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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I’m looking forward to your questions.
Q. Roadway Basket Case: I’m 25 years old and I’ve never driven a vehicle. When I was 16 all my parents could talk about was how they looked forward to me being able to drive my much younger siblings (ages 4 and 6 then) around to day care and karate. The idea of being responsible for such precious cargo freaked me out and caused a lot of anxiety so I would never take the permit test. They made a small fuss about it then but then just dropped the subject. Fast forward to today and my road anxiety is much, much worse. Luckily I’m a homebody and I work within a five minute walk from my fiancé’s (who is amazingly understanding) office. However, lately I’ve been getting a lot of pressure to suck it up and learn to drive from everyone. I feel like I would be a huge safety risk to people on the road and could potentially kill someone by overreacting to any number of things that could happen driving. When I say this my parents/friends tell me I’m being ridiculous and don’t know how I can function without a license. For the record, we don’t live in a big city with easy access to public transportation, but this doesn’t cause me any discomfort in my life so I don’t see what the big deal is. What can I tell people to get them off my case?
A: I’m afraid I’m going to join the crowd that’s on your case. I didn’t get my license until I was 19 years old because the terrifying movies in driver’s ed of what can happen to young people behind the wheel worked so well that I was traumatized to the point that I never wanted to get behind the wheel. Eventually having to be driven everywhere and realizing how circumscribed my life would be if I didn’t learn forced me to try again. Yes, it was scary, but being older and realizing how much I was causing my fears helped. There are people with medical conditions who cannot drive and have full and adventuresome lives. But if you are lucky enough to have the capacity, you shouldn’t let a long-ago worry keep you in your little circuit. You say that you’re lucky to be a homebody. But you may just be rationalizing the fact that you’ve let your worries keep you at home. After all, those kids you were supposed to take to karate will soon be getting their own licenses. Pick up the book Learning To Drive by Katha Pollitt, and read her wonderful essay on becoming a new driver in middle age. You need to call some local driver’s ed companies, explain your predicament, and say you want the kindest, most patient instructor. Once you get the hang of it, you won’t believe how long you let your fears rule you. I still don’t like to drive, but am grateful I finally forced myself.
Q. Hygiene: While spending the afternoon with my boyfriend’s roommate, he and I started sharing little gripes about our partners. While we were doing this, he mentioned how my boyfriend picks at his skin … and then eats the findings! I was shocked at this and thought that he was just putting me on, but the roommate has known him far longer than I have, so I decided to pay more attention to my boyfriend’s habits when we’re alone. Sure enough, he is right! I have seen my boyfriend pick at his back, neck, arm and other extremities … and then hurriedly bring his hands straight to his mouth. I can’t believe I’ve never noticed this before, but now it’s something that I can’t un-see. I don’t want to kiss him anymore and just looking at him grosses me out. How do I mention this delicate situation to him without causing him extreme embarrassment?
A: This is some sort of compulsion and as embarrassing as it is, he needs to see if he can get control of it. If now that you know this about him you are so repelled that you can’t even let him kiss you, then your relationship sounds pretty doomed, so either way, there’s no reason to stay silent out of a desire to spare him this embarrassment. Say that you’ve just become aware of this habit of his, it must cause him a lot of distress, and you urge him to find a counselor who can help him try to conquer it. Do keep in mind that he’s the same person he was when you were happy with him, and that it might be a relief for him to be able to be honest with you about this struggle.
Q. Should I Return Baby Shower Gifts After Stillbirth?: Our son was stillborn at 37 weeks a few months ago. I’ve mostly kept to myself since then, but sooner or later I have to address what to do with his nursery. I’m sure the news has traveled by word-of-mouth to everyone who attended my baby shower by now. What do I do? Do I return the gifts to those who gave them to me? My sister-in-law has asked for the gift she gave me back, as she is due in a few months. I don’t know what to do.
A: I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m also sorry you have such a crude, thoughtless person for a sister-in-law. Give her back her gift without a word. Depending on how she’s related to you, the person closest to her might want to explain to her just how much her thoughtlessness has damaged your relationship. She sounds like the kind of person who will not understand that while you will celebrate the birth of her child, you will still be torn up with your own grief and need sensitivity and understanding. You do not have to return the gifts. Either you can put them away for now, or if you can’t stand to keep these reminders, you can donate them to a shelter. Anyone else crude enough to ask about their gift (please tell me there’s only one in your circle) should be told you just can’t talk about baby presents now. Please consider contacting Share (nationalshare.org) a support group for people who’ve been through losses such as yours.
Q. Re: For roadway basket case: I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 21. I was turned off as a teenager by how nervous my mom would get when I was driving and that she would shout at me which was terrifying. Eventually I got my permit and would take the car out by myself early in the morning (when the roads were empty) to practice. I gained a lot of confidence that way, and got my license with no problem. I’m not sure if you are allowed to drive by yourself with a permit, but at 25 it’s not like a cop is going to pull you over unless you already did something wrong. I don’t like to drive either but it’s irresponsible not to learn, especially if you are thinking of having children with your fiancé.
A: Lots of scaredy-cat drivers have written in with their own stories of overcoming this fear. A few have suggested some kind of cognitive therapy in conjunction with an understanding driving instructor.
Q. Happy Screaming: My husband and I have a wonderful and precocious 5-year-old girl. On Friday night we went out and left her with a baby sitter, and got back around midnight once she was already sleeping. Feeling in the mood, we locked our door and went at it. In the middle of our passion, we heard pounding and crying at the door, and when we opened it found a terrified little girl who couldn’t understand why mommy was screaming like she was being attacked. We reassured her that everything was fine and put her back in bed, but all weekend she’s been acting worried and keeps asking if Mommy’s OK. Last night she couldn’t sleep because she’s convinced herself that there’s a monster in the house. You can’t explain the screams of ecstasy to a 5-year-old, so what should we say to reassure her and convince her that there’s nothing to worry about? So happy we locked that door.
A: You don’t have to explain screams of ecstasy, you can just explain to her that it may be hard to believe, but sometimes moms and dads like to act loud and silly together, or tickle each other. Say that what she heard the other night sounded scary, but that you and Dad were playing around—tell her to think of how she shrieks when Dad chases her or you all play hide and seek. You can say it’s really thoughtful that she was worried and thought she should help you, but you want her to know there’s nothing to worry about and everything between you and dad is great. When she gets older, one day she will realize just what kind of “tickle game” she interrupted.
Q. Old vs. New Flame: When I was in college (10 years ago) there was a guy I met through mutual friends, and one night “Bob” and I ended up hooking up … in a PG-13 sort of way. We had a lot of fun, but this was about a week before graduation and nothing ever came of it. We’ve since reconnected through Facebook, and it turns out that he’ll be passing through my city next weekend. We made plans to catch up, and through some flirting and entendre, there’s really no doubt what will happen—and I think we’re both looking forward to it. The problem is that while I’ve been single for a while now, I started seeing a new guy “Jim” about three weeks ago. It’s way too soon to have “the talk,” and we’re not exclusive, but I like him a lot and am excited at the potential. Getting the elusive second date these days is hard, and I don’t want to mess up a good thing. So … do you think it’s OK to hook up with Bob? Is that asking for trouble with Jim? I don’t know the next time Bob will be in town, and I really would love that closure.
A: I understand being horny and all, but I don’t know what kind of “closure” you get from planning to have meaningless sex with a guy you barely know anymore. Sure, if you use condoms you reduce the risk of contracting an STD, but not to zero, and the fact that you’ve been exchanging flirtatious messages is not an imperative to jump into bed with a former make-out buddy. Yes, it’s way too early to make life plans vis-a-vis Jim, but because of him you yourself are uneasy about having sex with Bob. So enjoy Bob’s company and decide that while it will be pleasurable to have him pass through town he won’t be passing through you.
Q. I’m Your Daughter, Not the Nanny: The last time I went on vacation with my dad and his new family (my stepmom and their three toddlers) I spent more time baby-sitting my siblings than spending time with my dad. I’m mostly happy to help out, but because my dad lives across the country from me, I wanted to spend some time with him. Since the kids were born, whenever I visit him I feel more like free child care than like his daughter. My dad wants me to come to Hawaii with him and his new family for my spring break. I miss my dad, but if I go, I want to spend time with him and feel like a member of the family, not like the help. What should I tell him and his wife, whom I don’t know very well?
A: Shame on your dad. I understand that three toddlers are a handful, and that you want to have a relationship with your new siblings, but it sounds as if Dad and stepmom think, “Built-in nanny!” whenever you arrive. You need to have a conversation with your dad about this. I don’t know how old you are, or what kind of relationship your mother has with him. But if she and he are on decent speaking terms, she could also step up on your behalf. Tell your father you love and miss him and you know he has a lot of responsibilities with his new family, but you hope he can make time just to be with you. Say it doesn’t have to be long or exotic, a weekend together occasionally, just the two of you, would be fine. Explain that over the past couple of vacations you’ve spent more time taking care of the kids than being able to be with him, and you wanted to talk about this openly before you made plans for spring break. Say that if you go, you would appreciate if they could hire a baby sitter a few nights, so that you, he, and his wife could go out for more grown-up dinners and you can all get to know each other better. Say you would like to have one or two afternoons just devoted to the two of you. See how he reacts, and make your spring plans accordingly.
Q. Re: “Tickle game”: When I was 4, we moved into a new house. My bedroom shared a wall with my parents’ and for some reason, they placed both of our beds against that wall. One morning at breakfast, I asked my mother why Daddy was hurting her the night before. A few days later, our rooms were switched, and my bed was placed on the other side of the room. I never understood why they made such an abrupt change to the house. I have no memory of this, but my brother, who was 7, remembered it vividly and told me about it when we were in our 20s or 30s (we are now in our 50s). My mother denied that this happened and insisted that it was because the closet in my original room was substantially larger (which was true). As an adult, I was very happy to learn that my parents had an active sex life with two small children.
A: I really like your kicker that in retrospect you are happy your busy parents still managed to get it on!
Q. Co-worker’s Grief Means More Work for Me: My co-worker’s baby died suddenly four months ago. She’d already used up her maternity leave when her baby died, so our boss gave her some time off to recover. Now she’s back, but she’s struggling to function. Her anguish is understandable and heartbreaking to watch. At first I tempered my frustration that she didn’t do any work by telling myself that as a young woman in my 20s, I couldn’t begin to comprehend my co-worker’s pain. Gradually over the past two and a half months I have taken on more and more of her responsibilities to the point where I’m doing 95 percent of her work. I feel for my co-worker, but I am exhausted and can’t keep picking up her slack. We used to work together closely, and when she was gone our bosses assigned me an intern. I no longer have the extra help. How should I approach my co-worker? Am I being insensitive?
A: This woman is in agonizing pain and less than three months is a very, very short time to expect someone to be functional after this kind of loss. I’m hoping you work at a place that has compassion and that your bosses are good people. If so, speak to your supervisors and explain that your co-worker for the time being needs more support as she deals with her grief, and you’re hoping her duties can be temporarily parceled out to several people and that getting an intern back would also be a great help. If you have a decent relationship with your co-worker, you could also go out for coffee with her, listen to how she’s doing, and suggest that she might want to contact Share (nationalshare.org) to talk to others who understand.
Q. Husband’s Eating Himself Toward Diabetes: During our five-year marriage, my husband has gained nearly 100 pounds. He was never slim to begin with, and has several medical issues that can easily be attributed to genetics—thyroid problems that run in the family, high blood pressure from his dad’s side, etc. But with this additional weight gain, he now has liver problems and high cholesterol. We’re only in our late 20s, but I’m worried that my husband is on his way toward a major health crisis. He resists my attempts to get him to exercise with me, or to trade in his fatty fried foods for healthier fare. Any attempts to get him to see reality get me labeled a “nag.” I’m scared for him and scared that I will be left a widow and single mother to our daughter. He’s a grown man and must make his own choices, but what he puts in his mouth ultimately affects our family, too. Any advice?
A: Your husband’s trajectory is alarming. He’s already morbidly obese and given his eating and exercise choices he’s on track to shorten his life, or make you his caretaker because he could end up disabled due to weight. I think you should insist that you two go together to talk to a bariatrician. Your husband is beyond your nagging about fried food, he needs a complete work-up and plan of action with someone who specializes in weight. If you were planning on having more children, you need to have a blunt conversation with him about the fact that you want to put this on hold because of your concerns about having to care for your family by yourself. You also need some good financial planning—you need health insurance and your own source of income in case the worst happens and your husband starts lurching from health crisis to health crisis.
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