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. Christmas in July?: Is there a polite way to ask the neighbors if they can take down their Christmas decorations? I know the snow might make it feel like Christmas, but Christmas decorations in March seem a bit much. They put them up the first day of November and neighbors told me that last year they were lit up at night until mid-June.
A: For your neighbors it’s always the night before Christmas. If they are the kind of Christmas decorators with thousands of lights who become a local landmark, then they might be violating some kind of ordinance for keeping the show running for more than half the year. But if their decorations are within reasonable bounds, then this endless Christmas celebration is silly and eccentric, but I don’t see how it’s any of your business.
Dear Prudence: Hijacked Confection
Q. Sex Talk Gone Wrong: I am a single dad to a 12-year-old girl. After some thinking, I asked my late wife’s sister to have the sex talk with my daughter, thinking she might feel more comfortable with a woman. “Peggy” and I discussed what would be covered and I asked her to give specific facts about sex and an overview of STDs and contraception, as well as what physical/emotional changes my daughter could expect during puberty. I left the room while the conversation took place but rushed back when I heard my daughter crying. Apparently Peggy deviated from our pre-arranged curriculum and went into some detail about things like anal sex, flavored condoms, pleasure points, and so on. My daughter said later she felt increasingly uncomfortable and at one point asked to leave the room, but Aunt Peggy insisted she should know. Peggy’s argument was that she would hear this stuff anyway and it was better coming from her than another classmate. I am disgusted and horrified. How do I undo the damage?
A: So Aunt Peggy, stepping into the shoes of her late sister to have “the talk” with her 12-year-old niece, decides instead to play out her own X-rated fantasies on the psyche of a motherless girl. Sadly, your daughter got a lesson in the unreliability of some adults, which was hardly what she—or any child—needs. This is not your fault, and what to do is tell your daughter you are disappointed in and angry with Peggy for acting so inappropriately. You say you thought it would be easier for her to have this talk with an adult woman, but in fact you are here and comfortable discussing these issues, and also talking through anything she’s feeling about what Peggy said. Of course, Dad, that means you have to be comfortable with these issues. It’s not so much a matter of technical expertise, but attitude. You want to express to your daughter that these are subjects you can talk about, you’ll answer honestly, and if you don’t have an answer, you’ll find out. It would help to do research of your own, and have a few books to hand your daughter for things she just doesn’t want to discuss with you. You can start with The Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Teen from the American Medical Association. What’s most important now is not the biological information you pass on, but the sense that your daughter has a reliable source in you.
Q. Married Client’s Crush on Me: The married director of a major client in my company has been hinting—not too subtly—of his interest in me. He recently left an expensive necklace on my desk at work with a note declaring his affections. I know in theory I have a right to complain to HR and my manager and limit my contact with him, but in reality that will have negative repercussions on my career. In fact, my manager has noticed his interest and has indirectly suggested that I at least flirt back with this guy. I think he’s a disgusting pig. How can I get away? Help!
A: I think there are two disgusting pigs: the client and your manager. The client is a creep, and it’s outrageous that your manager would be encouraging you to act unprofessionally to advance the company. Start documenting. Photograph the necklace and hang onto the note. If your manager doesn’t know how things have escalated, you have to bring these to him and explain this is way beyond some harmless flirtation; you are being undermined by the guy’s behavior. Let’s hope your manager quickly gets it. If not, you’re going to have to take this up the ladder. As for the client, you hand him back the necklace and tell him you can’t accept such a gift and that you want to clarify that your relationship with him is purely business.
Q. She Thinks It’s About Her!: I’m going to have my first child in a few weeks. But I’ve run into a bit of an issue. I have a wonderful, supportive stepmother. She’s been the only caring female in my life since I was 13. But, I am very modest. The idea of anyone being in the room with me when I give birth is really starting to upset me. I’m having anxieties over the doctor and nurses being there. Which I am trying to work through. I tried to talk to Stepmom about how I would be more comfortable if she waited outside of the room and now she is “crushed.” And not speaking to me. She says that I am selfishly trying to cut her out of an important part of her life—the birth of a grandchild. Help! I love her and I don’t want to let her down. But, I can’t help how I feel about wanting this to be private! I’m not trying to cut her out of any important moments in her life. But, she obviously has a warped sense of whose child is being born. I do not want her to be in there. How do I get her to see that it’s not a personal stab at her!
A: It’s very strange that some people think of childbirth as something that sends them scurrying to Ticketmaster, demanding a front row seat. Yours is not the first letter about relatives demanding to stand by the stirrups for a maximum look at the main event. Your stepmother may be a loving person in your life, but right now she is behaving so abominably that it’s hard to believe this is the first time she has pulled this kind of emotional blackmail. If she refuses to continue to speak to you, then that solves the birthing-room problem. She’s the one having a tantrum, so it’s not up to you to mollify her. If she does start talking to you and starts back in on this, ask your OB to have a quick phone conversation telling her that only the medical staff and your husband are going to be allowed in the room. You’re about to become a mother, so you’re going to have to learn how to handle irrational outbursts.
Q. Re: Christmas in July: When I visited Alaska, I learned that Christmas lights go up in November and stay up until the long nights are over (spring). I thought that was a delightful tradition. Though I live on the East Coast, I now leave one string of colored lights on my back porch rail until Easter. Seeing them glow in the dark evenings makes me smile.
A: You may be smiling, but your neighbor is writing to me because it’s driving her nuts! I totally understand that Alaska tradition, and agree that leftover Christmas lights, as long as they aren’t klieg lights, are a homeowner’s business.
Q. Asking Parents for Money: I wonder if it’s inappropriate to ask my parents to help me with a house down payment. My boyfriend and I are in our early 40s and live in one of the most expensive parts of the country for real estate. We are both employed and make good money, but buying a home is out of reach for us here. Recently we began to wonder, though, and figured we could buy a home if we could get help with a down payment. Our parents are both comfortably retired, though neither is rich. Still, they have made comments and gestures indicating they have a little extra. My question is: Is it out of line to ask our parents for financial help? Complicating matters is that I have a younger brother who has a very strained relationship with my parents and me. Even still my parents have always tried to treat us fairly and I worry that asking them for money will put them in an awkward position in this regard. My brother does not need financial help from them and would likely never ask—though he would likely take it as a slight to learn that I have received a large gift and he has not. I appreciate your sensible advise on this.
A: The good news is that all the parties here are in decent financial shape—no one is showing up on anyone’s doorstep with their clothes in a paper bag, and no one is pressuring anyone to bail them out. You and your boyfriend are the experts on your own parents, so you know best if they would be willing to entertain this notion or would consider it an imposition. Before you initiate this conversation, clarify what you want. Are you asking for an early piece of your inheritance? Or would you structure this as a loan that you would pay back at a more favorable rate than you could get from the bank? If you’re going to float this idea, you should be able to show them the kind of house you’re thinking of, why it’s a good investment, and how much money—and on what terms—you would like from them. Also consider that you and your boyfriend are not married, which might (or might not) complicate how each set of parents feels about investing in a joint purchase for the two of you. Leave your brother out of it—that’s for your parents to consider. If you decide to make the approach, do it in the spirit of starting a conversation, not putting on pressure.
Q. Mother-in-Law and Finances: My mother in-law is a very sweet woman, who unfortunately shows her love through gifts. The problem is that she has already gone bankrupt, after borrowing thousands from my husband prior to our marriage. My husband told her not to pay him back, but to start saving the money she would have paid him. As we all know, you can’t make people be responsible. She has since lost her job, and is working part time at McDonald’s and a retail store, while living like she has a full-time, well-paid job. We have had our first child and she regularly shows up with $100-plus of clothing for our daughter. We tried to tell her to stop, that we don’t need it and suggested she save the money for visiting her when we move. She has no retirement savings (she cleaned that out a few years ago), and I am terrified that we are her backup plan. We are planning for our own future, and that of our daughter, I don’t know how to plan for my mother in-law, too. I also don’t want her living on the street one day. I am at a loss as to what we are supposed to do!
A: And here is that letter from the mother who one day will show up on the doorstep with some designer baby clothes and a plan to stay indefinitely. Your mother-in-law has a form of mental illness, but she is (barely) functional, probably doesn’t have health insurance, and clearly has no desire to face her problems. Your husband, however, needs to have some serious talks with her about her behavior and where it’s going to lead. He needs to tell her that he will never again let himself get into a financial hole because of her behavior—he has a family to raise and his own retirement to start planning for. As a last gift to her, he can contact the National Foundation for Credit Counseling on her behalf and offer to go with her to try to get her on some kind of stable footing. But he needs to make very clear that moving into your home cannot be her backup plan.
Q. Fixated on Aunt’s Weight Comment: A few days after Christmas, I received a text message from my aunt saying that she saw the picture I’d sent to my parents for Christmas and that it looked like I’d “gained a bit of weight” and she wanted to make sure I was OK. I was flabbergasted as I’m well within the healthy weight range (Size 2), hadn’t seen my aunt in a year, and she had never made a comment like this before. I did not reply. She reached out to me, ended up apologizing, and asking if we were “OK.” I told her that I was very upset about it because I’m healthy and it’s hard to hear an assessment of my weight based on one picture from someone I haven’t seen in a year. I think about her hurtful comment all the time and wonder if others also think I’m fat. I’m in my late 20s and she is in her early 60s. She has always been very thin, and I’ve never had any weight problems. How can I move on from this?
A: You move on by acknowledging that likely your aunt has serious body image issues and not letting them affect you. You’re a Size 2, so if your aunt is concerned about your weight, she’s crazy. Even if you were a Size 22, a holiday text from her about your weight would have been utterly out of line. What worries me about your letter is not your aunt, but you. This stupid text was months ago, and you’re still thinking about it and wondering if people think you’re fat. If you yourself have body image issues, talk to a professional. If you just need someone to tell you your aunt is nuts on this subject, consider it done.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week, when surely crocuses will be blooming.
Check out Dear Prudence’s book recommendations in the Slate Store.