Click here to read a transcript of Prudie’s live weekly chat with readers at Washingtonpost.com.
I was raised by loving and supportive parents who are both nearing 50. Ours was the house where all my friends wanted to hang out. Until recently, I thought I had as close to perfect parents as possible. Before I left for college last fall, my parents said they had something personal to tell me that they didn’t want me to find out by accident. It turns out when my mom was younger, she was a porn star, and pictures of her can still be found on several Web sites. They felt I was old enough to understand and that I should hear it from them. I’m still having trouble with this information. I don’t love them any less, but I guess I’m still in shock and denial. I’m so nervous about coming home for the summer, because I still don’t have a grip on my feelings, and I’m afraid that I’ll do something that will ruin my relationship with my parents.
—Not Star Struck
I understand that their send-off left you looking at your parents and wondering, Who are these people? But they are the same wonderful, loving parents who raised you and whom all your friends adore. They did a difficult thing that has left you shaken, but I hope as you work through this you don’t unnecessarily distance yourself from them. Imagine the turmoil they’ve been under in the last few years, wondering if you’d stumble on this yourself, whether they should tell you, and how. Imagine their distress, since you are all so close, to see how painful the news has been to you. What you need to do is talk to your parents, just as you always have. You won’t ruin your relationship by letting them know how you feel; you will damage it more through discomfort and self-consciousness. Tell them how the news has so upended your understanding of them that you still don’t know what to think about it. Perhaps it would help if your mother told you more about her early life—not the ins and outs of her oeuvre, but how she ended up in the business and how she managed to leave. It actually is an inspiring story. Pornography usually doesn’t attract happy people, but somehow your mother realized this was a destructive life, and she built a solid new one. Since Sunday is Mother’s Day, begin reconnecting by calling and telling her that you appreciate how hard it must have been to share her past, but that it is past. Let her know what matters is what a great mother she’s been and that you look forward to having a whole summer to spend with her.
I’m about to graduate from college with a degree in history and political science. I’m planning on going to graduate school and, considering my interests, I know that Washington, D.C., would provide the best opportunities for both school and a potential career. However, my mother, who lives in Connecticut, was recently diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer, which has metastasized to her bones and will require weekly chemotherapy treatments for the rest of her life. Right now she’s stable, but I have no idea what the future holds. I would feel extremely guilty starting a new life so far away and leaving her behind. I know that she wants me to “follow my dreams,” but deep down I think she really would like me close to home. Do I do what’s best for my career, or do I put it all on hold?
I’m sorry for this sad news; I hope your mother’s treatments give her many good years. As with the letter writer above, the key to making your decision is actually talking this out with your mother. Of course both of you are going to have mixed feelings, whatever your decision. So sit down with her and say there’s no perfect answer here. Tell her you won’t leave her to make the final decision, but you want to hear her true feelings and not just infer them. There are some mothers who would insist a daughter follow her desire, wherever it takes her, and some who would want to be as close as possible for whatever time is left. Also consider that you may be seeing this decision more starkly than it actually is. Washington is not all that far from Connecticut. True, you couldn’t see her weekly, but you could go home frequently. And not being in Washington doesn’t mean putting your career on hold. Look into all the graduate programs nearby. Even going to Boston or New York—which would be an easy car or train ride away—might be a way to pursue your dreams while being closer to home.
My sister and I aren’t speaking to each other because of our mother. My mother retired at 50 and has refused to get a job for the last 11 years. She is now completely out of money. She is moving into the home of the daughter of a friend, and my sister and I will be responsible for covering the rent—a considerable burden. I’m fed up with my mother’s lifelong helplessness and dependency. Everything we’ve tried has failed: doctors, counseling, medication. I want no more part in the attempts at “rehabilitation.” But my sister still wants to try to improve my mother’s pathetic situation. Trying to clean out my mother’s cluttered apartment reminded me that I have cleaned up after her my entire life, and I couldn’t do it again. So I left my sister to do it alone, for which I feel guilty. The result has been a complete cessation in communication. Am I wrong for not helping my sister? How do I approach her to heal this ever-widening rift?
It’s perfectly understandable that you couldn’t take it anymore. But if you’d agreed to help your sister with this task, yes, it was wrong to abandon her in the middle of the salvage operation. And now you’re going to have to try to salvage your relationship with her. You need to abjectly apologize. Offer to treat your sister to a peacemaking dinner in which you both try to come up with a strategy for moving forward. Tell your sister you should have made clear the task was fraying your mental health and offered to discuss alternatives, such as hiring a cleaning crew. The larger issue is managing your differing approaches to your mother. See whether you can agree to respect each other’s perspective and emotional needs. You’ve come to the reasonable conclusion that until your mother truly wants help, trying to impose it on her only results in frustration and failure. Tell your sister you want to see where a tough-love, no-contact approach takes you. Since you are agreeing to split your mother’s rent—an expense that could last decades—that shows you aren’t abandoning your mother or leaving your sister to manage alone. Talk with your sister about how you both endured the pain of growing up with such a mother. Then tell her it would be unbearable to let Mom’s legacy be the destruction of the relationship the two of you have.
I have two daughters, ages 11 and 14. It has been my desire to instill in them empathy, compassion, and an eye for supporting the underdog. My daughters are liked by their peers and are popular. I resent popularity and have rallied against it both at work and when I was in school. There are students who are picked on at their school, and in the past both girls have stood up for these students. What I find troubling is that this morning I witnessed both of them laughing at students who they thought were dorky. I asked what was so funny and got the explanation that the students were weird and had rejected one daughter’s efforts to be nice. I wonder what I should be doing or saying at this point so that I don’t lose ground with them, and so that we can build a lesson from this.
It’s difficult to sometimes look at your children and think, Right now I love you, but I’m not liking you very much. Seeing your children mock their classmates is awful, but you need to separate a specific instance of unpleasant behavior from your notion of condemning “popularity.” You weren’t popular, your daughters are, and this both amazes and repels you. But there is nothing intrinsically evil in being well-liked and fitting in with your peers. It becomes repugnant if popularity is used as a bludgeon against the kids who don’t fit in. You need to examine the baggage you bring to this so that you don’t end up being disappointed in your daughters for hurts you felt decades ago. Your approval is crucial to your daughters, but so is that of their classmates. You will only damage your relationship with your girls if you set those two needs against each other. If you express great anxiety and judgment about their failings, you’ll make yourself the enemy instead of lighting the spark of moral feeling within them. In response to laughing at the “dorks,” you could say—calmly—that you hope they understand that kids who don’t fit in often struggle to figure out how to behave. That means they might reject an offer of kindness out of discomfort, and a compassionate person will try to understand that. Then leave it alone. Of course if you find out your daughters are taunting other kids, that requires a strong, urgent response. But if they are just being jerks, then your being understated, setting a good example, and praising them when they do show empathy—as you say they have—will be more effective than railing against popularity.