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. Let’s get to it.
Q. Vegan Baby: My ex-daughter-in-law has full custody of my 18-month-old granddaughter “Kimmy.” We always had a strained relationship, even more so after the bitter divorce she and my son went through, but I was able to get her to agree to let me visit my grandchild once a month. Last month I took her out to a park and fed her a nutritious lunch and snacks. When “Irene” found out I had fed Kimmy meat and cheese, she chided me for not respecting her decision to not feed Kimmy animal products. I am convinced that depriving my grandbaby of nutritious meat and dairy (except for her mother’s milk) is abusive, and I called the authorites. Now Irene won’t let me see Kimmy anymore, but the authorities haven’t done anything either, as far as I know. I’m so sad and angry. And worried for my sweet little Kimmy! What can I do to make sure she gets well fed and taken care of?
A: That was quite a lunch, Grandma. It has ensured that instead of being a loving presence in your granddaughter’s life, and a bridge to her father’s family, you are probably forever persona non grata. All because of a Happy Meal. You have turned a single visit into a reason Irene will probably one day tell Kimmy that sadly her grandmother is a dangerous person who tried to have Kimmy taken away from her, so that’s why she can’t see Daddy’s family anymore. After a bitter custody battle, your daughter-in-law graciously allowed you visitation—something she was not obligated to do. You needed to be extra careful not to say or do anything that would sever this delicate connection. Instead, in response to a “chiding” by Irene for deliberately flouting one of her child-rearing requests, you called the authorities to report her an an abuser. I’m not surprised that Child Protective Services hasn’t acted—lack of ham and Swiss doesn’t rise to the same level of concern as beating and molestation. Yes, it takes special attention to nutrition to raise a vegan baby, but probably half the children in Berkeley, Calif. would be removed from their homes if this constituted child abuse. For the sake of shoving a milkshake and cheesburger into your grandkid, you’ve deprived her of the sustenance of a relationship with her grandmother. But given the obliviousness of your letter, perhaps this is for the best.
Dear Prudence: Double Ds and a Jealous Friend
Q. I Don’t Want To Chat: Is it rude to tell people performing a task upon you—hairdresser, dental hygienist, etc.—that you don’t want to talk with them? I like to use those periods of time to relax and read a magazine—yes, even at the dentist’s—but I never know how to tell chatty people I would prefer not to talk about my personal life. I appreciate what they are doing for me and don’t want to seem arrogant.
A: I’m also one of those people who just wants to sit in the chair and read or day dream. (Although it’s helpful to look up when one’s bangs are being cut.) There must be people in these industries who would love the occasional client or patient who gives them a quiet time. At the hairdresser’s I think it’s fine to say, “I don’t want to be rude, but I love letting you do your work and using this time to catch up on my reading.” As far as being in the dentist’s chair is concerned—how do they expect you to articulate when they’ve got a saliva-sucking wand in your mouth?
Q. Brain Tumor Adultery: Several months ago my husband turned into an unrecognizable person. He began snapping at me and our kids, then quickly became cruel toward us. He openly began sleeping with a woman half our age. He left our family to be with her and we have been going through a hellacious divorce. Not long ago he discovered that he had a sizeable brain tumor, which apparently affected his behavior. He has had the brain tumor removed and is undergoing chemotherapy. He is also racked with guilt and can see how awfully he behaved; he has shown me true remorse. My husband wants to give our marriage another go and has cited the brain tumor as the reason he behaved how he did. I cannot bring myself to forgive him, though, even if he’s not entirely responsible for his recent behavior. Should I give our marriage time, or am I justified in pursuing my divorce?
A: This is the reason I so often say that when someone has a gradual, or sudden, change in character or personality, a complete physical and mental evaluation is called for. I think “The brain tumor made me do it” is a pretty compelling excuse. Of course it doesn’t undo the pain that was caused, but it does explain your husband was not in his right mind. If, no matter what the cause, you are done with your marriage, then I don’t see how you return to it. If you can get some distance from your pain and see that a medical crisis was causing his behavior, perhaps there’s hope. In any case, your kids have been through an awful trauma. Their father turned into someone else, and now he’s very ill. Please get some counseling for the whole family. You don’t have to decide what you want the outcome of this to be. But having a safe place for all of you to express your pain and your fears will at least allow you to go forward with everyone’s best interests in focus.
Q. Boss: My boss is well respected in our company. He offered one woman to work six months part-time on a higher, full-time salary after her husband passed away, leaving young kids. He even paid for a semester’s tuition for a secretary’s son, simply because she was a single mom and he knew she was struggling. There are so many examples of his generosity. But there is one issue: He is a racist. He refuses to hire African Americans because, based on his experience, he thinks they are “unreliable.” We have suppliers and clients who are black, and he is genuinely friendly with them. But he will not have a black person as an employee. Our company is otherwise culturally diverse, so nobody has noticed that he is a racist. As someone with many African American in-laws and eight nieces and nephews who are half-black, I find his stance deeply offensive. We’ve had heated debates over this issue but he won’t budge. Is this something I should resign over?
A: This situation is what the anonymous letter is for. You have heard your boss disparage black people and give his justificiation for refusing to hire them. This is outrageous and illegal and he should be reported. But outing yourself as the writer of the letter would have no benefit for you. It doesn’t matter that you have African-American relatives. Your boss is a racist and his bosses need to know.
Q. Make Restitution for Lost Necklace?: My daughter’s friend Leila has been harassing her over the phone because a few weeks ago, when Leila spent the night, she allegedly accidentally left a valuable necklace here. Turns out the necklace belongs to Leila’s dad’s girlfriend, and Leila did not have permission to borrow it. My daughter and I have scoured the house for the necklace but have found no trace of it. I am not sure it is here. On top of Leila’s abusive profanity-filled phone calls, Leila’s dad and his girlfriend expect my husband and I to repay them for the lost necklace. First of all, I don’t know if the necklace is in our house and I don’t feel responsible for Leila losing it. Secondly, they say the necklace is worth over $300, which we have no way of verifying. How do I handle these people and their daughter’s bullying? Our daughters are 12, by the way.
A: What a coincidence. I recently stayed at a friend’s house and brougth along the Hope Diamond. I must have left it by the bathroom sink, and my hosts better return the stone, or better yet, reimburse me for it. Unfortunately, you have to tell your daughter that her friend an her family are behaving so terribly that your daughter can’t socialize with Leila anymore. Then if the family keeps contacting you, reiterate you don’t have the necklace, you’ve never had it, and if the threats don’t stop immediately, you are going to call the police.
Q. Want to Boycott Grandma’s Funeral: My paternal grandmother suffered from a few mental illnesses and she was very verbally and physically abusive to my dad when he was a child. From putting her head in the stove claiming she was going to kill herself, to beating my dad for wrongdoing and then telling my grandpa so there’d be a second beating later in the day, she left my dad very bitter about his mother. When I was a child, she would often mock my appearance or tell me I couldn’t get employment in certain fields because I was fat. When I became a teenager, she criticized me and demanded that I do more for her: I was already taking her on errands, going over her bills for her, cleaning her apartment when asked—you name it! She went out of her way to exclude my mother, who spent 11 years also catering to her every whim, only to get passive-aggressive remarks in return. My grandmother doted on both of my good-for-nothing, drug-addicted uncles but would often criticize my father to others in public. I heard last night that she has died. Honestly, I am relieved. But I don’t want to go to her funeral. Is there a gracious way to bow out or explain to people why I’m glad I won’t have to deal with granny anymore?
A: If you do decide to go, while people are singing hymns, you could hum to yourself, “Ding-dong the witch is dead.” Anyone who knows your grandmother should understand why you are relieved at her passing and don’t care to mark it. Anyone who doesn’t has no business asking you your plans. To people who express their condolences, all you have to say is, “Thanks, I appreciate it.” If you get pressured from family members to attend, just say, “I’ll remember Granny in my own way.”
Q. Female Minister’s Extramarital Behavior: It took years for my parish to accept a woman minister. Several years ago the church elders elected Lori to the church ministry. Lori has always been under intense scrutiny for her gender, but she has managed to carve out a niche for herself in my parish. Lori is now a well respected and beloved figure at my church, where I sometimes volunteer. Recently I caught Lori kissing the church’s married music director in her office. My impression is that they have been having a sexual affair, which Lori sort of confirmed for me. I believe I should report Lori to the church elders, because that is protocol and they are doing something wrong. But my fear is that more conservative members of the parish will use Lori’s behavior to make it difficult for another woman to become a minister here. I myself want to pursue a path of ministry, and as a young woman Lori was a role model to me. What is your advice?
A: I hope your parish will learn its lesson about letting women wear the collar. Thank God no male members of the clergy have ever been caught engaging in sexual misbehavior! If Minister Lori is so brazen as to be making out with the music director in the parish, your dilemma will surely soon solve itself because it sounds like Lori and her new love want everyone to know. If you were on the board of the church, you would be obligated to act. But in your situation, I’d be inclined just to let this play out. But since Lori’s job is ministering to her flock, you should feel free to speak with her and tell her how disappointing this revelation is.
Q. Re: the Brain-Tumor Adulterer: My mom has bipolar disorder, and like the brain-tumor adulterer she frequently uses her medical condition to try to make excuses for her terrible (sometimes outright abusive) behavior. I can sympathize to a certain extent, but at the same time there are too many things she does that are strategically manipulative for her to write it all off to mental illness (lies she’s told that she carefully covers for, the perfect poisoned word dropped at exactly the right moment)—and I think the adultering husband may be similar. My experience is that there are some people who are just mean and manipulative, and the medical condition offers a convenient excuse for their nasty behavior (rather than the condition being 100 percent responsible for their actions).
A: The recently deceased grandmother sounds more like your mother. I agree mental illness is a terrible thing, and sometimes people suffering from it are not responsible for their behavior while in the grip of a psychosis or manic episode, for example. But many people with treatable mental conditions are responsible for taking their medications and should be called to task for how they treat other people. The husband sounds like he’s in a different category—the horrible behavior was the symptom of a tumor growing on his brain! I think that’s more than a “convenient excuse.”
Q. Disgruntled Co-Worker: My husband works in a medical office with several resident doctors as well as physicians. One resident in particular, “Joe,” has a very large ego and a very quick temper. He is here on a student visa and belongs to a very affluent and wealthy foreign family. Joe has had numerous problems with verbal and physical abuse toward patients, other residents, and doctors in the clinic. Due to his multiple complaints and violations, he was suspended from the program. After being suspended, Joe told a co-worker that he “felt like going there and killing everybody.” He also commented that he has seen it “work for his father many times.” I feel like death threats aren’t a joke and by not reporting it, the program is taking a risk with both its patients and employees. The problem is that the co-worker who heard the threat is now playing it down and wants my husband to forget about it. My husband says they have decided to just “let it go,” but I think that a precautionary call to HR is in order. Who is right?
A: Although conditions at the Postal Service continue to degenerate, thankfully it’s been a long time since any disgruntled worker went “postal” and came in and shot up the place. Let’s hope this is never replaced by going “medical” and having enraged physicians take out colleagues. Major Nidal Hasan, an Army physician, left a trail of threats for years before he committed mass murder at Fort Hood. Anyone anyone who hears someone in the workplace threaten violence must act. Report this to HR immediately and tell them you also plan to call the authorities.
Q. Pressure To Adopt: My 16-year-old sister is pregnant. Initially she and the baby’s dad decided they would place the baby up for adoption, although that wasn’t an easy decision for them to make. Then they met a local anti-adoption activist who works with vulnerable mothers. The activist showed them studies that demonstrated kids fare poorly when they’re not raised by biological relatives; she also told them numerous stories of unhappy adoptions. Since my sister and the baby’s father don’t feel capable of raising their child, even with the resources the activist told them about (WIC, food stamps), the activist suggested that a relative should raise the baby. Though my brother and I are both married and in our late 20s, he and his wife don’t want kids and my husband and I don’t want kids now. My parents are in their 60s and do not want to raise the baby either. The activist has been pressuring us, and getting my sister to pressure us, into raising the baby. We all feel terrible for not wanting this baby, but I don’t think coerced parenting is ever a good idea. And I imagine there are hundreds of families who would happily raise that baby. Are we being selfish? What can I do to support my sister?
A: There are thousands of families who would welcome your sister’s child. Your sister is a minor who is being berated by an outsider. It’s not even clear your sister knew who she was contacting when she got in touch with the activist. It’s time for your family to tell your sister you all think the activist is not acting in her best interest, that her information is distorted, and that you would like to tell the activist her message has been delivered and now its time for her to cease contact with your sister. Once you get that OK, help your sister find an organization without an agenda that can discuss with your sister and her boyfriend their options and help them choose a loving family who will consider their baby the ultimate blessing.
Q. Wedding Drama: My older sister “Mary” got engaged a few months ago and recently formally announced her bridal party. I am 18 and the youngest of four, having another older sister and an older brother. Mary and I are 13 years apart in age while her and my other sister “Kate” are only 18 months apart. My two sisters are very close. Our mother passed away when I was 5 years old and since then, Mary has become more of a mother figure to me than a big sister. As it turns out, Mary chose Kate to be her maid of honor and I am just a normal bridesmaid in the bridal party. I am hurt by this, but I don’t know if I have the right to be. Being the bride’s sister, I feel as though I have been slighted and overlooked. I want to talk to Mary about this but I dont know what to say. How should I handle this without insulting my sister and ruining our relationship?
A: So you propose to bounce Kate as maid of honor and make her “just a normal bridesmaid” in favor of you. See how silly that sounds? Mary loves you and wants you in her bridal party. There is nothing “just” about being chosen as a bridesmaid. Be thrilled for your sister and as helpful and positive as you can. When someday you are planning your wedding, you yourself will be dealing with endles pressures and demands and will look back and be so glad you never told Mary that you felt slighted and overlooked.
Q. Prenup Dispute: My boyfriend and I recently became engaged and are, for the most part, happy and excited to be married, except for a disagreement over prenups. My fiancé has always been adamant about never wanting to have children, and he is insisting that I sign prenuptials basically saying that, if I ever become pregnant, he can divorce me and keep everything, and pay no child support whatsoever. I am undecided about whether I would like children, and it seems possible that my fiancé could change his mind when he is older. I am worried about possible future implications of this agreement, and also think this shows a lack of trust and an unwillingness to compromise on my fiancé’s part. He is being very stubborn about this, though, and says he won’t get married unless I sign the agreement. I love this man and really want to spend the rest of my life with him, but an agreement this severe just makes me nervous. What should I do?
A: You want to spend the rest of your life with a man, who upon finding you were carrying his child, would propose to do his best to leave with you and your offspring with nothing. You are also hoping that your soul mate, who from your description is rigid, punitive, and controlling, will soften up with time—and even respond favorably if you feel a longing to be a mother. No one should sign the kind of legal document you describe without having your own lawyer vet it first. I would be very surprised if a contract that waives a father’s potential financial responsibility to a yet-unconceived child would even be enforceable if a child is born. Unless you are as certain as your fiancé (who should probably get a vasectomy) that you wish to remain childless, you are setting yourself up for the heartbreak of remaining in a marriage that thwarts your desire for children, or having to leave it as your biological clock runs out. A prenuptial agreement that protects existing assets in case a marriage fails is one thing. Committing to someone who wants you to sign a document agreeing you and your child should be cast aside is another.
Q. Betraying My Mistress Sister: I adore my younger sister. She has been a wonderful mom to her daughter since her husband died in Iraq five years ago. I have always wanted her to be happy. Now she’s six months pregnant with her married boyfriend’s child. Her boyfriend is thoroughly overjoyed about the baby. But he has no intention of leaving his wife and has two children with her. He has signed away his rights to the child but has somehow managed to establish a trust fund so that the child will be provided for. As much as I love my sister, I can’t help but think of the poor man’s oblivious wife. I don’t want to betray my sister, but I keep thinking I should somehow tell her. My husband is disappointed in me because I haven’t contacted the wife. He says that loving someone doesn’t absolve us from doing what is right. I guess I’m wondering, in this situation, what is the right thing to do?
A: I abhor the idea of secret children. Everyone deserves to have their existence recognized and to not be treated as some dreadful mistake. Of course you want your sister to be happy, but engaging in subterfuge about the pending birth doesn’t seem a good way to go about it. However, it turns out children are hard to keep hidden, and the news of your niece or nephew will likely eventually come out. Don’t be the ones to notify the wife—you have no obligation to do so, and if you do it could estrange you from your sister. Instead, put your moral objections aside and help your sister with this new life.
Q. Re: “It seems possible that my fiancé could change his mind when he is older”: This sentence should be grounds to break any engagement. What are people THINKING when they say this about someone they propose to marry?
A: The same thing people are thinking when they say, “He’ll probably stop drinking so much once we have kids.” It always baffles me when people go ahead and convince themselves that a rancid relationship is going to work.
Q. Re: Prenup dispute: Prudie is right. That’s not even legally enforceable. When I was doing mine, we were told that anything related to future children (custody, religious upbringing, residence, etc.) cannot be included in the prenup. Even if it is, a judge will never enforce it. If there is a prenup and it’s in there, your fiancé should fire his lawyer. That’s basic knowledge.
A: Better yet, the letter writer should fire her fiancé.
Q. Family Historian: About a year ago, my aunt retired and took on quite the project—documenting our convoluted family tree. She is the self-appointed family historian and spends a great deal on this project. But lately she has started going on and on about this and gathering details that are largely unimportant. (The hospital where my second cousin was born is not of chief importance in my life.) Generally, I nod and smile, thank her for her dedication to this project, and then move on. But last week she sent out an email that she has finished the project and wants to put all the information in book form. Each book is about $45. The language of the email was very self-serving and emphasized how much work she put into the “labor of love.” While I appreciate what she did, she also took this project on totally out of her own volition and became far more detailed than was necessary. I told her I didn’t want a copy and am content looking at my mother’s. She became very upset because I (and apparently several other cousins) are not purchasing this book and “do not care about our roots.” I care about my roots and I appreciate what she did, but I don’t think I should have to pay $45 when my mother is purchasing a book that I can see anytime I want. Will this blow over or should my cousins and I cough up $45 to keep the peace?
A: If you suffer from insomnia this book might would worth the price. Its coma-inducing powers will surely mean the $45 outlay will be recouped by not having to spend any more money on Ambien co-pays. As the founders of Facebook are finding, sometimes the market ends up being less enthusiastic than you might have predicted about your labor of love. (Okay, the founders of Facebook are finding they’re billionaires, but you get my point.) If you don’t want a copy, tell Auntie you admire her work and will continue to enjoy browsing through it when you visit your mother.
Q. Re: Wedding Drama: There is also a lot that goes along with being a maid of honor, sometimes organizing a bachelorette party and a shower. Maybe your sister realizes that having someone a little bit older who has been to more weddings is a better choice. I wouldn’t let it reflect on your relationship with her.
A: Excellent points. The sister getting married is making a wise choice for everyone.
Q. I Don’t Want To Sell My Breast Milk!: My husband and I have been struggling financially but are thrilled with each other and our 8-month-old daughter, our firstborn. I am about to finish breastfeeding her. My brother and sister-in-law have just adopted their first child. My sister-in-law inherited a small fortune from her family and she recently approached me with a business proposition. She wants to pay me a five-figure sum to breastfeed my niece as well as pump breast milk for my niece’s consumption. Although my husband and I could really use the money, after much discussion between us we decided this arrangement made us uncomfortable. I did ask my sister-in-law and my brother if they would be willing to lend us a much smaller amount to pay off some bills and give us some breathing room. My sister-in-law said no, she didn’t want to be an ATM for me and my husband. Now there’s a lot of tension between us, when before we were pretty friendly. My husband and I have no idea what to do.
A: She made a proposal, “I’ll pay you be our wetnurse.” And you made a counter-proposal, “We’d like some cash, dairy-free.” Your sister-in-law’s request was odd but not unreasonable, and its understandable that you rejected it. But you’ve got to realize that your subsequent suggestion was not going to be well-received—even if you do resent the fact that she’s rich. Tell your sister-in-law you’re sorry about the tension between you two—you understand she’s disappointed in your decision and you regret asking for a loan. Say since you both are new mothers, you want your babies to be close and want to enjoying raising kids together. Suggest putting this episode behind you and getting the cousins together soon.
Q. Secret Baby: I’ve Been There: It took me 11 years to find out about my husband’s secret lovechild with his longtime “girlfriend.” If someone is an adept and invested liar, like my husband is, then it can be surprisingly easy to hide another family. I wasted an extra decade of my life with a no-good louse. I desperately wish someone had told me. I would encourage the LW to tell.
A: Thank you for the perspective. I still don’t think the pregnant woman’s sister should be the one to tell.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you everyone, have a great week. And this chat really got me longing for whipped cream.