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. Scent of a Stranger: Last week my partner and I went for a much-needed and long-overdue stay at a bed and breakfast in Florida. The day before we left, while lying by the pool I saw the concierge/desk helper let himself into our room. Wondering why, I got up to check and found him wrapped up in our bed sheets and smelling a pillow. I got angry, and he started crying and said we were an attractive couple and that he “just wanted to feel alive again.” It was awkward and embarrassing, and he said he would never do it again, so I just let it drop and didn’t tell my partner or the proprietor about this. I figured the sheets are their property, and I’d think it was just weird or kind of funny had he just replaced the linens and done that in the laundry room, but in the room itself it felt like a gross violation of our privacy. Plus, if it had been a big chain hotel there’s no question I’d have marched straight to the manager’s office. Should I have told anyone?
A: I can just imagine the Yelp review you could give this place: “The setting is magnificent, the food sensational. And if you’re looking to find the concierge in your bed, masturbating to the scent you’ve left on the pillows, the Come Again Lodge is the place for you.” Let’s put aside for the moment the pervert in your bed. If I were to stumble upon this scene, I cannot imagine going back to the pool and not saying, “Ah, Dear, you remember that nice guy who checked us in …” This would have become a treasured vacation tale we dined out on for years. However, once we regained our composure, I would have insisted we packed our bags (after carefully checking our underwear) because I would not be able to spend a night at a place where there was a guy with a serious fetish about my bed sheets and a key to my room. You absolutely should have told the proprietor. If you ran a B&B, I assume you’d want to know if you had an employee who felt the aromas of the guests were a form of True Blood. And surely finding the concierge rolling in your sheets would have gotten you comped for the entire vacation.
Dear Prudence: Jealous of Boyfriend’s Dog
Q. Complicated Paternity Problem: Before he met me, my husband started a relationship with a woman who stated she was pregnant as a result of stranger rape. They got married, but eventually divorced and she is now in prison. My husband has custody of the child who is 7. While my husband is the only daddy my stepson has known, we tried to be honest about his biological parentage as age appropriately as we could. He knows, for instance, that his biological father was a bad person who hurt his mommy and is in jail, too. Then we got the shock of our lives when a man contacted us stating he was the real biological father. Contrary to the original story, it turns out this man was married to my stepson’s mom, she divorced him without telling him she was pregnant, and ran off after depleting his bank account. He eventually discovered the existence of his son and spent some time tracking us down with the help of a private investigator. He came with proof of a paternity test and told us he is open to us conducting our own tests—but looking at the two of them, it’s obvious they are father and son. He wants to meet my stepson and start a relationship with him, but we are scared and worried. My stepson has already gone through series of emotional upheaval in his life, he thinks his biological father is a “bad man,” and most of all we are scared he might sue for custody. If we refuse, are we denying our son’s right to know his true parentage?
A: Indeed, you are right, your stepson has known far too much travail in his seven years. And the arrival of his biological father—who was another in the string of victims your husband’s ex has left behind—means that more upheaval is ahead. But surely you understand you can’t keep the boy’s father from him. Before you make any introductions, all of you adults need some excellent professional advice. You and your husband need a family law attorney to look out for your interests and that of your stepson. Unless the mother committed the most heinous of crimes, she’ll be getting out of jail one day and likely will want to assert her own custody rights. So you and your husband need to clarify your legal situation. You also need an excellent child therapist. Get some recommendations and talk to the therapists first to get a feel for them before you choose someone to introduce to your son. This is a very complicated story for him to absorb, and given his age (or any age!) it has to be handled with psychological care. He’s going to find out his father is not a “bad person.” He will come to understand the bad actor in his life is his mother who told the most awful lies. (While telling your son what you thought was the truth about his father, I wish it had been done in a way that didn’t make the boy feel that he sprung from someone evil. He could have known his father made a mistake and did something bad, not simply that he was a globally bad person.) What’s important now is that all the adults recognize the need for your stepson to feel he is in a stable situation and that there will be no abrupt changes. That means you and the biological father agree about how he gets introduced and the next steps to take. At best, this will be a good turning point for this boy. He has essentially lost one damaged parent, but perhaps he is gaining a more loving one.
Q. Estranged Husband Visiting Grandkids in My House: I am in the process of divorcing my husband due to his soliciting other married women on the Internet to have sex with and carrying out his intentions multiple times over many months. His adult son from a previous marriage, whom I am close to, continues to live in my home, along with the son’s wife and two young children. They cannot afford to live elsewhere currently. I am fine with that. My soon to be ex-husband lives 2 miles away. Initially, I allowed him to come for dinner twice weekly. I made plans to be out of the house on those nights. It allowed my ex to see his grandchildren, 2 and 4 years old, in their own home and read them a bedtime story, etc. This has become quite uncomfortable for me. I have suggested to my ex that he childproof his own home and see his family there. While I would like to treat my stepson as if this were their home too and they could entertain friends and family, I am thinking of limiting my ex to one time per week or even none. What do you think?
A: I think you are a really nice person if you own the home you and your soon-to-be ex were living in and you are allowing his son and family to continue to stay on an open-ended basis. You have to know that even if you wish to forget you ever married this cheater, you won’t be able to since you are the landlord for his immediate family. However, of course it is within your right to say you are tired of having to vacate your own home in order for him to see this group. If you don’t want your ex around, tell him so and tell his son and daughter-in-law. Say you do not want to interfere with their relationship with him, but he is no longer welcome and you want them to see him at his new place. If gramps had the means to wine and dine other women, he surely can spring for a baby gate.
Q. Re: Comment on complicated paternity and estranged husband visiting: No question, just had to comment that so far we have two nominees for Stepmother of the Year today! After all the “how can I get my ex to ignore his kids and pay more attention to me?” types, these two ladies are awesome examples of stepparents showing that you don’t have to give birth to someone to be an excellent parent to them.
A: Thank you for pointing this out. Yes, we have two women not biologically related to the children in their lives, who want to do the best by them under difficult circumstances. How refreshing!
Q. Re: Paternity: How does he have proof of paternity? With the facts as listed, he’s never met the boy, so how did he do DNA testing?
A: Great point! I hope the original letter writer will clarify this. And if there isn’t a good explanation, new testing is in order.
Q. Mother Hates My In-Laws: Seven years ago my husband and I got married, and things went very sour at the wedding between my mother and my in-laws. My mom claims that FIL told her she couldn’t speak at the wedding reception because it wasn’t appropriate, or something to that effect. My father died when I was 14, so it was very important to her that she get to say something nice on my father’s behalf. The entire event was ruined for her and she’s been holding a grudge ever since. There’s currently no physical interaction between them, but we’re thinking about moving my mom in to the basement to spend more time together and improve our finances. However, the in-laws visit on a regular basis. There’s no way we can have everyone in the same house without WWIII raining down. Is it my job to reveal to the in-laws that my mother doesn’t want to be around them and that they will no longer be able to stay at our home but will instead have to go to a hotel when they come to visit? I know I should have tried to organize a truce years ago, but I’m in a quandary about what to do now, so many years after they fact. MIL and FIL truly have no idea—they still send my mother birthday and Christmas cards, which she despises. Help!
A: Your father-in-law behaved terribly seven years ago, but I’m afraid this statute of limitations has expired. Sure, you could tell your in-laws about the mean-spirited slight and ask your father-in-law to apologize. But I’m afraid it will make your mother sound rather bonkers if you have to further explain that the wound is as fresh today as on the wedding day, that your mother has never gotten over it, and that the mere sight of them makes her want to explode. I think you have to set some new ground rules with your mother long before you finalize her moving in. Say to her there’s no excuse for what your father-in-law did, but it was a stupid thing done a long time ago and since then they’ve demonstrated they have only good wishes for her. Say that you’re done keeping them apart. If she wants to live with you, that means she behaves graciously when your in-laws visit, which they do on a regular basis. You can explain that once things improve, you will consider letting them know about the original injury, but you feel given the time that’s passed, it’s just best to move on. Tell her if she can’t let this go, then your living together has to be a no go.
Q. Re: Paternity Proof: He probably means he has the old-fashioned kind: an affidavit of some kind from the mother.
A: Thanks—that’s a good point. I also read a Kate Atkinson novel in which a father in this situation who’s a private detective cleverly arranges to get a DNA sample (a hair) from a child to see if he can establish paternity without first contacting the mother. [Update: When I publish a letter during the live chat it disappears off my screen, so I’m just seeing now that the original letter writer specified a “paternity test.” How it was conducted remains a mystery.]
Q. Living Situation: I moved into the house my boyfriend owns in a suburb. Things are fine with him, but it’s now been a year, and I hate where we live. I don’t want to break up but it’s not like he can just sell the house (it’s only a couple years since he purchased it). But I’m feeling so totally isolated from my friends and the city I used to live in, and the commute now takes me almost an hour. My moving out and renting back where I used to be will be a huge step backwards for the relationship. He’s talked about moving back to the city “eventually” but his standards (single family, won’t live in certain neighborhoods) make it very unlikely that we could ever find or afford something. I don’t know how much longer I can make it living here though. What can I do?
A: There’s a rousing endorsement of the relationship: “Things are fine.” Add to that your loneliness, boredom, and commuting woes, and it sounds as if lots of time with your boyfriend is not enough to make your living situation worth it. I don’t know how old you are, but you sound unready to settle into suburban life. You’ve given it a year. He isn’t going anywhere, but you want to. So what you do is tell him that you are unhappy with your living situation. It just might be that you have to accept that literally and figuratively you can’t meet each other halfway.
Q. Re: Stepmother of the year: To the person who is pleased to see “good” stepmothers for a change: Actually, there are a lot of us out there who love our stepkids and would do anything for them—and we do it all against the backdrop of stereotypes like wanting our partners to pay us all the attention and generally being evil. Think before you generalize.
A: Yes, of course. But this column is not overrun with anyone behaving well, and conflict between stepparents and stepchildren is sadly a common theme. I don’t see anything wrong noting what you say yourself: that many stepparents are doing yeoman’s duty on behalf of their stepchildren.
Q. Cheater: Long story short: A few months ago I found out that a friend (not a close friend, bordering on acquaintance) cheated on her husband with a random guy. I’d call it a one-night stand but it was pre-planned, so … Fast forward, I find out this same friend cheated on her husband, again, multiple times, with her cousin’s husband. Cousin doesn’t know, cheater’s husband doesn’t know. The cousin is an acquaintance of mine with three young kids; cheater has two kids. I just keep my mouth shut, right?
A: Right. Everyone involved is only tangentially in your orbit. Keep it that way.
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