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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. SIL Hit On Me: My older brother (by 10 years) is married with a 2-year-old daughter. I am a senior in high school. Last week, I baby-sat for them (as I often do) from when school ended until my SIL came home from work. We always have had a fun friendship, I think she and my brother are a great couple, and I have repeatedly joked about how my brother outkicked his coverage and I hope I am so lucky some day. We joke, it’s flirty but harmless, or so I thought. But she walked in last week, sat next to me on the couch, grabbed my hand, put it on a non-gender-neutral area and told me she had to have me right there. I freaked out and walked out. I called my brother and left a message, but his wife had already spun a whole different story, and now my whole family believes I am at fault. Nobody believes my version. Other than waiting until fall to go to college and get away from the madness, any tips to cope?
A: Your brother outkicked his coverage all right, right into the depravity zone. In the years I’ve done this column I’ve had every variation of family-member violation including son-in-law coming onto mother-in-law and daughter running off with stepfather. It’s grotesque when siblings-in-law voluntarily get it on, but it’s actionable when one tries to molest the other. You are caught in a terrible trap here. Your sister-in-law, once rebuffed, put out the word that her younger brother-in-law tried to make a move. And now no one is believing your story because of sexism. It’s just easier to accept that a horny teen acted horribly than a young mother. You need to sit down with your parents and tell them exactly what happened. Say the physical violation was against you, and now she’s compounding it by spreading malicious lies to save herself. Frankly, I think you and your parents should sit down with a lawyer and discuss this. A false accusation of sexual assault is a dangerous thing. If your parents won’t support you, go to your guidance counselor at school, explain what happened, and say you need some adults to help guide you through this morass. You should not become a pariah because you have an unbalanced new member of the family.
Dear Prudence: Boss Turned Cougar
Q. Family Feuds: My grandfather died this winter after a long illness. It was incredibly stressful on my entire extended family, and tensions frequently ran high. Before Thanksgiving, there was a family blow-up—distressing information about his condition was put on Facebook before everyone had been informed. Angry (but true) things were said on all sides. Essentially, we all realized that for years we’ve been pretending we’re a very close family while we all actually hate each other. Now, the worst offender uncle is making half-hearted attempts at reconciliation. Lots of “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” comments. I feel like now we’re all finally in a place where we’re being honest with each other about our genuine feelings: We just don’t get along. I don’t want to hear his apologies that he doesn’t even mean, especially if the only result would be re-establishing the old status quo of being nice to each other’s faces and then talking mercilessly about everyone as soon as they leave the room. How do I convey to the family that I’m not interested in faux-reconciliation? What do I do if I’m the only one who feels this way?
A: Your family has to decide if it would be better to finally be blown apart or if this atomization is an overreaction to the long, painful death of your patriarch. Unfortunately, there are many high-tension, back-biting clans. But it seems like a shame to entirely dissolve a family. Even bad-mouthers can be those who will come forward and help when another family member is in extremis. Since all of you are capable of being nice to each other’s faces, that sounds like a good place to start. I hope there is a next family gathering and that you go. Then when someone leaves the room and the nastiness starts, you can be the one to say, “Let’s try something new. Let’s stop tearing apart the people who aren’t here to defend themselves.”
Q. Beating Walls, Not the Baby: I came from a mildly abusive family. My parents never gave me black eyes or broken bones, but there was always a violent physical expression of emotions. They were violent with each other as well. As a child, I replicated that behavior with my younger brother. I’ve since had a great deal of therapy and am now happily married with a beautiful baby. Our marriage isn’t violent in any way. However, a baby can be and is especially trying, and our baby is wonderful, but very high-needs. I sometimes find myself overwhelmed with frustration and a desire to revert to the physical. I haven’t had this problem in years! When this happens (I’m talking about extraordinarily bad days), I put her in a safe place, go into another room, and literally beat the walls. I would never hurt my baby, but I wonder if hitting the walls is just reinforcing that old violent response. Is this a bad way to deal with this, or just another way of surviving a fussy baby?
A: Good for you for breaking the chain of abuse. I know if the walls could talk they’d say, “Ouch,” but you have addressed your family legacy of dealing with frustration physically. You’re right that a baby, especially a fussy one, can test the patience of the most serene parents. It’s great that you recognize when you are starting to feel overwhelmed and you remove yourself from your baby. But there is something rather desperate about literally pounding the walls. I wonder if you couldn’t channel your frustration in more physically productive ways. Get a jump rope, some hand weights, and when you have to step away from the baby give yourself an exercise break. If you are alone with her most days, you, like any new parent, need a break. Hire a regular baby sitter and go do something that gives you pleasure—seeing a friend, taking a walk, reading a book, going to a movie. Make sure you and your spouse are getting a chance to go out and reconnect with each other. If you’ve stopped therapy, now would be a good time for a tune-up. Major life changes have a way of bringing back to the surface old pain. Speaking of which, I hope in the course of your therapy you’ve been able to address what you did to your brother, and that you apologized to him. Acknowledging your wrongs would be healing for both of you.
Q. Dating Advice for Those That Are Not Physically Attractive: Almost all of my past girlfriends have been funny, intelligent, interesting, and great people. I have stayed friends with many of them (even went to a few of their weddings). They have all been physically attractive. I’ve tried dating women that were not as physically attractive to me (but still had the other qualities) because I didn’t want to be “that guy” and I believe that people shouldn’t be judged on their looks. But I could never get into the relationships. I am friends with some amazing women who have great traits, but would not be considered physically attractive. Some of them confide in me that they have trouble finding good men and ask me for advice. I tend to give them general dating advice but I don’t know how to do more than that. Their looks are probably the only thing holding them back; and since that affects who I date (and yes, I do dislike that aspect about myself), I don’t know what, if anything, I should tell them.
A: If only “good-looking” people were able to find mates, natural selection would have made it so that by now everyone on the planet would be Vogue-worthy. No, you just can’t say, “Miranda, I love you to death, but face it, you’re a dog.” But I’m betting that you may have some guy friends who are average-looking themselves, aren’t able to outkick their coverage and are in the market for great women in their looks league. If so, do some matchmaking. But if the problem with our female friends is not their intrinsic looks but the fact they dress like schlubs or never wear makeup, then a guy’s perspective that they aren’t doing everything with what they’ve got could spur them into action.
Q. Ailing In-laws: My mother-in-law was very sadly diagnosed with a terminal illness. She could potentially live with this for the next three to five years, depending on treatment. She is fortunate enough to have excellent health insurance and access to wonderful medical care, so we are all optimistic. We have two children, ages 6 and 4, who are informed in age-appropriate ways what is going on with their Grandma. There is some friction between my MIL and my parents. Since the diagnosis, my MIL has wanted holidays and such at her home because she doesn’t know how many she has left. My wife’s kneejerk reaction is to give her mother what she wants, given the situation. My parents gently brought up the other day that she could potentially live for a number of years and they do not want to have to give up every holiday—particularly when my children are at these ages. My wife agrees with this in theory, but when actually talking to my mother-in-law it can be hard to say no. My mother-in-law also does not like to include my parents in holidays at her home because then she has to “prepare for company.” My wife and I are trying to do the right thing and be sensitive to everybody, but the right thing to do here is not completely clear. Any advice?
A: I hope your mother-in-law has many years left, and also that her illness doesn’t blow your families apart as in the previous letter. Of course it’s understandable that she wants as much time with her grandchildren as possible, but she simply can’t dictate that for however long she lives, all the holidays are at her house—your parents being pointedly not invited. It sounds as if all of you live within striking distance of each other, so starting now it would be a good idea to ratchet down the holiday expectations and increase the casual, everyday interaction you and your children have with their grandparents. Maybe you could host some brunches at your house at which all four grandparents attend, allowing them to interact more naturally with each other. Mother’s Day might be a good occasion to start this. Maybe it’s even time—if you have room—for you to host a Thanksgiving or Christmas. The next generation is going to have to step up for that duty one of these days. The major holidays are far away, so just put this worry aside for now and do your best to make sure the children get equal amounts of grandparental love.
Q. Re: “Get a jump rope”: A young mother expresses concern that she might resort to violence with her new baby, and you suggest she try jumping rope? Are you kidding? A more appropriate response might have been putting her in touch with a support network or suggesting counseling. Wow, Prudie, you really blew it here.
A: She didn’t say she felt she would be violent to her child, she said she was hitting the walls. I said she should go back and see her therapist. Of course, if she feels she’s a danger, she needs to see someone immediately. But many people pound pillows or go to the bathroom and scream who never take it out on their child.
Q. Family Squabbles: My parents have been estranged from their family for the past 10 years after a fight that I don’t really know the details about. I am now grown up and living on my own. I have been contacted by email by my uncle wanting to get together. I would like to, except I feel like I need to say something to my parents first and I’m afraid this is going to start a fight. I don’t want to go behind their back but I’m not sure if bringing up this conversation will be worth it. What can I do?
A: You’re an adult so you can see whomever you like. If you feel it would be dishonest to see Uncle without telling your parents, then tell them you have been contacted by him and are considering getting together. Say you would really like to hear their side of what happened. At the very least you are entitled to know why you don’t have a relationship with your other family members anymore. If there is something criminal or morally objectionable that happened, you can then make your decision about getting together. If it’s just one of those stupid family messes that got out of hand, you can explain you’re glad your uncle reached out and you at least want to have lunch with him. Let’s hope your parents then don’t threaten to estrange themselves from you.
Q. Re: Terminal MIL vs. other side: This happened in my extended family. The couple decided not to host the annual big Thanksgiving get together with all of his side of the family to be with her father, who was ill. Two weeks later, his “healthy” mother died suddenly. You can’t predict who will die first and have to live your life in the present. Just do the best you can and see all the people you love as often as you can.
A: Excellent point. Carrying on as normally as possible will also benefit everyone.
Q. Earning Money for Work: I am very passionate about photography and in the past have provided services to friends and family for no charge. When I take on a new client however, I do charge. Sometimes, from the family and friends, I do receive a thank you and gift card, which is appreciated. I am attempting to make this be full time work, but currently have to work in an unrelated field to pay bills, so I don’t know if I’d call myself a professional. Do you have an advice on what to say to people that I have previously worked with for free?
A: The next time a family member lets you know you’re on for photographing the wedding or graduation be ready to explain that you have been transitioning from photography as a hobby to a second career. Say you are pleased you have gotten good enough that you now have paying clients and you’re afraid you can no longer offer your services for free. Since you got experience by photographing your family, you can say that you are happy to offer them a special rate. But make it something worthwhile for you and stick to it.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you all. Talk to you next week.
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