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.)
Q. Cultural Clash: Prudie, please give me your thoughts on this. I am married to a man who is originally from the Middle East. He was educated here, holds a U.S. citizenship, and we’ve been married for seven years and have a child together. In the last few months he has been asking me to go back to his country of origin to visit his family and introduce me and our daughter to them. Although we are happily married and I completely trust him, I don’t want to go. It sounds ridiculous and paranoid, I know, but I fear going into a country where I have no rights as a woman, where my husband can legally (and without any social stigma) beat me, detain me, take other wives, or even take my daughter away. I want to add there is nothing in his character that causes me to consider this as a possibility—but I just don’t feel right in going. He says I’m being ridiculous and is offended I am even thinking that.
A: It sounds as if you’ve recently seen the Sally Field movie, Not Without My Daughter, about an American woman married to an Iranian physician who goes back to Iran for a visit with him and their child. What then plays out is your nightmare. But obviously endless numbers of Americans married to people from the Middle East go back and forth for family visits with nothing untoward happening. I assume among your friends are people from your husband’s home country who are married to native-born Americans who have visited and returned, their families and rights intact. You have been married to this man for seven years, so there is something disturbing about your gnawing fear that you’re with someone whose long-term plan is to kidnap you and your child. You say you completely trust him, yet you are overwhelmed with worry, so you two are at a stalemate. This is a situation where short-term therapy—say four or so sessions—can clarify what’s going on and help you two come up with a plan to address the needs of both of you.
Q. Negligence or Get Over It?: Our child recently flew to overnight camp, and we arranged for my in-laws to pick him up from the airport. He is 12 years old and is technically allowed to fly unaccompanied but is still very much a minor, albeit a tall one! Having flown many times before, we were comfortable with the idea of our son walking alone from the gate to the baggage carousel and were very particular to tell my in-laws to be there waiting at the carousel in advance of his arrival. The arrangements seemed pretty ironclad and our son did not have a cellphone. My in-laws had several pressing errands to do and arrived 35 minutes after the arrival time, which left me terrified. I am incensed at the irresponsibility and negligence of my in-laws for leaving our child alone in a major airport. Their thinking is, “All’s well that ends well.” They are extremely responsible generally but can be late often. Clearly, this was not a time to be late!
A: Your in-laws are lovely, generally responsible people with a major flaw. I share this flaw, so while I make no excuses for them, when you are dealing with people like us, you need to be aware that sometimes contingency plans are necessary. That means you needed to alert your son that given how Nana and Papa are, he had to be prepared to chill out while he waited. I don’t quite understand your terror, Mom. Once your son realized he would have to cool his heels, he was hardly in any danger. I hope he watched the passing show, or read a book—or more likely buried his head in his electronics. Sure, he’s a minor, but at 12 years old he should be a competent enough one to entertain himself for a little while, while he waits for his chronically tardy but beloved grandparents to pick him up.
Q. Pooping During Intercourse: My lovely wife and I have (and always have had) a very active sex life. The only problem is, since the birth of our child, she has had a problem with controlling her orgasms. She routinely accidentally passes gas, and occasionally actually accidentally defecates. I never act like it bothers me at all, and to be honest it rarely does, but she gets so embarrassed and mortified by it that she often has to stop—at least temporarily. It was one thing with the gas, but the poop is a show stopper. I don’t want to make the problem worse by saying something, and I fear that the recent downturn in our sex lives (down to about three times a week) is related to her anxiety about this. It’s important to me that sex is fulfilling and enjoyable for both of us, and I’m in a bit of a pickle here as to what to do. Is this sort of thing normal? I don’t even know if it’s related to the childbirth process she went through a couple of years ago.
A: I once saw a terrific female comedian do a set on how she judged the skill of her sex partner by how much gas he squeezed out of her. I will also note that your remark that your sex life is down to only (!) three times a week since the birth of your child will have a lot of readers messing their pants. You two have great physical intimacy, but you lack emotional intimacy if you’re turning to me to figure out what in the world is going on when your wife defecates while having an orgasm and that you fear talking to her about this. Your wife needs to see a doctor right away! Losing control of your bowels is not normal, and she needs to find out the cause and how to address it. So tell her you’re concerned and she needs to make an appointment. Say you’ll go with her if that would help. And until you get this figured out, I hope at least you’ve swiped some crib pads from the kid.
Q. Re: Middle Eastern husband: I too am married to a man from the Middle East. We have gone twice in the five years we’ve been married, and both times I was not only NOT beaten/subjected to polygamy/forcibly held, but wined, dined, and exposed to wonderful people and cultures. I had some of the best food I’ve ever eaten and experienced world-famous Middle Eastern hospitality. You will love it. There is definitely something wrong with you if you are only now afraid of his family and culture after seven years. When you marry someone from overseas, I think a basic thing you are signing up for is at least visiting the old country.
A: Beautiful. I hope the letter writer reads this!
Q. Re: Negligence or get over it?: I’m sure I won’t be the first to ask, but why on earth would you not get him an inexpensive pay-as-you-go phone to take with him? Program in your in-laws’ number as well as your own and tell him to call for anything like this.
A: Good point. There’s no reason these days not to have a way to communicate—especially since no one traveling is going to find a phone booth at the airport. Also, the in-laws might have left in plenty of time, only to be held up by a flat tire or an accident on the freeway. People—especially kids—always need to be prepared for such contingencies.
Q. Will Past Mistakes Hamper Future Opportunities?: When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I misrepresented myself and my cultural background and said some things that were not true to various people, including some faculty members of the university I attended. I was going through a time of incredible stress and pressure in my life, although that doesn’t excuse what I did. I spent many years in therapy to work through why I said those things. I no longer lie about myself or anything else. It is now about 15 years later. I have been a offered a spokesperson position for an organization that I care deeply about and greatly believe in. I am afraid that if it turns out to be a visible position, that my past could be brought up. I am wondering if I should turn down this opportunity because I don’t want to put my family through the embarrassment and pain that I fear might ensue.
A: You don’t say how these lies were resolved. That is, whether some action was taken against you or whether you eventually came clean with these people. But whatever happened, there’s a reason the law has statutes of limitations. For you, your youthful misbehavior should have no bearing on the responsible adult you have become—so please stop feeling guilty about misdeeds you addressed and have not repeated. Only you know the likelihood of your two worlds overlapping or what you did becoming relevant to your current opportunity. If you feel your past inevitably will return, then the best thing is to get out in front and explain to your organization what happened years ago and how it was resolved. And since you are anguished about what you did, you certainly should explain this episode to your family. If you have children, it will be helpful for them to know that everyone makes mistakes and the important thing is to face them and address stopping self-destructive behavior. You can’t be embarrassed if you acknowledge your lapses and the lessons learned.
Q. Re: Kid at the Airport: Given the tone of the mother’s letter, I bet the son was thrilled to have 35 minutes to himself without someone hovering and fretting over him!
A: I hope it was even fun for him. But plenty of other commenters are saying the in-laws are outrageous and have lost their right to care for the kid! However, I’m firmly with the, “Let it go” camp.
Q. Excited to be Pregnant, Terrified to Become a Mom: After a year of trying, my husband and I were thrilled to become pregnant with our first child. I’m now five months pregnant, and every day I have this feeling of, “What have we done?” I’m very happy with my life as is, and I’m terrified that I won’t be happy anymore once the baby comes. It isn’t helping that my friends and peers are constantly posting their complaints about their babies on Facebook—overfilling diapers, constant vomiting, being peed on in the middle of the night, etc. I’m 30 years old, so it’s not like I’m a teenager who hasn’t experienced life yet—I’ve traveled, finished grad school, and my husband and I have good jobs. I love the baby already and can’t wait to meet her, but at the same time how can I stop the panic I feel at the thought of becoming a parent?
A: I was 40 when I was facing motherhood. I’ve written before that when I was in active labor the doctor told me I’d have the baby at 6:00 p.m. I remember clearly thinking, “Could we wait until 9:00? I’ll be more ready to be a mother at 9:00.” Sure, your friends are posting their diaper misadventures, but I also bet there are plenty of adorable photos and even cloying tributes to parenthood that you’re not seeing because of your tunnel vision. Think of your time at graduate school. I bet over the course of that experience you were thrilled, terrified, overwhelmed, depressed, and exultant. Parenthood is going to offer you all that, along with an unimaginable love for the tiny creature who's about to enter your lives. You can prepare for what’s coming, but ultimately you can never be fully prepared, so it’s better just to accept that. However, if your terror feels overwhelming and out of control, please, please seek help. It turns out “post-partum depression” is really a misnomer because some women experience emotional difficulties during the pregnancy. If you’re this person, tell your obstetrician right away. Addressing your fears is going to be the best way to manage them.
Q. Re: Culture clash?: The Middle East is a big place. The wife needs to educate herself about the laws and practices of the specific country she is talking about. She and her daughter may have more legal protections in some countries than others, and the U.S. has more influence with some than others. If she’s really, seriously worried, her husband might be willing to humor her by formally granting her child custody in accordance with the laws of the country they are going to. It wouldn’t affect the marriage or the relationship unless he really does have questionable intentions.
A: Thanks. It’s a good suggestion that a discussion with an immigration lawyer about the kinds of protections that are available might allay the wife’s fears.
Q: Pet Problems: My husband and I recently returned from vacation to discover that our beloved little dog passed away in what appears to have been a tragic accident while in the care of some friends. Naturally, we were heartbroken over the unexpected news and were pretty emotional when we went to retrieve him and his things. While we don’t blame the people watching him at all (and know it must have been terribly difficult on them as well), I’m wondering what the protocol is regarding the vet bill. I was too overcome when we last saw them to inquire, and have no idea how much it may have been, but it feels wrong to leave them stuck with it. Also, we had purchased some small gifts for the couple while we were overseas, and now I have no idea what to do with them as it also seems off to give a thank-you gift for dog-watching as we had no dog to come home to. Any advice you have would be much appreciated.
A: What a painful return and how awful for everyone. Since you make clear that your friends were not responsible for your dog’s death, now that you’ve regained your composure, you need to contact them and say you need to reimburse them for the vet bill. Because unless they did something to lead to your dog’s death, paying for vet services in your absence is the obligation of the owner. I agree that under the circumstances a gift to thanking them would be too awkward. But surely they are worried that your friendship is forever blighted, so do make a date to get together for dinner—and all of you should try to talk about happier subjects.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. I really appreciate the lively responses today. Talk to you next week.
Check out Dear Prudence's book recommendations in the Slate Store.