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. And best wishes to everyone for a beautiful Christmas day, and good luck to those still prowling the malls.
Q. Friends?: I’ve had a close male friend that I’ve been secretly in love with for years. We have almost always lived in different cities and frankly, our lifestyles are fairly different to the point that I had all but discarded the idea that we could ever be in a romantic relationship. Aside from a fun weeklong fling over a decade ago, we’ve always kept it platonic, mostly because one of us was always dating someone in the couple of times a year we’d see each other. Flash forward to this year when I told him my boyfriend and I were getting married. He seemed shocked, but happy for me, came out to help me prepare for the big day and was an all-around champ. After the wedding I talked to my new mother-in-law and was shocked to find out that he referred to me as “the one who got away” in his own life. What? I never went anywhere and he never said anything! I used to tell my girlfriends that he was the one I’d run away with if he ever expressed any interest. Now, two days after my wedding I’m stuck with this thought that we’ve been mutually and silently in love with each other for years. How did I get stuck in a bad rom-com script? And why would he say that to my new MIL of all people. (She looked at me pointedly when she told me about it later.) BTW, I love my husband dearly and we have a lovely life together. I’m not interested in leaving, nor do I regret any decision I’ve made. Mostly I wonder how I go on knowing there was a possibility for that other life I always dreamed of but never believed in. Do I ever say anything to him about this?
A: Years ago you tried each other out as romantic partners and decided to keep it platonic. Maybe this is a classic O. Henry kind of story where you were each mutually misreading the other’s signals that you were the One. But if your communication is so bad that neither of you could say, “You’re the one,” then you don’t belong together. I don’t find it a charming plot twist that your friend confesses to your new mother-in-law (!) that you’re the one who got away. Instead it is rude and passive-aggressive. Yes, it’s possible he blurted this out to your mother-in-law after too much to drink, and by way of praising your charms. But it doesn’t have that feel, does it? Presumably, he thought she would pass on this tidbit, thus putting a pall over your honeymoon. That’s not something a friend does. There’s a reason your dreams of this guy never became reality. As he’s demonstrated, in reality he sounds kind of manipulative. You go on by realizing that every life is full of possibilities not taken. But that thank goodness you took the one that was right for you. In keeping with his backhanded way of getting a message to you, I think you should just act as if you never received it.
Dear Prudence: Keeping the Sperm in the Family
Q. Mom in Denial: I found out this year that I’m not able to have children. I’m trying to come to terms with it and my boyfriend, who is coming to my parents’ house with me for Christmas, has been incredibly supportive. The problem is my mother. She keeps talking about how we’ll be bringing her grandchildren with us in a few years and keeps talking about moving so she has enough bedroom for the grandchildren to stay. I’ve told her about my infertility but she doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. It upsets me every time she brings it up because I really wanted to have children. How should I handle mom’s aggressive denial of my condition?
A: You pull Mom aside before the festivities begin and tell her that dealing with the news of your infertility is painful enough without having her act as if she doesn’t understand. You say that you want Christmas to be lovely, but if she brings this up you and your boyfriend are going to have to leave early. So that means no talk of grandchildren or extra bedrooms. Then, awkward as it may be, if she starts in, you can say, “Mom, let’s not discuss this at the table.” If she keeps it up, you and your boyfriend need an agreed upon signal that it’s time to go.
Q. Do I Have to Tell My Family I’m Having Surgery?: I’m having major surgery soon. Only my spouse, a few friends, and one family member know. I will be recovering at home for a few weeks. During that time I’d really just like to be left alone. I don’t want to worry about people coming to my house which I will not be able to keep clean. I don’t need food, or any help from anyone other than my spouse. So can I just wait and tell the rest of my family after? I know everyone is well meaning, but what I feel is best for me is to be left alone.
A: Any person facing a medical issue is entitled to decide how she or he wants to handle it. You don’t want a stream of well-meaning visitors bearing casseroles. But unless your family and co-workers are completely overbearing and will not listen, I want to counsel you to reconsider. For one thing, you say all you are going to need for recovery is your spouse. But if you are getting over major surgery, you will need help for everything from going to the bathroom to getting a glass of water. Caretaking 24/7 is a grueling and exhausting business, and it won’t be to your benefit if your spouse collapses. If you do let more people know, you can say that for you recovery means hibernating like a bear, but that you or your spouse will set up one of those online accounts that updates with information about your condition. That way people can track how you’re doing, and you will alert them about when you’re eventually up for visitors, and be able to set up a schedule (if you realize you are ready for short visits). Consider that letting people deliver food—in disposable containers left at an agreed upon time at the door—might help your spouse and you. Also think about the benefits of having someone spell your spouse so that he or she can go to the gym, a movie, or just get a break from getting you back on your feet.
Q. Church on Christmas: My wife and I are having a disagreement. Her family has invited us to church on Christmas Eve. She is not an avid churchgoer, but she generally does attend on Christmas and Easter. I am an atheist and usually only end up in church for weddings and funerals. While I have no issues with her faith and would have no problem if she and our children wanted to attend every week, I bristle at the expectation that I attend just because “it’s Christmas.” If I go, I will be unhappy, though I will not be a jerk about it. If I don’t go, she will be unhappy that the family is not together for that extra hour or two. Any chance of a win-win situation here?
A: Go. I assume you’ve been to high school and college graduations of family members. This is an event no one actually enjoys sitting through, but you do it because it matters to be there as a family. As I’ve noted before, it’s good that people don’t have surtitles running across their foreheads displaying what they’re actually thinking during religious services. So go and enjoy the music, the pageantry, and the chance to daydream. Most important, enjoy the good feeling you get by showing that sometimes people do things cheerfully they don’t particularly want to do, because they get to be together with those they love the most.
Q. Chores and Gender Politics: My husband is a self-described feminist, and has always done a share of the household chores—cooking, shopping, cleaning, and raising our two boys. Due to the terrible economy, his career has floundered, and what seemed like a temporary setback looks more permanent. He now works part time in a menial job, and understandably this makes him feel marginalized and unfulfilled. I am extremely lucky to have a demanding job that I love that can support our family if we live frugally. The question comes to the division of labor for chores. My feeling is that, as regrettable as his career issues are, he should do a larger share of the chores, since he simply has more time to do them—I’m hoping for a 70/30 split. He thinks 50/50 is the only fair way to go. When I ask him to pitch in more around the house, he takes this as a reminder of his lost career, and we can’t afford to pay for extra help. I’m not asking to be met at the door with the paper and a Manhattan, but if I’m greeted after a long and stressful day with the words “What’s for dinner?” one more time, I think I’ll scream. What’s fair here?
A: Here’s a recent article in the New York Times about a subset of successful Wall Street women who are backed up by stay-at-home husbands, some of whom have “mastered complicated cooking techniques.” Now that’s my idea of a nonworking father! Unless you are the lucky couple in which one person happily takes on the bulk of the chores, or the two of you just naturally divide them, this is often a constant source of friction. I think the goal should be that both parties feel the division is equitable, not that there’s a mathematically perfect split of labor. In your house, meals are a trigger point. He obviously doesn’t like to cook, but I agree it’s simply unfair for you arrive at the door, faced with a starving family, and forced to start rattling the pots and pans especially if he’s been home all day. I think you would be helped by creating a cooking schedule and putting into place some basic meals. Let’s say you do the weekend cooking, and even agree to do the bulk of the grocery shopping. Sit down with your husband with some cookbooks—Mark Bittman’s are a good place to start—and find some simple recipes for delicious, manageable meals. Then he knows Monday is spaghetti, Tuesday is roast chicken and potatoes, etc. Instead of this being his dreaded chore at the end of the day, he and the boys should do it together. Measuring, chopping, stirring, are not only life skills but teach math, chemistry, and hand-eye coordination. If the boys are old enough, maybe they and your husband can watch Top Chef together, to get them to see cooking as an exciting skill. Let’s hope you end up with a pair of sons who fight over who gets to the stove!
Q. Re: Friends (or the One That Got Away): I was in a similar situation for years. My best advice to this woman is, stick with the guy you just married. He’s really “the one.” The guy who was distant to you for all those years acted that way because he secretly likes being distant; he likes being emotionally unavailable, and that’s why he let you be “the one who got away” because some men are like that. Your life is NOT a romantic comedy. If you pursue letting him play mind games and wrecking your marriage, it won’t end happily. I’ve been there, and I speak from experience. On the other side now with a faithful man who cares about me deeply, and I won’t give the time of day to someone who messes with me and my relationship now.
A: This is very instructive, and an excellent warning. Let her feel great relief that she got away.
Q. Pictures of a Former Co-Worker’s Deceased Son: About five years ago, before the economic crisis, I worked with a wonderful woman who had three children. She and I were very close. One of her sons had leukemia, and was battling it at the time we worked together. She often brought her son to work, since he was so sick, and because of my position in the company (secretary) I had a lot of down time to entertain him. She often brought him to my desk so I could serve as office babysitter, and we played Legos together on many occasions. I have many photos of him in the office and of him and his mother and brothers and sisters and with other co-workers. Many people in our small company got to know him very well. He and I had a special bond because I was going through chemotherapy myself at the time (but still working.) However, the company didn’t make it through the financial crisis and we all had to seek other jobs. I never gave her these photos as her son got seriously ill and died the next year; but this year I was going back through old photos and saw them and wondered if it would be appropriate now that time has passed to send them to her. Do you think it would just stir up old hurt, or it would be appropriate to send them on? It was immensely painful to her when he died.
A: Excuse me if this answer contains a lot of typos because I’m crying. I think you should send your friend a card saying how often you think of her and how much you miss working with her. Say that you were going through some photos and came across many lovely ones of her boy. Tell her that after you had a good cry, you were happy to have the memories of his bright spirit and think of what a creative and fun child he was. Say you’re enclosing some of the photos in a separate envelope. That way, she can look at them now or not. You are not stirring up old hurt—no one ever completely gets over losing a child. And I’ve heard from many people who say one of the most painful parts of going on is that people are so uncomfortable talking about this loss. You were a good friend to her then. I’m sure she’ll appreciate this gesture now.
Q. Re: Chores and gender politics: Cook up a big batch of meals on the weekend that you can freeze and your husband can just pop them into the oven on weeknights. Also, the Crock-Pot is everybody’s friend!
A: Good advice! And preparing those meals can be a fun family time—the boys can go through the Crock-Pot cookbook and pick their favorites.
Q. Re: Friends dilemma: I had a scenario like this. One of my husband’s good friends from college got completely hammered at our reception. She made a scene on the dance floor during which I’m told (but thankfully missed seeing) there was a flash of panty-less private parts. The DJ told my mom at the end that this woman was sobbing about watching the “only man she’d ever loved” marry another that day. Confirmation that I married the right guy: He cut her off completely after that. People who do these kinds of things are selfish and controlling. Don’t give your friend a pass on bad behavior.
A: Great story! And at least give her credit for sparking many uproarious conversations on the ride home for the rest of your guests.
Q. Holiday Blues, but Not the Normal Kind: I live with my mother and this holiday season, we have hit some hard times. We came close to losing our house. My mother (and the very nice mortgage company) just managed to pull it out of the fire. The issue is with Christmas—my mom just doesn’t seem to be in a joyous mood. My brother and his girlfriend dropped some presents off last night when we were not home and while I opened mine, she told me to take hers and put them in my closet. She has been to the doctor and they are fixing her up with medication. But I am worried about her. Any advice on how I can help her get through Christmas without one or both of us coming to tears? Going elsewhere for me is not an option, my friends are all out of town. And I couldn’t leave her at Christmas, she is my mom and I love her!
A: Joyousness does not arrive on schedule. There’s nothing wrong with tears when times are tough. But there are all kinds of shades possible for this blue Christmas. Despite the hard financial news, you also all have each other, which is a comfort and joy not everyone gets to share. You can acknowledge what’s rough, celebrate what’s good, and make a hopeful toast to 2014.
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