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. Should I Out My Abortion?: In 2006 I had an abortion. It was the right choice for me at the time, but my problem occurs when acquaintances include me in their conversations about reproductive rights. I often end up nodding along while they discuss the pros and cons of abortion or talking in “hypotheticals,” when in fact my own life is a great example! I think that if these people knew there was “one among them,” they would feel embarrassed by their comments. Is there a graceful way for me to come clean, preferably early on in the conversation? Or should I stay quiet even though I feel like I’m hiding or misrepresenting myself?
A: Just as someone doesn’t have to be a minority or female to express an opinion about racism or sexism, you don’t have to have had an abortion in order to have strongly held views on reproductive rights. It’s been interesting to hear public officials change their minds about gay marriage because they have a gay son or daughter who wants to marry. But as powerful as the personal anecdote is, policy should be based on a view about the universal nature of such rights. You say these are debates among acquaintances, so you do not owe them the information that you yourself had an abortion. It’s one thing if you want to use yourself as an example, but there may be plenty of good reasons you don’t. You can surely express your beliefs and keep your own reproductive history private.
Q. Garlicky Husband: My husband who has perfectly good hygiene has one fault: he loves garlic. He will eat entire cloves and the smell will seep out of him. Sometimes I can’t fall asleep due to the smell. I have brought it up politely but he says it's his right to eat what he wants. Any ideas how to work this out short of wearing a clothespin?
A: First, explore whether you husband is worried that you’re a vampire. Maybe wearing a necklace of dried cloves would be enough for him to feel he was able to repel you while he slept. While any individual is entitled to eat what he likes, the man who devours raw garlic bulbs is the man who may end up being single. Anyone who eats that much garlic is going to exhale the stinking rose, but some people really are seepers and the aroma exudes from their skin. Of course one should always endeavor to be polite to everyone, including one’s spouse, but I’m wondering if you haven’t been too meek about this. Tell your husband that it would be one thing if his evening snack enabled you to drift off to sleep happily feeling like you are at a Mario Batali restaurant. It’s another if you’re tossing and turning because your beloved is reeking most foul. Explain this has nothing to do with his hygiene, but you two are going to have a more chaste marriage because you can’t be near him after one of his garlic sessions. If he won’t cut back, then one of you is going to sleep on the couch.
Q. The Class Bully’s Daughter—and My Son: Throughout middle school and high school, I was tormented relentlessly by “Sally.” This included emotional and physical attacks from her, and I could never figure out why I was her target. Over the years, I’ve encountered her a few times and the brief conversations I’ve had with her have included passive-aggressive insults about my looks before I promptly went my own way. Years later, my son is now 19 and brought a young woman for us to meet last week. She was kind and polite enough. But when it came time for her to go home and her mom picked her up, I discovered Sally behind the wheel. Part of me feels I should be able to let go. The other part is worried that my son may also be dating a monster, and that he will get sucked in and ruined by her. The thought of having to encounter Sally at my son’s wedding and at my grandkids’ future birthday parties seems like torture. Do I speak up to my son? Do I grin and pretend nothing’s wrong? Do I just act like I have no idea who Sally is?
A: I have had so many variations on this letter that it could comprise a Bravo series called “Bully Returns.” I understand it was disturbing to see your old torturer show up in front of your house. But you are getting way, way ahead of yourself if you’re worried that your still-teenage son is going to make Sally the other grandmother of his children. You also should not fear that Sally has passed down her evil to her daughter. You met the daughter and she didn’t give you the once over and make comments! You say she was kind and polite (enough). You yourself are old enough to know that horrible people can be begat by lovely people and vice versa. Put aside your judgment and worry about this young woman. It would be normal, having seen that Sally’s mother was a classmate, to mention it to your son. So go ahead and mention that simple fact. Then step back and stay out of it. There’s no reason to get into the details of your past (and possibly color your son’s nascent relationship) until it really is relevant. Even then, your history with Sally should be incidental to this couple’s feelings for each other.
Q, Re: Should I Out My Abortion?: I would never, ever tell people I had an abortion. Never. You will not be able to control who knows.
A: It’s true that if you talk about this among acquaintances, that information is out of your control. Some women are gutsy enough that they are willing to make this public in order to demonstrate that the people who have abortions are one’s friends, co-workers, daughters, etc. But unfortunately, such information could also hurt one professionally without even knowing it. However, a woman can be a forceful advocate for reproductive rights without disclosing something so personal.
Q. What’s in a Name?: I’m a 27-year-old man who will be getting married this fall. I’m taking my fiancée’s name for a number of reasons and am very comfortable with this decision. It’s a statement against continued patriarchy. It’s important to her that she continue her name, as much of her family was lost in the Holocaust. It’s also a way for me to distance myself from my dad’s father, an emotionally abusive narcissist with whom I relate very little. The issue is that my dad and his father are both still alive, and will likely take this as an insult. My father is paying for half the wedding, and while I feel he deserves to know before it happens, I worry this news will have a negative impact on my relationship with him and the rest of his family. My older brother is not having kids, so I’m also the last of my line in a way. How can I tell him in a way that leaves our father-son bond intact?
A: Taking a spouse’s name is a personal decision made by an adult. Paying for floral arrangements and a band does not allow your father to dictate what you call yourself. It’s true your side of the family will be shocked and probably hurt that you’re changing your name—although of course anyone with a daughter would half expect it and many would even want it. But you’re going to get yourself into more difficulty with them if you try to justify it as not wanting to be attached to the name handed down by an abusive narcissist. It’s also going to be difficult to use the argument about legacy since you’re a kind of end of the line for yours. So don’t justify it. If this is going to be announced at the wedding, i.e: “Now Jason and Sarah Bernstein will take to the floor for their first dance as husband and wife!” then you need to prepare your family in advance. If you don’t announce it at the wedding, you can just tell your family afterward but practice doing it as if you’re simply conveying information. Do not be defensive, do not weigh each family’s desire for posterity. Just say this is the right choice for you.
Q. Re: Abortion Disclosure: I realize that outing yourself as having had an abortion may be risky, but I think it is an invaluable contribution to the discussion. Just as the debate around gay rights did not change until people started coming out, I think that many women but especially men will not understand abortion rights until they know how common abortion is. In Canada when abortion was legalized, one big part of the politics was a “march” on Ottawa of abortion supporters and women who were willing to out themselves as having had abortions. I (female) personally know at least four women who have had abortions, but my husband is only aware of one of them.
A: This is a powerful argument and I support any woman who takes this approach. But again, this is something private that some women would not be comfortable revealing even if they are advocates for abortion rights. And telling or not telling one’s own history is each woman’s choice to make.
Wonder what happened with the woman whose husband wanted to road-trip with a female friend? Find out by listening to the latest Dear Prudence follow-up call on The Gist.
Q. Mother and Her Grandchildren: My mother has never gotten along well with my brother and his wife. The two of them are parents to two great kids, but for some reason, Mom has never liked my niece. She even once shared the suspicion with me that my brother is not the child’s father! Last summer during a party she yelled at our niece and told her that she wasn’t her granddaughter until she learned how to behave. She wasn’t misbehaving; she was just being a typical kid! Since then Mom hasn’t been allowed to see her grandchildren. I don’t know what to do now, since one of the conditions of my seeing the kids is not to tell my mother anything about them. I understand protecting my niece and I agree with my brother on this issue, but Mom never lets up and pecks at me with questions. How do I get Mom to stop pecking, and what should I say to my niece when she asks me why she doesn’t see Grandma anymore?
A: Somehow I doubt this is this the only indication that your mother is either mentally unbalanced or a terrible person. If this were a bizarre delusion that seemed wholly out of character, I’d suggest a medical evaluation for grandma. But your tone indicates this is just the way your mother acts. What you do is tell your mother that her treatment of your niece is wholly unacceptable and you completely support your brother and sister-in-law’s ban. Say that you will not talk about them with her because her behavior toward them has been so vile. Explain if she ever wants to possibly be able to have contact with them again, she needs to express her thoroughgoing sorrow at what she did and promise she has changed. You can add that if she doesn’t stop harassing you about them, she will be on your banned list, too.
Q: Screaming Neighbors: My husband and I live in an area that enjoys warm weather year-round, and we don’t have air conditioning, so we often keep our windows open day and night. Our next-door neighbor has two small children—roughly 2 and 4 years old—and she screams at them constantly. I mean day and night and I’m not exaggerating. We can hear everything she says, which is usually pretty cruel. We’ve been living like this for 10 months and we’ve reached our breaking point. I work from home and my husband sometimes works nights, so has to sleep during the day, and the incessant yelling makes it difficult to work or sleep. My landlord once approached her about the noise (and the horrible things she says), but was met with more screaming and vitriol. Is there anything I can do, such as leaving her a (kindly-worded) note? Would it be out of line to call the police with a noise complaint when it’s especially bad? Should I approach her husband, who is not a screamer, and ask him to do something about it?
A: I’m sorry your work and sleep are interrupted, but I’m more concerned about the interruption to the emotional health and well-being of these poor children. This is ongoing abuse, and someone needs to do something. I think you should hold your phone out the window and record some of these sessions. Then call Child Protective Services and play the harangues. You can say you want to report anonymously, but this family needs professional intervention. Let’s hope they get it and that results in all the neighbors sleeping better because these vulnerable children aren’t being shredded day and night.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks so much, everyone. Talk to you next week!
Check out Dear Prudence's book recommendations in the Slate Store.