Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat, which was guest hosted by Nicole Cliffe. Daniel Mallory Ortberg will return next week.
Nicole Cliffe: Hi everyone! I am not Danny, I am Nicole. I have three children and I usually only answer parenting questions, but I will do my best not to infantilize any of you.
Q. Conspiracy theorist father-in-law: My wife and I are having a baby soon, and I’m fretting over how to handle my father-in-law. He’s a crazy conspiracy theorist who thinks, among many things, that modern medicine is bogus, that the government uses fluoride for mind control, and that his hillbilly neighbors are highly trained government spies reporting on his movements. He has even tried removing his 30-year-old son, who has profound cerebral palsy, from the machines that keep him alive, because he thinks marijuana and some rainforest supplement will cure him.
My wife is disgusted with his behavior but doesn’t think he’d put our child in danger. However, he was physically and emotionally abusive to her and her mother growing up, so I don’t want our child anywhere near him. This has devastated my mother-in-law, who thinks I’m taking away her chance to be a grandmother. I’m fine with her babysitting by herself, but she’s still under his control, which means he’ll accompany her and tell her what to do. How do my wife and I confront her parents without completely burning bridges?
A: Yeah, he can’t come to your house. Abusers don’t get to be in your house with your children. Because she can’t be trusted, your mother-in-law can’t babysit without your supervision. She should be welcome to see your child in your home under your watchful eye.
For the moment, I’m more worried about their 30-year-old son, who is already alive and in the world and being impacted by his nonsense. Is he living at home, or are these machines keeping him alive in a hospital? If the former, this is something I would speak to Adult Protective Services about. Do we have any reason to think your wife’s mother is no longer being abused? This isn’t a great situation for anyone.
Q. Wicked sister: My sister and I grew up in a very abusive home. In our childhood, my sister was also physically and psychologically abusive to me. She frequently beat me, threatened to kill herself in front of me, choked me multiple times, and killed my rabbit to “punish” me. (She was often cruel to animals.) She excelled in high school and was loved by her teachers, and is now in college with a great scholarship. We haven’t lived together in a few years, having each moved out at 16, and my sister says she wants us to have a more genuine relationship, built on our lives now instead of our pasts. This is very difficult because she caused so much trauma for me. When she does things like speak abrasively to waitstaff, or harshly criticize me, which she does frequently, I find it deeply frightening. Whenever we spend time together, I find myself feeling miserable for the rest of the day and having difficulty sleeping that night. She denies abusing me and becomes extremely angry when I attempt to broach the topic. She often talks about wanting us to be closer, but without being able to honestly discuss our past, I don’t see how we can be. Neither of us has any contact with our parents, and I want to be able to have a relationship with my only other family member, but I find myself filled with dread at the idea of spending time with her.
A: This bitch is no good. I mean! She’s a beloved child of God and everything, but I strongly recommend never seeing her or speaking to her again as long as you live. There are people in this life who are radiators and people who are drains, and your sister is a particularly fetid drain. I see no possible hope of genuine reconciliation, and I would coolly detach until she ceases suggesting getting together.
I’m so sorry about your childhood, and I hope that you’re actively working on your trauma with a trusted therapist. If not, there’s no time like the present.
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Q. How much do I share about my child with my friend, who is struggling with infertility?: My best friend, “Julia,” and I both started trying to conceive at around the same time. I got pregnant after a few months, and my son is now 18 months old. Julia has struggled with infertility, and recently, her first attempt at IVF ended in an ectopic pregnancy. It has been devastating. Julia is an incredible surrogate aunt to my son. She showers him with love and genuinely adores him when she sees him a couple of times a year (we unfortunately live on opposite coasts). We FaceTime and exchange texts and photos frequently. After my husband abandoned my then 4-month-old son and me for an affair with a college student, Julia flew out to spend a week with us, supporting me and helping me pick up the pieces.
I’ve told Julia that I am always there for her to listen if she wants to talk about her fertility struggles. When she has, I try to hold space for her, and just listen and hug her when she cries. I avoid asking her for updates or bringing up the subject myself. I am left with this enormous guilt that I have an incredible son and Julia has struggled so much. It isn’t fair, and I wish that there was more that I could do to support her. I do send her frequent updates about my son, but I wonder if that’s painful for her, and if it is, if she would ever admit it to me. As a now-single mom, managing work and motherhood can be really hard sometimes. I try to keep my complaints to myself when I talk to her but wish that I could be more open with her about both the highs and lows. How can I support her struggle while still both celebrating, and being honest, about motherhood with her?
A: Just asking yourself this question elevates you over plenty of parents who cannot possibly envision a situation in which someone might not enjoy hearing about all of Young Joffrey’s foibles and whimsical hijinks. It seems as though Julia does genuinely care for your son and enjoys being involved in your lives, but it might be wise to let her choose the degree to which he features in your conversation.
In practice, this means cutting down on sending her “frequent updates” about him, and instead asking her more questions about her life. Let her start initiating any kid talk. After a few weeks, I think you’ll get a better sense for what her actual comfort level is for delightful child anecdotes, and can calibrate accordingly.
Also, your ex-husband is a real heel.
Q. Her too?: I saw something at work today, and I’m extremely torn about whether it warrants a quick word with my boss. While chatting to Co-worker 1 (male), Co-worker 2 (young female) walked by on her way to the gym, wearing gym wear (tight clothing). Co-worker 1 interrupted me midsentence to ask Co-worker 2 where she was going, and then blatantly—to my eyes, but perhaps I could have misread it?—checked out her butt as she walked away. To me, if that’s what he was doing, that’s sexual harassment. But is it too gray area to say something to our boss?
A: It’s not great! It’s also probably nothing I would bother telling your boss about. “He asked her a question and then looked at her butt as she walked away” doesn’t land great in person, minus over-the-top facial expressions and miming lewd intent—which would only make you look like the creeper. I would give him a dirty look and roll my eyes and walk away, thus signaling that you’re not, in fact, down to clown, and then keep an eye on him going forward.
Q. Re: Wicked sister: Your sister is using a classic abuser ploy. She is acting nice and loving in order to get you emotionally invested and connected to her, so she can bring you under her control again. She lost you as a victim when you lived separately, so this “reconnecting” is a way to get back in your life. It will only continue until you are emotionally invested in her, and then the abuse will begin again.
She has not changed. Because if she had, the first words out of her mouth would be an apology, ownership of what she’d done, and reassurance that she is getting help. As long as she refuses to take ownership of her abusive past, she is still an abuser. The most obvious trait of an abuser is refusing to accept responsibility for their abusive behavior. It’s always someone else’s fault.
A: Thanks for pointing out the pattern here. The only way to win this game is not to play.
Q. Not my circus: My lovely husband has, like us all, a bad quality: He’s pretty lazy. It’s not a problem generally. I’m fine taking care of most things myself, and he is OK at helping out around the house—we have probably a 70/30 split. While I don’t mind pitching in more around the house, I do refuse to manage his family obligations. The result of this is that we’ll often be at Father’s Day with no card, or at a family birthday party with no gift. I don’t know if this bothers them, but no one has ever said anything.
Recently, I explained our arrangement to my own mother, who has horrified and said I should make more of an effort. I have a warm relationship with my husband’s family, but I don’t see why I should have to do all the remembering and emotional labor that generally seems to fall to wives. If it’s a problem, I feel like he should step up and deal with it. Frankly, the whole thing stinks of sexism. No one would expect him to be in charge of buying my family gifts or remembering to send my sister a birthday card. Am I wrong?
A: You are not wrong. I am glad you have asked this question! This happens … a lot. The best thing you can do, for yourself and for humankind, is to have a firm “you deal with your family, I deal with mine” policy, and if anyone says something like “I haven’t gotten a thank-you note” or “I’m surprised you didn’t remember it was Chad’s birthday,” give them a warm, confused “Have you asked Martin?” and then ask if they want some of the bean dip.
Expectation management is key. Ideally, you will only need to have this exchange once or twice before people will get the message.
Q. Turning up the heat: I live with several housemates in an old Northeastern house, and my bedroom is one of two in the converted attic. When I moved in, my housemates and I believed that the thermostat in my room didn’t work, but after some experimentation this winter, I figured out that in fact it does. It actually controls the heat for the entire attic. I feel guilty about it, but I didn’t tell the housemate in the other attic bedroom about my discovery. He can be intrusive, and I didn’t want to spend seven months dealing with his barging into my bedroom to adjust the heat or, maybe even worse, get stuck in constant negotiations over it. I also, admittedly, liked being able to keep my bedroom at my preferred temperature; I sleep better in a cool room, and hot and stuffy spaces can trigger my asthma. I tried to use my secret power responsibly, and my housemate never mentioned being too cold. However, he’s soon moving out and being replaced by a new housemate who seems less socially oblivious. Am I obligated to tell my new housemate about the thermostat? If yes, and assuming she’d rather not leave this great and terrible power in my hands alone, what’s a fair way to manage a thermostat that’s in my private space but affects both of us?
A: What a delicious conundrum! I am so torn. The right thing to do is to tell your new housemate the deal from the get-go, but also I like to sleep at a balmy 65 degrees and would never allow someone else’s more orchidlike preferences to overrule that.
My personal recommendation? While in a communal area of the house, ask if she’s cold. Regardless of what she says, respond with “People enjoy such different temperatures! Are you a warm or a cold sleeper?” and let her reply dictate your next move. Is this a person who can be reasoned with? You’ll know what to do next.
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