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My mother and I have always had a difficult relationship. She is manipulative and mentally ill. (She refuses to see a professional, so we can’t confirm our suspicions that she is bipolar.) She also has a progressive, debilitating illness that confines her to her home with the help of paid aides. She spent four months hospitalized this year, forcing us to take care of her dog Maggie as we were also caring for my terminally ill grandmother. Unfortunately, our dog and my mom’s dog were unable to get along (two emergency vet trips with stitches), and we had to find a new home for Maggie. Between my grandmother’s death and our inability to care for the dog, my relationship with my mother has deteriorated drastically. She told me I am less important to her than a dog she owned for five months, has verbally abused me repeatedly about my shortcomings as a daughter, threatened to sue me to get the dog back, harassed my colleague (who now owns the dog), and ignored my calls, texts, and emails for days on end while disparaging me online for abandoning her. Now she is answering all of my entreaties with “Please give Maggie back, please” but otherwise refusing to speak when I call. To make matters worse, my grandmother didn’t think my mom could make smart financial decisions and put my mom’s share of the estate into a trust, and this has caused an entirely different drama. At what point am I allowed to stop torturing us both and end this relationship?
There’s a lot going on in this letter, but the matter that leaps out to me most readily is this: You gave your mother’s dog away. I’m sure she’s a difficult person and that your relationship has been contentious. She is disabled and may or may not be mentally ill, but neither of these disqualifies someone from owning and caring for a dog. On one side you have all her various shortcomings as a mother, which I don’t discount and which I’m sure have been enormously painful for you. And on the other side there is this: You gave away her dog.
Given the circumstances I don’t blame you for looking for a temporary new home for Maggie. But to give your mother’s dog away permanently without consulting her is inexcusable. No wonder she is alternately lashing out and begging—her daughter gave her dog away while she was in the hospital. Whether she had the dog for five months or five years is irrelevant. What I suspect is that you gave Maggie away because you are exasperated and angry at your mother for a hundred different reasons, and the easiest way to hurt her was through the dog. Whether or not you speak to your mother again, you should give her dog back. Explain to your colleague that you had no right to rehome Maggie, that you’re incredibly sorry and embarrassed, but that your mother misses her dog terribly and now that she’s back from the hospital, you have to take Maggie back to her. If you can’t do that, then you may be more like your mother than you’d like to think.
* * *
I am in the process of ending my 20-year marriage. For the last year, I have been talking to a former co-worker online who went through a similar process a year ago. Our conversations are platonic, about relationships and how I’m feeling, and are a source of support for me. My friend has a habit of saying “I’ll talk to you after lunch” and then not communicating for a day or so. When she does come back online, no mention is made of her final comment. I find it disingenuous not to make note of the fact that she didn’t follow through, and I have told her so. I have also explained that I don’t expect her to be available or to keep her word to the letter, but that it speaks to a lack of concern to skip over a dangling promise. I recently told her that I could not continue to talk under these circumstances. I am struggling with self-esteem issues and need support and validation to help me through my transition. It kills me to not talk to her, but I am tired of ruminating over this perceived slight. Am I being oversensitive?
—Silence Is the Best Medicine
“I’ll talk to you after lunch” isn’t a detailed promise so much as it is a polite way of letting someone know you have to go. I’m sure you need support in what must be a difficult time for you, but if you’re getting it from your friend so frequently that she refers to specific mealtimes (presumably at work, when both of you should be working), she’s already going above and beyond the call of friendship (or friendly ex-co-worker-ship). I’m sorry to be the one to tell you you’re not respecting this woman’s boundaries and that her polite attempts to get back to what she was doing are not a series of broken promises you take them to be. You are asking too much of her, and it would be better for the both of you if you backed off. If you are troubled this deeply about the fact that one of your friends can’t devote time every day to your emotional problems, then I strongly encourage you to make an appointment with a therapist immediately.
* * *
My sister has two children from a man in a different state who does not pay child support, mostly because she refuses to file the necessary paperwork. (She seems to equate it with giving the father some rights to see his children, whom he’s never met.) I have done everything I can short of physically dragging her to the courthouse, including contacting him myself. That is how I learned he’s getting married soon and that his fiancée knows nothing of his children. I can’t get my sister or this man to alter their behavior for the better. Do I owe it to the fiancée to out this man to her before the wedding? Child support obligations never go away, and this could come back to haunt them.
I think the lesson to glean from your sister’s situation is this: Do less. You clearly have the best of intentions, and I’d be frustrated in your position as well, but this tangled web of relationships doesn’t require your help. You’re not the one able to fix any of this. You’ve done your level best to encourage your sister to pursue child support, and she’s decided not to, at least for now. You’ve tried to talk the father into a sense of responsibility, and all you’ve gotten for your pains is knowledge of his wedding plans. You said it best yourself: You can’t get your sister or the father of her children to alter their behavior for the better. His marriage, and whether it’s ever rocked by the revelation that he’s fathered and abandoned two children, is not your problem. Your only obligation is to give your sister the reasonable help that you can.
* * *
When I met my husband, he was in the initial stages of his divorce. Fourteen years later we are happily married. He had two daughters with his ex-wife, and once the divorce was final my husband’s ex-wife tried to minimize his contact with them. We had to hire lawyers to make sure that my husband was able to visit his daughters. But now that my husband’s daughters are well into their teens, we rarely see them. They are busy with their friends and work on the weekends and rarely answer my husband’s texts and calls. We tried to be good parents, and I always made sure the girls had quality time with just their dad. We had plenty of good times while they were younger, which makes their current “rejection” of their dad so hurtful to him. How do I help him? I want to encourage him to keep the lines of communication open with his daughters, but it seems to keep him open to more pain. Is this the right thing to do?
Having children can seem like an unfortunate setup for maximizing pain, particularly once they become teenagers. It sounds as if you and your husband are doing everything right. You were an attentive, thoughtful stepparent during their younger years, and now that the girls are older, you’re both making yourselves available without trying to crowd or manipulate them. Teenagers do have a habit of pulling away from their parents, and when those parents don’t live in the same house, one loses out on even the hope of getting sneered at in the hallway. It would make no more sense for an adult to blame a teenager for pulling away than it would to blame the tide for going out. That’s not to say your husband can’t, or shouldn’t, let his daughters know he misses them, or even try to organize a more regular check-in or get-togethers, but by no means should he shut down communication with his daughters just because they’re getting more independent. Sometimes the early stages of independence are propelled by thoughtlessness and missed calls; it’s part of the heartbreak of being a parent and preparing for an empty nest. It’s not permanent, and if your husband continues to be a reliable and loving presence in their lives, he’ll find this stage doesn’t last forever, and they’ll be back.
* * *
Do I have to go to my sister-in-law’s baby shower? I’m a first-year teacher who has virtually no extra income and really can’t afford a single thing on her wish list. I don’t know any of her friends (nor care to). I hate baby showers, and I don’t go to even my friend’s showers, nor would I have one when and if I ever get pregnant! I dislike my sister-in-law, and she knows it. I genuinely don’t think she wants me there. The real problem is my mom. This is her first grandbaby, and she is crazy about him already. She feels I should really be excited about this too, but I’m just not. Do I have to go?
I’m all for skipping out on obligatory, boring events, but a baby shower for your future niece or nephew is worth forcing an hour’s worth of politeness for. Should you have a child someday, you don’t have to have a baby shower, but showers are fairly common events and it would be churlish not to attend. If you can’t afford a gift, ask your mother if the two of you can split the cost of one. (This will have the added benefit of making her feel like the two of you are celebrating together.) Show up, ooh and ahh politely, ask her how she’s feeling, tell her she looks great, and then take yourself out for a drink afterward. You don’t have to become her best friend. Just shoot for the bare minimum.
* * *
I am sending two kids off to college, and my husband and I are able to pay for most of their tuition. I am allowing my children to go anywhere they want and study anything they wish. I do, however, expect that they maintain a GPA of 3.33 (B-plus) at the end of each academic year. I do not think this is unreasonable. If either of my children were to fall behind I would not withdraw funding completely but would contribute only as much as in-state tuition in our state costs. My husband agrees with me. My kids think this is unfair and that most of their friends’ parents will not be monitoring their grades. I don’t need constant updates about how they are doing. I just want to make sure they end the year in good academic standing. My husband and I both paid our way through school with loans, but mostly attended through scholarships. We had to maintain certain averages to keep our funding. Is it too harsh to expect the same of my kids?
I don’t think so. Strict, maybe, but not harsh. You’ve been clear about your expectations well in advance, and the fact that you’ll be checking in yearly rather than quarterly should give them ample time to make up for any failed classes. (I say this assuming that their past academic success puts them within shooting distance of a B-plus average, and you’re not expecting them to suddenly double their GPA once they head off to college.) Your children have the option of choosing an in-state school to hedge their bets if they’re especially concerned about meeting your expectations. What you’re asking from them is hardly extreme, and the reduced funding should they fail to meet your terms is hardly punitive.
* * *
I am a 23-year-old woman about to start my first full-time job. This means moving out of the family house to a town a day’s drive away. I am excited (and relieved) but also writhing in guilt and anxiety over my mother. My mom and I have a complicated relationship. She is by far the most negative, controlling, and isolated person I have ever known. She never leaves the house unless absolutely necessary. She even used to verbally and emotionally abuse my three younger brothers and me. Still, I empathize with the difficulties she has faced in life. My concern is this: She wavers between being totally controlling and almost incapable of functioning without my help. If I go anywhere for more than a day, the house is always a mess when I get back. I am more than desperate to finally start my own life, but I feel guilty about needing to escape. My brothers have their own hurdles, so I worry about them too. Is there anything I can do?
—Loving but Leaving
The best way you can help your brothers is to move out and develop financial independence. Feigned helplessness is part of your mother’s arsenal of abuse tactics. If she makes you feel responsible for her well-being, she ensures that you’ll never leave her. When force fails, abusers often use manipulation and guilt to keep their victims close to them. Your mother managed to clothe and feed and pick up after herself before you were born; I can assure you that she’s perfectly capable of doing those things now. Move, enjoy your new apartment, trust that you will do your job well, and take the best possible care of yourself. Your brothers will see in you both an example and a resource when they need to make their own escapes someday.
* * *
My fiancée is an amazing, hard-working woman who adopted two high-risk teens and raised them into smart young women. She is in great shape, bikes, hikes, and loves the great outdoors. We have sex three times a week, and she is meticulous about it. My problem is the lack of presentation—she hardly dresses up or does her hair in anything but a ponytail and only throws on lipstick for work. She is not a slob in sweats, but the only time I have seen her in a skirt was for a funeral. I have tried to bring up lingerie, and she laughed herself sick. We are both in our early 40s, and she is everything I want. Is it too much to ask for some pretty wrapping now and then?
—No Dress Up
It may not be too much to ask, but I don’t think it’s very likely that you’re going to get any “wrapping,” no matter how many times you bring it up. Your fiancée isn’t much for makeup, likes to wear ponytails, and prefers jeans to skirts, all of which are well within the realm of normal human behavior. I think that’s the sort of woman you’re marrying, and you’re unlikely to change her. Maybe you can talk her into some eyeliner once a year for your birthday, but you’ve raised the subject more broadly, and she’s shut it down. Your life sounds pretty good to me. Content yourself with the thrice-weekly meticulous sex with Regina Hardbody, and let those dreams of fancy lingerie dissolve.
More Dear Prudence Columns
“Red-Letter Day: The notes my dying mother wrote to me a decade ago are haunting my life milestones.”
“Present Pain: If my husband doesn’t put more thought into his gifts, I’m going to cry.”
“Runway Bride: I hate my unfashionable—and nonrefundable—wedding dress.”
“Can’t Take a Joke: My family mercilessly teases to show affection, but my boyfriend doesn’t get it.”
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
“The Last Temptation of Bob: Prudie advises a man who doesn’t trust himself with his wife’s flirtatious sister.”
“Goading Granny: Prudie advises a man whose now-dying mother enjoys haranguing plus-size loved ones.”
“Love in the Time of Cancer: Prudie counsels a parent whose 16-year-old feels pressured to support her stricken boyfriend.”
“Choose Life: Prudie advises a woman with two special-needs sons who wants a third child—with genetic counseling.”