Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 26 2009 2:58 PM

The Gift They Keep on Giving

Prudie counsels a woman whose loutish brother-in-law passed off her present as his own—and other advice seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com every Monday at 1 p.m. to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. This week's chat took place on Tuesday because of the Memorial Day holiday. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.) An unedited transcript of this week's chat follows.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let's get going.

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Somewhere, Ore.: A woman and I were at a friend's house. This woman revealed to us that she sells her pain prescription medication to someone as she needs money. I was dumbfounded. I know this woman has a very hard life. She is disabled, not on any assistance and is raising a teen. I hire her to do housework to help her out. I don't want to know this, but now that I do I'm torn between reporting her to the authorities and pretending I never heard her. So far I've done nothing. Is doing nothing good decision?

Emily Yoffe: Now that you know, you could initiate a talk with her about the various disability services and support she may be eligible for—maybe you can help her find a caseworker. You can also say that you are very concerned that if her small business activities get discovered, her problems will be massively compounded by her entering the criminal justice system. But you should assure her that won't happen because of you. What purpose could be served by blowing the whistle on an ill, desperate woman trying to raise a daughter alone? She needs support, not prosecution.

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Chicago, Ill.: On Mother's Day my brother-in-law surprised my mother-in-law with a very lovely framed grouping of family pictures. The gift brought her to tears. The problem? I originally made and gave that gift to my brother-in-law for Christmas (I had taken the family pictures at Thanksgiving and thought he would appreciate the gift as he has a very close relationship with his mother). He passed the gift off to his mother (right in front of me) as something he created himself and gave out of the goodness of his heart. I held my composure at the time but later mentioned the incident to my husband in private. He only replied that his brother didn't have a lot of money right now to buy a gift (although the man never has a shortage of new clothes and "toys").

I really wouldn't have minded had my brother-in-law come to me prior and asked if he could give the gift to his mother because she might appreciate it more (and had he not passed the gift off as his own creation). Compounding the problem is the fact that my husband and I currently live with my in-laws (and brother-in-law). I have to look at this gift every single day. Am I out of line to have my panties in a twist over this event, or should I mention something to my brother- or mother-in-law?

Emily Yoffe: The larger problem here is not the photo but the fact that you, your husband, your mother and father-in-law, and your brother-in-law, are all living under the same roof. Sure you have to look at his ridiculous re-gifting escapade every time you go into the living room. But if all of you aren't killing each other every morning over who ate the last serving of cornflakes, then you have a remarkably tolerant family. Forget the portrait and work on saving your money so you don't have look at the picture of them, or them in the flesh, every day.

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Charlottesville, Va.: Hi Prudence,

My husband and I are giving a dinner party with dancing to a local band, in three weeks. On my guest list is a couple who experienced a tragedy yesterday. Their daughter, whom I have met a number of times died suddenly. Of course I will express my condolences as one would for a good friend. However, my party invitations are going to be mailed tomorrow. I don't know whether to send their invitation or not. I think not, but my husband thinks we should. I doubt that they would attend and they will know we have them in our prayers. Help!

Emily Yoffe: You first must express your condolences in writing, and I hope visit your friends to offer your sympathy for this wrenching event. After your visit, you can call to follow up and see how they're doing. During that conversation you can mention you are having a dinner party and if they're up for it, you would love them to attend, but you understand if it's too soon for them to socialize. In any case, you and your husband should make separate plans to, say, have dinner with just the two of them—it's so important for people not to feel abandoned during times of grief.

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Houston, Texas: Dear Prudie, I am currently dating a wonderful man, whom I have fallen in love with. He is patient, understanding, and kind. My dilemma is that a few years ago, (before I met my current guy), I had an affair with a married man. I know I made a terrible mistake, and am slowly learning to forgive myself, but I still feel awful for what I've done. My boyfriend and I are becoming serious, and I don't want to lie about my past, but I don't know what to do. Should I tell my boyfriend?

Emily Yoffe: Being honest about your past does not obligate you to give a full accounting of all the sexual and romantic encounters you had before your current one—unless they are relevant. That would mean telling of contracting herpes, for example, or that you once dated your boyfriend's uncle. As you get to know each other better, if you feel you want to unburden yourself, then do so. Surely if he is so patient, understanding, and kind, he will be generous in his response to a mistake you made that you now regret.

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Vienna, Va.: My brother and father have been estranged from each other for over 15 years; my father has had no contact with my brother or his children whatsoever at my brother and his wife's direction. My nephew (my brother's son) is now graduating from high school and my sister-in-law wants my father's address so they can send my father a graduation notice. I think it is highly inappropriate and tacky since the have refused any and all communication requests by my father. Do you agree?

Emily Yoffe: Is the notice going to say, "We still hope you go to hell, old man, but before you do, send a generous graduation gift to your grandson"? If it's strictly about the gift, then yes, they are behaving horribly. But perhaps the notice is about the fact that they are realizing the estrangement has caused the grandfather to miss all the important events in his grandson's life. In any case, you shouldn't withhold the address. Let the notice go out, and let the involved parties work it out.

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Washington, D.C.: My spouse has recently taken a new job that's very challenging. This has shifted the majority of the housework to me. This, alone, is not a huge problem (although I, too, have a full-time job). However, she's constantly telling me how guilty she feels about it. The first 100 times, I said "it's no problem." But, you know, if she's going to keep telling me how unfair it is, I'm going to agree.

Sure, she has the right to feel guilty. But if I'm going to have the majority of the burden, then I ask not to be constantly reminded of it. In other words, instead of her telling me how miserable she is, perhaps she should shift to telling me how appreciative she is that I've been able to step up.

How do I communicate this? Or am I totally wrong in feeling, well, annoyed?

Emily Yoffe: You just communicated it really well. So tell her what you told me. Don't do it with annoyance—say it in a positive way that it would ease your burden and her guilt if you got recognition and appreciation from her, instead of self-flagellation. And how often has a man with an incredibly demanding job apologize incessantly for the domestic duties his wife has to shoulder?

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Cambridge, Mass.: Three weeks from now is way, way too early for a couple to socialize after just losing their daughter. I agree with the rest of your advice, but I would simply not invite them to the party. And it's not just a dinner, it's a party, with dancing. No way.

Emily Yoffe: Yes, you make a better case. But the couple having the dinner party should make plans to go out with their friends.

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Cambridge, Mass.: Dear Prudence, I have a friend with whom I am no longer very close, in part because of her lack of response to important losses in my life. Specifically, she did not offer me any condolences on the loss of a sibling, best friend, and parent over the last decade. In each case, she knew the person was ill, and in each case, I wrote to her informing her of the death, and I never got a call or card or even a mention of the death when I eventually saw this friend. After the first death, I assumed she hadn't gotten my letter, and I brought it up in a conversation, and she cut me off. With the most recent one, my father, I thought for sure she would send a card (even an e-mail!), as she has lost both of her parents in the past few years. And yes, I sent condolences. One might say, "drop her like a hot potato," but we work in a niche industry and must see each other in professional settings from time to time. I'm sorry about the loss of the real friendship, but at this point, more than anything else, I just want to know what would cause someone to be so insensitive.

Emily Yoffe: There are people who are utter clods when it comes to death. They will behave rudely and insensitively in order not to have to discuss this subject, because of their own discomfort or inability to know what to say. Obviously, "I'm so sorry for your loss. How are you doing?" is not hard—but it is to some people. You could possibly decide to let your soon-to-be former friend know that your closeness has been lost because you felt hurt that she wasn't able to offer any condolences for your string of losses. Maybe she will be able to step up. Otherwise, you can continue to have cordial relations with her while knowing that things are by necessity superficial.

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Martinsburg, W.Va.: Ack! No!

On the lady selling her prescription pain meds: offer to help her find other means of help, yes; turn a blind eye toward her drug-dealing, no. Prescription meds (especially when taken without a prescription) are dangerous: someone could treat a symptom (pain) off the record, that allows a serious condition to go uncaught. Or someone could have a drug interaction with other things they're taking, or get addicted (very common with pain-killers), or OD (another big issue with pain drugs), or...

Not only would these sorts of problems land the pusher in deep legal soup, the emotional (and moral!) ramifications of having participated in such a troubling transaction aren't worth it.

Let your friend know that you (and the rest of society) need her to stop prescribing without a license, unless she's prepared for it to be a license to kill.

Emily Yoffe: I agree about having a serious talk with this woman about the moral and legal consequences of her actions. I disagree that the way to underline these points is to call the narcotics squad.

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New York, N.Y.: In the Surgical Suite sometimes a member of the team plays music. It can be a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, a nurse or a surgical technician. Sometimes the music is loud, you don't like it, interrupts your concentration, etc. Frequently you want to stop the music but remain silent to avoid a confrontation. Obviously the person playing the music is imposing his taste and loudness wishes on the rest of the team. Shouldn't the person imposing the music ask the team members first? Who should decide?

Emily Yoffe: This is something that needs to be discussed at a time when arteries are not being clamped. Ask to have a team discussion about music. There may be some people who think it helps them concentrate—and if those people are the surgeons, you may be overruled. But if you or others find the volume or type of music distracting (death metal may set the wrong tone, for example), then that is a hazard to patient care, and everyone should be willing to work out a set of rules that makes most of you comfortable.

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Anywhere, USA: Dear Prudence,

I am in my mid-20s and have been married just a few months. What is the best response to quickly deflect questions/comments about when my husband and I will have a baby? I had three such comments directed at me this weekend by extended family—and just responded with a tight-lipped smile.

The true reasons why we aren't having a baby now or imminently include: we want to enjoy at least one year of married life before starting a family, we're trying to save money while we can, and also I was diagnosed with a type of cancer a few weeks ago that is highly treatable/curable with a low dose of chemo, then anticipate a 2-year period to watch for possibility of recurrence before having a baby. (I made the decision not to volunteer information about my medical condition outside of my close immediate circle, and few if any people would guess that I have cancer or am undergoing chemo based on my appearance, energy level, etc., not to mention that I have one of the few cancers that affects young people.)

I know I don't need to justify or respond to these classically rude questions. But what is the best way to easily deflect them? (My tight-lipped smile didn't stop additional inquiries from well-meaning relatives over the course of the weekend.)

Emily Yoffe: The fact is that even if people shouldn't ask, they're going to, so you need to be armed. Since you are so young, you can say you two want to enjoy just being a couple for the time being (people in their thirties are going to get badgered about FSH levels by their loved ones). You can also say with a little too much emphasis, "You'll be the first to know."

Best wishes on a speedy recovery.

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San Diego, Calif.: My 23 year old niece got pregnant deliberately to trap the 27 year old bartender she met after graduation into marriage. They are now married, parents, and the subject of endless joyful comments and cooing by the rest of the family. I am appalled by it all. Must I send a baby gift? FWIW, I have not received any thank you acknowlegements from this niece for years, and no graduation announcement (she entered my profession of 30 years, nursing).

Emily Yoffe: I'm with you on the fact that this girl has never acknowledged a gift, rather than the fact you don't approve of how she came to be married and pregnant. But she is very young and surely needs a layette, so it would be big of you to send a gift and your best wishes (knowing you won't get any thanks in return).

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St. Louis, Mo.: Dear Prudence, I love my stepsister dearly; her dad has been married to my mom for the past 19 years. We have developed a bond that blood sisters couldn't rival, and consider each other to be best friends. The problem I have is with her mother and her side of the family. They don't like my mother and seem to carry a grudge against me because of that. Also they are loud, obnoxious, and rude. They drink heavily, and act this way in front of my daughter and my stepsister's children whenever we are together. I love my sister and don't want to offend her because she is very sensitive. How do I tell her that I don't want to go to the kids' birthday parties, or camping trips, or BBQs when her other family is going? Or do I just suck it up and deal with it?

Emily Yoffe: You can choose to attend events or not without explanation. Going to a child's birthday party has the advantage of a limited time frame and minimal alcohol consumption; a weekend in the woods with these drunken loudmouths borders on the masochistic. If you and your stepsister are that close, surely you can sensitively bring up the fact that you are sometimes uncomfortable at blended events because you feel your side of the family has never been fully accepted. Surely she'll understand; maybe she'll even ask them for a little more consideration. But don't worry about them influencing your children. After they see a drunken outburst, when you get home you can tell your kids that's what happens when people are rude and lose control. I think the value of the negative example is underappreciated.

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Maryland: I see a my doctor once a year for a checkup. We live in a smallish town and our families know each other socially. After my mother died about 3 years ago, he asked how she was doing as I was paying my bill. I told him she had died, which was awkward, but it's not like I expect him to know every detail of my life and apparently he hadn't heard. Problem is, the next year it happened again. This time, his wife was visiting the office and was aghast. "Hon, she died!" I'm not overly emotional, but these scenes are pretty excruciating, taking place in the lobby with the uncomfortable receptionist and other people looking on. He's a great doctor (and the only one around with his specialty), but I'm sort of dreading this year's visit. How should I handle this?

Emily Yoffe: Death is the theme this week. Yes, he shouldn't have made the mistake a second time, but he's a good doctor, and if you only see him once a year, you should cut him some slack. If he does it again, you could say, "Well, I really miss her. We've talked about her death a few times. She died in 2005." That might help keep this fact stuck in his head.

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Re: dinner party: I agree with your initial advice and completely disagree with the person who wrote in to disagree with you. Everyone grieves differently and I would not want to decide for my friends that they are not ready to attend. Chances are that they would not be, but I would let them decide that. Additionally, if I were the one who suffered the loss and heard that my friends had a big party without inviting me, I would be extremely hurt at a time when I most need my friends' support.

Emily Yoffe: I'm hearing from several people making your point. Okay, for the time being you have convinced me to reverse my reversal. After the initial note and visit with the grieving friends, the consensus seems to be to gently extend the invitation. One person suggested sending it with a note attached saying, "If you feel ready for an evening out, we would love to see you. If you're not, we completely understand, and will call so we can get together just the four of us. You are in our thoughts."

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Herndon, Va.: Every time I get together with my family (my father and brother), we start telling stories about our respective wives/girlfriends that don't paint them in the best light. It's mostly lighthearted and just good-natured ribbing, but I can't imagine that they like it, especially since it has become routine.

How do I go about breaking this cycle? My main problem is I don't even realize I am doing it until after the fact.

Emily Yoffe: You're lucky your wives and girlfriends haven't ended one of these lovely evening with that comedy special: a pie to the face. I am all in favor of teasing -- I think it's a great social grease, and if it's all being done good-naturedly, the women should get in on the fun. But it sounds as if you're picking up a nasty undertone of put-down. So now that you realize it, be prepared the next time you go to a gathering. When things spin off from good-spirited to mean, you can say, "Actually, I think Elaine must have a great sense of humor for putting up with you." Or you can even say, "Ah, you're going to far for my taste." Or, "I'm lucky, I'm with the most wonderful woman in the world." You break the cycle by breaking it.

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Washington, D.C.: "What purpose could be served by blowing the whistle on an ill, desperate woman trying to raise a daughter alone?" I grant the woman is ill and desperate, and maybe this isn't the place for philosophical debate, but why does her condition excuse her actions? Assuming she knows that what she is doing is both dangerous and illegal, where do you draw the line? If she didn't have disabilities? If she wasn't a single mother? What if her disabilities are the result of her own action at one point in her life? What if the child has a father who would love to be involved?

How would the original poster feel if her own teengage child is the customer? Does the situation change then?

If we want to be treated equally by society and under the law, we need to be held to an equal level of responsibility. A drug dealer is either a danger to society whether she's in a back alley, in an apartment, or in a doctor's office—or is not a danger at all, and we should decriminalize dealing and start taxing it to pay for addicts' treatment.

Emily Yoffe: I'm with you on decriminalization. And if the unfortunate woman's daughter got involved with drugs, I'm sure she'd wish she lived in a world where her daughter could seek help without the fear of ending up being prosecuted. I still say don't blow the whistle.

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Cambridge, Mass.: My father just died a few months ago, and getting asked how he's doing has happened to me a couple of times, too, by people who knew (at one point in time) that he'd died. My hairdresser, for instance. To be honest, I thought it was kind of funny, though I didn't laugh. I chalked it up to his having many clients whom it's hard to keep track of. At least he ASKED (see my earlier letter).

Emily Yoffe: Yes, it's embarrassing for all concerned—but you're right to give credit for people who are trying to say the right thing.

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Re: You'll be the first to know: Although I do applaud this line, which has been offered by many advice columnists, it has grown to be problematic. When I use this with nosy family members, they know exactly what I am doing and press for further details. (One even admitted to reading a lot of advice columns, and she knows what this really means.) Perhaps this line has been overused and we need something new?

Emily Yoffe: That's why the line is good, because it carries the message, "This is the conversation-ending thing you say to people who are asking nosy questions." The next thing to say is, "I don't want to talk about it, thanks."

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Chicago: Dear Prudence,

I was the one who wrote in last week about my spouse's atrocious handwriting and our thank-you cards. Unfortunately, you got it backwards—it's my wife who has the horrible handwriting —not me. (I print in block capitals when I hand-write notes, and have since high school, exactly because my cursive handwriting is so poor.) My wife's handwriting is so bad that we routinely have letters returned to us by the USPS that were addressed by her because her writing on the envelope is illegible.

I did find it interesting that you jumped to your conclusion, however: "You got HIM to write thank yous ..."

Emily Yoffe: Mea sexism culpa! Okay, say you appreciate she's carrying her thank you note load, but suggest, since the notes tend to come back to you, that she type them.

Have a great week, everyone. Talk to you next Monday.