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: Good afternoon on this glorious day.
Q. Dog With Separation Anxiety: I am starting a promising relationship with an awesome woman, but there’s a problem: she has a Chihuahua with such severe separation anxiety that (she says) they must be together 24/7. Otherwise the dog will chew off its paw. She largely works from home and has a large purse and takes the dog everywhere, including places it clearly is not allowed, e.g., food stores, restaurants, movies, and the Kennedy Center. I know some people are nuts about their pets, but this seems extreme. I bought a pair of fall opera tickets for $300 and plan to take my mother for fear we would be asked to leave if the dog was discovered. There does not seem to be room for compromise and I know if she had to choose between me and the dog, she’d choose the dog. Is there any hope for this relationship or should I just move on?
A: Occasionally you see dogs wearing a vest that declares they are “emotional assistance” service dogs for their owner. Your girlfriend should be wearing a vest declaring she’s an emotional assistance human for her Chihuahua. Just think, if you forced your girlfriend to go out on four dates without Pepe, he would in short order be a dog without paws. This should give you pause about what you’re getting into. You’re actually the one I’m concerned about here. You knew your girlfriend was a nut on the first date when she started dropping table scraps into her Louis Vuitton. I can’t imagine how you decided there was a promising future for you being part of a defunct Taco Bell ad campaign. The opera date is not until the fall. Before you ask Mom, expand your social horizons and see if you can’t find a woman to accompany you who can leave her four-legged love behind for an evening.
Dear Prudence: Unwelcome Bridal Heirloom
Q. Nondisabled Son Feeling Ignored: My wife and I have twin 7-year-old boys (“Bruce” and “Clark”). Clark is intellectually disabled (can walk and talk, but about at the level of a 1½-year-old) while Bruce is not disabled in any way. They’re both great kids and we love them to death. However, unsurprisingly, Clark gets a lot more attention from grownups than Bruce does. Clark is a charming kid with a great smile, but more than that, he elicits a lot of sympathy from parents, teachers, and friends because of his disability. Bruce has started to notice this and begun to feel neglected—recently Clark won “best camper” and “most respectful” at their summer camp while Bruce has not won anything, leaving him a little dejected. We work hard to make both kids feel loved equally and give Bruce lots of individual attention and special time together, but others are sometimes not so attentive to him. Is there a way that we can politely remind people that we have another son and direct some of their attention to Bruce?
A: This is a very difficult situation and as the years go on Bruce is going to have to deal with a myriad of emotions about his brother, including likely a sense of survivor’s guilt. At 7 years old Bruce is old enough to understand that his brother has severe limitations and that some people will respond rudely to him, and some kindly. You can talk to Bruce about the fact that you appreciate when people try to include Clark in things, because sadly, not everyone is going to be comfortable around someone who is intellectually disabled. You can also be honest with Bruce and say that sometimes it may seem unfair that Clark is getting more attention than he is and that feeling a little jealous is totally normal. But talk to him about how things are never totally equal between people. Clark may get some more attention from adults because he needs extra help. But you can tell him that there are so many things that he can do now and more to come in the future that Clark just won’t be able to do. If you’re with other people and there is a graceful way to shift the conversation to Bruce, “Oh, Bruce, tell the Smiths how much you liked archery!” that’s fine. But don’t make things more awkward for everyone by being heavy-handed about this. The most important thing you can do is to make Bruce feel that he can talk out complicated feelings with you without being rebuked or judged.
Q. Child Left in a Car as Punishment: For the past three months I have nannied for the “Smith” family. Mr. Smith has a 7-year-old son from his first marriage (Jack), and Mrs. Smith is pregnant and has two daughters from her first marriage. This weekend I arrived 15 minutes early for my shift. I found Jack strapped into Mrs. Smith’s Prius. The windows were rolled down, but the car was still very warm. Jack told me that he misbehaved on an earlier outing, and when they arrived home he was crying. Mrs. Smith left him in the car as punishment. I took Jack from the car and knocked on the door; when Mrs. Smith answered, she explained that Jack had been throwing a tantrum for over 30 minutes and that she left him in the car to let him calm down. They had only been home for 10 or 15 minutes by the time I arrived. I told her it made me uncomfortable that she left a child in a car on a hot day, even if the windows were rolled down. Mrs. Smith listened to me and later that night, after I went home, Mr. Smith called me to tell me his wife had made a mistake based on stress from Jack’s outburst and her pregnancy. To them, the matter is closed. I still feel something’s not right and that I’m letting Jack down by dropping this. I’ve known Mrs. Smith to be short-tempered with Jack, who is an admittedly high-strung child. Am I being paranoid? Should I keep nannying and chalk this up to a mistake?
A: Oh, how wonderful that these people are bringing another child into a volatile, out-of-control family situation. Leaving a 7-year-old strapped into a car unsupervised is the kind of thing that rightly gets people arrested. For now, I think you should call the 211 hotline (and 800-4ACHILD is another resource that can give guidance) and discuss what happened. This is not a government reporting number, but a referral line for to help people sort out whether to call government agencies. The Smiths sound like less than ideal parents, but obviously she copped to her husband about what she did, and he let you know she recognizes what she did was totally wrong and it won’t happen again. But it sounds as if Jack needs gentle, compassionate handling, which he’s not getting. You are obviously a force for good in Jack’s life. If you want to continue being the Smiths’ nanny, keep your eyes open and keep speaking up for him. And if you ever see a replay of anything like the left-in-the-car incident, do not hesitate to call 911.
Q. Re: For the parent of differently abled twins: Carly’s Voice is a great book I listened to on my commute, about a girl with autism. She is also a twin. Told mostly from her dad’s point of view, and I found it quite insightful.
A: Thanks for this suggestion. And others are saying that it might help if Clark and Bruce went to different camps or were signed up for different activities so that they are known as individuals and not just as “the twins.”
Q. Ethics and Revenge: I was in an relationship for six years with a man who was abusive to me. I finally got out of it over a year ago and I’m doing really well. I just severed the last of my ties to this man (joint property), and thought I was done. However, I recently learned that he is now sleeping with one of his grad students (and thinks he’s “in love”). I don’t want to be together with him again (never in a million years!), but I am experiencing such anger over this new “relationship” of his. He was never able to acknowledge that he was abusive to me, and now that he’s with this new young thing (there’s a 25-year age difference), I’m sure he never will. He probably thinks it was all my fault and this new affair is proof of that. There is a wrinkle: He teaches ethics. Ethics! Like, “Don’t have sex with your students” kind of ethics! I want to contact his department chair with the information of his relationship. Yet, even though he was horrible to me, I think it might be wrong to do so. On the other hand, what he’s doing is wrong, and I want him to pay for it.
A: Your ex sounds like an expert on situational ethics. He is obviously a bad guy, but this letter proves you are not over him. You’re right that what he’s doing surely violates his school’s code of conduct, but if he’s so brazen that you have gotten wind of his relationship with his student, surely it will become widely known on campus. (I think this is different from the letter of a few weeks ago when an ex-wife discovered her husband, who had a string of inappropriate relationships with high school students, was now teaching at a boarding school.) What you do is nothing. Be glad you finally got the wherewithal to end a terrible relationship. If you focus on getting him to pay for the past, you will never be free in the present.
Q. Re: Child left in car: I’m not sure I agree. Leaving a child in a car with the windows rolled down as a response to a tantrum seems a little extreme, maybe, but not abusive. Surely you’ve been left at your wit’s end by a 30-minute screaming tantrum (and of a 7-year-old, who really should know better)? We have such a knee-jerk reaction in this country to “kids being left in cars,” even for five minutes when running a quick errand. I think the nanny was right to speak up to the parents, but the parents owned up to their mistake. You think one parenting mistake gives someone the right to potentially report you to child services? Being short-tempered is not a reason to potentially remove a child from a home. Not every parent is “gentle and compassionate” at all times in our lives, and we’re not necessarily bad parents even so. Good for these parents for recognizing a weakness they have in their own personalities and hiring a nanny to complement their parenting style.
A: The nanny says she went to the closed front door and the mother said 7-year-old Jack had been left in the car alone and unsupervised for about 15 minutes. In that time he could have undone his seatbelt and gotten himself out of the car and into the street. Someone creepy could have driven by. Someone concerned could have parked, seen that the child had been left alone, and called the police. I didn’t say the nanny should report this, but that she should talk to some people about this incident and what’s going on with Jack. Yes, it’s a good sign that the parents’ acknowledged this significant lapse. But no, I cannot imagine leaving a hysterical 7-year-old in the car on a hot day while I went in the house to cool myself off.
Q. Only the (Not So) Lonely: I am the mother of an only child and am growing beyond weary of the derisive commentary (intentional or otherwise) with which we find ourselves constantly bombarded. Sure, he’s around adults a lot, but other than that, he’s a pretty normal kid who demonstrates no more or less brattiness than his multi-sibling counterparts. How do I tactfully address it when people say things attributing pretty much everything he ever does wrong to his being an only child?
A: I’m the mother of an only and in more than 17 years only a very few people have mentioned this as a reflection of her personality, and that’s always been a kind of back-handed compliment—“She’s better at sharing than most only children.” There’s something off if your family or social circle is “constantly bombarding” you with negative messages about your son. You need to look at who is articulating these messages and shut them down. (If your son has behavioral problems that need addressing, address them.) Look up a few of the studies that show there is virtually no difference between onlies and people with siblings. Then when you hear the “only child” litany, calmly say that the facts are that onlies are just like everyone else.
Q. Bridezilla: My stepsister (Holly) is getting married. She and her mother chose the venue, which includes catering, and then promptly provided our father a $20,000 bill for the reception. Our parents (retirement age) do not have this kind of money and have been stressing about this since. It is truly none of my business and I am there only to support my parents, but because of this I am having strong feelings of anger toward Holly about the way she has presented her wedding and the obligation of expecting our parents to pay. Holly has also brought up the fact that she doesn’t care about anybody besides herself regarding this wedding because it’s “her” day. I also feel that this is setting a precedent for our other sister when she marries. How can I be happy for Holly when she’s stressing the family out so badly? What can I do to help Holly understand, or do I just sit back and watch Holly drain our parent’s retirement for “her” day?
A. How families pay for weddings is the kind of thing that requires clear expectations and budget discussions before the vendors are hired. If your father never agreed to such an outrageous sum, I don’t see why he should have to pay. Surely his signature is not on any of the contracts. But your parents are grown people and they have to handle this. You also have to separate the financial issue from your obvious dislike and resentment of Holly. She may be an entitled princess, but your feelings about her are not the main agenda. Your parents’ retirement income is. If they have expressed their distress with you, as dispassionately as possible talk this out with them. If paying this bill would leave them in a difficult situation, say that they may need to explain to Holly that they simply can’t underwrite this expensive an event, and despite deposits being made, there has to be a reevaluation of the costs. Your goal is not to ruin Holly’s day, but to help your parents have a financially sound future.
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