Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Good afternoon, everybody! Let’s chat.
Q. An acquaintance: We have just found out from our now-early-20s daughter that, when she was a minor, a man our family has known for many years not only offered her alcohol (which she accepted) but then sent her, and at least one other girl, a picture of his naked genitals! She says that there was no further contact; he deleted the picture, but she kept a screenshot. We are close friends with his sister-in-law and believe that revealing this ugly truth likely would destroy that precious friendship, not to mention his own beautiful family. We are at a loss to know what, if anything, we should do. This happened several years ago, and our daughter doesn’t seem traumatized, but what if he has continued to do this, or worse, with other young girls? What is our responsibility?
A: I’d talk to your daughter first since this involves her directly. I’m glad she doesn’t seem traumatized, but she clearly kept the picture and told you about it because it’s still on her mind years later—it wasn’t just a blip, either. What he did was wrong and illegal, and, assuming your daughter feels prepared to move forward, you should consider all your options, not just in terms of bringing this information to his family’s attention but also filing a police report. It’s very likely that he has continued to send unwanted pictures of his genitals to children; that is information that should affect his friendships and his “beautiful family.” He should not be around children, and you can’t trust him to act responsibly with them. This information cannot remain safely private.
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Q. Dating while dying: I am a 30-year-old woman and I am suffering from a very serious, likely terminal illness. I had to quit my important job and move in with family, and I am often in terrible pain. I am in no position to be in a relationship; however, when I’m up to it I’d still like to have sex. I’ve always had a very active sex life. But I have no idea how to go about explaining my situation to potential partners—being ill isn’t very alluring. I know my situation is strange and I have no idea how to approach this. Dealing with the possibility of death is difficult enough at my age, but I want to try to enjoy the time that I have left. What should I do or say about my health?
A: A few options spring to mind: You might get in touch with former flings or lovers and see if they’re interested in sex, since it would probably be easier to have a tricky conversation about illness and desire with someone you already know and trust than with a total stranger. Or if you’re looking to have the occasional one-night stand, you certainly don’t have to explain anything about your health to someone you’re unlikely to see again. Since you say you’re often in pain and no longer able to work, it may be necessary to say something to possible partners; you may want to let them know that you experience chronic pain and may require breaks or certain positions in order to address it. That gives them information sufficient to the encounter without inviting them to share an intimate conversation about death and dying that you may not be interested in having every time you want to get laid.
There’s also the possibility, if you’re posting ads online or using dating and hookup ads, of getting the information out of the way in a way that’s quick and clear about how you want it to be handled: Mention your illness upfront (you don’t have to go into details about prognosis or a specific diagnosis, just as much as you feel comfortable disclosing), what you might need in terms of accommodation, and a setting-forth of terms like “If you don’t think you’d be able to keep your curiosity in check, I’m probably not for you.”
I hope that you’re able to find ways to talk about your illness, body, and needs in ways that work for you, and that you find a lot of curious, exciting partners. I wish you a lot of luck!
Q. Afraid to be fired but don’t want a new job: I massively messed up a very important project at work. I’ve apologized profusely and tried every way I could to help repair some of the damage, but I’m pretty afraid I might be fired soon. I’m only being given grunt work now, so I can’t even try to prove that I can do better and be worth keeping around. I really love this company and most of my co-workers—I don’t want to leave, even if staying means I’m only allowed to do the miserable, lower-level work for a good while. With the high cost of living, I can’t afford to be out of a job for long if I get fired, and I know it’s easier to get one while you still have one: For one thing, if you’re still employed, there won’t be any awkward questions about why you were fired. Should I start interviewing with other companies, even if I don’t want to and wouldn’t take a job offer unless I actually lost my current one?
A: This is really tough! I’d welcome advice from people who have weathered similar experiences at work; if I were in your position, I think it might depend on how long I’d been at that company, how high the turnover rate usually is, my preexisting relationship with my boss, and whether I’d been put on a formal performance improvement plan or was simply getting handed grunt work piecemeal. If you’ve been there a while and this is your first big fuckup, if you’re able to get clarity from your boss about what you can do to restore trust and increased responsibilities, if you have a sense of what they expect from you in the future to recover (which might mean carefully initiating that conversation), then I’d encourage you to focus your attention on the job at hand rather than applying for jobs you’d only take if you were fired (which is something you unfortunately can’t anticipate perfectly). But if you’ve only been there a year or two, or you’re getting hostile or unclear messages from management, I’d start looking now. You say you’re willing to take your lumps for now, but I wonder if you’d still feel this enthusiastic about the company and your co-workers if a year down the road everyone still treated you like the kid who fucked up and then excluded you from important meetings and projects.
Q. OB-GYN-ning up trouble: My future wife (I’m female also) is currently completing her residency to become an OB-GYN. I love her fiercely and our relationship is great. The problem is what happens when I tell people her future profession. I get more than a few comments along the lines of “Wait, don’t you get jealous of her getting to be around that all day?” or “Are you worried about her looking at other people’s vaginas?” I detest these comments. They imply 1) a disgusting lack of professionalism on her part, as well as 2) the intimation that our relationship is purely based on sex, and that I would somehow get jealous. I seriously can’t overstate how much I hate this. Am I overreacting? What should I say when I hear these sorts of comments? Am I out of line for wanting to snap back something rude?
A: “Why would you say something like that to me?” is a classic for a reason, although it can get you into trouble with the occasional person who’s deeply committed to rudeness and will try to answer you. Better to go with something brief but clear: “No,” “That’s incredibly rude,” “What an embarrassing thing for you to have said,” “I’m not going to answer that.”
But good Lord, no, you’re not overreacting; assuming OB-GYNs get into their field for prurient reasons is totally bizarre and creepy. (Have these people ever had a pelvic exam, possibly the least sexy experience it is possible to have?) Not to mention the implication that you’ll only be able to “keep” your fiancée if you can keep her from ever seeing other people’s vaginas. What an odd idea of both professional and romantic commitment these people have! You can always forestall these comments, too, by replying when asked what she does for a living: “She’s in training to become an OB-GYN—you wouldn’t believe the ridiculous, prurient things some people say to me when they learn about her specialty. It’s like they suddenly lose all reason.”
Q. Mother-in-law wants a thank-you card: My mother-in-law has been sending my husband text messages asking whether her thank-you card was lost in the mail. Her friend and mother received thank-yous and she is asking for hers. Her friend and mother gave us wedding gifts, which is why we thanked them! My MIL did not have the means to help with the wedding or to offer us a gift, and we would have never asked or expected her to. The wedding was within driving distance for her and easy enough for her to attend; everyone who was there did receive a handwritten thank-you note for being a part of our day (there were only 45 guests so it was an intimate wedding), but I did not think she needed an additional thank-you card simply for being at her only son’s wedding.
She and my husband have a very fraught relationship: She actually left him and his sister to be raised by their grandparents when they were very young (barely in middle school), and he does not think of her as a mother. She is perplexed by their dynamic and refuses to take responsibility, while also being a heavy day drinker. Her expectations are unreasonable and I know my husband would prefer not to hear from her at all. Do I confront her about this? It upsets me that she feels entitled to a card, and that she is going around talking to people about how we didn’t send her one.
A: Ordinarily I’d agree that you shouldn’t have to write someone a thank-you note for simply attending a wedding. However, since you two decided to send one to everyone who attended except for her, I think the right thing to do is be consistent and write her one too. Since sending wedding guests thank-you notes simply for showing up is a little unusual, leaving her off stands out all the more. It will take the two of you five minutes to write something brief about how much you appreciate her taking the time to celebrate your wedding with you. If you and your husband simply can’t bring yourself to do it, you’re certainly allowed to not write her one and accept that she’ll feel slighted and be angry.
You don’t have to litigate this in the court of public opinion—none of your friends are going to drop you because they know you didn’t write your mother-in-law a thank-you note. Whatever your husband decides to do with his mother in the long run, whether that be having a serious conversation with her about how seriously her abandonment hurt him as a child, telling her he’d rather not hear from her again, or ignoring her complaints and keeping their interactions on a strictly surface-level basis, you should think of your position as primarily one of support. You don’t have to intervene on his behalf, either with her or with other people.
Q. My husband lacks basic hygiene: I have been married to my husband for a little more than a year. Due to work we lived apart long-distance until a couple months after our wedding. Because of that, I didn’t realize that my husband lacks any understanding of personal hygiene. He will only brush his teeth and shower maybe once a week. And when he does, it’s poorly done: He brushes for less than a minute, no flossing and no mouthwash. He also doesn’t change his underwear except maybe every few days and unfortunately he doesn’t clean himself well after going to the bathroom. As a result, my husband stinks. Our love life has suffered, as I’m completely turned off by his odor. His breath has even woken me up at night—it’s that bad! I’ve talked to him about this and things improved for about a week, but he went right back to not taking care of himself. I don’t know what else to do about this.
A: Talk to him about this again. Use kind and respectful language, but be very clear about how his hygiene affects his health (dental hygiene has a serious effect on cardiovascular health, for example), your ability to be intimate (both sexually and nonsexually), the cleanliness of your home, etc. This is serious and he needs to take it seriously; this is not a mild disagreement that he can casually work on, but a complete overhaul of how he treats his body and his clothes that may require professional or medical help to get going (getting tested for any possible underlying or contributing conditions, for example). You have to have multiple conversations about it that make it very clear that, if left unchecked, his inattention to basic hygiene will affect your ability to kiss him, sleep in bed next to him, and quite possibly remain in this marriage. It may feel painful or embarrassing at first but the only way out is through—he may need serious medical and therapeutic help, he may simply need to realize just how serious the stakes are here, or both, but you have every right to make it clear just how urgent and important this is in order for you to continue living with him.
Q. Meddling mother causing madness: My mother, while otherwise a wonderful person, is obsessed with me getting married. I recently rekindled things with an old flame who lives across the country. We may be in a position to make things more serious … in two or three years, when we can live in the same place. Since finding out we’d visited, my mother has taken me to see wedding venues under the guise of walking the dog, tried to invite herself to meet his parents (we’re not officially dating!), and asked me about the “status” of the relationship. It’s the same as yesterday! This is driving me nuts. I have told her firmly that this is inappropriate and ended conversations over this nonsense, but she can’t seem to stop herself. I feel like I have to censor everything that comes out of my mouth lest I unwittingly give her a crumb of information with which to pester me with for weeks. What should I do?
A: Heavily censor what you say to your mother about your personal life, tell her when she’s being inappropriate, end conversations when she overrides your limits, and bail on any dog-walking excursions that turn into “surprise” wedding-venue tours: “This obsession with trying to steer every conversation around to the subject of marriage will not make me get married any faster, but it will make it very difficult for us to have any real closeness in our relationship. That’s not what I want for us.”
Q. Re: Afraid to be fired but don’t want a new job: If the letter writer really thinks they may be fired they should start looking. Once they are fired they will most likely not get a good reference. Even if the company policy is to not give references the hiring company can legally ask if the applicant is eligible for rehire. Once fired the answer would most likely be “No.” That’s not good.
A: I do agree that while you can’t predict the outcome perfectly, it would definitely be worse to be fired unprepared than to start looking for other jobs now and potentially find a better opportunity elsewhere.
Q. Re: Mother-in-law wants a thank-you card: I read the letter as saying that everyone including the mother-in-law got a handwritten note, and that she was expecting an additional thank-you card.
A: My read here is that everyone but the mother-in-law got a note just for attending and that the “friend and mother” referenced got additional thank-you notes for gifts they got the bridal couple. If she has gotten one of the notes everyone got and is bugging the couple for an additional thank-you note—for a nonexistent gift—I agree that’s ridiculous and they should not write her a second one.
Q. Re: Afraid to be fired but don’t want a new job: This was me eight years ago. I got “laid off” in a big round of layoffs, several months after doing my job properly but pissing off the wrong senior, vindictive person who didn’t like being told not to break the law. I wish I had started looking for a job earlier. The thing that kept me there was that I was close to hitting the five-year mark to qualify for the company’s pension, and I didn’t want to give that up. As it turned out, I was laid off in part due to the fact that they were trying to cut back on their pension obligations. So start looking. It can’t hurt. Companies are not loyal—they are, by nature, psychopathic. Even the nicest ones change with new management.
A: “Companies aren’t loyal” is an excellent reminder for everyone, even if you have a great individual boss and things are going well right now.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
Q. Should I offer my flat-chested daughter a boob job? I was barely an AA cup as a young woman and very self-conscious about it. At age 36, after I finished nursing my youngest, I had breast augmentation surgery. For the past 10 years I’ve been a B cup, and I’ve been completely satisfied with my decision. My daughter, who’s about to turn 18, has inherited her breast size from me. Although we haven’t talked about it explicitly, I suspect she’s just as self-conscious about it as I was. She has literally run away to hide while I consulted with the lingerie sales lady about bras for her. I’m thinking about offering her the option of augmentation surgery before she goes to college. She doesn’t know I have implants, and we’re not generally an image-centric or pro–plastic surgery kind of family. But I’m worried that if I suggest this, I might create the very self-consciousness that I’m aiming to help her relieve. I don’t want her to think that I think there’s anything wrong with her body. Is this a terrible idea? And if I’m not crazy, how do I bring this up in a way that doesn’t imply that I think there’s something wrong with her? Read what Prudie had to say.