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. Rape “Lies” and a Baby: I was raped four years ago and became pregnant. Eventually a paternity test proved the rapist and not my husband was my baby’s father. The rapist was never caught, so I have no idea who my child’s biological father was. My husband decided before we knew our baby’s paternity to raise and love him no matter what. We initially agreed not to tell anyone about our baby’s origins, so we could eventually control if and how we told our son. My husband told my mother-in-law, though—and since then she has tried to convince him that I “cried rape” to cover up an affair. She thinks I knew about the pregnancy, faked a rape, and have been duping my husband into raising another man’s child. She seems to love her grandson, but she also judges me harshly and behaves rudely toward me because of her beliefs. Sadly, I think a small part of my husband believes her. He pushes me for painful details of my rape and becomes suspicious when I do not immediately supply them. I don’t know what to do. I love my son beyond all else. Being raped was hell, and it hurts so badly that my husband thinks I’d lie about it.
A: I’m so sorry for your trauma, and I’m assuming that following your rape you called the police. I hope your husband was by your side through this ordeal—which certainly should have made very clear to him that you were criminally assaulted. Even at this late date, you need support. Start by calling RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network to discuss finding a counselor and possibly a support group. Instead of enduring your husband’s badgering, you need help getting him to understand how to help you recover from your assault, how you two keep your marriage strong, and how you tell your son about his origins. You both made a decision to raise and love your son. But this is being undermined by the vile accusations of your mother-in-law. After you and your husband get some counseling, ask the counselor for advice on your husband dealing with his mother. The message she has to receive is that either she shuts up and starts behaving decently, or all of you won’t be seeing her.
Dear Prudence: Hair-Raising Dilemma
Q. Loud Yawning: My partner is incredibly awesome in every way—except one: He yawns louder and more ridiculously than anyone I know. When we’re outside or with company, he may do a quiet, discreet yawn. But when it’s just him and I at home, relaxing. then his yawns couldn’t be louder and larger-than-life. Sometimes when I’m in a really good mood, I actually find it hilarious that out of nowhere, I hear “YEEEAAAWWWWWHHHHHHHHHH!” from several rooms over. But, more often than not this loud, random, long noise is startling and annoying. Even worse? It’s not always the same noise—sometimes it’s long and stretched out (like above), other times it’s short and staccato-like, such as “YAH!” and other times they’re the kind of sound that cartoon character makes falling down a well “EEEEEeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhuuuuh …………” I’ve told him that I find these noises unpleasant and often upsetting (every night or two, basically my partner randomly shouts) and how I wished he’d stop. He says that’s just how he yawns. But! I say, if he can yawn like a normal person in public, then he can yawn like a normal person at home. What say you, Prudie?
A: There are lots of things people suppress in public that they let fly at home. If you think you’ve got a problem, go to the Dear Prudence archives and use the keyword “fart.” So your partner occasionally sounds like a lion on the veldt. Let him enjoy this piece of wildness and don’t try to tame it out of him.
Q. 71-Year-Old Dating 29-Year-Old: My parents had been married for 38 years when my mother died suddenly in 2007. Her death was a huge loss for my family. Over the years, my brother, other family members, and I have let my dad know that we’d be OK if he decided to date. He always said he could never find someone like my mom. Imagine my delight when he recently told me he found someone very special! That delight turned to shock when my 71-year-old father told me that he’s dating a 29-year-old! (I’m 40.) I don’t know what to do. I really cannot be supportive of this relationship but at the same time he seems very happy.
A: I can imagine he’s happy. She’s probably happy, too, because your father is suave, sophisticated, and so much more mature than the average twentysomething. Then there’s the size of his bank account! I’m relieved you don’t mention that you’re concerned that this granddaughter-aged girlfriend is going to work her way through your inheritance. Unless your father is mentally incompetent, which you also don’t indicate, there’s nothing for you to do. If he brings up his romantic life, you can say, “You seem very happy,” then decline to hear more.
Q. Comments About Race: I’m a black male college student. In what’s an apparent shock to everyone around me, I never did pick up on slang and I speak very proper English. The problem is that I’m now at a university in which I am the only black student and a large number of the other students seem to be taking an inappropriate fascination to how well I disprove the stereotypes. I get comments like, “You’re one of the only black people I talk to, and I could easily confuse you for being white,” or “all black people should be like you.” It’s almost like they think I should be honored that they’ve actually accepted one of my kind into their elitist group. And while I’m sure the other students think they’re handing me compliments, I find these comments particularly aggravating. What is a quick response I can have at the ready that will squash the comments without creating conflict?
A: The admissions office at your university has a lot of work to do if they are unable to attract a racially mixed student body. I would be tempted to say back, “And I hope all white people are not like you.” But you want to make your way through this place with as little hassle and possible. You could try something like, “I know you think you’re giving me a compliment. But what you’ve just said is actually very demeaning to black people.” Then let them sputter.
Q. Is My Child Intolerant?: My daughter Penny’s first grade class visits her school’s special education students twice a week. When they return from their visits, they get to eat their afternoon snack. Last week Penny was hungry and asked her teacher when they would return to their classroom. Her teacher chastised her for being rude and made Penny apologize to both classes. Penny was humiliated. Her teacher has now called a meeting with my husband and me because she thinks Penny is intolerant of her mentally delayed classmates. Last month I guess Penny asked a student in the special education class to not blow his nose on his sleeve. I’m having a hard time seeing how Penny’s behavior is intolerant, but maybe I’m too biased in her favor. In your professional opinion, is Penny’s teacher right?
A: Oh lovely, on a forced march to teach empathy, your daughter’s teacher forces her to humiliate herself in front of her classmates. This teacher seems to have little understanding of the developmental stage that 6-year-olds are at, which is a serious failing for a first-grade teacher. Have the meeting, listen, then firmly explain from your perspective what happened. Say that nothing you’ve heard indicates your daughter deserved the kind of reprimand she received. One, she was hungry. As for the comment to the other student, that’s the kind of thing 6-year-olds say, and the teacher could have quietly instructed your daughter that she was right about not blowing your nose on one’s sleeve, but that telling other people they’re being rude can hurt their feelings. See how it goes. If you’re not satisfied, you should definitely ask for a meeting with the principal.
Q. Re: Black college student: Prudie, it might not be that far out of the question to consider that this is the first time that these white students have been around a black person, and part of what they’re saying is out of just not knowing what to say, versus coming from a negative place. While it’s a shame this may be the case, it is reality, and this young man is getting to be the standard bearer, so to speak, by being the first black person at his university. So perhaps even a humorous comment would be more appropriate, letting them gently know this is not really an acceptable response, without getting the dukes up—something like “Yeah, that’ll work only if all white people are like you.” (Of course, if the comment stated to him is not coming from this perspective, then the response, too, would be different.)
A: Even if these students have lived racially sheltered lives, maybe they’ve heard that the president of the United States is black. Maybe they’ve even heard him speak! Yes, keeping a sense of humor about social situations is a good thing. But this student should feel free to cut the racial commentary short. What I suggested is not belligerent, just direct.
Q. Husband’s Awkward Interaction With Daughter: My husband and I have a 19-month-old daughter. My husband works a lot, and unfortunately doesn’t get to spend a great deal of time with our daughter. The problem is that when he does come home, he rarely interacts with her. And his interaction with her consists almost entirely of tickling her and trying to “raspberry” her belly. Every day, that’s his entire interaction with his daughter. I think he doesn’t know any other way to interact with her, and he’s entirely closed to my suggestions to read to her, play blocks, play with balls, etc. He just digs his fingers into her armpits and gives her beard burn on her belly for a few minutes and considers his fatherly duties done. Could you give me any suggestions for getting him to bury the tickle monster and truly interact with his child?
A: There are some parents, especially tired ones, who just aren’t that great with babies and toddlers. For these parents (let’s acknowledge they’re often men) fatherhood really becomes interesting once their child is verbally responsive and able to interact more competently (i.e. run, kick a ball, understand a book). Do not denigrate the raspberries and the tickling. This kind of roughhousing, even if it’s brief, is wonderful for kids and something fathers are particularly good at supplying. Maybe if you’ve got a group of young mothers you’re friendly with, all of you could organize monthly family brunches. That way the fathers will get to know each other and the other kids. Then it might be easier to put together some father and child weekend outings to the playground—which would give the mothers a break. Your husband will get some lessons in interacting with little kids from the other dads. If things just never improve and your husband remains checked out, look for some parenting classes that you two could attend together.
Q. Homeless Man Hits On Stepdaughter: I have volunteered at the same soup kitchen on a weekly basis for the past eight years. I’ve become friends with several of the people who dine there regularly. This summer, my awesome stepdaughter Alicia started to volunteer with me when her schedule permitted. One of the “regulars,” Joe, has taken an interest in Alicia. He hovers near the serving line when she’s present and tries to flirt with her. Alicia confided in my last night that once, when she went into a back office, Joe followed her and tried to touch her hair. I’m very uncomfortable with Joe’s behavior to Alicia, and if she’s to continue volunteering here, it needs to change. The issue is, the director of the soup kitchen is very sensitive to what she perceives to be “prejudice” against homeless people or people who use the soup kitchen. In the past, clients have made other volunteers uncomfortable, and she has always pushed the volunteer to examine why the client makes them uncomfortable. I worry if I explain the situation to her she’ll dismiss Alicia’s discomfort and side with Joe. I’d like to continue volunteering here, but my stepdaughter comes first. What should I say?
A: Don’t tell me the director of the soup kitchen is also a first-grade teacher. It does absolutely no good for people with serious social problems not to be told that there are standards of behavior at the soup kitchen—and elsewhere. Joe is unlikely to learn to function in society if the director thinks it’s just fine for him to touch the volunteers. I would urge your stepdaughter to volunteer her time elsewhere—she might not be safe at this soup kitchen. Whether you want to continue, or find someplace else that takes a more holistic approach to helping people, is up to you.
Q. Re: “Intolerant” children: I’d be VERY tempted to tell the teacher that special-ed kids are not there to serve as empathy-inducing zoo animals. OMFG.
A: I know what you mean. But the parents have to handle this delicately because this teacher can make life miserable for students she deems “unempathetic.”
Q. Parent’s Table Manners: My parents are both in their early 60s and highly educated professionals (though now retired), however, they have some of what I would consider the worst table manners and social habits. My dad thinks nothing of pulling out a very dirty and used handkerchief at the table (both at home and at restaurants), while my mother will vigorously brush her hair at the same said table. Both of the them have been known to go out to eat in dirty, stained work clothes, because they “don’t have anyone to impress.” I try to tell them it’s not about impressing people, it’s about hygiene. None of these are new habits, so it’s not like they are letting themselves go in retirement. Am I overreacting to think these are revolting, or is there some way to tactfully approach them about these?
A: I agree their table manners sounds revolting. But your chances of changing them sound nil. Either go out with them and try to turn a blind eye. Or when you get together say that you’d rather get carryout because it’s so much more relaxing to eat at home.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you everyone. And I will be here to chat next Monday on Christmas Eve.
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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!