Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone.
Q. Pregnancy After Unimaginable Tragedy: My stepchildren’s mom died suddenly not long ago. They are 11 and 13, and now live with my husband and I; we have always lived nearby their mom’s house. I recently discovered I was pregnant but have not told anyone—for over a week—because I’m not sure whether it would be fair to have the baby. My stepchildren obviously need unending amounts of love, support, and stability as my husband and I help them navigate their grief. A newborn would be a major disruption. But at the same time I want this baby so much. My husband and I had begun to try before his ex-wife died. Part of me is scared he will ask me to abort the baby. Another part thinks that’s the only fair thing to do. What advice can you offer?
A: I can’t imagine anything that would signal more clearly that life goes on and joy can follow tragedy than your having a much wanted child. Of course your stepchildren need love and support now—they always will. But I think a new sibling will help everyone feel that a new family is being forged, despite a loss that will echo through their lives. Yes, there will be many complicated feelings on your stepchildren’s part, including jealousy, but I think you will be surprised by how much they will rise to embracing their new sibling. I am an ardent proponent of abortion rights, but abortion is inevitably a sad and painful choice. It would be tragic to lose a wanted child because of these difficult circumstances. I hope you are badly misreading your husband in your thinking he wouldn’t want this pregnancy to proceed. Break the news to him. I hope you will be reassured by his joyful reaction.
Dear Prudence: Hermit Husband
Q. Surrogate Issues: I have a difficult issue. My sister-in-law is dedicated to her career and she is using a surrogate to have a baby. They are doing this because they want a biological child but my sister-in-law does not want to take time off work to have a normal childbirth. Last week I was invited to a baby shower via Evite where you can see the other guests. The surrogate will be attending this shower with my sister-in-law and assorted guests. I guess I am old fashioned, because this all seems very awkward to me. I completely respect and understand using a surrogate if there are fertility problems, but that is not the case here. I’m also not sure what to say or how to act to either the surrogate or my sister-in-law at the shower. I plan to attend this shower because my sister-in-law has always been supportive of me and my children, but I am not sure what to say or how to act in this unorthodox situation. Thank you!
A: I don’t understand why you have to “act” any particular way to any particular guest. You make chit-chat with the surrogate, and since she’s pregnant, you ask how she’s feeling. You talk about babies with everyone and ooh and ahh over the gifts. I will say that if not wanting to take time away from the office is truly the sole reason your sister-in-law hired someone to bear her child, I have doubts about her interest in actual motherhood. However that’s not the issue here. The issue is behaving politely at a shower. Surely you don’t need advice on doing that.
Q. Disgusted With Customer: I work at a large retail store and am a female in my early 20s. Ever since I started there a few years ago there’s been this old, very tall man who frequently shops there. He’s always rude to most of the employees (with the exception of the young women who work there, myself included) and he expects us to give him our full attention no matter how busy we are, even though he’ll only purchase a few dollars’ worth of merchandise each day. Well, this guy has this habit of hugging all the female employees in the store, and most of them just hug him back. I hate hugging people, especially smelly, old men who look like they haven’t showered in ages. Unfortunately I hugged him once, due to feeling intimidated, and now he hugs me every time he comes in. At first, I sucked it up and just hugged him. Now I feel trapped! I try avoiding him whenever he comes in and it’s greatly affecting my work. Please tell me what I can do to get rid of this guy! I feel bad because I hugged him in the first place, but I don’t think I can do it anymore. I do only have a few more months left of working in this place, should I just suck it up or say something?
A: How clever of this dirty old man to disguise himself as a customer in order to cop a feel. I think you and several other female employees should discuss this with the manager and explain how you are being manhandled by this guy. Then there should be an alert when he comes in so only the male employees offer assistance. If he comes up to you with his arms out feel free to step back and say, “Please don’t touch me.”
Q. Gym Romance: I’m a fit, attractive 30-something single woman who enjoys working out at my local gym. A few weeks ago I noticed a cute guy seemed to have a similar schedule as mine. We also seemed to have a similar workout routine—bike, weights, swim etc. I’ve tried smiling at him once or twice, to see if there was any interest, but neither of us has made the first move. Then yesterday, I returned to my stationary bike as I had forgotten to wipe it down, and I noticed that he was standing next to it, rubbing the damp seat with an odd look on his face. He then pretended to have dropped something, but I saw that he was actually sniffing the seat, before returning to the locker room. I don’t think he realized that he had been spotted. How do I proceed? He is very attractive, and I guess he is into me as well. Do I say something about what I saw, or should I continue flirting with him knowing what I know?
A: Oh, yeah he’s into—eeewwww! I regularly get reports about sniffers in this column. If you want to try to start a relationship with him, I can predict that soon you will be writing to me about finding him rooting around in the laundry basket of your best friend when you went over for brunch. He’s now made the first move. Don’t you make the second.
Q. Bad Idea: My sister has an impressive career and missed her boat to get married and have babies. Now in her late 30s, she told us two years ago that she wanted to adopt. We’ve all been supportive and excited about the prospect of welcoming a new child into the family. A week ago she received the news that she is going to be a mother—to twins. When we asked her how she was going to realistically parent two kids by herself, she said she was going to take a two week leave from work when the twins arrive, then hire a nanny. Did I mention she works 60-hour weeks and doesn’t plan on cutting back? I feel distressed at the thought of adopting two babies then leaving them with a nanny for the vast majority of their waking hours for the rest of their childhood. I really don’t think she will cope with two kids on her own, however much resources and paid help she might get. When I explained the demands of having a child, let alone two, she dismissed my concerns as sexist and said a strong woman can cope with anything in life. She has no idea what she’s getting into and is unrealistic about how much she can stretch herself. What can I say to her now?
A: This must be “I’m Smart Enough To Be a Senior V.P. But Too Dumb To Know Kids Need Time Attention and Love” Day. You don’t have to say anything more. The arrival of two squalling infants will certainly be a lesson itself to your sister that no matter how “strong” a woman is, coping with a newborn set of twins is not something amendable to working out on a spread sheet. I assume she will quickly realize that newborns and 60-hour weeks are not compatible, unless she’s strong enough to not sleep for the next few months. However much, in the weeks to come, you want to say, “I told you so,” bite your tongue. Listen to her, help guide her, and suggest that if she doesn’t want to cut back on her hours, two shifts of nannies will be a lifesaver.
Q. Boundaries: I recently married a widower and my stepdaughter moved out of her father’s home shortly before I moved in. She’s 19 and lives nearby. In the past six months we’ve been married, my stepdaughter has come over just about every weekend (her room is still here). Furthermore, I find her frequently in our home and she helps herself to food, moves things around the house, and takes various items she needs without saying anything. I find it unsettling to have a completely unexpected visitor at random times throughout the day. My husband and I work full time and would enjoy some quiet couple time in the weekend, but my husband wants to do things with his daughter. When I asked him to tell his daughter not to come around so much (and to call before she drops by), he said it’s her home too and I was being unreasonable because she’s my daughter as well, now. Am I really out of line here for wanting some privacy in my own home?
A: Your stepdaughter is a teenager who has lived with her father, coming and going, eating whatever she liked, and feeling the house is her home until you came along. That’s what people do when they live someplace. I don’t know if she moved out voluntarily or under duress, but she hasn’t completely severed her link to the house or her father. I assume that if she were 16, you wouldn’t be complaining that you have a high school student under your roof who is in and out whenever she likes and helps herself to the groceries. She has semi-fledged but not completely, and her life is complicated by the fact that her mother is dead so her father is her only parent. You also gripe that you don’t like that your husband still wants to spend time with his daughter on the weekend. I’m wondering what your courtship was like—I’m assuming you picked up on the fact that your husband was a package deal and came with a daughter. I suggest you back off and change your tune. Accept that this house has been your stepdaughter’s home a lot longer than it’s been yours. It may be that the more welcoming you are the more comfortable she becomes in her own new home and moving on into her own adult life. In that case the problem takes care of itself. You may want to seek some counseling now to help give you a neutral party’s perspective on dealing with your resentment. And if the therapist suggests you change the locks on the house to keep your stepdaughter out, find another one.
Q. Re: Surrogate: I think your comment that the woman who hired the surrogate might not be truly interested in motherhood is very unfair. Men get to have children without any impact on their career if they so choose. Why shouldn’t women be allowed to have that option as well?
A: How to share or provide child care is something for couples to work out between themselves. Pretending that children don’t profoundly change the lives of both men and women seems ludicrous, even if one or both parents continue to have demanding careers. If you’re seriously saying that more successful women should outsource their pregnancies as a way to keep motherhood from interfering with their client accounts, then I’m saying those women need to seriously think about how much they want children in the first place.
Q. Wicked Stepmothers: Every week there seems to be some woman writing in, upset that her husband’s children from his first marriage won’t disappear off the face of the earth, irritated that they won’t clear out of the house they grew up in now that she’s moved in, and all-around being hostile. Why marry a man who has kids if you can’t stand said children? I honestly don’t understand this…
A: And every week I get emails from stepmothers claiming I’m bashing them and don’t understand how difficult their situation is or just what devils their husband spawned with his previous wife. I know blending a family can be difficult. But I agree, I just don’t understand women who marry men with children who want to be women who marry men without children.
Q. I’m The Wedge Between My Mother & Her Parents: My husband and I were happily married a year and a half ago. When this happened, my mother’s parents disowned me for marrying a Jew. Even though they are my only living grandparents, their disapproval didn’t even make me blink. Since then, my mother has cut off contact with her parents. She couldn’t accept that they wanted her to pretend, at least around them, that I didn’t exist. Her decision has also strained her relationship with two of her sisters. (Only one of her siblings even came to our wedding.) I just found out that she even returns any of my grandmother’s cards and letters unopened. While part of me is proud that she has chosen us over her parents’ twisted world view, I’m also torn. Her parents are getting on in years and I don’t want her to someday regret shutting them out. I know my outlook is influenced by the fact that my own father died too young and I miss him every day. What, if anything, should I say to my mother?
A: Your grandparents are pathetic people, and being shut off from a loving granddaughter and potentially their future great-grandchildren is a fitting punishment. I think you should tell your mother you really appreciate her solidarity, but you have accepted your grandparents are extremely narrow-minded and their choice does not actually hurt you. Say that you are concerned she will be cut off from her parents for your sake, and you don’t want that burden. Explain you will not feel she is disloyal if she makes a rapprochement with them. Then she can more freely decide what her relationship with these bigots should be.
Q. My Boyfriend Is a “Winker”: My boyfriend constantly winks at waitresses or people in service. When I point this out to him he tells me it’s a sign of appreciation. I don’t see it that way at all. If I was a waitress and a customer winked at me, I would take that as a flirtation. When I pointed this out he told me that a wink can be interpreted in many different ways and it’s the intention behind the wink. His intention is to say, “Thank you, keep up the good work.” I’m sorry, but if I want to show my appreciation for the waitress or waiter getting our meal to our table in a timely manner, I would verbally express my gratitude. Am I overreacting?
A: Since you mention “waitress or waiter” it’s a little unclear if your boyfriend is an equal opportunity winker. Maybe he’s of the Sarah Palin we’re-all-just-folks school of winking. He already acknowledges a wink can be interpreted many ways, and usually from male to female it’s interpreted as flirting. So tell him whatever his intention is, this ambiguous non-verbal communication is making you, and the service people, uncomfortable. If he continues then you have to decide if this is so minor you can turn a blind eye, or so major you don’t want to be out with him in public—or in home with him in private—anymore.
Q. Abortion: While I agree with your advice to the first letter writer, I object to your claim that abortion is “inevitably a sad and painful choice.” I know a woman who has made that choice and did not find it especially sad or painful. While many women may find the decision sad and painful, there are also a substantial number that do not, and there is nothing wrong with this. Pretending otherwise just marginalizes them.
A: You’re right about making blanket statements. But surely very few women think, “Well, oops. Don’t want this kid so thank goodness I can get this taken care of in an afternoon.” Finding yourself with an unwanted pregnancy is a difficult discovery—and not wanting to be in that situation should encourage more people to be scrupulous with birth control. But I do know many women who made the choice to have an abortion, and felt then, and forever afterward, that it was the right one and they are grateful it could be done freely and safely.
Q. Surrogate Issues: Your advice was appropriate about how to treat shower guests, but how dare you give judgment about a woman choosing to use a surrogate?! As a mother who had a perfectly normal pregnancy with no complications I am absolutely indifferent to that phase. It wasn’t joyous, it wasn’t horrible—it was a necessary process. If I could skip it and just get on to having my child—all the better. It is not a reflection at all about the type of parent one is, nor about the love one feels for their child. When you then consider that even a pregnancy where there weren’t issues involved monthly, then bi-weekly, then weekly, then twice weekly appointments … there is nothing wrong with seeking a surrogate vs. being forced to use one. And if this woman heard half of the horrific stories I did about pregnancy … I would avoid it too if I had a choice. Luckily mine wasn’t horrible. But geez—because a woman chooses not to go through pregnancy but wants to be a parent—you come to the conclusion that she’s probably not ready to be a mother. Really?! I’m highly disappointed.
A: We only have the letter writer’s word that not disrupting work is the reason for the surrogate—there may have been others that weren’t made public. But I am hearing from a surprising number of people saying this is the wave of the future. That women who can afford it will just pay to have someone else go through the difficulty of pregnancy and childbirth. But infants are so demanding, and frankly disgusting—all the poop and vomit. Why not have someone else raise the disruptive little things until they settle down and are more sentient? Surrogates have given many people the opportunity to become parents and I’m all for it. But to be able to bear your children and hire someone to do it because pregnancy is a pain—if that’s a trend then I’m astounded.
Q. Drug Addict Brother Keeps Knocking: My brother “Jake” has been a drug addict since his late teens. I have supported him off and on for the last 10 years by letting him stay at my place on occasion and offering tough love and advice many times. Many of his frequent requests for money fell on deaf ears; however there were times where he swindled me out of significant amounts of money through lies and playing on emotions. He has been in and out of rehab, and we’ve tried as a family numerous times to help him get clean. It has progressively gotten worse and the last straw for me was his blatant theft of money and valuables from our half sister and I, for which he spent months in jail. I cut off conversation with him for a year and a half, and only have recently seen him again in passing where he suggested we “hang out.” He has since been texting and calling for me to spend time with him and his young daughter, whom I adore. I’m assuming he’s somewhat clean if he has visitation from his daughter, but I still don’t trust him. We had a rough childhood, experiencing both physical and emotional abuse from a drug addicted parent who has since passed away three years ago. I felt a great burden lifted from me with the passing of the parent, and I cannot spend the rest of my life dealing with another hopeless drug addict. To top it all off I am getting married this summer and struggling with whether to extend an invite to him. I’m at a loss for how to deal with this, please help.
A: Thank goodness you were able to break the chain of abuse and addiction. How sad for your brother, and especially his daughter, that he hasn’t. What you should do is what you’re doing: Take tentative steps to rebuilt a relationship with him, but one that’s predicated on his being clean. That means you can meet him at a restaurant for lunch (go ahead and pick up the tab), but you refuse his requests for money or for a place to crash. Your brother has a long way to go to prove that he’s reliable, and you can’t have a full relationship with him until he does. (Although I hope you can have an independent one with your niece.) You don’t have to decide anything about your wedding right now. You can see how your brother’s recovery progresses. And if it regresses, you should not feel guilty for telling him he can’t be part of your life as long as he’s destroying his.
Q. My Boy Is Too Young To Be A Man: I married a wonderful man from another culture. We have three beautiful children, two girls and a boy, ages 19, 17, and 14. Over the years we have shown mutual respect for each other’s background and ideas. We haven’t always agreed on how to raise our kids, but we always talk things over and are able to compromise. Until now. My husband recently started telling our son it’s about time he “become a man” and start “going with the girls.” He acts like it’s almost shameful for our son to still be a virgin as he approaches 15. He certainly didn’t feel the same about our girls as they have matured. I’m willing to accept that boys will be boys, and the most I can do is to educate him and hope he protects himself, but I’m absolutely appalled that my husband is encouraging, even pressuring, our son to become sexually active. I don’t see any middle ground here, I’m certain that my husband is wrong. Is there some sort of compromise I should make? What course of action do you recommend?
A: I hope all your children have had their Gardasil shots, including your son. Your husband is doing something terrible. You son should not be sexually active at such a young age just because men back in his home country may be. There are reasons he’s in America and not in his home country, and leaving behind a crude, macho attitude toward relations between the sexes sounds like one good one. If your husband won’t listen to reason from you, schedule an appointment for the two of you with a child psychologist—leave your son at home—to discuss this. Maybe if your husband hears from a professional about the harm he’s doing your son he will back off.
Q. Re: Missed the Boat To Get Married: Barf. Seriously, this person thinks being in your late 30s means you’ll never get married. While parenting two kids single with a demanding job will be hard, people can do it. I realize the sister is bringing up good points, but with a bit too much 1950s rhetoric for my taste.
A: Agreed that I should have called the letter writer out on the insulting and ridiculous “missing the boat” comments. The sister is in her 30s for goodness sake! But the issue now is that someone who seems not to understand what taking care of twin infants alone will entail is just about to have them handed to her.
Q. Your Winking Boyfriend Weirds Me Out: Retail employee here. As a woman, men who winked at me immediately translated into “Oh god, he’s trying to flirt with me … and in front of his girlfriend? I’m just trying to work.” Because 9 times out of 10, that is exactly what was happening. So while I realize this might not be what he means, experience taught me to limit contact and just be polite. Please tell him, again, that he’s creeping us out.
A: Thanks for this insight from a winkee.
Q. Modern Bathsheba: I am not a very good person. I began dating a married man (I knew) and eventually he divorced his wife to be with me. We married when I found out I was pregnant. But our baby died from a blood infection when he was a few days old. My husband’s ex-wife sent me a Bible a few weeks ago, with the tale of David and Bathsheba highlighted. I eventually showed my husband the bible, and he’s livid. He wants to tell their mutual friends what she did, he wants to confront her. But part of me thinks I deserved the bible. I feel sick at how loving and kind my husband, my family, my friends have been to me since our baby died. I don’t feel like I deserve their love and support. I feel so guilty for still being crazy about my husband. What should I do?
A: Please get a counselor right away. Your child’s death is not a punishment for your breaking up your husband’s first marriage. You have acknowledged that you—and your husband—began your relationship with an infidelity, and good for recognizing that you caused pain. But your husband’s ex-wife sending you that Bible is unconscionably venomous. Maybe there’s a good reason your husband wanted out of a marriage to this woman. You deserve love and support. Your child died from a terrible medical event, not because of anything you did. Find a support group for people who have lost infants, NationalShare.org is a good place to start, and get an individual counselor to help you through your grief.
Q. “White People Always…”: I am white, but most of my friends are not. Several friends in particular often say, “White people are so ridiculous.” Or, “Oh, I don’t date white guys.” This doesn’t make me feel like a victim of racism—it just makes me feel out of place. I wonder if that’s how they see me. I don’t know how to bring it up, though, because I don’t want to make a big deal about it. Should I even bother, and if so how?
A: I like your question: “Is that how you see me?” Sure, I know people say things in their in-group that they may not say in the larger world. But I think you’re right to call your friends on the fact that they are making judgments about a vast number of people simply because of their race.
Q. Wicked Stepmothers: So if a women marries a bad stepfather, it is her fault. If a man marries a bad stepmother it is her fault. Tell me we don’t have a double standard.
A: I have said over and over that I don’t understand men with children who marry women who resent that fact.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. I hope all the new babies soon sleep through the night. Have a good week.