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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. MIL Hopes We Die: My husband, our three young children, and I recently went on a vacation with my in-laws. We provided the accommodations. My mother-in-law tries to act more like our children’s mother than a grandmother. She loves her grandchildren, but she is very interfering, judgmental, and disrespectful to me and my husband. On this recent visit she brought a children’s book for our 5-year-old daughter that was missing the last two pages. The book was about a girl who visits her grandmother for the summer every year; my MIL wrote an ending with my daughter that said the girl’s parents died and she got to live with her grandmother forever. It was written like a happy ending! When we confronted her (away from the children) that it was inappropriate, she blamed our 5-year-old saying it was all her idea. I am so upset I can’t even look at this woman; and now she is suggesting we get together again next month to go camping. What should we do?
A: Thank you for this entry in the “worst mother-in-law of the year” contest. Interfering, judgmental, and disrespectful mothers-in-law are common complaints. But it takes a certain kind of genius to come up with the idea of ripping out the final pages of a children’s book and writing the happy ending about becoming an orphan so that one can live with Grammy forever! As usual, when you’re dealing with an in-law violation, I think the first line of defense is for the blood relation to have a serious talk. It’s time for your husband to explain to his mother that while she obviously loves the kids, and vice versa, she has to do some serious rethinking about her behavior. He needs to explain that she may not be aware of it, but she constantly undermines the two of you as parents. Now she’s gone off the rails entirely with the fantasy book ending that refers to the joys of orphanhood. I think he should tell her that an extended summer get-together is on ice this year. He can say you two are so steamed that you’re going to go away as a family without including the in-laws. He can say that he hopes this hiatus gives her a chance to think about how to be a loving grandmother without being an undermining one.
Q. Overstaying Parents: My parents have always been excessively demanding house guests. When I was in my 20s and starting out, they insisted I rent an apartment with at least two bed/two bath so they could have their own facilities. They never offered financial assistance even though I was usually broke because of my high rent and utilities. (My parents are well-off.) When they visited, they stayed for a minimum of three weeks at a time, usually did at least one outrageous thing like adding channels to my cable service, and thought nothing of showing up at my job just to hang out. Looking back, I can’t believe I allowed this to go on, but it continued until I got married and my husband and I moved into a small one bedroom to save for our future. My parents were livid and never visited us. During this time, we started to visit them three times a year for long weekends. We stay at a hotel and this works great. Now we are in a position to buy our dream home and the first thing my parents said to me was to get a bedroom and bathroom ready for them. I don’t want them to stay with me! I’m worried if they do it will ruin the nice relationship we’ve developed. How do I tell them this?
A: Your letter is an example of how firm boundaries can work with even the most obtuse and intrusive people. You developed a decent relationship with this gonzo pair because you didn’t allow them to roll all over you. So you make this explicit. “Mom, Dad, you’ve probably noticed that we get along much better since we’ve stopped staying under the same roof. [True, they probably haven’t noticed, but act as if they aren’t totally oblivious.] So even though we’re getting a new house, we’re going to continue with this system. We’ll stay at a hotel when we visit you, and you stay at one when you visit us.” If they have another fit and refuse to come, that’s what’s known as a win/win.
Q. Vaccine Dilemma: My husband and I are expecting our first child at the end of the summer. I am a physician, and staunchly pro-vaccine (I have seen the consequences of failing to vaccinate a child firsthand and can’t imagine putting my own child at risk in such a way). Further, I have also decided that anyone who expects to spend significant amount of time around our child before they reach the age where they have been fully vaccinated, must also be fully vaccinated. The problem is that my husband’s family is on the opposite end of the spectrum. Our nieces and nephews are not vaccinated, and our in-laws have not had any vaccinations in the past 15 to 20 years. I do love these people, and all of their crazy, kooky ways but, neither my husband or I are willing to compromise on this decision. We want to maintain the strong relationships we have with his side of the family but realize that this decision could result in them not meeting our child for several years. Any advice for how we should approach this decision with them?
A: That we in 2015 are dealing with a serious decline in vaccination—one of the single greatest advances in human health and longevity—is deeply distressing. Of course people can blow off vaccinations because we live in a world in which few of us see the consequences of not having mass vaccination. I always wonder if polio were still rampant in this country whether anti-vaxxers would take that risk with their children; I’m betting their kids would get the polio vaccine. I hope, doctor, that you come back and clarify the risks of hanging out with unvaccinated people. Would your child really be in danger by playing with seemingly healthy nieces and nephews? As for the grandparents—most adults aren’t regularly getting boosters, right? Presumably the grandparents were vaccinated, or at least exposed, earlier in life to the diseases we vaccinate for now. You know the degree of risk your child would incur by visiting this unvaccinated side of the family. If it is real, then you explain to them why you are so sad you all can’t get together.
Q. GF Picky Eater: I’ve been dating my girlfriend for almost two years now, and overall we have a fantastic relationship and have moved in together. However, there is one thing that really annoys me. My girlfriend is an extremely picky eater. She doesn’t eat many types of vegetables, seafood, anything the least bit spicy, or meat that hasn’t been cooked exactly to her taste. I love to cook, and it absolutely infuriates me when she says she doesn’t want to eat a certain thing. While I understand this is a minor thing, I feel she should just be polite and eat something she doesn’t like. How do I approach this without offending her, or without making myself angry?
A: Two years into living with a picky eater, you should each have figured out a way to accommodate your different tastes. I understand that for a food lover and cook, it’s annoying and discouraging to have a partner who makes a face over your offerings and turns to a bowl of cereal. But what your girlfriend experiences may be way less in her control than you are giving her credit for. Extreme picky eaters may have what’s called Selective Eating Disorder. People with this experience physical and psychological discomfort over certain tastes, smells, textures. I’ve written about this before and heard from sufferers who have sought help (cognitive therapy is a good approach) and been able to expand their eating repertoire. But this has be something the picky eater wants to do. In the meantime, you have to back off. I know food is a source of great pleasure for you, but it’s not for your girlfriend. Think of how dreadful it must be for her to live with someone who is constantly infuriated about what she’s not putting in her mouth. If you two can approach this as a team, you can learn to accept her limitations while she can learn to expand them.
Q. Mom Prosecuted Girlfriend’s Brother: My girlfriend’s brother is in prison for a felony. She and their parents are convinced he was innocent. My mother is a lawyer, and at one time was a prosecutor. Looking at court records, I discovered that she helped prosecute that case! Our last name is common, so I doubt that my girlfriend’s parents have made any connection. But I know this can’t stay a secret forever. My girlfriend has met my parents, but fortunately nothing about this came up. Our respective families have not yet met each other as such, and now I want to keep it that way. I could just tell my girlfriend what I discovered, and let nature take its course, but I don’t want her to confront my mother. Would it be wrong to break up without mentioning the reason? Would it be wrong just to continue as is until either the relationship fizzles, or the bombshell surfaces?
A: If your response to finding out that your mother helped put your girlfriend’s brother in jail is to break up with her (let’s leave the assertions of his innocence aside), that says a lot about the seriousness of your relationship. (Of course breaking up is a better alternative than helping the brother break out of prison.) You apparently went looking into easily available court records to find out the story of the brother. Now you’ve found out your mother helped put him behind bars. It’s true you could say to girlfriend, “Your brother sounds guilty as hell, and I’m glad my mom helped get him off the street.” But I suggest you say nothing. You stumbled upon this amazing coincidence, but I don’t see why you have to bring it to your girlfriend’s attention. I do think you should tell your mother, who must be an accomplished and tough person. She should be prepared in case an all parents dinner is suggested. But you don’t sound very committed to this girlfriend, so I say keep the fruits of your sleuthing to yourself.
Q. Re: GF Picky Eater: I could have written that letter 17 years ago. I am now married to my husband, a chef, even though I can’t look at seafood without gagging, have significant issues with meat, and more. Prudie is right, it’s probably not something about the food itself. I finally figured out that I was using food as a way to control something in my life when everything else seemed out of control. When I am stressed, my picky eating goes up, when I am calmer, I can eat more of a variety. My husband has been very supportive and has helped me with a lot of my food issues. One of the ways we worked on it was cooking together. Ask her what she thinks she can handle in the kitchen ( I could chop veggies but not touch meat). Fast-forward—I made chicken kebabs last weekend! From raw chicken!
A: A picky eater and a chef—you two must really be in love! Thanks for this letter that will be really helpful to people who suffer from this syndrome.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.