Dear Prudence

My Wife Asked Me to Destroy Evidence of Her Secret Past. I Didn’t.

Prudie’s column for Jan. 17.

Pensive gray-haired man holding his head, sitting at a desk in front of a laptop.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images.

Dear Prudence,
This is my wife’s second marriage. She had a daughter from that first marriage, and we have adult children of our own. That first marriage was abusive, and my wife’s sister helped her to escape. When she divorced and left her husband, she also left her child and has never tried to trace or contact her. She finds the whole subject very painful, so much so that she waited to tell me until just before our wedding when she could no longer keep the secret. I think she came close to leaving me rather than have to do that. I have respected her pain and kept the secret through over 30 years of marriage. In particular, our kids have no clue their mom was married before or that they have a sister.

The only evidence was a sealed cardboard box with a few pictures, in our closet. It kept coming along on moves, never opened. Recently, we realized that it would be bad for that box to be discovered by our children, with no explanation, after we were gone. She asked me to dispose of the box, and I did … but I hedged and scanned some of the photos of her and her daughter and secured them so that no one but me can access them. All of this has me rethinking things. I am well aware that genetic testing has the potential to bring this to light at any point in the future. It would be easiest, and maybe best, to let sleeping dogs lie, but there’s a part of me that thinks our kids should hear it from us, and really from my wife, as I can tell them little beyond the bare facts. However, my wife would be hard, or maybe impossible, to convince, and I don’t want to open her wounds unnecessarily. I would love your thoughts on the matter.
—Just Want to Do Right

Tell your wife that you lied about disposing the box, show her the files, and delete them immediately if she instructs you to. This is not a decision you should make on your wife’s behalf and against her stated wishes. I can understand that this is a difficult secret to keep and that you feel uncomfortable at the possibility that your children may find out someday. But the actions you’ve taken in some ways make it more likely that they’ll find out.

Dear Prudence,
I’ve always had a tumultuous relationship with my mother, and she has a history of exploding. I’m working on trying to be more sympathetic to her, and I’m really feeling stuck about our most current argument. I grew up very poor, but I’m now 25 and have a good job. My husband works as a cook in a kitchen, but we have chosen to forgo children and home-buying, so we live comfortably. I have student loans, but we travel, go out to nice restaurants, and enjoy ourselves. Last week was our anniversary, and we had dinner at a nice restaurant and signed up for a vacation in 2020 to South America (that we’ll be paying off in installments every month until we leave). We posted about both of these things on Facebook.

My mom called me after seeing the pictures and berated me for “not being generous enough with her,” that she would “love to do those things,” and it makes her mad to see that I’m doing those things when she can’t even afford to pay her bills. For context, my parents have four adult children, both finished college recently, and make a combined income of $150,000 a year—twice what my partner and I make. They have some student loan debt (not as much as I do) and a mortgage but spend frivolously on expensive electronics and home goods. And yet they are constantly asking to borrow money, which I give them, and they never pay it back. When I ask them to, they claim that I’m ungrateful for everything they gave me during childhood and for letting me live at home until I was 24. I find this incredibly hypocritical, considering every time I asked for money, even for help paying college tuition, I was almost always denied and told that my college degree and adult spending were my responsibility and that my parents were “too poor” to help me. I was exasperated and just unfriended my mom on Facebook, since 90 percent of our arguments come from things that I post. I would like to continue posting benign updates about my life (isn’t that the point of social media?) without having my mother harp on me about how I choose to spend my hard-earned money. She’s now incredibly hurt that I’ve deleted her from Facebook. How should I handle this?
—Not Broke Anymore

Your parents have money troubles, which is not the same thing as being poor—not even within spitting distance of being poor. You’re handling this quite well, by the way. But the question you’re asking right now—“How can I act in such a way that gets my mother to stop acting unreasonably?”—is the wrong one. Before, your mother was often hurt and angry with you, and you gave her a lot of money and let her mine your Facebook for new topics to yell at you about. Now, your mother is angry with you, but at least your Facebook is set to private. You can’t really change the hurt-and-angry part if your mother is committed to acting unreasonably (and you have sufficient evidence to assume that she is), but you can control how much access you grant her to your pocketbook and personal life. Don’t try to get your mother to see reason, because she’s determined not to; once you stop making this your goal, you’re going to find you have a lot more free time. Your parents are never going to stop trying to leverage your childhood as an excuse to demand more money from you. There is no amount of money they could have in the bank, no check you could write them, that would change their habits of spending it faster than they can earn it and then panicking. All you can do is stop lending them money and refuse to get into an argument with them about whether you enjoyed your childhood, whether they’re poor, whether you’re being unreasonable. “I’m sorry you feel that way, but my answer is final” needs to be the longest explanation you give your parents when you tell them no. And enjoy that vacation.

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Dear Prudence,
I love my girlfriend and her generous heart, but we are having a big disagreement. She comes from a tiny, rural community, while I grew up here in our city with a huge homeless problem. Donating cash to beggars doesn’t help them—it only makes you a target. It doesn’t help that we are both tiny little lesbians. I have been stalked and cursed by street people in college. I know several people who were robbed. My girlfriend doesn’t get it. Every time she smiles and opens up her purse to give up a dollar, she is flashing a sign that says “fresh meat.” Especially at night! We do donate to several local causes and give money to the food bank. I am happy to go volunteer with her at a shelter or hand out blankets and socks with an organization. My girlfriend tells me I have a compassion problem. We don’t have a car and depend on public transportation to get to work. I am very worried something might happen to her. What can I do here?
—Close the Charity

You’ve already registered your disagreement with your girlfriend and shared your own experiences. Trust at this point that she’s an adult (tiny though she may be) who can make her own decisions about how she wants to behave in public and spend her money. I’m not sure why you think giving cash to someone who’s asking strangers for it “doesn’t help them,” when it very immediately helps them have cash they didn’t have a minute before. Your girlfriend is aware that homeless people need access to safe housing and health care and that having a little cash makes life a lot easier, and she isn’t looking to control how they decide to use the money once she’s made a gift of it. I also don’t think it’s quite true that she “doesn’t get it,” nor do I think that because she grew up in a small town she’s incapable of grasping some truth that you learned as a child in the city. You don’t say that she’s ever been robbed or that either of you have ever been harassed as a result of her decision to make on-the-spot donations to people asking for money, you don’t have grounds to say she’s being careless. People with and without homes are all capable of street harassment, robbery, and intimidation; just because a person has nowhere safe to sleep does not automatically mean they are a threat to women. You should respect your girlfriend’s choice and stop trying to argue her out of it.

Dear Prudence,
I’m transgender and legally changed my name a few months ago. My parents still use my old name, and I don’t have the courage to correct them over the phone. I live apart from them because I’m a university student, and they call me on a regular basis. My dad probably doesn’t accept me being trans/nonbinary. Mom totally accepts me and has even bought me gender-affirming clothes. How do I correct my parents when they use my old name?
—Too Shy to Speak Up

Since your mom has already gone out of her way to affirm your transition and go shopping for you, she’s the obvious place to start. Call her, rather than waiting for her to call you, so that you have more conversational momentum on your side, and tell her that you’re ready for her to start using your new name. If you think she needs to hear it, you can add the standard anxiety-assuaging boilerplate: “I understand this will be new for you, and that it may take some time for you to adjust. It would mean a lot to me if you would start using the name everyone else uses for me. I’m so grateful for all your support during my transition.” I’m not sure if you know for a fact that your father isn’t supportive or if you simply strongly suspect it based on his overall temperament. If you think it would help (and she’d be willing), you could ask your mother to prepare your father on your behalf before speaking to him.

I do think this is a conversation best had over the phone, but if you simply can’t bring yourself to do it, then a text or an email will still be effective: “I’d like you to both start calling me by [Name]. It’s now my legal name and the one everyone else in my life uses for me, and it would mean a lot to me if you used it too. I know it may take some time to adjust, and I’m available to answer questions if you have any. Thank you for listening.” You could also include a sentence or two about how you chose this name, or what it represents to you, so they feel like they know a bit more about what your transition has looked like from the inside. Some in-person conversation will still be necessary, though, because once your parents start making the switch, they’re liable to lapse (especially if the switch isn’t accompanied by real effort), and you may still have to say, “It’s [Name]” every so often. You don’t have to do it every time—I don’t know a trans person who hasn’t at least occasionally let such a moment pass without remark because very often cis people who like to think of themselves as well-meaning can get quite defensive about such things. However, given your mother’s track record, you can anticipate that she’ll respond well to this request and do her best. Hopefully your father won’t be far behind.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“I don’t think that you’ve done anything really bad, exactly, but it has the potential to become bad.”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
My stepdaughter hated having her picture taken during her teens. She would hide and throw fits if anyone tried to have her in a photo. She refused to have a high school or college graduation. I have taken up scrapbooking and made childhood memory books for my children and my stepson. My stepdaughter called me very upset that I “refused” to include her. The only photos we have of my stepdaughter are from my wedding and a few from school. I explained this to her, reminded her of the time she locked herself in her room when we were doing a big family photo, and I offered to do a post-college one for her. She turned this on me not being a good stepmother and I “never wanted her in the family to begin with.” She and my husband barely talk anymore after they had a falling out over her chronic unemployment (and his financial support of her lifestyle). He sees this as “typical” her. My stepson feels pressure to support his sister, so I usually let my stepdaughter’s behavior roll off my back, but she is in her late 20s now. I am tired of the tantrums and self-pity. How should I proceed?
—No Photos, Please

Proceed with compassion and emotional distance in equal measure. It sounds like it’s for the best that you and your husband are no longer supporting his daughter financially, and if she ever throws a fit in your general direction or turns a conversation into a furious monologue, you have grounds to say, “I can’t have this conversation when you’re yelling at me. Let’s talk later when we’ve both cooled down.” But even though she’s now an adult, I don’t think you should return her angry behavior with a rant of your own, even though it’s clear at least part of you is longing to tell her off. Her behavior now is unreasonable and out of line, but it sounds like she was a very distressed teenager with a lot of insecurity and self-loathing about how she looked and didn’t seem to have anyone she could talk to about it. That doesn’t mean you and your husband were terrible parents who are now responsible for her every unhappiness, but I do hope when you feel exasperated at her, you can try to imagine what it must have felt like for her to feel so panicked at the thought of having a picture taken of herself that she hid.

None of this is going to get resolved overnight, of course. And your offer to make another scrapbook for her after college was kind. I think you should do it, just as a compassionate gesture, and not because you’re trying to placate her. Assume, in fact, that her initial reaction to the scrapbook will not be one of immediate gratitude. If there are ways you treated her as a child that wounded her, try to listen with an open mind and consider whether you’d like to apologize for some of the ways in which you messed up. Tell her that while neither of you can change the past, you hope she’ll accept the scrapbook as a token of goodwill. If this doesn’t make a dent in her resentment—if she wants to relitigate the same arguments or ask for money or hurt your feelings any way she can—then you can simply say, “I’m sorry to hear that,” and cut the conversation short. It’s one thing to try to see if there’s a more generous, forgiving way forward for the two of you, but if she’s determined to blame you for her life as it is now at every opportunity, then you have a right to politely decline and scale back your interactions.

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Dear Prudence,
I am an attorney with extensive contract experience across a range of subjects. Because of this, many friends and family members ask me to help them with personal matters such as reviewing leases, employment contracts, even prenuptial agreements. For the past few years, I have obliged. Am I able? Absolutely. Do I render good advice? Certainly. Do they pay me? No! What are kind but firm words to tell them I no longer work for free?
—Not Your Lawyer

It can often feel easier to turn down a stranger or distant acquaintance asking for the first time than someone you’ve said yes to in the past, as if offering someone free advice once a few years ago means you’re signing up for a lifetime of the same. Option the first: “I couldn’t answer that question without knowing all of the details and reviewing your case first. If you want to call my office, you can schedule a consultation.” Option the second: “I don’t specialize in that type of law. I have no idea, I’m afraid.” Option the third: “I’ve had a bad habit of offering general legal advice to friends in the past, and it hasn’t worked out well, because I don’t get the full facts of the case, it always turns into a bigger project than anyone anticipated, and they usually end up hiring a lawyer who isn’t me anyway. Sorry I can’t be of more help, but good luck.”

Classic Prudie

“I’m a 28-year-old male and have a 4-year-old daughter with my partner of nine years (we’re not married but completely committed). My daughter was not planned, and I had serious reservations about having a child at such a young age, but there’s a lot of love in our family and everything has worked out. But since taking a new job several months ago, I’ve started feeling differently. All of my co-workers are young, and I’ve made a few good friends, but I often have to decline invitations to events I’d really like to attend because of my family obligations, or because I can’t afford it. I have to say no to joining them on road trips or at exclusive restaurants, because my weekend consists of toddler birthday parties and visits to the playground. It’s making me rueful that I’ve missed my 20s and worried I will wind up bitter no matter how much I love my family. How do I get out of this funk?