Dear Prudence

My Mother Bought My Tomboy Stepdaughter Over-the-Top Girly Birthday Gifts

Prudie’s column for Sept. 28.

Photo illustration of a girl surrounded by girly pink toys and a purse.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by DanielBendjy/iStock/Getty Images Plus, marietjieopp/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Icons8 team/Unsplash, and miflippo/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

My husband and I have full custody of his two girls (8 and 11) after an ugly situation with their mother. The girls are having a hard time adjusting, and I have tried to connect with them. My oldest stepdaughter loves to read science fiction, while her sister is a tomboy who can’t keep still. I tried to learn about books and activities that inspire the girls. It has worked pretty well—with the exception of my family. My parents completely ignore me when I tell them about the girls’ tastes. My mother says she “knows what little girls like.” My oldest stepdaughter’s birthday came, and she hasn’t made any real friends here yet, so I asked for help from my family since most of my social circle doesn’t have kids. I gave my mother several hundred dollars and a shopping wish list. My husband and I have both been struggling to keep up since we got the girls.

When my stepdaughter opened her presents, there was nothing but makeup, flashy clothes, and pink. I was so angry watching her face fall. After the party, I cornered my mother and gave her an earful. What is so hard about following a list? My mother got offended and told me not to tell her how to parent. I returned most of the gifts and took my stepdaughter to the bookstore, but she has been more subdued than usual. My husband told me we need to limit the amount of time the girls spend with my family. He is upset about my mom’s runaround but says we can’t “waste” energy on my family while we have the girls. I want to cry. I really need support here, and it hurts so much that my parents are acting like this. Can you help?

—Thoughtless Gift-Giving

It makes so much sense that you’d feel hurt and left out to dry by your mother’s response. I do think in the short term your husband’s advice about conserving your energy is good, but that doesn’t mean you have to pretend not to mind how your mother has acted, merely that you should lower your expectations when it comes to her and wait to process this more thoroughly once the girls are more settled in. I don’t think you could have anticipated the switch she pulled on you, but next time, online shopping would be a better maneuver than writing a list for your mother when she’s made it clear she thinks your ideas about your stepdaughters are silly. Your stepdaughter is going to be fine, at least as far as that party is concerned. You’ve emphasized that you care about her interests, and you’ve already replaced most of the gifts. Time and making friends her own age will do the rest of the work. You sound like you’re working incredibly hard to make these girls feel at home, and you’ve been remarkably present and generous as a stepparent. If your parents won’t offer you the support you need, put them on the back burner for now and consider reaching out to some of your friends for a sympathetic ear or an occasional hand around the house. You need and deserve all the help you can get.

Dear Prudence,

I have a friend from college, “Arthur,” whom I haven’t spoken to since graduation. Since that time seven years ago, he’s gotten more and more erratic on social media. This week alone Arthur’s written about how the U.S. and the “USSR” are spying on him and written about elevating your “neurotransmitters.” Since no one ever responds to these posts, I’m worried that he’s isolated from people. I want to reach out, but I’m concerned that he won’t welcome hearing from me. Arthur asked me out a couple weeks before we graduated, but since I didn’t want a long-distance relationship, I turned him down. Normally I would ask someone else to check on him, like his family or other friends, but I either don’t have their contact info or they’ve also lost touch with him. Should I send him a Facebook message to see if he’s OK?

—Estranged Friend Afraid of Spies

A good rule of thumb for deciding to reestablish contact with someone who’s experiencing paranoid delusions is figuring out whether you’re prepared to do anything to follow up. You’re apparently on the other side of the country, you don’t know anyone else who knows him, you last saw him seven years ago, and you two don’t have any sort of contact aside from his Facebook updates. I think it’d be a better use of your time to try to find the contact information of someone who’s currently involved in his life and pass along your concerns to them. That’s not to say your concern isn’t kindly meant, but there’s a natural limit to how strong an influence you can have. If you can’t find anyone despite your best efforts, then you can send him a message letting him know you’re worried and asking if he has anyone to talk to, but I think you should keep your expectations modest. And I’m sorry! It can feel really bewildering and distressing to watch someone flail from afar. I hope he’s able to get the professional help he needs and that there are people nearby who can support him.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From How to Do It

About a year ago, I confronted my husband of more than 10 years with evidence that he had surreptitiously set up a web camera in our bedroom, with the intent of watching me masturbate while I was home and he was elsewhere. He admitted it, and it has been an extremely difficult year working through the anger, betrayal, and feelings of violation. After several months of joint and one-on-one therapy, I chose to stay in the marriage. We are doing OK and are at a point where some days I can almost forget what he did. However, he is increasingly seeking physical and sexual affection that I cannot bring myself to engage in. We have kissed, cuddled, etc., but the thought of anything further makes me want to vomit. We had an amazing sex life before this, built on a foundation of a decade of trust and exploration, and I cannot get myself back to that level of intimacy and vulnerability. Part of me thinks I need to rip the Band-Aid off, get drunk, and let it happen in order to move forward. Part of me never wants to have sex with him again.

I realize I am still processing a trauma, but what do I do? In my most negative moments, I feel like I’m supposed to have sex with the person who sexually assaulted me, and I don’t know how to move forward.