Each week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, Slate Plus members only. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
Q: I may be busy: My friend Carla has a habit of asking about my plans without telling me why. Although it’s annoying, so far I’ve been able to navigate it without any issues. That is, until several months ago when she texted me one Sunday asking if I was doing anything.
I said no, not at the moment, thinking she’d tell me she was running some errands and if I needed anything I could come with her (she has a car, I don’t, and often asks if I want to join her). I planned to say I was good and I didn’t need to come over. Instead, she followed it up by asking if I could come and watch her two-year-old because she was in bed with a high fever and her husband “had to do some housework.” I was on the ground, but I felt like I couldn’t refuse. So, she reluctantly went, and literally sat in their house for three hours watching their son, while her husband did chores around the house that she apparently couldn’t wait a day or two (seriously, it wasn’t urgent, like she vomited all over He had to clean up and go to the store to get supplies.) The whole situation left a bad taste in my mouth. I obviously wouldn’t mind helping her in an emergency, or even watching her son if they wanted to go to dinner or something. But I 1) didn’t understand why I needed to be there in the first place (I know I don’t have actual plans, but I was thinking of heading over to another friend’s house to sit outside in the nice weather and catch up), and 2) I didn’t really like being in This situation, where I can’t say no without sounding like an asshole.
Since then, any time Carla asks about my plans, I ask, “Why do you ask?” Now you have accused me of asking this question just so I can find out what you want and make up an excuse if I don’t like it. Well, yes, I said plainly, because I don’t understand why you don’t tell me up front what you want, it looks like you’re fooling me and not really giving me a choice. I took it personally, telling her that if I decline plans, it had nothing to do with her, I turn down plans with everyone sometimes. She doesn’t accept it, and says we should probably re-evaluate our friendship if I really have to “make excuses not to hang out with her.” I knew we were getting hot, nothing would be achieved by more arguing, so I just said I’m sorry you feel that way, I’m ready to talk some more when you are. That was a week ago, and I haven’t heard from her. Am I wrong here? If I’m not being irrational, how do I explain my situation to Carla in a way that makes her understand? please help!
a: I once dropped everything to babysit for a friend who was struggling with his workload while his wife was out of town, only to watch him hop out the door with a yoga mat strapped to his back as soon as I took over. So I’ve definitely been there when it comes to different definitions of emergency child care. And I actually think what’s happening with Carla is really common – living in a world where everyone agrees that “it takes a village” to raise a child but children don’t come with a village! A lot of parents kind of suffer silently from this realization, but I think it takes a different route: trying to force and manipulate you into being the support system you need. This is very bold. And messed up. It is also likely to be a sign of true despair.
Even though she needs and deserves help, you’re right to feel that it shouldn’t come from you and that the way you’re dealing with it isn’t right. I wish I could provide the perfect script to communicate this, but you have already explained yourself perfectly. You can’t “make her understand,” in part because she’s probably not in a good place right now, especially since her husband doesn’t seem very good at prioritizing parenting. If you value friendship, you can stick to what you said, while being a little nicer to her than you would to someone who has no excuse for their rude and demanding behavior. This does not mean that you run to her house, no questions asked, every time she calls. But it may mean that you will continue to check in with her and tread carefully when she puts the friendship on the line. You can keep your boundaries while still ensuring that you don’t do or say anything unkind so that at least the door to repairing the relationship is open on your part…when the child is in Kindergarten.
More tips from Slate
I have a moody sixth grader at home. Getting her to do her schoolwork is not a problem. Problem is, she did it after a few hours and was spending most of her time watching the desk on Netflix. She’s not really open to any of our suggestions to do something else.