Dear Prudence

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My fiance’s ex gave us an exorbitant engagement gift. Should we keep it?

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Dear Prudence,
I recently became engaged to a wonderful man, and we have had a few wedding showers and received wonderful gifts from family and friends. Both of our parents are financially secure and have given us money for a house and other major expenses. We also received another very large financial gift from an unlikely source. Prior to our dating, my fiance had an affair with a much older, wealthy woman. After their breakup, they remained good friends, and I have met the woman. She is a good person, and I don’t view her as a threat. For our wedding gift, she gave us (gulp) $50,000 to be set aside for our children’s college tuition. She can afford it, but a part of me feels uneasy about accepting such a large amount of money from his former girlfriend. Please advise!

—Reluctant Recipient

Dear Reluctant,
Almost everyone reading your letter will think, And how do I find a fairy godcougar? However, it is not surprising that you are rattled at getting from your fiance’s ex enough money to pay for the entire college education of a yet-to-be conceived child. Even though this breathtaking amount supposedly comes without strings, you rightly—I think—perceive it does. The former girlfriend has already designated the purpose for which she would like this money spent, as if it is a bequest to an institution. It’s no secret that big donors usually like oversight of how their largesse is being used. I’m sure you’re envisioning her lump sum sitting there accruing interest, giving her a reason to have inordinate interest in the education and upbringing of your children. Dutch sociologist Aafke Komter studies gift giving, and in a line in this essay, she nicely sums up why you feel troubled: “In addition to being the expression of love, friendship or respect, gifts can be used for less noble purposes such as to manipulate, flatter, bribe, deceive, humiliate, dominate, offend, hurt and even kill, as in the case of the poisoned cup.” I don’t think you need to worry about what’s in the wine if you have dinner with her, as in Macbeth, but it’s possible her gift will have a noxious effect on your relationship with your husband, making your future feel somehow owned by his former lover. You are lucky to be well-set financially and to have received substantial, tangible good wishes from your family. But $50,000 is simply too much from a friend, no matter how easily she can write that check. Have your fiance tell her that while you are both moved and astounded by her generosity, you two simply can’t accept such a sum. And you mention that during your short engagement, you have already had “several” showers. So if other friends want to continue to fete you this way, tell them you appreciate it, but you two are now sufficiently showered with material good fortune.


Dear Prudence: Family of Smoochers

Dear Prudence,
I am a middle-aged woman working as a project engineer for a construction company. I love working in this male-dominated field, but I have an issue with one older co-worker. Whenever this man wants to give me paperwork, he throws it at me, missing my inbox. I have joked with him about it, moved my box closer to his reach, and even playfully thrown stuff on his desk. I have cheerfully helped him when he has needed assistance, hoping that would highlight my abilities. He still tosses paper at me almost daily, and I hate it. I can’t complain, as I would be seen as a whiner, and in this business, one is expected to buck up. I put up with a lot of playful testing to see whether I could handle this world. Usually, after a few pranks, I’ve passed muster. But this guy won’t stop. How can I get him to respect me and place work in my box like everyone else does?

—No Respect

Dear Respect,
Stop expecting this lummox to infer what you mean by all your hinting, joking, and helping (even though he surely does know). It’s past time you got very blunt: “Bill, I need to apologize for leaving a misimpression. I’ve been making light of the way you throw your papers at me instead of putting them in my inbox. Actually, I haven’t found it funny any of the hundreds of times you’ve done it. So let me state this clearly: Please stop now. If you want me to attend to your paperwork, you need to place it in the inbox and not throw it at me. If you throw it at me, I will put it back on your desk. I hope we understand each other and that I’m done having to deal with this problem.”


Dear Prudence,
I am a 29-year-old graduate student about a year away from finishing my doctorate. I make a living (if you could call it that) as an adjunct instructor at my university and by waiting tables. My younger sister holds down three restaurant jobs while trying to finish her bachelor’s degree. We each make about $15,000 a year, have no insurance, and carry student loan debt. We’ve both accepted that we are investing in our futures by living meagerly in the present. However, last Christmas our mother was laid off. She made only about $25,000 a year and struggled financially while raising us. She is 60 years old, holds a GED, and has 40 years of secretarial experience. That is to say, she has almost zero chance of finding a job in this economic climate. The last year has been terrible for her, and my sister and I are at a loss for how to help. She has no family with any means, and we live far away and have no money to share. What can we do? This woman raised me, and I have nothing to give her.

—When the Recession Hits Home

Dear Recession,
It’s no comfort to know that your mother’s awful situation is shared by millions of others; the fact that it is shared only compounds the difficulty of finding a new job. For help with what to tell you, I spoke with Carl Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. He observed that giving advice to people looking for work is a humbling task. While there is no magic solution to your mother’s woes, he did say there are important, practical ways you can help her. For one thing, the emotional support and encouragement you and your sister provide is not just a way to make yourselves feel good, but can be instrumental in keeping your mother from getting so discouraged that she gives up. Since you have analytic and research skills, you can also put them to use to help her focus on the best opportunities for her. Find out about the government agencies in her area dealing with work force issues. They can help direct her to agencies or nonprofits that can provide job leads, counseling, or even free programs to update her work skills. Encourage her to get out and see friends, go to church, or be involved in volunteer activities, and put the word out that she’s looking for employment. Van Horn says personal social networks are a primary way workers find out about job openings. One of the economy’s growth areas is health care. If your mother would consider it, Van Horn says there are now many older people caring for really old people, and sometimes employers will provide on-the-job training. If your mother doesn’t have a computer, you can also track the Web sites of the big employers in town. Most of them will have a section for “job opportunities,” where you can find out whether the local manufacturer or hospital is looking for clerical help. Also, it must be a source of great pride to your mother that she has raised such independent daughters who are so effectively making their way in the world. You two continuing to pursue your own dreams will be a source of solace to her.


Dear Prudence,
Recently, I stumbled upon a pill bottle in the room of my boyfriend of two years. The part of the label with the drug name had been peeled off, so I was curious and suspicious. I went on a pill-identifier Web site. He’s taking Levitra in the highest dosage available. I’m a little alarmed because he’s only 24, and I’ve never heard of someone being prescribed erectile-dysfunction drugs at such a young age. Do I have the right to be upset that he didn’t tell me about his problem? Should I confront him about it? I love him and want to be supportive, and I don’t want to make him feel uncomfortable. I know it’s a medical problem; I just think it’s something we should have talked about. What should I do?

—Supportive Girlfriend

Dear Supportive,
Before you get too upset, keep in mind that you didn’t discover a drug for herpes or HIV. I agree that in a happy relationship of two years, a discussion of his need for (or possibly just his recreational use of) Levitra should have come up. But now that you’ve boned up on the subject of erectile-dysfunction pills, you have to discuss this with him, hard though it may be. Do not be hurt and accusatory. Instead, tell him what you told me: You found a pill bottle with a label missing, and you went and figured out what it was for. You should say you didn’t mean to snoop, and you feel awkward, but you want to get this out in the open. Tell him you love him and that whatever is going on medically or psychologically, you want to understand and support him. Let’s hope he takes this well and that the conversation has the happy result of elevating your relationship.


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