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. Confessing a Betrayal: My partner and I have a child together as a result of mixing our sperm before insemination. Before our surrogate became pregnant we decided we would never try to find out who the biological father is, except for serious medical reasons. About a year ago curiosity got the better of me and I got a paternity test done on the sly. It stated I wasn’t the biological father, so I figured my partner must be. I planned on taking this secret to my grave. Then recently I found out our son’s blood type is A. This is impossible because I know both my partner and the egg donor are type B. I am seriously troubled by this revelation because it could mean either the fertility clinic botched up, or the surrogate became pregnant from sexual activity and gave us her own biological child. I need to find out what happened, but it means confessing to my partner I broke a serious agreement. Help.
A: You and your partner agreed that the paternity of your child would remain a secret unless there were a compelling medical reason. Your curiosity is not a compelling medical reason. There was always a 50/50 chance for either of you that you wouldn’t be the father. It turns out neither of you are. (Keep in mind there is also a chance you have been misinformed about the blood types of the people involved.) I assume that you don’t want to be like the woman in Ohio, who is part of a white, same-sex couple now suing the fertility clinic because their daughter—whom they say they love—turned out to biracial. I assume you both adore your son, so I don’t know what the purpose is of this information. Presumably you don’t want to hand him back to the surrogate and say, “Sorry, we took him by accident—he’s yours.” You violated a trust, and like many people who gather information when they are not supposed to (Prometheus, Pandora, Eve), you have found out there are consequences. I think your consequence is that you do your best to forget this and just be grateful you and your partner are parents of a delightful boy.
Q. Slow Walking vs. Fast Walking: There is an issue at work that my co-workers and I have been debating. We work in a large office building where most people work at desks for hours. Some of our co-workers are older or have physical limitations, whereas I am in my 20s and am what’s called “a fast walker.” When walking down the hallway behind someone who has a much slower gate, is it more polite to slow down behind them (which may make them feel awkward or put-upon), or simply pass them up as one would do for someone driving at a much slower speed?
A: If your hallways are so narrow that passing would require physically nudging the slow person aside, you’re stuck. Otherwise, it seems much worse for your co-workers to hear the footsteps of an annoyed young person on their tail than to have that whippersnapper just move ahead. When you pass, do so in a friendly, confident way, “Hey, Sam, good to see you!” and don’t act as if anything embarrassing is happening.
Q. Women’s Safety: Several years ago I was home from my work at a hospital at 9 p.m. The path away from it was wooded, dark, and a bit eerie. There was a woman up ahead of me and the moment she noticed me I could tell she was panicking. I had no idea what to do. I didn’t speed up, I didn’t stop, I could tell she was just extremely frightened to be followed by a man this late down a dark wooded path. What should I do if I ever get in a similar situation that would make the woman feel most at ease?
A: Comedian John Mulaney has a bit about being in the same situation on a deserted New York street late at night. A woman in front of him heard his footfalls and kept looking back at him, so he thought someone scary must be behind him and started speeding up. He realized there wasn’t, but then she broke into a run. He figured she must have heard the subway coming, so he began running too. He wondered why she started crying over the possibility of missing the subway. Don’t do what he did. Men will never fully understand what it feels like to hear footfall behind you late at night, but there’s not much a man can do that’s reassuring. This isn’t like the office letter where the best idea is just to speed up and pass. You certainly don’t want to call out, “I’m not going to hurt you!” Although it would be annoying for you, the best thing would be to slow your pace so that you stay a significant distance away—the most terrifying sound in those circumstances is of someone gaining on you.
Q. Sentimental Hoarder: I am a sentimental hoarder, especially if items remind me of my children’s baby years, an exciting event from the past, or someone who has passed away. I logically know that I cannot keep everything, but I have a really hard time parting with things. Here’s an example: I cannot bring myself to throw away a Barbie doll my daughter broke a month ago that was given to me by my cousin who died 25 years ago. I only have so much room in my basement! Help!
A: The good thing is that you recognize you have a problem. I get lots of letters from grown people despairing that their once sentimental parent has now become a full-blown hoarder. So you have to be ruthless with yourself. If your child is young enough to break a Barbie, you’ve got a lot of sentimental stuff ahead of you. (And how do you “break” a Barbie? When I was a kid we regularly decapitated Barbie and Ken, put their heads on the opposite bodies, and then smashed them together. I always assumed the chance to explore polymorphous perversity was what Barbie was all about.) While your basement has limited space, your photo stream is unlimited. Start taking photographs of the stuff that means the most to you. This will allow you to always have it, without having to physically retain it. You can even print out beautiful books of your daughter’s artwork, etc. Stick to the rule that you will only keep the most totally precious object, and make that be about 10 percent of your current holdings. Years from now your daughter will be grateful.
Q. Re: Women’s Safety: Maybe pull out your cellphone and call your wife or a friend. It would be reassuring to hear someone say “Hi, it’s Tony. I’m just walking home from my shift from the hospital ...”
A: That’s a good idea. Also a good idea for the woman to pull out her phone and call a friend and say, “I’ve got to talk to you until I get where I’m going.”
Q. Re: Link to Mulaney Bit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDZHwb-If9w
A: Thanks! Forgive me if I didn’t render it exactly right.
Q. Wedding Cake Dilemma: My daughter has told me that she would like me to join the groom’s mother and make their wedding cake. For me, a wedding cake is a very special item for the party and is best professionally created. They have both declared that they do not want a polished version and are very excited for us mothers to come up with a homemade, quirkier version. I am not at all happy about it, and have suggested that we buy a professionally made cake ourselves (my husband agrees). The groom’s mother lives in another country, and I do not know how we will even coordinate this. I also do not want any of this stress on my daughter’s special day. How can I persuade her to allow us to buy a professional one? I’m having a nervous cakedown.
A: This is a twist on the impossible bride. She demands a low-key DIY wedding that requires her mother to enroll in culinary school. It’s one thing for your 8-year-old to say, “Mommy, let’s make my birthday cake together!” It’s another for a grown woman to demand another grown woman, who is not a professional baker, go through this anxiety. What you do is tell her, “Darling, your father and I would be happy to pay for a cake. If your fiancé’s mother wants to make the cake herself, you need to find her the proper kitchen facilities. But I am not doing it, period. I already have enough on my plate.”
Q. Re: Women’s Safety: In my 20s, I lived in Brooklyn and used to walk home from the R train late at night after work. It was terrifying, and I always walked with my pepper spray in my hand. One night, as I nervously tried to speed up after hearing some footsteps, the guy behind me yelled, “I’m not going to hurt you!” and then crossed to the other side of the street. We had a nice chuckle and my walk home that night became a little less terrifying and lonely. I think it’s perfectly acceptable to acknowledge the situation if you’re a man walking on a dark, empty street with a woman alone.
A: His crossing to the other side is what made the point. “I’m not going to hurt you!” just gives me a shudder.
Q. Narcissistic Mother: My mother has been involved with a married man for many years so isn’t with him on major holidays. Every Thanksgiving I feel guilty about not inviting her on a trip we take with family friends, but, honestly she is a difficult and narcissistic woman. She criticizes me for things like my hair not looking good, my breasts being too matronly, my skin imperfect. She spends a lot of time talking about herself and all the compliments she receives. I treasure the holiday with my friends and don’t want it ruined. My husband agrees completely but I do feel my annual guilt coming on. She does get invited to the house of a friend of hers, but I still feel guilty.
A: Probably at her friend’s house for Thanksgiving your mother does not say, “Myra, your breasts are saggy and the turkey breast is dry.” Your mother makes you miserable, your friends make you happy, and it sounds as if everyone gets taken care of on this holiday. Since your mother is not complaining about not being invited, don’t bring it up. If she does complain, you can say, “I’ve already got plans, but maybe you and your friend Dick could get together for the holiday—oh, sorry, I forgot, you can’t.”
Q. Re: Woman Walking at Night: I think numerous studies have shown that women who were attacked by a stranger were targeted if they were on their phone because they were distracted and more attractive to their perpetrator. The suggestion that either party should “fake” a cellphone conversation is not really smart or helpful.
A: I agree about people being on phones and being unaware of their surroundings. I had a middle-aged woman step in front of my car from the middle of the block recently as she chattered away. Luckily I was able to stop. But in this case I think both people should be having real conversations. A guy talking on the phone is going to seem less threatening. If we assume that very, very few of the people walking behind a woman are actually going to harm her, if she’s on the phone specifically because she’s worried, she won’t be distracted. She’ll be attentive and be able to let a friend know she needs help in the unlikely event something does happen.
Q. Crazy Aunt?: My wife’s sister babysits our son, and I’m concerned about her interaction with him. First, she read him an age-inappropriate story. Near his birthday, she spanked him with a hairbrush, and then rubbed lotion on his buttocks. We were upset about this, but our son assured us that the birthday spanking was fun, and he likes his aunt. My wife told her sister no more spanking of any kind, and now wants to forget about this. She says that while her sister may have some funny ideas, she is not a pedophile, and our son is fine with her. I’m not so sure we should take that chance. What do you think?
A: I wonder if your sister-in-law advertises her services by saying, “If you would like your child to develop a fetish, call me.” Let’s say this was your brother-in-law babysitting for your daughter. You wouldn’t hesitate a second to ban him from ever being alone with your child. I can’t believe your wife doesn’t see this, but you do, so the S&M babysitting sessions are over. Please tell me your sister-in-law does not have a job that puts her in contact with children.
Q. My Cups Runneth Over: Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been the guy who needs a bra. It’s just where the fat settles on my body. It’s really shaped my whole life and my feelings about myself. I never take my shirt off in public, always wear baggy clothes to hide my chest. People say I’m too sensitive, but that’s only after they go, “Whoa dude”! Now, I’m 67 years old, in good shape (a little chunky but not overweight) and most people say I look like I’m in my early 50s. I’ve always regretted not getting reduction surgery, but now I feel like it’s too late. Any thoughts?
A: If being in your 60s were too late for cosmetic surgery improvement, the profession would be in a deep slump. You have something you want to get off your chest, and you have the time and money to get the job done. Once you recover, the next time you’re at the beach, sunning with your shirt off for the first time, you will look at your flat chest and kick sand in your own face for not having done it years ago.
A: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
Check out Dear Prudence's book recommendations in the Slate Store.