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: Happy New Year! I look forward to the 2012 dilemmas.
Q. Dating the Nanny: Over Christmas my ex-husband Matt confessed his love for Maggie, the nanny we hired shortly after our divorce. Maggie worked for us for three years, until she graduated in June. Our kids adore her. I came to trust and love her. Matt tells me they slept together twice before June and “battled some powerful feelings” for one another before that. They began dating in June, and now he could see himself marrying her someday. I feel like Matt kicked me in the stomach. I cannot imagine watching him and Maggie as a couple. In fact, I never want her around my kids again. At the same time, I know Maggie loves our kids. And Matt seems to genuinely love her. I’m happily remarried, and I don’t want him to be lonely. I’m just not sure I can overcome the sense of betrayal I feel. My sister pointed out that I couldn’t ask for a better woman to be around my kids, but I feel like all the good things I knew about Maggie are false. Can you give me some advice? Am I being too hard on them?
A: It’s time to rent The Sound of Music and have the entire family watch this schmaltzy movie about falling in love with the nanny. And wasn’t that TV show The Nanny about the same thing? At least you didn’t mention that Maggie sounds like Fran Drescher. You plainly state that Maggie came into your children’s lives after the divorce. This means your husband wasn’t sneaking into the playroom while you were still married in order to have a time out with Maggie. I don’t understand why it is so impossible for you to envision this woman who has done a superb job with your children eventually becoming their stepmother. Is it because you’re a snob? Your husband and Maggie are both single adults who’ve fallen in love. Your kids adore her. All this sounds like a good thing. I assume when you remarried, your husband didn’t say he felt kicked in the stomach because it seemed like such a betrayal for you to find love with an insurance executive. Your sister is right—be happy for everyone and offer your congratulations.
Dear Prudence: Annoying Little Genius
Q. Thank-You Card for Receiving Junk: For last Christmas my stingy aunt gave me a 2009 calendar. The year before, she gave me a video tape of some TV show she recorded years ago when people still used VCR. She wanted to give me socks for my wedding gift but my uncle intervened and thankfully we got nothing instead. For as long as I can remember she’s picked up any old, useless thing around the house, wrapped it, and given it to us as birthday and Christmas gifts. No, she’s not in financial trouble, she’s just stingy and doesn’t like to put any thought into gifts. My mother still insists on thanking her, but I disagree. Who’s right here—do I still need to thank my aunt?
A: But these should be such fun thank-you notes to write! “Dear Auntie, I agree 2009 was a very good year and I look forward to reliving it with your thoughtful calendar.” “I, too, mourned when Matlock when off the air. Thank you for this vintage recording which I will treasure.” Whenever you get in a “worst present ever” discussion, be grateful that your Auntie has given you a lifetime of winning material.
Q. Deck the Halls (Literally): My 12-year-old son—an overall decent kid—ran into and broke my brother-in-law’s very valuable Tiffany-style lamp over Christmas. My family doesn’t over-value material items, but this is a killer. He had the lamp for over 30 years (it was an antique when he purchased it), it predates the birth of their children, many of our family portraits are taken with it in the background … everybody is mourning. So now what to do next? My husband says to “buy him a new one,” but he really doesn’t get it. First of all, it’s going to cost a couple of thousand dollars (I’m looking into insurance now) but—more importantly—it is emotional. If we ran over their golden retriever, we wouldn’t just run out and buy a new one. Advice for us? I’m trying to avoid tension in a (usually) loving family.
A: Presumably your brother-in-law has homeowner’s insurance to cover the cost of such mishaps. If the Tiffany-style lamp was extremely valuable (although presumably less so than an actual Tiffany lamp) he may have even have had a rider on it. Your son needs to express his deepest apologies in writing or in person for the accident. Then you need to have a discussion with your brother-in-law about whether his insurance company is providing replacement cost for the lamp. You then could offer to pay the deductable and say you will begin the search for a similar lamp. Of course it’s painful to lose a valuable and treasured object, but surely your brother-in-law is not recommending your son spend a little time at a supermax facility to curb his anti-social tendencies.
Q. Mom Who Messed Up: My third-grade daughter Amber tried to steal a plush toy from a classmate last year. The classmate caught her, and Amber received a number of punishments (including apologizing to her entire class). Amber’s worst fear is that someone she loves will learn about the theft and reject her. My husband and I promised never to tell anyone about her theft. I did confide in one close family friend, Mary, who promised never to tell her sons. Yesterday, after losing a board game to Amber, Mary’s son snapped, “Who cares? You’re just a lying thief.” Long story short, Mary told both of her sons about Amber’s attempted theft. Amber had a meltdown, and when I picked her up, Mary apologized profusely. I feel betrayed by her but also uncertain because, after all, my daughter’s wrongdoing was the impetus for this incident. Amber’s trust in me is severely shaken, and my trust in Mary is shaken too. As a mom who messed up, what’s the best way to move forward with Amber and Mary?
A: This is a great opportunity for you to put Amber’s misdemeanor in context. Yes, she messed up, but so did you, Mom. You should sit her down and tell her how very sorry you are that you violated her trust. Say you told her that you wouldn’t tell anyone, then you did—and even though Mary said she’d keep your secret, she didn’t. Tell her it is your fault that Mary’s sons were rude to her and you hope she can forgive you. Then you can tell her that she knows what she did with the plush toy was bad, but everyone messes up now and then, even adults. You want to put the whole plush toy incident behind you. Tell her it feels like a huge deal now, but she has to trust you that people will start to forget about it. Say you hope she can forgive you and that you have learned a big lesson about the importance of trust. Do not throw in a little aside about how if she hadn’t been such a miscreant you never would have been tempted to tell Mary anyway. As for Mary, you can tell her that you obviously should never have told her and it’s been very distressing that she went on to tell her sons. But explain you talked to your daughter about the lessons from all this and one of them is about putting things behind you.
Q. Hello, Baby: My ex-husband’s new wife will give birth to their first child any day. My daughters are so excited they can barely sleep. Much to my surprise, I’m excited too. My ex-husband and his new wife want our daughters to come to the hospital as soon as possible after the birth. I will probably drive my daughters to the hospital, and the assumption so far has been that their grandparents will meet them and take them to the maternity ward. I would love to take my daughters to the maternity ward myself and meet the new baby, but my sister, whom I’ve discussed this with, thinks I might be infringing on the new family’s privacy. She also thinks wanting to meet my ex-husband’s new baby with another woman is weird. Should I ask, and is it?
A: Your ex’s new wife—and you—sound wonderful. She wants her baby’s sisters to meet the baby right away. You want your daughters to be excited about their new sibling. This is how blended families should behave. All of you are going to be in and out of each other’s lives, and since your daughters have been invited to come to the hospital to see the baby, obviously you would accompany them. It will set a lovely tone for you to show up with a gift and coo over this new addition to your children’s family. As a mother yourself, you know to keep the visit short. But there’s nothing weird about expanding the circle of good feelings.
Q. Cell Phone Dinner Etiquette: Recently I went out for a post-Christmas dinner with a dozen relatives. Halfway through the meal my brother showed our dad and an uncle something on his phone; whatever my brother showed them caused them to laugh. I asked, “What’s so funny?” My brother scowled and told me it was nothing. I replied, “Please, what’s so funny?” My dad told me not to be such a snoop, and this attracted the attention of more relatives. The situation died down, but later my dad griped at me for embarrassing my brother and him. Apparently, my brother showed him and our uncle a text in which he made fun of another uncle. I pointed out that if they were making fun of another person at the table, they should be more discreet, but this just annoyed them more. Their treatment of me hurt my feelings, but it made me wonder. When you’re eating with a group, and people start showing one another something on a cell phone screen, is it rude to ask what’s being shown?
A: Of course I know it’s impossible to expect that at a convivial meal people will simply talk to the other people at the table instead of seeking entertainment electronically. But when you’re at the table and several people start chuckling at something on the cell phone, it’s natural to think it’s a hilarious photo of a cat and ask to join the fun. Of course if the fun consists of reading the message, “Look at Uncle Joel’s toupee. It looks like a muskrat died on his head,” then it’s problematic to share it with the group. Your dad griped at you for being caught being rude. Don’t expect, however, that next year he and your brother will do anything but mock more relatives sitting in front of them.
Q. Love That Lamp: I enthusiastically overvalue material items; I treasure the things that came down to me from my grandparents and great-grandparents; I take immense pleasure in seeing these items around the house every day. And yet, when my husband broke one of the few items I have of my great-grandmother’s, I was very sad for about 20 minutes and then shrugged it off. People are more important than things. Stuff gets broken. This family is mourning a lamp? Are you kidding me? Pay the deductible for the lamp or buy a new one and think no more on it. Sixty years from now, the brother-in-law’s kids will all be sitting around talking about the time Dad’s lamp got broken, and moaning over the expense of having to rewire its replacement, which by then will have become the treasured heirloom.
A: Great points. “Mourning” should be reserved for the loss of family members, not lamps. Other readers have suggested that it’s possible the shade can be repaired—of course that affects the value, but things are just things.
(The following question relates to a previous live chat in which the mother and adoptive father of a child wondered whether they should inform their daughter that she was the result of a violent rape.)
Q. Can They Handle the Truth?: I am the former girlfriend of “Can She Handle the Truth?” After much discussion between ourselves and our spouses, we have decided to seek counseling to help us tell our daughter about her biological origins. We hope that our overwhelming love and support for her will help her absorb the information. I write to you because telling our daughter about the rape means that we will need to tell my parents and my former boyfriend’s parents about the rape. I worry this revelation will alter their adoration for her because they have not had the time that her father and I have had to see that the circumstances of her conception have nothing to do with her as a person. I am also sick at the prospect of telling my parents I was raped. The shame of telling them was one of the factors that made me decide not to prosecute; I didn’t want “rape victim” to be one of the lenses through which they would forever view me. Given that my parents are still friends with my rapist’s parents—he died seven years ago—I anticipate there will be fallout there. Can you offer any advice, insight, or trademark wisdom about telling our daughter’s grandparents about “the truth” and handling the repercussions? Also, thank you for commending my former boyfriend. Perhaps the only bright side to this situation is that more people will know what a fantastic person he is. Aside from my husband, he’s the best man I know.
A: Thank you for this follow-up to the letter from your ex-boyfriend about how to tell the teenage daughter you conceived via a rape about her biological origins. To reiterate for new readers, your then-boyfriend stepped up and claimed paternity and you kept the rape a secret from everyone.
The news you have to tell is so disturbing, and has been secret for so long, that I can only emphasize that you should not go ahead without discussing this thoroughly with counselors, and possible others in a support group, about how best to tell your daughter and your parents and how to help them deal with the news. After your boyfriend’s letter ran I heard from people who questioned the need to even tell your daughter. They pointed out she is at a vulnerable age and this is a big bombshell to drop suddenly. I think this is a legitimate consideration, and one that needs to be aired with a counselor. I also heard from several people who were told they themselves were the result of rape. They all said that while obviously the news was disturbing, it did not shake their sense of themselves because they were raised in loving families and felt totally accepted.
What is so sad in your letter is the sense that you have had to hide the assault so you would not be seen as a “rape victim.” Unfortunately, this sense of shame allows rapists to get away with their crimes. Even though you were attacked a long time ago, I think you need to talk this through privately with a counselor of your own. You need to get to the point where you accept this was an act committed against you. It does not define who you are and you should not let it haunt your life.
Q. How Old Is She?: Can one politely ask the age of their ex-husband’s new girlfriend? My ex-husband and I are in our early 40s and have two kids in grade school. His girlfriend, who he is dating seriously, looks like she could still be in high school. She’s sweet, smart, albeit a little bubbly. My ex-husband tells me he’s serious about her, and our kids think she’s great. My curiosity about her age persists, though, and Facebook snooping hasn’t produced an answer. Given that she’s got a future in the life of my children and my ex-husband, do I have a right to know her age?
A: If only she had been the nanny, you’d know all about her. If your husband is dating a minor, that’s relevant. But surely you are exaggerating that you think she’s still in high school. You know what kind of relationship you have with your ex, and if it is cordial, it seems reasonable for you to say, “I understand you’re serious about Courtney and that the kids are spending a lot of time with her. Could you tell me a little bit about her?” But since even you don’t have anything bad to say about her, unless there is evidence the kids are down the hall from a father who’s committing statutory rape, the fact that he has a much younger girlfriend is really none of your business.
Q. How Long Is a Proper Time To Mourn My Estranged Husband’s Death?: About six months ago my estranged husband committed suicide. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic after he returned from Afghanistan about two years ago. The illness tore apart our marriage, and for safety I pretty much had no choice but to move on. We had been separated for about seven months when he committed suicide. Although we were in the process of divorcing, it was still quite a blow to me. We had been together since I was 15 years old (I’m 24 now) and had pretty much grown up together. I knew my ex-husband was not to blame for his illness and I held nothing against him. Well, recently after much convincing, my mom asked me to go to a family friend’s wedding, where several men were trying to get my phone number and asked me to dance. I danced a little bit and enjoyed myself. Then today I spoke to my friend who also went to the wedding, and she said she heard the table next to her saying how inappropriate I was for not only coming, but dancing with men, considering my husband died six months ago. Am I being disrespectful? The honest fact is I hadn’t seen my husband for about seven months when he died and we were in the process of divorcing (papers filed, court dates set, etc). I care about his memory and don’t want to be rude or disrespectful. What is appropriate?
A: What a sorrowful situation. But it sounds as if the people at the next table had been just watching The Forsyte Saga. There is a shocking scene in which a young woman, still wearing mourning black after the death of her father, gets up and dances at a social event. However, since that melodrama was set in 19th century England, it’s really not applicable to 21st century America. You are entitled to dance, sing, date, and love. You went through hell with a sadly damaged man. You are entitled to the happiness I’m sure is out there for you.
Q. Daughters Vacationing With Dad and His Girlfriend: For spring break my adolescent daughters will embark on a tropical vacation with their father and his girlfriend, Gwen. This will be the first vacation on which Gwen accompanies my ex-husband and my daughters. I trust her, and I like her. I also try to stay out of my ex-husband’s love life. But before my ex-husband makes the reservations, I’d like to talk with him and Gwen about what my daughters will be exposed to on this vacation. For example, I’d feel more comfortable if he and Gwen stayed in separate rooms, even though that will probably be more expensive. I’ve also noticed (thanks Facebook!) that Gwen favors very tiny bikinis. I would feel more comfortable if I knew that she’s going to wear something a bit less revealing. I’m not sure what I have a right to ask for as a mother, and I don’t want to come off as intrusive. What’s your unbiased opinion?
A: Ah, a theme: “My ex is dating a sexy young woman and it’s driving me crazy.” My unbiased opinion is that you are another woman who’s lucky you and the kids like the new woman in your ex’s life. You will not win by dictating that your husband and Gwen sleep in separate rooms and that Gwen would be happier on the beach wearing a muumuu.
Q. Stepmother: How would you behave toward your stepmother, who is suppose to be the grandmother of your children, if she cut you out of your father’s will? I find, now that my father has died, that my stepmother has retained all of my father’s estate for her and her son, yet my father’s intentions were for that not to happen.
A: I would behave cordially to her and retain a lawyer to see if you can challenge the will. Perhaps your father was ill or pressured when you were cut out. Perhaps you have evidence that he intended to leave something to you and your children. I only reluctantly recommend turning things into a legal situation, but if your father had a substantial estate, unless you and your father were seriously estranged, it is very strange he would want to leave everything to his stepson and nothing to his own child.
Q. Step Kids: I have recently remarried and love my wife with all my heart. She is an incredible woman! I came to the marriage with two small children whom she loves and cares for willingly. She is, however, often short with them. She realizes that she gets impatient and needs to work on this, but I am worried that this is something that needs to happen NOW for the sake of my children, who have already been through quite a bit. How do I help her to understand that this is a serious “just do it” kind of a topic?
A: Find some parenting classes nearby—the YMCA or other similar agencies can be a good place to start looking—and ask her to accompany you. Tell her you appreciate the love she has for your kids, and you know it is a huge change to suddenly become a mother to two small children in pain, but you think you could brush-up on your skills and she could learn better how to handle her understandable exasperation.
Q. Dad-Related Dilemma: My mom left my dad for another man 10 years ago, when my brother and I were in grade school. She took us with her, and the loss of his family turned my father into a bitter man. He now considers himself a men’s rights activist. From what I can tell, the men’s rights movement my dad belongs to believes that American law and society has institutionalized misandry. One website my dad frequents warns men not to date single mothers because their children might accuse the boyfriend of molesting them to reap the benefits of victimhood. My dad speaks often about the men’s rights movement, and when my brother and I don’t want to listen, he accuses us of being brainwashed by feminists. His behavior doesn’t come across as crazy so much as it does misogynistic. Now I’m 18 and could stop seeing him if I wanted to. But my brother is younger and still has to see him. My mom doesn’t know the full story because we don’t want her to overreact. What should we do?
A: Your mother leaving him may have caused your father’s personality change—it may also be that his personality was in place and your mother couldn’t take it anymore. Both you and your brother are old enough to have some direct discussions with your father about your relationship with him. Talk to your brother and see if he wants to join in such a conversation, and if he doesn’t, make some time alone with your father. He needs to be told that his activism is his business, but you don’t want to be his audience anymore. Say that you both understand he has strong feelings about women and the legal system, but being lectured to is poisoning your relationship. Reassure him that you love him and want to spend time with him, but you want to talk about things that are less painful and volatile. If he won’t curb his enthusiasm, then you can start peeling off from your visits. Now that you’re 18, spending less time with your father would be bound to happen anyway. But if you do that, be a sounding board for your brother on how to deal with Dad’s ugly obsession.
Q. Facebook Trouble: I recently saw a photo posted on Facebook of a co-worker doing something extremely dangerous at the office while most of us were home on vacation. She was frying a turkey out on the deck outside the employee break room. Since we are on the second floor, a fire could have burned down the whole building, which includes dozens of other businesses. I could tell the boss, but since no harm was done, it will simply lead to a guessing game about who told. Only a few of us have access to her Facebook page, so people would probably figure out it was me. Do I have an ethical obligation to tell?
A: I’m trying to imagine how this conversation would go: “Boss, Sandy did not burn down the office over the holidays.” You don’t know if Sandy asked for permission or was nutty enough to bring the Fryolator to the office. In either case the turkey has been cooked and digested, and you should move on to more current topics.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. My best wishes for 2012.