Dear Prudence

My Mother Swore to Keep My Stepbrother’s Child Porn Arrest a Secret

Prudie’s column for Feb. 21.

Collage of a woman crying next to a cursor hovering over a child porn link.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by gpointstudio/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
Recently, after a few drinks, my mother confessed to me that my stepbrother years ago had been arrested for downloading child pornography and spent three months in jail for it. Apparently she and her husband (my stepbrother’s father) only recently found out when my stepbrother was asked to leave a family function by someone who knew about it. She promised both of them to never tell a soul and has felt burdened ever since. She blames herself for breaking the promise and feels guilty for telling me. But I was able to persuade her to tell my brother about this because he has children who have met my stepbrother. In some ways this revelation has brought my mother and me closer, because I’m proud of her for telling us. But I want to let the rest of our stepsiblings (all adults with children) know, since I think they have the right to decide for themselves how to deal with this information. I think my mother is afraid her husband will be extremely upset if she pushes the issue, and she doesn’t want to split the family. I now feel the burden has been passed on to me. I avoid going to family gatherings because I worry about my stepbrother being there, and I feel terrible for keeping this information from my other stepsiblings. Don’t they have the right to know? How can I support my mother and assure her that I’m on her side while still convincing her to inform the others?
—Creeped Out and Concerned

There’s no merit in keeping a promise made under secretive and unfair circumstances, and your mother is in no way honor-bound by her promise to keep your stepbrother’s arrest a secret forever. Nor are you, when it comes down to it. You’re not trying to run him out of town or get him fired; you’re saying that his arrest for child pornography isn’t a secret you’re comfortable keeping, especially since it might affect whether your siblings want him to spend time with their kids. I think you should tell your mother that if she doesn’t tell the rest of the family, you will, and then do so. If her husband gets angry about it, then it’s worth fighting him on this one. It was wrong of him and his son to ask your mother to keep this information to herself. That’s an unfair and unrealistic expectation to place on anybody, and while it’s one thing to try to start life over after paying one’s debt to society, it’s quite another to try to force other people to keep secrets for you. If he had really changed, he would not be trying to spend time with other people’s children while keeping his arrest a secret.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I confided in my sister-in-law and her husband about our fertility issues. A couple of months later, she got everyone together for a surprise pregnancy announcement, which included me. I felt like I had been punched in the gut, left immediately, and was inconsolable after. I felt like inviting me was extremely inconsiderate and in bad taste. I’m undergoing in vitro fertilization and have avoided her throughout her pregnancy. She will have her baby any day now, and I don’t feel like I can bear being around her until we are expecting our own. This diagnosis has been extremely painful, and I don’t know that I will ever completely get over it unless we have our own child. Am I correct in feeling her surprise announcement was insensitive? Does she owe me an apology? How do I better cope with these terrible feelings?
—Struggling Sister

The pain you’re dealing with now is completely understandable, but I don’t think your sister-in-law was wrong to include you in her pregnancy announcement. You say that you don’t know how you can stand to be around her until you have your own child, but you must know on some level that there’s not much she could do, short of not having any children herself, that would make things easier for you. You deserve support in dealing with your frustration and grief, but it’s not fair to ask your sister-in-law not to get pregnant, or not to be excited about being pregnant, in the meantime. People in your life will continue to get pregnant, and my hope for you is that you will be able to find ways to cope with your feelings such that you don’t have to avoid them and pretend their children don’t exist. If your sister-in-law had been dismissive of your fertility struggles or cruel when you confided in her, that would be different, but simply getting pregnant isn’t something she’s doing to or at you. That doesn’t mean that you have to throw your sister-in-law a baby shower yourself or that you’re not allowed to take time and space when you’re feeling overwhelmed. But please don’t ask her to apologize for wanting to tell you about her pregnancy.

Consider seeing a grief counselor or, if you can’t afford that right now, put aside a little time each day to write about what you’re feeling. Set small, achievable goals like texting her something friendly once a week, and ask your husband for support in meeting them. If you feel comfortable doing so, you might even tell your sister-in-law that you’re working on being able to celebrate with her, but it’s going to take a little while and you might occasionally need to take a step back. I don’t know whether having biological children is going to be possible for you and your husband. If it’s not, my greatest hope for you is that you can find concrete ways to honor and mourn your loss that are ultimately compatible with remaining close with friends and family members who do have biological children. That doesn’t mean you should force yourself to do things you’re not ready for or that you should tamp down your tears and put on a happy face, but “avoid pregnant friends and relatives until I have a biological child of my own” is not a strategy that will result in long-term happiness or security for you.

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Dear Prudence,
I recently moved to a new city and found an apartment with an acquaintance from high school. My roommate is generally conscientious, clean, and quiet. Our living patterns mesh pretty well. However, she’s a grade A bummer—I’ve never met anyone with a more negative outlook on life. If I tell her a story about my day, she will find a way to pull out the most negative aspect and complain about how she hates that thing. If we’re talking about a hobby, she’ll go on about how she’s so bad at it she might as well give up. If I thank her for sharing her cooking with me, she’ll talk about how she cooked it wrong and now it tastes terrible. Even silence isn’t proof against her negativity; she’ll often pipe up with bombs like “I don’t think I can feel feelings anymore!” which is hard to ignore. Being constantly super cheerful around her is exhausting, and asking her to change anything leads to such a torrent of hand-wringing and agonized apologies that I don’t think being direct with her is possible. How can I set boundaries with her without those boundaries becoming another source of performative angst? How can I enjoy my time at home with Eeyore moping around in the kitchen?
—Living With a Rain Cloud

Treat her as a roommate and not a friend you get to live with is the best advice I have for trying to salvage a lousy situation. In the long term, I don’t think you’re ever going to love living with her, so whenever your lease is up, you may want to start looking for a different living situation. But in the short term, limit your interactions with her, tell her fewer stories about your day, and if she interrupts a pleasant anecdote in order to pick apart the most negative thing, politely ask her to stop: “I really don’t want to focus on the negative here. Can you please drop it?” If she throws a tantrum when you try to set a reasonable limit, say, “Let’s take some time to cool off and talk about this later.” Don’t place the burden of being constantly cheerful on yourself, in part because that sounds exhausting and in part because I don’t think it’ll work—she doesn’t strike me as someone who ever follows someone else’s emotional lead. I get that it can be hard to parse general internet-influenced speech like “I’m a garbage fire” or “everything is trash,” but if she blithely announces that she doesn’t know how to feel feelings, you can respond to it at face value, tell her that you’re sorry to hear that and you hope she can find a therapist to talk to, and then go spend time in your own room or out of the house.

Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend of two years and I recently moved across the country from my hometown, away from all of my friends and family, for his new job. For him, this was just another move, but for me it meant leaving everything I knew behind. I’m really close to my family and made it clear to him that while I was on board, I really wanted to be engaged before we took such a big step together. I know it’s probably silly, but it’s something I care about. We talked a lot about our mutual vision of a future together, and he said he was struggling with the timing because we’re also dealing with his mother’s estate and trying to sell her house from across the country right now. The move ended up happening faster than we expected, and we’ve been here almost three months. I’m lonely, I miss my friends and family, and I’m not thrilled about my job. Plus, we’re still not engaged.

I tried ignoring the feelings, but things came to a head, and I explained how I was feeling (through tears, unfortunately). He assured me he’s ready to be engaged, wants to marry me, etc., but listed reasons for not moving forward, like not knowing where to start with ring shopping (he offered to shop together and has apparently forgotten about the discussion, as it hasn’t been brought up again and was ignored when I mentioned going). It makes me feel like an idiot for uprooting my entire life for someone who seems like he won’t commit. On the other hand, we bought a house together and talk about getting married and having kids, so I’m aware that there are commitments already in play. Part of me knows I should be content with that and the fact that it will happen, but a bigger part of me can’t take this “someday” timeline. I also don’t want to keep bringing it up and feel like I’m forcing an engagement. I know I’m probably leaning toward the unreasonable end of the spectrum, but I’m really struggling here (and the constant barrage of holiday engagement announcements and takeover of engagement ring ads on every social platform I use isn’t helping). Any advice on either getting over myself and my timelines or helping him understand how much this is really tearing me up inside?
—Stuck

You say that you’re probably being unreasonable, that wanting to be engaged is silly, and that it’s unfortunate that you cried about something that’s important to you. It seems like you’re working overtime to minimize your own desires. Maybe because you think wanting to be married is foolish, or your boyfriend thinks it’s foolish, and you worry if you really asked him to be honest with you about what he wanted, he’d let you down. It’s not silly or petty to want to be engaged, especially when you’ve made a pretty significant sacrifice of your present happiness for what you’ve assumed is a shared vision of the future. I don’t know what your boyfriend is holding back from the conversation right now, but there’s something he’s unwilling to say to you, because it’s an insult to your intelligence to say, “I’d like to get engaged, but there’s just insufficient information about where to buy an engagement ring.” If he’s smart enough to figure out how to plan and execute a move across the country, he’s smart enough to Google “engagement rings [name of city you live in] where to buy.”

You told him you didn’t want to move away from your hometown without getting engaged, but when the time came and he didn’t propose, you moved anyway. I don’t say that to blame you for your present situation but as a reminder that you’re not just making this up or inventing a problem where one doesn’t exist. Please don’t just push down your anxieties and try to convince yourself that just because he’s bought a house with you or has been willing to have a vague conversation about kids that you two are on the same page. He asked you to make a pretty significant sacrifice for him with the understanding that you two were going to take steps toward getting married, and if he’s holding back some reservations, it’s important for you to know now before you invest more time and energy in this relationship.

Tell him: “You know it was important to me to get engaged before we moved, but there’s something missing from this conversation, and I hope you’ll be honest with me about what it is. I think there’s something you’re holding back, because I don’t believe that you just don’t know where to find engagement rings. Even if you’re afraid it will upset me, I’d rather you tell me the real reason you’ve held back on this, because it’s an insult to my intelligence when you agree with me and then don’t take actions or offer flimsy excuses. I would so much rather know what you’re really thinking, even if we disagree. We both know why it’s important to me to be engaged. Why is it important to you that we’re not engaged right now?” At a certain point—and I can’t tell you when that point is, you’ll have to decide for yourself—you’re going to have to take uncertainty, deferrals, excuses, and “soon, if” and “I would, but” as the “no” they really are. I guess what it comes down to is this: Do you want to be married to someone you had to beg and convince to propose to you? Or do you want to be married to someone who shares your excitement?

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“This definitely feels like a very ’90s Sex and the City–style scenario.”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and special guest Grace Lavery discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have been married for five years. We met while he was divorcing from his first wife. They had no kids and don’t keep in touch at all. This year, my husband’s brother died after a short battle with cancer. My husband’s been devastated, but we are managing; my problem is with my mother-in-law. We have a wonderful relationship, and I love her like my own mother. She’s been putting up more pictures of her dead son around the house in remembrance. Some of those old family photos include my husband’s first wife, and my mother-in-law is actively looking for someone to photoshop his ex-wife out and photoshop me into them! I think it’s very considerate that she’s worrying about offending me, but I don’t want to be photoshopped into a picture I was never a part of! I’m also not actually offended by looking at the occasional picture that includes my husband’s ex-wife in these memorials. It’s not ideal, but I’m really not bothered by it. Any ideas on how to handle this?
—No Need to ’Shop Me In

I wish everyone could understand, as you do, that pictures from a different phase in a spouse’s life don’t mean that you, as their new partner, suddenly cease to matter. Since you and your mother-in-law are pretty close, I think you can just tell her exactly what you told me: that you’re very moved she’s thinking so much about your comfort while she grieves the loss of her son, but that you don’t have any problem seeing the occasional picture of your husband’s first wife and don’t want her to worry about photoshopping any of them. If you think it would sound better coming from your husband, you could ask him to tell her this on your behalf, but I think it makes more sense coming from you, since it involves you directly and you two normally get along so well. My guess is that she’ll be relieved to not have to do any extra work, and you’ll feel better for having relieved even a small part of her burden as she grieves.

Dear Prudence,
I’m 30, and I have been with my husband for six years. We met in the military; his contract ended last year, and mine ends next month. I joined to help pay for my education, and my long-term plan ever since my husband and I met has been to finish my military career and go to graduate school in Alaska. My father spent years living there and used to bring us up for visits. It’s my favorite place on Earth, and it’s always been my plan to move there. I spent a summer in Anchorage in college and can’t wait to make it my home. When my husband and I got serious (he’s from the South and very close to his family), we had a long talk about the reality of living in Alaska and came to a compromise. He didn’t want to spend his whole life so far from home, so we agreed that if I were accepted to graduate school there, we’d live there for the two to three years it would take to finish my degree. I was accepted, and now he says he won’t go. I feel duped. This was his compromise, and we’ve been telling people for years that our plan was to go to grad school in Alaska. He was supportive when I applied months ago. I feel like he co-signed this plan believing it was a pipe dream, and now that it’s a reality, he’s just trying to brush me off. I have to respond to the offer in a few weeks. I love my husband, but my mother always taught me never to sideline your ambitions for a man. I don’t want to leave him over this, but I sort of feel like he played me.
—Anchorage Away

It sounds like you’ve only had one conversation about this so far—your husband dropped a bombshell on you, and you’ve been reeling ever since. Now is a good time to ask him a lot of follow-up questions. Did something happen to make him change his mind? Did he say he always considered this a pipe dream, or has something recently changed that’s made him more reluctant to go off on an adventure? Is he worried that once you get there, he won’t be able to find work or make friends, or that you’ll want to stay forever? You need more information from him than just “I’m not going anymore.”

I think you should accept and move forward with your plans but figure out what he needs in order to give this at least the old college try. Lots of people in the military and grad school spend a couple of years in a long-distance relationship, but you should leave that as a last resort. What if he agreed to give it six months and if, at the end of that time, he was absolutely miserable, he could go home? Or what if you two could make a budget for traveling home every year during your time at grad school? He should be prepared to talk openly and at length about what he’s prepared to do, given that he’s sprung a very sudden change of heart on you at the last possible second. He’s had years to prepare for this or discuss his reservations with you, and you have a right to ask him to at least try it before deciding it’s impossible.

Classic Prudie

“I’m recently engaged to the most honest, thoughtful, and loving man I’ve ever met. He has supported me through many hard times. Here’s the but about him: He has ambitions, and he’s smart, but will likely only bring a middle-class income at best. Now here’s the but about me: I’m really, really pretty. My whole life people have told me I could get any man I want, meaning a rich man, and are shocked that I’m engaged to my fiancé, nice though he is. I’ve never dated a rich man, but it does make me curious. So part of me thinks I’m squandering my good looks on this poor man, and the other part of me thinks that I’m so shallow that I don’t even deserve him or anyone else. Am I a fool for thinking that a poor man can make me happy or an idiot for believing a sexist fantasy?”