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, everyone. Let’s get to it.
Q. Two Wedding Rings: I married in my early 20s and had two kids. Their father and I are now divorced, and we haven’t heard from him in more than a decade. I know this is unusual, but I’ve worn my wedding ring even after the divorce. It’s a reminder of the short period of happiness I had, my two great kids who resulted from my marriage, and the many life lessons I learnt from both the marriage and divorce. I am now about to embark on my second marriage in my 40s and I want to continue wearing my ring. My fiance doesn’t understand this and thinks I should take it off. He isn’t enthusiastic about the idea of me wearing two wedding bands on my fourth finger. We’ve had a lot of debates over this. He thinks I should respect his wishes, I think he should respect mine. Who should give way?
A: I’m wondering how someone who goes around wearing a wedding ring succeeded in the dating pool. Normally a wedding ring sends a flashing “Do Not Enter” message—except to those looking for flings with married people. Of course you love the children that came from your failed marriage. But since your ex has disappeared from their lives, and apparently has neglected to even send a check to help raise them, your time with him is not an interlude worth permanently memorializing on your left hand. Marriage in this country is a one-at-a-time proposition. I agree with your intended that it’s bizarre and undermining for you to continue to wear the ring of the rat who took off years ago. Stash the old ring in the sock drawer and consecrate your new marriage with his gold band.
Dear Prudence: Holiday Cheapskate
Q. Classroom Volunteer Behavior: My first-grade daughter came home the other day and said the kids made fun of her because she didn’t want to sit on “Mr. Kay’s” lap during story time. Mr. Kay is a beloved neighborhood retiree who has been volunteering in my daughter’s classroom for eight years. His wife volunteers in a third-grade classroom. Kids sign up to sit on Mr. Kay’s lap during story time, because it’s such a popular location. My daughter says he hugs them during the story time and that she doesn’t care for it. Maybe the recent spate of sex abuse scandals has me on high alert, but does this qualify as red flag behavior? The hugging is basically crossing his arms over the child if that helps.
A: Your daughter finds Mr. Kay icky, so that’s what you need to address when you talk to the teacher about this. I agree that it’s impossible to tell if he’s a lovely, harmless man and the children feel that sitting on his lap is like getting to sit on Santa’s, or if your daughter is picking up that there’s something a little too enthusiastic about Mr. Kay. It could also be that you’ve had a talk with her about strangers touching her, and that’s made her fearful of him. I’ve volunteered in classrooms of kids that age, and it’s common for them to commandeer your lap. It would be a shame for society to make even the most innocent physical contact between adults and children suspect. However, your daughter does not want to sit on his lap, and that should be respected. So have a meeting with the teacher and explain that it should be clear that choosing to sit or not sit on Mr. Kay’s lap is not something kids should be teased about. This conversation should also help focus the teacher’s attention on any vibes that don’t quite fit with the reading of Goodnight, Moon.
Q. Job Referral Issues: I work at my college’s school paper. One of my editors is a hack. He’s stopped coming to two classes we have together, works poorly in group projects, freely admits to drinking and video gaming during his free time, and never responds to emails I send him about articles. The editor I interned for over the summer sent me an email telling me my school paper editor had applied for an internship with her publication; she asked for candid feedback about his work ethic and ability to work with others. I feel an obligation to tell her the truth, because I don’t want to damage my credibility there, and because I seriously dislike my school paper editor. But I’m not sure if it’s professional or professionally advisable to talk about a boss when one hasn’t been listed as a reference. I feel very uncomfortable and wish I wasn’t in this position. What’s the right and professional thing to do?
A: Your former boss is just doing her due diligence, and it would be remiss for you not to answer her questions. Instead of responding with the written record of an email, I think you should call your former boss. You can tell her you are uncomfortable saying uncomplimentary things about someone else, but unfortunately in this case you have to. Keep your comments limited and focused. It doesn’t matter that your school mate is not going to class with you or playing videogames. What matters is that he is unresponsive as an editor. Don’t completely trash him, just explain the facts: You can’t say that much about his work as an editor because the problem is getting him to read and respond to your work.
Q. Response to Two Rings: Really? No consideration given to whose hand wears the ring? Seems like a small thing to get insecure about; I’m shocked you didn’t caution her as to what might be the next thing he isn’t enthusiastic about.
A: It is also a small thing for her dig in about. Obviously it would be unfortunate for this to escalate to: “Pry this ring off my cold, dead hand.” Other readers are suggesting that since she’s invested so much meaning in the ring, that she repurpose it. She could have it melted into a charm that represents her children, for example.
Q. Maybe a Boy’s Best Friend Shouldn’t Be His Mother…: My boyfriend is a successful, respected photographer in our artsy city. He keeps a set of artistic nudes of a beautiful woman hanging in his apartment. I never minded the nude part until, recently, I found out who the woman was: his mom. He doesn’t have a weirdly close relationship with her, but the photos still creep me out a bit, because aren’t there some things that even an artistic license can’t cover? Otherwise he’s a wonderful man, but I’m unsure if I should talk to him about this—these photos have sentimental meaning to him, I guess—or just hit the road. Your thoughts?
A: My thought is I have just the guy for Mom! Last week I ran a letter in the column about a stepfather who was a painter who did nude portraits of his stepdaughter. I agree that an adult child posing nude for a parent, or a parent posing nude for an adult child is odd. Many people wrote to say posing nude for an artist is not sexual, which I know, having done it myself for art students for a Slate “Human Guinea Pig” column. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t have modeled for my Uncle Joel had he decided to take up painting. I understand your discomfort at discovering who the model is, but context is everything. Without acting creeped out or sounding accusatory, you can say you were surprised to find out the photos were of his mother—you can add that you hope you look that good at her age. Being able to hear him talk about the sessions should be reassuring (unless he says, “My mom—the most beautiful woman in the world!”). This surely isn’t something worth running over—unless during the discussion he puts on the soundtrack from Psycho.
Q. Divorce, Friends: My husband and I are in the midst of a divorce and 99 percent of our friends don’t know. It’s not an acrimonious divorce and, yes, there are kids and property involved. Our dilemma is with the right way of breaking this news to our close circle of friends—especially in light of umpteen million holiday parties looming on the horizon. There are going to be several folks that we won’t be able to talk to before the first of the holiday parties. This is born of a desire to let them know from us rather than second- or third-hand; it’s also not rooted in encouraging said friends to pick a side or malign the other spouse. That’s just not in play here. It feels incredibly crass to send an email but given the circumstances, would this be an acceptable form of communication?
A: I received one of these emails from a friend. It was a surprise, but sending the news this way wasn’t crass and it was highly efficient. Tone is everything here. You can make your subject line, “Sad News” and then apologize for the mass email but say you wanted the people you cared about to know that unfortunately you and your husband have jointly decided to end your marriage. Emphasize that while this is unhappy news, all of you are working toward making the split as easy as possible for all involved. But since you mention a plethora of holiday parties, those would also be an excellent way of getting the word out. When people say, “So what’s going on with you?” Responding, “Derek and I are divorcing” will add a frisson to the usual chatter.
Q. Classroom Volunteer Behavior: If nothing else, respecting her right to not sit on his lap reinforces the idea that she’s allowed to set her own boundaries and control her body—even with a perfectly friendly, innocent person. That’s really important to helping kids develop confidence and learning to trust their gut, regardless of the volunteer’s intentions.
A: Great point. Most women at some point (or many points) in their lives will have to deal with an unwanted advance and having the confidence to be “rude” and say no is an important skill to develop.
Q. Speak or Shut Up: I walked past a co-worker today. He was hunched over his chair staring at the computer on his desk. I could pretty clearly see that he’s wearing a bra underneath his shirt. I’m kind of curious about it, but I’m not sure what to say. Or if I should say anything.
A: I’m trying to think of what you considered saying: “I got the same bra in blue at Victoria’s Secret. It’s so comfortable!” Or, “I have a friend who hosts lingerie parties, and I’m going to make sure you’re on the invitation list.” What you say to your co-worker and everyone else in the office is the same: Nothing.
Q. Name-Calling: I am curious how you regard two derogatory words sometimes used in anger toward women (the B-word and the C-word). My former boyfriend has used these words in anger toward me even after knowing I believed them to be sexist and deeply hurtful. He argues that they are just “words.” I feel quite the opposite. Am I too thin-skinned? Thank you.
A: I’m happy to hear he’s your former boyfriend. Good try on the “just words” argument. And if you had said to him, “An earthworm would be a better lover than you,” he would have thought that was fine, because, well, they’re just words. I agree that the B-word and the C-word indicate the person saying them has escalated past the point of fighting fair.
Q. Re: Editor: This “freely admits to drinking and video gaming during his free time” sounds like absolutely normal behavior for a college student. If the LW has to resort to these “disparagements” in trying to come up with reasons for why s/he doesn’t like this guy, then I think her entire opinion of him is suspect. My advice would be to give as neutral a review of him as possible—maybe mention the unresponsiveness, but with a disclaimer that his management style is not compatible with yours, and another person’s mileage with him may vary. The LW comes across as a little more tightly wound than the average person, and it wouldn’t serve his/her career either to blacklist this guy who may, from a more objective perspective, be perfectly fine.
A: Good points. As I said, his personal behavior is irrelevant. However the letter writer said he failed to discharge his duties as an editor and was unhelpful in group projects. That’s relevant. But the letter writer needs to examine herself and make sure she’s just not reacting against this guy because she’s a goody-goody. She should keep her comments confined to her interactions with him on the newspaper. And if there’s any compensating good to say—he’s a fantastic writer, perhaps—she needs to mention that.
Q. RE: Speak up or Shut up: Men can get breast lumps/cysts also. When I had my cysts removed (benign, thankfully), I had to wear a support bra for two days. I don’t know if a man would have to have similar support after a similar procedure.
A: Excellent point. The man wearing the bra could also have gynecomastia. But to repeat, a colleague’s choice of underwear is no one else’s business (unless a co-worker tries to make it someone else’s business).
Q. Little Sister’s Growing Up: I am 18. My mom died eight years ago. My little sister, 15, has begun to steal condoms from my purse. I lost my virginity young, so I’m not worried about her age as much as her inability to ask me. And there’s the annoyance of her going into my purse and stealing something from me. I guess I need to talk to her, to make sure she’s being safe and to get her birth control. I don’t feel obligated to tell our dad about any of this, and I think I’m doing the right thing. Am I? And how should I begin the conversation?
A: Only you know whether your Dad would step up in a helpful way and talk to your sister, or whether he would simply be punitive. But you need to talk to her. Even if you became sexually active at a young age, it does not mean it’s right for everyone. It could be your sister is looking for love and connection that is lacking in her home, and having sex at age 15 is not the way to find it. But since she is sexually active, please discuss this with her and make an appointment for the two of you at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Your sister needs to be protected against pregnancy and STDs. It sounds as if she needs an adult to give her guidance in life. Is there an aunt or a grandmother who could step in and be a mother figure for her—and even for you?
Q. Adoption Disruption: Share Our Private Business?: My wife and I have tried to adopt from the foster care system for years. After the heartbreak of losing two children who were returned to their biological family, we were blessed with a boy who was able to be adopted and we began that process. Except that he hates us still after months of therapy, has multiple mental health problems that we knew nothing about, enjoys tormenting us, and our biological son is often miserable. After almost a year we’ve come to the heart-breaking decision to not adopt the boy. Our decision is supported by the social worker and child mental health specialists working with us. The child specialist says that the boy is not bonded with us and could walk out our door tomorrow and not look back. While we are committed to keeping him until he can be settled at a placement more able to deal with his challenges, we are still ridden with guilt and devastated we are not the right family for him. And now we have to face telling co-workers, friends, and relatives that we are not adopting the boy after all. My wife can hardly mention his name without bursting into tears, and there will be lots of interest in why the boy is not living with us anymore. What do you say about such a painful situation?
A: Please find a support group for people in your situation. You have done everything you can, but you can’t sacrifice your family’s health and safety. Be reassured that all the professionals involved—who work every day to place children—agree this adoption is not in anyone’s best interest. You don’t owe an explanation to the world. All you have to say to acquaintances is, “Sadly, the adoption didn’t work out.” If you want to explain more to those who know you better, you could say, “Unfortunately, Wendell needed a level of professional care we were unable to provide.”
Q. How to Teach Healthy Habits: I am a young man who tutors inner city public high school students with some law school friends one night a week. While I was first intimidated to have been assigned a female student almost two years ago, we’ve since developed an excellent rapport and have a trusting, easygoing relationship. In addition to studying, we talk about her family life and work on practical things like budgeting and saving techniques for her monthly allowance. However, “Bianca” is quite overweight and I don’t know how to broach the subject of healthier eating and exercise. I try to share fruit or some veggies with her each week, but I’m usually the only one munching as she sips 400-calorie sugar drinks (admitting that she sometimes drinks several a day). I cajole her into eating oranges when she’s sick, and I’ve kidded her into trying bell pepper strips and celery, but when left to her own devices, she’ll eat junk. I might not bother if we weren’t close, but because we enjoy a great relationship, I care about her health. A good friend and fellow law student/tutor warned me to tread cautiously due to teenage girls’ body sensitivity and high eating-disorder rates, but it doesn’t feel right to do nothing. How can I also try to teach her some healthier eating and exercise habits without making her self-conscious? Should I just mind my business?
A: Silently set a good example by drinking water and by bringing fruit and vegetables and offering to share them with her. Otherwise forget giving advice about her weight. Your friends are right that your talking about her body will only undermine the relationship you have built. You could also talk to people at the organization that sponsors this program and say you feel your student would benefit from getting counseling on staying healthy.
Q. Mother-in-Law Quitting Daycare Even Before Starting! Ever since we got married, my MIL has been badgering us to get pregnant. My husband and I both wanted a baby, but we simply couldn’t afford me quitting work to look after the baby or to put it in daycare. My MIL proposed a solution—we could move closer to her house, and she would look after our child four days a week during the day. We thought about it, decided that was a good arrangement, and are now seven months pregnant. Then my MIL dropped a bombshell: She said she was getting on with age and felt she couldn’t provide care for our baby once it is born. I am livid, because we’re now left to find alternative care. Without her help, we are going to struggle for sure. If we knew my MIL wasn’t going to provide care (she shouldn’t have offered in the first place), we would have postponed our baby plans for another few years. I want to give her a piece of my mind, but my husband has been pleading restraint. I am even angrier that we moved for this arrangement that never worked out. We spent a lot of money to move homes, and now I’m far away from all my friends, my own parents, and most of my support network, not to mention the extra hour of commute each day with work. We can’t even move back to where we were for another few months for financial reasons. Am I justified in my anger?
A: You deserve peace of mind, and your mother-in-law deserves a piece of your mind for her reproductive bait and switch. Getting in a screaming match with her, however, will do no good and only send cortisol coursing through your precious little one. It sounds as if you can, disruptive though it may be, move back to where you were. That move will provide you with a better support system and a much shorter commute. Long commutes are one of the most draining activities that plague Americans. You’re justifiably angry now, but ultimately you will be thrilled to be parents, and you’ll be living someplace more amenable that doesn’t steal an hour of your day in traffic. In the long run—and, yes, it may be a long time before this long run comes to pass—you may even be grateful to your mother-in-law. Right now, you are perfectly right to say crisply, “Shirley, obviously your news has made things very difficult. I’m not going to be able to spend much time with you because I’m going to busy getting myself back to a better situation.”
Q. Affair, Marriage, Divorce?: Sporadically for the past month, someone has been emailing me information about having an affair with my husband. The specificity of the dates they were together and their knowledge of his naked body lead me to believe that he is having an affair. My husband and I are in our 60s, and we’ve been married for ten years, and a part of me just wants me to bury my head and forget about all of this. I can’t imagine divorcing again in my 60s. I don’t know what to say to my husband and just want to avoid this all. Would that be terribly unhealthy?
A: Concluding that you prefer to be married to your husband even if he is cheating can be a reasonable decision to arrive at. However, if he is cheating (and you believe he is), he has chosen to cheat with someone who doesn’t want to be discreet, but wants to blow up your marriage. Sure you could ignore her emails, but the fact that you’re writing to me says they’re eating at you. I think you should sit your husband down at the computer, show him the emails, and say, “We need to talk.” Of course, you don’t know where the conversation will lead, but you don’t want to be blindsided if one day he declares he’s leaving you for someone else.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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