Dear Prudence

My Sister-in-Law Claims We Named Our Baby After Her

My husband and I are baffled and more than a little uncomfortable.

Left, a baby giving side-eye. Right, a woman's back.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thomas Northcut/iStock/Getty Images Plus and eugenesergeev/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

My sister-in-law has announced she is trans and is in therapy to transition successfully. It was actually a relief because it seemed to explain her past self-destructive and self-seeking behavior (casual drug use, picking family fights, and even getting plastered at our wedding). We kept her at a distance from her past behavior but have been making attempts to bridge the gap, including introducing her (while socially distanced) to our infant daughter. The problem is she has taken a derivative of our daughter’s name for her own and has plastered the story across social media that we named our daughter for her (she tagged me in them). This is a complete fabrication and has confused our family and friends. The situation leaves my husband and I baffled and more than a little uncomfortable. In the past, my sister-in-law has been a habitual liar and would invent elaborate fictions and even fight with other people over them—like insisting the family had a dog growing up that a neighbor ran over and whose body she found, which never happened. What should we do here?

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—Misnomers

It will serve you well to stop thinking of your sister-in-law’s transition as an explanation for or solution to things like drug use, family conflict, lying, or any other behavior you find difficult to deal with. It may very well be that her own sense of transness, whether conscious or subconscious, has played a part in some of these things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the sole underlying cause, or that transitioning will resolve old relational patterns, bad habits, or difficult quirks of personality. She will still be a flawed human being after transitioning! That’s not to say that transitioning might not improve her life immensely, just that if you expect it will “fix” her shortcomings, I’m afraid you’ll be setting yourself up for disappointment.

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I’m of two minds as to how I think you ought to handle this particular lie. On the one hand, as uncomfortable as it may have felt to see her invent a connection where none has previously existed, you can simply choose to ignore it and save your energy. If some people mistakenly think you named your daughter for your sister-in-law, it’s no skin off your nose. You can answer honestly if anyone asks you about it: “No, we’d already picked Moira before Moira II came out, but obviously we think it’s a lovely name.” If you plan on keeping your sister-in-law at a friendly but distant remove, that might be the most effective strategy. But you also have grounds to say something, especially since she tagged you in this latest tall tale: “I’m not sure why you’d say this. I’m glad you like the name, but we named our daughter before we knew you were changing yours.” Even if she gets defensive or wants to pick a quarrel with you, you don’t have to engage: “I don’t want to fight about this with you, so let’s drop the subject.” You can always decline to quarrel, even if the other party is determined to get into one.

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Dear Prudence,

When I got engaged recently, we asked a mutual friend of many years to be our officiant. We were really excited … until she told us that she was in a relationship with a married man. She’s convinced that he’s “the one” and plans to continue this relationship while he divorces his wife. She even asked if he could be her date to the wedding. I’ve told her this makes me uncomfortable, since he’s still married and we’ve had to scale back our guest list because of COVID. She has continued to ask about it and sees any disapproval of her relationship as a personal attack on her happiness. I haven’t told her that my fiancé and I are both becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of her officiating our wedding, since she clearly doesn’t respect her boyfriend’s marriage and I’m not sure she will respect ours enough to perform the ceremony how we want it. How do I approach this with her and let her know that we want to find a new officiant? Am I being unreasonable? Should we still have her officiate our wedding?

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—Officiant Sleeping With Married Men

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I don’t care to make a one-size-fits-all ruling about whether marriage as a concept merits automatic respect from anyone, whether they’re an officiant or not. Your friend’s not in a relationship with married men in general—she’s in a relationship with one man who’s still married. And it does strike me as a bit of a stretch to say, “If you’re dating a married man, that means you don’t really care about my marriage, because by the transitive property all marriages are interchangeable.”

I wish I had more details about this particular situation! Is your friend’s boyfriend keeping their relationship a secret from his wife, or are they already living separately and planning to divorce? If it’s the latter, I’d encourage you to ease up on your friend. It strikes me as a little unlikely that she’d want to bring him to your wedding—weddings being notoriously well-documented events—if they were carrying on a clandestine affair he was trying to keep under wraps from his wife. If it’s the former, I still think you should go easy on her, although that doesn’t mean you have to pretend to approve of how the two of them got together, either. It is, after all, your wedding, and you’re entitled to choose an officiant you’re comfortable with. If you decide to replace her, tell her as soon as possible so she doesn’t persist in a misapprehension. Don’t expect her to be immediately happy with your decision, and do look for ways to limit the scale of your interventions. You can make your objections clear without bringing them up every single time you see her.

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Dear Prudence,

I started a new job at the beginning of 2020 and almost immediately had to start working from home, due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, I feel that working from home is killing my productivity, which used to be quite impressive. I know I should be grateful because I’m in a much better situation than so many others. I get to spend a lot of time with my boyfriend in our big apartment with a balcony, both of us are healthy, and our families are safe. I also really wanted this job. On good days I like what I do very much. However, I often feel unable to do anything productive with my days, which leads me to miss some important deadlines. I end up feeling useless and like a fraud. I’m blaming myself a lot for this weakness and end up being really depressed on some days and unable to perform the easiest, even non-work-related tasks. My colleagues have not yet noticed my problems, but I’m terrified that they will find out, and am deeply ashamed. What can I do to become more productive?

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—Productivity DOA

It can be difficult to acknowledge one’s own depression without attempting to downplay it as a unique failure that merits only self-recrimination and self-discipline rather than support and treatment. But while it’s true that other people have suffered more in the pandemic, suffering is not a zero-sum game. Beating yourself up for feeling depressed doesn’t help relieve anyone else’s suffering, but more importantly, having a job and living in a roomy apartment do not mean that your problems don’t matter. You’ve still been largely confined to a single space for at least a year, which can be incredibly stressful and disorienting, and you can still appreciate the good things in your life without forcing yourself into a constant state of gratitude. The fact that you’re having trouble with even “easy” tasks outside of work indicates it might be time to ask for help on multiple fronts. You don’t have to call your doctor or schedule a psychiatric appointment tomorrow, and I’m not suggesting that medication or talk therapy are your only or most important options here. But having trouble getting through the day, even if it’s not every day, is a definite sign that trying to just grin and bear it or white-knuckle your way through this by yourself isn’t working.

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The good news is that it sounds like these important deadlines have been flexible enough that pushing them back doesn’t imperil your projects and that your company is generally aware that this pandemic has made life harder for just about everyone. That may not make those internal feelings of shame disappear overnight, but it does mean that you can reasonably expect your supervisor will work with you to make whatever adjustments are necessary. (If you do end up speaking to your doctor and end up with a diagnosis of depression, depending on the size of your company, you may be protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act; you will not be under any obligation to disclose your diagnosis, but if you want to ask for “reasonable accommodations” that help you get your work done, you can.) But as daunting as it might seem to talk to your supervisor, I do think it’s your best option, both because it will remove some of the fear that your colleagues or managers are going to bring it up first and because it’s the best way to get help if you need it. You don’t have to disclose that you’re having trouble getting anything done, but you can acknowledge that the pandemic has affected you and ask for clarification on which deadlines are flexible, which ones are most important, whether it’s possible to set up more regular check-in meetings with the rest of your team (if you think it would be helpful), whether any of your colleagues can occasionally help you with a project that may be proving more time-consuming than you’d originally thought, and so on. “I feel useless and like a fraud when I can’t stay productive in a crisis” is something you should share with friends, family members, your doctor, and/or a therapist. “I need help finishing Project X and want to know if we can push back the deadline for Project Y to Wednesday so I can finish the Z spreadsheets” is something you can bring to your employers. Both are important, albeit on very different scales, and it will help to get emotional support from sources outside of work, so that you can focus on something a little less tender and fraught to your boss. I hope you get all the help you need, and then some.

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Help! My Partner Isn’t Realizing Their Full Potential.

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

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Dear Prudence,

My sister and her wife have just announced to the family that my sister is pregnant. A happy occasion, sure, but I’ve been trying to ease out of contact with my sister for several years now, mostly due to abuse she put me through in my teenage years, and I’m not entirely sure how to handle this. Am I obligated to have a relationship with my new niece or nephew if it forces me into contact with my sister, and thus into memories of my past? Is it selfish of me to even be asking this question? Should I just keep my mouth shut and be the good aunt they’re probably expecting me to be?

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—Estrangement for Two

You can absolutely decide to limit contact with your sister, or stop talking to her entirely, even if she is pregnant. The pregnancy might make “eas[ing] out of contact” more difficult, such that what you’ve been able to scale down without comment over the past few years might now require at least some form of acknowledgment, but it’s not selfish to redefine your relationship with someone who abused you as a teenager simply because that someone is going to have a baby. Nor are you required to be a “good aunt” simply because your sister or her wife or anyone else in your family might expect it of you. You might feel real grief at the prospect of not getting to know your niece or nephew, or relief at not having to force yourself to maintain a painful relationship, or a mix of both, or something else entirely—any one of which would be an entirely reasonable response. Depending on how openly you avow this estrangement or distance with your sister, you might also experience pushback from your other relatives, so you may want to prepare a deflection or limit in advance so you’re not taken by surprise if someone else in the family tries to talk you out of it. But you should make whatever decisions feel safe, accessible, and conducive to your own peace of mind when it comes to contact with your former abuser, no matter how many children she has. The presence of a niece or nephew may make any such decision feel additionally fraught or painful, but should not change your priorities. Be well, and take care of yourself.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“ ‘We’re all liars’ is often a good place to start, I think.”
Danny Lavery and Jules Gill-Peterson discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

Now that we’re all vaccinated, I will be reuniting with my two good friends and our partners (I’m a cis man) for a week. My two friends have similar names and use the same nickname (think “Billy” for William and Williamson). The Billys aren’t the most inclusive when we get together. On the last trip, my wife and I were frequently left out of four-person games like tennis, while the Billys whooped it up and had fun. I’m from the same state as one of the Billys, and we connect frequently, but that seems to fly out the window in favor of those two sticking together. I’ve tried bringing it up, but the Billys don’t follow through. I’m worried that not attending in the future would just leave me friendless. What should I do?

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—Wish I Was Billy Too

There’s a line to walk between suggesting things you can all six do together and making sure you and your wife can still enjoy yourselves during occasions the two Billys want to maintain a mixed-doubles lineup. That might mean asking for a round-robin approach to four-person games, so various couples can all rotate in and out from time to time, while also planning an excursion you know you’ll enjoy even if the Billys aren’t free to join you. Prioritizing the things that are the most important to you—whether that be a few all-group dinners, playing Scattergories as a sextet, or an all-spouse game of tug of war—will make those occasional hours of free time feel like an opportunity to relax with your wife or do something you enjoy, rather than feeling like you’ve been booted from vacation altogether and have to wait until the Billys readmit you. You might also want to ask either Billy to set aside some individual time with you, too—maybe you want to work on your backhand together, or have an early breakfast where you get the chance to talk more in-depth and one-on-one. If you start following through instead of hoping the other Billys will and it gets results, so much the better.

If you try to follow through yourself (either when it comes to planning activities all six of you can do or in seeing either Billy on his own) and they continue to demur, it might be time to revisit the subject. I realize it can feel uncomfortable to say to your friends, “I feel shut out by you two sometimes, and I want you to make more time for me,” because it’s an admission of vulnerability and potential invitation to rejection. But if the alternative is avoiding future trips and letting those friendships fade or waiting until you’re so frustrated by this dynamic that you say something careless and angry, I think that vulnerability is worth the risk. You can stress that you’re not expecting them to apologize for their rapport, or to never have Bill-on-Bill time again—just to agree on a limit to how many four-person games they plan for a single week’s vacation.

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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,

I am a cis man in a graduate program. I am currently enrolled in a Zoom discussion group led by another graduate student, “Susan,” who’s lovely and kind. I have noticed on two occasions the leader using incorrect pronouns for another participant, “Tom.” Tom has never verbally mentioned their pronouns, but they are listed next to their name on Zoom. Tom has not corrected Susan publicly, though I have no idea if they’ve spoken privately. I have never spoken to Tom outside of the discussion group. I can’t be sure, but I believe Susan would be embarrassed to realize her mistake. Would I be overstepping to send a note to Susan informing her of this error? I worry that I’d be speaking for Tom or sorta-outing them, though their pronouns are visible and clear on Zoom. What do you think?

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—Zoom Etiquette

A brief note is fine, either in a DM at the beginning of your next Zoom class or via email, whichever seems more low-key. Keep it short and to the point. If you hedge or start with a long prologue, it could come across as overwrought or an unrecoverable faux pas, which isn’t something you want for either Susana or Tom. A simple “By the way, Tom uses they/them, according to their Zoom profile” will suffice. You’re not outing Tom—you’re just reminding Susan about a detail Tom’s already made available to the entire class. She might feel briefly embarrassed to realize her error, but all that’s called for here is a quick and easy adjustment.

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Classic Prudie

My husband and I are looking to purchase a new home. We’ve seen probably a dozen houses in the last couple of weeks, and only two have really felt immediately like they could be “home.” We lost out on the first to another buyer, but the second is still a possibility. Then we learned that the house was the site of an extremely grisly murder—a husband dismembered his wife there. We would be the next occupants. We’ve lived in a few other houses with a “past,” and haven’t felt uncomfortable. But I’m taken aback by the strong negative reaction from members of our extended family. Their biggest concern, and ours too, is our kids, who are in junior high and high school, who we haven’t told about the house. Thanks to the Internet, we know all the horrific details of the case, and that information will be just as easily accessible to them. Are we crazy to think that one bad night in a house’s 100-year history is simply that, one bad night? My husband is a pastor and I am a mortician, so who better to buy this place?

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