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: Good afternoon. Let’s get to it.
Q. Baby: I am quite simply not a baby person, but as I am in my mid-20s my friends are starting to have children. As a female, I feel it is expected of me to want to sit and hold the baby. I want to support the parents by taking a meal over to their house and visiting with them soon after the birth of their child, but I get blank stares when I say I don’t want to hold their precious bundle of joy. I love kids and could sit and play with a 2-year-old all day, but I really don’t have any need or desire to hold a baby. I always awkwardly stumble on the words and feel the need to reassure the parent that it is not just their baby, but all babies in general. What would be the proper etiquette to pass on holding a baby?
A: You can always say, “She’s so precious. I can’t wait to hold her. Let me just wipe my nose because I feel like I’m coming down with something and I don’t want to drip on her.” That should get the baby swooped away from you pronto. You could also say, “Babies can just sense I’m uncomfortable holding them. But I’m loving admiring him from here.” That might result in the parents offering baby-holding lessons that you would be hard-pressed to decline. But since you say you do love kids, maybe you should just wash your hands, grit your teeth, and hold the little bundle for a couple of minutes. Place the baby so its head rests on your shoulder. There’s no better smell than baby neck, and no better feeling than when that heavy little head rests on you. Even if this does nothing for you, after two minutes, you can say, “She is the most adorable baby I’ve ever seen” and hand her back.
Dear Prudence: House of Hoarders
Q. My Uncle Killed My Granddad … I Want To Know How: My mom’s brother is the ultimate black sheep. For most of his adulthood, he has stirred trouble over alcoholism, violence, and abusive midnight calls to family members. He bullied my grandparents out of so much money they lost their home. Six years ago, he did something so terrible that my grandfather collapsed of shock and died two weeks after. My grandmother obtained a restraining order from my uncle and the rest of the family severed ties with him. What he did was so bad my dad still refuses to discuss it. He has asked me not to ask Mom as she gets extremely upset discussing her family. I wish to knew the circumstances surrounding my granddad’s death. As unpleasant as it is, it is still my family history, and I believe I should know all the facts. But is it wrong to ask my parents to rehash painful memories?
A: Sadly, I hear over and over about the havoc that can be wreaked by one unstable, untreated family member. You know that your uncle did terrible things, so that’s not a secret. And I understand your parents, especially your mother, doesn’t want to dwell on what happened. But when families try to suppress secrets, it only gives them more power. Tell your father you don’t want to ask your mother to talk about her painful family history, but you feel you’re old enough to know the story of what happened between your uncle and your grandfather. Say that only knowing part of the story has the effect of making you wonder about it more, and you would appreciate being trusted to know the truth. If he won’t tell you, then there must be other family members who could enlighten you.
Q. Wedding Gift: I’m in need of some advice. My husband and I just had a reception to celebrate our wedding, and we received some very generous gifts. My dilemma is this: From at least two couples, we were given a very nice check, but I know that at least one person from each couple was recently laid off from his/her job. Do we still accept the gift? I know they’re big boys and girls who can make their own decisions, but I worry about their financial situations. Should we decline and let them know we really just appreciated that they were there with us to celebrate our marriage with our friends and family? If declining is the gracious thing to do, how does one graciously decline a check?
A: How nice to hear that you’re concerned about the financial well-being of your guests, instead of complaining that you didn’t get enough trivets from them. It’s generous of you to consider giving the checks back, but as you say, they are adults and made a free decision to give you a generous gift, no matter how ill-timed it may have been. Write them a thank-you note and do not make reference to their financial situation. Then invite them over for dinner, or take them out and treat them to a celebration of your union. And readers who are invited to weddings but are financially taxed—please, please do not feel pressured to buy gifts that are beyond your means. Something as small as a framed photograph of the couple is a thoughtful and meaningful gift.
Q. Vacation Dilemma: Is it ever a good idea to stay with your boss and their spouse while on vacation, even for a few days? They know this area very well, and we have never been. They want to show us around so it would be convenient to be right there. We planned to get our own place, but there is nothing to rent near them. We get along well. If not, how can we decline without offending them? How about staying one night?
A: I understand your feelings that this is a tricky situation, but given all the variables—you’re going to where they have a place, they have extended an invitation, they have the room, they are eager to show you around—I think a short stay (say, two nights) would be fine. Since you say you get along well with the boss and spouse, obviously you have socialized comfortably before. But just keep in mind, this is one vacation during which you don’t want to have so much to drink that the next day you wake up saying, “I really shouldn’t have said that.”
Q. Pre-Marital Sex and Parents: My boyfriend and I are in a loving relationship and we have been dating for eight months already. He has been wanting to have sex, but since my parents are very against pre-marital sex, I have been really hesitant. Personally I want to, and am telling him that once I get a chance, to we can do it. I feel nothing wrong with having sex before marriage at all, but I feel morally conflicted by having to lie to my parents. What should I do?
A: Now that’s some shocking news: Your boyfriend would really, really like to have sex. Are you 16 or 26?I It makes a difference. I’m against premarital sex by high-school students. I’m not against pre-marital sex by responsible college-age people. (In fact, I can’t imagine marrying someone one hasn’t had sex with.) However, if you are making this decision based on how your parents would react, that tells me you aren’t really old enough to start engaging in sex. Instead of lying to your parents, I think you should tell your boyfriend, “I really like you, but since I can’t stand the thought of sneaking around on my parents to have sex with you, that tells me I’m not ready to have sex with you.” If he breaks up with you or pressures you, that only should underline the wisdom of your parents’ prohibition (for now).
Q. Reminding Someone To Do a Favor: I am applying for a job that requires my referee to answer a lengthy questionnaire form. I have given one to my former boss, who I am confident will provide a glowing reference. Unfortunately, however, he is also prone to forgetfulness and procrastination. When I worked for him it was common to wait several weeks for him to look over a document and give his final approval. I’m now worried he is going to shove the referee form aside and forget to send it in. Is it rude of me to send a reminder, since he is doing a favor for me?
A: Does your boss have an assistant you have a good relationship with? You could contact the assistant and ask him or her the status of your questionnaire and ask that it be put on the top of the boss’s desk. If you can’t go that route, and you know the questionnaire hasn’t been turned in, then it is fine to contact the boss and say you know how busy he is and you hate to add to his burden, but your new job is hanging until they get this paper from him. If this still doesn’t get it turned in, you might tell your potential employer that while you and your boss got along exceedingly well, filling out forms is not his strong suit, and if it’s possible, they might want to contact him directly and have him give the answers over the phone. (Readers, tell me if you have better ideas. And I know you will tell me if these ideas stink.)
And when the boss gets the form in, and if an assistant helped, write a thank-you to each and send along some chocolates or wine.
Q. No Sex: My boyfriend and I have been together for three years, living together for six months. We are extremely happy together and talk often about our future, including marriage, children, and growing old together. I know that an engagement is in the near future, but I try not to press for information so that he will have the option to ask in whatever manner he wishes. The answer is already yes. We are affectionate and considerate of each other. Happy in all ways but one. We never have sex. We used to have sex all the time, and now we just don’t. We have both expressed to each other a desire to, but he thinks we should just let it happen. I agree, however it doesn’t happen. All advice I seem to find says we need to reconnect and be more affectionate. I feel that we already are very affectionate and loving. We kiss, we hold, we cuddle, then we sleep. I know relationships have lulls, but I’d really like to find a way out of ours. We both miss this part of our relationship but can’t seem to figure out how to bring it back. Hope you have some thoughts that might help.
A: Maybe your boyfriend just realized he doesn’t believe in pre-marital sex! However, I’m not really understanding your boyfriend’s position that he’d like to have sex but (to paraphrase D.H. Lawrence) he’s just waiting for John Thomas to indicate it’s time. Since you once had an active sex life, your boyfriend first needs a medical exam to see if there’s some underlying condition that is killing his libido or causing erectile dysfunction. If there’s nothing physically wrong, then you two can slog to a therapist to try to figure out what’s gone wrong. In the meantime, you must table the marriage discussion. Please don’t say “yes” to someone who every night says “no.”
Q. Embarrassed by Parent’s House: I am writing for advice about the state of my parents’ house. While they are wonderful people in all other respects, I find that the way in which they keep their house appalling. It would be fine if it were just untidy, but I feel that their house has crossed over to the point of being unhealthy. For example, there is black mold growing in the only bathroom, the couches are torn with foam sticking out and sticky armrests, and the original ‘70s shag carpet from when the house was built has holes at the seams. It is especially disconcerting since my younger sister has been having trouble with repeat sinus infections, asthma, and, more recently, hives from an undetermined cause (which I think may be the house). Whenever I’ve attempted to broach the subject, my parents just shrug me off. My parents definitely have the knowhow in regard to fixing these areas as they renovate houses on the weekends as a side job. I can’t understand why they won’t fix up their own house. It has come to the point that it is embarrassing to have friends over. I am concerned since I will be getting married this summer in the area and am dreading my future in-laws visiting my parent’s home in its current state. They have offered to contribute some to our wedding, and I wish they would keep the money to buy new couches instead. Is there anything I can do to convince them to fix up the house without hurting their feelings?
A: You could contact your sister’s doctor, explain the state of the house, and ask that she or he bring this up with your parents. Since you’re an adult, you need to have a very serious conversation with your parents saying that they may have gotten so used to the house that they don’t see the condition of it anymore, but that you’re worried it has become so dirty that it is endangering your sister’s health. Say you want to set a date on an upcoming weekend when you can all work together to get the place back in shape (give yourself enough time to rent respirators). If they won’t go along, then tell them the condition of the home is so unhealthy that you can’t bring friends or your future in-laws there. And you might just want to take some of the wedding money and say you’re going to use it to hire a clean-up crew.
Q. Saying “Keep off My Mat”?: A friend recently told me she’d like to take up yoga (which I’ve practiced for years), and I recommended a few teachers and classes in her neighborhood. But now she says she wants to come to the classes I attend regularly, so we can socialize more. I really don’t want this, for a variety of reasons. Can I politely say so, or do I have to be “Zen” about this intrusion?
A: You certainly can’t preclude her from attending the class you go to—unless she is a beginner and you go to advanced class, and they wouldn’t let her in anyway. But do explain to her that for you yoga is not a time for socializing—just the opposite, in fact—and that if she comes, you want her to know that when you silently prepare for class you’re not being rude, you’re just getting in your zone.
Q. “Planned” Pregnancy: I am in my mid-20s and my husband his early 30s. We have been married for six years and are expecting our first child. Is there a polite but firm way to answer the question: “Were you trying for a baby?” I feel this is inappropriate, nosy, and just plain rude to ask someone. Any advice would be appreciated.
A: More than one person has asked that? You could always say, “Hey, we were just trying to have fun. We’re as surprised as you are by what resulted!” But a better reply might be just to look quizzical and not say anything.
Q. In Love With a 58-Year-Old: I am 31 years old, and I think I have fallen in love with someone who is 58 years old. I have been friends with this amazing woman for about four years, and we talk every day and have lunch a few times a month. Nothing has happened, but I spend every lunch sitting across from her wishing that something would. At first, I thought this was just a crush, but because this feeling has not gone away, I think I have fallen for her. This person is my mom’s age (sick, I know) and not exactly someone I can bring home to my parents, but I want to act on how I am feeling even if it is crazy. Should I stop being friends with this person or open up about my feelings? At the end of the day, I cannot imagine my life without her in it, so if opening up means risking our friendship, I will back down. Any advice you have would be great and very helpful.
A: An almost 30-year age difference is one that I am very skeptical about in a love relationship. Sure, it’s more unusual for a man to be attracted to a woman who is so much older, but let’s put that aside. Let’s say she shared your feelings—it’s hard to imagine where a romantic relationship would go. If you are interested in having a family, obviously being involved with an almost 60-year-old woman would preclude that. But you two are very close friends, so you should be able to raise the subject of your feelings with her. She might share them, in which case, maybe you two have an affair. She might be flattered but counsel you to look for love with someone closer to your age.
Q. Madison, Wisc.: About never having sex with your spouse—it’s a big transition to go from not living together/doing it like bunnies to living together, even for the best relationships. I was the one who didn’t want to schedule sex and wanted it to be spontaneous like it was before—at the same time I was falling asleep at 9 p.m. because I worked a 12-hour day. So, one month we decided to have sex every day—and we made it 19 days. We were fitting it in whenever, and while it took out some of the spontaneity, it taught me that scheduling sex was just fine. It may not be the same as the wild and crazy stuff when we were dating, but it’s great all the same.
A: And on day 20 did you look at each other and say, “Please, anything but more sex, please!” Years ago a friend told me that his parents locked their bedroom door every Saturday morning and let the kids have unlimited cartoon viewing. When he got older he realized this was when his parents had sex. I thought at the time how pathetic it was to have to schedule a weekly bonk. Now I think, “Those two were hot!”
Q. To “Were You Trying for a Baby?”: You could always answer that you were trying for a puppy.
A: Please say that!
Q. Bad Nickname: My husband and I are just entering our fifth month of a blissful marriage. There is one big issue, though: the name his family calls him. They always call him the shortened form of his name (aka, Mike for Michael). When I was 16, I was raped by someone with the nickname my husband’s family uses for him. Whenever I hear it, it just sets me on high alert. I have gone to therapy and feel a lot better about what happened to me, but I just don’t want my husband to be associated in any way with that event. My husband himself prefers his full name and has asked his family to call him that. However, his request does not seem to be working. I know they have called him that for a long time, and I know it’s hard, but I feel like maybe if they knew why, they would make more of an effort. Should I ask him to tell them the reason why it’s important for them to switch names? Or should I just realize that time around them is always going to carry some pain for me? I could really use some advice, and please don’t say “learn to deal with the nickname.”
A: You have been through a terrible trauma, and I’m glad you’ve gotten help. But from what you say, you were raped by someone who shares the same name as your husband. You say the nickname is a common shortened form of the name, and not that your husband’s name is Michael, but they call him Scotty, and you were raped by a Scotty. You also don’t say the name or nickname are unusual. So if you were raped by someone with a common name—one your husband shares—what is there to say except that you need to find a way to get past this and detangle the name of your husband from the rapist. I’ve recommended it a million times before, but maybe cognitive behavioral therapy will help give you an approach to desensitize you from the name. I disagree with your assumption that hearing the name of the guy who assaulted you has to be a lifetime pain.
Q. Holding Babies: All parents think their children are irresistible, and they will insist on you taking a turn holding the baby. The only way to get out of it without vomit on your blouse is to say you are ill. Of course, that will also give an excuse to cut out early. Babies are like farts—you can only tolerate your own.
A: Maybe instead of going to visit your friends with the new babies, you should send a gift then just stay home and enjoy your farts.
Q. Once a Cheater, Always a Cheater?: My good friend’s boyfriend cheated on her last fall. They are now broken up, but the guy is trying very hard to win my friend back. I’m of the school “once a cheater, always a cheater,” but to be honest that is partly because of my own experiences. I don’t know whether I should counsel my friend in this matter or not, because I definitely have a biased view. Some details: My friend’s ex has been very honest and apologetic. He has taken the full responsibility for the matter, none of this “Oh, we weren’t having enough sex so what was I supposed to do?” crap. The infraction also occurred when he was drunk—which is not an excuse but definitely a factor in the situation. Also, my friend has been dating this guy for a few years, and they were talking about getting married before they had this rough patch. My “ditch him” alarm is going off, but when I talked to our mutual friend about it, she pointed out (quite rightly) that I am a bit of a man-hater and that not all men are scum. She also said that in her opinion, cheating is not necessarily the end, because she thinks it depends on the situation. This friend is very wise, and I go to her for advice a lot, but I don’t agree with her on this point and I’m wondering: Am I a bit paranoid and too unforgiving?
A: I think instead of giving advice to your friend, you should use this occasion to re-examine your assumptions about men being scum. Your friend sounds as if she very sensibly is weighing how to proceed under these difficult circumstances. Your saying, “See, men=scum!” is not helpful to her or you.
Q. Re: Nickname: Original poster here. My husband does not have a common name, and he and the man who assaulted me do not share a name, just the nickname. I know it sounds weird, but the way my husband’s family shortened his name is not the usual way … if that makes sense. I thank you for the advice about CBT, but am disappointed by the fact that you glossed over the part where I said my husband prefers his full name, too.
A: People should be entitled to be called the name they want to be called. It can be hard with family members who will always think of you as “Scotty,” but your husband should just keep saying, “Please, I don’t want to answer to Scotty anymore. You named me Poindexter, and I like it.” It will take time, but if he’s polite and persistent, it will work. I think he should not bring up your history. But I still feel you do not have to be stuck going into a panic attack every time you hear “Scotty,” and you should seek further help.
Q. Dear Nickname: I have to concur with Prudie on this one. I had an ex-boyfriend who was very verbally and physically abusive to me for many years. I remember going to therapy, telling my therapist I thought I was nuts because “his” name would affect me if I heard it—this went on for years. I ended up working with a guy a few years ago who had the same name—for a while it was yucky, and then it became OK, and then just another name. I can’t profess your level of pain, and I cannot imagine what it was like for you, but I do believe cognitive therapy would be helpful and insightful.
A: Thanks for this great example. It’s so true that while we can get stuck, we can also get unstuck.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Next week I’ll be chatting Tuesday, Jan. 18, because of the Martin Luther King holiday. Have a great week.
Like Prudie on the official Dear Prudence Facebook page and like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.