Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Apr 07, 2014

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 look forward to your questions.

Dear Prudence, I never met my biological father and had no relationship with him. He had his own family. My mother loved me and raised me entirely on her own, in sometimes very difficult financial circumstances. My biological father died a few weeks ago. When he died, he left a will. That will leaves me with a small portion of his estate (about 1 or 2 %). He left his other son, my half-brother, whom I've also never met, with the majority of the estate (millions of dollars). Should I challenge this will in court? I don't like the idea of litigating the will -- it makes me uncomfortable and confused. A proportional share of the estate would radically change my life (student debts, public service job). But does this man, who gave me nothing, owe me anything more in his will? Is the ignored child a chump for not fighting the will? -Confused "heir"

I wish when your father was alive that your mother had asserted your rights more forcefully. A paternity test would have been a start. That would have established court-ordered recognition of you as his child and required him to provide financial support for raising you. Your mother, perhaps in a misguided attempt to protect the prestige of a wealthy man, allowed you both to hide in the penurious shadows. It's long past time your father's true character was revealed. It's one thing to have had an affair and an out-of-wedlock child; it's another to pretend that child doesn't exist. But your father left you an interesting wedge with that tiny inheritance. This bequest must have raised confusion in his family: Just who is this young woman we've never heard of?  The questions you are asking are legal and psychological. So first, take care of the legal end. If you want to proceed with a challenge to the will, you need to pay out of your own pocket for an estate attorney to look into this. At the least, an  initial consultation seems most worthwhile. It could be -- and I hope it would be -- that once the news of your existence and your possible challenge to the will is announced, your half-brother could be persuaded that settling a substantial sum on you would be preferable to the scandal of fighting this out in court. Maybe he will have a more magnanimous heart than his father and want to know who you are. But even if he doesn't, you shouldn't inherit from your mother a sense of shame and intimidation. It's time for you to see if you can get what should rightly be yours.

My second wife has always gotten along well with my kids from my first marriage. Since our marriage, she became a typical mom who cooks healthful meals, frets over safety and plans fun activities. However, I overheard her whispered telephone conversation with her mother about how she never really loved my kids. She said her heart is not in it and she's only cared about them because she loves me. She said she feels guilty admitting this but all the nice things she ever does for my kids is out of obligation, not love. I'm not sure how to discuss this issue with her as there's nothing to fault with how she treats my kids.

Good for your wife for faking it so well that neither you nor the kids have gotten a hint that she's anything but a fully enthusiastic second mother to them. What you heard was the equivalent of your stumbling on her diary. One thing that makes life interesting is how complicated and surprising people are -- even the ones we think we know best. So you have found out that your wife struggles with the fact that because of her love for you she has to try to be a mother to your kids, a role that does not come easy to her. I hear about too many second wives who either openly make the first family unwelcome or subtly undermine the father's relationship.  Your wife has wholly embraced her obligations and is making a delightful home for your kids.  That should make you appreciate her all the more. Don't say anything about the overheard conversation. But a few weeks from now, after perhaps a long and exhausting weekend with your children, tell her how much you appreciate what she does for them. Say that you know being a stepmother can be thankless, so you wanted to thank her what she does.  (And also make sure that your children express their appreciation to her. Not in a rote or obsequious way, but because you are training them to be grateful to anyone who goes out of their way for them.) Years down the line, she may discover that as far as your children are concerned at some point -- she can't even put her finger on when -- she found her heart fully engaged.

A friend's young daughter has recently had a case of mumps and is suffering terribly from a fairly common pancreatitis complication, swollen, painful tummy, vomiting, etc. She's getting medical help from her pediatrician, so the child will (should?) recover with no permanent problems, but I so want to slap this woman up side the head with a stack of science.How do I not do this? How do I avoid essentially saying, "I told you so!"? In this case, it's not religiously based, the children are otherwise healthy and well cared for; she has just bought into the anti-vaxxer movement so tenaciously that she's immune to reason. 

These benighted anti-vaxxers are endangering all of us, especially other children. "Community immunity"  -- the protection that is conferred on everyone when enough people are immunized -- is underminded when the percentage of the vaccinated population drops. Your confused friend is lucky her daughter didn't suffer from one of the more serious side effect of mumps, like deafness. I understand she seems immune herself to reason, but I think it's worth it to gently broach this subject. Tell her you're so sorry about her daughter's complications, then say you hope she reconsiders her ban on vaccination against other childhood illnesses. Explain that it would be awful to see her lovely daughter permanently damaged from some other disease that's so easily prevented.

My sister-in-law insists on making every event an alcoholic event. We held a birthday party for family and close friends for our one-year-old that started at 10 AM. We had it catered with breakfast food and were surprised when she showed up with a half of a case of wine.  We had a family reunion schedule for a local amusement park last summer. She cracked out the wine at 9 AM in the parking lot for some "pre-game" as she called it. She's usually the only one drinking that early. The strange thing is that she doesn't drink much - a glass or two at most. Even at nighttime parties for adults, she never gets drunk and doesn't drink much, so I'm having a hard time believing she's an alcoholic. I've asked her friends, and they say she drinks a normal amount, and they've never seen her drunk. Is she just socially awkward or is it something else?

Pin the tail on the donkey is so much more fun after a few wine coolers! Your sister-in-law's behavior is weird, I agree. When she comes to your house for a morning social event with a half-case of wine, you say that because of the hour you won't be serving alcohol, but she of course is free to pour some for herself. As for public pre-gaming, there's not much you can do except decline to join. It may be that she finds all social situations draining and swallowing a glass or two of wine helps lubricate the awkwardness. (Of course at the expense of everyone wondering if she has an alcohol pr0blem.) It also could be that no one sees her drunk because she just keeps going with a low-level buzz all day, drinking wine the way some people drink coffee. If a closer relative than you is concerned about her relationship to alcohol, that person should explore with your sister-in-law just what is going on.

I feel for the person who wrote the comment, but how is part of her biological father's estate rightly hers? The estate righlty belong to whoever the deceased wanted it to go to.

If she is indeed the man's biological child and he knew it and never paid child support, that's a long overdue debt.  She may not have a case, or depending on the state laws, she might. This is something for a lawyer to pursue. But Dad was very rich and possibly prominent. The family might conclude quietly writing a check just to continue to keep her existence quiet is worth it.

Hi Prudie, My son is now 4-months-old, and with the help of my doctors and some medication, I am in a great place. However, I received some gifts that I've never acknowledged, I was so overwhelmed with taking care of a newborn and surviving that I never got around to it. (My husband is currently serving overseas, so he gets a pass on not helping with the notes or baby at the moment!) I know I should go ahead and send them late now, but do I owe an explanation for the delay?

You suffered from a serious medical condition and your husband is deployed in the military. Anyone who doesn't give you a pass on the thank you notes is a jerk. However, I find it admirable that you want to get to this task. It is so not too late. I hear from people who have been tortured for more than a year about not getting to the wedding thank yous (and I agree this is a task that should fall on the couple). Obviously, your husband gets a pass on this, but now that you're feeling betting, slowly work your way through. After the baby is asleep set yourself a task of writing, say, three a night.  You can casually say you're sorry for the delay in conveying your thanks, but you welcome the opportunity to send a picture of your beautiful baby and say how much your son is enjoying his gift.  Do not beat yourself up over this. And do not hesitate to ask your loved ones for help and support; you're dealing with way more than the average amount of new mother stress.

Dear Prudence, You mentioned diaries in your earlier response. I have kept diaries since I was about 12 years old. I'm now in my 40's and still write faithfully. Recently, my 8 y/o daughter has become interested in what I write. I've told her the diaries belong to me and are private. But, it got me thinking. Are the diaries something I should destroy sometime before my death? Or, do you think they should be left for my daughter, even though there are details about marriage troubles, conflicts with her, not so nice things about people, etc.? Thanks!

Diaries are such a wonderful way to work through the troubles in one's life, but if they are used primarily for that purpose, they would give a distorted sense of the completeness of your experience to someone reading them. You were right to tell your daughter that diaries are private. But instead of closing off that subject, since she's raised it,  I think you should give her a gift of a beautiful journal. Tell her that when you were not much older than her, you found writing down your thoughts really helped you. You can say a diary is whatever the person wants it to be -- she can write her thoughts, poems, even make drawings. But the most important thing is that it's her private place and you will respect that.

It overwhelmingly likely that the issue of what to do with your diaries won't be real for many decades. Now that you're a mother, I hope you and your husband have a will. What to do with your diaries is something you can note in it. Maybe you will just ask they be destroyed. But if you decide to leave them for her, you can explain in a letter your overwhelming love for and pride in your daughter, and say that the diaries were a place you worked out your conflicts and more painful thoughts. 

Dear Prudence- My husband and I have been married for six and a half years. We have an extremely strong relationship with one small point of contention: my name. When we got married, I had the intention of changing my last name to his, but I got cold feet about it. I feel that if I change my name, I'll lose my autonomy. Couple this with the fact that people automatically assume my last name is his and end up calling him Mr. Smith, instead of Mr. Notsmith, and you can see where my husband would be more than slightly annoyed. Am I way out of line on this one? Signed- It's my name

If people assume that you have your husband's last name, I don't get the sense you are annoyed or offended when they make that understandable mistake. But your husband feels demeaned by people who don't know him well calling him Mr. Smith. I actually don't see why this should bother him. I didn't change my name so at our dry cleaners my husband is Mr. Yoffe, and he's never said that picking up his shirts using this moniker has left him feeling unmanned. What to do about a name change is highly personal and I would hope that six years into it your husband could respect your choice and laugh off any silly confusion over it.

Why the assumption that the OP is female? As stated: "He left his other son, my half-brother" gives the impression that that the OP is male. Also the assumption that no child support was ever provided - this is not clarified either way, so why assume that none was provided? Seems to me if the father was a "prominent figure" he would have provided child support to keep the affair on the down low.

Ah, here's the weekly "Where's Waldo" of my reading incomprehension. You're right, the letter writer is a son, and my assumption came from the ether.  I think I'm more justified in assuming there was virtually no child support because the writer said his mother raised him alone in straitened circumstances. The  letter writer never even met the man. A wealthy father would have had to provide a decent amount of support had the courts gotten involved.

My parents are very conservative. They live a state where gay marriage is banned. I legally wed my partner in another state and haven't been to my hometown in several years. I would like to take a family trip with my spouse and our child to show them where I grew up as neither has been to that part of the country. However my parents are against it. They don't want people in their small town to know I'm gay. My question is how much do I owe them? They are my parents, but how long do I have to obey them? I feel like they are ashamed.

You are an adult with a spouse and a child and you don't need your parents' permission to show your new family where you grew up.  How sad for your parents that they would prefer to stand by some ugly beliefs about their own child then to open their hearts and realize they are only hurting themselves by not embracing all of you. I hope on this trip that when you stop by the local diner, etc, you run into some old friends who extend a sincere welcome.  If your parents refuse to do the same, that's their loss.

We (my husband, three kids and I) are scheduled to spend a few days visiting my father-in-law out of state. He has an over-18 step-grandson living with him. I recently saw this kid's Facebook page which is festooned with pictures of assault rifles and posts about marijuana. There's speculation that he is engaged in illegal activity. We stay in a hotel, however I've told my husband that I am not taking my kids to the house if this person is there. In the past we have had little contact with him during our visits. He thinks I'm being unreasonable. I think I'm being cautious. What do you think?

The step-grandson has made his love of assault weapons public information. So you are entitled to act on it. Your husband needs to tell his father that you two have a rule about being in homes with unsecured weapons. If there are firearms in the house they either need to be removed, or your father-in-law needs to lock them in a safe. If he starts cavilling that his second amendment rights are being impinged on, then you two should say you're constitutionally conservative when it comes to safety.  You don't say the boy is posing with the rifles, just that he likes to post photographs of them, so you may be concerned about something that isn't even a risk. But in the absence of dangerous behavior in front of your children from the step grandson, I don't see why you have a prohibition on his being in his own home when you're visiting.  Perhaps this boy is incorrigibly hostile, but it sounds as if he may have had a hard and troubled life. You should offer him the kindness and respect with which you treat anyone. Maybe it will be returned in kind.

I have never understood the fixation with taking the husband's name on marriage! My (now ex) husband made a huge deal over me changing my name when we married. I didn't really want to, but was young and wanted to make him happy. The first thing I did after we divorced was to go back to my maiden name, and I vowed I'd never change it again. I'm now engaged to a wonderful man who doesn't care what I call myself, as long as we are together. Hopefully this helps!

Thanks for this.  What would be lovely is that people arrive at the decision that's right for them (which may well be changing or hyphenating a name) without outside pressure or a partner's pouting.

While a co-worker was on vacation, I was permitted access to their email account so that I could monitor client interactions and respond on behalf of the client. While doing so, I snooped around a bit and discovered that he had violated a company policy of disclosing confidential information. He has since moved to a different department, promoted to a position of discretionary authority. Should I report this to HR even though it will be pretty obvious where the accusation came from?

So let's see, you want to go to HR and say that when you were given the task of monitoring a small range of incoming emails during your colleague's absence, you took it upon yourself to infringe his privacy and snoop all through his correspondence.  I'm tempted to tell you to go ahead in the hopes that you get a deserved slap-down. Yes, your co-worker might have violated company policy, but since you only had a small window into his interactions, you have no idea what the context was or if what he did was approved by higher ups. I think you should see this incident as a lesson to you that you need to curb your busybody tendencies and work at being more trustworthy.

Hi Prudie, This past Sunday a few friends and I went to our co-workers' methodist church service. We're all college students and the co-worker is an incredibly friendly, older woman we all adore. When we went to the service, everyone there was incredibly inclusive and friendly - none of us were religious or the same ethnicity as the members of the church, but they were happy to have us none the less. The service was lively and enjoyable -- except for one thing. When talking about "sinners," the pastor included "gays and lesbians." I've never been one to shout my opinions from rooftops, but I've never made it a secret that I support gay marriage and don't buy in to the idea that, if there is a God, he doesn't genuinely love EVERYONE. While none of them joined us that day, a number of our coworkers, many of whom are also well beloved by the member of the church who brought us, are gay. When this statement passed, we all simply sat there. I was very conflicted - part of me felt ashamed that I didn't say or do anything. What should I have done? Walked out?

It's perfectly understandable that you were blind-sided by the ugliness spewing into the pew. Sure, you could have walked out, but that wouldn't have made clear the reason for your departure.  Your older colleague may love all you young folks, but she sounds like she's crossing all sorts of lines and exploiting the naivete of the students at her workplace. You want to have a professional relationship with this woman; it sounds as if she's trying to draw you into her personal and religious orbit. So while all of you may continue to enjoy her as a colleague, you need to resist when she crosses professional boundaries. You are unlikely to change her mind about her church. Sure, you could go ahead and tell her that you were disturbed by the pastor's remarks about gays and lesbians. But you can also just let her know that her personal religious beliefs should remain just that, and that you aren't going to accompany her again to her place of worship.

Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week!

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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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