Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

May 29, 2012

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Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence took your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good (sweltering) afternoon. Let's get to it.

My children attended a wonderful preschool until they turned five. When our youngest child left the preschool my husband and I hired their favorite caretaker, twenty-something Kate, to be their part-time nanny. Over the past three years, Kate has practically become part of our family. Last year, I wrote her a recommendation that helped her gain entry into a prestigious special education college program. Last week, I found out Kate and my husband have been carrying on an affair for two years. I don't know yet if my marriage will be salvageable, but Kate is no longer working for us. I know Kate wants to continue to work as a childcare provider. I think that if most moms and facilities knew about her past, they wouldn't give her the time of day. I'm also worried she'll betray other families the way she betrayed mine. I'm not sure how to make sure she doesn't work in a childcare setting without going down a seriously psychotic path, like mass emailing every daycare in our city. Should I do my best to forget about Kate? Or is there a sane and justified way I can keep her from hurting other families?

How horrible to find you've brought such a viper into your home. The pain of this infidelity is magnified by the intimacy Kate has been granted to your family, and by finding out you are living the most tawdry of domestic cliches. You have a lot facing you. You must deal with this betrayal, decide the future of your marriage, and look out for your children's emotional well-being. That means there's no room in your life for Kate.  (Remember the real miscreant here is your husband. He either initiated the affair or came hither in response to her come hither glances.)  Of course you'd like to have a a disclaimer follow Kate for life: "Hire her and she'll screw your husband." You'd probably like to see it posted on the entrace gates to her college. But you need to focus on what you can control, not how to exact revenge against the babysitter.  However, if she works her way through college by working for other families, if one happens to call you for a reference, you can succinctly explain the reason you had to let Kate go. 

Dear Prudence: My husband and I have been married for two years, and had a baby six weeks ago. I am a professional with a good job; my husband works in a small family business owned by his father. When we married, I kept my maiden name; when we chose our baby's name, we agreed on a hyphenated last name. When the baby was born and my in-laws found out about the baby's name, my husband was fired from his job (via telegram!). Last week he informed me that he had spoken with his father and got his job back, but he had told his father that we would change the baby's name. While I understand his motivation, I cannot fathom living like this. I told him that I would not agree to continue to jump through hoops for his family, that I would not agree to the name change, that he couldn't expect to be able to trick them indefinitely, and that someday they would learn that their grandchild has a hyphenated last name, so he'd better figure out how to get other employment. I also told him that they are no longer welcome in our house. Had I known from the start that the name would be such an issue, I would not have suggested hyphenating the name, but now that it's done, I can't imagine bowing down to their demands. My own family thinks I am wrong. What do you think?

Maybe the most shocking revelation in your letter is that it's still possible to send a telegram.  Okay, back to your father-in-law. When something like this happens, I always assume that this can't be the first hint that the perpetrator is  off his rocker.  It's hard to believe that your father-in-law up to this point has been a wonderful boss and your son feels as if he has a good and happy future working for him.  I agree that with a father who can pull a stunt like this, it's dangerous to have your husband's financial future wrapped up with him. But now that you're parents, you need to make some calculated decisions about what's best for all of you.  Now is not an excellent time to be looking for work, especially having just been thrown out of the family business (by telegram). I think your husband should go back to work with his father with  the idea that he will begin the search for non-family employment.  To allow this to proceed in the most efficacious way,  I don't see anything wrong with a little white lie. So you tell your in-laws,  "Oh yes, your grandson is now Nimrod Lee, not  Nimrod Lee-Shapiro."  If your father-in-law asks to see the birth certificate, push back by saying that changing it is a  complicated legal process and what with breast feeding and not sleeping no one's had time to get to it.  It's pretty rare for grandparents to even see forms which would have their grandchild's full name. Nimrod is years away from bringing home a report card.  And by the time he get one, your husband should be climbing the ladder at a company that doesn't care what his kid is named.

Dear Prudie, My brother and sister-in-law both work office jobs and her family is pretty well off. My sister-in-law's family likes to have very formal celebrations -- ties even for a toddler's birthday. We were invited to our niece's first birthday party and the invitation indicated business casual. My husband is in the medical field and wears scrubs all day, I am a stay-at-home mom, and my three kids under the age of 5 do not have much in the way of formal wear. What does business casual mean when applied to a child's birthday party? Am I really expected to purchase new wardrobes for my entire family to watch my niece cover her face in cake?

Are the ties for the toddlers?  Given how toddlers play that would seem to present a strangulation hazard.  In this context take "business casual" to mean something between a tuxedo and sweatpants.  I'm sure all of you have items in your  closets that would fit those parameters.

Dear Prudence, My fiance and I got engaged over Christmas while we were visiting his mother in a different country. He gave me a beautiful heirloom ring that had been his maternal great-grandmother's. It was much too big and we quickly got it sized after returning home. However the ring ended up still being a bit too large. It stayed on but felt a bit loose. One day in February, I was taking off my glove in a busy metro station and it fell off. I didn't notice for a couple minutes. When I returned, horrified, the ring was long gone. My fiance took it well (he's sad/disappointed but doesn't blame me) and has seemed to let it go. I'm having a harder time, it makes me sick when I think about it and I usually end in tears. We haven't told his mother yet and I don't know how. I'm so afraid she'll hold this against me. My fiance thinks we should wait until she comes to the States for our wedding, but I hate waiting that long and want to get it over with. What's the best way to tell her? Also how to tell friends when they've seen a photo of the old ring and ask why I'm not wearing it now? I've gotten a new, more modest ring that looks nothing like the previous one. In fact it's hard to not feel bitter when I look at my new ring because it only reminds me of how I lost the old one. Help! -In Love and In Distress

I've been at busy Metro stations when the train doesn't come because what's fallen onto the tracks is another passenger. You are young and in love and about to embark on a life together. Life will throw many loops your way and as you look back year from now if the worst tragedy to befall you was losing a dear heirloom in the Metro, you will be among the luckiest people on earth.  It was an accident, it happened, the ring is gone.  You have another one to mark your betrothal.  I think the mother should be told before she arrives for the wedding. I don't know if that's a year or a few months away, but she should at least be prepared to not see the ring. If you don't know her well, it's fine for your fiance to let her know that even after having the ring sized it was too big, and that you're heartsick about the loss. Sure, it will sting, but let's hope your mother-in-law also knows that even irreplacable things are just things.

Without being too graphic, lately several pairs of my underwear have gone missing. I am married to a man with two teenagers from his first marriage; my stepson and my stepdaughter stay with us each weekend. I am in my early thirties. Some relatives visited my husband and me for the holiday weekend, and some stayed in my stepson's room. While cleaning his room in preparation for their arrival I discovered several pairs of my underwear crammed into a "secret space," as well as some pictures of me in a bikini. I'm trying not to feel weird around my stepson, because I remember the unpredictable crushes I developed as a result of my hormones. But I buy nice underwear, and I would like him to stop taking mine. I'm not sure if I should tell my husband about his son's crush and ask him to deal with this or if I should casually ask my stepson to stop. What do you think the least embarrassing option is?

The point is not to ask your stepson to take the Jockeys and leave the La Perla, but to deal with the fact that he has crossed some serious boundaries.  Sure, he's a hormonal teen, and you are young and attractive. But yechh!  In a low-key, calm way, tell your husband what you found. Encourage him not to hit the roof or be punitive to his son.  Say that as mortifying as this all is, he need to  sit down with the boy, explain what was found, and tell him that he knows it's not okay to take his stepmother's private things. Then after that be as normal and welcoming as possible.  Acting as if nothing has happened will be a good skill for your stepson to learn.

Dear Prudence, I've been dating "Adam", who is 10 years older than me (and in his 40s), for about a year. He is a great guy with a very stressful job who always treats me right and wants to make me happy. I feel like he's quite a catch. The problem is that while during the week he is a hard working, sober man, he gets drunk every Friday and/or Saturday night! EVERY weekend. He drinks almost 10 beers on a friday and then a bottle of wine plus a few more beers on the next night, although most of the time he drinks excessively only one night of the weekend. He's very good friends with his neighbors, who also drink quite a bit, and most of his friends love to drink. It's almost like a joke... this adoration they all have for beer and wine. It makes me so uncomfortable! I worry that he abuses alcohol and that he is one tragedy away (say, death of a loved one) from being an alcoholic. I don't drink more than 2 or 3 cocktails per week, so sometimes I feel like i'm being hypersensitive about it. I tried telling him by asking "why do you need to drink so much?" and his reply was "i didn't even drink that much!" Even though he's a "nice drunk"--not obnoxious or rude or loud--that scares the hell out of me! Am I blowing his drinking out of proportion? I love him and i'm starting to think about our future together. A not-so-happy ending?

He's not one anything away from being an alcoholic, he is an alcoholic. It's not a coincidence or a joke that all his friends have similar proclivities, it's because booze is their guiding principle. If you want your future to involve calls from the police that your husband has been arrest for a DUI, then that future is yours. And if Adam is getting behind the wheel after 10 beers, take away his keys. You would all do all of us a favor by reporting  him as an impaired driver to the DMV.

I wanted to respond to the mother/wife with the nanny situation. One possible outcome to this horrible situation is that the nanny learned her lesson in the most brutal and devatstating of ways and it will not happen again. A friend put herself in a very similar situation and I watched the humiliation, grief, and massive amount of guilt plague her for several years after the wife found out and the relationship came to a screetching and messy halt. She saw what it did to the wife and family, and has never once looked at a married man since, even though she has been working in the same type of environment in which she met the man in the first place. So let's hope that this is the case in this situation. Sometimes the people who do this are looking for something, and it takes a situation like this to shock them into realizing they won't find it in an illicit and immoral relationship.

I agree, let's hope this is the case in this situation. Becoming a professional homewrecker is a nasty line of work.

I married in my late teens, had a baby by the time I turned twenty, and watched my precious son succumb to leukemia before I turned twenty-three. Soon after our son died, my ex-husband and I divorced. I didn't date for years, but now I'm in my early thirties and have been seeing a wonderful guy for about three months. He's the first man I've trusted enough to tell about my late son. While my boyfriend knows I was married young, I've never discussed my son with him, because it always seemed too soon. Now I think I've waited too long to tell him, because I've never found the right words. My boyfriend has a daughter, and he assumes I've never had kids. I know the time has come to talk to him about my son, but it's such a personal and important subject that I still have no idea what to say. I'm falling for this man, and he for me, so I want to find a way to share this intimate part of my history with him.

It is certainly not too late to only now tell your boyfriend about the most painful experience of your life. Get a photograph of your darling boy and when you are alone, at your house or his, take it out and say  there's something you want him to know about you. Show him the photo and say in fact, you did have a child, and tell him the story. It's okay if you cry. It's very hard to imagine your not crying. Tell him you rarely open up to people about this because the wound is still so raw.  If you guy is as wonderful as you say, he will be moved by your story and the trust in him in conveys.

Hi Prudie, In the past year, both of my parents have retired. I was, and still am, very excited for them because they've worked so hard throughout their lives and really deserve to live life to its fullest now. There's one problem from my end: each day, I now receive 15-20 emails and about 5 texts from them, and my mother "likes" and/or comments on everything I post on Facebook. And the emails and texts are rarely sent just to me -- they're blasted out to at least three or more people, so they're not too personal. I liken this to receiving, in pre-internet time, 15-20 voice mails and 5 post cards/letters EACH DAY from my parents. I've been dealing with this by getting really irritated in private, and then answering about one in five messages. When I leave voice mails for them, so we can have a more personal catch-up and hopefully decrease the number of messages coming in, some times they call back and some times they don't. I live about 15 hours away from family, so I can't easily give them more face-time. What to do? Do you think it's appropriate to ask them not to include me on the emails and texts (I can change settings on Facebook if needed)? That if they want to contact me directly, just call? I'm afraid I'll wind up getting multiple phone calls a day from them in that case. What I'd really like is for us to talk/email just once a week to catch up. Does that make me a bad (adult) daughter?

Haven't your parents ever heard of golf?  These people desperately need a hobby beyond harassing their  daughter.  Forget hints, have a serious phone conversation with them about email, phone, and Facebook etiquette. Suggest the three of you set a regular time -- say Sunday evening -- to catch up, and tell them to  save up the news of the week for you to hear. You can also say that a few emails a week are fine, but any more than that and you'll have to delete without answering. (You might also want to change your Facebook settings anyway, to remove their temptation.) Then gently steer the conversation to how they can productively use this gift of free time. Say you know the transition to not-working can be disorienting, but they have so much to give to their community. Encourage them to look into volunteer work -- think of the the foster kids  who could use some very attentive surrogate grandparents.

If I may offer a helpful suggestion, it may be best for the father in this situation to say that he, rather than step-mom, found the underwear. It would certainly make for a much less awkward confrontation as step-mom could pretend to know nothing about the entire incident.

Since I've already suggested another white lie in this chat, I think your idea about a white lie about black lace panties is a good one.  Dad can say he was getting the bedroom ready for guests and came upon the stash.

My mother over a period of decades took all of the diamonds she'd been given-- her wedding ring from my late father plus a bundle of others and had them piled onto a platinum setting the size of a brass knuckle. The ring was last appraised at $26,000. For some reason, she felt it necessary to wear it on a trip to Costco. It fell off in the parking lot. She noticed later-- too late. The Costco parking lot gets swept every night. $26,000 in a land fill. We can only laugh.

Maybe the sweeper swept up this prize and took home a knucke-sized nest egg. Thanks for this story.

Dear Prudie, My wife's sister is the proverbial black sheep of the family. She's had issues with drugs and has been in and out of prison for petty crimes. She has two kids, one is with his father and the other (whose father's identity changes all the time), a 17 year old girl, lives with us. Our niece is a good kid, but she makes up weird stories. For example, she's made up stories about having sexual experience with some of the popular boys at school and has been bullied about this in the past. The other day we were alone in the kitchen - my wife was doing weekend shifts - and I was grumbling to myself about having a sore back. My niece came up to me and started massaging my shoulders. I told her I didn't want a massage and shrugged her off. Suddenly things got weird and she tried to kiss me. Instinctively I pushed her away and she started crying. I made it very clear she was never to do that again and walked away. When I told my wife about it later that night she was shocked. Now we're both afraid that she might make up lies about me. I don't work with kids directly but my job requires visiting schools, and any accusation could seriously hurt my career. I've been wondering if taking our niece in is going to end up damaging our lives and if we should ask her to leave home. She is about to turn 18 soon. Advice? Signed: Panic Stricken

Given the awful, unstable childhood your niece had, it's no surprise she is acting out in dangerous ways in a search for love. It wouldn't be a shock to discover that one, or more,  of the "father figures" in and out of her life had sexually abused her.  Your niece needs help, and you're right, you need protection.  I don't know if your custody of her is formal or informal, but if she has a case worker, you should contact her to discuss this incident and say how  concerning it was, particularly given her past behavior of making up stories about boys. That way you are creating a paper trail in case your niece decides to make accusations.  If she has no case worker, or counselor, get one.  She is about to become a legal adult, but she obviously is far from ready to manage the world on her own. It would be a catastrophe for her to be tossed back to her mother, or worse, the streets, by you.  Sitting down with her and a counselor will not only give you some protection, but get her the help she desperately needs.

My toddler attends a respected home day care in my community and we couldn't be happier with the program or the director. My problem is, she has cold sores and has kissed my son on the cheek in front of me. I don't have a problem with the occasional kiss because she is a mom of toddlers also at the day care and it shows affection. My problem is that my parents both have cold sores and drilled into me to avoid kissing, even on the cheek, someone who has them. Is there any polite way to ask to her quit with the kisses?

While it's hard to believe, she may not be aware she's potentially transmitting the herpes virus to her little charges when she has active sore.  Print out some information on cold sores (the NIH websites or those of the Mayo Clinic are good sources for accurate medical information) and after drop off one day ask to have a word with her.  Tell her you couldn't be more thrilled to have found her, but that for the protection of the children she needs to not put them in contact with her mouth when she has a cold sore and give her the print-outs.  I also hope that one of the lessons she is teaching the toddlers is the importance of washing their hands.

You may be jumping to some conclusions here. I for one drink a fair amount, but have never driven with more than one beer in my system. I'm not sure that just because someone is a heavy drinker, it necessarily follows that they're going to be driving drunk. It seems like the letter writer's main hang-up come from counting the drinks he's having rather than any specific aspect of his conduct. Does he drink too much? Definitely. Is he an alcoholic? Probably not, more of a binge drinker really. Again, not to say this is a good thing, but when I lived in England, drinking 8 pints on a Friday night was not considered odd. As such, there are definitely come cultural features at play.

What you say is true about England. I've been there several times in recent years and when the pubs close it's awful to see the vomiting drunks stumble onto the streets.  The government recognizes this is an escalating problem.  I always get push back when I write about drinking because I think that people who need to drink until they're drunk on a regular basis have a problem.  It's just quibbling over semantics to make a distinction between someone who "drinks too much" and an "alcoholic."  If someone who drinks too much can't stop, then what do you call that? Binge drinking is a health hazard for the drinker and a safety hazard for society.  It's usually the people with the problem with alcohol who think they're sober enough to drive. 

Dear Prudence My late husband fathered a child in his teen years, and never took any kind of responsibility for either the child or the mother. He was, however, a good stepfather to my son from a previous marriage before he passed away two years ago. I was only recently contacted by the young woman who is my late husband's biological daughter. She told me in a letter that she was raised by her maternal grandparents and has minimal contact with her mother, who is married with other children. While searching for her father she discovered he passed away, and wanted to meet me with the view of establishing a regular contact with both me and my son. I feel sorry for her circumstances but truthfully have no desire to establish a relationship with a stranger. As far as I'm concerned the only link I have with her no longer exists. My husband and I had no kids together and it's not as though there are any biological siblings whom she may wish to meet. I want to tell her that I'm happy to answer any questions she has about her father through emails but I want to keep my distance. Is it callous of me?

No it's not callous not to want to bring a needy person into your life whom you can't really help. Her desire to know her late father better is understandable -- this poor young woman was essentially orphaned although she had two living parents.  But she's off to the wrong start with you if she's declaring her intent to become a part of the lives of you and your son.  However, I think you should gather some stuff for her -- some photographs and mementos of your late husband you are willing to part with, and offer them to her. Invite her over for dinner, answer her questions about your late husband, and give her these things. Then if she continues to contact you, and you don't want to hear from her say, "Janet, please understand that I'm trying to move on from my own loss and I've told you what I can about your father. I'm afraid my life if very busy and complicated right now and that we just can't get together."

I'd say the story about lost rings and bracelets really only reinforce the idea of having insurance on these items, so losing them, while devastating, won't be a total loss.

And let's end with this blurb for the insurance industry. I agree, the loss stings less when you get a check.

Have a great week, everyone. Talk to you next Monday.

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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