Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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.)
Q. Crazy Mixed-Up Kid: My sister recently moved back to town. I’ve always been the serious one, and she’s more of a Holly Golightly free spirit. Despite this, we get along well. She adores our daughter, and has been a readily available sitter and chauffeur. She also seems to be acting as the big sister our daughter never had, and I wouldn’t be surprised if our daughter told her aunt things she doesn’t tell us. This weekend, I came home to hear a commotion in the kitchen and found my daughter holding the hand mixer against her body. Embarrassed, she said her aunt had “taught her this trick.” Now, I can easily imagine she may have just thrown that out as an inappropriate joke, but I wouldn’t put it past her to have meant it seriously. Obviously, our daughter wouldn’t be the first 13-year-old girl put in an awkward situation to lie, either. I really think this kind of thing needs to stay between mother and daughter. Should I confront my sister about this or just let it go?
A: Talk about scrambled eggs! And if your daughter has a sudden interest in doing the laundry, maybe it’s because Holly told her to hop aboard the washing machine when it’s in the spin cycle. Having an free-spirited aunt with whom you can share confidences you don’t want to discuss with your mother is a great thing for a teenage girl. It’s good that you’ve decided not to pry into exactly what these two discuss. I understand you’re concerned about the repurposing of the appliances, but because the question of blender self-pleasure is going to be a horribly embarrassing one to bring up to your daughter, I think it’s fine to broach this with your sister. But this should not be a confrontation, instead make it a humorous conversation. Get sis alone and say you came home to find a rather hilarious scene. Say your daughter explained you gave her the kitchen tips, and you just wanted to check in with her about this. Then let your sister answer. It could well be that your daughter point blank asked her auntie for masturbation tips, and that’s OK. I doubt you would have come up with a better one. If that’s the case, gently tell your sister that you appreciate your daughter has found a confidante in her, but that you would appreciate in general that in the future if there’s stuff going on that you should know about, to please give you a heads up.
Q. How Can I Get My Parents to Stop Being Cruel to Each Other?: I am a boomerang child cliché and just moved back in with my parents at age 28 after law school. They are 63 and 70 years old, and have been married 40 years. After three weeks in their house, I am shocked at how unimaginably rude they are to each other. Constantly belittling each other, twisting words to make the other feel bad, harping about the other to me when it’s just the two of us. It wasn’t like this when I was growing up! Meek attempts at getting them to be civil have resulted in the vitriol being briefly redirected at me. I am miserable living in such an environment, and they must be too. Is there anything I can do for them? I get counseling sessions for family members paid for through my employer, should I sign them up? Or should I just move out ASAP (which would upset them, they seem to really want me to be there) and leave them to their own devices? I don’t want to seem ungrateful.
A: Sure they want you to be there. Since you have a law degree, one of them is hoping to get your free services to represent them in the divorce. Before we deal with your parents, let’s address you. I know law school grads can be snowed under with debt. But in the normal course of events, you don’t pick up your J.D. so that you can go back to your childhood bedroom and mediate your parents’ failing marriage. You have a job, so for goodness sake, assign part of your paycheck to rent, get the hell out of Dodge. You don’t say your parents are ailing or otherwise incapacitated, and they are relatively young, so at this point in their lives, they should be able to be left to their own devices. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have some pointed parting words. Tell them how concerned you are about the degeneration of their relationship. Explain you are not going to take sides and the venom they are spewing at each other is poisoning themselves and your relationship with them. Suggest they get counseling, and counselor, if you are going to be an effective lawyer, you need to stop cowering in the face of conflict.
Q. Younger Wives: At my age (50s) I’m supposed to be comfortable in my own skin, right? And I am, mostly, up until I noticed more and more men my age showing up with their much younger wives (one of whom happens to be my own sister-in-law, whom I adore). To be clear, these women are lovely in more than appearance—they are smart, kind, and funny, but recently I skipped a gathering of my brother and his high school friends where I would have been 20 years older than any other woman present (I’m not married). When I turned down the invite, all I could think of was how I did not want my 50-year-old self to have to stand in the middle of a group of gray, paunchy middle-aged men and their dewy young wives. I look pretty good for my age, but I don’t look 30. I thought the days of being the awkward, homely girl surrounded by cheerleaders were over. Any advice?
A: Where do you live, Malibu? I’m in my 50s, too, and in my crowd almost all the fiftysomething men have fiftysomething wives, and we wives are all dewy because of hot flashes. Take another look around—I simply doubt it’s true every couple you know consists of man old enough to be the father of his new wife. However, if there is a high percentage of trophies among your friends, and these woman are smart and funny, what’s the problem? Just go to these gatherings and have fun. Also, these women may want to turn to you for wisdom about aging—so bone up on whether Viagra or Cialis is the best choice for their paunchy mates.
Q. Re: Crazy mixed-up kid: You answered by saying that the mom should tell her sister that in the future she would like to get a heads up if there was stuff going on she should know about. I don’t see why a mom thinks that masturbation by a teen is something she should know about. We almost all do it, or we should do it, and teens full of hormones are very likely to experiment with their bodies. However, most teens would be mortified if their parents knew. I was fortunate to have an older sister who could fill me in and give me stuff to read but the daughter of the letter writer does not. The mom should be very happy that her daughter can go to the aunt for information she is to embarrassed to get from her mom. She should be happy and let her daughter have her privacy.
A: I didn’t mean the advice on fun uses for the egg beaters needed to be revealed. I meant that down the road there may be things the daughter confides to the aunt that rightly need to involve the mother. The aunt may have to tell her niece her mom needs to know that, for example, she needs birth control. I’m suggesting that the mother and aunt have a sense of trust about what stays private and what needs to be passed on.
Q. 28 Years Old and Living at Home: I am 28 years old and live with my parents. In my early 20s I spent some time either on my own or with friends, and moved back home when I was temporarily unemployed. Although I now have a job, I haven’t moved out. I work long hours and it’s wonderful coming to a warm home where my mother has dinner ready for me. I am the youngest of five kids and my parents made no secret of the fact that they like having one of their kids back at home (I think they were getting a little lonely in a big, empty house). I offered to pay them rent but they refused, as they are comfortably retired and not in need of extra money. So in addition to not having to spend significant hours a week doing household chores, I have been able to save a lot of money. At the end of this year I’ll have enough for a deposit toward a house of my own—I could have never done this if I were living elsewhere. I don’t plan on moving out because I can pay off the mortgage a lot quicker if I rent it out. My parents and I get along well and respect each other’s space. In short, I have no reason—financial or otherwise—to move out and be independent. Is there something wrong with me for being comfortable in this situation?
A: There would be something wrong if you were comfortable in the situation of the other 28-year-old now living out The War of the Roses (Michael Douglas version, not Plantagenet) back home with Mom and Dad. What you describe is a very traditional pattern in lots of countries, and it’s working great for all of you. You’re hardly an example of failure to launch—you’re setting yourself up for a more secure financial future. But you are heading toward your 30s. So just keep in mind that if you want a family of your own one day, you don’t want to be so comfortable with your family of origin that you never get started.
Q. Helping a Brother Out: I have a brother who lost his wife two years ago after a long illness. His children, 20 and 18, are nearly grown, and will both be in college later this year. I am worried about my brother being alone, and I believe, if left to his own devices, will not get out and meet women to socialize with. I know a client of mine who I think may be a good match for him, or at least be someone who will not take advantage of him. Both parties are in their 50s, in good health, financially secure, and tend to treat others well. The only problem is that I briefly dated the woman years back. We soon realized we were better as friends, and now have both a good friendship, as well as a business relationship. I would prefer to let this fact be unsaid, and I think she would be fine to keep it in the past as well. What do you think about this? (She is open to meeting him, by the way.)
A: I agree that a brief, failed attempt at romance is not relevant news right now, especially since an introverted and grieving guy might use this as an excuse not to meet her. If they click, then down the road then she can casually mention that long ago you two went out for a couple of dinners and quickly realized you’re great as friends. I hope some magic happens!
Q. Re: Younger Wives?: There’s another side to that story. Try being close to 50 and not only ignored by men your own age, but chased by younger men who like “older women.” Sure, I should be glad I’m still lookin’ pretty darned dewy, but it’s not easy suddenly becoming a specific “type,” when for the longest time I was just a woman. And then there’s the resentment I get from women my age because I haven’t gained weight or developed wrinkles like they have. Pardon my DNA, but it’s tough for all of us.
A: Oh, Lord, do I know what you mean! OK, actually I don’t. The last time a younger man chased me down the street was because I dropped my reading glasses. But my sympathy to you for having to bat away the boys.
Q. Marriage Impasse: I have been married for 10 years and we have a 4-year-old daughter. She is such a joy, but she is also severely disabled and will require constant care and supervision for her entire life. Between my wife’s post-partum depression and the devastation of getting my little girl’s diagnosis, the past few years have been really, really trying. My wife desperately wants another child, but I am terrified of the idea—terrified that something could go wrong with another child, terrified that my wife will become impossible to be around again, terrified that we simply won’t be able to give another child the attention he/she deserves because our daughter takes up so much time and space. But my wife is adamant, and I don’t see a compromise here. Any ideas?
A: Of course you love your little girl, but this is a very tough road you’re on, one that would be wearing on the strongest person. Before we talk about having another child, I hope that you two have in place the ability to get respite from child care and reconnect with each other. If you don’t, that’s crucial. Your wife’s desires and your fears are each completely understandable. So you two need a safe place to talk this out. Please go to a therapist who has expertise in dealing with families with disabled children. Then, without your establishing it’s a go-ahead, tell your wife that as part of your consideration, you two need a work up and discussion with a genetic counselor. Finding out your risks and how you can mitigate them might alleviate one of your major fears. Also, because your wife experienced post-partum depression, you, and her doctor, would be on the alert for any sign of it next time around. I’m not saying all this to argue your wife’s side. I’m just suggesting that are things you can do so that you are seeing the possibility of another child from a place of knowledge, not fear.
Q. Re: Trophy Wives?: “However, if there is a high percentage of trophies among your friends, and these woman are smart and funny, what’s the problem?” That’s a pretty derogatory description for these women, wouldn’t you agree? Simply because they are significantly younger than their husbands doesn’t make the “trophies.” You may be trying to criticize the husbands, but you’re taking down their wives as well.
A: I get your point, but I don’t think it’s such a derogatory shorthand for the dewy young wives of paunchy, gray-haired men.
Q. Friendship: A close friend with whom I used to have regular daily contact by phone, email, or online chat recently moved in with her boyfriend. She has been dating this man for about four years, but none of her friends or family have ever met him. Inquiries about when anyone will meet him are usually shrugged off. She even claims not to know where he works. I’m beginning to wonder if we were even the kind of friends I thought we were. I feel ambivalent about our friendship, which is making me act standoffish. We meet in a social context weekly so it feels awkward. Do I need to look inward and just deal? Help! I struggling with how and why to stay friends. At a crossroads ...
A: Maybe you’ve never met him because he is a she. Or maybe he is a figment of her imagination. There are lots of other possibilities and the imagination does tend to run wild when a close friend has been dating someone for four years no one has ever met, and she claims to know little about. Now that she and he are supposedly living together, I think you need to press your concern. Tell her that you really would like to have the chance to get to know this important person in her life. If she refuses ask her point blank why he’s being kept a secret. But I agree that a close friendship moves to something else when one friend becomes secretive and bizarre.
Emily Yoffe: So, this is it for my final chat at the Washington Post. See you here next Tuesday at noon for our first Slate chat (and on Mondays thereafter).
Check out Dear Prudence's book recommendations in the Slate Store.