Dear Prudence

Dad vs. Dad

Dear Prudence offers Father’s Day advice on conflict over a possibly gay son, alimony trouble, and a skipped Mother’s Day.

Emily Yoffe.

Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
In the past two years it’s become very apparent that my son “Ben,” who is now 8, is probably gay. My wife and I have not discussed this much, as both of us are uncomfortable with the prospect. We have tentatively agreed to let be what will be and to roll with it the best we can. The problem is my father. He is a macho, gruff, and sometimes brutish man, and he has not taken well to my son’s effeminate ways. On more than one occasion my father has lectured me about Ben, telling me if something isn’t done, “That boy’s going to grow up to be a homo.” He often tells Ben to “man up” and to “stop talking like a sissy.” In response, Ben, who is respectful and well-behaved, has become withdrawn around his grandfather and avoids him. Our house is close to my father’s and he helps us financially. He even takes care of our three kids while we’re at work. My wife and I really didn’t want to deal with Ben’s likely sexual orientation until he was older, but now my dad is forcing our hand. What should we do?

—Sweet Boy’s Father

Dear Father,
It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator is your father and you’re in deep with him financially, you should never allow anyone to bully or humiliate your son. It’s not going to be much of a savings if relying on your father for child care results in Ben’s emotional collapse. If someday Ben confronts you, asking how you could have knowingly let his grandfather mistreat him, imagine telling him you just needed the money. I understand your father is from a different generation. But that doesn’t excuse someone from being so stupid as to think that if you slap some wrist splints on an effeminate boy and bellow at him, “Man up, you sissy!,” you’ll turn him into a heterosexual. I agree that letting your son enjoy his childhood and feel loved—no matter who he ends up loving as an adult—is a good strategy. But you and your wife need to be able to be comfortable with your son so that you can address your father’s discomfort. This article by Slate contributor Jesse Bering about “prehomosexuality” will help give you some perspective. Look at the website of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays for information and to find a support group if you want to talk to other parents who will understand your situation.

You need to address your father calmly but firmly. Tell him that Ben is just a child, and his grandson. You understand that he’s frustrated that Ben is not the rough-and-tumble type, but that doesn’t mean that Ben doesn’t deserve to be respected for who he is and for all his wonderful qualities. Tell him it’s crucial that the hectoring of Ben stops. Say it’s already damaging Ben, and surely no grandfather would want to do that. If your father threatens to withdraw his financial support, or responds that he’s entitled to treat his grandson as he sees fit, then tell him you’re sorry to hear that. But say he must know no real man would ever let anyone hurt his son, and you will figure out how to get along without his help.


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Dear Prudence,
My parents were divorced about 20 years ago after a long marriage. My brothers and sisters and I are all married with our own kids. Our father was making a sizable income when they were divorced and agreed to a very hefty monthly alimony. His income has sharply declined in the past few years, and my mother has rejected all of his pleas to accept a reduced payment, which would be plenty for her to live on comfortably. He has been unable to pay her for months, and her lawyers are essentially threatening to throw him in jail if he doesn’t pay. Our father recently made us aware of this because he can’t handle the matter privately anymore. He wants us to implore our mother to accept a settlement, for the sake of all of us. She’s reacted negatively to any mention of it, however. Meanwhile, he’s afraid of being arrested at a family function and misses his grandchildren. Is there a good way to broach the subject with our mother, or should we just be forced to watch from the sidelines?

—Caught in the Middle

Dear Caught,
Dad needs to stop playing you and deal with this matter where it belongs: in court. You say your father, despite recent financial reversals, asserts he could still pay your mother a comfortable if reduced alimony. So it makes no sense for him to have stopped paying altogether then start whining his grandchildren are going to see him taken away in handcuffs. I spoke to Kenneth Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and he explained that renegotiating an alimony agreement is neither a job for the grown children, nor up to the divorced couple. The payments are court-ordered, and the court must review the agreement, take into account the husband’s financial status, and order a new plan if the facts warrant. It sounds as if your father was a successful businessman, so surely he knows that. If he’s truly in danger of landing in jail, then that’s because your mother’s lawyer filed a motion of nonpayment. Altshuler says that would have triggered a hearing at which your father would have had an opportunity to respond. If he’s declining to use the legal system and instead prefers psychological pressure applied to the children, it won’t turn out well. Until his spousal support is officially modified, no matter how much you children try to plead his case to your mother, he owes her the “hefty” monthly payment. Tell your father you understand his financial situation has changed and he needs to tell his lawyer right away.


Dear Prudence,
Last year my father and stepmother flew out to visit me for the holidays. I have not lived in the same state as my dad since I was 12 years old. (I’m in my early 20s.) My dad has always been a judgmental, hypocritical person. When he arrived he started criticizing me, from the way I dress, to my hair color, to my tattoo. On the last day he insisted that we go to a car dealership. He had me test-drive a car I’d mentioned I liked. Then we went into the salesman’s office. I was confused yet hopeful when he started haggling with the salesman. When I offered to pay the difference between my dad’s offer and what the salesman wanted, my dad ended the discussion. When we left he said, “Now you feel like I did when your mom took you away from me.” He dropped me at my house and sped off, then later called to tell me how ungrateful I was. When my mother and stepfather heard about this, my stepfather had a heated exchange with my father, in which my stepfather said he was my real father. I haven’t heard from my dad since. My life feels much less stressful without him in it. My question is, should I send him a Father’s Day card?


Dear Wondering,
It sounds as if there’s one card you should definitely send, and that’s to your stepfather. You haven’t disagreed with your stepfather’s assertion that he was the real father in your life. Your father’s stunt—punishing you for the fact that he largely disappeared from your life after your parents divorced—may indicate why your mother left him in the first place. It’s sad to have a nasty, overgrown baby for a father, but fortunately you have another set of parents. You say having your father end contact has made your life better. That’s a pretty devastating indictment. Sure, if you want to send a generic card, go ahead. But if you want to save the cost of a stamp, don’t feel guilty.


Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have been married for eight years and have a son and several foster children. I work part time, but my husband is our main breadwinner and has a very physically demanding job. He’s a great guy and an awesome dad. The night before Mother’s Day, he informed me that since he’d been working a lot of hours and was very tired, he would be postponing the holiday. I didn’t think he was serious, but he was. I spend months finding the perfect gift and get great joy out of giving it. He’s not like that, but he didn’t even get me a card! Being a foster mom is a hard job, and I wanted to be recognized. Now Father’s Day is coming, and I would have gone all out, but I can’t stand the thought of doing anything for him. I know that isn’t setting the best example for the kids, though. I have told him several times how much he hurt my feelings, but my usually sensitive husband just thinks I’m overreacting. What should I do?

—Mama Ain’t Happy

Dear Mama,
I’m not defending his insensitivity, but everyone is entitled to a screw-up now and then. It sounds as if he realized on the eve of Mother’s Day he’d forgotten to get you a gift, and running around at the last minute to find you something perfect would have sent him into a collapse. You two are both exhausted and stressed, and sometimes the best thing you can do for one another to let go of a minor slight, or holiday celebration. He’s not a special-occasion person, but you are. So don’t blow off Father’s Day to get even. Forget the elaborate gift, but insist the children create homemade cards. Then have them help you make him something special for Father’s Day breakfast. Show your great guy that sometimes all that’s needed is a little acknowledgement.


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