Dear Prudence

Helicopter Family

Prudie counsels a letter writer whose family has become manipulative after helping end an abusive marriage.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Photo by Sam Breach

Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at

Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! Hope you all enjoyed Christmas, if you are a person who Christmases. Let’s chat!

Q. Boundaries after a favor: Last year, with the help of family and friends, I extricated myself from a physically and emotionally abusive marriage. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I understand that I’m lucky to have had relatives who were able to help me with legal fees and moving expenses (I’m on a payment plan and have repaid almost all of it by now), but now my family members make unreasonable demands for personal information about me, require I check in with them about decisions I’m making for myself, and have implied that I shouldn’t spend money on certain items (necessities like rent) until I’ve paid them back. They’ve gone so far as to repeatedly call and text me when I’m at work until I drop everything (even leaving meetings!) to answer whatever their questions may be. They make hurtful comments about how my past judgment was clearly not the best to have ended up in a relationship with an abuser and I can’t be trusted to make decisions for myself yet. They also say that I’m ungrateful, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve worked hard in therapy to understand how important boundaries are to recovering from past abuse, and this dynamic feels unhealthy for me. I’m hesitant, however, to be rude to family members who likely saved my life and seem to really be doing this out of a misplaced sense of caring. How do I balance my obligation to their generosity with my obligation to myself?

A: Implying that you have no right to pay your own rent and aren’t capable of caring for yourself because you have been abused in the past sounds an awful lot like abuse to me. I’m so sorry that you’ve managed to escape one abusive living situation only to find yourself being manipulated and berated by your would-be saviors. I’m glad to hear you’ve almost finished your payment plan, because the sooner you are no longer financially beholden to these people, the better.

In the meantime, I think it’s more than fair for you to tell them that although you’re grateful they were able to lend you money, you will not be able to answer calls while you are at work and will have to get back to them at the end of the day. You are under no obligation to give them personal information or listen to them question your judgment. They think you owe them your life; all you owe them is money.

Q. Bad beginnings: My daughter has announced that she and her husband will not be doing any more family holidays after this year. They are going to travel instead. She said she is tired of all the drama and guilt trips. She specifically called out my “dictatorship adherence to the actual day instead of spirit” because I asked her to drive down Christmas Eve after they both got off their shifts. She said that working a 10-hour shift in an emergency room then driving three hours is unrealistic, unreasonable, and selfish on my part! I just wanted to spend Christmas with my kids instead of the weekend after. Did I do wrong?

A: I think so! But more importantly, your daughter thinks so. Even if I were convinced you had done the right thing, I’m not your daughter. It would be good for your relationship if you were to apologize to her; if you do apologize, realize that it may not result in you getting what you want out of her (namely, future Christmases with you). Apologize because you care about her feelings, not because you think that an apology is the magical password to make sure she spends Christmas Eve with you next year.

Q. My stepchildren and their mom’s family: I have raised my three stepchildren since they were very young. Their father and I will be married early next year. For Christmas this year, they asked me if they could call me “Mom.” (Until now they’ve called me a sweet nickname.) I was overjoyed and with their father’s blessing told them: Of course! Their late mother is not a taboo subject. We talk about her often. Still, when her family learned of it, they became very upset. Their grandma and uncle told them calling me “Mom” would be disrespectful to their late mother. The kids have been distraught ever since. My husband is angry but doesn’t want the kids’ relationship with their mom’s family to suffer. Neither do I. What should we do?

A: How awful that their relatives would try to guilt these children into loving you less, simply because they lost their mother years ago. I want to be sensitive to their pain—they lost a daughter and a sister—but badgering these children out of calling you “Mom” is no way to honor their dead mother’s memory. You are marrying their father. You are helping to raise them. For some of them, you will be the only mother they have ever known or can remember. If they want to call you their mother, it would be bewildering and unkind for their grandmother and uncle to insist otherwise. This calls for a gentle but firm touch on your husband’s part. He needs to explain to his first wife’s family that while he will always honor and cherish her memory, you are a very real part of his children’s life now. If they insist on tormenting your children when they call you their mother—and you are their mother—they cannot be around them. This is an issue they should work out in private with a grief counselor, not by policing the feelings of toddlers.

Q. Roommate shuffle: We’ve had a string of (really) bad roommates, but recently a good friend moved in with us. He’s amazing. He makes delicious coffee for us every morning. He cleans up. He’s a great guy. He moved in with us because he just ended a five-year relationship with his fiancée. Since he’s recently single and my roommate, he’s very much off the table, but this past weekend we got drunk and hooked up. He confessed to me that he’s had a crush on me since the moment we met and that it’s hard not to kiss me every single day. I have a crush on him too.

We’ve talked and decided that this is a recipe for disaster, yet we can’t seem to stop flirting with each other. Is there any amicable solution here other than finding another new roommate?

A: I’ve only seen the first 2½ seasons of New Girl, and a not insignificant part of me wants to tell you that everything sounds great and you should just go for it. High risk, high reward!

Ahh, but no! It’s a disaster recipe; you’re absolutely right. He has to move out. Someone can live with you every day, or someone can kiss you every day, but they probably shouldn’t do both, unless you are living together on purpose. There’s no roommate worse than the Guy You Once Slept With But Aren’t Sleeping With Now, Please Keep Making Coffee And Also Return My Feelings. He should move out. That way, whether you decide to keep kissing him or eschew kissing entirely, the rest of your roommates don’t have to deal with the uncomfortable post-sex shuffle in the communal kitchen.

Q. Re: Bad beginnings: If the mom wants to spend Christmas with her kids, why can’t she make the three-hour drive to see them instead of requiring they drive after working so long? It’s not safe to drive while fatigued, and I can’t imagine being anything else after 10-hour ER shifts.

A: An excellent question!

Q. DNA test: I’ve recently started dating a guy I’ve known for about a year. I also know his parents and sister since before I started dating him. This past weekend his mom and sister begged me to persuade him to get a DNA test of his 3-month-old daughter. His daughter was conceived (according to him) after he and his ex-girlfriend broke up and they had that one last tryst. They believe his ex was already pregnant, as she called him two weeks after to say she was pregnant and that it was a high-risk pregnancy. He’s a great guy and does what he thinks is right, so he’s not questioning his paternity, even though from what he tells me there are red flags that indicate his family may be right. According to him and his family, the ex is crazy and after money. I’m of the belief that if he considers her his daughter, then the little girl is his daughter, regardless of what the DNA says or how crazy the mom is. But because this “relationship” is barely starting and we haven’t even had the “talk” about where we stand, I don’t know what to do. Do I listen to his family and try to persuade him to get a DNA test? Tell them that it’s his choice (which I did), but still talk to him? They asked that I find attorneys who can help him get a DNA test and custody (if it’s a match) and send them the info so they can call said attorney. I’m really at a loss as to where I draw the line. I listen to his frustrations, but I also listen to how much he loves his little girl, and I know that the only reason he does not do a DNA test is because he fears his family may be right, which would destroy him.

A: I think you should stop seeing him! This situation sounds like a hornet’s nest crossed with a Gordian knot wrapped in a nightmare. You haven’t even talked about where this relationship is going, and your sort-of-boyfriend’s family is already enlisting your aid as a private investigator to smear the (possible) mother of his child. Throw your feelings into reverse and head for the hills.

Q. Re: My stepchildren and their mom’s family: You might point them to your predecessor’s essay on her husband’s first wife. Though there were no stepchildren involved, much of the sentiment is the same, and how wonderful it is to have two mothers who love you.

A: That was a lovely essay! I remember it well; thanks for suggesting she revisit it.

Q. Acknowledging cards or gifts: I have been getting cards from family that I haven’t spoken to, and my daughter received a gift from her grandma, whom we haven’t spoken to in more than a year. Do these have to be acknowledged?

A: Not if you do not want to begin talking with them again! It’s a definite attempt at rapprochement. If reconciliation interests you, feel free to acknowledge the cards. If it does not, do not.

Q. Should I intervene in my father’s life? I’m in my mid-30s and live in a different country than my dad. Every time I visit him (about once a year) I find that he cares less and less about the state of his apartment. I stay with him whenever I fly there, so I try to clean up, throw away stuff that he might be hoarding, and fix all kinds of things around the place (from light switches to changing a doorknob). I’ve asked him if he wants me to hire someone who would clean and organize his place on a regular basis, but he gets mad and says he’s not comfortable with someone being there while he’s out (he works a 9 to 5 with no plans to retire soon). So basically his apartment gets cleaned once a year, by me. Should I keep trying to make things better for him, or should I abide the ever-present rule of “your house, your rules”? He lives an otherwise healthy life, has a girlfriend and many friends, and loves his job.

A: Oh, I wish I had you on the line so I could ask you a few more questions. I’m not sure whether I should picture your father as an Oscar Madison type (socks on the floor, ashtray on the windowsill, too distracted by work and his weekly poker game to get the lights fixed, but perfectly happy with the state of things) or Big Edie from Grey Gardens. I’m hoping very much it’s the former.

My (admittedly brief) impression is that you are genuinely interested in keeping your father happy and healthy, rather than trying to control his life from afar. Since nothing you’ve described here sounds like it would affect his quality of life, I think you should back off from your offer for now. Spend your yearly trip with your father enjoying each other’s company.

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