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.)
Q. Paternity: My wife and I have a female-led relationship. Before we got married, I agreed that she could “take other lovers,” while I would remain faithful to her alone. She said that she might not ever see anyone else, but she liked that I knew she could. Well, now she’s pregnant, and I’m wondering the obvious. We do have intercourse, but not often. She was away on business near the time she would have conceived. I don’t know whether she’s ever had another lover. I could have asked that before, but now I’m afraid of how it would come across. Should I ask, or just wait to see if the baby looks like me?
A: Thank you for informing me of the phrase “female-led relationship.” From reading the definition, I see that it doesn’t necessarily mean that the wife take lovers while the husband is home making soup. It just means she is in charge. (Hear that, Darling, it’s not me being intolerably bossy, it’s a lifestyle!) In an earlier day, writer John Mortimer delightfully appropriated the term, She Who Must Be Obeyed, to describe this sort of relationship in Rumpole of the Bailey. But just because you agreed your wife would set the terms of both her behavior and yours doesn’t mean you are not now entitled to rethink things. If you say you want to talk about the pregnancy and the child’s possible paternity and she orders you into the dungeon, then you two are suffering from a failure to communicate. One of the basics of embarking on parenthood is knowing how the event came to be. If you’re afraid to ask, then you need to rethink what it means to raise a child together not as equal partners. I assume you don’t want your offspring to think of dad as a timid, quivering wreck. If you don’t have the guts to discuss this up with your wife, then maybe you can pass her a note saying you’d like the engage the services of a marriage counselor so that you have a safe place to talk to her.
Dear Prudence: Missing Cousin
Q. Nagging in a Relationship: I have a bad habit of nagging people and being overly particular about things, and I have come to realize over time how annoying this is to other people, so I have tried to hold my tongue more often and go along with the flow. This works well enough in casual social situations, but in my relationship, I find myself becoming annoyed with my boyfriend for not doing little things (like better planning out how long it will take to prepare a meal, or keeping his apartment tidier) even though I haven’t asked him to do them for fear of coming off as a nag. (He welcomes my planning acumen on specific tasks, like planning the details of a vacation, but I fear backlash if I start to micromanage his life.) How can I frame my guidance on these sorts of things to him in a constructive way that won’t leave me resenting him for his lack of psychic powers, but also won’t him feeling henpecked?
A: Forget worrying about his being henpecked, just announce you two are in a female-led relationship! Good for you for recognizing you can be a very annoying person. I understand that it takes some effort to control this in more casual situations, so you have a deep psychic need to just be yourself in your most intimate relationship—and that means making sure everything is exactly to your specifications. But you must recognize this quality is going to end up torpedoing your most intimate relationships. Try to sort out and order the things that bother you. If you are the kind of person who plans everything out with military precision, and he’s a person who likes to act at the last minute, you two may be fundamentally incompatible. Talk to him about your different styles and how you can accommodate each other. Confess how you sometimes have difficulty reigning in your micromanaging. Forget about things that are none of your business—the quality of his housekeeping being one. But if you can see now that everything he does sends you around the bend, you have more work to do on yourself.
Q. Overscheduled: How can I convince my wife that our son has too many things to do outside of school. Here are his current activities: 1) basketball, 2) indoor soccer, 3) piano, 4) karate, 5) Cub Scouts. The two sports teams alone require two to three practices and one to two games per week. Cub Scouts meets once or twice each week, piano lessons once a week, but require minimum of 30 minutes of practice per day. Karate meets twice each week, plus tournaments on weekends. My son has complained that he’s exhausted, especially on weekdays after a full day of school, and that he has no time to just play with his friends. I had advocated for one or two of these extracurricular activities at most, but my wife insists that he can’t waste all of these great opportunities. And it’s only getting worse—she wants to sign him up to participate in a children’s play put on by our church. She had a fairly normal childhood with a reasonable amount of activities. My son is unhappy, but she won’t even consider cutting back.
A: When your son has to be hospitalized for exhaustion that might give her a clue. In your wife’s frenzy to perfect her son and have him take advantage of all his “opportunities,” she is missing the greatest opportunity of all: giving him a happy childhood. You don’t say how old your son is, but there comes a point when he simply can’t be carted to events and told to perform. He will crumble, fail, withdraw. You say your wife won’t even consider cutting back, so that means you have to step up and veto her madness. Yes, this will cause stress in your marriage, but your son’s physical and mental health are at stake. First, find some articles about children’s need for sleep and rest. Extracurriculars can be great, but there are limits to what little bodies and minds can endure. Your wife’s inability to separate herself from her son’s achievements are going to lead to his burning out, and to feeling that everything he does is in order to feed his mother’s sense of worth. Take a look at the book The Blessing of Skinned Knee for guidance. If you feel you can’t advocate with your wife on your child’s behalf, then you need a third party to help your wife examine what she’s doing to her family.
Q. Is There a Right to Privacy After Death?: Recently, I was on a well-known website and found out that my mother was married the first time many years before she married my dad. It’s obvious to me that she never ever wanted me to know about it (I have no siblings) and it now explains why she evaded certain questions during her lifetime—missing pages in the photograph album for one. The man she married apparently was a fine gentleman—I actually got in touch with one of his distant descendants. I am dying to know what happened to this relationship. Most of her friends and all of my family of her generation are long gone, but a few remain that might know about this. However, they might not and by asking about it I’m sharing her secret. A friend has suggested it isn’t right to betray my mother by asking. Is it?
A: It’s really too bad your mother was never able to tell you herself. Maybe husband No. 1 wasn’t such a fine gentleman. Maybe your mother wasn’t such a fine wife to him. In any case, as you’ve discovered, it’s better for the person to tell their life story while they have a chance, instead of leaving some big mysteries for loved ones to ponder. I disagree with your friend. You are simply trying to understand your mother’s life better. If you inquire in a respectful way, those who knew your mother back them might be relieved to finally get to tell the story to the person who will love her memory no matter what is revealed.
Q. Accidental Deliberate Pregnancy: My son and his wife always wanted children, but they kept delaying child bearing each year because of various reasons. I was so disappointed because I knew they were ready for kids and would make excellent parents. When they stayed at my house for a few weeks during their home renovation, I found some condoms in their room and decided to poke holes into a few of them. I didn’t seriously think it would result in a pregnancy, but it did. They were happy, I was happy, and as I predicted, they are now wonderful parents. I do wonder, though, whether I should come clean about the circumstances of my grandson’s conception. I feel a little guilty, even though it’s resulted in such a happy outcome. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t even the holey condoms, maybe they just forgot to use it one night. Should I confess?
A: You say you poked holes in the condoms, Grandma, but I’m going to poke holes in your story. I think that this young couple would have noticed when they went for a condom that the wrapper had been ripped open. I doubt they would have concluded, “How thoughtful of Trojan to pre-open the condoms to save us time while in the throes of passion.” At least you didn’t say that you picked a used condom out of the trash, put Ambien in the couple’s dessert one night, then used a turkey baster to inseminate your daughter-in-law. I rarely get questions I think are fake, and when I do I discard them. But here’s an example of one I’m not buying.
Q. Mother-in-Law Calling Herself Fat in Front of 3-Year-Old: My mother-in-law has complained about her weight since I’ve known her, despite being petite. However, prior to my meeting her son she was overweight, so I can see where this could come from. Her weight gain/loss is a topic of conversation that comes up every time we see her, which is frequent. I’m currently six months pregnant and made the mistake of calling myself fat (I’m not) to my husband in front of our almost 3-year-old, which resulted in our daughter telling everyone she met for two days about how fat she was. I’ve learned my lesson, but I’m now worried about the body image my mother in law is presenting to my daughter. I try not to censor what people say to my daughter, unless it’s abusive, profane, etc., and am unsure of how to broach this topic with my MIL, or if I should even bring it up. My MIL is an overly sensitive person who is overly sensitive about her weight.
A: As is usual with cases like this, I think it’s better for the biological relative to broach sensitive topics with in-laws. Your son can tell his mother that he knows she struggles with her weight—and he is proud of how well she is doing! But that kids are really impressionable and you particularly don’t want your daughter hearing a lot of negative talk about body image. He can tell the anecdote about your 3-year-old and how that was a warning signal for all of you. Your mother-in-law will probably never be perfect in this regard, but let’s hope she finds it liberating to not talk about her weight while enjoying being a grandmother.
Q. Re: Condom poking: I agree that the condom question is probably fake … but I don’t think, in the throes of passion, that I would notice a pin hole in the wrapper!
A: Your insight shows how bad I’d be at this kind of insemination game. Of course, the now-grandmother would have just have pierced the package and not actually opened it! My goodness, what if this is for real? In that case, Grandma, keep forever to yourself that you briefly ran a successful fertility clinic from your own home.
Q. Re: Grandma’s fertility clinic: You’re letting her off pretty easy. If her story is true, it’s an incredible breach of trust, something so heinous that she should run, not walk to counseling.
A: Yes, it’s totally appalling. Let me state unequivocally that grandma should stay away from the couple’s birth control even if in a year or so she starts thinking it’s time for a sibling.
Q. Free Shoes: I live in a fairly large apartment building, and we have an unattended mailroom, in which carriers routinely leave packages for residents to pick up. One of our (former?) neighbors in the building whom I do not know ordered a high quality pair of shoes, easily worth several hundred dollars. The shoes were packed in well-marked box and left by UPS in the mailroom. Although some folks had long-ago opened the box to investigate, six months after delivery, nobody has taken the shoes. The shoes are very nice, and, did I mention that they fit perfectly? I figure I have four choices: I could make the effort to take the shoes to one of the shipper’s retail outlets, I could pay to ship them back, I could consign them to the mailroom for all eternity, or I could keep them. Can you offer some guidance and possibly some rationalization?
A: I think you should call the local TV station and have a crew come to your mailroom to record this example of the world’s most honest apartment building. The Tale of the Abandoned Choos would become a fable for our time. I can think of a fifth option, which seems pretty obvious. Go to the management of the building, and say this tenant—either current or former—never received her shoes. If she’s moved on, you hope they have her forwarding information so that the shoes end up in the right place. I’m guessing that given the time that has passed, the tenant is no longer in residence and either forgot about the order during the business of moving, or thought it never arrived and got reimbursed. If management does not have the information, since the shoes are tantalizing you and driving you crazy, then take it upon yourself to do some detective work. You have the order number, so contact the shipper and simply ask what you should do. If they want the shoes back, they should send you a free shipping receipt and you can arrange for UPS to pick them up. If they say too much time has passed and they’ve written off this order, then you’ve just gotten a pair of shoes that fit, Cinderella.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you all. I appreciate the chance to talk about the loss of the great Philip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps his death will prompt some important discussion about addiction and the dangers of relapse.
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