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.)
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Q. Neighbors Saved Our Sex Life: While my wife and I were swingers in our early 20s (and enjoyed it very much!), we moved to a more conservative area 10 years ago and found ourselves completely disconnected from others in that subculture (we are now 40). About a year ago, a couple in their late 20s moved in next door. Our homes are very close together, and their bedroom is next to our driveway, where I spend a great deal of my time tinkering around. Imagine my delight when I first heard them loudly going at it. Occasionally, my wife and I can also hear them while we’re in our kitchen. We feel a little guilty about this voyeurism, but it has caused our sex life to explode again. We also think we’re picking up interference from their baby monitors, as we’ve heard them having sex and some of their discussions (including their apparent interest in swinging). The couple is very polite to us, and my wife and I have thought about getting to know them better in hopes it could lead to something more. Is this something we should pursue? If not, is it still OK to listen in?
A: First the good news for young couples contemplating starting a family: Even people with baby monitors can have frequent and vigorous sex! The second piece of good news is that this aural voyeurism has gotten you two to spring back to life. It’s also good that you both are a little guilty about your listening. It’s better to be aware you are overhearing something private so that you don’t start crossing the line and standing with a stethoscope on the side of your neighbor’s house. When I was in the baby monitor stage of life, I too started picking up my neighbor’s conversations. Unlike with you, it was things like, “I’m going to Costco tomorrow. Do we need more toilet paper?” Since you don’t have a monitor, I don’t know on what device you’re hearing their private conversations about swinging. But do keep in mind maybe you’re only hearing partial sentences and you’re too hopefully filling in the rest. They may well be saying, “Do you think Junior is old enough for a swing set?” and not “Have you seen the couple next door? Maybe they’re swingers, too.” You want to have good relations with your neighbors. So that likely means an occasional barbeque and friendly conversation. They’ve already done you a big favor of reinfusing some passion into your lives, and I think you should let it go at that. As Robert Frost observed, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Q. Toxic MIL-to-Be: A few years ago I worked with developmentally disabled adults. I have remained close with several of them and am delighted that they will all be able to attend my wedding this summer. My future mother-in-law? Not so much. Since learning about my desire to invite these friends, she has tried to persuade me to do otherwise. She will not admit to not wanting developmentally disabled people at the wedding and instead hides behind excuses like, “Won’t they feel out of place in such a fancy location?” My fiancé supports me in challenging her prejudices directly, but my future mother-in-law won’t engage with me about them. I don’t know her well, but these interactions are forming an intense dislike of her within me. Is there any way to salvage what will ultimately be a lifelong relationship?
A: Thank you for this addition to worst mothers-in-law! This woman should start a club with the mother-in-law who didn’t want the bride’s father—who had suffered burns—to walk her down the aisle. You, and thankfully your fiancé, see through her subterfuge. But your mother-in-law is not in charge of your guest list, and you don’t want to engage in discussion of her prejudices—you want to ignore them. Close down this discussion, and if she tries to bring this up, just tell her, “Bev, we’ve got the guest list under control.” Do not worry about the next 30 years. Maybe she will behave just fine at the wedding, and you can write this off as an unpleasant aspect of an otherwise decent person.
Q. Baby Name: I am in my third trimester of my first pregnancy. My husband and I picked out baby names months ago. Is it a girl or boy? We’re waiting to see! The problem is, the middle name we picked for the boy’s name is the same as my boss’s middle name. I only know of this name because of him. It’s very rare and distinctive and both my husband and I love it. Neither of us had ever heard the name until I started working for him. Should I tell him of our intentions? Do I wait until after the little one is actually named? Thank you so much!
A: I wonder if you’re thinking this will guarantee that you’ll never be let go or you’re worrying that the boss will be put out you “stole” his name. I get a lot of name questions, and most of them come down to someone needing to understand that no one owns a name (unless it’s a matter of using a name to try to commit fraud). You of course are free to be enchanted by the mellifluousness of your boss’s name and use it for your child. Don’t say anything until after the birth, and if you do have a boy, just be straightforward about it with the boss. Presumably an announcement about your offspring will have gone around the office, so when you return to work and have a conversation with your boss about the little one, tell him, “Mr. President, the baby is Aiden Hussein O’Brien. You’ll never guess where we came up with the middle name!”
Q. Wedding Guest Gone Sour: I am getting married in a small, intimate, and hopefully casual ceremony this summer. My fiancé and I didn’t want to do anything big, so we picked a small venue in his hometown. We invited our parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and a few very close friends. The issue is with one of my friends. I have never liked her husband, and they were having problems at the time of the invites, but we invited him anyway. Since then, their problems have escalated, and it has come out that he has been physically violent. My other friend and I have looked up how to talk to and support a friend going through this, but she seems to be unreceptive to our help and is failing to realize how serious this is. In light of this new information, my fiancé and I absolutely don’t want him at our small wedding, as I am filled with anger over his actions. I will do whatever I can to support her and get her out of this doomed marriage, but the thought of having to play nice around him on our wedding day makes my skin crawl. What do I do? Will I only push her further into this bad situation if I say he’s not allowed—or will it help her open her eyes?
A: I agree your friend needs help, but it might well backfire to tell her that she can come to see you get married, but as far as you’re concerned, her marriage is over. Unless she separates from her husband and tells him he can’t accompany her, your disinviting him will be just seen—perhaps by both of them—as rude interfering. Please call the National Domestic Violence hotline on behalf of your friend. They will have guidance for how you can best support her in taking the necessary steps to be safe.
Q. Screaming Neighbors: We have a toddler son and a lovely backyard. We also have two older male neighbors who scream at each other every day, especially when one of them comes home from work around the time my son and I head into the backyard to garden and play. I’m unsure whether my neighbors are a couple or merely roommates, but their relationship is toxic. I even once heard one scream, “I’m gonna kill you!” I’ve thought about calling the police, but we have an overextended police force that doesn’t even come if your house is broken into (at least not for many hours). My son heard them screaming the other day and said, “Am I safe?” It broke my heart. I do say, loudly, when we’re outside, “Are you having fun in the backyard, honey?!” It seems to make no difference. Is there anything I can do? I want to avoid starting a war.
A: Well, at least they’re not going to invite you to join their swingers club. Of course if you hear or see evidence of violence, you should call the police. But these two may just be a loud, aggressive couple who are not endangering each other, just the sensibilities of anyone nearby. I hope you already have a nodding acquaintance with them, but in any case, you can go over with a bottle of wine or box of chocolates and say you have a request. You wonder if in the early evening when your son is in the backyard if they could keep their voices down. Maybe they will take it inside. Maybe they will be hostile and get even louder. But as long as this just seems like a dysfunctional, but not dangerous, relationship, you can just tell your son that he is perfectly safe. Explain that sometimes adults use bad words to each other and that is rude, but your neighbors are not going to hurt him or anyone else.
Q. Grief on Deceased’s Birthdays?: A few days ago would have been my FIL’s 95th birthday, but he died in 2011. My MIL apparently got very sad on the approach of the birthday, but she did not let us know. (She told some friends.) My husband did not contact his mother about it—it would not have occurred to him that the day upset her (it did not upset him, though he dimly realized it was his father’s birthday). Apparently several of my MIL’s friends did call. She’s upset with us. My position is how would we have known this was a hard day for her if she did not tell us. Is this typical grieving behavior? (She won’t consider a grief group, unfortunately, so these bad times pop up, and she has no way to handle them.)
A: Yes, this is typical grieving behavior. Even though your father-in-law lived a long time, especially on special days—birthdays, holidays, etc.—his widow is going to acutely feel his absence. Now that you know this, you, and especially your husband, should make a note on the calendar about your late father-in-law’s birthday and be aware this is a painful time for her. It’s unfortunate that your mother-in-law was unable to be open with you two about how she was feeling, then deflected her grief into anger that you two didn’t step up to make her feel better. But presumably, she herself is a very old woman and not likely to change. So you two can make an effort to be more sensitive to the loneliness of a widow at the end of her own life and be the ones to do the reaching out.
Q. Afraid to Lose My Nieces Forever: My sister is a heroin addict. She has been in and out of jail this past year, and her young children have been in foster care since last June. The hearing to terminate her parental rights is coming up next month. My parents are heavily pressuring me to take the girls, who are aged 2 and 11 months old, and adopt them. I understand why, but I don’t think I can do it. I have three young children of my own, one of whom has a mood disorder, and I feel overwhelmed as is quite often. I feel so guilty for not being able to save my nieces earlier, and it doesn’t help that people just assume that it’s no big deal for me to do it. I would have to move into a bigger home and buy a new car, not to mention the work of taking care of five children under 10 basically on my own, because my husband works long hours. Is it unfair of me to say no and let strangers adopt them? I feel so torn and horrible. I don’t want to lose them forever. No one else in the family can take them.
A: This is a tragedy, but you can’t fix it. Awful as it is to lose her children, sometimes the worst thing is for a mother who cannot care for her kids to try to keep them and then neglect and abuse them. Wrenching as this is, her giving up her kids is likely giving them their best chance for a healthier life. You are maxed out on what you handle—understandably so!—and you cannot take on the raising of two more children. But as your sister’s case works through the system, please be in touch with the caseworkers so that you can try to ensure your family is able to be in touch with your nieces’ new parents. Anyone adopting children out of the foster-care system should be open to their children knowing their birth family and having relationships with them. Of course you can feel sorrow for what is happening, but do not let your parents browbeat you or make you feel guilt.
Q. Re: Deceased FIL/Upset MIL: I understand your response, but how many of these dates are we supposed to intuit? MIL is into all sorts of “event” days, but my husband and I are not. We understand that the death anniversary would be hard. Their marriage anniversary. Important holidays. What else?
A: You’ve made a list, and it’s rather short: birthdays, wedding anniversary, major holidays. So get out your calendars and write “FIL’s birthday” and “In-laws’ wedding anniversary” on it. Thanksgiving and Christmas should already be noted. I get an undertone that your mother-in-law is a pain. Maybe she’s always been a pain. Maybe she’s more of a pain now that she’s really old and in psychological pain. Maybe your son’s family is more into passive-aggression than direct communication. But you have four or so dates that you know are meaningful to her, so now you can anticipate her neediness and plan a visit, phone call, or a dinner out.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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