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. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Should I Move for My Baby’s Father?: I am pregnant, due this spring. The father is my casual boyfriend; I’m not sure if we’ll end up together, but we’re thrilled about impending parenthood. We’ll work very well together. We have one issue, which we keep debating. He wants me to move to the island he lives on, a suburb (easily accessible by bridge) of the Pacific Northwest city I live in. He lives on the island because his kids from a failed marriage live there; he wants to be close to them, and he wants our kid to be close to him. I could afford the move, but I dread living on this island, because of its crowdedness and community and because I’m closer to my family/friends/support in the city. I am touched by how eager my boyfriend is to embrace this new fatherhood, so I’m considering it. Do I have an obligation to move to the island?
A: Where you’re going to live and whether it’s together is the kind of thing that’s best discussed before two people decide to reproduce. You say this guy is your “casual” boyfriend, so planning how you’re going to raise this child seems to be a “Whatever. It’ll all work out” proposition. It probably would have been helpful if you’d noted that he has one failed marriage behind him and taken in the effect on his children of shuttling between two homes. Now a third domicile will be added to this round-robin. But of course you two will never be divorced because you’re not sure enough about each other to want to commit. I do hope you understand, however, that this man will be part of your life until your child is grown and probably beyond, and you have to start making some hard decisions about what kind of role he is going to play. Being thrilled about an impending birth is great, but it is not a basis on which to do the daily work of raising a child together. Since I don’t know what you want out of the relationship with the father of your child, I’m not the one to decide how close you should live to him.
Q. Hygiene vs. Etiquette: Something that puzzles me: Why wash your hands after urinating? As a woman, I don’t touch my body during this process, only the toilet paper, and urine is sterile anyway. I do a very quick hand rinse in public restrooms, but only to avoid getting dirty looks. Is it just that women feel that “down there” is sort of icky? If so, do they always wash their hands after sex and masturbation? A silly question, but who else could I ask?
A: I suppose if you wanted to acknowledge the dirty looks without having to clean your hands you could announce: “It was only number one. I didn’t touch anything nasty. Farewell!” I assume you’d rather live in a world where employees really did listen to the imperative sentences on the bathroom wall and wash their hands every time, despite their personal judgment that they didn’t contaminate their hands. It may be that on any given session you don’t touch more than the toilet paper, the toilet handle, and the bathroom door, but that’s probably enough to warrant a washing. As for sex and masturbation, let’s hope you’re doing those things at home where your personal hygiene is not on public display.
Q. New Job: Back in May of 2011, I decided to get back into truck driving. A large faith-based company agreed to hire me. I went through orientation, and was in the process of putting my belongings in a truck when I was called up to the safety department. The director of safety had found out that I have mild sleep apnea (my roommate snitched on me). He wanted me to travel back home, undergo another sleep study, and get a letter from my doctor stating that I could drive without any restrictions. Here’s the problem: The safety department never had me sign any release for them to discuss this matter with me, or anyone else, let alone even look into it. I asked a lawyer friend about this, and he told me that it’s a violation of my HIPAA rights. I am currently driving for this company, but I am tempted to quit, and file a lawsuit against them. To sue, or not to sue?
A: I often get chastised that I don’t suggest more often that people just sue. But your letter beautifully encapsulates the litigious world we live in. You’re considering suing over the fact that the trucking company that employs you discovered you have a medical condition that could result in your falling asleep at the wheel. I’m wondering whether in the papers you signed for your job there wasn’t a line about disclosing relevant medical information that you neglected to note. In any case, your roommate snitched presumably not out of malice, but out of concern for the other people on the road. Instead of entering the legal system, enter the medical system and find out if pursuing this line of work could mean you’re a danger to yourself or others.
Q. Right To Know?: My brother-in-law is getting married in two months, and his fiancee is unaware that he has a 3-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. The rest of our family knows, though it’s never discussed. My brother-in-law does not have any contact with his daughter, and paid off her mother in lieu of child support and any sort of ongoing relationship with their child. Obviously as his daughter gets older, there is a possibility that she will try to establish contact, or even build a relationship, with her father. Does his fiancee have a right to know this about the man she’s about to marry?
A: What a lovely guy—he’s written a big fat check and effectively killed off the existence of this child. I’ve often said that in general people don’t have to give an accounting of their sexual past to their new loves unless there is something obviously relevant. That doesn’t go for their reproductive past. New partners should know if there are children who have been placed for adoption, abandoned, etc. I think a couple of relatives should sit down with the brother-in-law and say the time to tell the fiancee about his daughter is now. Explain this is not only the kind of thing a future wife is entitled to know, but that the circle of people who do know is so wide that he wouldn’t want her to find out from someone else.
Q. Princess Wants a Party: I was invited to a “debutante ball” for my friend’s sister who is turning 18. I thought it was going to be just a nice dinner with friends and family with a little bit of dancing. Turns out it’s a much more elaborate, lavish, and narcissistic event than I anticipated. She has arranged for friends to make speeches about what a cool person she is and put on a dancing performance for her. She’s even asked a group of friends to write and sing a song about her. Even I’ve been asked to make a speech and I don’t know this girl very well. The family expects almost 200 people to attend in full formal ball gowns and tuxes. I happened to be at their house one evening when they were going over the arrangements and my jaw dropped at how much they were spending. When my brother got married last year he spent less than what they’re going to spend on a BIRTHDAY party. I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t particularly want to go anymore, because it seems so stupid to spend a five-digit figure on a birthday party for a teenager. As a columnist on etiquette, do I have your permission to decline the invitation and gently tell my friend and her sister that this event is grossly narcissistic and wastefully extravagant? I’m sure I can find another polite way to express it more delicately.
A: You don’t need my permission to decline any invitation. Doing so is simply a matter of expressing your regrets that you will not be able to attend. What I’m not going to give you carte blanche to do is to see their narcissism and raise it with your rudeness. Instead of giving them an earful when you decline, it would be more fun to imagine what you could say when it was your turn to give a speech: “Although I barely know Lavinia, during our short acquaintance it has become clear she is the type of girl that entire chapters of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is devoted to.” You may rightly find this whole exercise nauseating, so don’t go. The exception to this would be if you’ve already accepted. If so, politely attend (you can get out of the speech by saying you’re not comfortable doing public speaking) and think of the evening as great material.
Q. Carrying on a Family Grudge: I come from a family of one brother and two sisters, including me. Our brother has passed away and left everything to me as he never married or had kids. He did not get along at all with our sister and they spent many years arguing. My sister is not the kind of person to challenge the will and fight for the money, but I feel bad for her that she was excluded. I know she loved our brother in her own way, even if they did not get along. Whatever hurt they inflicted upon each other, I don’t think she deserved to be left out in the cold like this. I am now thinking of dividing my brother’s assets 50-50 to share with my sister. But my uncle, who is the executor of the will, says that while I’m free to do whatever I want, I should respect my brother’s reasons for leaving our sister out of the will. He thinks it’s disrespectful to my brother’s wishes to give my sister anything. Am I right to give my sister her share?
A: Of course people are free to use their trip to the grave as a means to settle scores. But the departed are not there to see the effect their ire has on the lives of those they’ve left behind. There were no strings on the estate your brother left you, so you are free to do with your inheritance as you wish. You and your sister are the ones who want to now get along. If you feel uncomfortable with her exclusion, there’s no reason you shouldn’t right what you see as a wrong. It’s up to you whether you want to split the estate or make a generous gift. You can tell your uncle that you understand your sister and brother had a contentious relationship, but having poor relations with your sibling is not a legacy you wish to uphold.
Q. Hotel Dilemma!: Three of my friends and I are making plans to travel together later this year. I’ve been doing research on the cheapest accommodation available for the four of us and emailed everyone a potential place to book. It is cheap, has reasonably good reviews, with excellent location. Everyone is happy to book it except “Anna,” on the basis that she stayed there last year while on business and the manager was very rude to her. She said she is boycotting the place on principle and refuses to stay there. The only other accommodation available in the area will cost each of us an extra $200. When I explained every place will have some sort of a bad review by a disgruntled customer, Anna remained adamant she does not want to give them her business. I’m feeling frustrated that her boycott is going to cost us all extra money. Is it fair to just tell Anna we’re going ahead to book it?
A: Anna is free to sleep in her car on principle. None of you even knows if the nasty manager is still at this hotel. Frankly, since Anna would be happy to stick the rest of you with a $200 tariff because of her tiff, maybe the manager was not the one at fault in this dispute. Tell Anna that three of the four of you would prefer to book the hotel, so majority rules. If she wants to make other arrangements, she’s free to do so.
Q. RE: Baby Question: As a mother of three, the first letter concerns me. I would suggest this soon-to-be mother and her baby’s father take a parenting class for expectant parents and find out more about what it is to have and raise a baby before worrying about where to live. The writer’s blasé attitude about the impending arrival of a human being could use a little adjusting
A: Good idea. I’m always astounded that there are people of reproductive age who are so naive as to assert all a child needs is love.
Q. RE: Sleep Apnea: Prudie, I believe that you are a bit confused as to what sleep apnea is. It is a sleep disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing or instances of abnormally low breathing, during sleep. Each pause in breathing, called an apnea, can last from a few seconds to minutes, and may occur five to 30 times or more an hour. So, it would have no bearing on his ability to drive a truck, it is not like he has narcolepsy and is just going to fall asleep at the wheel!
A: Yes, but if someone is experiencing sleep apnea nightly he will be sleep deprived and that person is more likely to nod off during long road trips. There’s a reason the trucking company would want someone with sleep apnea to have a medical evaluation and the go-ahead from a doctor.
Q. Follow-up to Truck Driver: I don’t know what kind of law your lawyer friend practices, but I’m a dedicated privacy lawyer, and that’s not a violation of HIPAA. HIPAA only covers release of medical information by certain entities covered under HIPAA, such as your physician, insurance provider, and hospital. Unless your roommate is also your physician, HIPAA was not implicated in any way by this disclosure. And if you roommate is your physician, the violation was his, not your employer. One more note—HIPAA does not provide for a “private cause of action,” so you can’t sue for a violation. Only government entities, such as Health and Human Services, can enforce HIPAA. Private litigants cannot.
A: Thank you! One less lawsuit in this country. Potential driver: Get to a doctor and discuss treatment for your apnea.
Q. Ick on the Bathroom Procedure: It’s not about you, it’s about everyone else. Unless you refrain from touching any surface in the bathroom that could have been touched by someone else who was full of flu germs, or dealing with less sterile fluids, or never shaken hands with someone who may have contaminated themselves in some way, you should be washing your hands any chance to get. Rent the movie Contagion and you’ll change your mind about this really quickly.
A: Agreed that thinking of a bathroom pit stop as an opportunity for a hand washing is a good idea.
Q. Pay Discrimination: I love my job. It has allowed me to make a decent living all while paying for my schooling, which I realize is a great privilege in this economy. I accidentally found out through a sloppy payroll mistake that I make a considerable amount less than my male counterparts. (We all have similar education and level of experience in our field.) For a while, I was begrudgingly OK with this arrangement since I reasoned I’m young and have to pay my dues to get ahead. However, a longtime female colleague recently left the company because of blatant pay inequality, and I am now doing the work of two people since her departure. I find myself increasingly bitter at the fact that I am now doing so much more for so much less than others with my same job title. I don’t want to be the first to make waves since I am still fairly young and this could set a bad precedent for my future within my industry, but at the same time I don’t want to be a sucker and let them think that pay discrimination is OK. I only want what’s fair and nothing more. I am not interested in lawyers or big payouts, just a fair wage.
A: You need to go in and make the case you deserve a raise. There is no question that pay disparities exist, and flat-out sexism is one big reason. Another one is that male employees are much more likely to consider their salary offer a starting point for negotiation while women are more likely to consider it the offer. Men also tend to be more aggressive about asking for raises. Of course, women run up against being seen as too pushy when they ask for more money for themselves, but making your own case is the only way this will change. When you go in don’t be hostile or defensive. Say how much you enjoy your work and appreciate your new responsibilities, then make the case that you deserve a raise for what you’re doing. You can say you’ve done some research and you know what you’re asking for is commensurate in the industry with your duties. You don’t need to say where your statistics come from! Listen to the recent podcast series on negotiating on Slate, co-hosted by Seth Stevenson, for tips on how to do this.
Q. Re: Carrying on a Family Grudge: My grandfather had six children, three girls and three boys, that included my dad. He had savings accounts for each, and when he got mad at one he would take almost all the money out and give it to the other accounts. He would also let almost everyone know. When he passed, my uncle the executor and my dad pooled all the money and split it evenly. My other uncle never knew he had nothing. My dad figured that it could have been any of them if Granddad had passed six months before or after, so it was silly. Share the money with your sister.
A: It’s great that despite your grandfather’s attempts to create wedges, his children came together to take care of each other.
Q. I Don’t Like My Teenager Sometimes: Is it OK to not like your teenagers sometimes? I love mine whole heartedly, but the things they say or do just make me like them less. I’m hoping when I call them out on their behavior that it won’t be a permanent habit or personality trait in them as an adult.
A: You’ve probably noticed your teenager doesn’t like you sometimes. Not liking each other is one of the jobs of teens and parents—it helps make the necessary and painful task of separating a little easier. Sure it can be disturbing to think, “Is my teenager going to go out in the world and tell her bosses they’re idiots, then ask them for a ride to the mall?” but don’t get hung up on what’s a personality trait and what’s just being a teenager. That doesn’t mean you don’t call out bad behavior, but just address it case by case. “Please don’t insult me or use that tone” rather than, “I hope you don’t have borderline personality disorder.”
Q. Dad’s New Family, New Joy: My dad recently married the woman for whom he divorced my mom. While I didn’t expect people to tar and feather the bride and groom at their wedding, I didn’t expect the tone to be quite so jovial. Guest after guest gushed about how happy my dad and new stepmother are together. Their sentiments were difficult to hear. I miss my dad a lot, and my mom is still reeling from the sudden divorce. The most painful speech came from my beloved grandpa. He spoke about how miserable my dad was before meeting his new wife. According to my grandpa, meeting my stepmom breathed new life and joy into my dad. I never knew how unhappy my dad was with my mom and little brother and me. I feel betrayed by the people who are so quick to embrace my mom’s replacement. My grandpa just went in to the hospital for a routine procedure, and my dad wants my brother and me to visit him. We’re disinclined to go. What should we tell our dad? And should we go?
A: The wedding sounds dreadful and grandfather’s speech sounds inappropriate, but I hope you were just reading the insult to you and your brother into it and that neither he, nor anyone else, actually said your father’s lucky to be free of his previous family. You and your brother should have a talk with your father about the wedding and how you are feeling. You can say you know your parents’ marriage is over and he is wildly in love. But explain that unfortunately that love has come at the cost of pain to a lot of people. Say you two were very disturbed to hear your mother disparaged so openly at the wedding. You can say your grandfather’s speech was particularly painful and made you two feel like you were being given the heave-ho. I hope airing this will help your father to see that while his first marriage may be over, his children by his first wife are going to have mixed feelings about his new joy. You could ask him to let his father know you two were hurt by what was said. And maybe by the time you have this discussion Grandpa will be out of the hospital and this particular visit will be moot.
Q. Hating Teens: Aren’t “adolescence” and “borderline personality disorder” synonyms? Mother of four (three of whom are teens).
A: There is a significant clinical overlap, yes!
Q. Re: Reluctantly Rich: Prudence—if the woman decides to give half her brother’s estate to her sister, she should talk to the uncle (and executor) to see if this can be done through probate. If she waits until after the assets transfer to her, she will have to pay gift taxes on the assets she gives to her sister.
A: Several people have noted that the generous sister needs legal advice on how best to give this gift.
Q. Abuse: What can I do about parenting skills that probably don’t fall into the reportable abuse zone? My neighbors have three kids under five. Not only do the parents scream and fight with each other EVERY DAY, with largely the mom doing the screaming, but during the day I have heard her SCREAMING at the children, including recent incidents of saying “you little B…H.” She uses the f word with these kids more than my husband’s army buddies. I honestly think she may have slight retardation. I know children’s protective services are overwhelmed with cases of parents doing material physical harm, I doubt they have the resources to deal with this, yet it seems wrong to leave these kids to a lifetime of being belittled and demeaned. I don’t see how any input from me is going to change a pattern this ingrained, in fact I can imagine I might make the situation worse if she feels embarrassed and takes that out on the kids.
A: I think this does fall into the abuse zone and you should make the call. If you hear that the kids are being further abused as punishment for the call, keep calling. These people do not sound competent to handle this brood, and they need intervention.
Q. May-December Parenthood: My husband, Jack, is 17 years older than I am. We have been married eight years and have three children. Our oldest child is Noah, a perceptive and intelligent 7-year-old boy. Recently one of Noah’s classmates mistook Jack for Noah’s grandfather. Jack doesn’t look THAT old, by the way, and his mistake upset Noah. Now Noah has realized that Jack is significantly older than I am and that most families are not like that. He dislikes that our family is different and has cried, because someone—he won’t tell Jack or me who—told him that his dad will die when he’s young. How should Jack and I handle our son’s discovery and concern?
A: The realization that your parents are going to die is a frightening one for every child. Sooner or later one of their classmates will experience it, and it will rock your own children. You can be as assuring as possible that Daddy is very healthy and that there’s no reason he’s not going to live to be a very old man. You can show Noah government statistics that men your husband’s age are expected to live to be at least 80 years old. You can then tell him that when Daddy is 80, Noah will be 40—he’ll be a grown man with his own children! Letting Noah know he can express his fears, that you are comfortable hearing them, and no one is worried about Jack’s demise should help make this phase pass.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone—time for me to wash my hands. Have a great week!