Dear Prudence

Love in the Time of Cancer

Prudie counsels a parent whose 16-year-old feels pressured to support her stricken boyfriend.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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

Q. Daughter’s Cancer Stricken Boyfriend Expects Too Much: My 16-year-old daughter began dating a classmate in April. Two months ago, he was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Overnight, he and his family came to demand a ridiculous amount of commitment from my daughter. She is expected to organize gatherings of their friends, come to appointments, and do whatever she can to lift his spirits. She feels overwhelmed by his parents’ demands, and my husband and I feel wary at how she become “the one bright spot” in his life. Thanks to movies like The Fault in Our Stars and 50/50, as well as to his parents, she thinks only “bitches” dump their cancer stricken boyfriends. I worry she will implode if she doesn’t take some healthy distance from him. As a parent of someone on the cusp of legal adulthood, what should I do? 

A: You can understand the agony the boys’ parents are experiencing, and their desire for him to feel loved and attended to by his friends. But I agree that a 16 year-old girlfriend of a few months’ being the main source of solace for an ill classmate is a heavy burden and one that should not be imposed on her, even by suffering parents. Given the ages of the kids involved and the sensitivities, I think you and your husband can rightly step in. You two should set up a meeting with his parents. Before you do, go over what you want to say and how you want to say it, because there is something churlish in the tone of your letter you want to strictly avoid. Yes, you are rightly looking out for the emotional health of your daughter, but you don’t want to come off as expressing that the expectations they are putting on her are of an equivalent nature of his confronting a potentially lethal illness. You want to express your deep concern for their son and for them. Then you explain that you want to help spearhead an effort to organize his friends—perhaps with the help of the school—to have his classmates visit and do other things to lift his spirits. Say that you have realized your daughter is not equipped to carry so much of this responsibility alone. Then, with their permission, talk to the teachers and other parents about organizing his classmates. You also need your daughter to understand that as much as she cares for her boyfriend, she is still a girl, and he is not her husband, and there are limits to what she can do. If she needs to talk through her worry and guilt with a counselor, get her one. It’s perfectly reasonable that she needs help doing the right thing for this young man and for herself.

Q. Mom and Dad in Love: Five years ago, I went home from a bar with a stranger. We decided to have a summer fling. Then our birth control failed, and I became pregnant. We decided to keep our daughter and raise her together, although we didn’t want a romantic relationship. Since our daughter’s birth, we have become best friends, although we always made it clear to her we weren’t going to be together like her friends’ parents. Low and behold, we’ve fallen in love. We’ve been very cautious about what to tell our daughter about our relationship. But we’ve been together for a while, and we want to get married. How do we explain to our daughter that, contrary to everything we’ve told her before, Mom and Dad are in love?

A: Lots of parents worry about the conversation in which they sit each the kids down and explain that Mom and Dad don’t love each other anymore. So sitting your daughter down and explaining, “Surprise, we love each other!” is a happy one to have. Your daughter is very young, and you and her father have been together for a while in a way that indicates that whatever you’ve said, you two are like the married parents of her friends. What’s most important is that you convey that you and her dad are excited about all of you living together as a family. Tell your daughter that while often parents get married first then have kids, you two are doing it in reverse order, which means she can be the flower girl at your wedding! That will be a message that should have her jumping for joy.

Q. Family Cottage: My family cottage has been passed down to my sister and me. A bunch of legal stuff was required, mostly to make sure that my sister and I don’t end up suing each other over the cottage as my father and my aunts and uncles did. As part of the agreement the spouses were required to sign something relieving them of any right to the cottage in the case of divorce. My wife was rather upset at this and I think it was a pretty dick move myself. How can I make this up to my wife?

A: I don’t see the issue either legally or dick-wise with this document. The property is not something you two acquired for yourselves during your marriage. It is something that belongs to multiple generations of your family, and I would assume all the spouses understand this. They know they can enjoy the property, but I don’t see that they would have any standing to try to claim it in the event they no longer were part of the family. If you must, you two should have a private consultation with a lawyer just to go over how this codicil was not either a jibe at your wife or the strength of your marriage, but a way of protecting an asset your family wants to pass down to the next generation.

Q. Re: Teen With Cancer: My heart goes out to this girl and boy. I had two friends in high school who were a couple when the boy was diagnosed with cancer. He later died. It was terrible for everyone. They were really in love, and my friend was changed by what she went through—but their love was also a high school love, and no one was pressuring her to be there for him. She was by his side because she wanted to be. I truly think the kindest thing for this boy, and the LW’s daughter, is for the daughter to only be involved to the extent that she feels comfortable. She does not have to break up with him if she still genuinely wants to be with him, but she should not be going to doctor’s visits and so forth if she does not want to. I agree with your advice to have the parents step in, and have the girl seek counseling if need be. Just want to lend my support to the notion that it’s OK, and actually more kind, to step back.

A: What a heartbreaking letter, and yes, I hope his parents can understand that they are asking too much. Someone else wrote in asking why should her parents have to step in and offer to organize things—that’s his parents’ job. Actually their job is to try to keep it together in order to help their son through this. The community should step up, and I’m hoping the girl’s parents can start this and that others will share the responsibility. I should have noted that high school students should not be expected to go to oncology appointments. Watching movies together, playing games, helping with homework are things the classmates can do. The parents of classmates can organize a dinner brigade and help with other daily activities the parents of the ailing boy can’t manage right now.

Q. Charging Family for Hospitality: After my wife’s parents passed away, she and her brother inherited their dilapidated beachfront home at a popular location. My brother-in-law didn’t want to spend money on repairs so we bought his share of the house at market value and undertook major renovations. Now that the home is comfortable and modern, my BIL and his family wish to stay there frequently. I feel a little resentful of this, as he enjoys great accommodation for free after he showed no interest in contributing toward the costs. I want to ask him to pay us $500 each time he stays there (similar accommodation around the area would cost several hundred dollars per night, so he is still getting a great deal, as he usually goes for a week or longer). But my wife, who agrees he is being cheap, feels uncomfortable asking money from family. How do we bring this up with him?

A: Has he gotten a sweet deal! He got money for his share of the house, you two invested a lot in fixing it up, and now he is under the impression he is still a co-owner. If you and your wife rent out the property a la Airbnb, then it would be perfectly fine for you to say you’ll give his family a discount when they stay, but that you need the income to make up for the money you poured into renovating the place. If you don’t rent it out, then someone, that would be your wife, needs to tell him that he chose to get bought out, so while they are happy to have him and his family as guests occasionally, they need to ask about staying. She can explain that frequent weeklong stays just don’t work. Surely, with the money he got from you for his share, he and his family can afford to pay for their own vacation somewhere else.

Q. Re: Family Cottage: My sister and I inherited our family farm. Her husband knew (and we had the legal documents done to validate) that it was not his, and had she predeceased him it would have all reverted to me, and had they divorced it would have remained hers. Now that my sister has a child, if something happens to my sister her share would belong to my nephew. I love my brother-in-law, but the farm has been in our family for four generations, so we took steps to ensure that it would remain in our possession. He understood that.

A: As anyone should. Thanks.

Q. Returning a Christmas Gift: My mother received a canvas-printed photograph of my toddler nephew from my brother and his wife for Christmas. Mom loves her grandson very much, but she told me she doesn’t have room in her small apartment for this picture, and the colors also don’t really match her decor. She wants to give the picture back to my brother and his wife since she isn’t going to display it. I think that’s very rude and told her she should keep it since they rarely visit her apartment and wouldn’t know if she’d hung it anyway. Who is correct?

A: She must have room in a closet or under a bed for the photo, and she surely will have notice if the family is coming to visit. Then she can take the photo out and prop in on a dresser as a prop. I agree with you that returning this particular gift—particularly while mentioning her grandson clashes with her décor—will potentially have unpleasant and unnecessary long-term consequences for her relationship with those she loves.

A: Thanks everyone. Talk to you next week!

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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