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: Good afternoon. Let’s get to it.
Q. I Am Not the Father: A little after my wife and I reconciled from our separation, we discovered she was pregnant. Although we were having marital problems, we were going through marriage therapy and I genuinely wanted to give it another try. I was, of course, over the moon about becoming a father. Things were starting to look up, until I discovered an ultrasound scan report which showed my wife was further along in the pregnancy than she told me. After a bitter, heated argument she confessed she conceived the baby with someone else while we were separated. She said she thought she was acting for the best because she knew I would be happy about the pregnancy. (One of the many reasons why we initially separated was because I wanted to start a family and she didn’t.) To cut the long story short, I decided to get a divorce. Since I moved out, my wife has been spreading malicious rumors that I abandoned her and “our baby.” She’s been hospitalized due to complications in her pregnancy and I got a lot of hate mails/calls from her family and friends for not showing up. I don’t want to get caught up in a dirty fight so I have been ignoring these. But I’m getting increasingly angry that she is smearing my reputation through lies. Should I clear my name, even if it means airing our dirty laundry in public?
A: It’s one thing to be the bigger person, it’s another to let a compulsive liar ruin your reputation. The story she’s telling is that upon discovering she is carrying your child, you decided to divorce her. This makes you look like a heartless cad now, and you will be even more despicable when the child is born and you want nothing to do with it. I think you need to get in touch with your soon-to-be ex and tell her you know she is under physical and emotional duress, but you hope she can see that spreading what will be provably false stories about you will only hurt all of you, including her child, in the long run. Explain that even if she is not in a continuing relationship with the father of her child, she needs to establish paternity so that the baby can at least get financial support. Tell her you’ve said nothing to date, but because you are not the cruel person she is portraying as, you are going to begin to tell people the truth.
Then you can tell people simply that the baby was conceived with another man while you were separated, a situation that lead to your decision to end the marriage. You don’t have to add the damning filigree that she tried to mislead you about the child. Since she sounds possibly pathological she will probably have a whole counterfactual account to challenge yours. But your simple assertion, and refusal to engage in character assassination, will at least put serious doubt in people’s minds. If she continues to hold you out as the father after the birth, check into your legal rights to demand a paternity test to show that you are not responsible for the child. Oh, that poor child, to be born of such a manipulative mother.
Dear Prudence: Third Wheel Twin
Q. Halloween Harassment Over Oral Sex: Last year, my husband and I had a small Halloween get-together for some family. We left the door unlocked for our 12-year-old niece to come in if we were still getting things ready. She called and told us she would be more than an hour late. My husband forgot to lock the door, and figuring we had a little more time, we got down to business. Our niece popped the door open—much earlier than she told us she would be—and saw me paying “lip service” to her uncle. Since then, the gossip has spread through the family. I have received cards of an adult nature from my husband’s family, and during family outings, most of the jokes are centered around oral-sex puns. My husband and I have both asked them to stop, we have even left family gatherings. It has been months since I’ve been to any gathering with his family. I have recently started getting Halloween cards in the mail in which his relatives have written things like, “Don’t let it be a repeat of last year!” I am exhausted with defending myself. His sister is throwing the Halloween party this year, and I am definitely not going. My husband is on the fence. But I’m worried that if we don’t show, this heckling will just continue—by email, mail, whatever. What should I do?
A: Folks, write your own trick-or-treat jokes. I understand the most shocking part of your letter is not that you decided to have oral sex while leaving the door unlocked for expected company, but that a tween showed up early to an event. At least your husband’s family finds this hilarious instead of you two being excoriated for your behavior and an exorcism suggested. You’re right that the anniversary of the great event is bound to blow things out of proportion, but I think you should go and laugh it off. Then at the end of the evening your husband should announce the joke has gone limp and the statute of limitations has expired. He can say you’ve both been good sports about this, but the word play about lip service has to stop or else as far as family gatherings are concerned you will both stop coming.
Q. Paternity Test Drama: My husband’s first wife cheated on him throughout their marriage. He’s been battling how difficult it is for him to trust women ever since their divorce. We’ve gone to counseling separately and as a couple to cope with how his difficulty trusting me has impacted our relationship. We love each other very much, though, and when I became pregnant with our first child last winter, I thought he finally trusted that I have never and will never cheat on him. Then he asked me for a prenatal paternity test to ensure the baby was his. His biggest fear is raising a child that isn’t biologically his own. I was hurt by his request, because it implied he still seriously mistrusted me. He thought if I had nothing to hide then it shouldn’t be a big deal, and he told me he trusted me, but needed absolute assurance. We argued about the paternity test for most of my pregnancy, but he lay off shortly before I gave birth to our daughter in July. Things have been wonderful ever since, until I discovered evidence that he and his mother ran a paternity test without my knowledge. Of course our daughter is his. Now we’re fighting again. He’s apologized for not trusting me, but I cannot stop feeling betrayed that he would do this behind my back. I don’t know where we can goes as a couple from here. Am I overreacting?
A: Despite what this column might indicate, almost all men really are the father of the children they think they are the father of. You may love your husband very much, but I wish you’d paid more attention to the klaxons in your relationship. Being incessantly punished for the misdeeds of a previous spouse is not a good basis for a healthy relationship, and you had plenty of warning that you were being doubted. I bet if you wanted to check, you will find your husband regularly scans your cellphone and computer to try to gather the nonexistent incriminating evidence. That he and his mother did some genetic testing behind your back must have been a punch to your solar plexus. You now have a child with this man, so I assume you want to salvage your relationship and try to establish some framework of trust. Head back to the therapist right away. He needs to understand that while he’s obsessed with you cheating on him, he’s shown himself to be the great deceiver.
Q. Re: I am not the father: He also needs to check his legal rights. In some states (like Texas), the child is PRESUMED to be his because it was conceived during the marriage.
A: Interesting. Since he’s in the middle of a divorce, he should make sure his lawyer is on top of this.
Q. My Son Is Dating a Stripper!: My husband had numerous affairs with strippers, and now my twentysomething son is dating one. My husband’s infidelity ended five years ago. Our marriage has mostly healed, and now we’re happy together and very much in love. A few days ago my daughter called me and told me she found out that her brother has been dating a stripper for almost eight months—he is in love with her. He finally introduced his girlfriend to his sister last week, and the girlfriend freely admitted her profession. I called my son to confirm what his sister told me, and he doesn’t seem to care about his girlfriend’s profession. He told me she strips to pay off her college loans and that she wants to become a doctor. He wants to bring her home for Thanksgiving. I told him I would not allow a stripper in my house. I know I sound judgmental, but the only strippers I have ever known have had no qualms about sleeping with married men. I worry this woman will use my son for financial gain or will cheat on him. Strippers also bring up very painful memories for me. My husband agrees with me. We think it’s our right to determine who can and cannot come to our house for important family gatherings. My son is very upset with us and has threatened not to come home for the holiday. Am I being too rigid or unreasonable?
A: At least when this young woman gets to medical school she will have plenty of expertise in anatomy. (And I thought most strippers are doing it to pay for law school!) Unless your son’s girlfriend also slept with your husband, you are being priggish and condescending and your husband is comically hypocritical. I can see saying you don’t want a drug dealer in your home; otherwise it’s really none of your business what your son’s girlfriend does for a living. I assume you’re savvy enough to know that barring her will not make your son contemplate his error in romantic judgment while passing the gravy. It will mean he’ll skip the entire event, leaving you to stew about your silly self-righteousness. Your son wants to bring a guest, so be a gracious hostess and don’t make any remarks when this girl says she prefers breast meat.
Q. Abortion Bumper Sticker: My mother has strong opinions—and a strong belief in expressing them. I am in my mid-30s and learned long ago to let my mother vent/rant, and to make neutral comments until the conversation turns to something else. However, my mother recently affixed a strongly worded pro-life bumper sticker to her car. On numerous occasions, strangers have made comments in parking lots or flipped her the bird when driving. This upsets her greatly. I think that if you put a strongly worded opinion on an emotional subject out for anybody to see then you open yourself up to criticism. How do I explain to her that not everybody cares about her opinion and not everybody will give her the wide berth that our family does? My father passed away years ago and my brother more or less ignores our mother when she gets on a rant, so it is up to me to address this issue.
A: I don’t know why you have to explain this to her. I hope your mother is functional enough to see for herself the truth of your insight. If you’re driving with her, tell her to ignore the remarks or actions of other people—engaging could be dangerous. If she won’t, refuse to go on trips in her car. Your brother’s strategy is a good one. It doesn’t sound as if your mother wants insight, she just wants a sounding board. But she will only hear her own voice if you just walk away.
Q. BIL’s Going to Jail: My sister’s husband is going to jail for sleeping with one of his underage students. My sister does not want to divorce him and they will work on their marriage while he is in jail. The issue is that my kids adore their aunt and uncle, who don’t have children. My sister and brother-in-law want to visit with my kids as much as possible before my BIL goes away for a few years. My husband and I are not comfortable with letting my BIL around our kids, even if we don’t believe the kids are in any danger from him. His student was 16, and that’s really weird and gross to us. How do we explain our newfound feelings for my BIL while letting my sister know we still love and support her?
A: You explain to your sister that her husband is going off to jail for sexually violating a minor and you’ve got problems with him. You say you want to support her through this, and she of course will remain close to your children, but you’re still processing what he did and you can’t carry on as if nothing had happened. If she doesn’t get that, well, it helps explain the mentality of a Dottie Sandusky.
Q. Mother-in-Laws: My husband and I are expecting our first child in the summer. We are absolutely ecstatic! My mother will play an active role in watching the baby when I have to go back to work, but the idea of my mother-in-law caring for our baby in her home scares us! We both love her and we are very happy for her 10-month sobriety, but are much closer to my parents. MIL’s house is incredibly dirty; my husband even got food poisoning after eating dinner at her place recently. I just can’t imagine allowing my child to crawl around on the rarely vacuumed floor. Although she has stopped drinking, she still smokes, as does her live-in boyfriend. She also allows my husband’s younger brother (22 years old) to free-load and smoke marijuana in the house. I don’t believe she realizes how dirty her home is. How do I tell her that her home is not an environment that I want my child in, without causing hurt feelings?
A: You tell her that you’re more comfortable having her come to your house. It doesn’t matter that things aren’t equal with the two grandmothers. Your mother is great; your mother-in-law barely functions. That means you limit your mother-in-law’s contact with the baby to times you can supervise. She’s got a drug user in the house and she’s not even a year sober. Do not be bullied into letting her baby-sit.
Q. Inherited Cousin’s Money and Her Nephews Are Slighted: My mom was very close to two of her cousins, a brother and sister named Adam and Eve. I was the first kid born into this generation 18 years ago. Eve was much more like an aunt to me—buying me everything, taking me out all the time—than my own aunts and uncles were. My mom is a single parent, so Eve’s financial contributions meant I never missed out. She died in a car accident a few months ago at 37. The family is devastated. Eve saved up enough money to pay for my college tuition—and I am her sole beneficiary. Eve didn’t have kids. Her brother Adam’s two sons got nothing. Eve was not close to them and there were often divisions in the family. But now Adam says he is going to sue and get some of the money. I feel guilty for saying this, but Adam’s kids have resources and money. Eve’s husband has stood by the will and has defended me. What should I do? Do I offer some of the money to Eve’s nephews?
A: I’m sorry for your loss. It sounds as if to Eve you were the daughter she never had, and even her widower understands Eve’s wish was for you to benefit from her financial resources. I’m no estate lawyer, but I can’t imagine what grounds Adam thinks he has to challenge this will. He’s just turning a tragedy into an ugly family feud. You owe nothing to Adam’s well cared-for offspring. Take the money and honor Eve’s memory by getting a great education.
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. Check back tomorrow for another edition!