This is an edited transcript of this week’s Dear Prudence live chat, guest-hosted by Dan Kois.
My sister-in-law casually mentioned that she would have aborted my now 3-year-old nephew, but my brother tricked her into missing the appointment. I’m shocked to learn about this, but if she is so willing to share it, what’s to stop their son from eventually finding out? I talked to my brother, and he thinks it would be no big deal if their son does eventually find out. I disagree. How can I convince them to never speak of this again?
—Wish I Hadn’t Heard This
I, too, wish I hadn’t heard this! I am as allergic to such comments in situations where a child might hear as I am to searching personal essays about parenting regret that are posted to the internet where, inevitably, an enterprising child will find them. However, this nephew is not your child, you have no control over how your brother and sister-in-law raise him, and you absolutely cannot convince them not to bring it up. Indeed it’s not even your job to do so!
Be the best aunt you can be and perhaps the fine people at Lacuna Inc. can help you scrub this memory from your brain.
How to Get Advice From Prudie:
• Send questions for publication here. (Questions may be edited.)
• Join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.
I am nonbinary and came out to my parents, who were accepting, last summer. I told them explicitly that I only use they/them pronouns and would like for them to do the same. This was the last time I saw them before finishing school and moving across the country to live happily in a new city.
My mother calls me weekly but doesn’t make any effort to use my pronouns. My sister slips up but at least makes an effort to correct herself. I’ve corrected my mom a few times during these calls, but nothing changes. I’ve tolerated this because it’s only about an hour or less each week, and I don’t feel comfortable being so vulnerable with her by correcting her so frequently.
I came home this month for my mom’s birthday, and being misgendered every day has been hard. This, and other reasons—including an 11 p.m. curfew; I’m 23!—have made my relationship with her feel very strained, even though we used to be pretty close, and my time at home hellish. I’m glad I have a loving and supportive partner I can call and return to when this trip is over. I’m only here for another week and a half, and I don’t want to have to come out again or cause a problem by leaving early, but I do want to put more space between us once I go back, at least until she gets better about my pronouns. I don’t want to ice her out completely, because I know she misses me, but how do I navigate establishing boundaries with her?
This is a difficult situation, and I’m sorry you’ve been put through it. I’m curious that you describe your mother as “accepting” while describing behavior that feels, as you say, hellish, and not particularly accepting at all. Given that you still have a week or more with your mom, you might consider sitting her down and telling her, kindly but firmly, that the way she’s treating you doesn’t feel as if it reflects the respect and love you hope she’d show you, and that you feel unwelcomed in her home and her life. (Also, a curfew of any kind for a 23-year-old is bananas.) I know it’s frustrating to feel as though educating your mother falls on you, but there’s no one else who’s going to do it, and if it’s important to you to maintain a relationship, then you’re the one who’s going to have to create the boundaries, and better sooner than later.
When you get home, you might also consider writing her a letter. Not one that is specifically about the challenges of your visit, but one that paints a portrait of your life away from her, the kindness of your partner, and the world you live in—and that uses, in a clear way, the pronouns you would like her to be using for you. In order for her to be part of your life, she needs to take real steps to understand it and make real efforts to fit into it.
My apartment walls and floors are super thin, meaning I can hear when my downstairs neighbor sings to his baby, especially at night. There’s one song he sings often that’s very beautiful, and I’d love to know what it’s called so I can learn it myself. But it’s in a different language, and I can’t make out enough distinct sounds to even attempt Googling it. I don’t want him to feel embarrassed by the fact that I can hear him, and I’m worried that asking what the song is called would accidentally sound passive aggressive, like I was telling him to keep it down or dropping hints that I’m annoyed by noise through the walls. I don’t know him beyond having said hi a few times at the mailboxes, so I have no way to know for sure how he’d take it.
Am I overthinking this? Is there a nonawkward way to say, “Hey, sometimes I hear that song you sing to your baby and I think it’s beautiful. What’s it called?”
I don’t think you’re overthinking! Parents of new babies who live in thin-walled apartments are hyperconscious of the noise they’re making in the chaotic natural disasters that are their new lives. So if you just sauntered up to this guy you barely know and asked about the song, I can personally guarantee you’ll never hear the song again.
But great news, there’s an easy way to ascertain this information: Become his friend! Talk to him about other things, invite him and his baby over, go with them on walks, maybe even offer to babysit. (HE SURE NEEDS HELP, I BET.) An enduring friendship is a terrific way to find things out about people. Eventually, he’ll sing the song in your presence, and then you can ask what it is, and then you’ll know—and by then you’ll find there are so many other benefits to friendship that I bet you continue hanging out.
I don’t like my husband’s ex. I find her selfish and manipulative, but she is the mother of my stepdaughters, “Carly” and “Jenny.” Carly is my husband’s biological daughter, but he also raised Jenny since birth. Her biological dad isn’t worth anything. Carly and Jenny are less than a year apart. We pay all expenses for both girls but have no legal rights to Jenny.
Their mother has remarried to a man with two daughters of a similar age to Jenny and Carly. We planned on taking a monthlong trip this summer. Only now, the ex is threatening to keep Jenny back unless we take all four girls, saying we can’t be dividing her family and the girls are all sisters now. My husband and I are expected to pay for everything because both the ex and her husband are chronically unemployed.
I think this is blackmail, and if we give in, it will only get worse. Beyond that, we barely know these girls, and God forbid something happens. My husband is wavering. He loves Jenny. I understand this, but the girls will be in middle school next year. I think they are old enough to understand our reasons. I’d rather cancel the trip and call his ex’s bluff. How do we deal with this?
—Summer Fun Is Over
This woman is obviously out of line to demand that you take her stepchildren on your family vacation. And you’re within your rights to take your vacation, as you wish, with your husband’s children. That said, if you foresee a long battle with this woman in your future, you could have no better allies than the kids—not just Jenny and Carly, but their stepsiblings. If it’s plausible and affordable to bring them along, you might consider doing so, as long as you can treat them not like unwanted baggage foisted upon you, but as children who are worth being kind and caring to, whose lives will be tangled up with yours for years to come. A little kindness toward them will go a long, long way (also it’s the right thing to do).
Q. Re: They/them: You shouldn’t have to, but perhaps sitting down and couching it as “Mom, you’re treating me as a child—setting a curfew, thinking I’m going through a nonbinary ‘phase,’ etc.” might help. It might even have some bearing on reality, although that doesn’t make it feel any different.
When I became a vegetarian in my late 20s, my father referred to it several times as a “phase”—like I was 15. That was 25 years ago and I’m still a vegetarian.
A: Yes, I think this is exactly right. Your mother is having trouble treating you like an adult, and both the curfew and her inability to use your pronouns seem to stem from that same issue. That message can and should be part of your talk.
Q. Re: Probably overthinking: You’re overthinking it—just say this the next time you see your neighbor: “Hey, so sorry if this sounds like I’m complaining about noise, but I sometimes overhear the lovely song you sing to your baby. Would you mind telling me what it is so I can learn it?”
I’d be very surprised if he took that the wrong way. I’ve actually had something like this happen! I live in a really old building, and it’s just not soundproofed, but I overheard my neighbor upstairs listening to a concert so just asked him what it was (and prefaced it with the “please don’t think I’m complaining”).
A: If someone had said that to me when I had an infant in a teensy New York apartment, I would have dropped dead with shame. If you must know the song title now, Shazam it.
Dan Kois: Thanks, everyone, for joining me in the chat! Our new Prudie, Jenée Desmond-Harris, arrives in June—we’re renaming the month Juné in her honor—but until then, I’ll continue on the chat. So long!
From Care and Feeding
My husband and I usually have sex in the evening, for unsurprising reasons (“day is done, let’s have fun,” etc.), but we like to be able to do it whenever the mood strikes us. We have a 12-year-old son, and usually if my husband’s home, my son is home too. I want to know how to go about having sex when our son is home, now that he’s a bit older. Usually we make sure he’s busy doing something (video games or whatnot), or we’ll tell him that “we’re going to have a talk” in the bedroom and that we need privacy. He accepts all of this and doesn’t question it. Is it a big deal that we have sex at home while, say, he’s reading in the next room? We’re not particularly loud, but I don’t know what sounds carry through the walls. I just want to be considerate, and not potentially scar him or whatever. Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.