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: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Dirty Problem: I used to be a live-in nanny for the world’s most annoying, inconsiderate, intolerant, and rude couple. I stuck through for three months, but had to quit for my own mental health. During this time, I occasionally took revenge by sneaking into their bathroom and dipping their toothbrushes in the toilet. The wife kept a drink bottle by the bedside table and I also put some toilet water into it as well. It made me feel better about my crappy situation at the time but now that I’ve quit (and regained some of my sanity), I’m consumed with guilt. I heard from a mutual acquaintance that both of them are having some kind of health problems—exactly what, I don’t know—and I’m worried I may have caused this. Should I call and confess? We didn’t exactly leave on good terms.
A: This is indeed a crappy situation all around. I’m actually surprised you quit because given your response to what you say was intolerable treatment by your employers, you attempted to cause them grave bodily harm—you all sound perfectly matched! Making people ingest fecal matter without their knowledge is indeed likely to make people ill and leave their doctor baffled. Part of me would love to tell you to rush to confess. However, I will extend you a courtesy that you didn’t give your “inconsiderate” and “rude” employers. That is, while I think this couple should know the source of their illness, confessing could leave you open to potential prosecution. You may deserve it, but you need to consider the stakes here. So my suggestion is that you pay for a consultation with a lawyer and explain the situation. You also should find out what are the potential medical consequences of drinking toilet water. It may be that the need to get a proper diagnosis for this pair is crucial to their treatment, and you must consider that and bring it to the attention of your lawyer. While your behavior makes my stomach turn, I am slightly heartened that you seem to recognize what you did was an abomination. I hope in the future you recognize that if you’re in a poisonous situation, you simply get out without trying to poison anyone else.
Dear Prudence: Dressing Down
Q. Parents and Finance: I graduated a year ago from college. It took me most of 2013 to find my financial footing by landing my first real career-oriented job. My new job doesn’t pay as much as I would like, but what it lacks in a high salary, it pays in excellent training and experience. I’m proud to say that I paid for my own college education—I worked part-time and summer jobs, I saved everywhere I could, and I took out my own student loans. In that same time my parents wrote a different story. They overspent on a new mortgage, they bought expensive cars, purchased designer clothing, and made a lot of the same pre-2008 mistakes other middle-class families had made. It’s now the beginning of the new year, they’ve both lost their jobs, and they are straight up broke. I haven’t even made my second paycheck yet and they’re asking me for help. I want to help, but I also want them to know that they’re asking a lot from me without sounding vindictive. I’m not sure how to voice myself to them. I don’t simply want to give them money, but I don’t want to completely shame them. How shall I approach them about their poor past behavior?
A: I don’t know whether to be encouraged or discouraged by the number of cases I hear about like yours. That is, financially responsible young adults whose parents are financially profligate, who are now being hit up by their broke mother and father. It is great to see people who were raised by the irresponsible learning from that example, instead of following it. But the pressure on these young people to honor their self-indulgent parents is immense. I think you must resist. You are starting your own, independent life, with a college degree you earned solely through your own efforts. How wonderful it would have been if your parents had looked at you and absorbed some of your lessons. Instead they partied as if the leverage would never come crashing down on their heads. Now, they are turning to you, but given your own penny-pinching financial circumstances, I don’t see how you can afford to do anything except buy them an occasional bag of groceries. When you were still a teenager your parents sent you out to be financially responsible for yourself. They need to take similar responsibility for their situation. Of course, in addition to making terrible choices, they are now victims of a cruel economy, it is true. But your pouring your money down their financial rat hole—well, you only have enough for a dribble—won’t solve their problem. If they put enough pressure on you (“Honey, can you just take out a loan? We will pay you back when we get on our feet”) it might just tip you into ruin. Tell them to contact the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling to help them figure out the steps they must take. You love them and want to be a source of solace and even advice. But you cannot bail them out.
Q. Re: Toilet water: As a physician, I will submit that ongoing health problems are really not likely to be caused by drinking toilet water. At worst, it could spread a G.I. illness (virus, bacterial diarrhea, etc.). But the same virus/bacteria would be elsewhere in the family home and there would be minimally higher exposure from direct consumption of toilet water. What this nanny did was a childish and gross violation of trust, but not dangerous.
A: Several other letters writers have also basically said that drinking toilet water isn’t likely to hurt you. So for the sake of the environment, please let’s stop purchasing bottled water and start recycling that toilet water! I’ve heard of fruit flush and fat flush diets, little did I know that the toilet flush diet was OK, too. Doc, I will take your word that if this couple is sick, it’s not because of the nanny’s beverage service. So the nanny can forget about talking to a lawyer. With that money saved, a therapist might help her figure out better ways to respond to stress.
Q. Cultural Differences—Mother-in-Law: My mother-in-law is from the Southern U.S., where it is common for children to address all adults as sir and ma’am. I am from New England, where we currently live with our two children. My in-laws are correcting our children whenever they visit (they are 4 and 2) and prodding them to say “yes, sir,” etc., whenever a yes or no is expected. This is not something my husband and I had decided to do, and to me it seems downright inappropriate to expect of young children. My husband is still sentimental for the South, and is happy to go along with them. What should we do?
A: Your in-laws have really high standards if they are demanding a clear “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” from a 2-year-old. I think it’s fine that your children learn how Daddy’s parents like to be addressed and as the years go on, they will get it. But I hope your in-laws are not doing this in an obsessive or punitive way. I think you can compromise here and accept your in-laws’ desires, within limits. That is, that they understand the “sir” and “ma’am” are for them, and that they lighten up about hearing it every time they are addressed because this is not the children’s normal form of address to adults. That understanding should come out of a conversation that your husband has, with all due respect, with his own parents.
Q. Re: Parents and finance: Just as an FYI—given your parents history, it’s possible they’ll ask to borrow money in some form with your name. Don’t co-sign, don’t take out a loan and then give them the money—don’t do anything that attaches your name/credit to it. Even if they were responsible people who got hit by bad circumstances, you don’t want to risk trashing your own credit if/when they don’t repay or things go south—because then you’re on the hook and all of your hard work will be for naught for years to come.
A: Thanks for emphasizing this. Sadly I have to add that the letter writer needs to keep tabs on her own credit rating. I have heard from too many young people who discovered their parents took out credit cards under the names of the children, and ended up trashing the kids’ credit rating.
Q. Depression: I think I need help. I’m 30 years old, 8 months pregnant, and have a sweet 2-year-old and a good husband. And many days, I want to kill myself after the baby is born. I worked from home, but we had to move closer to my parents because Mom has cancer and Dad has Alzheimer’s. We can’t get DSL here, so I can’t work from home anymore. I still do 99 percent of the housework and cooking and am solely responsible for getting up at night with and taking care of our 2-year-old. My husband works and pays for electric, cable, and phone bills. I pay the mortgage, babysitter, and Internet, and buy groceries. I’ve racked up $4,800 in credit card debt, though I now am able to keep to a budget. If I kill myself, they will get enough to pay off the house, my credit card, and have some extra. There’s a two-year suicide exclusion on my life policies, but I’ve had them much longer than that. My husband could find someone else to be a mother to the kids, probably better than I could be. He says I’m the grumpiest person he’s ever known. Some days I wonder why I shouldn’t kill myself. Life would be better for my family.
A: Please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right now. Right now! You will be connected to someone who will start getting you the help you need. You are under so much pressure that you are no longer thinking clearly, but there are people who can help you sort things out and step by step make your life better. Please, please understand that suicide is not the answer. You think you will be helping your children, but you will be leaving them bereft and struggling for the rest of their lives to understand what happened. I know everything looks bleak but you have a 2-year-old who loves and needs you and another sweet child on the way. Your debt is manageable, there are social services available for your parents. You and your husband can get counseling. Your life is so valuable, so please make that phone call right away.
Q: My father cheated on my mother repeatedly during their marriage, which she was in some denial about. He cheated with our neighbor during my senior year of high school. By the end of the school year, he asked my mother for a divorce and ended up marrying the neighbor immediately after the divorce was finalized without telling either of his children. They had a wedding ceremony later and I bit my tongue and attended since it was important to him. My younger brother refused to attend. Ever since then Dad has tried to push us to have a new happy family with his new wife and her two adult children. My brother and I both resented this, but I was always polite in order to preserve my relationship with my father. I would like to finally talk to my father about my feelings. I am 30 years old and engaged. I would like to ask that my father not bring his new family to the wedding. I will make it clear to him that the decision is up to him and I will respect it and be polite either way. However, I just feel that I do not want one of his mistresses at the event where I promise fidelity in front of God and family. It would be much easier on my mother and brother if she were not there. Is this a reasonable conversation to have?
A: The woman your father is married to is not his mistress, she’s his wife. Given the timeline, she’s been that for more than a decade. You may really dislike her and forever resent your father’s behavior with her and toward your mother. But it’s long past time that for the sake of such milestone events as a wedding, that you accepted the new reality. Of course, you are entitled to talk to your father. It sounds as if he’s good at skating over the surface of things and has never bothered to have a heart to heart with his children about the pain he knows he caused and his hopes that despite that all of you can be close. So talk. But as far as invitations to weddings are concerned, married couples get invited in tandem. So tell your mother and brother that you hope all of you can comfortably be in the same room and celebrate your happy day.
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