Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe writes: Good afternoon, everyone. Let’s get to it!
Q. I Found Pictures of My Mom on Our Computer: I’m 15, and several years ago I was searching all of the digital pictures on our family computer, looking for something for a school project. What I found instead shocked me; it was a picture of my mother wearing sexy lingerie in our living room. The first thing you should know about my parents is that they are not in love, which they have told me many times over my life. They put up with one another “for me.” Back around the time I found this picture, things were already very tense between them, and arguing went on all the time. So my 10-year-old self decided not to show her. But I haven’t been able to forget about it and recently a whole new thought came to mind; why did my father have to take a picture? My mom clearly does not know this picture was taken as she was looking at something else in it. I’m worried that my dad may have e-mailed it to someone or possibly posted it on a Web site after one of their fights. My mom and I have the most honest relationship you can imagine, and I feel like I’m hiding something from her by not telling. But things have also gotten better with them since that time, and I don’t want to ruin it now by bringing up the past. What should I do?
A: Before the Internet, children used to rely on their parents’ dresser drawers to find out things they shouldn’t know about them. My parents used to keep their dirty books hidden under the bed, and when they were out, my siblings and I used to fight over who got to the stash first. And keep in mind, before the modern house was invented, the entire family lived together in a cave or teepee or yurt, so imagine what children learned about their parents’ love lives.
Your mother probably knew your father was taking a sexy picture of her, and I very much doubt it has gone viral on the Internet. Despite their miserable marriage, it’s actually nice to know that they have an adult connection. So just forget about this, until you have a teenage child of your own who you can tell this story to. What’s actually disturbing is the fact that your parents have put the burden of their unhappy marriage on you. That is a gross violation, and I hope you have some reliable adults in your life you can talk about this with.
Q. Roasted at My Wedding? My fiance and his friends have a tradition of doing roasts at major events—weddings, milestone birthdays, etc. They have an open microphone, and basically anyone can get up and give a speech that teases the guest(s) of honor. I think you see where this is going. … My fiance wants our friends to roast us during the meal at our reception! Honestly, the idea makes me feel like I’m going to throw up. For one thing, I think weddings that are too heavy on speeches are a bad idea, because no matter how funny the speakers are, there’s a point where people glaze over. Moreover, call me Bridezilla, but I just plain don’t want people to make fun of me at my wedding! I find the idea completely mortifying. I was thinking a toast or two, then everyone enjoys their meal and catches up with their dining companions. I suggested we save the roast for the rehearsal, since it will be a smaller group of people who know both of us very well. However, my fiance is in love with the idea of a reception roast, and once he gets really enthusiastic about something, he gets carried away. My hope is that he’ll come to his senses sooner rather than later. I’m willing to put my foot down and go bridezilla if I have to, but I’m hoping there’s a better way.
A: The only roast that belongs at the wedding should be in the form of beef. You are not going bridezilla, you are trying to make a very reasonable distinction between your wedding day and a show on Comedy Central. Opening up the event to a roast not only, as you say, promises to make the evening a giant bore, it invites friends who’ve had one glass of champagne too many to reflect on what they know about the sex lives of the bride or groom.
Maybe you can tell him that you hate the idea, and since he’s so committed to it, you’d like to discuss it with a few close friends. (Pick people who have good sense!) Maybe this intervention will help him see this would get your marriage off to a bad start. And if he gets all groomzilla about this, maybe you two need a mediator before you tie the knot.
Q. Potential Party Pooper: I’ve been dating an ex-co worker for a year. We decided to live together. We are in the midst of planning our first party together, and he wants to invite his boss. All well and good, except his boss was my boss who fired me. What do we do? This is a very small company, and I’m sure his boss will find out about our party. I’m concerned about the possibility for backlash if he isn’t invited.
A: When Winston Churchill was turned out of office, his wife remarked that it might be a blessing in disguise. He replied, “Then it’s very well-disguised.” But it sounds as if your firing, painful though it may have been, ultimately has been good for your relationship. (It would be difficult if one of you was employed happily, and the other very unhappily at the same place.) Your party is a great opportunity to smooth things over vis a vis you, your boyfriend, and your former boss. Of course the boss is going to hear that you two are living together, and he’s probably worried this might cause friction between him and your boyfriend. So invite the boss, welcome him with a big smile, and say something about how it’s nice you two can enjoy each other’s company in a purely social setting.
Q. Visiting Boyfriend’s Family for the First Time: I am in my mid-20s and have been dating a wonderful man for a while now. I will be visiting his family for the first time in a few weeks over a long weekend. What should I do/not do to ensure that I make a good first impression as a house guest? What would be an appropriate plane-travel-friendly gift to bring? Also, I have a special diet, and I don’t want this to be a burden to his family. Do I bring my own food along or make a quick stop at the grocery? Or do I ask my boyfriend to communicate this and just hope for the best? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
A: First of all, relax! Your boyfriend loves you and if you are warm and gracious it’s very likely his family will, too. Yes, your boyfriend needs to tell his parents about your food needs. It’s discouraging to present a baked ham to a vegetarian guest. But your boyfriend should also emphasize that you don’t want all the meals to revolve around you—you are happy as long as there’s a salad and some vegetables and bread (or whatever basics you are happy with). Then if there are some easy things for you to prepare for yourself (gluten-free pasta or whatever), sure, make a quick grocery run so your hosts don’t have to.
Given that you have a special diet, a perfect gift would be something delicious to eat or drink that everyone would enjoy. Beyond that, keep your room tidy, offer to help with the dishes, participate in the family game of Scrabble or put on your hiking shoes, and enjoy meeting these welcoming people.
Q. Baby Names: My husband and I are expecting a baby girl. I want to name her something special, after my mother or another influential woman in my life. My husband disagrees, saying he can’t stand any of the names I choose. But all the names he likes are variations on or names of ex-girlfriends. Help! How can we come to an agreement?
A: Did you knowingly marry a jerk, or is this just some strange pre-parenthood manifestation of jerkiness? I’m trying to imagine what Hillary Clinton would have said if she found herself pregnant with a daughter and Bill insisted the new one should be named “Gennifer Flowers Clinton.”
Could it be that your husband is striking back this way because he feels you have hijacked the baby naming and are leaving him out of it? It’s lovely to name a child after your own mother, but not if she’s named Gertrude and she’s always made it clear she can’t stand the man you married. Tell your husband you want to break this impasse. Suggest you table all the names that have come up so far, and have the two of you search through some naming books and come up with a few selections that make both of you happy.
Q. Having To Wear Wigs Due to a Medical Baldness Problem: I have a medical condition that has caused 85 percent of my hair to have fallen out, and it does not come back completely. For about three years now, I have been forced to wear wigs. The reason I say forced, is because society is so cruel when it comes to female baldness.
The problem comes when people flat out ask me if my hair is a wig. It really gets to me, because it feels so rude. Would you walk up to someone who has a prosthetic leg and ask, “Is that a false leg?” It’s something that is totally forced upon me to have to cover my baldness in society. It isn’t something I would choose. I understand that people may notice, or suspect, but I would really appreciate if the comments would either be done privately or not at all. Am I being hyper sensitive?
A: You would think that one human being would understand that another might want to go through life without having strangers constantly making inquiries about various body parts—but my in-box assures me many humans don’t get this. Even answering these clods is taking too much of your energy. You might be tempted to reply, “We all have troubles. Yours apparently is being a jerk.” But swapping insulting remarks only gets you further involved with them. Feel free to silently walk away. If you want to say something, before you move on, you could comment, “Do I know you?”
Q. Shower Group Contribution: The ladies at my office are attending a baby shower for an expecting colleague. They proposed contributing $50 each for a baby cot. While I’d like to contribute toward the group gift (I know my colleague will love the cot), $50 is out of my budget. I have multiple bills this month—in fact, my entire paycheck is going toward making all the payments, and if it weren’t for my savings, I’d be heading to soup kitchens for my meals. Would it be appropriate to contribute a lesser amount, say $20, or should I opt out and purchase something on my own?
A: Fifty dollars for a colleague’s baby? People in your office must feel really close. However, that’s way too steep a price of admission and inevitably ends up leaving someone like you deciding whether to skip the car payment or opt out of celebrating your colleague. Just explain to the others that you can’t contribute that much—they should then say give whatever you can (and $10 is fine), and they will still put your name on the card. If they don’t, buy a cute selection of board books and give it with pride.
Q. Parent Death and Surviving Spouse: My mother died last week, and my question is about handling (word used carefully) my father. He is pretty much abdicating decisions to the kids, falling apart regularly, followed by hours of reminiscing about her and their life. Do you have advice about how to get him re-involved in decisions, in going on without her? I feel like we are taking over, and I don’t want him to become entirely dependent on us for everything. For what it’s worth, he’s 87; she was 85.
A: I’m sorry for your loss. Now please start contemplating your father’s. One week ago, he lost his life companion of what was likely the last 50 or 60 years. That tends to make people fall apart, neglect to take care of themselves, depend on others, and reminisce about their life with the departed. Hold his hand, listen to his stories, and add your own. Maybe it will help him if all of you can remember funny times with your mother, so there will be some laughs amid the tears. If there are fairly easy decisions to make, encourage him to participate with all of you. But don’t expect him to make decisions now about things he’s not ready for, such as, “Do you want Mom’s clothes to go to Goodwill?” Perhaps your response to grief is to buck up and get on with it. Remember you children are in the middle of your lives with all your obligations and duties, and painful as it is to lose your mother, at 85 death is something natural. Be sympathetic that your father is at the end of his life and right now is not sure how he’s going to get through each remaining day without his wife.
Q. RE: Wearing Wigs: Bald is beautiful, baby! Don’t let anyone make you feel like you have to wear wig, only do it if you want to.
A: There was a recent beauty pageant, and one of the contestants has alopecia and appeared without a wig, which I thought was fantastic. I totally agree about people with follicle issues being able to be liberated from wigs. But not everyone is comfortable doing that, and whatever decision a person makes is a private one.
Q. Too Much Information: My boyfriend is a firefighter/EMT/first responder. He is also a certified diver and is often called in for water search, rescue, and recovery. Increasingly, we find that our friends, neighbors, and family try to find out information about accident scenes and want to hear the most grisly details. They actually seem to relish the idea of hearing about how a 5-year-old drowned in our town lake or about a guy whose car went over an embankment. My boyfriend does his best to deflect the inquiries, but there are some people who just won’t let up even after he’s said directly that he doesn’t discuss these events. If he refuses to divulge information, these people will then come to me seeking the same information. Or, if they hear about an accident, I will get a call asking if my boyfriend is on the scene and then asking me if he could call them back when he gets home. He’s even gotten texts from people who will ask him what is going on—while he is in the middle of a rescue effort! These aren’t people who have people who may have been injured—they are just being nosy. We’ve begun to slowly withdraw from these friends and family members, but it doesn’t stop them from reaching out to us. What is wrong with these people?
A: Maybe you should say, “We can’t talk about this. But let’s all get together and look for people wearing wigs and ask them what happened to their real hair.” Since you apparently hear from the same people over and over, your boyfriend should have a blunt conversation in which he explains confidentiality is part of his job. He can say now that they understand this, that both of you will hang up on them if they call asking for details or delete their texts without answering.
Q. Re: Parent Death and Surviving Spouse: At 87, the dad might not be able to make decisions or take care of himself. Mom may have been doing more for him than the children were aware. It might be time to call in a geriatric case worker to help the family find the best solution for Dad and help him make decisions that are best for all.
A: Great point, thanks. And grief can make even competent people temporarily incompetent.
Q. Relationship Issue: I’ve been dating a wonderful woman for a few months now, and we’re very happy, but there’s just one problem that continues to bother me. Shortly after we met, I learned that she had been overweight for many years and had only just managed to lose the weight about six months before we started going out. She’s been keeping it off since then. I’m really happy for her and proud of her continued efforts to maintain her health, but sometimes it seems like she’s a little too weight-obsessed. She never wants to eat out at restaurants because the food is too “fatty,” and she dislikes going to barbecues or parties because she’s afraid of the possible unhealthy food options. She won’t even go out for a drink or two because alcohol has “empty calories.” I don’t think she has an eating disorder because she eats full and regular meals; she just maintains a very strict diet. But I’m starting to feel like we can’t ever go anywhere because there might be something potentially unhealthy there to eat or drink. I know she’s worried about regaining the weight, but how can I talk to her about this and help her understand that it’s OK to bend her food rules once in a while?
A: And if your girlfriend had been on the wagon for six months prior to your meeting, would you tell her to loosen up and have a drink now and then? Food is such a difficult issue because even if someone has a hard time controlling her eating, she has to find a way to eat in a controlled way. Your girlfriend is trying to do this and right now it sounds as if being very rigid is the way she keeps from emptying the bread basket at a restaurant, for example. It sounds as if she would benefit greatly from being in a support group for people with food issues. This would help give her strategies for incorporating more food-oriented socializing in her life. If she goes, you could ask if you could accompany her to some meetings, so you can understand better how to be helpful and not undermining.
Q. Impatient Friends: I’m 19, and I’m still a virgin. I’m waiting for the right guy and the right time. The problem is my friends. They keep bugging me about my decision to wait, and lately, they’ve even been giving out my phone number to random guys who just want to hook up. I’ve told them to stop, and they have. But they still keep hinting at the fact that the clock is ticking. They say they just want me to be a full “adult” and experience everything life has to offer. This really is the only problem in our friendship, and I know they’re well-meaning, but it’s getting really annoying. The subject of my sex life keeps coming up in almost every conversation we have. How can I get them to back off without ending the friendship?
A: There are many things life has to offer that are well avoided. Brain tumors, for one, and obsessively meddlesome friends for another. Yes, sex can be wonderful. Sex with random strangers, however, generally promises to be un-wonderful and potentially disease-ridden. You can tell them that you agree the clock is ticking, and that unless they drop their interest in your sex life, your friendship will have run its course.
Q. Body Questions: Is it any different when it’s children asking the body questions? I get a lot of young kids seeing my scars and wanting to know what happened. I feel weird for not having an answer ready for them. I don’t want to scare them away or snark at them for wondering, but at the same time, my scars came from some really horrible things. I feel weird saying “the doctor fixed me and I’m better” or some such, when actually the doctors made mistakes and had to operate over and over. I know a kid staring is no huge deal, but it brings back a lot of bad memories to be asked. When asked by an adult, I can simply say that, but what do I do when it’s a kid?
A: I have heard from people in your situation, and many have said that they don’t usually mind the innocent question from a child (which is usually followed by a mortified parent dragging the child off). Often they have a ready answer, “I got in an accident and now this chair is the way I get around” or, “Everyone is different, and I was born with this color on my face. It’s called a birthmark, and it doesn’t hurt me.” You could say, “I had to have a lot of operations to fix me, so they made some scars but now I’m better.” You don’t need to elaborate anywhere beyond where you are comfortable.
Q. Co-Worker Doesn’t Cover His Mouth When Sneezing: I have a co-worker who is a little socially inept. He has definitely been coming out of his shell a lot, but he is one of those people that you don’t feel comfortable giving criticism to because you feel bad for him. The problem is that when he sneezes, he turns his head so it is away from his keyboard but is facing the rest of the department. And he doesn’t cover his mouth. We work in an open department with no cubicles, and there are three of us in a small corner. Sometimes his sneeze will get on the third person in our corner. How can we tell him that he needs to cover his mouth when he sneezes? Not only because he could be spreading germs but also because it just grosses us out!
A: One of you should buy him a box of tissues then have a quiet conversation with him in which you act as if the conversation you’re having is a perfectly normal one. You can say, “Dick, I know with all that pollen out there a lot of us are sneezing up a storm. When you need to sneeze would you mind grabbing one of the tissues and sneezing into it so none of us spread germs to each other since we work in such a small space?”
Emily Yoffe writes: Thanks, everyone! I’ll talk to you in a couple of weeks.