Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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: Happy 2013! I hope yours is off to a good start and none of you have the viral crud which has felled all of us here at the chat.
Q. Where Do I Tell My Son His Sister Came From?: A few years ago I cheated on my husband, got pregnant, and decided to keep the child. Because my husband and I had a 2-year-old son together we decided that we could keep our marriage together for his sake. The thing that really complicates things is that my husband, son, and I are white, while my lover was black, and so my daughter is mixed race. Naturally my son has begun questioning why his sister looks so different from the rest of us, and my mother-in-law took it upon herself to tell him she was adopted. I'm at a loss for what to do. For now my husband has told MIL that the topic is verboten, but we haven't decided if we should correct her error. Until now I've been happy to just let people assume what they want about where my children's origins are, but now that a story is getting around, I'm not sure what to say or how to handle it.
A: Despite continuing weekly evidence to the contrary, I will continue to believe that the vast majority of men who think they are the biological fathers of their children really did provide the sperm. If you get impregnated by a lover of another race, what you say to your children about this is something that needed to be discussed openly with your husband, preferably before the baby was born. Making the utterly obvious verboten is not a good strategy for anyone. I think what you need for your immediate family is a dose of the truth. But, for your children, it needs to be age appropriate. Since your daughter was born a few years ago, your son is old enough to know the basics of reproduction. He needs to be told that his sister has the same mother, but a different biological father. However, what's really important is that both he and his sister are being raised by the same daddy. You can tell him families are made all sorts of ways, and yours is just a little bit special. If your son—and eventually your daughter—want to know why this is the case, it's fair to tell them that it's a complicated story, and they will probably understand it more when they're older. Say they can talk about this subject any time, but if they can wait, you and their dad can fill in more details as they grow up. For outsiders, you don't need to explain anything. You can just say you are blessed with two beautiful children. And your husband needs to tell his mother to stop telling the kids something that's simply wrong.
Dear Prudence: Doubling the Pleasure
Q. One-Upping Illness: My husband of 15 years has the peculiar and annoying habit of developing various ailments when I get sick. Fortunately, this doesn't happen often, but occasionally I will come down with a bad case of migraine headaches or a stomach bug. When this happens, my husband will invariably complain of sore throat/mysterious limp/irregular heartbeats or some other type of medical issue that overshadows my own predicaments in severity and attention-seeking behavior. He also steps up the moaning and groaning. While I have no need for pity or excessive sympathy on my infrequent sick days, a kind word and a helping hand would be preferred over having to engage in a ridiculous competition over who feels more crappy and who should get the most help from the kids. I have tried everything from ignoring his behavior to complaining—nothing works. I know his mom has done this very same thing most of her life to reclaim attention whenever someone else in the family would steal the limelight. I hate to pass this syndrome down to my own kids and frankly, I'm tired of it and dread the prospect of getting sick so I have to deal with a whiny husband and kids who worry their dad will croak while mom is down with the flu. What can I do to break the pattern?
A: Aside from complaining, when both of you are feeling well, calmly have a talk in which you point out that on the occasions when you are sick, he inevitably ends up with a bunch of symptoms which make it impossible for him to provide you with even modest care—the kind you provide him when he is actually down with something. But this is a lifetime, deeply ingrained habit that may be hard to break. So just deal with it on a symptom-by-symptom basis. If you have a migraine and he's "limping" tell him you're sorry his leg is painful, but since you can't even get out of bed, could he manage to bring you a cup of tea. If you're in bed with a stomach virus and his heart starts skipping beats say if he's concerned he's having a heart attack, he should get himself to the emergency room. Explain that because you're throwing up, you're unable to accompany him. Ignore the moaning and groaning. If the kids are worried, tell them that both of you are a little under the weather, but it's nothing serious. Let's hope the kids simply come to see that Dad gets rather melodramatic, not that his method seems like a great way to get attention.
Q. Enjoying More Than Just the Massage: I enjoy massages a couple of times a year. The last one was performed by a male masseuse. He did a wonderful job; I was relaxed and all of the major problems in my lower back were improved. There was an unexpected added bonus though. Because he was male, I felt a little excited about being touched by someone other than my husband. Nothing sexual happened. It wasn't a Sex and the City moment. But I still got a little secret thrill from the experience. My next massage is coming up. Is it OK for me to request another male masseuse?
A: As long as both you and the masseur remain professional, it's just an unremunerated extra that he is so able to rub you the right way. [Update: As sharp-eyed readers have pointed out, masseuse is a woman and masseur is a man. Prudie's answer has been corrected to reflect this.] That you feel something internally that's more than simple relief from lower back pain is your own business. What goes on in your head—or the tingles that run up and down your spine—do not have to be disclosed to your beloved. No marriage would survive if every spouse reported on the pleasure they get from gazing at good-looking strangers, or from mild office banter. So for your next massage ask for the guy with the strong, slow hands and leave a good tip.
Q. Unrequited Gift-Giving: I have a group of friends who I used to work with but we've all gone our separate ways and now work at different companies. I keep in touch with all of them and see them all, sometimes together, sometimes one-on-one, about once a month. One of the women threw a holiday party this year, and when I arrived, I was shocked that they each had a gift for me. I was so embarrassed because I did not buy them gifts—we hadn't even discussed gifts and had not given holiday gifts in the past. Is it too late to give them each a gift now? Is there some way to make it up to them after the fact? I want to make this right, but don't want to look like I am doing it just out of embarrassment.
A: It is embarrassing when everyone seems to have gotten the "gifts will be exchanged" message but you. You can just accept this was an accidental faux pas, write them each a thank you and say how wonderful it was to catch up. Or you can send a thank you and wishes for a sweet new year along with a small gift, something like a bottle of lovely hand lotion.
Q. Grad School Stalker: I am a male first-year graduate student who lives in school housing across from "Ted," a belligerent, drunk, and drug-abusing classmate who won't leave me alone. He sends me dozens of texts each day prompting me to engage in deep, intellectual conversations about his emotional problems. His unreasonable behavior around other students makes it clear why he doesn't have other friends. I have people-pleasing tendencies, which is why I have tolerated him so far. I would like to cut him off so I can focus on my studies, but I'm not sure how. He has said to me that he has fantasies about beating up people who upset him. I suggested that he see one of the school's free therapists, but he insists that I am better than any therapist. Help!