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. Blabbermouth Assistant: My husband and I recently found out we’re pregnant with our first child. We’re thrilled, of course, but we decided to wait to tell anyone outside our immediate families for a few more weeks. I teach art at a large school, and I decided to tell my teaching assistant, the mother of three teenage boys, so she’d know why it seemed like I was feeling under the weather. She was elated but completely ignored me when I asked her to keep the news to herself. Within moments of me telling her, she had (literally) shrieked the news to several other staff members, and she brushed me off when I asked her to be quiet and noted that I especially didn’t want my students to find out. When I returned to work the next day, I found that she had hung a banner over my door that read, “Bun in the Oven.” I was mortified and furious. When I spoke to her about it, she insisted that miscarriages are caused by negativity and that if I act like it’s a secret, I’ll cause one. In addition, any time I mention feeling tired or nauseated, she rolls her eyes and tells me that I need to enjoy my pregnancy. I am enjoying it, but I’m not enjoying the fact that half the school knows at such an early date or that she has no empathy for how difficult the early stages of pregnancy are on my body. Any tips for dealing with this? She’s otherwise a wonderful assistant.
A: She may be a wonderful assistant, but she violated your privacy, your express wishes, and she’s also crackers. It’s true that you took her into your confidence, which always comes with potential peril, but usually not of the kind that results in literal banners over the door. What you do now is develop a completely professional relationship with her—no intimacies, no sharing pregnancy stories. If you’re tired or nauseated, you deal with it as you would if you had a bug. If she acts put out that you’re refusing to share, or if she offers some of her cockamamie theories, you say, “Shelly, let’s just stick to professional issues.” If that makes her hard to work with, then she actually isn’t wonderful.
Dear Prudence: Way Too Candid Camera
Q. Frivolous Spending of Donation Money: My brother-in-law became permanently disabled after an accident nine months ago. He now works two days a week but obviously has a much reduced income. My husband and his three siblings all pulled in and gave him and his wife a large amount of money. None of us are well off, and the money came from our own savings for retirement, children’s college, etc. My elderly mother-in-law sold her home and drastically downgraded to give money. As a result, my brother-in-law and his wife had their mortgage paid off and have some to spare for whatever expenses they have. (My sister-in-law works a much lower-paying job, so without our help, they would have struggled significantly.) Then, recently, I found out they are planning on enrolling their kids at an expensive private school. Maybe they think now that they don’t have a mortgage, they can afford some “luxury” expenses. (They live near well-known, excellent public schools). I do not begrudge giving up our savings so they can continue living in their home and paying for living/medical expenses, but paying for a private education seems unnecessary and even unappreciative of the sacrifices other family members have made. How can I approach this topic tactfully?
A: In one way, this is entirely none of your business. One of the worst things that can happen to a family happened to them, and all of you gave out of a spirit of concern and generosity. I hope they showed their appreciation, but they are adults able to make what they think are the best decisions for their family. However, a legitimate concern among all of you could be that if they go through with this “trust fund,” they will inevitably be turning to their family members again. I am no financial planner, but I do wonder about the choices they are making. I’m not sure paying off the mortgage was the wisest thing to do with a lump sum that’s supposed to help keep this family afloat. You don’t know about the decision-making that went into the private school choice. These kids have just been through a trauma, and it may be that the parents know the smaller classes and closer attention is what they need. But it’s true that private school tuition is a large and recurring expense, one that could eat up a lot of this family’s nest egg. I think the best thing you can do as a family is designate a kind, nonconfrontational member to talk to them about the need for a reputable financial adviser. They need someone who knows what services (Social Security disability?) should be tapped and how to safely invest for the long haul the money they have. If they are agreeable, then as a family you should find someone for them; they already have enough on their plate. If they are offended or unresponsive to this suggestion, then back off. You can decide down the road what you want to do if they come asking for a refill of their coffers.
Q. Hot Co-Worker Makes Me Uncomfortable: I just started a new job—my first in a leadership position. Although I am in charge of my department, my position requires close interaction with the director of another department. My problem is that the director makes me really uncomfortable. I am fairly sure he finds me attractive—I’ve caught him looking at me in meetings, he finds reasons to stop by my office, and his body language seems to confirm it. I don’t think it would be an issue, except I think he’s ridiculously handsome, and I feel nervous around him. I am happily married, so I’m definitely not interested in pursuing a relationship with him. I’ve never had this experience with another co-worker before, so I’m not sure how to handle it. I want to get over my schoolgirl crush and make sure we have a successful professional relationship, but I’m not sure how to go about that. Any ideas?
A: Your letter took a left turn because I expected it to conclude with a question about how you deal with a creepy colleague. Instead it’s about what you do about the fact that the two of you are acting like moony middle-schoolers, and although you don’t raise the issue, I can assure you others have noted the body language and the lingering glances. What you do is act like the professional you are. When he comes to your door, you glance up and say, “Hi, Channing, can I help you?” and when you’re done with the business at hand, you say, “I don’t want to be abrupt, but I’m swamped.” No hair-tossing, lip-parting, eye-lingering subliminal messages. There’s nothing wrong with an office crush or noticing there’s some eye candy down the hall—it can help get you into work early. But it’s up to you to keep your thoughts encased in your personal hard-candy shell.
Q. Re: Blabbermouth Assistant: Don’t just let this lady off the hook. What she did is a huge breach of trust and should be brought to the principal of the school (or whoever supervises the teaching assistants). This goes beyond just blabbing—she seems obsessed with it! In many states, pregnancy is a “protected characteristic,” and what the teaching assistant is doing could be considered harassment that could potentially put the school on the hook for her actions, so they should know about it in order to put a lid on it. The school should, at the very least, discipline this woman. The original poster shouldn’t have to suffer in silence on this.
A: Good point. She absolutely should bring this to the attention of the principal if this continues and she feels it’s necessary. The banner is beyond belief. But it’s also a lesson in not telling co-workers secret, private information unless you are ready to make it common knowledge.
Q. Worse Than Husband’s Cancer: I care for my 38-year-old husband, who has cancer. We know there isn’t much hope. I love him, and I consider it a privilege to look after him throughout his sickness. But what causes me more stress and anxiety is his mother. If I ever shop for my husband’s food at a regular supermarket (as opposed to an organic store), she treats me like I committed murder and screams abuse at me. We once went out to a restaurant to celebrate our wedding anniversary, and she became hysterical toward me. She doesn’t trust any food that she doesn’t personally make herself. When we’re at the hospital together, she interferes and nags with everything—including the thickness of the socks I brought him. How can I get her to cut me some slack without fighting? I don’t want my husband to stress out over this issue.
A: I am so sorry about this situation and your husband’s prognosis. Everyone who loves your husband is in agony, and I’m sure your heart goes out to your mother-in-law, who is watching her child face an early death. But she just can’t dump all her fear and anxiety on you. Being a caretaker for a gravely ill spouse is, yes, a privilege but also a hard, sad, lonely undertaking. Your mother-in-law is not entitled to make it more painful. I hope there is someone close to your mother-in-law she trusts who can intervene here. Someone you can confide in who can talk to your mother-in-law about her grief and urge her to seek counseling so that she can channel her fears elsewhere. If not, get in touch with the social work department at the hospital where your husband is being treated. They may be able to help and also intervene. Someone needs to tell your mother-in-law that any nutrition is good and that obsessing about organic food is unnecessary and stressful for her son. It sounds like you and your mother-in-law should stagger your time at the hospital. You don’t have to be there together; let your mother-in-law relieve you so you can take a walk, a nap, or otherwise attend to your own needs. And please seek a counselor of your own—you shouldn’t have to carry this burden alone.
Q. Re: Frivolous Spending of Donation Money: Is it possible that the family got scholarships for the children to attend the private school? Or perhaps the school has tuition assistance programs or a sliding scale for family income. Many expensive private schools, especially those affiliated with religious organizations, have some method set up so children from all walks of life can afford to attend. It is entirely possible that thanks to their now reduced income, the family is able to “afford” the school because they made too much money before to be able to apply for reduced or waived tuition.
A: Good point, and again the decision about private school is a private one for this family. But since others have made deep sacrifices to keep them afloat, it still makes sense to help ensure this couple is making wise decisions with the resources they have.
Q. Fundraisers: To cope with the onslaught of fundraisers, some of us neighbors have banded together to establish a “buying circle,” so we don’t all end up with too many of the same thing. Basically, I will buy from you, you buy from Mary, Mary buys from Alice, and Alice buys from me. It’s worked really well, and the kids still have lots of opportunity to go door-to-door selling. However, one set of parents now claims they are too busy to take their kids door-to-door and they can’t sell at work. They are making a big fuss about how their kid won’t win any of the sales competitions. It’s starting to get ugly over such a simple thing. Any thoughts on how to frame a civil discussion?
A: Oh, how I hate these things. It’s a reasonable solution that all of you agree to buy a limited amount of crap. (My answer has been to bow out. I simply concluded I don’t need any ridiculously expensive wrapping paper.) I can’t imagine how ugly this could really get. Banners strung across the neighborhood saying, “Buy My Kid’s Scented Candles or Else!” This other family sounds like it’s having a tantrum. Veteran parents know the best thing to do with tantrums is ignore them.
Q. Re: Hot Co-Worker Makes Me Uncomfortable: I feel like I’m on the other side of “hot co-worker’s” dilemma. I’m a woman and have a crush on a co-worker. He’s got a girlfriend—it’s not going to happen. I actually told him I liked him (even knowing about the girlfriend). He gave me some distance but has slowly started coming back to being chatty and friendly. (I joked to friends we were “one date” away from being office spouses before I decided to tell him I liked him, which changed the friendship immediately.) My only issue is now I don’t know how to navigate our relationship. I saw his girlfriend is coming to a work event—he didn’t tell me this, but our boss did. I’m trying to figure out how I should behave. He may not want me to talk to her.
A: You are co-workers, so you behave the way you do with any other co-worker. The various relationship scenarios you have played out remain entirely in your head. This guy started acting friendly again because he probably assumed you got his message that he’s not interested. But you didn’t. There’s no drama surrounding his girlfriend because he’s not interested in you. So if you happen to meet the girlfriend, try to act like a normal person.
Q. Wish I Didn’t Have the Money: My husband’s parents each passed away when he was in his early 20s, more than a decade ago. They left a great deal of emotional turmoil for him and his younger siblings but also a sizable estate. As a result of this inheritance, my husband and I are able to own a nice home in a good neighborhood and have paid off our college loans. We realize we are very lucky in that sense. But now that a decade has passed, most of our friends have forgotten the reason behind our inheritance and focus only on the money we have. We aren’t extravagant but live in a neighborhood that is well beyond the means of most of our friends. Any purchases we make or vacations we take are met with comments about how nice it must be to be so wealthy. Do I need to constantly remind people that we’d rather have our parents back?
A: Maybe you need new friends. By your 30s people’s trajectories become more pronounced. Someone working for a nonprofit is going to have a different car and take different vacations than someone who’s a partner in a law firm. If people make snide comments to their better-off friends, they are really juvenile. (I do hear a legitimate gripe along these lines that the better-off friends often recommend meeting at restaurants where dinner is the equivalent of a mortgage payment for the less flush—but that clearly is not the case here.) I hope you aren’t just being overly sensitive. Maybe your friends are saying, “Oh, a trip to Morocco sounds great. We’re hoping the National Parks will be open this year so we can go on vacation,” and you’re interpreting it as, “Nyah, nyah, lucky you that you’re not stuck at Yellowstone.” But if you truly are hearing nasty comments, you don’t have to remind them, “Yeah, we’re lucky Todd’s parents died right after he graduated from college and didn’t live long enough to use up his inheritance.” You don’t have to say anything at all. Just smile and let their envy hang in the air.
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