Dear Prudence

Nothing Like the Real Gene

Prudie advises a man whose wife thinks her stepchildren don’t count as her kids.

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 prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

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Danny Lavery: Hello, everyone. Let’s lurk on the frayed edges of one another’s lives.

Q. Not our girls: I am on my third marriage, first for my wife. We have a 4-year-old son together, my 9-year-old daughter, and my 13-year-old son who lives with my ex. I met my wife in the aftermath of second wife’s death. My wife is the only mother my daughter remembers. We went to premarital counseling before we got engaged, and she moved into our home. We agreed on all the big questions: finances, parenting style, religion, and the number of kids. Since our son is in preschool now, my wife has been talking more and more about wanting another baby. We have the same conversation over and over. We would have to move to a bigger house, we would have to go to a single income, the huge age gap between the kids, etc. It is not realistic at all. We have finally gotten to a place where we can save for retirement as well as college for our kids instead just treading water. We have tried going to counseling, but it only made things worse. My wife blurted out it wasn’t fair that I got three kids while she only had one. It was like being slapped in the face. She has apologized, but I keep watching her with my daughter, and all I can think about is what she said. I never expected this of her. I find myself resenting her and doubting her. We haven’t been intimate since that session, and I am dragging myself to them. I really don’t know to get past this. I need an outside eye here.

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A: I think you’re right to be resentful and doubtful, and I think you’re right to continue going to couples’ counseling even though you’re not excited about it. Be honest about how much your wife’s statement upset you. Don’t try to get over it too quickly or make it sound like you’re not deeply troubled by what she said. Let the statement hold weight. Take it seriously. You clearly believed that your wife considered the daughter she had helped raise to be her own, and now you’ve learned that she doesn’t. Ask more questions. Was she speaking in the heat of the moment? Does she really think of her as “your” child and not a child you two have together? Does she regret it? Or is a part of her glad that the truth is out? I don’t know what the future holds for the two of you, but I don’t think you should rush to “get past this,” because then you risk trying to cover up some very important concerns. Take your time. Ask questions. Deliberate. Be honest about your fears for the children you already have and how your wife sees them. If you don’t want another child, you have every right to make that clear. If I’ve learned one thing writing this column, it’s that people who feel pressured into having a(nother) child they’re not prepared to raise always regret it.

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Q. Should have said: I live in a rather small apartment complex where I generally can match a face to an apartment number. One of the apartment across from me had a family with several small children. I had seen their mother a few times, but mostly I recall a rather tired teenage girl trying to corral her younger siblings. It was summer, so I never thought about why children were out playing in the dark until 10 and 11 at night, every night; I only would tell them to please be quiet if they got loud. They were always sweet and apologized. I would see them every day when I got home from work, when I went to walk my dog and go dump the trash in the dumpster. I would see them every day. A week into September, child protective services came and interviewed me. That teenage girl was only 14 but had been left alone for days at a time with all those kids. Her parents were out gambling or doing drugs. It wasn’t until they didn’t show up for school that the authorities got involved. I haven’t seen them since. The apartment is empty and repainted. I don’t know how to live with myself. I have always been scornful of people in the news talking about tragedy and how they didn’t see it coming. I saw these kids every day, and thinking back I hadn’t seen any adult there for more than a month. I feel sick and shaken. The warning signs in hindsight are glaring, but I was oblivious. How do I move forward with this? Is there anything I could do?

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A: All you’ve described seeing to me is a group of children playing outside, even after dark, with an older sibling looking after them. Absent other signs (obvious hunger, signs of neglect or abuse), that’s scarcely hard evidence to call social services. You were polite to your neighbor’s children and had no idea what was going on at home. That doesn’t mean you’re wrong to experience compassion and self-doubt now, as it’s an extremely understandable response, but you did not ignore any obvious signs of wrongdoing. Plenty of nonabused children play outside in the summer, even after dark, and plenty of older siblings acting as babysitters look tired. The only adults at fault here were their parents.

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Q. Saying goodbye to a toxic job: I’ve been in a terrible mental space for the past year and a half because my work environment is horrible. Executives are demeaning and degrading; colleagues are territorial and passive-aggressive rather than empathetic and collaborative. My bosses have totally abandoned me and refused to promote me despite recently admitting I’m overqualified and deliver high-quality results. Well, I’m moving to another city soon, and even though I don’t have another job lined up yet, I don’t want any references from these people. Part of me wants to leave everyone with a sharply worded hand-written note on my way out, so they know exactly how I feel about their terrible behavior. The other part of me wishes I could be content enough to quietly slip out and let this place implode on its own. What’s the best route to take?

A: Leaving a poisonous letter in your wake is almost never the best route to take, unless you are an actual Borgia and willing to fully commit to the lifestyle. You might not want references from these people, but you may very well end up needing them if any future employers decide to call your most recent manager (a fairly common practice), and I can’t imagine getting an offer letter after someone hears, “He seemed great, until he left a note on his desk letting us know we should all go to hell.” You would be tanking your future career in order to insult former co-workers without even having the pleasure of watching them read your words. On some level, too, you must know that none of them are self-aware enough to take your words to heart—they’d dismiss you as “crazy” and embittered before they got to the end. You’re moving away and moving on, and you don’t ever have to see these people again. Let that be enough.

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Q. Child-abandoning co-worker: I have a co-worker whom I cannot stand. We’ll call her Alice. Alice is constantly in everyone’s business and gossips all day long. We are a small department in a large company. Alice constantly bashes the two fathers of her children and talks about how amazing of a stepmom she is to her boyfriend’s family. She constantly complains about her sons’ stepmothers and custody battles. Now to backtrack: About three years ago a good friend asked if I would babysit for her neighbor, who’d had a baby with her friend. The father was unfortunately in jail, and the mother (her neighbor) was MIA. I babysat and fell in love with the sweetest and most beautiful baby girl who ended up being adopted by the father’s brother and wife. I recently found out that Alice is the mother of the baby. I talked a little about the girl I had to babysit and how the girl’s mother had just left her with family and never came back, even mentioning the little girl’s name. I’ve never seen someone’s face so pale. She looked terrified and asked if I knew anything about the mother. I told her no, and she looked relieved and walked out of my office. This confirmed to me that she was the mother. She comes in my office daily to complain and gossip about co-workers in other departments as well as the issues with her children’s fathers. I get so angry hearing about this when I know she abandoned her daughter. Can I shut her up by letting her know what I know? Or do I go with the morally safe option of putting up with her?

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A: The best advice I can give you in the middle of this (very exciting) soap opera is this: Talk to Alice much less. I know it’s not always possible to opt out of gossip in a small office, but I think it’s worth giving it your best college try. You might not like Alice—from the sound of things, I don’t much like her either—but I don’t see how it would improve your work life if you let her know you think she’s a bad mother, especially because the only “confirmation” you have at present that she is indeed the mother in question is the fact that her face went unusually pale. If this were a Victorian novel, that would be all the evidence you need, but as it is, I don’t think you have quite the open-and-shut case you think you have.

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Maybe Alice is the mother of the girl in question! Maybe she isn’t. Either way, there’s nothing to be gained by letting Alice know that you know. It won’t improve the little girl’s life, since she’s already been adopted by someone else, and since Alice was prepared to abandon her own child several years ago, finding out that her co-worker disapproves is hardly likely to persuade her to change her ways. If you don’t like hearing her gossip, you don’t have to throw her long-lost daughter in her face in order to get her to stop. Try: “Alice, I’m afraid I’m very busy, and if you don’t have anything work-related to discuss, I’ll have to get back to my project.” Repeat as necessary, and punctuate your point with headphones as often as possible.

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Q. Fake: My boyfriend’s sister is really into woo-woo new age stuff. I don’t believe in any of it but indulge her when she wants to “bless” our apartment by burning sage. It has the same effect of my grandma sending me a crucifix to keep away the devils. But lately she has taken into her head that she can speak to the dead and demand attention when the “spirits” are calling her. The only “person” who I have known who has died was my dog. She keeps telling me that someone is trying to connect me, and when I answer in the negative, she gets upset. My boyfriend just rolls his eyes and plays along, but it is getting very annoying to me trying to keep up with her play acting. This is happening at brunch with other friends. It is embarrassing. Other than cutting her out of my life, can you see any what to get her to cut it out?

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A: There is a clear line between respecting others’ beliefs and participating in them. I don’t think you are under an obligation to humor her conviction that she’s a medium, but you shouldn’t antagonize her either. If she wants to talk about her irritating hobby at brunch from time to time, listen politely, but if she insists on roping you in by claiming she knows someone dead who wants to talk to you, you have every right to tell her (politely) that you don’t share her interest in communing with the dead, that you’re not interested in pursuing that topic of conversation, and that you’d appreciate it if she dropped the subject. If she’s not able to meet that fairly low conversational bar, change the subject or turn to someone else at the table and ask what’s new in his or her life.

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Q. Baby photo meltdown: How long am I expected to keep cards and announcements? A bunch of my friends had babies recently, and I was flooded with birth announcement cards and 1-year birthday present thank you cards (some of which included photos). I am so happy for my friends, and I loved getting the cards. However, I invited two of my friends over for lunch, and one of them found both of their birth announcements in the recycle. Their babes are 3 months old and 4 months old. They said these cost a lot to make and send out, and they should be kept, as they are special. I live in a one-bedroom and don’t have the space for clutter. I don’t keep scrap books or photo albums. I kept the birth announcements up for a week or so, but I took them down because I prefer more artistic things on my fridge. My friend then pointed out that I have a baby picture up—of my nieces. I always keep a photo of my parents and my nieces in my home. They threatened to not send me Christmas cards over this (I have not lost sleep over that). Besides the fact that I might miss out on family picture Christmas cards, I know our friendship will survive this drama. However, I just want to make sure I am not being insensitive. In my mind I think my friends are being ridiculous, but most people think they are in the right in moments of conflict, so you never know! Can I let this slide, or should I apologize?

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A: I don’t know why your friends were going through your recycling (I hope, for your friendship’s sake, that it was an indoor recycling bin and the announcements in question were right on the top), but if they’re going to go looking for trouble, they shouldn’t blame others when they find it. Your sin was a venial one; most people don’t keep every wedding and baby announcement permanently, not because they don’t care about their loved ones’ milestones, but because they’d run out of room on their fridges. If your friendship with these women is otherwise strong, though, I think it’s worth reassuring the both of them that you care deeply about them and their families, and that you didn’t chuck out their birth announcements because you don’t care, or because you don’t like getting updates about important landmarks in their lives, that you didn’t mean to be insensitive, and that you’d love to get lunch again soon.

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Q. Single and happy: I’m a 31-year-old man who is being increasingly pressured to date and get married. The problem is that I don’t want to. I’m a fiercely independent person, and the thought of giving so much of myself to another is frankly unappealing. I own my own home and earn enough to be comfortable in my lifestyle. I’ve dated before and never saw the appeal in it. However, my family and friends present a nearly solid front on this issue. I’ve been sat down for heart-to-heart talks, set up with likely women, and subjected to all sorts of different guilt trips from my parents who want grandchildren. I love my life, but I have to ask, Prudie, is something wrong with me? How should I deal with all these people telling me how to live my life?

A: In order: 1) Nothing is wrong with you. 2) Tell them that you don’t want to get married, that you don’t feel anything missing from your life because you’re not in a romantic relationship, and that when they pressure you to pair off with someone, it makes you want to pull away from them, not get betrothed to the next likely woman you see.

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