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.)
Q. Late Husband’s Diary: I found my late husband’s box of diaries a few months after his passing. He kept a meticulous record of our children’s growing up and various family activities, which are now a treasured memory. I was shocked and dismayed, however, to discover he also wrote of his yearning for his past girlfriend whom he dated when he was in his late teens. Every now and then his entry includes his feelings for her. He wrote that he was devastated to learn of her marriage, and how he fantasized that he was with her while making love to me. When I had our first child he wondered what his baby would look like if he had one with his ex. The ex-girlfriend is someone I know through mutual friends, and she lives in another country. I am certain they did not have any contact. But now I feel like my memories of my husband are tainted, and I am heartbroken as though he cheated on me. I also wonder what I should do with these diaries, which contain great love for our kids and description of the normal family things we did together—and also evidence of his affection for another woman. I thought we had a good marriage but now as a 30-year-old widow I guess we didn’t.
A: What you discovered is that your husband wrote down the thoughts most people let pass without a trace. I am sure you had a good marriage. I bet he was so happy that he was married to you, and not her. He didn’t even have to go on at length about how much he loved you in the diary because it was a self-evident fact of his life. What he used the diary for was to record the passing of events, and also to work out something deeply private, and deeply human, that he didn’t want to burden you or your happy marriage. Many, many people live alternate lives in their heads. It’s a pleasure, and price, of being human and having the capacity for such thoughts. So while he was totally devoted to the life he had with you, his diary was the place where he worked out the stuff that we all tangle with. I once got a heartbreaking letter from a woman whose mother died while she was a teen. She adored her mother, named her daughter after her, and after her father died, was clearing out the house and found her mother’s diary. It was full of worry and critique of her teenage daughter, and this now-middle-aged woman was writing to me, devastated to find her mother didn’t really love her. But that wasn’t the message of the diary! The diary was the place for a loving mother to put her fears and worries about the teenager she adored. Unfortunately, the diary of a late love is a snapshot that can never be further elucidated. Your husband is not around to reassure you that he is thrilled he married you and that the diary is tiny, tiny slice of himself. You are a young widow who has experienced a terrible loss. Even without the discovery of the diary, you should talk to a counselor who specializes in grief. That person should help you put your loss, and your husband’s private thoughts, in perspective.
Q. Bad Parents Are Great Grandparents: My husband had a hard time growing up. His mom and stepdad were alcoholics and enjoyed gambling more than looking after their children (his dad had passed away). He was mainly raised by his sister who is two years older. His parents did not change their ways until recently, when my mother-in-law had a near fatal accident due to her drinking. Both she and her husband gave up drinking, smoking, and gambling. They have been abstinent for almost two years and attend regular AA meetings. They also go to counseling. My husband and I have a 2-year-old son. I mainly know his parents as sober and loving grandparents, although I never left him there alone. Now that our son is more self-sufficient I am open to letting the grandparents watch him for an hour or so at a time (without my being there). My husband is very worried. I understand where he comes from, but his parents have worked so hard on getting and staying healthy and sober. Should we give them a chance as they have changed their lives so much or should we remain careful and with our toddler? How can I get my husband on board?
A: It is good to hear that even late in the game people can change. Since your mother-in-law was drinking and driving, it’s wonderful that she’s stopped and is no longer a life-threatening presence on the roads. Your in-laws have been sober almost two years, which is a substantial amount of time, but a tiny amount compared with the time your husband has known them. You can understand that given what he experienced with his mother, father, and stepfather, he may never be able to trust them. A key here to me is that you say your in-laws are in counseling. This is good news, and I think you should take advantage of that. You and your husband should tell his folks that you are considering letting them watch your son, but you have understandable concerns. Ask if the four of you can have a session or two with the therapist to talk about this possibility, whether it makes sense, and how to arrange it so everyone feels good about it. If the in-laws decline, that is certainly their choice to make. But if that’s what happens, without rancor, put this idea aside for now and continue to let your son enjoy his grandparents while one of you is around.
Q. Quiet Time for Adults: My husband and I have been married for eight years and we enjoy a very active sex life (at least once daily). We’re in our late 20s/early 30s, and our oldest is about to be 6. Some days the kids get a snack on the couch and get to watch TV for a few minutes while we have our “quiet time.” We are definitely not loud I, but I get anxious just thinking about our oldest figuring out what’s going on down the road. I don’t want to scar her; I do want her to have a healthy view of what a happy marriage is. I’m uncomfortable about all this, but at the same time I know it’s crazy to think that knowing her parents have (a lot of) sex isn’t really that crazy.
A: If only this were a national crisis: How do parents of young children carve out time for twice-daily sex? It sounds as if you and your husband have got this figured it out. “Kids, here’s the clicker. You can watch whatever you like. Mommy and Daddy are having quiet time now—and remember Mommy and Daddy lock the door during quiet time!” As long as your kids are old enough to be unsupervised for “the few minutes” it takes for you to deal with your admirable degree of lust, all is well. Do not worry about your daughter eventually figuring this out. Presumably when she’s old enough, her thought process will run, “Quiet time? Why do they have to lock the bedroom door to just read a book or to … Ewww, gross!” And yes, gross while it may be, it is good for young people to come to realize, “My parents are really hot for each other.”
Q. Re: Bad Parents Are Great Grandparents: I’m a parent so I understand the concern that she may have, but I think these days people have gone way overboard trying to protect their kids from the most minuscule of risks. Her husband turned out fine after years of having drunk alcoholic parents. You are only considering letting two sober for two years grandparents take care of your son for two hours at home. I would agree with not letting them drive your son anywhere, but at home for two hours? Seriously, people are way overprotective these days.
A: Sorry, the argument that, “Your drunk parents drove you around and neglected you and it didn’t kill you,” doesn’t cut it. Yes, there is a case to be made that these people are now sober and responsible, but given their history, it is justifiable to assess their fitness.
Q. Should I Have Just Lied About the Past?: My fiancé and I were recently talking about our past relationships, and he asked how often my ex-boyfriend and I had sex. I told him the truth—about every day. Now he is concerned that there’s something wrong with our sex life. I am totally satisfied and prefer my fiancé to my ex in every way. We initially had less frequent sex because I wasn’t used to his size and needed to “recover,” but now I just don’t think daily sex is practical or necessary. How do I get him to understand that he shouldn’t be jealous and that I’m more than satisfied with our sex life?
A: So you need private quiet time, and a soak in a tub to recover from—as email spam so eloquently puts it—“the garth of his pecnis.” Your letter is a good reason why discussions of one’s previous sexual adventures should be honest but limited. Sure, some people get off on hearing all the past details. Most don’t, and as has come up in the column repeatedly, filling a new love’s head with very specific images of an old love is not a good idea. Your fiancé shouldn’t have asked and when he did you should have said something like, “It doesn’t matter how much. None of it was as good as it is with you.” However, you have an extra piece of reassurance for him that would mollify about 99 percent of male egos: “Honey, I can’t do it with you every day because you are so big it would kill me.”
Q. Re: Quiet Time: My parents were a big fan of “quiet time”—I remember being so confused as to why my parents were locking their door and why they would sometimes answer in a robe. Then one day the light bulb came on and I was like, “Uh. Ew.” From that point on, I respected the locked door and went about my business pretending my parents were just napping LOL. Years later, while I still don’t like to contemplate my parents behind closed doors, I just laugh at the “Aha!” moment. Definitely not scarred (and as a parent in my early 30s, I realize that my parents were definitely smart cookies about getting in their alone time!).
A: Thank you! And yes, I bet your parents are now less “Eww,” than an inspiration.
Q. Late Thank You Notes: I had a baby about eight months ago. I wrote thank you notes for all my shower gifts, but I never got around to writing thank you notes for anything that arrived after my son was born. It’s no excuse but between caring for a newborn and then transitioning to being a working mom, it just never got done. Do I write extremely belated notes to those people? Do I say something about the lateness of the note?
A: Write the notes. Pick a week and plan to do two or three a night and knock them all off. You can open with, “Before Liam heads off the college, I wanted to thank you for the absolutely adorable onesie you sent for him.” You will feel better and your friends will appreciate it.
Q. Boyfriend on Vacation: I work 60 to 70 hours a week and have been in a relationship for around eight months. Every year I go to my sister’s for a week, and it’s great. She lives in country a few states away, and I love being able to be there and have a little all-too-rare time alone while my sister’s family is at work/school. Thing is, my boyfriend is really upset that I didn’t invite him to go with me. I love him, but frankly I don’t want anyone to go with me. I don’t want to feel like I have entertain him or keep any kind of schedule other than my sister’s. It’s the only time I ever get to be a little lazy and without responsibility and it might be selfish, but I don’t want to give that up. Should I just bite the bullet and take him with me? (My sister’s already OK’d him coming.)
A: You are in a fairly new relationship, and because of your work schedule your time together is short. However, you are entitled to a girls-only trip. Whether or not you and your boyfriend commit for the present or even the future, he needs to accept that once a year you have an R&R with sis. Tell him you love that he wants to be with you, and you want to be with him—but this is a long tradition you aren’t going to break. If he won’t let this go, you can explain you and sis spend most of your time discussing pecnis garth.
Q. Re: For Bad Parents and Great Grandparents: My parents were great (albeit imperfect) parents, and phenomenally wonderful grandparents to my older sibling’s children. When my child came along more than a dozen years later, they were not capable of taking care of my child in spite of their protests to the contrary. They were starting to decline, and it was clear to me that I couldn’t rely on them for help and child care the way my sibling had been able to do. It made me sad, but it would have made me a lot sadder if anything had happened on their watch. Years of heavy drinking can take a significant toll on brain function. I don’t care how sober they are and how horrified they are by their past behavior. Their brains are a lot older than their chronological ages. I would not leave a young child alone with a former alcoholic under any circumstances. You have no way to assess their actual mental competence.
A: Several people have pointed out that decades-long alcoholics might have cognitive deficiencies. This is something to carefully consider and to discuss with the therapist.
Q. Re: Late Thank You Notes: Considering that it takes two people to make a baby, the baby’s father should have stepped up to do thank you notes. Even though he didn’t, he should still be doing them. Note, this is not “helping” but doing his share.
A: Good point, thank you!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a great week.