Dear Prudence

My Mom Accused Me of Having an Affair With My Dad

Prudie’s column for July 11.

A mother and daughter sitting far apart on a couch, looking in opposite directions, upset.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
I live at home with my five siblings (I’m the oldest) and mom and dad. For about a year now my mom has been going through depression and mental health issues. One night at the dinner table, my mom said that I may be having an affair with my dad and that she cannot trust us being together alone in one room. It’s not true. Not only did my dad and I not see this coming, but neither did any of my other family members. We talked for hours explaining that this accusation made all of us very uncomfortable. I expressed how much I respect and love her and my dad way too much to ever do anything like that. I cried. My siblings cried. My dad cried. Nothing we said seemed to help. I decided to stay out of my parents’ way, especially my dad’s, to make her feel comfortable and to trust me.

Recently, I took a trip with my mom and my sisters to my country. It was great, and I had no issues with my mom. I even got married on that trip. My husband lives in that country and could not travel back with me, so I had to come back home alone with my mom and sisters. I thought things would be different after that trip and marriage. But as soon as we returned home, my mom started acting suspicious and said she still felt my dad and I were having an affair. I was devastated. I decided to stop speaking to my mom. My dad agreed with me and supports me on this decision. He has apologized for her behavior toward me and has expressed that he also struggles with this accusation. I cannot move away due to financial issues. I love my mother and want a relationship with her for myself and my future children, but I cannot take her accusing me of such behavior. I have not told anyone, even my husband, about this matter. I’m ashamed to bring it up. What can I do?
—Mom Thinks I’m Sleeping With Dad

This is profoundly sad and disturbing, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to stay in the house with her right now. I don’t know if your mother is currently being treated by a doctor or mental health professional, but if she is, you should encourage your father to discuss her latest symptoms with them, because they’re a sign of a disturbing break from reality. Do you have any other family members living nearby or friends who might be willing to host you in a guest room or on a couch for a few days? Even just getting a temporary break from staying in your parents’ house would be good for you, and if you don’t feel prepared yet to share the sensitive nature of your mother’s paranoid delusions, you can just say that you’re going through a difficult time with your family and need a little space. In the long run, saving up as much as you can so you can eventually move out is going to be necessary, and that might include speaking to your husband directly about this so the two of you can prioritize getting you out of there.

Dear Prudence,
Last year, at 47, I accidentally discovered that my mother had been lying to me about my biological father for my whole life. She married the man who raised me when I was 6 months old and swore the entire family to secrecy. I found my biological father, and we are both devastated to have missed out on a lifetime of love and family connection. His family has welcomed me with open arms. He apparently proposed to my mother, but because she was much younger than him and not ready to grow up (in her words, the power dynamic in the relationship was in his favor), she declined. She told him she’d had multiple partners and there was no way to know whose I was. She confided to me that she didn’t want anyone else having a voice in how I was raised, and she told my aunt that she married my adoptive dad because he was a partying hippie and she wanted to keep living that life.

My mother is also mentally ill and has been barely functional most of my life. She abused and neglected me and my younger brother our entire childhoods and still plays the victim every chance she gets. Everything is all about her. I’ve handled things like chores and bills for my parents since I can remember. I love my dad, but he’s only ever made excuses for her. This time, I’m simply not prepared to forgive and forget. She had plenty of time to tell me the truth and never did. I don’t want to fracture my family, and I’m being urged to forgive her, but I don’t see how I can. To complicate things, my dad (who raised me) is dealing with a progressive disability, and my parents are aging. They will need increasing care as time goes on. I’m struggling. I won’t have the means to get regular counseling for a few more months. What do I owe my mother and father after this? Is this something I can reasonably consider a relationship deal breaker?
—Where Do I Go From Here?

Let’s start with what you owe yourself first: You get to be angry, take time and space away from your parents, prepare to start counseling in a few months, push back against the idea that you should quickly forgive your mom, and spend meaningful time with your new family members. I want to leave open the possibility that your mother was on the more difficult end of an uneven power dynamic with your biological father at the time and felt pressure from various fronts. I don’t want you to think of your mother as someone whom you have to make excuses for or clean up after or as a bad actor and a manipulator whom you stop talking to. She may very well be a complicated mixture—suffering and self-centered, frightened and manipulative, in genuine need and also looking to drain you of energy.

The important thing is that you have been abused and pressured into taking care of your parents for your entire life, and now that you’re finally contemplating taking a break, you feel responsible for planning and managing their retirement. I think this will be profoundly helpful to discuss in therapy, but that’s still a few months off. In the meantime, consider allowing yourself to prioritize the family relationships where you feel cared for over the ones where you are forced into a caretaking role.

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Dear Prudence,
I’m a young, white, nonbinary, queer person. I understand that, as a white person, there is always more that I can do to understand racism and my part in white supremacy. I was at the Pride parade in New York City and was wearing my “Gay slang was invented by black women” T-shirt, and it made some black parade attendees upset. They didn’t approach me, but they were discussing how the shirt was racist. I was going to approach and ask if we could discuss it, but then I didn’t want to make them more uncomfortable, and I felt just bad in general. I ended up taking off the shirt so as not to cause anymore disruption. I’ve done some research on the shirt and have decided not to wear it anymore because it doesn’t acknowledge black femmes. But I’m wondering if there was something else I could have done in the moment besides freeze?
—Racism at Pride

I think it was a good instinct not to approach the people talking about your shirt, since their conversation was not directed toward you, and your shirt was a public statement presumably meant to provoke a variety of responses. And you didn’t just freeze—you weighed your options, decided not to make these other attendees responsible for your discomfort, changed your shirt, went home and researched the assertion you’d been wearing, decided you no longer stood by it, and resolved not to wear the shirt again. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the discomfort you felt is going to lift right away.

There are a few threads at play here. One is that a white person wearing a T-shirt making broad claims about the relationship between black women and various forms of gay culture is an unsubtle and somewhat demanding approach to joining a public conversation. Another is the often unspoken belief a lot of white people have that when we first begin to think about our own role in white supremacy and attempt to work against it, we will be congratulated for our actions. What we think of as an excellent first attempt is not seen in the same way by others. There are, as you’ve recently experienced, a number of limitations to trying to have a conversation about racism within various queer communities through a T-shirt, and you can’t retroactively make the marchers who objected to your shirt think of you as a good or a well-intended white person. I think your energies might better be directed elsewhere going forward.

Dear Prudence,
Over the past several months in my quest to deal with my own mental illnesses, I’ve been trying to write more. I wrote a lot when I was in high school, but afterward it fell to the wayside. I’ve always been told how well I write and that I should share it more, especially from my mother, who has PTSD and clinical depression. When I was about 6 to 14, she was mentally checked out. My dad worked full time, which left me responsible for taking care of my sisters and to cause as little trouble as possible. While I don’t blame my mom for what her illness did to her, it really screwed with me and is something that I am still trying to deal with (I currently have two whole therapists to help).

I recently started a poetry Instagram account, which my mother follows. I have yet to share any of the poetry that talks about my childhood, mostly because I’m afraid of hurting her. I know it kills her to know she missed so much time with us and how badly it affected us. I don’t want to bring that hurt up for her unnecessarily. But some of my strongest work is in that pile. Do I not share the work dealing with my childhood where she can see it to spare her feelings? Or do I tell her that this is something that will come up as a topic, remind her that I love her, and hope that it’s enough to help keep this from hurting as much as it could? I know she would be proud of the work but hurt by the contents. But I know sharing this work would help in my own recovery.
—Poking at Wounds

Giving your mother some advance notice and offering her the option to mute or unfollow the account are smart strategies. That said, for some people, hearing “I’m going to start sharing work that directly references you, and I wanted to give you the option of unfollowing me so you don’t have to see it” might be both tempting and painful. If you think that could be the case with your mother, you might start an alternate account that she doesn’t follow where you can share some of that more complicated work without alerting her to it.

It sounds like the two of you have a fairly warm relationship that depends at least in part on not spending too much time acknowledging the ways your childhood hurt you, but I don’t think that means everything is going to collapse if you start publishing more of your work. Remind her that you love her, that this work deals with a painful time of your life but doesn’t reflect the sum total of every experience you’ve ever had with her, that it’s her choice whether she decides to read it, and that you’d encourage her to process her feelings with friends or a counselor if she feels like she needs it. It will be significant for you to have compassion for her potential hurt without making yourself responsible for helping her deal with it, since for so much of your childhood you were prematurely made responsible for too much.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“The good news is that everyone else who lives with you is deeply troubled by this.”

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

Dear Prudence,
My 12-year-old came out as bisexual about a year ago. Since then, she and her friends have adopted the use of gender-neutral nicknames with one another. She uses female pronouns and asks that I use her new name in public. I took her to her first Pride march recently, and she was very happy. This has opened up a conversation about using binders. She’s very developed for her age. I am not opposed to this, but I am thinking about the root of this desire—if it comes from the beginning of a transition versus an expression of being a girl uncomfortable growing into a woman’s body. Therapy is definitely on the table, but I want your advice on how to approach this to be able to support her on her journey. Does the root of her request change how we move forward? How do I bring up therapy without making assumptions about her gender or the reason behind her binder request? How do I help her be comfortable in her body whether she transitions or not?
—Binding Prospects

You sound like a thoughtful and supportive parent who’s spent a lot of time carefully considering your responsibilities toward your daughter. When it comes to therapy, don’t overthink it—just tell your kid that if she’s ever interested in seeing a therapist to help her process her goals, desires, or feelings, you’d be happy to set that up. I wouldn’t peg the therapy to the binding, because that might make the process seem a bit transactional: “See a therapist X amount of times, and I’ll let you order a binder” doesn’t exactly foster a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness.

I think you can be a bit easier on yourself when it comes to trying to divine the origins of this request. It’s not necessarily worth trying to ground an interest in low-stakes body modification as being trans-related or not. That can imply, “If you end up being trans, it’s fine to want to alter your silhouette with a binder, but if you’re not trans, you just have to learn to love yourself in a bra.” Learning to love one’s body is a worthwhile project, and loving one’s body and choosing to modify the appearance of one’s bustline (with the caveat that it’s worth researching techniques for binding safely and checking with her pediatrician) are not incompatible. If she starts binding and ultimately transitions, great! But if she tries it out and comes to think of it as a matter of personal autonomy, that she was granted age-appropriate freedom to play with her gender presentation and develops a concrete sense that you can love your body and choose to present in gender-nonconforming ways, that’s a good outcome too.

Dear Prudence,
Lately I’ve become very anxious and insecure, partly because of some relationship issues and partly because of a really stressful job I just quit. Then, during a fight with a close friend, he implied our friends think I’m a mean person. I’ve been turning those words over and over in my mind ever since. All this to say, I think I might benefit from therapy. But I live in a very small town, and there is only one sliding-scale therapist office (I can’t afford anything else). And I have just been hired to do a big freelance writing project for that same office.

I know that they wouldn’t fire me for it, but I’m terrified of going there for therapy while also working for them (both require my physical presence). What if one of the people who hired me sees me in the waiting room and thinks I’m there for work when I’m actually there for an appointment? What if someone I work for ends up being my actual therapist? It seems like a recipe for intense awkwardness and added stress, and I’ve sort of resigned myself to just not going, but I really think it might help. Do you have any advice? I can’t turn down the job, or I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent the next couple months.
—Therapist and Boss

These thoughts seem like the product of the anxiety and insecurity that have been plaguing you lately—which isn’t to say that they’re something you can just dismiss. But generally speaking, people in a therapist’s waiting room keep to themselves and aren’t scoping out others to view with suspicion. Therapy offices are also set up to handle confidential or potentially uncomfortable matters with discretion. If you wanted to clarify when you set up an appointment that you’re working on a freelance project for the office but wanted to keep those visits separate, I think they’d be able to accommodate you. Or, if that sounds overwhelming, you might consider remote therapy, which you can do over the phone or via video chat with a therapist far away (it’s often less expensive than in-person therapy, too). But it’s important for you to prioritize therapy of at least some kind, because you deserve the chance to reality-test the most self-conscious and self-loathing thoughts in your head. “Everyone in the office will be looking at me and trying to use either my work against my therapy or my therapy against my work” sounds more like a negative spiral than a likely series of events.

Classic Prudie

My young niece requires a liver transplant. It turns out that her mom—my SIL—and my husband are a match. We’ve done a lot of research into it and I feel incredibly uneasy about my husband being a live donor, due to the various risks and impact on his health. My SIL has stated she “can’t” donate because it means she can’t breastfeed her 1-year-old son or look after the other two kids immediately after the operation. My husband has always been the type of person who gives more than he can, willingly and without thinking. So without any contemplation, he readily agreed. If my SIL wasn’t a match either, I would absolutely support him being a donor. But it seems that being a donor is too difficult and inconvenient for my SIL, yet she wants my husband to take all the risks. I told my SIL if she were to go through the operation, I would take time off work to look after her and her children. Yet she stubbornly insists on my husband. Since I protested so strongly, my husband says he will go ahead only if I agree, and now my SIL is extremely angry and hostile toward me. Am I a terrible person, or is my SIL being selfish?