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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Don’t cry for me because I’m back from Argentina. (A beautiful, strange, and fascinating place.) I hope everyone had a great Labor Day. Summer really feels over.
Q. Wife/Mother Conflict: A few years ago, I bought my girlfriend (now my wife) a print of a photograph she liked: a black and white portrait of a young woman wearing only a dinosaur mask and cowboy boots. We framed it and hung it on the wall of our bathroom. Now, 99 percent of the time I have no problem with it hanging there; it’s only an issue when my parents visit. My mother is fiercely, vocally anti-pornography, and while I don’t feel the picture is pornographic, it is explicit, and I don’t believe she’ll see it the same way we do. Up until now, we’ve agreed to take it down when my parents visit (although it’s been a bigger and bigger argument each time), but this time my wife insists that we leave it up, her argument being that this is her space and if someone doesn’t like the picture, that’s their problem. My concern is that my mother will not only hate the picture, it will put her in a sour mood and spoil much of the visit, and that knowing this is the sort of thing we like may alter my relationship with her. My wife feels this will help my mother see me more as the man I am. I only get to see my parents a few days a year, and I just want to keep the peace. Is my wife being unreasonable, or am I worried for no reason?
A: The photo sounds great and I’m sure even the Supreme Court (“I know it when I see it”) would declare this a piece of art not porn. Maybe, if the image bothers your mother, she can drape a hand towel over it while she relieves herself. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft had the partially nude Spirit of Justice statue draped so he didn’t have to hold press conferences in front of a naked, aluminum breast. I assume despite your mother’s distaste for pornography, she’s been to art museums and understands they aren’t simply warehouses of filth. Most telling, perhaps, is not your mother’s views on pornography but your implicit description that unless everything goes her way and everyone tiptoes around her, she ensures a miserable time is had by all. But such people always ensure a miserable time is had by all because there is no way to anticipate everything that might set her off. If the image of a naked body in a bathroom will ruin her visit, it’s a good thing her trip will be brief.
Q. Sworn to Secrecy About Molestation: I worked as a camp counselor this summer, as did several family friends my age. Several nights during a two week session, camp counselors would stand up in front of the entire camp and deliver a speech about a difficult time in their lives they managed to overcome. During one of the last sessions of the summer, my good friend Grace spoke about how her older brother Greg molested her throughout her childhood. I had never heard anything about this before and, because I knew Greg so well, I was shocked. I would never have suspected Greg was capable of such a heinous crime. According to Grace, she has forgiven Greg and had never spoken aloud of his behavior before camp. Their parents do not know. Grace swore all the other camp counselors who know her family to secrecy. I have seen Grace’s family, including Greg, twice since leaving camp, and each encounter leaves me stressed out. Another friend thinks we should tell Grace’s parents, because Greg has access to his two nieces and other young family members. Another person thinks we should question Grace more about the alleged molestation, because this is a significant accusation and it would be a mistake to accept it at face value. Outside of camp, Grace does not want to discuss the issue. Should I respect Grace’s wishes of secrecy? I cannot figure out another feasible option.
A: That must have been quite a campfire for the little kids. I certainly hope an adult was present for this event because not only should the parents of the campers be notified that things were discussed by a counselor that they should be aware of, the adults in charge of the camp should have been immediately on the phone to Grace’s parents, if not the authorities. Even though you are old enough to be a camp counselor, you are not an adult, so it is not your job to investigate the truth of these allegations or deal with them beyond making sure that grownups are. First of all, tell your parents and say you need their help. I hope they will contact the head of the camp, and also other authorities, so have them tell you what their plan of action is. Grace may have felt pressured to forgive her brother (I’m assuming her accusations are true), but if he’s done what she say, he need serious and immediate intervention, and she needs help.
Q. Parenting: I’m the stay-at-home mom of a 4-year-old girl, and we are being ostracized from play groups because I have told my daughter that if someone hits her first, she is allowed to hit back. I believe strongly that this is right, but I also want her to have friends. Should I change my policy and, if so, should I tell her why or pretend I believe it? BTW, the philosophy here is “we should use our words,” which is NOT what I would do if someone hit ME, but I guess that’s just me.
A: If only offices ran on the principles you are espousing. People would be biting each other at the copier, throwing coffee in one another’s faces, and lying on the floor kicking while screaming, “No, I won’t do it!” Your job is to civilize your child, and as much as you disbelieve in that mission, for the sake of your little girl, pretend you do. You explain to her that people shouldn’t hit, and if someone hits her she should tell a parent. You may believe “Use your fists” is less wishy-washy than “Use your words” but it would be nice for your daughter if she had a social life that reached beyond her mother.
Q. Difficult Mother: My 80-year-old mother has severe Parkinson’s disease. Ever since my dad died 11 years ago, she has lived with my sister “Nancy,” with intervals of traveling to stay with one of her four daughters (we’re all scattered around the country). She is currently staying with my family for a few months. The Parkinson’s is devastating physically (there are days when she can barely walk), but it also seems to have affected her mind; in recent months, she has become increasingly irrational and over-emotional, which apparently often happens with Parkinson’s. All of my sisters have had trouble dealing with her, and it’s hardest on Nancy, who has to take care of her full-time. The best place for her would be a nursing home, but when one of my sisters brought up the idea a few months ago my mother became very upset. We come from a culture in which nursing homes are very uncommon because it is considered the adult children’s responsibility to care for their aging parents. But it’s not fair for Nancy, whose mother-in-law also lives with her. It’s also getting harder for my mother to travel. Do you have any suggestions?
A. Nancy’s done enough, and unless one of the other sisters wants to take your mother in, it is time for your mother to be in a nursing home. I understand that this can sound cruel and heartless, but there are many wonderful facilities that can offer your mother the physical care and even the companionship she doesn’t get by being in a house all day. I have many friends who have gone through the agony of making this decision, then once the parent is in a good nursing home, they wish they had done it years ago. Before this happens, one of you should go with your mother to her doctor and see if an adjustment to her medication can alleviate some of her symptoms. It’s understandable your mother would resist this change and be unhappy about it. But if several of you go with her to visit homes, explain she will get better care there, and assure that she will be visited often, she might be more accepting. It’s wonderful that your mother has such loving children, but caring for an aging parent should not mean sacrificing your own physical and mental health.
Q. Mistress at the Wedding: My fiancé’s best friend Jim left his wife and two young children several months ago to be with his mistress. Now Jim would like to bring his mistress to our wedding (and other related events) as his date. As petty as this might sound, I do not want Jim to bring his girlfriend to my wedding. I will have to interact with her and strive for civility at some point, but I would prefer not to have to make that effort on such a special day. My fiancé and I also addressed the invitation to Jim and his wife, so I feel bringing another woman in his wife’s stead is rude. My fiancé doesn’t want to offend Jim but understands my feelings. What is the right and polite thing to do?
A: The invitation was to “Jim and Juliet” not “Jim and Whoever.” I’m not sure why the invitation to the wife isn’t the one that takes precedence here. People in long-term relationships should be treated as couples in matters of wedding invitations. But Jim was in a long-term relationship when the invites went out. Just as you would be within your rights not to want to go to dinner with Jim and his girlfriend at this point, he is not entitled to cross out his wife from the guest list. Your fiancé needs to check in with both the wife and Jim about who intends to come. If the wife is bowing out, I think it’s fine for your fiancé to tell his friend that while you both intend to get to know his new love eventually, your wedding is not the occasion for it.
Q. RE: Sworn to Secrecy About Molestation: The campers in question range in age from 11 to 14. Counselors are usually college-age people. Some of the kids have been through really rough molestations—several young campers have miscarried or given birth to kids of their own—so some of the counselors’ talks can be about intense subjects. Just wanted to clarify that, and thank you for the advice.
A: The fact that this is a camp for children who have been through trauma means that confessions from counselors should have been carefully vetted beforehand. Your friend just delivered the message that it’s the victims’ job to forgive the perpetrator. This is a serious mess and action needs to be taken both on behalf of the campers who heard the talk and for your friend and her brother. As I said, tell your parents and make sure they are seeing that the proper authorities are contacted.
Q. My Son Was Conceived From Rape, People Are Curious About His Origins: I have two children, and my younger was conceived from rape. My husband and I decided to continue the pregnancy not knowing who was the biological father. It was obvious when my son was born that he was not my husband’s. The rapist was of a different ethnicity and my son takes after him. As a result, we get quizzed about my son’s background all the time. Acquaintances who don’t know the full story speculate I had an affair. Strangers ask if he is adopted. I usually just say “no” and carry on my own business, discouraging further questions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Our friends and family know—it wasn’t something we could avoid and pretend not to notice. But I absolutely do not want to discuss how my son was conceived with strangers or curious co-workers. It’s even worse when people ask in front of my son, now nearly 2, because it’s something we’d like to tell him gradually in an age appropriate way. What can I say?
A: Readers dealing with the issue of nosey strangers have offered excellent answers along the lines of, “I’m sorry, I don’t know you” or “I don’t talk about my family to strangers” or just giving a disbelieving look as you walk away. With acquaintances you can say something like, “Genes are so unpredictable!” and refuse to engage further. Your son is lucky to have two such remarkable parents, and while he will come to know that his origins are unusual he will be reassured that he is totally loved.
Q. RE: Wife/Mother Conflict: This situation isn’t about art—it is about being considerate of other people’s feelings and being a good host/hostess. Don’t you want your guests to feel comfortable in your home? Especially family? Would you purposely serve food you know your guests don’t like? Or knowingly bring up subjects that are painful for them? Would you feel the same if it was your best friend coming to visit? Maybe this really a power play/control issue …
A: Sure, people should be gracious hosts, but that normally doesn’t extend to changing one’s decor. The key to me is that mother sounds like a royal pain. If it’s not the photograph, it will be something else. Maybe this is all just a silly power struggle, or maybe the new wife is sick of trying to accommodate a mother-in-law who will always be mad about something. With people like that it’s generally better to draw some boundaries and refuse to be drawn into their melodrama.
Q. I Was A Mistress: My fiancé’s ex-wife cheated on him throughout their marriage. As a result, he holds adulterers in very low esteem. When we started dating, I hid from him the fact that I have had two long-term relationships with married men. Both relationships lasted for more than a year, and I knew at the time that my boyfriends were married. While I am not proud of dating married men, I am not apologetic about my past romances. Not many people knew about my infidelities, so I haven’t done much to actively hide them from my fiancé. But now that we’re engaged, I am terrified he will find out after we’re married and think I trapped him into marriage. My fear is that if I tell my fiancé about the married men I dated he will see me as a completely new person. I was in my late teens and early 20s when I dated married men, and I have grown into such a different person since then, the person he knows now. I don’t know how to tell him to show him I’m so much more than my mistakes.
A: My alarm bells are going off when you say at the time of the first affair you were still a teenager. Was this a teacher or someone else exploiting you? If so, that puts a different gloss on your behavior and this is something you need to explore psychologically. I think people are entitled to their pasts and do not have to reveal all. But they should reveal things they know would be highly germane to their beloved, and you’re now acknowledging you’ve been hiding something he would find relevant. Since these were long-term relationships and presumably other people know, you do not want to be afraid one of your friends might slip and say something. So tell him. If he doesn’t understand you were very young and would never make that choice again, then it’s better to know that about him now.
Q . Neighborhood Watch: We moved to our rather “nice” neighborhood last year. I’m a person of color and was taking my young daughters (2 ½ and 3 months) for a stroll early this evening to look for ducks by the lake. As we were heading home, my older daughter asked if we could walk back to the lakefront to see the sailboats. So I made a loop back and that’s when I noticed heavy traffic on an otherwise quiet street. It’s only when I saw the same cars over and over that I realized that these cars were following us (and of course the elderly couple that pointed at us in their white Jaguar). Next thing I know, our neighborhood watch “lead” is zooming by us. I guess he recognized me and called off the hounds. Prudie, I am really disappointed in my neighbors that someone would call us out for “suspicious behavior.” I felt really sad about the whole affair and now I wonder if I should bring it up with the neighborhood watch lead and if so what should I say? My husband thinks I should rise above the bigotry.
A: There is something almost comical about the image of two old white people in a white Jaguar tracking the movements of a young mother of dark complexion strolling with her two highly suspicious babies. Except if you’re that mother. I don’t blame you for being distressed, but I agree with your husband that you should handle this with aplomb. Call the watch leader, describe what happened, and say that you know you’re new in the neighborhood, but you hope the word goes out that you do not wish to be tailed when you, or your husband, takes your children out to enjoy their new surroundings.
Q. Crazy Sister-in-Law: My sister-in-law has created Facebook personalities for her two dogs and her cat. Her “animals” repeatedly friend request my son and my daughter, who are in their late teens. My kids don’t want to friend their aunt’s pets because when they have, in the past, she floods their walls with unintelligible “animal speak” posts about embarrassing childhood moments. My sister-in-law becomes upset when they won’t accept her friend requests and sends them several unhappy “animal speak” messages a day. My husband thinks our kids should humor his sister, but given her odd behavior, I don’t blame them for not wanting to accept her pets’ friend requests. I even feel the need to intervene on their behalf and explain to my sister-in-law that she’s alienating her niece and her nephew. What say you?
A: Your sister-in-law sounds a little off, so she needs sympathy. However, that should not mean that she’s allowed to harass her relatives. The kids may be tempted to send her an email that says, “Iz no accept puppies and kitty fwends.” But it would be best if your husband—or you if he won’t—just sent her an email explaining the kids limit their friends to their contemporaries and you all would appreciate if her “babies” stopped sending Facebook requests.
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