Dear Prudence

Killing With Kindness

Prudie counsels a woman whose in-laws want to throw a big, exhausting get-well-from-cancer party.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, chats with readers weekly on Mondays here at Slate. 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

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions. 

Q. Ungrateful for My Party: I’m the mother of young children and was recently diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, it was caught early and is treatable. Nonetheless, I have been very tired and going through many treatments and doctors’ visits. My husband has informed me that a few days prior to surgery to have my tumor removed at the end of the month, his entire family has planned a party at my in-laws house a few hours away, in order to wish me well. While I very much appreciate the gesture, the party is ill-timed. On top of this, my husband’s family is very loud and boisterous and I just don’t have the energy to deal with this. My husband can’t understand why I’m less than enthusiastic about the party and is asking for me to be grateful. Am I being ungrateful or is it acceptable for me to express my appreciation for the gesture but explain that I simply won’t be able to attend?

A: Your in-laws do mean well, but you have no need to feel grateful for what is ultimately an exhausting and selfish gesture. They are a boisterous crowd who loves a party. You are a young mother who is going through grinding treatment and could use some quiet help and support, not an exhausting trip to pretend that you’re thrilled to celebrate surgery. You need your husband to be on your side and run interference for you, not to pressure you to wipe yourself out to mollify his family. Get him a copy of Marc Silver’s book Breast Cancer Husband (I realize you might not have breast cancer, but the lessons will apply). This should give him some insight into what you are going through and what you need from him. If he continues not to get it, maybe your hospital has a social worker whose services you could engage. You also have to be able to tell people who want to help what actually would help: a dinner brigade, taking the kids to their after school classes, hosting them for sleep overs, etc. Yes, you can be grateful you have a crowd of people who loves you. Now let them get to work showing it in ways that will help.

Q. A Child by Any Other Name: When my husband and I got married I elected to keep my maiden name, which was fine with my husband. I’m now pregnant with my first child. One day my husband asks me out of the blue, “Hey, do you want her to have your last name?” And the answer was yes. My last name is very uncommon, and my dad and I are the only two people in my family lineage who still have it. My husband has six brothers who have all prolifically produced sons with his family’s last name. Cue the fireworks. When we broached it with my husband’s parents, they lost their minds. They’ve always been so kind and welcoming, but they said some really ugly and hurtful things. It turns out they’ve always been offended that I kept my own name, they think I’m too bossy, they think I wear the pants in the family—his father actually said, “You better get that wife of yours in line.” I mean, I am kind of bossy, and I do wear the pants in the family, but that dynamic works for both my husband and myself, and we’ve had a strong relationship built on love and mutual respect. Now his parents are saying they won’t have anything to do with us if the baby has my last name and not theirs. He wants to stick with our decision, and if that means cutting them out of our lives, then so be it. My husband has always had such a close relationship to his parents and I hate the thought of their not having a relationship anymore. Does it make us terrible people if we stick to our guns and give our child my name even if it alienates his family?

A: So in order to have their son yank up those pants and “be a man,” they are berating him and threatening to withdraw their love if he doesn’t do what they say. You recognize you and your husband have a dynamic that works for you, and now you’ve been told your marital relationship doesn’t work for your in-laws. However, they are not participants in your marriage, so they have no vote. It’s interesting that your supposedly passive husband has been able to stand up to this bullying by his parents and tell them to mind their own business. Do not back down. New grandchildren have a tendency to blur that line in the sand drawn by angry grandparents. However, these two may have a full enough brood of grandchildren that out of pique they will be willing to ignore this beautiful addition to their family. What a loss for them.

Q. Re: A Child by Any Other Name: I kind of love that the LW and her husband want to give the baby the mother’s surname, and I agree that her ILs are behaving badly. But, honestly; “wears the pants”? “Get that wife of yours in line”? What is this, 1920? What they need to do with the ILs is just laugh and laugh and laugh and then do what they were planning on doing anyway.

A: Or 1950. But I do love that the wife says, “Hell, yeah, I’m in charge! And we both like it that way.”

Q. Brother’s Wedding + Stalker Father = Panic Attack: Since my brother got engaged, I’ve been terrified about his wedding. He told me his biggest wish is to have all his family there—including my estranged father, who he lives with. My father stalked, harassed, and threatened to kill my mother during their divorce. Most family members have disowned him. My mom and I had to get personal protection orders to get him to leave us alone. Yesterday my brother’s fiancée asked if my husband and I would be in their wedding. I’m really torn up about this because I don’t want to force them to choose between us, but I really don’t want to see my father. I’ve been seeing a therapist for anxiety, but I’m not sure I’m ready or able to be in the same place as the man who has haunted my nightmares for the past six years. However, the idea of skipping my brother’s wedding makes me feel like a terrible sister, especially now that they’re asking me to participate.

A: Once you’ve had to get a restraining order against a family member, you cannot then be expected to spend the day in the same room celebrating with him. Obviously, your family has endured a massive split, if your dangerous father is living with your brother. You can say to your brother you understand he has a different relationship with Dad than you do, but you sadly had to take legal action against Dad. Unfortunately, that means you all can’t be together for the wedding. Say you’re not asking him to disinvite your father, but suggest an alternative. Suggest to your brother that you and your mother celebrate with the happy couple by hosting a party either before or after the nuptials.

Q. Re: Stalker Father: If the order of protection that daughter has against father is still effective, he would be violating the order by being in the same room with her for the wedding. Presumably, brother does not want to put father into a situation where could be immediately arrested.

A: True, but maybe it’s expired by now. In any case, brother and fiancée are surely capable of understanding why Mom and Sis can’t be in the room with Dad.

Q. Order of Protection: When to Tell?: About a year ago, a then neighbor began stalking me. It started with small, innocuous comments, and quickly escalated from there. I got an order of protection against him about six months ago, and he left town the day after he was served with it. I have not seen him or heard from him since. About two months ago, I started dating this awesome guy. I haven’t told him about the stalker, or the order of protection, mainly because I don’t know how to bring it up, or when I should bring it up. I don’t want to scare him off. Should I tell him or just not say anything?

A: At least you don’t have to worry about the former neighbor being invited to your wedding. What an excellent outcome for you, and what a relief it must be that he’s gone, apparently permanently. But you seem to have some sense of shame over this, which is wholly unwarranted. I can’t imagine any decent person reacting with anything but sympathy for what happened and respect for your handling of this. There are so many cases in the news that would give you an opening to tell your story. So the next time one comes up, just say, “Something like this happened to me …”

Q. Coming Out, Again: I’m 33 and for most of my life have considered myself gay. I came out to my family when I was in my early 20s and they were very supportive. I’ve had two long-term boyfriends, the last one for almost six years. After he and I split (early last year), I had a lot of support from my best friend and co-worker, who is a girl. I found myself becoming attracted to her and we actually started dating a few months ago and it’s going great! One problem: I don’t know how to introduce her to my family and explain the situation to them. My brother and his wife made a pretty big deal over telling my nieces and making sure they knew I liked boys and that it was OK.

A: If you feel ready to introduce your new love to your family, you should just be straightforward: “I’m seeing someone I want you to meet. Her name is Isabelle. Yes, it came as a surprise to me, too.” The situation apparently is that you are bisexual. Your family is open-minded and supportive, so surely they will being able to cope with the news that you have found someone you really care for, no matter what your partner’s sex.

Q. Bestie Breakup: My best friend and I broke up earlier this year. We both became pregnant last fall; I miscarried, she didn’t, and she felt it was too “awkward” to continue being friends. I was devastated (by both the miscarriage and the loss of her friendship), but I am making peace with both. My question: What do I say when people ask me about her? Many of my friends knew her via me and often ask about her and her new baby. I don’t want to lie, but I’m hesitant to share why we’re no longer speaking, since no one else but my husband knew I was pregnant.

A: I wish you could ascribe her behavior to some serious pregnancy-related mental disorder. Maybe she was experiencing a pregnancy exacerbated anxiety disorder and she so feared a miscarriage of her own that she was too upset to be with you. That’s a possible medical excuse, but if in all the months since, including the arrival of a healthy newborn, she hasn’t bothered to reach out to you and grovel for your forgiveness, it could just be that your former BFF is a really lousy person. I hope you have plenty of love and support because there’s a lot of pain in this double blow. You don’t have to share anything with those you don’t want to. But it would help to have another possible bestie in the line up you could talk to about this. In general, if you want to avoid the whole subject, you can elide it while answering honestly. Say you hear she’s doing well but for a variety of reasons you two aren’t as frequently in touch. If you get pressed, you can reply, “Oh, it’s just one of those things” and decline to say more.

Q. Update From Not a Mother: I wrote a letter on behalf of a friend who was traumatized by the thought that she might have to assume care of her dying sister’s young child. She is a nicer person than the letter makes her appear! I would like to thank everyone who responded. I have forwarded Prudie’s sound advice and all of the responses to my friend, who plans to visit her sister soon. What we should have anticipated is that her sister’s health care team, who are of course familiar with her situation, have hooked her up with social service agencies and others who are making efforts to ensure the best possible outcome for the child. At the moment the mother is thinking that keeping her in familiar surroundings might be best, but no final decision has been made. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers.

A: Thanks for this update. This was the recent letter from the single, New York woman in her 50s, whose single, Midwestern sister was dying of cancer. The dying sister wanted the letter writer to adopt her toddler child, which the letter writer had no intention of doing. I got several requests from families to be put in touch with the letter writer because they wanted to be considered as potential parents, which I forwarded. The letter writer explained to me that she was not herself the reluctant aunt, but a friend who had written the letter at the aunt’s request. I’m glad to hear the requests were passed on. And out of a terrible situation it’s good news indeed to know that this time social services are aware, have stepped up, and are carefully looking out for the interests of the child.

Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

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