Danny M. Lavery, 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 email@example.com.)
Q. Inconsiderate in-laws: I have been with my husband for five years. I have a daughter from a previous marriage who is now 10 and a 4-year-old daughter with my husband. Every year, his parents and other extended family acknowledge my younger daughter’s birthday. Last year on her birthday, when an aunt asked for our address so that she could send money, I requested that she not send anything because our children are noticing and it causes hurt feelings. We requested they treat the girls the same because they are sisters. She promised to include my oldest. Well, that didn’t happen. Again, we are sent a card and money for our younger and my older had received nothing. I would like to cut these people from our lives, but my husband feels torn. What do I do?
A: Send the card back. Be polite when you run into your husband’s aunt at family gatherings, but blandly and cheerfully send back any cards or gifts that refuse to acknowledge you have two children. You are asking your husband’s relatives to recognize that your daughter from a previous marriage is neither a ghost nor a mistake from your past you’re forced to lug around with your newer, better family. This is not an unusual request. Your elder daughter will appreciate the fact that her parents advocated for her being acknowledged as a human being who possesses the quality of existence.
Q. Ready to throw in the towel: I’m a 50-year-old mom of two teens. My mom has a chronic illness, and I help care for her, but she is a four-hour drive away. I work full time, and I’m the breadwinner in the family. My job is high-stress and requires lots of travel. The company has been having a series of layoffs and not only am I worried about losing my own job, but I just had to select 20 percent of my staff to be laid off in the next round.
I want to chuck it all and go live in the woods like a hermit, but my kids are doing really well, and I don’t want to upset the balance we have now. For me, that means I’m stuck in my high-wage job. I don’t know whether I’m asking for permission to drop out or a swift kick in the rear reminding me that a 50-year-old woman who quits her job will never find employment again. It really is all too much.
A: Nothing wrong with acknowledging the unpleasantness of the job market, especially for someone over 50. Nothing wrong either with acknowledging that you’ve reached a breaking point and are considering chucking it all and moving to the forest. You have my permission to consider all of your options, out loud, with your partner, rather than by yourself after everyone else has gone to sleep and you fantasize about running away.
You could move somewhere less expensive. You could quit your job. You could move to part-time work. You could discuss alternate caring options with your mother. You have choices in between sacrificing yourself at the altar of family and becoming a hermit, I promise you. Being a teenager is difficult, but that’s not a reason to drive yourself to the point of a breakdown. Your children will thrive if they have relatively sane, happy, healthy parents, no matter where they live—I promise you that their happiness is not dependent upon your continuing to suffer. Your partner needs to know how distressed you are, how close you’ve been driven to falling apart, so the two of you can make a decision together before waking up to a Post-it note reading “GONE TO THE WOODS, BACK NEVER.”
Q. Sucks to be poor: My daughter is getting married and has a tiny budget for her wedding. Finding a venue she can afford has been a big challenge. Because rain is a real possibility, an outdoor wedding at a park is not possible. She found an indoor venue she can afford and has put a down payment on it and begun planning. The problem is that it will be upstairs, and there is no elevator. Which means that some people with mobility issues, who should be invited, will not be able to participate. So, should she just not invite these people? How do you not invite your grandmothers to your wedding? Feelings will be hurt. How does one handle such a thing?
A: It’s your daughter’s wedding, so I think you should let her handle it. She’s the one who made a relatively thoughtless choice that excludes friends and family members with mobility issues. She can deal with any resulting hurt feelings, and with making any accommodations or compromises or venue changes that may be necessary.
Q. Re: Inconsiderate in-laws: Geez Prudie—you can’t just force relatives to “love someone equally” because it’s the right thing to do. I’m sure the older sister also has relatives from her side that are less attached to the younger daughter, which is totally understandable. I’ve heard much worse family affairs when it comes to children from multiple fathers.
A: That’s very true. Luckily, the LW is not asking for her relatives to feel the exact same way toward both of her children. She is asking them to stop pretending one of them doesn’t have a birthday.
Q. Alcohol-tolerant social drinker or alcoholic?: As a nondrinker (no judgment, I just prefer not to), I am perplexed as to what constitutes the difference between a social extrovert who drinks frequently with others and an alcoholic. My middle-age boyfriend (whom I have only dated for about three months, so this is not something I feel very comfortable bringing up, as I don’t ever attempt to “change” people) drinks daily or almost daily (sometimes wine, sometimes shots) while out at work dinners, guys night, dates, but he has no problems functionally; he has a very active social life, is responsible about work, healthy, etc. It doesn’t change his behavior, but since I have only dated him a short while, I am not sure whether it would affect him were he to not drink. I do tend to overthink things and come from a family of addicts (drug, alcohol, etc.), and as a nondrinker, I can’t unbiasedly look at this.
A: I don’t think it’s very unusual for someone to drink on a daily basis. Nothing in your letter suggests to me he’s drinking dangerously. If he’s responsible and healthy, and isn’t drinking and driving or changing his behavior after a few glasses of wine, I don’t think you need to worry about his drinking habits. They’re merely different from yours, not aberrant.
Q. Damn it feels good to be a loner: I’m 29 years old, and I have bipolar disorder. My marriage is strong, and my mental health is pretty good. The problem is that I have almost no friends. I get together with a couple of college friends about once a year, and that’s it. I work from home and live in a rural area. My husband and I don’t drink anymore so we just aren’t very social. We are really outdoorsy, but our hobbies are pretty much things you do alone. It would be nice to have friends, but I’m honestly happy every single day. I’ve spent a lot of my life alone, and I think I’m just used to it. I’m really torn! I’m happy just reading quietly in my house or going on long walks with my dog, but is this bad for me? Do I need to find friends? Also, how do I find them when I live in the middle of nowhere?
A: In order: It doesn’t sound bad at all, you don’t need to but you might like it, and I’m not sure. Why not try nurturing the friendships you already have? You could see your college friends a bit more often, or call and invite them to come visit you in your mountain retreat in between your annual visits. Your life sounds delightful, and you seem perfectly content in it. I think a moderate increase in contact with the long-term friends you already have would go a long way toward making you feel connected to people you’re not married to, but don’t feel like there’s something wrong with you because you enjoy solitude. (Maybe you could invite the letter writer longing to quit her job and flee to the woods out for a nice long stay.)
Q. It’s complicated—help!: I recently split up with a boyfriend of some years after I had to get a restraining order to get him to move out of my home (he was unemployed and not paying rent) when he refused to move after an incident of intimate partner violence and other disconcerting happenings. I hope he’s gone from my life for good.
The trouble is he’s still married (to a woman—I’m a man) and has a young child. At the restraining order hearing, my attorney met the guy for the first time. After the hearing, he pulled me aside and said, “I don’t know if you realize this, but this guy is a total meth-head. I see this all the time in my practice.” I certainly hadn’t realized it—I honestly had never seen it before. Help! How can I safely pass this information to his wife? (Should I?) He’s always been a great dad, but this is deeply concerning.
A: If she’s already aware that her husband has been court-ordered to stay away from his former live-in boyfriend after a violent assault, I think she may also know about his rumored meth use. If she doesn’t know about any of it, which I think unlikely but still possible, I think you should stick to telling her what you know for sure. There’s no reason to gild the lily with “and a lawyer told me he might use meth” when you’ve already informing her of confirmed incidences of rent nonpayment, domestic violence, and restraining orders.
Q. Re: Harsh on the self-sufficient bride: Big fan of your work but you blew it on this one: Calling the young woman “thoughtless” who seems to be paying for her own wedding and not going into debt while doing so is a little harsh. Where I live, nice venues are hard to find, especially affordable ones. Why shouldn’t mom (or dad, whoever wrote the letter) offer to help her communicate to relatives? Nobody has an obligation to invite anyone in particular to their wedding. Maybe the daughter thought it through, maybe she didn’t, but you don’t really know.
A: I think it’s great to not go into debt planning a wedding. I also think choosing a venue with no ADA access when you have disabled family members is a little thoughtless. Not monstrous, not evil, not unforgivable, just thoughtless. She is, as you point out, under no obligation to invite her grandmother to her wedding, but it sounds as if she and her grandmother are on good terms. She would probably enjoy having her grandmother there! If there is an accommodation or a compromise to be made, I believe the daughter and her husband-to-be ought to make it. Hopefully they’ll find a way to make sure everyone they would like to attend the wedding is able to do so.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!