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. Let’s get to it.
Q. Secret Vasectomy Was Cause of Our Infertility: For the past two years my husband Harry and I have struggled with infertility. As a teen I dealt with an STD that could have affected my ability to have children. For that reason, and because Harry said his sperm count was fine, I have always blamed myself for our inability to conceive. We’ve kept our struggle with infertility very quiet. Thankfully, our families have never pressed us about when we’re going to have kids. Last week I broke down to my wonderful mother-in-law about how difficult this experience has been. She frowned at me then said, “Harry reversed his vasectomy, then?” I was shocked, because Harry never mentioned having a vasectomy to me, but apparently he had one as a young man. When I spoke to Harry he admitted that he hasn’t reversed the vasectomy and that he wasn’t sure he wanted kids. He thought if we tried for long enough and never conceived I’d eventually give up trying. He’s apologetic, because he never realized how much I blamed myself for our infertility. He has offered to have his vasectomy reversed or to adopt a child to make his lie up to me. My best friend thinks Harry’s a sociopath, though, and that I should divorce him for being incredibly cruel. I’m in shock, devastated, have no idea what to do.
A: I just looked up “sociopath” and here’s the definition: “(Noun)—A man who allows his wife to despair that she’s infertile when he’s secretly had a vasectomy. (Synonym)—Harry.”
Thank goodness you spilled to your mother-in-law and she spilled that Harry can never spill his seed. What you should do is run to the best matrimonial lawyer in town. Make an appointment today. You are only two years into this sham marriage and if you end it, perhaps can find someone who is not a pathological liar and manipulator with whom you can have children. The fact that a single man would get a vasectomy, then marry a woman who wanted to have children and let her believe there was something wrong with her makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I don’t see how you can share another meal or your bed with this monstrous person. Get out now.
Dear Prudence: Abortion Advocates on the Job
Q. Adopted Son Engaged to Biological Daughter: Twenty-five years ago, my husband and I adopted our son because we believed that we were sterile. Not even a few months into the process, I learned that I was pregnant. Our son is 26, our daughter is 24. I had long thought it was suspicious how upset either of them would get when an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend were mentioned. Now I know why: a family friend saw them kissing in public. They finally admitted it to me and explained that even though they were raised as brother and sister, the fact that they knew they were not blood-related prevented them from seeing each other that way. They’ve been dating for five years, they are engaged, and they are planning to marry. How do I deal with this information? Is it even legal?
A: This will certainly reduce the friction between the bride and groom’s family for wedding-planning purposes! And you’ll never have to share holiday visits with the in-laws when the grandchildren come along. A few months ago I had a letter from a gay man in an incestuous relationship with his twin brother. They wanted to know if they should reveal their relationship to their family (I said no), but at least they had no plans to marry, even though they lived in a state that allowed gay unions. It’s true your children are not biologically related, so the genetic reason for barring sibling unions wouldn’t apply to them. Still, my legal training (which consists of a quick trip around Google) indicates that no matter that your children do not share DNA, they are legal siblings and sibling marriage appears to be illegal.
It’s one thing to marry the girl next door. It’s another to marry the girl down the hall. Obviously, there is something shudder-inducing about your children’s revelation. They are shattering a very deep taboo. At the least, they (or you, if they won’t) need to consult with an attorney about the legal implications of their situation. Since they’ve opened up to you, you have to be open with them and explain you find their news deeply disturbing. Maybe they would agree that all four of you see a counselor together. If they intend to become each other’s intended (even if they can’t actually tie the knot) all of you are going to have to figure out how to deal with this very tangled skein.
Q. Dad’s Night Visitor: My mom died from cancer a year ago. My dad has been raising my brother and my sister and me since then, and he’s been doing a pretty good job. I know he’s lonely, but now he has what he thinks is a secret girlfriend or something like that. Twice in the past month I have woken up in the middle of the night and heard him talking with the same woman in his bedroom. I stayed up and watched her leave the second time I caught them. I respect my dad’s need for company, but my brother is 10, and I feel uncomfortable that this strange woman comes into our house when I sleep. I am 15 and read this column because my mom used to, by the way. Should I talk to my dad? That seems really embarrassing.
A: I’m so sorry about your mother’s death. You sound very mature and insightful, and it’s lovely you are looking out for your brother. Yes, what you’ve discovered is embarrassing, but this is something you should be able to talk about with your father. Tell him you need to speak to him alone, then say you’ve heard a female voice in the middle of the night a couple of times. Say you know he’s lonely and you understand if he’s seeing someone who he doesn’t feel ready to bring around as his girlfriend. But say sneaking around isn’t working and you’re worried your little brother is going to find out. Be as calm and mature as you can be. It will probably be a relief for your Dad to get this out in the open. It’s not up to a 15-year-old to dictate your father’s personal life, thankfully. But he needs to figure out a better way to assess when it’s appropriate that he introduce you to the woman (women?) he’s seeing.
Q. Birthday Celebration: My boyfriend and I have been together about 18 months now, and I foresee us having a long future together. Things have been great, but it looks like there will be a prickly issue once a year—my birthday, which is coming up in a few weeks, happens to be the same exact date as his mother’s. Last year, our birthday fell on a weeknight, and I had dinner and planned an activity with friends (including my boyfriend). His mom lives about an hour away, so he had dinner with her and gave her a gift that weekend, and all was well. This year our birthdays fall during the weekend, and my boyfriend has informed me that his mother has planned a big party for her birthday, even though it is not a milestone birthday. It will involve over 25 family members and a fish fry. As a strict vegetarian, I do not eat fish. I have been invited, but clearly will not be co-guest-of-honor. My boyfriend said he will take me out for dinner the next night to celebrate my birthday. I know I am past the age where birthdays should be important, but I can’t help but feeling that his mother is making a power play, as she is well aware that it is also my birthday and I don’t eat fish. I am also feeling like my boyfriend is picking his mother over me, since I apparently will not get to celebrate my birthday at all until the next day. Am I just being selfish or are my feelings warranted? What should I do about it?
A: Mom’s throwing herself what sounds like a fun party and that’s great. Your boyfriend should remind her that it’s your birthday, too, so he’s going to raise a glass to you after the birthday cake arrives. But since you’re all adults, surely you are able to put off your private celebration until the next night. In addition, his mother is not required to have a tofu fry to accommodate you. I’m certain there will be plenty of side dishes in addition to fish so that you won’t be in danger of starving to death on your special day. This party is only a power play if you make it one.
Q. My FIL the Doctor: I have an interesting predicament. My husband and I just found out that we’re expecting triplets! These are our first children, and we’re beyond excited, albeit a little nervous about complications that can arise from a multiple pregnancy (especially since I’m 37). I’ve been going to my Ob/Gyn for years and am very happy with her, but most women in my situation choose to switch to a specialist who regularly deals with multiple pregnancies. As it turns out, my father-in-law is one of those doctors, and has a great reputation. I get along with him really well—he’s a wonderful man, and a great dad to my husband, but I’m just weirded out by the idea of my FIL being “down there.” We live in a metropolitan city where there are certainly other options, but my husband wants me to see his father since this is what he’s great at, and we really do need a specialist. Am I wrong for being weirded out? Should I take it as a blessing?
A: I would assume your father-in-law would refer you to one of his colleagues because having you as a patient would be a little too close to home. Since you have a specialist in high-risk pregnancies essentially on call, definitely call on your father-in-law. Ask him for his advice about switching from your current Ob—explain you like her very much. If he says a triplet pregnancy needs specialized care, ask if he can help get you into the office of the second-best obstetrician in town.
Q. Preschool Judgment: I have 4-year-old twin girls and an 18-month-old son. My husband has an excellent job and I have a small inheritance. I also work part-time from home as a photographer, specializing in studio portraits of expecting mothers and young children. My kids attend a wonderful day care nearby in the mornings so I can work in my studio without distraction. Recently, another mother from my child’s preschool asked me to take some photos of her family. I agreed and gave her the “friends and family” rate. Although I never mentioned it, somehow she found out about my inheritance. Other mothers at day care have started acting very snarky and passive aggressive about my “dream life” and that I put my kids in day care so I can “play.” I finally told them that I have a bachelor in fine arts in photography and a bachelor of arts in business management. I take my photography business seriously and it is an insult for them to describe it as “playing.” They told me that they put their children into day care because they have to work to pay bills; and I am selfish and put them in even though I play at a job at home. Thus far, none of this has trickled down to the relationships my children have with their friends. But I am very uncomfortable around these other mothers and find myself unintentionally in the middle of the Mommy Wars. Any advice?
A: It would be great if one of your kids’ teachers could take all the other mommies and put them in a time out. Then Miss Jean could talk to them about 1) playing nicely, and 2) the concept of “none of your business.”
You offered another mother the friends and family rate, and she turned around and thought the appropriate response is not, “Thanks so much,” but, “Hey, I’m going to tell everyone she’s a rich dilettante.” File under No Good Deed Goes Unpunished. You made an understandable mistake by getting defensive and trying to explain your life to this crew. I’m hoping that there are still some nice girls among the mean ones you’ve just encountered, so try to cultivate them. Stop responding to the others’ remarks. You could have a discussion with the director of the school, but I’m not sure what she can do. If going to school events becomes a stomach-churning exercise for you, ultimately you might have to find another wonderful school that’s a little less convenient.
Q. Re: My FIL the Doctor: I’m a physician, and at my hospital, there is a pretty strict policy against treating family members. Chances are the same rule applies to your letter writer and her FIL. Just ask the FIL to recommend a capable colleague, and no doubt he will be happy to help out.
A: Thanks for the confirmation. Problem solved!
Q. How To Say Thanks?: Before my parents met, dad married his high school sweetheart “Elaine,” who passed away two years into the marriage after being hit by a drunk driver. She was three months pregnant. After my parents got married and had me, Elaine’s parents would send me birthday or Christmas gifts every now and then. I am now in my 20s and neither my parents or I have had any contact with them for a long time. Then they telephoned my parents out of the blue and told them that in the process of drafting a new will, they decided to leave most of their assets to me. Dad since told me that Elaine’s parents have no siblings, so they must consider me a step-grandchild of a sort. I’m shocked and also grateful. What are my obligations toward an elderly couple I don’t know very well, who are leaving me a very generous gift after they pass away?
A: One’s heart breaks for these people who lost everything. It’s too bad that your parents couldn’t, or didn’t want to keep in better touch with them over the years. I can understand the emotional complications of this, but an occasional visit allowing them a connection to a young person could have been lovely for everyone. Their gift comes with no strings, but consider creating some ties. If they live close enough for an easy visit, I think you, perhaps accompanied by your father, should go for a visit. Think of what it would mean to these old people. If you’re not close, write a letter. Yes, you should open by thanking them for their generosity, but it shouldn’t be just about the money. Tell them about yourself, your education, your interests, and include some pictures. There seems to be very little chance, given their reticence over the past couple of decades, that you will be drawn into a smothering relationship. More likely, all of you will be enriched.
Q. Paying for Brother’s Cellphone: I’ve been paying for our family’s cellphone plan (my mother, brother, and my husband) for the past five-plus years. When my brother got married a little over a year ago, I assumed he would start his own plan with his wife, but that didn’t happen. He is a year older than I am but his choice of profession means he makes much less. My husband and I are not struggling by any means and the bill is not much (about $20/month for my brother’s portion), but in principle I am offended that he continues to let me pay for his bill without so much as a thank you. Do I have a right to say something or should I just suck it up and continue to pay this bill ad nauseam?
A: Instead of seething with resentment, just talk to your brother. His bill had been paid for so long that it might not even be on his radar. Since you volunteered to do this, and have never unvolunteered, in all innocence he may be thinking you’re getting a great rate and enjoy giving him this gift. So without rancor say, “Hey bro, now that you’re a big married man, I’m going to cut you loose off the family plan I’m paying for the parents and let you set up your own. Why don’t you do some research so you can get the best rate, then let me know in a few weeks when I can notify the company that I’m taking you off my plan.”
Q. I Wish Her Well: My ex-wife and I divorced after losing our young daughter in a car accident. We have kept in touch sporadically, and we usually communicate around the anniversary of our daughter’s death. My ex-wife remarried two years ago, and now I learned through a mutual friend that she’s pregnant. I want to send her a small note expressing my joy for her—I am sincerely happy that she’s found peace and jubilation—but I don’t know if that’s an appropriate gesture.
A: Your letter has me crying. I’m so sorry for your loss. I think your gesture is remarkable and wonderful and shows a great generosity of spirit. I’m sure it will be a relief for your ex to hear you are happy for her.
Q. Just Ask for the $20/Month for the Cellphone: If you trust your brother either to a) pay you six months or a year in advance or b) pay you monthly, why not keep your brother on the plan? Instead of the $40-$70 it might cost him on his own, it will save him money he doesn’t have to spend, but he’ll still be contributing. This only applies if you don’t mind doing it this way—if it really just is about chipping in.
A: Very good suggestion. Yes, instead of cutting off the brother, say that it will save him money to keep him on the plan, but you’d like to be reimbursed for it. And a yearly or semi-yearly payment will be easier on everyone.
Q. Run-In With Old Fling: My husband and I are happily married and work in the same field. In two weeks, we’ll be attending a work conference together in another state. About 10 years ago, long before my husband and I met, I had a one-night stand with “Zach,” a man in our field who I had known for a long time, at this same conference. Zach and I haven’t spoken since that night, but I heard through the grapevine that he will be attending the conference again this year. While my husband and I certainly have discussed our respective sexual histories, we’re not the type that feels the need to swap nitty-gritty details, and he does not know about my encounter with Zach. Zach is the type of guy who gets a kick out of making outrageous, embarrassing statements and I am terrified that he’ll bring up our fling in front of my husband or other colleagues. Should I at least warn my husband or do I just wait it out to see if Zach can keep his mouth shut?
A: I agree that couples aren’t obligated to swap lists of formers. But what you don’t want to happen is for outrageous Zach to elbow your husband and say, “So does she still scream when she comes?” Warn your husband that Zach was a fling—when they meet he will understand why it was brief—and you wanted to give him a heads up in case Zach decides to discuss ancient history.
Q. Re: FIL the Doctor: This is the original LW with the triplets and Ob/Gyn FIL. Thank you for the follow-up! My husband and I had discussed it but hadn’t brought it up to his father yet because of my “ick factor” hesitations. Sounds like it’s a nonissue, and you’re right that we’re lucky to have his consult on call. Thanks again!
A: Wonderful —and congratulations on your impending bundles of joy.
Q. Re: Unhappy Birthday to Me: I was totally stunned while reading this letter—could a 12-year-old really have been seeing someone for 18 months? I have enjoyed 60 wonderful birthdays but many of them not on the actual day itself. When I was young, my mother would make “joint” parties for my brother and me as our birthdays were close (albeit 3 years apart). Then, as an adult, I usually had to work on my birthday. What is the big deal? A celebration is when you are surrounded by people for whom you care and who, in return, care about you. The only time I remember friends actually feeling the need to celebrate on their actual birthday was when they turned 21 and simply *had* to have their obligatory “first drink.” Personally, I am surprised her boyfriend, who seems to show respect for his mother, would put up with such a spoiled brat for 18 months!
A: The comments are running universally against the girlfriend who’s boiling mad over the fish fry.
Q. Left Out of the Party: A longtime friend of mine, “Annie,” announced her engagement last summer. We have been great friends since middle school, and I always thought that I would be part of her wedding. During the fall, she told me that she had decided on not having a wedding party because it was so complicated. So imagine my surprise when I went to her wedding website in early winter and saw the list of bridesmaids. Needless to say, I was not on it. I was hurt and surprised that Annie had never mentioned anything to me about the reason for her choices, and still hasn’t, even though we have hung out multiple times and have even taken several trips together. I never asked about it, because I didn’t want to put her on the spot or feel like I was asking for a place in the wedding. I am a grown-up, and understand that not everyone gets everything they want, and even though I expected to be asked, I don’t have some right to be asked. Yet at the same time, I feel sad about the situation and wonder if there is some reason why (that I’m not aware of). Is there a way to tactfully bring it up to clear the air? Or should I just let it go?
A: Annie’s getting married so she needs to be grown-up enough not to make a transparent lie to a good friend. She could have said when the wedding was announced, “I want you to know I’m really hoping you’ll be able to attend, your friendship means so much to me.” If it was so natural that you would have expected to be a bridesmaid, she could have added that unfortunately, she’s had to limit the bridesmaid’s list, then asked you to take on some meaningful duty at the wedding. So your friend is lily-livered. But most of the bridesmaid letters I get are about the horrendous expense in time and money bridesmaids now find themselves rooked into. You got off easy. So just go to the wedding, wear whatever you want, and simply celebrate your friend.
Q. My Foot in My Mouth: I was clicking through a friend’s Facebook photos of a wedding she attended, and saw that she was expecting. I commented, “Congrats! When is the little one due? You look great.” As I clicked through more photos from the evening I realized that, well, she wasn’t. In my defense, this is a friend I hadn’t seen for a year, we somewhat lost touch, and she was wearing a large, flowy dress while standing next to a slender woman in a tight dress. I was mortified and went back to delete my comment, but she obviously read it because the photo had disappeared. I feel awful, particularly because I know she used to see a psychologist for eating issues several years ago. I’ve started about 20 different apology emails but I don’t know what to say. Your advice here, please?
A: There’s no defense for scrolling through some photos of a semi-friend and on the basis of one flowy dress asking when the baby is due. Just send an email with the subject line, “I’m an idiot,” and explain you sent your stupid note after seeing one photo and quickly realized when you saw the rest of the photos just how mistaken you were. Say you’re mortified and apologize. You have learned the lesson that Dave Barry articulated years ago—I paraphrase—that you should never mention the pregnancy of anyone who hasn’t confirmed it first, unless the baby is actually emerging.
Q. Boat Blues: My parents passed away over the winter and my sister is executor of the will. My parents adored boating and left a nice-sized boat to the four of us kids with the intention that we would take it out and use it together. Here is how it actually played out: Two siblings do not want to spend the fees for insurance, titles, maintenance, and storage. Since one of them lives out of state and the other doesn’t have much money, I can kind of understand how they would feel that way. My executor-sister could afford these things, but simply doesn’t like boating. My family loves boating and has great memories of being on the boat with my parents. My executor-sister offered for me to buy out the rest of the siblings and to be the sole owner of the boat. To be fair, she offered me a very good deal. The problem? I can’t quite afford to buy anybody out, but I could afford the yearly maintenance fees. I asked my siblings if we could keep the boat one last summer and then if I still can’t afford to buy out next year, they can sell it. My executor-sister told me that with three people wanting to sell the boat, they really don’t want to wait for next year. I am heartbroken because I have very fond memories of boating with my parents. What can I do in this situation to keep the boat in the family? Or am I just doomed to not boat anymore?
A: Suggest that before the boat gets sold all of your take one last family boat trip as a memorial to your parents and spend the day reminiscing about the wonderful times your parents gave you. You can’t keep the boat in the family, and you can’t hold onto a time that’s passed. If you had the financial means to take over the boat, fine. But you don’t, and your siblings need the money. I know you’re still mourning your parents, but please, just because you don’t own a boat doesn’t mean your boating days are over. If you want to get on the water, you’ll rent, or find some other way. So don’t lay the responsibility for being land-locked on your siblings.
Q. In-Laws and Grandparenting: My husband’s parents are devoted long-distance grandparents to my 16-month-old daughter. They are lovely people whom we get along with fairly well as long as we steer clear of political and religious topics. My FIL is a deacon at a large, conservative megachurch in Texas and their political beliefs are what I would consider extreme right-wing. We are solid Democrats, and so we just don’t talk about politics with them. One of their big projects is coordinating donations and volunteers to a local Pregnancy Resource Center. This PRC, like most, is very anti-abortion. During their most recent visit, I learned that my FIL has been using one of my daughter’s baby pictures on materials soliciting donations to the PRC and on thank-you cards to those who give (and has been doing so for about a year). I am pretty appalled at this but am not sure what to do. I do believe in cutting them a lot of slack with her and don’t want to overregulate their relationship. But this, IMO, is not about their relationship with her. They are very well aware that we are pro-choice. Then again, I wonder if there is any point in stirring something up with them over this. Am I being overly sensitive? I just keep thinking that if I were to, for example, donate in their name to Planned Parenthood, they would be horrified (and I would never do that). This feels similar. Advice on what to do?
A: I always recommend that in conflicts with the in-laws, it is the child of the parents who should step up. Your husband should tell his parents that while he and they have differing views on many topics, and are glad they can just respect each other’s point of view, it doesn’t feel right to him that they are using your daughter’s photo without permission on materials that conflict with your views. He should say that next time the materials go to the printer, he’d appreciate it if they used a photo of another child. Sure, it’s a small thing, and maybe not worth mentioning. But sometimes you have to address the little things to keep the big things in check.
Q. Husband Afraid of Delivery Room: My husband and I have a generally peaceful relationship with just a little bit of bickering. However, this one topic has us both in a standoff with tempers getting flared. Two years ago we had our first child. After an emergency C-section, our son took his first breath, then collapsed his lungs and was under for over seven minutes. (He’s doing OK now thankfully). We have been discussing increasing our family size, but my husband vehemently refuses to be in the delivery room with me because he doesn’t want to be there if it happens again. I don’t want to be alone in case it does happen again. Any advice?
A: I can understand your husband was traumatized (not to mention you), but the chances of a repeat must be remote. First of all, you’re not pregnant, so this issue should be tabled into you get into bed and start making babies. Once you are pregnant, this is the kind of thing that it would helpful to talk about with a professional. If your husband hears of the unlikelihood of the complications of your son’s birth happening again, possibly he can relax. Maybe, once you get pregnant and the due date is approaching, if he still feels anxious he can see for a short while a therapist who specializes in phobias. Don’t let this issue keep you two so mad at each other that it’s impossible for you to conceive.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.