Dear Prudence

Gift of the Magpie

My husband abandoned us, but still returns at Christmas to sulk.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
Several years ago my husband had an affair that resulted in a child. Although we’re still married and he has no interest in a divorce, he lives with the child and her mother. Our family has been shattered and my children occasionally say things that let me know they still carry a tremendous burden of hurt. But we all believe the child bears no responsibility and deserves a father. The mother of the child, however, will never be accepted into our lives. A major problem arises around the holidays. My husband insists on coming over for Christmas, but isn’t present in any meaningful sense. He just stares straight ahead. He criticizes little things, opens gifts but never takes them with him, and refuses any offers of food. Nothing we do makes him happy and the harder we try the unhappier he seems. I know therapy for everyone is the answer but he’s never been one to open up and previous efforts have been fruitless. What can we do to make his Christmas visit a little less awkward and perhaps even pleasant? I hate to see him so unhappy, but we’re tired of having to tiptoe around him all day. 

—Wanting a Merry Christmas

Dear Merry,
You all deserve a zombie-free Christmas this year. Scrooge had nothing on your husband with his thousand-yard stare, his nastiness, and his refusal to interact with his own children or take part in the holiday. I don’t even understand why he comes—unless it’s to make everyone glad he left. If you are able to communicate with him, you need to have a conversation explaining that merely showing up is not enough. If he can’t interact pleasantly with his family, his presence will cause more pain than his absence. More important than Christmas, however, is addressing your oversight in not making this man your ex long ago. He has abandoned all of you, yet apparently shows up once a year to play paterfamilias, an impersonation that could better be described as paterunfamiliar. As a gift to yourself, hire a divorce lawyer, end the marriage, and get your financial and custody issues addressed. Surely, your children would be helped by having this kind of clarity. I agree about the benefits of therapy, but your I hope soon-to-be-ex does not have to accompany you. You and your kids all need help in sorting out the pain their father has inflicted and guidance in taking steps toward healing. Your children need to understand his leaving, and even his strange Christmas behavior, has nothing to do with them; sadly their father is a troubled and limited man. Once the lawyers get involved, they can help work out a schedule for visitation so that your husband can establish a relationship with his children separate from you. It’s likely he will take your kids to his new home. That would mean they interact with their half sibling and her mother, which I know would be painful for you. But for your New Year’s resolution, decide to work at ending this limbo and moving on.


Dear Prudence: Office Bra Etiquette

Dear Prudence,
I have a friend I’m particularly fond of. We’re in different economic situations: She’s a marginally employed single mother; I’m a single lady with no financial obligations making a decent paycheck. I’d like to help her out but am unsure of social protocols. Would it be appropriate to send a Christmas card with a check? Or a gift card of some sort? I don’t want to insult her, I just want to help out.

—Santa Wannabe

Dear Santa,
For perspective on your Christmas dilemma, let’s turn to a rabbi. Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and philosopher, wrote a famous list of eight levels of charity. Maimonides highly valued the anonymous gift, which both protects the dignity of the recipient and does not encourage preening on the part of the donor. But Maimonides also honored people who give a needed gift without being asked. I know there will be readers who suggest the best thing you can do is anonymously send a gift certificate or a cashier’s check. But that would always leave you concerned that perhaps the gift didn’t arrive. And while your friend would surely feel grateful to her mystery benefactor, I imagine she would not only be curious about his or her identity but possibly also a little uneasy about whether there would ever be expectation of a quid pro quo. This woman is your friend, so I think you should take her out to lunch and talk to her about your idea. Tell her how much you admire what a wonderful mother she is. Say this has been a particularly good year for you financially and it would give you great pleasure to pass on some of your good fortune so that she can do something special for her kids—maybe dance lessons, or a weekend vacation, or the purchase of a musical instrument (while making clear your potential gift has no strings). Then gauge her reaction. If she says absolutely not, you obviously don’t do it, although you can still give the kids thoughtful presents. If she is grateful but embarrassed, you can say helping light up her kids’ lives would be your greatest gift this season.


Dear Prudie,
Over the holidays my wife and I will be hosting some parties. Slate had an article about the “Irish goodbye” in which guests don’t announce their departure, but just slip out the door. I like to do something similar as host. Some guests, particularly close friends, like to stay forever at my house because they are having a grand time. I am usually tired after having set up, cleaned, cooked, etc. They are great friends and I completely trust them in my home while I am asleep. Rather than kick these friends out “early,” around midnight I go to sleep and let them stay as long as they like. I have received harsh criticism from my wife and these friends that this is very rude. Am I a bad host?

—Party Pooper

Dear Pooper,
An evening of providing food, drink, and good cheer to friends does not then require that you then be held hostage. Like a variation on Cinderella, at your house when the clock strikes 12, your guests turn into freeloaders. Be sure when you extend your party invitations they have a clear start and end time. Of course, people will come late and stay late, but if your party is scheduled to run from 7 to 10 p.m, , anyone should understand that at midnight the hosts are going to be either washing out the wine glasses or in their pajamas. Emily Post’s Etiquette gives an escalating list of approved actions designed to get the barnacle guest out the door. First, close down the bar, then start cleaning up, and if no one gets the hint, stop hinting and say you’ve got to call it a night. This venerable etiquette manual says being a host does not require being a sap and authorizes handing the guests their coats, and even approves of your own nuclear option: heading off to bed.


Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are both young professionals with no children who are in the midst of big financial projects. We have six beautiful nieces and nephews we are wild about. However, it is getting quite crazy shopping for them, their parents, and other close family members. (I’ll note that the kids are very well taken care of.) Last year we spent almost $1,000. I recommended that we do a gift drawing, but I have been met with opposition. There are some people in my family who can be quite sensitive. How do we tell them, “We love you but aren’t getting you gifts?”

—Two Against an Army

Dear Army,
Now’s the time for your counterinsurgency. Let all the adults know that that this year you don’t want any presents from them because you are only buying gifts for the kids. Let’s hope when it’s time to unwrap everything, none of the adults start flinging mistletoe at you because they didn’t get a big enough haul. Once you make this year’s announcement, it will become easier to maintain as a new tradition. As for the kids, set a budget and keep to it. For about $25 each, or less, you can get them beautiful, hardcover editions of classic books, like Alice in Wonderland or Treaure Island—that’s a total outlay of $150. Even kids who have everything will still get lost in these amazing stories. I received Alice in Wonderland from a beloved aunt when I was a girl, and all through my own adventures, my copy of Alice has come along.


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