Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Feb 10, 2014

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, I look forward to your questions.

Both of my children were made possible by the modern miracle of fertility science. My parents and my wife's parents are aware of the help we received and were thrilled when the treatment worked. My kids look very much like both my wife and me, but my mother-in-law insists that we test their DNA because she has a sneaking suspicion that the fertility clinic used someone else's sperm. This is a not-so-subtle jab at me. Even though it's my wife that would otherwise be infertile without assistance, my mother-in-law has remarked more than once about me shooting blanks (I was tested prior to fertility treatment and was given a clean bill of health). She's willing to pay for the DNA tests, but she wants them mailed directly to her so that no one tampers with the results. I think this is a huge invasion of privacy, extremely inappropriate, and obnoxious. I've never had a bad relationship with her, but this could be the start. My wife says we should do this for the sake of family harmony. I strongly disagree.   Not only do my kids strongly resemble my wife and I, but common indicators like eye color and blood type match up as well. Should I cave and let my mother-in-law have her nasty way?

How unfortunate you two didn't consider your mother-in-law's feelings before embarking on producing children. Surely if she'd had a ringside seat at the fertility clinic (you wouldn't have minded her in the room while you paged through the Playboys with one hand, right?) none of this mess would be happening. Your mother-in-law has the audacity to openly talk about your shooting blanks. But she needs to stop shooting her mouth off now about how her grandchildren were conceived. It is most unfortunate that your wife is so intimidated by this insane intrusion that she is not willing to stand up to her mother. So first, have some discussions with your wife about this, explaining to her that what she sees as family harmony, you see as a grotesque violation. (Note: it's a grotesque violation.) Say that you understand your wife wants to make her mother happy, but it cannot be at the expense of your children and your dignity. You can also tell your wife that you plan to never discuss this with your mother-in-law again, and will tell her so if she ever brings it up. Stop announcing how much your kids look like both of you. It only feeds the notion that what went on in your bedroom -- or in this case the clinic -- is the slightest bit of her business.

Hi Prudie, I swear if this wasn't happening to me, I'd think this was a joke. I have a new roommate, two weeks new to be exact, and he had told me on three seprarate occasions that I cannot wear this particular perfume around him because he gets turned on and had trouble composing himself. The first time he said something asking the lines of "I don't want to be responsible for compromising your morals, hehe". He actually asked if I would go outside and spray it??! If this were an allergy issue, I could understand. But I only spray it in my room, with the door shut, right before I leave. And it's a Bath & Body Works shower gel and bath spray, not Chanel No. 5. Am I in the wrong for not accommodating the request of a horny 23-year old male? I am 32, and have made it perfectly clear that this is strictly a business arrangement, no romance involved.

If I were you I'd be tempted to switch from Bath & Body Works bath spray to good old Pepper Spray No. 5 and give him a shot right in the eyes. You are being threatened by your roommate in your own home.  I know I will hear from the lawyers specializing in tenant rights, but this guy needs to be gone.  If it's necessary to speed his departure, give him a full refund for the month and tell him you want him out. If he gives you trouble, you yourself might want to check with a lawyer about how to remove him. While you're waiting for him to go, you could get a jumbo container of Axe body spray and use it liberally. That might get him packed and heading for the door fast.

Dear Prudence, I'm a woman in my 30s with a healthy sexual appetite. I've been dating a wonderful man for several months and we have discussed living together. My boyfriend recently borrowed my laptop and saw I had been looking at porn. We laughed it off, but several days later he brought it up again. He warned me if I ever come across his porn, he wants me to know it's something he enjoys watching, but has no desire to try. He was very vague in terms of what "it" was - essentially "you don't want to know." I'm not worried that it's child pornography; he has expressed disgust for pedophiles in the past. But I am slightly concerned about what "it" is. I worry that finding out might ruin our relationship, but my imagination is running wild as to what it could be. I am friendly with his ex-girlfriend - should ask her about it? Should I bring it up with him again and ask for specifics? Or should I just let it go and enjoy the otherwise great relationship?

Talk about protesting too much. "I am not a pervert. I have downloaded reams of disturbing material that gets me off. I won't tell you what it is. I don't want to do it in real life. Don't you dare try to find out what it is!"  First of all, this issue means you actually don't know this guy well enough or for long enough to be discussing living together. So back way off getting yourself commited to someone you feel you want to be investigating.  I'm trying to imagine this conversation with his ex. "So, do you have any tips for getting Peter to pick his socks up off the floor? And does he look at videos of women having sex with dogs?" Since you're having a great relationship, you should continue to enjoy it. However, a great relationship means people can talk about things that bother them. He has now planted a disturbing thought in your mind that's making you doubt being with him.  Explain you respect his privacy and the fact that people have erotic fantasies that they want to keep in that realm. But now you can't let go of what his is. Specifically, you can tell him that you want to know if the material is potentially illegal, because that could have a direct effect on you. Then see what he says and if you feel mollified enough to let it go.

I'm not sure what's wrong with the LW's wife, but he needs to quash this line of thinking immediately. Fertility treatments are invasive enough without some harpy loudly weighing in on the outcome. Plus, these people are parents now and need to protect their children from this kind of fear, uncertainly and doubt. MIL needs to be told to stop, one more toe out of line and she's on a time out, and the wife could use counseling to find out why she's so willing to cater to her mother's outrageous demands.

Yes, the children should never be subjected to any of this insanity. And if the wife can't get on board, this marriage needs professional intervention.

My partner of five years and I are now attempting to have children. My partner underwent a sex change from a man to a woman a couple years before we met. Although she was very happy with this decision, this is something we've divulged to very few individuals by her own choice - my mother is one of those who does know. In discussing parenting issues, my mother asked if we would tell our baby at some point that one of his/her mothers had once been a man. I immediately assumed we would, and said so, but when I went home and mentioned it to my partner, she became angered and said we most certainly would not! I was a little too shocked to continue the discussion, but I'm wondering what to say! I in no way shape or form think of my partner as a man, and I recognize that this decision was her own and incredibly personal, but I also feel that this was a huge part of her life that would be strange to entirely hide from our child. She spent more than 20 years of her life as a male - Will we purge all photos from her past and cut off ties to everyone who knows? This may not have the same medical bearing as an adopted child knowing their parentage, but I feel it's important all the same! What should we do?

You must have some sympathy for Piers Morgan, who was recently attacked for an interview he did with a transgender activist, Janet Mock. During it, he asked Mock about having been born and raised a man, for which she took offense. How much better it would have been, if there were terms or assumptions Mock didn't like, if she had explained her thinking to Morgan.  As you make clear, what transgender individuals reveal or not is decided on a case by case basis. And here you are, surprised that your partner would not tell your future children about her past. But you two don't have kids, so you've got plenty of time now to talk this out. Keep in mind, decisions such as this are not set in stone. Your partner might say that her childhood will be off limits to discussion. But when faced with actual children who want to look at old photos, she will see this as a chance to explain who she is.  And if you two feel you can't move forward until you come to an agreement on this, then having some help from a counselor might help you resolve this.

Hi Prudie, I'm a twenty-something young professional with a job I really enjoy: my coworkers are great, there are growth opportunities, and I have a voice in what I work on. Over the past few months, I've been seriously ill and I'm not sure exactly how to address this with my managers so that I'm being appropriately open yet professional. It started with an extended hospitalization, and though I thought I would gradually get better, there have been complications that have resulted in a lot of missed work. When I am at work, sometimes I am unable to focus. I think I'm finally on the upswing, but I've thought that several times before. I want to ensure that my managers have whatever information they need, and that if they are concerned about the impact my health is having they let me know. How do I start that conversation? Thanks, Sick

In answer to a similar question about balancing illness and privacy in the workplace, I heard from employment attorney Philip J. Gordon who explained that managers cannot be expected to make accomodations for employees illnesses unless they actually know about the illnesses. So you need to have this conversation with your boss or bosses. This does not mean this has to become common knowledge in the office beyond what you want to explain. It's clear that you are doing everything possible to get back in the swing at work, but it's taking time because of medical complications. So explain that. I hope you will find your managers are supportive and sympathetic -- and that you will finally be fully on the mend.

She should really read this and see if discussing it with her partner helps: Girl Goddess #9: Nine Stories by Francesca Lia Block (has a great story of a child raised in this type of configuration--two moms, one of whom used to be a man, hides it from the child).

I have not read this book, but thanks for a suggestion that seems so apt.

If I were him, I'd be afraid to leave my children alone with mother-in-law, lest she decide to swab their cheeks and send a DNA sample off to a lab without their parents' consent!

Good point. Then she'd likely sneak into the master bathroom and steal the husband's toothbrush in order to confirm her suspicions!

When my wife and I were married, we decided we didn't want children and have been adamant about that to all our friends and loved ones. We've been married for five years and I'm questioning that choice. First, how do I address this with my wife without causing a rift (we have great communication and are always open and honest). If she stands by no children, I'd be okay with it but maybe she's thinking the same thing? If we have a child, how do we address it with everyone else? It doesn't seem as simple as "We've changed our mind!" but possibly I'm overthinking.

If you have a decent marriage you address it by addressing it. All of us adamantly know many things about ourselves. But I've so often done things I've vowed I'd never do that I've given up vowing and have accepted that surprising oneself makes life more interesting. So present your thoughts by saying you never thought you'd find yourself saying this, but you've been thinking that being parents is something you want to reconsider. Since you don't know where this will go, do not worry about what people will say. But if it does lead to your having children, you don't owe anyone any explanation. I assure you that you will not be the first couple who were never going to have kids who end up pushing a giant card up and down the aisles of Buy Buy Baby.

I'm a 30-year-old gay man who's (finally) just starting to come out of the closet. I have a problem among some of the straight women I've told. Following the heartwarming congratulations and affirmations of our friendships come the lurid questions. Example: Am I a top or a bottom? Those are deeply personal matters that I just don't feel comfortable discussing. My unease when asked this stuff is palpable and is usually met with, "oh, come on!" I don't want to seem like I'm still hiding who I am during the coming-out process, but this can't be normal straight woman/gay man banter, right? What's a quick, disarming retort to these truly invasive queries?

"Are you?"

I agree that this is an outrageous remark. Your "Oh, come on!" works fine. So would "Seriously?" or "I'll pretend I didn't hear that."

Dear Prudence, My husband is an only child and my elderly MIL lives hundreds of miles from us. My MIL has dementia and is no longer able to care for herself. In order to get her long-term care, living situation and finances in order, my husband has had to travel to where my MIL lives a lot lately. This has cost us thousands of dollars and will not end until my MIL dies. I think that my MIL's estate should help defray the costs of his travel. He is "disappointed" in me for bringing up money at this time. Do you think I am being unreasonable?

Caring for an elderly parent who can no longer care for herself is one of life's difficult and draining tasks. And yes, it is financially as well as emotionally draining. There is nothing wrong with talking about how you can afford this, but you have to be very sensitive to the emotional nuances of what your husband is going through. It would be good if you apologized for expressing yourself in a way your husband thought was cold. Say that was not at all your intent. Then open up the discussion about what's best for everyone. If your mother-in-law is alone and needs to be institutionalized, it might be better  to move her near you. This possibility, and working out how to make sure everyone's needs are being met, should be something you two should be able to discuss with the acceptance that the conversation comes from a loving place.

Having lived in West Hollywood and now DC, I (straight woman) have a TON of gay friend and yes we do discuss all sorts of things including ones sexual preference/positions/etc. I dont think its meant to be offensive. Also, its often an important factor when I'm trying to set-up up a gay friend with another friend (goes to compatibility).

At the risk of being labeled hopelessly heteronormative, I am grateful that during my dating years no one told me that they had a great guy for me, but first wanted to know if I liked it doggie style.  Sexual compatibility may be something that's discussed in the gay community in a different way than in the heterosexual one. But that's not the issue here. The letter writer was announcing to friends his coming out, then they started peppering him with questions about what he does in bed. He was appalled, and I say rightly so.

Before I married my husband, I told him if he wanted to have children to marry someone else. I was dead set against having children. He stuck by me anyway and after 10 years of marriage I changed my mind. Both families were overjoyed, no explanations necessary. We now have three wonderful kids, and I have no regrets about changing my mind.

Thanks for this. Yes, I'd say the overwhelming majority of times in this situation the grandparents-to-be do not ask for explanations, they just start crying then run out and buy a crib.

As a gay man I can assure you that it is TOTALLY common for women and even straight men to ask those kinds of questions. If you're uncomfortable answering them, take Prudie's advice. Otherwise, think of it like I do: Here's a chance to make homosexuality no more a taboo topic than heterosexuality. I've even had a women ask once, "I've never met a gay man before, and was wondering how exactly does gay sex work?" I explained it in as clinical a way as possible, and she told me she appreciated that I allowed her to be less ignorant. Plus, if you think those rather timid questions are lurid, just wait until your gay friends start in with their questions about you and stories about themselves. I, too, was a little uneasy talking about that stuff when I first came out, but I promise once the nerves associated with having just come out wear off it will be easier, and possibly even fun, to talk about these kinds of things.

Umm, I thought answering, "How exactly does gay sex work?" is why the Internet was invented. You are the kind of person who is comfortable answering such questions from curious friends.  I also understand your point that within the gay community there can be a different standard for the rules about what constitutes socially acceptable talk about sex. But simply asking a friend what he or she does in bed without a clear predicate that this is a welcome question  is intrusive and rude.

I have a hard time understanding how this couple would reconcile raising an open-minded child (which, I assume, is a goal of theirs) with hiding his/her parent's own experience with gender and sexuality.

There are so many issues here around identity, privacy, and secrecy. But I think it would be  hard to expect a child would not find out this part of her mother's history. And I agree that being to talk about it in an open, confident way would help insure there was no sense of shame attached to the information.

Thanks, everyone. Have a great Valentine's Day, and  and I'll talk to you next Tuesday (we're off Monday which is President's Day).

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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