Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Merry Christmas! It would be great if all our problems took a holiday. But if they haven’t, don’t turn to the spiked eggnog for solace; unburden yourself here.
Q. Grandma’s Secret Christmas: I am fortunate to have a large extended family living in close proximity, including four grandparents. My mother-in-law sees my children regularly and never forgets their birthdays, which is wonderful. Traditionally, our families gather the weekend before Christmas for a gift exchange. We always have a nice time. This year I discovered, through a conversation with my niece, that Grandma travels to their home on Christmas morning to cook them a special breakfast and celebrate what my niece describes as “real Christmas when Grandma brings our big gifts.” This year, my niece explained, she expects some expensive electronics and gift cards from my MIL in addition to the gifts she’d opened that day at our gathering. My feelings were hurt, and I told my husband. He admitted that he knew about these other Christmas celebrations but sees no need to confront his mother about them because “our children don’t need those gifts.” I agree that we do not need any more gifts, but this “secret Christmas” celebration seems wrong and hurtful to me, and I worry about what might happen when my daughters are old enough to feel left out if they discover them, too. Should I confront my MIL? If not, what do I tell my children when they inevitably hear about this?
A: Dealings with your mother-in-law are the territory of your husband. He seems completely untroubled by his mother’s extra time with his sister and their kids, and you should follow his lead. You don’t explain it here, but perhaps your sister-in-law and her family are in the kind of financial straits that your family fortunately is not. So Grandma does something extra for this brood that yours does not need. You seem to have no other complaints about your mother-in-law and say she’s an excellent grandmother to your children. Leave this alone. An important lesson for children to learn is that fairness does not dictate exact equality. If they find out about Grandma’s special visit, you just shrug it off and point out some wonderful things in their lives that their cousins don’t have. If you want your children to have more time with your mother-in-law then facilitate that—just don’t make it about material possessions.
Dear Prudence: Father with a Gross Habit
Q. Mother-in-Law: When I’m around my MIL, it is a constant barrage of criticism about my house, my taste in clothing, certain facial features, etc. Last night I had a crying breakdown, tightness in my chest, and a double nosebleed after she left. After spending 15 hours this week trying to make my home cute and Christmasy, nothing was good enough. Food was gross; need better rugs; tree too small; too many penguins used in the decorations. The most neutral thing she said was “Well isn’t that interesting” about a couple of things. I usually smile halfheartedly and say, “It was the size tree we wanted,” “I like that wall color actually,” etc. The problem is my husband is happy to defend me, but he has been around her negativity and critical self for so many years that it doesn’t even faze him or occur to him to step in. He tunes her out; it’s like he doesn’t even hear it, and it’s only after she leaves and I list the 62 criticisms that he realizes it’s a bit much for his new wife. I can’t change her. How can I change my response so that I am not having physiological, emotional meltdowns after being around her? I have tried just “tuning her out” like my husband, but when a woman is attacking her daughter-in-law’s tastes, decor, home, food, and appearance, that cuts to the core of a woman’s identity and insecurities.
A: At least your husband isn’t defending her and he is coming to understand how awful her visits are for you. You are right, she is not going to change. So all you can do is change your response to her, or limit the time you are required to respond to her. Explain to your husband that you just aren’t as tough as he is and having someone attack everything from your “facial features” to your Christmas decorations is too much. Say you want him to have a relationship with his mother, but much of it will have to take place without you—he goes to visit her privately, or visits are kept short. Then you need to stop responding to her except to say, “Thank you!” So she says, “That hairdo makes your nose look so big.” You respond, “Thank you, Hortense!” She says, “I can’t believe how many penguins you used in the decorations.” Again, you say, “Thank you for pointing that out!” Stop taking her sickness personally. Think for a moment what it must be like to go through life stewing in such vileness. In this season of counting your blessings, be grateful that you are not her, and that somehow she raised a wonderful son with whom you’ll have a great life.
Q. My Mom Loves Animals … Too Much: My mom has always been an animal lover. Growing up, we had seven birds, five cats, two lizards, two snakes, various hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, and fish. Currently, she has four dogs, three cats, a bird, a turtle and she’s fostering two other cats. She doesn’t abuse the animals, and they all go to the vet regularly, eat well, and have clean water. The problem is that the house is disgusting. The 19-year-old cat that she refuses to euthanize, despite the fact that he is very ill, uses the guest bathroom as his own personal litter box, so no one else can use it (and the only other bathroom is in my mother’s room). All of the carpets have various animal stains on them, and the hardwood floor in part of the dining room is so saturated with cat urine that it needs to be ripped up and replaced. There is animal hair all over everything, and it’s getting to the point where my husband and I don’t want to go over there because of the stench. In fact, her own sister recommended that we all come to Maryland this year for dinner the Saturday after Christmas, and she confided in me that it’s because the house is disgusting and full of animals. My mom continues to take on animals, despite not having a full-time job. She lives in a single-family home (1,600 square feet) with a small yard, but it’s certainly not a farm or anywhere close to big enough for all of these creatures! What do I do about Christmas Day, when my husband and I have to go over there, and how can we get her to fix this and stop her before she’s a hoarder, if she isn’t already?
A: You say the animals are well cared for and the numbers you cite are not at the hoarding level, although I agree this is something that needs to be monitored. But this situation sounds awful. So tell your mother you’re not going over there for Christmas, you’re going to take your sister up on her offer to have a family dinner at her house on Saturday and you hope she will be there. You explain you can’t be going to her house regularly because the smell and the filth make a visit too uncomfortable. For visits, ask that she come see you—although you should drop by briefly and occasionally to keep your eye on this. If you feel she’s reached a tipping point, you tell her you’re going to report her to animal control because she has too many animals to care for properly and you’re also worried the property is going to be condemned.
Q. Thank you!: Thanks for chatting today! My mother and mother-in-law buy way too many presents for our kids. The kids are young enough that we just tend to donate most of the gifts before they aren’t even opened, and my daughter who is old enough to notice disappearing gifts tends not to like what either grandma buys her (though is very good about covering it and sending thank you notes), so she’s fine with donating the gifts. We’ve tried asking both grandmas to stop buying so much, but since I have been reading advice columns for some time, I don’t think there is any way to get them to stop. My question is: Do we ever need to tell them what happens to most of the gifts? Thanking them profusely and then donating the gifts seems deceptive, and there’s no telling if we’ll be able to keep the charade up as the kids get older. Should we fess up or wait until we’re caught?
A: You and your husband should have a talk with each grandmother and explain how much you appreciate their generosity, but that it is too much. You can say since they are so generous you’d like them to consider cutting back on the presents and perhaps making a contribution to the kids’ college funds. That way down the road, your children will know their loving grandmothers helped pay for their education. Then once you’ve spoken, that’s all you can do. Keep a few gifts and donate the rest. If the grannies ask where the missing toys are you say they were lovely but that your family’s tradition is to spread your good fortune and you dropped the extras at Toys for Tots.
Q. Vocal Visitors: My father’s family will be visiting from the 27th to the 31st. I love them deeply, but they are from a small town in Alabama where there is no expectation of privacy. Everyone tells everyone everything. I have OCD and do not want it broadcasted to all of St. Clair County. Prudie, I have enough trouble remembering people’s names and enduring hugs from strangers. I don’t need everyone to be asking about how often I’m washing my hands the next time I visit. How do I keep the conversation away from my diagnosis?
A: “Oh, it’s flu and cold season. I’ve got so much work after the holidays that I can’t afford to get sick, so I’m just staying on the safe side!”
Q. Apocalyptic Christmas Pageant: I have a wonderful 3-year-old son, and tonight was his first Christmas pageant. He’s a very loving child, but, unfortunately, he has a pretty severe case of ADHD, diagnosed by three different pediatricians. Boy, tonight was quite a show! If he wasn’t tearing feathers off of the angel’s wings, or attempting to “battle” with the child playing Joseph, he was doing “the worm” across the stage! (Yes, I got this on video.) None of the teachers made any attempt to get him to behave, and I was instructed to “leave him be and let the play finish” when I snuck around the side to get him off of the stage. What made things worse were the comments I overheard from parents after everything was done. Of course there were the parents who blamed “that brat” for “ruining their baby’s moment”; we live in the Deep South and people here tend to automatically assume that any child that isn’t acting correctly is either “spoiled” or “special.” What I wasn’t expecting were the “the boy can’t help it because his mom must be a single mother and they never raise their children right.” Prudie, I was only at the pageant by myself because my husband was at work and we live far away from our other family! Thankfully, our holiday vacation starts tomorrow, and we won’t have to see these people until Thursday. I realize that my son is only 3, and he hasn’t had the experience to learn skills to control his impulses, but I’m not sure what to do about everyone else. Do I need to address the pageant once school resumes? Do I apologize to the directors of the play or bring up the snide comments I overheard?
A: How unfortunate that people don’t have enough of a sense of humor or an understanding of 3-year-olds to have been amused by all this. Forget about this silly pageant and just be an advocate for your son. He’s going to need one because unfortunately school is becoming more and more a place where children are supposed to sit quietly and fill out test papers. You may need to find a nursery school, and then an elementary school for your son that understands young children have to move around. You should also make sure you have a pediatrician who is in tune with your son’s needs. If anyone says anything disparaging to you about the performance, don’t apologize. Just say with a smile, “The whole thing was quite a hoot!”
Q. The Santa Lie: This letter may be too late for this year’s Christmas, but perhaps you can help me for the future. Do all gifts need to be addressed from Santa for a 6-year-old girl? I met my boyfriend’s daughter for the first time earlier this year and I bought her two Christmas gifts that I’d like to give her personally. I leave town on the 21st and would like to see her open them. However, my boyfriend feels it will ruin the idea of Santa for her because he is planning to let her open all the gifts from his side of the family on the 23rd before he takes her back up to her mom’s house. I never intended to address my gifts as coming from Santa—especially since we are building our relationship right now. I also didn’t grow up this way. I believed in Santa, but also knew that other loved ones gave me gifts. Growing up, this was a lesson on how to be thankful and appreciative. My parents always asked me to thank someone before I could play with the gift they gave me. What are your thoughts? Our holidays won’t be ruined over this, but I’d like to know if I’m justified in wanting to address this gift from me. For a child that believes in Santa, is it all that bad for a couple gifts to be opened early because someone special wanted to give them something?
A: I agree with you that children are able to believe in Santa while also knowing Aunt Agnes sent the sweater. Make your case to your boyfriend that you think it would help your connection with his daughter, which you want to nurture, that she knows some special gifts came from you. But don’t fight him on this. If everything comes from Santa, then let it go. Presumably there will be many more occasions for you to forge a relationship with his girl.
Q. Should I Confront My Husband About His Affair Before Christmas?: I just discovered that my husband has been having an emotional affair with his ex-wife. They have two children together, and have always been incredibly close. I have always chalked up my misgivings about their closeness to my insecurity. Throughout my relationship with my husband, I’ve worked hard to become friends with his wife and to learn to trust her. From what I can tell, it has been going on for several months, and it’s not yet been consummated. I plan to confront my husband about the affair, but I’m not sure whether I should confront him before or after the holidays. If I wait until after Christmas to confront my husband about his affair, I’ll have to spend a good deal of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day around his ex-wife. As detestable as this sounds, I don’t want to ruin the holiday for my stepchildren. I don’t know if my marriage will survive the affair, because his ex-wife will always be in our lives. I won’t know until I speak with my husband about the affair. What do you think I should do?
A: At this point, hold off until Wednesday. Good for you for thinking about the kids. You don’t say what evidence you’ve found, but I assume it’s more than just their usual “incredible closeness” and your feelings of insecurity. After the holidays sit him down and tell him you are concerned that their relationship has crossed a line and their escalating emotional intimacy is undermining your marriage.
Q. Re: Parents hoarding animals: Regarding the person whose mother loves animals too much, my parents are the same way. They have six dogs and two cats that run the house. The dogs are left in the house while my parents are away and urinate and defecate on the area rugs. They also sleep in any human bed in the house and the sheets are filthy. One of the cats is nearly feral in the house. When my parents send gifts for holidays, any clothing or permeable surface smells of animal filth. However, the animals are well taken care of, licensed, and vetted. I have broached the subject with my parents and even offered to purchase crates for crate training. They view the animals in an odd and unhealthy way and will not crate them, confine them outside (even for short periods) or “overly discipline” them by house training. In my case, my mother is mentally ill (borderline personality disorder) and my father is her enabler. When we go to visit, we stay at a hotel and limit our time in their home. When I visit without my husband and child, I clean their house and take the rugs to the laundromat. As long as they are adults, lucid, not abusing the animals, and not in violation of local animal laws (which your mother may be), there is no professional intervention available. It stinks (no pun intended), but that’s the way it is.
A: As you wisely point out, some things just can’t be changed. All you can do is do what’s best for you (and make sure innocent creatures are safe).
Q. Re: Small town privacy: Small town folks do have manners, actually. Just because your in-laws tell everybody in town doesn’t mean anyone will mention it to you. That’s why the murder rate is so low. Everybody knows everybody else’s business, but they know when not to let on. They also won’t be asking, “What’s wrong with her?” when her OCD symptoms show during a visit. Embrace the freedom. (I used to cringe hearing my aunt on the phone telling everybody else my business, but no one ever mentioned that business to me.)
A: That’s a good point to keep in mind. The letter writer shouldn’t add to her anxiety thinking she’ll have to explain herself. People may just be blessedly polite.
Q. Touchy Christmas Gift: With Christmas tomorrow the question of personal gifts has become a sticking point. My boyfriend and I exchanged highly personal “adult” toys for Christmas this year. What do I say to people that want to know what he got me? I’ve tried the “Oh, it’s personal” but they still push for details. Any ideas?
A: Jeez, who pushes for details of someone else’s Christmas gift once you’re older than 10? Just say your favorite gift to each other is to go out together to a fancy restaurant and have a blow-out meal—and enough batteries for your toys.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. Have a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year.
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