Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, chats with readers weekly on Mondays here at Slate. 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—and your responses!
Q. My Hair, My Business: My best friend since middle school was recently diagnosed with lymphoma at only 28 years old. She starts chemo next week and has had an incredibly positive attitude. The one concern that she has expressed to me is that she doesn’t want to lose her hair. I told her that if does lose her hair I will be right there with her. Her younger sister and I have decided we want to shave our heads along with her so she doesn’t have to do it alone. My husband is completely fine with this, and friends and family that I’ve mentioned it to all say that they understand. My only concern is how to answer the questions that may come up from co-workers, acquaintances, etc. My hair is midway down my back so it’s not likely that it will go unnoticed. I don’t feel that it is anyone else’s business but I don’t want to be rude about it either.
A: I understand the loving impulse behind this gesture, but I advise putting down the razor. Seeing her own bald head reflected in yours will not help your friend get through her ordeal. She is going to need your support in more constructive ways. You can watch movies with her when she’s recovering from chemo. You can run errands for her. You can bring her chicken soup. You can rub her feet, you can cry with her, and then dry both your tears. If you shave your head you will inevitably have to deal with your own sadness at hacking off your beautiful hair and the questions from people about your health. Instead of getting unwanted and unproductive attention for yourself, save your energy to focus on your friend.
Q. Leftover Embryos: Now What?: I had twins two and a half years ago after a painful, protracted battle with infertility. I am happy with the size of my family, and so is my husband. The problem is that we have two frozen embryos. My husband does not really want more children, and, if these embryos did not exist, the thought wouldn’t even cross my mind. The problem is that I am emotionally attached to these embryos (and so is my husband, albeit to a lesser extent). I can’t bear the thought of destroying them or even donating them. The only option then seems to be using them to get pregnant. I know I would love another child, and my husband also says that he could do so. The problem is our hearts just aren’t in it in the way they should be. Is there something we are missing? I feel like I’ve explored all the options, and I can’t find any good solutions.
A: Please read your own letter and see how confused and conflicted your thinking is about having another child. First of all, you need to clarify whether your family is complete, and that decision should be made apart from the sense that a sibling is simply awaiting removal from the deep freeze. You’ve laid out your options: Another go-round at the fertility clinic; donation of the embryos; or destruction. However, you say you don’t want to pursue any of these. This website on surrogacy lays out thoroughly the ethical dilemmas parents like you face and makes the point that people become so overwhelmed by there being no good choice that they don’t make any decision. So they keep the embryos frozen year after year, paying a fee that could better be spent on the children they have. The surrogacy website notes that sometimes people just disappear—they stop paying the storage fee, thus defaulting the decision to the doctor, which isn’t fair. It certainly is justifiable that right now you’re not sure about whether to increase your family, so there’s nothing wrong with keeping your options open for the time being. But give yourself a deadline. Maybe by the time your twins are, say, 4 years old, you will make a pact that a decision, however difficult, must be made.
Q. Re: My hair, my business: I recently dealt with cancer. I already felt like a burden by needing to be taken care of. I would have felt even worse if someone drastically altered their physical appearance for me as well. A lot of times we’re expected to happily react to people’s demonstrations of support even if it makes us uncomfortable. I would really give this a second thought.
A: Thank you for this insight from someone who has been there. And I want to reassure those going through treatment that your friends and loved ones want to do things for you, the more specific the better. It’s not a burden, it’s a way of channeling concern into something useful.
Q. I Aborted Our Daughter: My husband and I were thrilled when we found out about my pregnancy, but that ended when our baby girl was diagnosed with Trisomy 18. Most babies with it die before birth, and only 1 in 10 who make it to birth get past their first birthday. We chose to abort her, which was the most painful experience of our lives. We simply told our families that it was a miscarriage. However, a few nosy relatives have started blabbing about how unusual and rare it is to miscarry in the mid-to-late second trimester. One even asked if it was “really” a miscarriage. Is there any benefit to being honest in these sorts of situations?
A: There’s only a benefit if you feel there are trusted people in your life with whom you would want to discuss this wrenching choice. But people who start nosing around about what “really” happened when you lost your baby immediately disqualify themselves from this circle. If the questions from them continue, you can say, “You’re right that late-term miscarriage is particularly painful. I appreciate your concern and your understanding that I don’t care to talk about it at all.”
Q. Co-Worker Lunch Clique: Soon after starting a new job I was invited to join a group of co-workers who eat lunch together every day in the cafeteria. At first I was happy to be included, but I quickly realized that this group hates the job, regularly takes more than our allotted break time, and may not be in the best graces with management. Furthermore, I don’t seem to have much in common with the group so most of lunch I just sit quietly studying my water bottle. What is the best way to extract myself from this clique?
A: Shades of the cafeteria scenes in Orange Is the New Black. Fortunately for you, you are not in a penal institution, even if your lunch mates act as if you are. I agree you need to break away from this group, but you want to do so without becoming a target of these malcontents. Start by mentioning to a couple of them that you’ve decided to use your lunch hour for exercise—then actually go out for a walk and grab your lunch outside. After a couple of weeks of this, you can mix it up by showing up in the cafeteria at a time that they generally are all leaving. Or take a book with you and say you’ve got to finish in time for your book club. Also feel free to sit with more pleasant colleagues. Sure, these whiners will notice you’re no longer part of their group, but maybe to your benefit management will too.
Q. Re: My hair, my business: I’m a cancer doctor, and I see patients’ families commiserating their loved one’s loss of hair by shaving their own, and it is a beautiful thing. A medical school classmate of mine lost his hair due to chemotherapy, and 30 of us shaved our heads (including two women who gave their hair to Locks of Love). I think it is quite a meaningful gesture, and the hair could help others.
A: People often mention Locks of Love but this article points out that most of the hair donated gets discarded and there are some serious questions about this charity. I totally accept that you have a different perspective on this than I do—and you’re in the cancer trenches. But even if the patient sees head-shaving as an empty gesture, he or she could never say so because people have just made a significant personal sacrifice. Shaving one’s head doesn’t mean one can’t or won’t be helpful in other ways. I just think the other ways are more productive and meaningful.
Q. Re: Hair donation: Locks of Love isn’t the only charity that turns donated hair into wigs for cancer and alopecia patients; this article from 2007, which was referenced in the Slate article, raised questions about Locks of Love, but also described three other organizations that seem to be doing a better job. Just wanted others with long locks to know there are other options.
A: Thanks for the update.
Q. A Girl With a Smile That Can Shatter the Sky: I work for a large company, and one day shortly after I started, while walking down the hall, I was literally stunned by a girl with an incredible smile. I mean literally. I was stopped dead in my tracks and my mind just went blank. I know who she is but she has no idea who I am. I have never and would never jeopardize my career to hit on her or even talk to her without a reason. Mostly because I don’t trust myself to not end up saying something stupid. Should I deny myself the opportunity to get to know her? Or should I nut up, ask her for coffee and risk her taking it the wrong way and going to HR?
A: Most workplace prohibitions on personal relationships preclude supervisors from getting involved with subordinates, but you neglected to mention whether this is the case here. What you describe is what the French call a “coup de foudre,” literally translated a bolt of lightning that figuratively signifies love at first sight. It’s so great when that happens and it’s mutual. What’s not great is when it happens for one person and the object of affection discovers she or he has a stalker. I’m a little concerned with your subject line. I believe you that this co-worker set you aflame, but “a smile that can shatter the sky” makes me uneasy. So, too is your concern that if you were to casually get to know her and invite her out for coffee—normally a harmless gambit—she’d go running to HR. So I say, cool off for a while. Then, if you honestly can say you’re both not a nut and not in a supervisory position, there’s nothing wrong with introducing yourself to a colleague, then feeling her out (not literally, please!) and going from there.
Q. Career or Money?: I am a professor at a highly regarded school, but it is across the country from my entire family—which has only became an issue now that I have a toddler. I applied for and will likely be offered a nonacademic job near my family in a great area of the country for a larger salary than I could make until well after tenure (it would probably take me more than 15 years to match it). When I do a decision matrix, based on my priorities (proximity to family, career, location, salary), taking the nonacademic job is much more highly rated than staying in my current job. But I am in a field that views taking a nonacademic job as a statement that you are not a serious academic. And because the academic job market is so poor right now I feel extremely lucky to have my current position. I am extremely conflicted about essentially stepping out of a career that I’ve been working toward for years and that I envisioned myself staying in for the rest of my life. On the other hand, the nonacademic job would allow me a financial stability and security I wouldn’t have for at least another decade. And my toddler would grow up around both sides of his family. I’m making myself sick worrying about this, and my friends have long since grown tired of hearing me stress about two excellent options.
A: First of all, professor, I disagree with the way you’ve framed this. It’s not “Career or Money” it’s “Different Career and More Money.” Of course I should just send you back to your matrix because I don’t know you, your family, or even what career you’re pursuing. But the fun of this column is that people write in because they just want someone they don’t know to make a decision. From what you’ve laid out here, Dr. Brainy, the nonacademic career sounds like a no-brainer. It surely offers challenging and important work, better remuneration, and built-in babysitters who adore your kid. Let your mind wander to the possibilities this move might open up. Maybe you will end up running a company that makes great contributions to your field (while also making you buckets of money). I know it is painful to give up on a life path, but what’s so great about life is that it sometimes throws exciting new possibilities in our path. However, now that you’ve read my answer, you will know what you should do by whether you say, “Yes, she’s right,” or, “No, she just doesn’t understand.”
Check out Dear Prudence's book recommendations in the Slate Store.