Dear Prudence

Help! My Stepmother Behaved Appallingly Around My Father’s Death. Now She Wants Me to Care for Her.

When is it fair for me to bow out of this relationship?

An older woman looks sadly at a picture frame, next to an illustration of an urn.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tom Merton/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Prudence,

My Dad passed away 18 months ago very suddenly. We don’t know what initially caused him to collapse, but he was lying on a floor for days and he developed rhabdomyolysis and his blood turned toxic by the time he was hospitalized. I had one phone call with him, then he asphyxiated and never regained consciousness. I sat with him until he passed away three days later.

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It would be logical to think Dad lived alone, but he didn’t. His wife and her son were in the house with him. They left him on the floor and waited to call 911 for a few days. They said he didn’t want the expense of going to the hospital, which sounds like Dad, but I can’t help but think if they had called as soon as he collapsed, he might have made it.

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Dad’s wife, “J,” didn’t go to the hospital until the last day after I made the decision we would turn off the machines based on his Living Will. She couldn’t handle it and stayed in the waiting room. My sister and I stayed with him until he passed. She left and I stayed until they cleaned him up, made him comfortable, and they told me I should go. I handled everything with the help of my siblings.

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Fast forward to today, and I am still my stepmother’s go-to person. She makes horrible, thoughtless decisions and then can’t handle the outcomes. I think she is also suffering from some form of dementia and drug addiction.

I stood by her as long as I could, out of respect for my Dad. But now she has started online dating and sending men she has never met money. I don’t see anything but heartbreak and ruin ahead for her, but I can’t take much more. Last week, I moved her into a 55+ community at my expense. She left behind my Dad’s ashes but made sure she had every stitch of her clothes. (Dad’s ashes are with me now.) Last night she got lost and the police had to call me to go pick her up. We have never been close, but now she tells me I am her favorite child, even over her own son (who was still living with her at age 50, was abusive and unemployed).

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How do I bow out gracefully? Is it even possible? This is destroying my hard-won sanity. I am angry and hurt and resentful, but I am also a kind person. If she has dementia, some of this is not her fault, plus she was raised so sheltered. (She asked me this week how to use a hammer.) I feel I have honored my Dad by getting her past his death and into a supportive community, but she is consuming my life. What am I supposed to do?

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— The Good Stepdaughter

Dear Good Stepdaughter,

“I feel I have honored my Dad by getting her past his death and into a supportive community” is exactly right. If you want to do one more thing before you cut ties, you could look into getting her some help with the potential dementia and/or drug problem that seems to be contributing to the situation she’s in. This is going to sound harsh, but because of whatever combination of issues she has, she didn’t have the capacity to care much about her own husband—she can’t possibly care that much about you. You’ve made sure that she’s safe and has what she needs, and that’s enough.

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Dear Prudence,

I’ve been five months strong in a new relationship. This is the first person who’s ever been able to bring something to the table and put food on it under a roof. We decided to cohabitate, and I uprooted eagerly. I’m ok with all of the changes—job, workout routine, family and friends, and doctors/psychiatrists/therapists. I’ve been needing it for a while, but I wouldn’t have done this for anyone else. I’ve had partners offer to get to this stage in the past, but those alone were absurdly unstable. I feel like I’ve met my soulmate. I only remember loving someone this deeply (it gets deeper each day) who was my first boyfriend.

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Thing is, I’ve had a heinous track record with partners. I’ve somehow succeeded at meeting abusers and users of all flavors, genders, and orientations. I did meet normal lovers, but I disengaged knowing that they couldn’t handle my trauma and baggage. I didn’t realize I’m so guarded—extremely guarded. I have other things to work on as well, like self-esteem and insecurities through my new therapist. I’m getting med management underway.

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I don’t want to fail myself and consequently sabotage a relationship that’s prone to all the aches and pains one regularly has. I’ve never had a partner compassionately and patiently encourage and support me loving and working on myself. (They’re in therapy, too.) I’m so scared something will happen out of the blue to me. I’m scared there’s another shoe about to drop. I logically don’t have a reason to feel this way but I can’t stop thinking about all the awful things exes and vindictive abusers had me suffer through.

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I’ve definitely shared my feelings with my partner, and they can’t be hearing the same sad BS every night. They’ve communicated that they can’t keep entrenched in these constant anxious 20 questions if they still love me that day. Not a fun game, and I totally understand. I wish I had been taught healthy relationships and allowed to experience them. I blame myself for all this crazy. First time I actually meet a real partner, and it’s me who’s more problematic. How can I stop being this insecure, worried, and existentially flabbergasted?

— How Can I Be Me in a Relationship Without Being Me?

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Dear How Can I Be,

You have a new therapist. You’re working on medication management. I think you’re moving in the right direction, but you need to buy yourself some time to let these things you’re doing take effect—and take your anxiety down a notch. Ask your partner for patience as you adjust to your new life and give them a reasonable estimate—say, six months—for the amount of time it might take you to feel more secure. Let them know that you know you don’t have a real reason to doubt their commitment to you, and are working on pushing back the constant worry that your past relationships have created. In the meantime, commit to doing some additional work on your end so that you’re not overwhelming them with all your worries every night. Can you set aside a time once a week to check in about the relationship and how you’re feeling? On the other days, turn to a few good friends and a journal to pour your emotions out.

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Dear Prudence,

I have a fear of babies, stemming from a traumatic time in my life involving my emotionally abusive ex, an abortion, and a lot of stress. I am fine with this, I do not want kids and never have, and I’m with a wonderful husband who also doesn’t want kids. (I had therapy after the abortion which gave me the power to leave my ex.) Problem is, my best friend and his wife had a baby a few days ago. My friend knew before about my fear, but may have forgotten. I’m terrified that he may ask me to be a godparent, which would involve holding his baby and the thought absolutely fills me with horror and revulsion. What would I say?

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— Please Don’t Ask Me to Hold Your Child

Dear Please Don’t,

How do you feel about the parts of being a godparent that don’t involve holding a baby? If you think you’d like to play this important role in the kid’s life, there might be room to work around your fear. When and if you’re asked (definitely don’t say anything until then—they could very well have a relative or a different friend in mind) remind your friends of your phobia and ask whether they’d be open to you doing all the other parts of godparenting (providing spiritual guidance, sending gifts on holidays, agreeing to raise the kid if something happens to its parents), but skipping the infant-holding part of the job. Plenty of people do this long-distance, so it shouldn’t be too big a deal. If you really aren’t into children overall, politely decline by telling them you’re flattered but you don’t think you have what it takes to be the godmother their child deserves, and they should make another choice.

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Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From Pay Dirt

I come from a large family. I have five siblings and upwards of 15 cousins around my age. Out of everyone, I am the only one who is fully financially independent. When my father died 10 years ago, he left me a large parcel of the family land, located in a Southern state that none of the family actively lives in or wants to live in anymore. During the pandemic I got into family history research and genealogy, and surprise, surprise: We’re descended from slaveowners. This made more urgent something I’ve been thinking about ever since I inherited the land: I want to donate it, either to a Black farming collective or return it to the Native American tribe to which it rightfully belongs. But what are my obligations to the rest of my family?

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