Dear Prudence

Surprise Ending

My father doesn’t plan to tell his adoptive brother when their mother dies.

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Dear Prudence,
My grandparents had three biological children and adopted two. One of their adopted sons, “John,” was 9 when they took him in, and had been seriously abused before being sent to a series of foster homes. As he got older, he suffered from depression and schizophrenia and tried to self-medicate with drugs. He eventually ended up in a care facility where he remains to this day. My grandmother speaks to him once a month or so and says he is doing well. I have never met John because my father and his other siblings do not understand mental health problems. They have written him off as if he doesn’t exist. My grandmother has been very sick lately and I brought up the question with the rest of my family: Who will tell John when she dies, and will anyone help him attend the funeral? According to my father, aunts, and uncles: no one. This seems cruel to me. I do not know his mental capacity, but I’ve worked with adults in long-term care like him, and I know he will at the very least notice when his mother no longer calls him. Should I try to get more information on his whereabouts so I can contact him myself? I am so angry at my family for not giving him the opportunity to say goodbye. It seems incredibly cruel.

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—Family Secret

There are so many unknown factors here that I’m reluctant to counsel you to contact John yourself. Since you’ve never met John and the two of you have no relationship, I worry that it might be more difficult for him to hear this news from you than it would from one of his siblings or his father. But mostly, I am angry and indignant with you on John’s behalf, and from the way your father’s generation seems to have written him off completely. It is unbelievably cruel to simply never tell John that his mother has died. He absolutely will notice that she has stopped calling him, and he should not be left alone to wonder what became of his mother simply because his siblings have underestimated his ability to process the concept of death. I think you should consider contacting John yourself as a last resort, only after you put serious pressure on your father and his siblings to tell John about his mother’s condition and to see if they can at least try to make arrangements for John to attend the funeral. He has the right to know that his mother has died. It is, quite literally, the very least that they can do.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband was divorced for three years before he met me, and his children were in their teens by the time we married. I had no expectation of acting like a parent to his children, but I did hope to have a civil relationship with them. My husband tried his best to stay in their lives, but after I got pregnant, everything seemed to go downhill. My husband has attended his other children’s plays and baseball games but had to miss his daughter’s high school graduation because a complication with my pregnancy landed me in the hospital; my husband tried to reason with his daughter, and she hung up on him. Attempts to make it up met with a stone wall of silence (at least until she wanted to transfer to a more expensive college out of state).

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My other stepchildren have reached out to me. My son and I have gotten cards and phone calls from them, but their mother and sister really set the tone. My stepson was excited about going on a cruise with us over the summer until he got a phone call from his sister—apparently he “forgot” a family function he had to go to that would make him miss our trip. I never pushed my husband or tried to make him choose between his children and our family. This has been going on for seven years. Our son is 4, and his oldest sister has never even met him. She is getting married now, and we got the invitation in the mail addressed only to my husband. He is angry on my behalf and heartbroken at the prospect of not seeing his daughter walk down the aisle. I can’t muster up the energy to tell him to go on without me. I am tired of walking on eggshells over a divorce that happened a decade ago because a pair of adults continue to act like petulant children. I want him to choose my son and me this time and tell my stepdaughter that we if are not invited, he isn’t coming. Can I do this? Do I have this right?

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—Cold Relations

Whatever her feelings about you may be, your husband’s daughter should not have invited him to her wedding without you. You are his wife, his partner, and the mother of his son. You did not break up her parents’ marriage, nor did you abuse or harm his other children in any way that would merit this kind of treatment. His daughter doesn’t have to like you, but she’s making a poor (and counterproductive) choice in pretending you and your son don’t exist. That said, for your husband to miss out on this wedding should be the very last resort. While her behavior is more than a little childish, she is, after all, your husband’s child, and missing her wedding—a hugely symbolic act—would create a lasting hurt that might be impossible to recover from. At this point, it’s still his job to be the bigger person.

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I think you should encourage your husband to speak to her about this, and to express his sadness and disappointment that his daughter can’t accept, or at least tolerate, the person he’s married. She’s about to marry someone she would presumably like to take with her to formal events—he should ask her to extend him the same courtesy. Painful situations like this one sometimes come with the territory of remarriage, and you have to roll with them as best as you possibly can. You’re not indulging a feud, you’re transcending it. I think he should be prepared to attend however his daughter responds (to do otherwise would be bringing a nuke to a conventional-warfare standoff), but he can draw a harder line around future, less emotionally charged events.

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Dear Prudence,
My parents are coming to town this week and I’m already losing sleep. When my son was 6 months old (he’s 3 now) my parents watched him for a couple of hours. When we returned we noticed five beer bottles in the recycling and some used wine glasses. If this had been a regular babysitter I would have fired them, but they are my parents. Since then I haven’t let them babysit together or at night, but they always offer. I’ve told my mom about my reluctance about a year ago and got an “I understand” but no apology. I’m still mad that they could be so reckless. Do I need to get over this and let them babysit or is it worth another try explaining my hesitation for free babysitting?

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—Should I Let My Parents Babysit?

One of the glories of adult life is the realization that we never have to simply “get over something” merely for the sake of getting over something. That’s not to encourage you to hold permanent grudges, mind you, but you don’t have to suddenly become comfortable with the idea of your parents finishing off a six-pack and a bottle of wine while looking after your infant son just because some time has passed. You don’t mention that your parents have a history of alcohol abuse, so if it seemed like a one-off episode of bad judgment, it may be worth having a follow-up conversation before deciding whether to keep them off the babysitting roster permanently. Tell them you don’t want them to drink alcohol while babysitting your son, and that it particularly disturbed you to find they’d drank rather heavily—not just a beer or two apiece—the last time you put him in their care. If their response is open and apologetic, and you think they’re capable of trying again sober, consider giving them another (briefer, lower-stakes) try at babysitting. Your son is presumably walking around and babbling now, and so they may find it more natural (and more demanding) to engage with him instead of having a drink. If they seem evasive or defensive or unable to promise to wait to imbibe until after you get home, well—free babysitting isn’t worth that sort of headache.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I recently got into an argument with his mom and aunt about visiting them. We live in a small country town about 40 miles away. While it may not seem far to some, it is for us since we’re struggling to pay for food, gas, and our mortgage. I recently just had a baby and we understand that everyone wants to see her, but we are barely making ends meet since my husband was injured at work. Both his aunt and mother have complained that we do nothing with them and claim that we like my parents more since we attend church with them once a week, and they live around the corner from us. We’ve tried making plans with his family but they never commit, nor will they come visit us. They’ve now started bashing us via text and social media. We’re ignoring it as much as possible but we’re tired of this. We’re doing everything we can to save money but all they see is our not wanting to spend time with them. What can we do to get them to see our point of view, or at least make them stop bashing us? This has been an ongoing problem with them but it hasn’t gotten this bad until recently.

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—Too Broke to Visit

What a baffling response from your in-laws. Normally, if a couple is struggling financially after a new baby and a work-related injury, the expected reaction from loved ones is “I’ll stop by with a casserole” or “what errands can I run for you,” not “I shall now criticize you on social media for living far away.” I’m not sure you can make your husband’s relatives see your point of view. Presumably you’ve told them that money is tight, that your husband has been unable to work since his injury, and that you’re overwhelmed trying to care for your new daughter, but they seem to have taken these challenges as a slight against them—an impressive display of self-centered gymnastics. That they won’t commit to visiting tells me they’re less interested in spending time with you than they are in finding ways to control, manipulate, and guilt you. I suggest you tell them that if they continue to harass you on social media, you’re going to block them. Then do so. Tell them they’re welcome to stop by and see your daughter, but if they continue to send insulting messages about how if you really loved them, you’d magically find the money for gas and drive over to see them, you’re going to block their phone numbers too.

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Dear Prudence,
My friend and co-worker Tabitha recently told me that she has been spending considerable time getting close to a former co-worker of ours, Damien (he’s gay, so there’s no romance there). When Damien worked with us he was lazy, incompetent, lied, and tried to put the blame for his mistakes on other people so he wouldn’t get in trouble. But what did him in was that he was caught stealing from a departmental donation basket we had started in order to throw an end-of-summer picnic. I think it demonstrates bad judgement to be friends with someone who not only made our working environment hell (and who showed no remorse) but stole from his co-workers on top of it. She is now trying to make excuses for him, and keeps inviting him along whenever we get together for drinks after work so “we can see the true Damien.” She doesn’t warn anyone; we’ve just shown up to the restaurant and seen him there. I have a lot of animosity toward him and don’t like to be forced to spend an evening worried about him stealing my wallet. Is there anything I can say to her?

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—Friend With Bad Judgment

There certainly is. Tell her what you just told me. “Damien made my working life extremely difficult, and I don’t want to spend time with him after he stole from the office collection basket. I have no interest in getting to know the true Damien, and it makes me uncomfortable that you’re trying to facilitate a reconciliation on his behalf when neither of us have asked you to. Please don’t invite me to events you plan on bringing him to.” As irritating as it might be to see Damien popping up at after-work events (he certainly has no shortage of nerve), you don’t have the right to tell her who to socialize with, but you do have the right to leave any event that makes you uncomfortable. I imagine Tabitha will have a hard time complying with this request, so let her know that if you find him unexpectedly invited to an after-work happy hour, you’re going to leave. You don’t have to make a scene, just tell your co-workers that you’re going to go home, and head for the door.

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Dear Prudence,
I am 45 years old and I have a great relationship with my mom. We talk on the phone several times a week and I feel close sharing about lots of topics. My problem arises when she tells me about her relationship with her stepson, his wife, and their 1-year-old son. My mom loves being a grandmother, so I am glad she is getting the chance with her second husband (since I am not planning on having kids) but she cannot seem to talk about her grandson without complaining about the parenting he receives. Admittedly, it does sound offbeat (for example, never letting him cry—ever) but she tends to hold herself up as a paragon of parenting. As a child, I felt like she did not pay enough attention to me and I resented time she spent on the phone and on her own interests. I don’t want to hurt her feelings or attack her (especially now that it does not really matter) but I am having a hard time holding my tongue. Is there a way to thread this needle without dishonesty or hurt feelings?

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—Mom Judges Others’ Parenting

I see two issues here: First, while your mother is far from the first to aggrandize her role as grandmother, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to request that she dial back her critiques of her stepson’s parenting techniques when she talks to you. You can tell her that while you love hearing about her grandson’s latest developments, you’re less interested in hearing about all the ways in which his parents are falling short of your mother’s expectations—a request that you ought to be able to frame as about keeping the conversation positive and pleasant without going into all the ways you feel your mother failed you as a child. As for that, from what you’ve said, I can’t determine whether your mother was a genuinely inattentive parent or if your resentments are more standard-issue (the fact that she spent a lot of time on the phone isn’t a slam dunk in either direction). It may be that the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes, but since you have a great relationship now, I don’t see why you can’t at least bring the topic up with her. This should be separate, however, from the first conversation. Consider telling her about your periodic feelings of neglect and inattention as a child, not as an indictment of her shortcomings as a mother, but so she can know you better. You are both lucky to be close enough where you feel comfortable sharing this revealing truth with her now.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a 56-year-old woman who is very happily married to an amazing woman. We’ve been together for 15 years and we raised two kids to adulthood together. The problem is that, whenever I dream, I dream I am still with my ex. This really bothers me. We broke up so long ago and we never have any contact. Why is she in my dreams? I don’t hate her. She was a great person but not for me. In my dreams she is just … there. There’s nothing traumatic, it is just like we are still together. These dreams make me feel bad. I should be dreaming of my real wife. I don’t get why my subconscious mind persists in bringing the wrong woman into my otherwise pretty normal dreams. Do others have this problem?

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—I Dream of My Ex

Lots of people dream about things they neither want nor need, if that’s what you’re asking. Dreaming you’re with a former partner isn’t a moral choice or secret sign of betrayal; your ex is in your dreams for the same reason many things are in your dreams, which is to say for no reason at all. You point out that these dreams don’t feel traumatic or exciting or passionate, which confirms what you already knew, that you harbor no long-suppressed feelings of either resentment or love for her. There is no “should” in dreaming; you’re not being disrespectful of your current wife just because your unconscious throws in a last-minute stand-in. You’re just dreaming. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

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Dear Prudence,
My wife and I have access to a mountain cabin for a long weekend. We invited my wife’s brother, sister, and their respective significant others to join us. Her sister cannot attend but her sister’s boyfriend has since reached out to indicate that he would like to come. We do not want him to come without my sister-in-law and think it is odd that they assumed he was invited to come on his own. Yes, my sister-in-law knows and is encouraging him to go without her. My brother-in-law says if we invited one, we invited both, and the boyfriend is not wrong to accept the invitation on his own. Are we obligated to include him?

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—Plus One

I’ll grant that it’s a little forward of him to ask if he can come without your sister-in-law, but I’m not sure why you’d like to have him come if he’s with her but be this dead set against his showing up alone. This is less a question of obligation and more a question of friendliness. No, you’re not violating the in-law section of the Geneva Conventions if you turn him down, but it would be kind to let him know he’s welcome even if his girlfriend can’t make it. You presumably enjoy his company enough that you would have enjoyed, or at least tolerated, his company on a short vacation in his capacity as her boyfriend; I imagine he will be equally bearable without her. There are worse things than making an “odd” assumption, and if your strongest reason for disinviting him is that his request was a little odd, you should bring him along. Consider being kind, even though you don’t have to be.

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