Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Feb 18, 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, everyone.  I assume you're all honoring our presidents by going furniture shopping!

My husband changed jobs and was very excited about one of the perks -- time off for exercise. We have a treadmill and stationary bike at home, so he comes home early to work out instead of the gym. Yesterday while putting his shirts away I found a pile of women's workout clothes neatly folded hidden in the back of his closet. I confronted him about it fearing the worst, and he confessed they were his. He put them on to show they fit and said he only wore women's clothes while working out because it inspires him and "makes me feel like Bo Derek running on the beach in 10." He insisted I go through his closet to make sure that he had no other outfits. Prudie, I don't know how to handle this. On the one hand it was totally unexpected and I fear a slippery slope if I let him continue, but on the other hand, if he only does it at home and it gets him to stay fit, should I just let this slide?

I sincerely hope he's not going to grow out his hair and wear those Bo Derek braids.  Sure, you've gotten a shock, and I can understand you're not fully convinced your husband is limiting his fantasy outfits to this singular occasion. But now that you know that he has what he claims is a very limited quirk, it's not really up to you to "let" him continue. You two need to have some more honest communication about this. Tell him you're shaken -- surely he can appreciate this -- and now that this is out of the gym bag, he really does owe it to you to talk more about the role dressing in women's clothes has in his life. If it's larger than inspiration for the treadmill, you should hash this out with a counselor. As for him as Bo Derek on the beach, you  can say you're sorry but that the image of him in women's clothes so disturbing to you that when he works out in them, it has to be at a time when he's out of your sight. I have heard from readers in which one partner has a kink that leaves the other cold, and they've just agreed not to bring it into their marriage as long as the person with the fetish doesn't cross any bright lines. And to put your discovery in perspective, consider whether you'd be more or less upset if you discovered the clothes belonged to a workout partner he'd fallen for.

Dear Prudie, I have been with my husband for 10 years and we have a 3-year-old daughter together. About two years ago, I had a falling out with my mother-in-law, words were exchanged, we argued, we discusssed it and got over it. The relationship is not the same as before, but we are okay with each other, spend holidays together, etc. The problem is, my husband's family cant' seem to get over this incident. Some of his relatives attitude completely changed toward me in the sense that they limit themselves to a hello and do not go beyond that. One of the sister-in-laws does not even speak to me at times even though we both have daughters of the same age and might find something in common there. I can understand their anger toward me, but I cannot stand the attitude toward my daughter. I clearly see favotorism between my daughter and her cousin. The family celebrates every little thing this child does. My daughter just learned to write her name and I think it such a big deal, but other than the grandparents, no one else seemed to care. Even when they greet both girls, I see a difference. I feel there is more love. How can I end this or turn it around? -Dislike me, not my kid

It really is your husband's job to talk to his family about how their coolness toward you is affecting his  child.  But I wouldn't expect much from this grudge-holding group. On the other hand, you have to stop measuring the audience reaction as if your daughter and her cousin are contestants on American Idol. Yes, learning to write your name is a bid deal and putting the results of this effort up on the refrigerator will be  gratifying for your daughter. But expecting your in-laws to have a fireworks display for her every accomplishment is only going to make you resentful which will ultimately make your child miserable. If your husband's family can't treat you with minimal respect, you have to limit your time with them. But  you also have to stop looking for slights on behalf of your daughter. Unless the disparity between the children's treatment is obvious and gross, your daughter will likely feel fine when she visits your husband's family.

Dear Prudence, When my wife and I met in college, the attraction was immediate, and we quickly became inseparable. We had a number of things in common, we came from the same large metropolitan area, and we both wanted to return there after school, so everything was very natural between us. We married soon after graduation, moved back closer to our families, and had three children by the time we were thirty.  We were both born to lesbians, her to a couple, and me to a single woman. She had sought out her biological father as soon as she turned 18, as the sperm bank her parents used allowed contact once the children were 18 if both parties consented. I never was interested in learning about that for myself, and she felt we were cheating our future children by not learning everything we could about my past too. Well, our anniversary is coming up and I decided to go ahead and, as a present to my wife, see if my biological father was interested in contact as well. He was, and even though our parents had used different sperm banks, it appears so did our father, as he is the same person. On the one hand, I love my wife more than I can say, and logically, done is done, we already have children. I have had a vasectomy, so we won't be having any more, so perhaps there is no harm in continuing as we are. But, I can't help but think "This is my sister" every time I look at her now. I haven't said anything to her yet, and I don't know if I should or not. Where do I go from here? I am tempted to burn everything I got from the sperm bank and just try to forget it all, but I'm not sure if I can. Please help me figure out where to go from here.

This is a seminal question about the nature of assisted reproduction.  As David Plotz discovered in his book, The Genius Factory, on the alleged  sperm bank of Nobel Prize winners,  many non-geniuses were moved to spred their seed far and wide.  So the question has always hung over this: What if the offspring meet and fall in love? Well, you've met and it's true that if you had researched your origins and disclosed them to each other, you and your wife would now likely be close half-siblings.  I understand your desire to burn everything. But if you are now looking at your wife and thinking, "Hey, sis," I don't see how you can keep this information to yourself.  She's bound to sense something off in your behavior and you simply can't say, "I'm struggling with father issues."  I think you have to sit her down and show you what you've discovered. Then you two should likely seek out  a counselor who deals with reproductive technology to help you sort through your emotions.  I don't see why your healthy children should ever be informed of this. That Dad didn't want to find out who his sperm donor was is a sufficient answer when they get old enough to ask about this.  I think there's way too much emphasis put on DNA. Yes, you two will have had a shock, but when it wears off you will be the same people you were before you found out.  Shocking news has the effect of making people feels as if the waves it sends out will always rock them. But I think you two should be able to file away your genetic origins and  go on.

I wrote to you around July 2009 about buying a home and having my mother and step father stay in the finished basement. It worked out for about three years before I could no longer take their free loading and had to ask them to leave. The people in my family don't really have the "need to be successful" gene, which somehow I did get. I am the only one who has a four-year college degree and doesn't still live at home with my grandmother. Since my mother and step father have moved out and back into my grandmother's house, my father has asked to stay with me, as well as my mother-in-law. The only parent who has not asked to stay is my father-in-law whom I have never met! I have had to refuse them both and be the ungrateful wicked child.  I understand that later in life you are expected to take care of your aging parents, but I am in my mid-twenties just starting out and my parents are all in their fifties! Am I wrong to deny them (we have the spare rooms), or is it ok to want to enjoy my twenties and be free of the stress that parents bring? -Signed, I'm your daughter, not your mother!

In your original letter your dilemma was that your friends couldn't believe your desire to buy a home that could accomodate your (freeloading) parents, which back then you were happy to do.  As I mentioned in my answer, it's lovely if multi-generations can happily live together, but there's a reason that as soon as people got the means, they fled the family home.  Your parents are in their 50s so you could be hosting these parasites -- I mean loved ones, for the next 30 plus years.  Forget ascribing your success and their failure to genes. You have worked hard for your independence, and they would prefer to mooch in the basement. So let them find scrounge in someone else's basement. If they want to call you wicked, when you come home each night to your blessedly parent-free home,  cackle with joy like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Dear Prudence, I'm a graduate student living in an apartment complex. I recently got new neighbors with two small children. These children are constantly screaming and crying at the top of their lungs. What concerns me is that these screams and cries don't sounds like children throwing a temper tantrum; they sound like children who are being abused. I never hear the parents yelling or the sound of objects breaking so I haven't mentioned this to anyone yet. However, I would be devastated if these children were being abused and I didn't do anything about it. What should I do?

If you're concerned you're hearing abuse, then call the police. Some kids are temperamental and boisterous, but you say what you're hearing doesn't sound like that.  If something is wrong in that apartment, then the family needs intervention.

Hi Prudie, My brother and sister-in-law have an 18 month old son that is absolutely adorable. My SIL and I have a decent relationship, we are friendly, but not particularly close. When my nephew was born, my SIL's group of close-knit friends referred to themselves as "aunties" to him. I assumed this would pass, but now that my nephew can speak and identify people, he refers to them as "Auntie First Name." This bothers me because I'm afraid my nephew will not be able to distinguish between family and non-family members. My gut reaction tells me to let this go, that the conversation will only cause an unnecessary wedge between me and my SIL. But in practice, I am finding this hard to do. How can I get over this?

How wonderful that your sister-in-law has friends who are so close they are  like family. A  gaggle of loving "aunties" is only going to bring joy to your nephew's life. But if you want to be the real aunt who's been frozen out because she's crazily jealous, then sure, speak up.

Dear Prudence, I have a 1-year-old daughter. On my days off, I like to try to get together with my friend, Stacey, a stay-at- home mom, and her two-year old-daughter and one-year-old son. About a month ago, I accepted an invitation to her house and took my daughter to play with her children. My daughter had a head-cold--runny nose, occasional cough. I didn't think it was a big deal since I would still have taken her to daycare had it been a day that I was working. Unfortunately, in the next week and a half, Stacey's whole family came down with stomach bugs, severe colds, possible flu and all kinds of ailments from which they have all since recovered. Last night I sent Stacey an e-mail to see if she wanted to get together today and she sent back as message asking if my daughter was "healthy, no runny noses or coughs" because she "can't have her family getting sick". Was I wrong to take my daughter to play with a head cold? Or is she out of line asking for a health report whenever we get together? For what it's worth, I don't think my daughter's cold was responsible for all of their ailments, it's cold and flu season after all! -A clean bill of health

Maybe you were absent the day "the germ theory" got presented at school. Of course there's no way avoid all respiratory and stomach distress when you have little children. But you're absolutely going to get get other people creamed with one if you bring over a snotty, germ-spewing child for a play date.  (And I'd check with your day care provider about their rules about sending in sick children.) Stacy's response was perfectly reasonable.

I know you/we cannot know, but color me skeptical that this letter is legit. The odds of such a 'match' have to be very small. I can't help but wonder if this letter is a fiction pushing a political agenda. Your advice, by the way, was spot on.

I rarely publish letters I think are likely fake, and I agree that this raises the skepticism alert. But the sperm bank industry has started trying to limit the times a donor can give just to avoid this kind of situation. Google Dr. Cecil Jacobson, the fertility doctor who may have fathered 75 children using his own sperm. At the time, the question was raised about what if some of his offspring met in high school or college and fell in love.  So maybe this is that kind of case. It does present a vivid human dilemma.  And I doubt there's a political agenda to it.

My adult sister and I (both late 20s/early 30s) keep finding ourselves in the middle of our warring, but still married parents. My mother learned of my father's infidelities, and while she has never raised the issue with him or confronted him, she has spent the past five or so years punishing him without telling him what he's done wrong. It's gotten to the point where my sister and I want to sit our father down and explain why he's being treated the way he is, but it's not our place to have that conversation with him. Beseeching our mother to have the talk herself has proved ineffective in the past. Neither of us want to be piggy in the middle any more, and while my father is certainly guilty of wrongdoing, my mother is only making things worse. Any suggestions on how we can get them communicating?

Stop letting yourselves be collateral damage. I have the feeling poor, old dad has a sneaking suspicion that his infidelities have something to do with his angry wife. He may appreciate her treating him miserably since it allows him to utter the immortal phrase to other women: "My wife doesn't understand me."  If being with your parents is a misery, you siblings should sit down with them and explain the wear of tear of spending time with them is getting both of you down, and you're going to tail off your visits unless they can behave decently when you're all together.

Dear Prudence, My boss does not wash her hands and I find it disgusting. My office is right next to the restroom. When she goes, you hear the toilet flush and the door open all at the same time. Sometimes you hear the water, but not often. There are signs in the restroom about how important washing your hands is, but I guess this has not made an impression on her. She's sick often and every time she goes to the doctor, I think "If you'd just wash your nasty hands you'd be ok". What if anything can I say or do about the situation?

Just convince yourself she prefers hand sanitizer and forget about it. As long as she's not seeing medical patients or in the food preparation industry, you just have to accept you can't monitor other people's bathroom behavior.

I have a friend who last year divorced his wife after she cheated on him many times. She was a friend of mine too, until all of her secrets and lies came to light. She has a completely different and slightly crazy view of the whole thing and believes the divorce is her ex's new girlfriend's fault, who he started dating after separating from her. She is now ranting on facebook about getting a gun, a concealed carry license, how to make a gun out of a nailgun that you don't need a permit for, etc. She has also been seen sitting outside her ex's house while his girlfriend is there, just watching. She hasn't made any threats, so it seems there isn't anything authorities can do. The ex is a very low-key kind of guy and is reluctant to get authorities involved because he shares custody with her and their two children. What can a person do to prevent what looks like from an outsiders perspective, a threatening situation?

You need to tell your friend (the guy) that you are very concerned about his ex's behavior. She may not have made explicit death threats. but ranting about nail guns, blaming her unhappiness on the new girlfriend, and parking in front of her house all sound alarming to me.  Sure, this situation is complicated by the custody arrangements, but if his ex-wife is unstable, that is something important to know before he drops off the kids. He needs to keep all this evidence, take photos of her parked outside the house, and take them to his lawyer.  If he won't, then the girlfriend certainly should report that she is being stalked. If they won't act, however, it doesn't sound as if you have the standing to intervene.

If your husband is over weight he may be using the clothing for "support". I am not sure any male would want to admit to anyone that the man boobs flapping while on the treadmill had to be fixed.

I would so much rather have my husband tell me that he had the need for a mansierre than that he imagined himself as Bo Derek.

My mom's best friend was "Auntie First Name" when I was little. Since we lived 3 hours or more from my "real" aunts, it was great to have a stand in. There was never any confusion about blood relations and everyone treated everyone else like family (good and bad).

I'm getting lots of letters from people who had unofficial "Aunties" in their lives, were never confused by it, and who basked in their love.

Over the past few years, while my fiance has been in medical school, she has gained somewhere between 10-15 lbs, and to be honest, I don't care - I'd love her if she had gained 200. That being said, she complains and complains and complains about how she's gained all this weight, and no matter what I say she ends up blowing up on me... it feels like displacement. I, too, have gained weight, but because I'm not a medical student, I have more time to go to the gym, and it's also easier for me to lose weight - she had her thyroid removed and her synthroid messes with her weight sometimes. I love her more than anything in the world, but hearing her complain and complain and then tell me to keep my mouth shut drives me nuts, and it always ends in a fight. How do I talk to her about this in a productive way? I just want her to be happy.

Endless hours, crappy food, and stress, stress, stress. Becoming a doctor is a good recipe for being unhealthy, and your girlfriend is suffering from this syndrome.  As you've discovered, your girlfriend doesn't want advice, she doesn't want encouragement, she just wants someone to listen to her rant. But you're her boyfriend, not a backboard, and you have limits.  Tell her you understand she's overwhelmed at work and frustrated by her weight gain. Say you think she should make the time to get her thyroid medication checked say. Explain you'll go to the gym with her or do whatever she'd like that would help. Tell her she looks great to you. Then say she has become fixated on this topic and you don't want to get into fights with her over it.  Say you'll let her vent on this for about 10 minutes, then you'll both have to agree to change the subject. And if she won't, get up and say you're going for a walk and you'd be happy to have her join you, but only if you talk about something else.

Hi Prudie. Just wanted to say that my daughter's daycare is fine with bringing her in if she has a cold as long as there's no fever above 100.4. As often as kids in daycare get colds, she'd miss half the winter if she couldn't go in with a runny nose or slight cough. Now if she had a stomach bug, fever, or a strange rash, she'd stay home. Same goes for seeing family and friends. Plus people are often contagious before they show any symptoms. Incidentally, when I got the flu this winter, it came from my sister-in-law, not my daughter (who'd had a flu shot--I hadn't).

Sure, if no drippy noses were allowed, there would be no one in day care. But you also know if your kid is significantly flowing and coughing, it's better to bow out of a play date. 

My husband will soon start serving an eighteen month prison sentence. I am seven months pregnant with our first child. I am scared and sad and angry that my husband won't be here for our baby's birth or first year of life, but I still love my husband. I don't want to divorce him. At the same time, I am anxious and hesitant to take our baby to meet him in prison. He will be serving time with some dangerous people, and I don't want to bring our child into that setting. My husband says he will respect whatever decision I make, but I know it will devastate him to wait over a year to meet our baby. Am I being unreasonable?

I wish you'd told us what he did.  Assault? Insider trading? Whatever, you say you're staying with him.  Check with some support groups for family members of the incarcerated about this, and with the prison about their rules for bringing children.  It seems to me that as unpleasant as the circumstances are, your child will be safe. Although your baby will thankfully be too young to remember anything about these visits down the road, it will be important for your husband to see his child and feel bonded.  You don't have to bring the baby every time, but it will help him to have the image of his growing child as an incentive for good behavior while in jail and for starting fresh when he's released.

On Valentine's day, my boyfriend proposed and we became happily engaged. We announced our intentions to both sets of parents months earlier, so we didn't feel an obligation to announce the engagement to them privately before sharing it with others. The next day, I posted a picture of the ring on Facebook to share with my short list of Facebook friends (which includes three of my fiance's siblings). Congratulations came pouring in for both of us, but his family remained mum through the weekend--even as they called him to discuss other topics. I know they've been online to see the update (which takes priority in our friends' news feeds because it's tagged as a "life event"), but my boyfriend says they may be expecting us to come over and deliver the news in person, since his family is neither as informal or as high-tech as mine. The problem is that neither of us want to do that. His mother reacted with displeasure when he first announced his desire to propose almost a year ago, and my fiance fears that if we tell his family in person, we'll subject ourselves to the scathing criticisms they feel entitled to make in the comfort and seclusion of their home. They are more like hermit crabs than homebodies and will certainly not meet us anywhere else to discuss it. What's the best course of action?

Even technophobes have telephones. So your fiance should call his parents and tell them he wanted them to hear the good news that you're formally engaged. If a negative word passes Mom's lips, he should say, "Gotta go" and end the call.  Not getting close to the crabs is the best way not to get caught in their pincers.

Our downstairs neighbors, a young couple, are having trouble with their 3-year-old son. They yell at him to stop whining. I've thought about buying them a copy of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, and I'm wondering if that'd be a good idea, or be seen as too intrusive. My husband and I do not have children. If people have ideas about a book that'd be a better fit, please pass them along.

Unless you're the only possible person who could leave the book, I think you should drop it off by their front door when you know they're out.  A conversation about their childrearing technique from a childless neighbor is probably not going to be productive.

I've just discovered that my dad has children by another woman (Note to cheaters: Facebook isn't as secret as you think it is). This other woman has held herself out as my father's wife. (My parents have been married for the past 30+ years.) Suddenly, my father's money problems and "traveling salesman" job make a lot of sense. I plan to tell my mom, but I'm not sure how to do it. Do I try to get iron clad proof? (All my proof is web-based.) Do I confront him alone? My mom's been through some rough patches lately, and I know this information will devastate her.

You definitely need to talk to your father about this first.  Sure, you may have stumbled on the truth, but you need confirmation from the source. Then discuss this with your father. You don't know if you mother knows, or perhaps she kind of knows and doesn't want to know. As I mentioned earlier, tread lightly when you're stepping into the middle of your parents' marriage.

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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