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. (Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let’s get to it.
Q. New Baby on the Way: We are expecting a baby in a couple weeks. My husband has a 7-year-old son from a previous marriage. I am having a hard time dealing with the feelings of experiencing all this for the first time while my husband has already “been there, done that.” I am also getting slightly possessive of the baby’s things and room that my step son can’t seem to stop playing with. Any advice for these feelings? Also, is it OK to set boundaries with my husband and stepson so that I can have some experiences as a first-time parent without my stepson? For example, I picture giving the first bath to the baby with my stepson trying to “help,” but there are some experiences I want to have to myself or with just my husband and me.
A: I wish I could chalk up this letter to hormones. Guess what, you married a man with a young child. So being a loving stepmother to your stepson should have helped prepare you for being a mother to your child. This little boy is not taking away from your unique experience. Your experiences with him should be enhancing it. How lovely for the new baby to have a big brother who is excited to help take care of him. It’s fine to set boundaries along the line of explaining that a baby is delicate, and that it can’t hold its head up. It is not OK to say, “Stop sullying the pristine beauty of MY child’s room.” Now that you’re going to be a mother, try to think of your stepson’s life. In only 7 years he’s had to endure his parents’ break up and his father’s remarriage, and accept that this new sibling means his parents will never get back together. Try to bring some compassion to him, and realize you will be enhancing your own child’s life if you make the child who’s already here a true part of the family.
Dear Prudence: Journal Invader
Q. Dinnertime Texting: One of my husband’s friends comes over for dinner a few times a month—very casual meals: pizza or pasta, nothing fancy. However, he keeps his phone on the table and answers texts constantly through the meal (and throughout the visit). I’ve tried passively to make lighthearted comments about putting away the phone—he never does. Should I be more adamant about no phones at the table or just deal with his faux pas of phone etiquette? (I don’t want to have my own faux pas!)
A: You’re right, it is uncomfortable to let a guest know he’s being rude. But since he regularly comes to your home to enjoy your food and your company, and you feel like a waitress who can’t get his attention long enough to take his order, it’s time to speak up. Stop hinting, and set some ground rules: “Dan, we love having you over and catching up with you. But I’ve been feeling you’re here in stomach, but not in mind. So I’m asking that you turn off the phone during dinner. I understand if you have to check your messages after we eat. But please, no phone at the table.” If he can’t comply, then give him the addresses for a local pizza parlor.
Q. Mom Offended by My Blog: I recently started a blog, which I have opened to general readership. My latest post is about a women’s retreat I recently attended and a surprising (for me) encounter with the female divine I had there. In my post I mentioned my relationship with my mother, saying it is “constrained, fraught, difficult,” which it often is, though not always. Those three words about our relationship are all I said about her in the post, but my mother found my blog, read them, and is deeply offended by my “unflattering description of her.” I didn’t intend to offend her and regret it, but at the same time what I wrote was true and was an important part of my story. (It is quite possible that she was also uncomfortable with the rest of the post, because I am certain she would not approve of my attending the retreat or being inspired by the Goddess, though she has not said anything about that.) I intend to continue writing about my life, and there are many important people who influence me in ways both good and bad. Is it possible for a person to balance the desire to write about life, to be honest about that life, yet not hurt the people who mean the most to them? Was I wrong to write about a difficult relationship in a public forum (she asks as she writes to Dear Prudence)?
A: Your encounter with the female divine prompted you to tell the world about the female rotten—your mother. Did the Goddess give you any guidance about starting a blog with a post about how difficult your mother is? I’m assuming that at least until your blog goes viral, your mother makes up the bulk of your readers. So surely you knew that posting an unflattering description of your relationship with her was unlikely to improve that relationship. Of course, novelists and memoir-writers would have to find another line of work if it was verboten to write about how terrible their parents were. I’m not saying it’s wrong for you to write whatever you want for the world to see. What’s wrong is being naive about how it’s going to affect your most devoted reader.
Q. New Baby With Stepson: I have a friend who married a guy with two kids. It bothered her all the time that she and their child together were “not enough to make him happy.” Imagine that you get divorced and a future wife treats your kid this way. It was no mystery when you married that your husband had “been there and done that,” so GET OVER IT. I have seen how much you can hurt innocent kids firsthand.
Q. For New Baby: Your letter reminds me of a family that we are friends with. The second wife has gone so far as to exclude the husband’s daughters from his first marriage from participating in any holiday celebrations (e.g., trimming the tree) at his home because “their Christmas” is at their mother’s. How the husband allows this ridiculous situation is beyond me, but trust me, you are headed down that path and you don’t want to go there! You may be a first-time mom, but your new baby already has a brother, and your letter evidences a deeply held resentment of a situation you cannot change. For the entire family’s sake, please seek counseling to deal with these feelings.
A: Double Amen!
Q. Can I Tell My Friends About My Cancer By Email?: A few years ago, when my daughter was a newborn, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which required a year of surgery and unpleasant treatments. My last mammogram shows that the cancer has returned. I am waiting to get the full details and an idea of timing on the next round of surgery, but it should be happening within the next few weeks, so I need to start telling friends and family relatively soon. I’m imagining people’s reaction will be much like mine, shock and a feeling that is it super unfair, and I don’t think I can face repetitions of it without being totally drained. Would it be too inappropriate to send an email to friends (we’ll call family) laying out the situation, explaining that it is too tough to deal with the initial reaction, but that I am happy to talk once the news has sunk in?
A: I’m so sorry about this diagnosis and hope your treatments are successful. Of course people will want to zoom in and tell you they love you and offer to help. And it’s perfectly understandable that dealing with others’ emotions is too much for you right now. So go ahead and get the word out in the way that helps you the most. Send an email, giving as much information as you want. Explain in it that you’re busy consulting with doctors and making plans for your treatment, and that you hope people will understand you don’t have the energy right now for phone calls and visits. Maybe you can say you’d love to see their emails or get cards, but you apologize for not being able to respond in a timely way.
Then consider signing up for one of the sites—Lotsa Helping Hands, Caring Bridge, etc.—that allows a designated family member to post updates to friends and family on how you’re doing. The sites will also allow people to organize the bringing of dinners or running errands for you, if you decide you want that. People will understand you are not pushing them away, you are just gathering strength for your next step.
Q. Baby Bump Pictures: We’re thrilled to be expecting our first child in a few months. We are being asked by friends and family to post baby bump pictures on Facebook—it’s getting annoying. I have a few really nice shots up there now of us, with bump, but apparently it’s not nearly enough for these folks. I’m pretty private and I’m happy about my baby and the size of my belly; but I get the feeling (in fact I know) that many of them want to see how big I am or compare me to their pregnancies. It just feels weird to be pestered for these pictures. I’m not interested in seeing others’ Demi Moore-style pictures on Facebook, and I certainly don’t want to showcase myself like this. What is a nice response to these requests? I am happy for their well-wishes.
A: Just ignore the requests. The good thing about demands for pregnancy photos is that it’s self-limiting—no one will be asking in a few months. Your slogan could be, “No bumps, no bellies, no birth canals.” You could also assure everyone there will be plenty of baby pictures when the time comes.
Q. Children: First I’ll clarify that I don’t think this constitutes a problem in any way! Strangers will often comment on how much our baby boy resembles me (i.e., “he has your eyes” or “he looks just like you!”). This is only of interest because he was adopted. I usually respond with a friendly thank you. However, a friend of mine claims this is dishonest, as if I am confirming a genetic connection. Who’s right?
A: I’m right in concluding your friend is a bone-headed busybody. You’re handling these innocuous comments perfectly.
Q. Inappropriate Family Comments: My husband and I are adoptive parents to a beautiful biracial (African-American/Caucasian) baby girl. We are used to strangers remarking on her skin color (and think they are just being nosy since she doesn’t look like us). Yesterday, my sister-in-law was going on and on about our daughter’s “tan.” My SIL is not a racist and is very educated, so I’m not sure how she thought these remarks (in front of a group of people) were appropriate, but I didn’t say anything since we don’t have the best relationship (we get along but she’s pretty high-strung, and I don’t seem to be able to communicate well with her). I know I can’t ask my brother or parents to say anything, but the thought of her saying this when my daughter is able to understand (or in front of our son) makes me cringe. What do you recommend? Is it appropriate to have my husband say something? I don’t want to start family drama.
A: Then there are idiotic comments. It’s one thing for friendly strangers to note a baby’s luxuriant hair or striking eyes; it’s another for them to point out, pointedly, “Hey, your baby doesn’t match you!” I have heard from many others in your situation that, unfortunately, this is not going to stop, so you need a way to deal with this without signaling to your daughter that something about her skin color makes you uncomfortable. A simple, “Yes, she’s beautiful,” as you walk away should do it.
As for your sister-in-law. Oh, “high-strung” people of the world, stop thinking you’re entitled to act like morons because you hold the threat of going off over everyone. Yes, I think your husband should have a low-key conversation with his brother * explaining that while your daughter’s skin color is obviously gorgeous, you were uncomfortable with the extensive discussion of her “tan.” And that you’re asking for him to ask his wife to drop it.
Q. End of Life: A lifelong friend is in a nursing home because he has a brain tumor and can no longer care for himself. Before his illness, he was an alcoholic. He has had no alcohol for about three months and has asked me to get him some. The care home has asked me not to, not because it would interfere with his treatment but because caring for him may be more difficult if he is drinking. He is living his last months. In these circumstances, is it OK to override the care homes concerns to allow him the only bit of comfort left to him?
A: Discuss this with his doctor. Maybe his doctor, if she or he approves, could tell the caretakers that your friend is going to be allowed a glass or two of wine. So weigh what you hear, and make what you think is the best decision.
Q. Bilingual Co-Workers: I eat lunch with four of my colleagues at the school where I work. We all share the same lunch time, and our lunch times are assigned, so we can’t change them. We get along really well and look forward to eating lunch together to talk about the day so far. The problem is that three of them are bilingual. They are fluent in both English and Spanish, but they prefer to have their conversations (or pieces of conversations) in Spanish. The fourth colleague is fluent in English, but knows enough Spanish to not be totally left out of the conversation. Occasionally, he’ll ask about a word that he doesn’t recognize. Then there is me, who understands very little Spanish. So usually, I feel totally left out when the three of them are going on and on in Spanish. I feel like it might be rude to ask them to translate into English, and I also wonder (this sounds totally paranoid) if they are doing it to intentionally keep me in the dark. We have a good working relationship, so that doesn’t seem to make sense. What can I do when this happens so I’m not left to sitting at the table eating my lunch in silence?
A: Can you say lightly, “Please, I didn’t ‘marque el dos’!’” I’m sure it’s a pleasure for them to be able to converse in Spanish, but their enjoyment makes you feel like you’re at the kids’ table, not understanding what the adults are saying. You’ve got to speak up, in English, and explain that when you’re all having lunch together, you’d really appreciate it if they limited the Spanish, because you’re interested in what they have to say.
And unless there’s nowhere else for you to go during lunch, why not occasionally eat somewhere else—maybe now that it’s nice could you eat lunch outside and commune with the squirrels.
Q. Crazy Families: We spent the weekend at a house we own two hours away. My parents (who live in the same city we do) decided to drive over and visit us there. They showed up several hours later than when they said they’d arrive, and unfortunately we had other plans for the evening and had to leave 30 minutes after they showed up. They are infuriated that we didn’t cancel our plans to stay with them—and by the way, they also were invited but refused to go. Instead, they left in a huff. I am hurt and upset, and I want to smooth this over, but I don’t feel I’m in the wrong. Maybe when I realized how late they would be arriving I should have just told them to go home. How apologetic do you think I need to be when it inevitably comes to an argument?
A: You can be apologetic to the extent that you say you are sorry you were unable to get together with them. But once you’ve said that, there’s no need to fight over the particulars. If they want to relitigate, explain, “Mom, Dad we had another engagement. So next time, let us know if you’re going to be delayed, and we’ll plan accordingly.”
Q. Offended Mom: Many of my feminine-divine/pagan/supernaturally touched friends blog about their experiences to connect with others in their small religious minority community. If you live in a small town, this may be your church. My heart goes out to the goddess-blogger: She was writing honestly about an experience that touched her deeply, and letting her mom witness her spiritual epiphany. And then her mom instantly made it “all about me.” How much walking on eggshells does she have to do? Clearly she made a call about being a person of integrity—should she pretend to be someone else to appease her mom’s sensitive ego?
A: If you want to let the world know your mother drives you crazy, it’s probably best not to elevate this by believing it’s a divine revelation.
Q. End of Life Drinker: Unless the friend intends to care for his/her friend after a few drinks, I think it is inconsiderate (at best) to give the patient alcohol and let the caregivers deal with the aftermath. How rude.
A: I said to discuss with the doctor the possibility of a drink or two. I didn’t say leave a bottle of scotch by the bed. I agree that caregivers shouldn’t have to deal with a drunk patient. But when you’re dying of a brain tumor, maybe you’re entitled to a little something to take the edge off.
Q. Stuck at Work: I was recently offered a work promotion and raise. I’ve been an employee for about a year and a half, and the promotion involved adding a completely different job function to my current responsibilities. I reacted positively to this news. However, I’ve since learned that even after the raise, I will be making considerably less than the average person in my position. I work at a small company with limited resources, and I do enjoy my work, but I still can’t help feeling slighted. Would it be inappropriate to say something even though I already accepted the offer?
A: You don’t want to approach this as someone who is being slighted. You want to approach it as someone who is excited to be given additional duties, and who naturally wants to be compensated fairly for his or her work. Before you go in and ask for more money, assess the “average” people in your position. Perhaps they’ve been with the company longer, have more experience, or additional training or degrees. Since you’re a new employee, it could be that you’ve gotten hit with a Great Recession-discounted initial salary, so unfortunately, you’re starting at a lower place than people who were hired in flusher times.
For now, concentrate on doing the job. Then, after a few months of showing how skilled and indispensible you are, go in and talk to your boss about a plan for compensating you accordingly.
Q. Office Babysitter: My co-worker (not my boss; he’s a peer) has brought his little (5-year-old) daughter to work for the last four days, and she has taking a liking to me. She is driving me nuts. I played with her for 10 minutes on the first day and now she wants to hang out constantly. I spoke to her dad and told him I’m busy and need to work. He still hasn’t stopped her from visiting every five minutes. I finally ended up telling her myself (very nicely) that I’m too busy to play and now her dad is mad at me for hurting her feelings. I know better than to bother my boss with this (he would be more annoyed with me for bugging him about it). But now what? I can’t believe he keeps bringing her when it is absolutely not the culture here. Our boss has already told him in the past that he doesn’t want kids here, but this guy is like a clueless mad professor and doesn’t get it. Am I really the rude one for telling the little girl that I’m busy? I’m tempted to say to the dad that there’s a reason I’m over 40 with no kids and maybe he should take the hint (not that I hinted—I flat out told him that I don’t have time for this). The little girl is sweet and cute, but I think it’s a bit much to expect me to spend half my work day entertaining her.
A: Sorry, this is the kind of problem a boss needs to deal with. You have become a default day care provider, and that means you can’t discharge your duties because the mad professor is not looking after his child. The boss needs to know what’s going and make very clear to the professor that other child care arrangements need to be made immediately.
Q. MIL SOS: My fiance and I have been together for nine years, and his mom has never liked me. I’ve just sort of smiled and dealt with it: She’s an upper-class woman who expected him to marry another upper-class lady and is disappointed he chose someone not amongst their ranks—I understand it, so I can handle it. However, we’re getting married next year and as wedding planning commences she has tried to completely take over the planning. She’s threatened to not help if I keep trying to plan the wedding and even threatened to pull her financial contribution to the wedding if I insist on making choices that conflict with her own. My fiance and his father have both spoken with her, and after the latest blows of opinion she left the state for a month. With the help of my father and his, while she was gone, we booked a reception location that was not on her approved list and limits her guests to 200. I have taken to avoiding his family as much as I can since she is making it so uncomfortable, but I know that tactic can’t last the entire year between now and the wedding. She comes back this week, and I was hoping you had some advice on how to deal with the inevitable battle to come.
A: Don’t fight the battle. It sounds like a win-win if she pulls her financial contribution and her “help.” Then you can plan the smaller wedding you prefer, and you will be free of her meddling. If she wants to stay involved, you can assign her a duty—the flowers, for example—and let her do what she likes since she’s picking up that tab. Otherwise, have a few pat phrases, “Brunhilda, you’ve got great taste. But what Roger and I want is more low-key, so we’ll stick with that.” And, “Let’s not discuss that anymore.” All this will be good training for when she tells you how horribly you’re raising her grandchildren.
Q. New Mom with Stepson: I would strongly encourage the new mom to take your advice and expand on it. I have a “son by another mother” and a newborn. My take has always been—”you are his big brother best friend forever.” Watching that bond grow has been the most amazing part of this whole experience. Watching my parents age, I know that my sisters will be the ones there with me when we go through that inevitable period of loss in our life. I know that I want my sons to have that bond and support system. This poor boy needs you. Not only has he had the dissolution of his family, he now has this new baby who can either be the “interloper that made it all even worse” or his little brother and best friend. I cannot tell you how much it fills my heart to watch my little one follow his big brother around with this look of utter adoration. Never mind the joy I get from my big one’s willingness to act silly just to wring a smile out of the baby. Just as you will learn to love your husband in entirely new ways when you see him as a father, so too can you learn to love your stepson when you see him as a brother.
A: Thank you, wonderful stepmother, for this description of how it should be!
Emily Yoffe: Thank you all—talk to you next week.
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