Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below 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. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Happy Hour at the Dairy Bar: One of my co-workers has a lovely baby boy, and for the last 10 months or so we’ve all been treated to the rather unlovely sound of her pumping milk in the middle of the office. We have a mother’s room down the hallway, but apparently this is “inconvenient” and she feels she can be more productive (in both ways!) if she pumps at her desk. She pumps every couple of hours for about 20 minutes straight, and the sound is highly distracting for visitors and co-workers alike. Do we need to toughen up and be more supportive, or should this young lady be more considerate?
A: Unlike most places of work, your office has created a private place to accommodate nursing mothers. Now she has to accommodate the rest of you by not pumping in the middle of the office. A couple of you should go to a manager (preferably female) and explain that what’s going on is uncomfortable and distracting, and that the employee should use the facilities created for this purpose. In any case, it’s likely that in the coming months this matter will dry up when the baby gets weaned.
Q. A Marriage Proposal: I am a 23-year-old part-time college student and a full-time live-in nanny for a pair of happy, healthy 4-year-old twins. I have been taking care of them for three years since their parents unexpectedly died, and their uncle had to take them in. He recently proposed to me. He is a wonderful, smart, funny, and attractive man—there has always been chemistry between us, but he has always been a gentleman. I admire how he stepped up to take care of the twins (who I adore). My only hesitation is that he is 10 years older than me and I am inexperienced. I have had only one other serious relationship in my life. This feels like a fairy tale, too good to be true. I trust him and I have a good size nest egg from my savings, so I would be OK in the long run. I have no real family to speak of and it is a dream to make my own family here. Am I crazy to want to say yes?
A: Amazingly, this Sound of Music scenario has come up several times in the column. In the past letters, the specifics of the situation have made changing the employer-employee relationship sound like a good idea. But in your case, I’m concerned about your getting von Trapped with someone you barely know on a personal basis. He’s proposed to you way before you know whether you two can make beautiful music together. You are very young, and possibly an immigrant, and apparently mostly alone in the world. Nothing has happened between you and your boss, which is good. So an out-of-the-blue marriage proposal is bizarre. It also complicates your ability to work for him. If you’re interested in him, that means you two need to have adult time together. And by that I mean going on dates in which you get to know each other, not jumping into bed to consummate your change in status from employee to fiancée. I know you love these children, but if things get weird, you need to be ready to leave.
Q. Young Love: I am a woman in my early 40s with a professional, high-paid job. I own a home, a nice car, and am financially well-off, but not rich. I have a boyfriend who is in his late 20s, who is a very talented “starving artist” and lives with me. He basically takes care of everything at the house, while I work and make the money. I am content with this arrangement. Friends and family think I am crazy, that he is a freeloader, and I’ve robbed the cradle to get myself a free live-in maid. We love each other very much and are both OK with this arrangement. What to say to friends and family?
A: As I’ve often recommended, the blank stare can be your most eloquent response. It leaves the obnoxious words hanging in the air, unanswered. You can also go for the non sequitur: “Thanks for your good wishes. We are indeed very happy.” Then there’s the brusque brush-off: “I don’t remember asking you about my living arrangements.”
Q. Re: Happy Hour at the Dairy Bar: I am a nursing/pumping mom and practicing lawyer. It is inconvenient to drop your train of thought altogether, move your equipment, re-plug it in, pour milk from bottle to bag without a desk to set it on, etc. I can’t imagine the pump sound is seriously disruptive; it should become white noise a minute or two in. Nonetheless, I hope the writer and her/his co-worker can work this out like grown-ups. Can’t someone talk to the co-worker about moving maybe just when clients are present? As the WHO recommends, many moms breast-feed past a year (though pumping frequency can likely decrease substantially), so this conflict may not go away soon.
A: If someone is lucky enough to have a private office with a door she can shut, then certainly pump away there. But the letter writer says this employee is in the middle of the office, and everyone knows she is pumping. Sure, it’s inconvenient not to be able to pump at your desk while continuing to write memos, but people have to do lots of things to accommodate the fact that they work with others. This office has a dedicated space for nursing mothers. The nursing mother should use it.
Q. Texting Grandpa: I’m a single woman about to adopt my first child. My dad, his grandpa, will watch him while I’m at work. I’m extremely pleased about this arrangement bar one thing. My dad texts and drives sometimes. How do I convey that he absolutely may not do this with my son in the car? This is an issue I’ve been avoiding addressing for some time, but I’m unwilling to risk my son’s safety.
A: How about the safety of everyone on the road? Your father is putting everyone in his orbit at risk. I’m afraid that if your father thinks texting while driving is fine, that he should be struck off your list of babysitters—unless he vows he will never drive with your child and you find that vow believable. But I wouldn’t trust someone who texts and drives, period. Make him sit with you and watch the new AT&T commercials called “It Can Wait” about texting and dying. I hope your arrogant, dangerous father comes to his senses before he kills himself and someone else’s child.
Q. Re: Marriage Proposal: They’ve known each other for three years. The twins have known her virtually all their lives. There’s always been chemistry. Doesn’t seem that “out of the blue” to me.
A: If a boss of three years (who’s been the boss since the employee was 20 years old) suddenly asks her to marry him, and they’ve never even been on a date—despite feeling ambient “chemistry”—that’s mighty odd. As I say, now they need to explore whether they want to be in a romantic relationship—and they need to be aware that this exploration is surely going to complicate their professional relationship.
Q. Wife’s Wedding Ring: My ex-wife and I have been divorced for three years and share custody of our young daughter. We got divorced for a variety of reasons, primary among them being that she’d had an affair a few years earlier, and I could never quite forgive her. Both of us now have committed partners and are extremely happy. However, since we were divorced, my ex-wife has not taken off her wedding ring. I talked to her about it once, and she said it was to remember the happy times in our relationship, and also because it’s a nice, expensive piece of jewelry. I object to this on several grounds—firstly, we are in the same social circles, and it’s confusing that my divorced ex is wearing the clear symbol of marriage on her hand when I’m not. Secondly, she has a long-term boyfriend. And thirdly, I didn’t buy the ring because it would look nice on her. I have two questions for you: Do I have a right to complain? And if so, how?
A: You are not the lord of her ring. It is odd that someone would continue to wear a ring that signified a dead marriage, but it must be quite a nice piece of jewelry. Since she’s now in a committed relationship, if anyone thinks about her ring (and I bet no one is thinking about it except you) they will just assume it’s a symbol of her new relationship.
Q. Re: Happy Hour at the Dairy Bar: Why is everyone so uncomfortable about breast-feeding? On the one hand it’s been called a public health crisis that American children aren’t being breast-fed long enough; on the other hand, society makes us feel like we have to hide it. Pumping is difficult and takes effort and dedication; it’s not like she’s doing it for fun. If your co-worker is doing her best to be discreet, please give her a break. Working full time and pumping is not easy, and she’s just doing her best.
A: But the letter is about the fact that the co-worker is pumping in the middle of the office. That is not discreet. Yes, it is a pain to pump and have to go to a dedicated room, but this is a time-limited problem, and one has to weigh one’s pumping needs against the sensibilities of one’s co-workers in an open office.
Q. To Refer or Not Refer: I am a teacher in a middle-size school district. I have worked long and hard to make sure I do the best job of teaching children I can do. I have developed a reputation as a good teacher. A friend of our family has decided to enter the teaching profession. She has stated that she would like to do this because of the “six-hour days and the summers off.” (I have tried to explain all the extra work outside the classroom that goes into teaching.) She is also short-tempered, a little lazy, and has terrible multitasking skills. I do not think she would be a good teacher. However she just told me she has already submitted my name as a reference. If I am honest, she will know what I said, as I am the only reference from the district, and she will be very, very upset with me. Our husbands are best friends and our children are always together. Help!
A: If you get a call you don’t have to say anything but the simple truth: “She didn’t check with me before listing my name as a reference, and I’m afraid I cannot act as her reference.” That should not get back to her. But if it does and that blows up the relationship, then too bad, because you don’t need this obnoxious woman in the teaching profession or your life.
Q. Happily Ever After: I was in a relationship with this special girl for two and a half years. We’re both at college, entering our senior year. However, the problem is that I don’t want to commit to an engagement, the logical way for continuing our relationship. I really love her, but she won’t accept my point of view based on previous discussions, so is there a way of letting her go in order to free her from a noncommitting guy like me without hurting her feelings?
A: Nope, when you break up with her, her feelings are going to get hurt. That’s just the way it is. But you don’t get engaged to someone you are not ready to marry just to avoid upsetting her. You two got together as teenagers and are still very young, so marriage is not the inevitable next step, and it is perfectly reasonable that you aren’t ready. Better to break up now than to let this drag through senior year with you both feeling simmering resentment and pressure.
Q. Re: The Wedding Ring: Is there any chance the divorced woman would consider wearing her “nice” ring on her other hand? It does seem odd that a divorced woman would insist on wearing the universal symbol of marriage. I would think it would irritate her boyfriend even more than the ex-husband.
A: True that it would be odd to be the boyfriend of someone who still wore the wedding ring of her ex-husband to remind her of the “good” memories. But this is an issue for the ex-wife and the boyfriend, not the ex-husband.