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. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Dealing With My Mother’s Death: My mother died in February after a long battle with cancer. She and I live in different countries but always tried to see each other a few times a year. I also have a sister who lives about two hours from my parents’ house. My mother knew for some time that the end was near. My sister and I asked time and time again to see her, but we were told by her and my father that she didn’t want to see us and that she wanted us to remember her as she was. While I was upset about this, I wasn’t going to argue or upset her. The day after she died, my father called me to tell me she had died. He mentioned several times that she died peacefully while looking at photos of their cat and that her last words were to the effect that my father should look after the cat. Now, I know my parents love this cat, but I am hurt and upset that she had nothing to say about either my sister or me or any of our children (her grandkids). Fast forward to her obituary, which did not mention any of her grandchildren by name but had several sentences about the cat. This was an obituary that my mother wrote herself about six months before she died. I am struggling now, as I feel angry, and then guilty that I am angry. I feel like actual human family members are more important than feline ones. I want to get past this and have positive memories of my mother, but I am hurt by being cut out of her final moments and her favoritism of a cat, which sounds ridiculous, I know!
A: It’s one thing to try to obey the wishes of one’s ill loved ones. It’s another to be excluded from the end of your mother’s life so she could have more quality time with the cat. It sounds as if your parents were in a strange folie a deux (or maybe a trois, if you include Fluffy). It’s too late, now, of course, but it would have been best if you and your sister had been able to say, “We understand visits are hard for Mom, but we’ll arrive on little cat’s feet and try not to tire her out.”
She wanted you to remember her as she was, and that apparently included her being an obsessive cat lover. It might also help you if you considered that it’s also possible that her illness and treatment affected her cognitive function—and that listening to a soothing purr was about all the interaction she could take. Sadly, your mother didn’t get nine lives and hers is done. It’s perfectly understandable that this ending leaves you angry and unsettled. Don’t feel obligated to make a contribution in her name to the Humane Society. If you find you’re emotionally stuck, short-term therapy could help you sort through this. But as you get over your grief and hurt, you will likely be able to remember her more fully, and not dwell on her strange, aloof ending.
Dear Prudence: Meddlesome Pediatrician?
Q. Please Help Me—Tickling Co-Worker Problem!: This is going to sound like a ridiculous problem. I work part time at my mom’s office, and one of my co-workers repeatedly tickles me. If I happen to be standing while sorting out documents or something, she will sneak up behind me and either poke or tickle my sides. It irritates the hell out of me as I am an extremely ticklish person. I usually burst into giggles and she seems to find this amusing. I have asked her to stop, politely and firmly, then angrily. She thinks the whole thing is a joke and doesn’t take me seriously. I am the youngest employee here, and she does this only to me, maybe because she thinks it’s a cute way of relating to the little girl who works at the office. I have to restrain myself from punching her in the face because it’s been going on for several weeks. I can’t exactly avoid her in a small office, either. When I told Mom how annoying this co-worker was, she didn’t really respond, because, “Mom, Sally at work keeps tickling me” doesn’t sound like a big problem. I’m thinking of quitting my job because this is so annoying and I HATE, HATE, HATE being tickled. Can you offer any advice on how to get her to stop?
A: This is not a little problem, this is abuse. I’m startled your mother wouldn’t pull this co-worker aside and tell her to keep her mitts off her daughter. The next time Funny Fingers approaches you, say in a voice loud enough for those around you to hear, “Shirley, don’t ever touch me again.” If she lays a hand on you, you of course must do what you can to get away from her. You don’t want to punch her in the face, but you are certainly free to elbow her away (yes, I expect to hear from the lawyers now) or stomp on her foot to protect yourself. If this doesn’t stop the attacks, go to the boss. And if you have to, yes, find a job elsewhere.
Q. Skanky D-I-L: My daughter-in-law is young and beautiful. She often comes around wearing very provocative and revealing clothing. We have two teenage sons and also a 7-year-old boy. Because of the clothing she wears, she accidentally exposes herself not too infrequently. My oldest son, her husband, makes jokes out of this, but I find it distasteful that she dresses so inappropriately in front of her in-laws. I’ve often tried to start a discussion with her but I’ve bit my tongue out of fear that maybe I’m out of line and uncertainty as to how to approach her. Any advice over this?
A: It’s hard to imagine how much more provocative and revealing some clothing can get without swimwear showing up at school or the office, but be assured your daughter-in-law is not the only one letting it all hang out. It’s bothering you, and it may be inappropriate, but I’m fairly confident your boys find her outfits just fine (which may be part of what’s bothering you). Your best solution is just to avert your eyes. But if there’s nowhere else to look, you could pull your son aside and ask him to ask his wife to dress more conservatively when visiting the in-laws.
Q. Adopted Daughter Seeking Biological Parents: I have an adopted daughter who is now 22. She has never shown much interest in finding her birth parents during her childhood. But now that she’s moved out of our home and begun her adult life, she started asking questions about who she is. She told us that she recently started taking steps to find her birth parents. My husband and I were always concerned she showed little interest in her biological background and thought we’d enthusiastically support her quest, if ever she chose to. He has given her 100 percent support. But unexpectedly I am experiencing doubts and anxieties. Even though in my head she is our daughter and no biological bond can break our family ties, I feel betrayed and hurt that she wants to find her “real” mother. I know these feelings are wrong, and I should look out for my daughter’s best interests. But inside I feel like asking her to stop looking. I feel ashamed to tell my husband about how I really feel. Is it normal to feel this way? Do I tell my daughter how I feel or keep quiet?
A: Of course it’s normal. Even the most supportive adoptive parent is going to have anxiety and fear about another set of parents appearing in her daughter’s life. Since your daughter is an adult, you want to be able to have an emotionally sophisticated conversation with her about this. She probably has many worries and qualms herself, so the two of you should be able to be open with each other about what’s ahead. You should be able to say something like, “You know my support for your search is unwavering, but this is harder than I thought it would be.” What you don’t want to do is turn her search into your emotional journey, however.
It would surely help all of you if you contacted a support group of adoptees and their parents before you start this. You might even want a social worker who specialized in adoption to help you sort through the emotions all of you must be feeling. Doing some preparation will help you navigate what’s ahead.
Q. Response to Dealing With Mother’s Death: Condolences on your loss. I am in a similar situation regarding distance from dying parents. While I want to believe they think of me as often as I do of them, realistically that isn’t happening. As time grows shorter and emotional effort takes more energy, I believe they close in on what is immediate, directly there, and comforting. Cats and dogs are easy to focus on and make few demands. They don’t care if you are unkempt or sick at your stomach. And I know that I am deep in my folks’ hearts, always. It’s just that they might be unable to come out of their rapidly closing world and interact with me. Don’t begrudge the cat. He/she served a very important role in your mom’s life at a very difficult time. She didn’t love the cat more than you, just later.
A: I’m an inveterate obit reader, and I’ve noticed a growing trend is mentioning a pet among the deceased’s survivors. No one should begrudge the quiet comfort of a loving dog or cat at a sick person’s bedside. But to be instructed not to visit a dying parent, then be told one’s mother died looking at a picture of the cat, and seeing the obit left out the grandchildren’s names but singled out the feline is a bit much. However, I agree all that doesn’t mean the cat was loved more than the people. And obsessing on the perceived slight will only be damaging.
Q. Support vs. Nag: My live-in boyfriend is about 30 pounds overweight. We’ve started going to the gym, but he doesn’t go unless I do, and my schedule only allows me to go about twice a week. I cook healthy dinners but will find him two hours later scrounging the kitchen for something to eat—almost another meal’s worth of food. We don’t have that much junk food, but I’m starting to hide the bag of chips from him that I like to eat, which seems awful. How can I get him to be healthier?
A: You can’t. So either let it go and accept he’s going to take care of his body—or not—as he pleases, or move out. If you stay, please don’t write to me in a few years to tell me that your once mildly chubby boyfriend is now your morbidly overweight husband and you find you’re no longer attracted to him.
Q. Re: Mother’s Death: Your snideness is really out of place here: That the mother would want to protect her children from seeing her in a poor state is touching, not selfish; that she would surround herself with small life forces and find joy in her pets is not strange or a sign of cognitive decline, it’s moving and a sign of a small bit of hope in what was surely a horrific time. The daughter should give herself time to process but also remember that any living being that gave her mother comfort was her ally, not her competition.
A: Dying is hard, and a mortally ill person should get cut a lot of slack. However, that doesn’t mean that dismissive behavior and a bizarre ordering of priorities by the dying person—and the other parent—is not going to have real-life consequences for those left behind. It’s understandable the daughters are confused and hurt—telling them the cat was more comforting to the mother at the end than they would have been is no comfort. But the mother is gone, and after recognizing their pain, it’s no good to get stuck there.
Q. Re: Support vs. Nag: You’re right, I should leave my boyfriend because he’s getting fat. If he was harming his body in any other way, for example, drugs or alcohol, shouldn’t I do anything to help him then?
A: If it were drugs or alcohol, you should tell him that he has a problem and you want to do everything you can to help him deal with it. But if he then decided to keep abusing drugs and alcohol, you would be making a bad decision to stay and turn yourself into his monitor.
Q. Breeze in, Breeze Out: I live in a college town. The children of old friends and classmates apply to local schools and come to visit with their parents, often with little notice. I have tried to be as hospitable as possible but have come to the conclusion that I’m simply a convenience to these people. They come and they go, and I don’t hear from them again, not to say thanks for the dinner or the guest room, or even to tell me where the teen ended up going to school. One acquaintance is now on round two of this, and I chose not to reply to her email requesting assistance with their visit. I thought this was how one got “the hint.” However, she has contacted a mutual friend to get in touch with me, and now he’s on the spot, either ignoring the request, lying that he isn’t in contact with me, or declining to give out my phone number, which hasn’t changed, in any event. Do you think it’s better for me to suck it up and see these people, state the truth, or something else? And what about my friend who’s now on the spot?
A: People who think writing thank-you notes and acknowledging gifts and favors is just a kind of emotional blackmail on the part of the giver—please note the unpleasant consequences of failing to act graciously. You live in a college town, so it could be a wonderful thing to connect with old friends when they and their children are coming through, or it could be a complete pain. The people who only get in touch for free lodging and can’t even be bothered to send a thank-you gift and let you know the outcome of the college search are not friends; they perhaps think of themselves as reward members. There’s no reason to reward such behavior. But it’s rude of you to expect an innocent friend to be your go-between here. Be direct with the parents who are on round two. Send an email saying you wish them the best on their trip, but unfortunately your schedule is full and you won’t be able to see them.
Q. Fat Boyfriend: If the writer was a male and said he was thinking of leaving his GF because she was fat, you’d have a riot on your hands!!!
A: If a guy wrote in and said his girlfriend is chubby and he’s monitoring her eating and hiding her snack foods, I’d give the same advice. And I’m sure a lot of readers would say a woman should run from a man who makes her feel miserable about her body.
Q. Teenagers and Video Games: My 15–year-old stepson will be arriving in a few weeks to live with us for the summer. He is an intelligent young man and a good student. He has the usual issues of being a teenager and spending the summer in an area where he has few friends to interact with on a daily basis. To help alleviate his boredom, he will be enrolled in a half-day academic foreign language program for six of the weeks, and we make an effort to engage him in family activities a good deal of the time, including swimming, biking, and hiking. The issue I am concerned about is the number of hours he spends playing violent video games. I don’t mind him playing video games a few hours each day, it’s his summer; it is his choice of games that concerns me. In particular the most current, rated M for mature version of Call to Duty. I do not think he is old enough to be playing the game at all. I find the realism and violence of the game to be disturbing. His mother purchased the game for him and does not monitor or restrict his gaming time at all. My question is, am I overreacting to his choice of game or is this a battle I should choose to fight?
A: Since he’s highly skilled in video combat, I would stay far away from this fight. You are doing exactly the right thing by coming up with an array of challenging and fun things for him to do to occupy his mind and body. But he is your teenager stepson and a temporary visitor. As repulsive as you may find his mother’s choice of activity for him, you don’t want to be the heavy here. And after all the family swimming, biking, and hiking, you might find yourself grateful that he’s occasionally tied up for a few hours committing electronic mayhem and leaving you alone. Just keep enjoying his good qualities, and ignore his electronic homicidal ones.
Q. Yes, I’m Really Going Out With Him: Not that I am some beauty queen, but I recently started dating a guy who is a really great person. He’s not someone I would typically be attracted to, however that doesn’t matter to me. My question is how to react to people that can’t believe I’m dating him. Even my family was taken aback by it at first.
A: So friends and family are saying, “Hey, what’s this, some kind of version of Beauty and the Beast?” How charming. One way to reply is with a confused look, a long pause, followed by, “Jim is a fantastic guy and I feel very lucky to be dating him.”
Q. Men: Do all men look at porn? Seriously? It used to bother me so much that I found my husband looking at porn so much. We have an active sex life and a good marriage. He is looking at very “normal” stuff. Why do they do it? I’ve resigned myself not to get upset about it anymore, but it does bother me to an extent.
A: There was a researcher not long ago who wanted to do a study comparing men who looked at porn to men who never looked at porn. He was unable to come to any conclusions because he couldn’t find any men who had never looked at porn. Now we find out that there was porn on the computers at Osama Bin Laden’s lair.
You say your marriage and sex life are good. Your complaint seems to be about the “so much” of his porn-viewing. But does that mean he’s missing dinner every night because he’s otherwise engaged? Or that once a week he says, “Well, I’m off to look at some really normal porn for about an hour”?
Maybe part of the problem is that you’re too aware of what he’s up to. Marriage can benefit sometimes by not knowing everything. It might be better if he said: “I’m going to be looking at re-jiggering our investments. Please don’t disturb me while I explore all the possible financial positions we should take.” You say his viewing doesn’t bother you, but obviously it does. So while he’s pursuing his hobby, find something interesting—knitting, for example—to keep your own hands busy.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you, everyone. Talk to you next week.