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. Sister Married Her Statutory Rapist: Eight years ago, when we were both in high school, I discovered my sister was sleeping with her English teacher. I told my parents, but our English teacher was 22, and she convinced them it was true love. My parents declined to press charges as long as the relationship went on hold until my sister turned 18. I didn’t agree and told my principal and the cops; the teacher went to jail. My sister’s now married to him and has never forgiven me for turning her husband in, especially since he’s now a registered sex offender. They have a daughter, and if it weren’t for their relationship’s origins, I would say he’s a great husband and father. I miss my sister so much. I’m not welcome in my niece’s life. My parents are tired of the rift between us. Did I make a mistake? How can I repair our bond?
A: What’s irrefutable is that the teacher was breaking the law, and once this became known, society said he had to pay a price for his crime. There’s no defense for a high school teacher, even one only five years older than his students, to have sex with a student. You took action that the adults in your life refused to take by blowing the whistle on someone who was a potential serial predator. As it turns out, the teacher and your sister really were in love, and your whistle-blowing blew up their lives. Your brother-in-law’s ability to earn a living, or even live where he wants, is going to be circumscribed by his sex offender status—your sister and their child will have to live with the consequences of this. All this means this is a complicated and painful situation, and you surely can understand their abiding anger. I suggest you write a letter to your sister telling her how much you miss her, how you know from your parents that she and “Dave” have built a wonderful life together, and how much it pains you not to be able to be an aunt to their little girl. You can say you understand their feelings, but you are asking if all these years later the estrangement can start to be healed. You have to do so knowing that silence may be their answer and that your parents are just going to have to live with this rift.
Q. Kindergarten Leg Hair: Our daughter is in kindergarten and is very conscious of the fact that she has hair on her legs (she is not hirsute, but it shows) and refuses to wear shorts to school. We are of Asian Indian origin, so the hair on her legs stands out. We also feel that she is too young to remove the hair and have tried convincing her that it is OK to wear shorts and not care what others say (we think that some kids in school are mildly teasing her about this). Any tips on how to convince her to accept it and ignore any teasing?
A: Recently, I had a similar letter from the mother of an 11-year-old. I told that mother to let her verge-of-puberty daughter shave. I don’t want to define depilation down, and I feel that a 5-year-old is too young for this, but my heart goes out to your self-conscious, hairy-legged sprite. I agree that it’s important to be able to ignore teasing and stand up for oneself. But your daughter doesn’t want to stand up on such hairy legs. I think it’s possible to make clear to her that her legs are lovely and strong and that the hair on them is nothing worth focusing on, while also recognizing it has taken on outsize importance in her life. I think it’s worth, on an experimental basis, to say you’re going to do something about it and see how all of you then feel. Shaving her legs is a tiny, temporary cosmetic fix that could bring her major relief.
Q. Hoping Not to Embarrass Boyfriend: My group of college friends (including my ex-boyfriend) take an annual vacation where we rent a house together. It’s always fun and a rare chance to see some good, old friends. Significant others are invited, and I want my boyfriend, Jim, to be there. While Jim has met the ex once before without any problems, I am worried Jim will feel inadequate if he comes on this trip. It’s a tradition that we all go skinny dipping. I don’t care about it and am satisfied with Jim, but the ex is extremely well-endowed, and I don’t want Jim to feel insecure.
Should I skip the trip? Say something to Jim about how it doesn’t matter to me? Just go skinny dipping and pretend he won’t notice?
A: If Jim is as well-endowed as you say, let’s hope that when he jumps in the pool, the displacement doesn’t empty it of water. There’s no good way to tell your boyfriend in advance that he will soon see that your ex is hung like a horse then try to reassure him that you don’t miss this stallion. Don’t prepare him in any way. If after the swim your boyfriend notes the special qualities of your ex, you can say, “Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed.” Let’s hope he laughs and then accepts your confirmation that he is more than enough for you.
Q. Downsizing in Every Way: My new wife has lived with me in my deceased first wife’s house for two years (with all that entails), mostly patiently and with grace. I was married for many years and have grown children. We are moving, and she wants the new place to be all about us, only us, no pictures or mementos that may include my deceased first wife. Is it normal for the new wife to want to expunge the deceased wife? Am I wrong to resist this? How do I keep a memory of the deceased wife if I can only do so in my (not very trustworthy) head? Help!
A: My husband was a young widower, and because his first wife was being treated for cancer for most of their marriage, they were not able to have children. I came into a home with plenty of mementos of Robin. Unless the widowed spouse holds the saintly image of the dead husband or wife over the head of the new love, or makes the new home a shrine to the late spouse, I do not understand being jealous of this important past relationship. I happily use Robin’s dishes every day, admire her good taste, and think she would be glad that our daughter grew up using them. For the first few years of our marriage, my husband had a picture of Robin by his computer. One day I noticed it was no longer there, and he said he felt he was ready to put it away. But you are in a different situation. You have children by your late wife, and there’s something disturbing about your not being able to have a family photo—which features her—in your home office, or guest room, or even to retain other mementos of your long life together. You and your new wife need to talk this out as nondefensively as possible. Find out if particular things bother her, or if she feels insecure because you loved before. I hope you can reassure her that your love for her is as true, unique, and special as your love for your first wife.
Q. Re: Kid With Leg Hair: As someone who works in pediatrics, I feel that the possible emotional and self-conscious issues that will arise from teasing/bullying for which children are so famous must outweigh our own social feelings about “feminizing/objectifying” women. Obviously, we don’t want the kid to feel that her appearance is the most important thing to her, but at the same time, you don’t want her to have a terrible school experience due to something that’s simply fixed. If mom does decide to let her shave, she needs to be very careful, however, to remind her daughter that while many people in the world care about appearances, she’s so much more than that—and the shaving is simply to make her school experience a bit more fun and a bit less stressful.
A: I agree with you and only reluctantly suggested shaving. Even if the mother shaves the daughter’s legs, she has to also give the message you are expressing here.
Q. Mom’s Wish for Her Ashes Is Illegal: My charming and beautiful mother passed away last year. She was a passionate historian, and her wishes were to have her ashes scattered at an important (though privately owned) historical site where she used to work. Since then management has changed, and I hardly think they would honor my request to bury her ashes on that hallowed ground. This place doesn’t even let visitors take photographs! The laws in my state are purposely ambiguous on the subject of legality of ash scattering—however, the official sources do require that permission is given by the owners of private property. My rebel mom loved the idea of us having to sneak on grounds to complete this last ardent act of commemoration—but I’m not so keen on risking arrest, even if the worst they could hit me with is a trespassing violation. I’m afraid that if we proceed, it will be fairly obvious what we’re doing. My grandmother will have to travel to any grassy spot in a wheelchair, and furthermore—what else would a motherless family be standing in a circle, sobbing among the tulips be doing, if not scattering ashes? What to do?
A: You can attempt to honor her wishes by contacting management, explaining your situation, and seeing what they say. If they say no, then you have to recognize none of you are the rebels your mother was, and you need to find a place that will be fitting grounds for the remains of your free-spirited history lover.
Q. Peter Pan Dad: My dad left my mom for his much younger girlfriend, who now lives with him. He’s become selfish, immature, and cruel. He has loud sex with her when my sister and I visit, even though they both know we can hear. He fought my mom tooth and nail on alimony and child support, even though he can afford both. Worst of all, he lets his girlfriend’s creepy brother live with them, despite my sister and me explaining our discomfort to him. He’s not a dad anymore, and I don’t know why. He says he’s finally found himself, but I thought he was a loving, doting father. Do you ever hear from fathers who eventually see the error of their ways?
A: I have heard from dads who wake up from their Neverland dreams and see they’ve screwed over their first family. But you can’t count on Peter growing up. So what you must do is deal with reality. Since he’s not paying attention, maybe you should put down on paper how you’re feeling. You do not want your letter to be accusatory, but you can say that when you come over, you feel like an unwanted visitor interrupting his time with his girlfriend. You can mention when you and your sister are alone with her brother, you don’t feel comfortable. You can say you understand your old family is gone and a new phase has begun, but you miss having his loving attention. If he can’t change, talk to your mother about modifying your visits. You may want to vastly cut back or even stop going. I hope realizing what he’s about to lose reawakens the dormant adult in your dad.
Q. Re: Registering Sex Offenders: It would be nice if we could stop putting on the registry every person whose love affair breaks an age rule in the same category with violent rapists, serial pedophiles, and abusers of small children.
A: I totally agree that the registry is out of control and has swept up many people who present zero danger to society. Getting on this is a life-ruiner. If we are going to have a sex offender registry, it should be narrow and targeted. Of course, there are almost no politicians with the guts to stand up for this. It’s so much easier to churn out ever more draconian rules under the purported guise of making society safer.
Q. Re: Well-Endowed: My BF and I used to be poly, and he knew my husband was packing a lot more than he was. He also knows all the virtues I think he has and the reason I am with him and not my ex-husband. Just because you like Italian food doesn’t mean a big sausage is all you need.
A: Mortadella? Soppressata? Let’s not even think about Polish sausages!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a good week!