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, everyone. Let’s get to it.
Q. Obligated? Ten years ago, when my husband and I were expecting our first child, his mother made us promise that if we ever took our children to Disneyland that she be allowed to go with us, as she had never been. Of course, we agreed. We finally have the funds and time to make the trip with our two children. M-I-L has had numerous health concerns over the last year and her health is unsteady at best. To make things worse, my cantankerous F-I-L is reluctant to let her out of his sight. She is the only one who can tolerate his political rants and constant complaining. He also has numerous health concerns and is unable to walk for extended periods of time. I fear that bringing them along would not only hamper our ability to enjoy the trip, but I would be playing the role of nursemaid the whole time. I’m hesitant to tell them about our travel plans. Are we still obligated to invite them?
A: If your father-in-law is as impossible as you say, I think you should get him an open-ended ticket for the It’s a Small World ride. That should quickly put him in a catatonic state and the rest of you will be able to enjoy your vacation. You promised your mother-in-law a trip to Disney, and it would be churlish to deprive her. However, all of you have to take into account your various physical needs and capacities. The entire family does not have to be joined at the hip. Get separate rooms, and if necessary make somewhat separate agendas for the day. You can all meet up for meals, or take one or two rides together. Surely Disneyland of all places is going to be able to accommodate little people of manic energy, and old people of fading strength. Get out of your head the idea that you have to play nursemaid, and let your in-laws decide how much Mickey Mouse they can stand.
Dear Prudence: Crush on My Boss
Q. Relationship—Respect My Girlfriend’s Wishes? I am a 30-year-old man who is back in college due to lack of job opportunities in this economy. I am in a competitive program that only takes a limited number of candidates per year. The problem is, my girlfriend, who is finishing her masters thesis across the country, was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and is going to require surgery before she returns home next month. I want to be with her as she goes through this, we are planning on getting married, and she has no family. For me to be able to be there for her would require me to drop out of my program and hope that the school keeps its word to allow me to start where I left off next year. My girlfriend doesn’t want me to put my future on hold any longer and insists that she will be fine if I stay home and finish the semester. However, I can’t stand the thought of her alone, in a medically induced coma for 10 days, on the other side of the country. She is very independent because she has been alone since she was a little girl. Do I accept her request and stay home, or do I do what feels right to me and be there for her?
A: I hope her surgery goes well and you two have a long, happy life together. If you do, when you look back on it, you will be glad you were there by her bedside when she was recovering from a brain tumor. She may be very strong and independent, but no one should have to go through that alone. You’ve already gotten your department to defer your studies. If it would ease your mind, have the plan put in writing. Given that following her surgery much of your time will be spent waiting, check with your professors to see if there is work you can do remotely that will give you a jump on your research for when you resume the next academic year. Sure, Gabrielle Gifford’s astronaut husband is going into space, but he was by her bedside for the worst of it, and he will return to help her long recovery. It sounds as if you know that despite your girlfriend’s protestations, you are certain about where you have to be.
Q. Mooching Brother: My mother and father have always coddled my brother—giving him a car, letting him live rent-free in their home (he’s still there and he’s in his 30s), letting him eat them out of house and home. My brother has never really grown up, and Mom has taken care of him without hardly a word. Recently, both of my parents have become quite ill with some serious medical problems, and my father lost his job because he ran out of medical leave. I’ve been coming over to help my parents, after working a full day, and have picked up a second job to make ends meet. The problem is this: My brother does NOTHING to help! He doesn’t contribute to bills, cleaning, etc. When I brought it up with him (seeing as he’s living with Mom and Dad!) he told me that he doesn’t have to and that I “owe it to him” to take care of Mom and Dad because he always thought I was the favorite! I brought this up with Mom and Dad and they just shrugged. If I don’t help, I know that they’ll lose the house—but I’m being run ragged, and I’m afraid I’m ready to seriously blow my top. Advice, please???
A: It would seem to make sense that if parents do everything for a child, when it comes time that the parents need help, the child will do for the parents what was done for him. What actually happens, however, when parents indulge and infantilize a child, that child throw tantrums and says, “What about me!” when the parents can no longer care for him.
You’ve got a big mess, and what you should not do is drive yourself into a state of collapse to rescue people incapable of making good decisions. Whatever the reasons your parents have done this for your brother, he’s a useless leech. What you need now is some professional help—you could start with the state or local senior services—figuring out how to get them medical care and keep them from losing their home. (Readers, any other ideas on where the letter writer can get help?) It may be that your parents need to sell their home and shift to a different living situation. That could have the salutary effect of making your brother fend for himself and stop draining your parents. But you cannot work round the clock to sustain the unsustainable.
Q. For the Record: Love the Small World ride jab. My parents and sister did in fact get stuck on that ride for three hours, music and all, before I was born and subsequently rejected all things Disney with a fiery anger I did not understand until I was much older and finally heard the song out on my own. I pretty sure that tactic is still in use with our nation’s special ops teams.
A: Three hours on It’s a Small World? I believe that’s a Geneva Conventions violation. Now the tune has started up in my head. Help!
Q. Teens and Parent Abandonment: Here’s the short of it: My daughter’s 16-year-old boyfriend’s mom hasn’t been home in six days—she came home for an hour on Saturday and left again. The boy found a disconnect notice for $50 for the electric bill. We paid it without his knowledge (found out the mom didn’t bother). She apparently hasn’t bothered with many of the bills. The Internet and the cells are shut off, along with television, and he doesn’t even know if she’s working anymore. The occasional text via others’ phones is all the proof he has that she’s still breathing. His dad lives two towns over but is not in the picture for raising him and provides just a little financial support for the kid. When and where do we draw the line in helping him? Should we call the school or protective services? He’ll be 17 in July.
A: Please get this boy help. Start with the school—they have legal obligations to protect and report and should know how to start the process. Also tell this boy that you are letting the administration know what is going on. I know that having your teenager daughter’s boyfriend under the same roof could present some difficulties, but it sounds as if it would really help this boy if you could provide some stability until action is taken on his behalf. I’m sure your heart is breaking for this kid, and he sounds lucky you’re there to give him shelter.
Q. Arranged Marriage: I come from a very traditional family. I’m 22-years-old, fresh out of college, and living at home. When I was 18, my grandparents/parents arranged a marriage for me with a guy from another family very much like ours—same culture, same values, same church. He’s very sweet and kind and he’s pretty much made it clear that he loves me. We’ve gone on a couple of dates, but I just don’t feel chemistry with him. No fireworks, no romance. My parents think I’m being naive. They had an arranged marriage. They keep telling me that “love will come afterwards” and point to the fact that arranged marriages last longer. I’ve told my parents countless times that I’d rather wait to find my husband. But they’re scared that the guy I find by myself will hurt me or be from a different culture, or that I’ll end up 35 with no life partner in sight (which is the equivalent of social suicide for them). My grandma’s praying that I’ll eventually come around. They’re all convinced that I’m making the wrong decision. Sometimes, I feel like I am! Family is very important to me. But because of this situation, I haven’t ever had a real boyfriend. How do I fend off my parents (and loving, yet domineering grandma!) whenever this topic inevitably comes up? And what do I say to this poor guy? Should I just chuck my dream romance out the window and sign up for this long-term commitment? They want me married within a year!
A: You’re an American and an adult, and no matter what your family’s traditional culture, they can’t force you into a marriage you don’t want. It will not necessarily be smooth, but you have to start the process of breaking away from your family. That doesn’t mean breaking all ties, but it does mean making clear that the old ways just aren’t working for you. Something about their original culture wasn’t right for your family because they aren’t there (wherever that was) but here. They will just have to accept that when they choose the freedom of America, they would produce offspring who were going to pursue their own happiness.
Q. Moving in Too Early? Do the rules about when to move in together change when you’re in your mid-30s? My boyfriend and I have only been dating five months, but we’re pretty sure this is it. I don’t want to look like a fool by moving too fast, but I am 35 and feel like we can’t waste time—by the time we move in, get engaged, get married, build a marriage, I’ll be in my late 30s, and we want kids. He’s anxious to move in now, but I keep thinking that “people just don’t DO that.” Thoughts?
A: My husband and I were engaged after six weeks and married after four months, so I’m hardly the person to say no to the marriage express. I also agree that while it’s far from infallible, when you’re older you may have a better sense of who’s right for you and how to read people. However, before you move in together you two need to have a joint and clear understanding of where this relationship is going. Are you both looking for marriage and children? If so, then is the moving in just to make sure neither of you is psycho—or leaves the cap off the toothpaste—before you announce your engagement? I’m also a little worried about your boyfriend being “anxious” to move in now. Is that because creditors are calling day and night at his current domicile? Or is it because he, too, agrees given your ages, there’s no time to waste? It’s fine to get in the fast lane, but be very sure you are both planning on the same destination.
Q. Jealousy, Friendships, Self-Improvement: This may not sound like a problem, but I seem to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. My boyfriend has appeared on magazine covers for his worldwide surfing adventures and is also a published writer (which is my chosen field, but I’ve found no success in it). My siblings and circle of friends are all artists and musicians enjoying relative success and happiness with these careers. I know this sounds hyperbolic, but all of them seemed to have found something they’re not only very good at, but passionate about as well. I, on the other hand, am a mediocre “jack of all trades” type and want nothing more than to find that thing that I will shine at. My job bores me to death, even though it’s in the field I thought I wanted to be in, and as hobbies I’ve tried everything from rock climbing to piano lessons, but nothing seems to stick (plus it all seems to cost a fair amount of money, of which I don’t have much). I want to be happy for my successful and talented friends, but I just end up feeling sad and jealous when I hear their songs on the radio or see them on TV. How can I find my talent and/or not be resentful of those in my life who already have?
A: So, your boyfriend just hosted the Academy Awards and all your other friends are on their world tours or just back from Davos and your day is consumed with straightening out “accounts payable.” Your incredible boyfriend chose you for some reason, and it’s probably not your mediocrity. Of course it’s hard not to compare yourself to everyone, especially if your circle is so dazzling. But generally life will eventually knock some people off their surfboards and it will also reward the sloggers who simply kept at it. If you want to be a writer, then write. If you hate your job, start looking around for one that will be more engaging. Stop looking for your own dazzling, hidden talent and start putting in the effort to make the most satisfying life you can.
Q. The New “Kid” at Family Gatherings: I am adult in my mid-40s with older siblings and parents who enjoy each others’ company and socialize often. My oldest brother—the only one of us who remains unmarried—recently started bringing his latest girlfriend to family gatherings. She is in her early 20s and is closer in age to our (my other siblings and I) children than to us—and certainly our brother. She has more in common with—should they marry—the nieces and nephews than all of us. This has put a strain on family gatherings. We want him to be happy, but all of us feel he should date a woman who has something to add—emotionally and intellectually—to his life. Prudence, this woman is barely old enough to be legal! Should we say nothing, or offer to cut her steak for her?
A: I’m trying to understand how it’s a strain to be polite to the young woman your brother is dating. Yes, there may be a gaping age difference, but that doesn’t seem to matter to them. You say she’s in her early 20s—last time I checked, that would put her well beyond the age of consent. Stop being such judgmental prigs and be gracious and welcoming.
Q. Mooching Brother: Prudence, please tell her to get a lawyer NOW. She needs an elderlaw specialist. If she, her brother, or any other family member does care giving for the parents, a written contract is essential. Otherwise, if they go into the “Medicaid spend-down, five-year lookback” Medicaid can come after them for that money. Low-functioning parents can destroy a responsible adult’s career, if not her life. No wonder it is the low-functioning kids who are most likely to never move out. Then you have a whole group of people who cannot take care of themselves. In any case, unless there are millions of dollars in assets, there will be no inheritance. So any compensation must be gotten up front. If she does nothing, the parents will wind up in a nursing home, and the brother may be on the street. That would NOT be her fault. It takes a village for people to take care of each other. The low-functioning members of a family cannot be allowed to drag the high-functioning ones into the pit they have dug for themselves.
A: Thanks for the good advice.
Q. Online Bullies: My girlfriend and I are active participants in an online community dedicated to a show we both like. Unfortunately some of the people in the community are trolls and bullies and nasty to everyone. For reasons I don’t know, they fixated on the two of us and constantly trash-talked us for a long time. They seem to have finally moved on, but my girlfriend is crushed and wants to leave. I feel upset and like leaving is giving these bullies what they want, but I also don’t want my girlfriend to feel pressured if she really wants to leave. Do you have any advice on how I should deal with this, support her, etc.? Some of the things people said were just over the top vile. I would like to stay because I have my own friends in this community, but I’d be a liar if I didn’t say I’ve wondered if it’s hopeless too.
A: I’ve never been so involved in a television show that I’d be willing to be emotionally crushed because of my desire to hash over the plot points. I’ve never participated in one of these communities, but don’t some of them have rules for participation? Is there a moderator who can ban abusive members? If not, then you should probably just conclude you’ve just gotten back a whole bunch of time you used to spend dissecting a television show to use more pleasantly and productively.
Q. Brother Dating Younger Woman: Take a little time to learn a little about younger culture. It will not only help you converse with your brother’s girlfriend, but it will also allow you to converse with your children, nieces, and nephews. Wow, what a concept, relating to the next generation of your family. I have several friends who are 20 years younger than me. And spending just a little time of my normal newspaper perusal time paying attention to some of the details of the younger world means I still have things to talk about with them besides our mutual interests.
A: Exactly. It will also be good to show the young family members that you don’t act rude and condescending to guests who don’t fit pre-determined slots.
Q. Family and Weddings: My sister-in-law behaved horribly before and during her wedding, making us feel unwanted and unwelcome at points. Her friends were with her while she got ready and locked us out of the room. We had to plead to get in to the bridal area to use the restrooms and get dressed. I told her that her mother had been very hurt not to be included for the makeup/putting on her dress, and my S-I-L blew me off because she doesn’t think of her mother as someone who cared about those things. Since the wedding, I have felt very distant from her, and she now wants me to be her emotional support during her pregnancy. How do I make the mental switch from hurt to being there? Do I need to have it out with her first?
A: It sounds as if your sister-in-law is behaving very consistently. If you’re not useful to her at a given time, the door is locked. If she needs help, you’re her 911. To be fair, it could be that having the bridal area teeming with people was becoming overwhelming and her friends decided to let her get ready in peace. But even so, you can’t prevent your family from being able to relieve themselves prior to the wedding. However, I’m not sure I understand what your S-I-L wants now as “emotional support” during her pregnancy. Does that mean you are on call so she can vent when her hormones are raging, or that you’re supposed to run errands for her? Or is she trying to say she’d like to be closer to you, perhaps because you’ve been through a pregnancy? Whether she’s a bride or a pregnant, neither condition gives her a right to suspend normal courtesies. So if you feel you need to clear the air, then do so. If you can dismiss the wedding drama, fine. But if she’s now announcing what your new duties to her entail, feel free to decline.
Q. Stoned Cancer Patient: I’m a young professional in my late 20s, and I’m currently battling a rare form of blood cancer. In my state, medical marijuana is legal, and has been a godsend. My medicine has been so effective in helping me control my vomiting and pain that I’ve actually been cleared to return to work. The only problem is that my HR director has made it clear that my employers think my medicine is “bunk” and just an excuse to get high. They won’t let me return to work until I disuse the marijuana and the company has begun random drug testing because of me! The laws are still very new in my state, and I work for an international company. I’m not sure where to turn or what to do. If I’m fired, I would lose my health insurance, but no other medicine gives me the relief that marijuana does.
A: Why are people so cruel? I hope you make a full recovery. In the meantime, see if a letter from your doctor will get the company to back off. If not, unfortunately, you need to find a lawyer. Again, isn’t life hard enough without people going out of their way to afflict the afflicted?
Q. Toddler Etiquette: What is the etiquette involved when you invite friends with toddlers over? Who cleans up the food mess that the toddler makes? Is it OK for the parents to leave the mess for the hosts to clean up or should they at least offer to help?
A: They should offer, and when you say yes, they should help. However, when you are hostess, especially to toddlers, you should prepare yourself to deal with some mess. This is all supposed to even out, because everyone should take turns inviting the little ones over.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.