Dear Prudence

My Parents Tried to Kidnap Their Grandson

They wanted to stop my sister-in-law from leaving the country after my brother died.

Woman hugging/comforting a small child
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Dear Prudence,

Last year my brother died. His wife planned to return to her home country with my nephew, and my parents reacted badly. My sister-in-law left her son in their care for a week while she finalized arrangements, and they refused to give him back. They tried to stage an “intervention” with friends and family about why leaving the country was a bad idea. My sister-in-law locked herself in the bathroom and called her lawyer. He convinced my parents to return her son. She then left the country.

I was out of state and working a double shift while all of this happened. I didn’t find out how crazy things got until later that week. I am the only family member who has any contact with my brother’s widow or her son now. She sends me occasional updates and photos. I haven’t told my relatives about this because I don’t want to be treated like a go-between. She’s since told me that she was actually pregnant when my brother died, and she didn’t feel safe telling our family after the incident with her son. I now have another nephew, and I don’t know what to do: It would kill my parents to know they’ve lost another grandson, but I’m worried they’ll try to do something drastic again. It will harm my relationship with my family if I keep this secret—but what happens when my nephews get older, and my parents find out another way?

—Second Nephew

I agree that your parents are likely to find out about your second nephew someday and that this revelation will cause them pain and distress, some of which may very well be directed at you. But you also know that the reason they no longer have a relationship with your nephew is because they tried to kidnap him. They could have suggested any one of a hundred different ways people stay in touch with relatives who live far away that don’t involve abducting a grieving widow’s child. If she doesn’t feel safe sharing information about her children with your parents, you have to agree she has excellent cause.

You can bring up the idea with her without breaking the trust she’s placed in you by betraying her confidence: “My parents may find out by chance, especially as the kids get older. Let me know your priorities and if there’s anything I can do to be useful to you.” Your job here is not to make sure your parents never get upset or never regret the consequences of their attempted kidnapping. The fact that you know your parents will someday attempt to punish you, or sacrifice your relationship, if they learn you’ve maintained even a distant relationship with the mother of your nephews is complex and painful, but I don’t think it means you should do anything differently. One advantage you have here is foresight: If you know that day is coming, you can prepare yourself emotionally, rank possible best- and worst-case scenarios, and clarify your goals. Your other option, I suppose, is to sever your contact with your sister-in-law and nephews now in order to placate your parents in the future, but I don’t think that’s a very good one.

Dear Prudence,

My daughter’s birthday was over the July 4 weekend. I rented the best picnic area at the local park and paid a premium fee because of the holiday (we wouldn’t have room to stay socially distanced at our home). When we arrived, there was another family already in the gazebo we rented. I figured they hadn’t checked the numbers carefully and asked them to review their permit, since I’d rented Gazebo No. 1. They claimed to have a permit, just not with them, and suggested I use the next one (which was much smaller). I said I’d paid for a permit that reserved this gazebo from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They said I wasn’t there at 9 a.m., so they took it, but that’s not what a reservation means!

I called the parks department. Rangers showed up, looked at my permit, and told the other family to move. The other family then started yelling that I was racist and calling me Karen. The park rangers made them move their stuff out of the gazebo, and they kept yelling at me the whole time. Each time a friend showed up, the other family yelled about what a selfish person I was. Every time one of us would pass their table to go to the restroom or water play area, they’d say, “Stay off our space, we have a permit, you can’t walk here.” Am I a racist because I didn’t let them steal the gazebo I’d paid for? I never raised my voice, never called anyone names, never said anything negative. I even offered to help them move their stuff!

—Was I Wrong?

I think “Was my gazebo-related possessiveness motivated by racism?” might be the wrong question. A better one might be, “Do I have a strategy for public confrontation, and if not, do I want to come up with one?” I can’t promise you that your indignation over seeing another family using the gazebo you’d reserved had nothing to do with race. There’s no control-group version of this anecdote where you face off with another family of the same race over the gazebo. All we know is this: You had the reservation, you got what you wanted, but it didn’t feel good. Investigate that tension! What might that day have looked like if you’d decided to let this go and partied in a smaller gazebo? What might it look like to let go of “I’ve got a piece of paper that makes me right” and to allow someone else to have something they weren’t bureaucratically entitled to? What would it look like to prioritize playing safely in the park over “My gazebo, right or wrong”? You can absolutely pursue letter-of-the-law victories if you want. Pursuing such a policy means that sometimes other people will resent you or that you rack up a hollow victory. You can ask park rangers to kick people out of a gazebo you’ve rented, but you can’t make them like you for it. There’s a limit to how much control a park ranger can exercise over the human heart.

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Dear Prudence, 

A year ago I met a wonderful man online, and we started dating. When we’re together, he’s easily the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. He and his ex have shared custody of their daughter, and while his devotion to parenting is one of the reasons I love him, I also feel like it’s keeping our relationship from progressing. I’m in my late 30s and have been clear about wanting to settle down for a long time. He says he wants the same thing, but I don’t know. He didn’t let me meet his daughter until we’d been dating for six months. I still don’t get invited to spend the night when she’s at his house. I wanted to start sharing a home together, but he just renewed his lease for another year.

I’ve told him I don’t think I can handle another year of leading separate lives, but he said he wanted stability for his daughter since the divorce. It’s a small apartment, so I know he has no intention of asking me to move in. Right now I feel like a girlfriend, not a partner. I am afraid to push because I love this man and don’t want to lose him, but I fear that he’s not ready to bring someone into his life full-time. Is one year unreasonable? Is it time to push, end things, or just keep proving that I am in this for the long haul and hope he comes around soon?

—Daddy’s Girlfriend

I don’t think it’s at all unusual for someone to want to wait more than a year before moving in with their girlfriend, nor do I think waiting six months to introduce someone to your kid is unduly strict. Your boyfriend doesn’t sound skittish or commitment-phobic, nor do I think “feeling more like a girlfriend than a partner” after a mere year of dating is a sign that something’s wrong—it strikes me as a pretty reasonable timeline. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong of you to want to move in with him. It just means you should be frank about that now: “I’d like to move in together in the next year. Does that interest you?” If you two find yourself at an impasse, you may have to break up, but that doesn’t have to be your first move, and there seems like a lot of potential room for compromise between the two of you. It’s not a question of “coming around” and admitting he was wrong to want to take things a little slowly, but of finding ways to meet in the middle. And if you have a conversation with him and conclude that you don’t want a relationship with a man whose first priority is stability and security for his child, that doesn’t make you a jerk or him a flake. But you shouldn’t continue in this relationship if your secret hope is that eventually he’ll get over putting his kid first.

Help! My Husband Hates My Cooking.

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

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Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend and I have been together for almost five years. He’s kind, smart, gorgeous, and completely in love with me. But we have the exact same fight every time there’s an election. He refuses to tell me who he voted for. He says it’s a secret ballot, so he doesn’t have to tell anyone. We talk about politics all the time, so I know his views are aligned with mine. But his refusal makes me paranoid and anxious that he’s hiding something—like that he voted secretly for Trump, which he knows would be a dealbreaker for me. When I asked him if he had, he was extremely offended but wouldn’t answer me. He thinks a vote is private. I think it’s normal to want to know how your partner votes. Am I being unreasonable? Is he? Are we both being absurd? He’s white and I’m a person of color, if that changes anything.

—Secret Ballot

Absent other information that would make you doubt your boyfriend’s account of his political commitments, I don’t think you have to conclude he’s avoiding the question because he’s a secret Trump supporter. It does seem like he’s getting something out of framing this as “I don’t have to tell you who I voted for and you can’t make me,” rather than “My partner wants to talk to me about politics sometimes.” He has a right to keep his voting record to himself, and you have every right as his partner to feel frustrated when he dodges a conversation you’d like to have with him. It may help to avoid getting drawn into the same argument over and over again by simply conceding the point: “You’re absolutely right: I can’t force you to tell me. The secrecy of your vote is legally protected, thanks in no small part to the Australian parliamentary system. I would like to talk about it because it’s important to me. If you ever change your mind, I’d really appreciate hearing who you voted for and why.” One possible way forward would be to figure out how you two can live out your values together in between elections and find ways to support those shared causes—ending cash bail, decriminalization, LGBT rights, universal basic income, supporting your local symphony, or whatever else is dear to you—on a regular basis, so that whichever presidential candidate you vote for every four years doesn’t feel like the end-all and be-all of your political discussions.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“It’s not pleasant. But it is a Seinfeld B-plot level annoyance.”
Danny Lavery and special guest Calvin Kasulke discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

After several years of consideration and a year of study with my rabbi, I’ve set a date for my conversion to Judaism. I am incredibly happy and excited for this next chapter of my life. The only thing that is weighing on me is whether to tell my parents. I grew up in a very strict household where “children should be seen and not heard” was the rule. As an adult I’ve kept most of my life quite private from my relatives, and my weekly phone call with my parents never stray beyond the weather, work, and what we’ve been cooking lately. My mother is a devout Christian, and religion has been a source of tension between us in the past. The last time I expressed doubts about Christianity I was a teenager, and I got slapped, then told not to question my parents again. I’ve mentioned attending a synagogue in passing a few times and my parents responded with silence or a hasty change of subject.

Is there any value in telling them about my conversion? It feels strange to omit something that is so important to my day-to-day life, but so does the thought of having to explain or justify a deeply personal decision.

—Secret Conversion

You have a polite, quiet arrangement with your parents where you stay in regular contact but rarely, if ever, share details about your thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, values, or relationships. Deciding not to discuss your conversion with them sounds consistent with the type of relationship you’ve had for years. That doesn’t mean you have to lie about it or worry that they have the same power to control you as an adult as they did when you were a teenager. But it does mean your primary emotional obligation here should be to yourself, and you should only decide to inform them if you think it would be meaningful for you to address it. The fact that they’ve largely ignored your experiences with Judaism in the past might work in your favor if your goal is simply to provide them with a bullet-point update about yourself: You can say something like, “Last month I finalized my conversion to Judaism, by the way, which was lovely. I’m thinking of making panzanella tonight, since it’s still too hot out to turn the oven on.” Your parents can freeze awkwardly and then respond with, “Mmm. That reminds me, I’ve got to figure out a use for all the summer squash before it goes bad.” If they do react badly and try to criticize your conversion or insist you justify your decision, you don’t have to give in to their demands—you can hang up the phone. Again, the choice is really yours here. It’s simply a question of which type of strained strangeness you’d prefer with your parents. One silver lining is that you have relatively little to lose.

Dear Prudence,

The other day, my husband and I hosted a socially distanced get-together in our backyard with a few friends. We took care to space chairs and tables 6 feet apart. I also disinfected the guest bathroom in case someone needed to go inside the house to use it. The next day, I went to the bathroom to disinfect everything again, when I noticed a strange object fastened to the light switch: a small 3D-printed penis, about the size of a game piece. This was obviously put there as a prank, and I’m mostly impressed one of our friends took the time to find a schematic, print it, and save it for just such an occasion. At the same time, I’m annoyed. It felt like a criticism of my attempts to keep the bathroom sanitized and our guests safe. I want to say something, but I’m not sure how to word it. “Thanks for coming over. Please ask before you stick little 3D-printed penises on the light switch and make sure they’re properly disinfected first” doesn’t sound quite right. Any advice on what to say?

—Penis Prank

I agree your proposed script sounds a little strange, but I think that’s just because it’s a slightly strange situation. Just say that! If you’re worried about sounding stilted, you can mention that you thought it was kind of funny, but you certainly don’t have to. It came across as a slightly pointed and passive-aggressive move, even if it was also whimsical. Maybe it was a spur-of-the-moment, opportunity-knocks-but-once joke rather than an intentional dig, but you don’t really have any way of knowing for sure unless you ask. So ask without guilt!

Classic Prudie

I am in my late 30s and still keep in touch with good friends from high school. “Jim” and “Arlene” were married to each other right out of high school. Jim then cheated on Arlene while they were married with Arlene’s best friend “Maureen.” Arlene left Jim and he and Maureen got together, and while they never married stayed together for years. Needless to say Maureen was not thought of highly and many wished karma to take action on her. Well just this year Maureen died after a long, horrible battle with cancer. Jim left Maureen while she was battling cancer because he “could not handle it.” Many people have been saying, well karma came and there it was, and I have to admit that I have thought the same thing. As someone who personally has been cheated on I have wished much worse on the cheater and the mistress. But is it wrong to feel that she got what she deserved? I think people saying that are terrible but in the back of my mind I cannot truly disagree and I feel horrible for feeling that way.