Dear Prudence

Help! My Mom Abused Me. I’m Terrified I’ll Do the Same to My Kids.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

A woman at right looks distressed. A child at left holds her head in her knees.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by evgenyatamanenko/iStock / Getty Images Plus and KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. 

Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everyone! Let’s chat.

Q. Parenting fears: My wife and I are finally at a point in our lives where we are ready to adopt children, as we’ve always planned. I love the idea of being a mother and always thought I wanted this when the time and circumstances were right. Well, the time and circumstances are right, and now I’m terrified. I keep stalling the conversation whenever my wife brings it up, but I don’t want to do that to her for long. I also don’t have a clue how to tell her the fear that’s overcome me, because I feel like a monster just for having it: I’m scared I’ll be abusive.

I ran away from home after my mom found out I was gay, because I honestly believed she would kill me. She was terrifying growing up, physically and emotionally abusing me until I was suicidal. It took a lot of therapy for me to feel able to move on with my life, but I’m scared the experience affected me in ways I don’t know yet. My mom was abused herself and always attributed her aggressive tendencies toward her upbringing. What if I become just like her? I can’t imagine and have no desire to hurt a child right now, but I don’t imagine she planned on being abusive in advance, either. What if I discover a vicious side to myself after becoming a parent? The fear makes me want to be sick. How do I explain this awful fear to my lovely wife without sounding like a monster who thinks they’ll hurt a child?

A: If it helps you at all to hear this, I think I get about a letter a week to this very effect, from someone who’s terrified at the prospect of having children because they’re afraid they’ll replicate their parents’ abuse, even though these letter writers, like you, have themselves never abused anyone. It seems like a common, though extremely painful, side effect of having been raised by abusive parents; you are very much not alone in this. I hope you can show your wife this letter, because everything in it is tender, thoughtful, and afraid. My guess is that she will respond with a great deal of compassion and affection for you.

I do think seeing a therapist who specializes in treating adult children of abusive parents will be helpful to you, because these intrusive thoughts and fears may never go away on their own, and I want you to have effective strategies and loving counsel as you deal with them. These thoughts aren’t rooted in anything you have ever done or wanted to do—they’re an echo of the abuse you suffered, rather than any secret impulse you have to harm the helpless. You say yourself that you’ve never wanted to hurt a child but that you fear some sort of child-harming instinct is silently, latently growing inside of you without your knowledge. But people who abuse children don’t just wake up abusive one day. They make a series of choices to harm the vulnerable, to isolate them, to create a worldview that justifies their abuse. I know I can’t just promise you, “No, you’re not abusive” and erase these fears forever. But I think if you share them with your wife and a therapist, and expose them to a great deal of oxygen and attention, they won’t feel half so immediate or so pressing, and I want you to get as much relief as possible from these obsessive, non-reality-based thoughts, whether you ever decide to have children or not.

Q. Everything is fine: My cousin came out as gay five years ago, when he was 17. There was a lot of anger, fights, and resentment. His stepdad tried to beat him and threatened to send him to be “scared straight.” Our grandfather had to drive to the house in the middle of the night and physically rescue my cousin. After that, my cousin lived with our grandfather for two years before his mom would speak to him again. I was 15 at the time and pretty sure I was gay, and it terrified me. Recently I pulled together the courage to, finally, come out to my family and introduce them to my boyfriend. It went fine. My mom was surprised; my dad wasn’t; everyone was nice to my boyfriend. That is absolutely what I wanted, but I was so geared up to deal with a bad reaction (even though my dad thought his sister was out of line with how she treated my cousin) that I can’t seem to let it go. I have stress dreams that they’ve been horrible and homophobic, I feel like I’m constantly on guard for something wrong they’ll say, and sometimes I treat them as if they did behave badly to me. How do I let go of something that never actually happened—or did happen, but not to me?

A: Those things didn’t happen directly to you, but your cousin’s family absolutely did those things in order to send a message not just to him but to anyone else who might have been thinking about coming out. It makes so much sense that you’d feel anxious and terrified, because the point of homophobic abuse is to signal, “You’re next”—that every gay person can expect more of the same treatment. And if your side of the family was nice enough to you but saw your cousin being harassed, threatened, and nearly beaten by his own parents and didn’t have a much stronger reaction than “Now, that’s a little bit out of line, don’t you think, Helen?” then your fear and guardedness make a great deal of sense to me. Outside of your grandfather, did anyone else on your side of the family do much to help your cousin when he was a teenager being abused? If not—if they clearly disapproved of the idea of beating up a gay teenager or sending him off to conversion therapy, but not so much that they wanted to “interfere” with how his parents chose to abuse him—then I think you have every reason to hold them at arm’s length. The strength of their response to a vulnerable gay teenager is a pretty good test of their characters. This is worth thinking about, this is worth talking about, and it’s worth holding them accountable for.

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Q. No one I know is working in the fields they have degrees in: I dropped out of college due to mental health issues and not having enough money. I’ve been working minimum wage retail and trying to live day by day, with no family support to speak of—though, thankfully, no debt! But recently, I’ve found my passion: a creative industry with a high failure rate that takes years of nonacademic training. I know it’s a wild dream, but I love it and I’m willing to take the risk! However, it’s obviously recommended that everyone in this industry have some kind of career to fall back on, since even “successful” people age out eventually. I don’t feel like my CV is impressive enough to carry me far in any “real” job, and the careers I can see myself doing (librarian? teacher?) require returning to college for many years, which to me sounds like a lot of stress and debt in exchange for more uncertainty. All my hobbies and interests are creative or humanities-based, and I know those fields barely pay enough to live on. How can I pursue this risky dream when I see the “fallback plan” as equally risky, if more socially acceptable?

A: I think finding a job that doesn’t necessarily monetize your hobbies or unpaid interests is often a good thing! That’s not to say you shouldn’t even consider a risky but potentially emotionally rewarding career path, but if you want to cultivate a backup career, you should cast a wider net than just looking at things you already enjoy doing, unpaid. If any readers have more specific advice about how to approach this particular question, I’ll be happy to include those responses, especially from anyone who’s pursued (and/or eventually left) a risky creative industry.

Q. Wealthy friend’s bad advice: I have a question about how to deal with a wealthy friend’s unrealistic advice. I love this friend a lot, and they have been a really good friend to me over the years. But lately I’ve been really frustrated whenever they give me advice because it’s so unrealistic for me. And this is when I’m just talking about my stresses and issues and other general life stuff, not specifically seeking their advice.

This friend has a ton of family money—they don’t have a job, live in a huge apartment in an expensive big city, take frequent vacations, go on monthlong retreats to their family cabin, take their dogs to get colorful perms and nails polished, etc. I’ve obviously noticed this stuff, but it hasn’t been an issue until lately. Often, their suggestions or responses are along the lines of “Other people have real problems” (this sucks for a bunch of reasons) to “Just take a vacation for a few months” (I’d lose my job, and also wouldn’t be able to afford it) to less serious stuff like “Get a fun wacky haircut” (I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job I have if I had a wacky haircut). Some of this is silly but it’s really frustrating.

I recently overreacted to a similar suggestion they made—I think I’ve been feeling frustrated by this stuff for a while and let it out in an unhealthy way. Nothing too egregious, but I apologized. For the next time, I don’t want to be a huge jerk and say something I’ll regret, but I don’t know what to do about it. And I don’t want to cut this person out of my life.

A: I think it’s possible to maintain a certain friendship with this person while also accepting their very real limitations and deciding not to share your stressors with them. That doesn’t mean you two can only ever talk about the weather, but if you know that they’re (at least presently) incapable of listening to your work problems or financial concerns without offering ridiculous, impractical solutions (“Have you considered just buying a castle in the Scottish Highlands to get away from it all? I heard it worked great for Enya”) then I think it’s wise to save those concerns for your other friendships and to find something else to talk about with your lovely, but otherwise clueless, rich friend.

Q. I have a crush on my professor: I’m attracted to my professor. We are both grad students—however, I had to take a required undergrad course he was teaching. We are both men, although I’m unsure if he is gay. He has mentioned in class having a girlfriend, although I must be crazy because I swear he would look at me differently than other students, like he liked me back. I want to ask him out, yet I am afraid to, because if he does have a girlfriend, or isn’t attracted to me, it would be humiliating. Is it even appropriate for me to ask him out or pursue him like that? He isn’t my professor anymore, and I still am attracted to him—from the first day to today I can’t get him out of my head. I don’t think I’ve ever been attracted to someone like this before, and it has me worried. I don’t want to get him into trouble. What do I do?

A: You are using the word professor more loosely than you need to! This guy is not a professor, and there aren’t any of the usual disparities in institutional authority that you’d have to worry about if he were. You’re both grad students working the same job, even if you did at one point take his course. I’d be pretty surprised if your university had rules against graduate students dating each other, so my guess is that simply asking him out couldn’t possibly get either one of you in trouble. That said, right now the only information that you have is the intensity of your own feelings. When it comes to this other guy, there’s a little less to go on. You know that at least last semester he was seeing somebody, and you don’t say much about your interactions other than the fact that he sometimes seemed to look at you differently. Did you two ever talk much? Would it be possible to invite him out for a friendly coffee and try to get a sense of whether he enjoys your company platonically before trying to do more research about his relationship status and potential interest? You’re definitely free to try to spend more time with him, and you don’t even have to ask him out yet if you don’t feel up to it yet. Part of the problem of dating is that sometimes people don’t say yes when you ask them out, and sometimes they don’t like us back when we like them. It’s not humiliating (although I understand overcoming feelings of humiliation isn’t as simple as telling yourself, “Just feel fine about this!”)—it’s an unavoidable part of the process. The more you do it, the less daunting a potential “no, thanks” feels. Good luck!

Q. Little sister’s wedding: My sister and I are very close and she recently got engaged to a great guy. Before they were engaged, she told me they were going to get married in Switzerland. I told her that, if that’s where she decided to get married, I probably wouldn’t be able to attend because my husband and I are planning to start a family soon. Either I would be too pregnant or have a newborn and wouldn’t be able to make the trip, not to mention the cost. Now that they are actually engaged, she tells me she wants to have the wedding in Iceland and she wants me to help plan it. She’s sent me wedding-package information for the hotel where she wants to have the wedding, and whether or not she can afford it is really her business, but this hotel is an eye-watering $500 per night for guests with the wedding discount! There are four siblings in our family and I am the only one who would even entertain the idea of going to this wedding, and even my parents are complaining, although not to her face. We don’t come from money. She and her fiancé are not avid travelers. We don’t have Icelandic heritage. This is not something that her family and friends can easily afford. I think she’s being very selfish by expecting people in her life to shell out thousands of dollars just to attend her wedding. What responsibility do I have to address this with her? On the one hand, I want her to be happy, but on the other, I think she’ll end up being disappointed and embarrassed if she goes down this path, and I want to save her from that. Should I tell her straight that this is a bad idea and I don’t want to be involved?

A: I think it’s possible to be frank here without starting a fight: “This looks beautiful! I imagine that the $500-per-night hotel and the cost of plane tickets mean a lot of people who might attend a local wedding won’t be able to come, so if you want to talk about how to prepare for a smaller wedding, I’m available.” I agree it sounds like she’s being a bit unrealistic at present, but plenty of people decide they’d rather have a smaller destination wedding than a bigger blowout at home. As long as she doesn’t blow up at the prospect of someone declining an invitation, then she’s not being unreasonably selfish. If she does bridle at your suggestion, then I think she’ll have crossed a line. Hopefully she doesn’t!

Q. Re: Parenting fears: The letter writer’s fears are justified: Becoming a parent can reignite old childhoods hurts, especially when you were abused by your parents. When you have a child, you look at your own parents and their behaviors and choices differently, and when they were abusive, it can bring up old hurts, even ones you thought you’d “gotten over” long before. The answer? Therapy. As always. But also: Be prepared for this. Expect it to happen so it doesn’t take you by surprise. Be honest and open with your wife about how you’re feeling, and don’t be afraid to make changes to your parenting along the way if you feel yourself slipping. Feeling overwhelmed with a toddler at home? Day care for even a few days a week can be tremendously helpful! Things like that. You already exhibit more insight into your feelings and how your upbringing affected you than a lot of people, and I think you’ll be OK.

A: That’s a really important point. Thanks for bringing it up. It’s not just a question of “don’t worry, you won’t be like your mother, now go have kids.” Part of the problem here is whether deciding to have children will reignite a number of destabilizing and traumatizing fears and anxieties that may make it more difficult for the letter writer to function. My worry isn’t that the letter writer would have children and become abusive; my worry is that the letter writer will feel pressure to have kids she’s not actually ready for (or potentially interested in) and won’t get the help she needs to take care of herself. So it’s important to bring this up now, with your partner as well as a therapist, not just for the sake of the children who don’t yet exist, but for your sake. And if ultimately the letter writer decides that having kids isn’t for her, not because she thinks she’ll hurt them but because she thinks the process would hurt her, then I think that’s important and worth respecting.

Q. Woman maybe seeking woman? I casually mentioned to my boyfriend that I regret not exploring my sexuality with women when I was single. He said I should “go for it” and even offered to get out of the apartment if I wanted to bring them home to have some alone time. I’m more than happy in my current relationship. We moved in together two months ago, met each other’s families, and are planning on getting engaged by year’s end. I’m excited about the potential newfound freedom, but I worry about it becoming an issue later if he were to get jealous or want an open relationship entirely (which I’m not comfortable with). Is it worth the risk to my perfect relationship?

A: I think it’s worth having a second talk with your boyfriend before you make any moves! So far you’ve only had one very casual conversation about the idea, and as you say, it poses plenty of risks in addition to its considerable appeal. So the next move is to go back and tell him that part of you is excited and part of you is scared, that you want to talk about limits you’d both be comfortable with, and that you don’t want a wholly open relationship, and ask him what his thoughts on the matter are. Have three and four and five conversations about it, even! Talk about it a lot before you make any decisions, and set aside time to check in with one another before and after you meet anyone. Talk about how you two might handle any number of potential complications: What if you met someone you wanted to sleep with more than once? What if you developed feelings for a girl you slept with? What if you wanted to sleep with women but couldn’t find any who were interested in hooking up with someone in a committed relationship? You might also want to do a little reading on the subject of semi-open relationships and see if there are any examples that look good to you; more research is necessary before you can decide whether the risks outweigh the rewards.

Q. Re: No one I know is working in the fields they have degrees in: Every actor who claims she moved to Hollywood and slept in her car until she made it big is lying. I actively worked as a stage lighting designer as a side hustle for 25 years, based on one college class and a ton of self-study and practice. I’d love to hear what really creative occupation you can’t get a BA in. Or take classes at a private school. Or get mentored in. Earning a living in the creative field requires talent, luck, and networking. Lots and lots of luck.

A: I think this is helpful, especially because there’s frustratingly little detail about the nature of the creative profession the letter writer wants to break into. There are a number of professions, even creative ones, that don’t require years of expensive training or certification before you can reasonably look for employment, and I think the letter writer should probably focus their energies right now on finding ways to get informed about the day-to-day requirements of their hoped-for career before making any big moves.

Q. Re: No one I know is working in the fields they have degrees in: I have tried to be two things that I absolutely am not today: a professional dancer and professional writer. Along the way, I supported myself at a series of customer-oriented jobs that did not fulfill my heart or fill my bank account. If I had my late teens and early 20s to live over again, I would give myself a timeline and permission to do things out of the typical order. Instead of majoring in creative writing and dance, I would have spent a predetermined amount of time working as a low wage worker or dancer. If I couldn’t sustainably support myself as a dancer at the end of it, I would go to college and study something with real job prospects and with fewer soul-crushing moments than that Comcast customer-support gig.

A: Thanks for sharing this. I think there are ways to test out risk, as you say, rather than jumping headfirst into the biggest possible risk and hoping for the best (because any outcome other than the best would be disastrous). If it’s possible to devote some time each week to both Plan A and Plans B and C, then that’s a much better idea than throwing yourself into a single career track you know you’ll age out of and don’t yet have any experience with.

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Classic Prudie

Q. My husband refuses to have sex with me while I’m pregnant: My husband and I had a great sex life. Now I’m pregnant and he just can’t see me that way. We’ve talked, and there is no doubt in his mind that we’ll bounce back post-baby. I find his earnestness about wanting to protect the baby and his fear that something will go wrong endearing, but irrational. He knows it’s irrational. Do I just have to resign myself to months and months more of a sexless marriage? It’s such a shame!