Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Cinderella: My sister married an older man who has been both divorced and widowed. He has a small, three-bedroom house that his grandmother used to own. The 14-year-old girl shares the room with the 11-year-old girl when she visits. The 7-year-old boy has a room to himself. My brother-in-law doesn’t want more kids, and this is something my sister agreed to. My sister has confided in me that she has “changed” her mind and now wants a baby. I was alarmed, since her husband was pretty adamant about the subject. My sister just tittered and said, “We will see what happens.” I asked what she thought would happen to her stepkids since the house is cramped as it is. My sister told me she plans to put the boy and the second girl into one room with bunk beds and have the older girl sleep on the couch when she visits. She is “basically out of the house anyway.” I said that was “disgusting” and “borderline hateful.” She is lying to her husband and going to throw away her commitment to these kids because she “suddenly” got baby rabies? There is no way they can afford a new house since my sister works retail and her husband is on disability. She is throwing away her older stepdaughter and going to make the other one share a room with her baby brother as she turns into a teen. My sister told me I don’t get to judge her life and hung up. I am bewildered and baffled by her behavior. I don’t know what to do here, and I feel like I don’t know my own sister anymore.
A: I’ve never heard the term “baby rabies” used to describe, presumably, someone who wants to have a child, and I hope you don’t use it again. Whatever you may think of her conduct, dismissing someone’s desire for children as “baby rabies” is dehumanizing and unnecessarily unkind. Your sister told you that she’s changed her mind about wanting a baby and that “we’ll see what happens” with her husband. Unless you’ve left something out of that conversation, I don’t know how you got to “lying to her husband” and “throwing away her commitment to the kids.” You act as if you’d found her poking holes in his condoms when she could very well have meant (rightly or wrongly) that she thought he might be willing to change his mind on the subject. You’d have had grounds to encourage her to talk to her husband directly about this, certainly, and if she had told you that she planned on secretly getting pregnant against his wishes, you’d have been right to say, “If you don’t tell him about this, I will.” But I think you missed an opportunity to slow down, ask questions, and get a clearer picture before escalating.
I don’t know how often the older girl visits; there’s a real difference between having a kid sleep on the couch for a few nights every few months versus putting her in the living room every other week. I don’t mean to suggest that your sister’s plan (if she has a plan at all—right now it seems more like a general feeling) is a great one that should be met with nothing but trumpets and praise. And your concern for her stepchildren may very well be appropriate, especially if you’ve seen evidence that she mistreats them or considers them afterthoughts to the baby she now wants. But I think you should give your sister a little time, call her again, and apologize for jumping to conclusions. (That doesn’t mean you have to put on a hair shirt or apologize for having concerns, either. “I spoke too hastily” is not the same thing as “Your bunk bed plan sounds terrific.”) If she’s open to discussing this again, you can ask questions, really give her a chance to answer them, lay out your concerns as you see them, and encourage her to talk things over with her husband. It may very well be that this second conversation confirms your fears during the first, and in that instance, you have my full permission to disagree with her and try to dissuade her from her proposed course of action.
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