Dear Care and Feeding,
I’ve been with my fiancé for five years. The first six months of our relationship were an affair—I was 24 and he was 31—and I found out early on that he was married, kept telling myself to break things off, but was never was able to do it. His (now ex-)wife learned about the relationship and was willing to try to work things out, but he ultimately chose to divorce her. During the initial months following the revelation of the affair, I put up with a lot of abuse from her. I truly felt bad for what she was going through, and I recognized that a lot of it was my fault, so I would just listen and apologize. I never tried to pass the blame or name-call back. I knew I was in the wrong, and I did what I could not to add to her pain. But after all this time, she still hates me, and to this day I have never met the kid they had together, though my fiancé sees his daughter at least once a week. To his ex-wife, there are no good people who sometimes do bad things, just good and bad people, and I am a bad person.
When the three of us sat down in counseling to discuss my meeting their daughter, she said I was the devil and it would disrupt the daughter’s life to meet me. According to her, the kid barely even wants to see her dad because “she is terrified of him.” I asked why—because there is absolutely no reason for her to be afraid of him, and I think she is poisoning the kid against her dad—and she didn’t have an answer. When I asked if she thought it was healthy for her daughter to be frightened of her father, she responded “really not my problem.” The result of the counseling session was that we agreed that in three months they would tell the child that I exist, but there was still no solid plan for my meeting her. What now?
—Sad and Confused
I would like to be more sympathetic, because I hate to see anyone sad and confused, but I am finding that very difficult. You didn’t just have an affair with a married man; you had an affair with the father of a young child. (You buried the lede, didn’t you?) I’m not letting your fiancé off the hook: His behavior was much worse than yours. But you both seriously screwed up. And I think you buried that lede because you really prefer not to think of this as being as bad as it was. It was bad.
And I’m going to go way out on a limb here and tell you that if your fiancé, who cheated on his first wife and then left her and their child for you, is sitting there silently in a counseling session while you ask all the questions, and letting you and his ex-wife fight things out about their child, you might want to think twice about your future with him. At the very least, “now what?” should be: Stay out of this. The parents of this child need to work out between them how things are going to go from now on. He doesn’t seem to want to take any responsibility here—and if he can’t be responsible for this, what do you imagine you are going to be able to count on him for?
I’m sorry the ex-wife called you a devil. I’m sure you’re not. But from the limited information I have, it’s hard to know how her daughter is handling this trauma (and please don’t kid yourself: it was a trauma), or whether she’s doing anything to help her through it. But I’m afraid it’s not for you to insert yourself into this. If your fiancé wants your future stepdaughter to be a part of his new life, it’s up to him to fight for that.
And P.S.: Don’t expect his first wife to ever forgive you. She may not. And—more to the point—her daughter may not, either. I hope for your sake and the child’s that you get the chance to try to earn her forgiveness. But don’t think for a second that you are automatically entitled to it, any more than her father is.
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Dear Care and Feeding,
When my husband and I got married, I kept my last name. This was never an issue between us—it was never even really a discussion—and my husband had no objection to it. To me, it hardly seemed radical, as my mother had done this too, decades ago. Now I am pregnant with our first child, and we’ve been having some spirited debates about what the baby’s last name should be. As with any marital issue that comes up between us, we are working on compromising and finding a solution that we can both live with. But over the holidays, things changed when his parents decided to get involved and say some truly chauvinistic and upsetting things—including telling me that I obviously don’t “respect” my husband because I didn’t change my name, and that their relationship with me would be over if the baby’s last name was anything other than their name. My husband and I are both deeply disturbed by their emotional blackmail. I now feel even less inclined to give in because avoiding these entitled and patriarchal views is precisely what motivates me to have these conversations in the first place. On the other hand, I’m sad that my husband is stuck in the middle of this dispute, and I’m not sure how we should proceed.
—Last Name Lunacy
Wait—when you say you now feel “even less inclined to give in,” does that mean your husband has been pushing hard for his last name? And that his parents jumped in, rather more aggressively, to be on his team? (Are you sure this debate has been “spirited” and not, like, a battle of wills, philosophies, and life choices?)
As it happens, the subject of last names came up in my house over the holidays, too. My daughter isn’t pregnant, but she and her boyfriend have been talking about their future—she and I both are the sort of people who like to think (far) ahead and beat the Christmas rush. And she mentioned, apparently casually, that when they marry, as they eventually plan to, she’s going to change her last name to his, and their children would have his name, too. And she said this was entirely her idea, which he wasn’t crazy about. THEN DON’T DO IT, I said. “I’m going to,” she said firmly.
Her own hyphenated last name has been a source of misery for her, she added. “Hold on now, Missy,” I said (I didn’t actually say “Missy”). “I didn’t give you a hyphenated last name. You did that yourself.” Which is true. I’d thought about hyphenating my husband’s name and mine, which like you and your mother I had kept when I married, but I knew a lot of people who had done this, and all I could think was: What happens when all these hyphenated children grow up and marry one another and do the same thing we did? Their kids will all bear a chain of four names (some of them quite long in and of themselves).
So we did what felt right to us at the time and gave her my last name as a second middle name, after the pretty one we picked out, and my husband’s as her last name. It was she who decided, when she was still in elementary school, that it wasn’t “fair” her official last name was her father’s, so she began to use a hyphenated version of our names instead—which she has kept using all these years. It’s the name on her college diploma. It’s the name on her tax return. And as we sat at the dining room table over yet another round of Carcassonne on Christmas Eve, she said, “Honestly, it’s a lot of trouble.”
A spirited debate (truly) ensued. My conclusion was that 10-year-old Grace was right—it wasn’t fair that her legal last name was her father’s alone—but also that hyphenated names are a big pain in the ass. Plus, unless the parents change to a hyphenated name too, it means three different names are in play in the same family, as they were in ours once she started hyphenating. (Not to mention the aforementioned next generation problem.) Her boyfriend’s conclusion was that they should make up a whole new name from scratch after they marry (both she and I groaned at this history-erasing idea). Her father’s conclusion—because he hates thinking far ahead every bit as much as Grace and I enjoy it—was to throw up his hands and leave the dining room, muttering, “You people are crazy.” I calmly pointed out to Grace that she had thought it was unfair that she bore only her father’s name. “I was 10,” she said. “I thought everything was unfair.”
I tell you this hot-off-the-presses story from my own life to make the point that no matter what you decide to do about the name, it will not satisfy everyone. Also, your child may decide to jettison the choice you make later anyway. And that your in-laws’ opinion about what you should do—like my reflexive distress about my daughter’s plan to change her cobbled-together name—is beside the point. I do not have advice about what last name you should give your child (obviously). I do have advice about your in-laws, however: Assuming your husband agrees (and if he doesn’t, that’s a whole different issue), he needs to step up and tell them firmly and clearly that this decision is none of their business. You two need to work this out yourselves. Good luck.
Dear Care and Feeding,
My husband is a wonderful father and person. He is loving, responsible, and extremely intelligent. He treats everyone with equal respect and takes great care of me and our 11-month-old son. But he has a bad habit of joking in a very sarcastic manner, and in a very immature way: teasing, taunting, insulting. Sometimes he gets into gender and racial stereotyping tropes, etc. He’s always done this, and I’ve always hated it, but he can’t seem to turn it off. It was one thing when it was just the two of us, but now that we have a baby it really makes me angry. Children learn so much from the way we speak, and they’re always listening. They don’t understand sarcasm. There is enough actual hate in this world right now, so we really don’t need “joking” about hate, too. I’m constantly asking him to stop, but he doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal. I can’t figure out how to get through to him. Please help!
Dear Not Amused,
I am not amused either. The way to make it clear to him that it is a big deal is to stop asking him to quit behaving in this childish, hateful way and to tell him he has to. The two of you are role models for your son, whose sense of right and wrong, and whether he grows up to be kind or cruel, respectful or crude, are all directly influenced by you and your husband. You need to let your husband know—firmly—that you will not tolerate this. You will not raise your child in a home where he’s continually exposed to this vile behavior.
That sounds harsh, I know, when you say that he is otherwise wonderful. But I have two thoughts about that. The first is that sometimes people who have a bad and ugly habit can be snapped out of it if the stakes are high enough. (Full disclosure: I had a boyfriend 35 years ago who got me to quit smoking—for which I have been grateful ever since, because I hadn’t been able to quit on my own—by telling me he’d leave me if I didn’t. Because I knew he meant it, it worked.) The second is that if your husband is making “jokes” that demean people in the way you describe, he’s not as loving and responsible and respectful as you insist he is. If he can’t or won’t knock it off, then there is something very wrong here.
Dear Care and Feeding,
I stripped full-time during college eight years ago, and now have a professional career in my field. But after buying a home in a very expensive city, I recently returned to exotic dancing two nights a week to help with the mortgage payments. In addition to the extra income, I love the artistic outlet and non-optional workouts dancing affords me. I have told most people in my life about my side gig—my husband, mom, siblings, friends, even many co-workers at my “real” job. My dad and my 8-year-old daughter are the only two I have not told. My dad is extremely conservative and gets visibly uncomfortable in my presence during a sex scene or raunchy joke in a movie. However, even my dad and daughter are aware that pole dancing is a hobby of mine, due to a home workout pole I bought several years ago because I so missed dancing after I quit post-college. My daughter and I even enjoy practicing pole tricks together.
My problem is that a friend of mine, who is also the mother of one of my daughter’s friends, just spilled the beans to my daughter. This is my fault: I never told my friend to keep it a secret (and she assumed my daughter knew). So as she drove past the club where I work with both our daughters in the car (I wasn’t there), she mentioned how cool it was that I get paid to pole dance. Neither my daughter nor her friend are aware that stripping exists but have seen pole dancing at the circus, so it seems that they envision me as a part-time circus acrobat of sorts. Needless to say, my daughter thinks this is awesome and wants to tell everyone about it. Which absolutely melts my heart! But it also broke my heart when I had to ask her not to tell her grandfather.
I worry that I’m setting a terrible example for her as a grown woman keeping secrets from my father. I don’t want her to think adults need to live that way. I wonder if for her sake, I should just tell my dad and deal with the awkwardness (not to mention the pain he may feel). I could tell him the version my daughter believes, I suppose: that I perform in a G-rated circus act or dinner show (and as long as he doesn’t ask the name of the venue and look it up, that may work). My secondary concern is that if my daughter brags about Mom’s dancing job to her friends, some of the more worldly among them may tell her “your mom’s a stripper!”, explain what that is, and make fun of her.
My husband and I are pretty liberal in exposing our daughter to adult content: We watch PG-13 movies with her, and she knows what sex is and recently found out that adults actually enjoy it. She knows from movies and ambient culture that many men enjoy seeing breasts. My husband and I have taught her that we disagree with all the shame around bodies that many people subscribe to. I want her to grow up loving her body and sexuality and seeing it as a source of power, rather than being shamed for it the way I was as a child. Maybe I should go ahead and tell her I’m a part-time stripper, and explain why I was hesitant to tell her or Grandpa. Please advise. I fear I’ve already messed up and am in damage-control mode.
—Part-Time Stripper Mom
You already know the answer to at least part of this question. You just want someone to tell you it’s OK to go ahead and do it. Yes: Go ahead and tell your daughter the truth. You don’t necessarily have to use the word “stripper.” You called it “exotic dancing” when you introduced the idea in this letter! But definitely disabuse her of the notion that you are a circus acrobat, for goodness sake. If you don’t, when she does find out the truth she will not only be angry, hurt, and disappointed, she will also believe that anything you’ve taught her about shame was insincere, which will provide an excellent fast track to her own sense of shame.
But please, please also tell your father the truth. He’s a grown man who will have to deal with it. Adult women shouldn’t have to tiptoe around their fathers. Tell him not just for your daughter’s sake (though you’re right, by keeping this a secret from him you are setting a terrible example for her) but for your own. Lying about what we do, who we are, how we think and feel—lying, period—is corrosive. You are who you are. Own it.
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