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 started.
Q. My Female Cousin Won’t Tell Her Boyfriend She Used To Be Male!: My cousin is a beautiful woman, formerly a man. She has done a couple of modeling jobs as well. She has a lot of guys after her but never had a serious relationship until now. She met my co-worker “John” several months ago and things are starting to get serious. That’s why I was surprised to discover that she hasn’t told him about her gender reassignment. I usually think that the past is generally best left in the past, but this to me is a huge exception. By hiding her past as a man, I feel that my cousin is hiding a big and important chunk of her life. My cousin says that John does not want kids anyway so she has no reason to tell him. I now feel guilty whenever I see John. I know that only a handful of people outside the family know, but expected her to tell John when they got serious. Should I insist on her telling him, or butt out of it entirely?
A. I agree that beginning a relationship does not require presenting your new love interest a due-diligence dossier, nor a cheek swab of one’s DNA. But there is some information that potential partners are entitled to pretty early on; these include one’s marital status, STD test results, interactions with law enforcement, relevant medical conditions (including previous substance abuse problems), questions about sexual orientation, and gender at birth. For some potential partners the information revealed may elicit a shrug: “I have herpes, too.” For others it will be a deal-breaker: “I appreciate you’re telling me you’ve got three kids out of wedlock, but I think we’re just at different places in our lives.” That Juliette was born Jason is just one of those things that will be revealed eventually. Juliette should realize the dishonesty of not telling could itself become a relationship ender. When relationships get serious, that usually leads to visits with the family, and often a look at childhood photo albums. Juliette will either have to keep John away, or ask her family to do an Soviet-style editing of history. It’s just not going to work—someone is going to out Juliette, and surely she knows it. I think you should tell your cousin she’s living in a dream world and that she’s being unfair to John, even if he has a lack of desire for children. Of course, it could be that John flees, or it could be that he says, “She’s more than woman enough for me.” But it’s his right to know the crucial piece of history. You are in a difficult position since you have relationships with both parties, but you didn’t fix up John and Juliette, so you don’t bear that moral responsibility of letting him know. I think you should tell your cousin you will not be the one to deliver the news to John. If he brings up the relationship with you, you can be non-committal and tight-lipped and just say you’re glad to hear he’s enjoying your cousin’s company.
Dear Prudence: Drama In the Break Room
Q. A Big Mess: Thanks to a sleepover this weekend, I learned my daughter’s friend Jayne poops her bed at age 8. I woke up in the middle of the night to find her crying and trying to wash the sleeping bag we lent her. I helped her clean up, gave her some clean pajamas—and in the process I learned she sometimes cannot control her bowels. I know from talking with her parents before that they don’t trust doctors, so I think that’s why they’ve never taken Jayne to see a specialist. Jayne says they make her wear diapers when they go out and make her clean up her mess when it happens at home. Every time she poops herself, she gets a time out. I am horrified by Jayne’s parents’ parenting methods. I want to respect their right to raise their child how they see fit—but at the same time, they don’t seem like fit parents to me. Jayne has a medical issue which they shame her for and for which they do not seek medical attention. What should I say to Jayne’s parents to avoid putting them on the defensive? And if they refuse to take Jayne to a doctor, what are the next steps I should take? Like many of your readers, I am wary of Child Protective Services.
A: This is a horrifying story. I do not want to debate each week the merits or deficiencies of Child Protective Services, but we have institutional safety nets in this country to protect vulnerable people who are not getting the care they need. Jayne is one. An 8-year-old child who is forced to wear diapers because she has an undiagnosed and untreated medical condition is a child whose parents need a visit from the authorities. If this poor girl had untreated diabetes, would the parents take away her toys every time she went into a diabetic coma? Normally, I would say the first step when you hear something concerning about what’s going on a child’s home is to discuss it with the parents. But there is nothing normal about this situation, and from your previous conversations with them you know they don’t believe in modern medicine. It sounds pretty clear if you tell them Jayne had a bowel movement in the bed while at your house and you had to clean it up, her parents would punish her. You could call the girl’s school and see if any personnel are there now and report this to them. They are mandated reporters and would have to take action. But if you can’t get anyone, then yes, I think a phone call to CPS is required. This child’s parents are imposing on her a terrible physical and psychological burden, and she needs help.
Q. A Costly Visit: I am my husband’s second wife. He was previously married for three years until losing his first wife in a tragic accident. (They had no children together.) Every year since her death, my husband took a day off work on her birthday to visit her resting place. I don’t know what he does there, but I respected that as his time to grieve and remember. We have recently relocated to China for a project that is expected to last about a year. In the busy-ness of moving to a new country, he remembered his first wife’s birthday is soon coming up. My husband wishes to book a last-minute ticket back home to visit her resting place again. I objected to this for the first time in our married life. The return airfare plus accommodation is hugely expensive. Maybe he thinks it’s worth the cost, but in light of other expenses we currently face, it’s a huge price tag for a sentimental trip back home. Furthermore, I am finding it difficult in a foreign country where I don’t speak the language. The idea of my husband leaving me with the kids now seems daunting. My husband is hurt and angry that I’m asking him not to go, I think he needs to weigh up the practical considerations. Am I unreasonable here?
A. I also married a widower who has continued to honor the memory of his late wife who died tragically young. For the first few years of our marriage, we had a shared home office and he had a picture of Robin on his desk, which was fine with me. Eventually, he took it off his desk and put it in a drawer. When I noticed it was gone I asked him about it and he said he felt it was time. I’m glad you have respected your husband’s need to acknowledge his first wife and honor her life each year. But I also don’t think you are being unreasonable in saying his plan this year is enormously expensive and disruptive to your family.
You are now both in your corners, defending your positions. You need to reopen this discussion. Tell him you apologize for what you see is your insensitivity to his desire. Say that you were speaking out of your own sense of being overwhelmed, and couldn’t see the request through his eyes. Then after he responds say that you understand the imperative he feels, but you are hoping he can find another way to honor his late wife. Say you understand the need for ritual, but you are hoping he can find a way to recognize her birthday that doesn’t involved a flight across the world. Maybe she loved art, and he can spend the day at a museum, thinking of her. Maybe they liked to hike together, so he can set off for a walk while he remembers their time together. If you can let him know that you support his need to recognize her birthday, he might see that what’s most important is that her spirit exists within him, and wherever he is, he can feel she is with him on this special day.
Q. Sex and Sleepovers: Over the weekend my husband and I hosted my stepdaughter’s 10th birthday sleepover. I got up in the middle of the night to check on the girls, and they were all asleep. My husband woke up when I climbed back into bed, he kissed me, and we began to make love. In the middle of the act, the bedroom door swung open and one of my stepdaughter’s friends caught us in flagrante. We quickly clothed ourselves and tried to play the situation off as if we hadn’t been having sex. My stepdaughter’s friend went along with it, and we helped her get the glass of water she wanted. The next morning, after all the girls went home, this girl’s mom called me. She yelled at me for being irresponsible and exposing her daughter to sex. She said she should have been called right away so she could choose how to handle things. She even threatened to call the other sleepover attendees’ parents and tell them about my husband and me having sex. Were we really so wrong to make love during a sleepover? And what’s the best way to minimize this fallout?
A: You have a bunch of 10-year-old girls over and after the game of hide and seek, you finally get them settled into bed. I find it hard to believe you didn’t know that a rule of sleepovers is that later that night the parents cannot play hide the salami. I have a daughter and have had many birthday sleepovers, and while I can imagine cleaning up the poop of one of the attendees, I cannot fathom getting in the mood while a bunch of elementary school kids are snoozing nearby—for just the reason you cite. Surely you know the propensity for small children to need a glass of water, or help stumbling to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Yep, you blew it. You should have expected the child to tell her parents and that they would be furious. However, if the other mother can calm down, I hope she will realize that it would have been counterproductive for them to get a call at 3:00 a.m. saying, “There’s been an emergency. Kayla just walked in on us having sex, so the party’s over.” However, it would have been much smarter for you to have had a private talk with this mom, explaining what happened, apologizing, and saying you are not sure what the girl saw, but you wanted her to have a heads up. Now you need to call her and say you understand her distress and you are very sorry. Explain you had just checked on the girls and they were all asleep but that doesn’t excuse your bad judgment. Add that of course you’ve learned your lesson and such a thing will never happen again. Say that it is her choice whether to tell the other parents, but since you know you made a mistake and none of the other girls were involved, you hope she doesn’t. And so this doesn’t happen with your own stepdaughter, when the mood strikes, flip the lock on your bedroom door.
Q. Star-Struck Supervisor: I am fortunate to have a job I love in these troubling times. I get along well with all of my co-workers, with only one real problem. My supervisor now has stars in her eyes every time she sees me. I happen to have a famous cousin and she has found out about this. There is a strong family resemblance and if someone notices I’m not shy about mentioning my famous cousin. But this time, I wish I had kept my mouth shut. She now considers me her inside scoop and is constantly asking about everything. I can’t say it disrupts my work because it really doesn’t, but I find myself running away from the office on my breaks because I know she will be right with me begging for news. How do I shut this down? She hasn’t breached any office rules or policies so I can’t justify going up the chain of command, but I can’t just keep running away (gas is just too expensive!) every time break rolls around. For the record, I have tried everything short of being rude to her.
A: Tell her that you and your cousin are not close and from your conversations with the boss it’s clear she knows more about your cousin that you do. Say that you don’t follow your cousin’s activities or read celebrity news, so you cannot add anything to the boss’s store of knowledge. Then when she continues to bug you on break say, “Alexis, as I’ve said, if you read US magazine, you know more than I do. Excuse me, I’m using this free time to catch up on the Economist.”
Q. Re: stepdaughter party: Wow, your response is a little harsh. Ten years old is not 4 years old. The kid could have woken her friend up. And, what about knocking? A 10-year-old kid should know better than to open someone’s door up without knocking. That’s a rude kid, the other parent should have taught her daughter better.
A. I don’t think it’s a good idea for the in flagrante parents to go on the defensive. What are they going to say: “Hey, doesn’t your kid know to never enter anyone’s bedroom without knocking? It’s your daughter who was out of line and I hope you’re raising her better than this incident indicates.” This is a sleepover. Kids wake up in the middle of the night disoriented and they barge into parents’ rooms. It’s not going to work to try to shift the blame.
Q. Embryo Adoption: My daughter was born via embryo adoption—she is not related genetically to myself or my husband, though I gave birth to her. We have told family and close friends and have even begun to talk to her a little bit about it. (She’s a toddler.) My question is what to say to well-meaning strangers and acquaintances who comment on the fact that she doesn’t physically resemble either of me or my husband, as well as those who insist she does. I don’t really feel like explaining the whole story to every single person who makes these observations, but I don’t want my daughter to think there is something we need to hide about how we made our family.
A: Who are the “well-meaning strangers” who feel it’s their duty to comment on the lack of physical resemblance between parents and children? They’re jerks and they don’t need a response. Just walking on, or saying, “I don’t think I know you, so please excuse me,” is fine. But I understand you don’t want the issue of your daughter’s biological origins or appearance to seem to be anxiety-provoking to you, and thus her. For people who do see a resemblance, or who observe, “What gorgeous green eyes she has,” you can just say, “She is a cutie, thanks.”
Q. Boundaries: My Aunt “Linda” has mild dementia and lives with my retired mother and me. Recently we were surprised to receive a visitor for Aunt Linda, “Dave,” who turned out to be Aunt Linda’s high school sweetheart. My mom later explained that Dave and Aunt Linda were engaged but his family vehemently opposed the match. Dave bowed under pressure and eventually married someone else. Apparently he came to regret it for many decades. He asked if he could visit Aunt Linda regularly and help my mother take care of her. The thing is, Dave is still married and has several children and grandchildren. Dave admitted his family doesn’t know anything and his wife would obviously disapprove of his spending time with a former sweetheart. My mom seems to think it will be harmless for Dave to visit. We’re not sure if Aunt Linda recognized him, but mom thinks she would benefit from some company. I think it’s wrong for a married man to come and care for another woman, even if there is a zero chance of anything intimate (physical or emotional) occurring. It is still wrong. What advice do you have here?
A: If you and your mother are caring for an aunt with dementia, I’m sure it’s a relief to have an old friend come visit and give you a break. Dave is a grown man, he’s a grandfather for goodness’ sake, and it would have been better for you not to even have gotten into whether he’s told his wife about these visits. It sounds like you gave him a grilling since you say he “admitted” his wife didn’t know. However, you must be confident that Dave is not going to exploit the situation and try to have a sexual relationship with someone who can’t give consent, and who will not be making demands on him. If the visits consist of playing cards, or reminiscing, or taking your aunt out to lunch, then his personal life is his business.
Q. My BIL Terrified My Son: Last weekend my husband’s brother and his wife volunteered to watch our three kids so we could attend an out of town wedding. Since returning home, my 7-year-old son has had trouble sleeping and has seemed unusually fearful, not only for his sake but also for the sake of his sisters. On Friday evening, after he tried to get our entire family to sleep together, my husband and I pried the cause of his worries from him: While spending the night at his aunt and uncle’s home, his uncle told him about a demon that devours children in the night. He told my son that men in their family hunted this demon and that now he was of an age to protect his family from the demon. I was livid and wanted to call my brother-in-law and tear him a new one. My husband called his brother, and his brother told him he had been joking. He apologized for scaring our son, and my husband forgave him. I’m still furious, though, and I’m worried about my brother-in-law’s mental state. He has never done anything like this before, and his actions were irresponsible and cruel. What if he actually believes what he said? My husband wants to drop the issue, but our son still refuses to sleep alone.
A: Let me reassure all of you I didn’t put out a call this week for the nuttiest sleepover letters. Unless you have evidence that your brother-in-law in having a psychological break, it sounds more like an instance of him getting carried away with scary stories and not being aware of how vulnerable his nephew is. After all, many of the Grimm fairy tales are unusually grim and full of violence and death. You need to continue to reassure your son that Uncle Joe thought he was being funny, and he didn’t realize he wasn’t. It would help if your brother-in-law called your son and explained he was telling him a totally made-up story, there are no demons, no man in the family has ever hunted one, and therefore you son doesn’t have to worry about them. He should say he thought he was telling a funny-scary story, but he realizes now it was just a stupid-scary story, and he apologizes. That might be enough to get your son back to his own bedroom, gripping his teddy bear for safety.
Q. Re: Sleepover Sex: The woman and her husband are at fault for having sex in their own house in their own bedroom behind a closed door? Exactly why does a girl who is 8-10 have to bother an adult when she wants a glass of water in the middle of the night? Does she not know enough to find her way to the kitchen, get a glass, and run the tap? And how does a girl get to be 8-10 without learning to respect the privacy of a couple in their own bedroom? Would she not knock and get acknowledged before entering? If she does barge into the bedroom without knocking, how many time has she caught her parents fooling around? Or could it be that her parents no longer have sex?
A: This is the consensus reaction, and I am astounded. Maybe I just have known an unusual number of incompetent elementary school girls, but if I were hosting a sleepover, I would not have been surprised to have one come into my bedroom because she forgot where the bathroom was or was afraid to go to the kitchen in the middle of the night by herself. I just can’t imagine getting in the mood under those circumstances. And for all the people ragging on the rude child, well, I assume the adults know how to turn the lock to prevent unwanted sex education, which they failed to do. If my kid came home from a sleepover having gotten such an eyeful, I wouldn’t have been thrilled, nor would I have blamed her.
Q. MIL Cake Battle: My mother-in-law teaches cooking classes and is an excellent cook and baker. I also enjoy cooking and baking. My home is centrally located, so I host many family events. Everyone usually brings a dish (one less for me to make!). She brings five. We talk ahead of time about what she will bring, and then she always brings more. More food is usually a good thing, but for special events (baptisms, first birthdays), I would like to make a cake. She insists on bringing additional desserts (sometimes two or more). My husband has asked her not to, so has BIL and FIL. Our new policy is to put the additional food away in the freezer downstairs. At my daughter’s first birthday party, she went around telling every guest that there was a cheesecake in the freezer … ugh. She had specifically asked to bring a cake, and I said “No, I am making a cake.” I have a secret desire to respond the next time she asks what she can bring, “Well you’re going to bring whatever you want to anyway … so do whatever you want.” How do I host parties without going insane from the food competition?
A: You let it go. You are a terrific baker, so your family knows that, and so will your daughter on the many occasions you bake together. Since you know your mother-in-law is going to show up with a birthday cake no matter what you do, if you want to make a special cake for your little girl, do so the night before. Then accept that your Top Chef of a mother-in-law is going to bring dessert, so don’t make one. When she arrives with her cake boxes, tell her how delicious it all looks and you can’t wait to sample. That way you will have your cake and eat it, too.
Q. Engagement and Parents: I recently got engaged to the man who I want to spend the rest of my life with. We’re really happy. We met while I was working in South Asia in rural development in his home country. We dated for about nine months and then got engaged about a month before my contract ended. I’m back in the West and he is still there waiting for visas to come through. We have one big problem: my parents. They knew from the beginning that we were dating and had “met” him on Skype multiple times. We called them after we got engaged and my mom started crying and not because she was happy. He isn’t on the Ph.D. track like many members of my extended family (nor am I) and we’re just three years out of college, so maybe that’s on their minds, but I think the real issue is that he’s Buddhist and I come from a Christian family. We’ve talked extensively about what our life will look like as a inter-religious family and we understand that it’s a lifelong discussion. I’ve found our conversations edifying and challenging. How to I win my parents over? It’s important to us that they are part of this.
A: I’m going to venture that the religious difference is just one thing that got your mother crying, not with joy, when you broke the news. While they were excited for you to go off and see the world and meet new people, they didn’t expect your adventure would lead to your bethrothal. Your boyfriend may be a magnificent person, you may spend the rest of your life with him, and your parents may come around. But also on their mind is the thought that you haven’t known him very long, you are very young, and he perhaps sees you as a ticket to America. Instead of setting out to win your parents over, talk to them about their concerns. Maybe you can reassure them. Maybe what they have to say will raise questions in your own mind. Given the gaps between you and your boyfriend in your cultures and religion, I would at the least suggest you take your time before you tie the knot.
Q. Re: Caking In-Law: Have the gal with the one-upster MIL buy lots of mini to-go boxes and when MIL brings the many cakes, divided up her many cakes as goodie bags to go for the guests.
A: Great suggestion, thanks. I’d like to be at that party!
Q. Trans Partner and Nonbiological Child: My husband is a transgendered male who had transitioned before we met, and I absolutely understand how hard it must be for people to reveal something like that about themselves when they start dating someone. Nonetheless, it is something you have to tell a partner early on—my husband and I were friends for a while before sparks started flying, and when it became clear we were headed in that direction, he told me right away about his transition. It was definitely mind-blowing, but I was able to absorb the news and decide that I wanted to be in a relationship. Anyone who isn’t able to do that isn’t the right partner for a trans person. On a second note, we now have a baby who does not share my husband’s DNA. We often get comments from people trying to decide who he looks like, etc., including from family who know our story. I think it’s just human nature to try to draw those comparisons, and we have so far just smiled and gone along with it. As he gets older, he’ll certainly know about how we had him, but I think that when it’s a positive comparison (“He X, Y, Zs just like his daddy”), there’s no reason to dismiss it just because they don’t share DNA.
A: If only you’d had a wacky sleepover story, you would be wrapping up the entire column. Thank you for this. You are absolutely right that if your potential partner can’t accept such “mind-blowing” news, then you two don’t belong together. And I love your response to people who see genetic resemblances between your son and his dad.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. And be sure to place a piece of heavy furniture in front of the bedroom door. Talk to you next week.