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. Let’s get to it.
Q. Dilemma Over Becoming a Single Parent: I am a 29-year-old professional. I married my boyfriend of eight years last year, and I believed my life was absolutely perfect. Suddenly, my life was turned upside down when my husband was killed in an unfortunate accident almost a month ago. I was still trying to deal with this huge loss when I recently learned that I am pregnant with his child! This has presented me with an odd dilemma. I am contemplating abortion because I don’t think I can handle being a single parent in such a circumstance. I don’t know whether I can deal with a child after my loss. I’m trying hard but I am unsure about how long it will be before I am past this rough phase in my life. I don’t know if I will be able to take care of a young child in such an emotionally fragile state. Moreover, I am afraid that this child will constantly remind me of my husband and pain me even more. Another guilty thought is that I may never find a partner willing to accept me with my baby, and I’ll stay alone through the rest of my life. This is a shallow thought, yet it is a nagging fear. Yet on the other hand, it is my child I’m talking about. I do not want to regret the abortion. And I do not want to regret getting rid of this special common link I have with my late husband. Do you have any thoughts that might help me with my decision and might reassure me?
A:I’m so sorry for your loss, and the issues you’re dealing with are profound. All your thoughts and fears are perfectly understandable, but at this time you need the comfort and support both of people who know and love you, and people who understand what you are facing. This organization, Young Widow, was founded by a woman in your situation—pregnant and dealing with the sudden death of her husband—and the group offers online support. Talking to people who have faced raising a child alone after the loss of a spouse will help you sort through what would be ahead.
I hope your family and your late husband’s family would also be able to rally around you. Ideally, the potential grandparents would be able to help you with the raising of your baby. Of course your child will remind you of your husband. That will be both painful and sweet, and I can almost guarantee that the joy of seeing part of your husband in your offspring would outweigh the pain. I also understand your fear that being a single mother would make you less appealing to potential partners. But any man who would turn away from you because of your situation is a man you don’t want anyway. I have known several women in your situation and they married wonderful men who became fathers to their fatherless children, and went on to expand their families. You’re in mourning so the world is understandably foreboding. Please reach out to people who can help you see that you and your child would not be alone, but that there would be a circle around of people who care.
Q. Ending a Friendship: I stopped speaking to a very close friend of mine four or five months ago. It had become very difficult to deal with her. She’s dealt with depression for years, but over the past few, she’s not been seeing a therapist and she’s been relying too heavily on me. I made it clear to her that I couldn’t help her, and then when she persisted to seek my attention, I cut her off. At the time, I thought it would be a temporary thing and I’d cool down, but I still can’t see myself forgiving her. The problem is that we have been friends since middle school, and we have a lot of friends in common. How do I explain to them that they cannot invite both her and me to things anymore? I don’t want to keep turning down invitations just in case my old friend shows up. How do I not make myself look like the villain here? And is it necessary that I communicate my current intentions to her? She hasn’t tried to contact me, but I want to make sure she realizes this situation is definitely permanent.
A: It’s one thing for you to end a friendship. It’s another for you to expect that everyone else in your circle will also end their friendship with your depressed former friend. You’re entitled to say to your friend that you can no longer substitute for the professional help she needs. It’s another to insist that you’ll never be in the same room with her again. Just because you don’t want to act as her therapist doesn’t mean you can’t be glad to see her out and about. I don’t know how you avoid being the villain if you plan to announce, “Janine’s clinical depression started driving me around the bend. So if any of you want to hang out with me, you need to blackball her.”
Q. Surrogacy: My best friend has been told she is infertile. She has tried every single medically available route to become pregnant and has failed at every turn. She and I are both devastated because I know she will be an excellent mother. She already fosters children from difficult homes and I am amazed at the love and patience she demonstrates. I want to now explore the option of carrying a child for her (one that is not biologically mine). When I tentatively brought this up with my husband, however, he freaked out and said absolutely not. He likes my friend and feels sad for her but he thinks surrogacy is going too far. We, by the way, already have two children and don’t plan on having any more. I want him to support me in this decision but a part of me wants to say “it’s my body, my way.” Who gets to decide here?
A: You sound like a generous, caring friend. Any yes, it’s your body. But a decision to carry a child for someone else is one that would affect your entire family. Your husband had a powerful, visceral, negative reaction. That’s fair enough, and you should respect that. You should also be able to say that you understand his instinctive response, but you’d appreciate if he’d do you the favor of at least talking this through with you. But if he insists your being a surrogate would be profoundly disturbing to him and you went ahead, it would be with the knowledge that you are putting your friend’s needs above your husband’s (ungenerous, but understandable) desires.
You are not the only potential surrogate, and surrogacy is not her only way to become a mother. But if this is the route your friend wants to go, it sounds as if the best thing you can do is to be a sounding board and a source of emotional support.
Q. Relationships: Taste in Music: I’ve met an amazing guy, and things have been going extremely well. The problem? Completely different tastes in music. If I have to listen to any more songs with synth I might go nuts, and he doesn’t particularly care for my (admittedly) whiny millennial crap. Help?
Q. Too Much Information for Mom: Over the weekend, my daughter and her husband came to stay with us. They don’t live too close, so it’s always a treat to see them. This morning, I went into the guest room to straighten up and change the sheets to prepare for a visit from a friend who will be arriving in a few days. As I was cleaning, I found a sex toy—a riding crop—that had fallen behind the bed. What my daughter and her husband do in the bedroom is entirely their business and I have no interest in prying. But I also imagine that if they bothered to bring this on a trip with them, they will probably want it back at some point. How should I go about returning it? Should I mail it and just not say anything? Or should I not return it at all and pretend I never found it? What’s the best way to handle this for all involved? I don’t want to embarrass them in any way. Thanks!
A: Yipiokayay! At least during the weekend you didn’t hear them calling out, “Bad horsey; very, very bad horsey!” Of all the potential sex toys you can find, be grateful this one is fairly neutral. And since you seem to have a pretty active guest room, it’s possible that the riding crop was left by a previous guest, not your daughter. This is a case in which it’s probably best just to stick it in a dresser drawer and forget about it. If your daughter wants it back, let her bring it up.
Q. Baths/Hygiene: A friend and I were talking about taking baths, and I was surprised to find out that she doesn’t shower before or after the bath—to me this seems like sitting in dirty water and just getting out and toweling off. Is that what most people do? If so, yuck!
A: I know that when entering a group bath situation it’s customary to shower off first. I’m a shower person, but on the occasions I have slipped into a soothing tub alone I have never showered before or after. So, readers, are the friend and I the only ones sitting in filthy bathwater, or is the letter writer excessively fastidious?
Q. Re: Widowed Woman: She didn’t mention it in her letter, but the immediate thing that popped into mind for me is how difficult it might be to talk to the potential grandparents (or even close friends) about this situation and her doubts. I’d imagine they’d be primed to view it as some sort of miracle and might have a knee-jerk negative, blaming reaction to the fact that she could even consider abortion. That seems like an important dimension to this to acknowledge—I’d hate for her to feel even more alone or backed into a corner due to the reactions of friends/family.
A: I don’t think the pregnant widow should go to the husband’s parents and say, “I’m thinking of having an abortion.” But her dilemma is that she feels alone and overwhelmed, and it would be terrible to decide to abort without finding out how much support is there for her. This is something she might want to discuss with her own parents, or a few close friends, first.
Q. Husband Playing the Two of Us?: My husband admitted to an affair after I discovered some things (through social networking, of course!). A year later, he finally moved out to be with her. The weird part is that he spends more time with me than he does with her. He implies that he’s coming back to me. Every time I confront him about why he’s still with her, he gets defensive and says he doesn’t want to hurt her because he knows that if he moves out, it’s over between them, even as friends. We are going through counseling and even the therapist can’t figure out why he’s with her. Is it wrong for me to get him to admit he’s just with her for sex and is just biding his time until their relationship fizzles out? I don’t even know why I want him back.
A: Your therapist can’t figure out why your husband is living with his girlfriend, but I can’t figure out why you’re in marriage counseling since your husband is living with his girlfriend. Let me repeat: Your husband is living with his girlfriend. If I were you, I’d put the money you’re spending on counseling toward the best divorce lawyer in town. Then, go to therapy alone to figure out why you wanted to take back a world-class cheat.
Q. Punching in the Pews: Yesterday, I corrected two children in the pew in front of me. It is a family I know, and the two boys (ages 8 and 10, I believe) had been rowdy throughout the service. Mom had attempted to intervene several times (but had not separated them) and appeared to have given up. Forty-five minutes into the service when they were punching each other repeatedly, I leaned over and hissed at them that it was Mother’s Day and that they should be kind to their mother. The punching stopped, but now I am concerned that I overstepped my boundaries. I never thought that I would be the “church lady”! Was I wrong? What do I do the next time I see the mother—bring it up or pretend it didn’t happen?
A: Hooray for church ladies! Since the mother didn’t shoot you a dirty look for reprimanding her darlings, she was probably grateful that you were able to shut them up. Do not mention this episode; just consider it a Mother’s Day gift.
A: Everything is a Seinfeld episode, isn’t it? The mail is running strongly toward, “Showering before or after a bath? That’s crazy!”
Q. Single Parent: For the pregnant widow: I was 4 months old when my mother became a widow at the age of 19. She was a college student, wife to her longtime sweetheart, and mother to me at the time. I can’t imagine how she did it, but she made it through college and packed me up and moved to an entirely new area when I was about 3. She did find another love when I was 4 years old and they have been married for almost 35 years now. She owns her own business and is incredibly successful in every sense of the word. If you have any doubts about having an abortion, please please please don’t do it.
A: Thanks for this.
Q. In-Laws and Thank-You Notes: We live 1,000 miles from my in-laws, so we do not see them as often as we would like. My brother-in-law was married two years go. I gave his wife a nice gift, valued at about $100 for her shower. We gave him $100 and a gift valued at $100 that was on the registry. They just had a baby a month ago; we sent nice essential-type clothing and a gift of about $125 from her registry. I don’t care about the money: We’re retired, not rich, but they are family, and my husband and his brother get along great. The problem is, we’ve never received acknowledgement for any of the gifts, not a note, not a call. I want to stop giving next time they have a baby or another event, just send a card. I’m sure that would inspire them to respond or have one of the sisters call and ask why, and I would be sure to tell them. But my husband says not to say anything. I know my brother-in-law is 50 percent responsible for saying thank you for two of the three gifts, but considering his wife is from a wealthy family (my in-laws are not) and highly educated—she is an attorney, I would think that it would come automatic to say “thank you,” even just a phone call! What are your thoughts?
A: I would give it another month, then contact your sister-in-law to check and see that the clothing arrived. Let’s hope that prompts an apology for the lateness of a thank-you note, and that you actually receive one. If she says something like, “Oh, yes, we got the clothes, thanks, I’ve been too busy to write notes,” file that information away. Then next time they have a milestone event, you, unfortunately, will be too busy to buy a gift.
Q. Illness and Dating: I’m a fairly outgoing woman in my mid-20s, but when it comes to dating, there’s a major issue that I just don’t know how to deal with: I’m sick. You’d never know it to look at me, but I have multiple major, chronic health problems that impact every part of my life. Hospital stays and ER visits are not unusual, my medicine cabinet is overflowing, and I am in pain daily. How and when do I tell men I date about this significant issue? I don’t want men (or anyone else!) to define me by my illness, but unfortunately my illness does define a lot of things in my life, so it doesn’t seem realistic to keep it hidden for long. Signed, Looking (but not feeling) Great
A: You’re right, you are not your illness, but unfortunately your illness is something that has to be coped with on a daily basis. You don’t have to say something on a first date—after all, you might not want a second date. But by a second or third date it seems only fair to say, “I want to let you know I have [lupus, or whatever]. Let me explain a little bit what it is, and how I cope.”
Q. Surrogacy: I don’t think the husband is being “ungenerous.” Any child the writer delivers will be hers, no matter where the zygote formed. A friend of mine carried an adopted embryo, and the emotional reality is clear: That child is her biological child. Perhaps the writer ought to look at it this way: Would she want her husband to go all Big Chill and donate sperm to a friend? It is most generous to want to be a surrogate, but I don’t think it is ungenerous to be opposed to your wife’s surrogacy.
A: I am duly chastised. It is perfectly reasonable to say, “No, I don’t want to do this.” But it’s also reasonable that he do his wife the favor of discussing it with her. Additionally, if neither the sperm nor the egg is hers, I don’t see how you say it’s her “biological” child.
Q. Aging Parents: I’m 24 and I live with both my parents. I’m an auditor at a big corporation that requires me to work long hours (14 hours a day if I’m lucky!), and I also have to study during my time off to obtain my professional qualifications. My problem is that I have been getting into fights with my parents over petty issues, which all ultimately link back to the fact that my parents don’t think I’m spending enough time talking with them. I understand that it is probably due to them getting older and that they would like to spend more time with me, but the situation has been getting so bad that even if I choose to study at a café, as I find I can’t concentrate at home, they start badgering me about why I’m not studying at home and start hinting that it’s because I find them stressful to be around. Unfortunately, I’m not financially able to move out, and it has turned into a vicious cycle where I really am trying to avoid my parents as I have enough stress at work/in my studies to deal with and do not want to start arguing over how much time I’m spending with them. Help?
A: You’re sure you can’t afford to live in a group house? I understand you may have student loans to pay off, and money is tight, but your mental health has value, too. You are a young professional, so if you’re going to continue living at home, you need to set up some parameters.
Q. Riding Crop?: I just have to say how I love the way you can type with a straight face that a riding crop is a “neutral” sex toy. I think that question shows just how much the world of advice-giving has changed since I first read “Dear Abby” (although she probably had equivalent questions regarding racy paperbacks left behind or something).
A: They may be budding equestrians and would prefer Mom think it was a sex toy rather than that they are spending all their money on a ruinously expensive hobby.
Q. To the Single Parent: I highly recommend Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor—a fantastic book. It’s her story of living through a very similar situation.
A: Thanks for the recommendation.
Q. Shower ‘n’ Bath: I do a quick shower afterward. This reminds me of a question that came up with a friend of mine recently. Underwear under PJs or commando? She was shocked that I wear underwear under PJs, but everyone in my family does.
A: I will leave the existential dilemma of “underwear under pajamas?” for all of you to mull over this week. Thanks, everyone!
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