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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Pool Rules: I recently moved to a neighborhood with a nice community pool. My two pre-teen girls are having a great time playing and meeting new friends. My problem is with one man who wears a thong-style bathing suit. I’m not the bathing suit police, but now I’ve seen him walking around on several occasions with a very noticeable erection. The kids notice too, and make hushed jokes about “banana-man.” He doesn’t seem to pay any attention to the kids in the pool. He swims a few laps and gets out. Still, it makes me uncomfortable when he gets in the pool while my girls are swimming. Should I ask him to “lower the flag pole” before swimming with a bunch of kids? This does not seem like normal behavior, but I don’t want to overreact. Advice?
A: It’s time for Mr. Bananaman to get chopped. I strongly urge you not to go to the thong guy, point out his erection, and announce he needs to go someplace else if he can’t control his urges. You are uncomfortable for a good reason, but you should not handle this one-on-one. I hope that there are adults in charge of this pool, because you—and preferably you and a couple of other parents—need to go to the manager and say this guy’s attire and behavior is not appropriate for a community pool. Say they need to take action to send this big swinging creep on his way.
Q. Raising an Only Child (Not by Choice): We have a beautiful, smart, and vivacious 3-year-old who is the love of our lives. We almost lost her during delivery and since her birth, we have had repeat miscarriages and I was diagnosed with a disorder that makes it difficult to carry a child. We may never have another. This is difficult for my husband and me, but the hardest part is my overwhelming (and irrational) fear that we will lose our only daughter. I know you are a mother of one. Did you have these fears and how did you get over them?
A: After I had my daughter I finally understood the stream of newspaper articles my grandparents clipped and gave to us during our childhoods: stories of children drowned in puddles, asphyxiated in hot cars, etc. When my daughter was just a baby I asked my brother, who has older children, if he had the same dark thrumming fear in his head as I did. Sure, he said, probably every parent does. And you just learn to live with it and keep it from overwhelming you. In a way this is the unavoidable price we humans pay for the depth of the love we feel for our kids. But it’s a parent’s responsibility to manage this fear and keep it in its place. The good part of the fear is that it makes you double-check the car seat is put in properly and that your child is vaccinated on schedule. But if you let it run you, or dictate how you treat your child, you will be damaging your relationship to your daughter and disabling her joy in childhood. It’s comforting to think you only can do what you can, then you have to let go for the sake of everyone’s happiness. You’ve been through a lot of trauma surrounding having kids, and if your thoughts are out of control, please seek some counseling. Cognitive or mindfulness therapy can help you accept your concerns and not allow them to take over your life.
Q. Medical and Identity Fraud: About 12 years ago, my sister “Anna” met a guy she said was wonderful. He wasn’t. He was verbally abusive, manipulative, a cry baby, and a jerk. He was also married with two kids in another state! She waved it off and said he was planning on divorcing his first wife to be with my sister. Today the guy is overseas, and my sister is working as an administrator at our local hospital, and a single parent. (The guy never divorced his wife.) I took a firm stance that my sister and the guy were not married and probably never will be. My nephew, meanwhile, keeps referring to his father’s wife as his stepmother, and my grandmother allows him to do so, saying it was “socially acceptable” that he not identify himself as an out-of-wedlock child. The guy’s mother was admitted into the hospital a few days ago, and I learned from my mother that my sister has put herself down as the guy’s wife so that she could declare this patient is her mother-in-law! My question is this: how do I tell my sister that what she was doing was illegal medically? What can I do?
A: Lucky for you the answer to all your dilemmas, sis, is to butt out. The wife of your nephew’s father is the boy’s stepmother, so I have no idea what your objection is to that. Fortunately, we no longer live in a world in which small children are identified as bastards. I sincerely hope that if you are a presence in your nephew’s life, you have refrained from pointing out to him the “shameful” nature of his origins. I’m sure you’re right that your sister will never be married to the father of her child. But you’re more than a decade past this being something you should be concerned about and it’s not something you should ever have rubbed in her face. As for her declaring on official forms that her former boyfriend’s mother is her mother-in-law, well, that is an exceedingly bad idea, and one that potentially could get her fired from her job. If your mother has a good relationship with your sister, I hope she can persuade her to correct the forms and not jeopardize her ability to support her son. I think you should just stay out of it.
Q. Re: Pool rules: I question the erection. The LW didn’t mention seeing the offender other than on occasions when he walks hard (as Dewey Cox would say). My guess is that this guy just has a large banana, which he likes to show off. And if management gets involved, this will be his direct or implied response (“I can’t help it! Don’t hate me because I am endowed!”). We don’t want to get into issues of endowment discrimination. Therefore, management needs to not address him specifically, but rather create a new rule for how everyone should dress, pool-wide. Ban the banana hammock, and take the erection question out of the matter.
A: Thank goodness this chat doesn’t have photo illustrations. Yes, it could be Mr. Bananaman just wants everyone to appreciate his endowment. That’s why I agree with you that the pool needs to post rules on appropriate attire. Fortunately it’s not in Brazil so this community can ban thongs. However, management needs to keep an eye on him, and if he needs to be someplace that’s adults only, they can refund this member’s membership fee.
Q. Familial Obligations: Four years ago, my father revealed that he had a secret family and that I had a 7-year-old half brother. I met him once at that time, but my mother was crushed and forbade me from interacting with the other family. At the time, it seemed like a very reasonable demand and I had no issue with going along with it. Fast forward to today and my father keeps lightly prodding me to develop a relationship with my half brother (I’m in my 30s). My brother obviously knows of my existence and I think would very much like to get to know me. I’m unsure of my mother’s current position as she’s now happily remarried. I know it would mean a lot to my father to have his two sons become good friends. The problem, aside from my mother, is that I really don’t have any desire to develop a relationship with my half brother. I’ve gone four years ignoring the situation and it’s now become habitual. I lead a good life and don’t want the complication of this new relationship. Plus, I’m not very keen (don’t know how?) to interact with an 11-year-old. Am I being selfish for continuing to ignore this situation?
A: There’s a lot of sorting out to do here. Shame on your father for not only brazenly cheating, but for keeping secret for so many years the existence of another child. I understand your mother was shocked and devastated, but I have to take her to task, too. Ultimately, the betrayal ended the marriage. But anyone in that situation needs to be an adult and recognize the innocent party is the child. At the time your mother declared her edict, you were already grown. So she had no power to keep you from knowing your brother; she only made it a condition of your continued decent relationship with her. Shame on both your parents. Neither parent should be dictating your behavior. You do not need to ask her permission to get to know your half brother, nor do you need to develop a relationship with him. I agree it’s unlikely that a man in his 30s is going to become close to a pre-teen sibling. However, I think you should strongly consider getting together with your father at a time that he has his younger son visiting. This has no implied promise, but it’s just the natural thing to do. This child, through no fault of his own, has a fractured sense of family. It would be kind for you to stop being an abstraction and instead become a flesh and blood person. Go into this with an open mind and you may find this boy expands your feelings in ways you never expected.
Q. Re: Pool rules: Its unfair for homeowners who pay fees to be belittled and berated in order to make kids at the pool comfortable. How is a man in a Speedo more creepy than pre-teen girls in barely-there bikinis? As a childless woman who dreads going to the HOA pool because children make swimming laps impossible, I think Pool Mom needs to agitate for an adults only swim time and then make an issue only if Bananaman continues his so called perverted behavior.
A: Every community pool should have designated swim times for adults. I’m betting his pool does, too. But maybe Bananaman prefers kiddie time. We just don’t know enough to wade into a dispute about whether this guy is marching around with a erection—but I’m giving the benefit of the doubt that this young mother is able to distinguish between a skimpy suit and a guy with boner.
Q. Re: Raising an Only Child (Not by Choice): I went through the same thing (had one child and then several miscarriages). This all happened within a two-year period of 9/11 (I live in NYC—Brooklyn) and my mother dying unexpectedly. I became increasingly upset and scared to death that my son was going to die. Sometimes the only way I got through the day was reassuring myself that if something did happen to him, I would just kill myself to stop the pain. As you can imagine, I was debilitated. I realized I needed help and went to see a psychiatrist and went on anti-depressants with a diagnosis of PTSD. I still become overwhelmed occasionally by irrational fears (my son is now a teenager in NYC … that’s stress right there!) but I can usually tell it escalates because of too much other stress and can put it in perspective.
A: Thank you for this. I hope the young mother reads it and takes heart that this fear is common and can be managed.
Q. Two Moms for My Kids: My ex-husband and I adopted two little girls during our 8-year marriage. Lots of stress, anxiety, faith, hope, and support went into the adoptions (CPS, foster care, etc.). Fast-forward to not even the one-year anniversary and he’s remarried and pushing for our daughters to call the new wife “Mama K.” I want my daughters to love and respect their new step mom, but their being 3 and 5, I find it highly detrimental to force this upon them. My 3-year-old told me last night she has “two moms.” I’m having a very hard time dealing with the fact that a woman, who has no idea the ordeal I went through to become their mother, would even consider allowing this—especially one whose own children live with their father and stepmother. What’s wrong with just a first name? I would never try to give them a “second dad.” Am I overreacting or is this blatant disrespect?
A: I understand your pain, and I disagree with your husband. If you have a decent relationship with him, you can say what you said here: You want your girls to love and respect their stepmother, but you are asking that “Mom” be reserved for you, and that it’s no disrespect if they call her Kandy. But you also have to accept you can’t control this, and the most important thing is for you to not be upset by it. That requires that you dig deep and understand that whatever the nomenclature, your children are going to absolutely know that only you are their mother. I had a friend who went through something very similar. She and her husband split when their two kids were very young and he had impregnated his soon-to-be second wife. He wanted her children to refer to the new wife as “Mom” and one day her young son came to her sobbing saying he felt so guilty for doing this and for getting his stepmother a Mother’s Day card. She dried his tears, reassured him and told him she knew how much he loved her, that she knew he knew who was his mom and who was his stepmom, and she didn’t want him to be upset by being nice to his stepmother. She was a real model for handling this kind of painful situation, and of course her kids—now teenagers—adore her.
Q. Re: Pool Rules: My husband who is on the computer next to me wants to know if the pool will also talk to all the girl/women who are wearing revealing bikinis and lots of cleavage. Our friend’s 15-year-old wears quite provocative beach wear—almost a thong, can see her entire buttocks, and size-D cleavage squeezed into an eenie-weenie bikini (not white though ...). Why is this not equally questioned? The boys surely are affected by this look around them as much as the man in a thong. I suppose if the man is just swimming and not leering or speaking inappropriately to the girls/women at the pool, he needs to be left alone or there needs to be rules put in place for both men and women (boys and girls) banning revealing swimwear for all—this will be challenging to monitor though.
A: Every pool gets to make its own rules, and a community has community standards, which as I mentioned will be different in different places. The original letter writer didn’t love the thong, but her big issue was the condition of the shlong. That needs to be addressed. But if a pool is getting complaints that thong-wear for both men and women is too skimpy, then management can post rules on appropriate attire. I agree enforcing these will be awkward, and probably spotty.
Q. Stuck? I am 66 and my husband 72. His mother is 93, healthy, and in a retirement community that she selected after being widowed three years ago. We have one grandchild, age 2, in whose life we want to be very involved and as hands-on as possible while we are still able to do so. Neither of us is ill, but nor do we have tons of energy. MIL wants us to stay in her community for the rest of her life. We want to move to our grandchild’s community. MIL is not going to want to move with us. We would only be 100 miles away and could visit MIL (we don’t see her that much as it is now). She is going to have a fit if we move, but we really do want to. Are we horrible people? Do you have any advice for dealing with MIL?
A: First, before all the generations get in motion, I’m assuming you’ve checked in with your grown child and have gotten an enthusiastic go-ahead for your own move. If so, then I agree you have to do it. Your mother-in-law is in her early 90s, but centenarians are one of the fastest growing demographic groups, and you just can’t miss your grandchild’s early years by being on a kind of death watch for your mother-in-law. Do raise with her the possibility of her moving to a retirement community near your new home. Perhaps she would consider it given that it would allow her access to her entire family. But if she just can’t bear the thought of a move, you have to deal with her lovingly and forthrightly. One of her biggest concerns is going to be abandonment. So talk to her about what a reasonable schedule would be for visiting. And once you establish that, stick with it. If your mother-in-law is fit enough, maybe sometimes you can pick her up and have her spend a weekend with you seeing her extended family. If she can’t get over his distress about your move, have a social worker who specializes in geriatric issues mediate some of your discussions. You are not horrible people to try to care, as best you can, for the oldest and youngest in your lives.
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