Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe writes: Good afternoon. Let's get going.
Q. Children: I am the mother of a 4-and-a-half-year-old son who is an only child. I read somewhere that I should stop taking baths with him when he turned 3 years old. I still take baths with him, he loves our bath time, and it does not feel weird to me. I think these things will naturally come to a halt when the time is right, but I would appreciate some advice here. I'm thinking America is so prudish and other cultures would think nothing of this, but I have been wanting to ask you this for a long time. P.S.—I love your column!
A: Some people are never comfortable with family nudity. Some (as I learned from a recent visit to a nudist camp for a story for Slate) are far, far too comfortable with it. Your tub time with your little boy has been a sweet and wonderful experience for both of you, but you're right that soon it will be time to pull the plug on it. The problem with leaving it open-ended about when it "naturally" stops is that it puts the burden on your son to display his discomfort. It's possible that as he turns 5 he'll start to feel uncomfortable but not want to hurt your feelings by saying so. I think it's time for you to start getting out of the tub. Instead of making every bath a joint cleaning session, start supervising him in the tub solo most of the time now. Then soon, if he asks why you no longer join him, you can explain that he's a big boy now, so he can take a bath alone, and it's getting too crowded for the two of you.
Dear Prudence: OCD Neat Freak?
Q. Bad Break-Up: A friend is absolutely devastated by the end of her three-year relationship. He met somebody else and moved on. We (her friends) understand her pain and feelings of confusion, loss, and anger. We each, and as a group, try to be supportive and helpful. But it's been six months! As one of our group asked, "Is this break-up going to last as long as the relationship?" We're pretty much tired of talking about the ex, what might have been, how it happened, etc. It's just tears and recriminations with no seeming effort on her part to, well, get over it. This may seem a selfish question, but how do we get over it? Or is it our tolerance and friendship that are lacking? This break-up has become an all-consuming topic within our group. And it's not pretty.
A: You need an intervention for your friend. The next time all of you are together and she starts in on, "I don't understand, sure we had some problems, but overall we were really happy and ..." all of you—kindly, please!—should explain you're concerned about her. Tell her break-ups are terribly painful, but they're also terribly common. He's with someone else now, and it's irretrievably over. Explain that all of you have realized allowing her to go 'round and 'round about what went wrong is not helping her—just the opposite. So as a group of friends you are going cold turkey on talking about the break-up. However, you feel she's gotten stuck emotionally, and she needs to sort this out with a professional who can help her get back to being a happy, independent person, who, like almost everyone else, once had her heart broken.
Q. Awkward Conversations: Recently, I found out that I was just shy of passing the bar exam. My friends knew that I should be receiving my results and have been asking me, to which I reply the truth—that I did not pass. This makes for a very awkward conversation when people seem surprised that I admit the truth, then they don't know what to say next. I just explain that I was close and will have to step it up a notch next time around. My fiance says just tell them you passed to avoid awkwardness, but I don't feel the need to lie to people. How can I be truthful and not put the person in an uncomfortable position for asking?
A: Since you plan on becoming a sworn officer of the court, it's probably not good practice to lie about your qualifications to assume those duties. Anyone who knows anything about the bar knows that failing the first time around is common and should not hinder an otherwise successful career—just ask Hillary Clinton, who failed the D.C. bar exam the first time, or Jerry Brown, who had to retake the California bar exam. Of course, it's awkward when people are expecting to say, "Congratulations!" so dispel the discomfort yourself. When they ask, you could say: "That question is inadmissible! Actually, I was a hair shy of passing, so I'm hitting the books and hope to pass next time around."
Q. Should I Trust Him? I've been dating a man for five months, but for two of them he was gone, and I had no idea where he was. He was sick in the hospital for a couple of days but said everything was fine; a week later, he left a note saying he had cancer and was dying. He didn't want to put me through that, so he was leaving town. He was gone for a little over a month before I heard from him. He decided to come back, and I agreed to let him, but one thing after another came up, and it was three weeks before he actually came back. I love him and wanted to believe what he told me was true. He's been back a month now, and in that time frame his "ex" wife has contacted me and told me they are still married and his cousin has told me the same thing. He denies it and is "working" on getting copies of the divorce papers. We've been to the doctor about the cancer he was told he had but are still waiting on the results. So much has happened, and I want to trust him, but I'm losing faith.
A: Who knew that marriage was the miracle cure for cancer we've all been waiting for! Your boyfriend isn't dying; he's just lying. Stop waiting for nonexistent biopsies and just say goodbye.
Q. Mothers-in-Law: My in-laws live out of town, so when they come to visit, they're here for at least a couple days. My husband and his dad often take on household projects (like rebuilding the shed) or head off fishing or golfing. Which leaves me solo with my mother-in-law. And it's not that I don't like her. She's really kind and sweet. The problem is, Prudie, that I can't get her to DO anything. She's a guest in my home, so I feel responsible for her good time. But I can't seem to find a common interest. Do you want to go to the museum? No, too much walking. Do you want to go apple picking? No, it'll be crowded. There's a cooking class at the community college, did you want to go with me? No, I already know how to cook that. She just sits and reads magazines, while I mill awkwardly about. Should I feel responsible for entertaining her? My husband says no. But I can't just let her sit and stare at the wall! What I should I do? She's going to be my MIL for a long time!
A: You have the mother-in-law from heaven, and you're complaining. She just wants to take a load off, sit in a corner, and read! Stop trying to stop her. Just go about your business, although continue to offer to include her. You can say, "Denise, I'm going to an exhibition at the art museum, are you interested in joining me?" Or, "I have to run by the mall, would you like to come?" Either she will or she won't. You have a nondemanding mother-in-law, so be thrilled she'll be around for a long time.
Q. Grown Child Indifferent to Anniversary: My husband and I are approaching our 50th wedding anniversary. This is very important to us, and we think it should be important to our children, too. Our oldest son, however, seems completely indifferent to such things. At 41, he has a good (if insecure) job and just ONE child to support, so I think he should be footing the bill for some kind of celebration (perhaps a cruise?). Admittedly, he's preoccupied with career worries, he and his partner don't splurge on themselves, and since they're not married, they don't even celebrate their own anniversary. Still, is it wrong for me to drop hints that something more than a late card would be appropriate this time around? After all, I brought this boy into the world, so I feel like he owes us some gratitude.
A: Probably, if he could afford it, your eldest would happily foot the bill for one of those space shots so you and your husband could be circling the moon and leave him alone. Congratulations on your golden anniversary. If you want to go on a cruise, it would have been a good idea for you to have saved up for one. Your children don't owe you a vacation or anything remotely like that—your son is probably just trying to hang on financially so he doesn't ever have to contemplate asking to move in with you. If you want to celebrate, tell the kids you're hosting a family dinner. Then at it, try not to tell them they're a bunch of ungrateful wretches.
Q. Lying to Boyfriend: I have been dating a great guy for about a year and half. Our relationship is going really well, and we're both very happy. There's just one problem: I've been lying to him ever since I met him. We originally met in a bar, and I never thought I would see him again, so when he asked about my background, I told what I thought was a harmless lie. I told him my parents were killed in a fire when I was a child and I was raised by my aunt and uncle. In reality, I come from an ultra-fundamentalist family that subscribes to a very strict sect of Evangelical Christianity. I'm one of 13 kids, and I left when I was 18 to avoid marrying. Ten years later, I know I made the right decision for me, but I feel terrible about lying to my boyfriend. Recently, he's been asking to meet my aunt and uncle, and the lie has spread to his family, who believe me to be an orphan. I'm not welcome at home, so it's not like my boyfriend would ever need to meet them, but every time it comes up or it's alluded to, I feel guilty all over again. Should I tell him the truth? And if so, how?
A: It's way past time for you to own up—you should have corrected this story after the second or third date. Tell your boyfriend there's something that's been weighing heavily on you ever since you met, and you have to let him know the truth. Explain that you had to leave your family to protect yourself and you are not welcome by them. So in a way your relationship is dead, although they actually aren't. Let's hope your boyfriend is understanding of the fact that your childhood was so traumatic that even speaking about it has been something you've wanted to avoid.
Q. Abusive Friend: I have been friends with "Kathy" for over five years. She tends not to make the best choices in life, and today that has landed her with a 3-year-old son she did not want, in severe debt, divorced, unemployed, and living unwanted in her mother's home. I have supported her through it all because we are friends, but recently I don't know what to do. Every time I am with her, she will hit or scream at her son. It doesn't matter if we are in a nice restaurant—she has smacked his face or pulled him out of his high chair to hit him. The last time I saw her, she hit him HARD (hit him in the face so he fell to the ground) no less than 10 times in two hours. I know if I had said something at the time it would not have gone well, and she has said her son looks just like her ex-husband, and it makes her "sick." What am I obligated to do in this situation? I feel she is really harming this child both physically and emotionally.
A: Sadly, here's the weekly "I've been watching a mother abuse her child and I don't know what to do" question. This woman is an immediate danger to her son, and it's way past the time to have a conversation with her about her mothering skills. When you realize your side of the conversation would be, "'Kathy, when you try to break Billy's jaw or tell him the sight of him makes you sick, I think maybe you need to rethink how you deal with the stresses of having a child," it's time for action, not conversation. Call child protective services and don't hold back on telling them how out of control this mother is. The story of what this child is enduring is making me cry.
Q. Social Conversations: I am a 30-year-old woman and have been a consultant for six years. My job has allowed me to learn about topics in both business and public affairs. In social situations, sometimes friends or family will bring up topics ranging from compensation and benefit structures to environmental policy. If have expertise, I try to explain the issue or topic if the speaker seems to be misinformed. At times, the person looks annoyed that I am trying to be helpful to them. Am I not being helpful? Am I acting like a know-it-all? Should I just pretend that I am not knowledgeable about a particular issue next time?
A: The wonderful comedian Irwin Corey* used to bill himself as "The World's Foremost Authority." Your career has allowed you become one in real life, but you're right, sometimes in social conversation people are just sounding off, and they don't necessarily want a lecture on benefit structure from the world's foremost authority. So pick your spots as to when you want to display your superior knowledge about, well, everything.
Q. Sweets at the Office: After many years of being overweight, I'm finally down to a healthy weight. My doctor has told me that I can lose more if I want, but to just not gain any of the weight back. That said, I've been watching my diet rather closely. My question is about sweets in the office. Regularly we will have pizza, donuts, cookies, cake, cupcakes, etc., about once a month or so. I partake when I can, but most times the food is not something I want to eat. Quite often I'm the only one not eating, and it is becoming noticeable. Don't get me wrong. I eat regularly throughout the day, but I just don't want yet another slice of pizza or cheesecake, especially if I already indulged the night before for a friend's birthday party or wedding. How do I tell well-meaning co-workers that I don't care for anything they're serving? It's especially awkward as some of these treats are homemade, and I don't want to offend anyone. When I first started, I would eat this stuff to be nice, but now I know the frequency and I can no longer do it.
A: "No thanks, but it does look delicious." Unfortunately, we live in a world in which no place is a food-free zone, so there's no way you're going to maintain your weight loss if you eat every time food is offered. No one else can force you to put food in your mouth. Just be pleasant but firm in your refusal.
Q. Therapy: How can I tactfully tell a therapist that after a year I don't feel like we are getting anywhere and plan to find someone else? I feel like I spend 50 minutes talking about what happened during the time between visits—but not addressing my anxieties. Heck, I could probably have the same results by buying a case of beer and asking my friends to come over and listen. Her philosophy is to focus on the present day, but I feel if there is an issue from my past that makes me anxious now, shouldn't we address it?
A: You could cancel the next session and leave a message saying you have decided to move on. Or if you feel after a year of wasting your time, you owe her an in-person goodbye, you could explain you are discontinuing therapy because you feel you've gotten everything you can out of it. Part of the therapeutic process is recognizing when it is not working and moving on.
Q. Older Boyfriend Won't Commit: I am 25 years old, and my boyfriend is 37. We have been dating for a year and a half. I want to move in with him so that we can take the next level in our relationship, but I think he is afraid of commitment. He says he wants marriage and kids one day, but he's already 37 and doesn't seem to be making any moves to attain those goals. He wants me to wait six more months and then revisit the topic. I love him and want to be with him, but six months is a long time to wait when it isn't even a guarantee he will be willing to let me move in. Also I am not from this state and would not stay here if it wasn't for him. What should I do?
A: Your boyfriend is not quite leveling with you, but he's making it very clear that for him the next level is keeping things just as they are. If that's OK with you, then enjoy his company for now. He's 37, and you say has so far fended off serious commitment, as he seems to be doing with you. It sounds as if you're starting to feel ready for one. You've invested 18 months with this guy, which isn't that long, but how much more time do you want to spend with someone whose ultimate goals seem incompatible with yours? Keep in mind that moving in with someone like this could actually be an impediment to getting married and having children. There you are in a pseudo-marriage, but without the legal commitment. He may feel very little incentive to change that.
Q. Mom Wants To Buy the Entire Supermarket as a Way of Saying I Love You: My mom, like millions of mothers across the world, expresses her love through food. When she visits my home (about four or five times a year) she will bring a bag bursting with food and go grocery shopping several times. I've asked her not to stock up my fridge, but she merely interprets this as "rather than buying 10 boxes of chocolate soy milk, please buy me seven boxes instead." It gets to a point where my pantry is so packed I don't even know what is in it, and a lot of the food ends up in the trash after its expiry date. I've tried to go grocery shopping with her to limit her purchases, but then she'll go again when I'm not present and buy beyond what's necessary! Is there an effective way of telling her, as lovingly as possible, to stop buying me so much food?
A: You've tried to stop her, but her pleasure in demonstrating through food how much she cares outweighs your protestations about wasting food. Surely, your area has a food pantry for people in need. So after Mom's left, rebag the unexpired groceries and drop them off for someone who will appreciate them.
Q. Thank-You Notes: I have a twentysomething niece who doesn't seem familiar with thank-you notes. She lives in another state, so I generally mail her gifts for special occasions like Christmas, birthdays, graduations, etc. She recently had a baby, and I sent her a couple of rather nice gifts: car seat and stroller. Needless to say, when she called on both occasions to advise, "I got the box but haven't opened it yet," I was irked. Since most of her gifts are ordered online, a nice description, how much she liked the gift … something … would really be appreciated. However, mum's the word. It's always, "I got the box." Am I overreacting, or is a simple thank you passé?
A: My mail would indicate that many people who receive gifts think the thank-you note is passé. Which I think allows the gift giver to decide that as far as future gifts are concerned, you'll pass. You need to address this directly. Next time you speak to your niece, tell her you love picking out gifts she'll enjoy, but you feel irked when you don't get a thank you, because knowing she got the gift and enjoys it would mean a lot to you. She may throw a hissy and think you're a demanding old prune. In which case, think of the money you'll save on gifts.
Q. RE: Reporting Abuse: For a decade, I worked in a field that involved children and their families, and over that time I had to call protective services more than a dozen times. The first time I agonized for hours and cried before, during, and after that call because I was sure that I had destroyed an entire family. But that's just not the case. Social workers are not the boogey-men that TV movies make them out to be. I have never once had a call about abuse result in catastrophe. Instead, I have seen parents who needed a wake-up call receive the help they, and their children, needed. Sometimes it's just counseling, and other times a child does need to be removed for their own safety. But no matter what the outcome, calling for help from people who are there to provide it is a gift for a child who is in a bad situation. Don't be afraid to make the call if your gut tells you that child is in trouble.
A: Thank you for this. It's true there are overzealous people in the field, and wholly innocent parents have been caught up in misunderstandings. But far more often years of horrible abuse is inflicted on children because no one wanted to step up. You're so right that if someone is observing a situation in which a child is in danger or being treated terribly, that means it's time to make a call.
Q. Tired of Talking About It: I recently ended a yearlong serious relationship. We went through some tough times but were very close. However, when she cheated on me, that was the final straw and I ended the relationship. My friends are trying to be there for me, and I appreciate that, however, how do I get them to stop asking about how I'm doing, if I'm OK, etc. I'm not doing great, I'm heartbroken, and it's going to take a while to get over this. I don't want to alienate them, I just want to try and get my mind off of it when I'm with my friends. Tired of the same questions.
A: "Thanks for asking. I'm doing pretty well. Actually, I'm getting ready to start dating again." That should shift the conversation from well-meaning sympathy to "I think I've got someone for you."
Q. Thank-You Notes: While more old-fashioned folks still disapprove, I send thank-you e-mails as soon as a gift has arrived (and I open it immediately to make sure it's OK). At least among my circle, thank-you e-mails are acceptable nowadays.
A: One way to give value-added to an e-mailed thank you is to include a photo of the gift being worn, used, or displayed.
Emily Yoffe writes: Thanks everyone! Talk to you next week.
*Correction, Oct. 12, 2010: Prudie originally and incorrectly asserted that comedian Irwin Corey had died. She was happy to hear that "the Professor," now 96, is still the world's foremost authority!