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.)
Q. Kids: Over lunch the other day my brother mentioned that he had taken his 2-year-old son to buy a helmet so he can ride his tricycle outside, and that my nephew’s first choice was a yellow and pink helmet covered with cartoon flowers. My brother gently steered him toward a more “manly” helmet. This provoked a lively (amiable) discussion around the table as to whether little boys should be allowed to wear pink and flowers if they so choose. My immediate response was that they should, but I suppose I can see my brother’s point that allowing kids to wear anything they please might get them bullied. What’s your position?
A: If your brother’s 2-year-old daughter wanted the black helmet covered with spiders, he surely would have laughed and gotten it for her, and not pushed her to choose the princess helmet. I wish your brother had let his son pick the flowers. Maybe it reminded this little boy of an older girl—or female cartoon character—he admires. Maybe he just likes flowers. In any case, it was a great opportunity for your brother to examine his reaction to gender stereotypes and let them be damned. While he didn’t, he did bring up this incident and solicited other opinion, which is all to the good. Also good was that your brother was not either alarmed or punitive about this with his toddler. My position is that while letting his boy choose flower power would have been great, he’s the father and his gentle steering was not out of line.
Dear Prudence: A “Painting Party” Is No Party
Q. How Do I Tell My Late Husband’s Parents I Am Dating Again?: I am a widow, aged 55. My husband of 28 years passed away in 2011 after a battle with cancer. He was a wonderful man and the love of my life. I always had close relationship with my in-laws and I still visit quite often, even though they live in another state. I will always consider them “Mom” and “Dad.” In the last six months I have begun to date again. Just recently, one relationship has started to become more serious. The gentleman I am seeing has invited me on a short trip, and I would like to go. I have not mentioned to my in-laws that I am dating again. However, now that there is a possibility of a more permanent relationship, I am at a loss as to how I broach this change in my status to them. The death of their son affected them greatly. I understand this—no parent should outlive a child. I would never do anything to hurt them, but I feel it is time for me to move on. I also know my late husband would want me to me happy. How do I tell them I am now seeing someone without breaking their hearts?
A: I think you should give two people who loved their son and adored you the benefit of the doubt that as bittersweet as this news will be, the sweet will far outweigh the bitter. They will never get over their loss, but surely they also want you to live the rest of your life fully and happily. My husband was a young widower, and when he called to tell his former in-laws that we were getting married, they expressed nothing but happiness for us, despite our knowing that this would also be painful news to them—a reminder of how much they lost. Your husband’s parents love you, and I’m betting that when you tell them, even if there are tears, there will also be joy.
Q. Dealing With my Infertility: I’m 26 and recently learned that I have premature ovarian failure—it is highly unlikely that I will ever be able to have children and I have stopped all fertility treatment. As I married a year ago, we field endless questions about when we’re going to have kids. My brother just had a baby. His sibling just had a baby. Going on Facebook is an endless parade of their kids from all of our relatives. Discussions are focused solely around their kids, then are turned to us. I keep saying, “We’re happily child-free,” but I’m losing my resolve. I’m constantly surrounded by something I’ll never get to have, but I don’t know how to broach the conversation with our families. I’m afraid the fertility-happy will try and tell us we just haven’t been trying long enough or that God will give us a baby when he sees fit. Based on our finances and the frequency of things falling through, adoption is out of the question.
A: Please contact RESOLVE, the infertility support group. On their website you will find resources for dealing with just the questions you are grappling with, and the chance to connect with others who understand exactly what you’re going through. You have gotten painful news that changes the course of your life, but you do not have to struggle through this alone.
Q. Other Cultures, Accents: I recently moved to a country on the other side of the world for a few months because I wanted to expand my horizons and found a temporary job in my line of work. I don’t speak the language fluently, but luckily there are many people—natives and ex-pats alike—who speak English, my native language. I love meeting people, but others’ accents are unlike anything I’ve heard before and fairly heavy. I have to focus twice as hard during conversations and often I still don’t have a clue what they’re saying. This group includes people I am both working and living with. I’ve asked them to repeat things I don’t catch, but sometimes even several repetitions won’t help. Meanwhile, they seem to perfectly understand my American Midwest accent. These people have lived fascinating lives and are amazingly kind—I want to hear what they have to say and have conversations. Never mind the language barrier, how do I overcome the accent one?
A: Work really hard at getting proficient in the native language so that you can be the one people are looking at perplexed. Your dilemma reminds me of what happens whenever I go to a noisy restaurant these days. Companion: “Are you doing anything this weekend?” Me: “Yes, I love Middle-Eastern food, too.” After the second, “I’m sorry can you say that again?” one simply has to move on and hope that a half-smile and non-committal “Hmm” is not in response to, “I’ve just been diagnosed with a terminal illness.” Keep in mind that the longer you stay, the more your ear will become adjusted to this country’s accented English. But force yourself to make conversation in your awkward new tongue—that’s what adventures like yours are for.
Q. Dinner Guest Etiquette: I’m a young professional who just started her first job. (If it matters, I’m in academia.) My boss has invited my husband and me to dinner with his family this weekend, and I don’t want to make a fool of myself. Dinner parties were never part of my upbringing, but I know it’s customary to bring a hostess gift, like wine. Is this something that is still appropriate? I’m also not much of a wine drinker, so I have no idea how to go about choosing a bottle. I also know he has young kids, so would it be appropriate to bring something for them, as they obviously won’t partake of the wine? I just want to make a good impression.
A: Wine is the perfect gift. You go to a wine store, give them a price range, and they will help you find a suitable bottle. You don’t need a gift for the kids. I’m also going to suggest a gift for yourself. Get a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, and read the chapter on dinner parties. This will give you a crash course in what to expect and how to behave, and also the confidence to know that there really isn’t some secret formula to this strange new ritual. I think a comprehensive etiquette book is a must-have for any young professional because life will be full of new challenges and knowing how and when to write that thank you note, etc. will help you stand out from the crowd.
Q. Re: Infertility: As a woman who has gone through fertility issues, along with IVF, I can say that being honest with them is the best. They will then learn to be more sensitive with their comments. Education is the best route, yes they will say some “stupid” things, but with education it will get easier. Therapy was the best thing I ever did to get through my feelings associated with infertility. Support group was wonderful for both me and my husband. People will still say, “Oh you will just get pregnant one day.” “Not in our case—only the doctors can do that.” That will usually shut them up, as I will not tell them our issues; it is none of their business. I also will say if we are blessed one day with a surprise child, we will take it, but it isn’t likely. I encourage the LW to seek therapy and to try to educate those around her. Also on Facebook, block those who post too much about their kids, you can always go check on them when you are in a good place.
A: Thank you for this. Several other women dealing with serious infertility issues have suggested being honest with the family. I agree. I just think the letter writer needs to work through these issues first with others who have been there, and who can help her deal with the inevitable reactions. There will always be some people who don’t get it. But yes, telling loved ones that there will be no “surprise” babies will help everyone move on.
Q. Criminal Boyfriend: I am a college-educated woman who is considering a relationship with an old friend of mine. He is handsome, charming, and intelligent, and he has always been an important part of my life. The problem? He went to rehab for a cocaine addiction two years ago and briefly went to jail for possession, but he is clean now. I am an accountant and on the path to being very financially secure, but I am unattractive and awkward, so finding quality men is difficult for me. Am I crazy to consider a relationship with this awesome guy so soon after he turned his life around?
A: It’s impossible for me to be able to tell if you are two caring but hurting people who can make life better together, or whether he’s a charming manipulator who likes the idea of your steady paycheck. I’m less concerned about him than about you. You obviously are accomplished, smart, and successful, but the only things you have to say about yourself are negative. Instead of launching into a relationship with your pal, start one with a therapist. You may indeed be socially awkward, but you can talk about ways of addressing this. Any you may indeed never make it onto the cover of Vogue—Photoshopped or not—but a trip to a department store and appointments with a personal shopper and makeup artist could do wonders for how you feel about the way you present yourself to the world.
Q. Apologizing for a Hurtful Comment: Last week, I made a stupid off-hand joke to the effect that women with ambiguous gender identities are ugly. It’s not something I really believe, and I immediately regretted it as soon as it left my mouth, even though the whole room laughed. It just so happened that there was a woman in the room who rocks an androgynous look. I’d like nothing more than to apologize to her, let her know that what I said was wrong, and that I actually find her really attractive. But I can’t figure out an appropriate way to do this, since I don’t know her very well, and I’m afraid that bringing it up now will just hurt her feelings more. What’s more, I’m not “on the market” so I’m not sure if there’s a way to say “you’re actually really cute” without sounding like I’m hitting on her and making her feel even more awkward (I’m a queer woman with a more feminine gender presentation). Should I let this go and just try to do better in the future? Or can you help me think of a way to make this right?
A: You made a joke you regret, so your apology doesn’t have to be framed as a come on to the person you most obviously might have offended. You say to her, “I said something hurtful and stupid the other day about gender identities. It’s not actually what I think, so I’m letting everyone know how much I regret what I said.”
Q. Oblivious Micromanaging Boss: I’ve been at my job for almost three years and love what I do. However, along with raises and a promotion, my boss has gotten worse with her micromanaging. She showered me with compliments when she gave me the new position. Yet she second-guesses everything I do. She often emails my clients to check on my deliverables even though I’m in frequent contact with them. I brought this up during my last review and let her know that I am completely open to feedback. She assured me she trusted me. I’m looking for other work because I feel so suffocated, which makes me sad. Is there any way to approach this again, or is it best left for the exit interview?
A: You’re right to look for a new position to get out from under a boss who simultaneously praises then undermines you. But while you’re looking, you should definitely address this. The next time you find out she’s sent her own emails to your clients, go in and talk to her. Tell her you are concerned that these double emails are sending a negative message to the clients that there is ineffective internal communication within your company and that no one is sure who’s on top of things. Try to set up a new system in which you meet weekly with her to go over your accounts and bring her up to date on where they are. Suggest if she has any concerns about your client relations, she bring them to you first so that you aren’t unnecessarily clogging the clients’ inboxes. And keep looking because it’s probable she won’t change.
Q. Re: Accents: I spent a semester in the U.K. when I was in school and had the same problem. There just were some sounds I had problems with. It did get better over time.
A: I love watching the British prime minister stand before parliament at question time. When those representative from Scotland start speaking, it might as well be Urdu.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great week.
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