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. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Gestational Carrier Doesn’t Want Us at the Birth: After eight years of heartbreaking infertility, my husband and I are expecting a baby girl through my sister-in-law, who wonderfully offered to be our gestational carrier. She is now seven months pregnant. While discussing the pregnancy and labor last week, she made some reference to us coming to the hospital after the birth to see the baby for the first time. I was completely floored because my husband and I assumed we would be there for the labor. When I clarified, she said she felt uncomfortable about us witnessing the birth, or even being present while she’s having contractions. For all her own three children she only had her husband and medical staff present. I know I must respect her decision, but I feel tremendously hurt at the thought of not seeing my child being born. It seems wrong that we won’t be there for one of the most significant events in her life. Am I unreasonable to feel so upset?
A: Let’s say you were pregnant in the 1950s. During the birth, your husband would likely be in the waiting room smoking cigarettes, yet his absence would have no effect on his life-long relationship with his child. Let’s say you had decided to adopt from China. Then you certainly wouldn’t have been present for your child’s birth, but that would not change how you felt about her once you finally held her in your arms. Let’s say you were giving birth but serious complications came up and you were so heavily sedated that in essence you were “absent.” Again, it would have no effect on your feelings about your child.
You understandably are focusing on the moment when, after years of disappointment and waiting, you will become a parent. But after that big event, you will be a mother for the rest of your life. Whether or not you were in the room when your child crowned will be of absolutely no consequence. Your sister-in-law is making an extraordinary sacrifice for you. She has been through labor three times and she knows doing it without an audience is how she wants it. Respect her wishes. Soon she will hand over your child to you. Accept with grace that her desire for privacy will have no effect on the lifetime of significant events you will experience with your child. Tell her that you understand her feelings, and reiterate that your gratitude for what she is doing for you is boundless.
Dear Prudence: Bipolar Boyfriend
Q. Washington, D.C.: My 60-year-old mother-in-law is retired, divorced, and lives on a fixed income. But she loves to shop and spends thousands of dollars on luxury goods—for herself, for family, etc. My husband is very worried about her spending, particularly since she doesn’t seem to be planning for her future. So, when she offers to buy us these lavish things before actually spending the money, he declines. In contrast, his other siblings accept. She then gets offended. In other instances, we’ve expressed gratitude, then returned her gifts so that the money could be credited back to her account. Again, anger. It’s becoming a cycle that is uncomfortable at best. Are we being rude by not taking these gifts? How better could we handle this?
A: If your mother-in-law is a competent adult, there is not much you can do about her spending. But your husband is right to be concerned about the future because she may find herself in a big financial hole he and the siblings are expected to fill. If he has good relations with his siblings, they probably should all have a pow-wow and discuss their mother’s finances. They should offer to work with her to get a budget in place, explaining that they want to make sure she has enough money for what they hope is a long, long life. But maybe the rest of them like the designer duds she buys more than they are concerned about her finances. In that case, since your mother-in-law gets angry if you don’t accept her gifts, take them. Then return them and put the cash in an interest-bearing account you can draw on when she inevitably comes to you for help.
Q. Please Tell Me To Stop Imagining a Different Life: I am a happily married thirtysomething, with two kids. Last year, I made a new friend—through mutual friends from college—and I cannot stop fantasizing about what could have been with this person. I know that the first thing you will question is my self-characterization as being happily married—but I am. My husband and I have built a wonderful life together, and I don’t want to damage that in any way. Just to be clear, the object of my fantasies has been completely appropriate in all interactions with me and has done nothing to suggest that he returns these feelings—so no “blame” falls on his shoulders for my predicament. This is all my internal monologue spinning out of control. So why am I persistently fantasizing about what might have happened with this other person, if we had met each other earlier in our lives? Why am I finding it so difficult to do the things that I know I need to do to put an end to this (i.e., defriending him on Facebook; no longer finding excuses to e-mail or chat with him)? Why am I so tempted to reach out to this person and tell him how I feel—even though I know that I could never act on these feelings? Please tell me to stop imagining a different life
A: Let me actually imagine a different life for you. You tell this guy how you feel and he is appalled, tells your mutual friend who blabs it around, and eventually it gets back to your husband. Or you tell this guy, he says, “I feel the same way,” you have a steamy affair, your husband finds out, and now you’re a thirtysomething divorcee with two kids whose lives you’ve just shattered. Get the picture? You want someone to tell you to stop imagining a different life. I’m happy to oblige: Stop!
Q. Family Relationships: Last year, my sister “Sarah” broke off a relationship with her then-boyfriend “George.” Based on what Sarah has told us, George was verbally and physically abusive, and their relationship ended after a violent physical altercation. Now, it’s several months later, and Sarah has said that she’s going to begin seeing George again, despite every member of our family telling her that she deserves so much better. Both my husband and I feel that we would not be comfortable being around George. We fear for Sarah’s safety and our own, and we do not wish to socialize with him or welcome him back to our home. I know that these feelings will put a huge wedge between me and Sarah. We live only about 30 minutes apart, and she feels that we should all get over our negative feelings and welcome George back. Are we doing the right thing? And if so, how do we convey to Sarah that we want to continue to spend time with her but that we want nothing to do with George?
A: You tell Sarah you love her and want to support her, and that means you cannot welcome back George. She confided in you that he was mentally and physically abusive, so that’s all you need to know about George. You can’t be relaxed around him, because you are concerned about her safety when she’s not in your sight. So tell her you want to see her and socialize with her, but you’ll have to do it without George.
Q. Family + Politics = Help! A member of my husband’s family is running for mayor of our smallish city. This guy is an arrogant know-it-all who has a lot of education but no common sense. The other day, his mother remarked to me that they “are going to lose a lot of friends over this” when relaying a story about a friend’s nonsupport of her son. Frankly, I think he would be a terrible mayor, but he does have a strong shot. How in the world do I support my choice without starting the family version of WW3?
A: The secret ballot is a wonderful invention. No one has to know what you think. You can tell his family, “I certainly hope the best candidate wins.” Then cast your vote to help make this happen.
Q. My Dad Is Adopting Now? Am I totally selfish as an adult child to be upset that my dad is adopting his new wife’s child from a previous marriage? It really bugs me to hear this kid call my dad “Dad.” He’s MY dad, no one else’s dad.
A: I understand that it’s a shock to feel the whole parenting thing is settled and that your father is too old to be someone else’s dad, but guess what—he is. So now that you’ve realized this less-than-attractive truth about yourself, start working very hard to get over your jealousy. Do your best not to dwell on, “He never came to MY dance recitals!” and start thinking, “It’s pretty cool to have a younger sibling.” In the future, this new sibling could be a loving aunt or uncle to your kids, and someone to help you carry the load when your father is really old.
Q. Stay-at-Home Mothering: I am the mother of one beautiful 6-month-old little girl and I have been staying home with her since she was born. My dilemma is this: I am bored to death. I feel like such a bad mom because I feel completely stifled by my day in and day out routine. If you have children, I’m sure you know what I mean. I know she thrives off of this schedule, and I adore seeing how happy and sweet she is, but I could pull my hair out most days. The highlight of my week is going grocery shopping, for heaven’s sake! When I realized this is how I was feeling, I started trying to take steps to fix it, i.e., asking my hubby to take me out to dinner (alone), trying a little harder to make time for good friends, and we even went on an overnight stay for our anniversary. I also have decided to get a part-time job just to give me a chance to meet other people and have adult conversations. This is all great and I’m happy with it, but I can’t get over my guilt. I feel so terrible that I’m happy to leave my baby, even if it is with her grandparents. Everyone is forever telling me that I’m going to miss her being a baby and I should spend every moment of my day soaking up my time with her, but I just don’t think I can do it and keep my sanity. I’m afraid when she gets older she will think I don’t like being with her, which is absolutely not the case. I just need a little time for myself when I’m not reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar over and over again and having conversations with an infant. I told this to my husband, who said he thinks it’s perfectly normal, and he completely supports me taking steps to make myself happier. So why do I feel so bad? I love her so much and I don’t want to sacrifice her happiness for mine. Am I doing the right thing Prudie?
A: You’re not a baby person. The fortunate thing about this is that before you know it, your daughter won’t be a baby. I bet as she gets older, verbal, more capable, you will find yourself much more engaged in the minutiae of motherhood. Even if you are a baby person, full-time motherhood can drive one bonkers. You are doing the right thing to get a part-time job and some help. It’s good for your daughter to spend time with other loving caretakers. And when you get back, you will be refreshed and eager to hang on her every movement and expression. Let go of the guilt, please. You’ll enjoy your child more if you’re not beating yourself up over how you “should” be feeling.
Q. Gestational Carrier vs. Mom-To-Be: Pregnancy and birth are remarkable bonding experiences. Mom-to-be’s sister-in-law is, as you point out, being incredibly generous with her body and time. Mom-to-be should respect her needs and understand that perhaps she needs a few minutes with the baby she’s carried for nine months—to say goodbye to her child, and hello to her niece.
A: This is a really important point and I love the way you’ve put it.
Q. M-I-L Help! Recently, I was at my in-laws’ house for a break. It was great, they are wonderful people, who I generally enjoy spending time with, with one exception. Whenever my husband and I are just about to leave my in-laws, his mother proceeds to do a whole house sweep to make sure we haven’t forgotten anything. While at the beginning of our relationship I thought “how thoughtful,” I recently find this routine slightly odd. I’ve tried to mention, “Oh no, I don’t need any help picking up our stuff,” but she literally follows me around room to room watching to make sure I’ve gotten everything. I feel more like a 6-year-old instead of a 30-year-old woman! I tried to bring up my feelings last month, that I find this behavior upsetting me now, and I was basically told, “It is her house, it makes her feel better if she checks everything, and it makes her grumpy if anything is left behind.” I guess I was frustrated that I was disregarded all together and am tired of being followed around the house. I’ve tried to let this issue drop as it just seems so darn silly and tried suggesting a compromise, such as if she could wait till I’ve left or just ask if I need help at all, to no avail. Should I just let this drop?
A: This is your mother-in-law problem? She a lovely person whose company you enjoy who also doesn’t want to get this phone call saying, “Marie, I left my moisturizer in the bathroom and my phone charger in the wall—could you drop them in the mail for me?”
That she does a sweep of the house before you leave is not a problem. That you think everyone has to attend to your feelings and your sense of self-regard is. You were given some good advice from your family to drop it, so do so.
Q. Interracial Marriage: I have been married to my husband for a few months. He is Indian and I am white. My family has completely accepted him and has no problem with our marriage. His parents, on the other hand, were not happy with our relationship and refused to come to the wedding. They have remained cool to me when I have reached out to them. My husband has been in the middle of his parents and me for a couple of years and pretty much broke off communication with his parents over their not supporting our marriage. I have tried to support him by not pressuring him and urging him to keep communicating with his family, all the while knowing they have said unpleasant stuff about me because of their displeasure. What more can I do to help heal this rift and have them accept me as their daughter-in-law? I know time will help, but I still feel hurt that they didn’t come to the wedding and have remained very cool to me. I don’t want to end up with a lifetime of resentment and especially don’t want my husband to turn on me one day, blaming me for causing this rift.
A: I admire you for being such an adult here and I think the way you’ve handled this is the way to go—encourage your husband not to break off ties and don’t escalate hostilities. Of course you and your husband are angry, but if you understand there is something impersonal in their behavior—they wanted an Indian bride—then obnoxious as it is, you can understand their coldness is not really about you, because they don’t know you. I will say that I’ve had several letters over the years from women in your situation and some have said that lo, and behold, when the grandchildren came the hostility quickly evaporated.
Q. Dating: I’m a senior in high school, and as unlikely as it sounds, I’ve never dated. I was too busy with school, friends, and hobbies. I figured there would be plenty of time for relationships. Now, I wonder if I’ve thrown away my chance. You see, I’m not interested in sex. I’m not ready to expose myself that intimately to anyone and I don’t know if I’ll ever be. I know that sex is a wonderful thing, natural, blah, blah, blah. I’m just not ready or interested. But I know that sex is an expected part of adult relationships. What are the chances, in college or beyond, that I’ll find a guy who feels the same way I do? I don’t want to deceive anyone, lead him to expect something I don’t intend to give, so I don’t see how I can try to date, even casually. Should I just give up on romance altogether? Sell out and do something I really don’t want to? Become a nun?
A: Oh, it’s definitely too late. Yep, you’re a senior in high school, so it’s all over for you romantically. Let me put it another way: You’re a senior in high school, so nothing is too late! Many people don’t date in high school, some people don’t even have much romance in college. But keep in mind that dating is just that—getting to know someone of the opposite sex (if you’re heterosexual) who you’re interested in. Even if you find you’re really interested, there is no obligation—none—to have sex with that person.
You’ve gotten it into your head that if you go to a movie and dinner with someone you’ve been sold into some kind of sex slavery. Let go of this idea. Then if you still don’t want to date, fine. But if you think you might, do so freed from any notions about how the evening is supposed to end.
Q. War of the Flowers: My roommate’s girlfriend gave him several orchids that were near death. They were shriveled, yellow, their flowers had fallen off, and they were generally in bad health. She gave them to him because she “couldn’t bear to look at how sad they were,” so she sent them to him to die. As an experienced flower keeper, I immediately asked if I could have them to try and bring back. My roommate and his girlfriend didn’t care. Now it’s been seven months, and I managed to save two of them and they are gorgeous and in full bloom. Now she wants them back! I feel bad, because they ARE her orchids, but I’ve had them for so long and really appreciate them, that I really want to keep them. I also think that if she takes them back they’ll be dead permanently this time. Do I give them back? Or do I try and convince her they’re better off with me?
A: You got them because she was killing them and was giving them away. If she’d said she was getting rid of her impossible, yapping, unhousebroken dog and you turned the mutt into Lassie, she also couldn’t ask for the dog back. Or, she could ask, but you’d be under no obligation. Just say, “I understood you were getting rid of the flowers because they were dying. I put in a lot of work to save them, and now I want to enjoy them. But if you want to purchase some more orchids, I’d be happy to give you advice on how to take care of them.”
Q. Altering My Signature: My dilemma involves my signature. I have somewhat of a long last name. When I learned to sign my name in cursive as a child I always hated that it was not as “pretty” as the way my friends were able to sign their names. I have dealt with anxiety issues all of my life because I grew up with an alcoholic father. The smallest things in life give me enormous amounts of anxiety. I am now 29 and I have sought therapy in the past few years, which has been a tremendous help to me in coping with my anxiety and my past. But one problem I don’t know how to resolve is my “ugly” signature. Because of my long name, I always felt that I took longer than other folks to sign, say for example, on a credit card receipt at the checkout. Being prone to anxiety, I became convinced that the clerk was staring at me wondering why I was wasting their time as I signed my name. As a young adult I would sign my name faster and faster so that I wouldn’t be a bother, until eventually my signature became nothing more than a scribble. Through therapy I was able to get over feelings that I was a waste of other people’s time. I am much happier and healthier now, but every time I scribble my name it is an ugly reminder of my past. Everyone who sees it comments on how ugly my signature is. I would like to change my signature so that it is more legible but I wonder about the legal ramifications. It would not match my driver’s license signature, nor the bank’s record of my handwriting. Is it crazy of me to want to change my signature at the age of 29? Would this raise red flags to the DMV or my bank?
A: Signatures change naturally over time. Often an artist’s work can be dated by the look of his or her signature. A few years ago I took a handwriting class because I, too, hated my handwriting. I changed my signature and I’m much happier with it. I’ve only run into a problem once when transferring some money. But quickly scribbling my old signature cleared things up. Come up with something stylish that you enjoy looking at and can dash off. And no longer worrying about how everyone else responds when you write your name—however it looks—should be part of your therapy.
Q. Guilted Friendships: I have a co-worker who is set on chatting all day, and she could care less about actual work. I don’t mind having a friendship, but it seems no matter what I do (e.g., shut door, unplug office phone), she keeps coming around to chat with me. I’ve tried the “I really need to get this done,” and stare at the computer, but she just stands in my office and keeps talking. Today she guilted me into driving her to get lunch. Apparently she “forgot” to pack lunch and her car is in the shop—for scheduled maintenance. I don’t want to go out to lunch, and I don’t want to drive her anywhere, but I felt bad saying “no” to someone who might go hungry. It feels more like manipulation than a friendship. How should I handle this the next time?
A: She’s not a friend, she’s a vampire. So forget about the friendship and start putting up some real barriers. Also since she’s an employed American the chances of her actually going “hungry” because she didn’t pack a lunch are nil. From now on start saying, “Susan, I’m in the middle of a project and I can’t talk to you now.” If she won’t leave, feel free to shut the door in her face. If she wants rides or other favors, respond, “Sorry, I can’t help you.”
Q. Re: Dating: I went on a few dates in college, but didn’t date anyone until I was 23. My first boyfriend and I made our own, adult choices about our physical relationship informed by the beliefs we shared. We’re now happily married. I remember feeling like it was all over at 16, 18, 20, and so on, but it had really not yet begun.
A: Indeed! Thanks for this.
Q. Needy Mother-in-Law: My mother-in-law is a stroke survivor who, although impaired, is far from totally disabled. While capable of much more, she chooses to make little or no effort to better her condition in life and instead plays the invalid, more or less demanding to be taken care of, if not waited on hand and foot. My husband and I have a young child and just built our dream home (spacious, but not palatial). My mother-in-law has come right out and asked us several times if she can move in with us. If she weren’t such a drain—both emotionally and physically—I’d be more likely to consider it, but I simply can’t bring myself to agree to the situation. I already have one person relying on me for their care, but at least that one is 18 months old, not 60-something! Part of me feels horribly guilty for basically telling my M-I-L that while we have the space, we simply don’t want her. Am I a horrible person?
A: No. It’s perfectly reasonable not to want to be saddled for what could decades with a demanding mother-in-law living in your own home. You and your husband can help make sure she’s well cared for, but you have no obligation to sacrifice your privacy, sanity, and your marriage for her.
Q. Different Life: Please, please, please keep your fantasies with this other man to yourself. I was “another woman.” I had a great male friend. Upon telling him the news that my husband and I were expecting, he decided to tell me that he had hoped one day we would have a life together, but I guess it’s not going to work out since I’m now pregnant with my husband’s child. It ruined our friendship. My husband wants nothing to do with him. Yes, it was harmless, but it’s so selfish to push your fantasy on the other person.
A: If a friend takes the opportunity of learning you are pregnant to let you in on his long-running fantasy that you will leave your husband and run off with him—yuck! It’s creepy and, you’re right, selfish. The beauty of a fantasy is that it’s yours to indulge and no one has to know. So, people with fantasies, keep them to yourselves!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next Monday.
Like Prudie on the official Dear Prudence Facebook page and like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.