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. Spring, spring, spring! Pollen, pollen, pollen!
Q. Infertile girlfriend: My amazing girlfriend of four years has been told that she will never have biological children. It was devastating to both of us. She is coming to terms with it and saying things like, “We can look into adoption.” While I’ve been trying to support her, the truth is, I’m now wondering if our relationship can make it. The more I think about adoption, the more uncertain I feel, and it would be unfair to adopt a child without being sure. I’ve researched a bit on surrogacy and donor eggs and all, and it sounds very complicated and expensive, and there’s no guarantee. I know this sounds cold and callous, but the whole infertility issue is beginning to look like a deal breaker for me. Am I being a jerk?
A: If you were married, would you divorce her? If you would, there would be general agreement that you were quite the cad. If the situation were reversed and you both discovered you will never be able to father children, would you understand if she said adoption or donor sperm wasn’t for her and she was moving on? Despite being together for four years, you two apparently aren’t engaged, even though you’ve discussed having children, so you’ve left it ambiguous just what your articulated intentions were to your girlfriend. You’ve both just received devastating news, and the blow is infinitely heavier for her. If you do love her, you will take some time to absorb this news and slowly explore the consequences for both of you. This is made easier by the fact that you’re a guy, so you have more leeway to ponder questions of reproduction. Your girlfriend needs to find a support group so that she can talk about what’s happened to her with others who have been there. And before you run off you should honor your relationship by going together to a therapist who specialized in these issues. But you are entitled to your feelings and though you recognize they’re not noble, they are understandable. Pretending you don’t have them won’t do either of you any good in the long run. But with more knowledge and time, you may find this is not the fatal blow to your relationship it feels like now. Do keep in mind that if you leave her for more fertile pastures, you won’t actually know about your ability to have children with someone until you start trying.
Dear Prudence: Lying, Stinking Adulterer
Q. Too Many Siblings: I’m a freshman in college about three hours from my parents. I have 10 younger siblings—three biological and seven adopted from the foster care system. My parents are doing a wonderful service to these children in providing them with a warm, loving home. However, as the oldest child, a lot of responsibility was put on me from ages 12 to 18 to babysit, watch, and care for my younger siblings. I never felt like I had much of an opportunity to be myself or build my own interests because the vast majority of my time was occupied caring for children. I am attending college on an academic scholarship and I am enjoying my studies and learning to grow on my own. I recently got a summer job near my university and there is an affordable apartment I can rent for the summer while I am working. When I told my parents, they got very upset, claiming that I was “abandoning” them. They said that they needed me home to drive children to appointments and provide summer care. I feel like I gave my teenage years to my family and college should be my opportunity to grow as an individual. My parents think family is more important than anything else and I owe it to them and my siblings to come how and offer care. Who is right in this scenario? If I decide to stay in college, how do I explain my choice to my parents and preserve a relationship with them? If I decide to go home, is it possible to negotiate for a few hours per week that I am not responsible for children to go to a movie, talk to a friend, or do some yoga?
A: Your parents have done a wonderful thing by adopting children out of the foster care system, but they also have an obligation not to turn any of their children into indentured servants to their service. Eleven children is an overwhelming number, and without the older kids helping out, the family would likely collapse. But I dislike your description of your childhood as one of schoolwork and childcare. No wonder college has seemed like glorious liberation. I disagree with your parents’ idea that you never actually do get to leave permanently, and now you’re obligated to be a full-time camp counselor. I don’t see how you negotiate with them for a movie or yoga break. If that is the kind of frivolous activity that doesn’t fit with their 24-hour on-call agenda, there’s no point spending your summer trying to fight for a few moments of peace. You preserve your relationship with your parents by making clear that as their children grow up the relationship changes. You’ve become an independent young woman who’s gotten her college tuition paid, and has found a job and an apartment. Most parents of kids your age would weep with joy at that. Your parents may have had so many children they don’t know what to do, but you do. Stick with your summer plans.
Q. Gardening That’s Too Organic: Gardening has always been a favorite pastime of my wife’s, and over the years she’s spoiled me with delicious home-grown fruits and vegetables. Last year she decided to go organic, which is harder than I would have thought. She’s the type of person who likes to figure things out on her own, and trial and error is her favorite learning method. Last year she tried using horse manure as fertilizer, and didn’t like the resulting weeds. This spring she’s decided to try a different approach—she bought a chamber pot and says she’ll fertilize the soil herself. I refuse to contribute, and I think I’ll pass on the veggies as well. My wife disagrees with me but says she understands, but she also shares our bountiful harvest with the neighbors, and I’m sure if I spilled the beans on her unconventional technique, she’d be furious. Should I tell my neighbors what she’s up to?
A: Talk about being a locavore. Food direct from the bathroom to the kitchen! This is the ultimate in recycling. Aside from spilling the beans, if she grows a lot of beans, things will turn over in an ever-faster loop. However, her plans are disgusting. And, if she plans on just dumping her dump on the vegetables, potentially dangerous. Once the toilet was invented, people voted with their—oh, never mind—and abandoned the chamber pot for the smelly repulsive thing it was. If she’s going to start using one, at least get the plug-in Febreze. My understanding is that fertilizer has to be processed before it can be used. Many food borne-illnesses come from feces contamination in the fields. Tell your wife you don’t want the CDC at the door because she gives the neighbors some killer lettuce. Organic is one thing, but she should keep her personal contribution out of the garden.
Q. Vacation: I have five children, one daughter (14) and four younger sons ranging from ages 6 to 12. Every year we take a week vacation at a second home near a lake, about five hours from our house. While it is certainly cramped, it is doable for a week especially considering most of the time is spent outside. This year, my daughter’s best friend and her family invited my daughter on their family vacation to Boston (a plane ride away). I told my daughter we would think about it a few months ago, and since then she has been saving allowance and babysitting money to pay her own way, determined to go with her friend. My husband thinks she should go with her friend to experience something new. I think she should come with us because we are her family and this is the vacation we take—together—every year; 14 seems a bit young to elect out of family vacations. We have to decide if she is attending next week so the family can book plane tickets. I have no problem with her best friend or her family, I just want her to come with us, instead. My daughter and husband act like I am being unreasonable since we take the same vacation every year and missing one wouldn’t be a big deal. But it is a big deal—to me! Should I let her go or demand she stay?
A: Take a lesson from the young lady in the letter above. If you don’t let your daughter spread her wings a little while she is still at home, once she leaves for good she may find the freedom so intoxicating that she never joins you for a summer vacation. It’s a tribute to your daughter’s determination that she’s been saving her money to help finance, if only a little, this exciting trip. Of course it will be painful for you to see your girl go, but it sounds as if your family is a tight unit so your daughter does not lack for time with her siblings. Her going with her best friend will be an exciting adventure, a lesson in how other families operate, and an important lesson in being independent. Book the trip—it will bring you and your daughter closer.
Q. Bridesmaid Wants To Change: My sister-in-law has asked my permission to change out of her bridesmaid’s dress immediately after my wedding ceremony and pictures so that she may wear her own dress to the reception. As much as I want to be agreeable, this really hurts my feelings. Our reception will not likely exceed 2 hours, the wedding party are all seated at the same table as my future husband and I, and none of the other bridesmaids are planning on changing. When I asked her why she wanted to change, my sister-in-law said she felt that she would be more comfortable in another dress. The dress is not seasonally inappropriate, revealing, or particularly form fitting. Am I being unreasonable for not wanting her to change?
A: Unless your sister-in-law is one of those passive-aggressive types who just likes to make herself annoying, there is some reason she really hates this dress and she’s done you the courtesy keeping it to herself. Yes, I think she should have just hated this dress all night long, but once the ceremony is over and the pictures are taken, you shouldn’t care that she can’t wait to get if off and into something that makes her feel pretty. Think how much better your relationship with her will be in 10 years if you just say, “Thanks for asking. Off course you can, and I look forward to seeing what you’ll wear.”
Q. A Boyish Girl: Our 5-year-old daughter likes to dress up as a boy. We’re not concerned about it, because she grew up with two older brothers and the three of them are inseparable. Other than occasionally offering her girls’ clothes, we don’t think much about this issue. My brother, however, seems to think there’s something very serious going on. He keeps asking why we haven’t taken our daughter to a psychologist who specializes in transgender children. He researches and prints off information about gender reassignment procedures. He thinks she is a “boy born inside a girl’s body” and needs appropriate treatment to make the transformation. We just think it’s a harmless phase. Is my brother right? Should I look into this more or tell him to butt out?
A: So your brother apparently would like his kindergarten-age niece to begin the process of gender reassignment. You should reassign him as “World’s Worst Uncle.” Your daughter is 5-years-old. She may just like dressing up like her beloved older brothers. She may be a tomboy. (Are there tomboys anymore or is that like saying she’s a flapper?) She may love looking girly in a few years—or maybe not. She may end up who knows where on the sexual spectrum, but you’re right not to be concerned about this now. She sounds like a perfectly normal kid with perfectly loving parents and an uncle who is perfectly out of control. Tell him you don’t want any more information or advice, and if he cares for his niece he’ll cease right now worrying about what she wears.
Q. For “Too Many Siblings”: I can relate. My teenage years were filled with babysitting. A summer job will give you great new skills that will help build your resume and expose you to new ideas and opportunities and better place you for the not-great job market in a few years. More babysitting will not. (Although you have learned quite a few great skills already, including time management and managing people!) Step away, and enjoy.
A: Great point. The summer job will make this young woman a more attractive future employment candidate.
Q. Throwing Myself a Pity Party: We recently learned that my mother has stage 4 cancer. She just had a surgery, but the cancer has metastasized. They are going to start chemo in two weeks. I have been coping pretty well but what throws me off more than anything is falling into the downward spiral of thinking my mom isn’t going to be there on my wedding day, to see her grandchildren, to cook Christmas breakfast. How can I turn those thoughts off when they come on? For what it’s worth, I’m scheduled to go to a therapist at the end of the week but was just hoping I could have some interim advice. Thank you!
A: I’m so sorry and I hope your mother’s treatments are successful. It’s good you’re going to see a therapist. All of us wish there was a way to turn off painful thoughts, but what you’re experiencing are the natural thoughts and fears of anyone in this situation. I like the precepts of “mindfulness,” which instead of trying to stop these kinds of thoughts, teaches accepting them. Not so they disable you, but so that you can deal with them better. Please look into mindfulness resources, but for now when the terrible scenarios creep into your mind, you can say to yourself, “Yep, I’m wondering again what Christmas would be like if Mom wasn’t there. It would be really sad. But right now I’m not going to dwell on it. I’m going to put that thought in a balloon and let it float away.”
Q. Child’s Schooling: My husband and I are expecting our first child next month and have stumbled upon an issue that I realize now that, before we had gotten married, we should have discussed and resolved: public or private schooling. Both of us feel very strongly about our preference and are really surprised that the other feels the opposite. We are at an absolute impasse on the issue, and it is starting to create stress and acrimony. We live in suburban Maryland and have excellent options for both, but our philosophical preferences do not seem to converge. We talk to friends about how they made their choices, hoping to find some common ground, and they feel as strongly about their choices that we feel about our sides of the issue. I don’t see a compromise here, and one of us is going to have to cave. My mother suggested (in jest) we alternate years or alternate children, but the former sounds disruptive to our kid’s socialization, the other creates the impression that one is worth more money than the other. For what it is worth, financial considerations are not part of the debate.
A: Why not let your yet un-born child get potty trained first (but keep the potty away from the garden!) before you start worrying about where he or she is going to matriculate. It may seem irrelevant now, but who your kid is—shy, exuberant, precocious, slow to mature—is actually going to have something to do with your choice. Even though you have the cash to pay the bill, it’s possible your child may not even get into the private school of your desire (if you decide to apply). Make a deal with your husband that you will drop this conversation for the foreseeable future. In a couple of years you will have the chance to reopen it with open minds.
Q. Re: A BOYISH GIRL: I was the little girl dressed like a boy. I also refused to admit I was a girl until I was 6. This was because of my older brother, who I looked up to and adored. I wanted to be just like him. I never turned into a girly-girl, and still stole his clothes in junior high (with comedic results), but eventually grew into my own feminine sense of style. I am happily married to a man, and have been learning over the years how to curl hair, find the right fit of pants, and what looks best for my body. I can understand the ease of wanting to dress like a boy—there’s so much less to think about! And it’s comfortable. The uncle needs to calm down and talk to his niece about all of the amazing women out there, to show her that there are plenty of people to look up to and admire that share her gender.
A: Thank you! The mother should show the uncle your note then tell him the conversation has officially ended.
Q. Unbalanced Cousin: I’m deeply conflicted about the relationship I have with my cousin. She is seven years younger than me and my wife. She has had a series of colossally bad relationships with men several years older than she is. She also has a tortured relationship with her father (he has basically ignored her for her entire life). She visited us about a year ago and it became quite clear that she was mentally unbalanced. She has been institutionalized before and has a history of eating disorders and self-harm. My cousin’s behavior was so frightening that we took our 3-year-old daughter out of her room and we all slept in our room behind a locked door. We have been supportive and accommodating of her needs and eccentricities for 20 years. It happens that we are expecting our second child at the same time my cousin is expecting. She seems to think that we have this great relationship while, in fact we (and her father and his wife) really fear her and the drama that accompanies her. My family and I don’t want to be around her, but she really wants to be around us and have a relationship with my daughter and have the two we are expecting to “grow up together.” Am I a jerk for not ever wanting to see her again? Is it selfish of me to want to protect my children from this unbalanced woman? How do I cut the cord without sending her further down the rabbit hole?
A: In journalism we call this “burying the lede.” That is, the real point of your letter is that your mentally unbalanced cousin is expecting a baby and something needs to be done to protect this poor child. It would be ideal if the family could come together and put a plan of supervision into place for what happens when the baby is born. If your cousin is a danger to herself and others the authorities need to be aware of this now and monitoring her after she gives birth. If one part of what happens is that you tell your cousin she can’t visit you because her behavior makes a visit unsafe, that’s part of letting her know that she desperately needs help.
Q. To Tell Or Not To Tell: My sister-in-law and I developed a good friendship over the years and we think of each other as sisters. Recently, I discovered that my brother is having an affair. I’m torn—should I tell my SIL or not? If I were in her situation, I would feel devastated if my friend or family knew but kept it hushed up. But if there’s a chance that my brother will end the affair, I don’t want to get involved. I’ve had harsh words with my brother, and he’s head over heels for this other woman. I just don’t know what to do.
A: You say that if the situations were reversed you’d want her to tell you, so that’s a good clue as to how to proceed. If you do speak, you will be really getting in the middle of their marriage, so it’s only fair to give your brother a heads up that you’re going to spill. Sure, he may end the relationship, but if he’s confessing to you he’s head over heels, it sounds more like he deserves a kick to the head. If you tell your sister-in-law, give her enough information so that she knows the truth, but you don’t have to give her every detail you’ve been privy to. Stay calm and supportive, and be prepared for experiencing the old adage about being the messenger.
Q. For the Poster Whose Mother Is Ill: I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I can relate. What helped for me then, and makes me look back at my decisions with peace now, is that I did my best to live in the present. I delighted in every conversation with my mom, visited as much as I could, bought her thoughtful gifts, and gave her five birthday cards because I found so many with the sentiments I have for her. Also, don’t feel like you need to lighten up your feelings for others if you feel down. It’s not a pity party when it’s something really life-altering and involves someone dear to you.
A: Good advice, thank you.
Q. Husband Is Too Germ Sensitive: My husband has always been a little fussy about germs, messes, clutter, etc. While I keep things clean, I am a bit messier, and occasionally allow clutter to accumulate on a table or counter. He’s handled that well. OK, so far so good, and so we had a baby four months ago. At first, everything was fine, and we were enjoying our son, though obviously we were and still are very tired. My husband found that the baby likes to be held up above our heads so he can look down at us. He giggles, etc. All this was great until the time that our son must have had a slightly unsettled stomach. He puked all over my husband’s face. My husband couldn’t hand our baby over to me fast enough, and then jumped into the shower for 20 minutes. He was visibly upset the rest of the evening and didn’t want to be close to our son, fearing a repeat. The problem is that he now has trouble getting close to our baby. He looks sick whenever we need to change a diaper, and he doesn’t help with that anymore. He won’t feed him either, he complains about the dribble being germy. He is really reluctant to touch our son, and washes his hands repeatedly after contact with him. I can’t get my husband to talk about this, and I can’t live like this anymore. How can I possibly get him to help more? Our son needs an involved dad! Where do I start?
A: If your husband doesn’t want to hold his son against his chest, feel his baby’s head get heavy, and thrill to the drooly spot left when your baby falls asleep in his arms, then you’ve got a problem. Yes, the vomit story is gross, but every parent has an account like that of their child’s eruptions from one end or the other. Your husband has gotten himself in a loop that could alienate him from his child, so he needs help. Some form of cognitive behavioral therapy sounds called for, and he should call for an appointment right away.
Q. Helicopter Dad: My daughter is 10 and is in the fifth grade, and this time of year is her busiest regarding exams, projects, extracurriculars, etc. I never married her father, who lives a state away, and I have full custody (he sees her every other weekend). My daughter was assigned yet another project that she only had time to work on during her father’s visitation with her. When I picked her up, I was surprised to see an impeccably completed project, not exactly to my daughter’s abilities. It turns out that her father completed the project. How do I handle this? I feel it would be dishonest for her to hand in someone else’s work, setting an awful precedent. Also, she will have to work on her science fair project during her next visitation with her father—how do I prevent her dad from continually doing her projects? He isn’t someone who takes constructive criticism well.
A: You two are raising a daughter together, so you have to have some communication. The best course is to not attack, but to say you appreciate him stepping up to help his daughter. Then you have to explain the school is rather strict about how much parental involvement goes into the kids’ projects. (I hope they don’t allow parents to do the work!) Since your daughter didn’t do the bulk of the work for the project, she could get in trouble, which would undo all the excellent help he was trying to give. Say you understand the impulse to just step up and do it yourself, but she’ll learn more (and learn what she doesn’t know) if she does it herself, with just a little guidance from him.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone, have a good week. And I hope that 14-year-old girl will be flying to Boston soon!