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. I hope your holiday travels go smoothly and that you enjoy the deep-tissue massage courtesy of the TSA.
Q. Ungrateful at Thanksgiving: I am a single, 52-year-old woman with no children, and most of my family is estranged, so I do not spend holidays with any of them and it has been that way for many, many years (and it is OK). Every year around holiday time, I get an invitation to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner from people who “figure” that I may be alone for the holidays. That is a kind gesture, but I never hear from them for the rest of the year … ever. I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I am offended and feel like a charity case when I get these invites. If they really cared about me or considered me a friend, wouldn’t they want to know how I am the rest of the year? I graciously turn them down, but I always feel that it is more for them than me because people like to feel like they are helping the “needy” and they feel warm a fuzzy this time of year. Am I looking at this wrong?
A: Your letter may hold a clue as to why you are estranged from your family. Sure, they may be horrible people, but maybe you’ve picked up your social graces from them. A generous invitation from friends to include you in their festivities is not an insult. It is not an attempt to make you feel pathetic. As for the rest of the year—are you incapable of inviting people over and being a hostess yourself? You say you don’t want to be thought of as a holiday charity case, but it sounds as if you would prefer to be thought of as a year-round basket case. If you want invitations, the easiest route is to reach out to others, then they will reciprocate, and your social calendar won’t be so empty.
Dear Prudence: Meddlesome Matchmakers
Q. Thanksgiving: Last Thanksgiving, with five days’ notice, I whipped together a homemade meal for my husband’s extended family—adult siblings, their visiting friends, mother-in-law, etc. At the time, my son was 9 months old, and this involved shuffling my family’s schedule and getting up at 4 a.m., but I was happy to do it. The result? They complained about everything while in my house. Some food was too dry, other food was too salted, and why did I serve X side dish instead of Y? Our choice of TV programming was awful, the size of our TV garish, yadda yadda yadda. Lesson learned. And now here it is again, just days before Turkey Day one year later, and suddenly I am being asked if I would host since we are the only siblings with a house large enough. My answer? No. Husband supports me in this. So, are we being rude? The in-laws are acting as though I’m Yoko Ono and just broke up the Beatles.
A: Maybe for Christmas this year you could give your husband’s family calendars to which you attach some sticky notes at the beginning of November which say, “Time to start planning for Thanksgiving!” What did these people do for the holiday before you came along? You are not being rude—if these folks want a turkey dinner, suggest they buy some Swanson’s. OK, don’t do that, but stand firm that you’re unable to play host again this year (or any other).
Q. Intelligence and Relationship Future: I’m in a very happy relationship with my girlfriend of about six months. I’m studying in law school right now. I come from a very well-educated family and consider myself to be pretty bright. I’ve had a really tough time admitting this to myself, but my girlfriend—whom I love very much—is honestly just really simple-minded. On pretty much every other front, she seems perfect to me: We get along really well, we have a great time together almost always, and she has a really laid-back, happy-go-lucky, stable personality. In this sense, she’s almost a perfect counterweight to my own neurotic, introspective, and quasi-OCD tendencies.
Friends and family members have expressed their surprise that I’m with someone who seems so different from me in intelligence. My question is, will this difference eventually cause serious problems in our relationship? Am I setting myself (and her) up for some problems later on just by continuing to ignore this intellectual mismatch that exists between us?
A: I’d say there’s already a problem if you describe the woman you love as “simple-minded.” Obviously she doesn’t have your academic ambition or analytic skills. But it’s telling that you don’t say you admire her insight into people, or her leadership skills, for example. From your description, it sounds as if you enjoy her role as an emotional nurse for you, but I wonder if you see her as a complete, valuable person even if she can’t discuss what you’re learning in civil procedure.
It would be nice to hear that you find the comments of your friends and family members offensive because they are missing something about your girlfriend. But apparently you agree with them. The only answer to whether this makes your relationship unsustainable is to see how you both continue to feel about each other. Perhaps, if she picks up a sense of contempt from you, she’ll be smart enough to get out first.
Q. Sister-in-Law and Her “Friend”: We always spend the holidays at my wife’s parents’ house, which in years past has not really been a big deal, however, one of my wife’s sisters recently divorced her husband and moved in with a friend who was also recently divorced. My wife and I are assuming (I know, I know …) that my SIL and her friend are now a lesbian couple. I have made it very clear that IF that is the case, then I will not attend the holidays, nor will I allow my children to attend. My standpoint is that homosexuality is morally, ethically, and spiritually wrong. My MIL and FIL say that I am overreacting,
A: My standpoint is that anyone who would take such a standpoint is morally, ethically, and spiritually wrong and should spend Thanksgiving in the broom closet gnawing on a turkey carcass. Whether your sister-in-law is living with her friend out of convenience or love is none of your business. If you want to stay home, do so, but have the decency to let your children enjoy the holiday with the rest of the family.
Q. Help! Advice on Gift-Giving: I am a knitter who is knitting socks for my son’s preschool class. I intend to give these socks as Christmas gifts this year. I am keeping them a secret as I would like them to be surprises. The only one who knows is the teacher as I needed her help getting the kids’ feet sizes. My question revolves around the note I am going to include with the socks. Of course it will include washing and drying instructions (cold water and low heat); however, I am stumped about how to ask for the socks back if the kids don’t like them, so they can be redistributed. Now, I don’t really want the socks back for my own son; I would like the socks to go to someone who’d actually wear them. What would you do in this instance?
A: In this instance, I would stop with the socks and knit a sweater for my own child. While many people enjoy handmade scarves, there’s a reason people stopped wearing lumpy, itchy, droopy handmade socks as soon as industrial looms were invented. It’s sweet of you to want to make gifts for the entire class, but you’re investing way too much time in a gift that won’t be appreciated. If you want to do something handmade, maybe you should bake some treats. Or you could offer to come in and do a knitting lesson for the kids. Unless you’re making socks they can hang by the fireplace for Christmas, no one wants handmade socks in their Christmas stocking.
Q. Game-Show Winnings: I was lucky enough to become a contestant on a game show and ended up walking away with some money. Now that my family has seen the show, they are bombarding me with requests for money or gifts, saying that I owe them for what was provided for me while I was growing up! Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate and love my family. I did not become a millionaire or win enough to really affect my lifestyle. I had planned on trying to take a dent out of my college loans with the money I won. How can I tell my family that they are appreciated without paying them with my winnings?
A: Let’s say you simply landed a decent job—would your parents be sending you notices dunning you for all that food they provided while you were growing up? Are you supposed to be writing checks to other family members for recompense for the Christmas gifts they bought you? I think your response should be to provide them with information about how to become contestants on the game show themselves and tell them if they make it, you will cheer them on.
Q. Texting During a Movie: I’m sure you get these kinds of questions all the time, but I need your guidance! This past Friday night, I went to see the new Harry Potter movie. The theater was sold out—the majority of the audience arrived at least an hour early to get in line. I ended up seated next to a girl who texted throughout the entire movie. It was awful! The light from her phone and the “click-click-click” of her BlackBerry keys was incredibly distracting. I really wanted to say something to her, but I thought it would be too awkward to have to sit next to her throughout the rest of the movie. Is there any polite way to tell someone they’re being impolite?
A: Not only did your seat mate miss the entire movie, she also obviously missed the half-dozen announcements asking patrons to turn off their devices during the show. There is nothing impolite about asking someone to stop ruining the movie for you. “Excuse me, could you please turn off your phone, the light and the sound are distracting, thanks,” would be a fine thing to say. And I would never recommend accidentally spilling your popcorn all over the phone of someone who wouldn’t stop.
Q. Skeletons in the Closet: I can’t believe I am in the position to ask advice about such a drama-filled question, but this is what my life suddenly looks like. Last week a young woman got in touch with me saying that she was my husband’s daughter and that she had been trying to have contact with him but that he did not respond. She sent me e-mails that confirmed her story, and I approached my husband about it. He explained that he had signed the birth certificate but that he did not believe that he was the woman’s father (based on the timing of the birth) but that he wanted to support his girlfriend at the time. My question is two-fold, I guess. First is: What the hell was my husband thinking not ever telling me about this? How am I supposed to deal with him? Secondly, what is his obligation to this woman? She thinks he is her father (and he has not told her otherwise). I suppose a paternity test would be in order, but to what avail? She also mentioned in her e-mail to me that she was looking for money to help her pay for university. Whew.
A: How convenient that for about 20 years it slipped your husband’s mind that he once signed a document saying he was the father of someone else’s child. There are two issues here: your husband not previously disclosing this to you; and the young woman who may be your step-daughter. You and your husband need some frank conversations about this, but right now, you need to deal with the young woman. Your husband should contact a lawyer for advice on paternity testing and obligations once the test is done. Even if he’s not the father, he once declared himself to be, so he needs to find out where he stands legally. You’re understandably angry and blind-sided, but if your husband is otherwise a good guy, the two of you should now be working together to figure out what’s next.
Q. I Feel Bad That I Don’t Feel Bad: Recently my grandmother died. I helped my parents go through the preparations for the visitation and the funeral. However, while at the visitation at the funeral home, people kept walking up to me assuming I’m broken up about her death and have been crying. Here’s the issue—I’m not sad at all. It’s two weeks after her funeral, and I haven’t cried once. I sat down after she passed and tried to think of all the happy memories we had together—and I couldn’t come up with anything. I felt so disingenuous sitting in her funeral while everyone was crying. She was a fine person, I guess. She made many choices concerning her children (my father) that I wholly disagreed with when I was old enough to understand her decisions. (I’m in my 30s now.) Without airing all of our family’s dirty laundry, she stood by her husband as he verbally and physically abused their children. She also said things to my mother and uncles as she grew older that were incredibly hurtful. This sounds terrible—but is it OK not to be sad that she’s passed away? I don’t have any warm memories to speak of with her.
A: It’s sad that during her life she was a co-conspirator in the abuse of her children. Also sad is that she struck out at them verbally. (Maybe it’s possible these late-in-life attacks were the result of dementia.) It sounds as if she couldn’t even make some kind of amends by having a decent relationship with her grandchildren. It’s perfectly understandable you’re not sad that such a person has passed from your life. People who don’t know what really went on in your family naturally assume you had a normal relationship with your grandmother. You don’t have to explain that she was rather monstrous, nor do you have to feel guilty at your lack of grief. Just thank them for their condolences and say you’re doing well.
Q. Text Messagus Interruptus: With the popularity of cell phones and text messages, I’m sure my problem is not a unique one, but I need to know how others deal with this issue. My husband seems to think it’s OK to text his best friend 57 times a day—from the time he wakes up in the morning to the time he crawls into bed every night. He texts good morning before he even says good morning to me, he texts while he’s on the toilet, he texts while we’re out shopping (Yesterday, we were out shopping for a home improvement project, and he texted his buddy to tell him what we had bought and how much we had paid before we were even out of the store.) I made a comment that no matter where we go, it seems as though “X” is always right there with us. When they’re not texting each other via cell phone, they’re e-messaging one another online. It’s come to the point that whenever his phone signals a new message, I cringe because his attention is immediately drawn away from whatever we’re doing or talking about. We’ve been interrupted while having dinner, driving in the car, walking the dogs, sitting on the sofa, watching a movie, having sex—you name it, and his buddy is right there with us.
A: Maybe that was your husband sitting in the Harry Potter movie texting his buddy. You’re seeing this as a technology question, but it’s actually a “What’s going on here?” question. Your husband’s behavior is bizarre, and you need to tell him to put the phone down and turn it off, because you two need to talk. Say simple politeness requires that when you two are having sex, he is not sending commentary to his BFF. The two of you may need the services of a professional to help you un-triangulate this marriage.
Q. Re: Paternity: One more question about my husband and his perhaps-daughter. She lives in another country and there’s a good chance that legal obligations will not be much of an issue. What do you see as his moral obligation to this woman?
A: First, he has to find out if he even is this girl’s father. Given that he is on the birth certificate, there still may be legal questions involved. If he’s not the father, however, obviously he has no moral obligation to pay for the college education of the daughter of a former girlfriend. If he is the father, there needs to be a bigger discussion about the ramifications of this revelation. It is disconcerting that she has declared the reason for contacting him that she has big tuition bills.
Q. Destination Weddings: Some advice on how to send regrets without telling a family member she’s out of her mind to ask us to travel a long distance at great expense so she can get married at a beach resort out of the country. For a three-day weekend, the cost is prohibitive just for the resort. I ruled it out before even looking at the flight costs. Very few relatives on my side of the family would be able to swing it, her parents included, which makes me wonder if the groom’s family is making it possible. If so, good for them, but they didn’t offer to help with my expenses. Since they requested no gifts because they know destination weddings can be a burden, but did provide links to a couple registries because some family members “insisted,” I’ll probably make a donation to a charity in their honor instead. (I know what charity the bride would prefer as her brother is a cancer survivor.) The bride and groom are saving on one thing; they’re staying at the resort for their honeymoon so at least they won’t have to travel twice. The rest of us are asked to spend well over $1,000 a couple for three days at a resort I’d never go to on vacation. Stuff like this just makes me all the happier my husband and I eloped and made phone calls after the fact. Just never thought this relative would grow up into “that” kind of bride.
A: Many times I’ve commented on my dislike of combining the wedding with the honeymoon and expecting one’s family and friends to use up all their vacation time and money to schlep to some resort they may have no interest in. However, all you have to do is to sent your regrets you won’t be able to attend and leave off the editorial comment.
Q. Baby Schedule and House Guests: We have spillover house guests for the holiday, some of whom might be sleeping in our family room, as well as a 3-month-old. Normally (on the weekend at least) baby and I get up around 6 a.m., he eats, and we have about 40 minutes of play time in our family room before he falls back asleep. He gets back up around 8-8:30 for another bottle, and then we engage in the day. I’ve been pretty clear that I’ll try to keep him quietly entertained in his room for that first session of play time, but after he gets up for the day, I would like not to worry about keeping him quiet or tiptoeing around people. Is it rude for me to say I expect those sleeping in the family room to be awake at that point in time so we can utilize that space?
A: It’s perfectly reasonable to explain to guests who are bunking at your house that reveille is at 8 a.m. because of the baby.
Q. It’s an Office, Not Apartment: I have an odd problem. I share an office at school with another female, second-year graduate student. She has expressed a desire to move out of her apartment and into a van. While I do not see the appeal, I am fine with this arrangement if she is safe. Recently, I learned more details of her plan, namely that she will be sleeping every night in our office and only store her things in a van. I do not want her to live in our office. I expect it to be a place where I can work when I need to, not have to worry about entering, and where I will have my own desk and space. I already have trouble with her respecting my space/desk, especially when I am not there. How can I tell her that living in our office cannot be her housing plan for next semester and keep the peace as we will still have to share the space?
A: Either your fellow student is in terrible financial trouble or she is possibly in mental trouble. Living in a van and sleeping in the office is neither safe nor sensible. She certainly is violating some rule by setting up her bedroom under the desk. Tell her you’re concerned about her plan and she needs to secure some other living arrangements. If she goes ahead, speak to a supervisor or faculty member.
Q. Thanksgiving: I work at an elementary school with a very needy population. There was a raffle for a full Thanksgiving dinner, in which all PTA members were entered. I won and donated it to a needy family at my school. My mother is now furious with me. She thinks I should have given it to her. My parents are well-off, have a fully stocked pantry, and have never asked me to contribute anything to their Thanksgiving feast in the past. I now feel like I shouldn’t stop by for dinner on this or any other occasion. Any advice on how to deal with this? Thanks!
A: You don’t say that your mother normally acts nuts, so this sounds out of character. In response to her unpleasant response, the answer is not to up the ante and boycott Thanksgiving and threaten to end all contact. Tell your mother you had no idea she would be interested in the dinner, but you hope she understands there are people at your school who have nothing, and you feel good about being able to help them. As you can see from the rest of this chat, people tend to go off their rocker around holiday time.
Q. Thanksgiving Split: I have been married for six years. We have spent every Thanksgiving with my family because it is the only holiday that my entire family (aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) gets together. My husband’s family (aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) gets together for Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year, my father-in-law asked my husband if we would spend Thanksgiving with them. I told my husband that I would be willing to leave my family’s event early and arrive at my in-laws at 4 p.m. My husband said absolutely not; he wants to eat dinner at his parents’ house at noon, then we can go to my family’s event (they are eating at 12:30). My mom had hand surgery two weeks ago, so she needs help, which is why I want to go to my family’s house first. My husband said I’m being unfair, and if we separate for the holiday, he plans on taking our 3-and-a-half-year-old and our 3-month-old. I told him over my dead body. I know this sounds ridiculous, but it has caused a huge rift between us. Should I go to his parents’ house first? I feel like we will be seeing these same family members in three weeks for Christmas, where we will not be seeing my family again for another year.
A: Splitting Thanksgiving and Christmas between families sounds fair. And if the families are geographically close enough, it’s also possible to do a late-in-the day drop-by with the alternate family. However, especially since your mother is ailing, what is your husband thinking by putting you in this awkward position with your own family this year? It’s too bad that the holidays often cause people to revert to childhood roles and start acting out unsolved conflicts. But using the word “separating” and making threats about the children is way out of line. You must try to ratchet down the rhetoric and explain this year, more than usual, you feel the need to help your mother. Maybe your father-in-law will be mollified if all of you come over around dessert, or in time to watch the last of the football games.
Emily Yoffe writes: Thanks, everyone. I wish you safely thawed turkeys and hope the only conflict you end up having this Thanksgiving is over who gets the drumstick. Have a good holiday!