Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I hope everyone had a great Christmas. I’m already practicing writing “2015.”
Q. Double Trouble: I have wonderful 11-year-old twin children, “Evan” and “Franny,” a boy and a girl. They’ve had separate rooms since they were 7. In the past few months, I’ve woken up to find them in the same bed and intertwined about a dozen times. I don’t think anything is going on, but they do both sleep in the nude, and my daughter does already have pubic hair. What, if anything, should I do to discourage this? I don’t want them to have negative ideas about sex, but I also don’t want my two kids hooking up!
A: You need to talk about this with them and put a stop to it. It’s one thing for siblings of the opposite gender to bathe together when little, etc. It’s another for two kids who have been sleeping separately to, at the cusp of puberty, spend the night naked in the same bed. You and your spouse need to sit down with the kids and calmly ask what’s going on. Then you need to say that you love that they’re close and comfortable with each other, but they are just too old for sleeping nude together. Explain they’re reaching puberty—and I hope you’ve had some talks with them about the changes puberty brings—and that they need to respect each other’s privacy and set some physical boundaries. You need to keep your eye on this, and if you become concerned they’re exploring sexually with each other, discuss this with a professional.
Q. Don’t Want to Be MIL’s Retirement Plan: My mother-in-law recently told my wife that she has almost nothing saved for retirement and tearfully asked her if she could “still” move in with us when her present husband passes (which could be soon, as he’s not well). I feel like a heel, but I never agreed to my MIL moving in. My wife is an only child, and my MIL made her promise when she was little that they would always live together. I’ve raised my objections to my wife, but she says her mother is helpless and we’re her only option. My MIL is actually quite young—in her early 50s—and in good health but works part time and doesn’t make much money. Is there any way I can prevent this from happening? This definitely isn’t a situation that can be solved by creating a contract stipulating boundaries. My MIL doesn’t have any.
A: Apparently since giving birth to her only child, your mother-in-law’s retirement plan has consisted of being supported by her daughter. But I’m afraid promises extracted from a child who’s under emotional duress are not enforceable. However tenuous your mother-in-law’s hold on independence is, she does work and live apart from you. I hope her “present husband” (nice touch!) has some life insurance. Whatever her husband’s health status, your mother-in-law needs a comprehensive look at her financial situation so she can plan herself for her eventual retirement. Since she’s in her early 50s, she still has quite a way to go and she needs to be maximizing her earnings now in order to reap the greatest Social Security reward when she hits that milestone. You and your wife could offer to help her get some consulting through the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. But you must resist the demands that she move in. If this happens, you are facing possibly living with your mother-in-law for the next three decades. If you said traditional wedding vows, you promised to “forsake all others.” In this case, you need to let your wife know what you specifically meant was “forsake her mother.”
Q. Mean Girl in My Medical Office: I was just diagnosed with cancer and have started chemotherapy. As part of my treatment, I need to have blood drawn every week. The lab employs a woman that I have an uncomfortable social history with. All my friends and family in the medical profession say she would never do anything to harm me, or sabotage my lab work. I say, I’m the one with cancer, shouldn’t I have a say not to have this person touch me in this most personal way? She pulled me into a hug at my last draw, pressing on my port site. Am I being unreasonable?
A: She is already harming you because when you are going for treatment, you are filled with anxiety about dealing with a specific medical professional. It is not unusual for people, for whatever reason, to not want to get medical treatment from those they know socially. All you have to do is call the office and say because of your personal history—emphasize this has nothing at all to do with this woman’s professional behavior—you need to have your blood drawn by someone who is not a social acquaintance. If they don’t accommodate you, I hope your town has another place you can go for this lab work.
Q. Caring for Loved Ones From Afar: My husband and I currently live with my mother-in-law. We have done so for almost four years, following a health crisis on her part. Virtually strangers when we first moved in, my MIL and I have formed a wonderful bond. I’ll be finishing my degree program within a few months, and the area in which she lives is not one that my field of study (and passion), nor my husband’s, has a lot of jobs available. I want to continue to care for my MIL. I worry about her tending to her large home, and I worry about her being alone as she has no family in the area and many of her friends disappeared while she was caring for her dying husband. She is a proud and currently independent woman who will not ask us for help nor talk about any problems she may be having. How do I continue to love and help her from afar?
A: Here is the flip side to the mother-in-law dilemma above. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to a love that is reminiscent of the Bible’s Ruth and Naomi. Given all you’ve written, I don’t know why you can’t paraphrase Ruth’s pledge to Naomi and say to your mother-in-law, “Whither I goest, you should come.” Your mother-in-law is an independent woman who lives in a house that sounds like it’s way too much for her. She also will be lonely if she stays where she is. This sounds like a great opportunity for her to sell the house and find a smaller, more manageable place near you and her son so that you can all enjoy each other’s company for years to come.
Q. Scared to Tell Parents About OCD: I am a college student who, after more than a decade of knowing she has obsessive-compulsive disorder, has finally been diagnosed and is now taking medication for it—but my parents don’t know. I’m divided about telling them. I have a long email drafted explaining the situation, but I still have yet to hit send. The thing is, I did try to tell them I had it when I was younger, but they dismissed my obsessive worries (albeit in a well-intentioned way) as childhood fears that I’d grow out of. I’m worried now that they might not believe me, since I have learned how to not outwardly “present” as obsessive-compulsive. However, my mom has recently started taking meds for her anxiety, so I think she may be a bit more open to the idea of someone else in the family having a mental illness. More importantly, though, I’ve noticed that my two younger siblings have started to show signs of OCD as well, and I’d never forgive myself if I knew that they had it and weren’t able to get help, like I was at their age. But I’m still scared to tell Mom and Dad because this is a big secret that only my psychiatrist and I know about.
A: It’s great that you’ve gotten help, and now that you have a psychiatrist, you need to discuss with her or him how to tell your parents. It’s especially important that your parents understand your diagnosis and the symptoms of OCD because this might be an issue for your younger siblings. There are going to be excellent articles and books about this that your doctor can suggest, and giving these to your parents when you talk about this—and I think this is a discussion to have in person—will help take away the stigma. What a relief it must be to have a diagnosis and a plan of action. So spend some time with your doctor going over how to have this talk with your parents. I’m hoping they will be impressed with your insight and confidence and will take to heart this important news that affects the whole family.
Q. Bereavement: In our 20s, a group of about 25 of us became friends in a community choir group. Twenty years later we still keep in touch and see each other once or twice a year. Four months ago one friend “Harmony” passed away. “Ben,” who is not related or married to Harmony, organized a nice wake and a Facebook tribute. Now Ben won’t stop. He posts pictures of Harmony, two to three times a week. He posted pictures of the wake and specifically listed those who did not attend. He has vowed to go through all “1,500” photos he shot of the choir group and post all of the photos with Harmony in them. I’m not especially close to Ben or Harmony’s family but, outside of defriending everyone in the choir, I don’t want to be besieged by photos and tributes. If I was Harmony’s family, I would find all these reminders painful. It seems Ben has appointed himself decider of what Harmony truly would have wanted and how others should say goodbye to her.
A: It really is up to Harmony’s family to ask Ben to desist. What’s as painful to people who have lost a loved one is the feeling that if you don’t mention this person, the loss will hurt less. But Ben’s tributes are obnoxious, especially the list of those who didn’t attend the wake. But surely there is a technological fix for you in that you should just defriend him, or (I know this is not the accurate technical term) put him in one of those corrals for people whose news feeds you don’t want to see. You could also talk to a couple of other choir members and if everyone is feeling besieged, a small group can tell Ben that what he’s doing is making Harmony’s loss harder to bear.
Q. Re: Scared to Tell Parents About OCD: Fellow member of Club OCD here! I’ve had a similar experience to yours. I had serious OCD for years, but my parents never quite believed me because I quickly learned to hide the compulsions, plus did very well in school, had friends, etc. Then in college I started having panic attacks: At that point, I knew I couldn’t skirt around the issue anymore with my family. While I was incredibly anxious (what else is new?) about broaching the topic, when I did tell my mom (who I pour my heart out to the most) that I was absolutely serious and needed her help, she listened and did believe me. I don’t know what kind of relationship you have with your parents, but I know I underestimated mine. They were two of my biggest supporters during that rough time. And although my OCD isn’t something we talk about every five seconds, I know that if I do have trouble, I can always turn to them.
A: Thank you. It’s such a comfort when loved ones rise to the challenge and surprise you in a good way.
Q. Re: Bereavement: Suggest to Ben that he set up a Facebook page in memory of Harmony. The family will know where to look for the photos if and when they feel ready, and you can hide that page’s feed if that is what you wish.
A: This is a good idea. So too is the suggestion from several readers to mouse over your friend’s name and unclick the checkmark that says “following”—thus ending the stream of tributes.
Q. Adrift: Two years ago my wife of 15 years was diagnosed with ALS. We continue to be soul mates despite the ravages the disease has brought (she is no longer verbal and is immobile from the neck down). I still love her but have begun to develop strong feelings for her nurse, who has indicated the feelings are mutual. The guilt is crushing me. I am a 45-year-old man, a success in my career, and should be in the prime of my life. I feel adrift. What are my obligations to my wife?
A: ALS is one of the cruelest diseases, and watching your wife slowly wither away is agony. You are in the prime of life, and it’s understandable that two years into this terrible, ultimately fatal illness, you are being torn apart by a perfectly normal desire for someone else. However, what’s happening is wrong, and the nurse, once she recognized that she was feeling an attraction to you, should not have responded positively to your feelers, but should have shut it down, and if necessary said she needed to find you a substitute. (I say all this knowing that Stephen Hawking, who suffers from ALS, left his wife for his nurse.) I understand people who are caring for a slowly dying spouse who seek the comfort of someone else while continuing to care for their loved one. But you are talking about carrying on an affair with your wife’s nurse and that’s not right. Carrying on with someone who is intimately caring for your dying wife is a violation that will taint both of you.
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