Dear Prudence

Look Ma, No Hands!

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a woman who caught her son in a compromising position with the vacuum cleaner.

Emily Yoffe.

Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on weekly to chat live with readers. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Because of technical difficulties with this week’s chat, Emily Yoffe had to answer to the posted questions offline, hence the absence of reader responses in the transcript below.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I salute all the brave men and woman who have served our country (Hi, nephew!).

Q. I Caught My Son With the Vacuum Cleaner: I came home early from work on Friday to the unexpected sound of the vacuum cleaner running in my 12-year-old son’s room. Thinking that perhaps this was a sign of the apocalypse—my son cleaning his room without major nagging on my part—I burst in there and caught him with his pants down and the hose attachment attached to his, well, you know. He froze like a deer in the headlights and, after picking my jaw up off the floor, I mumbled something stupid like “excuse me” and turned around and walked out and hid in my room. He left to go to his dad’s for the weekend shortly thereafter. He will be home tomorrow night after school and I don’t know what to say to him. Actually, do I have to say anything to him or can I just act as though this never happened and not say anything about it at all? (I much prefer option two, by the way.) What do you think?

A: I am sincerely hoping the Dyson company doesn’t see your letter and come up with a new line of vacuums guaranteed to suck the living daylights out of the user. First, you may want to pick up a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. Let’s just say the liver scene should reassure you that young men have always been creative when it comes to relief. Normally, I agree with you, Mom, that backing away quickly is the right path to take when stumbling upon such an uplifting scene. But I’m actually worried about the amount of suction your son could be applying to his private parts and the potential for gunking up the machine’s filter. I think this situation calls for a man-to-man talk. I hope you have the kind of relationship where you can tell your ex about this and you both can laugh. Then your son’s father can have a good-humored talk in which he explains that there are lots of ways to accomplish his goal, but it’s a good idea to keep the household appliances out of it.

Dear Prudence: Play-Date Psychodrama

Q. SIL’s Unwelcome Intrusion in the Delivery Room: I am expecting my first baby and having problems with my SIL. My SIL is infertile yet she loves babies and children. She has been in regular contact with me throughout my pregnancy to a point where I found her attention a little overwhelming. Recently she told me she really wants to be there at the delivery room when I give birth. I was horrified and told her I wanted to have privacy. She relented, and suggested staying with me while I was in labor and leaving the room when the baby started coming out. I again reiterated my desire for privacy. Several days later she said she really wanted to be there and be the first to see our baby and stated she would wait outside my room. I explained that when I was in labor, I didn’t really want to think about anybody else and that I would call her when I was ready to receive visitors. My SIL is now upset with me and says I have no right to stop her from waiting outside the delivery room. I tried reasoning with my husband, but he says I should be appreciative because his sister loves our baby so much. Am I being unreasonable to want her to stay away from the hospital? I am now having nightmares about my SIL snatching the baby away as soon as I’m wheeled out of the delivery room!

A: Your letter makes me hear those staccato violins that are the soundtrack to so many horror movies. Things need to get straightened out in your family. While it’s sad your sister-in-law is dealing with infertility, you are not the surrogate mother for her child. She obviously has a lot more work to do to come to terms with her condition, but you are not her therapist. Some pregnant women want a cheering section in the hospital waiting room. Other women want their loved ones at home ready to get an alert of the good news. But no pregnant woman should be forced to have people lurking in the doorway marking the territory. If your husband can’t understand his loyalty here is to you, you should discuss this with your obstetrician. He or she should be happy to put rules into place about who can attend the happy event. Then have a meeting with your OB and your husband. If he doesn’t accept this, you might want to consider calling in a marriage counselor to be by your side telling you to push, and telling your husband to shape up.

Q. Thanksgiving Hell: My family is getting ready for our annual Thanksgiving dinner. We used to look forward to Thanksgiving, now we dread it. My sister’s husband’s side of the family has made a recent tradition of inviting themselves to our family dinner at my mom’s house. Politically, they are much more “severely” conservative than Mitt Romney claimed he was. That’s OK, but the problem is that my brother is gay and insists on discussing politics with my brother-in-law’s family. Comments from my brother-in-law’s family such as “homosexuals are living a sinful life,” “the gay agenda is destroying this country,” and “if I ever found out one of my kids were gay, I’d never speak to him again” are the beginning of the end. As noxious as these comments are, my bigoted in-laws would never mention them if my brother and his partner didn’t broach the topic. How do I convince my brother that engaging this family on this topic is a lose-lose proposition for everyone? He claims he’s only defending himself and his partner when the in-laws bring up the topic.

A: First of all, how do people invite themselves for Thanksgiving? Surely these people had somewhere else to go before they started crashing your event. Some representative from your family (if everyone agrees with your point of view!) should have a blunt talk with your sister saying that her husband’s family is making your Thanksgivings very awkward. She can be told it’s understandable if she has to alternate holiday appearances at your family’s table to be with them in some years, but your family doesn’t want to set a permanent place for her in-laws. But surely they’re coming this year, so tell your brother that everyone agrees with you their views are noxious, but they are only expressing them because he’s provoking them. He’s not going to change their minds, all he does is congeal the mood like overcooked gravy. Ask him to leave the discussion of politics for more congenial company.

Q. Friend Changed Her Wedding Date for Me but I Don’t Want To Attend: My friend is engaged and her wedding will be held five hours’ drive from where I am. She spent a lot of money coming to my wedding in Tahiti so I really wanted to come to hers, except it falls on my due date. I already have a scheduled C-section. I told her regretfully I won’t be able to make it, and she was hurt and upset. Then three days ago I received an invitation for her wedding, and it is two weeks after her original wedding date. She attached a note telling me how delighted she was to “surprise” me with the “great news”—she changed her wedding date especially for me so I can now attend! I called her asking what was going on and she confirmed she changed her wedding date because she really wants me to be there. It caused her in-laws a great deal of inconvenience and she had a big fight with her fiancé’s mother about it. She genuinely thought I would be thrilled at the news. I know it sounds selfish, but I do NOT want to drive five hours and back with a newborn two weeks after a C-section. I murmured a noncommittal reply and my friend took that as a “Yes, I’m coming!” How do I tell my friend I won’t be coming to her wedding, after all? Am I a terrible person?

A: Even if you were the one getting married to your friend, I would advise you that under the circumstances, you would not be able to make it. Unless the groom himself is off his rocker, I’m thinking you probably won’t have to worry about when this wedding takes place because surely he has to wise up and call it off. Anyone as immature as the bride is not ready for the adult responsibilities of marriage. You can call or email the bride and say you really wish she hadn’t changed the date without consulting you. It turns out you have consulted your doctor and have been told you simply cannot make a 10-hour car trip two weeks after your delivery. That means as much as you wanted to see her get married, you can’t. Period. Maybe the bride will join up with the sister-in-law in the letter above, and you will find yourself watching her wedding take place in your delivery room.

Q. Stepson: I am married with two small children, and I am also stepmother to my husband’s 14-year-old from his first marriage. My stepson “Jeremiah” is a good kid, has been accepting of me, and appears to love his younger siblings. However, lately he has been moody, sullen, and generally just a teenager. However, things have recently taken a turn for the worse. He refuses to clean up his room, and since it was smelly, I decided to clean it after he returned to his mother’s last week. I found piles of clothes I had forgotten he even had, rotten food, and he has apparently been too tired or lazy to go to the bathroom, as I found two “refilled” soda bottles. I haven’t spoken to his father, my husband, yet, as I don’t want to seem to be a wicked stepmother. His ex hates me and I doubt she would take kindly to me suggesting that her son has a problem. I am really concerned about his influence in this state around my young kids. Please tell me what I should do next.

A: You’re not a wicked stepmother for refusing to let your home become a Superfund site. But it’s odd that you would write to me before alerting your husband to your concerns. You have some plain facts to convey to him, which you have to do so in a caring but not melodramatic way. Describe the scene, show him the soda bottles/chamber pots, and say you’re worried that Jeremiah is experiencing something more than the normal teenage angst. Do not go nuclear and say you don’t want him influencing your own children. Let’s say Jeremiah was your child, not your husband’s. You surely wouldn’t be musing about getting him out of the house. His father should then take action and find out what’s going on, including whether his son is drinking or taking drugs. When Jeremiah comes over next you can tell him his room has sunk below acceptable teenage standards and that you’ve got to set up some rules for picking up clothes and keeping food out of the bedroom. But probably you don’t want to tell him it’s time he started vacuuming.

Q. Secret Engagement Plans Driving Me Crazy: My boyfriend and I have been dating for almost four years and both feel very strongly that we want to get married and spend our lives together. However, every time I bring up actually getting engaged (starting about a year ago), he tells me I’m ruining the surprise element of the proposal and that I have to just be patient. I am strongly feminist and believe getting engaged should be a joint decision and not just the man’s. I know he’s saving for the ring but I absolutely don’t care about that stuff. I’d be equally happy with a $250 ring as with a $2,500 ring. I am 32 and want to start a family. I feel like we are at an impasse and I have to just wait until he’s got all his ducks in a row, however I feel incredibly out of the loop on a very important life decision. How can I bring this up yet again without him shooting me down? Or should I just accept that this is an important moment for him and grin and bear it?

A: I know the proposal has become an ever more elaborate ritual: billboards, fake movie trailers, Jackass-style surprises. But I’m with you that this should be a joint decision between two equals, not something the man controls. I also hate how the ability to buy a big rock has come to dictate this life decision. I know there’s a general feeling that people should avoid ultimatums, but life presents us with its own ultimatums—one of them being your fertility. Yes, you’ve still got plenty of time, but not endless time and after four years you should be past the games and ready to move forward—or not. Calmly sit down with your boyfriend and say you are very torn because turning into a nag is not your style, but waiting for someone else to make all the decisions is not your style either. Tell him you don’t care about rings or “surprise” proposals. You do care about him because you love him and can’t imagine not spending your lives together. Add that you’ve never been the kind of woman who imagined a guy on his knee and a ring box, so you hope that if he’s ready, you two can make some decisions about getting married.

Q. Christmas Wedding: My husband and I were invited to my cousin’s wedding in the middle of December. It is going to be an elaborate, formal wedding with a heavy Christmas theme. It sounds like a lovely event, but both my husband and I would rather spend a Saturday in December doing Christmas-y things with our kids instead of getting a babysitter for the day. My cousin and I are not particularly close and the guest list is 300-plus, so I can’t imagine she is giving a whole lot of through to our attendance. Is not wanting to attend a wedding is a good enough reason not to?

A: In this case yes. She’s a distant cousin who’s inviting everyone she knows. This isn’t your sister or best friend. Decline and send a lovely gift.

Q. How To Deal With Racist Figurines: Recently, an elderly woman gave my brother a box filled with little toys and figurines from the ’30s and ’40s in return for help cleaning her basement. He passed them on to my boyfriend and me. At first glance, I was thrilled. The toys on top were old-school wind-up ducks and cartoon whales, and each was individually wrapped, so they were in excellent condition. However, I found 15 or 20 really racist figurines of African-Americans. All of the figurines are the stereotypical depictions from the era. My first thought was to smash them. My boyfriend thought it would be better to sell them online. That doesn’t work for me at all—these things are awful. However, now I’m torn about destroying them. They’re an ugly part of our history, but they are part of our history. What should I do?

A: I hope that if you contact the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State Univerisity they will have an answer for you. I agree you should get rid of these items, but I’m sure there are institutions that would be able to put these terrible objects in context. As for the other goodies, if you’ve ever watched Antiques Roadshow it sounds like you have quite a windfall.

To read Part 2 of this week’s chat, click here.

Discuss this column with Emily Yoffe on her Facebook page.

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.