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: I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving and you’re all still talking to your relatives. I had so much sauerkraut — it was a great day.
Breastfeeding a Big Kid: Four months ago my brother got married to a woman who has a 5-year-old son from a previous relationship. Since they had a private ceremony, we did not meet his new wife and stepson until Dad’s 80th birthday, when they flew over to see us. Things were going well until my new nephew walked over to where the adults were eating dessert and told my SIL that he was thirsty. She whipped out her breast at the dining table and proceeded to breastfeed her son. Although nobody said anything, she sensed we were shocked and casually explained her son had allergies and this was the only healthy milk option for him. Since our mom is not around, my other brothers and Dad are urging me to intervene. My brother, the one who married her, does not seem to care much. Should I say anything to her? How do I start such a conversation?
A: I’m trying to imagine the shiver that might go through your entire family if your brother ever hosts a brunch at his home and his new wife passes around the cream for the coffee. At the risk of bringing down the wrath of La Leche League, 5 years old is way too old to still be on mommy’s breast. By the time the kid can say, “Mom, you’ve been eating too much garlic and it’s upsetting my stomach,” you know it’s time to throw away the nursing bra. Showing too much cleavage to your new husband’s family would be ill-advised the first time you all met. Lactating at the dessert table takes inappropriate to a new level. You say your brother “does not seem to care much” about this, which doesn’t make clear what kind of conversation you’ve had with him. You need to say, “Bro, we’re so happy you’ve found Fiona. We’re sorry her son has food allergies, but we need to let you know we all have a dairy allergy. That is, we’d appreciate if you’d ask her to breast feed in private.” If he won’t take action, then at the next gathering, as she starts to unbutton, all of you should feel free to stampede away from the table. Let’s hope for her son’s sake she finds him a milk substitute. It would be bad for him socially if she had to come and give him nourishment to get him through his SATs.
When Grandpa Says the ___ Word: Over Thanksgiving my conservative ornery father used a number of racial and sexually oriented slurs. My college age daughter heard him use one, and she called him on it. She said, “Grandpa, those words are offensive, and when you use them, you sound ignorant and bigoted.” My dad blew up at her and kicked her out of the house. This resulted in my family and my brother’s family leaving. My sister and her family stayed. Unfortunately, based on the slurry of emails that have began circling over the weekend, I think this will be a divisive family issue. My sister’s family essentially agree with my daughter but feel that she should have been more respectful. My brother’s family and mine are embarrassed that it took a girl more than half our age to call out our father’s unacceptable terminology. Do you think anything can be done to heal this situation, and who do you think did the right thing?
A: It’s promising that everyone agrees with your daughter. Brava to her for calling out Grandpa. But it would have been more effective if she’d said, “Grandpa, those words are offensive and when you use them it makes me want to leave the room.” That way she would have been drawing attention to the effect of his bigotry on her, not calling him names. Since your daughter sounds like a brave young woman, she might consider being the one to address this issue. She could contact your father and say that while she stands by her objection to use of racial and sexual language, she apologizes for the way she phrased it. That gives Grandpa a chance to lick his wounds and change his ways. And then the whole family can open a discussion about making Christmas a slur-free holiday.
Sex Is a stumbling block: My wife and I have been together for eight years. We regularly had sex until three years ago, when we got married. Almost immediately after we were married, my wife told me that we couldn’t have sex anymore as she entered therapy for abuse that her father committed to her when she was a child. I’m confused, hurt, and feel that she was less than honest entering into our relationship; it seems as though she hid this until we were lawfully wed and then it was too late for me to back out. I’ve tried to be supportive for the last three years … I’ve respected her request for abstaining from sex and physical intimacy, but although she has regular therapy and the therapist says she’s progressing, I see no end to this situation or any signs of improvement. Am I wrong to question whether this marriage is worth it or not?
A: I hope you’ve had some serious talks these past three years about why she wanted to marry you, why she withheld this crucial information, and what she feels her obligations to this marriage are. It’s terrible that your wife was abused by her father (let’s assume that is true), but she has pulled quite a switcheroo on you. As soon as you became her husband, she decided to punish you for the sins of her father. That therapist has quite a nice sinecure going: three years of payments and no end in sight since there seems to be no clear goal for this treatment. It sounds as if they’ve got you so brainwashed that you feel you’re not allowed to state that you had no intention of entering a celebate marriage and your needs are not being considered or met. I think you should insist on a joint session with the therapist, or a few sessions with a couples therapist, just to try to figure out if resuming conjugal relations is even on your wife’s agenda. If nothing changes in short order, I think the most helpful professional for you will be a divorce lawyer.
Not on Our Own Bed: My husband and I have a small matter of opinion that you might be able to resolve. My husband and I spend Thanksgiving and Christmas at his parents’ house with his brother and sisters. When we are over there I don’t feel comfortable having sex in his parents’ guest room. We already have a very active sex life. He states that it is the holiday spirit, and we should be celebrate that we are together. He has offered to get a hotel to stay at, but I enjoy getting up early to bond and help my MIL with the cooking. (My mother died many years back and his folks have practically adopted me.) His sisters have affectionately been banned from the kitchen after they flamb’d the ham a few years back. Any can you see any solution?
A: A little delayed gratification never hurt anyone. I’m assuming your husband doesn’t insist on opening the presents that are underneath the tree before December 25. You love your in-laws! You and your husband have a great sex life! All this is should cause him to celebrate and realize he doesn’t actually have to make his happiness manifest while you are visiting his parents. He should understand that your worrying about your in-laws hearing your bed frame squeaking diminishes your holiday spirit.
Foul-Mouthed Grandpa: I have an uncle who uses such terminology (fortunately we don’t see him that often). We have asked him before not to use such slurs, but nothing worked until we started silently walking away from him (mid-sentence) without warning or excuses the moment he “slips up”. Let’s just say he dislikes this so much he has started curbing his dirty talk.
A: Excellent solution.
Grandfather’s Diary: My grandfather recently passed away after a long and happy life. It was his time, so we are sad but also relieved he’s no longer in pain. I’ve been cleaning up his home before it gets put on the market and I came across volumes and volumes of his old journals which he kept meticulously since he was a young man. I am really curious about what is in it but feel guilty about taking a peek. He has always been a very private person and I know his diary would have been one outlet that he vented all his feelings and intimate thoughts. My brother thinks we should respect his privacy and keep it closed, but a few of my cousins think it’s a good piece of family history to preserve. We’re debating what to do with the journals. Should we look?
A: Since your grandfather lived to be an old man he certainly had time to decide what to do with his diaries. If he wanted his writing to disappear with him, he could easily have disposed of them. He also could have made a request that he’d prefer they not be read until some amount of time after his death. But he left them on the shelf, neatly arranged, calling out (at least to some of you), “Read me!” I say go ahead. If you feel the content is too raw or grandfather’s presence is too close, then put the volume back on the shelf. But it just may be that for future generations your grandfather will be a kind of American Samuel Pepys.
Too Much of a Good Thing: I come from a family where getting together for the entire day on holidays is very important. While I enjoy this, I’m the kind of person who is very social until I just need a few minutes alone. However, if I quietly leave, someone is ALWAYS knocking on my door within two minutes. When I explain that I love spending time with them but I just need a few minutes alone, this is always met with, “But it’s Thanksgiving.” “But it’s Christmas.” “But we never see so-and-so.” Much as I love seeing them, five minutes alone is not a crime and I just can’t handle ten hours nonstop of other people. How can I get them to respect my needs? This is not unreasonable and I’m tirid of having it dismissed. By the way, I’m a fourteen-year-old girl.
A: Family togetherness is one thing, but not allowing bathroom breaks is another. Taking a time out can be crucial to be able to last through a marathon celebration. You are still young, but old enough that you can start asserting your needs. If there’s a dog at these family gatherings, a great excuse would be taking the pup for a walk. If a dog’s not available, you can say, “I am so stuffed I need to take a walk and work off some of this meal.” Bringing along some homework and saying you have to retreat to an upstairs bedroom to get some reading done is another way to recharge your batteries. And then there’s the tried and true, “I’m on the toilet, come back later!”
Christmas Presents: My boyfriend and I have a very different attitudes towards presents. He is used to setting up a wish list for Christmas and getting presents from his list. I prefer to be surprised. A couple of months ago, for my birthday, he gave me a Kindle as a present, which was both a great present and a really nice surprise. Now he has placed a Kindle on the top of his Christmas wish list. I would love to give him his preferred present, but I am afraid it would be a bit weird to mutually exchange Kindles, although his would be a newer and more sophisticated version than mine. Do I get the Kindle? Or is it better to think of something he would value less, but will not come off as a mere repetition of his kind gesture?
A: You prefer surprises, he prefers wish lists. He obviously understands you because he surprised you by coming up with the perfect present. So return the favor by understanding him and getting him exactly what he wants.
Office Holiday Charitable Effort: I work in a small office, and one of my coworkers decided to spearhead a charitable holiday project in which we all chip in to buy presents for a needy child. Everyone agreed this was a nice idea. However, recently the coworker informed us that the child we are sponsoring is 19 years old and has requested an expensive video game system. This will require a contribution of around $40 each, which is a significant amount for some of us in the office who do not make very much money. While I hate to judge the circumstances and needs of this young man, this gift just seems frivolous and 19 seems somewhat old to be participating in this sort of thing. It just doesn’t give me the “warm fuzzy” of say a gift of books, toys or clothing to a small child, which is what I think we were all expecting. The coworker in charge of the project has accused us of being cheap, and claims we should give this person the opportunity to have a fun or exciting gift that he would never otherwise have. Are we justified in our objections to this gift or are we being scrooges? Signed, Conflicted about giving
A: Is this 19-year-old her grandson by any chance? I agree this is a weird request and either your office would be better off contributing to a charity everyone agrees on, or you all should go your own philanthropic way.
Be Careful Who You Send A Picture To…: I have been seeing a man for four months. Earlier today my roommate, who belongs to a dating website, asked me what I thought of a man who just sent her his picture. Low and behold, the man I’ve been seeing. He told her he’s been seeing a woman but that things are winding down. We haven’t seen each other for a few days, but I thought that was because we were both busy with the holidays and family. I am seeing him tomorrow evening to end things but don’t know how honest I should be about why. My roommate and I asked him a few questions to learn more about what he thought of our relationship, which was obviously also a dishonest thing to do. I guess my punishment is how awful I feel about his answers, which made it clear he’s using me as a placeholder until he can find a more appealing woman. Suggestions?
A: I wouldn’t even bother to have a last meeting. I suggest you send him an email saying something like, “I meant to tell you that I think things are winding down, so let’s forget about getting together.” You could add a P.S. “You should use a more flattering photo for your online dating.”
Guilt: When I was about 8 I was playing in the yard with a neighbor friend my age. I saw a cat across the road so I wanted to pat it. As I just finished crossing the road, my friend decided to follow me on his bicycle. He was then struck by a car and died in hospital. At that age I was not permitted to cross the road on my own. I lied and told the adults that he was the one who decided to cross, because I was afraid of getting in trouble. That lie has haunted me for two decades. As an adult I know logically it was not my fault, but I feel tremendous guilt over causing a little boy to die. I’ve thought of therapy, but I feel too ashamed to tell another person face to face of what I’ve done. Whenever something bad happens, I feel like I’m being punished for killing my friend. When nothing is wrong in my life, I live in dread of something bad happening, over punishment for killing my friend. How can I get rid of this burning guilt, please help. Thank you.
A: Now that you’ve written this letter, please, please take the next step and find a therapist to discuss this with. Of course you feel terrible guilt, and of course you know your friend’s death was not your fault. But you have carried this burden way too long. Therapy is the place where you can speak your darkest secrets in a safe environment and where you will be able to look at the magical thinking you’ve let control you because of your guilt. (Not all therapists are equally skillful, if you see one who leaves you feeling you’re just rehashing your problems but not making any progress, don’t be afraid to find another one.) Because you are a moral person, you will not completely eradicate the feelings that came out of this terrible event, but you deserve help diminishing this pain and putting it in its proper place.
Crazy Email: My husband recently received a very hurtful email from his mother that accused him of not valuing her feelings, taking advantage of her, and not appreciating anything she’s done for him or our young kids, etc, etc. There were no specifics given, but she alleged this has been going on for years. On the one hand, the email was a brilliant bit of writing as every sentence was a dagger right to the heart. On the other hand, neither one of us have any idea what crime was committed or when it happened. He wrote a nonspecific apology addressing her charges… “sorry for taking advantage of you” and got a reply about chalking it up to a bad memory.Â He wants to let it go but I’d like to know what he (and probably me) have been accused of. What should we do here? It’s very easy for me to stay out of it, but I’m angry at her for what she accused my husband of. He’s one of the nicest, kindest, most caring people I’ve ever met and I’m burning with anger over these unfounded charges, even if he’s not.
A: You don’t say your husband received just the latest crazy rant from his mother, so I’m wondering if this screed if out of character. If so, it’s an indication that his mother needs a full medical work up. Dramatic changes in behavior can be signs of stroke, dementia, etc. Your husband should get in touch with her doctor, explain his concerns, and get her checked out.
Game System For 19-Year-Old: This is a fairly typical response to the request lists of older needy kids. “Why do they want something so expensive? I’d rather buy something for a little kid!” A 19-year-old on a charity “angel” list is probably someone who aged out of foster care or has a disability of some kind. If the cost is too high, perhaps the group could solicit more people to participate and lower the cost per person? Teens in this situation have often faced many years of struggle and are keenly aware that they aren’t as sympathy-worthy as younger kids.
A: Fair point. In this case the co-worker who’s identified the charity and the teenager should explain this situation to everyone. Of course young people who’ve had nothing deserve some of life’s pleasures. But I can also see people feeling they want to do something different with their money.
Re: Grandfather’s Diary: My mother passed away suddenly several years ago (when I was 18). It was obviously devastating for my family and as a way to feel closer to his wife or help with the grieving process, my father allowed my mother’s psychologist (whom she had been seeing for years just for her mental health and whom we all went to see as a family after her death) to read her journals. I had no real issue with this at the time, but in recent years have regretted that we allowed someone, anyone, to read her private thoughts. I truly believe they were her private thoughts and it was wrong to allow them to be read. Unless you believe your grandfather was writing a memoir in those journals or just recording history for the sake of the future, I would think twice about reading them.
A: That was a very creepy request of the therapist and sounds like an ethical violation. I think that’s quite different from a grandfather leaving his journals on the shelf knowing his descendants will likely look at them.
Apologizing To Grandpa: That brave young woman has nothing to apologize for. Grandpa needs to apologize. If she wants to approach him about the incident and try to have a less-fired up conversation about it, then good for her. But you’re putting the burden on the wrong person.
A: I’m not saying Grandpa was right. I’m trying to help this family negotiate a way to get together for Christmas. The granddaughter can make an opening that allows her to stand her ground while also allowing Grandpa back down gracefully.
Breast-Feeding: I disagree about your suggested method to deal with the errant breast-feeder. The issue shouldn’t be their discomfort with her breast—breastfeeding is natural, so it shouldn’t make a difference whether the child is 2 months or 2 years old. The issue is that it is inappropriate for a 5-year-old: socially, medically, etc. They should present it in the child’s best interest, not their own concerns with modesty. Otherwise, they’ll look like insensitive boobs for being shamed by a breast, instead of the fact that this child will be ostracized for her habits.
A: This group of strangers is going to have very little effect on the bizarre parenting choices of this newest family members. But people are not insensitive boobs if they would prefer a breast-feeding mother of a two-month old not to do it at the dessert table in full view of the grandparents.
When Women Hit Men…: My girlfriend is pretty fantastic in all ways but one: When we argue she hits me several times in the chest and face out of anger. She agrees with me that it’s unacceptable for a man to hit a woman but feels that because women are often aren’t as strong as men that it’s perfectly fine for women to hit men when they’re angry to “make a point.” She’s smaller than me, so it doesn’t hurt me nearly as much when she hits me as it would hurt her if I hit her, but I still don’t like being hit. I don’t think it’s okay for people to hit their significant other whether the man or the woman is doing the hitting. So many things about this woman are awesome. But I’m thinking of breaking up with her because she doesn’t seem willing to commit to stop hitting me. Am I overreacting?
A: You’re being abused. You have two choices. One is to end it now. The other is to say, “If you ever hit me again, that will be the end of the relationship,” and mean it.
Remember Me?: A while ago a high school teacher of mine slept with a young classmate. He went to jail. This teacher oversaw an activity that I participated in during my last two years of high school, and I met his wife a few times. Now I work under her at my new job. She doesn’t recognize me. Should I introduce myself to her as her (possibly ex) husband’s former student, just so she knows I know? Or is it better to keep mum? I won’t ever mention it to anyone else, obviously.
A: She doesn’t need to know you know. And you’re right to keep this information to yourself. This woman has surely suffered enough.
Pregnancy in the Workplace: I am 6 weeks pregnant and very happy. The only problem is my coworkers. I work with a bunch of middle aged women who seem to have sixth sense to detect pregnancy. When another woman was pregnant several coworkers made a point of debating whether she was pregnant or not within her hearing vicinity. Several asked outright if she was. She ended up having to tell people before she was ready, or even before she started letting her friends and family know, and was upset about this. I don’t want this experience to occur with me. I am not telling anyone until my second trimester, but I don’t know what to say. If I don’t confirm or deny, it will be obvious that I’m pregnant. What should I say to the nosy women at my work when they start gossiping?
A: Nosy middle-aged colleague: “Are you pregnant?”
You: “If I find out I am, you’ll be the first to know.”
NMAC: “I think you are!”
You: [smile beatifically and shrug cyptically as you walk away].
Telling Off Other People’s Kids?: I took my toddler to the playground last week. There’s a play area that’s just for toddlers, and it has a huge sign that states it’s for under 4s. I saw a couple of kids, presumably siblings, who were obviously much older. They were climbing over the netting (which is not permitted) and running around pushing other kids. No adult intervened and it was hard to identify their parents from a group of adults nearby. After watching them climbing dangerously and rough handling other children I walked up to them and told them off. I directed them to the other part of the playground which was for older kids and told them not to come back to the little kids’ area. Just then, an angry woman stormed towards me and berated me for reprimanding her kids. Was I out of line in telling them off? Or should I have said nothing?
A: It was good for you to step up and protect the younger kids. But there was no need to start by “telling them off.” More effective would have been to go over and explain the them this area was for little kids, they were being too rough, and that they needed to go to the area designed for them. Delivering your message about being gentle in a gentle fashion would have been more powerful. If the mother objected to that, then that whole family has a problem.
Generous In-Laws: While at home for Thanksgiving, my in-laws pulled me aside and told me they wanted to give me an “unsolicited gift”. They handed me an envelope with $1500 in it! Their reasoning was that earlier this summer they helped their other son-in-law out when he needed to get a new car, so they wanted to be fair. I feel so uncomfortable taking the money! My husband (their son) and I make good money and are financially comfortable, so it’s not like I need the money. My in-laws are pretty well-off too. (They also recently received a large inheritance.) They insisted it was a gift and that I could do whatever I liked with it. My husband says I’m being silly by how weird I feel about accepting the money. Am I being silly? Should I just take the money and write a thank you note and leave it at that?
A: This is one of those good problems to have. Write the note and enjoy that you have very generous in-laws.
When Women Hit Men: She doesn’t hurt you, but she won’t be smaller than her kids. Tell her she needs to get help now or you’re leaving. And then do it.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.