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.)
Q. Mom Invading My “Office”: I write about social issues for a blog aimed at young women (ages 16–25 or so). Unsurprisingly, this subject matter sometimes sparks heated debates in the comments on my posts. Here’s the problem: My mom, who has a hard time understanding the concept of “boundaries,” has gotten an account on the site and has started showing up in the comments, usually arguing with people who disagree with me. The worst part is, she does this under a username that identifies her AS MY MOTHER. I’ve told her repeatedly that this is inappropriate, embarrassing, and has to stop (or that if she has to comment, to at least pick an anonymous username), but she won’t; usually she acts hurt, goes silent for a few weeks, and then just starts doing it again. I’m beside myself—it’s humiliating, I’m worried that my boss is going to think I’m encouraging her to do this and let me go, and there’s literally nothing I can do to stop her. Do you have any advice?
A: This is an excellent subject for one of your blog posts! Lots of young women are dealing with overbearing mothers and your take on it, and the discussion that follows could be most illuminating. First of all, consider that very few people are probably paying any attention to your mother’s embarrassing comments. The next time she posts, try dealing with this with this with a little humor. After her rant goes up, go into the comments yourself and say, “Thanks, Mom. But really, I can handle this myself.” Following that, have another discussion with her. You can agree that your website is open to everyone, but that she has to recognize this is your place of work. If you worked in an office, she wouldn’t barge in and berate your co-workers. Explain what she’s doing on the site is the equivalent. If that doesn’t stop her, surely your tech people have the ability to ban disruptive commenters. So the next time she posts, flag her comment and ask that this woman’s IP address be blocked. Unless your boss brings it up with you, I wouldn’t raise the issue—it’s hard to complain about your mother at work without sounding juvenile and defensive.
Dear Prudence: Creepy Crawly Guest Room
Q. Sister’s Untreated Postpartum Depression: I visited my sister for the first time since she gave birth in April. I spent a week with her, and I came away with the impression that she has serious postpartum depression. She struggled to get out of bed, she would cry for hours, and she sometimes expressed the wish that she had died during birth. She also berated herself for not being a happier, healthier mom. When I expressed my concerns to her husband, he told me to mind my own business. My family lives on the opposite coast as my sister, and she gets her main support from her husband and his family, who live near them. I know from past conversations that my sister’s husband does not believe in antidepressants or depression. He has said things like, “Everyone has bad days,” and, “People need to be accountable and solve their problems on their own.” I worry that my sister is not getting and will not get the support she needs to work through her depression. What can/should I do to help her?
A: Oh, great, she’s married to an idiot, one who is potentially endangering the life of his wife and their child. You have plenty of evidence your sister has suicidal thoughts. I think you need to tell her you’ve been very concerned about her since your visit and if she won’t discuss her psychological state with her doctor, you are going to call and alert her obstetrician. (Make sure you have the doctor’s name before you let her know this.) If she begs you not to do this, say hearing her in this state is alarming to you, and only confirms she needs professional help. Tell her, if she were bleeding dangerously, you’d call 911, no matter if she begged you not to. I know you are far away, but you, or other family members, might just need to show up to make sure your sister is getting the professional attention she needs. Becoming a mother can be overwhelming, but thinking you should have died in childbirth is a medical emergency.
Q. Insecure Husband: I have suffered from endometriosis and ovarian cysts for 20 years and because of the different surgeries and treatments I have lost some sensation. This means that it much harder to enjoy myself in bed. I have tried to explain to my husband that this has nothing to do with him but he alternates between feelings of rejection and aggravation over my inability to enjoy “quickies” or any sex that does not involve extended foreplay and consequently I have little interest when he suggests having one. At the same time, I feel guilty with rejecting him when he so obviously wants to have that connection so I usually given in once or twice a week. I finally resorted to faking pleasure but I’m fairly certain he knows when I do. Is there a way I can explain things better to him so that he can understand?
A: That’s a lot of bad sex you’re enduring to keep your husband’s moods from making you miserable. First of all, stop faking. If you still can fully enjoy sex, but it takes you some time and attention to get revved up, that should be an incentive your husband to go slow and have a truly erotic encounter. Wham, bam, is fine on occasion, but it should done in a spirit of mutuality. The pleasure then doesn’t have to be an orgasm, it can just be fun of having a quick, caveman encounter. But your husband’s attitude seems bullying and crude—he needs it, and he’s going to get it. I think your problems in bed are reflective of more serious problems out of bed. You need to tell him you feel pressured and guilt-tripped about sex and you’d like to talk this out with a third party. If he won’t go with you, explain this has become so troublesome to you, you’re going by yourself.
Q. Re: To the blogger with the Mom-troll: I would take Prudie’s advice one further and, truly, write about boundaries in one of your blog posts. Young women are often expected to tolerate boundary-crossing to a degree no one else tolerates (ex: getting hassled by strangers in public), so I’m sure you could find lots of material to work with. Then use your mother as an example of someone who doesn’t seem able to hear your request for respect and distance. She can be Exhibit A for a discussion of how hard it is for some people to get the concept “no means no.” Think of it as a gift: your mom providing the perfect source material. If she responds by saying she felt humiliated, you could tell her that she might now finally understand how you’ve been feeling.
A: I agree this is a good idea. Before she writes it, it’s fair to give Mom a heads up and tell her that her struggles getting Mom to respect the boundaries of her workplace are going to be fodder for a new blog post.
Q. Re: Insecure Husband: I disagree a little with your response. It’s normal to want to have spontaneous sex with your spouse and it’s not necessarily a bad thing to “give in” and have sex where you don’t necessarily achieve orgasm to make your spouse happy or just to enjoy the human contact. I had a friend who told me she couldn’t achieve orgasm from intercourse alone, but still enjoyed it. There are additional things the LW can try to stimulate herself, or she could focus on the other pleasurable aspects of sex beyond orgasm.
A: We don’t disagree, I said quickies can be fine and fun, even if all parties don’t have an orgasm. And even inorgasmic sex can be lovely and intimate. What’s not OK is for a husband to force himself on his wife twice a week in a sexual style that is frustrating for her because he is unwilling to be a more considerate lover.
Q. The “Wrong” Sister Got Pregnant First: I am a married woman in my mid-20s with a gay sister who is a decade older than I. We have been very close my whole life despite the fact we come from a very conservative family (I think I’m the only one who couldn’t care less about her sexual orientation) and that she lives states away. She has been trying through ART (assisted reproductive technology) to conceive for about a year with no success, and I am the only one she has shared this information with. Well, my husband and I just discovered we are expecting (despite our own difficulties) and she didn’t handle the news well at all. She commented that we are too young, we have no idea what we are in for, and that our upcoming vacation to see her and her girlfriend “is going to be boring.” I know she is hurt, but I cannot help her struggles in conceiving and I miss being able to talk to her. No one else in the family understands why she is so upset. I love her and hope to be able to move past this before the baby is born.
A: I have very limited patience for people who behave this way. I understand the agonies of infertility, but your sister hasn’t even been at it for very long. And even if someone feels a flare of jealousy over another’s pregnancy, if you’re old enough to be a mother, you should be old enough to be able to pause and reconsider before you say something hurtful. Or once you’ve blurted it out, you should be able to apologize, explain your own disappointment got the better of you and of course you’re thrilled for the news. Pregnancy is not a zero sum game and someone else’s pregnancy has no bearing on one’s own.
If your conversation with your sister was very recent, give her the benefit of the doubt and now that the news has sunk in, just get in touch with her to catch up and talk about your trip. If she remains cold and hostile, or starts berating you about your own pregnancy, then confront this directly. Say you understand she’s frustrated, but you hope she can be happy for you, just as you fervently wish someday you will be happy for her. Say you love her and are looking forward to seeing her and hope the trip is still on. If she won’t shift gears, then consider changing your vacation plans until your sister does some growing up.
Q. Re: Sister’s untreated postpartum depression: Thank you for the push, Prudie. I am going to call my sister and her husband, and if they won’t take action I will let our parents and our brother know what’s up. Between my husband, my sister-in-law, and my parents, one of us will be able to be with my sister until she is better.
A: Excellent. And don’t wait. You don’t want your sister to spiral further down.
Q. Stinky Friend: Over the past 6 months I have become good friends with a man from another country whom I met in a yoga class. He is very generous, intelligent, has a great job, and fun. The only problem is that he smells bad—like he doesn’t wear deodorant and re-wears his shirts too many times. He would like to meet more people and date American women. I introduced him to several of my single friends and they all noted his pungent aroma. I think his personal aroma is keeping him from making friends. Should I bring this up with him? I have thought about going shopping with him to a fancy body products store and finding an upscale antiperspirant and telling him to buy it because it is sexy.
A: Forget hinting. If you’re a friend, you will tell him straight. It’s simply the case that different cultures have different standards of hygiene. He’s in America, so he has to conform to ours. Tell him you can’t fix him up until he addresses his body-odor issues. Say he needs to shower daily, use a strong deodorant and antiperspirant, and his shirts need laundering after every wearing. Be direct and matter-of-fact. You will be doing him (and everyone around him!) a great service.
Q. Re: Blogging about Mom-troll?: So instead of simply blocking mom’s IP address and explaining the action in private, the letter writer should publicly shame her in a blog post about boundaries? The former would solve the problem; the latter strikes me as juvenile and could end up damaging the relationship.
A: As I said, if she decides to write a blog post about boundaries and include this issue about her mother, she should give her mother a heads-up. It can all be written in an affectionate and humorous way, “You may have noticed my No. 1 defender in the comments who goes by ‘Mindy’s Mom’ because, well, she’s my mom.” The post could say mom’s comments make her cringe and she’s struggled with how to get her mother to stop—in fact she’s told her mother she’s going to write about this issue. It could be that a lot of commenters say they loved Mindy’s Mom’s posts, or it could be that Mindy’s Mom really comes to understand she is violating her daughter’s work space. It would be a provocative post, and if you’re in the blogging business, I think it’s fair game.
Q. Not Really a Gift …: My 8-year-old daughter recently had a friend over for a play date. The girls played in her room, and my daughter’s friend was playing with our doll house. My daughter told her she could have the doll house and all the furniture, etc. as she didn’t play with it anymore, and the friend looked thrilled. Happily I was nearby to defuse this, so I jumped in to say that no, she could not have the doll house, and that my daughter was not allowed to give away things without permission first. My daughter’s friend seemed fine, and I explained that this doll house was expensive, and that we were keeping it for younger siblings, and also for when cousins and friends visit. The girls moved on to play dress-up. However, about an hour after the friend went home, I got an irate email from her mother, who insists her daughter was “crushed” by my “miserly” attitude, and that I wasn’t teaching my daughter the “joys of giving.” She claims that my daughter’s mention of the gift was binding, and that we “owe” her the doll house. I fully intend to ignore this nut, but she is stirring up drama with our mutual acquaintances at the girls’ school. I hate to stoop to explain the craziness, as I feel it makes me look a bit loony, but at the same time, I don’t want this woman bad-mouthing me either. Any suggestions?
A: First of all, you have to have some sympathy for this woman’s daughter. Every week this column is testimony to how rough it is to grow up with a crazy mother. Be glad it’s summer and that this nonissue is likely to forgotten by the time school starts. But since word is getting back to you that an unattractive version of this story is circulating, you might delicately want to tell one of your good—and blabby—friends about the odd encounter you had with this other mother. Tell it just the way you did here: Juliette in a burst of 8-year-old generosity offered to give an heirloom doll house to Courtney, and you had to explain it was staying in the family. Courtney was fine about it, but then you got an email from Courtney’s mother demanding you hand over the doll house! Shake your head and say it was one of the weirder notes you’ve ever received. Sure, it’s gossip, but it’s a good story, and it’s yours to tell. Then drop it. Courtney’s mom is, as you say, nuts. And that will make itself more than apparent as the school years roll on.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Stay cool and talk to you next week.
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