Dear Prudence

Your Money or Your Life

Prudie counsels a military wife whose boss won’t give her leave to see her soldier off to war—and other advice-seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on 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, everyone. Let’s go.

Q. Military Wife vs. Job: My husband and I have been married for one year and are getting ready for our first deployment. He will be leaving for Afghanistan in a few short months for one year. Prior to deployment, he will receive two weeks off and we have a trip planned to visit his parents and then fly to Paris to enjoy some uninterrupted time together before our separation. I have mentioned to my boss that I would like the two weeks off work, however she indicated that I would not be able to take the time off. My husband and our marriage are much more important to me than this job, however I am on track for a management position soon and very happy at this job. The thought of starting over at a new job sounds horrible. How do I explain to my boss how important this trip is to us? And if she still refuses, do I quit?

A: Does the boss know where your husband is going and for how long? If not, make sure she understands the gravity of the situation. Perhaps the company doesn’t normally give two-week vacations. In that case, it might be worth it to talk about this with your co-workers and tell your boss that they know you have a special situation and they support making an exception for you. If she remains intransigent, then take this higher up the ladder. You can explain to upper management that you love your job, you are very excited about your future prospects, but your husband is going to war for a year. You hope they can understand it is crucial to you that you and he get to spend his time off together and that they understand this is a non-negotiable for you. If they won’t budge, don’t resign, but contact an employment lawyer.

Dear Prudence: In the Closet at Work

Q. Resentful: I’ve been dating the same guy now for a year and a few months. During the month of December, marriage was brought up, and he even talked to my dad about marrying me. I made a huge, dumb mistake and told my sister, my best friend, and my sister-in-law. Fast forward to today, and here I am, still un-engaged. I don’t want to bring it up again, because I brought it up the first time and now I feel like a huge idiot. I’m also building a resentment for him because now people (including my grandparents/aunts/uncles) are asking if and when are getting married because my own dad spilled the beans! My boyfriend and I also looked up resorts in another country because we wanted to have a destination wedding, and we even made up a budget so we could save, and he said he’d save all his money from his second job to go to our wedding fund. Well, there ISN’T a wedding fund. I’m starting to feel like I got duped or something and starting to resent him for it. I don’t know what to do, please help!

A: Over and over again I hear from strong, independent, successful, accomplished women who are desperately waiting for their boyfriends to pop the question. Why is this one area of life where men get all the power? I understand the romance of a proposal. But there’s nothing romantic if the proposal is not forthcoming, and you feel your future and fertility slip away year by year.

Let’s say your boyfriend was your boss and you’d gone in to discuss a promotion (as you appear to be the one to bring up marriage) and said that was a good idea and he would move forward on it after the first of the year. Now, it’s after the first of the year and he’s never mentioned it again. You would feel perfectly justified sitting down with him and asking him to clarify your previous conversation.

Your boyfriend apparently said he thought marriage was a good idea, so you naturally expected you two would actually be making plans to be married. Then the conversation stopped. So you have to restart it and ask him what he’s thinking. You can also tell him you were thinking you two were heading toward marriage and the idea of that makes you very happy. And if you get this discussion back on track, please rethink the best use of the money from a second job. Blowing it on a one-day celebration seems like a poor way to start your joint financial life.

Q. Small Children and Their Artwork: My husband and I are friends with another couple—Barbara and Lance. Lance has a 3-year-old girl from a previous marriage. My husband and I do not like children, but we tolerate this child in order to see more of our friends. Recently Barbara has been giving us “gifts” that the child has made—usually small finger-painted or crayoned scraps of paper. We do the normal things you are supposed to do—smile broadly, say to the child how talented she is, and say how you are so lucky to have been given such a nice gift. Then, after they leave the paper gets thrown away. Lately Barbara has been suggesting that these “gifts” be framed and displayed in our home. She has even gone so far as to send me links on framing companies and choices of frames that she thinks will match! Prudie, we have no intention of framing a piece of paper from a child we see rarely and merely tolerate. How do we politely say we are not going to be setting up an art gallery for this child in our home anytime soon?

A: How nice to hear that Barbara is taking on the role of a proud, encouraging stepmother. I suppose I should give you credit to for “tolerating” the fact that friends of yours have children. (For all the child-haters out there, please keep in mind that someday these children will be the workers who underwrite your Social Security checks.) But however proud Barbara is, you are not obligated to do anything more with these gifts than what you are doing. If she persists, you can say, “Barbara, we agree with you that Caitlin is a very talented little girl and we appreciate her artwork. But we’re not her relatives, so we’re not going to be displaying these pieces. ”

Q. Re: Military Wife vs. Job: Unless she has a contract that stipulates that she can take two weeks of her choice off every year, I’m not sure how an employment lawyer could help in this situation. I am a valued employee of 10 years at my current employer, but taking two weeks off is just not a possibility in our industry. One week off, yes, but not two. It is most unfortunate that her employer shut her down, but she may have to slim down her leave request.

A: And if you had a stroke, would you be told, “Be back at the desk in two weeks or else you’re out of a job”? Excuse me for sounding so French, but in what industry is it impossible for someone to take two weeks off? This woman’s husband is going to Afghanistan! What in the world could she be doing at her job that other people can pick up the slack for her for one week, but the whole place falls apart if she’s gone for two?

Q. Military Wife: I’m an employment attorney and will tell you that, based purely on the facts presented in the question, I don’t see any recourse for the woman who wants to take two weeks off to be with her husband before his deployment. If the company, as a matter of policy or practice, doesn’t allow employees to take two weeks off at a time, it’s entitled to do that, regardless of the reason the employee wants two weeks. Off the top of my head, I don’t see what legal action she could take for the company’s denial of her two weeks. If the company has been known to grant other employees two weeks of vacation but is for some reason denying this woman’s, a good employment lawyer may want to look into whether she’s being denied her request for discriminatory reasons (which may or may not be related to her husband’s deployment).

A: I should have learned by now to never wade into employment-law issues, but I had to put this one on the table because it’s really burning me up. I see that there may be no legal recourse. Perhaps she could apply for a temporary leave, as per a family medical leave? Surely, someone shouldn’t have to choose between a job and two weeks’ vacation with a husband about to go to war.

Q. Army Wife: Hello, this is Army Wife. Thank you for your advice. My boss does know of the situation. Although, I don’t believe she truly understands what it is like to say goodbye to your husband for a year and wanting to spend every minute you have with him. I feel if I go above her, she will resent this and see me as trying to usurp her authority when she has said, “No.” I will have a very serious talk with her though, as it gets closer and I have already come to terms with saying good-bye if she will not budge. In the end I believe my marriage will come before this job. Thank you again.

A: Army Wife, before you do anything, I think you should talk to an employment law specialist, or perhaps better, someone who works with military families, to see if there’s some case to be made here that this is not a regular “vacation.” It would be a shame to lose a promising job. But I completely understand your position, and I don’t care what the company policy is, it needs to be changed because this is inhumane.

Q. Woefully Broke Bridesmaid: I’m a graduate student putting myself through school with part-time job, student loans, and some savings. I have two friends getting married this year, and I am in the bridal party in both weddings. As planning kicks into high gear, it looks as though I’ll be forced to spend upward of $1,000 between dresses, shoes, gifts, showers, bachelorette parties, etc. I will likely have to take out even larger student loans next year as a result. I’m not sure how to approach this with my very excited bride-to-be friends. Please help

A: I don’t think people should take out loans to pay for their own weddings. If you can’t write the check for whatever it is (a ring, a dress, a reception) with a smile and without breaking a sweat, you can’t afford it. The idea of taking out loans to pay for someone else’s coronation—I mean wedding—is ludicrous. You need to have a serious conversation now with your friends. If you simply can’t afford any of the expenses, you have to tell them so and explain you will be honored to be a guest, but you’re deeply in debt, you can’t even afford the dress, and you don’t want to make the other serfs—I mean bridesmaids—pick up your portion of the celebration. Maybe they will buy the dress for you, maybe they will say, “Please don’t get me any gifts.” If they pout and stomp and say you’re not “being there” for them, make sure they’re right, withdraw from the wedding party, and don’t be there.

Q. Relationships—How Can I Forget?: About a year ago, I found my first love after looking for her off and on for several decades. I have no romantic interest in her anymore—just wanted to find out what happened to her. We are both happily married, long term, to others. We even met for lunch one day when other matters caused me to be half way across the country near where she lives. No sparks reignited and this was done with full transparency with my spouse. We e-mail each other occasionally and talk on the phone every two or three months. I do enjoy our conversations as she does. We talk about the common concerns of people our age, our aging parents, our children, and our work. Here is the thing, I think I spend way too much time thinking about her. Again, not in the romantic sense—time and distance have proven to me that we would have never made a good married couple. Some days, I so much want to get her out of my head, but I am afraid that she will always be stuck in my heart. I know this is not the greatest problem in the world, Prudence, but what to do?

A: You found her, you found out what happened to her, you found out you’re glad it didn’t work out. Now it’s time for you each to slip back into your lives. If you weren’t preoccupied with her, all would be fine. But however much you say this isn’t romantic, you’re troubled enough to write to me and say she’s taking up too much space in your head. You don’t have to make any pronouncements; just stop taking action. Don’t initiate e-mails and phone calls. If she does, keep it brief and friendly. Even if you realize she’s the road you’re glad you didn’t take, you’re irrevocably a long way down the one you did take, and you may be looking for a change of scenery more than you realize.

Q. Obsessive Mom Threatens Daughter’s Sanity: I have been dating a great guy for a year and a half. We love each other and have talked about marriage. He just moved for work, and I am planning on moving to be with him in April. Although I’m leaving my job and my family, I’m really excited to take this next step with him and am looking forward to our future together. The problem is with my mom. My boyfriend is somewhat in the public eye and has Facebook and Twitter accounts to which he posts regularly. My mom scours the Web for any mentions of his name and then relays all that information back to me—everyday. I feel like all she does is gossip about things she reads online. She has anonymously posted to message boards regarding my boyfriend and, most recently, she has concocted a relationship between a random woman and my boyfriend, purely because this woman follows him on Twitter and is also a Facebook “friend.” I know I shouldn’t let my mom’s obsession get to me, but sometimes I can’t help but be drawn into it. What can I do to not go crazy in these three months before I move to be with him?

A: “Mom, you are free to spend as much time was you want scouring the Web for news about Tim, but I don’t want to hear the updates. A lot of it is gossip and it’s unpleasant for me to get this daily barrage. So please stop. If you won’t, I’m not going to open your e-mails, and if you start telling me this stuff on the phone, I’m going to cut our call short. Sorry to sound so tough, but this has really been bothering me.”

And although you’re not asking, before you move, have some more conversations clarifying your “future together.” As I’ve mentioned, I hear from too many young women now living with someone with whom they sorta, kinda thought they had an understanding about marriage, but they’re finding they didn’t.

Q. Politics at Work: A couple of months ago, I saw a colleague protesting at a facility where I volunteer, and I’m certain she saw me. Now she avoids me at work and tries to make sure her projects go to someone else in my department. I don’t really care if she doesn’t want to socialize or engage in chatter, and I don’t want to bring up controversial political topics at work, but I also don’t want people to think her avoidance of me is any reflection on my work skills. Is it appropriate to discuss this with my boss, knowing that my boss might then have to approach my colleague’s boss?

A: If this is affecting your ability to do your job, then yes, you have to confront this issue. Before you take it to your boss, you need to have addressed this with your co-worker first. So go to her and say you want to talk about the day you saw each other at the facility. Say you understand you both have deeply felt points of view, you respect hers, but since that day you’ve been feeling that she’s been avoiding you, and more important preventing you from getting projects. So you wanted to clear the air about this.

Then if things don’t change, do go to your boss, calmly explaining how you tried to resolve this, saying that, unfortunately, you need to bring it to her attention because it is affecting your ability to discharge your duties.

Q. Wedding Gifts: What is the acceptable maximum limit for sending wedding gift thank-you notes, in other words is there a point where it’s simply too late? Signed, Woefully Late in Waldorf

A: It is acceptable to send them now. Apologize for your tardiness, then say how you’ve been enjoying their gift all these months—or years.

Q. Prom: What should you do if your best friend got a prom date but you didn’t?

A: Ask a guy who you’d like to go with. (It will be good training for avoiding the situation of waiting for the marriage proposal outlined above.) An equally good solution is going with some other girls who you know don’t have, or don’t want, dates.

Q. Daughter-in-Law Wants a Gun: My son and his wife are separated, and now I hear she wants a gun “for protection.” This is a woman that can’t be trusted to turn off a stove or drive responsibly. I’m so worried for my grandchildren and I know this was a discussion that provoked a major fight between my son and his wife. Anything I can do?

A: Your son needs to discuss this with his divorce lawyer now. Perhaps he needs custody of the kids. Irresponsible woman + gun lying around the house + young children=tragedy.

Q. Relationships—How Can I Forget?: No, I am not looking for a change of scenery—not even deep in my heart. I really do value her intelligence and wit. I consider her a friend with a very small shared past and more sharing as adults who have parents and children.

A: Then what’s the problem and why are you writing? Normally I don’t get letters from people that can be summed up, “All is well, just wanted you to know.”

Q. Co-Workers: I have a co-worker that I can not get to shut up. She will stand in my office doorway and will complain about her personal life and work. Most of what she complains about seems ridiculous to me, but she tends to take things too personally and I’m worried that if I upset her, she will make life at work very difficult. How do I get her to leave me alone and leave me out of it?

A: “Marlene, I’m sorry to hear about your troubles. But I’m going to have troubles of my own if I don’t get this work done. So excuse me, I can’t talk now.” If she starts monopolizing your time while you’re in the coffee room, for example, you can say, “Marlene, I feel uncomfortable hearing about such personal issues at work.” It is almost impossible to reform the logorrheic, so you have to make it unrewarding for them to spew in your ear.

Q. Lost in Translation: My sister has a class with a deaf boy. The class was asked by the teacher if one of them would volunteer to take notes for the boy. My sister volunteered to do so. At the end of the first day of class, she turned to the boy’s translator to have the translator tell him that she would get the notes to him the next day. His translator proceeded to yell at my sister that the boy is a human being, and she should talk directly to him instead of turning to the translator to talk to him. My sister was mortified because this happened in front of the whole class, and because of course she thinks of him as a human being! My sister is a very caring person and would never mean to offend anyone. Prudie, did my sister commit that big of a translation faux pas? Any suggestions as to how to deal with this translator in the future?

A: As Clare Booth Luce so memorably said, “No good deed goes unpunished.” The assistant may have had valuable information to impart about not ignoring the deaf young man when talking to the two of them, but that should have been said quietly and privately. So your sister should pull the translator aside and say she was very upset by the confrontation and how public it was. She should apologize for making an inadvertent mistake, but explain if they’re going to work together, they need to treat each other with respect and clarify misunderstandings in private.

Q. Military Wife: An employee who was off work for a stroke or other serious illness would obviously be protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act. But the military wife might actually qualify for FMLA, which also supports leave for the spouses of active military for “certain qualifying exigencies.” Not sure a trip to Paris would count as one, but she could look into it…

A: So this is a fruitful path—the Family Medical Leave Act might cover this deployment situation. As another letter writer pointed out, a higher-up might realize it would be bad publicity for the company to make an employee choose between saying farewell to a military spouse and staying in the job.

Andrea Caumont (Chat Producer): Another questioner sends this link to FMLA policies (PDF) And one more.

Q. RE: “As I’ve mentioned, I hear from too many young women now living with someone with whom they sorta, kinda thought they had an understanding about marriage, but they’re finding they didn’t.” I’d love to hear your suggestions on this as it seems to be such a common problem. Is it wiser to wait for a ring? Should you ask about a specific timeframe? (Notice I’m avoiding the term “deadline” here.) How often do you bring it up before it becomes nagging? How do you know when to move on?

A: This is why I think these issues should be discussed before the movers come. If you’re living together now, you have to say something like, it’s been a year, from your perspective things have been wonderful—you hope he agrees, and you’d like to have a discussion about your long-term plans, including marriage. If he hems and haws, then you have to decide what course of action is right for you. If that’s setting a deadline, then fine. And if he says, “Do you mean you’re giving me a deadline??” you can say, “Yes, I am. Deadlines are useful in a lot of situations. I want to be married and have children. I’d like to do that with you. But if you don’t want to do it with me, unfortunately, I’m not looking at the same timeline of possibility as you are.”

Q. Is She or Isn’t She … Gay: I suspect my college daughter is gay but am not sure how I should (or even IF I should) approach the subject with her. I don’t want to pry into her personal life, but I do want her to know that no matter what, I will love her unconditionally.

A: You say it quite well here. I hope you have the kind of relationship in which your bringing this up would not be a departure. You can say something like: “Jane, if I’m off base here, I apologize for making assumptions about you that aren’t the case. But honey, you’ve never brought home a boyfriend, and I’m wondering if that’s because you’re not interested in boys. If that’s the case, I hope you can talk to me about this. I don’t want to pry if you don’t want to discuss this. But I want you to know that whatever you have to tell me about yourself, I love you.”

Q. All Is Well: Just wanted you to know.

A: Ha! I hope there aren’t too many like you because that makes for a dull chat.

Thanks everyone. I know you’re all indispensible, but I also hope that you can still go on vacation.

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