Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Oct 14, 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 Columbus Day. I assume Christopher C, as he was sailing the ocean, never imagined that one day people in the New World would flock to mattress sales in honor of him.

My elderly MIL moved in with us after suffering chronic health problems. Since she came to live with us, I noticed she treats me with hostility every time I am intimate with my husband. Each "morning after" she will either refuse to look at me, make unnecessarily biting comments, or just glare at me when she thinks I'm not looking. I thought I was imagining it but after several months of living together, this is definitely the reason why. I've become paranoid about making love and we are very careful about being quiet - almost to the point of silence - but it hasn't helped. I feel terrible asking my sick MIL to move out because of this, and I'm too embarrassed to have a discussion with her. Is there any solution to our problem?

Your situation gave me the strong feeling that I would prefer to be in the situation of a previous letter writer, whose mother-in-law was poisoning her. What you describe is intolerable and a perfect illustration of the maxim, "No good deed goes unpunished." I'm almost always in favor of having a clear and direct conversation about an interpersonal problem. But you're right, there's really no way to say, "Dottie, when Larry and I make love, I notice the next day you're extremely hostile to me. I've tried being more quiet, but it doesn't help. Let's figure out how to deal with this."  I'm actually having a hard time imagining feeling amorous in such circumstances, so I admire you and your husband for being able to be intimate. All of you are living in such close quarters that even without this problem, over the long haul you surely are going to want relief and privacy.  You don't say this living situation is until your mother-in-law gets back on her feet. "Chronic health problems" sounds rather ominous. So if this is permanent,  you either  develop a thick enough skin that you can ignore and laugh off her behavior, or you realize this isn't working out and it's time to find a different living situation for her.  Since you say you've become paranoid about your love-making, that seems like a pretty decent sign that it's time for mom to move on. That doesn't mean you toss your mother-in-law into the street, but that you and your husband explore all the potential options. You could hire a social worker to help you sort through this. If you want to keep her living with you, perhaps it's possible that you could all move to a place that has a mother-in-law suite, one that you make sure is thoroughy sound-proofed.

Dear Prudence: I have been in remission for breast cancer for about four years now. I was fortunate to have good health insurance and a supportive network or friends and family during my treatment and recovery. Every October I grapple with the same problem: I feel no loyalty or desire to help out with breast cancer awareness funds. To be quite blunt, I find most national campaigns to be impersonal, they do not score very highly on the charity calculator, and they were not there for me when I was suffering. I am also not particularly interesting in doing any of the 5K's or other events in October. I find the best way to help breast cancer sufferers is to donate and volunteer at the local level. Every year I get a lot of inquiries if I am participating in different campaigns or activities and when I say no, there is always a bit of an awkward pause. I don't really want to get into why I choose to support the local level more then national, and I don't want people to think I am insensitive to the needs of those with breast cancer. What is a good response to their inquiries?

Thank you for standing against this pink ribbon oppression. Both my grandmother and mother had breast cancer, and I, too, have no interest in buying pink ribbon yogurt, or participating in walks for the purpose of handing  a big chunk of cash to overpaid executives. You might like the books Pink Ribbon Blues and Bright-Sided, which explore both the dark side of big breast cancer charities and the incessant cheerleading imposed on breast cancer survivors.  Mostly, you need a way to shrug off the inquiries. "I give to cancer organizations that help people in this community," should be enough to shut up most people. But if you're up for it, you could do a little breast cancer education of your own and say that unfortunately, some of the big breast cancer charities do not use their money effectively.

Dear Prudence, I live across the country from my father, and I try to visit at least once a year. In the past, I used to stay in an extra bedroom in his house, but ever since my brother remarried a much younger woman eight years ago, I'll stay in a nearby motel if they are visiting at the same time. They are rather enthusiastic in the bedroom, and nothing weirds me out more than being at breakfast with my dad and hearing my brother and his wife thumping rhythmically in their room. My dad is either a bit hard of hearing, or I don't know what, but he doesn't even acknowledge that he hears it. The problem is that lately, Dad wants to know why I don't stay in his home. I'm honestly a bit embarrassed to have to tell him I don't want to hear my brother boinking his beloved, as it doesn't seem to bother him a bit. I've tried explaining that I sleep better in a quieter house, but he has begun to insist that when I visit this Christmas, that I stay in my old room so I can be around more. Gah! Please help me figure out how to give Dad a stronger "no" that won't be the.most.embarrassing.thing.ever!

Your letter has me celebrating the robust love lives of Americans, and the ability of people to feel horny with Mom or Dad in the next room. Since I'm one of those who isn't able to function in the morning without a big cup of coffee, I'm impressed with the energy of your brother and his wife.  Let's give Dad credit that over breakfast he doesn't say, "Can you pass the jam? And Daniel is really jamming it this morning!"  Not hearing, or pretending not to hear is the way to go on this one. What you describe is not your permanent living situation, so while I understand this makes you uncomfortable, it's also funny. If you can just privately laugh it off, you'll save some money and have more time with your father.  However, part of being an adult means that if you prefer to stay at a motel, your father is not going to take away your car keys if you refuse to be in your bedroom before curfew.

My mother works part time as a secretary. She earns enough to support herself but is obviously not well off. Over the years I frequently gave her vouchers (massage, groceries, online shopping gift cards, etc) to treat herself. I also give her money to buy some luxury items if she mentioned something she likes. I recently discovered, though, that almost everything I've given her has been passed straight down to my sister. My sister earns almost as much as I do - maybe I earn a couple of thousand dollars more a year - but she complains a lot and makes our mother feel like she constantly needs help. I know the text book answer is that once I give a gift, it's out of my hands and I shouldn't dictate how it's used. But I feel betrayed mom never once told me she gives almost everything to my sister. If I had known, I would have stopped giving such generous gifts - and mom knows this, too. She even lied and said she enjoyed the massage or facial (or whatever) when it was actually my sister who used the vouchers! Should I confront the two of them and ask my sister to pay me back?

Yours is such a common family dynamic. I hear often from adult siblings about the brother or sister who is an emotionally manipulative leech and whose parents seem to love getting sucked dry.  These patterns are deep and abiding.  But when you're talking about adults, there's not much you can do. You are right that when you give a gift it's no longer yours to control.  You certainly can't go to the person who has been re-gifted and say I want my money back!  Your sister may be taking advantage of your mother, but you are putting yourself right back in the playground if you want to confront these two adults about their relationship. If you want to continue to help your mother, figure out a way to do it directly. If you feel she could use a treat, then invite her to the spa with you. If you want to pay for some of her groceries, set up a system in which, for example, she orders them to be delivered, and you pay by credit card. If you feel anything you give your mother goes to your sister, then stop giving.  Take a step back and consider that you sound just as enmeshed in being the helpful daughter as your sister does in being the needy one.

I am 34 and a single mom to a beautiful 7-year-old. I am divorced and have been for six years. I am very close to my parents and sometimes I feel I am too close. I have decided to take the next step with an amazing man, who just happens to be in prison. He does it for me. I am able to take care of my daughter, work full time and go to school full time and then I am able to have this relationship with him. I know this is who I want to be with. The problem is that my parents and sisters are not going to be excited that I have found love with someone who is in prison. I am not looking forward to hearing their comments about how I am making a huge mistake. This is my choice right? How do I handle this?  I do not want to end up alone for the rest of my life because of fear of upsetting the family. Please help.. Thanks, Prison problems

You may know this is who you want to be with, but the corrections department of your state is going to have other ideas. I also don't know what "next step" you envision with someone whose steps are constrained by leg irons, or eventually maybe ankle monitoring.  You're right that when you beloved is behind bars, he tends not to make a lot of demands of your time. But that your boyfriend  gives you a lot of space is a given when you're talking about a prisoner. You say you're going to get comments from the people who love you that you're making a big mistake. But you don't even deal with the mistake your boyfriend made that resulted in him "just happening to be in prison."  If you're writing to me in order to get support for bringing a convict into the life of your young child, then you've come to the wrong place. If you're imagining a wedding and you realize your wedding color should be orange to match the groom's jumpsuit, then you need to have another think about your choices.

My boyfriend's mother had breast cancer about 7 years ago, and thankfully is in remission also. He was obsessively purchasing pink ribbon yogurts, items etc and pretty much mandated I do the same... I sat him down with some research about where the funds go to some of the better known breast cancer foundations and pointed out to him the, in my opinion, criminal way many of the donations are handled. I volunteer at hospitals for breast cancer patients to help. He jumped on board with me. You don't need to justify your choice of not walking around with a pink ribbon tattooed on your head.

Exactly. Follow the money is a excellent, and sobering advice. Peggy Orenstein wrote a fabulous story in the New York Times magazine a few months ago exposing the dark side of the major breast cancer organizations. But it's also true that just because someone has been diagnosed with a disease, they are not now obligated to pour all their energy into it.  If someone has had breast cancer but her charitible passion is habitat protection or vaccinations in developing countries, she should not be pressured to spend her life on pink ribbons.

Dear Prudie, my wife and I have four children and nine grandchildren, all of whom we dearly love. But we're a little sad because each child has named a grandchild after their father-in-law, including a girl, e.g.., "Georgia." Two have also named grandchildren after their mother-in-law. None has used my name, my wife's name, or a variation as a given or middle name. We both have standard names so it's not as if the child would be laughed off the playground. # 10 is on the way and we are wondering if it would be OK to hint, suggest or even come straight out and ask that they did this? It would mean the world to us.

You have nine healthy grandchildren, and one more on the way.  If you have a good and  loving relationship with your children and their children, that's all that matters. I hear from so many people your age who wish they could get their grown children to consider reproducing, but that's one tricky conversation to have. Asking fecund children to name their kids after you is a tricky conversation not worth having. Think of asking your child to name number 10 Sandra Michaela, or Michael Sanford.  Doesn't that feel a little pathetic? Stay out of the baby-naming business and just delight in your abundance.

Dear Prudence, I was raised in a lower middle class home where money was virtually always tight. My oldest sister had a few children very young, so around the age of 8, I was expected to help out with infants, toddlers, and school aged children. I went on to attend college and get a great job that I love. Right now I am at the stage in life where a lot of my friends and co-workers are having kids or have toddlers. A lot of their focus is on choices that seem, to me, a bit silly: organic cotton? Juicing? Dual language instruction from birth? I spent a good portion of my life around parents who had to make decisions like: how can I make sure I get to spend one waking hour with my child? Or, who should watch my kid -- my stressed out mother with three teenagers, or my best friend who smokes constantly? I know that everybody has problems and there are people out there who had it much worse then me. But my nieces and nephews all turned out to be wonderful, smart, and caring people even though they didn't learn baby sign language. I try my best to keep a straight face when a friend brings up baby yoga (?!?!?!) but honestly I find it hard not to tell these parents what a luxury these problems they cite really are. Can you give me some ways of looking at this situation that help me respond to them in a more empathetic way? 

I'm finding it pretty hard to believe that in the absence of hand-loomed organic cotton onesies, or locally sourced  kale smoothies, that your nieces and nephews turned into robust, productive people.  The best thing for you to do when new parents go down this conversational rabbit hole is to keep a sense of humor and have a way to change the subject. There's hardly a more excruciating line of discussion than the minutiae of baby care, especially if you don't have a baby. By changing the topic to the government shutdown, you would at least keep thematically on track by talking about indulged, spoiled children. With people you know well, when things get to be too much, you could say something like, "Organic baby food and baby yoga?  I'm lucky I wasn't arrested for child abuse.  When I was helping to raise my nieces and nephews, I tossed them out in backyard to play then fed them Tater Tots and Oreos. The good news is that they're all really smart and have great jobs. But now I'm wondering if with a few kale smoothies we would have produced a Bill Gates or Sheryl Sandburg!"

Please follow Prudie's advice. My husband's family asked us the very same thing for our third child that we are expecting in February. It put us in an awkward place, to say the least. Our choice of names for our children has nothing to do with how much we love and appreciate our parents and everything to do with what names we like and want to pass on. Your kids likely know that you are hurt by this, we certainly picked up vibes before they were clearly articulated to us. Please remember that they are not selecting other names to hurt you, they are just selecting other names for personal preference that can and should remain personal.

Hurt grandparents, please read this!

Hi Prudie! I love my boyfriend so much. He is an amazing partner in all aspects... except one thing that has been driving me absolutely nuts lately. He has taken to ravaging me after I am done getting ready for work or volunteering etc. My hair done, makeup done, about to head out the door and he'll insist on ripping my clothes off and having some fun. The first time or two this happened, it was fun! I didn't mind that the last hour and a half was essentially a waste because it didn't happen that often. Prudie, he's doing this every single day now. I've passive aggressively said to him 'you seem intent on messing up my hair and makeup everyday eh?' and he's just agreed and clearly not gotten the hint. He got a bit upset when I denied him the other day because I would have been late. Any suggestions for curbing his enthusiasm for getting frisky right as I'm about to start my day?

Since there are fetishes for everything (people who can't get aroused unless their beloved is wearing slippers with big bunny heads on the toes, etc.) I'm wondering if there's more to this than the fact that you look ravishing and in need of ravishing when you're on your way out the door. It's one thing to have a very occasional quickie that puts a spring in your step. It's another that now your boyfriend insists every day on a longie (an hour and a half!) that requires you to redo your entire toilette and miss your morning appointments. So stop hinting and start talking. Do so at the end of the day, after you've gotten into your sweats. Tell your boyfriend you're thrilled he's so attracted to you, but that you just cannot make love in the morning when you need to get to work. Say you were concerned that he seemed pissed off when you explained the other day you couldn't go back to bed, and you wonder if something is going on he needs to tell you. I hope this results in some honest conversation and some respect for your schedule. If not, so that you can get out the door, keep a taser in your purse. 

Please don't be so hard on these parents. Baby yoga is a way to get out of the house, speak with other parents and stave off postpartum depression. I also live in a bilingual city where almost everyone tries to speak two languages to their kids. Here it's commonplace, and it helps their language skills in general - as does learning sign language. Please don't judge people for wanting the best for their kids, even when it seems at times like they're going overboard. If these families are happy and healthy, there's no reason to judge.

I agree with you it's natural to go overboard with your child and there's nothing pernicious about baby yoga or organic food. But the letter writer did identify a certain kind of obsessive parenting style that from the outside is both silly and dull. Being around all this indulgence is stirring up understandable and difficult feelings for the letter writer. But having a sense of humor about the lucky people she knows and likes is the best approach.

Thanks, everyone. I'm off to dog yoga. Have a great 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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