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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. I Have a Life, Too!: I'm a junior attorney in my late 20s. I work in a busy office that prides itself on work-life balance, and many of my co-workers have young children. Often, these co-workers leave at 4:30 or 5 on the dot to pick up their kids or attend their events, leaving me to stay late (up to several hours) to finish up work that needs to be done. It's frustrating—just because I don't have kids doesn't mean I don't have a life outside of work. What's weirder is that these co-workers often acknowledge that they're being unfair but state that "when" I have kids I'll get to leave early, too. Because I plan to remain child-free, at least for the foreseeable future, this is less than encouraging advice! How can I draw boundaries in this situation without seeming unreasonable? I love my job otherwise, and these people are all genuinely nice—they just seem to have a blind spot when it comes to this issue.
A: It's great that your company is sensitive to the needs of parents, but not if their family needs become your work burden. You say that because they leave early, they leave you to pick up their slack. That's simply unfair, and you need to bring this up with a supervisor by way of "clarifying" how duties are divided. Keep in mind that like Sheryl Sandberg, many hardworking people leave the office early for family dinners, then once the kids are in bed, they return to the computer to finish the work day. It might well be that the parents do some shifting of duties outside your sight. So tread carefully when you explore whether you're getting short shrift.
Dear Prudence Live in New York: Mentally Ill Ex
Q. No Physical Attraction?: I have a bit of a dilemma that has left me puzzled. I recently had drunken sex with a longtime friend of the past five years. What started out as us spending the day having drinks with a group of friends turned into us having emotional, drunken sex in her bed. Prudie, this girl is my best friend, and we talk/text/message all day throughout our workday. The problem is while I am very much mentally attracted to her, I don't necessarily know if the physical attraction is there, and she feels the same way. She really understands me, as a man, very well, and I her. The question is can this work as a relationship? Can you be so mentally attracted to someone, but not necessarily physically attracted to them, and have a successful relationship? I feel like if I don't give it a shot with her, I'll never find someone who is so compatible with me personality-wise.
A: If the only circumstances under which you two can imagine completing the act is if you're both so inebriated you'd stumble into bed with anyone, then turning this friendship into a romance sounds as if it won't make your hearts swell, just your livers. There's generally a reason a highly compatible man and woman have mutually decided not to make the relationship physical. But humans are endlessly surprising, and there are couples who've known each other platonically for years who then get simultaneously sprinkled with pixie dust and realize they each are "the one." Both of you seem puzzled and slightly embarrassed by recent events, but you are good enough friends to be able to talk about it. I suggest dinner at a nice restaurant and just enough wine to set a mood, but not so much that the mood is "I'm about to black out." You two need to address whether you're both more comfortable in the friend zone or whether it turns out Harry has met Sally.
Q. Explaining Abuse and Divorce: My daughter is divorcing her abusive husband of two years. Two weeks ago he attacked her viciously, breaking her nose and her arm. Her bruises have healed, but her broken limb has not, and as such, my daughter does not want to see her half siblings. I remarried 10 years ago and have an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. Both know and love their soon-to-be former brother-in-law, because until recently, no one in our family knew about the abuse. My daughter is still very much ashamed of being abused and does not know how to explain what happened to her to her little brother and her little sister. My kids miss their big sister and have been asking about her and her husband. My wife and I want to respect my daughter's need to process the divorce in her own way, but we want to encourage her to come around our house and see her half siblings. That said, we have no idea how to explain the divorce or the abuse to them.
A: Thank goodness your daughter has gotten out. It's terrible that this relationship has left her both with broken bones and a damaged psyche. She should not be the one carrying a burden of shame; her monstrous husband should be. Please encourage your daughter to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1−800−799−SAFE(7233), to get advice on finding a therapist or group where she can talk about what happened. Your youngest children are very young, so they need to be told in an age-appropriate way why brother-in-law Voldemort won't be around anymore. It doesn't make sense to lie because they've already figured out something strange is up. I think they should be told that you have sad news for them. While Voldemort seems like a nice man, he actually was very mean to their sister, and unfortunately he hurt her, so they have to get a divorce and Voldemort won't be around anymore. Then answer their questions honestly but succinctly. I hope your eldest will realize she has nothing to hide and her loving family will be a source of shelter.
Q. Re: Hey, junior attorney!: Welcome to life in a law firm. You have just begun your career, and you have to "put your bones in" before you can enjoy some of those perks. It's just the way it goes. Sorry. Think about using this to your advantage: Be proactive, work hard for a couple of years, and show your partners that you are a great asset!
A: I wondered about this. Is this just something this young lawyer should suck up? I know brutal hours are expected in the law. But does that also mean that your colleagues are regularly allowed to tell you to finish up work they've left hanging?
Q. Kissing Cousins?: When I was 8 and my cousin 5, I would "re-enact" kissing scenes from movies with him, clinchy embraces and mushy open-mouthed kisses. When I was home visiting from college several years ago, he cornered me and said "I remember what you did to me" in a tone that stopped just short of accusing me of molestation. We're now adults with kids, and I constantly avoid him and family gatherings. I'm not sure how to address this with him. Was this kids playing doctor, or am I some sort of creep?
A: Only you know if this was the kind of exploratory play many kids engage in or whether you were forcing him into your games against his will. However, you were both in the single digits, and if nothing more happened than these kisses, they may be an uncomfortable, even disgusting memory to your cousin, but it just doesn't seem helpful to cast this childhood play as abuse. You say since your cousin's words with you when you were in college, you have avoided "him and family gatherings." I'm hoping this was a typo and you meant, "him at family gatherings." If you've made yourself a permanent outcast, that seems way too harsh a punishment for some childhood kisses. Since all the events you describe took place years ago—both the kisses and the confrontation—I think you should stop acting as if you are scum. Go to family gatherings and be friendly to your cousin. If he remains aloof, take him aside and say you want to try to clear the air. You should certainly apologize for making him miserable when you were children and say his words to you years ago have haunted you. Maybe that will be enough for him to consider letting it go.
Q. Strangers and Rude Questions: I am the mother of 14-month-old fraternal twin girls who look nothing alike. When we are out and about, everyone loves to interact with them, which I don't mind at all. But often, these strangers will ask if the twins are "natural." My twins were conceived through IVF after miscarriages, and I feel strongly that I (and they when they are older) shouldn't be ashamed of that. Part of me thinks that I should tell people this and try to break down the stigma surrounding fertility treatments. But it's such a rude question, and the term natural is offensive! I'm sure they don't realize they are implying that my daughters are "unnatural," but I never know how to react. Certainly the twins don't understand any of this now, but I think my answer becomes even more important as they get older. How should I deal with this question?
A: You could reply, "I actually don't know any unnatural children." If this doesn't end the inquiries, then you say, "I don't discuss my family with strangers," and move on.
Q. Re: Voldemort: The children also absolutely must be told, because they need to know that their BIL isn't a safe person to be around. If he were ever to show up and try to pick them up from school, say, or at the house, they need to know not to go with him.
A: Good point. Thanks for mentioning this.
Q. Argumentative New Boyfriend: I've been with my boyfriend six months now, and he's very attentive and thoughtful. He has a great sense of humor, and we click on several levels. The problems begin when we are in a group of friends. He either sits silent for hours or gets into loud disagreements with anyone on virtually any subject. I have brought this up to him many times, but he doesn't see a problem. He says if he agrees with the conversation he keeps quiet and listens, but if he disagrees he has to argue. He thinks consensus is boring and looks forward to these battles. Meanwhile all my friends just think he is a jerk. What do I do?
A: Your new guy has given your friends sufficient evidence to draw what seems like a very reasonable conclusion. Unless you intend to just click with him in private, each time you two socialize you've got to expect he's going to either act colossally bored or be obnoxiously belligerent. If outside of your circle of two he acts like a jerk, then that's what he is.
Q. Re: Parents getting off early: I'm an attorney and a parent, and I have to leave on time every day to pick my kid up from day care. I do indeed pick up my work again as soon as he is in bed, almost every night. She didn't say that she was doing their work, she just said that she is staying late to work. That is her choice. If you decide that leaving work at 5 every day is a priority, to make dinner or hang out with friends or go to yoga or whatever, you can rearrange your work schedule to make it happen. And if work doesn't let you do it, then I agree, that's not acceptable.
A: Great advice. If the workplace believes in flexibility, it should be for all. Of course there is also the hierarchical issue of being a junior attorney, and that perhaps flexible hours are seen as something you earn.
Q. Cheating Stepbrother: Our stepbrother is 28 and lives out of state with his long-term, 23-year-old girlfriend. The GF has made several trips to visit our family. We all thought this was a serious relationship that would lead to marriage. Two years ago, the stepbrother slept with another girl and told us about it. We didn't get involved but convinced ourselves that he had stopped cheating. Now, he's doing it again. Two weeks ago, he brought another girl to a family function, and she hung out with all of us. Our sister confronted him privately about it, and he said he has at least four other girls on the side and this is just how men are. His girlfriend does not know. We obviously don't want to condone the cheating and we really like his girlfriend, but we also don't want to poke our noses in and create a family rift. What, if any, obligation do we have to alert his girlfriend?
A: Since he's been open, even blatant about his cheating, none of you are obligated to keep his secrets. What concerns me is that he's potentially endangering the health of a very young, likely innocent girl. I think in this case it would be fine for one of you to say to the girlfriend that you were concerned when brother brought another young woman to a recent family function. Then it's up to her to get the truth.
Q: The Hardest Part of Breaking Up Is Getting Back Your (Daughter's) Stuff: I've left my girlfriend of three years, but she refuses to release my daughter's belongings into my possession. My ex says she needs "time" and "space" until she can gather her thoughts. I want my daughter's stuff back. I don't want to be a jerk to the woman; nor do I want to deprive my kiddo of her toys, stuffed animals, furniture, and goldfish (which probably isn't being fed). Should I walk away and let my ex have my daughter's stuff, should I involve the police, or should I wait?
A: If you were in a long-term relationship and your daughter thought of your partner as a parental figure, your daughter's life has just been turned upside down and she's missing a lot more than her teddy bear right now. I agree it would comfort your little girl to get her stuff, but surely you left with some of her possessions, so have your daughter hold those tight. I'm dubious about calling the police over the theft of a goldfish. It sounds as if you ended the relationship rather abruptly, so you need to get unentangled from your ex, not more involved. You can tell your daughter your ex wants to take care of the fish for now, so you two should go off to the pet store and get another one.
Q. Re: Natural vs. Unnatural: This reminds me of the questions I sometimes receive when out and about with my daughters. They're a few months apart, and one is adopted from overseas. Instead of natural vs. unnatural, I get the "is that her real sister?" My favorite response is to have her pinch herself (lightly) then say, "Yep, I'm real ... and her sister." That usually works. Don't get me started on the occasions when someone has asked how much she cost. (I always reply “cheaper than you think ... they were having a sale that week.”)
A: Great! You are putting those people in their place and also showing your girls you are comfortable with this and giving them the tools to handle adoption questions with humor and aplomb.
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