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: Happy 2013! I hope yours is off to a good start and none of you have the viral crud which has felled all of us here at the chat.
Q. Where Do I Tell My Son His Sister Came From?: A few years ago I cheated on my husband, got pregnant, and decided to keep the child. Because my husband and I had a 2-year-old son together we decided that we could keep our marriage together for his sake. The thing that really complicates things is that my husband, son, and I are white, while my lover was black, and so my daughter is mixed race. Naturally my son has begun questioning why his sister looks so different from the rest of us, and my mother-in-law took it upon herself to tell him she was adopted. I’m at a loss for what to do. For now my husband has told MIL that the topic is verboten, but we haven’t decided if we should correct her error. Until now I’ve been happy to just let people assume what they want about where my children’s origins are, but now that a story is getting around, I’m not sure what to say or how to handle it.
A: Despite continuing weekly evidence to the contrary, I will continue to believe that the vast majority of men who think they are the biological fathers of their children really did provide the sperm. If you get impregnated by a lover of another race, what you say to your children about this is something that needed to be discussed openly with your husband, preferably before the baby was born. Making the utterly obvious verboten is not a good strategy for anyone. I think what you need for your immediate family is a dose of the truth. But, for your children, it needs to be age appropriate. Since your daughter was born a few years ago, your son is old enough to know the basics of reproduction. He needs to be told that his sister has the same mother, but a different biological father. However, what’s really important is that both he and his sister are being raised by the same daddy. You can tell him families are made all sorts of ways, and yours is just a little bit special. If your son—and eventually your daughter—want to know why this is the case, it’s fair to tell them that it’s a complicated story, and they will probably understand it more when they’re older. Say they can talk about this subject any time, but if they can wait, you and their dad can fill in more details as they grow up. For outsiders, you don’t need to explain anything. You can just say you are blessed with two beautiful children. And your husband needs to tell his mother to stop telling the kids something that’s simply wrong.
Dear Prudence: Doubling the Pleasure
Q. One-Upping Illness: My husband of 15 years has the peculiar and annoying habit of developing various ailments when I get sick. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often, but occasionally I will come down with a bad case of migraine headaches or a stomach bug. When this happens, my husband will invariably complain of sore throat/mysterious limp/irregular heartbeats or some other type of medical issue that overshadows my own predicaments in severity and attention-seeking behavior. He also steps up the moaning and groaning. While I have no need for pity or excessive sympathy on my infrequent sick days, a kind word and a helping hand would be preferred over having to engage in a ridiculous competition over who feels more crappy and who should get the most help from the kids. I have tried everything from ignoring his behavior to complaining—nothing works. I know his mom has done this very same thing most of her life to reclaim attention whenever someone else in the family would steal the limelight. I hate to pass this syndrome down to my own kids and frankly, I’m tired of it and dread the prospect of getting sick so I have to deal with a whiny husband and kids who worry their dad will croak while mom is down with the flu. What can I do to break the pattern?
A: Aside from complaining, when both of you are feeling well, calmly have a talk in which you point out that on the occasions when you are sick, he inevitably ends up with a bunch of symptoms which make it impossible for him to provide you with even modest care—the kind you provide him when he is actually down with something. But this is a lifetime, deeply ingrained habit that may be hard to break. So just deal with it on a symptom-by-symptom basis. If you have a migraine and he’s “limping” tell him you’re sorry his leg is painful, but since you can’t even get out of bed, could he manage to bring you a cup of tea. If you’re in bed with a stomach virus and his heart starts skipping beats say if he’s concerned he’s having a heart attack, he should get himself to the emergency room. Explain that because you’re throwing up, you’re unable to accompany him. Ignore the moaning and groaning. If the kids are worried, tell them that both of you are a little under the weather, but it’s nothing serious. Let’s hope the kids simply come to see that Dad gets rather melodramatic, not that his method seems like a great way to get attention.
Q. Enjoying More Than Just the Massage: I enjoy massages a couple of times a year. The last one was performed by a male masseuse. He did a wonderful job; I was relaxed and all of the major problems in my lower back were improved. There was an unexpected added bonus though. Because he was male, I felt a little excited about being touched by someone other than my husband. Nothing sexual happened. It wasn’t a Sex and the City moment. But I still got a little secret thrill from the experience. My next massage is coming up. Is it OK for me to request another male masseuse?
A: As long as both you and the masseur remain professional, it’s just an unremunerated extra that he is so able to rub you the right way. [Update: As sharp-eyed readers have pointed out, masseuse is a woman and masseur is a man. Prudie’s answer has been corrected to reflect this.] That you feel something internally that’s more than simple relief from lower back pain is your own business. What goes on in your head—or the tingles that run up and down your spine—do not have to be disclosed to your beloved. No marriage would survive if every spouse reported on the pleasure they get from gazing at good-looking strangers, or from mild office banter. So for your next massage ask for the guy with the strong, slow hands and leave a good tip.
Q. Unrequited Gift-Giving: I have a group of friends who I used to work with but we’ve all gone our separate ways and now work at different companies. I keep in touch with all of them and see them all, sometimes together, sometimes one-on-one, about once a month. One of the women threw a holiday party this year, and when I arrived, I was shocked that they each had a gift for me. I was so embarrassed because I did not buy them gifts—we hadn’t even discussed gifts and had not given holiday gifts in the past. Is it too late to give them each a gift now? Is there some way to make it up to them after the fact? I want to make this right, but don’t want to look like I am doing it just out of embarrassment.
A: It is embarrassing when everyone seems to have gotten the “gifts will be exchanged” message but you. You can just accept this was an accidental faux pas, write them each a thank you and say how wonderful it was to catch up. Or you can send a thank you and wishes for a sweet new year along with a small gift, something like a bottle of lovely hand lotion.
Q. Grad School Stalker: I am a male first-year graduate student who lives in school housing across from “Ted,” a belligerent, drunk, and drug-abusing classmate who won’t leave me alone. He sends me dozens of texts each day prompting me to engage in deep, intellectual conversations about his emotional problems. His unreasonable behavior around other students makes it clear why he doesn’t have other friends. I have people-pleasing tendencies, which is why I have tolerated him so far. I would like to cut him off so I can focus on my studies, but I’m not sure how. He has said to me that he has fantasies about beating up people who upset him. I suggested that he see one of the school’s free therapists, but he insists that I am better than any therapist. Help!
A: Go now to the head of student affairs and report this situation. This guy is violating so many laws (taking drugs on campus, threatening violence) that the people in charge need to do an assessment and take some action. And the next time he contacts you explain you want all communication with him ended now. If nothing happens and “Ted” continues unabated, your next call should be to the police to report being stalked.
Q. Baby Loss, Baby Showers: My wife and I lost our baby daughter to a painful terminal illness last year. We’re at the age where all of our friends are having kids, so it’s impossible to avoid babies, nor would we want to do so. We’re happy for our friends, even if it’s sometimes challenging to hear them complain about mundane issues like how challenging it is to find a good nanny. My wife’s sister-in-law announced her pregnancy in September, and since then it’s been an exhausting parade of baby-related events that for which she expects my wife’s presence: gender-reveal cake party, ultrasound party, three baby showers. She sends my wife (and the rest of the family) near daily updates about her gestational progress. My wife and I suffered a miscarriage recently, so she’s especially raw right now, and each new baby event kills her a little. She feels it would be miserly to back out of an event because we lost our baby, but given how overboard her sister-in-law is going, I think it’s the course of action to take. What do you think?
A: I’m so sorry for your losses. You two sound remarkably strong and I admire you for understanding that other people’s lives go on, despite your sorrow. However, even in the absence of your tragedy, this sister-in-law’s behavior is extremely distasteful. “Gender-reveal cake” “Ultrasound party” “THREE showers”? It would be one thing if the sister-in-law and her husband had offered tickets to the baby-making event. But trying to force your loved ones into a nine-month-long gestational celebration is insane, and cruel given your circumstances. It is not miserly to put an end to this insanity. Block the sister-in-law’s Facebook feed and her email if necessary. Decline the invitations. (“I’m so sorry. I won’t be able to make it.” Period.) And maybe you could have a family ambassador explain that a grieving parent is just not up for the kind of celebrations she’s holding—maybe the ambassador can explain that actually no one is.
Q. Neighbor’s Dog: I am a dog lover, having three, so seeing a dog unfairly treated is painful to me. What do I do about the neighbors across the street who have a most adorable beagle, but leave him outside all day long? Even in 20-degree weather. He scratches at the door constantly, and they throw cookies outside sometimes but, generally, ignore him. When he does go inside he is crated. I want to 1) keep my mouth shut, or 2) give them a good talking to.
A: Whether you speak to your neighbors directly or just call animal control depends on your relationship with these people. If you have even a nodding acquaintance, you could try going over and saying you’re sure they love their adorable dog, but you’re concerned about him being outside in cold weather all day, and being crated while inside the house. But people who think that’s how you treat a dog are unlikely to respond to sweet reason. Your local animal control should do something about this situation because it’s abusive. But as many frustrated readers have pointed out, often nothing is done unless the abuse is egregious.
Q. Pregnancy Announcement Etiquette: My husband and I married last year and I quickly got pregnant. On Thanksgiving Day, when I was about 15 weeks along, I was preparing to tell my family when my sister-in-law announced that she was six weeks along. She and my brother have tried for years, so I’m very happy for them. Needless to say, I shut my mouth and kept the news to myself. But over the ensuing weeks her excitement has been building—she’s thrilled to be giving the first grandchild to both sides. Now I feel like a jerk for letting her have those weeks in the spotlight. How do I tell everyone about my pregnancy? I feel like I’m upstaging her now. But it’s getting to the point anyway where my belly will announce the news for me.
A: You should have just gone ahead and announced that the family was going to be getting cousins. I can’t stand this idea that people own certain life milestones and everyone else should back off. You’re pregnant so just tell everyone the great news. Let’s hope that if your brother and sister-in-law are old enough to be parents, they are old enough not to bristle at the fact that they won’t be having the first grandchild.
Q. Re: Massage: As a licensed massage therapist for over 10 years, I agree with Prudie’s response to the question, but I just wanted to note that many of us find the word “masseuse” to be antiquated if not a bit offensive. It sounds like no boundaries were crossed in the letter writer’s case, but the profession is still fighting for legitimacy in many circles, and the word “masseuse” within the industry often carries untoward connotations. Most of us who practice legitimately prefer the term “massage therapist.” Thanks for understanding.
A: Thanks for pointing this out. “Massage therapist” has the additional benefit of being gender neutral.
Q. Wedding Woes: My stepdaughter is getting married in a few months, and has told my husband that I cannot attend. She is still resentful of my relationship with her father because I’m much younger, and the both of us got together while he and her mother were still married. My husband has made the decision to attend the wedding without me to “support” his daughter, despite her lack of support for our relationship. I’ve had to deal with a lot of “punishments” from his daughter for being in this relationship, but this is the first time that I don’t have my husband’s support. Do, I let this one go, or stand my ground?
A: I wish all adult children recognized that no matter how much they disapprove of a parent’s new relationship—even if that relationship was the reason their parents’ marriage came asunder—once your mother or father has a new spouse, that person gets invited to family events (with the exception of the new love interest being on the sex offender registry). However, you probably have to accept your stepdaughter likely will never have a decent relationship with you. Yes it’s a slap that you were excluded from the wedding, but you have nothing to gain by standing your ground and trying to have your husband miss his daughter’s nuptials. He’s surely torn up with both guilt and resentment, but he doesn’t want to make a permanent breach with his child. Be the big one here, say you understand this is a difficult situation and that you want him to be there for his daughter.
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