Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Sep 03, 2013

Note to readers: Because of the Labor Day holiday, Prudie will chat on Tuesday this week. She'll return to her regularly scheduled chat time (Monday at noon) next week. 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. The fun is over, back to school and work!

Dear Prudence, My daughter was born on September 11, 2001. It goes without saying the connotation that most people make with this date. For her whole life, people cringe when she gives them her date of birth, or occasionally makes a comment about being born on such a tragic day. Last week, when signing up for a rewards program at a bookstore, the clerk said "That was such a sad day." and my daughter responded "I can't help the day I was born. By now everybody knows what happened on September 11. I don't need to be reminded." I know my daughter came off as ungracious and bratty. But in a conversation with her later, she revealed that she feels guilty when people respond in that manner, she feels as though she should apologize for reminding them of however this tragedy affected them. But then she feels awkward, because she truly cannot help when she was born and is usually just trying to get through some sort of administrative task. I told her that this will be an issue she will have to deal with her whole life and we will work together to find a quick phrase for her to use. So far I've thought saying something like "That day affected everybody differently." But that sounds awkward as well. Do you have any advice for us?

When I was pregnant with my daughter the doctor said her due date was December 7th, and I replied, "A date which will live in infamy" -- FDR's memorable phrase about Pear Harbor. (She was born a few days later.) I  doubt that today many young people would have any association at hearing "December 7th." Your daughter's situation is complicated by the fact that 9/11 itself is the shorthand for the horrific attack and that she was born on the day of the event itself. You're right, your daughter will hear some echo of these remarks for years to come, although the further away we get, the more it will start being a more normal day. Your daughter is about to turn 12 so it's pretty hard to expect someone that young to be the soul of graciousness when reminded that the beginning of her life was the day thousands died. I think when your daughter is dealing with strangers handling forms who make some kind of remark all she has to do is nod or say, "I know what you mean," and move on. It's going to be a little more difficult to deal with comments from friends or others she has relationships with and I agree your daughter needs to be released from feeling she bears some kind of burden for having a birthday that is a shorthand for loss. She needs to non-hostilely acknowledge the remarks and also shut down further conversation.  Maybe she could say something like, "Yes, I do have a birthday that's also tragic day in history. But terrible things have occured somewhere on every date, we just don't know about all of them." Readers, better suggestions?

Prudie, my son's elementary teacher sent a note to all the parents last week. The email included a link to her website. Included on the site was a note stating that she couldn't wait to share Christ's love with the children. We are a religious minority in this community and, living in the deep south, I deal with this kind of thing every single year, whether it's school-sponsored Bible study, the choir concert that includes Christmas songs almost exclusively, or my middle school-aged daughter feeling like she has to become a Christian because the other kids at lunch tell her she's going to hell if she doesn't. Do you have any suggestions for handling these issues without causing my children to be ostracized or suffer retribution from the teachers?

It sounds as if your kids go to public school, so there's something wrong with teachers who don't understand their job description means keeping their explicit religious beliefs out of the classroom. Let's hope the teacher means that Christ's love animates her feelings about her students, not that she intends to prostelytize.  But as you say, the religious assumptions of those around you are so pervasive that bringing a complaint might not do much except make school more unpleasant for your kids. If your concerns are mostly about  afterschool Bible study or Christmas carols, I think you have to just shrug this off. When the annual Christmas concert comes around you can tell your children you know it's not your holiday, but it's a lovely one for those who celebrate it with beautiful music and you're all going to just enjoy. Mostly you need to be teaching your children why you love your religion, showing them the joy and sustenance it brings you, and instructing that you will treat those of different faiths with the respect you wish all of them treated you. Being in middle school is for many kids a kind of torture at best, and being told you're going to hell must only add to the fun. But unless your daughter finds her treatment intolerable, you have to help give her some tools to deal with this: "Thanks for thinking about my soul. But my family is happy to be Jewish/Muslim/Hindu."

Dear Prudie, I am the uncle who wrote to you earlier about my niece who's engaged to my secret biological son. Before reading yours and commenters' responses, I was going to tell my niece, but now I've decided to let the issue rest and remain a secret. I realized that at their age, they've surely done the deed with one another, what many would consider the gross part, and there's no putting that back in the box. And I know the older women get, the harder it is to find a good husband, not a geezer or a divorced man with a bunch of kids (her words!). She's always wanted to settle down and have a big family, (tick tick tick) so why ruin what is possibly her one good shot? Since I never had a family of my own, she's is the closest to a daughter I will ever have, and I just want her to be happy. You're right, a one-off cousin marriage isn't going to contaminate the gene pool as it does in subpopulations where this is practiced routinely and over generations. Thanks for your help.

Thanks for this update. I am happy to hear you've decided to bury this secret. (I was  interested to read that the commenters seemed split about 50-50 over telling.) I think keeping qiet will help this couple feel doing the deed is the fun part, not the gross part.

And since you mention the commenters, I have something they brought up to bring up with you: How is it you're so certain that you in fact are the young man's father?

Dear Prudence, My husband cheated on me a couple of years ago. I forgave him, we moved on and worked a lot on our marriage. However, my husband has a daughter as a result of the affair. I accepted this from the beginning and I have accepted this girl into our lives willingly and I love her. We have two toddlers of our own, ages two and one and she falls in the middle of them in age. We are spending time with the girl and inevitably at some point in time somebody will see us with three children. Even though I have forgiven my husband, I dread the day extended family, friends or acquaintances ask who she is, or when my kids start saying they have a sister that is not mommy's daughter and people put two and two together. I fear the embarrassment of people knowing about the affair, being the topic of the day and having to answer uncomfortable questions. Please help me figure out a wise reaction to this! Thanks, Now I have three.

Thank you for being an example of how to do this. If you are staying with a man who fathered a child with another woman, you are right, you have to accept this innocent child into your own lives. And if you can't bear the sight of this reminder of your husband's infidelity, then ending the marriage may be best for everyone.  Yes, your family situation is going to provoke curiosity and questions, so you need to answer them with minimal facts. First of all, you're putting too much pressure on yourself if you're trying to keep this secret from you family. There's a child, she's the result of an affair, so let the family blabbers blab away. That doesn't mean you have to answer any questions. If you get asked you can just say, "Jeff and I are together and Deana is a lovely addition to our family." Period. Surely, you're comfortable enough to tell friends, again in a brief, factual way. As for the acquaintances like other school parents, etc, who are trying to figure out who's who and what's what, you can just say,  "Deana isn't my daughter, but she's the girls' half-sister and a great addition to our family." If anyone wants to know more you can say, "I don't like to discuss my personal life, thanks for understanding." As with so many awkward, difficult issues what is often most important is not what you say, but how you say it. If you can convey that you recognize you have a somewhat unorthodox family and that's just fine with you, that message will be heard by all your girls and anyone who asks.

"My family tells me that my birth created a reason for joy in the face of that tragedy. "

That could work and it's a good  conversation ender. But I also don't want the girl to feel that somehow she carries a special life obligation because of the date she was born.

Dear Prudence, I am a 22-year-old student living 800 miles from my hometown. I have an 8-year-old sister, to whom I was a third parent for most of her life while our parents worked and Mom cared for my terminally-ill grandfather. My sister is one of the most important things in my life. My mother didn't raise me well, but I thought she was better. During a long visit, I saw she wasn't. She stood over Lil Sis and shouted at her about individual math problems until Sis broke down in tears of frustration, went from calm to angry in seconds, and made comments like "Do you WANT to be a little brat? DO YOU? People will never want to be your friend." The loving/angry cycle was scary and sad to watch. Mom already resents the parental relationship I have with Sis. We have a rocky relationship --we disagree on politics and religion, she feels I've "spit on her values," and I'm gay but chose not to come out to them so I can be in Sis's life. Dad sees the problem but won't help. I don't think CPS can do much here, and a home visit I fear would just make Mom angrier. She could be a good parent, but she has a lot of issues. The aforementioned grandfather physically, emotionally, and verbally abused her. She's cruel and negative to herself, but won't seek therapy. I can't be a parent to Sis anymore, and I can't watch this. What do I do? ~Mother #2

As you so vividly portray, this is one of those destructive messes for which there's no easy answer,  and the pain  gets passed on generation to generation. You are entitled to and deserve your own happy life away from this shredding mother, but you rightly feel an obligation to your vulnerable sister.  First of all, be in your sister's life. Having witnessed this awful scene, you should tell your sister that it broke your heart to see your mother treat her the same awful way you were treated. You can tell your sister your mother was wrong in what she said, that she is a troubled person, and that sadly she sometimes strikes out and says hurtful things to the people she should be most loving to. Let your sister know she can call you anytime. Try to figure out a way to set up a private time for you two to talk regularly without your mother overhearing.  Come home for holidays and spend time alone with your sister. You also need to try to have a private conversation with your father. As bad as the abusive parent is, I also hold in contempt the so-called "decent" parent who allows the abuse to go on because it's just too unpleasant to deal with the volatile spouse. You need to impress upon your father the fact that your sister's mental health is in the balance here. There's no guarantee she will emerge as strong as you, and that if he doesn't feel capable of stopping your mother's attacks, he can insist that the entire family go togethr and get some outside help.

I agree with you that CPS will likely see a physically well-cared for child and your mother can probably make the case that occasionally she raises her voice -- just like any other parent. But call 211, a referral service sponsored by the United Way and describe what's going on and see what they recommend. They could say call CPS, or they may put you in touch with private organizations that offer parenting classes, or nurturing for your sister.  How painful it must be to see the ugliest scenes of your childhood played out again on your sweet little sister.

Dear Prudence, My wife's sister is gravely ill, dealing with an advanced stage of cancer. She has three adult children. The youngest "Julie" has been estranged from the family for a couple of years and lives several states away. Though Julie learned of her mother's cancer diagnosis several months ago, she has made no recent attempt to find out how her mother is doing. Julie's behavior has caused everyone in the family to cease communication with her, so now my wife and I are debating whether to tell Julie. My SIL has insisted that the relationship is too toxic, and still (while literally on her death bed) does not want Julie to know the current situation, until after the memorial service. The other two children are honoring their mother's wishes, however we feel Julie has a right to know what is going on. Do you think we should tell Julie? - bereavement dilemma

I'm assuming Julie is deeply ill herself  in some way.  Your sister-in-law has made her wishes clear. You could bring this up with her two other children and say you are concerned about the fallout for them after your sister-in-law's death of withholding the information even about a memorial service from their sister. But if they say that their sister has been informed of how dire their mother's condition is, and it's been her choice to stay estranged, then let this be.

I know this is a topic of age-old debate, but can a man and woman really just be friends? I've spent a lot of time with a guy friend over the past eight months and we've become very close. Our time together has led to physical intimacy a handful of times, but mostly just companionship and a bond that always seemed different from those I've had with other close male friends. Because of the confusing nature of our relationship, I was recently forced to clarify things. His response indicated he wasn't traditionally a faithful person and that he cared too much about me to put me in that situation. I can respect that, although I'm a bit disappointed, and we both indicated we'd like to continue spending time together. My question is: is this realistic? I've already noticed some distance between us, which breaks my heart on some level. I understand that I've opened Pandora's box by having a "real" conversation about the state of things, but if he cared about me before and still does, shouldn't we be able to remain close? Always appreciate your POV on matters like this.

You don't need me to direct you to search the phrase, "Friends with benefits." Your question isn't really global, you just  want to know if you can convert this guy you really like and are occasionally sleeping with into a boyfriend.  I'm sure you heard violin music when he made a sincere face and told you he cares for you way too much to let you think you're going to be anything more than a special type of buddy.  If you're looking for a real romance, stop sleeping with this guy because your emotions are too high and you're only going to get more disappointed.  Yes, a man and a woman can be friends.  But I don't think you can be just be friends with him.

My husband had cancer treatment this year (he's fine). At the chemo centre we encountered the aunt of a friend of mine. We chatted and it emerged that she has a very aggressive cancer with very poor prognosis. She asked me not to tell my friend and I haven't. She was intending not to tell anyone in her family. My friend's mom died a few years ago and she is close to all her aunts and I feel bad that she doesn't know. I also feel her aunt deserves loving care and support from her family. Should I tell my friend somehow?

This is somewhat different from the letter about the dying mother with an estranged daughter. It's terribly sad to think that someone with a loving family would want to face a painful death by herself. I understand you're torn, so maybe you could contact this aunt and say you wanted to check in and see how she was doing. Then you could bring up that you don't want to violate her privacy, but you know how much your friend loves her and you're feeling guilty at not letting your friend know what you found out.  See what the aunt says -- let's hope if there's no real reason for her silence and she will come around. When you saw the aunt at the center, she could have declined to let you know anything about her condition. Her telling all put you in a very difficult situation vis a vis your friend. If the aunt doesn't give you the go-ahead, weigh what you would want your friend to do if the situation were reversed, then act accordingly.

Thanks for your suggestion. We're atheists, so the suggestion to share the wonderful things about my faith with the children is a bit more complicated, but we do talk about science a lot :)

Ha on me!  One commenter suggested that if the situation becomes too difficult for your children you could contact Americans United for the Separation of Church and State ( But if it's not intolerable, the best way to deal with this is by learning how to be in a culture with deeply held believes that are different from yours. Religion doesn't belong in public school classrooms. But making a federal case of its every intrusion will only make it more difficult for your children.

Dear Prudie, My fiance recently got into an accident after drinking and got arrested for a DUI. This was by far the worst thing that has ever happened after drinking, and through this he recognized he is an alcoholic and is now in recovery and treatment to maintain long-term sobriety. This has been stressful for us with our wedding in October, but we will get through it. My main concern now is that my parents do not want to tell my grandparents (who came to stay with them from abroad for the wedding), saying it will make them very upset and anxious, and that they may not accept him and our marriage if they find out. I feel that they need to know for us to have an honest relationship, and this secret is eating me up inside (my fiance also feels that way, but says he will leave it up to me and my family). I understand that they may not attend our wedding if they find out, and I will be very sad if that happens, but I would rather that than feeling like we are frauds hiding something and knowing they might not be happy for us if they knew the truth. What do you think?

I think you need to postpone the wedding.  Your fiance is an alcoholic who could have killed a lot of people. If it took being arrested for him -- and you -- to recognize he has a problem then you both have a problem with his drinking.  I know your dress is bought, the catering menu is planned, the deposit has been paid, but look at what you're planning to do. You are planning to marry someone with a serious substance abuse problem who will have had virtually no sobriety behind him when you two tie the knot. That is not a good way to start a marriage.  I agree with you that this problem has been hidden for way too long. I think you should talk about this with your family, at an Al Anon meeting, and in therapy with your fiance. Just imagine what a fool you will feel if your groom decides that your wedding day is no time to forgo champagne and starts drinking to celebrate the start of your new life together.

I live in the South, too, and even though we are Christian, I feel that statements of religious doctrine are inappropriate in public schools. When I feel a teacher has crossed the line, I don't hesitate to contact school administration. I instruct the administrator to make sure the teacher doesn't know whose mom complained, because I don't want my kids to be singled out. Part of the reason I do this to make sure my children aren't made to feel bad if their beliefs differ from their teachers, but the other reason is that I empathize with people like the letter writer, and don't ever want their children to feel like they don't belong at a public school.

Good policy.  But I think the original letter writer has to make a distinction between Christmas carols  and a discussion of creationism in science class.

Dear Prudie, I got married this weekend, and the DJ was horrible, despite plenty of meetings before the wedding. I won't go into the details, but he was awkward, cheesy, and unprofessional. I was in tears because of this guy. My question is: What is an appropriate response when wedding professionals don't hold up their end of the bargain? Should I write the company a letter? Leave bad reviews on wedding websites? I am so embarrassed that this DJ tarnished our lovely evening. Hopefully it will be funny one day, but not yet! I want some kind recourse, especially because this company prides itself on its professionalism. What to do!?

Your letter has me thinking of Adam Sandler as The Wedding Singer, so while I know you're upset, to an outsider it's kind of funny right now.  Please do not let some cheeseball leave you in tears thinking your wedding was ruined. Your wedding is ruined when the groom doesn't show up, not when the D.J. is a jerk. Believe me, the best weddings are the ones thar give people something to talk about on the ride home.  If you can laugh about this with your friends, it will no longer be embarrassing. That said, you didn't get the services you paid for. So absolutely contact the company, enumerate the ways their services went totally wrong, and ask for recompense. In these days of  public ratings, they should be very interesting in trying to make this right.

My husband and I live across the street from a church. The church runs a halfway house program and also serves breakfast and dinner to homeless individuals on weekdays. Oftentimes the people these programs serve hang around on the street corners and in the park near our home. My husband and I don't feel comfortable allowing our kids (11, 7, 5) play in the front yard or the park without our supervision. We don't think all of the men and women in the program are dangerous, but we've seen them get into fights and be inebriated and passed out. My sister-in-law thinks we are bigoted and that we should become involved in the ministry before we make judgments. Are my husband and I out of line?

I don't see how you're out of line to want to supervise young children, period. I'm assuming your very judgmental non-judmental sister-in-law sent her children off to a park where people with substance abuse problems gathered. It's a wonderful service this church is performing, but since this minsitry brings troubled people into the neighborhood, the church has a particular obligation to make sure the park remains a safe place for children. So go over and discuss this with them. It is not bigoted to want a park to be free of fighting.  I would also stop this discussing this with your high-and-mighty sister-in-law. However, I think she does have a good point that since you're across the street, it might be helpful for your family to volunteer there and feel more connected to this service in your neighborhood.

KidsPost ran an article on it two years ago. 

Thanks for the link.

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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