Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Jan 07, 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.

Happy 2013! I hope yours is off to a good start and none of you have the viral crud which has felled all of us here at the chat.

Dear Prudence, A few years ago I cheated on my husband, got pregnant, and decided to keep the child. Because my husband and I had a two-year-old son together we decided that we could keep our marriage together for his sake. The thing that really complicates things is that my husband, son, and I are white, while my lover was black, and so my daughter is mixed race. Naturally my son has begun questioning why his sister looks so different from the rest of us, and my mother-in-law took it upon herself to tell him she was adopted. I'm at a loss for what to do. For now my husband has told MIL that the topic is verboten, but we haven't decided if we should correct her error. Until now I've been happy to just let people assume what they want about where my children's origins are, but now that a story is getting around, I'm not sure what to say or how to handle it.

Despite continuing weekly evidence to the contrary, I will continue to believe that the vast majority of men who think they are the biological fathers of their children really did  provide the sperm.  If you get impregnated by a lover of another race, what you say to your children about this is something that needed to be discussed openly with your husband, preferably before the baby was born. Making the utterly obvious verboten is not a good strategy for anyone. I think what you need for your immediate family is a dose of the truth. But, for your children, it needs to be age appropriate.  Since your your daughter was born a few years ago,  your son is old enough to know the basics of reproduction. He needs to be told that his sister has the same mother, but a different biological father. However, what's really important is that both he and his sister are being raised by the same daddy.  You can tell him families are made all sorts of ways, and yours is just a little bit special.  If your son -- and eventually your daughter -- want to know why this is the case, it's fair to tell them that it's a complicated story, and they will probably understand it more when they're older. Say they can talk about this subject any time, but if they can wait, you and you and their dad can fill in more details as they grow up. For outsiders, you don't need to explain anything. You can just say you are blessed with two beautiful children. And your husband needs to tell his mother to stop telling the kids something that's simply wrong.

My best friend is terminally ill and has another 6-18 months to live. She has teenage children from a previous marriage and two, 4 and 7, with her current partner. She spent the past several months raising money for her family. Many people from the community gave generously, including people who couldn't afford to give much in the first place. Recently she announced that she wanted to marry her partner before she died - and this was going to be her dream wedding. As a maid of honor I was initially excited about helping her plan a well- deserved special day. My shock came when I realized her dream wedding is funded by money from virtually all the donations, her family (who are most certainly not well off), her and her partner's saving account, even money they were saving for her children's college. It is going to be a lavish, no expenses spared wedding at one of the most expensive hotels in our city. I asked tentatively if she thought it was a good idea to spend all the money on her wedding, and she enthusiastically replied it was going to be a special day for her whole family to remember. A part of me thinks it's none of my business and another part of me feels compelled to speak up. What, if anything, should I say to my friend?

Dying people deserve a lot of leeway. But dying people who want to bankrupt their families and leave their children destitute in pursuit of a useless fantasy need a dose of reality. Your friend understands she will not be able to raise her children. So to raid their college funds and her partner's savings account, for the chimera of the perfect wedding is grotesque. Stop hinting and speak up. Tell her you totally support her desire to get married, but you -- and everyone else -- are very concerned about leaving her offspring financially ruined  in order to have a lavish wedding. Say that a small, meaningful ceremony will be a much more significant memory for the children. Explain if she puts all the money into this extravaganza in future years her children will look back on it bitterly.  Have a private talk with her fiance. He probably feels he has to please his dying partner, but explain to him that all of you need to put a brake on this fantasy wedding. If she won't back down, I think you should and say you love her and want to support her, but you're withdrawing as maid of honor because you can't be party to something that will be so harmful to her children.

My husband of 15 years has the peculiar and annoying habit of developing various ailments when I get sick. Fortunately, this doesn't happen often, but occasionally I will come down with a bad case of migraine headaches or a stomach bug. When this happens, my husband will invariably complain of sore throat/mysterious limp/irregular heartbeats or some other type of medical issue that overshadows my own predicaments in severity and attention-seeking behavior. He also steps up the moaning and groaning. While I have no need for pity or excessive sympathy on my infrequent sick days, a kind word and a helping hand would be preferred over having to engage in a ridiculous competition over who feels more crappy and who should get the most help from the kids. I have tried everything from ignoring his behavior to complaining - nothing works. I know his Mom has done this very same thing most of her life to reclaim attention whenever someone else in the family would steal the limelight. I hate to pass this syndrome down to my own kids and frankly, I'm tired of it and dread the prospect of getting sick so I have to deal with a whiny husband and kids who worry their dad will croak while mom is down with the flu. What can I do to break the pattern?

Aside from complaining, when both of you are feeling well,  calmly have a talk in which you point out that on the occasions when you are sick, he inevitably ends up with a bunch of symptoms which make it impossible for him to provide you with even modest care -- the kind you provide him when he is actually down with something. But this is a lifetime, deeply ingrained habit that may be hard to break. So  just deal with it on a symptom by symptom basis.  If you have a migraine and he's "limping" tell him you're sorry his leg is painful, but since you can't even get out of bed, could he manage to bring you a cup of tea. If you're in bed with a stomach virus and his heart starts skipping beats say if he's concerned he's having a heart attack, he should get himself to the emergency room. Explain that because you're throwing up, you're unable to accompany him. Ignore the moaning and groaning. If the kids are worried, tell them that both of you are a little under the weather, but it's nothing serious.  Let's hope the kids simply come to see that Dad gets rather melodramatic, not that his method seems like a great way to get attention.

My fiance and I met when we were 15 and have been dating for 6 years now. We're planning our wedding for later this year. My parents and I have always been very close and when I first began dating had a long talk about waiting for marriage to have sex. I felt like it was the right thing for me to do and did wait. In fact, my fiance and I waited 4 years before we did have sex. When we did take that step, we had a serious discussion and decided we truly did love each other and felt comfortable enough to do it. My problem is that my parents are so proud that we had decided to wait until marriage and tell me that all the time. I feel horrible for deceiving them, but am not sure if it's worth busting their bubble, or even how much of their business it is. Should I keep this to myself or be honest?

I can't imagine marrying someone without taking this kind of test drive, so good for you. You and your fiance are both adults and your sex life is not your parents' business. Since in your parents' minds you're on track to have the cherry popped later this year, there doesn't seem to be any reason to go popping their bubble.  But you also need to end this silly conversation.  The next time they bring up your virginity just tell them you have become uncomfortable with the frequent references to your sexuality and you want to put this subject  off limits.

My mother is in her mid-60s and I think she still looks pretty great for her age. However, I'm beginning to suspect that she doesn't know how to properly deal with her aging skin. It's the only explanation I can think of for why she's begun adding more and more dramatic makeup over the past several years. She applies a thick line of black eyeliner under her eyes, well below where most women apply it. She also pastes on thick foundation and uses very dark lipstick. All of this makeup does nothing for her and I think she looks quite beautiful without it. My husband has noticed how heavy her makeup is as well. I would love to buy her a makeover so that maybe an experienced makeup artist could show her how to apply a softer look that works with her skin. But she's extremely sensitive and I can't think of a single way to tell her she needs to dial back the makeup without hurting her feelings. Is there a delicate way I can offer to buy her a makeover? Should I not say anything at all? I would never want to upset her and maybe I should just let the issue go completely. But I trust your advice tremendously and thought I'd see what you think.

You could give her a DVD of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" and tell her this caught your eye because the Bette Davis character reminds you of her.  Your mother's situation may be a combo of fear of aging, diminishing eyesight, and soothing but inadequate bathroom lighting.  Forget the fact that she's extremely sensitive and just speak to her as an adult. "Mom, you look great, but I've noticed your make up detracts from your looks. It's way too dark and heavy and it's actually adding years. Let's  go together and get you a make- over, my treat."  If she has a fit or a breakdown over this, just accept your mother's look of choice is Bride of Frankenstein.

Dear Prudence, I am 15 years old and I recently confessed to my mother that my dad sexually abused from when I was 8 years old until I was about 13. I never had the courage to tell her before and she never suspected because my father has always seemed the perfect father. She says she would expect that from a drunk, drug addict, a player, etc. but never from my father. I don't think she fully believes me and when she told my father he claimed that I am lying. He says that our relationship is over and that he will never give me another penny. I honestly don't care about our relationship although I do worry about the money because my mom is unemployed and I play tennis which is very costly. My problem is making my mother believe me because I would die if she chose my father over me. What do I do? Sincerely, Frightened

You need help from professionals. Please go to your guidance counselor immediately and tell her or him what you've told me. The counselor will be required to report this to the authorities who will investigate your father.  If you were sexually abused by your father for five years, this isn't a matter of whether your mother "choses" him, he should be prosecuted and jailed. I hope you have some close relatives you can confide in who will support you through this ordeal. 

Dear Prudie- I have a group of friends who I used to work with but we've all gone our separate ways and now work at different companies. I keep in touch with all of them and see them all, sometimes together, sometimes one-on-one, about once/month. One of the women threw a holiday party this year, and when I arrived, I was shocked that they each had a gift for me. I was so embarrassed because I did not buy them gifts --- we hadn't even discussed gifts and had not given holiday gifts in the past. Is it too late to give them each a gift now? Is there some way to make it up to them after the fact? I want to make this right, but don't want to look like I am doing it just out of embarrassment.

It is embarrassing when everyone seems to have gotten the "gifts will be exchanged" message but you.  You can  just accept this was an accidental faux pas, write them each a thank you and say how wonderful it was to catch up. Or you can send a thank you and wishes for a sweet new year along with a small gift, something like a  bottle of lovely hand lotion.

Grad School Stalker Dear Prudence, I am a male first-year graduate student who lives in school housing across from "Ted," a belligerent, drunk and drug-abusing classmate who won't leave me alone. He sends me dozens of texts each day prompting me to engage in deep, intellectual conversations about his emotional problems. His unreasonable behavior around other students makes it clear why he doesn't have other friends. I have people-pleasing tendencies, which is why I have tolerated him so far. I would like to cut him off so I can focus on my studies, but I'm not sure how. He has said to me that he has fantasies about beating up people who upset him. I suggested that he see one of the school's free therapists, but he insists that I am better than any therapist. Help! 

Go now to the head of student affairs and report this situation. This guy is violating so many laws (taking drugs on campus, threatening violence) that the people in charge need to do an assessment and take some action.  And the next time he contacts you explain you want all communication with him ended now. If nothing happens and "Ted" continues unabated, your  next call should be to the police to report being stalked.

My wife and I lost our baby daughter to a painful terminal illness last year. We're at the age where all of our friends are having kids, so it's impossible to avoid babies, nor would we want to do so. We're happy for our friends, even if it's sometimes challenging to hear them complain about mundane issues like how challenging it is to find a good nanny. My wife's sister-in-law announced her pregnancy in September, and since then it's been an exhausting parade of baby-related events that for which she expects my wife's presence: gender-reveal cake party, ultrasound party, three baby showers. She sends my wife (and the rest of the family) near daily updates about her gestational progress. My wife and I suffered a miscarriage recently, so she' especially raw right now, and each new baby-event kills her a little. She feels it would be miserly to back out of an event because we lost our baby, but given how overboard her sister-in-law is going, I think it's the course of action to take. What do you think?

I'm so sorry for your losses. You two sound remarkably  strong and I admire you for understanding that other people's lives go on, despite your sorrow.  However, even in the absence of your tragedy, this sister-in-law's behavior is extremely distasteful.  "Gender reveal cake" "Ultrasound party" "THREE showers"? It would be one thing if the sister-in-law and her husband had offered tickets to the baby-making event. But trying to force your loved ones into a 9 month-long gestational celebration is insane, and cruel given your circumstances.  It is not miserly to put an end to this insanity.  Block the sister-in-law's Facebook feed and her email if necessary. Decline the invitations. ("I'm so sorry. I won't be able to make it" Period.) And maybe you could have a family ambassador explain that a grieving parent is just not up for the kind of celebrations she's holding -- maybe the ambassador can explain that actually no one is.

Hi Prudie, hope you feel better soon! I am expecting my first child soon. My husband's family routinely greets/says goodbye to each with a kiss on the lips. While this is normal for them, it is a completely foreign (and gross!) idea to me as my side of the family does not do this. From the beginning, I have always turned my head to the side and offered my cheek and so far have escaped unscathed from their slobber. However, when my child is born I want to make sure that they do not kiss the baby on the lips. Obviously this behavior transmits many more germs than necessary that a newborn will have no defense to. My husband thinks it's ridiculous to say something to his side about this but I'm getting anxious about it already. Do you think that it is appropriate to want to stop this before it starts, and if so what/how would you say something to them? Thank you!

This is the kind of thing you can talk about with your OB or your pediatrician if you've already got one lined up (which you should). Get a ruling that newborns should not be kissed, especially on the lips. Their immune systems are not up to speed and they need to be protected from all these awful winter viruses.  It's also a good idea to keep your baby from getting a herpes infection.  You can even ask for some written material on this you can hand out if you feel you'll be intimitated in speaking out to your in-laws about their keeping their lips buttoned.

I agree with Dear Prudence- you need someone who has experience with your situation (b/c you aren't the only one that this has happened to). I'd suggest calling the Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). They can give suggestions or just listen and let you be anonymous until you're ready.

Thank you, good idea. Yes, this girl needs some wise support.

Dear Prudence, I'm an adult child home for the holidays. A frequent argument I have always had with my parents is that they don't like to wear seat belts in the car. They always say things like, "We didn't wear them as kids, and we're fine" and "We're good drivers, so it's ok" and even "I don't have to wear one if I sit in the back." I've shown them videos of both crash test dummies and people being thrown around and gravely injured in crashes without seatbelts, to no avail. The only time they do wear them is when they drive my old car, which beeps if you don't plug in, but they each have another car they prefer. I've tried making agreements - when I was a teenager, I promised to wear a helmet (they didn't hold up), and now I've promised to use proper table manners (and they still haven't held up, and I'm 25 and think my manner are just fine). How do I make them -sane, rational, and generally very healthy people - understand that this is a dangerous and worrisome behavior?

You could tell them about my father. He didn't believe in seatbelts either. Then an old lady ran a stop sign into his car and his head went into the windshield. It causes a stroke which lead to a long, sad decline. However, people who don't want to wear seatbelts seem for whatever reason beyond the help of rational argument.  What you can do is absolutely refuse to get in the car with them unless they're buckled up.  Beyond that you have to accept that some people for some reason have a self-destructive streak and in their case there doesn't seem to be anything you can do.

Buy your mom a lighted, magnifying mirror. I'm only 50, but my ability to see what my face really looks like has really diminished - I can't function without mine!

Ah, the lighted magnifying mirror. I have one and it's a daily adventure in identifying new and alarming topography.

I am a dog lover, having three, so seeing a dog unfairly treated is painful top me. What do I do about the neighbors across the street who have a most adorable beagle, but leave him outside all day long. Even in 20 degree weather. He scratches at the door constantly, and they throw cookies outside sometimes but, generally, ignore him. When he does go inside he is crated. I want to 1) keep my mouth shut, or 2) give them a good talking to.

Whether you speak to your neighbors directly or just call animal control depends on your relationship with these people.  If you have even a nodding acquaintance, you could try going over and saying your sure they love their adorable dog, but you're concerned about him being outside in cold weather all day, and being crated while inside the house. But people who think that's how you treat a dog are unlikely to respond to sweet reason.  Your local animal control should do something about this situation because it's abusive.  But as many frustrated readers have pointed out, often nothing is done unless the abuse is egregious.

My husband and I married last year and I quickly got pregnant. On Thanksgiving day, when I was about 15 weeks along, I was preparing to tell my family when my sister-in-law announced that she was 6 weeks along. She and my brother have tried for years, so I'm very happy for them. Needless to say, I shut my mouth and kept the news to myself. But over the ensuing weeks her excitement has been building - she's thrilled to be giving the first grandchild to both sides. Now I feel like a jerk for letting her have those weeks in the spotlight. How do I tell everyone about my pregnancy? I feel like I'm upstaging her now But it's getting to the point anyway where my belly will announce the news for me.

You should have just gone ahead and announced that the family was going to be getting cousins. I can't stand this idea that people own certain life milestones and everyone else should back off. You're pregnant so just tell everyone the great news. Let's hope that if your brother and sister-in-law are old enough to be parents, they are old enough not to bristle at the fact that they won't be having the first grandchild.

Hi Prudence, I enjoy massages a couple of times a year. The last one was performed by a male masseuse. He did a wonderful job; I was relaxed and all of the major problems in my lower back were improved. There was an unexpected added bonus though. Because he was male, I felt a little excited about being touched by someone other than my husband. Nothing sexual happened. It wasn't a "Sex and the City" moment. But I still got a little secret thrill from the experience. My next massage is coming up. Is it ok for me to request another male masseuse? Thanks!

As long as both you and the masseuse remain professional, it's just an unremunerated extra that he is so able to rub you the right way. That you feel something internally that's more than simple relief from lower back pain is your own business.  What goes on in your head -- or the tingles that run up and down your spine -- do not have to be disclosed to your beloved. No marriage would survive if every spouse reported on the pleasure they get from gazing at good-looking strangers, or from mild office banter.  So for your next massage ask for the guy with the strong, slow hands and leave a good tip.

Hi Prudie, The 15 year old that wrote in echoed very close to home for me. I too, was sexually abused for several years (older brother in my case). Unfortunately in my case, my mother and immediate family members did decided I must be lying and completely broke off all relations with me. What helped in my case was enlisting a close friend and her family who provided me a safe haven whenever I needed support. I could spend as much time there as I needed, and would listen without judgement. They didn't have the biases of "not wanting to think they could be associated with that kind of person" that plagued both my family and what appears to be happening for this young woman. I hope her school has a staff psychologist that can help her work through the feelings of confusion and come out of this a survivor. For the young woman, stay strong. What your father did was abhorrent, and no matter what any of your "family" tells you, you are not to blame in any way. You have already taken the biggest step in speaking up, please keep with it. It will get better.

Thank you for this. Even though I've heard this story many times, I remained shocked at how families can close ranks around the perpetrator.  It's shameful.

I made contact with my birth mother "Adrian" a year ago, when I was twenty-four and felt ready to handle the complexities of our relationship. I love my mom, the one who raised me, and while I will always be thankful to Adrian for placing me up for adoption, I was not looking for another mom. While Adrian and I quickly bonded, it wasn't long before she revealed her bitterness about the adoption process. She has become an anti-adoption advocate, and I think it upsets her that I was not adversely impacted by my adoption growing up. I've read her blog, where she has interview many unhappy adult adoptees, and I think she feels rejected because I'm not one of those people. Adrian is also dating a married man and has dated numerous married men in the past. I feel uncomfortable spending time around her married boyfriend Jeremy. I want to cut back on my time spent around Adrian, but I'm worried about her reaction if I pull away.

It's true your  relationship with a newly discovered biological mother is different from the others in your life. But as you point out, you are grateful to have been raised by your adoptive mother, who you consider your real mother.   Adrian sounds like a very unhappy person who makes lots of bad choices. If it weren't for your biological connection you surely would have little to do with her. You can be gentle, but you have to do what's right for you and so you simply need to stop seeing her so much. Be polite, but recognize you simply can't take on the burden of her emotional instability. One good choice she did make was placing you in a loving family. You can be grateful to her for that, but you do not owe Adrian a big place in your life.

As a licensed massage therapist for over 10 years, I agree with Prudie's response to the question, but I just wanted to note that many of us find the word "masseuse" to be antiquated if not a bit offensive. It sounds like no boundaries were crossed in the letter writer's case, but the profession is still fighting for legitimacy in many circles, and the word "masseuse" within the industry often carries untoward connotations. Most of us who practice legitimately prefer the term "massage therapist." Thanks for understanding.

 Thanks for pointing this out. "Massage therapist" has the additional benefit of being gender neutral.

Thanks everyone.  And stay healthy! 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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