Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Apr 22, 2013

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.

Hi Prudie,  My wonderful husband has this obsession with my boobs. After breastfeeding a few kids, they are not so discreet and tiny anymore, and frankly I'm not very happy with the new bulkier look. I used to be a small B, now I'm a solid C. My husband likes them like this, but I feel suffocated by his attention to them. Anything that is not a turtleneck gets the once-over and basically a passive aggressive comment like, "you feel OK wearing that top?" At which point I generally say I do, sometimes asking him if he thinks it's too flashy and he reassures me that it's OK as long as I feel OK. At this point I go change because I don't want him thinking I'm trying to flash his mom at the family lunch or something. What can I do to get him off my back--err, chest? I'm modest, but I'm getting fed up with feeling like I never manage to dress appropriately. Thank you, What Would Happen if for once I Wore Spaghetti Straps?!

So he's thrilled with your expansion, but is also strangely unsupportive of it. If I'm understanding you right, it sounds as if he wants to keep your cup size a family secret (or two family secrets). A healthy interest in and pleasure in each other's bodies is good for a marriage. An obsession over one body part isn't. From now on, instead of slinking away and changing, stand firm. Explain you're a grown woman and you don't want to hear undermining commentary every time you wear an outfit that is two steps away from a burka. I hope your change in attitude has him looking at you like a deer caught in the headlights.  As for you, there are a lot of physical changes women undergo because of childbirth. But instead of bemoaning your enhanced state, accept yours is a development many women would envy.

I wanted nothing more than to be able to breastfeed my child. I had a medical condition develop pos- partum that physically prevented me from doing so--my milk never came in due to this condition. I tried pumping, medication and several lactation consultants, but nothing worked. It took me almost a year to come to terms with this problem because I was absolutely heartbroken. My partner now has a negative view of breastfeeding and sometimes comments to other breastfeeding parents about how miserable our baby was when I was nursing, which is true as I didn't meet his nutritional needs. I'd prefer to just not discuss the issue around others, because I'm still emotional. My child is now a toddler and I'm happy to no longer deal with the breastfeeding questions. How can I make my partner understand this?

I wonder if, "I'm living with a boob," is going to be the theme of the day. You are making me so happy to be beyond the breast-feeding, toilet training conversation stage of life and into the SAT prep, college touring maelstrom. Sure, you wanted to breast feed, but given your physical limitations the choice was a bottle or starvation. So be glad healthy, nutritious food was available for your child and stop dwelling on your breasts. Many women want to deliver vaginally, but end up have C-sections for medical reasons.  Again, that's better than having a catastrophic outcome. As for your partner, tell him or her that the commentary to other parents is intrusive and uncomfortable. Your child couldn't be breast fed, other children can. What a revelation! Your child is very young, so please, right now commit to not being the kinds of parents who obsess about every milestone ("Isabella is speaking in full sentences, but our Aiden is just saying,  bah, bah, bah, bah") making you, your child, and everyone else miserable.

Prudie, My grandfather died this winter after a long illness. It was incredibly stressful on my entire extended family, and tensions frequently ran high. Before Thanksgiving, there was a family blow-up --distressing information about his condition was put on Facebook before everyone had been informed. Angry (but true) things were said on all sides. Essentially, we all  realized that for years we've been pretending we're a very close family while we all actually hate each other. Now, the worst offender uncle is making half-hearted attempts at reconciliation. Lots of "I'm sorry if I offended anyone" comments. I feel like now we're all finally in a place where we're being honest with each other about our genuine feelings: we just don't get along. I don't want to hear his apologies that he doesn't even mean, especially if the only result would be re-establishing the old status quo of being nice to each other's faces and then talking mercilessly about everyone as soon as they leave the room. How do I convey to the family that I'm not interested in faux-reconciliation?  What do I do if I'm the only one who feels this way?

Your family has to decide if it would be better to finally be blown apart or if this atomization is an over-reaction to the long, painful death of  your patriarch.  Unfortunately, there are many high-tension, back-biting clans. But it seems like a shame to entirely dissolve a family. Even bad-mouthers can be those who will come forward and help when another family member is in extremis. Since all of you are capable of being nice to each other's faces, that sounds like a good place to start. I hope there is a next family gathering and that you go. Then when someone leaves the room and the nastiness starts, you can be the one to say, "Let's try something new. Let's stop tearing apart the people who aren't here to defend themselves."

I came from a mildly abusive family. My parents never gave me black eyes or broken bones, but there was always a violent physical expression of emotions They were violent with each other as well. As a child, I replicated that behavior with my younger brother. I've since had a great deal of therapy and am now happily married with a beautiful baby. Our marriage isn't violent in any way. However, a baby can be and is especially trying, and our baby is wonderful, but very high needs. I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with frustration and a desire to revert to the physical. I haven't had this problem in years! When this happens (I'm talking about extraordinarily bad days), I put her in a safe place, go into another room, and literally beat the walls. I would never hurt my baby, but I wonder if hitting the walls is just reinforcing that old violent response. Is this a bad way to deal with this, or just another way of surviving a fussy baby?

Good for you for breaking the chain of abuse. I know if the walls could talk they'd say, "Ouch," but you have addressed your family legacy of dealing with frustration physically. You're right that a baby, especially a fussy one, can test the patience of the most serene parents. It's great that you recognize when you are starting to feel overwhelmed and you remove yourself from your baby. But there is something rather desperate about literally pounding beating the walls.  I wonder if you couldn't channel your frustration in more physically productive ways. Get a jump rope, some hand weights, and when you have to step away from the baby give yourself an exercise break. If you are alone with her most days, you , like any new parent, need a break. Hire a regular babysitter and go do something that gives you pleasure -- seeing a friend, taking a walk, reading a book, going to a movie. Make sure you and your spouse are getting a chance to go out and reconnect with each other. If you've stopped therapy, now would be a good time for a tune up. Major life changes have a way of bringing back to the surface old pain. Speaking of which, I hope in the course of your therapy you've been able to address what you did to your brother, and that you apologized to him. Acknowledging your wrongs would be healing for both of you.

My older brother ( by 10 years) is married with a 2-year- old daughter. I am a senior in high school. Last week, I babysat for them (as I often do) from when school ended until my SIL came home from work. We always have had a fun friendship, I think she and my brother are a great couple, and I have repeatedly joked about how my brother outkicked his coverage and I hope I am so lucky some day. We joke, it's flirty but harmless, or so I thought. But she walked in last week, sat next to me on the couch, grabbed my hand, put it on a non-gender-neutral area and told me she had to have me right there. I freaked out and walked out. I called my brother and left a message, but his wife had already spun a whole different story, and now my whole family believes I am at fault. Nobody believes my version. Other than waiting until fall to go to college and get away from the madness, any tips to cope?

Your brother outkicked his coverage all right, right into the depravity zone.  In the years I've done this column I've had every variation of family member violation including son-in-law coming onto mother-in-law and daughter running off with stepfather.  It's grotesque when siblings-in-law voluntarily get it on, but it's actionable when one tries to molest  the other. You are caught in a terrible trap here.  Your sister-in-law, once rebuffed, put out the word that her younger brother-in-law tried to make a move.  And now no one is believing your story because of sexism. It's just easier to accept that a horny teen acted horribly than a young mother.  You need to sit down with your parents and tell them exactly what happened.  Say the physical violation was against you, and now she's compounding it by spreading malicious lies to save herself.  Frankly, I think you and your parents should sit down with a lawyer and discuss this. A false accusation of sexual assault is a dangerous thing. If your parents won't support you, go to your guidance counselor at school, explain what happened, and say you need some adults to help guide you through this morass.  You should not become a  pariah because you have an unbalanced new member of the family.

A young mother expresses concern that she might resort to violence with her new baby, and you suggest she try jumping rope? Are you kidding? A more appropriate response might have been putting her in touch with a support network or suggesting counseling. WOW, Prudie, you really blew it here.

She didn't say she felt she would be violent to her child, she said she was hitting the walls. I said she should go back and see her therapist. Of course, if she feels she's a danger, she needs to see someone immediately.  But many people pound pillows or go to the bathroom and scream who never take it out on their child.

Hi Prudence, My mother-in-law was very sadly diagnosed with a terminal illness. She could potentially live with this for the next 3-5 years, depending on treatment. She is fortunate enough to have excellent health insurance and access to wonderful medical care, so we are all optimistic. We have two children, ages 6 and 4, who are informed in age appropriate ways what is going on with their Grandma. There is some friction between my MIL and my parents. Since the diagnosis, my MIL has wanted holidays and such at her home because she doesn't know how many she has left. My wife's knee jerk reaction is to give her mother what she wants, given the situation. My parents gently brought up the other day that she could potentially live for a number of years and they do not want to have to give up every holiday -- particularly when my children are at these ages. My wife agrees with this in theory, but when actually talking to my mother-in-law it can be hard to say no. My mother-in-law also does not like to include my parents in holidays at her home because then she has to "prepare for company." My wife and I are trying to do the right thing and be sensitive to everybody, but the right thing to do here is not completely clear. Any advice?

I hope your mother-in-law has many years left, and also that her illness doesn't blow your families apart as in the previous letter.  Of course it's understandable that she wants as much time with her grandchildren as possible, but she simply can't dictate that for however long she lives, all the holidays are at her house -- your parents being pointedly not invited.  It sounds as if all of you live within striking distance of each other, so starting now it would be a good idea to ratchet down the holiday expectations and increase the casual, every day interaction you and your children have with their grandparents. Maybe you could host some brunches at your house at which all four grandparents attend, allowing them to interact more naturally with each other. Mother's Day might be a good occasion to start this. Maybe it's even time -- if you have room -- for you to host a Thanksgiving or Christmas. The next generation is going to have to step up for that duty one of these days. The major holidays are far away, so just put this worry aside for now and do your best to make sure the children get equal amounts of grandparental love.

I too grew a full cup size after having my son. However, my husband truly likes it and, though he doesn't encourage it, he doesn't get upset if I wear a V-neck out of the house. I am the one who is annoyed with them! They get in my way and I would wear sports bras to try to minimize them. Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who suggested getting a professional bra fitting done. I did and have found that a properly fitted bra makes all the difference! They still get in my way, but I don't look like "super boob" when I am wearing spaghetti straps!

Another woman who thinks her new cup size is a total bust! Good advice that proper fitting and support is a must.

I am in a relationship with a wonderful man whom I've been close friends with for about five years. He and my son love to spend time together, and we are talking about a future together. Here's the problem: When I met him, he was best friends with my ex-boyfriend. Because of this, none of his friends condone our relationship (although they do acknowledge that they've never seen their friend so happy). Their social group took some hits after my breakup with my (abusive) ex, when he cut out everyone who was associated with me. I don't want to isolate the wonderful man that I am with now by ignoring the problem with his friends. How do I win them over?

This sounds like a social group that's worth ditching. First of all, there's nothing amiss with two single people dating each other who met through a group of friends, even if one previously dated someone else in the gang. Second of all, your abusive ex sounds like a controlling creep not just in private, but across the board. Too bad his group isn't telling him to lay off.  I hope your boyfriend's social circle extends beyond this dysfunctional one. Instead of trying to win these people back, you and your boyfriend should look to stretch your social wings and make dates to get together with people less swayed by a big bully.

My mom and I don't get along. She recently admitted to my husband that she has disliked me since I was six. My daughter is now six and adores my parents, but I cannot stand being around them. My mother was emotionally and physically abusive and my father did nothing to stop her. I want my child to have a relationship with my parents, but under my rules (I don't want her going to visit them without either my husband or I present), but when I try to enforce those rules she has vicious verbal tantrums. Add to it that my parents lead miserable lives and  hey have made my daughter the only bright spot, and you see what I am up against. My parents look normal from the outside, so they demonize me to the family and make me look like I am withholding important time with their only grandchild. I am just trying to keep my child safe. I think now they are going to try to start manipulating her to get back at me and that is my final straw. They are coming for a visit soon, and the thought of it makes me want to run to the furthest country imaginable. I have no idea what to do here. Please help.

Sadly, it sounds as if it's time to try a period of no contact with your parents.  You had a hideous childhood, and good for you for making it out. Your parents remain abusive people, your mother overtly  your father her enabler. Your daughter may be the only light in their lives, but that's their fault. You rightly are concerned about the evil things your mother might say to your girl since she flat out told your husband she dislikes you.  I doubt anything her grandmother says will sway your daughter's feelings for you. But there's no reason you should allow her to hear such garbage from her grandmother.  Pull the plug on the visit. Tell your parents the visit is off, keep the conversation short, and just explain that you realize you can't be subject to verbal abuse any longer.  Then stay strong no matter what they pull. I wrote here about how others in your situation have handled similar awful parents.

To clarify, my ex is no longer in the picture with this social group. They did indeed ditch him when it became clear that he was unstable and controlling. However, I think they are afraid that I will somehow upset the dynamic with the rest of the group since our breakup was the catalyst for everything that changed. The man I am currently dating is supportive and happy to branch out into my circles, but these are people he's been friends with for 15 years, and he just wants us to all get along. I need to figure out how to coexist with these people.

Well if they realized they had a snake in their midst and they got rid of him, I don't understand why you should be punished for being among those who were deceived by him. In this case your boyfriend should say that you two are a duo and unless the event is just hanging out with the guys, he expects invitations will be to the two of you.

My parents have been estranged from their family for the past 10 years after a fight that I don't really know the details about. I am now grown up and living on my own. I have been contacted by e-mail by my Uncle wanting to get together. I would like to, except I feel like I need to say something to my parents first and I'm afraid this is going to start a fight. I don't want to go behind their back but I'm not sure if bringing up this conversation will be worth it. What can I do?

You're an adult so you can see whomever you like. If you feel it would be dishonest to see uncle without telling your parents, then tell them you have been contacted by him and are considering getting together. Say you would really like to hear their side of what happened.  At the very least you are entitled to know why you don't have a relationship with your other family members anymore. If there is something criminal or morally objectionable that happened, you can then make your decision about getting together. If it's just one of those stupid family messes that got out of hand, you can explain you're glad your uncle reached out and you at least want to have lunch with him.  Let's hope your parents then don't threaten to estrange themselves from you.

I am still shaking with anger. Last week, my son and I had a conversation over the phone about me buying him a puppy this summer. Fast forward to yesterday, when my ex had to bring my son home from his visitation with her. Guess who has a new puppy? Guess who was allowed to bring the puppy in the car with him for the three hour ride to my house? Guess who had his puppy taken away from him by his mother when he got out of the car? All of those questions lead to my 5 year old son having a complete meltdown, as I suspect most kids would do, bawling and hyperventilating because he wanted his puppy. Which then lead to his mother looking at me and saying, this is why I should get custody, he obviously doesn't want to be at your house, and then walked away with his new puppy. How do I keep my cool with her when she emotionally terrorizes our child to try and get him to feel bad for not living with her? The courts have been no help, because we live in a small town and the judge knows her (and my) families well, so he doesn't seem to believe the mean streak she has, even when confronted with actual hard proof. 

You keep your cool by keeping your cool. Your ex is hoping her provocations have the effect of getting you to act in a way that would allow the courts to see it her way.  But the good news is that your responding like a mature adult will save you from having to explain why you lost it, and will also be a continuing model for your son about how to respond to emotional manipulation. Don't rush out to get a counter-pup just because of your wife. But if you genuinely are ready for a dog of your own -- and you have to be prepared to do the dog care because you son is too youg --  then your son might just end up with two pets at two different home. You're in it with the long haul with your ex. So take a look at this book: Raising the Kid You Love with the Ex You Hate by Edward Farber for guidance on how to get through this.

Almost all of my past girlfriends have been funny, intelligent, interesting, and great people.  I have stayed friends with many of them (even went to a few of their weddings). They have all been physically attractive. I've tried dating women that were not as physically attractive to me (but still had the other qualities) because I didn't want to be "that guy" and I believe that people shouldn't be judged on their looks. But I could never get into the relationships. I am friends with some amazing women who have great traits, but would not be considered physically attractive. Some of them confide in me that they have trouble finding good men and ask me for advice. I tend to give them general dating advice but I don't know how to do more than that. Their looks are probably the only thing holding them back; and since that affects who I date (and yes, I do dislike that aspect about myself), I don't know what, if anything, I should tell them. Counting my blessings but wish I could help my friends.

If only "good looking" people were able to find mates, natural selection would have made it so that by now everyone on the planet would be Vogue-worthy. No, you just can't say, "Miranda, I love you to death, but face it, you're a dog." But I'm betting that you may have some guy friends who are average looking themselves, aren't able to outkick their coverage and are in the market for great women in their looks league. If so,  do some match-making.  But if the problem with our female friends is not their intrinsic looks but the fact they dress like schlubs or never wear make up, then a guy's perspective that they aren't doing everything with what they've got could spur them into action.

Hi Prudie: My husband has a major problems making decisions of all kinds and it paralyzes him so that he ends up accomplishing nothing professionally or coming home from the grocery store with eggs and not the lettuce he went to get, etc. I've always accepted it as a part of him and I help him when he asks, but now that we're thinking about kids, I just can't imagine a life where I'm constantly parenting for two when I don't have to. He does realize this is a problem and I don't know how to tell him I wouldn't want to have children with him like this. What can I do?

I don't even understand why you're married to someone who facing the produce aisle says, "Romaine, red leaf, iceberg -- arghh, get me out of here!" Your husband has such serious mental problems that he is unable to function in the world. He needs help, now, and your marriage needs some honesty, now. If he won't see a therapist (yes, you will have to find one since he won't be able to make a choice) then insist on marriage counseling -- which you need in addition, anyway.  Unless he addresses this problem and makes significant progress, like you, I can't imagine why you would bring a child into this mess.

This happened in my extended family. The couple decided not to host the annual big Thanksgiving get together with all of his side of the family to be with her father, who was ill. Two weeks later, his 'healthy' mother died suddenly. You can't predict who will die first and have to live your life in the present. Just do the best you can and see all the people you love as often as you can.

Excellent point. Carrying on as normally as possible will also benefit everyone.

Thank you all. Talk to you next week.

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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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