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.)
Q. Back to School: I was immature in my early 20s and never finished college. I left with a lot of debt and only about 55 credits. For the last few years (I'm now 29), I've been working and making anywhere from $10–12 an hour. My wife graduated nursing school and got her dream job and is making more than double what I was. So looking at our finances we decided that if we made it on half of her salary for the last few years then we could make it on her salary now and I quit my job and got set up to go back to school. I start in January and if I hunker down and go all year I can graduate with my bachelor’s in mathematics in December 2016. I keep thinking that I made the wrong decision in going back to school at age 29 and should have just stayed in a dead end job. I'm being stupid, right? My wife supports me but I still can't get it out of my head.
A: If you don't do this, in 10 years you'll be 39, and unless you see a path upward in your career absent a college degree, you will regret you never buckled down and got your diploma. You are a late-bloomer and you will find college has plenty of people like you who are going back to make the investment in themselves. A mathematics degree should open a lot of doors. So while you're paying tuition, make sure you're taking advantage of all the programs on campus for people like you. There may be counseling for older, returning students. And as soon as classes start, go over to the career counseling office and make friends there. It's perfectly understandable you're daunted and intimidated by the task ahead of you. But you should be excited and proud, too, that with the support of your wife you're making good decisions that will make the future better for both of you.
Dear Prudence: Hung Up on Hair Length
Q. Bigoted Father-in-Law: I am very lucky to be married to a kind and loving man, but his father is a problem. Ever since we met, his father has made jokes that really aren't appropriate. Joking about how my mother-in-law's shoulder bruise was because he hit her, suggesting my father was cheap because he is Jewish, belittling my husband's career (at which he is excellent), etc. At a disastrous Thanksgiving last year during which he made a Polish joke in front of a Polish friend and made fun of another friend's wife's unusual name, we decided we just can't take him to any more parties or introduce him to our friends or co-workers. For the sake of my husband, I always tried to be polite and accept apologies when they were (rarely) offered. However, now we have a baby, and the comments have turned on her. My father-in-law now says things like how she's not that cute and would be cuter if she had blond hair. This is his only grandchild, and my mother-in-law is a kind and loving person who adores the baby to no end. My baby can't understand these comments now, but she will someday, and I just can't stand the thought of her being treated by her grandfather the way he has treated me. What do I do? There is a family reunion next summer.
A: Your father-in-law is the jokester jerk who sees life as a Comedy Central roast, the only problem being he does the insults but leaves out the humor. I understand that you want to keep this dad under wraps as regards your friends, but since he and your mother-in-law are a pair, the rest of you need to practice the deadpan reaction and quick escape to refresh your drink. It's unlikely you will reform this guy. I'm not defending his cracks, which have an ugly edge, but he's also not the kind of raging abuser for whom severing relations is the best solution. If you see him as the pathetic throwback he is (Jewish jokes, Polish joke, wife-beating jokes!) that will reduce his power to sting. As for your child, next year she is only going to be a toddler and will be too young to understand your father-in-law's "humor." At a family reunion there will be so much tumult and activity it's hard to imagine anything grandpa does will really register. But now is the time for your husband to tell your father that his grandchild is off limits for his jokes—poking fun at how his granddaughter looks isn't funny and if it doesn't stop you will have to reduce his ability to see her. As your daughter gets older, you can explain to her that some adults say stupid things, and, unfortunately, grandpa thinks saying mean things is funny. All of you have told him you don't like it, but sometimes he still does it. You can tell her if he says something mean to her she's free to say, "Grandpa, that wasn't funny." Dealing with difficult relatives can actually provide useful life lessons.
Q. Premature Infant: My daughter was born at 26 weeks gestation earlier this year: She weighed 1 pound and 12 ounces at birth. She spent 73 days in the NICU, but I'm thrilled to say she's home and doing very well now. Because she seems so healthy, it's hard to explain to friends and family that she's immunodeficient (she missed a critical three months of maternal antibodies!) with lungs that are still not up to term-baby strength. Everyone wants to hold her and love on her (and I want them to!) but cold and flu season is dangerous for her. What would just be a cold in a regular infant could land us back in the hospital, which is a thought I just cannot bear. How do I tell these well-meaning people, who did so much for us while she was in the hospital, that it's hands-off until she is stronger and better able to handle their germs? I could skip the gatherings all-together, which some micro-preemie moms do, but we love seeing everyone—just at a healthy distance.
A: What good news about your daughter, and what understandable restrictions you have just laid out. You will not be hurting anyone's feelings by simply explaining to them what you've written here. That is, that your daughter is still fragile and exposure to germs has to be limited. If you have gotten in the habit of informing people of your daughter's progress on Facebook, put up a post saying you look forward to seeing people this holiday season, but you want to let everyone know that your baby's immune system is not yet up to speed and you have to keep her away from germs for a while longer. Anyone who loves this child—anyone with a shred of decency—would not want to be the person who unwittingly passed along some potentially devastating bug. Don't worry about sounding defensive or hostile; it's hard to imagine who won't be understanding about this medical necessity.
Q. Re: Bigoted in-laws: Your answer to LW is completely wrong, IMO. My father is just like the letter writer's FIL, and to this day he thinks people are "too sensitive" when people call him out on his "humor." It doesn't matter the tone he uses, it still hurts. LW's priorities are to her child first, in-laws second. People like FIL don't see consequences in blank stares or "that wasn't funny." They DO see consequences when they see they've been cut off. Trust me, when I started telling my dad that I wasn't going to listen to his crap and followed through by hanging up the phone or simply not wanting to be around him anymore, the "jokes" practically stopped. FIL and my dad are bullies, they only understand when people stand up for themselves. LW needs to teach her daughter about boundaries NOW, because FIL is only going to get worse.
A: I agree that cutting people off is sometimes the only way and I suggest that a whole lot. Maybe that's what has to happen here. But I'm recommending drawing some clear boundaries—which is what you did. For some jokesters a flat, "Not funny," can be an effective tool. I said the son should make clear disparaging jokes about his daughter are off-limits and see if his father gets it. If he doesn't, then they can start limiting access to the granddaughter. I will add that I grew up in a family of Don Rickles wannabes and learning to deal with them—and toss it back at them—had its benefits.
Q. Visiting My Parents: I need some advice about staying at my parents' house. Neither of my parents have ever been clean freaks, but since my siblings and I have left the house, it's gotten worse. My father is a hoarder—there is a whole room dedicated to stuff he's bought, but the biggest problem is just the lack of cleaning. The bathroom my siblings and my family and I use when we visit has not been cleaned in years, sheets have not been washed or changed in months. We have to bring our own sheets and blankets from home to ensure there will be some to use there. What should I do? My parents do not seem depressed and it's only this one area of the house that is suffering (out of sight, out of mind?). I'm dreading our visit for Christmas. Staying in a hotel is not very possible (small town).
A: It sounds as if it's time to blast Mom and Dad out of their filth pile and move the family celebration to another venue. Your parents have a serious problem. It's possible that if all the children try to address this with them—and even suggest pooling resources to get the house cleaned—they might listen. I'm guessing not, because this kind of thing is infernally difficult to deal with. Of course all of you could also arrive with cleaning supplies and get the bathroom into usable shape, and do a load of laundry and some vacuuming. But if your parents would object to this, you have to decide how much disgust you can bear over Christmas dinner.
Q. Re: Back to school: Don't be discouraged! My husband is one of the smartest people I know and he was also a late bloomer. Started college at 18, dropped out at 19 and joined the Navy, returned to school at 26, and had his BS and MBA by age 31. I, by contrast, had finished both undergrad and law school by age 26. So what if he did it "later" and I did it "on schedule"—we are both happy with where we've ended up where we are. More people than you think have a "nontraditional" path for their education. Best of luck to you!
A: Great to hear—and this is only one of the many responses that have come in telling the same story. It's way more common than the 29-year-old thinks, and I hope he will connect with others on campus who are walking the same path.
Q. X-mas Grinch?: My MIL looks after my children while I'm at work. I gave her a credit card to pay for child care related expenses. I told her if she occasionally wanted to use it to treat herself I was happy for her to charge it to the credit card, sort of as a bonus/thank you for looking after my children (I also pay her salary for child care). She uses it every couple of months for an inexpensive facial or massage, which is completely fine with me. The only problem comes around at Christmas. She uses the card to buy a massive amount of food for the annual family get together, spending almost $1,000. It takes place at her home and my husband and I are the only ones who help with all the cooking and preparation, which takes days. My siblings-in-law contribute towards the dinner by giving my MIL money, but instead of reimbursing us, she pockets it herself. At first I thought she forgot, but she's been doing this for the past three Christmases. Is it stingy of me to raise this issue with her?
A: Since you're paying your mother-in-law for her child care, if it's a fair salary according to both parties, then you need to either set up a fund for incidentals related to the kids, or ask her for weekly or monthly accounting of her expenses so you can reimburse her. If you separately want to give her a gift certificate for a year's worth of facials or massages at her favorite spa, that would be a great Christmas gift. But it's just too weird that your mother-in-law takes to charging you for the family Christmas dinner because she's got your credit card. But, as usual with in-law questions, I think it's a better idea for you husband to have this conversation, He can tell his mother how much her help means to all of you, but that going forward you two want to have a more predictable outlay for her services.
Q. Unusable Heirloom Table: When we moved, my grandma gave us a gorgeous dining room table that has been in the family for about 100 years. It's beautiful and in great shape. She told us that they're glad we have it because they know we'll take care of it. The problem: It's very low and has wood panels underneath that make it impossible to scoot our chairs under the table. Every single meal, we end up either smacking our knees on the panel or eating hunched over because we can't get any closer to our plates without injuring ourselves. We don't have room to store the table if we get a new one, but it means so much to my grandma that we keep it. No one else in the family is in a position to take it. Are we doomed to a life of eating meals with terrible posture?
A: This can be the problem with even the most meaningful family heirlooms—they just don't work for the way people live now. I've watched enough Antiques Roadshow to know that the last thing you want to do to a 100-year-old table is modify it so that it better suits your needs. But as it is now, this connection to your ancestors is making mealtime miserable. If your space permits perhaps the table can be repurposed. Maybe it would work as a sideboard, for example. If there's nowhere else in your home you can put it, and no one else can take it, you need to talk to grandma. It could be she takes it back. It could be she is willing to pay for it to be put in storage. It could be the best solution is to get it appraised (sob!) and see if it's time to sell it to someone who will cherish it.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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