Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. ( Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I know we’re not officially there, but summer feels really over.
Q. Naked Neighbor: How can we let our new neighbor know that everyone on the block can see through her windows? She keeps curtains over them, but when the light hits just right they are virtually see-through. There are a lot of children around and it has been a topic amongst them that you can see “Ms. Smith” naked most evenings. We don’t want to embarrass her, but it certainly needs to be brought to her attention.
A: You’re all living an update of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, one that could be called, Rear End Window. I’ll admit that as teenagers my sister and I spent many hours spying on our neighbors. We didn’t have as much fun as your community’s kids because our greatest titillation was watching the neighbors pass the Cheetos as they sat on the couch staring at the TV. I imagine that as the word as spread in your neighborhood, a few of the husbands have found themselves suddenly armed with bottles of Windex and a desire to make sure the windows are sparkling. However illuminating all this is, the curtain has to come down on Ms. Smith. This is a case for which the anonymous note was made. Send one to her explaining that her sheers are not providing the coverage she needs. If she doesn’t quickly install black-out shades, then she’s getting a thrill by providing a peep show. (And no, readers, I can’t give you her address.)
Q. Tipping: I am 66 and have stayed in many hotels and motels over the years. Recently I was staying at a Comfort Inn along with some other family for a wedding. One of the family members was my adult daughter, who, as we were all checking out, asked to change a $20 at the front desk. I asked her why and she said to leave in the room for the housekeeper. I saw that she left a $5. Have I been a complete cheapskate all these years? I have never heard of leaving a tip in a motel (or a hotel for that matter) for the person who cleans the room.
A: Have you been a complete cheapskate? Yes. Unfortunately, tipping the maid in the hotel is one of those niceties that many people never learn because leaving a hotel room is generally a private act. Cleaning rooms is hard, and sometimes dangerous, as a recent celebrated case (now dismissed) informed us. Housekeepers really earn their tips. I tip at the end of my stay, usually leaving about $3 a night. I once asked a maid if they prefer to get the tip daily or when the guest checks out. Since maids are not supposed to touch money, she said at the end, which could mean that the woman who cleaned your room most of the week may not end up with the tip. But if everyone knew to leave one, it would all even out.
Q. Inviting First Husband’s Parents to My Second Wedding: I have recently become engaged to a wonderful man three yrs after the death of my husband. The reason I’m writing to you is because I am debating whether or not I should invite my first husband’s parents. I have been close to them since my first husband and I were dating. They have supported me brilliantly in the past years as I raised my two girls alone. In fact, I see them as my second set of parents. I feel strange going through such a major personal celebration without them—but on the other hand, I realize this could be an awkward situation and also a difficult one for all the obvious reasons. What is the wedding etiquette on this one?
A: Talk to them. Tell them you would love to have them there, but you understand if they would find it to be too hard. I’m betting they would like to be there, seated with your daughters. They will never get over their son’s death, of course, but they also must have hoped for you, and their grandchildren, that you would find love again and that the girls would have a good man to help raise them. They also may be concerned that with your remarriage they may be somewhat shunted aside. So this is a good time to tell them what their love and support has meant. Say that you think of them as a second set of parents, and always will. And that no change in your circumstances will change your closeness or their importance to your daughters.
Last week I answered a letter on a similar theme from a bridesmaid wondering if she should mention the bride’s mother, who died about a year before the wedding. I encouraged her to include the mother in her toast. And I encourage you to have someone mention your late husband during the toasts. I think it will be a comfort to your daughters to know that finding new love does not mean you forget your old love. And that while all of you can be happy for this day, it doesn’t mean their father won’t always have a place in all of your hearts.
Q. Family Vacation: My large, wonderful extended family is taking a five-day cruise this winter. I am thrilled as it is rare for the whole family to get together. Since I’m part of the younger generation, the trip is more of a financial strain on me than other members of the family, but I am more than willing to spend the money to go. My partner of two years, however, is not willing to spend the money and so he has decided not to go. I feel that he is a part of my family and so he should come on family vacations. He feels differently. Am I being reasonable in my expectation of him joining me on this cruise? If so, how do I get him to go?
A: Probably the cruise company will not appreciate the old fashioned method of getting reluctant people aboard ship: kidnapping and tying them to the mast. Spending five days with your partner’s family may not be many people’s idea of a pleasure cruise. Add that you’ll all be trapped on a boat and that this fun will deplete your partner’s bank account, and you have a pretty weak case. Enjoy your five days at sea immersed in your family without having to worry about explaining private jokes or keeping Uncle Mort from talking your partner’s ear off. Do not be resentful that your beloved simply wants to wish you a bon voyage.
Q. Divorcing a Stepchild: My husband and I are unfortunately in the middle of a divorce. He was a widower with a daughter when we married and we raised her together since she was 6. I have never been much affectionate of children, uninterested in having any of my own, and while I did make an effort to include my stepdaughter and spend time with her, I never felt that fuzzy warmth other parents feel as they relish in the company of their children. She is now 15, and probably in need of a mother figure/female role model. My husband assumed I would maintain this role and suggested she stay with me on weekends. The problem is, I don’t want to. As long as I was a stepmother to this child I would fulfill whatever parental duties I had. Now that I am divorcing her father, I don’t feel particularly compelled to continue. How can I communicate this to the two of them gently with minimal hurt feelings? I don’t want to be callous, but I don’t feel it’s right for me to remain a “mother” out of obligation when my heart is not in it.
A: I’m wondering if during those years you raised your stepdaughter you ever got around to reading her any fairy tales. I’m hoping the portrayals of the stepmothers called you up short. Sure, just because you spent this girl’s childhood going through the motions doesn’t make you an evil stepmother. And I’ll give you credit for being an honest one now in saying you want out. But for all child-haters contemplating marrying someone with children—please don’t. Being barely interested in the child in your life simply isn’t enough. If you are marrying someone with children, especially a widow or widower, you aren’t just becoming a spouse but a parent, a role you should embrace and think of as one for life. My heart breaks for this girl who lost one mother then had a cold one as a replacement. However, it seems rather manipulative on the father’s part to try to free up his weekends by passing his daughter on to you. But now that this girl is becoming a young adult, surely you can soften your heart enough to want to remain part of her life, even if that just means occasional sleepovers or lunches. As for how you tell her you’re glad to get rid of her—well, maybe before your family totally dissolves all of you could get some short-term counseling to help clarify your future roles and let your soon-to-be ex-stepdaughter find a way to say what she’s feeling.
Q. Long-Lost Daughter: My parents divorced when I was a baby. My mom remarried when I was preschool-age and her new husband adopted me legally. I have never had any contact with my biological father and I know very little about him except basically what he studied in college. It was always a taboo subject growing up. Now I am an adult and have children of my own. I am over the whole angry-he-abandoned-me thing I felt as a kid and curiosity has taken over. I have managed to find him via some intense Internet searching and even found that a sibling of his is on Facebook. Would it be weird for me to contact this sibling? Is this going to open some kind of can of worms that I could not have predicted? I just feel like I have a right to know where I came from and hear his side of the story.
A: This is why no matter how awful a biological parent may be, the other parent has no right to make this person’s existence taboo. Had you been able to talk about your biological father you might have come to your own conclusions about whether you wanted to have a relationship, but having as much information as possible was your right. You are perfectly entitled to pursue finding out more about this man. But do be prepared that it will open up an emotional can of worms—how can it not? Before you take action, join a support group for people in your situation and talk through with others about what to expect and the best way to make contact. Once you do that, I would suggest you don’t start sideways with an aunt or uncle, but go directly to your father. Keep your expectations low, and have people around you who can guide you through what may be a tumultuous reunion.
Q. Tipping the Housekeepers: I leave the money every day, usually $3-$4 depending on the room size. A lot of hotels have a little card that says “Your room is being cleaned by Insert Name Here,” so I put the money under that card. Otherwise, I take a piece of hotel notepad and write “Thank you!” on it, and that seems to work. They do work hard, and I don’t mind showing them that I appreciate it!
A: Good solution, thanks.
Q. “Have You Been a Complete Cheapskate? Yes.”: A little harsh, don’t you think? Tipping a hotel maid has only become standard in the past few years. My parents, who are 70, haven’t and would never, and they aren’t cheap. I don’t do it in a motel or when I am on work and never in the room. When I go somewhere with friends or family, and we actually use the room, I will tip $3-$4 a day. But to say one who doesn’t is cheap just isn’t true. It’s not like a restaurant
A: You parents may be lovely people, but because lovely people have been stiffing maids for decades does not make it right. Your hierarchy of maid-tipping is ludicrous. Housekeepers working at the lowest end of the business deserve nothing? When you say you don’t tip if you don’t “use” the room, I assume you sleep in it and shower, thus requiring the maid to clean it and make it up. Here’s some harsh news: You’re cheap.
Q. Flushing Worries: My roommate doesn’t check if the toilet is flushed “properly” after she uses it. Ideas on how to bring this up without sounding judgmental?
A: “Jasmine, our toilet lacks flushing power. So before you leave the bathroom please make sure it actually flushed, and if it didn’t please reflush.” As everyone has discovered, many water-saving toilets can require three or more flushes. But when you can no longer use 100-watt incandescent bulbs to illuminate the bathroom, the flushing problems will be less obvious.
Q. Teachers Insulting National Groups: My daughter, who is in middle school, came home and said that her middle school civics teacher said that the French are pathetic. He went on to say that they are cowards and the U.S. has had to help them twice. I assume that he is talking about WWI and WWII. He went on to mention that Canada was just America’s hat (whatever that means) and if it wasn’t for the U.S., it would not exist. My daughter has a good friend who is French Canadian and my grandmother was French. She also said there were some other kids who were upset by his comments. I know that sometimes kids can exaggerate what happens in the classroom, but in this case I am wondering what group is next. I don’t think it is appropriate for teachers to disparage national or ethnic groups in a classroom setting. I want to say something, but I don’t want this teacher to then single out my daughter. Should I say something directly to the instructor, talk to the principal, or just leave it alone?
A: Usually I am in favor of first directly addressing a gripe with the person who is causing it. But I agree that a teacher who exercises such bad judgment in the classroom is capable of making life unpleasant for your daughter. I think you should go to the principal, explain you don’t want your daughter’s name mentioned, but here’s what she told you was said in the classroom. Any decent principal will then have a conversation with the teacher telling him to leave the Franco-and-whatever- else-phobia out of the classroom.
Q. Dog Dilemma: Last week, my team went out to lunch for a fundraising debriefing meeting. We are five women who get a long for the most part. I’m the youngest, without children/marriage. My boyfriend and I are getting a dog and at the lunch, when we were eating, people asked to see pictures of the puppies we were going to be choosing from. I shared. Another co-worker then asked how much we were going to be paying, as it is a purebred. I don’t like to discuss money and believe it’s a personal matter how one spends it. I told them I’d rather not say. My co-worker then almost threatened me, saying she would find out anyway, so it was my choice to tell her then or not. I didn’t know how to respond and everyone else went quiet, so all I could ask was please respect my wishes. To my surprise on Sunday, my BOSS (not the other co-worker) texted me the amount of the dog with a bunch of “!?!?!” Meaning she went behind my back and matched the pictures I shared with the breeder’s listing/website and asked the price. I didn’t know how to respond and am offended. This could make my life miserable here/hurt my career, as we all work for a non-profit that helps disadvantaged families. Also, it’s almost all women—up to 300, who really like to gossip. The managers all make a pretty penny (or so it seems by their clothing, cars, etc.), but I don’t ever ask what they paid for anything and up until now never judged. How do I confront my boss on this? I thought it was going to be the other co-worker, but my boss?! Help. I really feel it is none of their business and this felt malicious.
A: Oh, the wrath of the self-righteous do-gooders. You’re right, your choice of pet is none of their business. The only way their snooping would be at all justified would be if you worked for an animal rescue organization. Your boss was way out of line, and in a calm, polite way you need to call her on it. You don’t want to make this a confrontation, but you are within your rights to draw a line around your personal life. Say you’d like to talk to her for a few minutes, then explain you understand that many people believe strongly in adopting only from shelter animals. You have nothing but respect for those who do, but this was a highly personal choice you made and you were dismayed to get an email at your home rebuking you for your choice of pet. Keep the conversation short. And if you find you are being punished for the dog you’ve bought, I hope there’s a higher up you can bring this to.
I have four animals, three of which I got from rescue organizations. When last year we all decided we wanted a puppy, I started filling out applications with rescue groups. The grilling you get for wanting to take in a homeless animal makes being strip-searched by the TSA seem like a holiday. We ended up doing something I thought I’d never do—we went to a breeder. We got a great dog, and the whole process was quick and painless.
Q. Family: My little sister was put up for adoption when she was born, however we met her and my mother, older sister, and I have maintained a relationship with her for the last 10 or so years. She was also in both my older sister’s and my wedding. My family is planning a family vacation this fall and she has been invited, and now my grandmother, the host, has decided to disinvite her. As we live throughout the country, I have not seen my sister in two years, since her adoptive mother’s funeral. As her sister, and a mother, I do not feel that this is right, but do not know if or how to approach the subject with my grandmother. Should I say something to her or just let it go? My grandmother can be very set in her ways and is not always willing to listen to the opinions of those of my generation.
A: What your grandmother is suggesting is so ugly that I’m wondering if this is a sign that Grandma is not just set in her ways, but starting to lose it. If she is just a nasty, vindictive person, one way these people gain power is through their ability to make life miserable for everyone who doesn’t follow their discordant tune. I think you and your older sister should say that your younger sister is part of your family and so will be invited on a family vacation. If her presence will be too upsetting to Grandma, then tell Grandma you will be sad, but understand, if she herself chooses not to come. If you refuse to let yourself be bullied, the bully’s power melts away.
Q. Re: See-Through Curtains: I’ve noticed a lot of times you suggest an anonymous note. I have to say, if I were that woman—assuming I didn’t realize the curtains were sometimes see-through—I’d be pretty scared to get an anonymous note saying so. I’d feel like someone is stalking me. I don’t see why someone, perhaps another female neighbor, can’t approach her and just state it, gently. Why must everything be anonymous? Are we so scared of opinion that we can’t just go up and state a fact, tactfully, along with a suggestion for help?
A: I sometimes suggest anonymous notes, especially in situations where the conversation requires stating, “I can see you naked/hear you having an orgasm.” That conversation is going to be hard to get out of one’s mind when you meet walking the dogs. I don’t think it’s scary to get a gently worded note saying, “You probably aren’t aware, but your curtains are see-through.” What would be scarier would be to find out years later that everyone was gawking and no one spoke up.
Q. Purebred Dogs: I can’t believe your response regarding the breeder. There is NO excuse for purchasing a purebred dog when hundreds or thousands of animals in need of loving homes are put down every day. Pure-breeding not only costs a ton, but can produce inbred animals with serious, life-shortening health problems. I’m sorry the shelter grilled you, but you must remember that they deal with animals who have been abused, abandoned, and otherwise betrayed by their humans. I adopted my two cats at one of the most uptight shelters in the country (NYC Humane Society) and it was worth every “hoop” to give rescue animals a good home. For shame.
A: I understand your feelings. But I have heard many truly crazy stories about rescue groups’ behavior. One group refused to let a family adopt a second dog because when they did the home check the family’s current dog was running around “unsupervised” in the family’s fenced backyard. As my friend pointed out, “My children run around in the yard unsupervised.” Shelter groups do great work, but they really need to consider how they sometimes drive people to breeders.
Q. Awful Grandma Is Host: But, Prudie, the sister wrote that her grandmother is the host of the family vacation. It’s either at her house or she’s paying for it, right? Doesn’t that mean that the sisters’ only option is not to attend themselves? And hopefully their mother won’t, either.
A: Thanks for pointing this out. If Grandma is controlling the purse strings or the venue, then yes, the letter writer’s entire family should say that without the youngest sister being invited, they will have to decline.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Without rotten family members, I’d have very little column material, but I hope your evil ones give it a rest this week.