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: I learned a new word this weekend—derecho! I hope everyone else who also learned this word is now cool and has power. I am grateful to Pepco for letting me know it was time to toss the matzoh ball soup I’ve been freezing since Passover.
Q. Spoiled Niece: My 10-year-old niece owns two American Girl dolls. The dolls are a source of pride for her, because she “bought” them herself. My sister and her husband give her a weekly allowance in exchange for performing household chores. They require her to put a percentage in a savings account for college and donate another percentage to a local charity. My niece can spend the rest of her allowance on whatever she pleases. To my husband and me, who don’t make nearly as much as my sister or my brother-in-law, our niece receives a very large allowance for a young child. The allowance was large enough that she was able to purchase the two American Girl dolls over the course of 18 months. She enjoys bringing one or both of the dolls to family gatherings. My daughter, the same age as my niece, would love an American Girl doll, but my husband and I can’t afford it. I feel like my niece flaunts her dolls and doesn’t understand that she seems spoiled to others who aren’t as fortunate. Sometimes it’s difficult to spend time around my nieces and nephew because they have many more toys than my kids do, and my kids feel badly afterward. How can I address these issues with my sister without making her defensive and my niece without hurting her?
A: You need to address these issue with yourself, then your children—not your sister. Your sister and her husband have more money than you do. That usually translates into having a bigger house, nicer cars, fancier vacations, more toys for the kids. Live with it. Unless they are constantly flaunting their wealth—which you don’t mention—you, and your children, need to understand that good and bad fortune is not distributed equally. Sure, their cousins may have more stuff than they do, but you need to remind them they have more stuff than their friends [fill in the blank]. Explain that’s life, and if the absence of an American Girl doll is one of their biggest heartaches, then that means all of you are lucky—even if seeing their cousin’s two, two, two American Girl dolls really can be annoying. Your sister’s children may get a generous allowance, but I love the lessons they are teaching their kids about it: They earn it through chores; they are putting some away for their own future; they are giving another percentage to those less fortunate; and if they save their money wisely over a long time (18 months for a little girl!) they can enjoy the result. I think you need to take a page from your sister’s parenting book and instill some worthy lessons in your own kids.
Q. I Arrange My Boss’s Affair: I am the well-paid assistant of a successful business mogul. I make sure his schedule runs smoothly, and I act as a gatekeeper, too, among other things. My boss is very nice to me and his other employees. He’s also having an affair. A few times a month he’ll take an extended lunch and go to a hotel room with his girlfriend. When he’s there, I’m supposed to tell all callers that he’s in an important business meeting. His wife has called twice while he’s away with his girlfriend, and I feel awful for lying to her. I’m also responsible for purchasing gifts for my boss. I’ve purchased expensive jewelry for both his wife and his girlfriend. Next month he’s going on a weeklong business trip. He only needs to be gone for two days, but he’s taking his girlfriend with him and staying longer. I know I’m doing wrong by his wife. But I love my job, and I’m not sure what I could or should do to behave honorably in this situation.
A: I thought one of the ways you know someone is a “successful business mogul” is that he has an assistant who picks out jewelry that suits the taste of both his wife and his mistress. How your boss conducts his affairs is not your affair. As long as you are not being asked to do something illegal, his personal life is his business—your job is just to make it run smoothly. I assume you don’t have trouble telling callers he doesn’t want to talk to that he’s in a meeting when he’s not. I do understand your discomfort at lying to his wife. So if that duty makes you feel too morally compromised, you should seek other employment. If you want to stay, that means your terms of employment require you to make all aspects of his life as frictionless as possible.
Q. Friend’s Ex-Boyfriend: One of my good friends (for at least a year) broke up with a guy a couple of years ago. I guess they didn’t part very well—she remains quite bitter about him. After a year of online dating disasters she’s hit gold and is with a great guy. Meanwhile, while I was out hiking with my dog, I met a lovely guy. We chatted for about an hour and we have lots in common including mutual friends and local interests. But as soon as he told me his name, I knew it was the dreaded ex. When I made the connection, he said nothing but nice things about my friend and that they just ended up not being compatible. He seemed quite keen, but I ended our chat before he had an opportunity to suggest meeting again. I’m torn. I’m attracted to him, but A) he’s my friend’s ex and I’m a firm believer in the friend code and B) she obviously knows lots of negative things about him that I don’t. How do I proceed? Should I tell my friend about meeting him and ask for her permission to date him and risk offending her or listen to a tirade against him? Do I go on a walk with him and get to know him as a friend (we discovered we live 10 houses away from each other!) or what?
A: I think Lesley Gore answered the dilemma about asking your friend’s permission to date her ex when in 1963 she sang, “You Don’t Own Me.” I’m excited to think that perhaps the reason your friend and he broke up is that destiny meant for you and him to be together. Sure, that will royally piss her off, but serendipity brought you two together, and any statute of limitations on dating your friend’s ex (which are short) has expired. You didn’t even know her when she was dating this guy, so it’s not as if you were her confidante who was secretly planning to strike once they split. I like the idea of getting to know this guy better, period. That’s a good way to proceed in general with potential romances. You also have presumably been given some warning information about this guy from your friend, which you can file away. You do not need your friend’s permission to take a walk or go to dinner with him. You might find you don’t want to do it again, so there’s no reason to raise it right now. But if you discover you two enjoying each other’s company, then yes, you must tell your friend that you met her ex by chance and you two hit it off. If she wants to end the friendship, bid her adieu.
Q. Re: Spoiled Niece: My sister and her husband make a substantial amount of money compared to me, a single parent whose husband left me straddled with debt and no insurance money. (His death was a suicide, so no payout.) I love your response to the LW. Yes, my sister and her husband make a lot more than me, but my kids and I have a nice, albeit small, roof over our heads (advantages of small include not much yard to mow and a much smaller electric bill!). We have enough money to occasionally eat out and see a movie. We’re not rolling in money, but we are fine, and when I consider where we could be … I just count my blessings. The LW needs to learn to see the good things she has!
A: You and your children have been through a harrowing ordeal, and how lucky they are to have a mother who takes on life with such equanimity and optimism. Thank you for this lesson!
Q. Weighty Issue: I’m a healthy woman standing at 5-foot-5. Before I got married, I weighed 115 pounds. I didn’t gain a lot of weight during pregnancy, either, because of severe morning sickness that plagued me for the entire nine months. But since our daughter was born (she is now 3), I’ve had little time for exercise or looking after myself. I now weigh 145 pounds. My doctor says I’m still in the healthy range of BMI and I feel okay. Granted, I don’t look the same as I did before becoming a mother, but I don’t want to be obsessed with my looks either. The problem is my husband, who constantly tells me I need to lose weight. At first he tried to say he was worried about my health, but later admitted that he’s not as attracted to me as he once was. I am hurt and angry by this, and I am even more determined not to lose weight for the sake of pleasing my man. I feel like he should love all 145 pounds of me no matter what. We’ve argued a lot over my weight and appearance and now neither of us is attracted to each other. Should I lose my weight or should he change his attitude?
A: I can’t tell you how many husbands (maybe yours!) write to me about this problem. They first try the “I want you to be healthy” route, to no effect. Then, usually after their wives press them, they “admit,” as yours did, that a large weight gain is a turn-off. It’s true you are not at an alarming weight for your height. But 30 extra pounds in a short amount of time is concerning. I assume you don’t plan to put on 10 pounds a year for the foreseeable future, which would fairly quickly land you in the unhealthy area. I’m also concerned that your reason is that you say you don’t have time to look after yourself or really care about your appearance anymore. Are you depressed? Are you so wrapped up in your daughter’s life that you have lost a sense of your own autonomy? Ideally, your husband loves you no matter what your size, and vice versa. But I think it’s fair for him to note that he married someone slender who no longer is and doesn’t seem to care. Getting in a power struggle over your weight is a disaster that likely makes you turn away from your husband and to Ben & Jerry for comfort. But you need to figure out for your own sake why you think being a mother is incompatible with keeping yourself in shape.
Q. Hobo Costume Party: I was home from college last Saturday and the oldest person in the house; my parents were out for the evening. My 16-year-old sister wanted to go to her friend’s 16th birthday bash, which my parents OK’d because it was a chaperoned party. When my sister came down to leave, I noticed her clothes were baggy, dirty, and had some holes in them. I asked what was up with her look. She told me her friend’s party was a “hobo costume party” and that guests needed to dress like “hobos.” I was turned off by the theme and, like a true tattle tale, called my parents to tell them the kind of party my sister wanted to attend. They were grossed out by the theme too, and they forbade her from attending. Pictures from the party have popped up on Facebook, so I’m glad my sister wasn’t there to be photographed. She’s still pretty mad with me and said I’m a loser sister. Should I have let her go to the hobo party, or was I right to call my parents? Or did we both do wrong?
A: I think the theme is in bad taste, too. I understand “hobo” is probably considered an archaic term by the kids, but they probably are being savvy enough not to call it a “homeless person” party. In the olden days, when there were hobos, kids could go to a party like that, their parents could find out and explain why it was insensitive, and that would be the end of it. Nowadays, dressing up as a homeless person for fun is documented and disseminated on the Internet—presumably forever. Your sister is lucky she will never have to explain these embarrassing photos. I think you did right, big sis, to act as in loco parentis and keep your sister away from a loco idea for a party.
Q. Re: Spoiled Niece: Given that American Girl Dolls are $100-125 and the girl saved for the two of them over 18 months, that is saving $11-14 a month. And also assuming the charitable donation and the amount to savings is the standard 10 percent, and that she spends a small amount each month, that puts this 10-year-old girl’s allowance (payment for chores) at somewhere around $20-25 a month, which is not unreasonable in this day and age.
A: Thank you for doing the math—which further puts in perspective how well the niece and nephew are being raised and how ugly the envy of the letter writer is.
Q. Weight Gain and Sympathy: My partner has gained weight over the past year. I’m still very much sexually attracted to him, but the weight gain is definitely not a positive. He is aware of his weight gain and comments frequently on it (“I’m so fat, Look at this gut,” etc.). I have lost a significant amount of weight and have ideas on how one does it. However, whenever I’ve offered suggestions after he makes a comment, he sounds horrified. He says he’s looking for “sympathy.” Well, sympathy is the one thing I can’t offer him. It’s not like he has a thyroid problem or an eating disorder, he just eats terribly, drinks more than he should, and engages in no form of exercise. It was very hard for me to lose weight and it’s hard to maintain, and I don’t have any “sympathy” for someone who does nothing. So, when he says something about it now, there is now just awkward silence. I want him to put up or shut up, and he seems to be doing neither. What can I do?
A: Have I got a girl for him! This is an interesting insight about wanting sympathy for a weight problem, instead of wanting to address is. I think you should tell your boyfriend what you’ve said here, that you can’t offer him sympathy because the only way to deal with a weight issue is the ways you’ve previously outlined. Then tell him you no longer want to discuss this. It may be that you find yourself less attracted to him not because of his weight, but his attitude about it.
Q. Wedding Protocol: My son will soon be married to a lovely woman, and I’m very happy and excited for them. I realize that the mother of the groom is a minor figure in the wedding party, but I admit that I was looking forward to the mother-son dance at the reception. My son and I have a close relationship as we supported each other in the difficult task of caring for his disabled younger brother. For me, the dance is a special tradition where I could thank him for being a wonderful son and say goodbye to the boy who is becoming the man of his own house. I was surprised, then, when he mentioned to me that his bride doesn’t like being the center of attention, and she wants the father-daughter dance and the mother-son dance held at the same time. It’s the bride’s day, not mine, so I’m prepared to be a grown-up and suck up my disappointment. However, I’m uncomfortable at the prospect of intruding on what usually is a very personal moment for the bride and her father. Can you say something that will help me get over this?
A: You are a woman who has lovingly cared for a disabled son, so you know that life can be arbitrary, hard, and unfair. What is not a problem in life, however, is that you and your son will share the dance floor with his bride and her father. The scene you describe sounds lovely—an adjective you use for your new daughter-in-law—and should have you counting your blessings, not stewing in disappointment.
Q. Cheating Ex: I really liked my ex-husband’s girlfriend Molly until I found out from my former sister-in-law that my husband began dating Molly two years before our divorce. He initiated the proceedings—I knew our marriage was in trouble, but he refused to go to counseling with me—and it took me a long time to recover from the heartbreak of his leaving me. We’ve now been divorced for three years, we are pretty good co-parents together, and we’re both very happy in new relationships. But now I’m shocked and hurt that my husband left me in part because he wanted to be with his girlfriend. This news has lowered Molly in my estimations and has also made me very angry. I feel like an idiotic fool. I have no idea how to proceed, though. I have proof that Molly and my ex-husband began seeing one another two years before he and I divorced, so this isn’t a malicious rumor on my sister-in-law’s part.
A: I don’t blame you for your feelings about your ex and Molly. I think you should add your ex-sister-in-law to this pantheon of miscreants. She has some strange motivation to be the snake in the grass long after you and your husband have left Eden. It’s humiliating to find out you’ve been played for a fool, but fortunately you are discovering your husband’s and Molly’s deceit long after the fact. And the fact is, you are better off without him—you sound better off without his whole family—and say you are in a happier relationship that the one you had with him. Molly could end up being your children’s stepmother, so it’s important for you not to turn your anger on her or say anything to her about your discovery. I hope you have some good friends, who are able to keep their mouths shut, who can hear you out and give you the sympathy you deserve. I hope you will then quickly find yourself sick of discussing your ex and his paramour. You might take quiet comfort in knowing that relationships that begin with a betrayal often end that way, too.
Q. I Want To Fire My Perfect Nanny: “Mary” is every working mother’s dream nanny. She adores my 2-year-old daughter “Katie” and they have so much fun together. Mary is an active lady, so when my daughter naps for an hour in the afternoon she will use that time to clean the kitchen or prepare us dinner, even though we make it clear she doesn’t have to. If I’m held back at work occasionally, Mary will happily stay longer and refuses overtime. She carefully plans different activities with my daughter, reads to her a lot, and strictly feeds her only the healthiest of food. Perfect, right? I thought so, until Katie began to see Mary as more of a mommy than a nanny. After eight months of being together, Mary is the first person she asks for when she wakes up. Katie is usually a friendly child, but when Mary is around, she becomes clingy and refuses to go to anyone else. Katie gets incredibly upset parting with Mary each day. They obviously have a special bond but I feel hurt and upset that Katie loves Mary more. I’ve spoken to my husband about letting Mary go, and he thinks I’m crazy. What should we do?
A: Can you write back to the chat and give Mary’s full name and phone number? She will have parents bidding for her services. I understand your distress, but your daughter knows you are her mother and she loves you. You don’t say that you think Mary undermines you in any way—it’s just that she’s a great nanny so your daughter also adores her. The behavior you’re describing in your daughter is completely normal and will change as she gets older. Think of what you’re saying: You’re considering getting a worse nanny to make you look better. But replacing Mary with someone your daughter doesn’t like as well will not actually raise you in her estimation. It will just confuse her about adults. Revel that you have done your daughter the great service of finding her a fabulous caregiver.
Q. Re: Hobo Party: Unfortunately, in the popular teen/tween show iCarly, the kids had a hobo party. I’m not surprised this would then become a theme for other kids. TV is influential, and what might have seemed funny to the writers on a TV show becomes pretty insensitive in real life.
A: Thanks for the explanation. A part of me does think “A hobo party, so what?” And as another letter writer pointed out, people dress up in all sorts of ways for Halloween. But it’s just better for your kid not to be immortalized forever as a homeless person, and also to think about what it means to dress up for fun as if you are destitute. It’s also good for a kid—even a 16-year-old—to have her parents say, “Nope, I just don’t like that, so you’re not going.”
Q. Re: Wedding Protocol: I was a bride who did not want to be alone on the dance floor with my father for similar dislike of the spotlight. My husband and mother-in-law shared “What a Wonderful World” with us, and wouldn’t you know it, with the whole big dance floor to ourselves I don’t think we bumped into each other once. There are lots of photos of just me with my father and just my husband with his mother, and there was a lot less anxiety for me on an already stressful day.
A: Thanks—you have written the words that should end the new mother-in-law’s angst.
Q. July 4 Drama: Last year my aunt and uncle hosted a big Christmas party for our family and hers. My aunt’s Uncle Kevin drank a lot and manhandled me as I came out of the bathroom that evening. He held me against the door and cupped my crotch and my right breast. I did not tell anyone, because I was so embarrassed. My parents won’t be in town for the Fourth of July, so they’ve invited my aunt and uncle and their kids to use their lakeside cabin over the holiday. I will also be at the cabin over the Fourth. My aunt just emailed me to let me know that Kevin and his wife will join us at the cabin. I feel anxious and nauseated. I haven’t seen Kevin since he grabbed me at the Christmas party. I don’t want to spend a single night in the same house as him. But since I never spoke up about the incident, and now that months have passed, I don’t know what recourse I can take. I was 18 when it happened, and I’m 19 now.
A: Please tell your parents. It is not the least bit unusual for victims not to speak up after a sexual assault (that’s what Kevin’s actions were)—the Jerry Sandusky trial made that abundantly clear. But even though a year has passed, it’s not too late to let your parents know. Sure, you may not want to pursue this legally, but Kevin needs to be told by your parents he is no longer welcome, and why.
Q. Re: Perfect nanny: I am 30 years old, and the daughter of working parents. We had a nanny like Mary, and my mom recently described behavior just like Kate’s, and feelings just like the LW, when I was a toddler. (I’m pregnant, which is how it came up.) Honestly, I could hardly believe her—I never have had any doubt about who my mom was. I bragged about her on the first day of kindergarten. I adore and respect my mom, always have, always will. It’ll work out.
A: This should be very reassuring to all parents who have perfect nannies! How great that you can look back and remember how you felt about the wonderful women in your life.
Q. My Husband, the Etiquette Police: My husband and I work in the same area and commute together on the subway. Occasionally, we come across someone who isn’t very considerate—talking loudly on a cellphone, leaving their bike by the door, watching a clip on a smartphone without headphones, etc. Instead of either (a) ignoring it or (b) politely asking them to be more thoughtful of others, he takes the passive aggressive route. Just before we get off the subway, he’ll glare at the offender and loudly complain—“What kind of an idiot doesn’t know how to use headphones?” or “Do people not know how to talk on their cellphone quietly?”—and so on. It’s enough to attract attention on the offender, and I’m certain he’s left at least a dozen fellow commuters embarrassed. I don’t make excuses for people who are inconsiderate on the subway, but I think it’s equally rude to publicly embarrass them. I’ve pointed this out to him several times but he thinks they deserve to feel embarrassed and/or that he’s teaching them a lesson. Frankly, I’m the one who’s embarrassed by his behavior. Since talking to him about this hasn’t diminished his sense of moral duty as an etiquette police, should I just ignore this as one of those annoying quirks that everyone has to tolerate in a spouse? Or should I take drastic measures, like refusing to sit next to him?
A: When other commuters mention how rude their fellow passengers can be, they will be citing your husband as an example of some jerk who just popped off for no apparent reason. If your husband wants to be encased in a bubble, away from the depredations of others, he should drive—but your husband is probably the kind of driver who flashes his brights at others. There are a couple of problems with your husband’s approach. His rudeness tops that of the miscreants he is trying to correct, and he runs the risk of calling someone an idiot who decides to respond physically. Yes, marriage means putting up with each other’s quirks—but not if they potentially endanger you. Tell your husband taking public transportation means learning to ignore the people around you. And if he can’t do that, you will sit in another car and ignore him.
Q. Confessing an Affair After the Marriage Has Ended: My soon-to-be-ex-wife and I are going through a divorce. We’re trying to do our best to keep things civil, but obviously there are a lot of negative emotions running through. Last week I received a drunken 2 a.m. call from my wife, starting with a stream of abuse. This was totally out of character for her so I stayed on the line to make sure she wasn’t somewhere dangerous and somebody was looking after her. Then she blurted out, “Did you cheat on me when we were together? Answer me honestly and I won’t hate you for the rest of my life.” I was shocked, because I did have a short fling about a year before we separated. It was on the other side of the world, with a woman who has absolutely zero mutual connections with me, and I was pretty damn sure nobody would ever find out. I was very careful. I told her she was drunk and needed to rest and hung up. We haven’t had any contact since. I am not sure whether I should ’fess up, or let it be. If she already knows somehow, I feel like I at least owe her my honesty and acknowledge I had an affair, apologize, and tell her it wasn’t her fault. But I’m worried that this is going to unleash a whole lot of ill feelings and even more unnecessary hurt than what we’re both going through. Your thoughts?
A: She’s about to become your ex. Now is the time for your lawyers to sort out your separation, not to give her ammunition for an emotional (or legal) fusillade. You handled her call very well. If she makes any more like that, tell her you’re sorry to hear her in distress and that you hope she seeks help.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great July Fourth! Talk to you next week.