Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jul 15, 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.

I write about social issues for a blog aimed at young women (ages 16-25 or so). Unsurprisingly, this subject matter sometimes sparks heated debates in the comments on my posts. Here's the problem: my mom, who has a hard time understanding the concept of "boundaries", has gotten an account on the site and has started showing up in the comments, usually arguing with people who disagree with me. The worst part is, she does this under a username that identifies her AS MY MOTHER. I've told her repeatedly that this is inappropriate, embarrassing, and has to stop (or that if she has to comment, to at least pick an anonymous username), but she won't; usually she acts hurt, goes silent for a few weeks, and then just starts doing it again. I'm beside myself -- it's humiliating, I'm worried that my boss is going to think I'm encouraging her to do this and let me go, and there's literally nothing I can do to stop her. Do you have any advice?

This is an excellent subject for one of your blog posts! Lots of young women are dealing with overbearing mothers and your take on it, and the discussion that follows could be most illuminating. First of all, consider that very few people are probably paying any attention to your mother's embarrassing comments. The next time she posts, try dealing with this with this with a little humor. After her rant goes up,  go into the comments yourself and say, "Thanks, Mom. But really, I can handle this myself." Following that, have another discussion with her. You can agree that your website is open to everyone, but that she has to recognize this is your place of work. If you worked in an office, she wouldn't barge in and berate your co-workers. Explain what she's doing on the site is the equivalent. If that doesn't stop her, surely your tech people have the ability to ban disruptive commenters. So the next time she posts, flag her comment and ask that this woman's IP addressed be blocked.  Unless your boss brings it up with you, I wouldn't wouldn't raise it with her -- it's hard to complain about your mother at work without sounding juvenile and defensive.

I strongly dislike--or don't fully trust--some of my husband's friends and family. Although the family has accepted me with open arms, his father, the father's side of the family, some of my husband's friends, and their wives occasionally use cultural stereotypes. I'm the only person of color and the newest addition to the group; while I don't want to be pegged as "the sensitive minority," I also feel that my silence means acceptance of their words. My husband is totally accepting of others, never stereotypes anyone, and recognizes that these "joking" comments are offensive. But the one time I pushed him to respond to an offensive forwarded email, he dragged his feet, which was disappointing. I feel that since they're his friends and family HE should be the one to say something, but I understand that he doesn't want to get into an argument with people who raised him/that he grew up with, and that he loves. Is there a polite way to call them out on their words, or should I just leave this alone since (1) we don't often see them and (2) they don't say this stuff all of the time? They think their comments are funny and I appear to be the only one who is uncomfortable.

At least you can't accuse these people of hypocrisy -- they spout their racism right in front of someone of a different race. They appear to be totally obtuse, but it's apparent they think they are either saying indisputable truism, or something humorous, and they don't see the problem. As we've learned, Paula Deen didn't see the problem, either. So why don't you approach this again with your husband in the spirit of saving these people a possibly damaging encounter at their workplaces. Say that you know he loves his family -- and mostly they're great -- but it is more than grating to hear their racism and you just can't sit there and take it when it comes up. Explain it would be so much more powerful if she could address this with them, but that if he can't, you will have to say something when you hear the unacceptable. Then calmly and politely speak up. You want to wait for something that is clearly over the line, and when you hear it, you can explain thatperhaps nothing offensive was meant by the remark, but that it's actually perpetuating an insulting stereotype. If this crew decides you're really touchy and they have to be on their best behavior when then around you, then consider that good news for all of you.

I am a married woman in my mid-twenties with a gay sister who is a decade older than I. We have been very close my whole life despite the fact we come from a very conservative family (I think I'm the only one who couldn't care less about her sexual orientation) and that she lives states away. She has been trying through ART's to conceive for about a year with no success, and I am the only one she has shared this information with. Well, my husband and I just discovered we are expecting (despite our own difficulties) and she didn't handle the news well at all. She commented that we are too young, we have no idea what we are in for, and that our upcoming vacation to see her and her girlfriend "is going to be boring." I know she is hurt, but I cannot help her struggles in conceiving and I miss being able to talk to her. No one else in the family understands why she is so upset. I love her and hope to be able to move past this before the baby is born.

I have very limited patience for people who behave this way. I understand the agonies of infertility, but your sister hasn't even been at it for very long. And even if someone feels a flare of jealousy over another's pregnancy, if you're old enough to be a mother, you should be old enough to be able to pause and reconsider before you say something hurtful. Or once you've blurted it out, you should be able to apologize, explain  your own disappointment got the better of you and of course you're thrilled for the news.  Pregnancy is not a zero sum game and someone else's pregnancy has no bearing on one's own.

If your conversation with your sister was very recent,   give her the benefit of the doubt and now that the news has sunk in, just get in touch with her to catch up and talk about your trip. If she remains cold and hostile, or starts berating you about your own pregnancy, then confront this directly. Say you understand she's frustrated, but you hope she can be happy for you, just as you fervently wish someday you will be happy for her.  Say you love her and are looking forward to seeing her and hope the trip is still on. If she won't shift gears, then consider changing your vacation plans until your sister does some growing up.

A few months back, my significant other and I got engaged. We are incredibly excited and I have zero doubt I want to marry this person. However, in the same last few months I've been more and more attracted to other people. In one case, I'm having dreams about a close friend of mine who is until now I would not consider my 'type'. In other cases I find myself especially attracted to members of the same sex. I've never experimented before. I am hesitate to bring this up for fear of scaring my SO, but I am not sure what I should do with these feelings. Am I just having a weird reaction to the engagement? Do other people go through this?

Sure, some people, when they feel the opportunity for other sexual possibilites closing off, suddenly feel it's time to raid the candy store. But whether this is your internal way of working through the import of "Forsaking all others" or whether its your psyche screaming "Don't do this, I want more fun" is for you to figure out.  If you realize it's the former, it's not helpful to say to your beloved, "The idea of being monogamous with you is making me want to sleep with every attractive person I meet, and I mean every attractive person. Just wanted to let you know."  But if it's the latter (despite your having "zero" doubts about your marriage), than before you find yourself saying "I do" and feeling suffocated, yes, you have talk about what's going on with you with your  bethrothed. And if you need to have that conversation, you must recognize there's the possibility of getting unthrothed.

Dear Prudie, I recently was invited to a friend's housewarming party, with the invitation detailing where they were registered. My question is two-fold, the first part being, is this a new trend? And secondly, if so, is it a bit presumptuous to assume that guests would be asking for this information, as non-traditional as it may seem, in the first place? Curious about the etiquette for these ever-changing times. -- Hospitable Housewarmer

No, the new trend is to say, "What's the password to your bank account, I need to withdraw some cash for my wedding/baby/house." A housewarming is actually not an occasion for the new homeowners to hit up their friends to furnish the place. It's a social event in which the hosts provide food and drink and the guests ooh and aah over the lovely abode and bring small useful items for it. These are things anyone would want: glassware, salad tongs, guest towels. In addition, an invitation should state the time and place of the festivities.  It should not include a note about what you expect people to purchase for you. You can pick something off the registry or not, but an etiquette book might be a good addition for their library.

I have two healthy, fun, creative children, a first grader and a third grader. I love them dearly and would do anything for them. I was raised in a very traditional family with a stay-at-home mom and stressed-out, hardworking dad. I remember talking about my future career and my mom saying something along the lines of "of course education is important, but your most important job will be to be a mother." I did go to college, got married, then had my children at 25 and 27. Some of my friends chose not to have children and frankly, I'm envious of their freedom to pursue education, careers, travel, frivolous expenditures, etc. I don't agonize about it, but I sometimes wonder what advice to give my children as they grow up. I don't want the assumption to be that they must have children some day in order to be happy or live a full life. I want them to see that there are other options for happy lives out there. How do I tell them this without leaving them with the feeling that they are not fully wanted and appreciated?

You have somehow gotten the impression life is a series of irrevocable decisions. That may be what you mother has drummed in your head, but it's just not true. Sure, having children is one of those, but beyond that, there's an entire world of choices before you.  (You may also find that over the next decade some of your childless friends decide they are ready for motherhood.)  Since you are getting itchy and somewhat bored, it may be time for you to look into getting back in the workplace. Children don't feel they are wanted and appreciated only if one parent is devoted entirely to their raising. If that's what the parent wants to do, great. But even a full-time mother should show her kids that adults have other abilities and interests beyond them. So you need to start pursuing those. At this point, you may want to take some classes to prepare you for an eventual return to work. Or you may want to get involved in some volunteer organization that's meaningful to you.

I know it's easy to assume that the present will be always thus, but one of the advantages of having your children young is that by the time you're in your forties -- your prime!-- your little ones won't be little, they will be off. It's not too early for you to start laying the groundwork for what will engage your mind when your all your kids have time for is a text telling you how busy they are with their own lives.

I hope this doesn't sound tendentious, but hubby's silence is the same as complicity, and as we have seen in the last couple of days, unchallenged racism can have deadly consequences even if unintended. He needs to explain to his loved ones how and why these casual remarks are no longer socially permissible.

Good point. That's why the wife needs to go back to her husband and say he may be intimidated, but since he loves his family and presumably thinks they are reasonable people, they should be open to hearing how their behavior is hurtful to others -- and potentially themselves.

I visited my sister for the first time since she gave birth in April. I spent a week with her, and I came away with the impression that she has serious postpartum depression. She struggled to get out of bed, she would cry for hours, and she sometimes expressed the wish that she had died during birth. She also berated herself for not being a happier, healthier mom. When I expressed my concerns to her husband, he told me to mind my own business. My family lives on the opposite coast as my sister, and she gets her main support from her husband and his family, who live nearby them. I know from past conversations that my sister's husband does not believe in antidepressants or depression. He has said things like, "Everyone has bad days," and, "People need to be accountable and solve their problems on their own." I worry that my sister is not getting and will not get the support she needs to work through her depression. What can/should I do to help her?

Oh, great, she's married to an idiot, one  who is potentially endangering the life of his wife and their child. You have plenty of evidence your sister has suicidal thoughts. I think you need to tell her you've been very concerned about her since your visit and if she won't discuss her psychological state with her doctor, you are going to call and alert her obstetrician.  (Make sure you have the doctor's name before you let her know this.) If she begs you not to do this, say hearing her in this state is alarming to you, and only confirms she needs professional help. Tell her, if she were bleeding dangerously, you'd call 911, no matter if she begged you not to. I know you are far away, but you, or other family members, might just need to show up to make sure your sister is getting the professional attention she needs.  Becoming a mother can be overwhelming, but thinking you should have died in childbirth is a medical emergency.

I would take Prudie's advice one further and, truly, write about boundaries in one of your blog posts. Young women are often expected to tolerate boundary-crossing to a degree no one else tolerates (ex: getting hassled by strangers in public), so I'm sure you could find lots of material to work with. Then use your mother as an example of someone who doesn't seem able to hear your request for respect and distance. She can be exhibit A for a discussion of how hard it is for some people to get the concept "no means no." Think of it as a gift: your mom providing the perfect source material. If she responds by saying she felt humiliated, you could tell her that she might now finally understand how you've been feeling.

I agree this is a good idea. Before she writes it, it's fair to give Mom a heads up and tell her that her struggles getting Mom to respect the boundaries of her workplace are going to be fodder for a new blog post.

I have suffered from endometriosis and ovarian cysts for 20 years and because of the different surgeries and treatments I have lost some feeling sensations. This means that it much harder to enjoy myself in bed. I have tried to explain to my husband that this has nothing to do with him but he alternates between feelings of rejection and aggravation over my inability to enjoy "quickies" or any sex that does not involve extended foreplay and consequently I have little interest when he suggests having one. At the same time, I feel guilty with rejecting him when he so obviously wants to have that connection so I usually given in once or twice a week. I finally resorted to faking pleasure but I'm fairly certain he knows when I do. Is there a way I can explain things better to him so that he can understand?

That's a lot of bad sex you're enduring to keep your husband's moods from making you miserable. First of all, stop faking. If you still can fully enjoy sex, but it takes you some time and attention to get revved up, that should be an incentive your husband to go slow and have a truly erotic encounter.  Wham, bam, is fine on occasion, but it should done in a spirit of mutuality. The pleasure then doesn't have to be an orgasm, it can just be fun of having a quick, caveman encounter. But your husband's attitude seems bullying and crude -- he needs it, and he's going to get it.   I think your problems in bed are reflective of more serious problems out of bed. You need to tell him you feel pressured and guilt-tripped about sex and you'd like to talk this out with a third party. If he won't go with you, explain this has become so troublesome to you, you're going by yourself.

Watching my mom get her Master's degree when I was in kindergarten made a huge impression on me--if there's something you want to do, it's not too late!

Clearly it did, because that was a long time ago. Thanks for this lovely anecdote. And you raise a really good point that even young children can be proud of their parents' accomplishments.

Thank you for the push, Prudie. I am going to call my sister and her husband, and if they won't take action I will let our parents and our brother know what's up. Between my husband, my sister-in-law, and my parents, one of us will be able to be with my sister until she is better.

Excellent. And don't wait. You don't want your sister to spiral further down.

Dear Prudie, My partner of fifteen years has a 14-year-old grandson who visits us every other summer for a week. We have nurtured this young man as best we can. His mother moved him to another state when he was six and fails to follow the child-custody agreements (no school report cards, no weekly phone calls, limited visitation) The child cannot read past a grade two level. He is supposed to wear glasses, but his mom refuses to repace them ( he lost them over a year ago - we just found this out this week when we picked him up for our visit). Whenever we send items to him for his birthday, his mother gives them to her younger children or sells them at garage sales. Can we contact child protective services and report this mother for neglect? What actions are available for us to change the life of this young man. He is healthy, respectful, but his maturity level and academic ability are like a seven-year-old. I know it is not physical abuse or even verbal, but I find it inexcusable that a child in America can reach the age of fourteen and not be able to read. He doesn't even know his home address or home phone number, carries no ID. Please let us know what is the best action to take to remedy this calmity. The father has been to court previously to get full-custody with no success.

Oh, what a tragic mess. I'm astounded that a mother so neglectful and incompetent can retain custody and I hope there is not something worrisome about the father that has prevented the courts from handing the child to him. This child needs a rescue. Before you call CPS -- and it absolutely may be necessary --  do talk about your plan with the father and make sure you are up to date on the legal situation. It could be that all of you need a conference with a lawyer -- a competent one -- to discuss how to act in the best interest of this child. I just don't understand how the mother has been able to get away with flouting her legal responsibilities for visitation, etc. But this boy needs intervention and he needs it before the school year begins. I cannot imagine how a school system has not noted they have a 14 year-old who is illiterate. I'm worried there is no school system and this boy is being "home-schooled." But you are right, he simply can't be returned home to this grotesquely neglectful situation.

I disagree a little with your response. It's normal to want to have spontaneous sex with your spouse and it's not necessarily a bad thing to "give in" and have sex where you don't necessarily achieve orgasm to make your spouse happy or just to enjoy the human contact. I had a friend who told me she couldn't achieve orgasm from intercourse alone, but still enjoyed it. There are additional things the LW can try to stimulate herself, or she could focus on the other pleasurable aspects of sex beyond orgasm.

We don't disagree, I said quickies can be fine and fun, even if all parties don't have an orgasm. And even inorgasmic sex can be lovely and intimate. What's not okay is for a husband to force himself on his wife twice a week in a sexual style that is frustrating for her because he is unwilling to be a more considerate lover.

I think it may my internal process. The weird thing is I've never been one to have a lot of partners (four total, all opposite sex). And like you said, it's not helpful to bring this up. Do I just expect to come out the other end of this okay? The thing that alarms me is the sudden-ness and the intensity of my attraction to my friend and to members of the same sex. I find myself thinking about it all. the. time.

You just got engaged and you're finding yourself thinking about having sex with members of the same sex all. the.time. So my suggestion is that you put.off.the.wedding.planning until you have spent more time trying on the idea of marriage. This may be a passing phase. It may be your libido announcing something new about you.

I enjoy a great relationship with my mother-in-law and thinking we had every reason to trust her, my husband and I shared some personal and sensitive health related issues with her. Due to the sensitive nature of what we shared, we requested that the information remain confidential. Nearly a year later I have discovered that she has shared these details with at least a dozen people, some that I don't even know. Because she was out of town at the time of this discovery, my husband, in fear that she would share this information with those she was visiting, sent a respectful, but firm text message reminding her of our request for privacy. Her response was completely juvenile and absurd. We would like to further clarify that our privacy is important, but her response is leaving me feeling like we've done something wrong. Should we pursue this?

She violated your trust, got caught, and now she's acting out.  Of course a text message is not an ideal way to deal with this, but I understand your desire to make sure she didn't go blabbing to a new set of people.  You've asked her not to talk about your health matters, and there's nothing more you can do right now. But when she returns, your husband has to sit down with her and say that she may have talked to friends out of concern and anxiety, but that you two won't be able to have confidential conversations with her in the future if she doesn't understand that private information has to stay private.

Over the past 6 months I have become good friends with a man from another country whom I met in a yoga class. He is very generous, intelligent, has a great job, and fun. The only problem is that he smells bad-- like he doesn't wear deodorent and re-wears his shirts too many times. He would like to meet more people and date American women. I introduced him to several of my single friends and they all noted his pungent aroma. I think his personal aroma is keeping him from making friends. Should I bring this up with him? I have thought about going shopping with him to a fancy body products store and finding an upscale antiperspirant and telling him to buy it because it is sexy.

Forget hinting. If you're a friend, you will tell him straight. It's simply the case that different cultures have different standards of hygiene. He's in America, so he has to conform to ours. Tell him you can't fix him up until he addresses his body odor issues. Say he needs to shower daily, use a strong deodorant and antiperspirant, and his shirts need laundering after every wearing. Be direct and matter-of-fact. You will be doing him (and everyone around him!)  a great service.

So instead of simply blocking mom's IP address and explaining the action in private, the letter writer should publicly shame her in a blog post about boundaries? The former would solve the problem; the latter strikes me as juvenile and could end up damaging the relationship.

As I said, if she decides to write a blog post about boundaries and include this issue about her mother, she should give her mother a heads up.  It can all be written in an affectionate and humorous way, "You may have noticed my Number One defender in the comments who goes by 'Mindy's Mom' because, well, she's my mom." The post could say mom's comments make her cringe and she's struggled with how to get her mother to stop -- in fact she's told her mother she's going to write about this issue. It could be that a lot of commenters say they loved Mindy's Mom's posts, or it could be that Mindy's Mom really comes to understand she is violating her daughter's work space. It would be a provocative post, and if you're in the blogging business, I think it's fair game.

Thanks, everyone. Stay cool and 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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