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: It’s been hard to think of anything but the horror that just took place in Connecticut and the agony of those affected. Tragic letters sometimes do come to this column. But mostly people write about day to day frustrations. I do look forward to your questions, but I’m sure all of us will be feeling how lucky we are if we just have normal problems.
Q. Message Failed: 10 years ago, a male colleague and I enjoyed going to sporting events together. He was a bit of a player, but we never dated. He later married a nice woman who, for whatever reason, seemed to have it in for me. We remain friendly at work but don’t see each other outside the office except for the very occasional office social event. A couple of months ago his wife, still in her 30s, was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer. I sent her a card and note saying I was very sorry to hear this and hoped treatment would go well. In response, I got a diatribe saying I was counting the days until her death so I could get my claws back into her husband, and much more and much worse. Had she sent this only to me, I would have ignored it, but she put it on Facebook! Her husband followed up with a posting saying that, while we were friends, we had never dated and had no romantic interest in each other. I’m debating seconding his comments, or is it better to just leave it alone? I have no idea why she hates me so and assure you we never did anything in the least inappropriate. I feel bad I so enraged a dying woman but can’t think of anything I can do to make it right.
A: I hope as social media rules evolve people will come to see that it is wrong and counterproductive to use a public forum to humiliate a spouse to try to make him change, or excoriate an acquaintance for some faux pas, or, as in your case, work out some sad psychological issues. People dealing with devastating illnesses deserve a lot of leeway, but making false accusations is a leeway too far, and I’m glad the husband stepped up to respond to his wife’s rant. I’m sure you are embarrassed and humiliated, but I assure you almost everyone reading what she wrote will be appalled and perhaps wonder if the woman’s treatment was affecting her judgment. Keep silent. You didn’t do anything wrong, but there’s nothing you can do to right her fantasies.
Dear Prudence: Hair-Raising Dilemma
Q. Bathroom Sexism: I work in a small office (five men and two women) and we share a unisex bathroom. A few weeks back, somebody put up a sign saying “Please leave the seat upright.” I assume that our boss approves since he hasn’t taken the sign down. I was extremely indignant by the sign! Even though we girls are the juniormost employees and are in the minority, why should we have to leave the seat upright? This isn’t really an issue that I can take up with my boss as he’s very formal and reserved and this isn’t something that bothers my colleague. Should I suck it up and comply? Or should I rebel by refusing to leave the seat up?
A: The man who put this sign up sure is anal. The guys in your office must have extremely strong thigh muscles if they hover over a seat-less toilet bowl when certain kinds of duty calls. Usually in the battle of the sexes, plumbing version, it’s the women who have the upper hand, forcing the men to return the seat to the down position. I’ve never heard of a directive insisting the toilet set remain up, therefore universally inconveniencing women every time they seek relief. If you take the sign down, it will be pretty clear it was either you or your female co-worker, thus getting you tangled up with the a**hole in the office. Leave the sign alone, but feel free to ignore its directive.
Q. SIL Neglecting Daughter for Facebook?: My husband’s sister has always been the annoying person who documents her every single move on Facebook. She had a baby two weeks ago, and I am getting concerned. She updates with pictures, status updates, etc., multiple times an hour—over the course of several hours. Sometimes 10 to 15 updates an hour, spaced every five or so minutes. It’s to the point where I am worried that she will spend so much time taking and uploading pictures that her daughter won’t get the attention she needs. SIL was like this before with pictures of her pregnant belly, but now there’s a child at stake. She freely shares tons of personal information about her daughter—full name, birthdate, etc.—on Facebook, too. I feel awful for my niece, who seems to be more like an accessory to make her mother’s life look better than it really is. What can I do?
A: Again, Facebook can be wonderful for letting people know about your poetry reading, or for getting recommendations for places to eat in Venice. But its dark side is that it becomes a forum for the expression of narcissistic personality disorder. I don’t even understand how your sister-in-law’s schedule is possible. When I had an infant I felt as if I was on a nonstop loop of feeding and changing. It’s not so easy to post updates on these activities when your hands are occupied doing it. You obviously don’t like your sister-in-law very much (“… to make her mother’s life look better than it really is”) so try to contain your contempt as you look at this situation. Consider that your sister-in-law is obnoxious, but you’re overreacting. Maybe the solution is that you just need get off her FB feed. She may be overly displaying her daughter, but it sure doesn’t sound as if she’s neglecting her. But if as things unfold you truly worry that things are off with this new mother, then you should have a gentle talk with your husband about your concerns. Maybe his side of the family can give her some guidance on privacy and time management.
Q. Family and the Holidays (Shocking, I Know): My family has always had a difficult time sharing the holidays with my husband’s family. Since we moved across the country two years ago, it has become even worse. My husband’s family does a very large Christmas brunch, while my family does an early Christmas dinner. My family is mad that they have to push the start of their party back to accommodate my husband’s family. Prudie, we eat Christmas dinner at 3:30 p.m.! My family complains that they will only push their party back if my in-laws push their party earlier, which I have asked in the past and they have done, but as I have explained to my family, you can only start Christmas so early in the morning. I have also explained to my family that we eat ridiculously early and that they actually get to spend more time with us on Christmas since we spend all afternoon and evening with them. We can’t combine our two families’ Christmases (and I wouldn’t want to), and I don’t know how to make them stop complaining unless we trade Christmases each year, which I really don’t want to do since it’s the only holiday we get to see everyone at. Help, please! They’re turning me into a Grinch.
A: Give up. Tell your family to go ahead and eat when they want. If they then start chowing down at noon, you will get there after they eat, but you should still be full from brunch. Then you can hang out for the afternoon and get a plate of leftovers in the evening. If they want to keep dinner at 3:30, then you show up, let their grumbling roll off you, and get in the true spirit of the season.
Q. My Sister-in-Law Makes Our Kids Compete: My sister-in-law and I are both mothers to beautiful girls who are about the same age. What I find disconcerting is that every time she visits, my sister-in-law wants to know about my daughter’s grades, how many friends she has (and their social status!), what toys she has, and even compares the girl’s sizes with comments like, “My daughter is so tiny and petite, and yours is getting so big!” These comments are incredibly hurtful; usually I’ve just walked away when she starts with the comparison game. But now these games are clearly affecting her daughter, too. I’ve noticed that my niece will often pry my daughter for the same answers, and appears visibly distraught if my daughter happens to be doing better in some area of life. Apparently, my sister-in-law was upset one night that my daughter is, in her words, “more beautiful” than her own—and this was something my niece told me. I’m heartbroken for the pain my sister-in-law is causing this child. I grew up with friends who were constantly told they were not good enough, and as a result, they could never make friends because they ended up being so competitive. I’d hate to see the same happen to my niece. I have also tried complimenting my niece or my daughter when I notice my sister-in-law getting critical, but I am unsure about how to approach this. I wouldn’t put it past my sister-in-law to keep my husband and me from seeing my niece.
A: Did this sister-in-law post updates every five minutes on Facebook when her daughter was born? Or maybe the girls are too old to have been subject to that. Every week I am sadly reminded of how many people use parenthood as a stage on which to relive their own damage. How sad for this little girl, and I’m afraid there’s not going to be that much you can do. You can try modeling good behavior. “Both our daughters are beautiful and smart. I’m not going to do any point-by-point comparisons.” When the kids get together, beforehand you can instruct your daughter that she doesn’t have to answer certain questions. You can even role play with her and let her practice saying, “I don’t want to talk about my grades or how much I weigh.” Let her know she should come to you if she’s being badgered. Maybe there’s someone in the family who is seeing these awful patterns and can intervene. If it’s possible, you could try getting your niece to come over without her mother and be a sane, kind presence in her life. The kind of psychological damage you describe unfortunately often goes unchecked. You just hope there are enough contravening influences in this child’s life so the mother’s craziness doesn’t permanently damage her.
Q. Newly Married … and the Honey Is Slipping Away: My husband and I have been married for three months and did not live together before we married. We have a great relationship and are in a stable if not wildly wealthy financial status. For years I’ve kept a honeypot of spare change and save it up to buy something fun or extravagant every so often. Over the past three months, my new hubby has been dipping into it for parking or beer, or … to the point that I feel like I should just hand him my wallet. My comments of “Where did the honeypot go?” or “How much does it cost to park nowadays?” are met with bland “Seriously?” rebuttals. How can I get him to stop dipping in without seeming cheap? I’ve offered to save for something we both like to no end.
A: Even if you’ve decided to share your life and your bank account with your beloved, you each are entitled to your own separate source of money. So get your honeypot out of his sight. Explain to him you’ve always collected your spare change then treated yourself later with it. Explain you’re moving this temptation out of his sight so it won’t be taunting him, because you want to continue having this private indulgence.
Q. Re: My sister-in-law makes our kids compete: I was that kid. My mom made me competitive with all of the other kids growing up. She always told me I had to beat them. I was never striving for the A grade, I was striving to beat the kid next to me. I can tell you that it really stunted me because I didn’t know how to be a decent friend to anyone. People would like me in the beginning, then realize that I just wanted to beat them, and then our friendship would sour. It wasn’t until college that I realized what was happening and grew out of it. I had a very lonely childhood because I had no friends. I would suggest talking to the mom ASAP. The goal should always be the A grade, not beating your peer.
A: I’m encouraged to hear you were about to see these destructive patterns and leave them behind. I agree intervening with the mother would be good. But unfortunately some bad parents are very resistant to change.
Q. Unsolicited Sex Ed: Yesterday my two daughters, they’re 7 and 8, were on a play date with a classmate of the older one. When they were playing with the girl’s tablet, the classmate showed my daughters a sex game with very explicit images. My girls weren’t comfortable and asked her to change the game. After, when we came home, they told me about it. My question to you is, should I contact the girl’s mother to make her aware of this, and if so, what’s the best to broach the subject? We are not friends.
A: That’s concerning and yes, I think you should say something. I’m hoping the little girl just got her hands on a tablet that belongs to the adults and was doing some unauthorized searching among undeleted websites. Don’t be alarmist, just stick to the facts and explain what happened, and say you’re sure she would want to know.
Q. No Lost Love for Dying Sister: I grew up with an older sister with a severe drug problem who left home 15 years ago, and I haven’t seen her since, although my parents keep in contact. Due to the fact that she is significantly older and started using when I was quite young, I have NO good memories of her. I’m not hostile toward her; I think of her as a distant cousin who has no impact in my life. Recently she was diagnosed with cancer and has been forced to become clean because of it. Naturally my parents are heartbroken, but now they are laying on a guilt trip about how sad they are I don’t have a relationship with my sister and how I need to forgive her and forge a relationship with her. I feel bad that she’s dying and so ill, but I feel bad in the same way you feel bad about a co-worker being sick. She missed graduations, my wedding, and the birth of my child without even a phone call or a note. How do I respond to my parents in a way that says while I feel bad for her, their trying to force the issue only makes me resent the situation.
A: Try to understand that they are displacing some of their grief about her life, and possibly her death, on you. This of course is not pleasant, but it will help if you can acknowledge their pain. Perhaps you could go on an occasional hospital visit with your parents. That is the kind of thing you might do for a distant cousin or a co-worker. Listen sympathetically when your parents talk about your sister. But if they keep pressuring you for more than you are willing or able to give, you have to gently draw the line. Just explain you are sorry for your sister’s addictions and the estrangement it caused, but they are only going to make all of you miserable by trying to force a relationship now where none exists. Say that you will do what is comfortable for both you and your sister, and that they need to concentrate on their own relationship with her, and not try to manage yours.
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Emily will be chatting next Monday on Christmas Eve at the normal time, noon ET. Submit your final questions of 2012 then!