Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
I am the mother of a tall, shapely, stunning, 17-year-old daughter. Males of all ages stop in their tracks and openly stare at her. She loves to flirt, but I have coached her about when it is inappropriate (such as with teachers or her friends’ fathers). I have worked to help her be strong, secure, and happy with herself, and she definitely is (more than I was at her age and even now). So what’s the problem? Me. Every time I look at my daughter, it hurts my self-esteem. I know that’s stupid and irrational. I’m happy that she is such an amazing creature, and I absolutely adore her and am proud of her. I look pretty good for my age, but I’m almost 50. I’m in the process of divorcing her absent father, and would like to think I could find happiness with a man. But how can I ever trust them around my daughter? And how can I trust her around them (remember the flirting)? I’ve started to see a counselor in hopes that I can shore up my self-esteem. What else would you suggest?
Dear Supergirl’s Mom,
In the initial telling of the Brothers Grimm story Snow White—about the young girl whose stepmother ordered her killed because she had replaced the older woman as the fairest in the land—the stepmother was actually her mother. I mention this not because your feelings are despicable but because they are archetypal. Both you and your daughter are longing for the attention of men. But since she is experiencing how bewitching her youth and beauty are, and because she’s lacked a father’s love, this heady power could end up being emotional and physical dynamite. Consider putting aside your own search until your divorce is complete and your daughter has graduated from high school. There is so much unfinished business in your life that you don’t sound ready for a relationship now. Your daughter will be gone soon, so see this as a last, sweet year of togetherness—which will also help dilute the poison of your jealousy.
It’s good that you are going to a therapist; counseling could be beneficial for your daughter, too—the lousy husband you are shedding is her father. But I have an additional suggestion for shoring up your self-esteem: Take action. Perhaps you have a friend who has an autistic child whom you could watch for a few hours. Maybe someone else is going through chemo and you could bring a weekly dinner for the family. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Take tennis lessons or sign up for a yoga class. Any of this will help foster gratitude for the good things you have in life. Also read some fiction. You will find solace in how great writers like Doris Lessing (The Golden Notebook, The Summer Before the Dark), M.F.K. Fisher (Sister Age), or Alice Munro (any of her short-story collections) have portrayed women struggling with aging, motherhood, and love. And Shakespeare’s sonnets are the best summing up of the bittersweet necessity of the fading of beauty.
Shortly after I graduated from college three years ago, my grandmother passed away and left me the generous sum of $30,000, with instructions that it be used for travel or education. So far, I haven’t spent a cent. Instead, I’ve been working, currently for an anti-poverty organization. I like my financial independence and the sense of giving back. But recently my job has gone from fulfilling to unbearably frustrating. I am tempted to take the money and book the first flight to wherever. Part of me says that I may not have this chance again and should just go for it. Yet another part of me feels there’s something unsavory about traveling the world with money I didn’t earn when most people want nothing more than the chance to work. What’s the right thing to do?
—Upper-Middle-Class Guilt Tripper
Dear Guilt Tripper,
Bon voyage! You have already established strong working credentials, which is more than a lot of people your age have done. Taking advantage of your grandmother’s gift should not make you feel guilty but give you satisfaction that you are doing your part to energize the world’s economy. The airline and hospitality industries will be grateful, as will the small-business owners whose food you will eat and handicrafts you will buy on your travels. Don’t blow the entire bequest—you don’t want to become a poverty case yourself—but what a propitious time for a great adventure.
My husband and I have a wonderful, sweet 18-month-old little girl we adore. She is quite tiny for her age, in part because her parents are small and in part because she has a rare genetic syndrome. I’ve become increasingly irritated by comments from other people about how small she is for her age, with the comments accompanied by a look of concern. Her development is also just slightly behind, which adds to the assessment, I suppose. So far, I just say, “Yes, she’s small” and leave it at that. But as my daughter gets older, she’s likely to start understanding some of these comments, and I’d like to teach her to politely stand up for herself. Any ideas about a response to the size question?
Remarking on a child’s size is one of those responses that occur almost without conscious thought. “He’s so big!” or “She’s so little!” seem factual and innocuous to most people. However, your situation is a good reminder that commenting on unusual physical qualities can be painful—and painfully repetitive. A more general “Your child is adorable” is a much better way to acknowledge meeting a toddler. I assume that you will tell friends the reason for your daughter’s developmental delays. It’s up to you how much information to give, but you want to convey that you are comfortable with this subject and delighted with how your daughter is doing. This will allow her to understand from your tone that her size is something that’s just fine. And you’re right that unfortunately you and she are going to be told over and over how little she is. So you each need an automatic response that closes down the subject. You can say, “She got my family’s smallness genes” or “Good things come in small packages.” And she can announce, “My daddy is small, my mommy is small, and I’m small, too!”
I’m in my early 30s and have been happily married for seven years. My husband and I were classmates in high school and met again 10 years later when we were both living away from our hometown. Before that, I was in a long relationship with a high-school boyfriend, and everyone assumed that we would get married. It didn’t happen, because at 22, I left him for someone else. It was very ugly and I still have it on my conscience. I met my husband after my second relationship failed. My high-school ex didn’t see anybody in all those years and has only recently married. It made me look and feel very mean. My husband and my high-school ex had been good friends and kept in touch. After we got married, though, things grew tense, and they stopped talking. They met up when my husband visited our old town recently, and they seem to have settled things. But things are still unresolved between my ex and me. My husband and I are moving back to town, and we have a reunion coming up. I am extremely nervous because it will be awkward, especially for his new bride, and people will be watching. We will also bump into one another in town. What is the best way of handling these meetings?
I’m not advocating cheating, but it’s quite common that young people, not knowing how to extract themselves from a long, suffocating relationship, end up doing so by starting a new, exciting relationship. It’s not kind, but it is effective. So, please, stop beating yourself up over this. If your ex was in mourning for close to a decade, everyone around him must have been sick of hearing the “My high-school girlfriend cheated on me” refrain. When you see each other at the reunion, be cordial and act delighted to meet your ex’s wife. Then engage in the kind of catching-up small talk people make at such events, and also when they bump into each other in the grocery store. Now that you’re all happily married, the long-ago drama—which should be fading in everyone’s memory—is supposed to be seen as a blessing, because the breakup brought all of you to your truly intended partner.