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. Let’s get to it.
Q. Haunting Photo: My fiance (with whom I’m expecting a child in three months) has a photo of his deceased sister-in-law in his wallet. Right where people usually display pictures of their sweethearts or kids, there she is. I told him that was kind of weird and asked if he would remove it. He said yes, but it remained there a few days later. I put his driver’s license in front of the photo but later saw that he moved the license elsewhere. Later, I gave him a printed picture of the ultrasound scan of our baby. I saw it left in the car for several days. I later broached the subject of removing the SIL’s photo again because I found it creepy and disturbing. His response was, “I can’t take the picture out and put it just anywhere.” I angrily asked why the ultrasound picture of our child could be left carelessly in the car, but a photo of his SIL had to be treated with such respect. He said nothing. If he had just removed it, then it wouldn’t be an issue, but now this is driving me crazy. Why on earth is he so protective about the photo? And how can I get him to remove it?
A: I have been married for 17 years, and for all I know my husband has a photo of my sister in his wallet. Perhaps he has a photo of Lindsay Lohan. I cannot imagine pawing through his wallet trying to censor his photographs. A photo of your fiance’s late sister-in-law has a prominent place in his wallet and therefore by his hip, and now you can barely think about anything else. Even accounting for the heightened emotions some people experience during pregnancy, I can’t understand why you care. Maybe if you had borrowed $20 from him and saw her photo you could have said, “I see that you keep a photo of Eliza in your wallet. You must have cared for her a lot.” That way you would have had a chance to understand her place of honor. But you blew it by acting as if you were entitled to monitor this very private property. I’m assuming this sister-in-law died young. Maybe your fiance feels moved to honor her short life. Maybe, as it sounds you suspect, he had unusually strong feelings for her. So what? You’re about to have this man’s child, and you’re spending all your emotional energy on your jealousy of a dead woman. You say this photo is creepy, but I find creepy and intrusive your demand that he display an ultrasound scan of your child. You’re going to be a mother, and since you’re engaged I’m presuming you don’t want to be a single one. That means you need to be able to recognize what conflicts are necessary to address and distinguish those from irrational demands that will only make you impossible to live with. Your question shouldn’t be about getting your fiance to remove the photo, but instead you should be asking yourself how you remove this obsession from your own mind.
Dear Prudence: Existential Doggy Dread
Q. To Tell or Not To Tell?: Recently my sister-in-law asked if I could take my niece to a doctor’s appointment. I had a day off from work and love spending time with the girl, so I agreed. During the appointment the doctor mentioned my niece’s blood type, and I froze. Because we are close and donate blood frequently, I know my sister-in-law and brother’s blood types. Their daughter has a different blood type from both of them, leading me to conclude that she is not my brother’s biological child. I feel sick over this unwanted knowledge and do not know what to do. My brother and sister-in-law have another child, and now I’m tempted to DNA test him too, even though I know that’s crazy. I adore my niece regardless of her biological makeup, but I am nonetheless furious at my sister-in-law and baffled by my intense emotions over this issue, which I found out completely by accident. I know it would hurt my brother deeply to find out about his daughter’s paternity.
A: Perhaps this is the intrusive relative chat. Knowing each other’s blood types is a True Blood level of closeness. Since this knowledge is overheard information, you actually don’t have confirmation of anyone’s blood type. (Let me add that not only do I not know what photos are in my husband’s wallet, I also don’t know his blood type. I don’t know my daughter’s blood type, and I consider us close.) I once ran a letter about an anomalous and suspicious blood type of an offspring and several people wrote in to say inherited blood typing can be more complicated than most people think and there are cases in which parents and children who are biologically related seemingly don’t match. The most important point here is that all this is absolutely none of your business. Not only may you be totally wrong in your assumptions, it could be that your brother is infertile and he and his wife used a sperm donor and never told anyone. Whatever the case is, these girls are your nieces and unless you are writing a new entry in the Twilight saga, you are to stay away from their bodily fluids.
Q. Vegan Black Sheep: I dread the approaching holiday meals with my family, as they always include disparaging remarks about my choice to be vegan. They range from snarky (“I’d love to see the animal you’re doing this for”) to just silly (“If God wanted you to eat soy, then why did he make cows?”). I am 29 years old and don’t need my parents telling me what to eat. Adding to my frustration is the fact that my parents are so unhealthy. Both are obese, never exercise, and don’t eat any vegetables. My mother has diabetes. They have made no effort to change their eating habits or lose weight, despite warnings from their doctors. I am healthy. When met with criticism from my family, I have tried explaining my reasons for being vegan, but they just roll their eyes or laugh. I’ve cooked delicious food for them, but they turn up their noses at it. Prudie, I need a simple, blunt remark that will put an end to this. What do you suggest?
A: Yep, intrusive relative day! You need to have a conversation with your parents before you arrive for the meal. Tell them since you’re an adult the time has long passed when they need to monitor what you eat. Say it ruins your digestion when your food choices become the source of disparaging conversation at the table. Ask that from now on they restrain themselves from commenting on your food choices, just as you don’t presume to comment about theirs. Then when you arrive you have a choice to make. If they start insulting what you put on your plate you can say, “As we discussed, I don’t want to hear this.” You can laugh it off, “Hey, you made the same comment last year. You need some new material.” Or you can say, “I’m sorry to cut the meal so short, it was great to see you all, but I’ve got to be going.” Since your parents are in the horrible shape you describe, this may not be a problem you have to deal with for endless decades.
Q. Houseguest’s Bizarre Habits: I have a friend who comes over to Chicago every few months for a break. She stays over in my guest bedroom, buys me dinner or some small gift to say thanks, and we have a good time. But after the last couple of visits I’ve noticed she leaves her nail clippings under the bed. I haven’t said anything to her because it was so weird. Should I mention it or just not have her stay over again?
A: A couple of weeks ago a woman wrote in because she thought her frequent guest had urinated on the couch (I suspected her cats). Although my cats do leave their discarded nails about the place, since you don’t mention you have pets, your suspicion that your friend has a very unsavory habit sounds more plausible. But you say you enjoy her company and she’s otherwise a delightful guest. Upon her departure, when you go in the room to strip the sheets, take the vacuum cleaner with you and without looking for evidence, run it under the bed. Your friend’s habit is distasteful, but having a conversation about her discarded nail clippings would be worse than getting rid of them.
Q. Stepdaughter’s Abortion Dilemma: I have an incredibly strong bond with my stepdaughter. She’s 14 years younger than me and, since she already has a mom, is more of a little sister to me than a child. She sometimes tells me things that she doesn’t feel comfortable telling her parents, and I do my absolute best to honor her trust. My husband is out of town on business, and my stepdaughter volunteered to spend the long weekend with me to help me care for her three young half-siblings. Last night she told me she’s pregnant; she asked for money for an abortion. I am pro-choice, as are her parents, but she’s terrified to tell them she’s had sex, so she refuses to tell them she’s having an abortion. After discussing at length her decision with her, I know I support her decision to have an abortion. I also know I can give her the money she needs for the abortion without my husband’s notice. But should I? Part of me is thankful that my stepdaughter trusts me with this secret and wants me to help her. But a huger part of me is terrified—selfishly, I know—of getting caught and breaking my husband’s trust. I feel deeply uncomfortable keeping this from him, but my stepdaughter becomes hysterical when she thinks I might tell her dad. What should I do?
A: One thing is sure, and that is that this girl is not ready to be a mother. You say the girl wants an abortion and all the adults involved are pro-choice, so it sounds as if her parents would support her decision. You don’t say whether your step-daughter is a minor, which is an important question. Nonetheless, both your husband and the girl’s mother would see it as a major violation on your part if you helped their daughter get an abortion without informing them. Sure, her parents are going to react when they hear the news, but everyone will deal with it. What you don’t want to have happen is for this girl to blurt out one day to her mother or father, “I didn’t even tell you when I needed an abortion—I told Julia instead!” which she sounds immature enough to do. You need to tell her that giving her the money without her talking to her parents is not something you can do. Tell her you would be happy to be there when she has this conversation with her father—or with both of her parents—but this is something they need to know.
Q. Blood Types: Actually, Prudence, it would be a good idea for you to know both your husband’s and your daughter’s blood types. Not to intrude in their lives, but because this is medical information that could come in handy one day.
A: I’m sure you’re right about that. I’ll check it out. (And maybe I’ll just find myself looking through my husband’s wallet, too…)
Q. Re: To Tell or Not To Tell: I teach biology and have a master’s degree in genetics, and it is possible for a child to have a different blood type than both biological parents. For every trait, a child inherits a gene from each parent, so they can have a different combination.
A: Thanks. You listening nosey aunt?
Q. Having a Rich Friend: “Katie” and I have been best friends since childhood. We came from very similar backgrounds and shared many interests. The main difference is now our occupations—I work as a receptionist and she runs her own successful business. For the past couple of years I feel embarrassed giving her homemade cookies when she’s bought me a Blu-ray DVD player. She often wants to enjoy activities that to me are unaffordable luxury expenses (e.g. expensive restaurants, massages). If I say I can’t afford it, she insists on paying. I’ve talked to her about feeling uncomfortable but she insists it’s OK, she doesn’t care, etc. But I do care. I can’t help feeling pitied, even if that might not be the message she’s trying to send across, and I hate feeling like a charity case. It’s getting to a point where I’ve started avoiding her. Should I just swallow my pride and let her pay for me every now and then? Or should I insist we only stick to things I can afford?
A: If you’re best friends, then she should be able to listen better to your discomfort as being the object of her largesse. Tell her you understand the disparity in your ability to indulge in luxuries is uncomfortable to you and it’s important that you two do things together for which you can both pay your own way. However, I think you should get over feeling like one of The Neediest Cases. For recreation Katie likes to go to nice restaurants and have an afternoon at a spa and it’s more fun for her if you go along. These are treats you can’t afford, but certainly are pleasurable. If she’s not rubbing the disparity in your face (which you say she’s not), then I think you should enjoy the occasional pampering. It doesn’t sound as if Katie pities you; she’s just enjoying the fruits of her success and continues to enjoy your company.
Q. What’s in a Name: My husband and I discovered I was pregnant with a little girl weeks after our niece died from leukemia. My brother and his wife have shown amazing grace and support towards us since we announced our pregnancy, and my husband and I are so grateful for their love. But two weeks ago my sister-in-law asked my husband and I if we would name our daughter after theirs. My husband and I had already chosen a name, so we offered to make our daughter’s middle name their daughter’s name, but this deeply hurt and offended my sister-in-law. She called my husband and I petty and selfish and accused us of not supporting her and my brother. This conflict has caused a rift between our two families, and I’d like to heal the rift before Thanksgiving. A name seems insignificant if it means so much to her, but this is my first child, and I love the name my husband and I chose for her. For the record, naming her for my niece but calling her by our chosen name would also offend my sister-in-law. My brother remains silent on the issue. What is the right thing to do?
A: Your brother and sister-in-law are suffering the worst agony possible, and people in deep mourning need to be given a lot of leeway. However, it is one thing for your sister-in-law to make her request, and it is another for her to insist on what you name your child. Understand that this issue is now a way for her to deflect her grief, but her unreasonableness is causing a rift at a time when you all should be supporting each other. I think you need to talk to your brother. Say you are concerned at how his wife is handling the name issue and it indicates to you she understandably needs some professional help dealing with her loss. When you’re all together, if your sister-in-law goes off on you over this, try to say something like, “We miss Sophia every day and can’t begin to imagine what you’re going through. I’m sorry the name has become such a painful subject for all of us, but we will be happy to honor your beloved daughter by giving ours Sophia as a middle name. “
Q. Handy To Know Blood Type—Not: No, no hospital is going to put a certain type blood into someone just because you think you know what their type is. They will test it first even if you have a signed affidavit.
A: And I was going to test all of us tonight! Well, this saves me from finding out our daughter was switched at birth. I wonder how many people even know their own blood type?
Q. The Opposite of Intrusive: What is your opinion on a husband who shows zero interest in my work? I am a writer with several published books, none of which my husband has read. He never asks me a single question about my writing career, and the few times I’ve asked him to read something, he put the manuscript aside and never got around to it. Am I right to feel hurt here?
A: Hey, get your hands off my husband! (Actually, he’s a good editor of my work, not that I make him read all of it.) In her memoir of widowhood, Joyce Carol Oates revealed that her husband of many decades rarely read her books. This is perhaps understandable since she writes a book every week. But if you are less prolific, it is painful to have your nearest and dearest be completely uninterested in your oeuvre. But he’s your husband, so you should be able to have a conversation about how his lack of conversation about your career stings, as well as the fact that he hasn’t read anything you’ve written. But I do hope you regularly ask him how things are going in his line of work.
Q. Re: Having a Rich Friend: Another choice is to offer to pay a share of the cost you feel you can afford when she offers to pick up the entire tab.
A: Yes, the receptionist friend could say, “I’ll go with you, as long as you let me pay the tip.”
Q. The Accidental Snooper: So my wife asked me to check something on her phone for her, and I hit the wrong button, which led to photos of her having sex with someone other than me. I’m actually much more excited than angry, but I’m afraid that telling her about this will cause her to close up. We have a very good sex life and are open about our desires, which is why these pictures aren’t surprising or particularly upsetting. But as much as these “secret” photos excite me, I guess I should tell her that I know. Or should I?
A: This wasn’t a photo of her brother-in-law, I hope (and what’s everyone’s blood type?). Maybe your wife asked you to check her phone so you would check out her photos. If you’re married and you keep photos of yourself in flagrante with someone other than your spouse on your phone, that comes under the rubric of, “There’s something I thought you should know.” At the very least, I assume you’d like to ask her who was taking the photos.
Q. Bad Breath?: For the past eight months, my manager has had several meetings with me regarding my “bad breath.” He says other staff have made complaints about this. I shower twice a day and brush my teeth after every meal. I’ve asked virtually all of my family and friends if I have bad breath. Not only did they say no; they were outraged that my manager would make such an accusation. I was temporarily transferred to another office last month and a junior co-worker there pulled me aside to say I had bad breath and other people were complaining. That made me think maybe I did have a problem, so I went to several different doctors and even asked to see a specialist. They all said I didn’t have any problem and refused to refer me to a specialist because it was pointless to see one. My dentist is puzzled too. But several coworkers will screw up their face if I talk to them face to face. Some will even leave breath mints on my desk. Am I being bullied here at work? I really don’t know what to do.
A: It sounds as if your breath is fine, but you work for a place that’s the mouth of hell. This office is like an updated version of the old movie Gaslight. If you have been given the all clear by your loved ones and your medical team, then something mighty rotten is being done to your mind. You need to make an appointment with the human resources department. Before you go, brush and gargle, then explain you have gotten the all clear from several medical professionals, but you are being subjected to constant hostility at work about a problem you don’t believe you have. Start keeping notes about the treatment you get from your colleagues. It may be that you need a fresh start somewhere else, but before you go anywhere, you may need to consult with a lawyer.
Q. Misdirected Hatred: I went to Pennsylvania State University, and after the recent discoveries, one of my significant other’s friends has come to have extreme hatred for me. We spend time with him and his S.O. regularly, so he is not easily avoidable for the long term. I am personally devastated by what has come out, and I have donated to help prevent child abuse, but I am not personally responsible for the actions of administrators at the university I attended almost 20 years ago, or the reactions of other students. I don’t feel I should be subjected to attacks for something I had no control over. My S.O. feels stuck in the middle but does not want to intervene. I have even apologized to this friend and told him I wished his hatred for me and my alma mater does not affect his friendship with my S.O. Is there anything else I can do, or do I just have to hide until his temper subsides (or finds something else to be mad about)?
A: Talk about misdirection! Unless you also walked in on former Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy and did nothing, it’s crazy for someone to have free-floating anger against everyone who attended the school. I don’t understand why your significant other won’t tell the friend that he’s way, way out of line in attacking you for actions by the administration of a school you attended 20 years ago. Stop apologizing to this loon. If he can’t behave himself in your company, you’ll just have to drop him until he can.
Q. Re: Having a Rich Friend: I’ve been on both sides of this problem and like Prudie says, if she’s not rubbing her fortune in your face, accept the gifts and nice treatment by your friend. If I want to spend time doing something with a good friend and she can’t afford it at the time, I will pay because I want to have fun with my friend, not because I want to flaunt that I have money. And if she is a true friend, she appreciates the homemade gifts you give to her. When I was on the receiving end, it was difficult for me, but I knew my friends were doing it because they cared about me and wanted me to enjoy myself.
A: Exactly—enjoy some well-intentioned pampering!
Q. Husband Won’t Read Her Books: My first thought was: What is she writing about? Is she writing romance novels? Complicated scientific theories? History? Perhaps he has no interest in the subject, or that subject isn’t his strong suit. If I was married to Stephen Hawking, I wouldn’t read his books. Mainly just because I won’t understand and don’t want to feel stupid.
A: It’s fair enough to say, “Honey, I know you write the world’s best romance novels/explications of quantum mechanics, but this is just not my subject.” It’s another to never inquire about how the writing is going on the latest bodice ripper or explanation of the time-space continuum. If her husband sells plumbing supplies she doesn’t have to admire the latest toilet flapper, but she should ask him how business is going.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!