Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.
Q. Thanksgiving Big Reveal: My father had an affair on the side many years ago, and I found out about it. The affair had resulted in the birth of my half sister, Annie. Dad has successfully kept Annie a secret for 25 years. She’s now a young married mother, and we are somewhat close friends. While my mother knows of Annie, she does not know she’s my sister. My parents divorced when Annie was 5 for unrelated reasons, but my parents still get along quite well. I host Thanksgiving each year. Mom and Dad are coming. Annie just told me that she would like to be invited to Thanksgiving. While I have explained the situation to her, Annie says she’s tired of being kept a secret. I’m worried of not only causing discomfort for my dad, but humiliation for my mom if Annie decides to let the cat out of the bag. I have tried to tell Annie that we could have a get-together some other time, but she insists. What should I do?
A: You surely want to avoid a pumpkin-pie-throwing contest on Thanksgiving. There’s something so despicable about trying to keep the existence of certain people a secret for the sake of other people. How hurtful this situation is to Annie and how humiliating it is for your mother. You’ve got little time to address this so that Thanksgiving is not a debacle. Tell your mother the truth, and set up a meeting for you, her, and Annie. Yes, it’s going to be a shock, but she’s been divorced from your father a long time and it’s well past the point that she should know you have a half sister.
Dear Prudence: Play-Date Psychodrama
Q. I Don’t Want To Help My Neighbor With Cancer: I recently moved into a new home where I share the driveway with five other houses. They are obviously a close-knit neighborhood. Last week one of the neighbors, “Michelle,” knocked on my door and told me that “Joan,” an elderly woman who lives two houses away, has cancer. Michelle said she and the other neighbors are going to be taking turns bringing meals for Joan once a week for the next three months. She said I had an option of either Wednesday or Friday and asked me to confirm which of the two I wanted. I politely replied that I often eat out and would be unable to commit to a weekly cooking schedule—besides, my cooking skills were terrible and I would feel embarrassed cooking for someone else. Michelle was upset and offended and continued to use emotional blackmail. In the end I told her I would think about it to get her off my porch. It’s terrible that Joan has cancer but I do not know her very well, and I don’t really want to do this. If my neighbors don’t want to look after me if I fall ill, I’m fine with that. Am I an awful person because I don’t want to bring weekly meals for a woman I barely know?
A: I have been part of dinner brigades for too many ailing friends. It is a satisfying way to help someone you care about. But what’s nice about these missions is that they’re composed of people who come willingly. It’s great that your neighbors are close knit and want to help Joan. But doing so is not KP duty and Michelle should have politely backed away when you started to balk. You can get back to Michelle and say you cannot sign up for weekly deliveries, but you would like to be put on the calendar for two or three meals and give her those dates. Then just pick up some extra take-out those nights for Joan. Let’s hope your other neighbors don’t conspire with Michelle to shun you.
Q. Drunk Friend Drama: My friend Carly gets insanely drunk whenever we’re around alcohol. She gets loud, pushy, and oftentimes mean-spirited. Most of our friends laugh off her antics, because they have more experience with drinking than I do. We’re all freshmen in college, and I don’t want to come off as a killjoy. But three times now, when I’ve been with an inebriated Carly, she’s almost gotten in a fight or has said really hurtful things to me. Is ignoring the comments and behavior of your drunken friends something adults learn to do over time? I don’t think Carly would react kindly to me talking to her about her drinking habits. When she’s sober, which is the majority of the time, Carly is a wonderful person.
A: The most salient fact here is that you’re all freshmen in college, and unless all of you are later-in-life students, your drinking is illegal. Your teenage friends who have “more experience” with alcohol do not sound like people who enjoy a glass of wine with dinner; it’s just that they’ve had more adventures puking and blacking out. Carly is young, and I don’t know where her drinking will end up, but right now she has a problem. Hers is the kind of behavior that leads to young women finding themselves waking up next to young men they didn’t intend to have sex with. She also sounds like a mean drunk, and while your friends find her “antics” funny, they’re not. When she’s sober, go out for coffee with her and tell her that you’re concerned about her alcohol intake. You can say she’s probably not even aware of her personality changes when she drinks, but she has said some truly nasty things to you. Add that you’re concerned about her safety when she drinks, because she doesn’t seem in control of herself. If she blows you off, but keeps drinking, report her to the resident adviser.
Q. Workplace etiquette: I work in a very small office and have a very sweet colleague. While we have excellent rapport, we are not “friends” in the sense that we don’t confide in each other or even meet each other outside of work. However, I really do like and respect her a lot. We were on our way back from work one day and decided to stop for a bite of lunch and window shopping. She really liked a piece of clothing, but decided not to buy it because of the price. I want to buy it for her but I don’t want her to think I’m trying to show off my wealth (I’m not that rich) or her to feel obligated to buy me something in return. I just respect her and think she’s been a fantastic colleague. Should I go ahead and buy it for her, without any occasion (she does not have birthday coming up, and neither of us are Christian so it can’t be a Christmas present)? It’s not wildly out of reach for me; it’s about the cost of a gift I might buy for a close friend’s birthday.
A: Your impulse is lovely, but I think it would create more awkwardness than joy. Your colleague would feel a sense of obligation, particularly since she knows how expensive the item is. And every time she wore it, it would probably chafe slightly. But when her birthday does roll around buy her something you know she’d like but that’s not too expensive—so she can appreciate your thoughtfulness without thinking she’s going to have to go broke to return it.
Q. Illegal Re-Entry: My aunt has been going through tough times in recent years because of my cousin. He was caught committing a crime, arrested, and after a year in jail, deported. It hasn’t been a year since he was kicked out and I heard that my cousin is planning to return to the country illegally (not really sure how). Even though I would like for my cousin and aunt to be together again, I can’t agree with this plan. For years I’ve been an spectator to this whole situation but I feel I have to say something. I know my aunt is not going to listen to me, so should I tell the authorities? I feel terrible about being the snitch and be the reason of keeping part of my family apart. If I don’t say anything, can I be legally responsible for knowing this plan and not reporting it?
A: I guess self-deporting is not going to work for everyone. This guy is a criminal who if he returns is flouting our laws. I doubt you would have a legal responsibility to turn him in. The real question is are you being a bad cousin by reporting him if he returns? Let’s say you may not be the most loving cousin if you do, but turning him into the authorities may prevent someone from becoming his next victim, so I say make the call.
Q. My Roommate Won’t Stop Pushing Me To Exercise: My roommate Jared is a fitness nut. We met at college, and he’s seen pictures of me from high school, when I was much thinner. Lately Jared has been pushing me to start exercising again. He keeps asking me to take part in his very intense workout regimen. He has also suggested healthier options when he sees me munching on a candy bar or drinking soda. Jared used to be overweight and so I think his nudges are heartfelt, but misguided: Losing weight made him feel better about himself, so in his mind losing weight should make me feel good about myself. What no one in our house knows is that I have gained so much weight since high school because when I was in high school, I had a serious eating disorder. It took lots of therapy and love and support for me to be OK with myself and to get to a place where I can indulge in junk food. I am a healthy weight for my height, and I cannot go back to a place where I exercise and obsessively count calories. I made the decision not to tell anyone from college about my eating disorder. Since telling Jared thanks but no thanks doesn’t work, how can I get him to stop pushing the workouts?
A: Jared doesn’t make his living as a spokesman for Subway does he? Just as he can’t force you to order a foot-long, neither can he force you to work out with him nor listen to his lectures. Tell him you are telling him one final time that you appreciate his concern but your body is your own business and you don’t want to discuss it anymore with him. Explain if he doesn’t lay off even though you live together, your friendship is cooked.
Q: Thanksgiving Dilemma: My husband and I have been married for six years and have hosted Thanksgiving each year since our wedding. This year, however, I would rather not. We have a new baby who has been struggling with weight gain, so his pediatrician has recommended a very intensive schedule of nursing, pumping, and supplementing that leaves me with virtually no downtime during the day. In addition, my father-in-law recently had a stroke and will be in rehab until just before Thanksgiving. We have a tri-level house without any bathrooms on the main level. I would prefer not to host this year and to have a quiet holiday with my husband and son instead. My husband is upset by this because he says that if we don’t host, his family will not have a holiday celebration at all. I am not sure why the fact that nobody else will step up is our responsibility. We seem to be at an impasse, and the disagreement is causing strain between us. We also need to figure out what we’re doing soon, so that we can inform everyone. Is there some compromise we’re missing here?
A: The compromise is that you send a family-wide email explaining that you can’t host this year. Presumably everyone knows you’ve given birth and you do not have to spell out an excuse. Then you ask if someone can step up. If no one will, I think you should suggest celebrating the holiday at a restaurant. Sure it’s not cozy and family-like, but then their idea of family-like is that you run yourself ragged to entertain their lazy asses. If everyone nixes a restaurant, then they should stock up on the Swanson’s frozen turkey dinners. You have a cozy time with your little unit and you can all reconvene over the cranberry sauce next year.
Q. Estranged and Endangered Daughter: My daughter (32, my only child) is bipolar, homeless, and out of contact with me. (She blames me for all the losses she’s experienced.) Her father is dead. I am heartbroken about her but have learned through therapy that I cannot fix, rescue, or cure her. I tried. When acquaintances ask about her, it’s painful to reply honestly. I feel stabs of anguish over well-meaning queries, but generally, just avoid the subject. Is there a better way?
A: This is tragic and unfortunately there’s little you can do about someone who is mentally ill and refuses treatment. It’s too bad we’ve moved so far toward honoring the civil rights of the mentally ill that we’ve lost sight that their illness renders them vulnerable to danger and death. We don’t say to people with Alzheimer’s that it’s their right to wander into traffic. As you know, a homeless woman is not getting the treatment she needs, but it’s almost impossible to involuntarily commit someone for more than the briefest period and we’ve essentially dismantled long-term care for the mentally ill. You can tell people a brief version of the truth. Say that this an anguishing subject for you. Your daughter is mentally ill and has rejected treatment. You can add you hope they understand why you don’t want to discuss this further.
Q. My Stepdad’s Daughter: My mom and stepdad have been married since I was 8. My own father had passed away a few years prior. My stepdad certainly isn’t perfect but he tried to be there to provide a fatherly role for me and my siblings. But lately, there is something I just can’t get out of my head—his only biological child, “Gina” who is just a few months older than me. My stepdad gave up his parental rights to Gina after he divorced her mother. They don’t keep in close contact and have only seen each other a handful of times in the past twentysomething years. He didn’t even attend her wedding. I visited my stepdad’s sister recently—she has kept in close contact with Gina over the years and was telling me stories and showing me some photos of her family with Gina. Since then, I haven’t been able to shake this overwhelming sadness I feel for Gina. My father isn’t part of my life because he can’t be, but Gina’s dad chooses not to be part of her life and I can’t even begin to imagine how painful that would be. I feel like I should talk to my stepdad and encourage him to reconnect with her, but I don’t know if that’s my place or how I should even go about it. Do you think I should try to talk to my stepdad about it or just let it go?
A: What a sad twist that a man gives up rights to be a father to his own child, then steps into that role for someone else’s children. I am hoping that Gina herself got a stepfather who loved and helped raise her. If that is the case, and she didn’t even invite her biological father to her wedding, it could be that Gina feels her life is complete and just doesn’t want to start trying to build a relationship with a stranger. It’s great that you have a good relationship with your aunt and she has a close one with Gina. So I think you should ask her to be a go-between. First find out what your aunt thinks about trying to reconnect your stepfather and Gina. It could be that she knows Gina doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. But if that’s not the case, ask your aunt if she’d ask Gina how Gina would feel if you encouraged an attempt at their reconnecting. It speaks highly of you that you have such empathy for your unknown stepsister. But it could also be that Gina likes things just the way they are.
Q. Distracted Lawyer: Hi, Prudence, I’m the easily-distracted lawyer from a couple of weeks ago. One of your readers on Facebook suggested a Firefox add-on called “LeechBlock,” and it has really helped. I just put in the URL of the sites that give me the most trouble, and it blocks them during the times I specify. Yes, I could go into the program and take off the block. But for me, just the “site blocked” screen is enough to remind me that this is not how I want to spend my day. So, thank you, and that reader. I’m far from cured of my distractibility, but I’m more productive.
A: And despite helping lead you to real help for your problem, I’ve become less productive! LeechBlock, here I come!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, until next week.
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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.