My sister has six children ranging from 6 months to 12 years old. For many years, my sister and her husband established our parents as their children’s guardians if anything should happen to them, but this past year my parents’ health has declined rapidly. They’re doing OK but need daily assistance and won’t be able to take care of kids. My sister and her husband have both been in serious accidents.
My husband and I have one 15-year-old, good careers, and busy lives. Our brothers are both bachelors. My sister has been pressing me to agree to be her children’s guardians in the event of their death. She has several suitable in-laws but doesn’t like them. My husband and I gave it a lot of thought and agreed that there would be no way we could take on all six. We could take the two oldest, but my sister got furious at the suggestion. She accused me of hating her children, wanting to break up her family, and being a “complete failure” of a human being. I told her to calm down, that nothing had happened and likely never would. She said she would take in my child “in a heartbeat” and I said one child wasn’t six. Now she’s giving me the silent treatment. I don’t know what to do, and I’m worried about how this might affect my nieces and nephews. My husband says we can just placate her and say we changed our minds. I don’t want to lie.
The major flaw in your husband’s plan—aside from the possibility that it’s too late to placate her by saying, “OK, we changed our minds”—is that in the unlikely-but-not-impossible event that something does happen to your sister and her husband, and you’ll either have to go through with it or tell your entire family that you didn’t really mean it. It’s not just that the lie would be uncomfortable to live with, although I’m sure it would. It’s also probably not going to get you what you want in the short term and potentially lead to much bigger problems in the future. What you said to your sister was loving, realistic, and helpful. It might have been better to wait for your sister’s initial reaction before offering to take the two oldest, but your overall position is perfectly consistent with being a loving aunt and sister.
But you’re not in a position to argue about niceties with your sister at the moment. Give her a little longer to cool down, as it’s clear her emotions are running high and she’s not able to discuss exigencies without picturing worst-case scenarios and worst-possible motives. In a few weeks, let her know you’re available to talk if she feels ready: “We don’t have to talk about guardianship again if it’s too upsetting, but I miss you and the kids, and I’d really like to see you again sometime. I know it’s painful to contemplate possible tragedies, and I don’t take what would happen to the kids if you two died lightly. I’m sorry I hurt you, and I’m here to listen if you want to talk. I can’t give you a different answer, because no matter how much I might wish otherwise, we just can’t raise seven kids, but I want to help in whatever ways you’ll let me as you try to figure out your plan.” If her response to that is still “You’re a failure who’s breaking up my family” or “I’d take in your kid if you died,” then all you can do is graciously back off and hope she eventually recovers her sense of proportion. It’s painful, and I’m sorry you’re going through it, but lying to try to fast-forward to the end of this fight won’t work.
I was sexually abused on a regular basis between the ages of 2 and 7 by my maternal grandfather. I told my parents when I was 15. Thankfully they were supportive and cut him out of our lives, but after that we never spoke of it. Once I was out of the house, I started down a really self-destructive path—alcohol, drugs, spending money, neglecting family relationships, you name it. In college, I lied frequently to make myself seem more interesting or to get attention. Some were fairly harmless (“I’ve been to Nepal!”) and some awful (“I had a miscarriage,” which makes me sick to admit). I had no self-esteem and a tremendously damaged view of sex. I didn’t really care who I slept with, including a close friend’s boyfriend. I became utterly disgusted with who I was. In my early 20s I moved to a different state and committed myself to therapy, which I’ve continued ever since. For the past 20 years I’ve been consistently responsible, honest, and possessed of a strong conscience. I’m proud of my life now. The problem is I still really struggle with knowing that I was ever that person. No one I know now knows that part of my history, but I feel sadness and guilt almost every day. I don’t know how to forgive myself, because doing so would feel like I’m saying it was OK, and it wasn’t. Not for myself and not for the people that I hurt with my lies and irresponsible decisions. How do I reconcile who I was then and who I am now?
—Struggling to Forgive
I wonder if you can try to make this process slightly more manageable by setting your sights a little lower, at least to start. If the idea of forgiving yourself seems impossible, how does the idea of punishing yourself a little bit less sound? When you’re tempted to reflect on your history with an attitude of, “I can’t believe I was ever [that person]; if I ever stop hating myself for those lies and behavior, it means I’ve lost sense of right and wrong,” try to take stock of where your self-loathing wants to go and follow that impulse with neutral curiosity. It may be that you have some unfinished business with these old college friends, or an apology you’d like to offer one or more of them someday, but I think the disproportionate weight and scale of your shame suggests there’s something bigger at play here. If you haven’t discussed your constant background self-recrimination with your therapist in the context of your childhood abuse, I’d encourage you to consider it now. Adult survivors often carry outsize feelings of shame with them, and it may be helpful to consider this shame in the context of your own abuse.
I also can’t help but notice you list “neglecting family relationships” among your self-destructive behaviors. I wonder if that was a protective and necessary choice! Your parents learned that your grandfather had abused you as a child, and their reaction was to remove him from your life and clam up. They apparently never asked you how you were doing, never called a therapist to set up a few sessions, never alerted anyone else whose children might have been in danger from your grandfather’s predation, never sought meaningful consequences for him or called for an investigation. Your parents did not have the worst possible response, true, but they failed to care for you in the aftermath of your disclosure, and it’s no wonder that you sought distance from them and the rest of your family once you left for college.
I realize you’re concerned with anything that could appear to be letting yourself off the hook or trying to make excuses, so let me be clear: This is not about plastering a sticker saying “I was abused” over your college years and turning away from reflection or avoiding growth, nor is it to say that you should merely shift these feelings of shame from yourself to your parents. But I do think you’ve been very hard on yourself for a very long time, punishing yourself for mistakes you’ve long since regretted and left in the past. And it’s important to investigate whether the size of your shame is appropriate to your sometimes-messy, sometimes-hurtful behavior in college, or whether there are other forces at work in the back of your mind telling you that everything is your fault, that you don’t deserve protection or defense, and that the real problem is always and fundamentally you. That’s not the truth—merely the voice of shame, and it’s not the only voice worth listening to.
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My older sister and I live several states apart. She has made friends with a divorced man around her age from her church. She has had a crush on him for quite a while, though she has never dated and has not even mentioned having a crush on anyone since a painful rejection in high school. Even though he does not reciprocate, she continues to try to impress him. After 15 years of having dyed-black hair, my sister asked my mom to bleach it blond based on his suggestion. Apparently she’d had an intense argument with this man when she was about to touch up her roots! My sister fights rudely with anyone who gives her even a little advice, even her loved ones. Now, she’s willing to make choices based on what this man says. My cousins, my brother, and I are all worried, but what can we do without driving her defenses up and pushing her away from us and toward him?
—Blood Is Thicker Than Dye
Have you tried not giving your sister advice? What about generally respecting the distance she sets, and developing a mutually independent relationship based on reciprocal noninterference? What exactly are you worried about, and what do you hope to gain out of this situation with your sister? Be specific, as it will help you determine what, if anything, you want to do next.
I can understand your concern for your sister’s feelings, especially if you’re worried she’s going to get hurt. But how could you protect her from that possibility? All crushes carry with them some element of emotional risk, but all she’s doing right now is occasionally squabbling with this guy and deciding to do something different with her hair. That’s fine! She has every right to decide to change her hair color because of a crush even if she declines to change her hair color when her siblings and cousins say, “You’d really make a better brunette.” That’s not an indication that the sky is falling, or that she doesn’t care about all of you. Remember that scene from Father of the Bride where Steve Martin suggests his newly engaged daughter put on a coat? “Oh, Dad, it’s OK, I’m kind of warm,” she says dismissively, at which point her fiancé says, “Annie, it is kind of cold out.” She responds “It is?” as if she’s hearing the news for the first time, then immediately puts on a sweater while Steve Martin mugs in exasperation for the camera. This is an incredibly common dynamic! It might be annoying, but it’s hardly a sign that your sister is losing her sense of self.
You might think your sister is foolish to try to maintain a friendship with this man. But it’s her friendship to maintain, and it’s her romantic risk to run, and there are no indicators that he’s a threat to her safety, so you should let her make her own choices as she sees fit. If it frustrates you to see your sister occasionally accept input from her friends that she doesn’t welcome from her family, I’d encourage you to reflect on whether you ever do the same thing in your own life. Try to extend that same freedom to your sister, even if part of you wishes you could protect her from all possible pain.
Help! My Sister’s Arguments to Turn Me Vegan Have Gotten Ridiculous.
Danny M. Lavery is joined by Jaya Saxena on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.
I know as I sit here writing this that the answer is obvious, but when in-laws come into play, manners, communicating, and all the other really important stuff goes out the door for me. My mother-in-law is driving me crazy. She lost a close friend last year, and every single day all she talks about is this person and how she misses them. Everyone grieves differently, but she literally will not stop talking about them. It’s been a year. I had hoped she would get herself a bit more together by now. She specifically brings it up more when she comes around us. I know it’s been a hard year, but she’s driving me crazy. Tears every five minutes. I’m sorry, call me cold-hearted, but I would swear no one has tears to cry every five minutes for a year. It’s not normal grief, if that exists.
I’ve tried to be understanding, but it’s becoming more and more dramatic, more emotional, and to be honest, people have taken me aside asking if everything’s OK with her. My in-laws grieve very differently than I do. It honestly feels suspicious that she gets more ramped up around me. I don’t remind her of this person, so there’s no reason for her to have these “episodes.” How should I deal with this? At what point do you ask someone if they should go to therapy? How long is grieving “normal,” if that exists?
I have to wonder where your partner is in all this. Have they ever said anything to their mother on the subject? Have they noticed their mother’s habit of ramping things up when you’re around, and do they agree it’s a problem? Do you think they’re prepared to back you up if you say something on your own behalf, and if not, do you have a plan for how you’ll handle this discussion on your own? It’s fine to ask her to seek out other outlets if this particular friend’s death is still the only topic of conversation she’ll raise with you after a year, but you don’t need to say “I thought you’d be more together” or “You have to go to therapy” in order to make that request. “I want you to be able to talk about this when you need to, but it’s the focus of almost all of our conversations, and I can’t keep doing that” is the easiest and most effective approach. It doesn’t waste time speculating what might really be going on with her or try to distinguish “normal” grief from abnormal grief, which would likely only alienate or offend your mother-in-law. Besides which, it isn’t really your place to offer judgments on the source or authenticity of her grief. Tell her what she needs to know in order to maintain her relationship with you, and then let her figure out how (or if) she wants to handle her grief in the rest of her life.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“Write back if she tries to poison a dog for him or steals your identity to loan him money. Then I will give you permission to stick your oar in.”
Danny Lavery and Lauren O’Neal discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
My elderly grandmother’s quality of living has deteriorated. My family has decided to get her in-home assistance, take her to the doctor, etc. The problem is that she wouldn’t consider it essential and wouldn’t want to spend the money. My family’s solution is always to lie and say it’s free or covered by insurance and tell the people who will interact with her to lie too. I understand it’s all being done in an effort to help her, but I’m conflicted about how much she’s being lied to and about asking people who aren’t family to lie to her too. Should I speak up and raise this as a concern to the rest of my family or keep my mouth shut?
—Lying for Good
I suppose that partly depends on whether your family is lying about the bill and then also paying it, or whether they’re lying about the bill and then charging it to your grandmother’s account. I also don’t know what your grandmother’s quality of life looks like, what in-home assistance does to make her more comfortable, or whether she’s under a guardianship, so I don’t want to offer a universal ruling about the costs and drawbacks of lying in all situations. But what you’re proposing is simply raising a concern with the rest of your family, and that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. “I want to help Grandma, but I also feel strange asking other people to lie to her, and I wonder if we have a shared sense of when lies are necessary to preserve her health and safety as opposed to when they’re merely convenient for the rest of us.” If there are certain situations where you would not be prepared to lie to your grandmother even if the rest of your relatives were, you might mention that. Ask if anyone has been keeping track of her recent medical expenses, and if so, whether those records are available to the rest of the family. If you’re concerned she’s being financially exploited (whether as a result of malicious intent or from someone who initially believes they’re acting in a relative’s best interests but eventually feels deserving of a “reward”), look for an elders’ rights organization near you and see if you can get her legal support and an in-person advocate.
Asking questions about how best to arrange necessary care is a good thing! You don’t have to come in swinging and assuming that everyone has been lying casually, maliciously, or without concern for your grandmother’s well-being. But it’s important to separate “caring for your grandmother’s welfare” from each individual decision to lie or withhold information. Those two are not always the same thing. Further discussion and agreed-upon limits will only make it easier to care for your grandmother. Raise your concerns and try to find a healthy consensus as a group. Good luck!
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.
I’m a woman in my late 20s, and I’m finishing my graduate degree this spring. Late last year, I was diagnosed with a scary but slow-growing and very treatable form of cancer. I have a pretty generous timeline for surgery, and it’s scheduled for after I graduate in May, since I’m scrambling to finish my dissertation. I’m in the process of applying for jobs, many of them remote positions, which raises the question: Do I need to disclose my health and upcoming surgery to potential employers? My instinct is that I don’t, but the start date for many of the jobs I seek would coincide with my planned surgery. And while the recovery period for the surgery is at most two weeks, I don’t want employers to think I’m being deceitful. What should I do?
—Worried About Disclosure
I want you to completely reverse how you think about this. Not only do you not need to disclose your cancer diagnosis and treatment to potential employers, it is illegal for them to ask questions about your health status. You do not owe any employer eternal fealty or an apology for being a human being with cancer. It is not deceitful to know your rights as a worker, to keep your diagnoses and medical treatments private (unless you need to request ADA-related accommodations), or to protect yourself from discrimination while job hunting. Anyone who says otherwise is not only on the wrong side of the law, but on the wrong side of being a decent human being. Don’t say a word until you’ve signed everything and the job offer is official, and then only disclose the bare minimum in order to get the necessary medical leave. Read up on your rights as an employee disclosing a cancer diagnosis, check out patient advocacy programs like this one, and take care of yourself as best you can. Good luck with your dissertation, your surgery, and the job-hunting process! You don’t owe employers anything but competent work during work hours.
After I had an ugly and protracted affair, my husband ended our eight-year marriage. We’ve been living separately for almost four months. Despite many pleas on my part to reconcile, I’ve finally begun to accept that he does not view me as a life partner anymore, for extremely valid reasons. He has drawn up and sent me some very equitable divorce papers and has displayed a lot of patience about my taking some time to sign them. I’m currently employed as a freelancer at a prestigious publication; I’ve been here for more than a year but don’t yet have employee benefits—most pressingly, health insurance. I have gotten some vague promises that I am “next in line” for a staff position but no hard timing and no indication of a move in that direction. I am reliant on my estranged husband’s health insurance to control an intense anxiety disorder and for therapy to help process my feelings on our split. While so much of me is not ready to give up on him, I want to set him free to pursue someone who can be faithful to him and can appreciate him fully. But on the other hand, I don’t want to saddle myself with crippling financial burdens just to maintain my precarious mental health. Is it moral to delay the divorce process until I can secure employee benefits? Should I be looking for another job, even though the stability of a job I love is one of the few bright spots in my life right now?