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.)
Q. I’m Not Being Abused!: My new husband and I enjoy very rough sex. Unfortunately—in spite of efforts to keep quiet—my 12-year-old daughter overheard us. I got called in for a private meeting with her teacher outside of school hours. She told me my daughter heard her stepfather slapping me and was extremely upset. I was completely taken aback, not to mention embarrassed beyond belief, and couldn’t think of anything other than mutter that I was fine and everything was fine at home. Of course, this only made the teacher believe I was trying to cover up the “abuse” and told me repeatedly she was there to help when I was ready. I know I can’t just let my daughter continue believing her mother is being abused, and I really don’t want this kind teacher to be concerned over a complete misunderstanding. However I just don’t know how to begin. Please help.
A: I’ve got to admire your daughter’s self-possession and crisis management skills; that was a very difficult decision for her to make. She must have considered going to you, but then concluded that if you were being abused, you likely you would cover up for your husband. So instead of squirming every night about what was going on in your bedroom, she went to a smart place for help. Now it’s time for an honest, if succinct, conversation with your daughter. You should praise her for her concern for you and for making a tough choice. Tell her that you were surprised and embarrassed at the meeting—which is not her fault!—so you weren’t as articulate as you wished you had been. Say that you understand what she heard worried her, and it’s your responsibility for not being more discreet. But explain to her that everything that is going on is totally consensual, you love her stepfather, and you are not being hurt in any way. Tell her that now that you’ve aired this, you hope she will feel free to come to you with anything that worries her. You then can call the teacher and say that because you were taken aback at the meeting you were not as articulate as would have liked, but suffice it to say everything that’s going on in your home is between consenting adults and your daughter now understands that. Then get some sound-proofing, or a sound machine for when you and your husband have noisy nocturnal pleasures.
Q. My Sister’s Wedding or My Mother’s?: My sister and the love of her life are going to get married this winter. Our whole family is very happy about it, especially my mom. When my parents got married more than 20 years ago there was not much money. Everything was nice and happy, but nowhere near the dream wedding my mom always wanted. The family’s financial situation has improved significantly since then and it seems my mother finally wants the wedding of her dreams—even if it’s not actually hers. My parents are paying for everything, but my mom wants everything her way. My sister, who has a soft heart, is willing to let her have it her way. The future son-in-law is another story. He wants no part of what he calls “a Ken and Barbie nightmare” and thinks a wedding should first of all reflect bride and groom. He even went so far as to offer to pay all the bills out of his own pocket. Mom is furious, but he won’t back down. My poor sister is so upset about all of this, she’s considering canceling the whole wedding. I would be grateful for any suggestions to solve this mess and give my sister a wedding that doesn’t give her nightmares for years to come.
A: There are great lessons here for your sister and her husband. One, if you’re old enough to get married, you’re old enough to tell your mother, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Two, if someone is picking up the tab, they get to be in control. Three, if a bride is choosing between making her unreasonable mother happy and mollifying her groom, she needs to refocus her priorities.
It’s lovely if a couple’s parents can help them with wedding expenses, but not if the cost is that they are treated like pawns at their own event. Because people are getting married later, it’s increasingly common for the couple to pay for their own wedding, which I think is a good trend. Your sister may be soft-hearted, but she’s going to seem soft-headed if she can’t grow up enough to separate from her mother to be in charge of her own wedding. You can tell your sister you’re sorry to see her so miserable and help her in coming up with a road map for dealing with mom, taking charge, or eloping. But you don’t want to take over the job of imposing your own wishes on her. You want to support her in recognizing that she’s a grown up, and needs to start acting like one.
Q. House Guest Exhaustion: My friends and I went to undergrad in a small college town and have since all moved on to different cities across the U.S. Occasionally, we’ll travel to see each other and the time spent is a great way to strengthen the friendship bond that gets lost sometimes due to distance and just life in general. In previous years, it made good financial sense to extend our “weekend” visits to Thursday through Monday morning because those flights tend to be cheaper than weekend fares. This was a perfect set up while single and living alone. But, now that I’m married and have two toddlers at home, this is more than a notion when it comes to hosting house guests. I absolutely love the opportunity to spend time with friends, but desperately need to at least have my Sunday afternoons or early evenings to get prepared for the week. Continuing the hosting gig throws things into a bit of a tailspin, and I’m left feeling guilty that I’m doing a shoddy job of both taking care of my “home” responsibilities and being a good host. Is there any way that I can impress upon friends coming to visit that staying until Monday morning really isn’t the best idea anymore without causing hurt feelings?
A: If you’re at the age that you have small children underfoot, I’m surprised that your college friends themselves don’t need to get out of town on Sunday in order to be at work on Monday. You handle this by telling them you’re excited about the visit and you look forward to catching up Thursday through Sunday morning. If they say they need to stay until Monday you say that you can refer them to some low cost motel options for that last night, but you’ve got to attend to other stuff starting at Sunday noon. If this loses you your friendships, then I hope you are finding a community of people whose company you enjoy—but who know when to leave—where you are.
Q. Judgement About Roommate Choices: My sister and I are new college grads just starting out. We’ve decided to be roommates in order to move out of our mom’s house and get started. The both of us are used to being around each other obviously and have experience running a household together. My mother was very sick when I was starting out in college. People generally think I exaggerate when I say we ran the household for almost two years. But our friends think it’s somewhat weird for sisters to be roommates out in “the real world.” Personally I couldn’t think of a better roommate. I know I can rely on her and she feels the same about me. Is this really so weird for sisters to be roommates?
A: What a strange pass we’ve come to when two sisters who love each other, get along great, and have been through a lot together decide to pool their resources and their friends are disparaging them for this. Please don’t pay any attention to them and shut down the conversation. And if they don’t want to let it go, work on expanding your circle of friends.
Q. Re: Mother of the bride: This was a subplot in a movie years ago called In and Out, in which a man is afraid to disappoint his family by coming out as gay—in part because his mother never had her dream wedding and was pouring all of her wedding dreams into planning his wedding. The movie ends, of course, with a gorgeous ceremony—the man comes out and his mother and father renew their vows by having the wedding of her dreams. That sounds like a perfect solution for this couple.
A: Not to me. I’ve mentioned before that vow renewals often end up being a prelude to a divorce, so I’m dubious about them. But if a couple wants to have one, I think it should be kept small. I can’t imagine why anyone wants to see a long-married couple pretend to marry each other again. This is why we have the event known as an anniversary party. I guess I should just be grateful that people aren’t interested in re-enacting their proms.
Q. What to Tell Nosy Onlookers: I am out of work and aggressively looking. My issue is that so many “helpful” people want to talk about this again and again, asking, “have you found a job yet?” It’s horribly depressing to be out of work, and makes me feel worse when people keep asking. My husband thinks I should have a snarky response prepared like, “Yeah, I’m just not telling anyone about it.” What say you?
A: It’s one thing if they are saying, “Have your unemployment benefits run out?” “You on food stamps yet?” “Have you heard how impossible it is for the long-term unemployed to ever get hired?” It’s another if they’re just inquiring because they care, but you find it stings because you don’t have good news. However, giving a snarky response is your worst strategy. Turn these concerned people into job search engines. Tell them that you’re still looking, and then ask if they know anyone in your line of work who you could talk to. I did a story a couple of years ago on how people out of work for a long time got their jobs. Many of them had success stories out of following every possible lead, no matter how tenuous, such as contacting that friend of a friend.
Q. Re: Sunday hosting: Or just tell your friends that after Sunday breakfast, they are welcome to hang out but are on their own as you need to do chores and get ready for work. This only works if you are able to treat them like family and not guests.
A: Lots of people are arguing for a non-hostess Sunday afternoon—that is the guest is told nicely to fend for herself. Ideally, the relationship with old friends should be of the sort that the hostess carves out chunks of time to catch up, then explains there will be other times she’s tied up with family duties and the visitor can attend to herself. But it’s also fair enough that if the hostess wants the visit to end Sunday morning, that’s when it should end and there should be no hard feelings.
Q. Teenage Daughter: I have a wonderful teenage daughter who’s intelligent and well-rounded, and for the most part we get along really well. Her biological father was a good friend of mine, and she was the product of a one-night stand. Long ago, my husband volunteered to pay most of my daughter’s support, because her father had two more children. Her father does help out some financially and sees my daughter when his life is not too hectic with his own teenagers. She and her stepfather are close so she never seemed bothered by this. However, when she came home from her last visit, she told me that she wanted to live there. She said that they hug her more there, and that they spend more time doing activities with her. I was floored! I cried and left the room, not knowing what to say. I have never bad-mouthed her father, and wasn’t about to, but I am furious. Her father has never been a regular presence in her life, and her stepfather and I are the ones who make sure she has everything she wants. Or course we are also the ones who discipline her, and make her have responsibilities. I don’t want her to go, but should I let her? Or should I let her see that the grass is not always greener on the other side?
A: Of course your daughter’s plan hurt you, especially with the little dig about hugging and fun. But one of a teenager’s jobs is to separate from her parents, and she has a seemingly perfect opportunity to separate from you while connecting with the distant father from whom she’s pretty much always been separated. So dry your tears, put aside your hurt, and talk to her. Tell her that you love her, you only have a few more years with her under your roof, and you were so taken aback by her plan that you cried. Then say you’re now ready to have a real conversation. You need to find out whether this is a plan she’s cooked up, or whether this is something that’s been discussed at the home of her biological father. It could be that this is a fantasy she harbors, but bio dad and his wife have no plans to take on another teen. In any case, a conversation is a long way from a decision to move out. I think there’s a much more natural compromise: her visits can be more regular with her biological father, and more extended over the summer and holidays—depending on whether her father and his wife want that. Then be open to discussing the things that she likes about being there (lack of responsibilities may be one!). But if she wants more physical affection, tell her you’re glad she told you, and without behaving too unnaturally, give some more hugs. If she likes outings, don’t copy theirs, but say, “You’re right, we need to do more fun things together, so thanks for the nudge.”
Q. Re: To Roommate question: Just to give you some perspective, I live in South America, and living with one’s sibling (whether of the same sex or opposite sex) is totally normal—in fact, probably even more common than living with a friend. So don’t change a thing!
A: Interesting, thanks. And two young adults who aren’t having to live in their parents’ home is to be celebrated!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great week. Next week’s chat will be on Tuesday because of Memorial Day.
Check out Dear Prudence’s book recommendations in the Slate Store.