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 Columbus Day. I assume Christopher C, as he was sailing the ocean, never imagined that one day people in the New World would flock to mattress sales in honor of him.
Q. Breast Cancer Remission: I have been in remission for breast cancer for about four years now. I was fortunate to have good health insurance and a supportive network or friends and family during my treatment and recovery. Every October I grapple with the same problem: I feel no loyalty or desire to help out with breast cancer awareness funds. To be quite blunt, I find most national campaigns to be impersonal, they do not score very highly on the charity calculator, and they were not there for me when I was suffering. I am also not particularly interesting in doing any of the 5Ks or other events in October. I find the best way to help breast cancer sufferers is to donate and volunteer at the local level. Every year I get a lot of inquiries if I am participating in different campaigns or activities and when I say no, there is always a bit of an awkward pause. I don’t really want to get into why I choose to support the local level more than national, and I don’t want people to think I am insensitive to the needs of those with breast cancer. What is a good response to their inquiries?
A: Thank you for standing against this pink ribbon oppression. Both my grandmother and mother had breast cancer, and I, too, have no interest in buying pink ribbon yogurt, or participating in walks for the purpose of handing a big chunk of cash to overpaid executives. You might like the books Pink Ribbon Blues and Bright-Sided, which explore both the dark side of big breast cancer charities and the incessant cheerleading imposed on breast cancer survivors. Mostly, you need a way to shrug off the inquiries. “I give to cancer organizations that help people in this community,” should be enough to shut up most people. But if you’re up for it, you could do a little breast cancer education of your own and say that unfortunately, some of the big breast cancer charities do not use their money effectively.
Dear Prudence: Evil Twin
Q. Grandchildren’s Names: My wife and I have four children and nine grandchildren, all of whom we dearly love. But we’re a little sad because each child has named a grandchild after their father-in-law, including a girl, e.g., “Georgia.” Two have also named grandchildren after their mother-in-law. None has used my name, my wife’s name, or a variation as a given or middle name. We both have standard names so it’s not as if the child would be laughed off the playground. No. 10 is on the way and we are wondering if it would be OK to hint, suggest or even come straight out and ask that they did this? It would mean the world to us.
A: You have nine healthy grandchildren, and one more on the way. If you have a good and loving relationship with your children and their children, that’s all that matters. I hear from so many people your age who wish they could get their grown children to consider reproducing, but that’s one tricky conversation to have. Asking fecund children to name their kids after you is a tricky conversation not worth having. Think of asking your child to name No. 10 Sandra Michaela, or Michael Sanford. Doesn’t that feel a little pathetic? Stay out of the baby-naming business and just delight in your abundance.
Q. I’ve Been Unknowingly Generous to My Sister: My mother works part time as a secretary. She earns enough to support herself but is obviously not well off. Over the years I frequently gave her vouchers (massage, groceries, online shopping gift cards, etc.) to treat herself. I also give her money to buy some luxury items if she mentioned something she likes. I recently discovered, though, that almost everything I’ve given her has been passed straight down to my sister. My sister earns almost as much as I do—maybe I earn a couple of thousand dollars more a year—but she complains a lot and makes our mother feel like she constantly needs help. I know the textbook answer is that once I give a gift, it’s out of my hands and I shouldn’t dictate how it’s used. But I feel betrayed Mom never once told me she gives almost everything to my sister. If I had known, I would have stopped giving such generous gifts—and Mom knows this, too. She even lied and said she enjoyed the massage or facial (or whatever) when it was actually my sister who used the vouchers! Should I confront the two of them and ask my sister to pay me back?
A: Yours is such a common family dynamic. I hear often from adult siblings about the brother or sister who is an emotionally manipulative leech and whose parents seem to love getting sucked dry. These patterns are deep and abiding. But when you’re talking about adults, there’s not much you can do. You are right that when you give a gift it’s no longer yours to control. You certainly can’t go to the person who has been regifted and say I want my money back! Your sister may be taking advantage of your mother, but you are putting yourself right back in the playground if you want to confront these two adults about their relationship. If you want to continue to help your mother, figure out a way to do it directly. If you feel she could use a treat, then invite her to the spa with you. If you want to pay for some of her groceries, set up a system in which, for example, she orders them to be delivered, and you pay by credit card. If you feel anything you give your mother goes to your sister, then stop giving. Take a step back and consider that you sound just as enmeshed in being the helpful daughter as your sister does in being the needy one.
Q. I Need Advice: I am 34 and a single mom to a beautiful 7-year-old. I am divorced and have been for six years. I am very close to my parents and sometimes I feel I am too close. I have decided to take the next step with an amazing man, who just happens to be in prison. He does it for me. I am able to take care of my daughter, work full-time and go to school full-time, and then I am able to have this relationship with him. I know this is who I want to be with. The problem is that my parents and sisters are not going to be excited that I have found love with someone who is in prison. I am not looking forward to hearing their comments about how I am making a huge mistake. This is my choice right? How do I handle this? I do not want to end up alone for the rest of my life because of fear of upsetting the family.
A: You may know this is who you want to be with, but the corrections department of your state is going to have other ideas. I also don’t know what “next step” you envision with someone whose steps are constrained by leg irons, or eventually maybe ankle monitoring. You’re right that when your beloved is behind bars, he tends not to make a lot of demands of your time. But that your boyfriend gives you a lot of space is a given when you’re talking about a prisoner. You say you’re going to get comments from the people who love you that you’re making a big mistake. But you don’t even deal with the mistake your boyfriend made that resulted in him “just happening to be in prison.” If you’re writing to me in order to get support for bringing a convict into the life of your young child, then you’ve come to the wrong place. If you’re imagining a wedding and you realize your wedding color should be orange to match the groom’s jumpsuit, then you need to have another think about your choices.
Q. Re: Breast cancer funds: My boyfriend’s mother had breast cancer about seven years ago, and thankfully is in remission also. He was obsessively purchasing pink ribbon yogurts, items, etc., and pretty much mandated I do the same. I sat him down with some research about where the funds go to some of the better known breast cancer foundations and pointed out to him the, in my opinion, criminal way many of the donations are handled. I volunteer at hospitals for breast cancer patients to help. He jumped on board with me. You don’t need to justify your choice of not walking around with a pink ribbon tattooed on your head.
A: Exactly. Follow the money is excellent and sobering advice. Peggy Orenstein wrote a fabulous story in the New York Times Magazine a few months ago exposing the dark side of the major breast cancer organizations. But it’s also true that just because someone has been diagnosed with a disease, they are not now obligated to pour all their energy into it. If someone has had breast cancer but her charitable passion is habitat protection or vaccinations in developing countries, she should not be pressured to spend her life on pink ribbons.
Q. Re: Grandchildren’s Names: Please follow Prudie’s advice. My husband’s family asked us the very same thing for our third child that we are expecting in February. It put us in an awkward place, to say the least. Our choice of names for our children has nothing to do with how much we love and appreciate our parents and everything to do with what names we like and want to pass on. Your kids likely know that you are hurt by this; we certainly picked up vibes before they were clearly articulated to us. Please remember that they are not selecting other names to hurt you, they are just selecting other names for personal preference that can and should remain personal.
A: Hurt grandparents, please read this!
Q. Only Wants to Make Love AFTER I’m About to Head Out the Door!: I love my boyfriend so much. He is an amazing partner in all aspects, except for one thing that has been driving me absolutely nuts lately. He has taken to ravaging me after I am done getting ready for work or volunteering, etc. My hair done, makeup done, about to head out the door and he’ll insist on ripping my clothes off and having some fun. The first time or two this happened, it was fun! I didn’t mind that the last hour and a half was essentially a waste because it didn’t happen that often. Prudie, he’s doing this every single day now. I’ve passive aggressively said to him “You seem intent on messing up my hair and makeup every day eh?” and he’s just agreed and clearly not gotten the hint. He got a bit upset when I denied him the other day because I would have been late. Any suggestions for curbing his enthusiasm for getting frisky right as I’m about to start my day?
A: Since there are fetishes for everything (people who can’t get aroused unless their beloved is wearing slippers with big bunny heads on the toes, etc.) I’m wondering if there’s more to this than the fact that you look ravishing and in need of ravishing when you’re on your way out the door. It’s one thing to have a very occasional quickie that puts a spring in your step. It’s another that now your boyfriend insists every day that you redo your entire toilette and miss your morning appointments. So stop hinting and start talking. Do so at the end of the day, after you’ve gotten into your sweats. Tell your boyfriend you’re thrilled he’s so attracted to you, but that you just cannot make love in the morning when you need to get to work. Say you were concerned that he seemed pissed off when you explained the other day you couldn’t go back to bed, and you wonder if something is going on he needs to tell you. I hope this results in some honest conversation and some respect for your schedule. If not, so that you can get out the door, keep a Taser in your purse.
Q. Ex-girlfriend and Girlfriend: I have fallen in love with my former assistant. She started working for me when I was still married to my ex-wife, and the two of them used to have a sisterly relationship. When my ex and I divorced she drifted away from a lot of our mutual friends, including my now girlfriend. My ex and I will both be attending a wedding soon and I am not sure whether it is appropriate for me to call and tell her about my new love. I never cheated on her with my girlfriend and was not romantically involved with this woman until recently.
A: Once someone becomes your ex, you are no longer obligated to clue them in about your social life. I think it would sound extremely defensive for you to call your ex and say, “I wanted you to know that Jennifer and I are now a couple. We weren’t getting it on when you and I were married! Seriously, we weren’t.” Instead, when you all run into each other you say hello. I assume there will be some raised eyebrows or expression of surprise on your ex-wife’s face. That gives you the opportunity to say, “Jennifer and I reconnected six months ago. As you can see, this time it’s a personal, not a professional relationship!”
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