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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Introvert Daughter: My family is rather large (45 people on average for Thanksgiving) and my husband’s parents are divorced and we try to see both of them at some point over the weekend. Our kids are 13, 11, and 8 and in the past have seemed to enjoy spending the holiday weekend this way. Yesterday my 11-year-old daughter told me that she wants a “quiet” holiday. We have noticed that she is getting increasingly introverted over the past year or so, more likely to read by herself than play with her brothers and cousins. She told me that there are “too many people and too much driving.” My husband and I are party-loving extroverts, so house-hopping and driving six-plus hours over the weekend is no big deal to us. But my daughter doesn’t complain often and I know if she brings something up it is legitimately important to her. In small groups, and especially one-on-one, my daughter is a delight: creative, funny, and very smart. But in big groups she just fades into the background, possibly counting down the minutes until she can read by herself again. How do I balance my daughter’s request that we tone things down with a) reasonable expectations from family to see us, b) the rest of my immediate family’s love of going all-out, and c) not making the holiday all about her. My daughter’s personality is so different from the rest of us that I don’t know how to meet everybody’s needs at once. Any advice? Any introverts want to chime in?
A: Usually you can spot introverts from an early age, so I’m wondering about what you describe as a change in your daughter. It may be that she is finally feeling like she can stand up for her desire to curl up with a good book, but you should just make sure that she’s not withdrawing for some other reason. But if you simply have an introvert on your hands, get the best-seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking so you can understand your daughter better and help her assert her needs. You can tell her you appreciate that she understands herself so well and can articulate such things and that you will do what you can to accommodate her. It could be there’s no alternative but long drives on Thanksgiving, but she should be allowed to listen to a book on tape in the back seat. And when everyone gets into the boisterous games and antics after the meal, once she’s had her share, you can tell her she’s free to go to a quiet bedroom and read. If the relatives start teasing her, explain to them that while the rest of you are recharged by big noisy event, for some people it just drains their batteries, so you’re letting Lila take a much-needed break.
Q. Affair Partner’s Daughter Stalks Me: I fell in love with a married man and slept with him. Clearly one of my worst moments as a human being. When his wife found out about our affair we ended things. Somehow their daughter found out, and she has been harassing me ever since. She wrote me several long letters in which she told me how much she disliked me and how gross and pathetic I was. She messaged the letters to my Facebook friends before I made my friend list private. I think she got my phone number and began prank calling me several times a night, sometimes three times an hour around 2 a.m. I changed my phone number. Now she is showing up where I work (a department store) and coming into my area. She has done this twice. I am always hesitant to talk to her because the wife and my affair partner threatened legal action if I ever contacted them or so much as looked at one of their kids. I do not have the money to hire a lawyer to contact their lawyer. Should I accept this teenager’s behavior as a consequence of the affair, or am I within my rights to find a way to get her to stop bothering me?
A: Yes you have learned a good lesson in poor choices. Especially since your erstwhile lover is such a creep that he is now threatening you with legal action on the basis of nothing. It’s especially appalling that your boyfriend and his wife have allowed their daughter to be drawn into the drama. I know you don’t have much money, but it shouldn’t cost that much to have a short, onetime meeting with a lawyer to explain your situation and have a letter sent to the family explaining you are being harassed and if it doesn’t stop, you will have to go to the authorities. Alternatively, if the girl continues, you could just go directly to the police yourself and explain you are now being stalked. You could also alert your manager and without going into details explain that this girl is stalking you at work and you would appreciate someone having a word with her. Making a mistake does not mean you should endure an unbalanced teen trying to mess up your life.
Q. Houseguests and Sex: Recently we had family in from out of town staying with us. After we all went to bed, I heard a noise on my daughter’s monitor and went to go check it out. I got halfway there and then heard, very clearly, my sister and brother-in-law having sex. They were not having sex in the guest room where they were staying; I think they were in the bathroom. I was mortified and went straight back to my bedroom. I am really uncomfortable with them having sex in the bathroom—what if my daughter was to wake up while they were in there to use the toilet? How do I even begin to approach with this them? Or do I ignore it and hope they have the good sense to keep it in the guestroom from now on?
A: I thought this was going to be a much more exciting letter about two family members not married to each other being caught cheating via the baby monitor. It just may be that your sister and her husband closed the bathroom door and had vertical sex. It’s also possible that they are so vocal that their bedroom sex got picked up by a sensitive radio device. I’m trying to understand what you want to convey to them: “I think you had sex while visiting us. Nothing untoward happened. But my daughter might have been scarred for life if she’d had to make a wee-wee.” You can see that this line of rebuke is going nowhere. You should have the good sense to say nothing and be happy that your sister and her husband are still hot for each other.
Q. Former Cheaters Must Fess Up to Their Kids: My husband and I met and started dating when he was still married to his ex-wife. The first three years of our relationship were adulterous. Then I became pregnant and he divorced his ex. We married when I was eight months pregnant with our oldest daughter. Nine years later, we are very happy together, even though we will never be proud of how we began as a couple. Like most children, our kids (8, 6, 4) wonder how we met. My husband and I have always given them half-truths, but we know someday we will have to be more honest. When do you think that time should be? And should we ever be completely honest about how our relationship began? My husband and I do not want to tell our kids inappropriate things about ourselves, but we also don’t want to make our relationship’s origin story more salacious by making it a big secret.
A: You don’t mention that your husband had children by his first wife. If he did, then I assume you’ve already explained that Dad was married before and got divorced. If he didn’t have children, that uncomplicates the telling of your romance. And you do have a story to tell apart from the inconvenient detail that their father was already married. Either you were colleagues and met at work, or you were sitting next to each other on an airplane, etc. So tell that story. Your children are still very young and don’t need to know the sordid details of your cheating. At some point when the subject of divorce comes up you can tell them that Dad was married before he met you and he got a divorce. You should keep your answers age appropriate and answer their questions honestly. Mostly you want to convey that you two are happy you met, happy you got married, and thrilled to be parents.
Q. Unusual Couple: I have been dating an amazing man for three years. He recently proposed and I could not be happier. We are both so excited to plan our wedding. My fiancé is five inches shorter than me, something that has never bothered me, but what does bother me are the rude comments I sometimes get regarding our height difference and now that we have told everyone about the upcoming wedding they have increased a bit. Most of our friends and acquaintances have said nothing but lovely things, but some have said things such as: “He is too short for you in the long run,” and making rude jokes about him not being “man enough” for me. These comments make me furious, and I was wondering if you could help me come up with a great retort. So far I have said; “He is big where it matters,” which is not very classy.
A: Sometimes the best approach is just to look bemused, stay silent, and let the stupidity hang in the air. You could also say, “Thanks for your good wishes” or “Wow, what a small-minded thing to say.”
Q. Animal Torture: I am against torturing animals. I never thought I would need to clarify that, because I assumed most people oppose torturing animals. Then I met my daughter’s fiancé. I found out he was arrested twice as a teen for maiming and torturing animals—his own and others. He has apparently not had an incident since he has to do tons of community service when he was 17. He and my daughter claim his abuse of animals was a reaction to his stepfather’s abuse of him. My daughter thinks it is ridiculous to care about something her fiancé did years ago. But ever since finding out, I have not been able to look at her fiancé the same way. Am I overreacting by not fully trusting him?
A: There is no defense of animal torture. There is also no defense of child torture. I understand your visceral response to the news of your future son-in-law’s arrest as a boy, but you seem entirely incurious about his own abuse at the hands of his stepfather. This clearly seems to be one of those cases in which an intervention helped set a troubled young person on the right path. That you found out about this indicates he has not buried this secret, but has been open about what he did and his regrets. I just hope this young man has had some therapy because while the effects of childhood abuse can be long-lasting they can also be mitigated by caring and support. So you should now offer yours. He offended, paid the price, and has not done so again. Be accepting and kind to a man who is now walking on the right path.
Q. From the ‘Cheaters Fess Up’ Letter Writer: My husband and his wife did not have kids together. We haven’t seen her since the divorce was finalized, so there’s no obvious “evidence” of my husband’s first marriage. My worry is someday our daughter will find out about the circumstances of her conception and feel ashamed of being born. Should we ever tell her that her dad was still married when we conceived her, or is that an inappropriate thing for parents to address?
A: If everyone who was conceived before their parents made it to the altar were sorry they were born the world would have a lot of shame-faced people crawling through life. Maybe, years from now, your daughter will do the math and realize you were close to going into labor by the time you made it to the altar. So then you tell her that you and her dad were in love but hadn’t gotten married yet. If she’s old enough, and she presses, you can tell her that her dad was married when you two first met. But that story is a long way down the road and you should not let your admittedly tawdry beginnings cloud your children’s sense of themselves.
Q. Re: Introvert Daughter: I was just like this. I have about 65 first cousins on both sides of my family and we would always go see them around the holidays. It would destroy me because I would have to sit at the table and participate because leaving to go read was seen as “rude” or that I was “too good” to sit with everyone else. Now as an adult, I’ve found that the way to recharge during family get-togethers is to go to the bathroom, lock the door, turn out the light and sit in the tub for five minutes. (It really helps if there are two bathrooms at the gathering spot.) No one really seems to miss me for that short amount of time and it gives me enough of a recharge to keep on keeping on.
A: But as an adult you should be able to take a walk, or a break to read in a quiet room without having to feel like a fugitive.
Q. Etiquette of Giving Away Someone Else’s Money: My spouse recently found a stranger’s lost wallet, with a lot of cash and credit cards, and turned it in to the police station. The owner sent us a thank you note and a VERY generous check, I guess as a thank you for turning in the wallet with its contents intact. We don’t feel right taking the money, because we don’t need it and we don’t think we deserve a reward just for, you know, not stealing somebody’s money. We are inclined to donate the check to a local charity (maybe the parks and rec department because we found the wallet in a park) but are struggling with how to phrase a thank you note to the wallet owner. We don’t want to cash the check without sending him some kind of acknowledgement, but “Thank you for the money, but we’re giving it away” sounds kind of sanctimonious. Any ideas?
A: An honest person found a wallet, and a gracious one responded. This is a nice problem. You should definitely send a thank you, say it was your pleasure to be able to return the wallet, and you are grateful for such a generous check. You can add that since the wallet was lost in the park, and you found it there, you are going to use the money to make a donation to the parks department since you all enjoy their services. You will come off as thoughtful, not sanctimonious.
Q. Re: Introverted Daughter: Hope I’m not too late—I was that kid when I was younger! Mom, if you can find quieter things to do with her that are still related to the holidays, that might help her to have fun and enjoy the season. Some of my favorite memories are of my mom and I baking or cooking, just the two of us, either in the evening or while the others watched TV or played games elsewhere in the house. And I agree with Prudie’s “out clause”—we have a celebration that gets around 50 family members each year, and while I’ve grown into it, it was nice as a kid when my folks let me sneak away to read or go on a run when I got overwhelmed. See if you can find what resonates with her during this time of year—I bet she loves something about it, and you can probably make your own great traditions out of it.
A: It’s so wonderful to have understanding parents. Thanks for this.
Q. Teenagers, Religion: My 14-year-old has decided that she is, or might be, an atheist. We have been raising her (not with outside religious education and not in a superconservative way) as a Muslim. As a result she told her father she doesn’t want to pray with him anymore. This makes him very upset, because religion is very important to him, and because he feels like a bad father who hasn’t taught her properly. She is upset because she feels that he does not want her to think for herself. I am not that upset because I think teenagers go through this kind of phase, but it’s making for a lot of household stress. I am inclined to tell her to just keep a lid on her unsure views, and keep praying every now and then, to keep him happy. Is this too hypocritical?
A: You are very wise to understand that questioning faith is something many teenagers do and that it’s better to respect this exploration. It could be that your daughter never re-embraces her religion, it could be that as a young adult, or a mother herself, she decides to come back to it. But forcing someone into religious observance is unlikely to have the desired effect. You can be a bridge here. Tell your daughter you respect her views and the thoughtful way she’s expressed them. Say she’s entitled to them, but you hope that particularly on important occasions in the Muslim calendar she will participate in some religious observance as part of a family event and recognition of your cultural heritage. Then say to your husband that while your daughter’s declaration may be painful, the way to make her truly hate her religion is to force her to observe. Say to him that if she willingly does some rituals you two will get further by appreciating her willingness to compromise.
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.