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. Stepmother: My second wife has always gotten along well with my kids from my first marriage. Since our marriage, she became a typical mom who cooks healthful meals, frets over safety, and plans fun activities. However, I overheard her whispered telephone conversation with her mother about how she never really loved my kids. She said her heart is not in it and she’s only cared about them because she loves me. She said she feels guilty admitting this but all the nice things she ever does for my kids is out of obligation, not love. I’m not sure how to discuss this issue with her as there’s nothing to fault with how she treats my kids.
A: Good for your wife for faking it so well that neither you nor the kids have gotten a hint that she’s anything but a fully enthusiastic second mother to them. What you heard was the equivalent of your stumbling on her diary. One thing that makes life interesting is how complicated and surprising people are—even the ones we think we know best. So you have found out that your wife struggles with the fact that because of her love for you she has to try to be a mother to your kids, a role that does not come easy to her. I hear about too many second wives who either openly make the first family unwelcome or subtly undermine the father’s relationship. Your wife has wholly embraced her obligations and is making a delightful home for your kids. That should make you appreciate her all the more. Don’t say anything about the overheard conversation. But a few weeks from now, after perhaps a long and exhausting weekend with your children, tell her how much you appreciate what she does for them. Say that you know being a stepmother can be thankless, so you wanted to thank her what she does. (And also make sure that your children express their appreciation to her. Not in a rote or obsequious way, but because you are training them to be grateful to anyone who goes out of their way for them.) Years down the line, she may discover that as far as your children are concerned at some point—she can’t even put her finger on when—she found her heart fully engaged.
Q. What’s in a Name?: My husband and I have been married for six and a half years. We have an extremely strong relationship with one small point of contention: my name. When we got married, I had the intention of changing my last name to his, but I got cold feet about it. I feel that if I change my name, I’ll lose my autonomy. Couple this with the fact that people automatically assume my last name is his and end up calling him Mr. Smith, instead of Mr. Notsmith, and you can see where my husband would be more than slightly annoyed. Am I way out of line on this one?
A: If people assume that you have your husband’s last name, I don’t get the sense you are annoyed or offended when they make that understandable mistake. But your husband feels demeaned by people who don’t know him well calling him Mr. Smith. I actually don’t see why this should bother him. I didn’t change my name so at our dry cleaners my husband is Mr. Yoffe, and he’s never said that picking up his shirts using this moniker has left him feeling unmanned. What to do about a name change is highly personal and I would hope that six years into it your husband could respect your choice and laugh off any silly confusion over it.
Q. What to Do With My Diaries?: You mentioned diaries in your earlier response. I have kept diaries since I was about 12 years old. I’m now in my 40s and still write faithfully. Recently, my 8-year-old daughter has become interested in what I write. I’ve told her the diaries belong to me and are private. But, it got me thinking. Are the diaries something I should destroy sometime before my death? Or, do you think they should be left for my daughter, even though there are details about marriage troubles, conflicts with her, not so nice things about people, etc.?
A: Diaries are such a wonderful way to work through the troubles in one’s life, but if they are used primarily for that purpose, they would give a distorted sense of the completeness of your experience to someone reading them. You were right to tell your daughter that diaries are private. But instead of closing off that subject, since she’s raised it, I think you should give her a gift of a beautiful journal. Tell her that when you were not much older than her, you found writing down your thoughts really helped you. You can say a diary is whatever the person wants it to be—she can write her thoughts, poems, even make drawings. But the most important thing is that it’s her private place and you will respect that.
It overwhelmingly likely that the issue of what to do with your diaries won’t be real for many decades. Now that you’re a mother, I hope you and your husband have a will. What to do with your diaries is something you can note in it. Maybe you will just ask they be destroyed. But if you decide to leave them for her, you can explain in a letter your overwhelming love for and pride in your daughter, and say that the diaries were a place you worked out your conflicts and more painful thoughts.
Q. Alcoholic?: My sister-in-law insists on making every event an alcoholic event. We held a birthday party for family and close friends for our 1-year-old that started at 10 a.m. We had it catered with breakfast food and were surprised when she showed up with a half of a case of wine. We had a family reunion schedule for a local amusement park last summer. She cracked out the wine at 9 a.m. in the parking lot for some “pre-game” as she called it. She’s usually the only one drinking that early. The strange thing is that she doesn’t drink much—a glass or two at most. Even at nighttime parties for adults, she never gets drunk and doesn’t drink much, so I’m having a hard time believing she’s an alcoholic. I’ve asked her friends, and they say she drinks a normal amount, and they’ve never seen her drunk. Is she just socially awkward or is it something else?
A: Pin the tail on the donkey is so much more fun after a few wine coolers! Your sister-in-law’s behavior is weird, I agree. When she comes to your house for a morning social event with a half-case of wine, you say that because of the hour you won’t be serving alcohol, but she of course is free to pour some for herself. As for public pre-gaming, there’s not much you can do except decline to join. It may be that she finds all social situations draining and swallowing a glass or two of wine helps lubricate the awkwardness. (Of course at the expense of everyone wondering if she has an alcohol problem.) It also could be that no one sees her drunk because she just keeps going with a low-level buzz all day, drinking wine the way some people drink coffee. If a closer relative than you is concerned about her relationship to alcohol, that person should explore with your sister-in-law just what is going on.
Q. Re: Name Change: I have never understood the fixation with taking the husband’s name on marriage! My (now ex) husband made a huge deal over my changing my name when we married. I didn’t really want to, but was young and wanted to make him happy. The first thing I did after we divorced was to go back to my maiden name, and I vowed I’d never change it again. I’m now engaged to a wonderful man who doesn’t care what I call myself, as long as we are together. Hopefully this helps!
A: Thanks for this. What would be lovely is that people arrive at the decision that’s right for them (which may well be changing or hyphenating a name) without outside pressure or a partner’s pouting.
Q. Postpartum Depression and Unfinished Tasks: My son is now 4 months old, and with the help of my doctors and some medication, I am in a great place. However, I received some gifts that I’ve never acknowledged, I was so overwhelmed with taking care of a newborn and surviving that I never got around to it. (My husband is currently serving overseas, so he gets a pass on not helping with the notes or baby at the moment!) I know I should go ahead and send them late now, but do I owe an explanation for the delay?
A: You suffered from a serious medical condition and your husband is deployed in the military. Anyone who doesn’t give you a pass on the thank you notes is a jerk. However, I find it admirable that you want to get to this task. It is so not too late. I hear from people who have been tortured for more than a year about not getting to the wedding thank yous (and I agree this is a task that should fall on the couple). Obviously, your husband gets a pass on this, but now that you’re feeling better, slowly work your way through. After the baby is asleep set yourself a task of writing, say, three a night. You can casually say you’re sorry for the delay in conveying your thanks, but you welcome the opportunity to send a picture of your beautiful baby and say how much your son is enjoying his gift. Do not beat yourself up over this. And do not hesitate to ask your loved ones for help and support; you’re dealing with way more than the average amount of new mother stress.
Q. Reporting a Co-Worker: While a co-worker was on vacation, I was permitted access to their email account so that I could monitor client interactions and respond on behalf of the client. While doing so, I snooped around a bit and discovered that he had violated a company policy of disclosing confidential information. He has since moved to a different department, promoted to a position of discretionary authority. Should I report this to HR even though it will be pretty obvious where the accusation came from?
A: So let’s see, you want to go to HR and say that when you were given the task of monitoring a small range of incoming emails during your colleague’s absence, you took it upon yourself to infringe his privacy and snoop all through his correspondence. I’m tempted to tell you to go ahead in the hopes that you get a deserved slap-down. Yes, your co-worker might have violated company policy, but since you only had a small window into his interactions, you have no idea what the context was or if what he did was approved by higher ups. I think you should see this incident as a lesson to you that you need to curb your busybody tendencies and work at being more trustworthy.
Q. Missed Out?: My wife and I have been married for four years and together for almost 13. With the exception of a couple of kisses, my wife is the only woman I have been intimate with. I love my wife but I can’t help but think I missed out on experiencing other women. I don’t want a mistress (they cost too much) but I can’t say I wouldn’t be against a one-night stand. I’m not actively looking, or trolling dating sites. I do travel for work and have had girls flirt with me at bars a couple times, but nothing more than that. However, if one thing led to another, I can’t say I wouldn’t throw caution to the wind. Is it wrong to feel like this? Or is this more of a fantasy?
A: It’s perfectly understandable to feel like this because you have missed out on experiencing other women. If you want my permission to have a one-night stand, you’ve come to the wrong place. But you have to do some solo exploring about how important this is to you, and how much you are willing to risk. Perhaps your wife herself has felt from time to time what it would be like to abandon herself to someone else. I wonder if you have the kind of marriage in which you could say, “Babe, have you ever thought about missing out on having sex with someone else?” If you get a, “No!” followed by a rush of tears, that pretty much the ends that conversation. But it could be that bringing up this subject sparks a desire for more sexual exploration between you two (and not necessarily with some third parties). It could also be that being able to talk this out makes you realize you don’t want to cross that line. Keep in mind that if you do act on this desire, there may be consequences you can’t control.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!
Check out Dear Prudence’s book recommendations in the Slate Store.