Dear Prudence

My Mother-in-Law Nearly Killed Us on Vacation

Do I have to go again this year?

Car that appears to be skidding off the road
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Dear Prudence,

Last year my husband and I took his mother on a luxury holiday for her birthday. We stayed in a five-star hotel and treated her to expensive meals. Halfway through the trip, she started back-seat driving in such an over-the-top fashion we almost died—screaming abruptly from the back-seat about a car that wasn’t actually there, startling my husband and distracting him from the road so he almost ploughed into the truck in front of us. He was angry and spoke sharply (but not inappropriately) to her. For the next two days she yelled at him nonstop and accused him of treating her like garbage.

It was excruciating. My husband is an only child and does so much for his mother. She lives around the corner, and we see her often. He goes over to help her whenever she needs anything. But he’s not a doormat, and he’ll argue with her if she gives him a hard time. He’s rather touchy on the subject—he gets to complain about her but gets defensive when I do it. I took a “Let’s just get through this” approach to the rest of her birthday trip, but it was hard to forget how miserable things got. Now she wants to go on another holiday with us, and I’m torn. I can’t stay silent if she acts out like last year. But I also just don’t want to take a vacation with her. Is it best to just go with the flow and address any poor behavior as it happens? Ideally, I’d like an acknowledgment and apology from her before we go, but she doesn’t apologize. Or should I just say that I’m fine with them going without me and I hope they have a fantastic time?

—Dreading a Repeat

Say you’re fine with them going without you and that you hope they have a fantastic time together. Let last year be the last year you went on a vacation with your husband and his mother. I know when you marry someone, you can’t always say, “I’m resigning from all future interactions with your difficult parents,” but you’re not talking about anything extreme here. Your husband’s already made it clear he’d prefer to handle his mother on his own, you already see plenty of her, and you know you won’t be able to keep quiet if she acts out again—and you also know that she will act out again, as surely as the sun rises in the east. So stay home and have a lovely, peaceful holiday of your own.

Help! I Found Out My Girlfriend Once Said Black People Weren’t “Her Type.” I’m Black.

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Dear Prudence,

Last year my twentysomething brother told me that our father molested him as a child. I was horrified but not shocked, as our father was physically abusive toward him and often treated me like a romantic partner when I was young. Recently I’ve started to acknowledge my own sexual abuse by my father. I’ve had a hard time with these memories, because I previously tried to deal with them by calling it “emotional abuse.” I’m still trying to find a therapist to speak to about this.

Our parents are divorced, and my mother knows that both of us have cut off contact with our father—but not why. I think I need to tell her at some point, in part because I’ve avoided visiting her out of fear that my father will show up demanding to know why I don’t answer his calls. They live in the same small town, and he has a history of showing up uninvited to confront her. The pandemic has rendered any future travel plans moot, but when it’s over—what then? My brother wants to tell her but is worried that she won’t believe us—she’s denied and minimized a lot of the abuse my brother has talked to her about in the past. I worry about this as well. How do I move forward?

—Speaking Up

I’m so sorry your father abused you, and I wish you the best of luck as you seek support. It will help to have a therapist in place, and at least a few sessions under your belt, before making any decisions. The strange upside to the pandemic in this particular situation is, as you say, that it buys you time to seek support, clarify your goals, and adjust your expectations, so I’d make finding an affordable therapist who regularly treats survivors of child sexual abuse and has a trauma-informed approach your first priority. I think, unfortunately, it’s wise to assume that your mother will respond to learning about your father’s sexual abuse in the same way that she’s responded to his other abuse, with minimization and outright denial, at least at first and possibly for a long time. It’s heartbreakingly and infuriatingly common for people to downplay harm when it comes from within the family. The question you can explore with your therapist and your brother, then, is: What is my goal in talking to Mom about my abuse, given that I cannot make her believe me? Maybe it’s just for the personal satisfaction of knowing you spoke honestly about it with her at least once, regardless of her reaction. Maybe you’ll decide not to speak to her about it in detail, if you fear her reaction will cause you too much pain and you want to protect yourself.

If you decide to speak to your mother about your father’s abuse, I hope you do so only when you feel ready to do so, and not because you think you have to in order to explain why you don’t want to come over. I wish your mother was able to acknowledge the abuse you and your brother suffered, to offer a meaningful apology for the ways in which she was unable or unwilling to protect you, and to be a real source of healing and support to you both. But given her previous resistance, I think the most productive ways forward will involve pursuing healing, support, truth, protection, and affirmation from other sources—therapists, friends, support groups, and your brother.

Dear Prudence,

I recently discovered through a DNA testing service that I have a younger adult brother through my mother’s side of the family. He explained that he’d been given up for adoption, that his upbringing had been rough, and that he’d struggled to learn about his biological family because the records were sealed. There was a lot for me to take in, and I asked for time to process it. He grew increasingly agitated, and I decided to stop responding to him. I no longer read his messages.

My (our) mother is in her 80s and not in the best of health. I’ve decided that it’s not worth the stress this could potentially put on her heart to satisfy any desire I have to know what happened. I have asked the testing agency if it’s possible he could actually be my nephew, not my half-brother, but they’re convinced we have the same mother. I have bouts of guilt over not only cutting off communication with him but denying him information about his mother. Am I being selfish, or have I made the most practical decision based on the circumstances?

—Closing the Door

I’m not sure that selfishness and practicality are at odds here. It’s very possible that you’ve made a decision that’s both selfish and practical, and only you can decide which degree of selfishness you’re comfortable with and which level of guilt you’re prepared to address. Not all selfish acts are evil or harmful. The most you can do is honestly acknowledge the scope of your decision: You’ve chosen to prioritize a possible-but-uncertain threat to your mother’s health by keeping a secret from her, knowing that decision has caused agitation and distress to your half-brother. You’re also aware he’s demonstrated impatience when you’ve asked him for time and space and don’t seem confident that he’d respect your mother’s wishes if she didn’t want to meet him.

I can’t promise you there’s a single decision in this situation that you’ll never regret. All of your options carry with them serious possible upsides and downsides, and you may end up regretting any of them. It’s really a question of what you’re prepared to live with. It can sometimes help, when faced with a number of imperfect options, to ask yourself, “Which set of problems would I rather deal with? Which worst-case scenario would I prefer?” If your decision is still nagging at you, try writing out some answers to these questions and see if that sparks anything.

You say you mother’s health isn’t the best, but not that she’s no longer capable of making decisions for herself, or losing her memory, or collapsing under stress. But unless she’s very frail indeed (only you can speak to that), I don’t think broaching the issue will kill her. If I were in your position, I’d consider sharing this information with her and asking her what she wants. You can offer her your own assessment of his state of mind, encourage her to take her time to come to a decision, offer to act as a go-between, and assure her that you won’t press the issue if the memories are too painful or if she simply doesn’t want to discuss it further. I think you might regret making such a significant decision for her if she’s still competent to make decisions for herself. Good luck, whatever you choose.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From Care and Feeding

My wife and I adopted a wonderful, healthy, newborn girl 7 years ago from a local adoption agency.

When and how do you feel is the ideal time to inform her of her adoption? I have a pal who was not told about his adoption until the entire family was gathered around his dying father’s bedside. He was in his mid-20s, and this took several years for him to come to peace with it.

I have no intention of waiting that long with our daughter, but I don’t know when or how to bring it up. She has a teenage cousin who is around on occasion, and I am afraid that he would just up and tell her someday out of pure numbskullery, and this isn’t a conversation I wish to have around the family Christmas tree, birthday party, or Easter egg hunt.

If you have any advice on this matter I would certainly appreciate hearing it.