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.
Q. Birthday Party Faux Pas: Recently one of my favorite cousins died unexpectedly. My girlfriend and I went to lunch with him and his partner about a week prior to his death, and it was her first time meeting them. Her birthday is coming up, and we’ve planned a small party. In an effort to reach out to my cousin’s grieving partner, I invited him to the party without consulting my girlfriend. Now she wants me to disinvite him and tell him the truth about why. She says she doesn’t want his grief to ruin her happy day. I take full responsibility for being insensitive in not asking her permission first, but how in the world can I disinvite him without hurting her feelings?
A: Sure, you should have talked to your girlfriend before expanding the guest list, but given your girlfriend’s churlish reaction, I think the question should be not how you disinvite your cousin’s partner, but how you disinvite your girlfriend. If the partner is up for socializing, what a nice gesture it was to give him an opportunity to get out of the house. If he’s not up for making merry with people he doesn’t know, he will decline. You’re right, there is no way to disinvite him. Your girlfriend wants you to not only rescind the offer but to explain that his tear-streaked face would be a bummer at her happy event. She has given you an opportunity not only to celebrate another year of her life, but to contemplate her character.
Q. Daughter Wannabe Actress: My daughter went to an Ivy League college and graduated near the top of her class in economics. She declared late in her senior year that she wanted to be an actress and did not want to work a traditional 9-to-5 job. Five years later and after paying for acting classes, she is living at home and getting bit jobs. Every time I suggest she look for a full-time job, she tells me she won’t be happy with a 9-to-5 job. Then she accuses me of being unsupportive of her aspirations. (Dad has always been a soft touch.) I have seen her act, and she has no great talent, but I could not say this to her. I want to see her become an independent young lady. Where do I start?
A: I’ll say she’s not interested in a 9-to-5 job; she doesn’t seem interested in any job. Apparently she didn’t get the memo that young people who aspire to act, or paint, or write support this desire by, day in and day out, saying, “Let me tell you about the chef’s specials.” Obviously, your daughter has brains and at one point had drive. You don’t get an Ivy degree without that. But something happened, and she went off the rails. I say you need a multipronged approach. One, she needs a psychological and medical evaluation. Maybe she’s depressed or has some other underlying problem. While her classmates are out in the world establishing themselves, she’s home, refusing to work, and fantasizing about stardom. The other is for the three of you to get into counseling with the goal of no longer supporting her, getting her out of the house, and having her relaunch herself. Since she majored in economics, she needs to dust off her old textbooks and renew her acquaintance with some basic economic principles, one being that if you are unable or unwilling to support yourself, and your family will not provide for you, you are in a desperate situation. You have to establish a clear and enforceable time line (and that means her soft-touch dad signs up for this) under which your daughter starts becoming an independent actor (and I’m not talking about on the stage) and starts living an independent life.
Q. Grad Announcements: I’m about to graduate college and am wondering about graduation announcements. My dad passed away unexpectedly last fall—it’s still incredibly hard, and we’re still working our way through it. I wouldn’t have thought twice about sending his closest friends announcements, especially considering many of them knew how important it was to him that I graduated—he never finished college himself. But now I’m afraid they’re going to think we’re hitting them up for money. I know I might be being ridiculous and expect they’d probably be happy to hear from us, but it would be nice to have another’s perspective.
A: I agree with Miss Manners about graduation announcements—she questions their purpose since the people who don’t know are so distant from you they really don’t care, and the people who do know, well, know. But it sounds as if in your case you would like to reach out to a handful of your father’s closest friends and tell them the good news, and more than that, give them an update on your life. So instead of printed announcements, write a short note for each. Say you wanted to let them know you had graduated, and you know how pleased your father would have been. Say you all still miss him acutely, but it’s getting easier as time goes on, and you’re looking forward to [fill in the blank of your next step]. Thank them for their support during your loss. They will all appreciate hearing from you, and yes, maybe some will be moved to send a gift, but no one will think it’s a gift grab.
Q. Shame and Stained Success?: As a high school student 12 years ago, I made the stupid decision to cheat on a test in a class where everyone was doing it and the teacher wasn’t the best. Of course, I got caught; fearing for my permanent record with college application season looming, I lied and said I wasn’t. My parents went to bat pretty hard for me against the teacher, and this abuse of their trust has been bothering me due to recent success in grad school. This memory has made me question whether my success— a near perfect undergrad and grad school GPA and the completion of a great postgrad scholarship program—is invalidated by this past discretion. While telling my parents might make me feel better, I think doing so would cause them (and their ironclad code of honor) to lose so much respect for me and my accomplishments. This is starting to take a toll on my mental and physical health. What can I do?
A: You did something rotten when you were a teenager. But it’s good that you know it was rotten and that you feel terrible about it. Let’s be rational. Your cheating on a single test in high school in no way invalidates all the work you’ve done without cheating in the subsequent years. So please let go of the idea your current success is all built on a lie. You have confessed here, but I don’t think confessing to your parents will accomplish anything but cause them grief for no purpose. Yes, you mistreated a teacher (and the teacher may not have been “the best,” but as you know that’s no excuse for what you and your classmates did). But it’s pretty hard to see how you now clarify this long-ago episode with the school system. Some things are just things you have to live with. From this incident, you have gained powerful insights into human weakness, self-justification, and group dynamics. So you should come away from this with a better understanding of yourself and others. Since you’re being tormented about this, talk it out in short-term therapy. And think of a way to expiate your guilt. Maybe by donating to a charity or doing volunteer work—that is, finding a way to contribute to making the world better.
Q. Whose Book Is It, Anyway?: I’m a freelance writer who’s also published. I’m in my late 20s and living with my parents due to our current financial situation. My question is that whenever I talk about my own writing, my parents make suggestions about what I should be writing. My dad especially does this. They’ve always been supportive and loving, but these suggestions bother me. They cause self-doubt—would I have a more lucrative career if I listened to my parents, even though their topics are not always what I want to publish about? I’ve tried to tell them to stop, but they say, “Write whatever you want. I didn’t mean that.” Do you have any advice?
A: Whose house it anyway? At least you don’t want to act. It turns out that when you live with your parents, these pesky people tend to get in your business. I’m not totally clear on the economics of the situation you describe. You say you are all living together because of “our current financial situation.” I don’t know if you mean your parents are depending on your freelance income, or you’re living off their more reliable income. In any case, you aren’t—as is usually the case for freelance writers—making enough to support yourself. If you get a steadier job, that would allow you to do your freelance work evenings and weekends in your own domicile, thus you would avoid the editorial comments by your parents.
Q. Resentful Mom: I have a toddler son and a daughter who was a micropreemie weighing just 1 pound, 9 ounces. She had many struggles and spent three months in NICU but now is doing amazing, meeting most milestones per her corrected age. (We spent every day at the hospital while my mother-in-law took care of our son.) I love her as I imagined I would love a daughter, but my question is: Is it normal to favor one child over another? I feel like the connection I have with my son is so much stronger than with her. I feel so guilty, and I try my best to not let it show. I always split my time and attention equally, but I just feel closer to him. I’m terrified that my daughter will be negatively affected. My mom wasn’t very wonderful to me, and I can see the damage done to me in my personality and my everyday life. What do I do?
A: What you describe is perfectly normal. You went through agony in the first months of your daughter’s life, and you probably are still recovering physically and emotionally. You have had more time to know and nurture your son, so it’s understandable that you feel more connected to him—particularly since you could barely hold your daughter at the beginning of her life. But you love her and are thrilled for her progress. You also acknowledge your own unhappy relationship with your own mother and how it hurt you. So you are aware of your own emotional pitfalls and are dealing with them beautifully. All people have thoughts and feelings they don’t like and don’t want to express—that’s human. What matters is what you do with these aspects of oneself. If you continue to feel emotional distress, look into therapy or a support group for parents of preemies. I’m sure a lot of people have had your experience and can help you feel less alone.
Q. Re: Birthday Party Faux Pas: Now that I have picked my jaw up from the floor, please for the love of God dump that shrew now! After 21, what is the big deal about birthdays? So when you get married, anyone who has recently suffered a loss of some kind doesn’t get invited so her day isn’t ruined? No woman who have suffered fertility issues or miscarriages gets invited to her baby shower? Do yourself a big favor and kick her to the curb and take your late cousin’s partner out to dinner when he’s up to it.
A: Let’s hope this disinvitation is an aberration, because the sentiments expressed by the birthday girl are ugly.
Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.