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!
Q. I’m So Embarrassed … In-Laws Saw Sexy Photos: A long time ago my husband and I took some, erm, “sexy” photos of ourselves. They were stored in our home PC and forgotten. Recently my mother-in-law asked us for a copy of our wedding photos and those of our 10-month-old daughter so she could make a family album. We haven’t organized our photos on the PC, so I simply copied and pasted the entire “My Pictures” folder into the USB. After giving it to her, I was horrified to realize that the “sexy” photos would also be there. My in-laws haven’t said anything to us, but I’m certain they saw them. I’m split between pretending nothing happened (but we know they know, and I feel embarrassed beyond belief) and saying something (but what do I say?). I don’t think I could look them in the eye again.
A: My husband and I once took “sexy” photos of ourselves. I hid them somewhere then promptly forgot they ever existed. A few years later, we went on vacation and had a team of painters do the entire house. The boss said he’d take all the books off the shelves himself. When we returned, all our books were piled in the middle of the living room, and on the very top, taken out of the envelope, were our photos. It’s very hard to say to someone, “Can you do another coat on the baseboards, please?” when you know he’s looking at you and thinking, “I’ve seen you naked!”
I’ve never been happier to have someone leave my life than that painter, so I can only imagine what you are feeling about your in-laws. However, in this digital age, many family members, while using each other’s computers, have stumbled on unfortunate knowledge about the sexual proclivities of others. Unless it is an issue of endangerment (child porn, for example), I think the best approach is to pretend you know nothing. In your case, this requires both parties to mutually, silently, agree that neither of you will ever mention the mortifying thing that has just taken place. Clearly, your in-laws are taking this approach, and you should follow their lead. Let’s assume they’re sophisticated people who once upon a time took their own sexy photos. Let’s say after clicking briefly on an image, they said to themselves, “At least these kids are having a great time,” and moved on. If you and your husband can find a way to laugh about this with each other, it will take away some of your anxiety.
So just sail forth acting as if you don’t know they know. And, please, put clean out your files and put the photos in some encrypted place not even the NSC can access.
Dear Prudence: Giver’s Remorse
Q. My Friends Look Down on Me Because I’m Not a Lawyer Anymore: Before having children I obtained a master’s degree and worked for a well-known law firm. After becoming a parent, I fell in love with the role of raising my children. The legal profession, in retrospect, was not right for me anyway, and I happily became a stay-at-home mom. Now my children are in preschool. I started a part-time job as a secretary. I am happy in my job as I’m not looking for any career progression but simply some low-stress work to do in my free time away from the kids. It may not be mentally stimulating, but I like my co-workers and I’m having fun here. My problem lies with my friends and relatives. I regularly get comments that I “wasted” my degree and that I should look for a “real” job. They often look down at what I do and remark how awful I must feel that I sacrificed my career for my children. But, Prudie, I love my life exactly the way it is! It’s so irritating hearing these demeaning and snobbish comments. What can I say? I have to restrain myself from rolling my eyes and telling them to shut up.
A: Apparently they haven’t been reading the news that having a law degree makes you about as appealing in the marketplace as having excellent skills as a scribe. The issue here, of course, isn’t the difficulty of finding legal jobs, but the fact that you don’t want one. I assume you’ve told everyone that you don’t want to practice law and you’re happy doing what you’re doing. If you haven’t, say that in a simple declarative sentence. When they start with their insulting commentary, then you say, “I’ve told you the decision I’ve made for myself. I’m not soliciting advice about being a solicitor, so we need to close this subject. Thanks.” If you keep getting harangued, cut short the visit or the call.
Q. Is It OK To Ask for the Baby Gift Back?: Upon hearing of my friend “Tina’s” pregnancy, I bought an expensive baby swing as an early baby gift. Tragically, Tina lost her baby six months into the pregnancy. Tina comes from a superstitious family and believes all of her deceased baby’s things should be burned or thrown away. I am pondering if it is appropriate to ask for the return of the baby swing rather than seeing it go to the bonfire. Since it costs $150, I’m unlikely to buy it again for my own baby, but I know she will love it. What do you think, Prudie?
A: When you give a gift you have to let go of it. It’s unfortunate if your friend burns it, but that’s her decision. Added to this is the fact that you simply don’t intrude on your friend’s grief by saying, “Since you’re not having a baby after all …” It would have been better if someone in the family had take over the task of returning gifts or offering to donate them, but no one did. It’s also unfortunate that their decision is to destroy good items that could be passed on to a shelter, but you should not intrude.
Q. Breaking Bad News to Family: For years, I have hosted Easter dinner at my home. I find it a joy to cook for 12-plus people. The problem is this: I fell recently and fractured a bone in my elbow as well as severely dislocating the joint. I have the arm in a cast, and it will still be in the cast for Easter, leaving me with one functioning arm. I cannot make the traditional meal. How do I break the news to everyone that I cannot cook this year? I don’t think anyone is in any position to cook for me.
A: Long, long from now, when your mortal body is no longer with us, I hope your family will not expect you to rise from the dead each Easter and continue to make them a meal because they have been rendered incapable of providing for themselves.
You break the news to everyone of your broken elbow by phone or email or Facebook or whatever is easiest for you to do one-handed. No one may be in a position to take over cooking for 12, but surely all of them are capable of providing one dish for 12. So you should suggest that in order for you to get together for Easter this year that it be potluck. You can even offer your home, with the understanding that family members will have to do all the set up and cleaning. It’s wonderful that you enjoy your yearly duties, but you have more than earned the right to be waited on by them.
Q. I Don’t Want To Raise My Nephews!: My husband has an alcoholic brother who can barely look after himself. He’s been divorced twice, with a child from each marriage. Both mothers took off and my elderly in-laws have full custody. However, they are approaching a point where they can no longer care for them. (My MIL has always been unwell and FIL was diagnosed with cancer.) Recently they asked us to take full-time care of my nephews—but my heart drops at this thought. We have three kids who need a lot of attention. I don’t have the energy or inclination to have two additional kids. If they come, I’ll just be “ticking off the boxes” rather than being a good parent to tend to my own children’s needs and spend quality time with them. My husband is a nice guy who’ll promise to help, but he is pretty useless around the house and realistically all the household responsibilities will fall to me. Since there is no other family around, the only other option is foster care. Am I heartless to put my children’s needs above my nephews?
A: What a heartbreak. I can understand that you are torn, and I also understand that you feel overwhelmed at the thought of becoming a mother of five and don’t want to do it. Are you sure there is no other family who can rescue these kids? Do their mothers not have parents or siblings who could take them in? If they go to foster care, perhaps you can find in your heart and your life the ability to put in place some kind of system in which they spend part of each weekend with you, or some way that your family provides them with a sense of enduring connection and stability.
Readers, any suggestions for this awful dilemma?
Q. Entertaining Friend Dominates Conversation: I have a lawyer friend who is very witty and entertaining. She can turn a story about watching grass grow into a hysterical comedy festival. But because she is so good at talking, she often talks … and talks … and doesn’t stop. When my husband tried to ask me what time it was without interrupting her, he once waited half an hour before there was a moment of silence in her nonstop talking. I love listening to her lively stories, but it has got to a point where I feel like that’s all our group of friends ever do. I was going through a very difficult situation at work last week and when I told my friends, they murmured something sympathetic very briefly before my lawyer friend exclaimed, “Oh, this reminds me of something ELSE that happened to ME at work …” and the spotlight quickly turned to her. I love this group of friends, but it seems like 90 percent of the time we are listening to her drama about her family, colleagues, and who knows what else. What’s a polite way of getting the conversation to even out?
A: Your friend should probably work her stories up into a 90-minute act, charge admission, and then when you get together, she’d be so exhausted from her performance schedule that she’d actually let someone else talk. Entertaining she may be, but she’s also a narcissist with logorrhea. The way you handle someone like that is with polite bluntness. Something like, “Myrna, I’d love to hear your story another time, but I actually wanted to know what other people had to say about what I should do.” If she won’t stop under those circumstances, then your husband should say something like, “Myra, I have to interrupt you, because Jane needs to talk about her situation.” Hopefully that will inspire others in the group to help her curb her act.
Q. Pregnant Customers: I was working as a barista and an obviously pregnant woman ordered a blended coffee drink. I asked her if she wanted that decaf as many customers don’t know it is available without caffeine. She seemed confused as to why I was asking, and her husband shot me death glares. I was only trying to be nice, but looking back on it I many have been overstepping. Was I wrong?
A: It would be one thing if you were working at a bar and an obviously pregnant woman was ordering her third drink—then you could speak to the manager about refusing service. But I don’t even know what your objection is to letting a pregnant woman have access to caffeine. Caffeine (in moderation) is fine during pregnancy, and, yes, you overstepped.
Q. Nephews: I have three kids. I’d hate to be in your position. I’m not the most patient, kid-centric person. But I’d really like to think if anything ever happened to me, someone would step in for those few years until young adulthood to make sure my kids were OK. So, I think I’d have to do the same. And, um, your husband can learn to be involved just like you’d have to learn to be a parent to five. This isn’t for eternity, just until they reach adulthood. Wow. Those kids have already been dealt a really bad hand in life.
A: Several readers are making the point that hard as it would be to take them in, it’s for a finite period, and looking back, you will probably feel terrible about letting them go into foster care.
Q. Re: BIL’s Kids: The state often provides supportive services for grandparents who can prevent the children from entering foster care. You might contact the local CPS and see if they can do anything to help the grandparents make this work for them.
A: Here’s another approach—see if there is a way to get enough help to keep them with the grandparents. Whatever happens, it sounds crucial for the letter writer’s family to be involved with those kids.
Q. Playing Hostess: I moved from a wintery northern climate to Miami about three months ago. So far, I have had about five days without visitors. These people are great, awesome friends and family, and I am more than happy to have them stay with me. My question is, considering that I still have to go to work Monday through Friday and have yet to make friends in my new town, how much do I have to hang out with them after work when they are here? I am missing work functions to go home and be with them and don’t get to eat dinner at home (good restaurants in Miami!) and have my own life. When people plan their trips, do I tell them about my intentions? Am I obligated to entertain them since they are on their own 9 to 5? So far, it’s been mostly weeklong to two- week visits. So, it gets stressful trying to keep people busy for that long. I fully expect that summer months will be different, so perhaps I should ride it out. Help!
A: When your relatives and friends announce, “Surprise! We’re coming to Miami!” you can respond, “Wonderful! I can’t wait to see you. Here is a list of motels close to me so we’ll have a chance to get together.” You are not the Fontainebleau. You do not need to provide food, entertainment, or concierge service. If you don’t mind putting people up, give them a key, explain they’re on their own, and go about your life. You can also say, “I’d be happy to see you, but a three-day visit is all I can handle right now.” Let’s hope all this results in your rating on friends-and-family Trip Adviser going into the dumper.
Q. Good Times, Bad Times: I’m a single early-middle-aged man who has recently begun a wonderful new relationship with a woman in a similar situation. A big part of what has made this affair blossom has been some marvelous lovemaking. I’ve had enough women tell me that I’m an excellent lover that I’ve started to believe them, and my girlfriend has made it clear that this is very important to her. The problem is that my GF has a group of close female friends—co-workers, drinking buddies, old sorority sisters, etc.—to whom she tells most everything. I like these women well enough, but recently I have had more than one of them—married and not—make passes at me. Blatant sexual passes, with the sort of detail that could only have come from my GF. I would never dream of cheating on her, so I always laugh it off, but this has gone from flattering to amusing to disconcerting. What’s going on here? What do these women talk about with each other? How would I broach the subject with my GF?
A: There’s a classic blues song called “Don’t Advertise Your Man,” and you need to play it for your girlfriend. It’s wonderful that she’s so taken with your skills that she wants to shout about it from the rooftops, but you need to tell her that her that broadcasting this message is resulting in your having to bat away her friends. (And no, chat readers, I cannot put you in touch with Mr. Good Times.)
Q. What Difference Does It Make?: My husband is angry because I’m fatter than he wants, and our house isn’t as clean as he’d like. (No one else has a problem with the looks of my body or of our house.) He sees my size and the house’s cleanliness as proof that I don’t love him. (He honestly is in hyper-good shape but also is deluded enough to think that he never does anything wrong.) When I was thinner and kept the house cleaner, he was still mean and critical. My feeling is that my circumstances will be the same, regardless of my size or the house’s cleanliness, so why bother? I’m tired of living a life of condemnation, and he won’t go to counseling. Any suggestions?
A: You could say to him: “Honey, I’ve just seen a divorce lawyer. But I want you to know because of your extreme interest in housekeeping that I’ll let you have custody of the vacuum cleaner.” He doesn’t have to go to therapy with you, but you need to go to get some clarity on whether you want to end your marriage, and if so, to help you through it. You also need to figure out why you married someone so miserable to you, and how to keep from getting into a similar situation.
Q. Nephews: Five children certainly sounds like a houseful, but I can nearly guarantee that taking your nephews in will be much easier than you imagine now! It’s just human nature to think that hard things will be so much harder than they actually turn out to be. When I was 10, my parents took in a second cousin under similar circumstances. As a 10-year-old I resented it. As an adult, I came to recognize that growing up in a family that was willing to do that for another person is a core component of my identity. Today, I am so proud of my parents, and I aspire to be as good as they were.
A: Thank you, this is wonderful.
Q. Sexy Photos, Letters, Etc.: My 91-year-old mother passed on recently. Among her belongings that my sister and I inherited are the many letters she exchanged with my father during WWII, when they were dating, then engaged, then married. Among them are some pretty racy comments when they named each other’s body parts, described what they’d like to be doing, and, um, etc., etc. We “kids,” in our 60s with grandkids of our own, got a smile out of seeing this side of our parents. Moral of the story: If you don’t want anyone to see your racy stuff, erase it! If you keep your stash, someday you will be providing a good laugh and a source of family amusement to generations yet to come. Just a thought to consider as you do your spring-cleaning.
A: Great letter, thanks!
Q. Birthday Etiquette: One of my best friends has decided to celebrate her birthday with a large dinner at an expensive seafood restaurant. The economy has affected my pocketbook and because of my dietary restrictions, there is nothing for me on the menu at this restaurant. I have tried to make alternate plans to take her out for dinner on another night close to her birthday, but she is unavailable and wants to know why I am “trying to get out of going to [her] birthday dinner.” Do I just suck it up and go to the big dinner, or can I bow out and say I’m sorry there’s no other opportunity for us to celebrate her birthday?
A: Adult birthdays are replacing weddings and baby showers as sources of bad behavior. You don’t want to be stuck with a $75 bill for a salad and glass of wine to celebrate this momentous occasion. You don’t need to offer any excuse. All you have to say is: “I hope you have a wonderful celebration. I’m sorry I can’t be there.”
Q. Family Pictures Without Stepdaughter: My 18-year-old stepdaughter has decided that she hates me and her father, and has even told my husband that he is no longer her family. (She has numerous emotional problems that even therapy isn’t helping—and, no, there is no kind of physical or emotional abuse involved). She has refused to get in a picture with my husband and her sisters in the past. My 15-year-old stepdaughter wants a family picture of us all together (her, my husband, me, and our daughter). My question is, do I have to inform the 18-year-old about the pictures, or can I just take her at her request and not include her in family functions? I honestly don’t want her in our picture, but I also don’t want to create more family trouble, if that’s even possible to do. Am I wrong?
A: You have a troubled kid, and let’s hope that she eventually finds her way out of her troubles. You have a balancing act here to try to respect her wishes, and yet keep the door open so that she has the chance to slip in through it someday, instead of having to pound at it declaring her desire to be let in.
Send her a message letting her know that you’re all posing for a family photo soon. Say you understand her wish not to participate in family functions now. But add that all of you love her and want to give her the opportunity to come to this one if she is so moved. Probably she will ignore your note, or it will give her the opportunity to vent about her wishes not being respected. But maybe a little part of her will file away the fact that she still has a home with you.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. And now I’ve got to try to remember where I hid that envelope.