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 started.
Q. Moral Dilemma: A couple of weeks ago, one of my sisters-in-law approached me and offered me a large sum of cash if I would father a child with her. I quickly declined. Unfortunately the problem didn't end. Sister-in-law No. 1 then went to sister-in-law No. 2's husband and asked him the same thing, and he accepted the offer. I have been debating weather I should tell my wife about this. If I do, I know that she will tell sister-in-law No. 2. I'm not wanting to make waves in the family.
A: Spoiler alert: A scenario like this is a major plot point in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County. Let's just say the revelation of this family cross-fertilization doesn't improve the banter at the dinner table. You may not want to make waves, but your sister-in-law sounds like she wants to create a tsunami. It's not clear from your letter whether she is married and she's trying to get around her husband's fertility problem, or she intends to be a single mother who would like to keep it all in the family. In either case, no one needs to offer a fortune for sperm. Eggs cost real money, sperm are a dime a dozen. I'm sure you and your brother-in-law are wonderful specimens, but if she needs a sperm donor, there are less fraught ways of finding seed. Adding to the confusion here is the impression you give that she plans to get a fill-up without filling in any of her sisters. It doesn't sound as if you took a vow of silence, so it would be strange indeed not to say to your wife, "Honey, you will not believe what Denise just told me she would like as a Christmas gift." Your sister-in-law asked and she didn't receive. But there's no reason for you, being asked, not to tell.
Dear Prudence: Double-D Dilemma
Q. Engagement Rings: I just got engaged two weeks ago to a wonderful man I've been dating for almost two years. The proposal itself was very spur-of-the-moment and spontaneous, so my boyfriend hadn't bought a ring or even looked into it. We were watching TV a few days ago and—lo and behold—a jewelry commercial came on. My now-fiance used it as a springboard to ask if I had any ring preferences, and I do. I would prefer not to have one at all. I just personally believe they're a waste of money and I wear latex gloves everyday for my job anyway, so I'm not sure I see the point. I think the entire "tradition" of diamond engagement rings is something created by the diamond industry and I would rather not buy into it when I think it's much more sensible to save our money for something we both really want—like a house. My fiance was stunned when I told him this. While he sees the logic, he's also afraid that everyone will think he's cheap for not buying me a ring, or that he can't afford it, and he wants to get me a ring anyway. I think that's ridiculous. I'm not much of a jewelry person, and I can't understand spending so much money on something I might wear a few times a year at most. Who's right?
A: The whole issue of engagement rings has gotten out of hand. You've put your finger on the ridiculous problem of people judging a man's devotion by the size of the carats he produces. It's gotten so bad that couples literally don't get engaged because the man doesn't have the money for a big enough rock. Commitment has nothing to do with diamonds. Tell your fiance he won't look cheap when the two of you come up with a down payment for a house while your friends are trying to pay off the ring. I am also not a jewelry person, didn't get an engagement ring, and feel very married and unjudged just wearing a plain, gold band.
Q. Virginia: My husband is serving in Iraq—his second tour—and will be there until next June. I am probably jumping the gun here, and I'm trying very hard not to get resentful, but when he comes back, he and his gang will get all the accolades and speeches and whatever else, and I'll get what …. for holding down the fort by myself while he's been gone? It's all about him, and it's starting to bug me. The more I think about it, the more PO'ed I get. I didn't realize I was this selfish. Help.
A: Please find a support group for spouses of people serving in war zones. You're right, the people left behind who have to raise the kids alone, who live with the constant fear of something happening to their loved one, don't get enough support and even adulation for what they do. But you have to find a constructive way to blow off your anger and frustration so it doesn't come out at your husband, or well-wishers, when he returns. Recognizing this is how you feel and getting these feelings acknowledged can be therapeutic in and of itself. And when your husband comes back, don't be afraid to seek help for the two of you—you've both been through hell, and there's no shame in needing some professional help to keep your marriage on track.
Q. Personal Politics: After last week's election, I have been constantly bombarded by co-workers and friends asking if I voted and who I voted for. Not only does this come up in conversation but I have received e-mails, Facebook messages, and phone calls. After much research and even attendance to a debate, I did not feel the need to support any candidate and chose not to vote. Frankly, I feel like this is no one's business and I have tried to deflect most of the questions. When I have stated that I did not participate, I have been berated and told how "un-American" I am and that I should even lose my right to vote! I feel like I put in more of an effort than the average voter to learn about the candidates and did not find someone that I felt represented my opinions. How can I move the conversation along without having to argue for my right not to vote?
A: Co-workers should know to leave politics out of the office. You have no obligation to answer any social question you don't care to answer. Ignore the e-mail and Facebook exit polls. If people ask you in person or on the phone, just say you don't want to talk politics and that you're grateful the U.S. has a secret ballot.
Q. Sibling Rivalry: What do you do when a (somewhat) unstable sibling constantly takes credit for your thoughts, ideas, opinions, life plans, political preference, etc.? It's irritating, especially when I'm trying to talk about health care and she jumps in to let everyone know that she came to that conclusion first, so therefore that's where I got the idea. Any witty comebacks?
A: I have no doubt that everyone in the family knows there's something wrong with your sister and she's a sad case. Sure she's irritating, unstable people often are. You're not going to stabilize her, however, by putting her down. A smile and nod, or a, "Then we agree on that!" will acknowledge her and demonstrate your kindness. When it gets too much, try to move out of her orbit and talk to someone else.
Q. Engagement Ring: If he's worried about what people will say—and they WILL say stuff—go buy a fake ring and tell people it's real. After you get married, you can just wear your band and no one will care if you don't wear the e-ring.
A: But she doesn't want a ring, so who cares what people say? Maybe she should start a Facebook page: I'm Engaged, in Love, and Happily Ringless.
Q. Uninvited to the Wedding: My college roommate, one of my favorite people in the world, got married about two weeks ago. I did not get an invitation. Our lives have taken us in different directions and we haven't always kept in touch as much as I would like, but when we have gotten together it has been, I thought, just like old times. Until, that is, five years ago when I got married and moved two hours away from her. I have tried on several occasions to get together since then, but she has always been on vacation or about to go on vacation, or, occasionally, working. She hasn't made any effort to get together or even communicate at all. Now she has gotten married and I only know because of Facebook. I am really hurt. I don't expect her to have asked me to be a bridesmaid or anything, but our friendship was the most important relationship I had during a significant part of my life, and I would have loved to have been there. I really love this friend and I am so sad to think that our friendship may be a thing of the past. What can I do to let her know how much our friendship means to me without being petty because of the un-invite?
A: She's cut you off, and maybe she will do you the favor of telling you why if you ask. You could send her a letter saying you were so happy for her to read of her wedding. Then say you know you two have drifted apart in recent years, but you wanted to make a last try to renew your friendship because it meant so much to you. Tell her if there's something that happened to cause the break, you'd like to know. Then leave it up to her. If she doesn't answer—there's your answer. If she blows you off with some nonresponsive answer, accept that sometimes wonderful relationships come to an end.
Q. Telling Kids Why You're Childless: My niece, nephew, and friends' kids are now at the age when they are asking my husband and me why we don't have kids. Ages 8-13 range. We don't have kids by choice, but do love kids, especially them. What might I be able to say so they don't feel uncomfortable or think that we don't like kids? Thanks!
A: If they ask, they're all old enough to get a straight, short answer from you. You can tell them not everyone wants to be or is meant to be a parent. But that doesn't mean you don't love kids, because you love them. Say that you and your husband look forward to watching them grow and to being part of their lives.
Q. USA: Does Karma really exist? I think I'm living in a parallel universe because the people who are disrespectful, lazy, and down-right hostile get away with this boorish behavior without any consequences. The people who are the opposite—hard workers, thoughtful, and decent don't get appreciated or respected for their decency. Hardly any motivation for "doing right and doing good," except for, I don't want to live my life being disrespectful and rude.
A: I'm in the universe parallel to yours. Sure, the world is full of rotten people who sometimes get away with it. But it's also full of good and decent people who are admired and respected for being such, and who get to go to sleep at night without being filled with self-loathing or wondering why their relationships always go awry. Being a good person is its own reward.
Q. Multiracial Children: I'm a Caucasian female married to a wonderful Chinese husband. We recently had a baby girl who, considering that her father has all the dominant genes, looks very much like him and not at all like me. I have no problem with this since she's mine and beautiful. However, recently I've been stumped regarding how to handle strangers who approach me and assume that I've adopted her. They coo questions like, "Where did you adopt her from?" or "Where did she come from?" Answers such as, "I didn't" or "Denver" usually cause more questions or confusion ... or if I'm the least bit annoyed, I come off as rude. What's the most polite way to handle these types of questions? Many thanks!
A: Why, why, why do people think they have a right to inquire about the medical issues or biological origins of people they don't know? It doesn't matter if strangers are confused, her ethnic heritage is none of their business. However, I've heard from mothers in your situation who have children old enough to understand questions are being raised about them, and you don't want your daughter to pick up the sense there is something about her origins that makes you angry or uncomfortable. It's completely up to you whether or not to answer these strangers, but you could consider saying simply, "My husband is Chinese."
Q. Overbearing Mom or Oversensitive Daughter? My mother has always been a little overbearing and controlling, but ever since I married and moved down the Eastern Seaboard with my husband, she seems to have gotten a little out of hand. She calls constantly, sometimes multiple times a day, sends us expensive and unnecessary gifts (as if she's trying to bribe us into having more contact). We recently obtained a landline, which was supposed to be for emergency use only, and immediately she began calling us at all hours of the morning and evening on the very line we had designated for life-or-death situations only. If we don't pick up the phone, she often calls and re-calls every one of our cell phones until one of us finally relents and answers. I love my mother dearly and enjoy talking to her but am not the type of person who feels the need to be in contact with family and friends on a daily basis and enjoy having a bit of "personal" space when it comes to technology/communication. I've tried to talk to her about the amount she calls in the past, but she becomes very defensive and tries to make me feel like I'm ruining our relationship or ungrateful for having her in my life at all. What should I do?
A: Maybe when you were a teenager, your mother set some ground rules for your telephone use. Now, you have to set some with her. Tell her you just don't have time to talk every day, then set up a fixed time—maybe one to three times a week—to have a short conversation with her. Tell her unless there's an emergency, your conversations will have to wait. If she abuses this, use your caller I.D. to screen the calls, put your cell phones on vibrate, and ignore her. If, when you talk to her, she tries to guilt-trip you, explain you want to have a pleasant conversation, so unless she can change topics, you're going to have to end the call. Then stick to this until she's trained. Sure, in the movies they say, "We have ways to make you talk," but surely even your overbearing mother is not going to put bamboo under your fingernails until she hears what you had for lunch every day.
Q. Re: Personal Politics: I work in an office where everyone seems to lean one way politically and I lean (very strongly) the other—whenever politics come up and someone asks, I simply say: "I don't feel comfortable discussing it" and change the subject. No need to explain anything!
A: Perfect. Thank you.
Q. Re: Uninvited to the Wedding: Please, please do not put your friend on the spot like Prudie advised. Your former roommate has already made it very clear that she no longer wants to be in contact. It's probably nothing more nefarious than that she has simply moved on. It's unlikely you did anything wrong, so asking her to reconsider will put her in a very awkward position. You've already tried to re-establish ties and she did not respond. I could be this roommate—I'm bad at keeping in touch and don't have much interest in my old college friends and would be mortified if someone had the nerve to ask me why I drifted away. Just let her go and be gracious about it.
A: It's one thing to drift apart, it's another to cut off all contact with a close friend for no apparent reason. If there's a reason, the letter writer is entitled to ask to know. But as I suggested, sometimes there is no reason. So if you got this letter, you'd ignore it or give some unresponsive answer—exactly making my point that the friendship is dead.
Q. Re: Multiracial Children: Or even, "She takes after her father."
A: Good one!
Q. Being One-Upped: I have a mother whom I love always and respect most of the time. Whenever she gets around other people, she goes out of her way to embarrass me, especially if they know me and not her. Going through customs, where I was known because of work, she asks if everyone knows her unmarried daughter? Whenever I'm performing, she tries to impress everyone with how much better she was/is at the same thing. She insists on trying to "humanize" me to my young students by telling them and their parents about mistakes I made as a child. She also feels the need to share too much personal information about herself with strangers everywhere she goes. While I am all too aware of my mistakes, marital status, and assorted faults I prefer to keep my business just that, my business. She can be very generous and loving, but I can't figure out how to ask her to please stop. Any ideas?
A: Why is your mother accompanying you to your classroom, attending your performances, and traveling with you if she so consistently embarrasses and undermines you? Sure she's a loving person, except for every time you're in public with her and she goes out of her way to humiliate you. She sounds awful. If she's nice in private, limit your contact with her to family gatherings.
Q. Relationships: For the last few years, I have been dating a wonderful man. He has all the qualities I would look for in a lifelong companion—he's kind, loving, and even-tempered, is successful and well-respected in his profession, and shares almost identical goals and dreams with me. He has been a constant friend and companion these last few years, and I can't imagine not sharing my future with him. He recently proposed, and we have been making preparations to get married. However, there's one nagging issue I just can't seem to let rest: My would-be husband sometimes browses the "casual encounters" section of a certain online classifieds site. I have confronted him about this, and he tells me this is like pornography for him, but titillating in a different way. I'll confess, I've secretly scoured his e-mail addresses looking for evidence of infidelity, but he appears to be squeaky clean. He knows I disapprove and has apologized for betraying my trust. Half of me thinks it's OK to look but not touch, while the other feels like he's playing with fire. Should I set my worries aside and be thankful for this man's many wonderful attributes, or is this a deal-breaker?
A: He acknowledges he's betraying your trust, and you're betraying his by snooping—and you're not even married yet! I would find perusal of the "casual encounters" section to be disturbing, but he may in fact just view it for kicks, not to kick-start some casual encounters. But you don't buy it. I don't see how you two get married until you work out these serious trust issues. Pre-marital counseling sounds called for here.
Q. Estranged Family: I grew up with an estranged family, never even meeting some of my relatives. Recently, my grandmother passed away and I found out after receiving condolences from people who saw my name listed in her obituary. Although I am her grandchild, I never had a relationship with this family even after reaching out as I grew older. I learned that I have had several relatives pass away and have listed me in their obituaries and this makes me really uncomfortable, especially when people express their condolences. I would prefer to be left out since these people were never family to me, yet I can't think of a tactful way of doing this. Do you have any suggestions?
A: You can't exactly send a mass e-mail to your estranged relatives requesting that when they make their final departure they keep you off the list of descendants. People who express their condolences are just being polite. You can be polite in return and say you appreciate their thoughts. If these are people you know well, you can add that sadly parts of your family are estranged, and you barely knew the late X.
Q. Thanksgiving International Guests: We want to invite some Korean neighbors to our house for a traditional Thanksgiving. They are posted in the U.S. for a year and they might enjoy experiencing the holiday. Our children have become good friends, but we don't socialize much with the parents. Normally, when I invite people for Thanksgiving dinner, I don't ask them to bring anything. If my guests offer, I decline. I always have more than enough food. However, in this case, I am worried that they might not like the American food. If they offer to bring something, should I say yes and maybe even suggest that they bring something that is celebratory in their culture? What if they don't offer? What is your advice? Thank you!
A: It's so in the spirit of the season to let visitors partake of this wonderful tradition. They are living here and eating American food every day so there's no need to stuff the turkey with kimchee or make any other accommodation. Thanksgiving meals are delicious! If they offer to bring something tell them they don't need to, but you always welcome a bottle of wine.
Q. Casual Encounters: Oh, please! Every man with a computer under 50 years old looks at Casual encounters. If you wouldn't be upset about him looking at Playboy, then I would just let it go. And stop snooping. What a perfect couple.
A: Since I'm on the record as saying women should give (nonobsessive) pornography viewing by their men a shrug, I'm willing to accept men under (and even over) 50 like to fantasize about casual encounters with women who advertise for them. If it's just recreational fun for him, then he shouldn't be apologizing for betraying her trust. If they have a good relationship, he should be able to get through to her that he likes to read, not act. And you're right, she should stop snooping. But they need to figure this out before they get married.
Q. Casual Encounters: The casual encounters page led to a very formal end to my marriage. I would run the other way. My mate had all of the other qualities the letter writer wrote about her fiance, but developed almost a double identity once he got a rush from that Web site. It was like a drug addiction. I'm better off now, but it was a tough, and disgusting, road to go down.
A: Was he just addicted to reading Casual Encounters, or was he going and meeting people? Maybe I don't even understand what "casual encounters" are (I lead a very sheltered life) if the point isn't to actually encounter other people for casual sex. If it involves adopting a online persona and interacting with people over the Internet, that sounds like trouble.
Q. Buy My Own gifts? My husband and in-laws insist that gifts be bought by the recipient. They literally want you to go out and buy what you want, then after reimbursing you, they wrap it and give it on the day of the occasion. This makes me so uncomfortable, because I don't want to assume what someone wants to buy for me and how much they want to spend. My in-laws will provide a budget, but then I'm faced with trying to figure out how many items to buy for the proposed amount (10 $10 items or four $25 items for $100?!). And my husband will follow me around the store, buy what I pick out, then hold it hostage until it's time for the gift. I currently have two pairs of shoes, a sweater, and handbag in my closet—but can't use the items until Christmas Day (after I unwrap them)! Have you ever heard of this before?
A: No, I have not heard of being followed around the store being held hostage by Santa. Are you supposed to write yourself thank-you notes for your good taste in gifts? I hope this is just a bizarre family quirk and not an indication of how your husband treats you when it's not the season to be jolly.
Q. Casual Encounters: Reading Craigslist dating and casual encounters sections is better than good fiction! It is hard to believe any of it is true, and hilarious to read. I don't see why getting a good laugh or perhaps other form of amusement is a problem here, especially when she is sure he doesn't contact anyone.
A: I agree if it's just for entertainment (even prurient) purposes, he needs to stop apologizing and she needs to lighten up.
Emily Yoffe writes: Thanks all, for this casual online encounter. Talk to you next week.