Dear Prudence

My Married Dad Wants Me to Meet His Girlfriend

I don’t want to hurt my mom.

Sad young woman looking at a happy older couple
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by CraigRJD/iStock/Getty Images Plus and CherriesJD/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

Since high school I suspected that my father was cheating on my mother. He left some tabs open on the family computer that indicated they were likely in an open relationship. However, it was never clear what exactly the arrangement was: Dad would disappear for long weekends, and my mom seemed sad, which upset me. I was always too scared to ask what exactly was going on, especially since my parents’ marriage isn’t my business, and once I was in college, I could “pretend” my dad wasn’t disappearing. My parents almost split up a few years ago but changed their minds after my mother had a health scare. They never told my sister they planned to split up. I’ve been staying with my parents for a few months while recovering from surgery, and I realize that what my dad is doing still upsets me and is hard to ignore.

My dad asked me to get coffee with him and his girlfriend, “Sally,” last Friday. He said that he knows it’s unconventional but that it’s what he needs to do to feel happy, and his only other choice would be to split up with my mother. My problem isn’t that it’s an unconventional relationship. I just think that if people are going to be in an open relationship, all parties should be on board for it, but it sounds like it’s something that my mom and his girlfriend put up with. Do I have any room to express my displeasure, or do I just deal with the situation until I can get back to my regular life?

—Fine With Open Relationships, Just Not My Father’s

Your father is making this your business—and has been for years. His relationship affected the atmosphere of the home that you were raised in right up until the present, when he invited you to bypass your own relationship with your mother and meet his new girlfriend without having any check-in about what this open marriage means for them and for you, their child. You have every right to express displeasure and decline invitations. You can also ask your mother how she’s doing and let her know you’re available to talk. You don’t have to buy his explanation that this arrangement is the only possible one that could serve his happiness, or keep secrets on his behalf. That doesn’t mean you have to try to force a confrontation or resolution between your parents, but you can certainly tell your father that you’re not interested in meeting Sally. Just because you’re temporarily staying with them doesn’t mean you lose the right to your own schedule.

Dear Prudence,

I don’t have the best relationship with my ex. While we were in marriage counseling, she got pregnant and got her lover to leave his wife. She tends to treat me like an inconvenience to her Brady Bunch fantasy instead of like a co-parent. I had to go to court to keep her from unilaterally moving my daughter out of state. My daughter is turning 16 soon, and the custody agreement says that I’ll pay for her car and insurance. But now my daughter tells me that her mom has said she gets the “final say,” since it would be a “waste” to give a new car to a teenager—so my ex would drive the new car, and our daughter would drive the old station wagon. My daughter is miserable and pleaded with me not to get mad at her mom. I feel like banging my head against a wall. Counseling doesn’t work. Mediation doesn’t work. I would try to get full custody, but I travel enough for work that it wouldn’t be fair to my daughter. At this point, I am wondering if I should just pay for all my daughter’s Ubers and wait until graduation for the car. What should I do?

—Car Trouble

I don’t know whether the car-buying portion of the custody agreement is legally enforceable or if this was something you two drew up a while ago with a mediator. If there’s any chance you could get in trouble with the courts for failing to buy a car, I’d encourage you to check with a lawyer before making a decision. I also don’t know if your daughter is “miserable” at the prospect of driving a hand-me-down car or the prospect of seeing her parents go another 10 rounds over said car. Given that she’s “pleaded” with you to let things go with her mom, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter.

You have a few options (again, assuming you’ve checked with a lawyer and cleared it first): You can pay for your daughter to use a ride service for the next two years, which might be expensive but not necessarily ruinous. You can take your daughter to the dealership together and co-sign so the two of you, and not her mother, are on the title. Or you can buy your daughter a car and let her and her mother sort out which of them will drive each one. To that end, your 16-year-old certainly doesn’t need a flashy new car with all the latest add-ons. Many a teenager’s first cars are reliable, safe, and pre-owned instead of up-to-date, expensive, and fresh off the lot. I can understand your frustration at thinking of your ex, who sounds like a difficult person, benefiting from something you want to purchase for your daughter. But it is true that your ex is her primary caregiver, and shuttling a teenager around is a lot of work. If I were in your position, I’d say, “You’re right—it is a waste to give a brand-new car to a teenager,” get her a used one, and let it go. That doesn’t mean you should get her a broken-down clunker in the hopes of aggravating her mother! But you’ll worry less about who’s driving what if the two cars are more alike than different.

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Dear Prudence,

I am recently sober and regularly attend a weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Many members discuss their lives before they got sober, which is to be expected. Two of these attendees have openly admitted to being abusive, both physically and emotionally, toward their partners while drinking. I value the fellowship I have found through AA and the support it has offered me. I recognize that these things don’t just materialize—they are cultivated through an atmosphere of openness and acceptance. That being said, I have a very hard time listening to these individuals describe the physical abuse they inflicted on women. I don’t want to stop going to this particular AA group, as I have established relationships there and generally like the atmosphere (which focuses less on God and more on spiritual practice). I have considered leaving the room when these men discuss these parts of their histories, but I worry that will be seen as judgmental or cruel—not in the spirit of AA. Should I sit through these expositions about their abuse in the spirit of forgiveness even though I find it very distressing? Perhaps that is part of the work that we all do together when we enter into a social contract like AA. What is your advice?

—Distressed in AA

I hold a few things to be true at the same time: It is good for alcoholics to get sober, it is good for abusers to stop abusing others, and there is a place in recovery for people who have committed terrible crimes. That does not mean that everyone else in recovery must cede their own rights to comfort and safety. It’s also true that some abusers stop drinking but continue to abuse others. Moreover, it’s possible for someone to behave as if sobriety is a sufficient response to their past abuse. And there’s a great deal of difference between “everyone has a place in recovery” and “anyone who’s committed abuse should talk about their acts of abuse whenever they like, during any meeting, without considering the possibility of how this may affect other alcoholics in recovery who may have suffered from abuse in the past.”

All of this is to say that I think you should consider your own safety and comfort as an important part of your AA meeting—just as important as these other members’. Leaving the room for a few minutes is quiet and nondisruptive. You’re not depriving anyone else of access to AA if you step outside to collect your thoughts or repeat the serenity prayer. Your local central office may also have a public safety committee, and you might raise the issue there and seek out a group conscience about how to mindfully consider the multiple, sometimes-conflicting needs at play during a meeting. They might reflect on the part of the Big Book that says, “Our stories disclose in a general way what we were like, what happened, and what we are like now.” Do specific acts of abuse need to be disclosed on a group level in order to tell a useful recovery narrative when one takes into account the potential harm of such disclosures? That’s not pushing for censorship or attempting to dictate the terms of AA, but striving for thoughtfulness and to minimize harm while maximizing usefulness. And while you may always want to center this meeting as your home group, remember that the fourth tradition states, “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.” If you ever wanted to start a group of your own that welcomes in particular alcoholics who are also recovering from interpersonal abuse, all you need is a regular meeting spot and two alcoholics in order to do so. Good luck!

Help! My Sister Is Dating a Felon.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Kaitlyn Greenidge on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

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Dear Prudence,

My daughter was told by “big kids” at school that there’s something called the “N-word,” and she wants to know what it is. My family is white, and the school largely isn’t, and I’m worried that if she is armed with this hurtful word, she will use it. My daughter struggles with a lot of social, emotional, and self-regulation issues and is still being diagnosed. She has a lot of conflicts with another kid at school, who is black. During a recent fight, my daughter said “you are the N-word” to her, despite not knowing what that word is. She spent the day in the office, and we spoke very seriously to her about the history of racism and white supremacy (not our first conversation). The vice principal (who is black) says we should tell her, but I know my daughter—she will use it in anger, possibly spreading its use to other kids and also doing real harm to the black children in her class and school. What can I possibly do?

—Racist Misbehavior

This must be so painful. I’m so sorry that your daughter is in pain herself and that she’s already learned that she can use racism to lash out and hurt others. I’m glad you’re searching for a diagnosis so you can get her more targeted support. If you haven’t already discussed this with her doctors, therapists, or behavioral specialists, please mention her racist acting-out and let them know that it’s one of your primary concerns.

It’s clear the only reason your daughter is asking what “the N-word” stands for is because she wants to use it to hurt her classmate, and most likely others, and to that end I don’t think you should tell her. That doesn’t mean she won’t hear it from someone else or look it up online, but I think it’s wisest to tell her no and explain why you’re not going to tell her. I’m glad you’ve been talking to your daughter about racism and white supremacy more than once, and I think you should plan to continue talking to her about it on a regular, consistent basis. The Center for Racial Justice in Education has compiled a list of resources you might find helpful.

You should also talk with the vice principal, as well as your daughter’s teachers and any other members of the staff and administration who may be involved, about what sort of safety plans they can put in place to protect students of color, particularly black students, from your daughter, and how to incorporate anti-racist teaching into the curriculum. As you’ve already observed, 6-year-olds are already learning about racism from one another, from older children, and from society at large. It’s important to work together as a team to ensure that your daughter’s classmates don’t suffer from racist abuse when they’re trying to learn. Please write back and let us know how you’re doing a few months from now. I wish you all the best.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“I’m glad they wrote in and didn’t just like … hand her To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Danny Lavery and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I have two siblings, both sisters, one of whom is beginning her transition. We are all grown and out of the house. My parents didn’t take it well, but my cis sister and I are both fully supportive and have taken the position with our parents that you can have three daughters or you can have zero. They’re trying but struggling to get on board. The thing is, I’ve thought since high school that I might be trans too. Since I found out my sister was having these feelings years ago, I’ve made sort-of joking comments to her about how we should “switch,” and that our parents would feel better because they’d still have a son and a daughter like they thought they did. My sister has asked me a few times if I’m contemplating hormone replacement therapy, but right now, I don’t know.

My concern is that as a queer cis “ally,” I am in a better position to help people—both in terms of helping my sister with my parents and helping trans people in my conservative field. I’m the head of the LGBT affinity group at my office, and I’ve been working hard to change policy to be more accepting of and helpful for trans people, but progress is slow, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to make people listen to me as easily if I start to transition. I’m also not sure that I’ve made enough changes that I feel comfortable trying it. My parents have also been through a serious health crisis and two family deaths in the past two years, and I’m worried they wouldn’t be able to handle another big thing. I feel lost.

—Family Likeness

It’s not at all uncommon, when one is wrestling with the possibility of transitioning, to try to discipline or restrain oneself by setting up an idea of “the greater good” existing in opposition to “increased personal autonomy.” “I can’t transition—I’m doing so much good as an ally!” “I can’t transition—someone else already did it, and it’s too hard to have two trans people in the family!” “I can’t transition—my mother is sick,” and so on. That’s not to say that you should disregard those things, merely that producing reasons why you’re not allowed to even consider transition will not help trans people. Transitioning and helping others to understand trans people are not mutually exclusive.

What will help your parents, your conservative colleagues, and other people learn to respect trans people is a willingness to listen and to change, not for you to foreclose on even the possibility of taking HRT at some point in the future in order to preserve your reasonable cis ally status. No one forfeits the right to transition (or even just to consider transition) because some of their relatives have died or because someone else is going through a difficult time. Your possible transness does not exist on the same level as a health crisis or the death of a loved one.

I cannot promise you that your parents would handle any transition of yours well—I wish that I could. That’s not something you have to worry about right now. All you have to worry about is giving real respect and attention to your own desires (which sound like they’ve been consistent and persistent for a long time now) and seeking out forms of support that are available to you right now.

Dear Prudence,

My mother and I have had a civil but sometimes contentious relationship over the years. She’s ultraconservative, and I’m liberal, which has led to many arguments. I’ve learned to just avoid talking about politics and religion altogether. Recently I had a rather large tattoo done to honor my late grandmother (her mom). It’s my first, and something I’ve wanted to do for a while but avoided in fear of her reaction. She will not be happy and will likely shame me for it or tell me how I’ve ruined my body. I’m also afraid she will imply I’m a bad influence on my daughter. I’m looking for a script for when she inevitably finds out. I want to shut her down and let her know that it’s not open for discussion and I can do what I want with my body.

—Taboo Tattoo

I’m not sure I have much in the way of a script for you, because I think she almost certainly will say those things to you. And I share your dislike of being told I have “ruined my body”! I’ve never found a productive conversation to be possible with someone who’s operating on such an assumption, because there’s not much more I can say than “I disagree, and I don’t think you’re qualified to judge what ‘ruins’ my body and what doesn’t.” Free yourself from the burden of trying to win your mother over to any particular side. The best and most easily achievable position is, “I have this tattoo and I’m not going to get into an argument about it.” She cannot have an argument with you if you politely end the conversation and hang up the phone or leave the room. It’s a fool’s game trying to convince someone that you have the right to bodily autonomy—you simply have it. She can find a way to make her peace with it on her own, or she can press the issue until you have no choice but to keep her at arm’s length. But don’t cede the principle by getting drawn into an argument about whether getting a tattoo disqualifies you from motherhood.

Classic Prudie

My just turned 18-year-old son, who is a senior in high school and lives at home, recently came home and told me he has his first girlfriend and that he is in love. He said she is older than he is. He looks a bit older than 18. Turns out his new love is 48 years old. That is a year older than me. I met her, and she is actually very nice and in love with my son. If I had grown up in this town, we would have been in school together and likely best friends. She is not his teacher or in any position that would be suspect. They simply met in a cafe and fell in Love. Is this OK?