Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Dec 10, 2012

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 takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

My husband and I are happily married and expecting, but due to my fertility issues and my husband's desire for a biological child, we ended up choosing a wonderful surrogate mother who is now almost 8 months along. She has been an absolute dream and has been very considerate of us, but now that its almost time for the delivery she has made a request: she has asked for a women only delivery room as it will be more comfortable for her. My husband is beyond upset with this request, seeing how much he wanted this (I was okay with adoption, and we still plan to adopt in the future), he financially supported her and the pregnancy and it is his biological child. I can understand making her as comfortable as possible during this time, but I can also sympathize with my husband's desire to be a part of the event, rather than waiting outside. What should I do?

This is the sort of thing that should have been sorted our contractually before your surrogate became pregnant.  But your husband is fixating on a not very important issue and you don't want what has been a lovely relationship to degenerate into recriminations on the eve of her presenting you with your child. I think you should tell your husband you totally understand his desire, and you will try to be the go-between, but if your surrogate doesn't want a man who's not a doctor, or not related to her, in the room, you can't force her to change her mind. Remind him that a generation or so ago, no fathers were in the waiting room having a smoke, or waiting it out at a nearby bar. Tell him right now it's easy to get fixated on the moment of birth, but parenthood will actually begin when you take your bundle home.  When you talk to your surrogate tell her that it would mean a lot to both you and your husband if you could both be there for the birth.   You could say he could  sit quietly in a corner until the baby is born if that would make her more comfortable. If it's a no go, then work on convincing your husband that seeing your child when he or she is cleaned up and swaddled will not mean he's missing anything in the grand scheme of parenthood. And maybe the surrogate would allow some more or less discreet filming of the big event, if that would mollify the new father.

My best friend is going through a nasty, messy divorce. Recently she accused her husband of molesting their four-year-old daughter. This may sound awful, but I am hesitant to believe her. It's not anything I can pinpoint, but I have known her for 20 years and there's something about the way she talks that makes me wonder - is she telling the truth? Her husband contacted me to ask if I could write a character reference for him to dispute my best friend's claims. I personally detest this man and he is not a nice person. He has very few friends and I think he is getting desperate to ask me. But I've always known him to be a good dad - in fact, before the accusations surfaced I was encouraging my friend to tolerate her jerk husband and share custody. I am worried that if I say nothing, an innocent man might face legal consequences and have his daughter taken away. I am also worried I might unwittingly defend a child molestor and ruin a treasured friendship. What should I do?

One of the most malicious redoubts of the bitter spouse is the false accusation of child abuse.  It is a potential life ruiner, not just for the accused, but for the child who has to suffer all the consequences that result.  But it sounds as if you would not be much of a character reference in any case.  You doubt the accusation, but you aren't sure. Otherwise, you detest this guy.  Tell him that you don't feel comfortable getting legally involved in his divorce. But perhaps you can talk with your friend. Tell her you understand she's in extremis and she has nothing but contempt for her ex. Explain you don't like him yourself. But then ask if he really is a child molester, because if he's not making such an accusation to help her divorce case will only hurt her child in the long run. If she stand by the story you can say if that's the case, he deserves the maximum punishment. But if it's not, she herself could be prosecuted for making false charges. And the damage of all this to their child will be incalculable.  They sound like quite a pair. That poor little girl.

Dear Prudence, I found out several months ago that my fiancé of four years was addicted to synthetic marijuana and had been for nearly one year. He gets it illegally from the corner store using his credit card and has racked up hundreds and hundreds in debt. I called his parents and they took him home for two weeks to get clean and be in a supportive environment away from the drug. He has also been seeing an addictions counselor. He came back to me and all appeared to be fine until this weekend when I found him high again. I asked to see his credit statement and found that he had been doing it since he returned on a daily basis. Last night he asked me to drive him to a halfway house and I guess that is where he will live for a while in order to finally kick the habit. The thing is, we have been planning our wedding in May. We've already spent thousands on deposits and a honeymoon. I love him with all of my heart and want nothing more than to spend the rest of my life him. However, I am not the codependent type and do not want a life of hurt and regret that seems to be associated with family addiction. He's always been so good to me, and I want to believe that he can beat this, but I can't be sure. Would I be doing myself a huge disservice by staying? If so, how do you leave someone you love? 

Your first step is to see how much of your deposits you can get back. Then you notify everyone that sadly the wedding is off, and you will be returning the gifts you have received.  If you are going to stay with they guy, he needs a long period of being clean  before you can trust that he's kicked his addiction. That May deadline is too soon. Now that he's in treatment, you should talk to his counselor and get some understanding of his situation and how you can support his recovery.  It could be that the best thing for both of you is to break it off. But  if you decide to stay, it has to be with the clear understanding that he's got a long way to go and he's seriously violated your trust. If you decide to spend your life with someone you don't do it because you hate to eat a catering check.

I am a 26-year-old woman and I have been overweight all of my life. In 2009, at my highest weight on record, I weighed well over 300lbs and had a BMI in the 50s. I come from a large family and had resigned myself to being overweight because I am "a clone" of my mother. This year, however, I broke myself of that mentality with the help of a counselor and a wonderful gym and I made a change. I have lost 70 pounds in the last eight months for a total weight loss of 117 pounds. That kind of change is, obviously, bound to be noticed and commented on. At work I get people I don't even know mentioning how good I look and wanting to know "my secret" (it's diet and exercise by the way). People are calling me "Skinny Minnie" and "Thin Mints" (I enjoy that one for it's irony) and encourage me to keep up the good work. At home, it's another story; especially with my mother. She thinks I should take a break and that I'm too skinny (I'm still over 200 pounds and obese). She accuses me of being anorexic (I'm not. I eat 1300-1600 calories a day) and of overexercising. Both camps are really starting to wear on me. How can I tell everyone, especially those encouraging me, to stop? I am really tired of the comments about my weight loss, no matter how positive it is. It's getting old. Thank you.

Congratulations! We all come into this world with certain less than ideal genes and propensities, but how wonderful for you to decide to take control of those things you can modify. With the well-wishers if you can stand it just say, "Thanks" and change the subject. Your new weight will eventually become old news. If you really don't want to hear "Thin Mint" etc. anymore, just say, "I appreciate your good wishes, but I'd rather not be called by that nickname. I'd like to spend as little time as possible thinking about my weight, even if the trend is good." As for your mother, what a classic case of feeling threatened. She liked your being her "clone" because that way if you were both morbidly obese, it was proof it was beyond your control and  just bad genetic luck. But here you are demonstrating that she could do something, too.  It's not clear whether you live with her. If so, you need to send sound serious boundaries around your weight -- that is, you don't talk with her about your food and exercise, and if she starts nagging you, you leave the room (or move out). It you're talking about visits, you tell her that you are getting good medical care, you feel great, and if she tells you to get off your diet and exercise plan, you will be cutting your visits short.

Prudie's advice is spot-on with regard to all kinds of things that can happen to make delivery not what you had dreamed. I had dreamed of giving birth naturally, with no drugs, having my husband cut the cord, having the baby laid on me immediately and nursing as soon as possible, but in the end, it was a c-section and I saw the baby for two seconds before they whisked him off to the NICU for two days. In the end, it didn't matter one whit. Ever since the first time I was finally able to hold him, he has been my precious baby and there has been no looking back. :) Congratulations on the letter writer's impending bundle of joy.

Thanks for this reality check.  A reminder that a wedding is not marriage and that birth is not parenthood.

When I was a junior in high school I was friends with a freshman in college, "Sarah." One night after a party we ended up back at her apartment and slept together. It was the first time for both of us and no protection was used. She then moved back home a month later and shortly married her highs chool sweetheart. Now, 10 years later, I ran into a mutual friend who told me odds are good that Sarah's 9-year-old daughter is mine. I didn't beleive her, but when I did the math and found out when she hooked back up with the high school sweetheart, it's my daughter. Sarah has never asked for anything or even brought up the possibility that I was the father. I'm fine not being involved and have no desire to --  she's being raised by a great mother and father. From what I've been told only me, Sarah and the mutual friend know that I am most likely the father. My question is, should I tell my wife that I may be the father of this child?

I agree that even if you are the biological father it is best if you stay out of Sarah's life. You only heard about your possible paternity by chance, you have no proof, and bustling into a happy family and claiming a child is only going to make everyone unhappy. It's possible the father is the biological father. And it's also possible that if he's not, Sarah told him someone else impregnated her (although I kind of doubt that).  But yes, this is the kind of thing spouses normally tell each other. It's weighing on you, and there's a sliver of a chance that if you are the father, it could come out someday.  But be clear with your wife that you want her to know because you want her to know, not because you think you should change the status quo.

I am fairly sure my 16 year old son is gay, based on his choice of pornography found on his computer. I mentioned it to him but he said he isn't. There have been other minor indications since he was a child. So, not a complete surprise. Since I don't have a choice whether he is or isn't, I will support him. He's a great kid, smart, cooperative, helpful. However, should I mention this probability to mom now or wait for him to sort out his position? I am sure she would be supportive too, but for now mentions girlfriends, marriage, hetero topics etc, in general discussions, typical mom to teenage son comments. And, if we both know, then should 18 year old brother (at a nearby college now) be told or let younger brother tell him on his own whenever? Meal time conversations may be a bit silted and clue-filled if mom has to change her comments.

Again, I always thought  one of the major pleasures of marriage that you have a life partner with whom you share your most intimate thoughts and concerns.  Especially when it concerns your offspring.  I'm surprised, if you've wondered over the years whether your son might be gay, that you've never broached this with your wife.  So yes, I think you should tell your wife what you found,  what you're thinking, and what your son said.  But then you both should back off. Your son may be gay, bi-sexual, or hetereosexual. He's only 16 and not only does he not have to know, he may not know.  You should take your clues from him, but also express in the myriad ways parents do, that who he is is wonderful with you.

My little brother and little sister don't know why our dad has suddenly become so mean to our mom. He belittles her, they argue often, and sometimes he gives her the silent treatment. I know why. Two weeks ago my parents sat me down and told me that my mom has been cheating on my dad throughout their marriage. My dad is furious, and he has reason to be. I still hate the way he treats my mom. And part of me thinks that my parents told me about the affair because my dad wanted to humiliate my mom in front of at least one of their kids. My dad has also, in a short period of time, become very sensitive to anything to do with affairs. He calls these "triggers." My family is a mess and I feel caught in the middle.

From your description, I'm getting a clue as to why your mother sought male company elsewhere. Your parents should never have shared this information with you, and I assume you're right and that it was at the instigation of your father to shame your mother.  You should have another meeting with them in which you tell them you don't want to know anything about their sex lives, but you are concerned with the amount of stress and unhappiness in the house. Say that all of you children are suffering because of the anger and fighting and you are asking that they get some counseling right away. If things don't improve, I hope there is a trusted relative you can turn to and say that you need someone to intervene because your family is falling apart.

My younger sister is kind and generous - and very concerned about what people think. I know she and her husband are struggling financially but every year he insists on buying expensive gifts. Every year my parents and I tell her to cut back - I dread opening the gifts knowing the mountain of debt they are in. I have tried several tactics - a limit on spend, asking herto focus on the children, explaining our parents are now retired so we should all scale back, but nothing works. Can you suggest anything else? I really don't want to cause a family upset - I know she feels bad as we all buy for her three children and neither my brother or I have kids - but we are not adding up what we spend on the kids and expecting gifts of equal value!

She apparently doesn't care enough what people think, because surely all of you think she shouldn't be digging herself deeper into debt. It sounds as if it's time for the entire family to decide that presents should only be for the children. That will mean her kids get gifts, but the rest of you just enjoy each other's company. Perhaps your parents could be persuaded to have a talk with her and her husband in which they offer to get them counseling services for their debt. They could say they are concerned about having to bail them out in the future, and want to see them take the steps now to right their finances.

Dear Prudence, This past weekend my teenage daughter babysat for our our priest and his wife. They live on church property and allow their three children to ride their bikes in the church parking lot. My daughter dressed the youngest child - a 13 month old - in his best, white Sunday shoes and pushed him around the parking lot in a Flintstone-esque child's car. Needless to say, the baby's feet dragged along the ground, scuffing up the shoes and turning them from white to black. When the priest and his wife returned, my daughter said nothing about the shoes, accepted her (generous) pay, and came home to tell me about it. I'm of the belief that, when we see them next Sunday, my daughter should admit what happened, apologize, and return the money. My husband disagrees about returning the cash and had told our daughter that an apology is enough since she's only 16. Who's in the right here? Should we compromise by having her return a portion of the cash, or make her offer to babysit for free in the future? Thanks! Signed, Shoeless & Clueless

This must be a very strict denomination your belong to. I'm hoping few religious leaders would consider it a sin for a toddler to end up with scuffed shoes.  Scuffed shoes seem to be the natural order of things when it comes to people who are about 1 year-old. I think you should stop micromanaging your own child.  It sounds as if she provided a safe and fun time for three little kids. She  earned her pay and no apologies are necessary.

Dear Prudence,  I work at a business that employs lots of young women (we teach exercise classes). One of my co-workers who I have not spent a lot of time with, but is good friends with my good friend, asked me if she could borrow a necklace to wear to a wedding. I gave her a bag with three beautiful and expensive (around $450 total) necklaces to choose from. I went out of town as she was getting back into town, and she texted me saying she decided not to use my jewelry and that she had left them behind the front desk at our job. I was out of town and I couldn't retrieve them for about a week. By the time I got back to work, they were gone. I asked her what happened and she said they should be there. I asked everyone, sent out a company-wide email and even got management involved to help me find my jewelry. No luck. My question is not about how to get them back, because obviously my jewelry has found a new home, and I will have to get over it. What I am really annoyed about is that the girl I lent them to has not said one word to me about it, she hasn't asked if I found them, she hasn't tried to help, and she hasn't even said she is sorry. I find that so incredibly rude.  It hurts my feelings that someone stole from me, and that the person who I think is responsible, at least in part, will not acknowledge or validate my feelings. I have not seen her since I let her borrow my stuff, and I don't know how to act when I do. I don't want to play games and act rude, but I somehow want her to know I am upset. What should I do? 

I hope you've learned tthat when someone you don't know (even someone you do) asks to borrow something valuable, you're  entitled to say, "Sorry, I can't do that." I'm still puzzling over who brings expensive jewelry to work in a bag,  then goes out of town and leaves it behind. Of course the idiot who left it at the front desk should apologize profously. But someone who would leave a bag of jewelry at the front desk already has judgment and responsibility problems.  Sure, have a talk with her in which you say you lost some valuable items because she was careless with them.  I would expect her response will be something along the lines of a shrug.  I know people will say you could report the loss to your insurance company in hopes of reimbursement. But when they hear the story, they might end up canceling your policy. I say write this one off as a life lesson and total loss.

Every time we visit my husband's family, I spend the entire trip miserable with terrible allergies. Their small house has poor ventilation, old wall-to-wall carpeting, and a heavy smoker (my mother-in-law). Since her smoking doesn't bother anyone else, I've always tried to be polite and downplay my allergies. But it's reached a point where I don't want to spend any time in their house and I worry about what will happen when we have kids. We only get to visit a few times a year, and I know she would be hurt if we suddenly started staying at a hotel instead. What do I do?

Stay at a hotel and limit the time in the house. Sorry their feelings will be hurt, but you will need a drip pan for your nose if you stay with them.  Perhaps, when the kids come, it would be more convenient if your in-laws came to you -- with the understanding that grandma has to smoke outside.

I was married for 25 years to an amazing woman who came to a sudden and untimely end. I am now dating another amazing woman. After dating for a year, we moved in together six months ago and love each other like crazy. We have our differences, but nothing that I wouldn't expect for any two people trying to make their separate lives into one. Except one thing: I want to keep my late wife as a part of my life in the form of a few pictures, a couple of specific mementos, and the occasional topic of conversation. Sometimes my girlfriend is supportive of this but sometimes she is not and it causes her pain. I've read how you dealt with your husband's first wife and was hoping you could help me learn what topics are more likely to hurt my girlfriend so I can handle them more adroitly, or alternately give me some words I can use to explain better to my girl that I love her completely too. I've tried but sometimes she ends up feeling second best, like some kind of leftover, but she is not second best she is amazing. I don't think this is a long-term deal breaker, I just want to make things easier for my girl. Lucky in love, twice!

It sounds as if you've done plenty to explain to your new partner that you love her completely. It also sounds as if the place of  your late wife in your conversation and home is appropriate and not intrusive.  Perhaps your girlfriend is trying to express to you that any reminders of your first wife are painful to her and that at best she indulges this, but editing your first wife out completely would be preferred. So it's up to you to explain that at this point in your lives you each have complicated histories that are part of who you are, and you are not comfortable if you have to catch yourself before you say things such as, "I love Florence. Rachel and I went there for our 10th anniversary."  You two should have sorted this out better before moving in.  But maybe a counselor will help you each understand the other's perspective.

Prudie, it doesn't sound like the jewelry-loser left the bag at work -- it sounds like she gave it to the coworker in person, who then left it behind. It also sounds like the coworker may have stolen it herself if she mysteriously decided to leave it at the front desk without wearing any of it when she knew the owner would be out of town.

You simply don't give a bag of expensive jewelry to a virtual stranger. The decision on which necklace to borrow could have been made on the spot. I agree the borrower may be the thief.  But if  the woman with the jewelry doesn't want to notify the police of this suspicion, there's nothing she can do.

What you're doing is AWESOME and you should be incredibly proud of yourself. I've lost 45 pounds, much less than you have, and I know how difficult it is. Trust me, the compliments will come to an end soon enough! But you should find a better circle of support and not try to do this alone, especially with a sabotaging mom. Weight Watchers meetings work really well for me (once I found the right group leader, because some of them are annoying). There are discussions about how to handle things like someone telling you you're too skinny and just eat something. I don't work for WW, but it's really been helpful for me so I thought I'd share the idea. Keep it up, girl!

Excellent advice. Getting support to maintain the loss is a good idea.

My mom is a very intelligent, with-it person in her 70s. She also believes that people are coming in her apartment frequently at night, that they take her financial paperwork, that her phone is not secure, that her computer is monitored - so she stopped using it. I end up doing a lot of checking up on her finances for her, since she is without computer, and she worries that someone is stealing her money. I've suggested therapy, and she's even tried it, but she thinks she is smarter than her therapists and there is no change in her outlook. She's been sure people are after her since she was in her early 50s -- sometimes because of a weird conflict in her family, other times because she was involved in local politics. She has since moved far from these troubles -- so now it's people after her money. (Since I've been monitoring, a couple of years now, nothing has been taken.) I feel sorry for her, because she is really suffering, but resent the time I spend on something she is perfectly capable of doing. Any suggestions?

Your mother is not with it, she's ill.  She needs a physcial and mental work up to try to figure out the cause of her crippling paranoia. You tell her you're making a doctor's appointment for her and will go with her.  If she refuses you explain you are done checking up on non-existent intruders.

I found out just over a month ago that my husband had been having an affair since shortly after our second daughter was born in Jan 2011. I took several weeks and decided that I could probably get over the infidelity with a lot of time and work, but that what the past two years revealed about his character led me to the decision that I did not want to try to save our marriage. He seems to feel that this now gives him a "pass" as far as the affair, as in, "That's not what is causing our break up. You said so yourself." He also accuses me of clinging to my "victim" status. I don't want to become a bitter victim-type, but I do feel like it's unfair when he tells people that we are breaking up, he leaves out the part where he was having an affair for most of the past two years, and treating me terribly at the same time. I am seeing a therapist, but I would welcome input from a different perspective. 

Good luck to the next woman (women) who end up with this gem.  You don't want to engage in a war of accusations with this jerk. But you are also entitled to tell your story to your friends.  When they express sadness at your divorce you are entitled to say, "Unfortuantely, I found out Dick had been cheating on me for the past two years. I still wanted to save the marriage, but it turned out the problems ran so deep, it couldn't be done." You don't have to give details or malign his character -- his character is evidently malign enough on its face. If you let the facts be known to a few blabby friends, soon the facts will be known by all.

Prudie, you're usually so sensible that I can't believe your response in the babysitting case! Of course the girl should apologize, and offer to try to clean or to replace the shoes. Then of course, the parents will say, My dear, what a sweet offer, but we expect our kids' shoes to get scuffed when they're having such a nice time with you. The girl does the right thing, the parents do the right thing, and it's not micromanaging to teach your child to take responsibility.

If the parents have Sunday best white shoes for a 1 year-old then they also should have a bottle of white shoe polish, and it should take them about five minutes to brighten up the shoes. I assume the 16 year-old didn't maliciously decide to scuff up the white shoes, they were just close byu.  No one should spend any more time worrying about this non-problem.

Good Afternoon, I went on an amazing date yesterday with a man I've been seeing for just over a month. He's recently divorced and is a father of young-ish children. Our date was billed as an all-day activity and lasted from about 11:00a to 5:00p. As he was driving me home, he mentioned that he was having family dinner at his ex-wife's house. I haven't dated divorced people in the past, so I'm not sure if this is the norm, but it struck me as odd. On one hand (the rational one), I understand that they might be trying to have at least one night a week where they can all sit down and have dinner like they used to. Good for them. On the other hand (the crazy one), I think it is kind of lame to leave someone you're dating at the doorstep so you can run off to family dinner. In fact, maybe that's what's bothering me. Is he having his cake and eating it too? And yes, I know we haven't been dating long and blah blah blah. I'm not trying to dig my claws into him, I'm just trying to meter my expectations. What do you think?

Back off, sister. An all-day date has to eventually come to an end. He was then going to have  dinner with his ex and kids and he didn't try to hide that, he told you. Being able to be civil with your ex is a good sign. If you're not up for the complications of dating someone with an ex wife and children, get out now.

I work downtown in a high-rise in a major metropolitan area. We have a postal worker who delivers the mail and he really does a great job. He recognizes the tenants well enough to hand us our mail when we come get it in the mail room. I think he's great, and I appreciate his cheerful demeanor. The problem is that every day, once he distributes everyone's mail to their box, he sits in the mail room and hangs out, reading the paper or just taking a nap, for at least an hour. I'm not usually the type of person who is concerned about what everyone else is doing, but considering all the troubles that the USPS is going through financially these days, I'm wondering if I should do or say anything. What do you think, Prudie, leave it alone or tattle-tale?

Your complaint makes me want to go postal. Apparently you think you'll solve the postal service problems by reporting this guy for taking a break in your mail room. Unless his presence is disturbing to your company, it should be of no concern to you that he takes his break in a quiet and comfortable place. Instead of reporting him, have everyone in the office chip in and get him a Christmas gift in recognition of her excellent service.

Thanks! That all seems so simple once you spell it out, but I was up most of the night noodling it through. The one other issue is that he told his parents, who I adore, this weekend, of course leaving out the affair. I want them to know the truth, but I also feel like it would be a case of tattling to his Mommy. Should I tell them, or leave it up to him to come clean?

The parents are tougher because they are going to have to come to terms with what a jerk they've raised.  Wait this out and see how it goes. If they reach out to you in some way and express their sadness, or raise the issue of the divorce, then you can say, as if in all innocence, "Yes, it was very painful to find out about his long affair. But there were other problems we just couldn't get past besides his infidelity."

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

In This Chat
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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