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: Good afternoon, everyone. Let's get to it.
Q. Obligated? Ten years ago, when my husband and I were expecting our first child, his mother made us promise that if we ever took our children to Disneyland that she be allowed to go with us, as she had never been. Of course, we agreed. We finally have the funds and time to make the trip with our two children. M-I-L has had numerous health concerns over the last year and her health is unsteady at best. To make things worse, my cantankerous F-I-L is reluctant to let her out of his sight. She is the only one who can tolerate his political rants and constant complaining. He also has numerous health concerns and is unable to walk for extended periods of time. I fear that bringing them along would not only hamper our ability to enjoy the trip, but I would be playing the role of nursemaid the whole time. I'm hesitant to tell them about our travel plans. Are we still obligated to invite them?
A: If your father-in-law is as impossible as you say, I think you should get him an open-ended ticket for the It's a Small World ride. That should quickly put him in a catatonic state and the rest of you will be able to enjoy your vacation. You promised your mother-in-law a trip to Disney, and it would be churlish to deprive her. However, all of you have to take into account your various physical needs and capacities. The entire family does not have to be joined at the hip. Get separate rooms, and if necessary make somewhat separate agendas for the day. You can all meet up for meals, or take one or two rides together. Surely Disneyland of all places is going to be able to accommodate little people of manic energy, and old people of fading strength. Get out of your head the idea that you have to play nursemaid, and let your in-laws decide how much Mickey Mouse they can stand.
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Q. Relationship—Respect My Girlfriend's Wishes? I am a 30-year-old man who is back in college due to lack of job opportunities in this economy. I am in a competitive program that only takes a limited number of candidates per year. The problem is, my girlfriend, who is finishing her masters thesis across the country, was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor and is going to require surgery before she returns home next month. I want to be with her as she goes through this, we are planning on getting married, and she has no family. For me to be able to be there for her would require me to drop out of my program and hope that the school keeps its word to allow me to start where I left off next year. My girlfriend doesn't want me to put my future on hold any longer and insists that she will be fine if I stay home and finish the semester. However, I can't stand the thought of her alone, in a medically induced coma for 10 days, on the other side of the country. She is very independent because she has been alone since she was a little girl. Do I accept her request and stay home, or do I do what feels right to me and be there for her?
A: I hope her surgery goes well and you two have a long, happy life together. If you do, when you look back on it, you will be glad you were there by her bedside when she was recovering from a brain tumor. She may be very strong and independent, but no one should have to go through that alone. You've already gotten your department to defer your studies. If it would ease your mind, have the plan put in writing. Given that following her surgery much of your time will be spent waiting, check with your professors to see if there is work you can do remotely that will give you a jump on your research for when you resume the next academic year. Sure, Gabrielle Gifford's astronaut husband is going into space, but he was by her bedside for the worst of it, and he will return to help her long recovery. It sounds as if you know that despite your girlfriend's protestations, you are certain about where you have to be.
Q. Mooching Brother: My mother and father have always coddled my brother—giving him a car, letting him live rent-free in their home (he's still there and he's in his 30s), letting him eat them out of house and home. My brother has never really grown up, and Mom has taken care of him without hardly a word. Recently, both of my parents have become quite ill with some serious medical problems, and my father lost his job because he ran out of medical leave. I've been coming over to help my parents, after working a full day, and have picked up a second job to make ends meet. The problem is this: My brother does NOTHING to help! He doesn't contribute to bills, cleaning, etc. When I brought it up with him (seeing as he's living with Mom and Dad!) he told me that he doesn't have to and that I "owe it to him" to take care of Mom and Dad because he always thought I was the favorite! I brought this up with Mom and Dad and they just shrugged. If I don't help, I know that they'll lose the house—but I'm being run ragged, and I'm afraid I'm ready to seriously blow my top. Advice, please???
A: It would seem to make sense that if parents do everything for a child, when it comes time that the parents need help, the child will do for the parents what was done for him. What actually happens, however, when parents indulge and infantilize a child, that child throw tantrums and says, "What about me!" when the parents can no longer care for him.
You've got a big mess, and what you should not do is drive yourself into a state of collapse to rescue people incapable of making good decisions. Whatever the reasons your parents have done this for your brother, he's a useless leech. What you need now is some professional help—you could start with the state or local senior services—figuring out how to get them medical care and keep them from losing their home. (Readers, any other ideas on where the letter writer can get help?) It may be that your parents need to sell their home and shift to a different living situation. That could have the salutary effect of making your brother fend for himself and stop draining your parents. But you cannot work round the clock to sustain the unsustainable.
Q. For the Record: Love the Small World ride jab. My parents and sister did in fact get stuck on that ride for three hours, music and all, before I was born and subsequently rejected all things Disney with a fiery anger I did not understand until I was much older and finally heard the song out on my own. I pretty sure that tactic is still in use with our nation's special ops teams.
A: Three hours on It's a Small World? I believe that's a Geneva Conventions violation. Now the tune has started up in my head. Help!
Q. Teens and Parent Abandonment: Here's the short of it: My daughter's 16-year-old boyfriend's mom hasn't been home in six days—she came home for an hour on Saturday and left again. The boy found a disconnect notice for $50 for the electric bill. We paid it without his knowledge (found out the mom didn't bother). She apparently hasn't bothered with many of the bills. The Internet and the cells are shut off, along with television, and he doesn't even know if she's working anymore. The occasional text via others' phones is all the proof he has that she's still breathing. His dad lives two towns over but is not in the picture for raising him and provides just a little financial support for the kid. When and where do we draw the line in helping him? Should we call the school or protective services? He'll be 17 in July.
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