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, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Not Feeling Christmas Spirit: My dad passed away on Dec. 5, after a brief battle with cancer. My father and I were very close. I was the only girl of his four children. After being in denial about his illness, I’m having panic attacks and sleepless nights. I have spoken with my doctor for those issues. I’m struggling to control my emotions around my four children as to not ruin their Christmas. My youngest are 11 and 8 and very sensitive. With my mother’s help I have managed to shop for them. My problem is that I just can not get myself to do my normal shopping for family and friends or even send Christmas cards. I’m not sure everyone will understand.
A: Everyone will understand. You are in shock and mourning. I hope there is no one in your life who would say, “Hey, I’m sorry your father died suddenly, but I was expecting a card and a scarf!” You have already made sure there will be presents under the tree for the kids. But they are hurting, too, about the loss of their beloved grandfather. Don’t be afraid to be open with them about how much you miss him. Seeing you cry will tell them it’s OK for them to cry. You can also tell them it’s fine for them to have a happy Christmas, because their grandfather loved that holiday. Say he was a wise person and he knew that it’s possible to alternate between being happy and sad. I’m glad you’re getting help for your very normal grief. But don’t try to pretend to your children that Christmas will be just the same this year.
Q. Tell Our Kids We Now Smoke?: Until recently, neither my wife nor I had ever smoked. A co-worker convinced my wife to try it, and then my wife convinced me to try. We found it quite enjoyable, and are becoming regular smokers. We do not smoke around our children, but they must smell it. Should we sit them down and explain that Mom and Dad are now smokers? Or would it be better just to let this go unspoken?
A: How about if you and your wife sit each other down and explain to each other you’re so weak-willed you’ve allowed yourself to be talked into a toxic and life-threatening activity and you two have to now find the wherewithal to stop. Your children will eventually catch on and if they’re old enough, start begging you to stop so you don’t end up like those frightening people on the public service announcements who have lost their voice boxes to this noxious habit. Make a new year’s resolution to go together to a smoking cessation class. And to also address strengthening your ability to resist malign influences.
Q. Recommitment Ceremonies?: A dear friend of mine is planning to celebrate her 10-year wedding anniversary with a recommitment ceremony. From the sound of it, she is envisioning a near wedding-caliber event. I live 1,000 miles away and was a bridesmaid in her wedding, and I can remember well the time, energy, and money I spent on her wedding. I love my friend and I think her marriage is beautiful, but my feeling is that once you have your wedding, your turn at being the center of attention is over. Am I obligated to attend the recommitment ceremony (involving travel, gift, etc.) or is there a compassionate way to decline participating? And I’d love your thoughts in general on large-scale recommitment ceremonies and if they’re really a good idea.
A: Since I think recommitment ceremonies are often a prelude to divorce, I think it’s a better idea just to save the money for the lawyers. As I’ve written many times, I hate recommitment ceremonies. (Does my opinion cancel out the meaningful and beautiful ceremonies staged by others? No, it’s just my opinion.) We can be grateful, however, that people don’t restage their high school graduations, or their children’s births. I do believe there’s a lovely kind of celebration couples can host to show their enduring love for each other—it’s called an anniversary party. But your friend is hauling out the dress and the veil and redoing an occasion that successfully took place a decade ago, one that cost you a bundle of money and plenty of time. What you do is tell her you’re so sorry not to be able to be there, and that you wish her a wonderful day.
Q. Re: Not Feeling the Christmas Spirit: My dad died suddenly on Dec. 1, so I am right with the writer. I do want to point out that everyone I have spoken to or given a gift to has said that they are just amazed that I have done so, so clearly the expectation is not there. I have two sisters and we are trying hard to stay focused on the nieces and nephews while promising ourselves a breathing spell in the new year. Try to give yourself the benefit of the grace you would extend to someone else in this position.
A: I’m sorry for your loss, and thank you for this helpful perspective.
Q. Paying the Sitter Too Little?: My husband and I both work full-time in jobs that are not highly paid. We have a 1-year-old son, and have found a wonderful woman to watch him in her home we work. He is the only child that she watches and I am confident that he is well cared for, loved, and enriched while he is with her. My concern is with the amount we pay her. For about 35 hours per week we pay her only $125.00, as per her request. We pay our sitter in cash, also at her request. Adding much more to her pay would eliminate my ability to provide any additional activities for my son and I to participate in together (music class, little gym, etc.) As a working mom, these are precious times to me. But when I was a nanny in college I made $350.00 per week. Is it unethical to pay someone so little if it is the rate they asked for and what you can afford?
A: You realize you’re paying this woman about $3.60 an hour; in other words, half the minimum wage. She is also your full-time employee, but since you’re paying cash you evidently aren’t paying her Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment taxes, as required by law. I can’t give you a pass for this situation. If she watched your kid for free, you’d have even more of your own money to enjoy, but that’s not how things work. Your 1-year-old doesn’t need a music class or a gym membership. You can listen to music with him and have him bang on pots and pans. The playground is as good as a phys ed “class” for a toddler. At the very least you need to increase this woman’s pay to the legal minimum and also talk to her about regularizing her employment. Perhaps she’s on disability and can’t actually earn more than a small amount without jeopardizing it. However, she’s getting the money under the table, so even if she insists on cash only, and you go along, you are morally obligated to pay her something decent.
Q. Re: Not Feeling the Christmas Spirit: My grandmother died two weeks before Christmas when I was 12. The LW does not need to beat herself up about what to do for Christmas. I barely remember what I got for Christmas that year or anything we did aside from the funeral. What I do remember is my parents and our support of each other in that terrible time. You’re not going to ruin Christmas. Christmas is just a blip in the grand scheme of things. Focus on yourself and your family and everything will be okay.
A: Thank you for this helpful perspective from a child’s point of view.
Q. Re: Smokers: Are you sure they don’t mean pot? If so, does your advice still apply?
A: Good point—although if you simply say “smoking” it would be helpful to clarify what you’re smoking. That’s quite a workplace if people take marijuana breaks. The issue of smoking marijuana is more complicated because there’s a legal element to it. If they live in a state where they can go to a store and buy it, that at least relieves the element of illegality. We don’t know how old the kids are, which is an important point. But if they’ve taken up a marijuana habit that they find so enjoyable that they regularly reek from it, they need to think about this enjoyable habit’s role in their lives and what message it is sending to the kids.
Q. Re: Babysitter Pay: Wrong, the letter writer is not legally required to pay employment taxes. The child is watched in the sitter’s home, not the letter writer’s home. The sitter is self-employed, not the writer’s employee.
A: Thanks for pointing this out. However, I still find it bizarre to have an arrangement in which one pays half of minimum wage for full-time child care.
Q. Disturbing Videos: I am visiting my home town for the holiday break. It is a very small town that’s basically all white. My 17-year-old brother showed me his YouTube channel, which features animated videos he created. He is usually a kind and gentle person, so I was surprised to find that his videos were racist and violent. One video was about storming the town of Ferguson and gunning down protestors, another was about murdering the family of a black celebrity. These videos use photos of himself and his friends as the protagonists, and his YouTube account username is his full name. I only visit twice a year, so I don’t know if it’s my place to bring this up as problematic. I have a very liberal mother, but she has a busy and demanding career and probably does not know about these videos. I worry that something like this could hurt him in the future if discovered—he has been accepted into a diverse university in a large city. I also worry about how scary and hateful these videos are! Is my brother a ticking time bomb that I need to defuse?
A: Please speak up both to your brother and your mother. These violent and repulsive videos need to be taken down immediately. I don’t know if your brother is troubled, or just a 17-year-old jerk with jerk friends who egg each other on. But these idiots need to understand both that what they’re doing is not only grossly wrong, but can have potential life-altering consequences.
Q. Re: Labor Law: Whether the sitter is an independent contractor or an employee depends upon Who sets the hours of work (am betting it is the parents), Who sets how the work will be done (feed the kid this but not that), Who sets were the work will be done, Who sets what work will be done (naps, play time etc). Odds are very high that the sitter is an employee as the parents set when the work will be done, how the work will be done, and what will be done, and the sitter only works for them. I’m a retired labor lawyer.
A: I have learned over the years that wading into labor law requires discussing labor law with a labor law professional—something I can’t do during the chat. So “retired labor lawyer” is saying my initial response was right, and that the day care provider is an employee not an independent contractor. However, I will note that lots of people are writing in to say that half minimum wage is a totally fair amount to pay for child care. I understand that paying virtually nothing for child care is a big savings for an expense that is crushing for many families. But frankly I am astounded that people think it’s fine to have a child watched full-time by someone who isn’t earning anything close to a living wage.
Q. Re: Tell Our Children We Have Lost Our Minds?: Until recently my husband and I always wore our seatbelts. One of my co-workers showed me how fun it is flopping around in the car due to inertia and I have now shown my husband. We both enjoy the thrill of possibly being thrown from the vehicle in a major crash. Should we sit our children down and explain that Mommy and Daddy have no common sense or do you think they will figure it out on their own?
A: Nice commentary on the parents who have taken up smoking.
Q. Re: Child Care: Just so you know—child care rates (not nanny rates) are about $25 a day in many places. That assumes that it’s in-home child care where the person is watching the kid in their house and many times watching other kids. It’s crappy pay, but it is typical. In my town, in Georgia, people pay from $120 per week to $200 per week for day care. For private nannies, it’s typically $10 an hour. If this lady wanted to make more money, she would take care of more kids, as that’s how people get more like $14 an hour (by watching four kids at $125 a week).
A: Thanks for this. Yes, I understand that someone who is watching multiple children may charge this rate, but because there are many children being watched the provider ends up with low but above minimum wage pay. But the situation as described by the original letter writer is that the babysitter is caring solely for her child full-time for half of minimum wage. Even she’s concerned that this bargain is not right, and I agree.
Check out Dear Prudence’s book recommendations in the Slate Store.