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. Let’s get to it.
Q. Baby-Trapper: Last night, I was browsing through different pregnancy Web sites, as I just found out I am pregnant with our first baby. I stumbled upon a message board and found my now-sister-in-law had been on this board about a year ago asking for advice on conceiving. A year ago, they were only dating and marriage was not even in the picture. She was actively trying to get pregnant without my brother-in-law’s knowledge! (It’s my husband’s brother.) She has been pregnant twice this year but lost them both. I don’t know what to do. Do I confront her with what I found? Do I tell my B-I-L? I’m not trying to break up their marriage, but this is disgusting! She tried to baby-trap him! I know he had no knowledge of this because of numerous conversations he and I have had on the subject. I’m at a loss for what to do.
A: Your conclusion that your now sister-in-law tried to “baby-trap” your brother-in-law into marriage is none of your business. As you point out, they did get married, and she hasn’t had a baby. It’s probably been a terrible toll on both of them that she’s had two miscarriages in such a short time. I’m trying to imagine how you present your revelations without sounding like the nosiest, most destructive sister-in-law possible. Actually I can’t come with up a scenario that doesn’t mark you permanently as a noxious she-devil. Just concentrate on your own good fortune and your future family. And let me caution you against spending the next nine months strutting around and crowing about your ease at conceiving every time you see your sister-in-law.
Dear Prudence: Help! I’m Scared of Getting Herpes.
Q. Relationship Question: My hubby and I have been married for 11 years, more happily than not, and have two young children. When I was pregnant with our first child, he finally confessed to having prostate issues and went for testing/diagnosis. The biopsy was brutal and thankfully returned with nothing serious. But the problems have persisted and since the experience was so terrible for him, he refuses to go back for treatment. As a result, we have had sex exactly once in over six years, for the sole purpose of creating baby No. 2. I totally understand that he has a medical condition, and I cannot force him to seek treatment, but the celibate life is no fun at all. Yes, we’ve talked about it, rationally and calmly. For my hubby, it means turning off just about all physical contact because for him it’s a slippery slope and he wants more but knows that it will be painful and therefore not any fun at all for him. Is there a middle ground that I am missing?
A: When your husband refuses all sexual contact except for procreation because touching you will be a slide down that slippery slope to intimacy, you need some new professionals to help your husband straighten out his head and other parts. I understand he was traumatized by his initial treatment. But the answer is not to suffer for the rest of his life, but to find a compassionate, competent urologist who can monitor his health and help him to get functioning again. Your husband might also be helped by talking this out in a support group in person or online for men with prostate issues. And at this point, it sounds as if he needs some serious psychological intervention—if his answer to prostate complications is to turn your home into a monastery, then he’s got problems with his head, not just in bed. You might do the initial research and find a physician for him to see. It would probably be a good idea for you to go and talk to the doctor as a couple about your problems. If your husband refuses, explain, rationally and calmly, that this is not how you want to live and his getting treatment is essential to the survival of your marriage.
Q. Mother-in-Law Wants To Be Called “Mom”: When I married my husband a few years ago, my in-laws invited me to start calling them “Mom” and “Dad” as opposed to their given names. I was uncomfortable with the suggestion for a couple reasons—I’m not that close to them (they’ve been distant—geographically, that is—our whole courtship/marriage) and it feels odd to call them such familiar terms, also it’s a bit new to me (my parents always use first names for my grandparents, and my B-I-L, S-I-L refer to my parents by their first name). My husband and I both explained that I was uncomfortable with the suggestion and tried to move on. Now, however, I find myself in an awkward situation when the family gets together. I am the only in-law (out of five total daughters-in-law) who does not use the “Mom” and “Dad.” I can live with that, but every time I call my M-I-L by her name, she tends to politely correct me with “Mom,” even though she knows I am uncomfortable doing so. In fact the last time we were together, there was a church gathering, and after I called her by her first-name, she took me aside and told me it was inappropriate and I should either call her “Mom” or her titled church standing in front of the others. Is this battle worth fighting?
A: I’m trying to understand what her “titled church standing” means. If that gives you the OK to call her “Deacon Barbara,” it would be hard to resist the temptation to do so. It’s one thing to tell your son or daughter-in-law they can call you “Mom” or “Dad.” It’s another thing to insist. Sure, we all have to do things we’d rather not for the sake of family harmony, but you shouldn’t have to choke this out to them if you feel those titles are reserved for your own parents. Since they live far away and you don’t see them very often, when you do get together, you might just work at constructing your sentences so you don’t need to use their names and you can get away with “you.” They are unwilling to accept your reasonable demurral, so “You” or “Deacon” it will have to be.
Q. Discipline: My wife and I have been married for eight years, and we have three wonderful children, two girls and a boy. While we agree on most everything, the one thing that really causes trouble is our son, specifically how to discipline him. He is 6 years old and has mild CP and also very high functioning autism. Now my wife thinks that because of his “special needs” he should not only treated differently, but also disciplined differently. I say that consistency is the key and that the Bible says to “spare the rod, and spoil the child.” Who’s right?
A: I hope your son’s special needs will be a special gift to your entire family and help you rethink your approach to discipline. I absolutely agree on the need for consistency, especially with a child dealing with autism. But all your children should have consistent, compassionate care, not consistent smacks to the backside. (And the Bible says lots of things I’m sure you don’t take literally.) Lack of corporal punishment does not mean you allow your children to run wild; it means showing them there are better ways to get people to behave. Please talk to the professionals helping you with your son about the most effective ways to discipline him. I’ve recommended the work of Haim Ginott before, but please read one of his books. Even if you don’t use all of his methods, he will help you see the world through the eyes of your children.
Q. Weird Verbal Tic: My fiance has this bizarre, annoying habit. Anytime I say something, he’ll pick one or two words out of the sentence, and repeat them back to me as a sing-songy question. “I’m going to the grocery store.” “GROCERY STORE?” “Can I grab you anything from the kitchen?” “KITCHEN?” It is even more irritating than it sounds. I’ve told him it’s an annoying habit, but I truly think he can’t help himself. “Please don’t parrot words back to me, it’s annoying.” “PARROT?” Aaaaagggghhhhh!!!! Any suggestions? I’ve tried ignoring him, and I’ve tried telling him to knock it off. I’m being driven out of my MIND. (And, please, I beg you, no cheesy puns or sing-songing my question back to me. … I get that enough at home, and you don’t want to be responsible for my chucking my laptop at anyone’s head.)
A: Usually letters such as yours begin by describing one’s fiance as wonderful but for [fill in problem here]. You dispense with the wonderful part entirely and describe a relationship in which this poor guy’s every sentence makes you want to brain him. My question is: Why is he your fiance? His echolalia indicates he has a significant problem, possibly something on the Tourette’s continuum, and he needs an evaluation from a professional—his tic sounds like a painful thing to live with and has probably affected his personal and professional lives. He also needs to reevaluate his plan to marry someone who has so little compassion for his situation.
Q. Never Hire Your Sister: For five years, I paid my housewife sister to clean my house every other week. Once in a while, I would ask her to do something a certain way, and she would give me flak. This summer she quit suddenly. So I sent her a note, accepted her resignation like an employee, sent her a note that said basically “you have to do what is good for you,” and she hasn’t spoken to me or my husband since. I have talked to her in front of relatives like nothing happened and I got the cold shoulder. Do you have a clue?
A: Try to imagine that you were your sister’s housekeeper for five years and that when you came over with your scrub brush, she said things like, “Denise, you really have to wipe off each slat of the Venetian blinds. And there are dust bunnies under the bed?” How do you think that would have affected your sisterly feelings toward her? She may have needed the money, but it would have been better if you’d helped her find a friend of yours who needed housekeeping services. Your curt note didn’t help. Take her out to dinner and say that looking back you realize having her be your employee was not a good idea. You apologize for the way that ended, and you want to get back to being just sisters.
Q. Spousal Arguments on Facebook: I’m friends with a couple who regularly post their grievances with their spouse on Facebook, which often result in them “arguing” with each other in their Facebook comments to each other. I’m of the opinion that this kind of arguing should be kept offline, for multiple reasons—not the least of which is them calling each other out in a public forum. Plus, it’s really not any of my business whether someone forgot to do the laundry or turn off the dining room lights or take the dog out. That’s their business as husband and wife. Is it worth saying something to them about this, or should I just stay out of it entirely?
A: You could post a poll on their Facebook wall asking how many of their friends enjoy reading about their squabbles—these two might end up becoming the new FarmVille! Every week I hear some twist on how people think that just because they can broadcast every embarrassing thought they have to everyone they know, they should. You could send each a private message saying you’re uncomfortable getting word of their daily squabbles in a newsfeed. But the best solution is just to ignore them or defriend them.
Q. Manners: Generally, we leave reading material in our bathroom on a shelf above the toilet, because all three of the people living in my home enjoy reading while “going.” However, we have a disagreement about whether this reading material (usually a book or two and a few magazines) should be removed from the bathroom before guests arrive. I say some people probably think it’s unsanitary to have reading material in the bathroom or guests just don’t want to think about their hosts “going.” My husband says that there’s nothing offensive or gross about leaving the reading material there when we have company. Personally, I wish everyone kept some kind of reading material in the bathroom, because when I’m visiting friends or family overnight, I find it impossible to go without something to read, and I’m too embarrassed to be seen carrying my own book into their bathroom. So, leaving reading material in the bathroom when we’re expecting guests: crass or hospitable?
A: It’s well-established that reading and eliminating are inextricably linked. If guests get the willies from the idea of touching magazines in a rack by the toilet, then they can contemplate the wallpaper instead. The rest of us will be grateful for a chance to catch up on periodicals while taking a rest stop.
Q. Wedding Guest List: I am engaged to a wonderful man and planning my wedding. Unfortunately, I have upset my future mother-in-law by proclaiming that I would like to keep the wedding a kid-free occasion. Her response was, that’s fine, except I need to include her list of children, including my 1-year-old nephew, because they will be family. I would prefer to give the parents a night out and keep it fair by excluding all children, especially since I am paying for the event. Is there a nice way of telling my mother-in-law that I would like to keep my wedding child-free?
A: Oh, the passive-aggressive future mother-in-law wedding planner. Sure she understands you want a child-free wedding, except for the children she’s putting on her list. Many people wisely go the child-free route, which does make for a more relaxed event for everyone. If people are coming in from out of town and bringing their children with them, tell your mother-in-law you will give them the names of responsible sitters to watch the kids during the festivities. You should also have your fiance step in here and explain to his mother this is a non-negotiable. Stay civil and don’t back down.
Q. Oh, Heavens Prudie, Simmer Down: Your response was over the top and impolite. Wow, way to rip my head off for admitting that someone I love gets on my nerves sometimes. I didn’t say he had a disorder, because he doesn’t. I said he had an annoying verbal habit. More like someone who says “irregardless” or uses “literally” for emphasis. (“It was LITERALLY packed like a can of sardines” “Then why don’t you smell like fish?”) And it only affects me—I’ve never seen him do it with anyone else. I left out all the “wonderful” disclaimers because they’re such an advice-column cliché that I didn’t see the point. He is wonderful and also kind, funny, generous, and smart. It’s not medical—it’s an annoying habit he can’t break. Sheesh. I think anyone who’s been married knows that people who live in close proximity can get on each other’s nerves. Wow.
A: Thanks for the clarification that there’s nothing wrong with him; that this is a verbal tic he expresses only to you; you have politely asked him to stop; he won’t; and now you find your daily interaction with him so maddening you want to throw objects at him. Maybe this is a gaslight situation, and he’s trying to drive you slowly mad. Or maybe since he’s kind, funny, generous, and smart, you should just figuratively shrug off the fact that he says, “Banana?” after you say, “Do you want a banana?” Maybe there’s stuff you do that would drive him crazy, except for the fact that he doesn’t let it bother him.
Q. Helpless To Help in NYC: My dad recently lost his job and is near retirement age. HE is having a very tough time finding another one. He and my mom will be just fine in terms of living expenses, but they’re having an emotionally stressful time looking for work and thinking about the possibility that he may never work at his pay level again (if at all) and never achieve the retirement situation they planned for. I know I can’t change this. But I want to do something to help ease their stress or assist or give them joy in SOME way. I’m 29, single, and not too financially secure myself. So far, phone calls and offers to visit don’t seem to be much help. Gifts or flowers seem silly and inconsequential. Ideas?
A: It breaks my heart that I get a variation of this letter constantly. There is so much pain and fear out there because of this bear of a recession. They are going through a kind of mourning, and you wish you could bring them out of it, but all you can do is listen, stay in touch, and keep an eye out for whether they seem to be falling into a personal depression. Visit when you can and accept they’re going to be down. Do stuff to get them out that doesn’t cost much or anything: walks, movies, museums. Emphasize how they are caught in something beyond their control, and you have always admired how they’ve dealt with life’s setbacks. Don’t let them push you away.
Q. Kiddie Birthday Parties? I recently moved to the D.C. area, and my daughter is frequently invited to birthday parties. In the area where we previously lived (Europe), these events were quite low-key and a small gift was always appropriate. At the most recent party my daughter attended (she is 6), she had spent time picking out a gift based on the interests of the birthday girl—a few small items like colored pencils, an art book with the same theme of the party, stickers, etc. However, I noticed that the other invitees brought extravagant presents. I don’t want my daughter to feel like her gift is not adequate (although the kids are young enough not to notice yet), but I also can’t imagine spending $100 for a 6-year-old’s birthday gift. What’s with the fancy gifts for first-graders?
A: I live in the D.C area, and I’m surprised to hear inflation is roaring through the birthday party set. Eight years ago, my daughter was going to 6-year-old birthday parties, and I thought $15 was a lot to spend on a gift. Stick with the pencils and stickers. If that gets your daughter ostracized, then believe me, you can find a more down-to-earth group of playmates.
Q. Drink Bobbing at the Table: When my girlfriend and I are out having dinner, she usually leans over her drink without using her hands and drinks from the straw. It kind of bothers me, since it looks like she is bobbing for apples or giving her drink a “B.J.” Is this practice OK, or am I too proper?
A: Does your girlfriend have a sense of humor? The images you provide are pretty funny. People, however, tend to be very touchy about being corrected on their table manners.Only you know if you say, “Honey, when you lean over your straw like that it looks like you’re bobbing for apples”(forget the B.J. reference entirely),whether she’ll laugh and say, “Hmm, I see what you mean.” Or whether she’ll burst into tears and write on her Facebook page that you’re a judgmental Mr. Manners.You need to decide if this might be one of those things—like repeating “banana”—that drives you bananas but is best left unmentioned.
Q. Friendship: Recently, I heard from a former friend who was reaching out to reconcile our relationship. I haven’t seen or heard from her in almost a year, and we haven’t been friends for almost five years. Our falling out was mostly because she was extremely depressed and expected me to “save” her on a regular basis. Needless to say, this became too much to bear, and I separated myself from the toxic relationship. I finally got over the loss of this formerly close friend and now have no interest in drudging up all these feelings I’ve laid to rest. Would it be heartless not to respond?
A: It would be kind to hear her out.If she’s recovering from depression, it would be good for you to acknowledge the progress she’s made. But if you know there are no circumstances under which you’d want to be in touch, then write her a note saying you hope she’s doing better and you will always think lovingly of her, butyou can’t resume your friendship.
Q. Bedbug Etiquette: My mother-in-law has unfortunately been the victim of bedbugs. She thinks she got rid of them but isn’t sure since all she really did was clean up and replace her mattress. The rest of the place, sorry to say, is less than tidy/clean. My problem is I want to have Thanksgiving dinner at my home this year and invite the family. Both my husband and I are terrified of getting bedbugs and don’t know how to include her and her husband. Even her daughter is scared of them bringing over bugs. Is there a tactful solution?
A: Read some public health information on bedbugs. My impression is that people who’ve had them exterminated do not then forever carry them on their person as a scourge.Unless your mother-in-law insists on bringing over her mattress instead of the green-bean casserole, I’m sure you’ll all have a lovely, itch-free meal.
Emily Yoffe writes:On that note,have a good week, everyone, and don’t let the bedbugs bite!