Dear Prudence

The Other Life

Prudie advises a letter writer whose dying grandmother once loved another woman.

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 prudence@slate.com.)

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail 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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Q. Closeted grandmother: My 90-year-old grandmother is very ill and will die in a matter of weeks. We’ve always been really close, as I’m her only granddaughter and my mother was her only daughter. When I was looking for some old photographs to look through with her in her attic, I stumbled upon letters written when she was in her 20s. It was a love note, to a woman, with a reciprocation from that woman as well. Some more framed pictures of the woman were also stored (with her name on them). I know my grandparents had a strained and cold marriage, although I never suspected my grandmother’s sexuality might have been a reason for that. Now, I’m not sure if I should show her the letter and pictures, because it might make her remember her happiness when she was with that woman, or whether it would upset and embarrass her (she’s pretty buttoned-up). My mother has passed away, so I can’t ask her for advice. What do you think?

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A: I think when a 90-year-old woman is weeks away from dying, it’s generally not a good time to ask if she wants to come out. She was once in love with another woman and had fond enough memories to keep a few letters and photos of the two of them; that doesn’t necessarily mean this woman was the love of her life, or the reason her marriage to your grandfather was so strained. I think you can split the difference: If she’s lucid enough, the next time you speak to her, you can tell her you went through the attic and found a lot of old photos and letters, and ask if there is anything she would like to look through again. If she seems interested in a walk down memory lane, you can bring the letters along with whatever else she asks for; if she doesn’t, don’t cause her distress by forcing the issue. The key question to ask yourself before acting is is: Do I think this would comfort and bring solace to my dying grandmother, or do I think it would satisfy my own curiosity about a closed-off woman’s personal life? While the latter impulse is understandable (I’m nosy too), it should not dictate your actions.

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Q. Attacked by my BIL: My brother-in-law-to-be is a former neo-Nazi who used to hang a Nazi flag on his wall and pass out pamphlets for a white nationalism group. The only time we met he refused to talk to me, shake my hand, or make eye contact because I’m Romani (“gypsy,” a slur he uses for me) and because I have spoken publicly about being pansexual, which he thinks is disgusting. I have always been kind to his children when they visit and even to his new wife, who was struggling with untreated mental illness after the birth of their son. I used to be a counselor who helped young women in situations like hers, but I felt I was doing it as a sister. Last week a silly debate broke out on Facebook, and my soon-to-be-brother-in-law posted a late-night diatribe that he tagged me in and called me a “filthy whore.” I mean it when I say nothing in the debate could have somehow brought on this kind of reaction. It was very tame. He compared my having a child with my genetics to injecting a baby with a needle containing HIV. The entire family has backed him up, and my fiancé has cut off his entire family for good. I feel incredibly guilty despite his insistence that I in no way could have foreseen this and his family is behaving abhorrently. He has expressed that I have supported him more than they have in his life and it’s really not a loss for him, but in my experience there is usually something wrong with a spouse coming between their partner and whole family. Should I feel this way, or he is right?

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A: Look at it this way: Your husband-to-be cut off contact with his family not solely because they insulted you, his fiancée, but because they expressed support for racist, homophobic, violent sentiments that violate his core belief in human dignity. It is not you who has come between your partner and his family, it is their actions that have come between them. Your husband was absolutely right to do so, and you should not feel a shred of guilt or responsibility for the estrangement between them. Also, for your own sake, I hope you have defriended the brother in question on Facebook; he is not a person who deserves to see your vacation photos or birthday notifications. He does not, in fact, deserve to see you at all.

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Q. Ex at the birth: My husband and I have had an intense, tumultuous, ultimately toxic four-year marriage that I filed to end upon finding a hand-shaped bruise on our 3-year-old’s behind. My husband was raised in an abusive environment and considers this kind of thing small (I don’t). This isn’t the first time, and I’ve reported him to state protective services before, but that experience was so awful all around that this time I opted for a divorce with mutually agreed-upon custody arrangements and parenting/anger classes. We’ve been cordially separated for two months now, with the divorce papers to be signed after the new year.

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Here’s the kicker: I am now three weeks away from delivering our third child, and my soon-to-be-ex just dropped the bombshell that, while he still loves me, he also has feelings for, and has been sleeping with, another woman in the two months since I asked him to move out. On the one hand, I understand that I was the one to initiate the filing; he tells me she is a wonderful person who asks after my well-being and has opened his eyes. On the other, I’m blindsided and emotionally devastated (especially since, in the same time period, he and I have also slept together several times). I have every intention to pursue individual counseling, but my question is this: Do you think it will cause bigger problems if I tell him I’m not comfortable with him being present at the delivery? I want him to continue to have a (safe) relationship with our kids, but all I can think about is being completely vulnerable with labor-pain and him there to witness me, walls-down, all the while caring about and sleeping with someone else. I don’t think I can deal with both kinds of pain at the same time. Still, I know he would be devastated and very angry to be forced to miss his son’s birth. (He was present and extremely supportive and loving at both other births.) I feel he put me in a horrible position, and this is a lot of stress for a woman in her third trimester to be dealing with. Am I just subtly getting revenge, or can I fairly ask him to stay away?

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A: It is completely fine for you to not have your ex-husband with a history of violence in the delivery room. The only person who is absolutely required to be in the delivery room is you. You two are no longer partners, and his presence would not be supportive or helpful to you as you give birth (generally considered to be a period of time during which the child-birther’s needs are paramount). You are being excessively hard on yourself; you are not “subtly getting revenge,” you are setting a reasonable boundary. Plenty of people have sat anxiously in the waiting room while their partners gave birth; he can join their ranks and pass out cigars in the hallway. He has his son’s entire life to be present for, and he has a great deal to work on before he can be a safe, supportive presence in it—he can use the time to think about his choices and practice anger management.

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Q. Self-realization: After a Thanksgiving with my parents, who I struggle to connect with emotionally, and an honest conversation with my spouse about having a second child, I’m wondering about my own emotional capabilities. I currently struggle with telling my parents when they are irking me or hitting an emotional boundary. In the past I tried but got guilt trips and other emotional manipulations. My parents act like they want to understand my emotional perspective, but after years of this cycle, I am hesitant to let them in. Meanwhile, my husband and I are raising a 2½-year-old who is … very good at being 2. I sometimes lose my temper, get frustrated, or walk away from situations rather than deal with power struggles. I also realized this morning that I don’t always let my husband in on my emotional experiences as I don’t have the energy to try and explain things without it becoming a big deal. As for the second child … my husband politely but clearly told me he worries that a second child would be more stress than I can handle given our current situation with our sometimes demanding, big personality, and bright child. I really want to have a baby, but he might be right. Perhaps I’m simultaneously too emotionally cut off from loved ones but also too emotional when my reactions blow up. Recommendations?

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A: This question is vague enough that I’m not sure I can give you more specific advice than “see a therapist” and “don’t have a second child yet.” I wonder what you mean when you say you don’t have the “energy” to explain your emotions until they become “a big deal”—do you tend to sulk? Withdraw? Explode in anger? Do you lose your temper at yourself? At your 2-year-old? What does that look like? There are so many ways to interpret your description that I can’t be sure if you ought to be speaking up more or less, so I’m going to limit myself to the instruction to get yourself into therapy posthaste. Therapy is quite literally designed to help people with their emotional capabilities! There are trained professionals whose only job it is to help you process and communicate these feelings more effectively; your problem is so universal that an entire occupation has been created to address it. Consider going to couple’s counseling with your husband as well as pursuing individual therapy—what you describe is apparently significant enough that your own partner doesn’t think you can happily and healthily have another child, and you both ought to take that very seriously.

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Q. Bedbugs: My husband has a close relative who is a hoarder. Her apartment is filled with knee-deep trash. Her ex-husband, recently divorced, shared the same hygiene habits. The divorce put her in an awkward financial position and her parents have agreed to co-sign a new lease. Before they signed, the apartment manager disclosed bedbug issues on another floor. They went forward with the lease. I’m worried that her hygiene habits may encourage breeding and make it more difficult to detect the bugs. Both the parents and this relative don’t think this will be a problem. Given the difficulty of eradicating these bugs, I do not want them to visit our house. My husband thinks I’m paranoid and unsupportive. I’m not sure what to do. How do I address this? What is the likelihood that we will contract these bugs?

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A: Given that your husband’s relative currently does not have a bedbug problem, I would put your likelihood of contracting them at close to zero. If she does contract them—which seems possible but is not a guarantee—then you can put a ban on in-home visits until the infestation is eradicated, but to do so prematurely would be unnecessarily alienating.

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Q. Babysitting fears: My husband and I, along with our 3-year-old daughter, are planning an extended trip to Europe, where his family lives. I’ve always enjoyed visiting them, and this will be our daughter’s first trip to her grandparents’ home. The problem is that my in-laws, along with my husband, are encouraging me to leave our daughter with them so my husband and I can do some work-related travel. I can’t shake my reservations about this! My sister-in-law, who lives in the same town as her parents, has three young children who have never spent the night at their grandparents’ and are rarely with them unaccompanied. (Her husband’s parents, who live several hours away, do occasionally babysit the children.)

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According to my husband, my sister-in-law acts like this because of her tempestuous adolescence and because she’s a rather “perfectionist” mom who didn’t like her working class upbringing. In my head, I agree—but I can’t shake memories of a childhood friend who was abused by her paternal grandfather, a man who had earlier abused her aunts. After becoming a mother, my sister-in-law’s behavior has cast a shadow over my father-in-law’s off-color humor. Am I overreacting? Refusing will throw a wrench into our plans and deeply hurt my in-laws, especially since my daughter frequently stays with my parents. I’ve considered contacting my sister-in-law directly, but I’m worried that she either won’t respond honestly or will tell her parents about my suspicions. How should I proceed?

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A: I cannot guarantee you that you are not overreacting, because it is always possible that someone might hurt your child. Aside from your father-in-law’s “off-color humor” (I wish I knew more about the specifics there), there is no evidence he has ever harmed a child or abused anyone in the family. There is nothing in your letter that suggests to me your children are likely to be in danger with your in-laws; neither is their anything in your letter that suggests to me you are tilting at windmills or being completely unreasonable. Because you say you have always enjoyed visiting your in-laws in the past, and your husband feels comfortable leaving your children, I think you should build trust slowly: Stay with your in-laws and your children for at least a few days before traveling on your own. Make sure you feel comfortable and that the children are being looked after well, and once you have reassured yourself that your in-laws are not the same people who abused your childhood friend, travel with a clear conscience.

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Q. Don’t want him back: A couple of months ago my ex-husband contacted me out of the blue. We’ve been divorced for about 15 years. No children, and neither of us has remarried. He said he was coming East for a short vacation and asked if we could meet up. I didn’t see any harm in it and said sure. It didn’t go well. When we met in grad school, he was a nice-looking guy, on the nerdy side, but kind of charming. Since then he’s put on about 100 pounds and lost most of his hair. He kind of smells funny. He’s also become opinionated and instead of talking, he lectures, even on stuff he knows nothing about. Think Cliff from Cheers.

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Obviously this was not going to go anywhere and I told him so, telling him I thought we’d both changed too much. We had met at a restaurant, not my house, thank god, because he had a temper tantrum and then left in a huff. I thought this was the end of it, but since then I’ve gotten emails from his mother, who was always nice to me, telling me that her son’s heart is breaking, I should give him a chance, he can’t find anybody else, etc. I genuinely like this woman. There is no way I can tell her that her son is an unattractive and obnoxious mess. Is there a way around this other than simply blocking her emails?

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A: “I’m sorry if this is painful for him, but I’m not interested in revisiting a relationship with my ex-husband. I was willing to catch up with him over a drink, but he wants much more than I am able to give. I wish you both the best, but I consider this conversation closed.”

Danny M. Lavery: Special thanks to our guest columnist Marcus Aurelius this week, who is dead. Let we who are finely and gloriously alive take or leave his advice as we see fit.

Discuss this column with Dear Prudence on his Facebook page!

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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