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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Secret Pregnancy: A friend of mine is pregnant as a result of a one night stand with an acquaintance. She is planning to become a single mom. She has so far refused to tell the father of her child because she doesn’t want to “burden” him when she is happy to raise the baby alone. He’s a decent guy, he just doesn’t ever want to get married or have a relationship, so she keeps saying she feels bad to shock him with the news. I feel like it’s so wrong to keep something like this from him. Even if he decides he wants nothing to do with the baby, I feel like he should at least know and make his own decision. Would it be totally out of line for me to tell him myself? I am a firm believer in minding my own business, but I feel it’s completely wrong to keep this guy in the dark and have the decision made for him that he’s going to have nothing to do with his child. If it were me I would be completely outraged that someone prevented me from getting to know my own child.
A: If she’s approaching motherhood in the spirit of deceit and evasion, that’s not a promising start. Not only does the father need to know; the two of them need to work out financial support and talk about the father’s role in child-rearing. If someone has unprotected sex, he takes on the risk of becoming a parent, and it’s ludicrous that your friend thinks this knowledge would be too much of a “burden.” And unless your friend is independently wealthy, she will find that raising a child on a single salary truly is a burden. Beyond that is the eventual issue of a child who will want to know who his or her father is. It doesn’t matter how loving and committed a mother your friend is; children are interested in their entire paternity. I have been reading the reviews of the book Luck and Circumstance by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, who went through his life haunted by the suspicion that his biological father was Orson Welles, but who was unable to get his actress mother to tell him the truth. Sure, your friend’s acquaintance is no Orson Welles, but every child is entitled to as much honesty as possible about this. I think you need to tell your friend that since she’s confided in you, you have profound concerns about her desire to keep her secret. Be gentle and understanding, but say you hope she will consider that in the long run, the truth will be better for everyone. Then wait and see if she comes around. If she won’t, you don’t have to act now, but you can tell her you will find it hard to keep this secret forever. And perhaps when she starts to show, the father will do some elementary math and draw some conclusions of his own.
Dear Prudence: I Married a Peeping Tom?
Q. My Boyfriend Lives With His Ex Wife: I have recently started dating a great guy—I’ve never clicked with anyone like this before. Early on he mentioned he’s divorced, with two kids. Then a short while later he told me he was still living with his ex wife. He explained both of them can’t afford to live separately, paying for separate households plus child support. He said his divorce was as amicable as they get, they don’t communicate more than necessary, and have each had relationships in the three years they’ve been divorced. What is your take on this situation—is there any hope for our relationship or is this just too weird?
A: Yes, it’s weird, and if you’d written this about three years ago I would have thought this guy was a married man just feeding you some real estate baloney. Then the housing market collapsed and many people who would like to dump both their domestic partner and their domicile are stuck under the same roof. However, even if his marriage and his mortgage are underwater, this is an uncomfortable situation that presents difficulties for you. But first you must make sure he’s telling the truth. Given the bizarreness of his claims, he should understand that you would like to see a copy of his divorce decree. Once you establish he really is divorced, then you need to be able to talk to him about what his living situation means. Will your relationship be conducted exclusively at your place? Are he and his ex attempting to physically separate, or do they like being divorced, living together, and dating other people? It could be that living with his wife is a great way to keep from having to commit. So before you get in too deep, you need to discover if his heart really belongs to his mortgage company.
Q. Wedding Shower Blues: Please help me out with some advice for my situation. My fiance and I just purchased our first home and had our first wedding shower. Neither of us have lived on our own and our registry reflected our honest-to-goodness needs. Now I’m struggling with ungratefulness towards my gifts. Prudie, we only received one item from our registry. I was so disappointed after the shower that I cried as I drove home. I feel like no one took the time to think about who I am as a person, what kind of gift I would appreciate, and what kind of needs we are facing in our lives right now. Now I am struggling with how to write my thank you cards (which were also a gift) when I’m not very thankful. I have thought of focusing more on the guests’ presence rather than their “presents” but I’m afraid that would be rather transparent. How can I say, “Thank you, but you really shouldn’t have” and mean it? How can I be grateful for extremely tacky and tasteless gifts?
A: Your first step toward recovery should be to accept that your friends are just friends and not program officers of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A registry is a convenient way of pointing people toward what you would like; it is not a series of commandments. However, it’s strange that virtually everyone ignored your wishes. So there are two obvious possibilities: Your wishes were outrageous, or there is something troubling about your relationships. If you were suggesting people buy you the Regency bed set, or appliances, maybe they all balked en masse. Usually that means a bunch of salad bowls and trivets come your way, so I’m wondering if some kind of prank was being pulled with the “tacky and tasteless” gifts. But perhaps their tasteful gift is your tacky one. In any case, you pull out your thank you cards (and stationery is a perfectly appropriate gift) and write the most gracious notes possible. If they were trying to hurt your feelings, they should feel ashamed. If you were trying to hold them up to furnish your home for you, you should be.
Q. Secret Pregnancy Question: The happy-to-be-a-single-mother lady has a complete misunderstanding of the concept and purpose behind child support. Child support belongs to the child, not the mother. The child has a legal right to the funds, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the mother, her income, or her wishes. Additionally, the child has a right to other financial potentials, including survivor benefits if, god forbid, something happens to the father. The mother is being selfish by denying her child what the child is legally entitled to. If something, god forbid, happens to the mother, unless she establishes a record now, the child could potentially be out in the cold regarding significant resources to help each other.
A: Excellent points, thanks.
Q. I Don’t Want To Be A Full-Time Nurse!: My fiance is an only child to divorced parents. His mother has remarried and lives out of state. His father was recently in a serious car accident and now needs full time care. We looked into putting him in a facility or getting a nurse for him at home and both options are very costly. It comes down to either me or my fiance leaving work to care for my future FIL—but since I earn a lot less than my fiance does, we won’t be able to live off my income alone. I’m in a turmoil as to whether I should break up with my fiance. I know it sounds selfish but I don’t know if I can give up my job to be a full time nurse for my FIL, clean him, change his adult diapers, and quit my job (which I love, even if it doesn’t pay much). My fiance doesn’t know I’m thinking of breaking up with him and I feel terrible. Am I selfish for feeling this way?
A: Our social safety net is fraying, but I cannot accept the only solution here is for one of two young people to leave the workforce and care full time for a disabled relative. I do not think you sound selfish to not want to devote possibly the next few decades of your life to full-time care-giving to your boyfriend’s father. And I cannot believe it makes economic sense for your boyfriend to be contemplating this either. How does having no income even make care-giving possible? You two haven’t even begun your marriage and you are faced with a tragic crisis that will test you both. One test of the strength of your relationship is your ability to be both honest and supportive of each other. If you think your only solution is to flee, that doesn’t say very much for the ability of you two to face the inevitable crises of the future. Before you split, tell your boyfriend that you realize you cannot be his father’s caregiver, and that you two together need to figure out how you both can proceed with your lives and have his father be safe and looked after. Readers, any suggestion on where to turn?
Q. Re: Wedding Shower Blues: “First” wedding shower? Is that a clue to the problem?
A: Good point. This coupled may be showered with tacky gifts. Other readers are pointing out maybe no one got the word about the registry (although usually people invited to a shower make a point of asking where the couple is registered).
Q. For the Couple With the Disabled Father: The father who was in the car accident needs to apply for Social Security Disability. Not only will the disability payments provide some income for living expenses, but should also qualify him for Medicaid. Depending on the state, there should be home health care or nursing home options available, either through the Medicaid State Plan or through some sort of waiver. Talk with the hospital or your state Medicaid agency for options.
A: Thank you. Other readers suggested contacting a lawyer who specializes in disability or eldercare issues to get this started.
Q: Politely Uninviting Kids?: My fiance and I are in our mid-30s and somehow all our friends now have small kids (ages 0-3). We’d love to have them over for dinner, as we used to, but sans kids. Problem is, we have a nice apartment with partially expensive furniture and art objects (your typical DINKs). This includes walls and floors, so just putting the expensive stuff out won’t help. So how do we politely let our friends know that we’d love to have them for dinner, but without their progeny? We haven’t invited some of our friends for years now because of this issue and don’t want to lose all our friends! Eating out is not really an option. I guess we’re the jerks here, but anyway, thanks so much for your advice!
A: You have a Saturday evening dinner party that starts at 7:30 and your friends get a babysitter and enjoy their evening out. However, I’m wondering if your apartment is modeled on Versailles when you include your floors and your walls among your art objects. Do you have ropes to keep the crowds back? If you’re going to eventually have kids of your own, you put away the valuables and realize walls can be painted, carpets can be cleaned, and your home is not a museum. And I don’t understand why meeting at a restaurant is not an option.
Q. Disturbing Discovery: I’m a 15 year old girl in high school. Several weeks ago, I was on my dad’s account on our computer, surfing the Internet. I opened a new tab, intending to look for a website, but I happened to look down to the “Most Visited” tabs section. I was extremely disturbed to see one of them was a porn site. I had been naive, I guess, by never imagining before that my dad looked at porn. It disgusted me thoroughly, and I lost all respect for my father. A couple weeks after I told my mother. She and my dad, after 31 one years of marriage, are not emotionally close anymore, and she had no comforting words for me. As disturbed and shaken as I still was, I tried to forget about it and move on. This week I checked my email, and tried to download an attachment that came with one. It popped up under the Photos on my dad’s account, and I was horrified to discover several pornographic photos. How do I deal with these emotions? I feel like I’m filthy, now that I’ve looked at them, even by accident. I can’t ask my friends for advice. I also do not want to talk to my dad about this; he would probably get defensive and accuse me of snooping. Please help me, this has made my relationship with my dad extremely awkward and I can’t tell anyone this secret that is crushing me.
A: Of course your discovery is deeply disturbing, as disturbing as what parents see if they’re allowed access to their 15-year-old’s Facebook photos. I can promise you that from my in-box I know your experience is not unique, and as a rule no good can come from children (even grown) surfing the Web using their parents’ account. It’s too bad that even if your mother can’t stand your father she didn’t make more of an attempt to explain to you what I will: Many men, maybe even most, look at porn. As uncomfortable as that may make you, it turns out that the Internet has made access to porn almost irresistible. Of course you feel icky having such a graphic look into your father’s sexual interests, but it was all an accidental breach of his privacy. Recognize he actually has done nothing wrong. What you need to do now is get some sort of technical fix in place so that your father’s account is not “popping” up when you use the computer. Normally, I might suggest you talk out an upsetting issue with your school counselor. But the mix of “Dad” and “porn” is a volatile one that could end up getting your father reported to authorities for no good reason. So my suggestion is that you accept you saw something you wish you hadn’t, and you realize it shouldn’t change how you feel about your father.
Q. Soon To Be In-Laws Think I’m a Pervert: I’m engaged to a wonderful woman and we are now facing a strange dilemma which I fear could cancel the wedding. My fiancee and I have a great sex life but for the past two years she has been asking me to “talk dirty” during sex. This really isn’t my thing and it makes me somewhat uncomfortable, but a few weeks ago I started repeating things that she would said about herself (i.e. “Tell me I’m your whore”). As luck would have it, my fiancee’s parents stopped by unannounced last month and let themselves into her apartment with a key my fiancee had given them for emergency. Upon entering the house they heard my comments but not their daughter’s. They made a huge scene, yelling for us to come out of the bedroom. Her father called me every name in the book and I decided to leave rather than argue. Her parents are now refusing to attend our wedding until I apologize and agree to go to counseling. My fiancee wants me to go through the motions of apologizing to her and her parents and to lie about counseling. I feel that her parents violated our privacy, have no business in our sex life and that if anyone should come clean it’s my fiancee. I also don’t want her parents to think of me as a pervert. What do you think we should do?
A: Please sit down at your computer and start typing up this scene as the opening for a raunchy romantic comedy. Preferably you figure out a way to do this at your future father-in-law’s computer, so you can discover his stash of photographs of himself dressed up as a ballerina. An emergency key is one thing, but everyone has to understand the definition of an emergency. “We want to drop by but you can’t hear us because you’re having loud sex” is not an emergency. However, once in the door, when the future in-laws realize they are hearing the young people have sex, even if their daughter is screaming: “Beat me harder! Harder!” their duty is to quietly beat a retreat and never mention they were there. Your girlfriend needs to approach her parents and explain that they heard something very private and which they don’t understand. She needs to say there’s nothing more to say about it except that the whole thing is an unfortunate misunderstanding that’s best tossed down the memory hole. If they won’t let it go and intend to boycott the wedding, she should say she is sorry to hear that, and she will miss them very much. Then get your locks changed.
Q: Secret Adoption: My 7-year-old son overheard my husband and I talking about how his 5-year-old cousin was adopted. When he asked us what it meant, we explained to him as simply as possible and said his aunt and uncle were wonderful people who loved their daughter the same way we loved him. Many months later at a family gathering, he blurted out to his cousin that she was adopted. Apparently our explanation was lost in translation and when she asked him what it meant, he said “it means your real parents are dead and Aunt and Uncle so-and-so got you from an orphanage.” I got a near hysterical phone call from my SIL that evening who said she was going to cut off contact with us. I tried to explain to her that I do not want to lie to my children, and she was going to find out eventually anyway. My SIL has been adamant about keeping this secret until her daughter was in her 50s or 60s—because she wants her daughter to be assured that she is her “real” daughter. She even moved away after the adoption where no one except her parents knew her daughter was adopted. I don’t feel like I’ve done wrong, but do I owe her an apology here?
A: As I noted for the single mother who wants to keep the father from knowing he’s going to be a father, human beings are entitled to the truth about their origins. Your in-laws sound like throwbacks to an era that’s blessedly passed when it was thought that it was best not to let adopted children know that they were adopted. You’re right, this is a secret that can’t and shouldn’t be kept, and their daughter should have already had some age appropriate discussions of this. Deciding that her daughter can know the truth when she is a middle-aged woman is cruel. Moving away from anyone who would know about the adoption is bizarre. However, you need to explain to your sister-in-law the circumstances under which your son found out about his cousin, and apologize that your daughter found out the way she did. Say no harm was intended, but you understand that this is not the way anyone would want this news disseminated. Then say it will grieve you to be cut out of their lives because of this and will be a punishment to their darling daughter whom you all love, and you hope they reconsider.
Q. Wedding Registry: I have a friend who’s getting married. One of the things she registered for was a $100 set of hot rollers. Even though she registered for other useful things, that one item was enough to make me think of just giving her a framed piece of horrible art. (I ended up going with towels.)
A: Maybe this bride will have a set of bobby pins to sob over.
Q. Husband Snapping At Disabled Wife: My brother-in-law is the sole breadwinner and the caregiver of three children after his wife had a car accident that left her disabled and cognitively impaired. He went through counseling for a period of time to cope with everything after he had a nervous breakdown. We help out as much as we can but he is often understandably stressed. I noticed that he has started snapping at his wife, saying stuff like, “Shut the hell up,” “Stop that you moron.” I expressed my discomfort to my husband, who says his brother is stressed out as it is and that he doesn’t want to cause conflict right now. I am not close enough to my brother-in-law to feel like he might change if I confront him. I can really sympathize with the incredible pressure he’s under but I feel uncomfortable hearing him speak to his wife like that, even if she might not understand. What can I do in this situation, if anything?
A: This is tragically similar to the problem of the woman whose father was disabled in a car accident. There needs to be an intervention for this family, now. It’s understandable the husband collapsed, but he cannot take out his frustration on his injured wife. To do so is morally repugnant and devastating to the children. Confronting him in a hostile way will get you nowhere. The whole family has to approach the husband in the spirit of making things better. That might mean the wife needs to live in a facility where she can get the care and rehabilitation she needs and her children can visit her and be part of her life. Start by finding a lawyer and therapist who specialize in disability issues. Yes, this will take some time, even money, on your family’s part. But your brother-in-law’s family is being destroyed and all of you have to step up.
Q. Re: Secret Pregnancy: Another reason to tell him—he may be delighted to be a father. My daughter got pregnant at 33 years old. Father was a longtime good friend, sometimes with benefits. She was really worried about how he would take the news; he was over the moon happy. They didn’t consider marriage, but he’s a wonderful father and they’re poster parents for how to co-parent successfully. And, I’ve got a beautiful, happy, smart granddaughter.
A: The reason to tell is because it’s the right thing to do. But you’re absolutely right that it might also bring a happily unanticipated response.
Q. Girlfriend and My Mother, the Short-Term Houseguest: I live with my girlfriend, “Lea,” in a 1-bedroom, 1-bath apartment with a large living room; we’ve been living together for almost a year. We live in the same state as her family and often see her parents. My mother is coming to visit us, from a long way away and she will stay for 5 days. The problem: my mother wants to stay with us, in our apartment. My mother has even mailed us an air mattress and intends to stay in our living room. Lea is unhappy about this. She thinks we’ll be crowded (maybe), we won’t have privacy (true), and that she would never ask me to do this for her family. Lea now plans to stay with her parents for the duration of my mother’s visit. I think Lea is overreacting. A hotel would be very expensive, this is a temporary inconvenience, and I would never mind if anyone in her family ever stayed with us. I am intensely bothered that Lea plans to stay with her parents during those nights. Am I the one who is overreacting? Isn’t it normal for family to be welcome for a visit?
A: Yes, it’s normal and Lea is being a prima donna by not being welcoming to your mother. However, if she wants to flounce out the door, consider that a win/win. Your mother can get a bed, you two don’t have to worry about intruding on Lea’s privacy, and you don’t have to listen to Lea grumbling. But since you two live together, try to salvage the situation. Say that you understand she’ll be more comfortable staying with her parents while your mother visits, but you hope she can join you for dinner or brunch during the visit. If Lea won’t even do that, then consider your options when the lease is up.
Q. Pregnancy: I am a very fit and healthy woman. I am used to going to the gym 6 times a week and I run marathons. I have continued to exercise throughout my pregnancy (I’m now in my 6th month) with the blessing of my obstetrician, although obviously I’ve altered my exercise routine as I became more heavily pregnant. My problem is my nosy sister, who had a near miscarriage and spent her last two trimesters in bed, only getting up to go to the bathroom, and ordering delivery food twice a day. She seems to think she avoided a miscarriage by not moving at all during the pregnancy. As I lost a baby two years ago, my sister is forever nagging me to stop exercising and lie down all day. She gives me judgmental lectures if I go for a swim (which makes me feel great). She’s otherwise good company, and I don’t want to cut her off. What can I say to her to shut her up?
A: “I have talked about my fitness routine with my obstetrician and I feel great and everything is going fine. So this subject is closed, and we only have to get through 12 weeks of not mentioning it.”
Q. Am I a Cold Mama?: I have been told that I am a cold and unloving mother because when my children get hurt I don’t panic. I don’t run to them and coddle them. I make them calm down and stop crying before I check them out. (I always give them the eyeball while I’m trying to calm them, I just don’t want the kids to notice.) And usually say something like, “I can’t help you until you tell me how it happened and where it hurts.” And then once they can tell me about what happened and have calmed down I give them the hugs and kisses. All of my friends run and cuddle and hold them until they stop sobbing. And I get treated like a bad mom because I am not. I just want to raise strong, individual, self-helping, little people. Am I in the wrong? Will more cuddling make them feel safer? Or, if I cuddle more will I make them into sissies?
A: The kids may have brushed off the gravel, but you mothers are sitting there judging each other and nursing the boo-boos you’re inflicting on each other. Unless one friend feels another is doing something harmful to the children, everyone should give a lot of elbow room to one another’s mothering styles. You don’t have to worry your friends are ruining their kids for life with their over cuddling (although over cuddling can be overdone). And you don’t have to be defensive and superior about your “what doesn’t kill you, makes your stronger” school of mothering. If you’re sure your friends aren’t pointing out that little Courtney is lying bleeding and while you’re checking text messages, just smile and say, “We all have different styles, and so far all the kids seem fine.”
Emily Yoffe: Sorry for the technical glitches today. The chat got stuck halfway through the hour on the Washington Post site, so this late posting is a work-around. Thanks for bearing with us, and I hope things are smoother next week.