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. Let’s get started.
Geneva, Switzerland: I am a recent college graduate working abroad for a small nonprofit. Most of my coworkers are European women in their 20s or early 30s, and we generally get along pretty well. We eat lunch together every day, and I eat substantially more than they do, since they are all on very strict diets. I don’t watch my calories, and I don’t think I need to—I am 5’5” and 120 lbs, and I get plenty of exercise by riding my bike to work every day and going hiking on the weekends.
Weight is a very sensitive issue in the office. Every time somebody brings in a snack for the office (like zucchini bread—yum!), the other women instantly start complaining about their diets and having those horrid conversations about how fat they are. I, on the other hand, always happily accept these treats, along with the two men in the office. This wasn’t a problem until one woman said, “Look at the cow, she just keeps grazing all day!” Now the whole office comments on my eating, and everyone chalks it up to me being an ignorant American, as though I can’t control my food intake! They have also recently started making comments while I eat about how my overconsumption contributes to poverty and famine. It has gotten so uncomfortable that I have tried to eat less, but then I am hungry (and cranky) all afternoon. I have asked them to stop making these comments, but they persist and say that healthy eating is too important to let it slide. I think my eating habits are perfectly healthy, and I don’t understand why they care. What should I do?
Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if your office is acting out some geopolitical struggles over the zucchini bread. It would be one thing if the American amongst them was obese, spoke in tongues, and kept a loaded shotgun on her desk—then they could satisfy themselves about their European superiority. But here you are, having the audacity to sate your appetite while remaining thin! You could shrug off an occasional snipe about your ability to have a slice of cake, but a daily badgering about your intake is intolerable. What’s next, they blame droughts in Africa on the fact that you shower daily and flush the toilet? Stop being intimidated about your eating. The next time one of them insults you, you need to say firmly, “Gerta, I’m afraid my personal eating habits are irrelevant to our work. Things have escalated to the point where I am being insulted daily, and this is not conducive to a harmonious work atmosphere.” Repeat to Veronique, et al. (Alternately, you could joke that their complaints sound like something they should take up with The Hague.) If the harassment persists, you need to address your complaint to the boss.
Asheville, NC: After recently graduating college, I was able to land a job that I really like. I’m the only female in an office of 12 men who are all great. The problem is that after about a month of working there, it seems like everyone relaxed enough around me to start dipping tobacco in front of me. I don’t care for the most part because it’s none of my business what everyone does in their own office, but when my boss comes into my office, or is showing me something on the computer, he stands behind me with a cup full of tobacco spit in his hand. I don’t know how to tell him that I find his spitting in front of me revolting and the smell of tobacco nauseating. What can I say to keep my lunch and my great new job?
Emily Yoffe: I would love to see “Geneva” bring some chewing tobacco into her office and start spitting it into a cup. She could tell the ladies this is the American way of avoiding snacks.
As for your situation, I guess your co-workers think there’s nothing like a cup of warm spit to make you feel welcome. You’re right, if people have private spittoons, that’s their business. But if you feel like tossing every time your boss regurgitates, you have to say something. After a juicy session, go into his office and explain that you are unfortunately very sensitive to the smell of tobacco, and would he mind parking the tobacco products outside your office. I bet he’ll oblige.
Tahoe, California: I am a 31-year-old single mother of a 2-year-old daughter. She is my heart and soul. I am currently a member of several online dating Web sites where it is stated that I have a child (but there are no pictures). My problem is that I’m always worried that the men who contact me are secret pedophiles who are simply feigning interest in me in order to get close to my child. For the record, I have never been abused myself. I think part, if not most, of it has to do with the fact that there are so many stories on the news, in the papers, and online about this sort of thing. It literally seems like it’s everywhere. And even when I meet men through friends or, say, by chance at the grocery store, this thought is always in the back of my head. I find it very difficult to trust, but part of me wonders if this is the way a good mother should be. I’m lonely and miss companionship, but I can’t seem to get past this thought. I would really appreciate your take on this matter.
Emily Yoffe: As wonderful as parenthood is, one of its burdens is that it’s hard to completely turn off the running voice in your head that is always scanning the horizon for danger. While there are pedophiles running around, they are a tiny percentage of the population. It’s good that you’re aware of your daughter’s safety, but the best thing you can do to assure no one you’re dating has malevolent designs on her is to keep your social life and your parenting separate. This is something you should do even if pedophilia was not a worry for you. No 2-year-old should be subject to seeing a string of potential beaus. Your daughter should only be introduced to someone you’re dating once you’ve established that this is becoming a serious relationship. That doesn’t give you a guarantee, but it should give you an excellent sense that you’re with a good guy. So get a great babysitter, and have fun.
New York, NY: Prior to my flight departure on a recent business trip, I visited the airport business class lounge for my airline. With time to spare, I sat down in the lounge’s computer area to catch up on news. I glanced over to the gentlemen seated not far from me, only to find that he was doing a Google search on “little girls” and checking on the image tab. A couple of minutes later, he was browsing through images for his next Google search of “breastfeeding.” As his ticket was on the desk, I happened to see his seat number and flight number, and he was on my flight. Did I—do I—have any obligation to report his behavior and if so, to whom?
Emily Yoffe: Just because there are very few pedophiles doesn’t mean there aren’t any. Your lounge mate may be a true pervert, or he may have a kinky but harmless desire to peruse these images. You don’t know. But what you do know is that what he was doing was perfectly legal. You should have done what you did: nothing. There are many more things to be concerned about at the airport than flying with a creep.
Fort Wayne IN: I lost my 23-month-old son in a car accident almost nine years ago. I have kept some of his clothing and toys. I am married to another man (not my son’s father). He wants me to get rid of my son’s things. He says that I need to get over my loss and stop living in the past. Do you think that this is OK that I am holding on to his things?
Emily Yoffe: I hope your husband is not as cruel as he sounds here. You don’t say you are stuck in perpetual grief, or that you handle these items daily. It is impossible for me to imagine that a mother in your circumstances wouldn’t hold on to some precious mementos of her tragically lost child. You need to explain to your husband that no one completely “gets over” the loss of a child, but that it is possible to accept the loss and live in the present, which is what you are doing. If he won’t let this go, then marriage counseling is in order.
London, U.K.: As another ignorant American, I would be careful about directly confronting a coworker. That may be how we do it at home, but I can tell you that you’ll be known as an aggressive confrontational cow. Maybe wait it out and see if they move on to someone else or talk to the boss.
Emily Yoffe: They’re already calling her a cow and have escalated their insults and observations. Is it “European” to accept being bullied in the office? It sounds as if whatever she does, she going to be the obnoxious American.
Nuttyville, U.S.A.: The past few years, my wife has been making changes for what she believes is going to be some kind of life-altering event in the near future. Whether it be due to global warming or war or whatever, she hasn’t decided, but nonetheless she is preparing. She spends countless hours on the Internet putting together a “survival book” of sorts, which has everything from how to grow your own food to how to survive a nuclear fallout. Now she has decided that she and our family (myself and two teen daughters) should learn how to shoot a gun “just in case.” When I asked her what the point of that would be since we don’t own firearms, she said that might change. This seems crazy to me. My wife and I have always practiced a common principle of nonviolence and we’ve raised our girls to be the same way. What should I do? I feel like my wife is becoming someone I don’t recognize. (And going to see Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Big mistake.)
Emily Yoffe: I think her life-altering events should be a trip to a psychiatrist and pulling the plug on the cable news channels. Having a preparedness kit is a good idea—you never know when you’ll discover you live on a fault line or that this will be the winter with three feet of snow. But your wife sounds as if she’s undergone an alarming personality change. Alarming personality changes and firearms are a very bad combination. She needs a medical evaluation.
Stay-at-home dad land: I have a question that I do not think a stay-at-home mom has faced before. My wife works and is also very intent upon breastfeeding our daughter until she is 1 year old. So she pumps for when she is gone and breastfeeds when she is home. The problem has arisen because I tend to see the signs that my daughter is hungry before she starts to cry. I will then suggest to my wife that she feed our daughter. Recently my wife blew up at me and said that her breasts are her body and no other person can tell her what to do with her body. From now on, I am not allowed to tell her when I see signs that our daughter is hungry because it then would be controlling my wife’s body. Feeding a bottle at those times is out because my wife does not want to confuse our daughter by feeding her a bottle while she is present.
How do I be a good stay-at-home dad without suggesting that my wife use her body to feed our daughter?
Emily Yoffe: Having used a breast pump myself, I do not understand why cows seem so contented, because breast pumping is one of the more unpleasant aspects of modern motherhood. Your wife is in the difficult situation of trying to provide nutrition for your daughter while being at work all day. It doesn’t help that when she’s home you indicate you are more in tune with your baby’s needs than she is. Men constantly complain that women want them to do more of the child care, then micromanage their every action. That’s what you’re doing with your wife. It will not harm your daughter to let a few lusty cries for milk, instead of having Dad anticipate her hunger. Just relax and let your wife handle it.
State College, Pa.: Maybe “Geneva” could eat lunch away from her coworkers a couple of times a week—that might help stem the flow of criticism and give her a break.
Alternatively, she counteract with some humor: “Hey, Gerta, I thought Switzerland was supposed to be neutral!”
Emily Yoffe: Great line! Thank you. Several other people have said “Geneva” will be seen as an overly aggressive American if she has as blunt a response to her coworkers as I suggested. But isn’t calling your colleague a cow and blaming world starvation on her rather aggressive? I agree humor is a great way to handle this, but whatever she does, she can’t just let herself be bullied.
Breastfeeding Answer: Actually, the child controls the mother’s body, whether she likes it or not. And deciding that she won’t provide more milk or won’t allow a bottle is opening the door to a potential disaster. Is that really your advice? Particularly since it isn’t clear about the age of the daughter? You do remember how quickly nutritional needs change at this age? Or how fast a baby can get dehydrated?
Emily Yoffe: The baby is having a bottle while the mother is away. The father says he notices “signs” the baby is hungry before the baby cries. Crying is an excellent evolutionary signal that it’s time to feed the baby. I think this is a parental power struggle and the baby sounds a long way from dehydration.
Bethesda, MD: My husband has bad teeth. He didn’t have good dental care growing up and suffers from crooked teeth, chipping, crowding, discoloration, etc. We have a baby, and I am not working right now. I am looking forward to going back to work, being able to contribute financially, and finally helping him with his dental needs (that he has put off due to the expense). In the meantime, his bad teeth are a turn off, though he doesn’t have bad breath and he brushes/flosses daily. This is not something I really paid attention to in our early days of dating and marriage, but now I’m annoyed with myself for caring about something superficial. He’s noticed the reduced/more platonic kisses and is also not happy with that. I’ve tried to put my childishness aside and focus on how handsome he is, but I’m still turned off to more passionate kissing. Any common-sense advice?
Emily Yoffe: He courted you, married you, and reproduced with you with this set of choppers. I’m just not buying that suddenly you find them repulsive, especially since you say he practices excellent hygiene and doesn’t have bad breath. Sometimes spending all day with a tiny, soft, beautiful, toothless child makes it hard to make a transition at night back to being a carnal woman with a big, hairy, toothy man. If you can’t afford a babysitter, see if you can swap a few hours’ care with another stay-at-home parent. You and your husband need to go out as a couple and reconnect as adults. And to get you off your tooth fixation, you could say, “Honey, I’ve noticed my teeth are getting dingy. I’m getting some white strips for myself. How about if I pick some up for you?”
Stay at home dad again: You are wrong. Unfortunately our daughter has been hospitalized for dehydration previously. Though that came when she was ill and would not eat or take fluids that we tried to syringe in her mouth. I did not include that information because it biases the advice I was seeking.
Emily Yoffe: This was when she was sick—I’m glad she’s fine. Unless she has a chronic condition that you don’t mention, you are probably hypervigilant about this issue. If your daughter is now thriving, waiting until she cries to be fed should not lead to dehydration.
For stay at home dad: My husband and I are in the same situation (I work, he stays at home with our son). Every time he tried to tell me what to do with our baby or took over changing him because I was fumbling with the diaper, I wanted to scream at him because it felt as though he was criticizing my parenting skills, even though I knew that wasn’t his intention.
I finally told him how I felt, and we had a very good conversation about it. As a guy, he feels compelled to “fix” every situation he sees, even if it’s not necessary. Perhaps that’s happening here. Let your daughter cry for a bit—it won’t hurt her. Juggling feeding, working, and pumping is a lot, and it takes a while to get used to it. Just give your wife some space and hopefully she’ll relax soon. I know I did (and I’m about as uptight as they come).
Emily Yoffe: Your situation sounds very applicable. Let’s hope this couple can also have an open and nondefensive conversation about the underlying issues.
Baltimore, MD: Nuttyville—My husband has actually been doing the same things as your wife, but for years now. He’s always been a fan of target shooting and is definitely not deranged and ready to go on a killing spree. It’s mostly for protection and for him to enjoy going to the range. He is big on preparedness for the “end times” and has a basement stocked up with freeze-dried food and ammo. That being said, this preparedness does not alter our daily lives. He lives for today and prepares for tomorrow. I definitely had a problem with it at first, but now I embrace the fact that it’s good to know how to do things like grow and can your own food, and you never know when an environmental disaster may strike, which can cause all kinds of criminal activity from which you may need to protect yourself. My husband is balanced mentally; he’s just a survivalist. I would look in depth at your wife and her fears before you haul her off to the loony bin.
Emily Yoffe: If you both agree the end may be nigh or that it never hurts to have a bomb shelter, then there’s no problem. Target shooting is great fun, and your husband sounds like a responsible gun owner. A woman who previously had no interest in guns and now wants some because she fears the apocalypse needs some help—not firearms.
Chicago: Is it appropriate to go to the funeral of an ex-girlfriend’s father without telling my wife. I am happily married—but my wife has one jealous bone in her body—and it has my ex’s name on it.
Emily Yoffe: Irrational jealousy is so destructive (and I’m taking your word that your wife’s jealousy is irrational). If you cared about your ex’s father, it is perfectly appropriate for you to attend his funeral. However, you may wish you were six feet under yourself if you sneak to his funeral and your wife finds out. You need to tell your wife you want to pay your respects and that she is more than welcome to come with you. Your wife should be grown up enough to understand that the funeral of a man you once cared about is not an opportunity for cheating.