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.)
Q. Where’s the Money?: I am furious with another set of parents. My 16-year-old daughter has recently told her mother and me that she is pregnant. It happened at a party that was not well-supervised, and there was alcohol involved. The boy involved and his family are owning up to their share of the responsibility, but the owners of the house are absolutely infuriating me. They need to admit their share of this burden, as it was their booze and their house party that allowed this to happen. My family is going to have a lot of expenses due to this new baby, and I don’t know how much the boy’s family can help, so it seems that the party’s host should help out, again as it was on their watch that this happened. So far, that family has ignored me when I have tried to speak with them about this. I am ready to call a lawyer to press the issue, but my wife thinks I am overreacting. What do you think?
A: I believe this is a yet unexplored avenue of tort law. I am awaiting the television ads for law firms that announce, “Was your daughter knocked up in the basement at a friend’s house while the parents were upstairs watching Masters of Sex? You may be entitled to compensation!” Dad, you wouldn’t be suing yourself if it happened in your basement while you were out at a football game. Listen to your wife and forget the other parents. The issue here is that a couple of dopey teens are on track to become parents themselves. Your family needs to be seriously addressing this issue and all your options. Perhaps proceeding with the pregnancy is not a good idea. Perhaps if termination is not a possibility, placing the child for adoption is. If your daughter is going to keep the baby, the burden is going to fall on your family. So stop trying to displace your anger and anxiety. It’s time to show your daughter how mature parents face tough situations.
Q. Busy Body Boss: My boss is (mostly) a good boss. He is fair and reasonable with work assignments and letting us take time off when we need to or want to. However, when it comes to keeping personal information personal, he does NOT have fair and reasonable boundaries. He constantly pokes and prods about what people are up to outside of work, be it over a weekend, a holiday, or vacation time. My problem is I recently found a lump in my breast and will need to schedule several appointments to have it checked out. I do NOT want to discuss this with my boss. I don’t want him knowing any of my personal medical information, and I especially don’t want to discuss my breasts with him! My question is how much of this information is he “entitled to” as my boss? Do I owe him an explanation for why I’ll be out, or is it acceptable to just tell him I have a doctor’s appointment and not provide any further details? I know he’ll ask, and I’ll be much more comfortable not providing any details if I have your blessing.
A: Obviously what you need to do is have a banner made up that says, “Breast Biopsy!” Your boss is entitled to zero information about your condition beyond the fact that you need to be away for some medical treatment. You need to develop some polite but firm ways of dealing with his extreme boundary problems: “Thanks for your concern, but I’d just rather not discuss it,” or “It’s one of those private medical issues,” etc. If he keeps pressing or makes work uncomfortable because you won’t spill, then document this and take it to HR or a supervisor. A good boss does not pry into people’s personal business.
Q. Pack Rat: My husband is a pack rat. He saves everything (egg cartons, junk mail, the cardboard roll in the middle of a roll of toilet paper, anything). There are piles everywhere. I recently tripped over a pile and broke my arm. The irony is he has to help me since there is a lot I can’t do. (I broke the dominant arm and am typing this one-handed.) Do you have any ideas? It seems silly to think of divorce, but he won’t change. Help!
A: Your “pack rat” sounds like a hoarder. This is a pernicious, difficult-to-treat condition—one that’s potentially hazardous, as you have recently discovered. Your arm will heal, but unless your husband seeks treatment, he won’t. Breaking a limb is a warning sign enough. You don’t want to wake up one day and realize you’re buried alive under a collection of National Geographic. It’s time for an ultimatum: The house gets cleaned up, he gets therapy, or you’re out.
Q. The Big Boss Is Not Always Your Friend: You often (just now, in fact) recommend taking a dispute with a supervisor to a higher supervisor or HR. I don’t think you’ve spent much time in large organizations. If you put a higher supervisor in the position of siding with you or your boss, he will almost always side with your boss. To do otherwise would demonstrate his lack of confidence in someone that he may have hired for that job in the first place. HR is primarily concerned with fulfilling legal responsibilities and avoiding lawsuits. And even if you win, a resentful boss will find a way to retaliate. In the above case, the boss would very likely be within his rights to demand a doctor’s note for every single medical absence and could claim in performance reviews that your work has suffered from your “frequent” (likely his word) absences. Complaining about a supervisor to higher authority is something you should do only if you are ready to look for another job, because there’s a good chance that will be the result.
A: I totally get your point. I’ve talked to employment attorneys about many of the issues that arise in the column, and I’ve learned from them that it’s important to try to deal directly and firmly with the situation first. That’s why I suggested consistently drawing boundaries with the boss and sticking to them. But something has to give if the boss just pushes and pushes for private medical details and won’t be deterred—and acts resentful if the details aren’t forthcoming. I agree in these sticky situations there is often no great solution. But it just can’t be that the essential rule of office life is that whatever the boss does you just have to take it.
Q. Changing Friendship as a Result of Illness: My husband has recently endured chemotherapy due to a cancer diagnosis (and is in remission! Yay!). While most people have been great, my “best friend” has not shown much compassion or concern outside of saying, “I know things will be fine. Just stay positive.” Anytime I have talked about having a lot on my plate, she seems to want to make it into a contest: Who is more stressed out? She repeatedly needs to be reminded of key dates in his treatment and regularly wants me to rehash the same things over and over again. It was as if she wasn’t listening to me or reading her texts and emails. It feels like she wants updates so that she can appear to be the supportive best friend for our social circle. I just don’t have the energy to continue to do this, so now I am avoiding her calls and limiting my text responses. It’s not like she’s paying attention anyway. Should I try to discuss this with her? How? Or should I just accept that she has shown me who she really is?
A: It’s really hard to discover that someone you thought was dear to you just runs for the hills when things get tough. Your best friend may just be one of those people who can’t deal with illness, which is a significant character flaw. Or it may be that she’s the kind of person who’s fun to have lunch with and see a movie, but she really doesn’t understand true friendship. If you do value her, sure, go to lunch and say that you’ve been feeling hurt and abandoned during your husband’s illness. Maybe she’ll apologize and confess hospitals and doctors freak her out and she’s sorry she wasn’t there for you. Maybe she’ll be defensive and resentful. Whatever happens, you can then judge about her place in your life.
Q. Pre-Nup: My fiancée and I are both widows. Her husband left her a trust in excess of $3 million. She insists on a prenuptial agreement to safeguard her assets. While I agree on the importance of said contracts, I also believe it cheapens wedding vows. If roles were reversed and I thought it important to safeguard my assets, I would prefer not to get married than to ever ask my future spouse for a signature along with her hand in marriage. I agreed to sign the prenuptial agreement but suggested that we get married without ceremony—simple, to the point, by a justice of the peace at the clerk’s office and that she keep her last name. Your thoughts would be appreciated.
A: It’s perfectly reasonable that two people later in life with accumulated assets and possibly children to be provided for want to make sure their wealth is looked after. If you were sitting on $3 million, I’m betting it would actually change your outlook about trust and trusts. It’s easy to be generous with your resources when you don’t have any. It’s perfectly reasonable that your future spouse wanted a prenup, but when signing a legal document, you need legal representation of your own. If you don’t have the means to hire a lawyer, it would be a gesture of goodwill if your wife-to-be hired one for you so your interests are looked after and you both feel comfortable with what the future holds. What you don’t do is say, “I’ll sign. Then to get even I’ll insist on a crappy wedding!” I see nothing wrong with a simple ceremony, but you obviously are suggesting it as a way of sticking it to her. I suggest instead of saying “I do” while steaming, you take this situation as a chance to take a pause and have an open-minded and nonrancorous discussion about how you plan to divide your living expenses and how you two expect to provide for each other if death indeed does you two part.
Q. Re: Where’s the Money?: I’m the pregnant girl’s dad. My anger is that this would NOT have happened at my home. I supervise parties and visits, and the fact that this other family was so irresponsible really galls me. I do think they have a duty to make right their lapse.
A: Ever heard of a car? They have back seats that have been the site of innumerable conceptions since the creation of the Model-T Ford. You can’t seriously think that as long as parents supervise parties, a pair of horny 16-year-olds can’t find a place to get it on. If you want to pursue this as a legal action, you will get nowhere and humiliate your daughter. Focus on the issue, Dad, which is that you’re on track to become a grandfather.
Q. Military Sister: My brother-in-law is active duty in the military. I have two nephews and a daughter and son. When my BIL is deployed, I see my sister often, especially since our kids attend the same school and are in many different activities together. However, when my BIL is on furlough or has extended time at home, it is pretty much radio silence on her end. I know having a military spouse must be a unique and horrifying challenge, and I certainly appreciate her wanting to spend as much time as possible with her husband. However, a few times during her husband’s last stay, some genuinely important things happened—I lost a late-term pregnancy, and our mother was in the hospital—both of which were either ignored or brushed off by my sister. When her husband is deployed and she is by herself, I highly doubt she would have reacted in this manner. Our current dynamic is starting to wear on me. My husband gets frustrated that when her husband is gone, she frequently asks him for help with things around the house but rarely responds in kind to us. I love my sister, and I want a better relationship with her, but I’m not sure how to bring this up to her. She can be very sensitive about military duty and the sacrifice involved, and I want to maintain as much of a relationship as we can.
A: It’s good you understand the unique pressure the family of deployed military personnel face. And it also makes some sense that when Dad is home, the family is focused on getting every moment possible out of it. But ignoring a sister who lost a late-term pregnancy or a mother who was in the hospital is not OK. Yes, you give your sister a lot of leeway, but her circumstances do not entitle her to act as if no one else experiences pain or needs support. This is another one of those “painful talk” times. You start by acknowledging her situation and that you hope she feels you’re there for her. But you say that when you lost your baby you really felt alone and that your mother was hurt she didn’t show up at the hospital. Then hear her out, but don’t get in an extended dialogue about whose situation is worse. Let’s hope upon reflection she can understand the rightness of what you have to say.
Q. Romance: My girlfriend passed away from lung cancer two years ago. Before she passed, she made me promise to look after her mother, who is 87, widowed, with no other children, living alone, and housebound. I’ve been a faithful visitor, but lately she is making it very clear that she wants more … a LOT more. For a lot of reasons, I don’t want a romantic relationship with her—primarily because she’s 25 years my senior, but until now I have just laughed off her flirting. Now, she’s hitting my phone twice a day, begging me to visit her, telling me that she misses my hugs and kisses. How can I keep my promise and my dignity at the same time, without hurting the old lady too much?
A: You get her a doctor and explain there has been an alarming change in her behavior and she gets a complete work up. If this is the beginning of dementia, you are going to have to have a serious assessment as to what “looking after” the elderly mother of your late girlfriend means. You could be in for a long, expensive decline and if that is beyond your capacity to oversee, you have to make sure that there are social services in place to look after this lonely woman. Once you get a diagnosis, you can check with a support group for Alzheimer’s, if that’s what this is, about how to deal with someone who is losing the ability to make appropriate choices. I’m sorry for the loss of your girlfriend, and you should be proud that you have done yeoman’s work in stepping up and caring for her mother.
Q. Stepdaughter Raising Her Siblings’ Kids: My stepdaughter is a lovely 27-year-old woman with two young kids and a decent, hardworking partner. She is a stay-at-home mother. Her partner is a midlevel manager at a fast-food place, making well under $30,000. She is also raising her half-sister’s two teenagers plus her brother’s teenager because of family problems. Money is tight, and her father and I often supplement the household. We can afford the money but are tired of the immense amount of time, energy, and outright drama that comes with a situation like theirs. We feel that she wants to be the savior in her family, while we think her attention should be on her own immediate family. There are other family members, including biological parents, who could step up to the plate, but she believes these kids are better served under her roof, and she has fought to keep them, even though no funds are coming her way because of them. Her partner feels the pressure of having all these extra people in his home and life, but he goes along with what she wants. We have talked to her about our feelings, and she stands her ground. Do we keep giving money (a few hundred a month), or do we fold our arms and say, “No more”?
A: I’m not sure what the “no more” gets you, except that it definitely means less for five needy kids. This is your husband’s daughter, and you say that you can afford to supplement their income. Your stepdaughter sounds generous, stubborn, and like someone who has too much on her plate. But your counsel just causes her to close down. You could try saying that anyone in her situation would need help, so you’d like to hire a social worker for her to aid her in sorting out the custody issues and obligations with her siblings. If she won’t consider that kind of help, then there’s not much you can do—except withdraw your financial support. I think that won’t change things, except for the worse. You want to preserve your relationship with her so that you and your husband can be a stabilizing force in the lives of these children.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. I hope you all have a banner week.
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