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. Is it about time this winter wrapped it up?
Q. Sick Stepmother: My father’s wife recently started treatment for a form of cancer that is slow-moving but ultimately fatal. I want to be supportive to her, and I am so sorry that she is experiencing this illness. She’s always been quite self-absorbed, and I limit my in-person time with her because it’s always about her. However, she has recently taken to telling my siblings and myself how much worse she has it than my mother did. My mother died a horrible, lingering, painful death at the age of 41, when I was 13. I’m not sure why my father’s wife says things like this, but I sense that she’s somehow competing with my mother’s memory. It is painful to hear my father’s wife, who never even met my mother, discuss her death in this way. It brings me right back to the pain and sadness of watching my beautiful mother die. What should I say when she brings up how much more she’s suffered than my mother did? One of my sisters reacted angrily, and my father cut her out for a while, until she apologized. I also want to support my father, who is grieving and in pain, but alone time is rare with him and when she is there, the conversation centers on her.
A: Sick and dying people deserve a lot of leeway and understanding. But being in extremis does not give people a free pass to treat others unacceptably. What your stepmother is doing is unacceptable, and none of you should have to listen to this. I think all of you siblings should discuss presenting a united front on this. You do not want to let yourselves be provoked, but you need to make clear you won’t listen to this either. Then when your stepmother starts in on how she has it so much worse than your late mother, each of you can say, “Marcia, I am so sorry you’re ill, and I know you’re dealing with difficult issues and painful treatment. However, I do not want to discuss my mother’s death—ever. That is a very painful topic that is not relevant here, and you need to drop it.” If she won’t, then all of you need to explain to your father that you’re going to have to make yourselves scarce and can’t offer the support you’d like to, because you’re not going to be drawn back into reliving the worst time of your lives, and having it presented as some kind of awful contest.
Q. Do Cheaters Deserve Thank-You Notes?: My ex-husband and the woman for whom he left me bought my husband and me one of the most expensive strollers on the market. We plan to return it to the store and use the money to start our child’s college fund. I have no doubt that these narcissistic jokers, who made my life hell for the year it took me to divorce him, bought the stroller so they could tell themselves they’re “good people.” Do I owe them a thank-you note? My heart says no, but the ghost of my beloved grandma tells me yes.
A: Hell yes you owe them thanks. Thank goodness they found each other and you got awful husband No. 1 out of your life. It sounds like you met a great guy, and now you’re going to be parents. Hooray for the cheaters! Now, they’ve given you the seed money for your baby’s college fund. A note saying, “We all appreciate your thoughtful gift, thanks for your good wishes,” will suffice. Surely, your grandmother would appreciate your taking pen to paper and she would also say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Q. Don’t Want to Poo on Her Parade: I am about to start a new job with an amazing company that I am very excited about. I will share my new office with a co-worker, and we have a private bathroom that connects to our office. The problem is that I have a gastrointestinal problem that means that I defecate often, loudly, and with a very bad smell. I am working with my doctor on possible solutions, so this may improve with time. Should I tell my new co-worker about the problem and warn her about the side effects? Or should I just go with the flow and let her figure it out on her own? I am happy to go “number two” in another bathroom in the building, but I would need for her (or someone else) to show me where I can find one.
A: I’m afraid from your description going with the flow will mean your officemate will feel she needs a company-issued gas mask in order to do her duties. You need to do quick reconnaissance and locate some satellite restrooms, then you need to calculate the time you need to reach them, because it sounds as if you don’t necessarily get much warning before the explosion. You also need a travel-size air freshener in your purse, and you should put a potpourri or some other odor eliminator in your office bathroom for those times that you have to use the nearest facilities. One’s bathroom habits are something that society deems off-limits. So don’t start your relationship with your new colleague by describing your bowel ailment. Do your best to keep this issue out of the immediate vicinity. Over time, as your relationship with your co-worker develops, if it becomes obvious, and you also become close, you could mention that you are dealing with a chronic intestinal illness—and surely that news will come as no surprise.
Q. In Love With the Former Nanny: After my wife died, I would’ve been lost without Julia, the nanny I hired for my children. She worked for me for five years, and since leaving my employ five years ago, she’s remained active and involved in my children’s lives. They adore her, and so do I. I’ve fallen head over heels for this spectacular young woman, and I vacillate between confessing my feelings to her and keeping our relationship a friendship. I know Julia cares deeply for the children and me, but I’m not sure if her feelings for me are romantic, and I worry a confession could ruin our relationship. Is there a standard operating procedure when a man falls for his children’s former nanny?
A: Maybe Julia watched the Lady Gaga tribute to The Sound of Music at this year’s Oscars. The Sound of Music is always a good opening for the widower who’s fallen for the nanny. This young woman (and, ahem, how much younger is she?) hasn’t worked for you for five years, so the statute of limitations on employer/employee inappropriateness has long run out. You need to find out if your feelings are mutual, but please don’t do this by blurting out you’re madly in love. You need to raise this in a way that allows both of you to save face however it goes. So the next time she calls to say she wants to drop by, you tell her the kids would love to see her. Then you say, you would like to catch up with her on an adult basis, and ask if she’d like to go out to dinner in the next couple of weeks. Sure, this will be a little ambiguous, but by her reaction you can gauge whether she wants to get it on the calendar immediately or is hemming and hawing about how busy she is. I hope that soon you two will be singing “My Favorite Things.”
Q. One-Way Gift?: My good friend and I both have toddlers. Hers was conceived through IVF, a financial hardship since they do not have money to spare. I am in the position to be able to give my friend $150 to buy something for her child (she has mentioned wanting to get a play kitchen, for example) without missing the money. Should I go ahead and do it (I’d like to), or would such a gift make her feel bad since she cannot reciprocate? I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts.
A: I say buy the play kitchen and make it a gift—an anniversary gift, a birthday, something. You can say you just couldn’t resist because you know how much her baby would enjoy it—and yours, too, when you’re over playing. If she gets embarrassed or says something about reciprocating, just tell her this was one of those impulse purchases that gave you great pleasure to make, and the reciprocation will be chatting over a cup of tea while your kids pretend to make dinner.
Q. Post-Breakup Ethics: I went on several dates with this guy and we really hit it off: great company, very gentlemanly, and mind-blowing sex. When the relationship began, I was very up-front with him that I would be moving soon to start a grad program. He had just broken up with his long-term girlfriend, so it seemed like the perfect short-term relationship. Except we booked a very expensive hotel room together for an overseas trip. Now, three weeks before the trip, he’s gone AWOL and the only communication is that he won’t make it on the trip. After much negotiating, he agreed to pay for his half of the hotel, as we originally intended, if I couldn’t find a replacement for him in the double. One of my good friends (female) is strapped for cash and would really appreciate staying in the hotel room for free. (Ex-fling is very well off.) Is it unethical to just forget to tell him that I found a replacement and have my friend stay with me instead?
A: He forgot to tell you in a timely way that he was bagging the trip and planning to leave you holding the bag. His obligation was to fulfill his economic half of the bargain, and the good news for him is that he easily can afford it. Invite your broke pal and have a great time together. One evening be sure to lift a glass to a guy who was great in bed but lousy in the reliability department.
Q. Found the Perfect Guy?: I recently started dating a wonderful man. We’re both in our mid-40s and have both already been married and divorced. He’s smart, makes me laugh, and is an all-around great guy. He also has MS. I have done research and have no issue with his disability but I’m wondering how to address the issue with people who think I’m making a mistake by becoming seriously involved with someone with a disability. Any thoughts?
A: This is none of anyone’s business. If those who are close to you bring it up, you can say, “I’ve educated myself on this topic, and all is well. I consider myself very lucky to have found Jeremy.”
Q. How to Tell People I Have a Benign Brain Tumor: I have a brain tumor called a prolactinoma. This has made me gain a lot of weight, have short memory, sleep a lot, and become infertile. I have heard so many rude comments from people I work with and family regarding my weight or questions about why I don’t have children yet. (I’m in my 30s.) I really don’t want to tell people about my tumor, but I want them to understand that there is more going on than what they think. Should I just tell them so they realize how inconsiderate they are being?
A: I hope you’re getting excellent medical care. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are drug and surgical options to control this condition. In the meantime you are suffering many side effects from the tumor that are affecting your health and work. I hope you aren’t entirely surrounded by cruel, nosy people. But you can understand that people are wondering about concerning changes in you. I think honesty will make your life easier. Whatever they say, you respond, “I appreciate your concern. I am dealing with a brain tumor. Fortunately, it’s benign, but it is a complicated condition to treat. It’s not something I want to discuss beyond this, thanks.” And it’s fine if you enjoy the looks of shock and shame you get in response.
Q. Re: One-Way Gift?: I once bought an expensive book for a friend with whom I do not exchange gifts. It was the PERFECT book and I found it while in Europe—he’d never have found it himself. His response was perfect too—surprise, delight ... I hope the same is true of the friend about to receive a play kitchen—go for it.
A: Thanks. A lot of people would say that the gift would be humiliating. It’s one thing if there’s a stream of noblesse oblige gifts. It’s another to make a lovely gesture for someone you care about that brings both of you pleasure. I’m glad your friend was delighted and took the gift in the right spirit.