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. The Naked Truth: My 14-year-old son recently came across some Polaroid pictures of me that his father took of me back when we were 14—we have been together for a long time and got married when I was pregnant with my son. The pictures were in an old shoebox filled with baseball cards and other adolescent memories. The problem is that the pictures are nude shots! You can’t really tell that the pictures are of me, as my appearance has changed pretty dramatically since I was 14—hair color change, weight difference, boobs, etc. My son came to me really worried with the concern that his father was potentially hoarding teenage porn. I didn’t directly tell him that the pictures were of me, but assured him that his father didn’t look at or keep teenage porn and that I would speak to him about it. But should I be more direct? Which is worse, thinking your father has kiddie porn or knowing that you just saw a 14-year-old version of your mother naked?
A: Oh, the good old memorabilia box—it’s launched a million reassessments of one’s parents as sexual beings. You are between a rock and a hard place here. Your choices are to have your son think his father is a criminal pervert, or realize just how hot Mom was when she was 14 years old just like him! Arghhhh. (I will put aside the fact that today if two 14-year-olds—and my, you two were precocious—took dirty pictures of each other, they both could end up on a lifetime sex offender’s list.) Since your son is worried about child pornography, I think you have to tell him the truth. Get a photo of yourself, clothed, at age 14. Put it next to the dirty picture, and put a Post-it note over your nude body, just keeping your head exposed. Then show both to your son and explain he has discovered some ancient history about his mom and dad, and there’s nothing for him to worry about. Make sure all the naughty photos are put somewhere safe and inaccessible—and I don’t mean the underwear drawer.
Q. Miscarriage and Insensitive SIL: My SIL had a miscarriage last year when she was five weeks pregnant. She now tells people she “used to have a child but he died.” She expects us to attend a one-year memorial at her place to remember the death of her child. I find all this particularly distasteful as I lost my baby to SIDS. I wanted to shake her the other day when she was discussing her loss with a relative and told me, “You know how I feel, we both lost our children.” I do want to be sensitive about her miscarriage but I also feel angry that she compares our situations when they are absolutely not the same. What can I say to express my feelings without making her angry and cutting off ties?
A: If she is your husband’s sister, he needs to talk to her. If she is your brother’s wife, he does. Yes, a miscarriage is a sad event. But because miscarriages are so common, in those first few weeks many women keep their pregnancy a secret until they get to the third month and are out of acute miscarriage risk. Asking people to attend a memorial for a pregnancy that lasted five weeks is bizarre, and it sounds as if your sister-in-law needs emotional help. But comparing her miscarriage to the death of your child is appalling. Someone needs to pull her aside and explain this to her. If she continues to do it, feel free to just say, “Excuse me,” and leave the room.
Q. Disrespectful Teenage Daughter: My stepdaughter is 14 years old, and has demonstrated problematic behavior toward me recently, in my opinion. I have been with her mother since 2013, and the girl has radically changed her whole identity. My wife and I are moderate liberals, while my stepdaughter is now a left-wing lesbian. She has cut her hair short, prefers listening to abrasive music, and has made friends with other “LGBTQ,” or whatever the current acronym is. We are an accepting family, and we know several gay people. My family and most of my friends are rather conservative, though, and I would like my stepdaughter to at least put on a dress when we see them, and also refrain from mentioning things about her politics and sexuality. Her mom disagrees, and as a result, we are banned from family events, and I have lost friends. The girl says I can’t decide these things or punish her, since her parents approve of her new identity. Should I keep pushing her and her mom, so that I can retain my other relationships, or should I simply cut my losses?
A: Cut your losses as in divorce your wife because your teenager stepdaughter is a teenager? I hope you know that radically changing one’s identity is a common teenage behavior. Announcing one’s sexual orientation is also something that can happen during the teen years. If your family and friends have never met a teenager, or are so narrow-minded that they can’t be polite to one who is a “left-wing lesbian,” then I would hope you’d say that you agree with not seeing them anymore because their behavior toward your family is not acceptable to you. If your stepdaughter is actually being rude to you, then you calmly point that out and ask her to change her tone. But it’s your friends and family who sound as if they’re the ones who need to examine their behavior.
Q. I Don’t Like My Friend’s Book: My friend recently self-published his first novel. I bought a copy to support him. I really, really hate to admit it but I didn’t care for it. In fact, I didn’t even finish. I got through half of it before I gave up, read the last couple of pages, and put it down. He needs an editor badly and overall, it just wasn’t well-researched or plotted. In fact, he self-designed the cover in Photoshop. He wants to know if I liked the book, and honestly, I don’t know what to say. On one hand, I don’t want to tear him down because I know how proud he was of writing the book. On the other hand, I feel like he needs to know that he needs to improve on a few things. Is there a way to broach the subject without hurting feelings? Or do I just drop the issue and lie to him?
A: Every author should know not to expect friends—or anyone—to read their book, and certainly not to ask how they liked it. He’s asking for it, but I think you should just offer some anodyne remarks. “Writing a novel is an amazing accomplishment.” “I’m a slow reader, but it’s definitely on my nightstand.” “You are an excellent speller.”
Q. Re: Miscarriage: Well I think that the sister-in-law who had a miscarriage is taking it a bit to the extreme, I do believe that you are being very insensitive in dealing with her pain. I had a miscarriage at 10 weeks. It was devastating, especially since we have been trying for quite a while to get pregnant. The people who told me that I needed to just get over it only made me feel worse. I only actually started feeling better about the whole deal when my pastor told me that it was OK to be so angry, because in his words: You lost a child, it is OK to be angry, upset, and disappointed. A friend of mine who had a late-term miscarriage told me that she hated when people bring their pain. At how many weeks pregnant is it OK to actually be sad about losing the baby?
A: A miscarriage is a loss, and depending on one’s personal circumstances—say a struggle with infertility—it can be devastating. You got excellent advice from your pastor about dealing with your pain. We don’t know what the sister-in-law’s situation is. However, expecting people to come to a one-year memorial for a five-week pregnancy indicates something is wrong with the sister-in-law. And comparing her very early stage miscarriage to the death of a baby is grossly insensitive.
Q. Health Issues and Young Kids: I was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer and I’ll be going in for surgery to have my thyroid removed in a few weeks. From everything that I’m reading and hearing, it won’t be all that bad. Not good, but for cancer, not bad. I am a single mom to a 3-year-old daughter. Right now I’m thinking I’ll tell her a few days ahead of time that I’m going on a trip to see the doctor and that I’ll have a Band-Aid on my neck when I get back. I’m planning to have her stay with Grandma, which she’s done on overnight trips before, so it should feel very normal. Do you think it’s OK to minimize what’s going on this way? She can’t comprehend the true issues at hand, so I don’t want to scare her by seeing Mommy in a hospital room or making it sound like this is a big deal.
A: It’s great that your prognosis is so good, and I agree with you about being honest but low-key about this event. Your daughter is way too young to understand what’s going on beyond the fact that Mommy is going to the hospital overnight, she gets to stay with Grandma (yay!), and you will be fine.
Q. Stepmother Abused Me as a Child, Now I Have a Child of My Own: My stepmother physically and emotionally abused me for years. It was really bad, and I have deeply regretted not telling anyone in my family about it when it was happening. My husband knows and understands my anxiety over what to do when we move back to our hometown and she will have more access to my boy, as my dad can’t wait to spend lots of time with him. She has never apologized for what she did (though she did mention that God has forgiven her; good for her!), and I’ve never brought it up because I love my half siblings very much and would hate to cause a rift. I can tell she adores my son, but I don’t trust her. The idea of her touching him in any way that would cause him harm brings me into such a rage. I know something needs to be said to her that isn’t threatening her life, but what? Please help!
A: Do you have to move back? Unless there is an absolutely compelling reason, I think you should not be living in your hometown, where you inevitably will be running into your stepmother. Good for her that God has forgiven her! But in the temporal realm, she has a lot of apologizing to do, though apologizing doesn’t sound like something that’s in her bag of tricks. That’s OK, because my feeling is that forgiveness is something that requires a recognition of the harm done on the part of the wrongdoer. Don’t feel you need to forgive this abuser; she doesn’t even want to own up to the misery she caused. All this leaves you in a difficult place. You have to think about telling what happened to you to the rest of your family and the consequence of that; or not telling and the consequences to you. I suggest you find a therapist with experience in people who come from abusive situations. She or he will help guide your through this thicket and think through various courses of action. My inclination is that you can start with your father, and finally reveal what your childhood was like. (Really, he didn’t know anything that was going on?) You can explain you can’t stand to be around your stepmother and need to limit her access to your son. Do not let yourself be bullied any more by this woman. You do what is right for you.
Q. Re: Thyroid Cancer: I had a total thyroidectomy two years ago—I went home from the hospital the same day. It’s (usually) a very easy surgery and recovery, and I was back on my feet within a few days. I don’t think the LW’s 3-year-old will even know what’s up. Good luck to the LW!
A: Thanks, and glad you’re doing well.
Q. How to Help My Sister Deal With an Employee Suicide: My sister is the assistant manager of a midsize hotel. A few days ago, one of her employees committed suicide. Prior to committing the act, he called his grandfather and told him he was doing it because he had a bad day at work. My sister had been tough on him and rode him hard that day because he was making so many mistakes. She is now racked with guilt. I tried explaining to her that it is her job to make sure her employees are working and that it was his choice to commit suicide (and also that he probably had other issues). She is so racked with guilt, but I don’t know how to help her. She hasn’t told her husband what happened and refuses to talk to anyone else about it. How can I help her, or convince her to see a grief therapist?
A: What a horrifying story. Of course she feels distraught, but you’re right, this unfortunate young man had to have had other issues that drove him to this. However, since he called his grandfather and said he was doing it because of work, and her employers know about this, the young man’s family might bring a lawsuit, and all this will come out. Sit with your sister and tell her you are going to research grief counselors and get some referrals. Tell her you will drive her there and even go in with her if that will make her feel better. Say this awful event is not her fault and she has to start dealing with it so that it doesn’t take her down.
Q. Re: Self-Published Dreck: Remember the approach of W.S. Gilbert, who went backstage after seeing a terrible performance by an acquaintance. He squared his shoulders, marched into the dressing room, and said “My dear fellow, good isn’t the word.” All went well. It’s what my father called “telling the truth with intent to deceive.”
A: Love it!
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. I will be off next Monday, but talk to you Tuesday of next week.