Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Boyfriend’s Possible Secret Identity: I’ve been dating my boyfriend, “Mark,” for a few months now, but we’ve been casual friends for more than five years. He is overall a kindhearted person, a hard worker and provider, a fantastic father (to his daughter from a previous relationship), and a supportive and passionate partner. I feel very strongly that he could be “the one.” After he disclosed some not-so-great things about his past to me, none of which is an issue for me, I went snooping online (to see if there was anything he wasn’t telling me) and found public records that generally corroborated what he told me. I also found a request for a restraining order against him for domestic violence around the time he split with his child’s mom before we met. I didn’t know about this, but it doesn’t surprise me given what I know about her. However, I also found a potential other name for him on one of those background check sites. The first name is very close to his current name (think Mark vs. Matt), and the last name is his mother’s maiden name. She raised Mark as a single mom, and he didn’t know his dad until he was older. This discovery could be harmless, such as he changed his name when he finally got to know his dad, or something more serious, such as he has a really bad past he wants to escape. What do I do with this information? Do I bring it up and ask? Do I let it go and see if he brings it up?
A: Normally when one is thinking, “I’ve found ‘the one!’ ” one’s next thought is not: “I wonder what a background investigation will turn up about my beloved, because I have an uneasy feeling about his past.” He told you some unsavory things about himself. This could be good news in that he’s past all this and he wants to be open with you. Or it could be that he knows there’s so much out there, you’ll eventually hear or come upon some bad news, and he’d prefer to put his own spin on things. You say your searching “generally” corroborated his version, but I’d be interested in where his story and the record diverge. A request for a restraining order could be because he was threatening or engaging in violence, or because his ex was upping the ante in a contentious child visitation battle. But it sounds like trouble has a way of tailing Mark. Then there’s the matter of the possible multiple identities. Again, this could have an innocent explanation—or not. You need to discuss all this with Mark (and if you think that when you bring this up you should be in a public place, think what that means). Say that given what he told you, you felt you had to look into some of this, and you’d like to hear from him about what you found. I believe in second chances and people changing. I also believe in not being naive and self-deluded.
Q. Managing Lice: I’m constantly treating my kids for lice, and now that school is out for the year, I have figured out the source—a little playmate down the street. I don’t want to ban this child from my house (it’s not her fault that she has lice), but I’m exhausted from the never-ending hours of combing and treating. What can I say to her parents without ruining a neighborly relationship? And if the parents don’t step it up, what’s the middle ground so the kids can play but we stay lice-free?
A: Such infestations are one of the lousier aspects of raising children. I know because after a sleepover at a friend’s house, both my daughter and I hosted a thriving colony of lice. (My husband’s hairless scalp was, blessedly for him, unable to sustain vermin life.) I’m assuming you’re quite certain in your diagnosis—you don’t want to mistakenly call out the wrong child—so if you are, indeed you have to talk to the parents. Say that it appears little Jenny has a stubborn case of lice and they are friendly creatures because you think they’ve been passed back and forth with your daughter. Say you don’t want to disrupt their friendship, but they shouldn’t get together until both kids are lice-free, and your daughter is now. If the parents won’t address this, it is not nitpicking to say your kid can’t play with a child who—through no fault of her own—is hosting parasites.
Q. Unwilling Helicopter Mom to a Young Adult: My young adult daughter has some executive function issues, is an excellent student, has great ethics, but she needs me to help, long distance, with day-to-day things. Those things include arranging doctor’s appointments, transportation, and being there as a sounding board for her study plans for the day or week. Do I accept this is the manifestation of her special needs, or say, “Do it yourself, I’m not enabling any longer”?
A: Since your options are giving guidance to a child with function problems, or declining to “enable” anymore, you seem to have come to your own conclusion about your daughter’s actual needs and the nature of your relationship. I can’t disentangle what are her actual deficiencies and what are your unhealthy patterns, but needing a mother on call as a permanent lifeline is not healthy for either of you. She requires professional help. I suggest starting with an evaluation by an occupational therapist. Your daughter needs assistance in managing her day-to-day functioning. I hope such a professional can help her evaluate her trouble areas and put in place systems to address this. You should also be in on some of these initial conversations so that you don’t undermine the work she has to do to become a self-sufficient adult. And becoming one will reap enormous benefits both for her and for your relationship with her.
Q. I Don’t Want to Get Ahead: I am a married woman with a good job in the tech industry who just finished her master’s. However, this month an interesting opportunity has popped up: My parents are in the process of purchasing a farm to turn into a homestead. The plan is for me and my husband to join them in about a year. This is something we’ve always dreamed of doing. I’ve always been a country girl at heart, but never thought it possible until now. I would be quitting my job to mainly work the farm. Some people are aghast that I would take such a step after I put so much into my career and are telling me I’m making a huge mistake. While I’m good at the work I do, it doesn’t make me happy. I miss being around animals on a regular basis. How do I respond to people who think I’m being an idiot?
A: You are enraptured by an agrarian ideal of back-to-the land self-sufficiency. I will note that this entry on “homesteading” makes the specific point that this is “subsistence” living. What you are envisioning is relentless, hard labor with no financial payoff. Sure, the satisfactions will be great, but you have to think through the daily struggles such a life would entail. Instead of rushing into this, I think you should step back and consider a multi-stage plan. First, spend all your spare time and vacations working at the farm. See if you can string together enough time off that you have a good, long time to see what being full-time with your parents would be like. You don’t need me to tell you how to respond to people who are aghast: “Actually, this is a lifelong dream for both of us, and Tad and I are really excited.” I think you’re asking if you should listen to their aghastness. I think you should. If you have tech skills, there is a panoply of opportunities you could pursue, some that would surely be more gratifying than your current situation. Over time, you could put your own substantial nest egg together to underwrite the eventual opportunity to gather your own eggs from your own chickens. Agrarian life requires hardheaded realism—and cash.
Q. Re: Lice: Ugh. My head is now itching in memory of my daughter’s elementary school years. (She’s 22 now!) Do not knowingly let lice in your house. Assume the parents don’t know, and help them eradicate the lice from their daughter’s head.
A: I instinctively started scratching the back of my head, too, and my daughter is in college. This should be a straightforward conversation. And if the other parents get weird or defensive, sadly, no play dates.
Q. Mi Casa No Es Su Casa: My wife grew up in an extended family that treated their vacation houses as almost common property. It made sense in their situation—her dad and uncles all worked in a family business, the houses were modest and were kept up with a lot of shared DIY labor. I came to our marriage with a less modest vacation house, to which her family has assumed it can extend the same arrangement. I am not comfortable with it. For example, a cousin announces she’s going to stay there; reluctantly I agree, and then find she’s invited half a dozen friends to stay. My wife feels awkward resisting, as she’s benefited from the sharing most of her life. What’s a reasonable way to set some boundaries without creating resentment?
A: Your vacation home is a piece of property that pre-dates your marriage. It’s one thing if you and your wife treat it as joint property, but it’s wholly another if her extended clan thinks they’re entitled to descend on it en masse, their friends and family in tow. One reasonable way to set some boundaries is to set some. You say you are happy to extend some invitations on specific dates for family visits; otherwise the house is off limits. Oh, also, if you agree that people can visit when you’re not there, the visitors are limited to those guests you have approved. If they say that’s not how their family does it, then their family is entitled to purchase the kind of vacation home they like. Just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding about this, change the locks.
Q. Re: Background Check: Look closer … : Regarding the background check business, those websites compile data from a lot of sources, some of which may not be accurate or may actually belong to others with similar names. When I last checked my own credit reports, one listed addresses where I have never lived or worked. If the woman is really suspicious of her boyfriend, she needs to go to the original source, in this case the jurisdiction that actually (allegedly) issued the protection order or whatever else concerns her. She can’t just rely on a Web search.
A: Good point about the reliability of Web searches. Still, this woman has serious questions about her new guy that need verifiable answers.
Q. Re: Help for Daughter With Executive Function Issues: My husband is a therapist who deals with this issue all the time with some of his adult patients. Please figure out a way with an OT, a psychotherapist, a life coach, or someone who is trained to deal with this problem. You will not always be around to help her—if she is to be a fully functioning adult, she needs to learn these skills. A parent’s job is to make him/herself obsolete, not irreplaceable, in trying to accomplish the required actions of daily living.
A: Thanks for this crucial point that the daughter’s future depends on becoming more independent.