Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. A transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I assume many of you are elbow deep in cranberry sauce.
Washington, DC: For the past few years, I've celebrated Thanksgiving with my boyfriend's family, which includes his ailing, elderly grandmother. But this year, his family is demanding that we pay a cover—we're each being charged $40 per person for a standard Thanksgiving dinner (not catered). Both my boyfriend and I are outraged. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a freeloader. I'd be happy to cook a dish (or eight dishes!) and bring those to dinner. But paying $40 for a Turkey dinner with family? That's ridiculous, especially since I'm a graduate student, and money is always tight.
Unfortunately, my boyfriend has agreed to suck it up and cough up the $40. He hates that he has to pay a fee, but he refuses to stand up to his family. Meanwhile, he feels like he has to go to the dinner, because he doesn't want to hurt his grandmother's feelings by skipping out on Thanksgiving.
My question is this: Should I suck it up, too, and pay this fee? And, aside from boycotting the meal, what can I do to communicate to the family that making money off of us at Thanksgiving is unacceptable?
Emily Yoffe: I guess this year you can be grateful that your boyfriend's family is not demanding you pay $80 a head for Thanksgiving. Putting in place a cover charge is not the way to engender good feelings. And unless his family is getting the meal catered, $40 a person sounds like a lot for white meat and sweet potato casserole. The obvious answer was to have everyone bring something so that no one's cost was significant. On the other hand, maybe the burden of the meal usually falls on one family member, and he or she can't handle it. In that case, there's nothing wrong with people contributing so that no one goes broke for a family event. But you don't do it by announcing a cover charge. Your boyfriend should explain that he'll pay the full freight and something to cover your meal but that your finances are too tight to pay the listed price. I hope that means you still get to put whipped cream on your pumpkin pie.
New York: Every year my husband and I host Thanksgiving, but with the economy in a bit of a crunch, we would like to cut back this year and pass on the hosting duties. How can we let family and extended family know without offending anyone?
Emily Yoffe: The answer: cover charge! Just kidding. But today is Monday, and Thanksgiving is Thursday, so isn't it a little late to say that everyone needs to heat up their own Swanson's dinner because you can't afford to feed them anymore? But family gatherings are supposed to be joyous, not ruinous, so you need to send out an SOS. The act of hosting shouldn't cost much, but feeding everyone does. So, as per the letter above, let everyone know that Thanksgiving will either be potluck this year or that you'd deeply appreciate a contribution from each family that can't supply a dish. Do it today, while there's time for everyone to still pitch in and not gripe that you ruined Thanksgiving.
Family Time: My brother grew from a sweet and thoughtful boy to a bullying and very unhappy young man. There have been holidays in the past where I have not gone home just to avoid being the target of his wrath. He has a wonderful girlfriend now but still sometimes gets in his moods.
When he gets on a rant, I usually just walk away without comment. Is there something I can say instead that will cut off his rants and allow the rest of us to enjoy a nice meal together? I don't want to accommodate his angry behavior but would like an appropriate response that won't antagonize him. Thanks!
Emily Yoffe: It's one thing for a sweet boy to become a difficult teenager, but it is alarming that your thoughtful brother is an angry, unhappy man. I hope he has gotten a thorough physical and mental health evaluation because this is not a normal progression. There is no magic word that stops a bully from ranting. Your walking away is a good idea—that ends it. You could do him the courtesy of saying calmly, before you turn away, "Bobby, I've heard your point, and I don't want to continue the discussion." The fact that he has a wonderful girlfriend is a good sign of progress—let's hope there's a happier future for him.
Anytown, Calif.: I desperately need advice. I have had no communication with my father for 10 years. He and my mother divorced when I was 19, and we've never spoken since then. His stated goal had always been to leave when I turned 18, and his "obligation" [was done]. So this was not a case of "I still love you; it's just that me and your mom have problems." My father made me feel worthless my entire childhood, something I am just overcoming now. I have no interest in resuming contact with him, but everyone in my family is pressuring me to do so. Telling me "he misses you." Although I have no desire, do I have an obligation, either to myself or to my father, to resume a relationship with this man who I was very, very glad to see walk out of my life those years ago?
Emily Yoffe: He made you feel horrible for 19 years, then he vanished for 10, and now he "misses" you? It would be one thing if you'd had a longing to connect with him all these years, or you felt a need to talk to him about your childhood, or you wanted to see if things could be different. You don't. It doesn't even sound as if you're curious. Tell your family you have heard their arguments, but that life without him has been better than life with him. Say you're still working through the pain he inflicted, and you don't wish to open yourself to more. Then when they bring this up again, say you've said all you have to say and the subject is closed.
Family cover charge: I don't care if the boyfriend stands up to his family or not, but he should pay for any per-head cover charged to his girlfriend.
Emily Yoffe: Unless they serve really, really good wine for Thanksgiving, $40 seems like a lot for a home-cooked meal—particularly if people contribute side dishes. Sure, if he's able to foot the $80, he should do it. But post-holiday, this family needs to figure out something more equitable for Christmas.