Dear Prudence

My Mother-in-Law Dresses My Daughter Like a Doll and Stages Creepy Photo Shoots

She became hysterical when we had to give my kid a pixie haircut.

Young girl in dress with hands on her face.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we will be diving into the Dear Prudie archives and sharing a selection of classic letters with our readers.

Dear Prudence,

My mother-in-law has always doted on our 3-year-old daughter. She has beautiful blond hair, and my mother-in-law loves to brush it, braid it, and dress my daughter up like a doll so she can stage photographs. I always thought this was borderline ridiculous, but my wife doesn’t have a problem with it. Recently my daughter was playing with my sister’s kids and ended up getting a massive amount of gum in her hair. Kids are kids. My sister apologized and paid for the haircut when we couldn’t get all the gum out. My daughter has a pixie cut now. My wife was upset, but her mother turned on the waterworks—actual sobbing over a kid’s haircut. She upset my daughter so much that she started crying too. My wife kept apologizing, her mother kept up the hysterics, and I told my mother-in-law she needed to get a grip and that hair grows back. My mother-in-law snapped at me and then used a racial slur to describe my nephews (they’re biracial). I told her to leave my house. She apologized later. My wife has a hard time maintaining boundaries with her mom because the woman is a bulldozer. I want these photo shoots over, and I don’t want her to have unsupervised contact with our daughter. My wife thinks I am being too harsh. Am I? I would usually ask my family for advice, but I obviously can’t in this situation.

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’m struggling to imagine what about your response could possibly be considered harsh. This woman reduced a little girl to tears because she was incapable of restraining her own totally disproportionate response to a haircut. Worse, she called your nephews—children—racial slurs because they happened to be playing with your daughter when she got gum in her hair, a totally anodyne and common childhood mishap. That’s absolutely horrifying, and an apology is just the first step toward recovering from this. You don’t (and shouldn’t) quickly unhear that sort of language, especially when it’s directed at some of the youngest and most defenseless members of your family. Growing up with this woman as her mother must have been demoralizing, and I can understand why your wife feels exhausted and defeatist at the thought of telling her mother no and really sticking by it. But you can extend sympathy and compassion for your wife’s experience without denying reality or pretending that this (very reasonable) boundary is in any way harsh. You two might consider seeing a couples counselor for a few sessions over this, and if your wife’s open to the idea, it might help her to see someone on her own to talk about her relationship with her mom.

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But your strategy works in a way your wife’s doesn’t. When she kept apologizing to her mother for something she had no reason to apologize for in the first place, her mother only got more hysterical and convinced of the rightness of her grievance. When you told her to get out of the house—and you backed that up with action—you actually got an apology. Your mother-in-law will respond to consequences in a way I don’t think she’ll ever respond to attempts to placate her. I imagine she will continue to find ways to make herself unpleasant when she doesn’t get what she wants and to save the worst of her emotional manipulations for your wife, so the two of you should talk about how to handle her as a team. How can you support your wife when she has a hard time saying no? What scripts can she rehearse with you so she feels ready to deliver them to her mother? At what point will she feel prepared to end a conversation with her mother that’s become combative and unproductive? How is she going to handle that panicked voice inside her mind that screams “Call it off! Just apologize and give her what she wants so she leaves us alone!” every time your mother-in-law complains of “harsh” (read: reasonable) treatment? If you don’t nip this in the bud now, I guarantee you’re going to have to do it in the future. These photo shoots were way beyond taking a couple of fun pictures of grandma-and-granddaughter time—they were obsessive, creepy, and a perfect display of the way your mother-in-law wants to trample over other people’s boundaries. You’re right to stop them. —Danny M. Lavery

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From: My Mother-in-Law Dresses My Daughter Like a Doll and Stages Creepy Photo Shoots. (Nov. 7, 2019)

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I met very young and had kids right away. It’s now 25 years later and the kids are off to college, our life together is comfortable. We’re still in love, and everything should be perfect. Except it’s not. I have recurring fantasies of just leaving everything behind, moving to the other coast, and starting over all by myself. I dream of finding a small apartment, furnishing it exactly as I want, leaving a mess when I don’t feel like cleaning up, eating whatever and whenever I want, and basically being a single girl in my 20s, minus the dating and insecurities. I wouldn’t mind if my husband and children visited, but there’s something in me that craves distance and my own space. I have no desire to find another man; I just want to be alone. I’ve been finding excuses to travel solo simply because staying by myself in a hotel is the closest thing to fulfilling my fantasy. I order room service, binge watch movies, and just revel in my solitude. I wish I had an excuse like a job offer or degree program far away to make such a move possible. I would probably want to come home after a while—a year, maybe two—but who knows? I might love living alone too much to give it up. Part of me also feels guilty for wanting this because my husband is adamant that he wouldn’t want to be without me. I’ve tried to talk him into getting separate bedrooms for years, and he refuses. I also imagine that someday I will probably be widowed and have exactly what I’m dreaming of, and at that point I’ll miss him terribly and feel foolish for wanting this now. Is this impulse bizarre and unhealthy? Is it a phase I should just grit my teeth and barrel through? Is it something that will eat away at me until I get off my ass and do it? Can I do it without hurting him too much?

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After spending your youth wiping mouths and bottoms and attending to the needs of others, I can understand your desire to experience the single girl years that you missed—or, as you note, perhaps an early taste of widowhood. More than that, you sound like you have the soul of a Greta Garbo and you just long to be alone. Since you mention nothing about work duties or financial concerns, I’m going to assume you stayed home with the kids and that there’s enough money for you to easily fund your fantasy. But you are mistakenly formulating your desires as a binary choice: that either you take off for the opposite coast without a return ticket, or else remain forced to putter around with your husband and dogs ad infinitum. But there is a range of options that will give you more than a night or two of alone time without your having to fantasize about the death of your beloved husband. Airbnb makes it easy to try on other people’s lives. So pick a city you’ve always wanted to know better and stay by yourself there for two weeks, even a month. No, your husband won’t like it, but it won’t kill him (sorry), and you’re an adult who’s entitled to a lengthy, solo vacation. Maybe you will discover after a while that you miss the company of your guy. Or maybe you will find that while you are fond of him, you dread coming home. This at least will be clarifying. But I also want to focus on what you’ve left out. The kids are gone, and you seem to lack a purpose beyond watching a lot of TV, eating at odd hours, and plotting to avoid sharing a bed with your husband. You must be in your 40s, and that’s too young to feel as if you’ve completed your life’s work. It’s possible that if you were more challenged and engaged in the life you have (which you do acknowledge is pretty darn good), through employment or volunteering, you might find that a companionable meal with your husband at the end of the day is more of a treat than an obligation. Getting deeper into where you are might make you feel less like running away. —Emily Yoffe

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From: Help! I Love My Husband, but I Want to Live Alone. (April 30, 2015)

Dear Prudence,

I am a freshman at college. My roommate is pretty great—except for one thing. I’m pretty sure she “takes care of herself” after we turn out the lights and she thinks I’m asleep. The motions and noises she makes are consistent with this theory. I have no problem with her doing that, but it makes me uncomfortable that she does it while I’m in the room. I’m also absolutely mortified about possibly discussing this with her. They did not cover this in freshman orientation, so I’m counting on you for some insight.

 I’m going to suggest this is covered under the same rubric as bathroom noises—you pretend you don’t hear them. Once the lights are out and all is quiet, you are in a zone of assuming each of you is drifting off to sleep, and if under the covers she indulges in some quiet stress relief to help bring on pleasant dreams, I think you should ignore it. Instead of lying there anxiously listening for the sounds of self-gratification, just tell yourself your roommate tends to toss and turn before the delta waves hit. Unless to accomplish her task your roommate brings out a screaming, high-decibel vibrator, talking about this with her, or a resident adviser, is going to just be mortifying for you. Look, the school year is almost over, your roommate decided she couldn’t get through freshman year going hands-off, and there’s not really any other time or place for her to indulge herself. Just think of this as one of those “out of classroom” learning experiences admissions officers are always touting. —EY

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From: Help! My Dorm Mate Diddles Herself While I’m in the Room. (April 2, 2012)

Dear Prudence,

My fraternal twin and I (both men) are in our late 30s. We were always extremely close and shared a bedroom growing up. When we were 12 we gradually started experimenting sexually with each other. After a couple of years, we realized we had fallen in love. Of course we felt guilty and ashamed, and we didn’t dare tell anyone what we were doing. We hoped it was “just a phase” that we’d grow out of, but we wound up sleeping together until we left for college. We knew this could ruin our lives, so we made a pact to end it. We attended schools far apart and limited our contact to family holidays. But we never fell out of love with each other, so after graduation we moved in together and have been living very discreetly as a monogamous couple ever since. I’m not writing to you to pass moral judgment on our relationship—we’re at peace and very happy. Our dilemma is how to deal with our increasingly nosy family and friends. They know we’re gay, and we live in a state where same-sex marriage is legal, so we’re getting pressure to settle down. I feel we should continue being discreet for the rest of our lives and blow off their questions. It’s nobody’s business, and I fear they would find our relationship shocking and disgusting. My brother, though, is exhausted with this charade. He thinks that if we get the family together with a therapist to talk through the issues, they’ll eventually accept it. I think he’s out of his mind, but I also want to make him happy. Is this one of those times when honesty is not the best policy? If so, how do we get everyone to stop worrying we will die alone? I’m also concerned about the legal implications of this—would the therapist be required to report us to the authorities? Could we go to prison?

Blowing people off for the next couple of decades is only going to fan the flames of curiosity. But I also agree with you that having a family gathering in which you announce you two have found life partners—each other—will give everyone the vapors. Ultimately your choice is your business, but a limited version of the truth should back everyone off. When people ask when you’re each going to go out there and find a nice young man, tell them that while it may seem unorthodox, you both have realized that living together is what works for you. Say no brothers could be more devoted or compatible, and neither of you can imagine wanting to change what you have.—EY

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From: Help! My Twin and I Share an Earth-Shattering Family Secret. (Feb. 6, 2012)

More From Dear Prudence

My boyfriend has about two dozen stuffed animals. They are, apparently, the survivors of a childhood collection once numbering over 100. When asked, he can explain the individual reason for each one he saved. (Invariably it was a gift from so-and-so, a group of people that includes family and friends but no exes). Most of them are kept on a shelf in his closet, but one has a place of honor on his bed. Part of me feels like it shouldn’t be any big deal—after all, I went to college with a teddy bear, who currently resides on my nightstand. But part of me keeps fixating on the fact that he’s a man in his 20s with two dozen stuffed animals, which is hardly the norm. Is this a cause for concern, or should I let it go?

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