Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Nov 19, 2012

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon. I'm looking forward to your questions and to my mother-in-law's fabulous meal on Thursday.   She's still making the turkey at age 93.

I married Kate, my second wife, ten years ago. My teenage daughters were seventeen and nineteen. I had been divorced from their mom for five years, and Kate had nothing to do with our divorce. My daughters never warmed to Kate, and in fact, they have always treated her rudely. Kate has been excluded from all of their major milestone celebrations: birthdays, graduations, etcetera. Kate always encouraged me to attend without her, because she has always wanted me to have a relationship with my children. Kate and I now have two children, six and four, and my eldest daughter is marrying. Children of all ages are welcome at her wedding - but not Kate or her younger half-siblings. I think I have reached the end of the line, and so has Kate. My daughters want nothing to do with my wife or my children. I am so exasperated with my daughters, and I don't know what to do. They say I always need to choose them over Kate, because they are my children, and until now I always have. But now I'm actually considering missing my daughter's wedding.

I often hear from children of first families whose fathers have married women who campaign to erase these children from their lives. But Kate sounds like a generous, patient person -- how exasperating to be excluded from events for all these years and how kind of her to encourage you to go.  I don't think your daughter's wedding is the place to draw the line in the sand. It is beyond outrageous that your daughter is not including her stepmother and half-siblings at this event, but this pattern was set long ago.  You should have a private talk with your daughter and explain that her exclusion of your wife and your children has been painful for everyone. Say you cannot force her to invite your wife and her half-siblings, but as she herself is creating a new family, it would be a lovely gesture of reconciliation on her part. If she refuses, attend by yourself.  You want to be able to have a connection with your future grandchildren, however tenuous. But after the wedding, invite both your grown daughters out to dinner and explain that they are adults now and need to start acting like it.  You can say you haven't chosen Kate and your new family over them -- they have chosen to make it impossible for all of you to have a relationship. You have endured years of insults because you love them and kept hoping things would get better. You still do, but they've got to realize there are consequences for striking out for no good reason.

My brother and his wife's unborn baby has serious medical problems and is not expected to survive more than a few hours after birth. My brother told us that my SIL wants privacy after the birth and does not want anyone to come over, except for her parents and sister. I know my grief does not even compare to their loss but I feel devastated I won't be able to meet my niece when she is alive. My parents are pretty torn up about this, too. I know it will be a very emotional time for both my brother and SIL and I can see why she doesn't want to endure such a raw experience in front of her in-laws, whom she does not know very well. My brother said his wife might be okay with us coming after they say their farewell but by then it might be too late. Is it totally inappropriate for me to ask them to reconsider?

You need to recognize that experiencing the near-  simultaneous birth and death of a child does not leave room for your emotional needs. If your parents want to be able to say farewell to their grandchild, they need to have talk with your brother and see if his wife can accomodate their wish. Maybe your brother can arrange for your parents to spend a few minutes alone with the baby. But you do not belong in this equation, especially since there is something bizarrely selfish about your need to "meet" your niece before her death.  I'm sure you know that lots of things are not about you. The profound loss your brother and sister-in-law are about to experience is just about the definition of something that's not being about you. Please have the decency to stay out of the way.

Dear Prudie, With Thanksgiving only a few days away, I'm hoping you can offer some advice on how to deal with my in-laws over the holidays: We will be going to my husband's grandparent's house to spend Thanksgiving with his parents, grandparents, and extended family. After every meal, the family engages in card games. I'm terrible at cards, but normally I oblige. I wouldn't have an issue playing even though I'm terrible, but one of my husband's uncles if very competitive and will complain if we are on a team together and will ask throughout the game, "Why did you do that?!" I hate it. It frustrates and flusters me and only makes my playing worse. I dread going to any family function for this very reason. I would prefer not to play, but would rather just watch--however, this doesn't seem like an option, because there will be an odd number of players. How to I either get out of it completely or learn to shrug off my husband's uncle's complaints?

If you were going to your own family's for Thanksgiving this year your husband's family would figure out some way around this odd number handicap.  I assume in the rest of your life you don't let yourself be bullied by someone with whom you have a tangential relationship. So stop letting your husband's uncle make it impossible for you to enjoy your post-turkey, tryptophan high. When the games begin, either go for a walk, go to another room and read, or sit in an arm chair and say you're content to be an observer.

Hi Prudie, I am recently married, and will be spending Thanksgiving with my new in-laws. They are a very, ultra conservative group and dislike our President. I, however, voted for him, and have tried to stay away from the political banter. My sister-in-law recently sent my husband a message asking if I was a "closet" Obama supporter. Quite honestly, it's none of her business, but I took it upon myself to respond to her directly instead of through my husband. I know she has told his family that I support Obama, and I know it will be an issue at Thanksgiving (we live 4 hours away from them). Luckily, my husband is amazingly supportive and has stated that he will stand by me no matter what. I'm just not sure how to handle his family. Thank you, I don't want a fight.

The answer to are you a "closet" Obama supporter is no, because you are a proud and open Obama supporter. You are also right that your political views are none of their business, unless they want to make it so. You and your husband need to plan this out before the assault on mashed potato hill.  If you start being goaded you can say, "I know it's painful when your candidate loses, so let's talk about more pleasant things." Or, "I'm happy to discuss the issues, but probably everyone's digestion will be better if we don't." Ignore the random Obama put-downs -- during them you can recite to yourself, "Yeah, and that's 332 electoral college votes for my guy." If it becomes intolerable your husband should be prepared to interject that it's time the subject got changed, and then ask what teams people think are going to the  Superbowl.

I have nothing to add to Prudie's response except, AMEN! Though this is terrible and sad for everyone involved, your feelings do not even come close to those of your brother and his wife. Busy yourself thinking about ways you can help them and make life easier during what I imagine will be a long and painful grieving process. And try to do things that don't involve a lots of face time with the grieving parents, since it sounds like they mostly want privacy. Rake leaves, shovel snow, drop off dinners/groceries and understand that they aren't going to be the "same" people they've always been, things will be different and you need to support them through all of it. Surprisingly I think you'll gain the most comfort by offering it to others and putting them first during this hard time.

You're right that quiet, unobtrusive, behind the scenes help might be welcome. And I hope the sister-in-law doesn't need a warning to keep all this off her Facebook page. [And apologies for a garbled sentence when my the answer first posted. I was having technical difficulties with my brain.]

Five years ago, my sister and I discovered the existence of our father's biological son from a secret second family. By this stage our father had already passed away and we decided to meet him. He and my sister have developed a close relationship, whereas I didn't really click with him and I consider him more of a distant relative than a biological sibling. Recently our paternal grandmother passed away, leaving her home to me and my sister. She knew we had a half bother but never met him or spoke to him. We decided to sell the home and divide the money. Here's where we clash. She thinks we should split the money in thirds and give our half brother a portion. She feels particularly strong about this because he's a single father. As for me, I am not especially close to him, our grandmother knew of his existence but chose to include only me and my sister in her will, so I don't see why I need to give up my portion for a man I barely know. I told my sister if she feels so strongly about this she can halve her share with him but she says it's "not fair." If we split the money 50:50 instead, it will mean I can pay off my mortgage and retire early. I'm reluctant to delay the two for this half brother, who might as well be a fourth cousin to me. Who is in the right here - me or my sister?

You and your sister are both right:  It is not fair that your father's child was kept hidden away from his family, and your inheritance is yours to do as you see fit. Even if you do not feel close to your half-brother, surely you do recognize that he has not been treated right by your family.  As a recognition of this you could consider giving him a monetary gift, but the amount is yours to decide.  You could also do nothing and tell your sister you see her point, but your half-brother is a virtual stranger to you and you are not going to change your financial future for him. Recognize that will have an effect on your relationship with her, but so is her pressuring of you. Your father's behavior surely has tarnished his memory with all his children. I certainly hope he didn't depart this complicated life of his without doing anything to provide for all his children.

My father was recently incarcerated for a short period of time after being convicted of a felony. He was completely guilty and I have no problem with him being locked up for it. The problem is that he now expects me to pay the fines he owes as part of his sentence, attorneys fees, etc. after he gets out. I paid quite a bit of money to attend his sentencing from the other side of the country, and got all his affairs in order for him. My father and I are not close and never have been; he was completely uninterested in being a father, and call me petty but I don't feel like bailing him out; he never paid child support, and we lived hand-to-mouth for many years because of it. I have power of attorney over his finances while he's in prison, and while he's hardly wealthy, I know he can cover his fines and other monthly expenses without bankrupting himself. The problem is that I make more money than just about everyone in my immediate and extended family, so virtually everyone believes I should cover him because I can afford to. My husband, mother, and siblings fully support me in this and believe I shouldn't have to justify why I won't spend my money on my father. Everyone else feels differently. Am I being too cold?

And what a bundle of warmth your deadbeat, neglectful, jailbird father was for you. You have no obligation to this man, and if you don't want to handle his affairs, you would be perfectly justified in choosing a professional to have power of attorney who can be paid out of your father's  assets. Your father can expect all sorts of thing, he can demand that you give him a weekly foot massage, but that doesn't mean you're going to do it.  Dad cut you loose when you needed him. Hey, Dad, turnabout is fair play.

Hi Prudence, I wrote in to you a few weeks ago about how my paternal grandma was convinced my mom had cheated, and I wasn't my late dad's son. I went and had the test. No surprise - I'm his son. Grandma reiterated the age difference as a reason she suspected my mom's fidelity. I get the sense she also thought my dad should have married the woman he dated before my mom, who was apparently wealthy and educated. After we got the test results, she actually had the nerve to say, "It doesn't prove she was faithful to your dad." I told her to never contact us again. I'm a lot happier that my mom's name is cleared with the rest of my dad's family (I do intend to get to know some of them), but my mom has spent the last 13 years raising me alone. I'm not going to invite someone into my life who will treat her like garbage. Thanks to you and all your readers, Prudence.

What a pathetic excuse for a grandmother -- but I'm sure I made that observation last time you wrote.  I hope that you aren't being cut out of some substantial inheritance because of her cruelty.  But removing  her from your life sounds like a good idea.  I also hope that she's an anomaly among your father's relatives and that you find  love and welcome from the rest of them.

Prudie, unless I'm missing something in that letter, the mother of the unborn baby wants her own parents and sister there, but won't allow her husband's parents and sibling to come -- even though presumably her husband is as much the parent of that poor child as she is. What about HIS grief, and HIS need to have his closest relatives there with him during the baby's few hours of life?

I suggested that the husband and his parents discuss the possibility of the grandparents being able to  see their granddaughter if that's what they want. Yes, this is a terrible loss for everyone, but to be carrying a child for nine months who now you will deliver only to watch her die means that the mother's emotional needs deserve special consideration.  The brother's sister simply should not be forcing herself into this situation.

My daughter, Lily, who is in the 8th grade, has a classmate that is mean to her. This is a new girl in school and has "joined" the group of friends that my daughter hangs out with. Lily  says that when she sits down at the cafeteria table to join everyone, Elizabeth makes everyone stand up and move to a new table, leaving Lily all alone. I asked Lily why the other girls would do this and she states they are all afraid that Elizabeth will get mad at them if they don't. This breaks my heart. Do I say something to the principal or just let things work themselves out on their own? Thank you.

This is a grotesque level of shunning and needs to be dealt with. Absolutely tell the principal because Elizabeth needs to be reined in, pronto. This is not going to magically make everything wonderful for your daughter; there likely will be some blowback. So she needs to find new friends -- possibly through new school or outside activities. Tell her as painful as all this is, she should keep her head up and not engage in the kind of put-downs and back-biting the means girls indulge in. It's likely that eventually Elizabeth's little acolytes will come to see her in a different light and they will remember your daughter never sunk to her  level.

I am unexpectedly pregnant with my second child, and I have no idea how to tell my stepchildren, my family, my friends, or even my husband about my pregnancy. My husband and I lost our first child, an infant, in a horrible accident this past March. We're still raw from our grief and haven't even discussed if or when we'd have another child. My stepchildren have had an incredibly difficult time coping with the loss of their baby brother. I worry my husband will not be ready to raise another child. I worry the same thing about myself. I worry people will think that I got pregnant to fill the void my first son left or that me being pregnant diminishes my grief. I am so overwhelmed and don't know where to begin or how to tell. Please offer some insight.

If you haven't gotten any support please consider talking to the people at Share an organization for people who have lost young children. There will be people who have been through what you are experiencing and can talk to you about all you are feeling. (And Share would be a good place for the family in the letter above to turn.) I understand your loss is still incredibly raw, and that it will always, always hurt. But thank you for letting me be the first person to be happy for you.  Yes, your pregnancy is unexpected, yes, you do not feel ready, but I hope as you work through your complicated emotions you will come to feel joy about this.  In the past few years I have known people who have lost infants and who quickly went on to have another child. Everyone in their circles felt great happiness for them. Please tell your husband right away -- you don't want to carry this secret alone. And then find some others who have walked this path who can tell you about the boulders, and the sunshine, ahead.

When my fiance and I first started dating, he confessed that he had slept with his female cousin when he was younger (he is now 27). I found it odd but assumed that they were teenagers when it happened. My boyfriend is now my fiance. I recently found out that he and his cousin slept together as recently as 2007 after which they both got married. I also found out that they had an ongoing sexual relationship not just a one time thing. The problem is that we see this cousin fairly regularly. She always calls on him for help--particularly when she and her husband are fighting. I'm having a hard time getting over his past so that I can be comfortable with this cousin. Also, the cousin's husband has no idea that the two of them hooked up during periods when he and the cousin were broken up. Now I am an unwitting participant in the keeping of this secret. I'm devastated and worried that I won't be able to get past it. As it stands, I want to avoid family functions so that I don't have to see her. Any advice?

If I'm reading you right your fiance is only 27 and already heading toward his second marriage. He also is continuing a weird emotional connection with a cousin whom he has been sleeping with since they were, what, teenagers?  The cousin's husband doesn't know about this on-and-off affair and you see her often because she's really emotionally needy.   You yourself are young, so  I think you should take a bunch of steps back -- putting the wedding on hold if need be -- to assess what kind of mess you are getting yourself into.

My freshman roommate Tina never spoke to me. For the first two months we lived together, I would greet her in the morning or try to engage her in conversation. She never responded to me, but when she brought friends back to our room, she would chat up a storm with them. Eventually I gave up trying to engage her in conversation and decided to use her as a cocktail party anecdote for the foreseeable future. Tina and I still attend the same college, and this summer she began dating my boyfriend's best friend. Now she talks to me, but she pretends like we never met before. Once I attempted talking about our freshman year experience, and she told me she never met me before. I hate gossiping and talking about people behind their back, and telling Tina's boyfriend about her weirdness seems catty to me. Does her weird behavior warrant a talk with him, since she obviously won't respond to me?

This is more than a cocktail party anecdote, this is the opening for a television series! I admire your fortitude in sticking out an entire year with Tina the silent.  I hope you've told your boyfriend about this.  It would be great is he went to his best friend and said, "Look, Melonie had the weirdest experience freshman year when she was Tina's roommate.  If you know anything about why Tina refused to talk to  Melonie it would be a relief for her to know." However, I suggest this with the knowledge that men often refuse to engage in such helpful conversations. If you boyfriend won't raise this on your behalf, I don't think you should tell Tina's boyfriend. It is such a bizarre story, and Tina is such a bizarre person, that it sounds as if she would deny the whole thing. This will leave you looking as if you're making groundless accusations. But do let all of us know if you ever get to the bottom of this.

Althought I was bullied in junior high also, something I didn't realize until I was much, much older is that standing up to a bully is an important thing to learn. My son was bullied during first and second grades by an alpha boy. We worked with him and with his teachers once we realized what was going on. He doesn't let people push him around now, and we've praised him for standing up to his bullies, and when necessary, going against the mob. It has helped him become more confident. My son's bully was completely deflated when, after demanding to know why my son didn't invite the bully to his birthday part, my son said it was because he was mean and a bully. Things had improved before that, but this really took the wind out of his sails. The tables were turned on their relationship after that. I wish I had known that in 8th grade.

Thank you for this. Yes, these situations can be turned away, but it's too much pressure to expect the kids to work this out themselves. As another reader pointed out if the other girls are following Elizabeth's lead because they're afraid she'll be mad at them, she's bullying them, too! Elizabeth likely has  some issues of her own that need to be dealt with.

Dear Prudie, My husband and I are expecting our first child, a girl, around Christmas. We thought nothing could sadden us during this happy time, but were shocked last week to hear that my husband's mother was taken from us in an auto accident. In his grief, my husband asked that we name our daughter after his late mother. The problem is that my mother in law's name was Olga, and I just can't fathom giving my child such a horrid name. I had been thinking something along the lines of Virginia or Lou Ann. I told my husband I would think about it, but he's pressing the issue, and I need to tell him something. Am I being selfish for not wanting to name my child Olga, even under these circumstances?

So much loss in this chat. I think Olga is a lovely name, and if you used it your little girl would surely be the only one in the class.  Your husband, and you, have had a shocking loss, so please tread lightly on the "Olga is a horrid name" line. You have a number of options. One, Olga becomes your child's middle name, or you have an Olga Virginia, and she's universally known by her middle name. In Jewish tradition children are named after deceased relatives, but that often mean that late Grandpa Saul is honored with a grandson named Steven. So you could possibly convince your husband that Olga can be morphed into Olivia or some such. There are many ways to include a remembrance of the grandmother tragically she will never know into your daughter's name without making you cringe.

Dear Prudie, My boyfriend and I got engaged just over a week ago. Neither of us wants a traditional wedding, so we decided to get married over this Thanksgiving with just our families and a few very close friends in my hometown. The timing is perfect because his parents are joining mine for the Thanksgiving holiday. We will then celebrate with a party in the next few months for the rest of our friends and family. We thought this plan is the best of both worlds - a quiet, nonstressful ceremony and a fun party, without the anxiety of "being a bride" for me. However, some of my friends are upset that they won't be at the actual ceremony, including a few very close friends who simply can't make it into town on such short notice. I feel awful that they are sad, but I see now way I could have found a different date in the future to accommodate them without actually falling into the trap of planning a full on wedding. Am I a terrible friend? I thought this plan would alleviate all wedding stressors but here I am, very stressed! -Wedding worrier

Get married and toast with cranberry cocktails. Then at a more convenient time have some kind of party -- a barbeque, a cocktail party, whatever -- to celebrate your union with all your friends.

The first question about excluding the stepmom makes me so sad. Do people really think love is a zero sum game? If you give some here, you have less to give there? It is actually the opposite: the more love you share, the more it multiplies. It is so sad these purportedly adult children have decided to punish their father for something all this time.

Indeed. Several readers suggested there's got to be more to the back story than Dad reported. Maybe he was neglectful after the divorce.  Alternately, maybe the mother of the oldest girls has tried to ruin the  relationship with their father.  We just don't know, but going through life bitter only poisons you.

One issue that the letter writer needs to be aware of is that there will be tax implications of giving money to the half-brother. They should contact an estate planning attorney (or the executor of the will) quickly to discuss this issue.

Good point, thanks.  If the two sisters go together it might be a good way for them to discuss this whole subject in a less emotional way.

Thanks, everyone. I hope everyone feels they have something to be thankful for this Thursday.

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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