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: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Dirty Problem: I used to be a live-in nanny for the world's most annoying, inconsiderate, intolerant, and rude couple. I stuck through for three months, but had to quit for my own mental health. During this time, I occasionally took revenge by sneaking into their bathroom and dipping their toothbrushes in the toilet. The wife kept a drink bottle by the bedside table and I also put some toilet water into it as well. It made me feel better about my crappy situation at the time but now that I've quit (and regained some of my sanity), I'm consumed with guilt. I heard from a mutual acquaintance that both of them are having some kind of health problems—exactly what, I don't know—and I'm worried I may have caused this. Should I call and confess? We didn't exactly leave on good terms.
A: This is indeed a crappy situation all around. I'm actually surprised you quit because given your response to what you say was intolerable treatment by your employers, you attempted to cause them grave bodily harm—you all sound perfectly matched! Making people ingest fecal matter without their knowledge is indeed likely to make people ill and leave their doctor baffled. Part of me would love to tell you to rush to confess. However, I will extend you a courtesy that you didn't give your "inconsiderate" and "rude" employers. That is, while I think this couple should know the source of their illness, confessing could leave you open to potential prosecution. You may deserve it, but you need to consider the stakes here. So my suggestion is that you pay for a consultation with a lawyer and explain the situation. You also should find out what are the potential medical consequences of drinking toilet water. It may be that the need to get a proper diagnosis for this pair is crucial to their treatment, and you must consider that and bring it to the attention of your lawyer. While your behavior makes my stomach turn, I am slightly heartened that you seem to recognize what you did was an abomination. I hope in the future you recognize that if you're in a poisonous situation, you simply get out without trying to poison anyone else.
Dear Prudence: Dressing Down
Q. Parents and Finance: I graduated a year ago from college. It took me most of 2013 to find my financial footing by landing my first real career-oriented job. My new job doesn't pay as much as I would like, but what it lacks in a high salary, it pays in excellent training and experience. I'm proud to say that I paid for my own college education—I worked part-time and summer jobs, I saved everywhere I could, and I took out my own student loans. In that same time my parents wrote a different story. They overspent on a new mortgage, they bought expensive cars, purchased designer clothing, and made a lot of the same pre-2008 mistakes other middle-class families had made. It's now the beginning of the new year, they've both lost their jobs, and they are straight up broke. I haven't even made my second paycheck yet and they're asking me for help. I want to help, but I also want them to know that they're asking a lot from me without sounding vindictive. I'm not sure how to voice myself to them. I don't simply want to give them money, but I don't want to completely shame them. How shall I approach them about their poor past behavior?
A: I don't know whether to be encouraged or discouraged by the number of cases I hear about like yours. That is, financially responsible young adults whose parents are financially profligate, who are now being hit up by their broke mother and father. It is great to see people who were raised by the irresponsible learning from that example, instead of following it. But the pressure on these young people to honor their self-indulgent parents is immense. I think you must resist. You are starting your own, independent life, with a college degree you earned solely through your own efforts. How wonderful it would have been if your parents had looked at you and absorbed some of your lessons. Instead they partied as if the leverage would never come crashing down on their heads. Now, they are turning to you, but given your own penny-pinching financial circumstances, I don't see how you can afford to do anything except buy them an occasional bag of groceries. When you were still a teenager your parents sent you out to be financially responsible for yourself. They need to take similar responsibility for their situation. Of course, in addition to making terrible choices, they are now victims of a cruel economy, it is true. But your pouring your money down their financial rat hole—well, you only have enough for a dribble—won't solve their problem. If they put enough pressure on you ("Honey, can you just take out a loan? We will pay you back when we get on our feet") it might just tip you into ruin. Tell them to contact the nonprofit National Foundation for Credit Counseling to help them figure out the steps they must take. You love them and want to be a source of solace and even advice. But you cannot bail them out.
Q. Re: Toilet water: As a physician, I will submit that ongoing health problems are really not likely to be caused by drinking toilet water. At worst, it could spread a G.I. illness (virus, bacterial diarrhea, etc.). But the same virus/bacteria would be elsewhere in the family home and there would be minimally higher exposure from direct consumption of toilet water. What this nanny did was a childish and gross violation of trust, but not dangerous.
A: Several other letters writers have also basically said that drinking toilet water isn't likely to hurt you. So for the sake of the environment, please let's stop purchasing bottled water and start recycling that toilet water! I've heard of fruit flush and fat flush diets, little did I know that the toilet flush diet was OK, too. Doc, I will take your word that if this couple is sick, it's not because of the nanny's beverage service. So the nanny can forget about talking to a lawyer. With that money saved, a therapist might help her figure out better ways to respond to stress.
Q. Cultural Differences—Mother-in-Law: My mother-in-law is from the Southern U.S., where it is common for children to address all adults as sir and ma'am. I am from New England, where we currently live with our two children. My in-laws are correcting our children whenever they visit (they are 4 and 2) and prodding them to say "yes, sir," etc., whenever a yes or no is expected. This is not something my husband and I had decided to do, and to me it seems downright inappropriate to expect of young children. My husband is still sentimental for the South, and is happy to go along with them. What should we do?