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My parents went on vacation and my father asked me to answer email from a client on his behalf, because he was cut off from the Internet. While searching for the relevant emails, I came across a couple of messages that had subject lines such as, “Hi Dad, I love you.” These were not from my siblings. I dug through his inbox and found several messages from what sounded like a teenage girl calling my father “Dad.” I also found a few angry emails from the same address that I’m assuming were from the girl’s mother. My parents have been married for almost 40 years, and I had always assumed they were happy. I don’t know whether to tell my siblings—we’re all adults—about this, confront my father, or reveal this to my mom. My mother is completely dependent on my father financially and emotionally. I am going to be married soon and this makes me lose all faith in marriage and relationships. My father was my hero both as a husband and father, and if he is this sleazy I am not sure how my fiance and I stand a chance. Do my siblings have a right to know what going on? What is the path of least harm?
Your father was responsible for opening this Pandora’s inbox when he gave you access to his email. You and your siblings are entitled to know whether you have a half-sister, and she’s entitled to be known by all of you. If your father indeed has fathered a child who is now a teenager, think of the years of subterfuge it has taken to keep this girl hidden. Then he goes and leaves a trail of “Hi, Dad” emails for you to find. Perhaps blowing this secret wasn’t his intention, but that’s the result, and the first thing you should do when your father returns is ask him what’s going on. If your suspicions are confirmed, then explain to him that it’s time he told the rest of the family—that includes your mother—but if he won’t, you will. It is pernicious to deny the existence of your own children. Of course this will shake the foundation of your parents’ marriage. But preserving the deceit for your mother’s sake is not worth the emotional cost to your half-sister. This potential revelation has also shaken your belief in marriage. But if you are old enough to be married yourself, then you know that even if your parents’ marriage was ideal, that does not mean you get a replay of it. Nor, if their marriage was terrible, are you condemned to repeat it. You also say that your mother is completely dependent on your father. As you contemplate your own union, surely you long ago realized that is a perilous position and you don’t want to be that kind of wife. This news will test your family, but it will also be a good test of your own relationship. I hope your fiance will be a source of support and comfort as you deal with the fallout from the possibility that your family has expanded by one teenager.
Dear Prudence: Dating Adonis
I’m have been babysitting little girls, ages 2 and 5, for about two years. The parents, while very loving with their children, are constantly arguing, even in front of me. Recently, the youngest, “Emma,” told me, “I don’t like my daddy.” I asked her why and she said, “Because he’s mean to my mommy.” To which the older sister, “Elizabeth,” responded, “He’s not mean, he’s just intense!” (his normal explanation for his behavior.) Last week, the parents were arguing again, and after they left, Elizabeth told me, “Sometimes I go under the table and say funny things, like, ‘Stop arguing, Mom!’ ” Emma seemed on the verge of tears. I really care for these children, and it breaks my heart to hear them say things like that. Do I bring it up to the parents, and if so, what do I say? I really dread such an awkward and uncomfortable conversation. And so you know, I am an adult, not a teenage babysitter.
—To Tell or Not To Tell?
My parents fought nonstop. Sometimes my father would stay home from work so they could fight around the clock. There was violence and abuse, too, but as I look back, the relentless arguing—you’d think they would have exhausted themselves!—was one of the most destructive parts of my childhood. In my first week of college, late one night, I was falling asleep in the dorm when I heard a high-pitched female voice. I started to stuff my sheets in my ears to block out the sound of another fight, then I realized it was a classmate down the hall laughing. I was flooded with relief that I’d never have to listen to my parents again. I wish someone had said something to my parents about how damaging their fighting was to their children, even though I know it wouldn’t have made any difference to them. But maybe it will to this couple. You are in a good position to observe the deleterious effect the fighting is having on these little girls, and you are employed to care for them. I think you should speak up, but if you do, you have to be prepared to be fired. (If you are a loving, reliable adult who enjoys babysitting, you should have little trouble finding another family.) The next time you’re scheduled to babysit tell the parents you’d like to come a few minutes early to talk with them. Then sit down privately and say you’ve noticed that their fighting is very upsetting to the girls. Explain that you understand they may see your remarks as being out of place, but you hope they’ll consider the effect of their conflict on the children. Then you’ve done what you can do. As for the girls, if they bring up their worries to you, tell them that you know it is upsetting to see grown-ups fight and you’re sorry they have to hear it.
I am in my late 20s and recently moved in with a new roommate who owns a dog. She just told me she would be away visiting family for a week during Thanksgiving, and since I was staying in town asked if I’d watch the dog while she was gone. I told her I’m not getting the whole week off and that I can’t come home during the day—as she does—to let the dog out. She said that was fine and I could just walk him first thing in the morning and come home right after work. I said I’d let her know. But I don’t want to wake up early to walk it, and I don’t want to have to rush home after work, especially since I have a lot of athletic and social activities. I understand that this sounds selfish, but I don’t have a pet because I don’t want the responsibility. Is there an unwritten rule that if you move in with a dog owner you are expected to pitch in? What should I do?
If there is to be an understanding between a pet-owning roommate about the care the non-pet-owning roommate owes her dog, it’s better that it be in writing and possibly come in the form of a break on the rent. In the absence of that, your roommate has a lot of nerve to expect when she’s away your life will revolve around caring for her pet. It’s true that there are some people who would be thrilled to have a “foster” dog. But you aren’t that person, so there’s nothing selfish about not wanting to blow off your own social life so that you can pick up her dog’s poop. In addition, it’s cruel for the owner—who comes home at lunchtime to relieve her pooch—to expect him to hold his bladder all day while she’s on vacation. She should either take her dog with her, find suitable boarding for her pet, or shell out the money to get a dog walker. Tell her immediately that you can’t provide any dog care this Thanksgiving. Make sure you have a way to reach your friend while she’s gone in case she never does get around to making proper arrangements. And if that happens, you need to start looking for a more reliable roommate.
Both my fiance and I are virgins in our mid-20s, and we are waiting until marriage to have sex. On our honeymoon we’re staying at a small bed and breakfast. It is my understanding that sex can be a bit messy, leaving tell-tale evidence and stains on bed sheets. Obviously hotels and bed and breakfasts advertise themselves as romantic getaways, so they’re expecting the customers to engage in sex. Still, I feel terrible about expecting someone else to clean up my mess. Is there some courtesy people are supposed to follow? Should we remove the sheets ourselves or leave an extra-large tip? And what do we do if my spouse and I are vacation guests in someone else’s home?
Even though you’ve been waiting until your honeymoon to consummate your union, your letter indicates that you would benefit by boning up on what you should expect when you start your married life. Go to the bookstore and browse the sex section and purchase a few volumes that deal with the basics. You will read that upon losing one’s virginity, some—but not all—women bleed. In order not to stain sheets, you could pack your own towel or bring along a crib-sized mattress pad. After that, unless you’re menstruating, or expecting a team from a CSI unit, don’t worry about leaving evidence in the sheets. And it is not customary to leave an extra-large tip because you had sex, except in the case of tipping people you had sex with.
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More Dear Prudence Columns
“Big Love: I met a great woman online, but I’m not attracted to her body type. Is our blooming connection doomed?” Posted April 21, 2011.
“I’ll Have What the Toddler’s Having: Dear Prudence advises a woman whose partner eats only unsophisticated kids’ food.” Posted April 14, 2011.
“Dating a Cyber Snooper: My boyfriend hacked into my email and now uses my sexual past against me. Should we break up?” Posted April 7, 2011.
“A War of Words: I’m proud of my Marine brother. What do I say when people denigrate the military?” Posted March 31, 2011.
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
“My In-Laws Should Be Outlawed: Dear Prudence offers advice on overly critical, criminal-minded, and cringe-worthy in-laws during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted April 18, 2011.
“Baby on Board: Dear Prudence advises a mom weary of rude subway riders interfering with her baby’s commute—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted April 11, 2011.
“Let’s Tie the NOT! Dear Prudence advises a reader whose mate is reluctant to wed, even after five years and a baby together—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted April 4, 2011.
“Awkward Family Photos: Dear Prudence advises a reader who accidentally sent sexy self-portraits to her in-laws—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted March 28, 2011.