Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Feb 18, 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, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

Dear Prudence, I used to be a live-in nanny for the world's most annoying, inconsiderate, intolerant and rude couple. I stuck through for three months, but had to quit for my own mental health. During this time, I occasionally took revenge by sneaking into their bathroom and dipping their toothbrushes in the toilet. The wife kept a drink bottle by the bedside table and I also put some toilet water into it as well. It made me feel better about my crappy situation at the time but now that I've quit (and regained some of my sanity), I'm consumed with guilt. I heard from a mutual acquaintance that both of them are having some kind of health problems - exactly what, I don't know - and I'm worried I may have caused this. Should I call and confess? We didn't exactly leave on good terms.

This is indeed a crappy situation all around. I'm actually surprised you quit because given your response to what you say was intolerable treatment by your employers, you attempted to cause them grave bodily harm. You all sound perfectly matched! Making people ingest fecal matter without their knowledge is indeed likely to make people ill and leave their doctor baffled. Part of me would love to tell you to rush to confess. However, I will extend you a courtesy that you didn't give your "inconsiderate" and "rude" employers. That is, while I think this couple should know the source of their illness, confessing could leave you open to potential prosecution. You may deserve it, but you need to consider the stakes here. So my suggestion is that you pay for a consultation with a lawyer and explain the situation. You also should find out what are the potential medical consequences of drinking toilet water. It may be that the need to get a proper diagnosis for this pair is crucial to their treatment, and you must consider that and bring it to the attention of your lawyer. While your behavior makes my stomach turn, I am slightly heartened that you seem to recognize what you did was an abomination. I hope in the future you recognize that if you're in a poisonous situation, you simply get out without trying to poison anyone else.

I am a 30-year-old married college teacher and a mother. I have recently developed a platonic relationship with one of my students. He is 19 years old and is quite smart and intelligent for his age. We chat, through Facebook mostly,  about topics related to what I teach (Philosophy, History, Literature, current events) and we have seem to have connected intellectually in many aspects. I have conversations with him I don't even have with my husband and it has been very mentally stimulating. I find myself feeling guilty about this relationship, as if I were cheating on my husband because I found someone that fulfills something in me that he doesn't. I consider myself a woman of moral and integrity, but I am also frightened that this might develop into something else if the boundaries are blurry. Am I wrong for having this relationship?

As an expert in the humanities, you are probably familiar with this saying by Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.” (This was famously paraphrased by Woody Allen to explain his affair with Mia Farrow's daughter.)  So once you're in the territory of knowing you're in a morally ambiguous relationship, professor, you also know the answer is, Cut it out.  Right now you are connecting intellectually with this young man. Given the porousness of your emotions, you are already worried about finding yourself connecting on so many more levels. I am not in any way saying that a professor and student can't have a wonderful, intellectual relationship that extends outside the classroom. The world would be so much poorer if there were no professors able to be mentors to students of the opposite sex. But it does mean that when you're thinking, "This is relationship is so much more fulfilling than my marriage," that you are jeopardizing your very standing as a professional. Cut out the Facebook chats and start reeling this in.  At the end of this term ecommend classes for this young man  to take the next academic year that will enchance his academic journey.  Keep in mind that you don't want to do anything that will bring your academic journey to an end.

Dear Prudence, I graduated a year ago from college. It took me most of 2013 to find my financial footing by landing my first real career-oriented job. My new job doesn't pay as much as I would like, but what it lacks in a high salary, it pays in excellent training and experience. I'm proud to say that I paid for my own college education -- I worked part-time and summer jobs, I saved everywhere I could, and I took out my own student loans. In that same time my parents wrote a different story. They overspent on a new mortgage, they bought expensive cars, purchased designer clothing, and made a lot of the same pre-2008 mistakes other middle-class families had made. It's now the beginning of the new year, they've both lost their jobs, and they are straight up broke. I haven't even made my second pay check yet and they're asking me for help. I want to help, but I also want them to know that they're asking a lot from me without sounding vindictive. I'm not sure how to voice myself to them. I don't simply want to give them money, but I don't want to completely shame them. How shall I approach them about their poor past behavior? 

I don't know whether to be encouraged or discouraged by the number of cases I hear about like yours. That is, financially responsible young adults whose parents are   financially profligate, who are now being hit up by their broke mother and father. It is great to see people who were raised by the irresponsible learning from that  example, instead of following it. But the pressure on these young people to honor their self-indulgent parents is immense. I think you must resist. You are starting your own, independent life, with a college degree you earned soley through your own efforts. How wonderful it would have been if your parents had looked at you and absorbed some of your lessons. Instead they partied as if the leverage would never come crashing down on their heads. Now, they are turning to you, but given your own penny pinching financial circumstances, I don't see how you can afford to do anything except buy them an occasional bag of groceries.  When you were still a teenager your parents sent you out to be financially responsible for yourself. They need to take similar responsibility for their situation. Of course, in addition to making terrible choices, they are now victims of a cruel economy, it is true. But your pouring your money down their financial rat hole -- well, you only have enough for a dribble -- won't solve their problem. If they put enough pressure on you ("Honey, can you just take out a loan? We will pay you back when we get on our feet.") it might just tip you into ruin. Tell the to contact the non-profit National Foundation for Credit Counseling to help them figure out the steps they must take. You love them and want to be a source of solace and even advice. But you cannot bail them out.

As a physician, I will submit that ongoing health problems are really not likely to be caused by drinking toilet water. At worst, it could spread a GI illness (virus, bacterial diarrhea etc). But the same virus/bacteria would be elsewhere in the family home and there would be minimally higher exposure from direct consumption of toilet water. What this nanny did was a childish and gross violation of trust, but not dangerous.

Several other letters writers have also basically said that drinking toilet water isn't likely to hurt you. So for the sake of the environment, please let's stop purchasing bottled water and start recycling that toilet water! I've heard of fruit flush and fat flush diets, little did I know that the toilet flush diet was okay, too. Doc, I will take your word that if this couple is sick, it's not because of the nanny's beverage service. So the nanny can forget about talking to a lawyer.  With that money saved, a therapist might help her figure out better ways to respond to stress.

My brother has hit two of his ex-girlfriends. He also threw one of them into a wall. Neither of them pressed charges or even called the cops, so there is no record of his violence. Before meeting his wife, he went to counseling and anger management as a condition of staying in my life and our parents' lives. He is a much different man, but sometimes I see glimmers of his old temper. He and his wife cannot have children and hope to adopt. As part of their adoption booklet, they've asked my parents and me to write letters about them. I do not feel like I can do that and do not know what to tell them or my parents, who mostly want to forget that he hit women. I also feel like I'm in a weird ethical place where I don't know if I should tell the agency about his acts of domestic violence. I know if I was a birth mother it would influence whether I gave my baby to them. What should I do?

The easy answer here is that you tell the truth. Anyone who's writing a letter for an adoptive couple should do so with the understanding that it goes straight to the social worker or agency and is not vetted by the couple. Clarify this with the adoption agency before you start typing. Then you can say in good conscience that you have seen significant changes in your brother's control of his anger since he accepted the family's condition that in order to stay in your lives he seek counseling for his rage. Say that to your knowledge he has not hit his current wife, although he was violent on many occasions with his previous girlfriends. You can say you still see flashes of his old anger, but it has not, as far as you know, erupted in violence.  You can encourage your parents to be equally honest. Then it is up to the professionals to evaluate your brother's fitness to be a father.

Just as an FYI - given your parents history, it's possible they'll ask to borrow money in some form with your name. Don't co-sign, don't take out a loan and then give them the money - don't do anything that attaches your name/credit to it. Even if they were responsible people who got hit by bad circumstances, you don't want to risk trashing your own credit if/when they don't repay or things go south - because then you're on the hook and all of your hard work will be for naught for years to come.

Thanks for emphasizing this.  Sadly I have to add that the letter writer needs to keep tabs on her own credit rating. I have heard from too many young people who discovered their parents took out credit cards under the names of the children, and ended up trashing the kids' credit rating.

Dear Prudie, I've fallen for a guy who's 15 years younger than me. I realize how ridiculous it is, and the hurdles ahead if we proceed - I'm reaching the end of my fertile years while he's entering life as an adult, for example, and I could not fathom putting this kind of responsibility on him (even though he's very mature for his age). And while I look young for my age and he keeps telling me I'm the most beautiful girl in the world, I'm not an idiot and there's a point at which, physically, the age gap is going to catch up to us. Other than that, I can't find one obstacle. I've had my share of serious relationships but have never gotten along with anyone like this before. We communicate so easily and have so many things in common that it's almost eerie. I feel like I have a responsibility to be the reasonable one, and I'd like to say, let's proceed with caution, but that's neither what I want nor what's happening at all. We both just want to jump. Can we? 

Do you two read Pascal together? I'm not sure what you're asking me. I can't tell if you've already jumped into bed and are asking permission to get serious, or if you've just connected spiritually and want to move to a more earthly realm. Since you're reaching the end of your reproductive years, I'm going to assume your around 40, so while he's young, he's not a teenager. But if you mention your fertility because you want to have children, then unfortunately, the biological reality of this means your situation is different from a couple in which the man is 15 years older. You have a deadline approaching, and being in the first flush of infatuation with someone in a very different place in his life is not a good basis for making permanent decisions. If you two want to have an affair, go for it! If you want to set the terms that he's the one and it's time for him to become a father, then forget jumping and force yourselves to come back to earth.

I work for an adoption agency and I am a long time reader of your column. Your advice here is pretty good and I urge the LW to follow it. The screening for potential adoptive parents is incredibly thorough. The agency where I work requires that potential adoptive parents disclose any and all medical treatments (both mental and physical). If the LW's account varies from what the brother disclosed, then that might create a problem with the agency. When we do background checks and consult with family and friends, we are mostly looking for consistency. If the brother honestly disclosed his anger management courses with the agency, the letter will only strengthen his image in the agency. If the brother did not disclose his anger management courses, then he is probably not following the rules of the agency and your letter is the least of his adoption concerns.

Thank you. What worries me is that though the screening should be thorough (and I know it can be grueling for those going through it) there are too many cases we read about in which clearly deficient and ultimately dangerous people are allowed to adopt. Let's hope the brother was honest about his past -- I'm going to doubt it. So this means the sister, and one hopes the parents, are filling in absolutely crucial data.

My mother-in-law is from the southern U.S., where it is common for children to address all adults as sir and ma'am. I am from New England, where we currently live with our two children. My in-laws are correcting our children whenever they visit (they are 4 and 2) and prodding them to say "yes sir,"  etc. whenever a yes or no is expected. This is not something my husband and I had decided to do, and to me it seems downright inappropriate to expect of young children. My husband is still sentimental for the south, and is happy to go along with them. What should we do?

Your in-laws have really high standards if they are demanding a clear "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am" from a 2 year-old.  I think it's fine that your children learn how Daddy's parents like to be addressed and as the years go on, they will get it. But I hope your in-laws are not doing this in an obsessive or punitive way.  I think you can compromise here and accept you in-laws desires, within limits. That is, that they understand the "sir" and "ma'am" are for them, and that they lighten up about hearing it every time they are addressed because this is not the children's normal form of address to adults. That understanding should come out of a conversation that your husband has, with all due respect, with his own parents.

I have a mild hearing disability and I work in a large, quiet office with cubicles. My coworker who sits near me has a soft voice in a tone I don't hear very well. Several times a day she asks me a question or starts talking to me while facing her computer with her back to me. I hear my name, but I can't make out the rest of what she is saying. I then have to stop what I'm doing, move toward her cubicle while saying "excuse me?" Sometimes I say, "I can't hear you" or "WHAT?" It makes me feel rude, and it's disruptive to my work, since she can basically pull me away from it at any moment without warning. I have spoken to her privately once to say that I have a hearing disability and can't hear her when she isn't facing me, but nothing changed. I feel like it would be too rude to completely ignore her when I know she is speaking to me. How can I convince her to adjust her behavior so that I can hear her?

Let's give this co-worker the benefit of the doubt and hope she's shy and forgetful, rather than passive-aggressive and hostile.  Ask her to meet you in the coffee room or some place away from the cubicle and have one more go. Explain that your hearing loss means that in the office you need to be facing each other and she needs to speak up for you to understand what she's saying.  If that doesn't fix thing, when you hear her say, "Marie...." and nothing else is clear, use your technology. Reply with an email saying, "Petra, let's take this on-line so that I know what you're saying."

We live in an area with a lot of rural, country, "good old boy" mentality. And that culture is extremely accepting of young boys using smokeless tobacco or "dip." My husband has been a user since he was 14. I just discovered that my 16-year-old son and some of his friends are users. It's not like I haven't tried to prevent this. We began having conversations at a very early age about all the terrible things associated with this nasty habit. While my husband is usually my strong ally in disciplinary situations, he is unfortunately (probably because of his own habit) pretty neutral on this one, which my son sees as acceptance and pretty much blows anything I do or say right out of the water. My son is an honors student, and great athlete so I have tried to appeal to his smarts and competitive nature by showing him internet articles, stories and pictures that relate how unhealthy it is for you. All to no avail.  I have taken measures (grounding and changing rules) to make it more difficult for him, but I find that I am so angry with him I can hardly be civil to him about anything. And I can't ground him forever, I'm afraid it's going to ruin our relationship. How do I handle this?

If pictures of horribly disfigured people, their mouths eaten away by cancer because of this digusting habit, haven't influenced your son, your constant grounding isn't going to. You also are being relentlessly undermined by having a husband who indulges himself.  You married someone who expectorates brown, reeking spittle undermines your own case for just how disgusting you find this.  I agree this is a terrible habit, but no matter how much you ground a teenager, he spends more time not under your supervision than under it. You say this is ruining your relationship with him, so I think you need to let this go. Tell him it's been eating you up to think the future danger he's putting himself in, but you haven't been able to persuade him, so you've said your final word on it. (No I am not giving a pass to all bad or dangerous teenage behavior, just this one.) Preserving a loving, open relationship with your teen is your most important goal, and you have to recognize that that's being jeopardized by your understandable obsession. You will start to feel better when you recognize you've done what you can, and you can't do anymore.  But let's hope that unlike the example you and your husband, he finds himself attracted to a lovely girl who tells him he can't get within kissing distance unless he drops this repulsive habit.

Dear Prudence, I think I need help. I'm 30-yrs-old, 8 months pregnant, and have a sweet two-year-old and a good husband. And many days, I want to kill myself after the baby is born. I worked from home, but we had to move closer to my parents because Mom has cancer and Dad has alzheimers. We can't get DSL here, so I can't work from home anymore. I still do 99% of the housework and cooking and am solely responsible for getting up at night with and taking care of our 2-year-old. My husband works and pays for electric, cable and phone bills. I pay the mortgage, babysitter, and internet and buy groceries. I've racked up $4,800 in credit card debt, though I now am able to keep to a budget. If I kill myself, they will get enough to pay off the house, my credit card, and have some extra. There's a two-year suicide exclusion on my life policies, but I've had them much longer than that. My husband could find someone else to be a mother to the kids, probably better than I could be. He says I'm the grumpiest person he's ever known. Some days I wonder why I shouldn't kill myself. Life would be better for my family.

Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) right now. Right now! You will be connected to someone who will start getting you the help you need. You are under so much pressure that you are no longer thinking clearly, but there are people who can help you sort things out and step by step make your life better.  Please, please understand that suicide is not the answer. You think you will be helping your children, but you will be leaving them bereft and struggling for the rest of their lives to understand what happened. I know everything looks bleak but you have a 2 year-old who loves and needs you and another sweet child on the way. Your debt is manageable, there are social services available for your parents. You and your husband can get counseling. Your life is so valuable, so please make that phone call right away.

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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