Dear Prudence

My 35-Year-Old Sister-in-Law Might Be Pregnant by a 17-Year-Old

And this isn’t the only family drama right now. Is it awful that I’m staying out of it?

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Dear Prudence,

My sister-in-law has had an affair with a 17-year-old boy (she’s 35) and might be pregnant. My sister has taken off with their twins to go stay with our mother in Mexico. Oh yes, my mother moved there two years ago to join a cult. She left the cult but stayed in the country. Our dad is still married to her, despite his five-year relationship with his “housekeeper” he thinks we don’t know about. But we never had a housekeeper growing up, he’s certainly not wealthy enough to afford a live-in employee now, and we all know “Gwen” doesn’t do much to look after the house.

Is it awful that I’m just not involved? Usually I’d be in the thick of it, being the designated fixer and “good daughter.” Except it’s a pandemic and I’ve just stayed out of it. It’s bliss. I obviously know what’s happening, but due to time differences and working from home, most of my information comes via email. I let it sit in the inbox till I’m ready to look at it, and it’s just not as fraught as talking to a devastated relative face-to-face. I have been supportive, or at least not outright accusatory, at my sister-in-law (17!), but just at a remove. As far as I can tell this new distance hasn’t changed anyone else’s lives, just mine. Yet I do feel guilty for not being elbow-deep in the mess with everyone else. That’s what families do, right? Pitch in? I didn’t realize how tired I was of it all, until I realized I could actually live in peace.

—Out of the Game

There is no reason to be supportive of a 35-year-old who is having sex with a 17-year-old! I realize your question has more to do with your desire to stop solving every family crisis, and you have my full support in scaling back there. By all means, continue to treat your relatives’ exciting plotlines as something distant and nonurgent that does not require much of you, enjoy your newfound peace and quiet, and talk to a therapist or your journal about the part of you that feels guilty for not playing the role assigned to you. But there’s a significant difference between marital infidelity, living abroad, or even exiting a cult and an adult who’s having sex with a teenager. You should at the very least be asking some pointed, difficult questions! How did they meet? Was she in a position of authority over him at the time, and if so, did she abuse her authority to get close to him? Does he still live with his parents, and do they know this adult who’s been sleeping with their son? Does anyone in your family know anything about his life, his circumstances, his general safety? Has she committed statutory rape according to your state’s laws? I understand you’re trying to get out of the business of managing your family’s crises, but one of these things is very much not like the others, and it requires everyone’s full, critical attention.

Dear Prudence,

In my small town there is a farmers market with many booths that can be rented out seasonally on a first-come, first-serve basis. My husband’s brother tried to rent a booth last spring but was told there were none left. He found out—I’m not sure how, but he says he has reason to believe this is accurate—there were plenty of available booths, but they were being unofficially held for members of a local clique. My brother-in-law vowed to boycott the farmers market since it was a “popularity contest” and said it felt like high school all over again. I agreed that what happened wasn’t fair but never promised to join his boycott. My family and I enjoy the market. It’s a fun thing to do with the kids, and we like supporting local farmers. This weekend, my brother-in-law and his family came over to visit, and he asked if the pumpkins on our porch were from the market. I said yes without thinking. He got upset and confided in my husband that he felt “betrayed” and that we weren’t “supportive” of him. My husband doesn’t want to get in the middle of this and said I should have lied about the pumpkins. I don’t think lying is a good policy, and besides, our kids were right there and would have blurted out the truth.

My brother-in-law is a good-hearted man with a strong sense of right and wrong and is very vocal about the importance of fairness and standing up for the underdog. He’s also very sensitive and has a history of taking things personally. Our kids are close in age and get along well, and I want to preserve the relationship between our families. How do I smooth this over?

—Farmers Market Feud

I don’t think much of your husband’s position here. I’m not wholly against peace-keeping lies of convenience in certain situations, but they need to really keep the peace in order to be worth the effort, and trying to get your kids to lie with you about where you get your pumpkins (and your flowers, your jam, your salad greens … ) because your brother-in-law is angry he couldn’t rent a booth last year seems like a lot of work for very little payoff.

If ever a situation called for a firm “I’m sorry you’re upset, but I simply don’t agree this merits a boycott,” it’s this one. There are certainly stronger contenders this year for underdogs in need of support than someone who didn’t get a booth the first time he asked for one. (You don’t mention what he was hoping to sell, which leads me to suspect this was closer to a whim than a serious threat to his new farming career.) This fit of distemper is silly, low-stakes, and unwarranted, and you should do him the favor of graciously ignoring his bad behavior. If your brother-in-law tries to revisit this with you, you can disagree politely: “I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted last year, but I’m not going to join your boycott. Let’s drop the subject.” This may fail, of course, but there’s a decent chance that if you remain composed and friendly without seeming afraid of his displeasure, he’ll give up on grumbling and follow your lead. You can still treat your brother-in-law with kindness and respect, but smoothness is not always the highest possible good.

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Dear Prudence,

I recently discovered that my wife of 20 years voted for Trump in 2016—at least I’m 90 percent sure of it. And I think she will do so again. I have had some trouble processing this; I’m sure you know the reasons. We’ve had a lot of conflict, and I always thought that was about different priorities. This is the first I’ve thought we might just be on different teams. I don’t hate Trump people. I live in a swing state, and I can’t afford to walk around hating people. But I don’t respect them. But I’m not sure how to start a conversation with, “I don’t respect your life philosophy.”

—Secret Impasse

You can start the conversation by asking your wife to confirm what you suspect her philosophy of life to be! If you’re “at least 90 percent sure” she voted for Trump, then that suggests you haven’t yet spoken to her directly about it—which you should certainly do before getting into whether you respect a decision she hasn’t owned to having made. Depending on her answer, you may also want to discuss why she kept this from you for so long, or what other questions it raises about how well you know each other, and what kind of light this throws on the conflict you’ve long experienced in your marriage.

You say you “can’t afford” to hate people who voted for Trump because of where you live, which is perfectly fine. You don’t have to hate anyone if you don’t want to. Saying “I’m surprised to learn this, I’m hurt you kept it from me, and I no longer think we share the same values” isn’t hateful, and if you truly don’t respect your wife’s outlook on life, then there’s no point in trying to dress up the sentiment. You can still speak civilly—you don’t have a moral obligation to shout at anyone—but neither do you have to start a conversation assuming that you must finish it in mutual agreement. Ask questions first, but if you learn you two have truly incompatible values, don’t try to dress that honest dissent up with sentiment or half-truths.

Help! My Wife Is Too Stupid to Home-School Our Kids.

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

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Dear Prudence,

I have a flexible-enough schedule to oversee my 5-year-old’s virtual kindergarten in the morning, and we’re blessed to have day care coverage in the afternoon. So now my workday begins at lunch and lasts until 3 a.m., with a break to make dinner and supervise bedtime. I think it’s worth it: You put the kid first. My spouse, who has a 9-to-5, disagrees and wants to pull our kid from school, the assertion being I “can’t keep this up.” Our kid is very happy with the current schedule and loves both day care and online kindergarten. Who’s right?

—Necessary Sacrifice?

The danger of a truism as broad as “You put the kid first” is that there’s almost always another way to put your kid first. Your kid is 5 years old! As long as a 5-year-old is getting sufficient affection and attention and the chance to play with other kids, they’re going to be happy and learning. At this age, you’re mostly just hoping to create a generally warm impression: “I don’t have a lot of specific memories from being 5 years old, but I seem to remember enjoying the backyard a lot and being excited about a 64-pack box of crayons.” I doubt very much that 15 years from now your kid is going to look back and have a strong opinion about online kindergarten or feel like that made the difference between a happy childhood full of secure attachment versus a sea of chaos and wire mothers.

“Putting the kid first” means things like getting up to feed a crying baby even when you’d rather sleep, making sure they see a dentist, and teaching them about traffic safety, not doing everything at every possible opportunity to make sure the childhood is a frenetic carousel of ever-increasing joy. When you’re staying up until 3 a.m. day after day and grimly insisting through your seventh cup of coffee to your partner that you never need to sleep more than four hours a night and that taking time to yourself is for quitters who don’t really love their children, you have reached the point of diminishing parenting returns, and you need to regain a sense of perspective. Your kid needs a parent with healthy boundaries, who doesn’t see parenting as a competition to sacrifice more than their partner or as a reason to live upon the smallest amount of pleasure, privacy, and relaxation possible.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Oh, a cross? And you need wood, you say?”

Danny Lavery and Slate Live executive producer Faith Smith discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I’m a 23-year-old woman. My senior year of high school, I became friends with a girl I had a crush on. I told her the next spring that I had feelings for her, and she said she didn’t feel the same way. I was insecure and confused not only about our relationship but my sexual orientation. I wrote a radio play about that experience during my last year of college and called it an “unrequited love story.” It was largely composed of real emails and messages we sent each other throughout college, so I had to tell her about it before it was produced. At that point, she told me that she had indeed had feelings for me, but hadn’t been able to admit it at the time, for a variety of reasons. We had planned to talk more about everything when my sister died unexpectedly. My friend helped me cope with the loss, but she’s been distant lately, ever since I saw her briefly in September. I’m confused about where we left things before my sister died, and I also miss her support, as I’m still grieving. I really don’t want to bring up the play again, partly because I want her to be the one to do it. The fact that she hasn’t makes me think she just doesn’t care enough or that the perceived (albeit different) tension between us again is just on my end. How do I get our friendship back if we never sort this out? How do I move on?

—Former Friend, Former Muse

I don’t know if you can get this friendship back, but I do think you can put some of your anxieties to rest by asking your friend if she’s willing to talk and trying to have this conversation you’ve wanted for years now. Your friend may not want to revisit the subject because she’s worried about intruding on your grief, so if you’re feeling ready to talk about it now, you’ve got to be the one to let her know. But you should also acknowledge the fact that she’s pulled back a bit lately by making it clear that while you’d love to talk about what happened four years ago, you’re not going to push her if she doesn’t want to.

I don’t know how she felt about your play last year—I can imagine a whole host of possible reactions from “wistful and flattered” to “exposed and resentful”—but you should be prepared to hear her side of your relationship patiently and nondefensively, and without assuming that you’re going to feel immediately healed or vindicated. You can tell her that you miss her and that you hope to repair your friendship, but it may very well be that she’s no longer prepared to offer you the same support she did in the first stages of your bereavement or that she doesn’t want to return to your former closeness. You should also be prepared to hear “No, I’m not up for that conversation anymore,” or even to hear nothing, and to take that as your answer. If that’s the case, at least you’ll know what to mourn and won’t be stuck wondering when she’s going to return your call.

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,

My wife’s mother tends to throw little jabs at my wife whenever we’re around her. Either my wife is taking COVID too seriously, or she “must” do this or that around the house, or she “needs” this or that. She always has an opinion. She’s not usually hurtful, but she’s almost always nagging her. We have a baby due in January, and I imagine this will only get worse once the baby comes. Should I be more vocal in defending my wife when my mother-in-law makes these comments or should I stay out of their relationship?

—Mother-in-Law Mayhem

The beauty of your problem is that you have a clear course of action. Ask your wife, and follow her lead. Maybe she wants you to intervene on occasion (say, on a pre-ordained signal), or to provide distraction, or let her handle it herself. Maybe she just wants to vent to you for a while or to talk through your options and make a decision together. Since your goal is to make life easier for your wife, it will mostly depend on how much conflict she’s up for at the moment, weighed against how much time and energy she thinks she stands to lose to her mother’s nagging in the future. Whatever the case, I’m sure she’ll appreciate both that you’ve noticed the habit and the fact that you’re prepared to defend her. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure you’re right that this will pick up after the baby’s born. I’m sorry, and good luck!

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.