Mallory Ortberg, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, world! Let’s get to adjudicating.
Q. Grandma trying to convert grandchild: Grandma is very, very religious and has taken it upon herself to attempt to convert our new 2-month-old son. Every “conversation” with the infant includes God and every present is Christian-themed, from Christian picture frames to religious children’s books. Obviously the child still doesn’t grasp any of this.
The rub is my spouse and I aren’t religious, and agreed to raise our child in our (lack) of beliefs. We aren’t bothered by exposure, which can be great for learning, but this proselytizing isn’t OK. How do we get Grandma to stop, especially when the Christmas season is bound to kick this into overdrive? I am not optimistic that she will listen if we ask politely, and I would prefer to stop it before little Einstein is old enough to understand.
A: I’ve heard of religious family members trying to convert their relatives’ young children, but I’m almost impressed at how early your grandmother is trying to get God’s foot in the door (Almost. I am not, in fact, impressed with her behavior.). The good—and bad—news is that if your grandmother does not listen to your polite requests, you have the opportunity to establish appropriate consequences. “Grandma, I know your faith is important to you and that you love little Hanktimony here, but we’re not religious and don’t want you to proselytize to him.” If the religious gifts continue, you get to follow up with, “As we mentioned, we don’t want you to proselytize to our son; we’re going to donate this to an appropriate charity.” If she’s completely incapable of interacting with a baby without trying endlessly to espouse her religious beliefs, then you will get to limit the time she spends with her grandchild. That’s unfortunate, but it’s completely avoidable if she can behave appropriately. You’re not asking her to pretend she’s not religious, nor are you preventing her from expressing her faith, you’re simply asking her to refrain from trying to convert a 2-month-old baby with every breath.
Q. No way: My husband and I love the great outdoors and have taken our daughter to every national park in the state. She is 11. My two sisters have girls of their own. We took them all for a week this summer to a lake to see how a cousins camping trip would go.
It went great except for “Gracie.” Gracie was miserable. She could not do the simplest activities and didn’t want to do them at all. She would have panic attacks and cry if a bee got near her. My husband and I traded off doing activities with the other girls and staying in camp with Gracie.
Her mother adored having a kid-free week and wants to do this again for spring break. My husband and I want to do it with the other girls, but this time it would involve some actual deep woods experience. Gracie had a horrible time when we were at actual campsite with showers and toilets. Gracie says she wants to come, and I think it is mostly to please her mother. How do I tell my sister no way and still keep the peace? Gracie is a great girl and smart as a whip, but she is not the outdoors type at all.
A: Oh, this is tricky, especially because you’re not considering keeping it just in your nuclear family this year, but inviting all of the other cousins except for Gracie. It would be one thing if you just wanted to take your own girls, but I’m not sure how you could keep everyone on the roster but Gracie, especially if she still says she wants to go. My inclination is to say that you should just take your own children this year, but I’m open to hearing from other readers (especially parents!) who have other ideas on how to deal with this.
Q. Stuck: I adore “Dan.” He is everything I want in a man: sweet, funny, kind, and handsome. Dan lost his wife of four years to a drunk driver three years ago; he is still obsessively involved with her children. I wouldn’t think anything about it if Dan had raised these girls from birth, but they were 11 and 7 when Dan married their mother. Their biological father was not overly involved in their lives but not willing to sign away his paternal rights. His mother is the one with the day-to-day custody.
The 18-year-old moved in with Dan as soon as her birthday came. She has no plans for school as of now, does not have a full-time job, and calls Dan “Daddy.” I am very uncomfortable when I go over to Dan’s condo and she is there. I know she doesn’t like me, and while she hasn’t made any overtly hostile moves, she hugs Dan all the time and deliberately brings up her younger sister and interferes with any plans that we are making (“you can’t do anything Sunday, Daddy, Julie has a game,” et cetera!).
The entire situation makes me queasy. When the 14-year-old comes over, the three of them are this little impregnable unit, and I feel like the new kid in the lunchroom. They hang off Dan like limpets and ignore me entirely. The entire situation is ridiculous! I feel like the Evil Stepmother except they aren’t my stepkids! They aren’t even Dan’s anymore! Every time I bring up our relationship, Dan filters it through the kids’ angle (if we’d move in together, “where would the girls live?” If we sell our places and get a new one together, “it has to be near the girls!” If we go to Jamaica for Christmas, “what about the girls?”). I know I love Dan. I want to have a family with him, but he is stuck in the past. What can I do here?
A: Oh, man. I don’t often find myself wishing that a letter were fake, but I hope very much that this one is. The fact that you consider Dan’s relationship to his daughters temporary or easily dismissed because he has not raised them from birth is absolutely heartbreaking. Their mother is dead, their biological father is largely absent, and Dan has raised them since they were little girls—he’s their father, and any relationship you try to build with him that’s predicated on trying to diminish or mitigate that reality is doomed to fail. Your boyfriend’s daughter doesn’t like you because you have made it perfectly clear that you think it’s time for him to abandon his “old” daughters and start a new family with you. You feel like an Evil Stepmother because you are using some of the most classic moves out of the Evil Stepmother playbook! You are being an Evil Stepmother, full stop. If you can’t find a way to accept that Dan has two children and that any relationship you build together will have to rest upon that foundation, then the best thing you can do, for his sake as well as your own, is to break up now.
Q. Re: No way: Could they take all the girls except Gracie but offer a special trip (to the movies and a fun dinner locally, for example?) just to Gracie to make up for leaving her out of the dreaded camp out? I hated camping, and felt left out, myself!
A: That could be really sweet! Part of the implicit pressure is that the letter writer knows their sister wants another kid-free week, so it may be that the sister in question is less interested in making sure Gracie has a good time with her aunts/uncles/cousins and more interested in getting free child care. This won’t address that problem (although I think the letter writer should feel enormously free to make it clear that this trip is about really roughing it in the great outdoors, not about making sure their sisters get a week off of parenting), but it may go a long way toward making sure everyone actually enjoys the time they spend together.
Q. Family photos with dog: I’m recently engaged (within the last six months) to a wonderful dude with two equally wonderful children (7 and 10, who are with us about 60 percent of the time). We’ve recently adopted a puppy. I’m childless and have wanted a dog desperately for approximately 25 years. Based on a variety of factors, I’m probably not going to have my own biological children.
Am I allowed to have professional photos taken of the dog while he’s still a baby? There’s a giant part of me that says, “Yup—you’re childless and will remain so, sure you can get puppy photos done,” and there’s a big part of me that says, “Absolutely not, any professional photos need to include the kids and it’s not appropriate for you to do this/be in any of them without your fiancé and the kids.” Thoughts?
A: Never has the phrase “Others abide our question/ Thou art free” seemed quite so fitting. I think that you can get professional photos taken in whatever configuration you like! It doesn’t sound like these pictures are going on your engagement announcement or wedding invitations—you just want to spend some money on professional pictures with you and your new puppy. That is fine! It is your money, and your dog; if you want to wrangle a puppy into a photography studio and pose for pictures, then you have my blessing. If you also want to get professional photos with your fiancé and soon-to-be-stepchildren, too, you have my blessing there, too. There’s no reason you can’t do both.
Q. Re: Stuck: Your answer was spot on. Two weeks ago I married a wonderful, loving man who is still completely involved in the lives of his “former stepchildren”—he was married to their mom for 10 years before their divorce, and did most of the heavy lifting of raising them from grade school through high school graduation. The fact that he will always consider them “his kids” is, to me, just more evidence of what a great guy he is. They are now in college and basically have four parents—their biological ones and the two of us. So I would encourage the letter writer to take his devotion to the kids as living proof of what a loving and loyal person he is. If he were the kind of person who could just bail on them, as you clearly wish he would do, he would not be the “sweet” and “kind” person you describe.
A: There’s something especially jarring about wanting your boyfriend to ditch his own family in order to start a new one with you. What kind of father would he be to any children you’d have together, if he could be that easily talked into casting his other children aside? (I’m afraid I know the letter writer’s answer—any children they’d have together would be biologically his and therefore “more important,” which is a desperately sad worldview to hang on to.) I’m so glad to hear that your new husband is a good father and that you’ve been able to see your way through to becoming a part of his family, rather than trying to separate him from the rest of them.
Q. Family truth: Seven years ago, before my niece was born, my sister had an affair with a Colombian co-worker. Our family is white and so is my brother in-law’s family, though they claim to have some long-ago Native American ancestry. This is the excuse my sister seized on when my niece was born with brown eyes and brown hair despite everyone else being either blond or redheads. I don’t have physical proof beyond the timing of my niece’s birth and my sister confiding in me about the affair. My brother-in-law is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he loves his wife and his daughter. I brought up the issue once with my sister, and she shut me down—the affair was a “mistake,” but there is no way her baby could be anyone else’s but her husband’s. Her response was harsh enough that I have never brought it up since.
My niece has. She looks nothing like her brothers and younger sister. She has asked why she tans in the summer while everyone else gets red and if she was adopted like her friend in school. My sister freaks out over these questions and comes down harshly. I know that this is going to be an issue as my niece gets older. What can I do to prepare?
A: Not much, I think. You have a suspicion but little else, and it’s not impossible for two fair-haired people to have a dark-haired child. You can encourage your sister to respond more graciously when her daughter asks an innocent question, but if she’s completely unwilling to talk about the possibility of her former affair partner being the father of her child, then you can’t force her.
Q. Overeating brother-in-law: My brother-in-law has a serious problem with overeating. Yesterday, upon arriving at a family gathering at my home, he immediately made a beeline for the buffet table and loaded up his plate without even saying hello to anyone. He loaded it up several more times thereafter, eating while huddled in a corner without interacting much socially. Two hours later, he comes over and asks if there are any more bagels. He then ate three bagels in the span of 15 minutes, literally just shoving them in his face. He carries food around with him at all times. He’s gained at least 125 pounds since my eldest was born and the pictures of him holding my then-infant child seven years ago are startling (and he wasn’t thin then either).
Yet, I’m the only one who seems to care about this. My wife shrugs and says it’s a problem but there’s nothing for her to do; he’s an adult and not her child. She cares more that he eats the food she was planning on saving for the week. The rest of his immediate family either doesn’t see a problem or says he’s very sensitive and he’ll completely shut people out if it’s mentioned. He has a lot of other problems: He’s never had a girlfriend despite being in his mid-30s, and he’s never had full-time employment (just series of part-time gigs). Aside from being grossed out and worried about his health, I think he’s just given up on life (he makes no attempt to fix any problems in his life) and probably has deep, untreated depression. Is there anything to be done? I don’t think it’s my place to say anything, and no one else will.
A: I think the key part of your letter is the phrase “aside from being grossed out,” which suggests that your concern has less to do with spending more time with your brother-in-law and offering him emotional support, and more to do with trying to control his behavior.
Your wife is right—he is an adult, and you two aren’t especially close, so you have a limited ability to start raising intimately personal issues with him. You can’t go from “We speak every few months” to “Hey, I’ve identified your three biggest problems in life and think it’s time for you to address them” overnight. If nothing else, know that as a fat person, your brother-in-law has likely already gotten a great deal of advice and input about his eating habits from strangers, friends, and acquaintances, even if your family has refrained from commenting. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s nothing you can do to help support someone you believe to be in visible emotional pain.
You say that the other day he didn’t say hello to anyone at the family dinner, then sat in a corner while eating. As an in-law who doesn’t have a solid friendship with him, it’s not your place to subsequently ask him about his relationship to food, but there was nothing keeping you from going over and saying hello, and engaging him socially. Your options are not restricted to either “Tell your grown in-law you think he’s eating emotionally/compulsively, that he needs a girlfriend, and he has a spotty employment history, and that you know how to fix it” or “ignore him completely.” If you think he seems lonely and isolated at family events, say hello. Draw him out. Tell him you’re happy to see him, and try to find something you’d both enjoy talking about, rather than keeping a mental scorecard of how much weight he’s gained in the last seven years. If you reframe your goal from “fixing” your brother-in-law to “seeking to better understand and support him,” then I think there’s plenty of scope for meaningful, helpful action.
Q. Re: Stuck: I’m not sure if your answer was completely spot-on. I agree that the letter writer seems to have Evil Stepmother tendencies, but there might also be something else going on that’s alerting her that something is weird. An 18-year-old girl calling her father figure “daddy” is disturbing. It may be that the letter writer is picking up on some weird nefarious thing that’s happening and she can’t quite figure out what it is.
A: Sure, I’m of the opinion that daddy is a term that should generally stay in childhood, but this absolutely pales in comparison to the letter writer’s expectation that her boyfriend should stop considering his daughters to be his daughters. If the letter writer had said, “I love my boyfriend and want to get to know his children better, and I’m a little concerned about some of their boundaries and whether or not I can expect to build a separate life with him as they continue to grow up,” we’d have plenty to work with. But the letter writer asked how she could convince her boyfriend to abandon his children, and that supersedes everything else, to my mind.