Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. A transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I hope everyone in the D.C. area has their shoveling arms in shape for Tuesday!
Chicago: Because this is anonymous, I don’t have to pretend here that I don’t know that I have great, firm, wrinkle-free skin at almost 50. I just won the genetic lottery in that regard. The problem arises in that people often peg my age at mid- to late 30s. Great, right? Not really. Recently I found myself at a work function with younger people. One man in the group starting bemoaning being 43 and the oldest person at the table. That led to a whole funny-serious discussion about being old. I stayed silent because I’m five years older than 43, and telling people my age often leads to the “look,” which is where the other person will sort of freeze for a moment in disbelief and then change to a growing look of horror. Good lord, she’s old! I’ve found there’s a big disparity between how a person perceives and treats someone in their mid- to late 30s vs. late 40s, and it’s led to some awkward moments. I don’t think I should be saying, “Hi, I’m Mary, and just so you know, I’m 48,” when meeting people, so what do I do? Drop a Culture Club reference right away?
Emily Yoffe: You’ve come to me for sympathy? Try being the person at the table who can remember hearing that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Do you really think the phrase “The horror, the horror” runs through the minds of your acquaintances and co-workers when they realize you’re not in your 30s but are in your … FORTIES! (Actually, probably not, since they’re too young to remember Apocalypse Now.) I’m assuming these young people have actually met, interacted with, and even enjoyed the company of such ancient mariners as you. Since you are blessed to look eons younger than you are, maybe you are just seeing surprised recalculation. Maybe they are wondering if they can ask you the secret to eternal youth. If you don’t feel like discussing your age then, sure, keep silent when decrepit colleagues of 43 bemoan their creaking bones. Otherwise, how often does one’s age come up at work, anyway? And be aware that women who are uncomfortable about their age, or make a fetish of never revealing it, end up seeming older than they are.
Topeka, Kan.: Do you have any advice for a gal who despises her mother-in-law? We got along great until she decided that what she (and her daughter—my sister-in-law) wanted at the birth of my child was more important than what I wanted and threw a fit at the hospital. That was a lack of respect I couldn’t forgive. (Just so you know, my husband defended my desires to the end. I gave in to their demands to lessen the stress so I could, you know, give birth.)
Almost two years later, I still hate them. I do nothing to get in the way of them seeing my child (despite the fact that they don’t deserve the privilege), but unfortunately, I see them frequently, and to see my child bringing them such joy just kills me. And I’m bitter because, due to proximity, they see my child more than my family does.
I tried faking it for the first few months, but that made me feel worse. Right now, I barely speak to them. But soon my child will be old enough to notice that Mommy doesn’t like Grandma, so I need to change my tactic. Do you have any advice?
Emily Yoffe: What did they demand at the hospital——that Grandma perform the episiotomy and sister-in-law cut the cord? I agree that anyone who makes demands of a woman in labor and then throws a fit deserves to be firmly put in her place—which should be in the hospital parking lot. But you say all of you got along great until the maternity-ward unpleasantness. Now you have not only nursed your child, but the past two years you have been nursing a grudge, and guess what, the person it’s hurting is you. “To see my child bringing them such joy just kills me” is a very disturbing admission. If you don’t get over this, you’re only going to poison yourself and your child’s relationship with your in-laws. I think you should seek some short-term therapy so you can talk this out and come up with a plan for getting over it. Maybe you need to have a conversation (not a confrontation) with your mother-in-law that allows her to acknowledge that her actions caused you pain so you can move on. But it’s possible you won’t get that from her, yet it’s imperative you find a way to heal this wound. This has become an obsession, and you need to find a way out.
San Francisco: My uncle married a wonderful woman when I was 7 years old. She had two kids from a previous relationship who were 8 years old. We grew up as cousins (even though we weren’t really related by blood). A few years ago, my aunt and uncle separated. My cousins and I remained close. Last week, one of my cousins asked me out on a date. I haven’t really thought of him in that light up until he asked me out. Is it strange for me to be considering saying yes? HELP!
Emily Yoffe: It’s true a DNA cheek swab would show that you aren’t cousins by blood. But family members routinely don’t check their DNA status in order to understand incest taboos. You were all raised since childhood as cousins, close ones, as you say, that’s why this potential date feels so funny. Many states have laws against cousin marriage, which I think are ridiculous—people should be allowed to make that choice. But most of the successful cousin romances I’ve heard of involve people who barely ever, or never, saw each other as children, or who perhaps knew each other as kids, but hadn’t interacted in decades. This just sounds too strange to go from childhood family members to potential dating partners. Say no for now and continue dating others. If ultimately this was “meant to be,” it will have been worth it to wait.
Canada: What is the proper “break-up etiquette” in today’s day and age? I have been seeing someone for over a year now and could probably count on one hand the number of times that we have talked on the phone. Our main forms of correspondence are e-mail and text messaging. Over the last few months, our relationship has become quite strained, and we barely see each other anymore. Over the last month, we have e-mailed each other maybe three times (down from several times a day), and gone from seeing each other once a week at least, to more than a month since the last time we did something together. I would like to e-mail him to discuss our failing relationship, and most likely just end it, but in discussing it with friends, they feel that it has to be done over the phone or face to face. I feel that with our situation, e-mail is the more appropriate option since it is how we had based all communication (and even I will agree that a break-up text message is not an option). Thoughts?
Emily Yoffe: If you’re not seeing each other anymore because things are so strained, and your only communication is a weekly e-mail, and you’re wondering which medium is most appropriate for announcing your desire to break up—guess what, you’ve already broken up. But since you’ve been in a yearlong relationship, and not just had a few dates, then it is a good idea to actually go ahead and formally end it. A discussion about what went wrong might help the two of you figure out what you want out of your future relationships. So send him an e-mail and say obviously things between the two of you have gotten off-track, but you’d like to get together in person to talk about this. If he doesn’t respond, or replies that he’s too busy, then consider yourself on the market.
Hey! I’m 48 and have great skin, too!: But seriously, most people assume I’m in my mid-30s, as well. My kids are younger, and it really IS a problem, just like the poster said it was. For some reason it is a constant. I don’t hide my age and invariably someone will bring up how “old” she is and then turn to me, “Oh, but you’re older than I am, aren’t you?” People DO treat you differently after that. Heck, I probably did when I was in my 30s. Anyone in their 40s seemed ancient at the time. I cannot imagine how difficult that would be for this woman in the workplace. I hope you can give her a better answer.
Emily Yoffe: Where do you and Great Skin work, on MTV’s Real World? I can understand if you’re the outlier at a really young workplace, you would be aware that you’re at a different place in your life. You could take, “Oh, but you’re older than I am” as a kind of insult, but maybe it’s a thoughtless form of self-reassurance for an aging young person, a way to acknowledge that there are still productive and attractive people in their 40s out there. I’d love to give a better answer, but what’s the solution except to either go work at AARP, or be comfortable and confident about yourself no matter how old you are?
Caracas, Venezuela: Recently, my husband and I were asked by his sister to have her two boys spend a week with us as their spring break vacation, without her. It seems that we’re not her first choice and that everyone else she’s asked has the same reservations as we do. One, that the boys would not be accompanied by her and, two, the youngest boy (8 years old) is autistic.
While our nephews are precious to us, and we enjoy spending time with them, we feel that this is too great a request for her to make of the family. Our youngest nephew requires nearly 24-hour supervision. He’s destructive and impossible to control without his mother or father present. Even then, it’s not unusual for him to harm himself or others.
She’s taken the refusal as a sign that we do not care about her and our family. She says that this is a family obligation— to care for one another’s children. She did not even want to entertain the idea of accompanying the boys herself on this visit.
I understand that she is tired. It is not easy being the mother to a child who requires so much. Yet I cannot help but feel that a week of caring for the two boys is simply too much to ask.
What say you, Prudie? Are we not upholding our family duty, or is she asking too much of us? Thank you for your help.
Emily Yoffe: Your sister-in-law sounds desperate for a break. She needs and deserves one. Being a full-time, possibly lifetime caregiver is overwhelming. What your family needs to do is pull together to find ways to give relief to your sister-in-law and brother-in-law. The discussion has to be not just about a vacation but about how to structure their lives so that your nephew is getting the help he needs, and your in-laws are not so worn out that they collapse. They need respite care, that is, professional relief so they can get away, relax, and recharge. You are your husband need to be honest with them and explain that you two don’t feel competent to care for their 8-year-old for a week. But is there another way? Could the whole family come down, and you watch the boys during the day while your in-laws get some daytime vacation? Could you come up and take care of the boys for an extended weekend while they get away? As you’re contemplating what to do, watch HBO’s wonderful movie Temple Grandin, about the autistic woman who became a world-famous scientist. And note that her aunt was a crucial presence in her life.
My husband and I are embarking on a weight-loss regime not for health reasons but for our respective careers. Although we are both “festively plump,” as Cartman would say, we’ve been able to maintain rewarding careers, and we are great networkers.
We have this sinking feeling that we’ll reach a “cellulite ceiling” as our careers progress. I think I’ve already been passed over on a promotion because of my size-16 frame, which is illegal but still “done.”
My question is this: Psychologically speaking, is it OK to focus on weight loss exclusively for our careers? Are we demented to think that we cannot succeed because of our expanded waistlines? Will we have negative repercussions? What if we don’t get that bigger job? What if things stay the same but we just happen to be thinner?
Emily Yoffe: Do you work at MTV also? It’s true that in elite circles being thin is de rigueur, but if being plump is a career killer, then American workers are in trouble. (Oh, jeez, is this the reason for the jobless rate, American companies are simply shedding their overweight workers?) Deciding to get in better shape is obviously a worthy goal. But only you can decide how you’ll feel if you get smaller but the jobs don’t get bigger. But it seems like a bad idea to pin your promotion plans around going from a size 16 to a 6. Sure, get a new exercise and eating plan. But in the meantime, it would be worthwhile for you to make sure that instead of dressing like someone who is trying to hide her body, you make yourself the most stylish “festively plump” person out there.
Break up etiquette: I must be the only person in the world who doesn’t want to discuss the end of a relationship. If someone clearly loses interest in me, then I just stop trying. Because, really, it’s not like I’m going to hear anything good in the postmortem. No one breaks up with anyone because they have to marry to end warfare between nations. They stop calling/e-mailing/texting you because they’d rather be doing something else with someone else. Why do people want that spelled out?
Emily Yoffe: I agree that if you’ve been seeing someone for a short while and the “relationship” winds itself down mutually but not explicitly, no postmortem is necessary. But it’s rather strange to have a relationship of a year’s standing and never even bother to actually break up. I don’t mean each party needs to list the other’s flaws (“The way you sneeze always drove me nuts”), but a real relationship should have a real ending.
Cleveland: One of my friends is getting married in the fall. She is not having any bridesmaids, but a few of her friends have gotten together to organize a surprise bachelorette party a few weeks before her wedding. The surprise involves most of her friends flying across country on a holiday weekend. My problem is this: I speak to her almost daily and I feel like it will be extremely hard to not bring this up for the next seven months and might strain our talks a bit. (I am a terrible liar.)
Also, she is already talking about planning her own party. I’m concerned in keeping the surprise, I (and her other friends) am going to make her feel like no one cares enough to throw her a party, which I don’t think is the best way to feel right before your wedding. I’m sure my friend would like the surprise once it comes to fruition, but I think it might be more trouble than it’s worth. Should I bring this up to the other girls? Or I am just no fun?
Emily Yoffe: Your girlfriend’s wedding seems like the ideal time not to throw a surprise party. Since she’s not having any bridesmaids, it sounds like she’s having a pretty casual affair, but still, she will have lots of planning to do, and while she might appreciate the surprise, she’d surely appreciate much more knowing that her friends were organizing one for her. Have a discussion with the other friends and say the bride-to-be is making noises about having to throw her own party. Say that as much fun as a surprise would be, this is a case where it seems like advance planning is the way to go.
Anywhere, Md.: I mentioned to my husband that his father needed a haircut, and then (just to be funny) I mentioned that his dad’s curly hair resembles his grandma’s (standard older lady) ‘do. So what does my husband do, but say to his dad at Sunday dinner, “Hey Dad, some people at church think you need a haircut, because you and Grandmother have the same hairdo.” Then he proceeds to say it was ME. His family is fairly unbuttoned, and his mom and grandma laughed hysterically, but I think it made my father-in-law unhappy. Obviously, now I know never to say anything to my husband that I don’t want repeated. But how do I apologize? (My observation was pretty accurate.)
Emily Yoffe: Please don’t extrapolate from this one incident a lifetime policy. (See above letter about the scene at labor and delivery.) Instead of confronting your husband, gently tell him you cringed when he gave you credit for the hairdo line. Explain that you know his family loves jokes, but you were embarrassed and his father seemed to be, too. Tell your husband he’s free to steal your lines, but you don’t want credit for them. Then next time you see your father-in-law, pull him aside and simply apologize about the hair remark. Then forget about it. Having a family comfortable with teasing each other can make family get-togethers lively and fun.
Don’t hang on to the hate for the in-laws: But I totally get it. My mother-in-law and brother-in-law decided that they should not only be allowed into the delivery room with me and my husband, but that they should be allowed to film it. And no I am not kidding. He burst into the hall while I was “walking” and tried to get a close-up. My mother threatened them both with physical violence, and my husband broke the camera, not that I agree with that, but well … I can see them now and know that they know just because I am a nice person does not mean I would like them to take pictures of my lady parts!
But let go, or tell them off. That might help if you have a meeting with them and get it off your chest, that they really messed things up and you are going to need them to make it up to you by behaving themselves forever!
Emily Yoffe: Let me state that I deplore violence, but I wish I’d been there to see your husband do his Russell Crowe on your brother-in-law’s camera! It’s a good thing he did it, too, or else millions might be enjoying the YouTube video of said lady parts. I’m glad you’ve been able to let it go. I agree a meeting to clear the air might help, but it’s a bad idea to put the pre-condition that they have to “behave themselves forever.” It’s better to go into one of these summits simply with the desire to have them hear why you feel as you do. Dictating how they should respond is likely to prolong the difficulties.
Washington, D.C.: The mom who hates her in-laws—I’d also point out that she gave in at the hospital. She didn’t stand her ground. That’s not their fault. If she wanted to stand up to them, she should’ve, but she didn’t, so it’s time to get over it. For reals. That is anger way out of proportion to the offense.
Emily Yoffe: It’s hard to stand your ground when you’re on your back pushing out the newest family member. Whatever the in-laws did, they should not have done. And when your cervix is dilating, you should be exempt from having to defend yourself from intrusive in-laws.
New York, NY: Re: Cleveland, whose friend is getting married…
My friends did the same thing for me before my wedding, and I really did think that no one cared about me before the “big day.” Although it was a wonderful surprise when it happened, and I did really enjoy myself at their well-planned party, I spent the couple of weeks before my wedding re-thinking years of (wonderful) friendship, because I thought that they didn’t care enough about me to plan anything. So I think you guys should re-think your plans
Emily Yoffe: This is exactly the problem with the surprise bachelorette party. To carry it off, all the friends have to pretend they are totally busy with their own lives and not planning anything for the bride. The surprise is not worth the hurt feelings that will build up beforehand.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week—after I dig out of the avalanche.