Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I am a 39-year-old mother of four and have lived with "Arnold" for 18 years. Arnie has always promised he'd marry me "someday," and I believed him -- until last Valentine's Day.

Before Valentine's Day, I had been dropping hints about how romantic it would be if he proposed on that day. We found a sitter and he took me to a fancy restaurant for dinner. I was thrilled, because it was the first time we'd been out alone in a long time.

My heart was pounding all through dinner because I thought this would be the night. Arnie kept repeating how much he loved me -- something he has a hard time saying. But that's as far as it went! When we were walking to the car, I finally said, "You're not going to pop the question, are you?" He then removed a tiny ring from his pocket and said, "This is a promise ring. I promise to marry you -- someday."

I was devastated. It was as though we were teenagers and he was asking me to go steady. Arnie went on to add that he "wasn't ready" for marriage yet. Well, I don't think he'll EVER be ready!

Am I wrong to expect this man to make a legal commitment? For heaven's sake, we have four children together! We have been a couple for almost two decades. Brides are supposed to be young and pretty. I'm turning old and gray with every day that passes. Should I continue to hang onto the hope that Arnie will keep his "promise" -- or is it time to leave? -- MOTHER OF HIS CHILDREN IN CANADA

DEAR MOTHER: You have been patient long enough. Arnold's promise was an empty one and an insult. If marriage is what you want, please don't wait until your grandchildren or great-grandchildren are old enough to be your flower girls and ring bearers. I recommend consulting an attorney to find out what your common-law rights are. You've put your money on the wrong horse.

DEAR ABBY: I'm a 16-year-old girl. My grandparents have raised me because my mom is a drug addict who couldn't take care of herself, much less me. Dad was an alcoholic and took drugs, too.

The police caught Mom with drugs several times and put her in jail. Her parole officer made her go to rehab, but it didn't work very well. She needed a place to stay when she got out, so my grandparents let her stay here for a while. They kicked her out when she came home high.

Mom works at a strip club now. It embarrasses me to have a mother who's a stripper, and we argue a lot when she comes by. She tells me my grandparents are to blame for what she does because they didn't let her live with them.

I hate the fights. But I hate even more the fear that someone may recognize her and think I'm like her. I'm not.

Should I ask my grandparents to move a long way away, so I won't have to worry? Or should I ask to be put in a foster home in another state, or what? -- ASHAMED IN OHIO

DEAR ASHAMED: None of the above. You are your own person, and you have done nothing for which you should be ashamed. Concentrate on your grades and extracurricular activities where your talents can shine. And if anyone mentions your mother, hold your head up and tell the person her problems are her own and you're living your own life. It's true.

For an excellent guide to becoming a better conversationalist and a more attractive person, order "How to Be Popular." Send a business-size, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $5 (U.S. funds only) to: Dear Abby Popularity Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600