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. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Co-Worker Red-Flagging the Office Newspaper: I work in a small office, with a staff of maybe 10. I have worked here for about eight months as in a low-level production-oriented assistant position. A week ago, I walked by the 2nd floor bathroom and saw a co-worker of mine bringing out the office newspaper. She put the office newspaper back on the bench in the first floor. Personally, I am kind of disgusted by her sense of entitlement in thinking that she had a right to treat the office bathroom and the office newspaper as if they were hers. I also am at the bottom of the totem pole, the only male in my office, and am extremely embarrassed to mention anything. The co-worker wasn’t my boss, but she is a friend of my boss. How do I make it clear that this is an inappropriate thing to do in the office, not just because I have personal hygienic objections to it, but because I assume others would if they had any idea this happens?
A: Let’s try to sort this out. You are disgusted that a co-worker felt a call of nature and answered it by using the facilities. I hesitate to inquire as to what purpose you think the office bathroom has if not for people in need to temporarily think of it as theirs. Additionally, if people aren’t allowed to read the newspaper in the bathroom, subscriptions would plunge even further. I hope your plan is not to put a Post-It on the paper with the warning: “Marie was reading this while relieving herself. The EPA has been alerted and a removal team will arrive shortly.” I’m sure you’ve seen magazine stands in bathrooms. I assume you don’t think flipping through the Vanity Fair will result in life-threatening contamination. You now know that if you want to read the newspaper at work, you need to get your own copy. But don’t mention your discovery to anyone else.
Q. My Son and My Granddaughters: I have two sons, Matt and Alan. Matt died five years ago, leaving behind his wife and their two daughters. Although Matt and Alan were close for most of their lives, they had a falling out shortly before Matt’s death due to Alan’s addiction to crack. While visiting Matt’s home, Alan forgot to turn off the stove. He nearly burned the house down, with Matt’s wife and daughter’s sleeping upstairs. Alan was too high at the time of his brother’s death to offer his sister-in-law or nieces much support. He did not attend Matt’s funeral. Alan has been clean for three years now and has completely turned around his life. He has tried to apologize to my daughter-in-law, but she wants nothing to do with him. Although my husband and I see our grandchildren often, our daughter-in-law refuses to even consider letting Alan see his nieces. It causes considerable tension between us when my husband or I try to talk to her about Alan. Alan desperately wants to be a part of his nieces’ lives, but none of us know how to make that a possibility.
A: There has been so much suffering in your family, but you have to let go of this situation. Alan almost killed Matt’s entire family; he did not go to Matt’s funeral. It’s understandable that Matt’s widow might find the universe a cruel place for taking her husband while her crack-addled brother-in-law lives. It’s wonderful that Alan has gotten clean. I hope he’s making something worthwhile of his life. Three years later it may not be entirely rational that Matt’s widow won’t change her mind about Alan, but nagging and cajoling her will only harden her resolve. Do not threaten your good relationship with her and your grandchildren by making this a wedge between you. I hope Alan has written a letter to his sister-in-law which acknowledges his horrible behavior and his pain at the loss of his brother. If not, then he should. He should not put in it a request to see his nieces. It should simply be an explanation that he will live with the effects of his previous actions for the rest of his life. He can add that fortunately he’s clean now and able to take responsibility for himself. That might be a small opening that will allow your daughter-in-law to come to her own new conclusions about Alan.
Q. A Mother’s Instinct: I come from a very large, close-knit family that loves to hold family events for the holidays. Recently, I’ve become alarmed by one family member’s behavior at family gatherings. He’s in his early 30s and still lives at home. He’s immature, socially awkward, has trouble keeping a job, and has had problems with substance abuse. Most of us barely speak to him because of these issues. I’ve noticed that he is especially attentive toward the young girls of the family, and it’s become troublesome. He follows them around, makes remarks about their clothing and how innocent they are. I don’t know of any instance where he has done anything inappropriate, but I am on high alert with my own young daughter at family gatherings where he is present. I don’t even allow him to be within a few feet of her without me or my husband standing next to her. Lately, he’s been especially attentive with one young female family member, so much so that I reached out to her mother to ask if this alarmed her. Her mother assured me that they are never alone together, but that she has noticed this, too. Together we agreed to try and shepherd him away from the kids at future gatherings, but I’m worried that this may not be enough. I have zero evidence (gratefully) but I feel like I should do more. He recently mentioned that he’s been hanging around with a neighbor’s young son, sort of taking him under his wing because he’s going through a lot and his mother is a single parent that doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with him. It’s been bothering me a lot and I don’t know if I should report this to authorities.
A: I agree this is alarming and that also you have no evidence that anything has happened. But a young adult with social and substance problems who likes to follow children around should have anyone’s klaxons sounding. If it’s possible, talk to your relative’s parents. I hope they have awareness of their son’s problems and aren’t simply defensive about it. You can explain that even if nothing happens, a young man who hangs around little children is setting himself up for dangerous accusations. I also think someone should contact the mother of the neighbor boy. She needs a heads-up that it just isn’t a good idea for her son and a troubled man to be hanging around together. Even though your relative is an adult, there are still social services that are available to him. If his parents are overwhelmed, maybe the whole family can engage a social worker to help get him evaluated and make a plan for having him lead a more productive life.
Q. It’s Mine, Mine, MINE!: I have a treasured childhood stuffed animal, one given to me by my older sister on the day I was born. I slept with it beside me every single night of my life, even through college, until I was married. For the last 27 years it’s been on a shelf in my room, still offering all the emotional support it always has. My adult daughter, now pregnant with her first girl, has asked me to pass it down to her child, so that the legacy can continue. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I keep picturing her dragging it, spilling food on it, sitting on it, etc. Kids play rough, and I know I was tough on it as a child. It is so old and fragile now. Is it so terribly wrong that I would prefer NOT to share? I feel like a petty kid fighting over my silly toy. The only trouble is, it’s my grandchild who will be missing out. Still, Prudie, I don’t think I can do it. Am I insane?
A: Fortunately, Boopsie is not the only magical stuffed animal in the world. When you go and pick out a brand new stuffed bear, kangaroo, pig for your impending granddaughter, it will become as dear and supportive a creature as your own talisman. You didn’t even pass your darling to your own daughter, so it’s not as if she experienced its enchantment personally. Just tell you daughter that Boopsie is so fragile it won’t survive the first baby barf. Tell her you are going to get your granddaughter something new, sturdy, and wonderful.
Q. Ghostly Visitors: I have always been able to see ghosts. It’s not a big thing, and it’s not something I advertise—it’s just something most women in my family are able to do and is accepted as normal. Now I have a 4-year-old daughter who can do the same thing; she chats about seeing my father, who passed away before she was born, as well as my husband’s grandmother. The problem is my in-laws, who, like many people, think it’s a load of hooey. My daughter will often sleep over there and tell them about the people she sees, and they say things like, “Oh, that’s silly! There’s no such things as ghosts!” Do I tell my daughter that I believe her, but that maybe we shouldn’t talk about ghosts at grandma’s, or do I tell my in-laws that this is something our family believes in and they should respect? (My husband is torn, too.)
A: I’m assuming your daughter thinks it’s normal to talk about seeing ghosts because that what her mother, aunts, and grandmother do. Surely she is rewarded by all of you when she stars babbling about what her late grandfather is telling her. You need to examine how you are imposing this “gift” on your little girl. You also need to be aware that other people—like your in-laws—are going to find this strange and disturbing. However, if you get your own reality show and outearn the Kardashians, I’m sure the in-laws will come around.
Q. Letting Wife Know About Sperm Donation: My wife and I are very good friends with a lesbian couple who is trying to have a baby. They asked me to donate sperm to conceive the child. After discussing it with my wife, I declined. They were very understanding and we remain good friends. However, in the course of our decision-making, my wife commented how odd it would be for me to have a child “out there.” I agreed with her out loud, but the truth is, I have donated sperm. (I stopped before I met my wife, however.) For all I know, I could have several children “out there.” I never told her about it because I never imagined it coming up and when I donated it seemed like I would always remain anonymous. After doing some research, however, it seems possible that a child that resulted from my donation COULD find and contact me. Should I tell my wife about my donations, and if so, how?
A: “Ah, honey, you know the conversation we had about how funny it would be to have a child ‘out there’? I should have told you long ago I might have a child out there and apologize for not telling you sooner.” Explain that when you were young you made some money by donating sperm—you can use the Mark Ruffalo line from The Kids Are All Right: Donating sperm seemed like more fun than donating blood. Tell her you don’t know if any children resulted, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever know. But given how laws in this area are changing, it’s a possibility that some day someone “out there” will end up on your doorstep.
Q. Sending Photo to Molester Grandpa?: My husband has no contact with his paternal grandfather, due to extensive sexual abuse allegations by his father’s six siblings. His father, however, claims to be the only child out of seven that wasn’t sexually abused, and maintains a somewhat close relationship with the man. Recently, we had professional portraits done of our young daughter and sent copies of the photos to all our family. My mother-in-law contacted me and asked if dear old grandpa could be added to the photo mailing list. While no request has been made for in-person contact with the man, I am deeply disturbed by the thought of him having a photo of our daughter. I don’t want to offend my in-laws. Should I just mail him a small photo in order to keep the peace, or am I right for being skeeved out by just the thought of it?
A: I wonder what your in-laws don’t get about a man who molested six of his seven children. Tell your mother-in-law you plan to honor your husband’s decision to have no contact with a sexual predator.
Q. Daughter’s Friend’s Crazy Mom: My daughter is very good friends with two girls, Cammie and Bianca. They are all 11. Cammie’s mom offered to take the girls on a four-day trip to a fun nearby city. She said that she would pay for all of the meals; my daughter and Bianca only needed to bring a few dollars for souvenirs. My husband and I gave our daughter $10 and sent her off. When she came home last night she was starving and distraught. As soon as they were on the road Cammie’s mom told them they needed to pay for their own meals. She wouldn’t take my daughter or Bianca to places where they could afford to eat, so the girls quickly ran out of money. I am livid at this crazy woman’s behavior. What’s the correct response?
A: You need to call Cammie’s mother and say just what you said here: that your daughter came home hungry and distraught. Say you’re sorry if there was some misunderstanding over financing this trip, but you wish she had called you when it turned out your daughter and Bianca didn’t have enough money for meals. It’s hard to imagine she has a coherent response, but you at least need to have addressed directly what happened. Then tell your daughter you’re sorry she had such a terrible time, that there’s no explanation for how Cammie’s mother behaved, and you will make sure your daughter never goes on a road trip with her again.
Q. Affair Drama and My Daughter: My husband had an affair with our daughter’s best friend’s mom. To save our marriage we are cutting all ties with the other family, but the other parents keep contacting us to make plans with our daughter. Am I being unfair to my child, who now can’t spend time with her best friend outside of school and extracurricular activities?
A: I’m assuming you’re saying the cheating wife and the cuckolded husband are contacting you in order to get your children together. Does this mean the other husband doesn’t know? It would be sad and inexplicable for you to say to your daughter she’s not allowed to see her best friend anymore—surely she’s already picked up that mommy and daddy are very unhappy. But I can understand you don’t want contact with the other wife. However, at the least your children are classmates and are involved in the same extracurriculars, so you are going to have to learn to hold your head high and act civil at back-to-school night, etc. I think it’s possible for you to let the girls get together while limiting your contact with the other woman. Divorced couples do hand-offs of the kids all the time without actually having to see each other. I understand your cutting social ties with the other couple, but surely the cost of saving your marriage does not mean your daughter loses her best friend.
Q. She Flashed My Boyfriend: This weekend my 24-year-old boyfriend, John, went to an out-of-state soccer tournament with his recreational team that I did not attend. The captain jokingly said that if they won, his girlfriend Christy, the team medic, would flash her breasts at them. They did not win. However, after every tournament they sit in a circle and take turns giving shout-outs praising another person on the team. My boyfriend gave a shout out to her. In thanks, she walked right up to him and showed him her goods. Just him. Her guy seemed to be OK with it, but I am not! John says it is not a big deal, and it is not like she is making a habit of flashing people. (It was a one-time deal.) I can’t say I am happy about it, but I am resigned to let it go. However, there is no doubt that someone on the team is going to bring it up. What do I say to the annoying remarks like, “Hey, did you know Christy flashed John?” Should I talk to Christy calmly and mention that I know it was done in fun, but I would appreciate if she did not do that again?
A: If someone mentions that Christy flashed John, just smile and say, “Medics gone wild!” Having a sense of humor about this will do more for your relationship than trying to put the team on breast probation.
Q. Ten Dollars for Four Days?!: Yes, Cammie’s mother sounds disturbed to not feed hungry girls. But what kind of mother sends her daughter away for FOUR DAYS to a city with 10 bucks in her pocket? Why didn’t you call out the mother asking the question on that?
A: Good point. A road trip with three girls is an expensive proposition and all this should have been worked out among the adults beforehand. However, if Cammie’s mother said she’d take care of the meals and found out she couldn’t, she either needed to end the trip, or call the other parents and say she was going to need reimbursement when they returned. Starving the children is not an option.
Q. Re: Red-Flagging Newspaper: Personally I think it is disgusting to take the office copy of the paper into the restroom with you and then put it back out on the table. Would you really want to pick up this paper after it’s made a few trips to the toilet?
A: My copy of today’s paper is in the bathroom, so my answer is that it doesn’t bother me.
Q. Evil Stepmommy!: I was very sick a few days ago. Something flulike. I sent my husband off to work his third-shift job, put my two stepdaughters (8 and 10) to bed early, and crashed out myself around 10 p.m. Well, my stepdaughters woke up the next morning, sneaked into my room and turned off the alarm. They spent the morning cleaning the house and then were making me breakfast when my husband came home for the day. He immediately woke me up and had words with me, saying how irresponsible I was. How I’d scarred the girls for life by making them take on “adult roles” and made me sit them down and apologize for my “neglect.” He was so infuriated I couldn’t even appreciate the incredibly kind gesture from my stepdaughters. I understand that he feels like it’s my job to care for them, and not theirs to care for me … but I was terribly sick, and they were just being kind. I want to tell him off, but as they’re my stepchildren I’ve always had to obey his wishes when it came to them. The sad part is, my eldest was so upset that I couldn’t enjoy all the work she’d done for me. I want to make it clear to my husband that I think HE was the one out of line, but how without overstepping MY bounds?
A: I’m hoping that your husband is so exhausted from working three jobs he’s delirious with exhaustion. He has turned a lovely tribute into something ugly. Also disturbing is your mention that you must “obey” his wishes about your children. It sounds as if you are a caring stepmother and your stepdaughters were thrilled to be able to help you. If you are unable to express to this your husband, you immediately need a neutral party to help you two work on your communication so you don’t become a former stepmother.
Q. Update: My sister was the one-time slapped wife: My sister wrote in to you several months ago about how her stressed-out husband had slapped her after she said something nasty to her. She wanted to stay with him, and you agreed that given the one time nature of the slap that seemed like the best idea. My sister confided in me and seemed to imply that her comment was what made him snap, so she somehow contributed to the slap. But all she said to him was that he was a crappy son because he forgot to call his mom on mother’s day. I don’t believe any nasty comment by someone warrants a slap, but this seems like an especially tame comment to me. I think my sister should at least have taken a break from her marriage to give them some space to cool off. Her husband really wants to have another kid, and so does she, but she doesn’t think this is the right time. I also don’t feel comfortable with my kids around him anymore. What do I need to do to support my sister? Does this new info change your original assessment? He has been a model husband since the slap.
A: What you need to do is butt out. I agree nothing warrants a slap, but I reiterate what I said at the time: It would be foolish to end a marriage over this one-time offense, particularly when the husband was immediately remorseful and suggested seeking help. Even you acknowledge he has been a model husband since then. Not letting your children be around him is a ridiculous provocation on your part and will only undermine your relationship with your sister and their marriage. It sounds as if things are on track with them, so remove yourself from their intimate life.
Q. Reading at Restaurants: Sometimes when I want to eat out but don’t have anyone to dine with I take a book to read during my meal. Sometimes I also read before a play begins. Recently an older woman came up to my table at a restaurant and told me it was very rude to read in public. I was shocked and embarrassed. I never read when I’m with others. Is it rude to read in public?
A: Apparently there is a cadre of people who would like to increase the amount of illiteracy in the world. They think we should all stare straight ahead when we are relieving ourselves, or waiting for an event, or enjoying a dinner out alone. Having a nice meal while engrossed in a good book sounds like a delightful evening—I’m one of those people who when dining alone would end up reading the ingredients on the Tabasco bottle if I didn’t have a book with me. I assume the old lady also goes around pulling out people’s earbuds and spilling ink on their crossword puzzles. She was a nut—ignore her remarks.
Q. Dirty T-shirt: I teach English to international students. One of them is a shy 9-year-old who has been here for four months. One day she wore a T-shirt to her class that said, “Don’t hate me cuz I’m beautiful. (And in larger, bolder print) [Expletive] me cuz I’m HOT.” I noticed she has worn it a couple of times since. I know I need to say something but I’m not quite sure what. I’ve met her parents once when they were enrolling her and they speak very little English, so presumably they have no idea what it means either. In fact, I teach the very basic beginners class so none of her classmates noticed anything, but I’m sure she gets some attention outside the class. She is a very sensitive child whose face turns bright red if she makes a small mistake so I can’t imagine how I’m going to tell her that she is wearing a horrendously offensive T-shirt for a child her age. What can I say?
A: Take this to the school administration. Let’s hope someone there speaks the parents’ language and can call and explain that their daughter is wearing a T-shirt with a sexually suggestive message on it and it needs to go into the rag bin.
Q. Painful Past: I was contacted by a 13-year-old girl, “Liz,” who is the daughter of my best friend “Gina.” Gina and I were friends since we were little girls right up to when she died over 10 years ago. Liz was since raised by her father’s parents, and knowing so little about her mom, wanted to hear from me what kind of a person she was. There’s a lot I could say about Gina, but the basic summary is this: She was sexually molested by her father for years before becoming a single mom to Liz. Gina and I spent a lot of our time drunk or stoned. She worked as a prostitute to earn a living before she crashed into a pole while driving drunk. It’s by pure luck that I didn’t meet the same fate—I have a decent job now and a young family of my own. I don’t know how much of all this Liz knows. I’ve been trying to think of what I could tell this young girl about her mom that doesn’t involve somebody doing something illegal or stupid, but there isn’t a lot. What should I share with her?
A: What a heartbreaking tale—one that shows the devastating effects of sexual abuse. No doubt many of Gina’s troubles stemmed by a childhood filled with sexual assault by her father. But I don’t think Liz is coming to you for the gory details. She wants her lost mother to live in her mind. Surely you have some photos and decent memories of Gina. Was she funny? Did she love music and dancing? That’s what you should start telling her. As you get to know Liz you can explain to her that her mother shared with you a devastating secret from her childhood: She was molested by her father. That terrible start in life caused her a lot of pain and troubles. But emphasize to Liz that the thing you know most about Gina is how much she loved her daughter, how excited she was to be a mother, and how proud she would be to see how Liz is growing up.
Q. Re: One job, not three: Third shift = overnight work shift, not that someone is working three jobs. Regardless, the “made me sit them down and apologize” thing is a major red flag, no? I mean, what adult “makes” another do something? And what adult does something their spouse forces on them that they don’t agree with? That in conjunction with words like “obey” suggests he’s got major control problems and she is in need of some counseling regardless.
A: Thanks for the clarification of third shift (which is a nicer term than “graveyard shift”)! Totally agree that this family needs intervention.
Q. Five’s a Crowd: My friend has five children under the age of 6, including a set of 2-year-old twins. When I have friends and their kids at my house I am sometimes reluctant to invite my friend and her family because five extra children means a lot more mess and noise than I’m willing to tolerate. It’s not that they’re bad kids, but they do what normal kids do and run around and get excited. I’ve noticed a few of our mutual friends also sometimes don’t invite this friend, presumably for the same reason. Recently I had a birthday party for my 2-year-old, hosted at a local indoor play center. I did not invite my friend’s children—I had a birthday package deal for eight kids, and having five additional children meant paying almost $100 extra. (Just to clarify—I didn’t invite all of my daughter’s friends, so it’s not like I only excluded this friend and her kids.) Afterward I received an angry phone call from my friend about how I “snubbed” her and her entire family. She knows she isn’t invited to people’s homes very often, and told me how hurt she was to be excluded. I tried my best to explain that sometimes having five additional young children in the house is not everyone’s idea of a relaxed Saturday afternoon. This did not go well with her and now she refuses to speak to me. Am I wrong here? Do I owe my friend an apology and should I open my doors for her kids whenever and wherever?
A: It would have been nice if you’d invited the 2-year-old twins to your 2-year-old’s birthday party. There was no obligation to have her entire crew, however. Sure, your friend’s fecundity is her choice, and regularly hosting five extra little ones can be taxing, but shunning her is unnecessary. If she’s looking for company, it might be much easier if you brought your kids over to play at her house, along with some snacks for everyone. Think how overwhelmed your friend must feel. Get back in touch and say you expressed yourself badly and you miss her and want to get together. Since it’s summer, maybe you can meet at a well fenced park where you two can sit on a bench and catch up and the kids can be messy and noisy.
Q. Re: Dirty T-shirt: You teach her English. Don’t you think translating a T-shirt for a 9-year-old falls into your area of responsibility?
A: No, this would be very embarrassing for a sensitive child. Just have the parents told the T-shirt is a no-no.
Q. Relationship Finances: My girlfriend recently moved in with me and we are having a financial issue. We are both in our early 30s and agreed to split expenses (rent and utilities) 50/50. Her car is dying and she desperately needs a new one (almost 500,000 miles). Since she needs a new car, she wants to change the split on expenses to 70/30. Her reasoning is that since I’ve lived by myself for a few years (she lived with a roommate) I am used to paying higher monthly expenses and would also be spending less than I did when I was single. She makes about $10,000 more a year than I do. I’d like to finish my degree without taking out any more student loans but don’t think that would be possible if I had to cover most of her car payment. I feel like she is trying to take advantage of me. How would you approach this?
A: I would have approached this by figuring out why you’re moving in together in the first place. Do you plan on getting married? Are you just trying to save on expenses? If it’s a trial run for a permanent commitment, you just got an insight into the kind of trials you two might face. First of all, I don’t hear that she’s asking you to cover her car payment—just that she doesn’t want to share household expenses equally while she’s dealing with a major outlay. Perhaps this is reasonable since you would be getting a 30 percent discount on your normal living expenses. Perhaps it’s in indication that she’s not very good with money if she’s been unable to budget for the day she needs a new car. I would approach this by talking to her about how you both feel about money, your relationship, and your future plans.
Emily Yoffe: My late grandmother just tapped me on the shoulder and said it’s time to end the chat and that having the newspaper on the bathroom floor is disgusting. Thanks everyone, have a great week.