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 New Year! And so far I’ve remembered to write 2014 on all my checks.
Q. Truth or Lie About Adoption?: A few months ago, I discovered I was pregnant. I’m only 20 and my husband is as well; we lived with his parents at the time. They were adamant that we shouldn’t abort the fetus. We were sure we didn’t want to be parents, after all that’s why we had been using birth control! We decided on adoption, but his family would not accept that option and began to blame me for “making my husband reject his child.” We’ve been pretending we’re keeping the baby to keep the peace and moved out of state to get away from everything. We’ve continued with the adoption in secret and found an amazing family. The baby is due soon and my husband insists on telling his parents that the baby was a stillborn or died during delivery. I’m not sure what the right thing to do is. I know his family will interfere with the adoption, guilt my husband and possible make things difficult for the adoptive family, but saying the baby died seems so harsh. To add some context: His family is Hispanic, and babies and family are very important to them along with their religion. He’s afraid they’ll disown him or he’ll break his mother’s heart since she’s had four miscarriages and was really attached to the thought of her son being a father. What should we do?
A: You are two adults and young though you may be, you have made a very considered decision about where you are in life, your capabilities, and what is best for your child. That you have to move out of state says just how oppressive is the pressure your husband’s family is putting on you. It is one thing to talk to the potential grandparents about your situation, tell them your thoughts, and listen to advice and counsel. It is another to feel hounded and shamed. I am against hiding the existence of a person. That means married men who father children don’t keep them a secret. That means people who have placed a baby for adoption should tell their future spouses and their subsequent children about the child. And that means you don’t pretend a healthy baby died. I don’t think that lie will hold, and in the long run will likely make things worse. You are working with an adoption group and they should have social workers and other trained counselors to help you through this process. You should tell them what’s going on so that you can figure out strategies to deal with your in-laws now and particularly after the baby is born. Here’s a list of support groups that help birth mothers—you need to check out which ones might be most appropriate for helping you. It’s fair to acknowledge your decision will bring pain to the grandparents, what’s not fair is that they won’t back off.
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Q. Old Girlfriend Pictures: I have some old pictures of girlfriends that have been buried at the bottom of a box for the past 18 years. My wife continues to nag me that I should take them out and burn them. It’s not like I look at them daily (as they have been at the bottom of a box for 18 years). I feel that just because my life began with my wife 18 years ago that does not mean that I should not have anything of my life prior to that. I don’t think that is unreasonable but what is your take?
A: Everyone is entitled to their private box of memorabilia. It’s none of your wife’s business that an excavation of yours would reveal a photo cache of your exes. I hope your wife has some redeeming qualities, because it sounds as if for two decades she’s been holding a lighted match ready to make a conflagration of your past. You need to tell her the conversation about this is over—18 years of nagging is enough. She’s the only one obsessed with the contents of the box, but you don’t have to destroy it to assuage unreasonable jealousy.
Q. Relationship Compromises: I’ve been with my boyfriend for nearly five years now, and I love him dearly. Here’s the problem: I’m an aspiring closet novelist, and I’ve been working on a book for about a year now. I’ve asked him to read what I have so far, but he refuses. He says he’s not a reader, and what I’m writing about (a family drama) doesn’t interest him. He compares it to his love of cars and my refusal to drive fast with him; he says this is unsupportive of me and hurts his feelings, and basically, why should he have to spend 5-plus hours reading an unfinished manuscript if I can’t drive with him? Prudie, I get motion sickness if I walk too quickly down a hill. I can’t help that. He always comes up with an excuse not to read what I’ve written, and whenever he does mention it, he calls it a “romance novel” (it’s not). I can’t help a bitter part of myself from thinking that he might suddenly get a lot more interested in my novel if I ever make it big, but if that ever happens, I’m not so sure how excited I’ll be to share whatever success I have with him. Am I being demanding and unreasonable, or is it normal to want the feedback of a man I love and also know to be intelligent enough to struggle though one measly book?
A: So we have a man who is hurt that his girlfriend won’t puke in his car while he’s driving fast, and a woman who resents that her boyfriend won’t try to prop his eyes open as he attempts to turn the page of her family saga. I think you could at least get a short story out of this. I once read that Joyce Carol Oates said that her late, beloved husband never read her work and that that was one of the secrets of their happy marriage. This was probably a sanity-saving decision on his part, since Oates writes a novel a week. Consider that you insist on getting the opinion of your novel from someone hates to read. Hearing, “The parts I got through weren’t as bad as I expected,” is not going to thrill you. If you’re already planning how you’re going to lord over him the bounty of the sales receipts heading your way, then maybe you do have the kind of imagination required of a novelist. If you want someone to read your work, join a writer’s group and engage in mutual feedback. Give your manuscript to a friend who you know devours novels. Accept that you and your boyfriend are one of those couples who have intense interests that you don’t share with each other. Or look for partners more mutually inclined.
Q. Re: Truth about adoption: Since his family is very religious, have the minister/priest help the family understand this is best for the baby.
A: Good advice—as long as the clergy member is totally on board with the decision.
Q. Re: Truth or lie: Don’t divulge the names of the adoptive parents. Your husband’s parents shouldn’t have access to them. Ask for help to make sure they’re protected.
A: Also good advice. Thanks.
Q. Sick of Guests: My husband comes from a culture where hospitality is a deeply ingrained value. As a result we’ve frequently hosted relatives, friends, friends of friends, and even strangers from his home country. Some of them have even stayed for months at a time, and it is unthinkable to ask for money. The issue is that I am getting tired of endlessly hosting. I want privacy and quiet in my own home, and we’ve had some bad experiences with house guests in the past. My husband insists he will get a permanently bad reputation if we turn away guests, and since we’ve been saying yes, it will be even more insulting to start saying no. I want to be culturally sensitive since this is something that is very important to him, but this is driving me insane.
A: Oh, bring on the bad reputation. It’s going to be the only way to save your sanity. Whatever the culture of his country, you’re not in it, and you’ve got your own culture (“get out of my house!”) to preserve. I sometimes think that one of the great engines of migration is people fleeing from societies with too much hospitality. Being on permanent hostess duty sounds like hell. Particularly since you married someone who has many family members, friends, and acquaintances apparently without jobs or homes who feel free to crash at your place for months (!) at a time. Tell him that this is a new year with new rules. Visits have to be approved in advance and lengths of stays will be severely curtailed. Explain that most of the time, your house will be free of guests. Tell him if it’s not, it will be free of you.
Q. Re: About not reading your novel-in-progress: I’m a published novelist. My spouse reads my books once they are in print, never before. Not sure our marriage would have survived otherwise. If the budding writer needs a reader, she should find a critique group.
A: Thank you, J.K. Rowling, for weighing in! For some writers their spouse is their most important editor. For others, having the spouse stay away from the manuscript is essential to preserving the marriage. But no one benefits from a reluctant reader.
Q. Wanting a Simple Wedding: Ten years ago, I was engaged and planned a wedding, but we called it off at the last minute. At the time, my fiancé and I wanted to have a simple engagement and ceremony with very little traditional pomp. Under pressure from family and friends, we eventually caved and accepted engagement parties, registries, showers, etc. While some of it was fun, I regret not standing up to my family more. I’m now engaged again, and I personally would like to take this opportunity to have the simple engagement and wedding I always wanted. My fiancé, however, has never been engaged before. While obviously we’ve discussed some of our expectations, I’m worried that my position comes off as insensitive: I want to avoid all of the things I’ve already done. How do I make my stance clear to my fiancé and our families without seeming like a hypocrite?
A: If this were a coronation it would be hard to say, “I hate all this pomp and ceremony. Please just FedEx the crown to me.” How you do your wedding is up to the two of you. This is probably the biggest joint enterprise you and your fiancé have undertaken to date, so that makes it a good way for you two to negotiate your preferences and learn to compromise. You don’t even say that your fiancé has explained he wants to max out the celebration. If you’re old enough to have broken off an engagement 10 years ago, then you certainly should have sufficient life skills to be able to make your desires known to your nearest and dearest with both sensitivity and certainty.
Q. Gifts and Holidays: I have been with my SO for three years. He is an amazing partner and I couldn’t ask for a better match. The only time we run into some tensions is around the holiday/birthday time of year (our birthdays are just three days apart). I love presents and holidays and everything that goes along with them. I spend months planning and brainstorming the perfect gift. My SO on the other hand is a last-minute shopper. This would be fine, except for the fact that for a week or so leading up to said holiday, all I hear is “What do you want for X holiday?” I drop hints constantly. But I don’t feel like I should have to pick out my own presents. He has wonderful taste and always gets me something great, but the bickering was almost intolerable this Christmas. Should I just throw in the towel and tell him what to get me? I enjoy the surprise and the excitement of a present and I feel like my SO is copping out.
A: For some people gifts are an essential part of expressing love. (This is laid out in the best-seller The Five Love Languages, which I acknowledge I haven’t read.) But some people are not gift people and your SO is one. That doesn’t mean he gets a pass and gets to stiff you. But you have to accept he will simply never share the pleasure you get in months of stalking the perfect gift. I think there’s a compromise position for you to take. Guide him to what you want, but let him make the final decision. As your birthday or Christmas approaches, show him four or five things you would really like, and ask him to choose. I know this lacks the thrill of your knowing he’s deeply thought about this, but your gift to him will be accepting that you are willing to compromise when it comes to exchanging presents.
Q. Re: Old girlfriend pictures: I ceremoniously ripped up photos of my one and only ex once we broke up because I couldn’t stand looking at his face and had no good memories of our time together. When my husband and I moved in together, I found photos of his exes and asked why he was keeping them. He didn’t have any bad times with his girlfriends, so he’d never had a reason to dispose of the photos. For him, they were just reminders of his past. I still thought he should get rid of the pictures, but he asked me one simple question that shut me up for good on the subject: “Who won?” I had won. These women were just pictures. I was the real thing.
A: Good for him and good for you!
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