Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Apr 16, 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 took your questions on manners, morals and more.

Both my husband and our daughter were born with port wine stains on their faces. As a child, my husband's family pressured him to undergo laser treatment to have his birthmark mostly or completely removed. He ended up not undergoing treatment. Besides being teased a bit as a child, his birthmark was mostly a non-issue. However, I believe some of his anti-social behavior stems from that. Our daughter is 6 and has been getting teased a little at school. She is starting to become socially withdrawn and is afraid of going out in public - because occasionally both children and their parents ask about her birthmark. I have taught her how to respond to this attention. On the one hand, I would feel irresponsible if I suggest she gets laser treatment - because I would feel as though I'm telling her she's not "good" enough. On the other hand, I realize my husband's experience with minimal teasing is not common given his condition. My husband says I shouldn't mention laser treatment to her. I'm torn. What should I do?

You husband feels he made the right choice for himself.  It would be interesting if you could rewind his life and see if his personality ended up being different if the birthmark had been removed, but you'll never know.  What you do know is that your daughter is suffering now from unwanted attention because of a cosmetic problem.  I'm not saying everyone should fit some limited notion of looks or personality. There are many things outside of the norm,  both physical and mental, which people have to deal with because in lots of cases there's not much to be done.  But there's no doubt, especially for children, being different is harder. I don't see why your daughter has to overcome self-consciousness or deal with endless questions and staring because of such a superficial problem, one that has a solution.  I have heard testimony from kids who have had too prominent ears surgically pinned back who say how great it felt to finally look like everyone else.  You are not telling your daughter that she -- or even her father -- are somehow lesser if you raise the possibility of removing the birthmark.  You need to tell your husband that what worked for him is not necessarily the best thing for your daughter.  Even if won't accompany you, ask his understanding when you say you'd like to take your little girl to a dermatologist to discuss what removal would entail.

I've been divorced for 5 years, raised a wonderful daughter who is in her fourth year of college, and started dating a wonderful man one year ago. Things were going great for me, my daughter and my relationship with "Tim." Tim and I were set up by a mutual friend who is a professor at the college my daughter attends. My daughter took a class from him last year on my suggestion. While in that class she met and started dating a fellow classmate who decided to take the class because of a suggestion from his father.... Yep you guessed it! My daughter and I are dating a father and son. I feel like I am in a horribly written daytime soap opera. My daughter had met my boyfriend early in our relationship but had only just recently been invited to meet her boyfriend's father--he is a widower of 10 years. She was in shock when she realized it was the same man, and I still am after finding out. I guess the question is what to do? Continue with our relationships? I feel like all four of us are getting serious and marriage has been talked about between both couples as well. Is it considered a major social scandal to have your daughter-in-law be your own daughter? Thanks, A Potential Mother-in-law Mother

You two couples should have a double wedding and instead of the Wedding March play, "I'm My Own Grandpa."  It would be amusing if your daughter and her husband became stepsiblings, etc. but it's hardly a scandal.  Both couples getting married would certainly  solve the dilemma of deciding which in-law gets to see the kids at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The only red flag I see here is that your daughter and his son are a little young to be settling down.  Many people do successfully marry their college sweethearts, but I don't see why they would rush into it. Young marriage does put people at a higher risk of divorce.  If your daughter comes to you for advice about getting married upon graduation,  separate out what you say from your own concern about how good a stepson her boyfriend would be.

Dear Prudence, I received a message via Facebook about a month ago from person whose name I recognized, but have never met. It was my ex-husband's long-time friend informing me that he had commited suicide and begging me to contact her or his girlfriend. I thanked her for the information and told her I was sorry for her loss, but as I have not heard from him since our divorce 5 years ago, I really do not want anything to do with it. She wrote back with a message that the past is past and implied that I should be involved somehow in this mess. I got a little more explicit in describing that this man abandoned our children and while he may have been her best friend, I have no interest in anything having to do with him at this point. She is still insisting that she would love to be a part of my and my children's life and has even offered me some of his ashes! I feel very sorry for her as she is obviously greiving, but she is not understanding my position and I do not know how to tell her tactfully "thanks but no thanks". How do I let this greiving woman down gentley without having to lay out word for word my exact feelings about my deadbeat dad ex to her? Sincerely, Postively Perplexed

The friend is not getting the message, so you need to say that you understand her grief, but you simply do not have room for her in your life and unfortunately you two simply cannot get together.  This woman is a footnote, but I'm afraid you can't simply brush away the main story, which is that your children's father committed suicide.   This is information they are entitled to, and you have to tailor how you deliver it to be age appropriate.  As much as you may have hated the guy, you need to get past that and bring some compassion to how you tell your children that their father was a sad and ill man. Consider getting a counselor with expertise in such issues to help guide you, and them, through this.  You simply can't declare you want nothing to do with the fact that the father of your children is dead.

I am a professional  about to finish up a doctorate degree in a high-paying healthcare field. This has come at a fairly large financial cost (over 100K in loans) and great personal burden for both me and my partner, with whom I have been involved for 8 years. She has supported the household alone for the past 3 years as I studied, and we have always planned to have children and for her to stay home once I completed my degree. I'm 30 and she is 32, and her biological clock has been loudly ticking since we got together. The thing is, it has become starkly clear to me that I chose the wrong field. I have always wanted to be a medical doctor, but my spouse discouraged that dream on the basis that it would take too long, and I foolishly allowed myself to be discouraged. Over the past year of professional externships in healthcare settings, I have a hard time imagining that I will never get to be a physician. I have excelled in my current schooling and would be in a good position to be accepted to medical school. We have talked about my dream to go to medical school, and she has said that maybe in 10 years or so, after our (planned) kids are bigger, I could go. I worry about taking that tactic though, because you really need all the experience you can get, and that comes with time in the field. I feel terrible about the situation in which I've put my spouse, but on the other hand, I worry that I will never be truly happy living with such a large regret. What should I do? And if it's too late, how do I begin to grieve for my lost dreams?

Since you're involved with healthcare professionals every day take advantage of this fact and get some counseling -- psychological and occupational --about what to do.  You are an adult so you shouldn't feel you were bullied by your partner into a career you didn't want. If you were intent on becoming a doctor, you should have done so, even if it meant splitting from her.  But having completed a very expensive education, it really seems to make sense for you to be out of school for a few years and get a better sense of the satisfactions of the career you've prepared for.   Since you are around doctors, talk to some of them, especially the older ones.  I don't know about you, but many of the ones I know,  or have read about, suffer from burn-out given the tremendous pressure they are constantly under from all sides.  Maybe you are idealizing another career because you aren't quite ready to leave the cocoon of school. 

I'm an early 20's female college student who is about to move to a different college for my masters. However, before I go I want to do something nice to a particular teller at my bank. She always remembers me and is extremely friendly and helpful even with little things like remembering I like knowing my balance after a deposit etc. The other tellers aren't half as kind as she has been. I've been thinking about giving her a small batch of cookies and a card thanking her for her service of the past 4 years, as well as calling or emailing her branch manager of how much I appreciate her. Several of my friends think this is too much for someone I only know the first name of, but I'm a firm believer in rewards for good deed instead of just ranting on problems. What is your opinion? Am I too young for my message to her boss to be deemed respectable or are just cookies and note enough?

Please contact the manager and make sure your praise is in writing. You are absolutely right that people who deal with the public mostly hear complaints, so any manager, and any teller, would appreciate hearing about great service.  I, too, have occasionally written to managers about exceptional employees and have gotten nice notes back about how much that means.

My daughter and son-in-law are going through a rough divorce. We know that our son has been unfair to our daughter-in-law, but we feel that our daughter-in-law is being unfair to us throughout this process. We did not cheat on her or lie at all. And yet whenever we try to discuss grandparent visitation she either ignores us or tells us we will talk about it later. It is never later. Given my sons behavior, it is highly unlikely he will get very much visitation at all. We retained an attorney to help us have visitation with our grandchildren. My daughter-in-law told us that she only wants to communicate through our attorneys now and not to attend any school functions or see our grandchildren until we have this "officially sorted out." My husband and I are frustrated because we feel like we did nothing wrong, and yet are being punished through lack of contact with our grandchildren. Were we wrong to hire an attorney? Should we show up to our grandchildren's functions anyway? They mostly take place at their school, so I am not sure if our daughter-in-law could kick us out.

Okay so this  chat's theme is, "Adults, even if you hate the guts of your former spouse, don't take it out on the kids." Yes, your daughter-in-law is being unfair. What the children need most now is love and stability and keeping them from adoring grandparents is cruel to everyone.  I don't think you were wrong to step back from contacting your daughter-in-law and try to get your concerns addressed legally. She's decided everyone in your family is the devil. Let's hope that once the worst is over your daughter-in-law can see the benefit of having the kids spend a weekend with their grandparents. But don't provoke her  by showing up at school functions.  Follow your lawyer's advice and if you do get to see the kids, do not trash their mother.

My grandfather has offered me money on the condition that I never breathe a word of it to my sibling or cousins, because nobody else is getting money. He feels that I have been a better grandchild by calling and visiting him than the other grandchildren have, including when my grandmother was dying. This may or may not be true, but I still don't feel like I necessarily deserve something that the others won't get. My grandfather has a history of being somewhat cantankerous and difficult, but he and I have always gotten along well. I'm leaning towards taking the money because I feel like, if he was doing this to hurt the other kids, he would have made it public. Is it wrong for me to take this money, or am I assisting him in dividing the family? Unsure

If you feel he is being unfair in his conclusions, you could gently say how much you appreciate what he wants to do for you, but it will eventually come out that you got money and the others didn't, and that will create a lot of resentment of you from your siblings and cousins.  You can tell him that despite the fact that it's not in your best interest, maybe he would consider dividing his estate, which would ease your relationships after he's gone.  Then if you still get a windfall, everyone else will have to accept life's not fair.  And if he cuts you out for being another ungrateful wretch, you can all sympathize about what a difficult man your grandfather was.

Also, the kids may be eligible to receive Social Security payments, so she really needs to at least get the information and a death certificate. He may not have paid while he was living, but the money would probably help.

Great point.  And others have pointed out there might be  an estate the kids are entitled to. The mother needs to look into this and have the kids' financial interests protected.

My husband had a lengthy affair that I discovered shortly before he suffered a fatal heart attack. His best friend has told me that my husband's “girlfriend wants to attend the funeral with her two adolescent children. Apparently her children knew and adored my husband, although I don't think they realize he's married with children of his own. The girlfriend wants to give her devastated children an opportunity for closure. I can tell my husband's best friend expects me to "be the bigger person" and allow the girlfriend and her kids to attend. But I am in turmoil right now, and seeing those three at the funeral would make an incredibly painful day that much worse. Am I a bad person for banning these people from the funeral? What do I do if they show up anyways?

At Francois Mitterand's burial famously the wife and children of the former president of France said farewell standing next to his mistress and their child. But you're not French, so I don't think you should have to endure this.  You should convey back through your husband's best friend that their presence would be terribly upsetting and that they will have to grieve in their own way. If the girlfriend's kids are teenagers, surely they figured out there was something fishy about "Uncle Peter."  But what she tells her kids or how she lives her life is not your concern.  Do have someone who would recognize them standing at the door welcoming mourners.  If they show, he or she can politely say that the funeral is limited to family and selected friends.

I'm in my 40s and have a port-wine stain on my face. I did receive some teasing and plenty of undesired attention as a child and throughout my life as a result of the birthmark. It is hard being repeatedly asked if you were "in an accident" or if "your boyfriend hit you." As much as I do not regret having the birthmark, and it has brought me some positives in my life. If I had a child with a birthmark, I would have the treatment. It is not an indictment of those that have a birthmark, but is an opportunity that can't be repeated, as treatment is much more successful the younger a child is. I am confident enough in myself to know that I would still be as happy and rich a person without having had the birthmark.These days, my two elementary school boys regularly break my heart when they tell me my birthmark is in the shape of a heart and beg me not to cover it up with make-up because there is no reason to hide it.

Thank you so much for this and I hope the mother of the little girl reads your comment.  You have hit exactly the right note: You can feel comfortable about your birthmark and also think it makes sense to take advantage of the technology to remove it.

My grandparents recently passed away. While this is certainly very sad, they were both in their 90's and were in relatively good health until their passing. Instead of a traditional burial, my grandparents wanted to be cremated and their ashes spread on a bluff overlooking the ocean. For reasons that are unclear to me, my family elected not to spread the ashes when everybody was in town for the wake and funeral. Instead, my mother is trying to get everybody together this summer to spread the ashes. Correlating schedules is extremely difficult and stressful. The only date that works for most people falls on my 37th week of pregnancy and my husband and I live about 2 hours from the site. I told my mother that my husband and I feel we cannot commit fully to this date because we simply do not know what the end of my pregnancy will be like. My mother was furious, demanding that I attend. How do I handle this situation? I do not want everybody else to change the date on my account. I also do not feel comfortable promising I plan to attend an event if I am honestly not sure if I can. Any guidance?

Your mother should understand that basic biology dictates that you simply can't commit to a day trip so close to delivery.  You should tell her to make a date that's best for everyone, and if you can be there, you will.  If, when the day comes, for whatever reason you can't go, or you just don't want to go, then don't.  If your mother wants to punish you by then refusing to see her grandchild, she can be a charter member of today's club.

I can't tell you how important those supportive/laudatory/complimentary/grateful messages to the manager are. I am an executive at my company, and I make sure to write them when someone has done something significant for me. It makes a world of difference to them, which is always a good thing. And selfishly, it ensures that we have a good relationship in the future.

A good reminder that the world would be a nicer place if we all took more time to compliment rather than complain.

My sister is recently divorced from a verbally abusive husband. They have a son together, though, so the ex is still a regular part of her life, and he is making her miserable. He takes every opportunity (in person, by phone, by email) to belittle her, saying things that are truly nasty, vindictive and mean spirited. All of it is untrue, but he's got a knack for picking on her biggest insecurities and she is almost always reduced to tears by these exchanges. I try to be a comforting shoulder for her to cry on when this happens, but I am having increasing trouble containing my own rage at him for mistreating her this way. I know I should stay out of it, but I hate feeling like I am doomed to sit by, helpless, while this guy makes my sister absolutely miserable and causes her to feel unjustifiably bad about herself. It makes me furious and I just don't know how to handle this anger. Is there anything productive I can or should do in this situation beyond my current role? Is there any reasonable way for me to get out my anger without just making things worse?

Your sister need to put some systems in place so that her ex had access to his son without her having to deal with him.  In extreme cases the hand-off can be done at a neutral place -- let's say a police station.  What you describe also raises issues of his fitness as a father.  If he is volatile and vindictive, perhaps the court needs to know.  Your sister should document his behavior and discuss all this with her lawyer.  She divorced the guy, she shouldn't have to still live with his abuse.  You can help your sister by supporting her taking the proper steps to protect herself and her son, and not being another furious person in her life.

Dear Prudie, My husband passed away unexpectedly when I was six months pregnant. My son is now two years old and, although this has been difficult, I love being a mother. The problem is my mother. My father was in the military when my parents first got married and had children. Although he never saw combat, there were a lot of long separations. Recently, my mother has started telling me and other people that she raised her children by herself until they were 5 and 7 (when my father left the military). My father is hurt by this because he was certainly a part of our early childhood, even if he was unable to be there every day. I am annoyed by this because I am a single mother and I think it is unfair to me for somebody who had a loving husband to claim to be "doing it on their own." My mother had contact and support from my father, the benefit of living on base, his paycheck, and access to excellent healthcare, which I do not really think is the same as a single mother. Not to mention the fact that they were married, a social recognition of two people as a couple. I hesitate to bring this up to her because I do not want to participate in a "race to the bottom" where we are competing for a label. But I feel like what she is saying is not entirely appropriate or fair. Suggestions on dealing with this? Or should I let it go?

Next time she mentions it you can say, "Mom I know being a military wife was really hard, but I still have a father and I love him. My son will never have even a memory of his dad.  I hope you understand that I feel our situations are not the same."  Then forget it.  Either she has enough self-awareness to get the message, or she's one of those people for whom everything is about her.

Dear Prudence, My husband and I live in a quiet apartment complex, mostly inhabited by elderly persons, with a few young families. Our downstairs neighbors are a couple around our age (mid-to-late 20s) with a newborn baby. The father smokes -- usually just outside our building entrance -- but several times recently I have awoken to the overwhelming smell of cigarette smoke in our bedroom, strong enough that he must be smoking in their bedroom directly below ours. I work full-time with a disability, and also have asthma and migraines, which are both aggravated by perfumes, chemical odors, and smoke. When either of those flare up, my primary disability worsens too. If this becomes a regular thing, I know I am going to end up missing work. I am also concerned for the baby, but that is something over which I have no direct control. I want to approach our neighbors, or our landlord as a mediator, to ask that dad keep the smoking outdoors. My husband sympathizes with me, but points out that our lease doesn't disallow smoking, that our neighbors have the right to enjoyment of their property, and I really have no grounds on which to demand they stop. In a procedural sense, I know that he is 100% correct; however, I am approaching this as a neighborly courtesy, a friendly request that I know they have every right to deny.  Should I approach them, or should I accept that I have no right, since we don't live in a "nonsmoking" building?

I know the idea of moving seems lousy, but you're a renter so you should start looking to see if maybe you can move within your building or even to one which bans smoking.  A man who smokes in the apartment with a newborn is unlikely to care that he's aggravating a stranger's sensitivities by engaging in a legal habit in his own home.

It is possible the daughter-in-law's attorney recommended she have no contact with her ex or his family until the case is settled. I know that's what mine told me. It may have nothing to do with whether or not she got along with the in-laws or blames them for their son's misbehavior.

Interesting point.  Certainly the grandparents' lawyer can clarify this with the daughter-in-law's lawyer.

I tried to tell my husband this weekend that I wanted a divorce. He begged me to reconsider and after 6 hours of this I agreed to give him a second chance. He's now asking me how to be a better husband and sticking to me like glue with a sad look on his face. Prudie, he has mental health issues and after our daughter was born this fall I realized that this just isn't a healthy environment for her (or me) to be in. He cries every night and works himself into a frenzy where he's yelling and slamming things. Financially, divorce would be a disaster for my husband. I don't know what to do now! No matter how good he is about doing the dishes or the small complaints I was able to list, he still won't be stable in the long run. We've been together for ten years and it's as bad, possibly worse, than when we first started dating. I feel like I need to give him a shot and I feel like a terrible person for wanting to leave him because he's 'too crazy', but I can't take this any longer! How do I leave without destroying my husband? Now I feel bad that I've agreed to give him a second chance when I know in my heart that there's no hope.

You've been with a mentally ill person for 10 years, then at the end of that time had a child with him, and now you're thinking, "This just isn't working out."  You both  need help, so get some, both psychological and legal.

Dear Prudie: I want to have children but I think my husband would be a bad father for various reasons. He is a good husband even though some of the issues I have with him wouldn't, in my opinion, be great for children. How do I reconcile wanting to have children with his not-so-great baby behavior, much of which seems to come from negative feelings about his parents and his only child status. We talked about kids before we married, but I wasn't sure then what I considered a "good father." Now that I have a better idea of what I would need from my partner, I feel that my husband's behavior points to not being a good dad. We've openly discussed this and although he's on board if I am to have kids, I can't stop worrying about him stepping up. Am I overthinking it? I don't want to end my marriage but this has made me realize how choosing a partner can be very complicated. If I knew at 26 what I know now I might have chosen someone else.

There is another theme to this chat -- bad things happen when you marry an unstable person and decide to have children with him.  But you don't enumerate why you think your husband would be a bad father.  If he's passive-agressive, explosively angry, irresponsible then don't subject your children to this.  On the other hand, if he just doesn't seem to like babies, well many people don't until they have one of their own.  Take a class for prospective parents together so that you have a framework through which to discuss this and some professionals to talk before you decide to remain childless or leave your husband.

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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