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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let’s get to it.
Q. My Son Is in Love With a Woman Older Than Me: My just turned 18-year-old son, who is a senior in high school and lives at home, recently came home and told me he has his first girlfriend and that he is in love. He said she is older than he is. He looks a bit older than 18. Turns out his new love is 48 years old. That is a year older than me. I met her, and she is actually very nice and in love with my son. If I had grown up in this town, we would have been in school together and likely best friends. She is not his teacher or in any position that would be suspect. They simply met in a cafe and fell in Love. Is this OK?
A: She may not be his teacher, but she’ll be his teacher, all right. This does not feel very OK, and if the sexes were reversed it still wouldn’t. A 30-year age difference for a first romance is definitely designed to make one’s parents unhappy. As “nice” as this woman may be, she sounds utterly oblivious to the inappropriateness of her behavior. Your son should be focused on his homework and going to college—if that’s on his agenda—so as with any romance you need to make sure he’s not devoting all his time to his new girl, ah, lady friend. However, he’s 18, and the bigger deal you make of this, the deeper his love is likely to be. You can express your understandable concern that he’s dating someone older than you, then back off and make sure he’s studying for his biology test.
Dear Prudence: Office Water Wars
Q. Striptease Commute: My girlfriend moved into my place a few weeks ago. We’re really happy together and love our new living arrangements, but there’s one thing that is seriously getting on my nerves. She’s not exactly an early bird, and so when I give her a lift to work in the morning, she’s not usually completely ready to go by the time we leave. She makes up for it by finishing her morning routine on the go. (It takes about 20 minutes to get to her job.) She’s often in her PJs when we leave, and wearing more professional attire by the time we get there. It really bugs me when she takes her top off for everyone in traffic to see before she can get a bra and blouse on. She says it doesn’t matter because the windows are tinted, and besides, if anyone does see her, they’re only strangers anyway so she doesn’t feel embarrassed. But it’s embarrassing to me, and I want her to stop. Is this something I can put my foot down on?
A: You want to try not to put your foot down on the gas pedal as she’s showing off her headlights to what must be some delighted commuters. Talk about distracted drivers! I think you can tell her that her striptease is uncomfortable for you and dangerous on the road. Say you’re going to set the alarm clock 20 minutes earlier so she can actually be dressed before you walk out the door. If when it’s time to leave and she’s still in her P.J.s tell her that she should throw a blanket over herself if she decides to get dressed on the bus.
Q. Saw relative: I recently lost my house after losing my job and being unable to keep up with the payments. A distant relative graciously let my teenage daughter and myself move in with them and work on their family farm. I sold a large share of my belongings and moved 1,000 miles to their place. My daughter was not happy about leaving her friends and starting a new school midyear. It’s been a difficult time for both of us, but I was grateful for the chance of a new beginning. Now for the problem; I saw their teenage son and his friend engaging in sex acts with the livestock. I’m mortified! I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I should talk to his parents or not. This is now my place to live and my employment, but I can’t imagine staying here, whether I tell them or not. I don’t want my daughter around these boys, but I don’t have the means to move again or belongings to furnish it, not to mention how that would affect my daughter.
A: This is so much worse than the liver scene in Portnoy’s Complaint. The boys are engaging in bestiality, which is repulsive and illegal in some states. Sure, your patrons might have a cow when they find out what the boys are doing to the cow, but this is something parents should know. (Although it’s also possible this is something parents really don’t want to know.) These kids are brazen enough to do it where they can be observed, so they need someone to address their impulse control issues. Be as low key as possible with your relative. Say that given that you have a daughter, you don’t want her to see such behavior. And start looking in the want ads because it sounds as if your farm days are numbered.
Q. Unwanted Proposal: Last Valentine’s Day my boyfriend proposed to me very publicly. I was completely shocked and said yes, when in private I would have told him no. I am totally not ready for marriage, but I didn’t want to humiliate him. Afterward, I explained I wasn’t ready but was keen to talk about it in a few months. I suggested we tell our family and friends that we came to a mutual decision to postpone an engagement due to personal reasons. My boyfriend immediately became upset and said I was dishonest with him by saying yes in the first place. But I said yes because I didn’t want to publicly embarrass him by turning him down. I feel kind of angry that he put me in the spotlight like that when he knows I’m a private person. Who’s at fault here?
A: Your letter is an example of why I deplore the ever-more-elaborate ritual of the public proposal. I admit I have a voyeuristic streak, but I don’t want to be forced to watch people’s most private moments. Your boyfriend obviously chose a public spectacle because he understands your private reservations about him. He’s just done you a huge favor by showing what a manipulative, immature person he is. The “engagement” should definitely be off, and probably the relationship, too.
Q. Annoying BIL: I can’t stand my husband’s arrogant brother. He thinks he’s better than everybody because he has a Ph.D. and occasionally lectures at college. Last week I was writing a note and misspelled something. My BIL yelled, “Don’t you know how to SPELL?” He grabbed the note and walked around showing everyone my error, even after others told him it wasn’t funny. I can’t stand the way he brags about his achievements, and the monologues about politics or history, usually brought up to highlight his extensive general knowledge. My in-laws are pretty easygoing, so his behavior is something of an inside joke amongst them, rather than a source of major conflict. The problem is, his birthday is coming up pretty soon. I have a tradition of giving each family member a beautifully presented basket of baked goods for their birthday. But the BIL’s spelling remark was the last straw to years of obnoxious behavior. I still want to give his twin sister the gift basket, but not him. I’ll leave it up for my husband to buy something for his brother, even though he’s a terrible gift buyer. (I’m expecting a last minute trip to the mall for some ill-fitting underwear.) My husband thinks I should just make another gift basket to keep the family peace. But I don’t want to give something homemade without any love behind it. Am I petty for excluding my BIL from the gift baskets from this point onward?
A: Your brother-in-law is only humiliating himself. He’s a jerk, and he has some social issues that need addressing. But as you note, everyone deals with him with a raised eyebrow and a look. So present the lovely basket to both twins. That he doesn’t deserve it will make your gesture all the sweeter.
Q. Crazy Cousin: My cousin “Laura” recently got involved in a verbal spat with a salesperson at a clothing store. They were both equally rude to each other. Then just as Laura exited she loudly yelled, “No wonder you’re still working in retail at your age, you fat (expletive), just look at you.” The salesperson ran to Laura and shoved her, and she fell to the ground. Laura immediately got up and the two women ended up in a physical fight, as I tried to tear them apart. That day, Laura posted a story on a local news/advertising website that she was assaulted, deliberately naming the store. She presented herself as a pregnant victim who was attacked for no reason, and lied and said she almost had a miscarriage. This story has stirred up a lot of heat in our small town and women are now boycotting the shop. I understand the salesperson is on disciplinary action and is likely to lose her job. While I don’t sympathize with either party, I know Laura also behaved outlandishly that day. I want to write a reply to Laura’s post explaining that it wasn’t a one-sided attack, but a fight where both parties threw punches. But I’m scared of involving my name to what is now a very public matter as well as causing divisions in the family. Is there a way I can tell the story without identifying myself?
A: Check and see if you can post a version of events using a pseudonym. You can explain in the post that you were in the store that day and while post parties were at fault, there’s another side to the story. Throw in Laura’s quote and watch the sympathy for her dry up. Your cousin sounds like a troubled woman and I feel sorry for her child.
Q. Hiring Husband’s Affair Partner? Four years ago my husband cheated on me with a woman who works in the same field as me. Their affair lasted eight months and ended when I discovered it. We’ve struggled a lot, but ultimately our marriage has survived and is even stronger. Presently, at my job, I’m in charge of hiring a new employee who would work directly under my supervision. As it turns out, my husband’s affair partner is one of the more qualified applicants. I go by my maiden name at work, so I am not sure if she knows who I am. The next step in the hiring process is arranging interviews with a few candidates. I believe my husband’s affair partner would be an asset for our company, but working with her on a daily basis, to say nothing of actually interviewing her, would cause me great distress. After he ended their affair, this woman emailed and called him repeatedly, begging him to reconsider. I want to remain professional, but this woman is a living embodiment of one of the most painful periods in my life. What is the right thing to do?
A: This is a great question and one that I would turn to some experts in employment law for an answer. My inclination is that despite her qualifications, you’d be her boss and you simply can’t work with her, so that’s the price she pays in this instance for having an affair with a married man. Do readers think the letter writer should let her boss or human resources know why she feels she should strike this candidate? Does anyone feel she should just swallow her pain and let the interview process proceed?
Q. Bestiality and Statistics: You might be interested to know that according to the landmark Kinsey Report, most farm boys’ first sexual experience is with the livestock.
A: And so it perhaps is a good thing that we are no longer an agrarian society.
Q. Afraid of Baby’s Death: Three months ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, she’s our first child and my husband and I were in 7th heaven. But I am getting more and more afraid of my baby dying at some stage in her life, and I don’t mean as an 80-year-old lady. Of course I know that there is a time for everyone to die, but I imagine my daughter having a car crash when she’s a teenager, dying of cancer in her 20s, or being shot by a lunatic. All these things are extremely unlikely to happen, but I’m feeling miserable because there won’t be anything I can do to prevent it. I know that I am not able to prevent her from falling down every now and then, scraping a knee, or having her heart broken when she’s older. I just don’t want anything to happen to her which could cut her life short. I’m so afraid of her death that I often start to cry when I look at her. My husband is worried about me: first he said it was normal to have the baby blues but it’s getting worse, to a point where I can’t stand to be in the same room with her because it pains me so much. Prudie, what is wrong with me? Is this what all parents go through, are parents supposed to be worried so much? Will it get better? Thanks for helping!
A: Please see your OB/GYN right away and tell him or her you are experiencing serious worry and anxiety that is interfering with your ability to be a good mother. You may have post-partum depression and getting help will make a huge difference, probably pretty quickly. What you describe is the secret burden shared by all parents, one I think most people don’t even want to articulate. I don’t think any of us ever completely silence that terrible voice of worry, but we learn to turn the volume down so that we can experience the full joy of being a parent.
Q. Nursing vs. Music: My daughter is in her final year of studies to become a nurse, and I currently pay for her tuition and living expenses. Last week she surprised me with the news that she won a scholarship to study at a prestigious music school overseas. Her scholarship only covers partial tuition, and she asked me to fund the remaining fees and living costs to enable her to study full time. Due to visa issues I don’t think it will be possible for her to work enough hours to support herself without any help from me. While she is musically talented, I know many talented musicians who struggle to earn a living. I told her I couldn’t support her in this as I thought it was an unwise investment of her time and my money. Now she’s angry and is accusing me of trying to manipulate her into doing what I want. How can I get her to see some sense?
A: You can let her figure out a way to pursue a musical career without your help. If she proves you wrong, how satisfying the melody will be for her. And if you’re right, she can soothe the savage breast with her medical, not musical, skills.
Q. No Recollection of Bullying: I attempted to touch base with a high school classmate on Facebook. When I sent the friend request she replied with a scathing message about how I supposedly bullied and tormented her in high school. She said I owe her an apology for making her life miserable. The trouble is, I have no recollection of bullying her. I was friends with someone who I faintly recall giving this classmate trouble, so I wonder if she associates me with recollections of being bullied. I was a typical immature drama queen teenager, but I certainly wasn’t the bullying type. How can I respond to this message without making things worse? She obviously has sour memories about me.
A: You can either decide this is one of those old connections best left severed and simply not respond. Or you can reply by saying that her note rocked you because you’ve scoured your memory and while you know you were immature and often silly, you didn’t feel any animus toward her and don’t recall any cruelty. You can say if you did hurt her it was inadvertent and you’re sorry. But after all that, surely you don’t want to be friends with her anyway.
Q. Bestiality: I am concerned the teenage daughter might be the next object of the teenage boys’ sexual curiosities. The mother is right to want to get her daughter out of the environment.
A: Good point. The mother needs to hoof it out of there.
Q. RE: Affair and Interview: I work in human resources and I would want to know if a hiring manager would feel uncomfortable with a candidate. One consideration (and certainly not to minimize the letter writer’s situation) is the potential risk of hiring someone who would engage in behavior in the workplace that could lead to harassment.
A: Thanks. Another reader writes that the wife who’s doing the hiring could herself provide quite the “character reference” for the candidate!
Q. Re: Crazy Cousin: You might also try to talk to the store manager. Offer your side of the story as it might influence the manager’s disciplinary actions.
A: That’s a good point. No matter what the provocation, a saleswoman should not deck a customer. She herself should have gone to the manager. But the manager should know just how egregious the taunting of the employee was.
Q. Neighbors, Molestation: Our next-door neighbors are friendly and kind. However, the husband of the pair (and father of two grown and nearly grown girls) was arrested for molestation-related charges over a year ago. We had no idea but knew he moved out for nearly a year. We were curious and Googled his name and came across the court records. The charges were dropped due to “insignificance evidence” and he has returned home, friendly as ever. The charges were by a girl the age of one of their daughters but not a family member. This makes us feel odd around him, and the neighbors are openly “eluding to ‘family issues’ ” while he was away but now we don’t know how to act. Do we let them know we know? Ignore it? I think we’d feel better if he was found not guilty but since charges were dropped, we feel like there might be a “monster next door.”
A: You say these are neighbors but not close friends. You have no idea if there was something to the charge or if the accusation was false. (I’m assuming you mean there was “insufficient evidence.”) If you have children, it would be natural for you to be more vigilant. But without further evidence that he did it, or he’s a serial abuser, this goes along with my belief that making people permanent pariahs is counterproductive. It’s more natural and easier for you to stay friendly, so just continue.
Q. Parenthood: Is it normal that I don’t “enjoy every moment” with my 2 1/2 year old? I love him so much, and I really do have a good time with him, but I feel like I’d rather spend short amounts of time with him, and then go do something else, and then come back to him. When I spend an entire day with him, I find it difficult to give him my full attention for longer than a little while at a time, and by afternoon I’m counting the hours until his father gets home. I usually work, so it’s not often that we have a full day together, but I feel like I should be treasuring this time with him more. He’s a great kid, just, you know, the usual amounts of whiny, manipulative, and needy. Just hoping I’m normal. Thanks.
A: Yes, you’re normal. Back when being a housewife was the default choice for most women, this is why the cocktail hour started early. Also there are some people who love babies and toddlers and some who feel the fun really begins when their child is speaking full sentences and toilet-trained. Hang in there and in a few years you’ll be surprised how much you enjoy spending a day with your son.
Q. Deaf Infant Daughter, Family Conflict: My three-month-old daughter is deaf. Because several members of my husband’s family are deaf—his mother, his sister, his maternal uncle—we believe that our daughter’s deafness is genetic. So far my husband and I have been adjusting to the changes a newborn brings and have not decided whether or not we will pursue a cochlear implants for our daughter, although we will need to make that decision soon. My sister-in-law, who married a deaf man and has two deaf children, has been emphatic that we not get cochlear implants for our daughter. She’s especially worried because she knows we could afford them. My mother-in-law said she’ll respect our decision, but we know she would take it personally if we got our daughter cochlear implants. My husband, who grew up in a household with one deaf and one hearing parent, knows that some in the deaf community are seriously opposed to the procedure, and he has been explaining their oppositions to me. But we feel that this is a personal decision and don’t feel we owe his family explanations about our choice. How can we emphasize that to our family without estranging them?
A: It’s not their business. Tell them you have heard their concerns and you will make the best choice for your child. Of course if you decide you want her to hear, that will seem like a slap to them, but they have made their decision and they are not entitled to make yours. The advent of the cochlear implant has radically changed the lives of deaf children, and you also need to weigh the fact that because of this technology, without it your child will have a shrinking world of deaf people to interact with.
Q. Not on Call: One of the neighbors in my apartment building found out I work in IT for a living and a couple of times now, I’ve gotten repeated calls for my assistance for a computer “emergency” while trying to unwind at home after work. A computer/cable TV problem could take 10 seconds to fix, or 10 hours, and there’s no way to judge it accurately until I’m already trapped in their place. I realize (and have no qualms) with being the family fix-it guy, but how far should I extend this courtesy to neighbors before I should refer them to the “Computer Repair” section in the Yellow Pages?
A: You’ve already overextended it. If you know of some good people or companies who do IT, have the list handy when the neighbors call. When they ask for your help just make a referral, say you don’t do house calls and hang up.
Q. Salacious Wedding Toasts: My fiance and I never expected to end up together, much less engaged. Our relationship began very casually, based more on sexual chemistry than shared dreams for our futures. Basically, we were each other’s booty call. Because neither of us ever intended to introduce one another to our close friends or families, we both told our friends some rather salacious details about our acquaintance. Our families have no clue about the clandestine nature of our relationship at the start, and it’s not something we want them to learn about. Several people have joked about referencing how we met in their speeches. My fiance and I have asked them not to do so. But his good friend, a groomsman, has alighted on our discomfort, and now I’m worried he’ll bring it up just to make us squirm. What should my fiance and I do?
A: He may think he’s going to top Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids, but he’s just going to make a jackass of himself if he goes ahead. Your fiance should pull him aside one more time and say, “Brad, I know the story of the beginning of our romance is funny to people in our generation, but it will not be entertaining to our families. So please don’t make any reference to it, and I don’t even want to hear any more teasing about it. I chose you as a groomsman because I value your friendship, so let’s stay friends.”
Q. Stigma of Mental Illness: A co-worker has taken to calling people bipolar as an insult, the way people used to abuse the word retarded. My daughter has bipolar, and I want my co-worker to stop using the word without losing my temper and telling him about my daughter. I could use a scripted sentence or two so I don’t just go off on him. Can you make a suggestion?
A: “Dick, I know you don’t mean anything by it, but there may be people at work who are bi-polar or who have relatives who have this illness, so it would really be appreciated if you’d stop using this term as an insult. Thanks.”
Q. Age Gaps: Age gaps are not inappropriate among adults. Shame on you. I’m a man, I met my wife when I was 23 and she 43, and a week from tomorrow we will have been married twenty and a half years. It can work. Age gaps aren’t wrong just because other people are uncomfortable with them.
A: Congratulations! But you were a young man and already out of the house when you met your future wife. This kid is still in high school and the age gap is 30 years.
Q. I Don’t Want To Attend My Brother’s Third Wedding: I received an invitation to my brother’s third wedding. I spent a lot of money to attend his first two weddings, as well as on two generous wedding gifts. This time I can’t be bothered. I’m much more inclined to send a gift for their wedding anniversary in the future if this one lasts. Would it be insulting to his new bride to decline the invitation and skip the gift too? It’s her first marriage.
A: Decline the RSVP, write them a note wishing them well, and send a nice, though not expensive gift: a salad bowl, a photo album, etc. From the tone of your letter this woman will have punishment enough by being married to your brother.
Q. Am I a Bad Stepparent? When we got married two years ago, my husband had sole custody of his son from a previous marriage. Their life was somewhat chaotic due to my husband being a single parent working long hours, and he asked about the possibility of me becoming a stay at home parent. I told him I didn’t want to do that because I enjoyed my job and I didn’t want to be stuck at home. My husband said he’d only consider the arrangement if I was happy with it, so the topic never came up again. Instead, I arranged flexible work hours so I could be more available for childcare and housework. Fast forward, we are expecting a baby in May and I find myself wanting to be a stay at home parent when she arrives. I can’t imagine handing her over to daycare and I want to be doing all the day-to-day mommy stuff. But when I excitedly broached the subject of being a stay at home parent, my husband reacted angrily. He said that I’m being unfair by treating the two kids differently, and that I must love my unborn daughter more than my stepson. I’m hurt and offended by this accusation because I’ve worked hard to be a good stepmom. It wasn’t easy and I’m not perfect but I know I did my best. How can I explain to my husband that I’m not a bad stepmom?
A: Last week I got bashed for suggesting that a young man without a girlfriend stop announcing that his yet-to-materialize wife stay at home with the kids. I suggested life was too complicated and unpredictable to make such a pre-emptive decision for someone else. And here you are to prove the point. It’s perfectly natural that you are feeling a nesting instinct, and one of the kind you didn’t feel with your stepson, no matter how dedicated a stepmother you’ve been. But you may find after a few years of staying at home that working, if even part-time, starts to seem alluring again. Let’s hope you and your husband can drop your defensiveness and accusations and hear each other out openly. Even though I think your husband was in the wrong, it would be a big gesture for you to say you understand his initial reaction, that you always appreciated his respecting your desires vis a vis work and his son, and that you two need to be able to discuss this issue as a team. That might give him room to apologize for his insulting response to you. Understand you are not carving out decisions in stone, you are exploring what would make you happiest now.
Q. Splitting the Bill: Last year my girlfriend and I attended a birthday party for a co-worker of hers with several other people we did not know. We all ordered a few pizzas and the others present ordered several bottles of wine. While we did not mind simply splitting the bill for the food, we both did not partake in the alcohol and felt it would be unfair if we paid for that as well. When the bill came we felt out of place to speak up about it, and no one else spoke up either. We ended up shelling out $80 and we each only had one slice of pizza! Are we wrong in thinking that while we’re happy to treat the birthday girl, we don’t want to pay for her friends’ alcohol? How should this situation be handled? She’s having another birthday get-together in the coming week and we’re afraid of a repeat of last year.
A: If you want to go you can flag the waiter or waitress at the beginning of the meal and explain that you are not going to drink, so you need a separate check that just reflects the cost of your pizza. Or your girlfriend wishes her co-worker a happy birthday and says that you two are tied up (defrosting pizza a home) that evening.
Q. Cochlear Implant Response: I’m an audiologist (formerly pediatric cochlear implant specialty), and I just want to say, cochlear implants give deaf children an opportunity that wasn’t available in past generations. If when the now three-month old grows up, she wants to be deaf, all she has to do is take off the external piece of the cochlear implant. She’ll be old enough to make an informed decision at that time. If this is a decision that needs any sort of defense (not that it should), that should be enough.
A: Great point, thank you.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. Talk to you next week.