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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let's get started.
Q. My Female Cousin Won't Tell Her Boyfriend She Used To Be Male!: My cousin is a beautiful woman, formerly a man. She has done a couple of modeling jobs as well. She has a lot of guys after her but never had a serious relationship until now. She met my co-worker "John" several months ago and things are starting to get serious. That's why I was surprised to discover that she hasn't told him about her gender reassignment. I usually think that the past is generally best left in the past, but this to me is a huge exception. By hiding her past as a man, I feel that my cousin is hiding a big and important chunk of her life. My cousin says that John does not want kids anyway so she has no reason to tell him. I now feel guilty whenever I see John. I know that only a handful of people outside the family know, but expected her to tell John when they got serious. Should I insist on her telling him, or butt out of it entirely?
A. I agree that beginning a relationship does not require presenting your new love interest a due-diligence dossier, nor a cheek swab of one's DNA. But there is some information that potential partners are entitled to pretty early on; these include one's marital status, STD test results, interactions with law enforcement, relevant medical conditions (including previous substance abuse problems), questions about sexual orientation, and gender at birth. For some potential partners the information revealed may elicit a shrug: "I have herpes, too." For others it will be a deal-breaker: "I appreciate you're telling me you've got three kids out of wedlock, but I think we're just at different places in our lives." That Juliette was born Jason is just one of those things that will be revealed eventually. Juliette should realize the dishonesty of not telling could itself become a relationship ender. When relationships get serious, that usually leads to visits with the family, and often a look at childhood photo albums. Juliette will either have to keep John away, or ask her family to do an Soviet-style editing of history. It's just not going to work—someone is going to out Juliette, and surely she knows it. I think you should tell your cousin she's living in a dream world and that she's being unfair to John, even if he has a lack of desire for children. Of course, it could be that John flees, or it could be that he says, "She's more than woman enough for me." But it's his right to know the crucial piece of history. You are in a difficult position since you have relationships with both parties, but you didn't fix up John and Juliette, so you don't bear that moral responsibility of letting him know. I think you should tell your cousin you will not be the one to deliver the news to John. If he brings up the relationship with you, you can be non-committal and tight-lipped and just say you're glad to hear he's enjoying your cousin's company.
Dear Prudence: Drama In the Break Room
Q. A Big Mess: Thanks to a sleepover this weekend, I learned my daughter's friend Jayne poops her bed at age 8. I woke up in the middle of the night to find her crying and trying to wash the sleeping bag we lent her. I helped her clean up, gave her some clean pajamas—and in the process I learned she sometimes cannot control her bowels. I know from talking with her parents before that they don't trust doctors, so I think that's why they've never taken Jayne to see a specialist. Jayne says they make her wear diapers when they go out and make her clean up her mess when it happens at home. Every time she poops herself, she gets a time out. I am horrified by Jayne's parents' parenting methods. I want to respect their right to raise their child how they see fit—but at the same time, they don't seem like fit parents to me. Jayne has a medical issue which they shame her for and for which they do not seek medical attention. What should I say to Jayne's parents to avoid putting them on the defensive? And if they refuse to take Jayne to a doctor, what are the next steps I should take? Like many of your readers, I am wary of Child Protective Services.
A: This is a horrifying story. I do not want to debate each week the merits or deficiencies of Child Protective Services, but we have institutional safety nets in this country to protect vulnerable people who are not getting the care they need. Jayne is one. An 8-year-old child who is forced to wear diapers because she has an undiagnosed and untreated medical condition is a child whose parents need a visit from the authorities. If this poor girl had untreated diabetes, would the parents take away her toys every time she went into a diabetic coma? Normally, I would say the first step when you hear something concerning about what's going on a child's home is to discuss it with the parents. But there is nothing normal about this situation, and from your previous conversations with them you know they don't believe in modern medicine. It sounds pretty clear if you tell them Jayne had a bowel movement in the bed while at your house and you had to clean it up, her parents would punish her. You could call the girl's school and see if any personnel are there now and report this to them. They are mandated reporters and would have to take action. But if you can't get anyone, then yes, I think a phone call to CPS is required. This child's parents are imposing on her a terrible physical and psychological burden, and she needs help.
Q. A Costly Visit: I am my husband's second wife. He was previously married for three years until losing his first wife in a tragic accident. (They had no children together.) Every year since her death, my husband took a day off work on her birthday to visit her resting place. I don't know what he does there, but I respected that as his time to grieve and remember. We have recently relocated to China for a project that is expected to last about a year. In the busy-ness of moving to a new country, he remembered his first wife's birthday is soon coming up. My husband wishes to book a last-minute ticket back home to visit her resting place again. I objected to this for the first time in our married life. The return airfare plus accommodation is hugely expensive. Maybe he thinks it's worth the cost, but in light of other expenses we currently face, it's a huge price tag for a sentimental trip back home. Furthermore, I am finding it difficult in a foreign country where I don't speak the language. The idea of my husband leaving me with the kids now seems daunting. My husband is hurt and angry that I'm asking him not to go, I think he needs to weigh up the practical considerations. Am I unreasonable here?
A. I also married a widower who has continued to honor the memory of his late wife who died tragically young. For the first few years of our marriage, we had a shared home office and he had a picture of Robin on his desk, which was fine with me. Eventually, he took it off his desk and put it in a drawer. When I noticed it was gone I asked him about it and he said he felt it was time. I'm glad you have respected your husband's need to acknowledge his first wife and honor her life each year. But I also don't think you are being unreasonable in saying his plan this year is enormously expensive and disruptive to your family.
You are now both in your corners, defending your positions. You need to reopen this discussion. Tell him you apologize for what you see is your insensitivity to his desire. Say that you were speaking out of your own sense of being overwhelmed, and couldn't see the request through his eyes. Then after he responds say that you understand the imperative he feels, but you are hoping he can find another way to honor his late wife. Say you understand the need for ritual, but you are hoping he can find a way to recognize her birthday that doesn't involved a flight across the world. Maybe she loved art, and he can spend the day at a museum, thinking of her. Maybe they liked to hike together, so he can set off for a walk while he remembers their time together. If you can let him know that you support his need to recognize her birthday, he might see that what's most important is that her spirit exists within him, and wherever he is, he can feel she is with him on this special day.
Q. Sex and Sleepovers: Over the weekend my husband and I hosted my stepdaughter's 10th birthday sleepover. I got up in the middle of the night to check on the girls, and they were all asleep. My husband woke up when I climbed back into bed, he kissed me, and we began to make love. In the middle of the act, the bedroom door swung open and one of my stepdaughter's friends caught us in flagrante. We quickly clothed ourselves and tried to play the situation off as if we hadn't been having sex. My stepdaughter's friend went along with it, and we helped her get the glass of water she wanted. The next morning, after all the girls went home, this girl's mom called me. She yelled at me for being irresponsible and exposing her daughter to sex. She said she should have been called right away so she could choose how to handle things. She even threatened to call the other sleepover attendees' parents and tell them about my husband and me having sex. Were we really so wrong to make love during a sleepover? And what's the best way to minimize this fallout?