Dear Prudence

The Babysitter With No Name

Prudie counsels a woman whose stepdaughter hates her but needs free child care.

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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Danny M. Lavery: Ahoy-hoy, everyone. Let’s chat.

Q. One more try?: My stepdaughter has never forgiven me for marrying her father after her mother died over 20 years ago. We tried family therapy when she was a teen, and it was a waste. She tried to disinvite me from her wedding, and only backed down when her father told her if I didn’t go neither would he and he wouldn’t be paying for it. I have never tried to be her mother. I just want a civil relationship like I have with her brothers. I gave up when during her baby shower we got her a stroller and signed it “Pop Pop & Nana.” My stepdaughter bluntly informed me that her baby has only one grandmother and in no way was I her.

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Since then I have stepped back and sent my husband to see her alone. I don’t want to cost him a relationship with his grandchildren and daughter. Now I have retired, and I have been taking care of my daughter’s son while she works. My stepdaughter is in the middle of a nasty divorce and has to go back to work. She wants me to watch her two children (a kindergartner and an infant). My husband is hopeful, but I am not. Frankly I think she wants free child care in addition to free rent (we are paying for her apartment). I don’t mind the money; we can afford it. But I don’t want to get attached to these children only to have them snapped away once it is convenient for my stepdaughter to hate me again. I would love to believe that this could be a new beginning, but I can’t. What should I do?

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A: I’d like to think this marked a possible new beginning too, but I’m skeptical. Your stepdaughter has made it very clear over the last 20 years that she does not consider you someone worthy of basic politeness. It’s one thing for a grieving teenager to be slow to warm up to a new stepmother; it’s quite another to forbid you from calling yourself “Nana” decades later because she doesn’t want you to consider yourself a grandmother to her children. You don’t want to cut her off completely, which I think is admirable, so perhaps you and your husband could offer to subsidize her child care while she finalizes her divorce. But I think your prediction that your stepdaughter will turn on you again once she’s no longer in crisis is likely to be an accurate one.

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If you are feeling particularly expansive, you might consider having an edited version of this conversation with your husband and your stepdaughter and explain that while you can’t take on the full-time care of three children every day, you would like to babysit more often and get to know her children, but that you’re concerned because she has made it clear in the past that she does not consider you their grandmother. You know you’re not her mother—you’ve never tried to be—but you are a permanent part of her father’s life, and you would like to have a positive relationship with his grandchildren, and to consider them a part of your own family, not just his. If she seems responsive, it may be possible to forge a new type of relationship without becoming a full-time nanny. If she doesn’t, you haven’t lost much.

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Q. Daughter won’t sleep in her bed: Dear Prudie, My husband and I have been married almost 12 years and our daughter is almost 11 years old. The problem is that our daughter will not sleep in her own bed. My husband and I place a great deal of the problem on ourselves. It’s been the one battle that we haven’t been willing to fight. And it is a big fight! A lot of lost sleep, tears, threats, bribes, etc.—to no avail. Most of the time my husband or I end up sleeping in her bed while she sleeps in our bed! We know how wrong the whole situation is. It’s not healthy for any of us. My husband is much more patient, but I’ve become very angry and resentful. Other than this issue, she is a well-rounded kiddo. I don’t know if I need to drag all three of us into family counseling. Trying to talk to friends or family for advice is hard because they just criticize how long we’ve let this go on or tell us to just lock her in her room and let her cry it out. We’re not willing to go that route. Would appreciate any direction you may have to offer. Thank you.

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A: I think your instinct not to lock your daughter in her room is a good one; if nothing else, that could pose a serious fire hazard. Therapy sounds like a more reasonable option, because of the possibility that your daughter is unwilling to sleep alone due to some trauma she may have experienced that you don’t know about. Don’t “drag all three of us into family counseling” as a punishment for bad behavior. Take your daughter in for a full medical checkup and to visit a family counselor because she is your daughter and you love her and you want her to be well. If she is experiencing mental distress to the point of tears at the prospect of sleeping alone (especially since you say she’s well-behaved in all other areas), while it’s possible that she is simply throwing a tantrum, it’s also possible that she is suffering acutely from past abuse, a sleep disorder, or sensory processing issues, and needs more help than she is currently receiving.

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If you’re able to thoroughly rule out all other possibilities, and are simply looking for advice on how to enforce the “no more co-sleeping rule,” I think you should abandon the bribes and threats route. If you have a smoke detector in your bedroom, you might consider locking your own door. If any readers have had similar experiences with their own children and want to pass along any tips, now’s the time for all good men to come to our aid.

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Q. Taking back a lie: When I was young, I had medical treatments that left me unable to have children. I am OK with this because I have no real desire to have kids. I try to be upfront with men about this. When I start to feel things are getting serious, I bring up the subject. My infertility scared off a couple of guys, but most were OK with it. About a year ago I started seeing a great guy. We didn’t get serious fast. It just kind of morphed into serious after a few months, and I didn’t really realize it. So I never brought up the subject of kids. Over the holidays I met his family. He is one of six kids, and each of his siblings has three-to-five kids. I mentioned it, and he said that everyone in his family loves kids and he hopes to have at least three, if not more. He then asked me how many kids I wanted. I panicked and said at least three. I have no idea why I lied. And it was a lie. I knew he was thinking of birth children, not adopted. This hasn’t come up again, but I know I have to take back this lie somehow. I just don’t know how. Do you have any guidance?

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A: The best way to take back a lie is completely and unreservedly and prepare for the worst. (I once had to call a grown woman and confess I had lied to her about crafts; it was utterly humiliating and also totally fine. You can do this.) You did not deliberately set out to mislead your boyfriend. You panicked in the moment. This does not mean what you said was fine, but it bodes well for you that you are trying to self-correct as quickly as possible. Tell him that you hadn’t been prepared to discuss the possibility of kids and panicked at the time, but that you need to be honest with him—that you are medically unable to have children and do not, in fact, want to have any, biologically or otherwise. If he decides he does not have a future with you because your goals are incompatible, it’s better to know now and part ways rather than mislead him. Then you can return to your previous policy of full disclosure, and rest easier.

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Q. Sleep deprived and it’s ruining everything: I listened to your “Insomnia” podcast recently and nearly wept when you said the letter writer with the sleep-disrupting boyfriend should kill him. I am part of a service corps and must share a room with “Sasha.” Sasha snores. Incredibly loudly. She also has the worst sleep habits I’ve ever encountered. She survives on three hours of sleep a night and looks at her phone under her covers. I’ve tried talking to Sasha about her issues so many ways: jokingly, at a party, telling her she needs to go to a sleep clinic; writing her emails explaining her problems; setting sleep schedules for her based on what I’ve observed reduces the snoring. She shuts down every time I confront her. I’ve made her cry, and worse, because some of my emails were written under duress—I am falling apart I’m so tired and angry—she’s shared them with our roommates and now I’m the bad guy. I don’t know what to do short of quitting the program. Sasha says she has a medical condition and is making appointments to see doctors, but I know what she needs to do: get proper sleep and not look at bright screens before bed. I have no energy and am suffering at work and socially because of Sasha. For some reason, everyone in our house adores her and takes her side. I have no idea how to explain that I’m this angry because a lack of sleep is ruining my life. What can I do?

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A: If you haven’t already tried minimizing distractions from your side of the room, please do so immediately. If you have other roommates in the house, ask to switch with one of them. If your service program has a housing department, make a transfer request. In the meantime, get the heaviest-duty earplugs you can find, buy a blackout sleep mask, find a white-noise machine or (if you can’t afford to drop a ton of money on sleep hygiene) get one on your phone.

For future reference, some of your strategies for talking about serious issues with a roommate are fine (nothing wrong with a clear email) and some of them are counterproductive, like making jokes at her expense in public, or trying to set a sleep schedule for a grown woman. Don’t joke about something that’s really bothering you, because those jokes tend to land with serious barbs and don’t go half as far as a genuine, honest request. And don’t try to manage your roommate’s sleep schedule. You can tell her that her snoring is making it hard for you to sleep, you can ask for a roommate transfer, you can encourage her to get checked out for underlying medical conditions that might contribute to intense snoring, but you cannot tell her when to go to bed or when to wake up. If she’s looking at her phone under her covers, that suggests she is at least trying to minimize the distractions to you, and means you two might be able to work together to find a livable compromise.

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Q. Re: Daughter won’t sleep in her bed: My son refused to sleep in his own bed unless one of us stayed with him. There were many fights, tears, etc. You name it, we battled it. He started seeing a therapist because of control/anger issues. The very first thing the therapist did was tell him that he is to sleep in his bed alone. He said OK and that was it. I guess it was his last bit of control he had over us. He was 8 when he started seeing her. He’s done great in therapy. He’s 10 now and we see a big improvement.

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Q. Re: Daughter won’t sleep in her bed: My sister had a very similar problem. What they decided was that daughter could come sleep with a sleeping bag on her parents’ floor, but that she couldn’t sleep with them (and no more middle-of-the-night bed swapping!) This gave their daughter (also 10–11 at the time) the comfort she needed of having her parents nearby without disrupting their sleep. Before too long, she didn’t want to sleep on the floor anymore and went to sleeping in her own bed happily. Worth a try. The goal is to remove the immediate fear while also making the result less optimal for the kid (floor instead of nice warm bed with mom or dad) and more optimal for the parents (own bed, not kid-sized twin!)

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A: Good advice!

Q. Puppy probs: My son was given a puppy by my parents a couple years ago. At the time, we were living in a condo that did not allow pets, so when my parents gifted the dog, the understanding was that the dog would stay at my parents’ house and we would come visit. Well, fast-forward a couple years and due to my parents’ divorce, my son moving out of state and my also not being able to care for the dog, the dog had to be rehomed. A family member and his family took a liking to the dog and offered to take him. We were thrilled and thought this was a win-win for everyone. Come to find out that the family member’s wife gave the dog away after only a few months because he was having trouble adjusting to the new environment by peeing everywhere and he chewed up some furniture. I should also mention that they bred our dog with a dog they already had because they were the same breed, and sold the puppies.

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I totally understand if my son’s dog wasn’t a good fit, but I can’t help but think they should’ve given the dog back to us if they weren’t going to keep him. At the very least, they should’ve called to give us a heads up. Instead, we found out secondhand. What is common practice in cases like this?

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A: I think there were multiple levels of failure here. It was perhaps poorly thought-out of your parents to buy a dog for someone else but offer to keep it in their home without thinking through who owed the dog primary responsibility. It was incumbent on you as the dog’s owner (if not his full-time caretaker) to have your dog neutered to prevent low-budget breeding operations like the one your relatives apparently run out of their home. You could, perhaps, have done more careful investigation before rehoming the dog than simply giving him to a family member who “took a liking to him.” You could have figured out an action plan in case the rehoming failed. As for what you can do now, you can ask your relative for the dog’s new owner’s contact information if you want to check in and make sure he’s with people who love and care for him, although you don’t have any standing to demand it if they don’t want to hand it over. If nothing else, you can learn from this situation and make better choices if you ever get another pet.

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Q. Wife never liked sex: After 32 years of marriage and two children my wife admitted she never liked sex, not with me nor with anyone she was with before me. Our sex life has been deteriorating for years even with counseling and has, for the last few months, ceased to exist. Her early sexual experiences ranged from boring to abusive and she says I am the only one who ever cared about her pleasure, but she still has no interest in sex. She has broached solo counseling to see if she can develop an interest but only to make me happy, not for herself. She has not, however, made any efforts to start. I don’t want to divorce her and start over, but I am at a loss of what to do? Any chance of saving this marriage? I am not ready to give up on sex for the rest of my life.

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A: Your wife has been honest with you; return the favor and be honest with her. If she’s not interested in having sex with you, talk about under what circumstances you two would be comfortable with the prospect of an open marriage, and what form that might take. Given the following conditions—that your wife is not interested in having sex and hasn’t been for decades, that you are interested in having sex (with an enthusiastic partner, not someone who is willing to develop a begrudging interest to “make you happy”), that you do not want a divorce—the two of you should figure out what possible arrangement(s) can meet both of your needs.

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