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. And we’re all indoors on this gorgeous day!
Q. Toting My Tot on Public Transportation: Every weekday, I carry my daughter with me on the Metro for our dual commutes to day care and work, respectively. She sits in a baby carrier that has her facing toward me on my chest. Each day on the Metro is an adventure. I have questions about how to address well-meaning Metro riders who insist on interacting with me, my daughter, or both of us. On several occasions, Metro riders have stopped to tell me what I am doing wrong with my daughter (“she needs a hat” or “you should get a stroller”). Other people make noises and faces at my daughter that get her excited and sometimes prompt sweet screeches. Those screeches then prompt scowls of disdain from those around us. Still others actually reach out to touch my daughter. Something I would never even think to do to a stranger’s child. How do I explain to these mostly well-meaning riders that this commute is my time with my daughter, that I don’t need advice, and that it is not okay to touch someone’s child? Also, can you remind twentysomething young men that they need to offer their seats to weary older travelers and tot-toting moms.
A: Oh dear, you may be talking about me. I’m one of those people who loves to make faces at babies and get their attention. Usually this just results in a smile and a gurgle, not a screech. And usually parents react as if they’re relieved someone is enjoying their child, instead of fuming about noisy kids. Instead of girding yourself for the miserable gauntlet of the morning commute, think of it as a chance for your child to become a tiny, sophisticated commuter. This means that pleasant strangers will smile at her, because babies bring joy. If it also means busybodies offer unsolicited parenting critiques, just reply, “Thanks,” then turn aside. If a stranger gives her a pat or wiggles a foot, usually the touch is done before you can even get a word out. If a hand lingers, then feel free to say, “Please, don’t touch her.” As for the able-bodied young people who won’t help you out, feel free to stand over to one, smile broadly and say, “I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind letting us sit—it’s hard to stay on my feet when the train lurches.”
Dear Prudence: Pelt Peeve
Q. Marriage Advice for a Spouse With a Bad Habit!: I have been married to my husband for 15 years. Maintaining the “spark” has proven challenging at times, but until recently, we’ve gotten through it. Unfortunately, over the years, my husband has increasingly used smokeless tobacco. He did this once in a while when we first married, and over the years it has become a daily (if not hourly) habit. This habit repulses me. It has negatively affected my husband’s appearance: His breath is extremely unpleasant, and it’s embarrassing and disgusting to me to see him with a lump of the stuff in his mouth. With all of the more “natural” challenges of maintaining our spark/attraction, this is just one I cannot overcome.
I do not want to kiss him or be face to face, and this definitely puts a damper on my desire to be intimate. I’ve asked nicely, attempted to help by providing information for quit lines, quit websites, even gone so far as to use our children, begging him to stop for them. I’ve pleaded, nagged, purchased bags of hard candy and sunflower seeds, let him know that this is hampering my ability/desire to be near him—nothing has worked. While he says he wants to stop, he never does. It seems insane to me to lose my husband over something like this, but it’s as if he’s choosing this habit over our intimacy—I’m at the end of my rope picking up spit bottles and explaining why “dad eats ooooey” to the kids.
A: You mean seeing your husband spit tobacco-stained loogies all day is not getting you aroused? How picky! If your physical repulsion matters less to him than his wad, he has a serious problem. Try to get him to agree to go to a doctor’s appointment with you. The doctor should explain how unpleasant head and neck cancer is, which is where your husband is potentially headed. Then a treatment plan for his addiction needs to be discussed. You need to tell your husband you are as tired of begging and nagging as he is of hearing it. Tell him he needs to understand that not only does his habit have the potential to destroy his health, but also your marriage.
Q. Miscarriage Live Coverage: Like most people, I have my fair share of obligatory familial Facebook friends. Usually I just ignore them and block their applications, but one in particular has been bothering me lately. She got pregnant and announced it very early, despite a history of miscarriages, and then proceeded to keep the world updated as to the growth and non-growth of the fetus and, eventually, the intimate and gory details of the pain and bleeding at the end. Now I’ve known enough women who’ve gone through this to have some grasp of what a painful and traumatizing event a miscarriage can be, and I also understand that many women with fertility issues feel like it’s something shameful that needs to be kept deeply secret and that this isn’t healthy. But I find myself feeling less sympathy than discomfort at what feels more like a public plea for attention than anything else. And then I feel like a horrible person for not just feeling pity for her. Am I right that this is a little over the top, or am I just continuing a trend of trying to keep this sort of issue in the closet? Some things don’t need to be on Facebook.
A: Thank you for the weekly Facebook update documenting the ways this technology brings to one’s inbox things we wish we didn’t know. At least she didn’t put the conception on the newsfeed. I, too, have no idea why someone would provide real-time updates of her most private, painful moments to everyone she knows. It may be a plea for attention, but you don’t have to give any. An impersonal, public announcement is just that. But if what your friend is posting makes you so uncomfortable, just defriend her.
Q. Public Gum-Smacking: I work in retail customer service. Frequently, I come across people who think it is appropriate to smack their gum loudly during our interactions. This makes my blood boil with annoyance, to the point where sometimes, I can barely finish the task at hand without grinding my teeth, let alone with the smile that is required of me. Is there any possible way to confront this kindly? I know no one is doing this to hurt me (in fact, it makes me quite aware of how little regard they are showing for anyone but themselves!), but I guess I would like to point it out somehow so that I, along with the many other people I’m sure it bothers, don’t have to hear it again. Should I just get over it?
A: Just imagine these customers chewing tobacco and carrying little cups of spittle around their store. Doesn’t that make the gum-chewing seem innocuous and even breath-freshening? So there is your gum-chewing customer, and there you are grinding your teeth—which is also an annoying habit. That’s quite a stand-off. Instead of concentrating on how your customers drive you round the bend, you need to recognize that these cud-chewing people are who pays your salary. Providing them with excellent service will cause them to purchase things, then leave. Instead of pointing out they should rid themselves of the gum, concentrate on pointing out the items that would suit their needs.
Q. Family Stress: My husband and I are planning the baptism for our daughter and are running into a re-occurring obstacle, namely my sister-in-law. Before I was married, I would go along with the rest of the family and allow her to dictate how I would spend each holiday, whatever time she chose, whatever place she chose. They have many children and I just assumed I should be flexible for them. Now I have a date planned for the baptism and even discussed it with her several weeks ago when she called to ask when it would be held. Last night at a family gathering, the date was brought up, and she acted like we never had the conversation about the date and is claiming that one of her children have a very special event they have to attend (a sporting event). We have had to postpone this multiple times, and I have already asked other family members who live out of town to attend. Do I change the date to accommodate them, or do we just go ahead and have the baptism as planned?
A: It sounds as if you keep accommodating your sister-in-law, your daughter might be ready for her confirmation before you’re able to get her baptized. You informed your s-i-l of the date and she didn’t bother to write it down. So now you say you’ll miss her, but you understand she won’t be able to be there. Then you don’t give it another thought, even if she wants to have a fit. This is your joyful occasion.
Q. Work Retirement Parties: About a year ago, I finished graduate school and started my current job. While I work at a large company, my division has about 40-50 people. A few weeks after I started, I was invited to a retirement party for “Joe,” someone in my division I hadn’t met. The party involved taking annual leave (of which I had little) and paying $40 for lunch and a gift. I declined the invitation. When my co-workers returned to the office, many asked me why I did not attend Joe’s retirement party. I explained that I didn’t feel comfortable attending Joe’s retirement party when we had never met. Based on my co-workers reactions, it was clear that I had erred by not attending the group outing. Since then, I have been invited to (and attended) retirement parties for three other co-workers in my division. I rarely interacted with any of these people, but felt it best to attend since the parties seemed to be “mandatory.” I feel fake celebrating a person’s career when I barely know them, and I additionally dislike that I feel forced to spend my own money and annual leave in the process. However, I am the youngest person and newest employee in my division, and do not want to make waves by declining invitations. I just received another retirement invitation. How do you suggest I proceed?
A: I can imagine that you might be tempted to retire from this company yourself. Here you are, being hit up to use the annual leave you haven’t even accrued, and dip into your own student loan budget, to fete the end of the career of someone you don’t know. And given the schedule you describe, these older employees appear to be dropping like flies.
It certainly made sense for you to politely decline to attend the celebration—at your own expense—of the career of someone you’ve barely met, but you wisely have picked up on the office vibe. Office vibes are important. But so is reasonable office policy. No one should be forced to give up their leave time to attend an office celebration. Given that you are sensitive to vibes, you should have a sense whether this is something you could explore with H.R. It sounds as if a new policy needs to be formulated. However, you want to do this without being fingered as a complainer. In any case, now that you’ve invested in three of these fetes, you’ve earned a pass for the next one. Don’t be defensive. Just say you wish you could go to Arnold’s party, but unfortunately your schedule doesn’t allow it, and you wish him the best.
Q. Girls Like Cute Backpacks: I have two young daughters in elementary school. Each morning I wait with them at the bus stop before heading to work. There are two little girls about the same age who just moved to our complex and also ride the bus in the morning. I’ve noticed that instead of backpacks, they each have a reusable shopping bag. I feel bad and have several extra, gently used backpacks from previous school years that I would love to offer to them. I don’t want to offend anyone but think they’d really like them. Their parent(s) don’t come to the bus stop, so I thought I’d simply bring them and ask if they would like to have them. Is this overstepping my bounds?
A: Your impulse is a good one, but instead of showing up at the door with your backpacks, first introduce yourself to this family. It would be great if the four girls became friends—so find out which apartment they live in and go welcome them. Then set up a play date for the girls. As you get to know them, you can then mention that sometimes you have items or clothing your girls no longer use that you usually exchange with friends, but since you’re neighbors, you’d love to include them in this swap. Then casually say you were getting ready to pass on some backpacks that you wondered if the girls would like. This way, it doesn’t smack of charity, just neighborliness.
Q. Office Bathroom Talkers: I work for a large company and I know a lot of people in my building. There are several people I know who will say, “Hi, how are you?” when they see me in the bathroom, but they will continue talking once they or I enter a stall. I find this extremely uncomfortable. I think it is kind of creepy for a person to continue a conversation when one person involved is “taking care of business.” Am I being overly sensitive or am I in the right. If I’m not overreacting, how can I best handle this situation besides resorting to clipped, yes or no replies.
A: You could always say, “I’m sorry, this is the place where I read War and Peace and I’m at a really good scene.” Grunting would probably end the conversation, but clipped mono-syllables is also a good strategy.
Q. Are We Required To Attend the Funeral?: My husband and I have been married for 18 years and have never had a good relationship with his family, partly due to the fact this is my husband’s second marriage and his family is has never liked me and often seem to only tolerate my husband, their son and brother. His family has never recognized our children together. His mother passed many years ago and his father, age 92, has been in a nursing home for several years. My husband is estranged from both his father and sister. Despite attempts to reconcile, particularly with his dad, he has been rebuffed. Our own family moved from the area and now live about 1,000 miles away. When the time comes for his father’s funeral, am I and our school age children required to attend? I still hold many bitter feelings about the treatment my husband, myself, and our children have received over the years.
A: If the only social event you are looking forward to with your husband’s family is his father’s funeral, then things may have irrevocably broken down. It’s sad, but if your husband’s efforts to reconcile have been rebuffed, and you and your children have absolutely no relationship with these people, then you don’t have to fly across the country to say farewell. It probably would be best for your husband to go—but it shouldn’t be any surprise that you and the kids stayed home.
Q. Son Not Honoring His Mother: I’m the 78-year-old mother of two twin boys who are about to turn 40. One is married; the other is gay. When the gay son came out to us a few years ago, my husband (since deceased) and I told him we love him but do not accept his lifestyle. He became upset and didn’t seem to appreciate our love and support at that time. My gay son brought his partner of two years to my other son’s wedding. At an informal dinner, my son and his boyfriend were sitting arm in arm on a sofa, in front of everyone. I took my son aside and told him not to be affectionate with his boyfriend in front of me because it made me very uncomfortable. He refused, telling me it was my problem, not his, and he had the right to experience love and affection just like everybody else. I told him that affection in general makes me uncomfortable, unless the couple is married. I explained that since we didn’t see each other much he ought to be able to honor my request because being gay is only part of who he is and he should be able to set it aside during those rare, special times that we’re together. He said I was trying to rob him of the full expression of his humanity!
He’s hesitant to talk about much of anything with me, even though I’ve told him many times I love and accept him, it just makes me uncomfortable to see two men being affectionate with each other. I don’t know how to resolve this, I feel like I can’t express myself to him or object to his lifestyle without being made out to be the bad guy. I’m losing him and I don’t know what to do! Please help! Mom.
A: Read over your answer again, Mom, and see if you can spot your own logical flaws. You “love, support, and accept” your son—except you want him to pretend he’s not gay when he’s around you. That ain’t support and acceptance. Why should he open up to you? I assume you don’t make your straight son show no affection for his wife or pretend she doesn’t exist. You’re telling your gay son that the core of who he is gives you the willies, so anyone with a shred of dignity would distance himself.
I understand that you are from a different generation and it is a shock for you to see men expressing affection toward each other. But you aren’t stuck in aspic, so let circumstances, and your love for your son, change you. You should be happy that he has someone he wants to link arms with. If you don’t want him to be ever more distant, tell him you were wrong. Tell him you miss him terribly and you want to get to know the man he loves.
Q. An Able-Bodied-Looking Young Man: Public transportation is for the public. You chose to have a child and to commute via public transportation. Don’t complain when the seats are taken. And don’t ask me to get up for you … my herniated discs don’t like the lurching either. And when the seats are taken when I get on, I don’t ask mothers carrying children to stand for me. Please be just as considerate, new mom.
A: I’m going to guess you’re not in your 20s, right? You aren’t able-bodied, but good for you for not asking a seated mother carrying a toddler to stand up for you. Yes, she “chose” to have a child. Thank goodness some people choose that so eventually those children become taxpayers. Then they will be able one day to cover your Medicare bills.
Q. Re: Live Coverage: There is another option besides defriending. You can choose to block this person’s status updates from being sent to you. I had to do this to a friend who is obsessed with musical theater and puts up 10-20 status updates a day with a line from a song they are currently listening to.
A: Good idea. And compulsive sharers—get a clue that you’re wearing out your welcome.
Q. Grouchy Mom: Wow, I had no idea it was such a faux pas to want to connect with a cute little ‘un. And I hope I never make the mistake of smiling at this woman’s unfortunate child. Yikes!
A: I know! I’m going to assume most parents aren’t seething because I indicate I find their offspring adorable.
Q. Wedding Registry: I was recently invited to a wedding and when I inquired about the registry, I was supplied with a website. That website was set up to receive donations for their honeymoon. I understand that the couple is older, has lived together, and has many household items, so they feel that they do not need anything else. Am I too old fashioned to think asking to help pay for the honeymoon is tacky? Would it be rude to bring a gift regardless?
A: I hope we never come to a time when people who are marrying actually consider it rude for friends and loved ones to give a thoughtful gift to celebrate their wedding, instead of handing over the cash. I know there are excellent arguments to be made for the utility of cash, but not everything is a utilitarian exchange. However, if you buy a gift, do not bring it to the wedding, which is not the place for the busy couple to keep track of presents, but send it to them.
Q. Dysfunctional Family Event: A few years ago, my mother, attending a big event of one of her grandchildren, got royally drunk and started verbally attacking her ex, my father (divorced for 25 years). It was awkward and embarrassing for all the guests who saw it. I confiscated her car keys and drove her home, while she verbally attacked me for suggesting she was drunk. She remains defensive and unapologetic to this day. So the next big event with both Mom and Dad is coming up. I’m dreading the role I have to play. Other than having her drive with my family to the event and warning the bartenders to water down her vodka, any thoughts on how to cut this off before it happens again? Even if I try to talk to her in advance about it, she will get defensive and deny it again (and accuse me of betraying her).
A: The issue here is less dealing with your drunken mother at the next family event, but whether your mother is an alcoholic who drinks and drives. If that’s the case, then the family should intervene before she kills someone.
Q. Bragging Rights: Is it ever right to brag about your children’s accomplishments? My children know that I am very proud of them because I tell them. Sometimes, given a particular accomplishment, I want to tell family and friends about what they have accomplished, not because I want to brag about them, but because I am proud of them. However, I was raised in a family that frowns on that, so I rarely do, but then mutual friends of mine that hear about it ask me why I didn’t tell them as they tell me everything about their children. Recently my daughter was awarded a wonderful college scholarship for music—is that something I can feel comfortable talking about with other people? She worked very hard for it, but is it bragging to tell other people about it?
A: You sound so reticent that I doubt you will start annoying people with your bragging. There’s a difference between boasting about every little accomplishment of your children and letting people know something exciting about the recognition of their hard work. People who know you and your children actually are interested in their milestones, so pass on the good news!
Q. Cute Backpacks: Just a quick response to the backpacks post … as a teacher (on her lunch break), I’m seeing a new trend with a lot of my students. “Cute” re-usable shopping bags have replaced backpacks with many of my students. Before approaching the family, make sure it isn’t a “cute” reusable bag (like something with a pattern that you can buy at a store).
A: Thanks. So, backpack mom, it may be that your kids are just behind the times, and the shopping bag kids are style mavens.
Q. Re: Son Not Honoring His Mother: Please advise this mom to seek out a local chapter of PFLAG * where she can talk to other parents who have experienced her same apprehension. And she might also think of being thankful that her son has someone in his life that loves him. Maybe getting to know the boyfriend better will also help her be more comfortable with seeing the love and affection they have for each other. What parent could ask for more than their child being loved?
A: Good advice on PFLAG, thanks!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. And tonight on the Metro, if I give you and your baby my seat, I warn you, I’m going to make funny faces at the baby.
Correction, April 11, 2011: This transcript originally misstated the acronym for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. It’s PFLAG, not PFLG. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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