Dear Prudence

Help! I Gave My Sister-in-Law’s Kids Oatmeal, and Her Reaction Shocked Me.

She drops them off without warning all the time—what does she expect?

A woman and two young boys play together; an illustrated bowl of oatmeal with steam.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by National Cancer Institute/Unsplash.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.

Dear Prudence,

I cook for my husband and me. His mother often joins us, as she works long hours and is frequently too tired to make a meal. But since my sister-in-law moved back here, she will often drop her two sons at a moment’s notice on her mother—like literally as she is leaving to come over for dinner or after she already left (forcing her to double-back or leave the kids alone on the porch).

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My mother-in-law is always apologetic, but it leaves me scrambling to fix up extras or find something to feed the boys. I have told my family that I don’t mind having the boys over, but I need at least a week’s notice on which days they are coming over for. This hasn’t happened because my sister-in-law thinks her situation (getting a divorce) means she is exempted from any kind of civility. She has ignored the repeated requests and gone on her merry way.

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My husband and I are on a fixed budget, and the closest grocery store is far away. My husband is disabled and can’t legally drive. I need to be able to plan my meal schedule. The last time, I had already used the last of the bread and cold cuts to make our next day lunches, and we were out of milk so the boys had to eat oatmeal and oranges for dinner. My sister-in-law got insulted and texted me that I was a “disgrace” for feeding her sons “slop” instead of going out and getting them fast food. It was the final straw.

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I told my husband I was done. Until something was done with his sister, I was on strike. I would cook for myself and make us lunches, but everyone else could survive off Hot Pockets for all I cared. He agrees his sister is a selfish jerk, but worries about the boys and his mother. I love my mother-in-law and feel sympathy for the boys, but I can’t keep going like this. Help please.

—Final Straw

Dear Final Straw,

Your husband should tell your mother-in-law (yes, this is his job) that you know none of this is her fault, but if she has the boys with her, you two won’t be able to host her for dinner unless you’ve planned a week in advance. And stick to it. This isn’t unkind—it’s about the reality that you don’t have enough food for them and the meals you have managed to pull together in a pinch have upset their mother. I understand that your mother-in-law is busy, but if she decides to give her daughter the “you’re getting divorced so you don’t have to be considerate” treatment, it makes sense that she—not you—should bear the burden in terms of money and effort. And she can always get them fast food! If your husband refuses to speak up, then you can be the messenger. And if she still brings them over, let your husband figure out what to make for everyone—and then ask him what his plan is for making the food you have on hand last for the rest of the week.

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Dear Prudence,

My mother is a very anxious person, and has very little to occupy herself in the way of friends, hobbies, etc. The pandemic has only amplified this situation. She spends much of her time on the computer reading sensationalized or horrific news stories. She then forwards these articles on to me, my sibling, and our spouses—especially if she knows we might be able to somehow relate. For example, I have a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old and live in a mountain town. Just in the last few days I’ve received emails with links to stories about a 3-year-old who died from a rare brain eating amoeba after visiting a community splash pad, a woman who was mauled to death by a bear while out for a walk in a suburban neighborhood not far from my own, and a 6-year-old who was killed in a freak accident on an amusement park ride. I rarely read the articles, but she’ll put something in the subject line summarizing the traumatic event, and she’ll ask me later if I read it, and want to discuss it.

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Given my upbringing and genetics, I also struggle with anxiety, and I’m very careful about my news consumption and have been in therapy to learn to control catastrophizing thought patterns. When I’ve tried to ask my mother to stop sending these emails and explain their effect on me, she becomes very defensive and says that I need to be “aware” and “educated” so I can keep my children safe. She’ll stop for a while, and then in a few days or more send me something else, saying it was “too important” to let me “choose ignorance.”

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I try to be sympathetic to her mental health status, and tell myself that this is how she tries to exert some control over a world she feels is unsafe. However, it is exhausting for me, mentally, and I’m tired of being derailed and having to recoup in the middle of my day from these unexpected triggers. I don’t know how to preserve our fragile relationship, but also set a firm boundary.

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—Guarding My Inbox

Dear Guarding My Inbox,

Send these emails to their own special folder (“trash” would be one good option) and don’t read them. When she asks if you want to discuss them say, “No, I didn’t read what you sent because I’m not in a place to hear bad news that doesn’t affect me.” If she accuses you of “choosing ignorance,” you can tell her that, yes, you are, and so far, it’s been working for you. There might be room for a conversation about how you each handle anxiety in your own way, and you’d like her to respect that yours doesn’t involve consuming the gory details of every crime that takes place across the country.

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Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon (and submit your comments) here.

Dear Prudence,

This past summer, my husband and I were at the lake, and a fun-looking group of people our age set up camp next to us. Having moved to the area the summer before COVID hit, we were eager and excited to make friends. We ended up talking, and hit it off with them. The unofficial leader of the group, “Heather,” told us her fiancé, “Jared,” was deployed, returning in a few weeks. We started spending almost every weekend with Heather, Jared, and their large circle of friends/neighbors. It was wonderful! Eventually we learned a bit about Jared’s ex-wife, who we were told gave false allegations of child abuse in order to obtain full custody in the divorce. I felt awful for Jared, who seemed like a really nice guy that badly missed his (two) young kids. When Heather announced she was pregnant, I was elated for them.

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Imagine my horrified shock at finding out Jared wasn’t deployed when we met Heather. He was serving a jail sentence for multiple counts of incest, against all three (!) of his children with the ex-wife. None of us knew about this third, older kid, because there are only pictures of the two younger children in their home, and neither had mentioned a teenage older daughter. Everything came out after a neighbor Googled Jared, having gotten an uneasy feeling watching him play with their young kids. This neighbor also contacted Jared’s ex-wife, who provided documentation showing the divorce was a result of the oldest daughter disclosing the abuse of her and her siblings. On top of it all, Jared had been violating his parole by allowing neighbor kids over to their home. He’s on house arrest now due to these violations, and Heather has cut off communication with anyone not supporting them. I’m friends with several of Heather’s friends, and I know not everyone has been told the truth (I’ve been asked why Jared isn’t at events Heather’s attending). She’s been telling different lies to everyone, and accusing me and others of lying/bullying. Do I have an obligation to try and tell these other friends the truth about Jared? And what about their future child? I can’t stop thinking about that poor kid, and wanting to do something, anything to protect them. Should I just cut ties and try to make peace with everything? Help.

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—Conflicted in Colorado

Dear Conflicted in Colorado,

The goal here should be to protect kids from Jared, because Heather clearly won’t. So, yes, cut ties completely (like, block them on everything!) and tell anyone who has or might have children what’s going on. With links to relevant sources. Sooner rather than later.

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Dear Prudence,

I have a dilemma. Over the past couple years, my spouse has started growing cannabis in our yard. I have overall been OK with this. I do like to smoke sometimes, and this saves us some money. We live in a state where this is completely legal and above board, so no worries there. My issue is that I share custody of my child with my ex, and my child is entering their tween years. They know that cannabis is legal and something for adults only, but they do not know we are growing here. They also have no idea that my spouse and I even use cannabis, since it’s only something we do when they are with my ex. I don’t think I should or can keep it a secret for much longer, and I don’t want them to figure it out on their own. I’d like to have a matter of fact conversation with my kid about the fact that we grow.

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The problem is, I know my ex will absolutely go into a rage over this, and I’m concerned about the potential consequences (harassment from them, subtle or unsubtle parental alienation, and while small, a chance they would try to change our custody agreement). When I try to discuss this with my spouse, I feel like they dismiss my concerns as needless worry. Growing cannabis is important to my spouse, but I’d be fine giving it up. At the same time, I know there is nothing “wrong” or illegal about what we are doing, and I’m hesitant to let my ex’s emotions dictate my choices, or my spouse’s choices. But I feel like in this case there could be very real consequences for me and my child. Am I worrying too much about these potential consequences, or not enough? I’m really not sure how to proceed.

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—Lost in the Weeds

Dear Lost in the Weeds,

You should talk to the attorney who represented you in the divorce to see how this could possibly affect the custody agreement. If what you’re doing is legal where you live, I’d think you would be in the clear, but your lawyer will have a better idea of how courts have handled similar cases.

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If there’s not a big risk, lean toward openness and honesty. I don’t like the idea of you and your kid living in fear of your ex’s reactions. If he’s disapproving and judgmental and suggests to your kid that you’re a bad person, let that be the beginning of a conversation about how different people and different households have different values. Speaking as the child of divorced parents, I think learning that people really operate differently and there is no one way of doing anything was one of the best side effects of juggling the worldviews of two very different adults. The tween years are a pretty good time to start coming to terms with this. If your husband makes a scene when he finds out, reassure your kid that what you’re doing is legal and safe but some people have attitudes toward drugs that make them see it differently. Make sure they know that you want them to come to their own conclusions, and that you’re open to any questions about it.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“You really don’t want cannabis-type wrenches thrown in there, even if you DO have the moral and legal high ground.”

Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

Some time ago (pre-pandemic), I moved cities. A friend of mine was also moving at the time—to the city I was leaving—and because our budgets were aligned, she took over the lease on my old apartment. I also left her a lot of my furniture, since it was a big move. At the time we were both thrilled with the arrangement. I loved the apartment, felt truly safe there, and it still has a special place in my heart. However, I only lived there for a half a year—maybe not long enough to understand the ups and downs of the aging building and its landlord. Since the move, my friend has had what can only be called a hellish time in the space. Ceiling leaks, mold, bed bugs—things that I (living there in the summer and fall, before ice melt and bugs came into play) didn’t know about, or if the signs were there, I didn’t think it would be insurmountable. It was an older building and the landlord wasn’t perfect, but I convinced my friend to move there based on my positive experiences.

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Now I feel like I’ve trapped her in a horrible situation. Every time I console her about what she’s going through I feel like it’s my fault. I’ve mentioned this feeling in the past, and she’s said it’s OK, but I can tell it’s stressing her out and lowering her quality of life. Is it my moral imperative to find her a new place to live or help pay for her to leave the apartment? I feel like the answer is yes, but we’re not that close, and I’m worried it could cross a line or seem condescending. And, further—should I avoid ever talking about the apartment while she still lives there? I genuinely miss it there sometimes and have many photos and fond memories I wish I could reflect on, but it feels wrong with her new context. What’s an appropriate way forward in a situation like this? I’m at a loss for what to do.

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—Home Improvement Needed

Dear Home Improvement Needed,

This is totally not your fault. Your friend made the choice to take over your lease, and she could have ended up with a bad landlord anywhere. You didn’t pressure her and she didn’t do you a favor by moving in. You do not owe her help or money as a moral issue; however, if she expresses interest in relocating within your old city, it might be kind to offer general advice on neighborhoods, local norms, etc. If you really want to go above and beyond as a friend, offer to help when she moves. But definitely refrain from asking her to engage in discussions of your fond memories of the place that is currently hell for her.

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Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”

Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. Every Thursday in this column, we’ll post a question that has her stumped. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris on Thursday, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.

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Dear Prudence,

Growing up, my parents pushed me hard to achieve. It worked. I went to a letter school, qualified as a doctor, got a job in a busy hospital and have worked throughout the crisis. Today, I’m pushing 30, more than half a million dollars in debt, exhausted, and stuck in a misogynistic working environment where people treat me like dirt on a daily basis. By comparison, my brother ignored my parents completely, dropped out of school at 16, and is basically your classic stoner. He also started trading sneakers online when he was 12, graduated to Bitcoin, and is now a millionaire many times over in his mid-20s. I know it’s wrong but I feel so resentful and jealous of him, and so angry with my parents for driving my career and life choices so hard. How do I get over this?

—Burned Out Achiever

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Dear Prudence,

I’m in my second trimester with my first child. I was apprehensive about telling my narcissistic mother at first, but my dad told me she had a right to know. We were in low-contact for years and never had the best relationship, but now she’s kind of being gross about it? She keeps trying to refer to it as “our” child and if I don’t respond to her texts she makes her boyfriend bug me. My siblings and my dad have all told me they have no issues telling my mother to leave me alone, but I feel bad making them do it just because I’m scared of conflict. Should I just let my dad handle this and step back?

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—Conflicted New Mother

Dear Conflicted New Mother,

It would be helpful if you could be as clear as possible about what is in and out of bounds when it comes to your mom’s comments about the baby. Are you OK if she asks about your pregnancy and expresses excitement, but just don’t want her to call the baby “ours”? Are you fine with her texting you when she feels like it, but need her to understand if you can’t write back? Or is it that you really just don’t want to hear from her unless you initiate it, because your history with her makes all communication upsetting? If that’s the case, it’s OK. But before you decide whether to let your dad handle “this” you have to decide what “this” is. Your mom has no chance of sticking to the rules if she doesn’t know what they are.

Classic Prudie

My husband and I had a great sex life. Now I’m pregnant and he just can’t see me that way. We’ve talked, and there is no doubt in his mind that we’ll bounce back post-baby. I find his earnestness about wanting to protect the baby and his fear that something will go wrong endearing, but irrational. He knows it’s irrational. Do I just have to resign myself to months and months more of a sexless marriage? It’s such a shame!

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