Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
I am a 50-year-old mother of three beautiful boys. However, I am having a problem with the oldest son, “John,” who is a senior in college a few hours from home. Recently, John has stopped answering many of my phone calls. On occasion, I will send a text message saying, “Please call me,” and I still end up having to call him a few hours later. John usually claims that he was studying and couldn’t pick up or that he was too busy to call me back. Sometimes I ask his younger brothers to call him, as John is more likely to pick up for them. When we do talk, John always wants to end the conversation before I have finished speaking with him. He says that I call him too often. I feel that as I am paying for his education, a daily phone call isn’t too much to ask. (I get worried if I haven’t heard from him recently.) How can I get him to keep in touch?
Dear E.T.’s Mom,
You aren’t actually having a problem with John, but he’s having one with you. Your boy is a man, and that means he needs to pull away from his hovering mother, even if his mother imagines that he’s bleeding in a ravine, calling her name, if she hasn’t heard from him for 24 hours. Think of what your daily conversations must consist of: you asking whether he ate a good breakfast and had a bowel movement; you nattering about the cute things his brothers “Billy” and “Tommy” did. He doesn’t want to hear it! Sure, you can hold tuition payments over his head or manipulate his brothers to get him on the phone, but these techniques will only make him resent you and dread your conversations even more. Also remember that he is from a generation for which even a brief phone call seems like an endless drag—and, no, I’m not advocating you up your texting. It is reasonable for you to hear from him regularly, so try instituting a short weekly phone call, maybe on Sunday evening, that lasts 10 minutes. That will let your son know you trust him and respect his independence; and that when you do talk, he won’t have to listen to you babble or pepper him with questions. If less-than-daily contact makes you too anxious, train yourself to do something else when you get the urge to dial: walk the dog, bake bread, learn the flugelhorn. That way, in 10 years your daughter-in-law won’t be writing a letter that begins, “My mother-in-law is a lovely but intrusive woman who calls constantly, and my husband makes me talk to her because the sound of her voice drives him batty. …”
I’m 19, and several months ago, my mom, 50, signed up for Facebook. She reconnected with high school friends, several from the band. One is a guy I’ll call “Tom.” Since she found Tom, I’ve been hearing about him a lot: his life, his job as a teacher, how he remembers their high school anecdotes. Eventually I became aware that they instant message every night, on some occasions until 3 a.m. Recently she revealed that there was going to be a “band reunion” and that Tom was attending. I made the mistake of getting into her e-mail and Facebook. There was a message he signed “Love,” he sends her song lyrics, she e-mailed a picture of him to her work account, and she cautioned him not to accept friend requests from me. She and I had a fight, and she told me they’re just friends and nothing is wrong. I told my dad about all this, and he said that he doesn’t think anything is wrong, either, that she’s just doing this to get attention, and that he’s confident it will end soon. I’m enraged at Tom, who is married with his own kids, and frustrated with my mother. I want to follow her to the band reunion and give this guy a broken leg. Please help me!
When Facebook started, it was exclusively for students. Now it’s also for those who are still students at heart, who instead of popping pimples are getting Juvederm so when they look in the mirror they can try to convince themselves high school wasn’t really so long ago. It’s understandable you feel your family is threatened by the return of Tom, who can still do the whole guitar solo to Stairway to Heaven, even if he no longer has Jimmy Page hair, or any hair at all. However, you must take note of the fact that your father is perfectly aware of all of this—and doesn’t care! Maybe your mother has had many such crushes (or even affairs) over the years, and it doesn’t bother your father because he’s grateful to these guys for taking her off his hands for a little while. You know how when your mother disapproves of a boy, it only makes him more enticing? Making your mother sneak around on you has only added to Tom’s appeal. Most important, Nancy Drew, is that it’s time for your sleuthing to stop. Your mother may be acting like a lovesick teenager, but she’s your mother, not your daughter, and you need to keep in mind that this is none of your business.
I have a beautiful adult stepdaughter, and I love her and her children with my whole heart. I met her father when she was already an emancipated minor, and since we are only 10 years apart in age, we have an adult relationship. Last year, her mother died. Ever since, my stepdaughter has held me at arm’s length. She told me after the funeral she did not want to discuss her mother’s death with me and that she did not need another mother to replace her. We see each other as a family at least once a month, and I treasure that but would like to be able to give her more comfort than I have been allowing myself to give. I have often suggested to my husband that they meet once in a while without me there, but my husband insists that I come along. I feel that if she had more one-on-one time with her father, she would be more at peace. Are there ways that I could reach out to her and not breach the boundaries she has set?
—Her Father’s Wife
Dear Her Father’s Wife,
This young woman is lucky to have you as a stepmother, possibly a lot luckier than she was in who she got as a mother—and that could be a key to your problem. If your stepdaughter became an emancipated minor, her relationship with both parents was likely rocky. Maybe she and her mother never fully reconciled, or her mother never tried to make amends; and now her mother’s dead, and your stepdaughter finds herself overwhelmed by a combination of guilt, loss, and maybe even relief—which only exacerbates her guilt. Perhaps her mother resented you and your closeness with her daughter. Now, in the peculiar, convoluted way of the human heart, your stepdaughter feels she is being disloyal to her mother by loving you. You have been wise not to force the issue, but you don’t want this distance to harden. It could be that since you came along, her father has relied on you to be an emotional buffer. I agree he needs to establish his own separate connection to his daughter, and you should just tell him that sometimes when she comes to visit, you are going to go out. But you can also see her without him. Reach out and explain to her that you know you could never replace her mother, and that you don’t want to talk about things that she’s put off limits, but that you love her and miss her. Ask if she can meet you for a girls’ lunch. Tell her that you two have never lacked for things to talk about, and you very much want to catch up.
My mother is a true child of the ‘60s. Over the last several years, she has become particularly interested in religion. She has been reading books on every faith, and with each one she becomes passionate about the religion. She often states that despite her own plain, vanilla Christian upbringing, she is really “Muslim at heart” or “Jewish at heart” until she reads the next book. I love different cultures, however I am Christian with no plans of converting. I have two kids. Whenever Mom finds something new, she tries to communicate her beliefs to my young children. She forcefully suggested I enroll my then 5-year-old son in a Muslim school. She was upset when I said no and disdainful of my “close-mindedness.” I feel I have a right to impart my faith to my children. I would prefer mom not discuss her varying religious ideas with them so emphatically. How to handle this?
—Daughter of a True Child of the ‘60s
Although many conservatives will disagree with me, being a ding-dong is not a synonym for being a “child of the ‘60s.” All eras have them, although I will acknowledge that a ding-dong who came of age in the ‘60s might have a particularly entrenched case of ding-dong-hood. First, make clear to your mother that you have all the respect in the world for her religious quest, but she needs to respect your religious choice. Say you are raising your children Christian, and you feel it is undermining and confusing to them when she tries to get your family to explore other practices. This is unlikely to deter her, but her behavior is also unlikely to have an effect on your children. If they come back from a visit asking about Allah or wanting to know whether they’re having a bar mitzvah, don’t get riled. Calmly explain that “Grandma Karma-Star-Quest” likes to read about other people’s religions—which are very interesting—but that you are Christian and that makes all of you happy.