Dear Prudence

My Mother Is Struggling After Her Father’s Suicide.

Prudie’s column for Oct. 25.

A mom crying and a daughter (maybe in her 20s or 30s) looking unsure how to help her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by b-d-s/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Marjan_ApostoloviciStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
My grandfather killed himself in fairly grisly fashion about seven weeks ago—in front of my grandmother. It has, understandably, shaken up my mother. Over the weekend, my grandmother took a very nasty fall (after hallucinating she heard my grandfather calling her from the other room, she ran to go see him, slipped, and cracked her head on the wall) and while she survived, it was scary. I love my mom to pieces, my family is very close, and my dad is taking wonderful care of her. It’s a strange realization to see my extremely strong mom so vulnerable, and the reality that she’s also someone’s child has set in. I guess I’m not sure how to best help her right now. I don’t want to infantilize my own mother, but seeing her struggle with this and asking questions like “Why would my dad do this?” are hard for me to react to. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever seen my mom cry. I feel helpless and unsure. I love her so much and just want to be there for her.
—Mother Is Also a Daughter

This is a truly ghastly situation, and I’m so sorry you, your mother, and your grandmother are all suffering in this way. I don’t think you would be in any way infantilizing your mother by offering your support, by sitting with her as she cries, or by saying “I don’t know; I wish I did, but I don’t have any good answers” when she asks “Why?” Losing a parent is difficult enough as it is, but knowing that her father killed himself in front of her mother must be profoundly traumatic, and I think your mother will need more support than what you and your father can give. If at some point she is willing to see a grief counselor or visit a peer support group, that may help immensely, as will the love and support of the rest of your community, family, and friends alike. If, after spending time with your mother, you find that you need support from your own friends, please ask for it—it can be difficult to watch a parent you’ve previously thought of as invulnerable struggle. But there will be no quick and easy path to wellness here, and you may feel helpless and unsure when you’re with her for a while yet. That’s not a sign that you’re doing anything wrong; it’s simply a reflection of the fact that she’s very recently endured something very traumatic.

Dear Prudence,
I’m in my 30s, single and childless. I’d love to get married and have a family, but I’m also beginning to realize that might not happen for me. I enjoy traveling by myself and have a great group of friends, but some people won’t accept that this life can make me happy. I’ve explained to them I don’t need them to “find me a man” and that I’m not certain I’d be a good solo parent (“You could always use a sperm donor or adopt.”) I’ve started avoiding these friends, and they want to know why. People (always married, always with kids) become uncomfortable when I say I don’t know if I’ll get married and that I’m coming to terms with that. They try to rush to fill the silence by “fixing” the situation. I hate it. What do I say to these people since using my words so far hasn’t done a darn thing?
—Single and Might Always Be

I hope you have people in your life (whether single or partnered, with or without children) who don’t ask you unending questions about your plans to reproduce and who are capable of enduring a few seconds of silence in a conversation. Spend a lot of time with those people. When it comes to the others, I think what you should say to them depends on what you’re hoping to achieve. Do you have hopes they can turn it around and talk to you about something other than whether you’ll become a parent? Or do you just want to let them know why you don’t accept their invitations anymore? If it’s the latter, you have a bit more freedom: “I’ve been avoiding you lately because you won’t stop asking me about when I’m going to have children and keep trying to suggest ‘solutions’ when I’m trying to tell you that I don’t know if it’s ever going to happen. When I tell you that I’ve built a life for myself that makes me happy, I want you to actually pay attention to what I’m saying instead of assuming I’m just trying to put on a brave face over heartbreak. Unless you can listen without telling me what to do next, I don’t want to get together again.” If it’s the former, you can try to clarify what you want from them: “I’m not looking for reminders that adoption and sperm donation exist; I’m very aware of my options. I’m coming to terms with a difficult question about whether I would even want to be a single parent. Mostly what I’d like from you is to ask me about my travel plans or about other parts of my life that don’t involve dating or having children. I don’t want to lose this friendship, but I can’t help it if my not having kids makes you uncomfortable.”

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Dear Prudence,
My partner and I are both in our late 30s and have been together for a few years. I’m uncomfortable with the way he looks at attractive women when we’re together, and it makes me wonder just how overt he is when I’m not with him. He looks like a little boy on Christmas morning when a pretty girl walks by. But how do I gauge whether I’m just being sensitive and silly and expecting a man to not look at women he finds attractive? When I mention my discomfort, he points out that men tend to look at me too. But I feel like I go numb and pretend it isn’t happening when he smiles at other girls and they seem to be affected by him. It’s confusing because I feel like it falls under the “boys will be boys” way of thinking, and I’m tired of buying into that as an excuse for rude behavior in adult men.
—Just Looking

I’m not sure why your boyfriend thinks pointing out other men who look at you has anything to do with a conversation about how he behaves himself in public. Tell him, “I don’t care what other men do in public. I’m not dating those men. I’m dating you, and I’m telling you how your over-the-top reactions to seeing attractive women make me feel. I’m not asking you to put on blinders or to ignore other women. But watching you light up and swivel your head whenever a pretty woman appears makes me feel ignored, disrespected, and lonely. I’ve tried going numb and pretending like I don’t notice, and that’s only made me feel worse. I’m asking you to slightly modify your behavior around strangers because I believe you care about me and my feelings.” He is perfectly capable of modifying or restraining himself when he sees a pretty woman who isn’t you; there’s a sharp divide between noting with passing approval that someone is attractive and lighting up like a Christmas tree.

Dear Prudence,
I was the second hired employee for a tech startup. Over the years, we have grown significantly, and I am now in charge of three relatively new employees. All three used to work in the corporate world and still dress like it, despite our company’s informal dress code. I wear T-shirts and jeans every day, while they wear chinos, collared shirts, and in one case a tie. My boss has expressed his displeasure in their dress and wants me to address it. I’ve attempted to, but they ignore me and even call my clothes unprofessional. Our other employees dress casually and feel like my employees are uptight snobs (which they are). What should I do?
—My Staff Dresses Better Than Me

I think this is worth revisiting with your own boss, especially since it sounds like this is your first time managing employees, and the problem is larger than just dress code. But first things first: Make it clear to these three that commenting on their boss’ dress is not part of their job descriptions. Tell them, “I understand that in the corporate world there are different rules, but in our field, and in this company in particular, my dress is customary and appropriate.” Then go back to your boss and say, “I’d like to talk with you about the best way to handle my new employees. I’ve spoken to them about how we don’t adhere to a corporate dress code here, but nothing’s changed. I’m also seeing that the rest of our employees have noticed their standoffish attitude. I think this problem is larger than how they dress, and I want to make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to addressing it.” And if your company doesn’t have an official dress code, and it’s relied on everyone just “getting” the culture and automatically dressing to fit, you may find that it’s time to revisit that policy.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“This is where you work now, guys. Sorry about Enron or whatever.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
I work in a military medical facility where I address patients as “sir” or “ma’am” based on their gender. We have several patients who are transitioning from one gender to another, and I don’t want to offend them by using the wrong pronoun. It is also a matter of not drawing attention to these patients in front of the many older and probably not as accepting patients. I typically forgo “sir” or “ma’am,” but then I feel like I’m being rude. Any suggestions for what would be the most polite and professional way to address these patients? Thank you!
—Military Etiquette

The most polite and professional form of address for your trans patients is “sir” for trans men and “ma’am” for trans women. There’s certainly a case to be made for moving away from gendered address in general, but given that this is a facility where everyone else gets either a “sir” or a “ma’am” from you, I think the politest approach is not to make an exception for your trans patients but to address them like everyone else. Don’t let fear that someone else in the room might be less accepting lead you to act as if you do not accept trans people.

Dear Prudence,
My family is big into Renaissance fairs, and I hand-sew all our costumes. Our girls have outgrown a few of them, so my sister-in-law asked if she could borrow them for Halloween. I agreed if she promised to take care of them and return them clean. My niece took the first one for her school trick-or-treat festival. My sister-in-law returned the dress completely trashed, with the fabric ruined and the embroidery pulled out: She threw the dress in with her laundry, rather than getting it dry-cleaned like I requested. No apology, just the excuse that it was “shoddy work.” I refused to give her the other items, and she yelled that I was breaking my promise and “ruining Halloween.” My husband agrees his sister is out of line but wants me to put it aside for the sake of family harmony. I spent hours of work on these clothes and don’t understand how I got to be the bad guy. What do I do?
—Hands Off My Hand-Me-Downs

On the one hand, if you’ve got no other plans for these outgrown costumes, I’m generally of the opinion that kids’ clothes are made to be played in and will eventually get damaged or destroyed. On the other hand, it sounds like the majority of the damage came from your sister-in-law treating the garment like any old T-shirt rather than from a child’s exuberance. More worrying is the fact that apparently there are people out there trying to escalate that classic old line of manipulation—“you’re ruining the holidays”—to include, of all things, Halloween, a low-stakes festivity if there ever was one. Halloween will not be ruined if your sister-in-law’s kids have to come up with a last-minute costume idea. Gently reject your husband’s plan to privately criticize but publicly give in to his sister’s behavior and stay calm but firm with her: “I don’t lend my work out unless I know it’s going to be taken care of. I hope you’re able to find something else that works, but as far as I’m concerned, the subject is closed.”

Classic Prudie

“My boyfriend and I fell in love at first sight. By the time I stood up and realized he was 4 inches shorter, we were too in love to care. Should I prepare other people for the height difference?