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 look forward to your questions.
Q. Vacation Dilemma: I live next door to my elderly in-laws. They have custody of their two grandchildren by my husband’s sister, who passed away. We see these kids almost every day and I help with a lot of their day-to-day care. For the past three years they’ve lived next door, we’ve always taken them on vacations and day trips with us. We have a weekend trip coming up and I would like to have a quiet family trip with just me, my husband, and our son. I’ve found it quite stressful to take two additional children and I just want one vacation where I don’t have to deal with constant squabbling and the headache of having three bouncy, excited, noisy children who hype each other up. And even though I’m happy to help look after my nephews, there is a part of me that misses the quiet family time we used to have, just us three. My husband thinks it’s cruel to “exclude” the nephews and I should just suck it up. Is it mean to have a trip with just our own offspring?
A: I totally understand your desire, but instead of having a squabble over a single weekend with your husband, you both need to sit down and start having some comprehensive conversations about the future and your expectations and obligations to your nephews. These boys have no mother, and if there’s a father he’s apparently too incompetent to care for them. Being raised by elderly grandparents sounds difficult, and given the actuarial realities, perhaps not long-term. So what needs to be addressed is the plans for the boys if your in-laws are no longer able to care for them. If you become their legal guardians, then it won’t be healthy for you to make distinctions between them and your “real” child. For now, I can see other ways to deal with this besides just saying, “We’re going to have fun—and that means leaving you two stay home with the grandparents.” These boys need activities over the summer. Maybe there are some short-term sleep-away camps they are old enough to attend. While they’re away, off the three of you go. Maybe their father—if he’s in the picture—can take them for a weekend. Maybe there are other relatives who can step up and be part of these children’s lives. And while the kids are visiting, your little group will enjoy your privacy. I know caring for two motherless boys was not in your life plan, but here they are, so all of you now need to figure out the best ways to get everyone’s needs met.
Dear Prudence: Creepy Crawly Guest Room
Q. Housewarming Gift Registry: I recently was invited to a friend’s housewarming party, with the invitation detailing where they were registered. My question is twofold, the first part being, is this a new trend? And secondly, if so, is it a bit presumptuous to assume that guests would be asking for this information, as nontraditional as it may seem, in the first place? Curious about the etiquette for these ever-changing times.
A: No, the new trend is to say, “What’s the password to your bank account, I need to withdraw some cash for my wedding/baby/house.” A housewarming is actually not an occasion for the new homeowners to hit up their friends to furnish the place. It’s a social event in which the hosts provide food and drink and the guests ooh and ahh over the lovely abode and bring small useful items for it. These are things anyone would want: glassware, salad tongs, guest towels. In addition, an invitation should state the time and place of the festivities. It should not include a note about what you expect people to purchase for you. You can pick something off the registry or not, but an etiquette book might be a good addition for their library.
Q. May Regret My Children (a Little): I have two healthy, fun, creative children, a first-grader and a third-grader. I love them dearly and would do anything for them. I was raised in a very traditional family with a stay-at-home mom and stressed-out, hardworking dad. I remember talking about my future career and my mom saying something along the lines of “of course education is important, but your most important job will be to be a mother.” I did go to college, got married, then had my children at 25 and 27. Some of my friends chose not to have children and frankly I’m envious of their freedom to pursue education, careers, travel, frivolous expenditures, etc. I don’t agonize about it, but I sometimes wonder what advice to give my children as they grow up. I don’t want the assumption to be that they must have children some day in order to be happy or live a full life. I want them to see that there are other options for happy lives out there. How do I tell them this without leaving them with the feeling that they are not fully wanted and appreciated?
A: You have somehow gotten the impression life is a series of irrevocable decisions. That may be what you mother has drummed in your head, but it’s just not true. Sure, having children is one of those, but beyond that, there’s an entire world of choices before you. (You may also find that over the next decade some of your childless friends decide they are ready for motherhood.) Since you are getting itchy and somewhat bored, it may be time for you to look into getting back to the workplace. Children don’t feel they are wanted and appreciated only if one parent is devoted entirely to their raising. If that’s what the parent wants to do, great. But even a full-time mother should show her kids that adults have other abilities and interests beyond them. So you need to start pursuing those. At this point, you may want to take some classes to prepare you for an eventual return to work. Or you may want to get involved in some volunteer organization that’s meaningful to you.
I know it’s easy to assume that the present will be always thus, but one of the advantages of having your children young is that by the time you’re in your 40s—your prime!—your little ones won’t be little, they will be off. It’s not too early for you to start laying the groundwork for what will engage your mind when your all your kids have time for is a text telling you how busy they are with their own lives.
Q. Racially-Insensitive In-Laws: I strongly dislike—or don’t fully trust—some of my husband’s friends and family. Although the family has accepted me with open arms, his father, the father’s side of the family, some of my husband’s friends, and their wives occasionally use cultural stereotypes. I’m the only person of color and the newest addition to the group; while I don’t want to be pegged as “the sensitive minority,” I also feel that my silence means acceptance of their words. My husband is totally accepting of others, never stereotypes anyone, and recognizes that these “joking” comments are offensive. But the one time I pushed him to respond to an offensive forwarded email, he dragged his feet, which was disappointing. I feel that since they’re his friends and family HE should be the one to say something, but I understand that he doesn’t want to get into an argument with people who raised him/whom he grew up with, and whom he loves. Is there a polite way to call them out on their words, or should I just leave this alone since 1) we don’t often see them and 2) they don’t say this stuff all of the time? They think their comments are funny and I appear to be the only one who is uncomfortable.
A: At least you can’t accuse these people of hypocrisy—they spout their racism right in front of someone of a different race. They appear to be totally obtuse, but it’s apparent they think they are either saying indisputable truism, or something humorous, and they don’t see the problem. As we’ve learned, Paula Deen didn’t see the problem, either. So why don’t you approach this again with your husband in the spirit of saving these people a possibly damaging encounter at their workplaces. Say that you know he loves his family—and mostly they’re great—but it is more than grating to hear their racism and you just can’t sit there and take it when it comes up. Explain it would be so much more powerful if he could address this with them, but that if he can’t, you will have to say something when you hear the unacceptable. Then calmly and politely speak up. You want to wait for something that is clearly over the line, and when you hear it, you can explain that perhaps nothing offensive was meant by the remark, but that it’s actually perpetuating an insulting stereotype. If this crew decides you’re really touchy and they have to be on their best behavior when then around you, then consider that good news for all of you.
Q. Re: Regrets: Watching my mom get her master’s degree when I was in kindergarten made a huge impression on me—if there’s something you want to do, it’s not too late!
A: Clearly it did, because that was a long time ago. Thanks for this lovely anecdote. And you raise a really good point that even young children can be proud of their parents’ accomplishments.
Q. New Feelings Following Engagement: A few months back, my significant other and I got engaged. We are incredibly excited and I have zero doubt I want to marry this person. However, in the same last few months I’ve been more and more attracted to other people. In one case, I’m having dreams about a close friend of mine who until now I would not consider my “type.” In other cases I find myself especially attracted to members of the same sex. I’ve never experimented before. I am hesitate to bring this up for fear of scaring my SO, but I am not sure what I should do with these feelings. Am I just having a weird reaction to the engagement? Do other people go through this?
A: Sure, some people, when they feel the opportunity for other sexual possibilities closing off, suddenly feel it’s time to raid the candy store. But whether this is your internal way of working through the import of “Forsaking all others” or whether it’s your psyche screaming “Don’t do this, I want more fun” is for you to figure out. If you realize it’s the former, it’s not helpful to say to your beloved, “The idea of being monogamous with you is making me want to sleep with every attractive person I meet, and I mean every attractive person. Just wanted to let you know.” But if it’s the latter (despite your having “zero” doubts about your marriage), than before you find yourself saying “I do” and feeling suffocated, yes, you have talk about what’s going on with you with your bethrothed. And if you need to have that conversation, you must recognize there’s the possibility of getting unthrothed.
Q. Re: Racially-insensitive in-laws: I hope this doesn’t sound tendentious, but hubby’s silence is the same as complicity, and as we have seen in the last couple of days, unchallenged racism can have deadly consequences even if unintended. He needs to explain to his loved ones how and why these casual remarks are no longer socially permissible.
A: Good point. That’s why the wife needs to go back to her husband and say he may be intimidated, but since he loves his family and presumably thinks they are reasonable people, they should be open to hearing how their behavior is hurtful to others—and potentially themselves.
Q. Child Abuse—Nonphysical: My partner of 15 years has a 14-year-old grandson who visits us every other summer for a week. We have nurtured this young man as best we can. His mother moved him to another state when he was 6 and fails to follow the child-custody agreements (no school report cards, no weekly phone calls, limited visitation). The child cannot read past a grade-two level. He is supposed to wear glasses, but his mom refuses to replace them (he lost them over a year ago—we just found this out this week when we picked him up for our visit). Whenever we send items to him for his birthday, his mother gives them to her younger children or sells them at garage sales. Can we contact child protective services and report this mother for neglect? What actions are available for us to change the life of this young man? He is healthy, respectful, but his maturity level and academic ability are like a 7-year-old. I know it is not physical abuse or even verbal, but I find it inexcusable that a child in America can reach the age of 14 and not be able to read. He doesn’t even know his home address or home phone number, carries no ID. Please let us know what is the best action to take to remedy this calamity. The father has been to court previously to get full custody with no success.
A: Oh, what a tragic mess. I’m astounded that a mother so neglectful and incompetent can retain custody and I hope there is not something worrisome about the father that has prevented the courts from handing the child to him. This child needs a rescue. Before you call CPS—and it absolutely may be necessary—do talk about your plan with the father and make sure you are up to date on the legal situation. It could be that all of you need a conference with a lawyer—a competent one—to discuss how to act in the best interest of this child. I just don’t understand how the mother has been able to get away with flouting her legal responsibilities for visitation, etc. But this boy needs intervention and he needs it before the school year begins. I cannot imagine how a school system has not noted they have a 14-year-old who is illiterate. I’m worried there is no school system and this boy is being “home-schooled.” But you are right, he simply can’t be returned home to this grotesquely neglectful situation.
Q. Re: New feelings again: I think it may be my internal process. The weird thing is I’ve never been one to have a lot of partners (four total, all opposite sex). And like you said, it’s not helpful to bring this up. Do I just expect to come out the other end of this OK? The thing that alarms me is the suddenness and the intensity of my attraction to my friends and to members of the same sex. I find myself thinking about it all. the. time.
A: You just got engaged and you’re finding yourself thinking about having sex with members of the same sex all. the. time. So my suggestion is that you put. off. the. wedding. planning until you have spent more time trying on the idea of marriage. This may be a passing phase. It may be your libido announcing something new about you.
Q. Oversharing MIL: I enjoy a great relationship with my mother-in-law and, thinking we had every reason to trust her, my husband and I shared some personal and sensitive health-related issues with her. Due to the sensitive nature of what we shared, we requested that the information remain confidential. Nearly a year later I have discovered that she has shared these details with at least a dozen people, some that I don’t even know. Because she was out of town at the time of this discovery, my husband, in fear that she would share this information with those she was visiting, sent a respectful but firm text message reminding her of our request for privacy. Her response was completely juvenile and absurd. We would like to further clarify that our privacy is important, but her response is leaving me feeling like we’ve done something wrong. Should we pursue this?
A: She violated your trust, got caught, and now she’s acting out. Of course a text message is not an ideal way to deal with this, but I understand your desire to make sure she didn’t go blabbing to a new set of people. You’ve asked her not to talk about your health matters, and there’s nothing more you can do right now. But when she returns, your husband has to sit down with her and say that she may have talked to friends out of concern and anxiety, but that you two won’t be able to have confidential conversations with her in the future if she doesn’t understand that private information has to stay private.
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