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.)
Q. Daughter Is Left Out of the Gift Exchange: I was an unmarried teenager when I gave birth to my now 8-year-old daughter Mandy. I am now engaged to Peter, a wonderful man who loves me and adores Mandy. The issue is Peter’s parents. This don’t care for Mandy, and they don’t think much of me because I was in a position to give birth as an unwed teenager. They have lectured me a few times about premarital sex and the like. Christmas is coming up, and my future mother-in-law has informed me that she and her husband will not be buying presents for Mandy, and neither will Peter’s siblings. Mandy’s not entitled to presents, but since Peter’s family does a big Christmas get-together, Mandy will see a bunch of kids get presents while she does not. It’s hard to explain something like this to a kid. Peter’s pretty upset with his family, but they’re still his family, and ditching them would be incredibly painful for him, obviously. Do you have any advice?
A: Peter may be a wonderful man, but I hope one of his good qualities is that he is capable of standing up to his parents on behalf of his future wife and stepchild. There are still a few weeks left before Christmas, so Peter needs to have a sit-down with his parents informing him that you and your daughter are going to be a part of the family and if his parents want all of you to be in their lives—and that includes the grandchildren to come—they need to stop making invidious comparisons among the grandchildren. Since Mandy is a new arrival it would be fine if they simply get her one thoughtful gift, but to deliberately leave her on the sidelines is unconscionable. If they back down, then you and Peter should each buy her a gift for under the tree so she doesn’t feel left out. An 8-year-old is also old enough to be told that joining a new family can be a awkward and uncomfortable but that you and Peter will be looking out for her. If you go and Peter’s family behaves dreadfully, you and he should have a signal that enough is enough and make an early exit from the nonfestivities.
Q. Bridezilla Buddy: My best friend from childhood is getting married in six months, and I am the matron of honor. I have been struggling with infertility, and was planning on trying in vitro in the spring. Well, to my surprise, I am unexpectedly pregnant. Obviously, my husband and I are thrilled. My family is thrilled. My friend is absolutely furious. She is angry that I will “spoil” her wedding pictures by being about eight months pregnant, and she is worried that I won’t fit into any dress that matches her plan. She is accusing me of intentionally ruining her big day. I want to simply tell her to get lost, but her family is close to mine, there is a lot of history there, and I worry about the repercussions between our families if I was to cut her out of my life. Frankly, I wish she would just “fire” me as MoH, and make things easier. I have tried to explain to her, I didn’t plan on this pregnancy, as I really thought I would never get pregnant on my own, and I had hoped she would be happy for me, as she knew everything we were going through. She just doesn’t get it though, and continues to play the victim here. I could *almost* ignore her selfishness here, except she has started making comments along the lines of, “Well, you may not even be pregnant when the wedding comes. With all your fertility issues, you may just miscarry, so no big deal.” I almost lost my mind at that point. I am beyond stressed about her and this wedding after all of this. Is it too late for me to just say no?
A: Your best friend hopes you miscarry so that you can properly devote your energies to her perfect day and not to your impending motherhood. What more do you need to know? It doesn’t matter that the two families are close, someone has to clue this bride into the fact that she’s become a gargoyle. You inform her right away that because of your pregnancy you will not be able to attend her wedding, period. No excuse making for your thoughtless reproduction plans, no snide comments that you’re thinking the wedding might not come off because you hope the groom realizes he’s about to hitch himself to a lunatic.
Q. Battling Cancer, Who Should Watch the Kids?: I will soon begin chemotherapy to battle cancer. My husband and I have three children under 6, so we’ll need child care help over the coming months. My parents, who live 30 minutes away, would love to watch our kids when I am too sick to or when my husband needs to work. I would prefer this arrangement. My husband thinks his ex-wife Madeline should watch our kids, since she lives 10 minutes away. He and Madeline have two teenagers together, so spending time with Madeline would mean receiving additional support from their older brothers. I enjoy a fabulous relationship with Madeline, and she is a fantastic mom. But I still want my parents to be our children’s primary baby sitters while I’m undergoing chemo. Part of me selfishly worries that my kids will begin to prefer Madeline when my hair falls out and I’m kind of scary because of the drugs I will be taking. I also feel more comfortable with my parents for reasons I can’t explain; I feel like I won’t be as worried about being sick or having rough days in front of them. I could use some outside perspective on this.
A: I’m so sorry you are going through this and I wish you a swift and complete recovery. You are blessed with several people who can step in to help with the kids, run errands, cook meals, and otherwise keep life as normal as possible. However, not one of these people will replace you in your children’s hearts, no matter how upsetting it is to see you ill. Please do your best to prepare your children in an age-appropriate way for what’s ahead. (Readers, any book suggestions or advice on this?) You do not have to choose between caregivers, and your husband should be sensitive to your desires. But if your treatment is a long haul it sounds as if it would be good to organize shifts of your parents and Madeline. Keeping your kids active and happy and surrounded by the many loving people in their lives will be the best medicine for all of you.
Q. Haunted By My Mistake: Last year my friend’s girlfriend disappeared with their two young children. He was desperate to find them, but he did not trust the police so he did not involve them. I saw his girlfriend a few weeks later when I went to visit my sister a few hours away from where my friend and I lived. She seemed to be working at a hair salon. I called my friend and told him I’d seen her and where. My friend tracked his girlfriend down, followed her home, and killed her and one of their kids before taking his own life. I had no idea his girlfriend fled because he’d been abusing her; nothing ever indicated to me that he was controlling or violent. Even so, I am haunted by my mistake. I have fallen apart over the past year. I cannot hold down a job or maintain relationships. Two innocent people are dead because of me, and a child will grow up an orphan because of me. No one knows my involvement in the case. I fear a counselor would push me to confess to the victim’s families. Maybe that is what I deserve: to be hated by them. I do not know what to do with myself.
A: I can understand your agony. While it is too late for this tragedy, it’s good for anyone concerned about a friend or family member’s domestic crisis that if someone does not want the police involved when that is the obvious place to turn, alarm bells should ring. You need to start taking steps to get on with your life. Naturally, you are awash with guilt, but your own ruination will do no one any good. You know you acted in all innocence—there are plenty of cases in which one parent absconds with the children leaving a decent parent bereft. You obviously would never have tipped off your friend had you known he was a maniac. First, I think you should have a consultation with a criminal defense lawyer. I’m not saying you are criminally liable, but you need to get these potential issues resolved. Then you do need to talk to a counselor. You must figure out a way to deal with your guilt and rebuild a productive life. This event will always be a scar across your psyche, but being destroyed yourself only makes one more person a victim of that monster.
Q. Re: For the mom with cancer: Our prayers go with you for healing. Two suggestions: American Cancer Society has a good selection of advice and resources for helping kids deal with a parent’s cancer: Second: Sit down now with your husband and define the kind of care you want. Make sure that he understands what YOU want and need, not what he assumes (in all love) you want and need. When you are napping or in bed, do you want the kids to come play on the bed? How do you want to handle visitors, dropped off food, flowers, etc. (e.g., create a book where caregivers can log messages and notes, a place where they can gather cards for you to read when you want to, etc.) Think about this stuff now, write it down, plan ahead so that you both understand the kind of care that works FOR YOU. Everyone is different in what feels nurturing and helpful (on the best of days). Having some of this worked through in advance will not make things easier, but it will keep from making them harder.
A: Great advice, thank you. Sounds like you’ve been there.
Q. My Friend/Co-worker Might Be Fired: My friend was unemployed for a couple of months before I recommended him for a position at my company. This job pays him significantly better than his last. After a period of financial stress and uncertainty he is really splurging out—he bought a brand new TV, he’s treating his family and friends with gifts, and he’s talking about booking a vacation to Mexico next summer. He’s been shopping almost every week and I can see he’s making the most out of his higher income. However, our employer privately confided that due to various unforeseen circumstances, he may have to make several positions redundant, including my friend’s new role. I am of course not allowed to disclose this to anybody, but I am worried for my friend. He is on a good salary so if he starts saving now, he shouldn’t be in too much trouble while he looks for another job. I tentatively asked if he was concerned about finances after being unemployed and he said he wants to enjoy his money for another month or two before he starts serious saving. He might not have a job by then! Any way I can tactfully tell him he should save his money without giving anything away?
A: The most junior person hired at a company during a fragile economy should have the sense to realize good fortune may not last forever. You’ve already broached the subject of your friend’s spending frenzy, and he responded that he wants to indulge himself. You’re under no obligation to give further lectures on belt-tightening, especially if it might mean you’re violating the terms of your own employment.
Q. Friends With an Abuser: My good friends Erica and Tom remain close to my verbally abusive ex-boyfriend Todd. They witnessed Todd’s treatment of me—cursing at me and calling me a [expletive] because I brought him the wrong brand of beer at a party—a number of times. Although they were appalled by Todd’s behavior, they never called him on it or intervened. I know they both struggle with social anxiety and being assertive toward friends, and we have had talks about why they never said anything to Todd. I know part of the problem was that I forgave Todd too many times, and they followed my lead. The last time Todd blew up at me, he did so in a public place in our college’s property, so he was expelled. He found a job in the same town, and now he , Erica, and Tom get together a few times a month. I know how immature it is to ask people to take sides, and I know I have no right to dictate with whom Tom and Erica are friends. It still wounds me that they remain friends with Todd, though, and I don’t know how to stop feeling hurt or mistrusting them.
A: Since you kept forgiving Todd you are displacing responsibility for your relationship onto Erica and Tom. However, since they witnessed what an abuser he was, it’s appalling in its own right that they remain close to him. But they do. Imagine the conversation in which you ask them to dump him. Since they keep their friendships separate, unless they are regaling you with reports of Todd’s amusing banter, they could reply that it’s really none of your business whom they see when they’re not with you. If their friendship with him bothers you so much, then maybe you need to cool yours with them.
Q. Re: For mom with cancer: Another thing to keep in mind is this will be a lot of support to expect from one person. In all likelihood, it will be a mix of the parents, the ex-wife and other friends / family that will pitch in with support. A great resource for us when supporting a family member with cancer and young children was lotsahelpinghands.org which allowed the mom to define the tasks and kind of care she wanted and those of us that wanted to help the opportunity to see where we were most needed.
A: Another good suggestion, thanks. This allows the family to post news of the recovery and for people to sign up to bring meals, run errands, etc. without bothering the recovering person with lots of phone calls.
Q. Too Many Shades of Gray: Our 16-year-old son came out to us a year ago. It was not unexpected, and we accepted this well. Last week, my wife noticed he had some serious bruising on his torso. We were afraid that he was being bullied. We asked him about it and after not getting a good answer, I checked out his computer (yes, I know this is not right, but I feel that trust is a two-way street and he violated it first) and found photos showing his new boyfriend is a big BDSM fan. I know a lot about this subject from a former relationship, and what my son and he are doing is amateurish and dangerous. However, I feel like I can’t tell my wife this because of the breach of trust on my part, not only to my son, but to her for not telling her fully about my past (it was a former girlfriend’s interest and not mine). And what am I going to do with him, show him “reputable” bondage materials for future reference? I’m afraid for my son’s health and our future relationship, too. What should I do?
A: You don’t have to have personally indulged in bondage or masochism to be alarmed that your teenager looks like he’s being beaten. Forget the lectures on how to do sadism right, you need to tell your son you were concerned about his safety and yes, you snooped. Tell him that you’re sorry about that, but you two need to have a discussion about setting up safe sexual boundaries. Explain that from the looks of things, he’s not safe and you’re concerned about his relationship. Your son could use some counseling in safe sex practices, preferably from a center that deals with LBGT youth. I just got a letter recently about a young man who contracted HIV and was himself engaging in unsafe sex. Your son sounds like a vulnerable teenage boy and he needs some serious counseling on how to protect his body and psyche.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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.