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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Racist future sister-in-law: I’m struggling to balance family obligations versus personal feelings when it comes to having my future sister-in-law as a bridesmaid in my wedding. She and I have only met once and are not close. We are very different, so despite my efforts she’s proved to be challenging to get along with. My fiancé has expressed that it would be important for her to be in our wedding, a sentiment that makes sense and until recently I was totally fine with. He’s asking my brother and brother-in-law to be groomsmen, so it would be weird not to have her as a bridesmaid.
Here’s the problem. During quarantine we’ve been having regular Zoom calls with my fiancé’s family members who live out of state. On a recent Zoom call she used the N-word when referring to the appearance of her bruised toe. My fiancé, his mother, and I were shocked and appalled. We called her out on it, and she didn’t see why it was a problem because she wasn’t using it to describe a specific person. My fiancé later said that he wasn’t surprised because her boyfriend is apparently a “racist POS.” This has really been bothering me. I have friends who are people of color who will be at the wedding and I would hate for the sister-in-law or her boyfriend to say something that upsets them. Also I just really don’t want a racist person at my wedding party.
My parents have said that anything she does will only reflect badly on her, and my fiancé has said that he will speak to her multiple times in the time leading up to the wedding to make sure she stays in line, but I’m still troubled. Am I overthinking this? Is it worth trying to find a way that I can get out of having her as a bridesmaid? I want to go on the path of least drama.
A: Please don’t let your fear of “weirdness” dictate your choices. Even before you realized the extent of your future sister-in-law’s racism, you had every right to decline to ask someone you barely know and don’t like to be a bridesmaid. And of course you’re troubled! Why would you want someone at your wedding who had to receive daily reminders not to be racist in order to attend? “Don’t worry, I’m going to call my sister and remind her not to use racial slurs while we’re getting married” is not the problem-solving magic wand your fiancé seems to think it is. Nor do I think you can say, “Don’t worry, this only reflects badly on her” to your friends of color if she harasses them or uses racial slurs during your wedding. And her claim that it’s fine for her to use racial slurs because she’s not addressing anyone in particular is bizarre and absurd. What she’s trying to do is habituate her family members to her use of racial slurs—slurs that apparently she and her partner both enjoy using—so that they excuse and mitigate it on her behalf to others. You do not have to agree to sign up for that work.
Nor are you overthinking this. Your partner’s sister uses the N-word, does not apologize when called out on it, and reserves for herself to do so again in the future because she believes there are certain “loopholes” she’s entitled to exploit. Tell your fiancé that you do not agree with his “racism management” stance, that you are not willing to have her as part of your bridal party or as a guest at the wedding, and that you expect his full support. Anything less is cowardly capitulation in the face of racism. Don’t stand for it.
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Q. Post-accident reaching out: About two weeks ago, a family friend, “Mary,” was in a horrible accident: She was hit by a car while walking her dog. Mary was living at her parents’ house as colleges moved online. Her mom, “Julie,” went looking for Mary in their neighborhood, only to find Mary getting loaded into an ambulance. Mary did not wake up for several days. She has a traumatic brain injury, not to mention broken bones. Julie and the rest of the family cannot visit the hospital. I found out about this from my parents, as my mom and Julie are very close friends.
I’m finding that while stuck at home, I am ruminating over Mary’s accident. I want to text Julie to see if there are any updates on Mary, but I don’t want to be a pest while their family is dealing with this. Prior to this, I considered Julie almost like an aunt to me, and we texted regularly. (We also work for the same large company.) So far I have only texted once, to say how sorry I was to hear the news and that I was thinking of them, and I got a short “Thanks, we’re hanging in” reply. Mary’s accident affected my mental health more than I was anticipating, and I think hearing any good news about her, however small, would really help me. I keep asking my parents for updates, but they are stressed and busy with their own essential business. What’s the line between bothering Julie and seeing how Mary is doing?
A: Of course you’re anxious and worried about your friend. That makes so much sense; there’s a particular type of pain in not knowing, and it’s only natural to want to check in. But texting Julie your questions will not produce good news. Good news has a tendency to travel quickly. That’s not to say you can’t hope Mary will recover with careful treatment, but if you’re not hearing any updates right now, it’s because her family doesn’t yet have good news to report. When it comes to grief and crisis, a good rule is to send comfort inward (toward the people closest to the crisis) and vent your fears, anxieties, and concerns outward (to people who are further removed and less in need of support). So my first piece of advice to you is to talk about your feelings with friends, in a journal, with a therapist if you have one. You need someone to process this with who has the time and emotional resources to focus on your needs.
Then you can absolutely get in touch with Julie, not to ask for updates but to offer your support and let her know that you’d love to help if there’s anything she or her family needs right now. It might help to reflect on what you can practically do first—are you able to run errands safely on their behalf? Cook a meal and bring it over? Help walk the dog? You can also say something like: “You don’t have to respond if you’re overwhelmed right now. I don’t want to give you anything else to worry about. Just know that I’m thinking of all of you and would love to help in any way I can.”
I’m so sorry you’re all in this position of having to wait and hope for good news to come in. It can be agonizing. Your feelings matter, and I want you to have a safe, reliable outlet for them, and I don’t want to suggest that they’re a burden. They’re not! But your parents and Julie are not in a position to be your primary sources of support about them right now.
Q. Single-parent dating: I’m a single man in my mid-30s, and it seems like every single woman I speak to in my age range has children. Is it wrong of me to not want to get involved with single mothers and raise another person’s children (with all the messy, complicated stuff that goes with it)? Or should I just bite the bullet?
A: I don’t think many single mothers would be especially interested in a guy who said something like “I’m willing to bite the bullet and go out with you despite your kids,” even if you phrased it really, really elegantly. Nor do I think the kids would have a good time with someone who was only putting up with them because he liked their mother. Perhaps most saliently, I think you’d have a bad time too. You don’t want to date someone raising kids, which is absolutely fine—screen for that! That doesn’t mean you should add, “NO KIDS, I HATE PARENTS” to your dating profile or walk out in the middle of dinner if she reveals she has an 8-year-old, but it’s a perfectly legitimate priority to have, and you absolutely can find women who share it. I don’t know how you feel about the idea of dating someone with kids who are grown and mostly out of the house, but if you’re open to that, you might find yourself with more options. But there are lots of women in their 30s (and late 20s, and 40s, and 50s, etc.) who don’t have kids and don’t want them, and you should seek them out.
Q. Meddling grandmother! I am a woman who is estranged from her entire family, having grown up enduring years of physical and emotional abuse. Cutting my family off was a great choice and I live a happy and fruitful life. Over the past few years, my grandmother, a supreme manipulator and abuser, has both called and emailed my workplaces with the hopes of luring co-workers into helping her get in touch with me. She recently sent an email to the general email address at my work attempting to get me to come to my sister’s graduation, and a co-worker forwarded it to me. This left me incredibly embarrassed and worried about losing my job due to the inappropriate behaviors of my biological family. I brushed it off and told my co-worker that I have a “wacky grandmother.” My background is challenging, and I don’t want my co-workers to have private information about me. Additionally, these types of emails and calls (this is the third time she has reached out to my co-workers so far) could put me in an unstable financial situation if my organization were to catch on to this behavior. I don’t want to be in touch with any of these people! Any thoughts on getting them to scram and protecting myself now and at future jobs down the line?
A: I hope your colleagues are able to extend compassion and sympathy to you and don’t in any way fault you for the unreasonable behavior of an estranged relative. I think the best way to protect yourself is to let your co-workers and direct manager know that sometimes your relatives attempt to use your workplace in order to find out private information and you’d like colleagues not to respond but simply alert you if they’ve been contacted. If anyone else has more specific legal or workplace-related advice as to how the letter writer can better protect herself, I’m all ears. But I truly hope no one at the office would ever blame you for the harassment you receive from your family.
Q. Moving-in dilemma: My boyfriend of two years, “Noah,” and I are planning on moving in together this summer. (I’m male as well.) He and his current roommate get along well. Noah and I had planned on getting our own place, but economic challenges caused by the pandemic have made that increasingly unlikely. Noah has now asked me to move in with him and his current roommate. I hate this idea. For one, the apartment is nice, but packed with Noah and the roommate’s possessions. I don’t see where I would physically fit! I like the roommate well enough, but I’m introverted and will be working from home 24/7—meaning I’d be hanging out with the roommate all day, every day.
I’ve never lived with a romantic partner before, and I feel weird about my first time involving a third person. The biggest issue is finances. To afford our own place, we’d need to spend about $1,000 extra a month between the two of us. I have the money, but Noah doesn’t. Should I pay his half and accept the inherent inequality as the price of doing business, so to speak? Would that make the power dynamic in our relationship unequal because of the financial inequality? I don’t want to make Noah feel bad for not being able to pay—but I also don’t want to accept a subpar living situation when a different scenario is feasible. What should I do?
A: I agree that moving in with Noah and his roommate at their current place sounds like a recipe for disaster. If you haven’t already said so, tell him why you can’t agree to that: “Your place has no room for me, and as much as I like your roommate, the idea of spending all of our time together as a threesome sounds exhausting. I’d rather push living together another six months or a year down the road than move into a situation I know will be difficult, and at such close quarters.” Maybe the three of you can even look for a slightly larger place with more room when the current lease is up, if you think you’d be open to that possibility. But if you’d rather continue living separately than together with a roommate, be honest about that.
When it comes to moving into a different place and committing to paying an extra thousand dollars a month on Noah’s behalf, I’m still skeptical. I think it’s fine for couples to contribute varying amounts toward rents and other household expenses—50-50 for everything all of the time isn’t a prerequisite for egalitarianism—but that’s a lot of money, and you’ve already mentioned that you’re facing financial challenges as the result of a pandemic. That doesn’t mean you can’t raise that question with him, but I think you should have multiple conversations about budgeting, expectations, how you’d want to handle shared expenses, and how he’d feel about such a prospect before doing anything like going apartment hunting. There may not be a perfect living situation that’s available to the two of you anytime soon, but I think it’s better to give it a little time first.
Q. Co-parenting during the coronavirus: My husband has a teenage daughter from a previous marriage whom we usually see every other weekend. For the past two months both households decided it best that she stay at her mother’s house and not go back-and-forth and increase the risk of infection. It seemed like everyone was on the same page. But now, our state has decided to lift restrictions and reopen. My husband misses his daughter and wants to see her, which I totally understand. I agreed that she could come and stay with us as long as she stayed for a full two weeks to monitor symptoms. It seemed like everything was going fine, until we found out that literally a day before she is scheduled to come, she is going to a pool party in which all 30 kids in her class have been invited. I said this was unacceptable, but he says this is a risk he is willing to take to see his daughter. I should mention that I am eight months pregnant and my 63-year-old mother has been quarantining with us to help with the child care of our toddler. My husband and his ex are in agreement that she is fine to come see us, and I’m the odd one out. How do I weigh my husband wanting to see his daughter against our health?
A: Can you and your husband schedule a phone call with your OB-GYN to discuss the risks and possible strategies? It might help to get some practical, expert advice before making a decision. The CDC, for example, says that “Based on what we know about COVID-19, we believe pregnant people appear to have the same risk of COVID-19 as adults who are not pregnant. However, much remains unknown. We do know that pregnant people have had a higher risk of severe illness when infected with viruses that are similar to COVID-19, as well as other viral respiratory infections, such as influenza.”
It’s also worth pointing out that your husband can take risks on his own behalf, but he doesn’t have the right to take risks on the behalf of you or your mother, who’s just two years away from being part of a higher-risk age group. Your concern is reasonable and not at all punitive or uncaring; you’re trying to balance numerous interests and health needs as a family. Nor are you asking that his daughter not come to visit you, but merely that she hold off on attending pool parties until after her visit. They need to work with you, not against you as the “odd one out” who needs to be brought into their consensus.
Q. Guilty grandchild: I am in my mid-20s and not particularly close with my grandparents. We communicate a few times a year—mostly around birthdays, religious holidays, and Thanksgiving. I feel bad for saying this, but I really dislike spending time with all three of them. They’re a little racist and homophobic, they go on long-winded monologues about past events or minutia about their day, and they often ask me to repeat myself. It’s exhausting to maintain a conversation with one, let alone three. The pandemic has me feeling guilty. I reached out all three of them once—when it all started—to check in. Everyone reported feeling healthy and happy. I’ve heard nothing to the contrary from other family members since then. Am I awful for not wanting to check in more? I’ve heard I’m getting a reputation for being distant, but I’m also the only queer grandchild, so I think I may be a little more sensitive to the homophobia than my siblings and cousins are.
A: It sounds like you’ve checked in with your grandparents at a level that’s pretty commensurate with your preexisting relationship, and I don’t think you need to beat yourself up for not doing more to support people who have described themselves as “happy and healthy.” I don’t know who’s told you about your “distant reputation,” but I’d discourage you from allowing second- and thirdhand rumors about your aloofness to dictate your decisions about how much contact you want with racist, homophobic relatives who don’t really want to listen to you.
Q. Unwanted gifts: I live on a small street of about six houses that all share a very narrow, single-lane street. The problem is that one of these houses rents a small apartment to an older couple. The couple are often drunk, park in an area that makes it difficult for me to get out of my driveway on a daily basis, dog-sit for animals they don’t control, and invite another couple that helps themselves to the benefits of our neighborhood, all while smoking and drinking. The owner of the apartment is not concerned. Now, the couple often give my children “gifts.” Usually the gifts involve candy (just before bed) or toys while the children are outside running out their last bit of energy. But recently, they left a sun hat and swimming flippers on my porch while I wasn’t home. These gifts make me uncomfortable and I want them to stop. I feel that they are bribes or offerings for behavior they understand is disruptive and unwelcome, but will continue nonetheless. Is there a tactful way to stop the gift-giving? I am fine with accepting the things I cannot change, but I don’t want to feel like I am passively accepting their behaviors by politely accepting these gifts.
A: You can absolutely decline these gifts! Given that they’re often drunk, you might want to say something earlier in the day when they’re still relatively clearheaded, but let them know you’re not able to accept these gifts and to please donate them elsewhere. If you’re worried about possible conflict and want to use the dodge of not having anywhere to store it, you can but you certainly don’t have to. The key is to let them know you won’t accept any more gifts and would have to donate or throw away any future gifts sent against your wishes.
I’d also encourage talking to your kids about accepting gifts from neighbors and, without sending them into a panic about stranger danger, stress that not all adults are trustworthy or need to be obeyed and you want them to let you know if the neighbors keep trying to give them presents. I’m sure you’re watching them to the best of your ability, but it might be wise, at least in the immediate future (and especially if there are a lot of unleashed, unmonitored dogs running around on your street), to encourage the kids to play in the backyard, if you have one, or indoors when you’re not able to supervise them outside.
Q. Re: Post-accident reaching out: I’ve dealt with a family tragedy. All of us close to it felt overwhelmed by sentiments like “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” “I’m here if you need me,” etc. It’s vague and puts the burden on them to figure out what they need, but when you are in the throes of trauma, you often don’t know what you need, so I would suggest avoid saying anything like that. Things we found most helpful were neighbors who dropped off food and then sent a text that said, “I left food on your porch,” so that there was no pressure to socialize at all. Danny, you gave a lot of other good suggestions, and I will also add that gift cards to local restaurants were the most valuable gifts I received in that time.
A: Right—as well-meaning as “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” is, it can be really challenging for someone in an ongoing crisis to feel like they have to think of ways for everyone else to feel useful. That’s not to say it’s an unhelpful sentiment or that the letter writer should feel guilty for wanting to help and know more about what’s going on, but I agree that the best strategy is to offer two to three concrete things and include a caveat like “If that wouldn’t be helpful right now, I won’t do anything.” I’m split about the idea of leaving food on the porch: Some people might find that really helpful and others might find it a challenge, so I think the best way to approach that would be something like “If it would help, I’d like to leave dinner on the porch Tuesday night” first. Good luck. I hope your friend recovers soon and that in the meantime you’re able to get support.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone, and see you next week.
From Care and Feeding
Q. Can a 5-year-old do chores? My children are 5 and 7. I want to develop a set of expectations around chores before we start the school year. They’ve been setting the table and cleaning it off, but not much else in the way of family chores. What are some chores that are doable for this age? I’m thinking of sweeping for sure, plus cleaning their own stuff. Maybe adding folding laundry for the 7-year-old and maybe some dishwashing responsibilities? Thoughts? Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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