Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jun 02, 2014

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.

It's been a pleasure and an honor to chat with Washington Post readers for the past several years. Today is my last WP chat -- but the chatting won't end, we are bringing the live chat to Slate, the home of the Dear Prudence column. Our first Slate chat will be Tuesday June 10 (Monday is my daughter's high school graduation!). Here's a link where you can get updates to find the chat -- and there is no paywall.
I also want to thank the producer of the chat, Bethonie Butler. Her calm professionalism and great judgment has been crucial to the chat every week. Bethonie is a talented young writer, so look for her byline in the Style section.
Again, I have enjoyed every minute of talking with you, and look forward to today's questions!

Prudie, my sister recently moved back to town. I've always been the serious one, and she's more of a Holly Golightly free spirit. Despite this, we get along well. She adores our daughter, and has been a readily available sitter and chauffeur. She also seems to be acting as the big sister our daughter never had, and I wouldn't be surprised if she told her aunt things she doesn't tell us. This weekend, I came home to hear a commotion in the kitchen and found my daughter holding the hand mixer against her body. Embarrassed, she said her aunt had "taught her this trick." Now, I can easily imagine she may have just thrown that out as an inappropriate joke, but I wouldn't put it past her to have meant it seriously. Obviously, our daughter wouldn't be the first thirteen year old girl put in an awkward situation to lie, either. I really think this kind of thing needs to stay between mother and daughter. Should I confront my sister about this or just let it go?

Talk about scrambled eggs! And if your daughter has a sudden interest in doing the laundry, maybe it's because Holly told her to hop aboard the washing machine when it's in the spin cycle.  Having an free spirited aunt with whom you can share confidences you don't want to discuss with your mother is a great thing for a teenage girl. It's good that you've decided not to pry into exactly what these two discuss. I understand you're concerned about the repurposing of the appliances, but because the question of blender self-pleasure is going to be a horribly embarrassing one to bring up to your daughter, I think it's fine to broach this with your sister.  But this should not be a confrontation, instead make it a humorous conversation. Get sis alone and say you came home to find a rather hilarious scene. Say your daughter explained you gave her the kitchen tips, and you just wanted to check in with her about this. Then let your sister answer. It could well be that your daughter point blank asked her auntie for masturbation tips, and that's okay. I doubt you would have come up with a better one.  If that's the case,  gently tell your sister that you appreciate your daughter has found a confidante in her, but that you would appreciate in general that in the future if there's stuff going on that you should know about, to please give you a heads up.

I am a boomerang child cliché and just moved back in with my parents at age 28 after law school. They are 63 and 70 years old, and have been married 40 years. After three weeks in their house, I am shocked at how unimaginably rude they are to each other. Constantly belittling each other, twisting words to make the other feel bad, harping about the other to me when it's just the two of us. It wasn't like this when I was growing up! Meek attempts at getting them to be civil have resulted in the vitriol being briefly redirected at me. I am miserable living in such an environment, and they must be too. Is there anything I can do for them? I get counselling sessions for family members paid for through my employer, should I sign them up? Or should I just move out asap (which would upset them, they seem to really want me to be there) and leave them to their own devices? I don't want to seem ungrateful.

Sure they want you to be there. Since you have a law degree, one of them is hoping to get your free services to represent them in the divorce. Before we deal with your parents, let's address you. I know law school grads can be snowed under with debt. But in the normal course of events, you don't pick up your J.D. so that you can go back to your childhood bedroom and mediate your parents' failing marriage. You  have a job, so for goodness sake, assign part of your paycheck to rent, get the hell out of Dodge. You don't say your parents are ailing or otherwise incapacitated, and they are relatively young, so at this point in their lives, they should be able to be left to their own devices.  That doesn't mean you shouldn't have some pointed parting words. Tell them how concerned you are about the degeneration of their relationship. Explain you are not going to take sides and the venom they are spewing at each other is poisoning themselves and your relationship with them. Suggest they get counseling, and counselor, if you are going to be an effective lawyer, you need to stop cowering in the face of conflict.

Dear Prudie, Can you please give your loyal chat fans some more information about the move to Slate? First, there is confusion as to who can participate live - only S+ members, or anyone who wishes to tune in, as here at the WP? Also, as you may know, the commenting platform at Slate is *very* different from the one used here. For example, on Slate, when you click to "View/Make Comments," a dialogue box overtakes the entire screen and the original post (or in your case, chat) is completely unviewable, absent opening an additional tab. On top of that, there are ongoing problems with the way newer comments appear (or don't appear). It's quite difficult to envision how you are planning to recreate the flow of the chat that you have here under that system. I've followed you for a long time (you even answered my question once) and it would stink to no longer be able to participate, but I have to be honest: The Slate commenting system is made of nightmare fuel. Many thanks for your consideration.

No, the chat will not be behind any paywall, nor is it part of Slate Plus. (And  let me make a pitch for Slate Plus, which is our new membership division. It has all sorts of fun benefits for readers, and you help us keep Slate producing great journalism.)  For the past several weeks Slate's crack technology team has been creating a new live chat platform. We hope we don't have to dub it  "Nightmare Fuel"! There may be some kinks when we first get started, but our plan is to have something that approximates the smooth technology we've enjoyed here at the Washington Post.

At my age (50s) I'm supposed to be comfortable in my own skin, right? And I am, mostly, up until I noticed more and more men my age showing up with their much younger wives (one of whom happens to be my own sister-in-law, whom I adore). To be clear, these women are lovely in more than appearance--they are smart, kind, and funny, but recently I skipped a gathering of my brother and his high schools friends where I would have been 20 years older than any other woman present (I'm not married). When I turned down the invite, all I could think of was how I did not want my 50-year-old self to have to stand in the middle of a group of gray, paunchy middle-aged men and their dewy young wives. I look pretty good for my age, but I don't look 30. I thought the days of being the awkward, homely girl surrounded by cheerleaders were over. Any advice? 

Where do you live, Malibu? I'm in my 50s, too, and in my crowd almost all the fifty-something men have fifty-something wives, and we wives are all dewy because of hot flashes. Take another look around -- I simply doubt it's true every couple you know consists of man old enough to be the father of his new wife. However,  if there is a high percentage of trophies among  your friends, and these woman are smart and funny, what's the problem? Just go to these gatherings and have fun. Also, these women may want to turn to you for wisdom about aging -- so bone up on whether Viagra or Cialis is the best choice for their paunchy mates.

Hi Prudie, I'm about a month away from giving birth to my second child. Both our families live in the area and we asked my sister and her husband to stay with our toddler while I was in the hospital. My mom however took it extremely personally. Even though we told her she was welcome to come over and spend the whole day with our toddler, it's just that my sister and her husband would be the ones spending the night - she threw a tremendous tantrum that resulted in her storming out of the restaurant we were in at the time stating that she "doesn't have to respect decisions she thinks are stupid." Neither me nor my sister have heard from her in a few weeks now. Unfortunately, its not uncommon for my mom to react this way to decisions I make which she doesn't like (I'm in my 30s, btw) - and I've made peace with the fact that I can't control how she reacts. But my question is - what do we do now? At this point, my primary concern is that the next time we'll see her will be at the hospital after the new baby is born and that she'll be super bitter and unpleasant, which is not something I'm going to want to deal with. But I also don't want to deny her the ability to meet her new grandchild...

Since this is typical behavior from your mother, you at least have a tremendous amount of experience handling tantrums. And since your mother likes to deal with emotional discomfort by pitching a fit, you obviously made the right decision about where to place your toddler for a few nights. For now, do nothing. Your mother's the one who stormed off, so let her come crawling back on her own schedule. Let's hope she does show up at the hospital with a gift and a smile. If she shows up with a head of steam, task your husband with handling her. If she's stressing you out, he should take her aside and say it's wonderful to see her, but you're exhausted and not up for visitors, even loved ones.  He should say that when you all get home, you'll give her a call and let her know when a good time is for a longer visit. You need a simple reward system with her: If she behaves herself, she gets access; if she doesn't, she's asked to leave.

Thanks for responding to the logistics question. I appreciate the feedback :)

Come try it out. And fortunately I don't have to tell readers to not be shy about giving us feedback!

I am 28 years old and live with my parents. In my early 20s I spent some time either on my own or with friends, and moved back home when I was temporarily unemployed. Although I now have a job, I haven't moved out. I work long hours and it's wonderful coming to a warm home where my mother has dinner ready for me. I am the youngest of five kids and my parents made no secret of the fact that they like having one of their kids back at home (I think they were getting a little lonely in a big, empty house). I offered to pay them rent but they refused, as they are comfortably retired and not in need of extra money. So in addition to not having to spend significant hours a week doing household chores, I have been able to save a lot of money. At the end of this year I'll have enough for a deposit towards a house of my own - I could have never done this if I was living elsewhere. I don't plan on moving out because I can pay off the mortgage a lot quicker if I rent it out. My parents and I get along well and respect each other's space. In short, I have no reason - financial or otherwise - to move out and be independent. Is there something wrong with me for being comfortable in this situation?

There would be something wrong if you were comfortable in the situation of the other 28 year-old now living out The War of the Roses (Michael Douglas not Plantagenet version) back home with mom and dad. What you describe is a very traditional pattern in lots of countries, and it's working great for all of you. You're hardly an example of failure to launch -- you're setting yourself up for a more secure financial future. But you are heading toward your thirties. So just keep in mind that if you want a family of your own one day, you don't you don't want to be so comfortable with your family of origin that you never get started.

Don't tell her the baby has been born until after you come home. Seriously. You know your mother can't be trusted not to make a fuss, so you keep the information to yourself until you're ready to handle a visit from her. Your sister should agree to this, too; no calling Mom to say "sis is in labor and we're with the toddler!" or any communication until you're back on your home turf.

I agree. If mom stays silent, then she's simply out of touch. If the letter writer does get some communication from her, and she's conducting herself appropriately, then she should be rewarded for good behavior. Yes, it's a pain to have to treat your mother as if she's a toddler, but that's what you have to do when she has the emotional development of one.

Dear Prudence, My husband is a very easygoing, reasonable guy in all ways except one. He hates staying in other people's houses. Whenever I travel to an area where family or friends live, I invariably get insistent invitations to stay at their houses. if I am traveling alone, I take them up on their offer. If I am traveling with my husband, I have to decide who to upset: my husband or my potential hosts. Sometimes my potential hosts are my own parents or siblings, which is where I usually put my foot down, but only after much heated back and forth. While money is not an issue, sometimes I enjoy both being able to save money and spend more time with the people I love. My husband, on the other hand, prefers hotels, he says because he enjoys having alone time to unwind, plus using a bed and a shower that he himself has picked out. The one exception is his parent's house, I don't think he would ever dream turning down his mother's hospitality because he knows it would crush her. I can't see why he doesn't understand that I am often in the same boat. We have another trip coming up, with another invitation, so I am getting anxious. How do I find a way to make both camps happy in the future?

The compromise seems pretty obvious here: you camp out in the guest room or on the sofabed, he escapes to the hotel. If your guy is as agreeable and reasonable as you say, he is entitled to this quirk. Your husband finds an immersion in another family's rituals to be overwhelming. It's easy to explain to your family and friends that your husband needs some quiet space to do some work he's brought along, and that you are looking forward to your slumber party with them. On a longer visit, you may find yourself enjoying some private time with your husband at the hotel. As for the exception he makes for his own mother, it's his mother, so just cut him some slack.

My roommate thinks it's perfectly acceptable to open the bathroom door before washing her hands after using the toilet. I find this gross, as I have to touch the door in many instances where I'm not necessarily washing my hands. She thinks it's my problem to deal with. Is it? I feel like I have to treat the bathroom in my own home as a public restroom.

It is a little odd to open the door before finishing one's ablutions, but maybe your roommate just want to clear the air. I don't think, however, that this is something you need to keep trying to clear the air over, since you've both established your positions vis a vis the doorknob. I assume you don't wear gloves when you go to actual public restrooms and you have no Kleenex boxes on your feet when you take the subway. We live in a world of germs and there's not only no way to avoid them, we need them. But if you're concerned about what's crawling on the doorknobs in your home, wipe them off with soap and water (not anti-bacterial gel!) occasionally. Do it without making a demonstration in front of your roommate.  Unless you live alone, you're going to have to deal with someone else's idiosyncracies and microbiome.

There's another side to that story. Try being close to 50 and not only ignored by men your own age, but chased by younger men who like "older women". Sure, I should be glad I'm still lookin' pretty darned dewy, but it's not easy suddenly becoming a specific "type", when for the longest time I was just a woman. And then there's the resentment I get from women my age because I haven't gained weight or developed wrinkles like they have. Pardon my DNA, but it's tough for all of us.

Oh, Lord, do I know what you mean! Okay, actually I don't. The last time a younger man chased me down the street was because I dropped my reading glasses. But my sympathy to you for having to bat away the boys.

Prudie, I have been married for 10 years and we have a 4-year-old daughter. She is such a joy, but she is also severely disabled and will require constant care and supervision for her entire life. Between my wife's post-partum depression and the devastation of getting my little girl's diagnosis, the past few years have been really, really trying. My wife desperately wants another child, but I am terrified of the idea - terrified that something could go wrong with another child, terrified that my wife will become impossible to be around again, terrified that we simply won't be able to give another child the attention he/she deserves because our daughter takes up so much time and space. But my wife is adamant, and I don't see a compromise here. Any ideas?

Of course you love your little girl, but this is a very tough road you're on, one that would be wearing on the strongest person. Before we talk about having another child, I hope that you two have in place the ability to get respite from childcare and reconnect with each other. If you don't, that's crucial. Your wife's desires and your fears are each completely understandable. So you two need a safe place to talk this out. Please go to a therapist who has expertise in dealing with families with disabled children. Then, without your establishing it's a go-ahead, tell your wife that as part of your consideration, you two need a work up and discussion with a genetic counselor. Finding out your risks and how you can mitigate them might alleviate one of your major fears. Also, because your wife experienced post-partum depression, you, and her doctor, would be on the alert for any sign of it next time around. I'm not saying all this to argue your wife's side. I'm just suggesting that are things you can do so that you are seeing the possibility of another child from a place of knowledge, not fear.

"However, if there is a high percentage of trophies among your friends, and these woman are smart and funny, what's the problem? " That's a pretty derogatory description for these women, wouldn't you agree? Simply because they are significantly younger than their husbands doesn't make the "trophies". You may be trying to criticize the husbands, but you're taking down their wives as well.

I get your point, but I don't think it's such a derogatory short hand for the dewy young wives of paunchy, gray-haired men.

If the husband thinks it's fine for them to stay with his parents he should extend his wife the same courtesy.

But sometimes demanding the exact same treatment ends up becoming a tit for tat. A successful marriage requires accepting that things balance out in the long run, but not in every instance. She doesn't mind staying in other people's homes, he hates it. Accommodating this foible seems worth it.

I am getting married this week. We are expecting a baby in three months. Yay! My friends and family are as excited for us as we are. My future mother-in-law, however, has asked that we a. not inform her of the sex of the baby, even though everyone else attending the wedding already knows it, and b. not inform the groom's two younger siblings (9 and 11) about the baby. Which, again, every single other person at the wedding, including those kids' older siblings, is well aware of. I am six months pregnant, and shaped appropriately. These kids are homeschooled and devoutly Catholic, so I am sure that they have not received any sex education yet. Short of claiming that I have simply developed a profound love of donuts recently and informing all guests that they are supposed to pretend that I am not pregnant, how can I tiptoe through this event and subsequent relationship?

Congratulations! But surely, even the most bubble-wrapped home-schooled kid has absorbed what a pregnant woman is. This one is for your groom to handle. He needs to tell his mother that neither of you will mention the sex of the baby to her, but since the news has been widely disseminated, she might hear it anyway. He can also say that the wedding is not going to focus on the fact that by the time you two finish your wedding gift thank you notes, it will be time for baby gift ones. But neither are you going to pretend that a grandchild is not on the way. He can say if his little sibs ask him point blank, he's going to tell the truth, because the truth will be cooing and squalling soon enough.

Dear Prudie, I have a brother who lost his wife two years ago after a long illness. His children, 20 and 18, are nearly grown, and will both be in college later this year. I am worried about my brother being alone, and I believe, if left to his own devices, will not get out and meet women to socialize with. I know a client of mine who I think may be a good match for him, or at least be someone who will not take advantage of him. Both parties are in their 50s, in good health, financially secure, and tend to treat others well. The only problem is that I briefly dated the woman years back. We soon realized we were better as friends, and now have both a good friendship, as well as a business relationship. I would prefer to let this fact be unsaid, and I think she would be fine to keep it in the past as well. What do you think about this? [She is open to meeting him, by the way]

I agree that a brief, failed attempt at romance is not relevant news right now, especially since an introverted and grieving guy might use this as an excuse not to meet her.  If they click, then down the road then she can casually mention that long ago you two went out for a couple of dinners and quickly realized you're great as friends. I hope some magic happens!

You answered the question from the mom who observed her daughter busy with the mixer by saying that she should tell her sister that in the future the mom would liked to get a heads up if there was stuff going on she should know about. I don't see why a mom thinks that masturbation by a teen is something she should know about. We almost all do it, or we should do it, and teens full of hormones are very likely to experiment with their bodies. However, most teens would be mortified if their parents knew. I was fortunate to have an older sister who could fill me in and give me stuff to read but the daughter of the letter writer does not. The mom should be very happy that her daughter can go to the aunt for information she is to embarrassed to get from her mom. She should be happy and let her daughter have her privacy.

I didn't mean the advice on fun uses for the egg beaters needed to be revealed. I meant that down the road there may be things the daughter confides to the aunt that rightly need to involve the mother. The aunt may have to tell her niece her mom needs to know that, for example, that she needs birth control. I'm suggesting that the mother and aunt have a sense of trust about what stays private and what needs to be passed on.

I wrote to you a few weeks ago about my brother-in-law making a pass at me, and how I felt trapped and unsure of whether or not to speak up. I did tell my husband and he was livid. After a few days, he told me he wanted to tell his sister about her husband's confession of having affairs out of fear that he might pass something onto her. I was worried, but agreed I'd feel awful if she later discovered a surprise STD. It was little surprise that she reacted with screams, crying and insistence that I must be lying before hanging up on him. She later called his parents. My father-in-law said he was "doubtful" about my claims. A few hours later, my mother-in-law showed up and asked to speak to me in private. I was really surprised when she told me that he had "always" given her the creeps, and that he had made a few inappropriate comments to her on their latest visit up here. She reassured me that her daughter would likely come around one day. This situation did not end up nearly as badly as I thought it could have, and I am happy that we have now done our part to protect his sister. The rest of the choice is up to her...he is never welcome in our home again.

Thank you for this update, and I agree that painful as this was, you totally did the right thing by telling your husband, and he did the right thing by passing on the news. And horrible news it is for your sister to have to realize she's married to, and has a child with, a total scuzzball. But the testimony from your mother-in-law that she's been alarmed by him is chilling. I hope your father-in-law comes around that that the two of them will be there to support their daughter as she figures out her next steps. When your husband has been banned for cause from your brother's home, you really need to look at who you're married to.

So, this is it. Farewell to the Washington Post, which has been a great place to chat. Thank you all so much for your fabulous questions, observations, and yes, criticisms. Please come visit us at Slate on Mondays at noon (and next week on Tuesday).

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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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