundays. In the long run, you should have a conversation with your ex-husband about updating this arrangement as the girls get older. It’s reasonable for you to at least float the idea that once a month or so, if given advance notice, he should allow one or both of the girls to take a trip, or sleep over at a friend’s house, even if it means missing the occasional mass. They’re old enough now to express their own desires, and it’s clear that what they want is to not be forced to go to church. If your husband’s goal is to make sure they attend Mass under duress until they turn 18, after which they never want to see another church again, his strategy is probably a good one.
Mallory Ortberg: That’s it for this week, everyone. I choose to live in a world where the topless bridal party exists. Won’t you join me there?