Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Relationships: I’m dating a wonderful man whom I love very much. Our relationship is loving, fun, comfortable, and full of trust, and we’ve started discussing marriage. I was very happy in the relationship until about six months ago, when we befriended another couple, Jen and Mark. Like us, they are in their late 20s and have been together for four years or so. But their relationship is like a fairytale romance. They gaze adoringly into each other’s eyes and it’s as if no one else in the world exists. From what Jen’s told me, their sex life is incredible. They finish each other’s sentences. The connection between them is almost tangible. I’ve never seen a couple like them … it’s like something out of a movie. I love my boyfriend immensely, but when I’m around Jen and Mark, our relationship seems inadequate by comparison. Should I endure the pain of breaking up with my boyfriend in order to seek out my own Prince Charming, or learn to appriciate what I already have?
A: I’m struck that to you Jen and Mark sound like a fairy tale because to me they sound like kind of a nightmare. If my husband were finishing all my sentences I’d be saying a lot, “Do you mind if I complete my own thought?” And if he were staring at my face all the time, I’d assume he was trying to signal me that I have spinach in my teeth. You are young, but surely you recognize that Jen and Mark are outliers. Their behavior is what you see when people first fall in love, the kind of goofy madness depicted in Shakespeare’s romantic comedies. Fortunately for people’s ability to get their work done, and not to have their friends rolling their eyes at their mind meld, this kind of singular focus tends to wear off. That doesn’t mean people can’t remain madly in love for years and decades. It doesn’t mean a sexual connection has to wane. But recognizing there are very few Jens and Marks does mean that you don’t have to engage in your own insanity by dumping a wonderful man who makes you happy in order to search for some romance novel fantasy of a guy who will think of nothing but you. Surely if you found one after a while his behavior would prompt you to say, “Can you get a hobby that doesn’t involve gazing at me?”
Q. Should I Tell My Daughter I’m Her Real Father?: I had a fling with an acquaintance many years ago. She became pregnant, didn’t tell me, and I only recently found out I have an 8-year-old daughter. Her mother is married and my daughter thinks he is her biological father. I can’t begin to describe how angry and devastated I am for missing out on my own child’s entire life to date. I want to get to know her and establish a father-daughter relationship over time, but my family seems to think this would be cruel and traumatic. They all say that the little girl is happy with the only father she knows, and it would be selfish of me to disturb that knowledge. I’ve been doing some research and I can definitely pursue my paternal rights for visitation. The mother knows this as well, and has begged me not to. I want to do what’s best for my daughter but I also want that to be having me in her life. Is it wrong to now step in and claim my role as a father?
A: I appreciate this letter because I have so often heard from the people on the other side of the equation. That is, from women who have had affairs and have children fathered by men other than the person they’re married to, men who have been held out as the biological father. Yours is the strongest possible argument for why keeping the secret is so potentially dangerous. How much better it would be for a child to know from her earliest years about her origins so that a stranger bearing DNA doesn’t unexpectedly show up and blow up her world. I think you should have another private conversation with the mother, and maybe even father (although it’s not clear here whether he knows he’s not the father) which you try to make as absolutely nonthreatening as possible. Ask her, or them, to try to understand this from your perspective—you have a child who you want to know. You can say that while you do have legal recourse to be part of her life, of course it would be best for everyone if your daughter was told the truth freely and you have not made any decision about pursuing legal action. Then let her and her husband think about it. If they refuse, then frankly, although I am generally in favor of the truth, I’m going to have to agree with your family and say that at least for now, you should back off. You know your arrival, particularly announced on legal letterhead is going to be traumatic for a child who is happy and probably doesn’t want to get to know you. Sometimes there are situations with no perfect resolution that inevitably cause pain, and this is one.
Q. Breast-feeding Becoming an Issue: My husband and I had a little girl three months ago. She’s the sweetest baby ever and we are both crazy in love with her. I am currently breast-feeding, and as you can imagine my life is consumed with either feeding her or pumping so I can have enough milk for when I go to work. The problem is that my husband has a hard time disassociating my breasts from their current job (making milk), so our sex life has been rather absent lately. When I brought this up a few weeks ago he admitted that he has a hard time getting turned on because my breasts are constantly in his face feeding the baby, therefore he has a hard time associating them as a sexual object. This same issue happened when I had my son five years ago—we hardly had sex during the time I was breast-feeding, but then it was back to normal once I stopped. I personally don’t see why it’s such an issue and want us to be intimate. With my son I stopped breast-feeding at 7 months and one of the main reasons was because of our lacking sex life. I don’t want to stop that early with my daughter so I feel he should get over this strange feeling he has. Do you have any advice in this area?
A: It’s really too bad your husband can’t embrace life in all its messy mammalian abundance. At least he is able to articulate his reason to you, and you know from experience that fortunately this is a self-limiting quirk on his part. Another aspect of this is that once your baby starts on solid food at about 6 months, even if you continue breast-feeding that will naturally tail off, so the lactation won’t be so much in your husband’s face. I am not defending your husband or his behavior! But even if I suggested therapy, by the time you finished exploring all the issues raised you might be concluding the breast-feeding anyway, and the return of your sex life would be seen as a therapeutic success. You and your husband can talk about this issue, which is great. So your husband should be able to hear from you that while you understand his feelings, you have feelings, too, and not being a sexual person until you wean is frustrating for you. Ask him to loosen up his hand-off policy—kissing and cuddling should be pleasant for both of you and might lead to more intimacy. Try to have a sense of humor about this with each other—you don’t want this to lead to even greater distance just as you expanded your family.
Q. Re: Biological Father: Actually, if the child was born during the marriage of the mother and the nonbio father, the bio father may have no rights at all. Each state is different—but in Virginia, a nonparent cannot claim parental rights when a married couple had a child during that marriage. The husband is presumptively the father, and only the husband or the wife can contest that—not an outsider to the marriage (EVEN if he is the bio father!). If the child was born before the marriage, the bio father may have rights. But that depends on what evidence he has that he is actually the bio father.
A: Thanks for this update, which indicates the letter writer needs to clarify his legal understanding. Yes, we are missing crucial information as to whether this child is the result of an affair during the marriage and whether the husband even knows his paternity is in dispute. If the wife was married, unless she and her husband were sexually estranged, there’s a question as to whether the letter writer can even be sure he is the biological father.
Q. Illegitimate Grandson: I found out that I have a 5-month-old grandson. His mother is not my daughter-in-law, but a woman with whom my son had a brief affair. My daughter-in-law and I have a fantastic relationship and I can’t even begin to describe how furious I am with my son for hurting her. It is even more upsetting because my daughter-in-law has been unable to get pregnant for three years. My son and his wife have known since the first trimester about the baby’s existence, but have decided to stay together and have nothing to do with the baby. I would really like to get to know my grandson and be a part of his life. I’ve talked to the mother and she said that while she’s OK with being a single parent, she would love for her child to have a connection with his paternal grandmother. I know I need to be honest to my son and his wife if I were to continue my relationship with my grandson. How do I start such a difficult conversation?
A: I wonder how your son intends to have nothing to do with this child. Surely he understand he’s going to have to at the very least financially support his boy. I had a letter last week from a young woman who was the out-of-wedlock child. She did have a relationship with her father, but one which was dictated by his still-angry wife. I reiterate, if your husband has a child by another woman your decent choices are either to divorce your husband or lovingly (to the best of your abilities) accept the child. Grandma, you need to have an honest conversation with your son and daughter-in-law and say that while you understand the pain the birth of this child has caused, you are concerned about an innocent child who doesn’t deserve to grow up estranged from half his family. Say you intend to be a grandmother to this boy, but you understand if they wish that you don’t inform then further about this relationship.
Q. Helping a Military Family: I live down the block from a military wife and her four young children. Her husband has been deployed pretty continuously for the past five years. I know my neighbor works more than one job and struggles to balance work and raising her kids. I want to help her in some way, because she’s looked progressively more stressed over the past months. My parents have agreed I could bring her kids over to our house a few nights a week if I’m willing to watch them, and my brothers want to mow their lawn and do housework she might need. Would we be out of line to offer the military wife our services? We don’t know her very well, and we don’t want her to feel like we see her as a charity case. Our parents also want to make sure we set up some clear boundaries so everyone involved knows what’s expected. Should we make the offer? Or maybe tone it down, so we don’t come off as weirdos?
A: I endorse your impulse, just not the way you plan to go about it. You say you don’t know this woman very well, so get to know her. Start by inviting her and the kids over for dinner. Say that you feel remiss as neighbors that you’ve never done this, then suggest a few nights that would work. With that start, you can begin to establish a neighborly friendship. Your brothers can offer to mow her lawn, you can offer to babysit. (I’m assuming you two are both teenagers, or living-back-at-home young adults.) If she says she wants to pay you can say that it would give you pleasure to do these things in honor of her husband’s service. Don’t be cloying, and don’t offer more than you can actually do. But helping a family who has sacrificed so much should make all of you feel good.
Q. I’m Not Your Father: My ex-wife had an affair while I was serving overseas and became pregnant. She divorced me to be with her baby’s father, but he left her and returned to his wife before the birth of their son. For reasons unknown to me, my ex-wife told her son (and I presume many other people in her life) I was his father and that I abandoned them. When her son turned 18, he sent me a long letter telling me about himself and insulting me for abandoning him and his mom. Since then he has sent me more letters, phoned me, and tried to get in contact with me several times a year. I am married with children of my own, and I ache for the loss this boy feels. At the same time, I do not want a relationship with him, and I don’t think it’s beneficial to anyone for him to continue to contact me. I have communicated with him briefly to tell him this, and I make sure to let him know he’s done nothing to make me feel this way. I always stop short of telling him his mom lied to him. My wife thinks I should tell him the truth, but for some reason it feels spiteful to me. Obviously I’ve bungled my handling of this completely. Please let me know if you have any suggestions.
A: Oh the tangled web we weave when with DNA we do deceive. I agree with your wife that this boy is owed the truth, and you should finally spit it out, preferably in a phone conversation with him. It will hurt him to know that every parent in his life has behaved abominably, but at least he can start dealing with it. In order to emphasize that you think he is entitled to the truth about his origins, offer to take a DNA test. That at least will clarify for him who has let him down.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. And if you’ve neglected to tell your kids who their real fathers are, reread this chat!
In a new approach, we’re publishing the chat transcript in shorter, more digestible pieces. You will still be getting all the questions and answers, and we may even publish bonus letters Prudie didn’t get to address during the chat hour.