Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Bad Counselor: I started my first job as a counselor recently. My mentor is an experienced, middle-aged counselor who is well-recognized in our area as one of the best family counselors. I thought it was an absolute privilege to learn from her. But the more time I spend with her, the more uncomfortable I feel. She is outwardly a kind, thoughtful, empathic counselor who knows what to say at the right time. Her office is full of gifts and cards from grateful clients who feel as though they finally met a nonjudgmental person to guide them through their difficulties. But when they aren’t there, she turns into a different person. I’ve heard her on the phone with a client whose child died suddenly. She listened to him intently and said all the kind, supportive words—but she was looking at my direction rolling her eyes. When she got off the phone she mimicked the client’s distress and called him a “chronic whinger.” She has derogatory nicknames for most of her clients. On Fridays when we all have staff lunch, she makes fun of her clients and laughs at them openly. I feel disgusted by her two-faced unprofessionalism. I understand sometimes you need to de-stress, but she goes too far to a point of cruelty. After working with her I feel disillusioned by the practice of counseling. I’ve thought of going elsewhere but I fear everywhere else will be just as cynical. Any advice for me here?
A: Oh, those whiny, annoying people whose kids die suddenly—what can a therapist do but roll her eyes! Your letter puts a chill through me because I so often recommend therapy. But just because someone has sterling degrees and a good reputation does not mean she is not a burnt-out case who needs to take a break from the profession. You are in a tough situation because she’s the seasoned professional in charge of your young career. It’s not clear what kind of practice you are part of, but you mention a staff lunch. Surely others at the table are equally put off by her wholly inappropriate behavior. Perhaps you can talk to a more senior person about how undermining this kind of talk about patients is, and that person can talk to her. You’re right that therapists need to relieve their own stress and occasional black humor can allow someone to keep plunging back into difficult work. But your mentor is expressing flat out contempt for all of her patients, which has no place in any practice. However, do not come to the conclusion your entire profession is full of two-faced people. If you are in a position to find another position, start doing so.
Q. Weird Public Massages: My brother is 19. He has chronic muscle tenseness, and it sometimes soothes him when his back is rubbed. We’re both home for the holidays and have been spending time with our parents as a family. Thrice now, in public, my mom has, at his request, begun to massage his back. Under the shirt. For several minutes. She’s done this for years, but now that he’s grown, I think it’s weird to do this in public and in private for that matter. My parents and brother get offended when I mention that museums and restaurants aren’t the best spot for a mom-and-son massage. They say I’m dirty minded and being rude. Am I a prude, or are they committing a social faux pas?
A: Ah, a “stress relief” chat. Given last week’s letter about a new family member breast-feeding her 5-year-old at a family celebration, let’s be grateful that this is only a back rub. Is your brother’s “chronic muscle tenseness” part of an actual illness? If he’s experiencing some kind of serious muscle spasm that needs brief attention, that’s one thing. But if he just likes to say to Mommy, “A little lower, to the left. Yeah, right there. Harder! Mmmm, that’s good,” then yuck. Since you don’t indicate there’s a medical emergency, it would be better to wait until you all are home before your mother gives a massage to her grown son. However, you have expressed your distress, and they all mock you, which must be causing you a lot of “muscle tenseness.” Since these sessions only last a few minutes, do your best to ignore them.
Dear Prudence Video: Studly Widower
Q. Quitting My Job as a Parent: I found out that my 12-year-old son is not my biological son. His mother and I have been divorced for two years, but I never questioned the paternity even when I caught her cheating on me four years ago. Not even when my mother asked me several times to get a DNA test since my “son” was young because he didn’t resemble me. I’ve been paying child support and seeing him every other weekend so far. Since finding out, my ex has offered to pay me back for most of the child support since our divorce. I won’t be taking further legal action because I just want to move on with my life. I’ve also decided to stop seeing him because I am not his father. I’ve already spent more than a decade parenting (financially and emotionally) a child that isn’t mine, and I don’t want to do it anymore. Most of my family has been critical about my decisions—they insist that I should make my ex suffer more and sue her for all she’s worth, but then they say I should keep being a father figure so an innocent child doesn’t lose his dad. What am I to do?
A: There are both legal and moral issues here. Since you have raised this boy as your son, I’m not so sure a paternity test then absolves you of all responsibility to him. (Readers familiar with family law will illuminate this, I hope.) Both you and your ex need to talk to your lawyers, and I hope the primary concern of both of you is the best interest of the boy, not merely bank accounts. You say you’ve spend more than a decade parenting this boy, and now you’re sick of it. No wonder your family is critical. In every way except DNA you are his father. As I’ve written many times, I think as a society we are way too obsessed with biology—adoptive parents have no less love or emotional connection to their children than biological ones. I don’t know how you can consider just walking away from a boy you have loved and nurtured all his life. Your ex sounds like a piece of work, but together you raised a son. I hope for his sake, and for yours, you continue to tell him you’re his father.
Q. My Man Sounds Like a Woman!: I recently transferred to the Australian office within our company. As I knew no one here, my sister put me into contact with her friend’s brother, who moved several years ago. We started off by emailing and quickly realized we had many things in common. We hit it off right away and before I knew it, we were emailing each other every day. I’ve never met someone who I had such a quick emotional connection to. We sent each other pictures, and the physical attraction was mutual. When I finally transferred, we made arrangements to meet straight away. The problem? Upon our meeting I noticed he has a very high-pitched voice. If I had spoken to him on the phone (which I didn’t, due to time differences and our work hours being hectic), I would have mistakenly thought he was a woman. I know this sounds shallow and I’ve tried to get over it, but every time we talk to each other I feel less and less attracted to him. Is there any way I can get over this? I don’t want to give up the strong connection we have.
A: The apocryphal story about silent movie star John Gilbert is that his career was killed by “talkies” when audiences heard his high-pitched voice the first time. (Apparently his voice was fine, but the scripts were bad.) Yes this is shallow, but it’s what you’re feeling, so you have to acknowledge it, preferably only to yourself. His voice may turn out to be a blessing because it’s putting the brakes on what might have been a quick hop into bed. Now you have to slow down and actually get to know each other in person. As you do that you will discover whether your desire is permanently banked or whether his voice becomes adorable to you because you’re falling for him. Keep in mind he may be thinking, “Yes, she’s fabulous, but that laugh—she sounds like a donkey!”
Q. None of Her Beeswax: My boyfriend’s daughter has begun, when we are alone together, to ask me about my sex life with her dad. She’s 14, well past the age of knowing that’s inappropriate behavior, I think. The first time I gently told her that the answers were private, and she seemed embarrassed, so I didn’t mention it to anyone. Last night she asked very graphic questions about what positions we liked and if her dad was a good lover. I was so surprised I walked away. I haven’t had a chance since then to pull her dad aside and explain the situation to him. Probably it’s also because I am dreading this conversation. How do I approach this issue with my boyfriend, and what’s up with his daughter’s behavior?
A: You’ve done well with this so far, but you’re absolutely right that her father needs to step in here. It could be a matter of this teenager finding herself on the cusp of sexuality, being more aware of what’s going on between you and her father, and pushing some boundaries as a way of working out her roiling emotions and resentments. It could also be that something is not right in her life—such acting out can be a sign that she’s had unwanted sexual advances. But it’s not your place to handle this, it’s your boyfriend’s. You can set the tone by not presenting this as an affront to you, but a matter of concern because this seems to go beyond normal teenage behavior. Don’t make him think he needs to punish his daughter, instead let him know he needs to find out what’s going on with her, while explaining to her that the questions she’s been asking are way too personal.
Q. Sticky Situation With a Boss: I have been working at my company for two months in HR, and one of the first jobs I had was to interview staff and figure out why most of them went from happy, productive employees to being unmotivated, bitter, and openly searching for new jobs. The owner of the company tried to talk to them but couldn’t figure out why they were suddenly unhappy. By speaking with many of the staff I realized what the problem was. The owner has been having an affair with a much younger female employee within the company. His wife is seen regularly at work and is well-liked. She also happens to be receiving treatment for breast cancer. The consensus is that most staff here have lost respect for a man who’s sleeping with someone else while his wife is going through a terrible illness, and if he’s willing to screw over his wife, they feel they can’t trust him to be a good boss, either. I’m trying to figure out whether to tell him or not. From what I know he thinks nobody knows of the affair. Should I tell him? How do I word it?
A: It’s also bad boss day! If you decide to tell him, you have to assume you’re going to be one of those employees looking for a new job. Your boss gave you an assignment and you’ve discharged it with great competence. I suppose you could hem and haw or come up with some minor things to say are the reason for the sudden plunge in morale. Or you could, in as professional a way as possible tell him what you found. Perhaps say something like, “This is an extremely difficult conversation. It turns out the employees are aware of a personal relationship you are having with another employee. This has upset people and undermined their trust.” Readers, would it be nuts to say this?
Q. Gun-Toting Grandparents: My in-laws recently nonchalantly mentioned that they keep four loaded guns unsecurely hidden throughout the main level of their home. This was a shock to my wife and me as we visit their home with our 2-year-old every few months or so. They assured us that they “move the guns” prior to our visits. How do we address this with them? My father-in-law is retired military, grew up around guns, and he is very stubborn. M-i-l is old-fashioned and goes along with whatever f-i-l says. They are good grandparents otherwise, but we don’t feel comfortable bringing our curious 2-year-old over to their house. We don’t want to give ultimatums but we want to make sure they understand how strongly we feel about this. It’s nice that they say they move the guns to a more secure place each time we come over, but what if they forget or what if the more secure place isn’t secure enough? Even when we aren’t visiting, it bothers us that they feel the need to have four loaded guns throughout their house. They already have a security system and they live in a nice neighborhood. They are approaching their 70s and we worry about their judgment.
A: Loaded guns and visiting grandchildren don’t mix. It’s good they’ve told you what they’ve got stashed before your child explores the house one of these days and finds some really exciting toys! Why they need four loaded guns is their business. What’s your business is that this is not safe. This is a conversation for your wife to have. She can say their gun ownership is their concern. But your concern is that the guns be unloaded and secured—in a locked garage, for example—before your child has the run of the house. If they won’t agree to this, then explain of course you want them to see their grandchild as often as possible, but they’ll have to do it at your house.
Q. Bad Boss: I agree that the boss might fire the HR person on the spot, but at least he will know that his indiscretions are widely known and might curb his heinous behavior. John Edwards—call your office.
A: Readers are agreeing that he asked, so now she has to tell (and get the résumé ready).
Q. Quitting as a Parent: I’m just wondering how you’re going to explain to this child, who knows you and only you as his father, how you’re “quitting” him? Because of something his mother did before he was born? How sad for this child, to have two such uncaring and irresponsible parents!
Q. Uninvite Drinking Grandma?: I am eight months pregnant and also have a 2-year-old. We have planned for my mother to fly out and help my family, including watching the 2-year-old while I am in the hospital. My sister called me this week and told me that my alcoholic mother is drinking again. Including at least one incident of driving drunk and possibly having a drink while watching my sister’s kids. I want to call my mom and uninvite her from staying for three weeks to help. I really don’t want to worry about her drinking right now because I want to focus on my own growing family. I know her feelings will be hurt, but my husband and I do not feel right about leaving our 2-year-old alone with her right now. Am I wrong to uninvite her?
A: I hope your sister is doing everything she can to get your mother off the road, including reporting her as an impaired driver to the DMV. This woman is a risk to every innocent person who crosses her path. You need to say, “Mom, you’re an alcoholic and I know you’re drinking again. I’m sorry that means you can’t come out and help me with the kids. I can’t have you watching a child because you’re the one who needs to be watched. I urge you to get help immediately before you hurt yourself or someone else.”
Q. Re: Sticky Situation With Boss’s Affair: Before you do anything, consult an employment lawyer. That way, someone else, and with legal expertise to boot, knows of your plight. If your boss retaliates, you have evidence and it is less likely to turn into a he-said, she-said type thing, which never turns out in the employee’s favor
A: Good idea, thanks.
My 7-year-old daughter brought home toilet-paper-wrapped tampons from my ex-husband’s house this weekend. She said she found them in the trash and asked what they were. I lectured her about the unhygienic dangers of touching used tampons—gross!— but sidestepped the larger question. I’m now very curious about whose tampons those were. My ex-husband doesn’t have a girlfriend that I know of, and I am worried he might have snuck someone in while our kids were staying with him. When I explain this situation to him, should I ask about a) who they belonged to and b) when they were deposited in the trash?
A: You need to back up and give your daughter an answer to her question. Get a book appropriate for her age about the developing female body and give her some basic information about what she found. You can reiterate that she should keep her hands out of the bathroom trash because it’s going to be full of germs. Unless you subject the tampons to a forensics inspection, you don’t know when they were deposited in the trash. The evidence so far is not conclusive about your ex sneaking in a woman during your daughter’s visitation weekend. If you want to bring it up with him, keep it neutral. Explain that your daughter may have some questions or concerns next time she visits because she brought home some tampons with her. Say you explained what tampons were (because you will have), but you wanted him to be aware of this. Your ex-husband is your ex for a reason. He doesn’t have to report to you why there might be tampons in his trash.
Q. Boyfriend’s Daughter Asking Sex Questions: Alert Alert!: Surprised you didn’t flag this as a couple of things: 1) Best scenario, she may have Asperger’s or something along those lines. Needs help! 2) This could be one of many warning signs of possible sexual abuse, and the new girlfriend should become familiar with other signs. It’s possible that it’s not her father but someone else who is the perpetrator. This is a strong warning that something is amiss and the poster needs to not bury her head in the sand. (See Penn State, Syracuse.)
A: Interesting about the Asperger’s possibility. And I did flag that questions like hers may be a sign that she’s been subjected to sexual advances from someone. The father needs to investigate.
Q. Isn’t She Cold?: My daughter’s friend Hannah doesn’t dress for winter even though we live where the temperature ranges, on average, between 35 and 45 degrees each day. She often wears Toms, a sundress, and a light sweater or cardigan. Sometimes she’ll wear a hooded sweatshirt if it’s raining. I know she owns coats, but when I ask her why she doesn’t wear them, she tells me that she overheats easily and prefers cold weather. Our daughters are 16, so her parents seem content to let her make her own decisions, but whenever I see her running around in summer clothing the mom in me wants to force her into a warm parka. Am I just overreacting?
A: Oh, how I can relate to Hannah’s mother. Prior to last year’s well-predicted blizzard I told my then-14-year-old daughter to dress warmly for school. She wore her spring jacket and loafers with no socks (she hates socks). I walked 2 miles in the blizzard to rescue her (we stopped in the only open CVS and bought her socks, a hat, and put plastic bags on her feet). Being a doofus is the way of the teenager. Don’t sweat it, just roll your eyes.
Q. Re: Uninvite Drinking Grandma: As a recovering alcoholic, I say uninvite her. It seems so cruel, but alcoholics only truly get sober when they face consequences. This blow may be devastating to her in the short term, but may also encourage her to live a happy and sober life in the long run. Best of luck.
A: Thanks for the perspective of someone who has been there.
Q. Guns and Children: Unloading the guns isn’t the answer (and I am the mother of a curious 1-year-old and the wife of a police officer). Get your parents a good gun safe for Christmas. That is where all guns should be kept.
A: You’re right about the gun safe, but the grandparents need to get it and use it. If there’s any resistance, then the visits are off.
Q. Violence in Pictures: I have a co-worker who is a passionate volunteer for animal rights. She displayed pictures of abused animals on her cubical wall in an attempt to “raise awareness.” When anyone complains about the graphic images, she uses that to talk about the campaign she’s involved with. It’s disturbing to have to walk past those images every day to get my lunch. I am considering speaking with HR about this, but am I being too sensitive here?
A: You should not have to see grotesque images every time you walk past her desk. The work she does on animal rights is on her own time, and the pictures don’t belong at the office. Tell HR you’ve brought it up directly with her, but she won’t budge, and you hope they can get her to take the pictures down.
Q. Unwanted Gift: My dear friend wants to purchase a toy kitchen for my son’s first Christmas. Knowing what sort of toys he’s into, I can’t imagine him ever interested in playing with this. Furthermore, we live in a tiny apartment with no space for it. I’ve politely expressed this to her and explicitly said any large items will go straight into a storage box in our parents’ home, where we keep the rest of the things we can’t store at our place. I even suggested a smaller, more modest gift for her to purchase if she really wants to get him something. But she has her heart set on buying him a toy kitchen. She said we can use it when we move (which won’t be happening for a very long time, due to finances). I don’t want to hurt her feelings but I really do not want to keep a large toy in our already crammed apartment. In this instance, do you think it’s all right to thank her then put it away? I feel guilty because I know she will spend a lot of money on it. Thanks.
A: Your friend appears to be working out some issues via this Christmas gift. She won’t listen that your son won’t be interested in a toy kitchen, and she won’t listen that you have no place to put it. So let her give it to you, thank her for her generosity, then pass it along to a homeless shelter where the children there will love it.
Q. Past Regrets: Fifteen years ago I did a terrible thing and betrayed my friend by having an affair with her husband. The affair was brief and I eventually moved to another city. She found out after I moved and called me on it. I admitted to it. We never spoke again. I recently saw we have a mutual friend on Facebook. While I have not friend-requested her (and don’t intend to), I did look around on her profile and viewed her pictures. From what I can tell, she and her husband worked it out and stayed together and she seems to have gotten on with her life.
Would it be appropriate for me to message her and tell her how sorry I am? I have thought about her and wanted to apologize for a long time but didn’t know how to contact her, but now I can. I know you are not in favor of contacting the spouse in cases where he/she is unaware of the infidelity, but what about when they do know? If I were to contact her I would do it only for the purpose of apologizing and I would not contact her again. I really want to tell her how sorry I am but on the other hand I don’t want to bring up old painful memories for her. What should I do?
A: It’s not true that I’m always against letting a spouse know the other spouse is cheating—it depends on the circumstances. I am against people working out their own guilt by making someone else miserable. There is no reason to stir up long (I hope) extinguished emotions in your former friend because you are troubled by what a horrifying thing you did. Live with it and leave her alone.
Q. Missing the Point About the Boyfriend’s Daughter!!: I think the previous poster was trying to point out that the father may be the abuser. Prudie, you keep insisting that the father needs to be notified, but, hello, what if he is the abuser? The girlfriend needs to take this possibility seriously and consider other ways to get to the bottom of this.
A: Then I misread the post. Oh, dear, this is an awful possibility. Perhaps the girlfriend needs to say gently, “Courtney, I’ve been thinking about the questions you’ve been asking me. I’ve told you I’m not comfortable answering them. But is something upsetting going on in your life?”