Dear Prudence

My Dad Found a Girlfriend Two Months After My Mom Died

Prudie’s column for June 20.

Collage of an older couple next to an urn for ashes.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by InnerVisionPRO/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Tuned_In/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
My mother died last fall after a battle with cancer. My father is 76 and a working psychiatrist. He was devoted to my mom for over 50 years but began a relationship with a co-worker within two months of her death. I want him to be happy, but he is acting like my mom died years ago and not a few months ago. At first I said I was OK with this, but I have realized that my initial reaction was made in a state of shock. Last month he brought her on vacation to the same house he and my mom rented just a few weeks before she died. He acts like it’s no big deal, but every time I walk into the house, all I can see is my mother at the end of her life. I am still grieving the loss of my mom but feel like I can’t share memories with him because his new partner is always with us. I know he has his own life to lead, but this is just weird, especially for someone who is a therapist. He would never counsel a patient to jump into a new relationship so quickly after the death of a spouse. How can I talk with him about how I’m feeling? We have always been very close, and now I feel like I’m hiding something huge from him. I’ll be OK with him moving on once I have just a little more time. This just seems so very fast and disrespectful to my mom.
—Moved On Too Quickly for Me

Your pain and distress at your father’s new relationship are completely understandable. But it’s clear from your letter that you two are not going to grieve in the same way. You’ve just lost your mother, and you need to talk about her, but you can’t do that comfortably in front of your father’s new girlfriend. But, at 76, your father knows he does not have many years left to live and does not have time to mourn in solitude.

It’s fair to say that he asked you to get to know his new girlfriend too soon and that he ought to have given you more time before introducing you to each other. And you have every right to revisit this conversation with him and to ask for a little bit of space: “Dad, I want you to be happy, and I know you care a lot about [Girlfriend], but I’m not ready to spend a lot of time with her yet. I’m hoping we can set aside some time for the two of us to get together by ourselves. I also found being at the vacation home you had rented with Mom to be more difficult and painful than I anticipated, so I may not be able to go there again for a while.” I would encourage you not to think of this as any sort of comment on your mother’s life or how much she mattered to your father. His love for her and his desire to have a romantic partner at the end of his life don’t have to cancel each other out. It is fast, but it’s not necessarily disrespectful. Prioritize your own feelings by scheduling an appointment with a grief counselor, talking with your friends, and setting aside time to journal or take long walks or cry or all of the above. Set aside time that’s just for you and your father to meet up, and wait a while before spending time with him and his new girlfriend again.

Dear Prudence,
I have very noticeable and semi-recent self-harm scars on my upper arms and thighs, and with the weather in my city warming up, I know tank tops and shorts will expose them to people around me. My friends are unaware of my cutting, and I’m really anxious that one of them will ask why my bicep has a bunch of healed-over red marks on it. I don’t want to scare anyone who asks, or possibly trigger someone else who’s had traumatic experiences with self-harm, be it their own or someone else’s. Is there a gentle way I can tell the truth without igniting worry? Is it better to lie and not risk hurting the people in my life with this information? If no one asks at all, do I have any obligation to explain why my arm has so many scars, where last summer it didn’t?
—Sun Exposure

You don’t say whether you’re seeing a doctor or a therapist to help you manage your relationship with your body and self-harm. If you aren’t, I hope that you’ll consider it. But it sounds like you’re not concerned about the resurgence of another self-harming cycle so much as dealing with the aftermath, so I’ll take you at your word.

If your primary concern is protecting yourself from unwanted stares or awkward questions, you could buy some shorts a few inches longer than your usual style and swap out your tank tops for short-sleeve shirts. You won’t have to swathe yourself in sweaters and long pants, but that extra bit of fabric might make you feel more comfortable for your first summer dealing with these new scars. That’s only if you want to and if it would put you at ease—you’re not obligated to cover up because your scars are an imposition on the rest of the world. And I’d encourage you not to think of your scars as a potential trigger that you have to manage every time you put on a tank top. Many people have scars and burn marks and other physical signs of previous traumas.

If you want to tell close friends, you could say, “I have some scars on my arms and legs that I didn’t used to have, and I wanted to talk to you about it before the next heat wave so you weren’t surprised by it. I want you to know that I’m safe and doing well”—don’t feel that you have to make any claims about yourself that aren’t true, but it does sound like you’re in a better place right now—“and I hope you’ll help me in my recovery by not drawing attention to them.” I can’t promise you that your friends won’t worry about you, but if you can offer them guidance in how best to care for you—namely by not gawking or asking intrusive questions—they’ll be eager to follow your lead. It may also feel like a relief to share this information with your friends—not because they can fix it, but because it is good to be known and loved. Good luck, and I hope you have a wonderful summer.

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Dear Prudence,
My cousin “Richie” recently discovered through a popular DNA testing service that there’s a likelihood that the father who raised him, my uncle by marriage, was not his biological father. This would mean that his mother, my aunt, had an affair that nobody knew about. Both my aunt and uncle are deceased. Richie has always felt an “otherness” in his immediate family, so this news validated those feelings, and he’s delighted. He has begun to tell his siblings and other cousins. I support him but am a bit skeptical of the results and would like him to take a real DNA test. Richie says the results are enough for him, but I’d like to know for sure before older family members learn the news because I think, at least at first, they’d be deeply upset by it. Do I have the right to encourage Richie to confirm the results? And if so, what would be the best way to do that?
—Ancestry Dilemma

There are a number of reasons to be somewhat wary of DNA testing services, not least of which is data insecurity. I do think Richie has sufficient information to strongly suspect that his original results were accurate, but I agree that there’s likely to be plenty of emotional fallout. If you can find a way to gently encourage him to seek confirmation with a follow-up test supervised by a doctor, you should do so. (“Have you thought about confirming these results with a second test before you talk to the rest of the family about it? I don’t want to tell you what to do, so if I’m overstepping, please let me know and I’ll back off.”) But the fallout is likely coming either way, and there’s not a lot you can do to either avoid or ameliorate it. The most you can do is try to support Richie and let him make his own choices. If some of your older relatives end up getting upset, you can offer your support to them as well, but you can’t shield them from the question of his paternity, nor from his delight in finding out that he may have another biological family he never knew about.

Dear Prudence,
How do I respond when my father-in-law gives Bibles and other religious tomes to my children? We are Catholic but not super Catholic, and he recently became a minister (switching from Catholic to Methodist). I feel as if he is trying to send me a message I need to be somehow saved from something or he is worried about the souls of my semi-heathen children.
—Religious Gifts

If these are just occasional gifts (like for birthdays or holidays) and you don’t mind your kids having copies of A Plain Account of Christian Perfection or A Dissertation Concerning the Nature of True Virtue that they mostly don’t read, you can stick to smiling and reminding them to say “Thank you, Grandpa” before opening the rest of their presents. If the gift-giving becomes constant or if it’s accompanied by digs about your own religious observance, then it’s fine for you to talk about this with your partner, who might have a sense of how best to bring it up with their father. This could be anything from a gentle suggestion like “The kids have more than enough stuff right now, so they don’t need any more presents. But if you want to get them something, I’m sure they’d enjoy an afternoon with you somewhere special, like a trip to the movies or the zoo or a concert,” to the less gentle “I’m afraid we don’t have room in our library for any more books right now. We’ve really appreciated your generosity, but please don’t waste your money buying any more, since we’d just have to donate them.” If that fails, then your partner should step in to offer a more obvious intervention.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“It’s just so different, mourning a partner and mourning a parent.”

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

Dear Prudence,
I was not beaten or neglected, but my mom treated me (her daughter), from a young age, like her spouse, best friend, personal therapist, marriage counselor, and priest. I knew highly inappropriate things about her marriage to my dad and her past and was expected to guide her through these things. I was also expected to anticipate her moods and wants. If I failed to do so, she’d fly into a rage. My mom was estranged from her family and had no friends. She hated my father, though she refused to divorce him and did her best to make me hate him too. In high school and college, I suffered from severe depression, self-hatred, and anxiety. After a suicide attempt, I finally sought therapy and eventually cut off all contact with my mom because she would not respect my boundaries and continued to be abusive. That was four years ago.

My life is much happier and healthier without her in it. But recently a hospital called to say my mom was sick and that I needed to care for her (my dad has since passed away). When I refused, they began to guilt me, saying that I only have one mother and I’ll regret this when she’s gone. When I held my ground, they threatened that I may have legal obligations to her. I checked, and there are no such laws in my state. My once-supportive friends are now guilting me too. This woman got the first 30 years of my life. I’m not giving her one day more. How do I get the hospital, social workers, and my friends to understand this?
—Won’t Be Her Caretaker

The hospital and social workers should be the easiest to deal with: Block whichever numbers or email addresses they’ve been using to contact you, and return any mail sent to your home care of sender. You don’t need to argue with them or offer details about the abuse that you suffered. They have no legal or moral grounds from which to harass you into managing your estranged mother’s care. Friends are a lot harder, because you want and need emotional support, compassion, and understanding from them. I’d try putting it to them like this: “I hope that at this point in our relationship you generally trust my judgment. If that’s the case, I’d like to ask you to access some of that trust right now. I’m not being cold, legalistic, or unforgiving. I remember what the first 30 years of my life were like when I was in contact with my mother, and her abuse endangered my mental health, my emotional well-being, and my safety. I cannot be in contact with her. This is a choice I’ve had to make in order to stay alive. I cannot care for her. That’s not a decision I’ve made lightly or cavalierly, and while you may not understand it or relate to it, I do need you to respect it.”

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I live in a four-unit building—two apartments upstairs, an office below the apartment next to us, and a commercial bakery that moved into the storefront below our apartment last month. The building has five parking spots in the back, and the bakery’s delivery van has hit our new car twice now. It’s cosmetic but will cost about $1,000 to repair. I had asked the landlord to install cameras, but that wasn’t done yet. The bakery denies hitting the car, even though the damage on its car matches the height of the damage on our car. Most of all, it’s private parking, so no one else has access (the guy next door is usually on tour, and the office is only open Saturdays). The landlord lives in another country and was less than helpful when I complained about the damage from his new tenants. The bakery denied it up and down, but since my husband and I confronted the staff, its delivery van has been noticeably absent. Since we couldn’t catch the driver in the act, am I stuck paying for this? My husband is self-employed, and this puts a significant strain on the budget.
—Bread Smells Like Resentment

Generally speaking, landlords who have cameras installed to monitor their tenants are worse than landlords who don’t, though that’s my particular bias, and you may not share it. Yes, it’s frustrating when someone hits your car and drives off. It’s especially frustrating when that person almost certainly lives next door to you, and you have to see them often. It’s also part of living in a city, even a small one. Cars depreciate. They get nicked and bumped and scratched. I think you’ve exhausted your options here, short of staking out the parking lot and spying on the bread van through binoculars 24/7, which I don’t advise you to do. The cameras are coming eventually, the van has started parking elsewhere, and unless you want to spend a lot of time in small claims court, your best move is to try to repair the damage yourself. Your car will not look pristine again, but no car ever does, unless you’re willing to devote a significant portion of your life to warding off entropy. Embrace entropy, save your budget, accept this as a partial win and a partial loss, and move on.

Classic Prudie

My sister got married recently. Some weeks before the big day, she pulled me aside and asked me to dye my bright blue and purple hair a more innocuous color so that I wouldn’t stand out too much. She wouldn’t listen to reason as to how I love my hair, nor as to how the process of bringing it to a more natural color would be difficult, expensive, and damaging. At the suggestion of a friend, I invested in an excellent honey-brown human hair wig, similar to my actual hair texture and length. Her big day went off without a hitch, and she never even seemed to notice my “innocuous” hair. At the end of the reception, after nearly everyone had left and my family and I were helping tidy up, I removed the wig.

My sister freaked out. She’s still angry, and she says that I violated her trust and that for the rest of her life when she looks at her wedding pictures of the family together or of me in the background, she’ll know that there’s blue-and-purple hair under there, and it will infuriate her. I don’t see any problem with what I did. I didn’t want to change my hair color for ONE day in her life, and I even invested in a hairpiece specifically meant to give her peace of mind. I hadn’t considered telling her about the wig beforehand, simply because she was busy and, as long as I showed up with “normal” hair, it should have been fine. How am I in the wrong here? Did I owe it to my sister to actually color my hair for her wedding? I wasn’t even a bridesmaid.