Dear Prudence

I’m 50. My Deadbeat Dad Is Still Tormenting Me.

I still feel like a little girl trying to get my dad to love me back.

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Dear Prudence,

My father is a charming, charismatic, wealthy man who abandoned me and my mother, never paid child support, never showed up for birthdays, and let me live with my mom’s abusive relatives after she died rather than take me in. He did the same to my half-brother, who hasn’t spoken to our father in decades. I was estranged from my father for decades, too, but several years ago decided to forgive and just enjoy my father for who he is, because I do love him.

My car is breaking down, and I can’t easily afford to fix it or get another one, although I work hard in a difficult job. I told my father, who didn’t offer any assistance. That’s fine, but after asking what car I would wish for, he went and bought it for his wife (who can’t even drive it) and sent pictures of it to me. I’m supposed to show enthusiasm while I feel my heart breaking.

Recently I learned about colorblind correction glasses. My dad is colorblind. I watched emotional videos of families presenting such glasses to their colorblind loved ones. I was swept up in loving feelings and asked my dad to take the online test and choose a pair that I would buy. I told him all I wanted in return was for him to send me a video of him putting them on and seeing color for the first time. He picked the most expensive pair, which I hadn’t budgeted for (I ended up charging them). When they arrived, he sent a text saying they were amazing and that he would call later. He didn’t call, and no video. This is classic Dad. I’m angry at myself for putting myself at financial and emotional risk to show love to this man who does virtually nothing for me. I don’t expect him to wake up and be a different person, but how can I change? I’m 50 and still a little girl trying to get my dad to love me back, and it’s pointless!

—Still a Deadbeat

The good news is you’ve previously spent decades estranged from your father, so you know what needs to be done and how to do it. There’s an old line in AA that “the idea that somehow, someday, he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker,” and I think there’s a throughline here. You want to believe that you can control and enjoy your father’s behavior or, failing that, control and enjoy your relationship with your father by preemptively forgiving him every time he hurts your feelings, convincing yourself that you have to show enthusiasm when you think you’re supposed to, and conducting a relationship where you act like you want nothing, need nothing, only exist to generously and spontaneously give, and act so profoundly and unquestioningly lovable that your father has no choice but to treat you well.

When that doesn’t work—and of course it doesn’t work, because your father didn’t abandon his children because they were insufficiently lovable or overly demanding but because he didn’t want to take care of you—you feel destroyed. It’s pointless to try to get your father to treat you differently, but it’s not pointless to be 50 years old and sad, or hurt, or to wish you’d been raised by a loving parent instead of your abusers. But I agree it’s time to take your feelings, your grief, your wounds, to someone who’s capable of caring about them, of treating them and you with respect. Maybe that’s a therapist, maybe that’s your friends, maybe it’s a journal or a support group for adult children who are estranged from their parents. Maybe some of the time it’s your half-brother. If it helps to write down some basic principles about your father so you can check yourself the next time you’re tempted to contact him, go for it. Don’t be angry with yourself for wanting your father to love you, but do whatever you can to remind yourself that that particular well has run dry for 50 years and you’ll have to look elsewhere to draw water.

Dear Prudence,

My father-in-law died last year, and my mother-in-law, “Bev,” was struggling on her own before the pandemic hit, so things have only gotten worse in the past seven months. Her children have been helping out where they can but are planning a virtual meeting to talk about longer-term strategies to care for her (she’s in her mid-60s). I know one possible option they’ve discussed is her coming to live with my wife and me. It makes sense, since we have a large house, no kids, and enough disposable income to afford it. The only problem is that I will never live with, or spend more than an afternoon with, my mother-in-law. It is a marriage-ending situation for me. She is a good person, and she raised people whom I either love or like, but she’s so aggressively negative and nerve-wracking. If you say you like her hat, she’ll make snide comments for days about how you must not have liked her coat (“I guess if I made as much money as you, I’d buy new coats all the time” or “I’d love to go, but I have to wear my red coat, and I’d hate to embarrass you”). Everyone is out to get her. If a cashier wishes her a nice day, they must have meant it sarcastically. It must be exhausting to be her, and I’m sympathetic, but I can’t live with her. I feel so on edge around her that I get panic attacks. I grew up in a violent home, and the tension I feel around her reminds me of what it felt like there.

I know ultimatums are bad, but I don’t want my wife to go through this whole conversation with her siblings and then surprise her. My wife is a wonderful woman, but she loves her mother and thinks me comparing her to my abusive dad is cruel. I understand that, but even though I don’t fear Bev’s violence, the need to watch every word just puts me back in that fight-or-flight state. What do I do?

—Ultimatum Uncertainty

Ultimatums are not always bad! Ultimatums are sometimes deployed too soon or too late, and they sometimes spell the end of a relationship, but that doesn’t make them wholly bad or even ineffective. It’s important in your case for the very reason you name: You’ll both be significantly worse off for having delayed the ultimatum. While your wife’s protectiveness of her mother is understandable, it seems to clear to me that the comparisons you’ve drawn between Bev and your parents is not a direct one. You’re not claiming that she’s on the verge of becoming violent, but acknowledging the negative effects her constant sniping and passive-aggressive digs have on your psyche. Bev would be an exhausting and unpleasant housemate for anyone, but she’s particularly difficult for you, given your history with parental cruelty.

I don’t know what “struggling” has looked like for Bev as she’s lived on her own, but it doesn’t sound like she’s in need of constant, live-in care, and you and your wife (and her siblings!) have a number of options between “Bev lives on her own” and “Bev moves in with you.” You say you have enough disposable income to pay for her if she did live with you, so you might suggest alternatives to your wife to stress that you’re not indifferent to Bev’s needs: setting up a separate account to pay for in-home aides, hiring a part-time assistant to run errands and help Bev manage her home, helping her find a more manageable apartment to move into, and so on. Start talking to your wife now so you two can prepare honestly. Maybe see a couples counselor for a while if you need additional help seeing each other’s perspective. This isn’t an ultimatum you should avoid, although you can frame it patiently and kindly.

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Dear Prudence,

My husband invited out-of-town friends, including their high school– and college-age daughters, over to our house. I understand wanting to see people, so we talked about safety and landed on a two-hour outdoor dinner. When I found out he was also meeting them for another activity, I said I really didn’t think the dinner was a good idea. He insisted. I said I really didn’t think I could participate, as the risk was too high.

When I told him again an hour before the dinner that I was not going to be there, he became very upset, actually saying, “I am begging you to be here.” I felt bad but thought they would have a nice time without me. I really wanted him to respect my fears and let me do what I needed for my own peace of mind. He blew up and said I was betraying him and threatened divorce. I left the house and returned 25 minutes after they should have departed. I texted my husband, “Maybe you lost track of time. It’s 7:25.” No response. At 7:30 I called him and asked if he got the text, as it was getting late. One-word reply: “Yep.” I said I would like to come home. “OK.” I asked when I can come home, and he hung up. Should I just have gone to dinner with them? How do you set boundaries?

—Stalking My Own Home

You might have explored additional options once it became clear you and your husband had different ideas about appropriate risk management—say, talking to your friends directly, explaining that you had a difference of opinion, and asking them to compromise by either meeting your husband outdoors elsewhere or forgoing whatever other activity they had planned. And if you had wanted to come home, you didn’t need his permission to do so, no matter how angry he sounded. At that point the most sensible and less painful thing to have done would’ve been to politely ask them to leave so the two of you could talk privately.

But these details are much less important than the fact that your husband went from “Let’s have some friends over for dinner in the backyard” to “I’m begging you to attend” to “I will divorce for this” in the span of a single afternoon. I can’t really answer your boundaries question if your partner handles boundaries like that. Has he ever done something like this before? Does he have any sense as to why he blew up so abruptly, now that some time has passed and he’s hopefully been able to cool down? Is there something else going on that he hasn’t been forthright about but came bubbling to the surface that night? Have you not wanted to come inside the house before? I have a sense of why you acted as you did that night—you felt the risk of transmission was too high with multiple interactions spread over multiple locations and said at least twice that you could not comfortably participate—but very little sense of what was driving your husband’s behavior. I hope you’ve had at least one conversation about this since this dinner, if not more; if you haven’t, that should be a priority, either with just the two of you or a couples counselor. I wonder if he has any more insight, or just more anger and stony silence. The fact that he responded so badly to your boundaries is not a mark against boundaries or a sign that you’re not allowed to set them. It’s either an indicator that something is seriously troubling him and he needs to start talking about it or he’s prepared to throw tantrums and threaten you with divorce when he doesn’t get his way. Whatever the case, as unpleasant as this episode has been, at least you’ll know what you’re up against, and whether it’s worth trying to work through, or merely get away from.

Help! My Ex-Husband Spoils Our Daughters With Lavish Gifts.

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

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Dear Prudence,

A few years ago, I started working at a new company and met “Angelica,” a colleague who was bright, capable, and fun. We became fast friends and spent a lot of time together. She’s five years younger than me, and her drive and passion for work reminded me of how I was a bit earlier in my career. But eventually I noticed she often spoke very poorly of her friends and seemed to have a lot of drama with them, and that most of our conversations revolved around her life and her anxiety. This year I got laid off, along with many others. I was depressed and frightened about the future. Angelica and I would occasionally text, but the conversations inevitably returned to her and her anxiety, particularly about work. I didn’t realize until later that these conversations were exhausting and negative, so I pulled back and noticed that when I didn’t text her first, she wouldn’t reach out.

Whenever we planned a virtual hangout, she’d come up with an excuse at the last minute or simply fail to show up. While I was kind of sad she wouldn’t make time for me, it seemed going our separate ways would be for the best and was happening naturally. After a while, she texted something fairly meaningless, like “Yo,” and I ignored it, since I was dealing with something else at the time. It’s been a few weeks now, and she’s reached out several times asking why I’m ignoring her, and I am seized with anxiety when I think about responding with why, because I think it will turn into a lengthy argument I don’t want to have. However, I see her side—if a friend were to start ignoring me, I would be bewildered and confused as well, and I feel bad about ghosting her. (I never ghost people.) What is my obligation to a self-centered friend I still care about but don’t want to be friends with anymore?

—Reluctant Ghost

“Sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier. I’ve been really busy looking for work and haven’t been able to be as responsive as usual. I’m not available for a longer conversation right now, but I hope you’re doing well, and thanks for understanding.” You do not have to have a lengthy argument if you don’t want to have one, especially not with a former co-worker who demands so much of your time and attention to talk about her job at a company that recently laid you off—a surprising display of tactlessness. And I don’t think it’s fair to yourself to say you started ignoring her out of the blue; she started blowing you off without warning or explanation months ago, and then got agitated and demanding when you failed to respond to a single text. If part of your anxiety stems from the fear that she’ll start talking poorly about you to others should you fail to keep her happy, give yourself the gift of freedom: She has almost certainly spoken poorly about you, since you know this is something she does to all of her other friends! You do not have to worry about keeping her happy, and you do not have to bend over backward to explain why you’re short on time for idle chatter as you look for work in the middle of a pandemic.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Rename him in your phone as DO NOT CALL HE WILL BE CRUEL TO YOU.”

Danny Lavery and June Thomas, senior managing producer of Slate podcasts, discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

My young son (under 10) came out to me last week. I hugged him and told him that I love him and am so proud of him. We live in an area that is not accepting. How do I continue to support my son while also cautioning him against telling classmates? Are there any books you recommend for him to better explain his feelings and questions? I’m doing my best, but I want to do better.

—Supporting in Secret

I realize you want to protect your son, but I’d caution against saying anything like, “I love you, but other people won’t, so you can’t tell them you’re gay,” at least right off the bat. Ask your son whom else he might like to come out to and if there’s anything you can do to facilitate those conversations. He sees his classmates every day and probably has a more finely developed understanding of what they will and won’t accept than you do. He may not want to come out to any of them, or he may decide it’s worth the risk. Ask more questions, and listen to his account of what concerns him, what he wants to prioritize, and what would mean the most to him, before offering assistance. I’m not suggesting that you simply hand over the parenting reins to him and do what he says, but talk to him before you act, and bear in mind that some kids would rather deal with open hostility than hear someone who’s supposed to be supportive tell them to stay in the closet “for their own good.”

Books are lovely but are no substitute for people or community or a sense of what a gay future can look like. Even though in-person gatherings may be on hiatus, there’s likely a PFLAG chapter somewhere near you. If you’re within driving distance of a major city, there may be an LGBT center with community-specific resources and recommendations; look it up and give it a call. Familiarize yourself with any local or state legislation that protects your son from discrimination, and prepare yourself to fight on his behalf—against the school administration if need be.

You’re doing your best, which is wonderful and exactly what your son needs from you. You want to continually learn and improve, which is heartening and will serve you both well. Just bear in mind that “other people won’t understand or accept you, and the closet is your best bet,” no matter how kindly or lovingly you intend it, can carry its own repressive weight. That doesn’t mean you have to pretend everything in your hometown is fine, or encourage him to come out to his class tomorrow. But there are pros and cons to every decision, and coming out isn’t always an either/or proposition. Since he hasn’t yet proposed the idea of coming out to his classmates, don’t be the first to bring it up only to reject it out of hand. Good luck! You’re going to be wonderful.

Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate

Dear Prudence,

At 21, I am still on my learner’s permit, which I got when I was 17. I don’t drive at all now, because I have a developmental coordination disorder that severely impairs my motor skills and spatial awareness. After months of practice and very patient teachers, I decided I shouldn’t drive for my safety and for the safety of others. Now I take the bus, which is mostly great. It’s better for the environment and saves money. But my town is small, public transport is generally outdated (although it works well enough for my needs), and it seems like everyone else in my community drives. I’m one of the few students who uses public transport. I have a finance internship, where even fewer people take the bus, and my co-workers have laughed about the fact that I don’t drive. They (along with friends) often pressure me about when I’ll get my license or why I haven’t. I’m always early for work, and I know I don’t inconvenience others by taking the bus, so I don’t get why they push it so much.

I don’t tend to tell people I have dyspraxia either. I did tell a few close friends about it but was discouraged by their reaction, and they thought I was using it as an excuse not to drive. Usually I just say I find it cheaper and better for the environment, but this only tends to satisfy people’s questions for so long. How should I respond in the future? Is there a better way than how I’m doing it now?

—Off the Road

Just because rude people persist in their rudeness doesn’t mean your response is a bad one. Many people also need cars for reasons outside their control, and driving can be a lot of fun, but society would still be better off if we could come up with meaningful, widely accessible alternatives. If you want to lean into the “co-worker who doesn’t drive” persona and get a few Ban the Car stickers or display a copy of Lynn Sloman’s Car Sick at your desk, treating it like a personal cause might redirect some of the unwanted attention at work, although you’ll want to carry off that style with a light touch. But that may simply be coming on too strong for your workplace, especially as an intern, so if you don’t think making it a character trait will go over well, just stick to a cheerful line like “It may be a little unusual, but it suits me” or a bland, office-y joke about how it’s good personal finance. When it comes to friends, acquaintances, members of the general public, or anyone else you’re not dependent on for either wages or professional advancement, stick with the “cheaper and better for the environment” line, and if they keep pestering you, say: “I don’t know why the thought of me taking the bus troubles you so much, but I don’t have any better answers for you. I’m afraid you’re just going to have to find a way to make peace with my commute.”

Classic Prudie

When my oldest son was 8, we decided to get a dog. I’ve raised dogs before so I had a fairly good idea of what I was getting myself into, until I realized our new dog was the devil’s spawn in furry disguise. I won’t get into all the trouble he caused. We made a difficult decision to send him back to his previous owner, but my son was adamantly against it. He went on a hunger strike and refused to speak to anyone, including at school. (He inherits the drama-queen gene from both his parents.) So one day we sent him to his grandparents under the guise of a happy weekend outing, and secretly took the dog back. After our son came home we lied and said the dog died. To make it believable we pretended to have buried the dog in the backyard. My son is now 13 and he still goes to the “grave” to mark every anniversary of the “death,” which in itself is impressive because he doesn’t even remember his own birthday. Anyway, the problem is, we are now moving. My son has been increasingly worried about leaving Scooter behind and has been asking us to exhume his body to rebury him in our new house. He is insisting that he be there to witness the “ceremony” of exhuming and reburying as he feels he never got a proper chance to say goodbye at the original “funeral.” Knowing our son, he would be devastated and perhaps scarred for life if we admit the truth. I know it was wrong to lie but we don’t want our son to lose trust in us forever because of what happened in the past. What should we do?