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Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Hi, everyone. If any of you would like to share local bail funds that are still accepting contributions, or mutual aid groups that are working to get Black Lives Matter protesters released and support them afterward, please do and I’ll run them along with questions in today’s chat. In my neighborhood, the Brooklyn Community Bail Fund has announced it is no longer in need of funds and is directing supporters elsewhere.
Q. Astrology in the workplace: My new co-worker “Martina” and I have never met in person; she joined the company a month ago, long after the officewide work-from home-mandate was made. We’ve both been assigned to a big project, and in our first Zoom call, she deduced I was a Taurus. “That’s going to be a big problem,” she told me. Martina is an Aries, and I guess an Aries doesn’t get along with a Taurus? I wasn’t sure how to respond to her proclamation, so I moved the meeting on without addressing it. Now the project is going well, but whenever Martina disagrees with me, or if something doesn’t go how we planned, she blames it on my astrological sign. I’m really frustrated, and while I don’t want to demean her beliefs, it’s difficult to fix issues when she thinks something is a facet of my personality. How should I approach this?
A: “Martina, I don’t want to discuss our astrological signs at work. If you have a problem you want to discuss regarding the project, I’m happy to talk about it, but please stop bringing astrology into the conversation.”
It’s not demeaning to ask her to stop! She has every right to think and talk about astrology in her personal life, and you’re not impeding the practice of her beliefs. All you’re asking her to do is talk about work when she’s at work. If she doesn’t stop after that, raise the issue with your manager, who should back you up on this without hesitation. This is not a work issue, and she has no reason to cite your zodiac sign as a reason for professional disagreement.
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Q. Let him learn: My husband and I each brought two teenagers to our marriage. “Kyle” is 14 and going through an obnoxious phase. He especially loves to mouth off sexist remarks to his sister and stepsisters. It doesn’t help that his father is soft on him since he is the only boy. If we punish him, my husband will end up relenting. I have been teaching my daughter and stepdaughter how to cook—Kyle will call their food “crap” or steal it behind their backs and laugh. It has been going on for months. No matter what I try, Kyle will start on his sisters.
The breaking point came when my daughter made soup and salad for dinner. Kyle told her it looked like shit. Then he slapped her butt and told her to make him a sandwich. She dumped the soup in his lap. My husband and I fought over what to do. I told him I wasn’t going to punish my daughter. I was proud of her for not putting up with getting sexually harassed. Kyle’s behavior had been out of line for weeks and maybe this would be time he’d learn his lesson. My husband said my daughter overreacted and could have seriously injured his son (Kyle was fine) and that “you girls needed to learn your place.” I told my husband fine—he could deal with Kyle. I was done. I wouldn’t be cooking, cleaning, or taking care of him anymore. Neither would the girls.
Since then, Kyle and my husband make their own meals. I eat with the girls and they are all completely happy about this. Kyle is unhappy and living off sandwiches. My husband is struggling to get him to finish his schoolwork and has had several bad conversations with his daughter and ex over Kyle. My husband has told me I have proved my point, but I don’t think it will stick. I don’t want to have to go through this again. What should I do?
A: Since you and your daughters are having such a nice time eating together without your husband and Kyle, why not have an even nicer time living together without them too? Your husband has made it abundantly clear that his priorities are to overlook and enable his son’s sexual harassment, regardless of the toll it takes on your daughters or on you. I’m not confident that this “phase” is going to pass anytime soon, especially since you say your husband is “soft” on Kyle because he’s a boy. That speaks to something pretty foundational in their relationship: “If Kyle wants to insult and slap his stepsisters, who routinely cook his meals for him, then that’s his right as a boy, and the girls have to learn how to put up with it.” Sure, if the soup had been boiling hot and Kyle had been burned after your daughter emptied a bowl onto his lap, things might be different—but it wasn’t boiling hot, and your daughter knew that when she threw it on him, so I don’t think your husband’s attempt at misdirection is one you should take seriously. Much more concerning is his belief that all of you—his own wife and stepdaughters—should “learn your place,” which is one of subservience toward his teenage son.
The fact that before this you and the girls were apparently doing all of Kyle’s cooking and cleaning for him suggests that you can do a lot better than a mere return to the status quo. If your husband is now struggling to raise his own child without a team of women and girls to do it for him, that’s not an argument for going back but an indicator that nothing substantial will change if you do.
Q. Request is too big: I am pregnant. My older sister-in-law has a history of miscarriages, and no living children. I know she had one stillbirth so I didn’t think too much of it when she told me that she didn’t want me to take one of her “names.” The list had 25 names including “unacceptable” variations: Think Christopher but also Christian and Christina. I was upset and showed my husband. I told him this was crazy. Apparently she has been naming her miscarriages and celebrating them as “rainbow babies.” My husband is not close to his sister since there is a 12-year age gap. We are not planning on obeying the list—half of our favorites are here. How do we talk to her about this? Should we ask another family member to play messenger? This entire situation has cast a pallor over my pregnancy.
A: You have the right to choose your own child’s name, and I understand why you’re unwilling to commit to this list, given that so many of the names featured there are ones you’d been seriously considering. But don’t tell her she’s “crazy,” or object to the ways she mourns and honors her miscarriages. You can limit what she can ask of you, but you can’t, and shouldn’t, tell her how to deal with her own grief. Even if you think her response to that grief is unwise or unhealthy, the fact that neither you nor your husband is close to her would make such a conversation unhelpful and unnecessarily combative.
Nor do I think you should enlist another family member to send messages back-and-forth. She asked you directly, and you should respond directly. You don’t have to get drawn into an argument or endlessly defend your choice; you and your husband can respond as a couple if you don’t want to have that conversation alone. But you should tell her yourselves, and you should be as calm and as kind as possible, saving your frustration for a private moment afterward.
Q. Re: Let him learn: While I agree about leaving him, one of the daughters is the husband’s. So I don’t think a recommendation of therapy is out of line in this case, because even if the letter writer leaves her husband, his daughter will still have to deal with Kyle’s behavior and dad’s attitude toward it.
A: I think that’s a good idea. And I feel terrible for the husband’s daughter, who’s in a horrible position and doesn’t have the same resources the letter writer’s daughters do. But I don’t think the letter writer should stay in this marriage solely for her sake, either. Maybe she can encourage his daughter to speak to a school counselor and her own mother in order to seek out additional support and resources, given her father’s commitment to sexism.
Q. Old engagement ring: I lost my fiancé two years ago. His family was not fond of me. There was an incident where his brother tried to bully his way into our apartment to get “sentimental” items like our TV. I ended up signing over his car and motorcycles to his mother. She was always kind to me. I didn’t know where my fiancé got my engagement ring. No one mentioned it being a family heirloom, not until his sister contacted me out of the blue. She claims the diamonds came from her grandmother’s necklace, and she wants the ring. She didn’t find out until now. I don’t know what to do. My own family thinks she is a greedy bitch. I vaguely remember his mother mentioning at the grandmother’s funeral that her mother wanted to divide up the necklace between the grandchildren. I always assumed it was the granddaughters. I am not over his death. This has pulled up every raw emotion that I had, and I feel sick. What is the right thing to do?
A: I realize this is deeply emotionally charged, but I think the first thing you should do is consult a lawyer—not because I think you should pursue any sort of suit here, but to get a sense of whether your state’s laws would consider a family heirloom part of your fiancé’s estate, a conditional gift, etc., so you know your legal rights and obligations before responding. She may attempt to contact you again before you’ve been able to do so, but you do not have to engage until you’ve gotten more information and decided what to do.
Morally, I think you have every right to keep it; your fiancé gave you that ring because he wanted to spend his life with you, and he did. The fact that his life ended so suddenly and so soon is a tragedy, not something that compromises your engagement. I’m so sorry that your fiancé’s family has treated you like an inconvenience and an afterthought while you’ve been grieving his death. If you’re legally entitled to do so—and I hope that you are—I think you should keep the ring.
Q. Family tragedy before my birthday: Last summer, my niece was shot and killed the day before my birthday. My family was devastated, and the hurt and pain are still here. Today is the anniversary. The only people to wish me happy birthday were my Mom, my aunt, and my cousin—nothing from my brother or my sisters. I know my family is still healing and that the anniversary of my niece’s death will always be right before my birthday. I desperately want to step out of my own selfishness and empathize, as we’re all still hurting and healing, without getting into my feelings about no one even saying happy birthday. But it feels like my family doesn’t think my life isn’t worth celebrating. What should I do? I know I am loved but this hurts too. What can I do to ensure that we celebrate my niece’s life while also celebrating my own?
A: Please go easy on your siblings as much and as often as you can. Perhaps if you want to choose a later date to celebrate your birthday, at a time that’s not so near to the anniversary of your niece’s death, that will help. I realize you’re dealing with internal feelings, and it’s very clear from your letter that you understand why this time of year is hard for everyone and you’re not making any unrealistic or unkind demands of anyone else, so I hope my response doesn’t sound dismissive. It’s understandable to have complicated needs and feelings even in the wake of great grief, and I don’t want you to upbraid yourself when you already feel a sense of guilt. But I think you should listen to that voice telling you to step outside of yourself and look for ways to offer your siblings as much support and love as you can right now. It may also help to think of ways you can celebrate you life and relationship with your siblings that don’t involve your birthday. That’s not the only day of the year where you can do something meaningful for yourself or ask for kindness from others.
If you try to push the birthday issue, I fear it will drive your siblings away needlessly and make them feel abandoned or like they have to “get over” their grief in order to have a birthday party for you. I don’t think you want that. If nothing else, try to remind yourself that your siblings’ grief has nothing to do with not wanting to celebrate you. This is about the sudden, violent, devastating death of their daughter. It doesn’t mean they don’t care about you. This just isn’t about you, and that’s OK.
Q. Second wedding gifts for a widow: My sister is getting married again after her first husband passed away abruptly from lung cancer. They eloped in Vegas after the diagnosis, and my wife and I bought her tickets for a show worth several hundred dollars as a wedding gift. It’s been a few years, and she is getting married again, this time with a formal ceremony with about 100 guests. What is the etiquette on gift-giving here? Normally I wouldn’t buy a gift for a second wedding, especially after buying an expensive gift for a first one. However, this isn’t a normal second wedding circumstance.
A: If you can afford to give a gift, and you’d like to, you certainly can. If money is tighter now than it was a few years ago (which I imagine is the case for a lot of other guests too), give her something modest that won’t strain your own budget. Any token of your love and appreciation that contributes to a celebratory mood, even if it’s just a heartfelt, handwritten card on attractive stationery, would be appropriate.
Q. Re: Let him learn: If you do leave your husband (which I strongly urge you to do), please do your best to be in touch with Kyle’s sister. Unfortunately, you cannot save her, but you can be a supportive figure in her life even after you and her dad separate. She’s a teen now, which means in only a few years she’ll be out of her father’s house and freer to associate, but in the meantime, do whatever you can to support her in what is clearly a horrifying, sexist home dynamic.
A: Setting up ways to stay in touch with her afterward is really crucial too. A few other people have written in to ask if the letter writer would be open to letting her husband’s daughter come with them, and while that obviously gets into custody issues I can’t speak to, anything the letter writer can do to preserve that relationship and offer that girl some respite from her father and brother is a good thing.
A: Thanks for this! The Illinois Network for Pretrial Justice is also working to end money bond in the state and may be helpful for anyone looking to balance the short-term necessity of raising funds to release protesters from jail with longer-term goals.
Q. Re: Bail support: The Milwaukee Freedom Fund has temporarily paused accepting donations. But in the meantime it’s set up a Google Doc for people who want to help using particular professional expertise.
A: Thanks so much for this. It’s crucial to help out after protests as well as during—the need is ongoing.
Q. Our daughter-in-law is a former phone-sexing embezzling drug addict who hates us: About six weeks ago my husband and I received an anonymous email that said we should check out what our daughter-in-law was posting on an Internet forum we’d never heard of. We were given a link and her username. We were shocked to discover she was spending vast amounts of work time posting to this forum. More upsetting was what she was posting about us and our son. We have been generous financially and otherwise to them and their children, but according to her posts she resents us and thinks we are “interfering.” We don’t think we are, and we’ve never had our offers refused. Worse is how she talks online about our son. He is very helpful around the house and she acknowledges he gets the kids ready for day care most mornings, plays with them after work, then works in the evening at home to advance his career. Despite this, she gripes about him and details the ways he annoys her. Perhaps the very worst is finding out she has a rather unsavory past, including phone-sex work, drug addiction, and embezzlement. We knew nothing of this, but she mentions these things without a trace of guilt or embarrassment on the forum. Do we say anything to our son about what we’ve discovered? There is a part of me that would love to just ignore all we’ve learned and try to maintain a good relationship with her because we love our son and grandchildren, but my husband has been steaming about our son being “taken” by someone we suddenly realize may not be a very nice person. Read what Prudie had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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