Dear Prudence

A Is for Amen

We stopped our kid’s teacher from conducting class prayer, and now our Southern town hates us.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I moved from the liberal Northeastern town we both grew up in to a small, conservative Southern one several years ago. One of the biggest adjustments has been the way people very openly talk about religion and assume that everyone else should as well. We mostly kept quiet about the fact that we don’t practice any religion and politely explain (over and over) that we’d rather not come to their churches. Our elementary school daughter recently told us that her teacher led the class in prayer each day before lunch in her public school. All the children had to bow their heads and recite a lengthy prayer. My daughter said she didn’t know if she should do it, but thought maybe it was “being a good American.” We told her that no one should ever force you to pray against your will. My husband and I wrote the principal about this and asked our child not be mentioned by name. The principal said she’d send a general reminder about not praying in class, but the tone of her email made it clear she thought we were overreacting. Our child reported the praying stopped immediately with no explanation. My husband and I think the teacher should have told the students why she shouldn’t have led them in prayer. He wants to press this issue, while I feel as long as we let our child know what’s right and wrong, we should let this go and accept this is part of where we live. Our child will be in this school for several more years. We did tell a few acquaintances about this and they said “people like us” were ruining the community of faith. Sometimes, I feel like I’m being a coward not standing up for religious tolerance.


Dear Unconstitutional,
Your neighbors may think you’re a family of unholy Yankees (although “unholy Yankees” may be a redundancy where you live), but you were right, even righteous, to make known your objections to forced prayer in school. Whatever the tone of the principal, she understood it violated the law and the praying stopped. So please don’t be sore winners and now try to compel this teacher to rend her clothes and explain to her students that she was violating the Constitution. I understand that it’s distressing to live someplace where people not only don’t respect your lack of religious belief, but make it clear you’re going to hell. Presumably for professional reasons you must live somewhere where you are out of sync with the general culture. But one problem with our country is how insulated people can be from those who don’t share their religious or political views. You may accurately feel somewhat bullied by the devout you live among, but I think you should continue to remain diplomatic in your interactions. You are being good ambassadors for heathens! Since you’ve got at least several years of living down South ahead of you, you want to try to see beyond the religious fervor and appreciate some of the appealing qualities of your neighbors that might not be so prevalent up North. You explained to your daughter that she didn’t have to pray in order to be a good American. Some of the other crucial lessons you are giving her are that being a good person means standing up for what you believe when necessary, and letting things go when it’s wise.


Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have a wonderful marriage, a great sex life, and are very happy together, with the exception of one argument that we are continually having. Shortly after my husband and I married, he was offered “the opportunity of a lifetime” to help set up a new division at his company’s office in Beijing. This was supposed to last 12 to 18 months and was going to be our big adventure. It’s now six years later, we are still in Beijing, and I hate it. The first year I tutored, took Mandarin lessons, and made friends with other expats and some locals. We now have two lovely children and I have continued to be involved with the community: I volunteer at a charity teaching English to migrant workers, I write articles and reviews for a local English magazine, etc. But the pollution is horrendous, and I miss my friends, my family, my old life, and the U.S. My husband has no desire to move back. His career has advanced at a pace he couldn’t have dreamed of back home and he’s the youngest person in the company worldwide in his position. I think my husband is being extremely selfish by putting his career ahead of what’s best for his family and we’ve been fighting for two years over this. We’ve seen a therapist several times and that’s gotten us nowhere. I’m ready to pack my bags and take the kids back to the States and live with my parents and tell him to call us when he comes to his senses (though I would never actually do that). But what should I do?

—Stuck in Beijing

Dear Stuck,
Perhaps the family in the first letter wishes they were the ones residing among godless communists. You signed up for a short-term opportunity and did everything a trailing spouse can do. You studied the language, you got to know the locals, you made a group of ex-patriate friends, you gave back to community, you found part-time work, you produced two kids. Now that you’re about five years overdue for the end of this adventure, your husband is digging in and refuses to even contemplate returning home. This impasse is eating away at your marriage. So you need to stop talking and start acting. Summer is coming up and I suggest you and the kids spend it with your family. Please don’t do this in a punitive way, or make it into a trial separation. Instead, explain to your husband the break in the school year is the perfect opportunity for you and the children to spend some serious time with your family, for the kids to feel more like Americans, and to give all of your lungs a break. Tell your husband you hope he can arrange to join all you for a good chunk of vacation time. Yes, there is some risk to a couple in being apart, but many families who have a parent in the military, or in the foreign service, or at a dangerous corporate post, endure far longer separations. At the end of the summer, all of you will have a much better sense of how to proceed. Maybe if you make this an annual ritual, you will feel able to stick out a couple more years. Let’s hope your husband recognizes he’s established his bona fides, and that a summer missing his family prompts him to make plans in the near future to request a transfer back to the States, or to write his own ticket at another firm.  


Dear Prudence,
My cousin and I had been best friends since we were little girls. As we grew our bond became closer. She was my college roommate, and later my maid of honor. We lived close to each other and hung out constantly. Five years ago, when I was 28, I was diagnosed with cancer. I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and spent two years undergoing chemo, radiation, and a stem cell transplant that put me in the hospital for months. During this low point in my life, she disappeared. No calls. No emails. No texts. No visits. No flowers. Nothing. I know her so well that I understood she just didn’t know how to deal with this, but her absence was the hardest part of my cancer experience. I am now cancer-free, and she has had a child and gotten married. My mother pressured me to attend my cousin’s baby shower, but I gave an impersonal gift card and left as soon as I could. I was invited to the wedding, but didn’t attend. I just can’t pretend nothing happened. As the years pass, however, my family sees me as the one causing the rift because of my refusal to make nice with her. I have to endure long updates from my mother about her life, I listen as my sister tells me that my cousin really wants to know how I am. I don’t want to hear anything about her life unless it is from her. I miss her terribly, but unless I hear a heartfelt apology from her, I don’t see how a relationship can be possible. Am I right or wrong?

—Cured but Hurting

Dear Cured,
You are owed an apology, but don’t count on getting one from someone so utterly incapable of dealing with a loved one’s pain, and presumably her own guilt. How shattering to receive such a frightening diagnosis, then have one of the people dearest to you simply vanish. It’s true there are those who just can’t handle illness or intimations of mortality. But overcoming one’s unease and doing the right thing is a mark of character. Your cousin failed the character test in a thoroughgoing manner. Sure, you miss her; but what you miss is the person you thought she was. I think some sort of rapprochement is possible, but it’s unlikely you two will ever be intimates again. Since you frequently get secondhand messages from her, cut out the middleman and contact her directly. You can write a letter or send email and say you miss her and regret you two are no longer close. Then explain that her absence from your life during your years of treatment was one of the most difficult things about that period. Say that in order to move forward, you need an acknowledgment that she understands the breach this caused. If she can do that, then things can thaw to whatever extent you feel comfortable. If she can’t, then at family events train yourself to be cordial, if brief, in your encounters with her. Explain to those around you that you wish her the best, but you don’t need any more bulletins about someone who’s no longer in your life.


Dear Prudence,
I am the son of a mother who suffered from a neurological illness for almost 10 years before her recent death. My work required I go overseas for several months at a time. So during the last years of her life, my uncle and I shared power of attorney over her so that we could jointly arrange medical care and deal with her finances. I am deeply grateful for his help. After my mother’s death, I noticed some property from our family home was missing. In particular, an antique Paddington Bear that my mother had given me as a child. I had cherished that bear when I was young and was sad to see it lost. A few weeks ago, at a family reunion, I noticed my cousin’s 7-year-old daughter playing on the floor with the bear. My relationship with my cousin is tense as she was very judgmental about my being away for periods during my mother’s long illness. I mentioned to her that I remembered the bear from childhood and my cousin said that she had given the bear to her daughter. The bear was not my mother’s property; it’s mine and it’s important to me. I don’t have it in me to demand the bear from a child, although I do want it back. But I feel like my cousin took advantage of the situation. How can I let my cousin know how I feel without causing a scene at the next family reunion?

—Missing the Bear

Dear Missing,
We have now entered the little explored realm of the evil cousin. So your cousin, who didn’t have to suffer the long-running pain of a slowly dying mother, has snatched your bear in order to let you know if you’d been around more, she wouldn’t have been able to steal it. What you do is ignore all the ugly baggage your cousin is trying to dump on you, and calmly and forthrightly deal with the bear. Call her and say that it was a great relief to see your dear childhood toy was not lost, after all. Say that it’s precious to you and you need it back. Add that you were delighted that her daughter loves Paddington, too, so you have gotten a new replacement bear, and would like to make the swap as soon as possible. If she gives you any guff, you can reluctantly take this to your uncle and ask him to intervene. Surely he knows how much you loved your mother and what this memento of your childhood would mean to you.


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