Dear Prudence

The Most Popular Dear Prudence Letters From 2021, Part 2

A woman looks sad in front of a nametag sticker.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by AndreaObzerova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

This week, we’re looking back at the most popular Dear Prudence letters from 2021. Here is Part 1. And remember to join Slate Plus to never miss a Prudie column.

Dear Prudence,

My parents gave me a really terrible name, that half-rhymes and contains a racial slur—think “Gypsy-Pixie,” and misspelled. (We are a white family.) I have hated it my whole life and was bullied mercilessly for it in school. My friends and teachers called me an initial-based nickname at my request, although when my parents found out that teachers used my nickname, they called the school and complained, to my absolute mortification. I changed my name legally as soon as I could upon adulthood. Everyone now knows me as “Ann,” and my friends who knew me before made the change smoothly.

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My parents are furious. They refuse point-blank to use my name, although they have had a full year now. They always used to tell me I would “grow to love” my “beautiful and unique” name when I cried about it as a child, and are obviously angry that they have been proven wrong on that. I get that it must be painful for a parent to feel like their child has rejected the name they chose, but … come on. They have always known how much I hated it, always ignored my pleading to be called nicknames, and on top of all this, THEIR names are completely normal (e.g., “Bob” and “Liz”), so they have no idea what this has been like for me.

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I know this seems petty, but my relationship with them is deeply strained because of this. I gave them an “adjustment period” where I said I wouldn’t mind them occasionally using the old name, but they ignored that completely. When I said I would be cutting short calls or meetups if they called me my old name, they went ahead and called me it anyway (in front of others), then acted stunned and hurt when I left the exchange as promised. I am increasingly pulling away from them because of this—I don’t want to be called the wrong name multiple times per conversation, and it hurts me that they’re willing to die on this hill rather than just respect my right to have a name I don’t hate and doesn’t get me laughed at on the regular. They called me “Gypsy-Pixie” for 20 years. Am I wrong for thinking they should be able to adjust to “Ann” now that I’m an adult? Can you recommend a way for me to handle this better—or am I being immature for dying on this hill with them?

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You were on the right track when you cut short meetups and calls when they said your old name, but you have to stick with the plan and keep doing it until they get the message. It’s they who are choosing to die on a ridiculous hill—let’s hope they realize their error before they take your relationship down with them. —J.D.H.

From: “Help! My Parents Gave Me a Wacky, Offensive Name” (July 24)

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Dear Prudence,

My parents were both pieces of work—manipulative and frequently cruel (like, one year my mom baked my favorite cake for, I thought, my birthday and then gave it to a co-worker “just because”). I have done a lot of therapy over this. My parents are both dead now; my father died two years ago, my mother last year. Since I lived in the same city, I got stuck with sorting out the estate. It’s almost all done and dusted now, but I am left with the question of what to do with the stuff they hid.

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I have found decades of intercepted mail and medical information that was kept from all three of us kids. There’s an acceptance letter to my brother’s dream college that he never received, birthday cards from friends and relatives, money, paperwork for my sister’s diagnosis that my parents always spoke vaguely about and later denied. My sister gave up a baby for adoption when she was 15, and apparently the adoptive family sent her photos for a few years—which we never saw. I even found a break-up letter from the boyfriend I thought had ghosted me when I was a teenager (it turns out his sister had been in an accident and he had to go help his family).

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It’s obvious that these were deliberately withheld and not simply misplaced. Now what? I know that I should give these things to the original recipients, but I feel just as strongly that some of these things are just hurtful, with no opportunity for remedy. It seems equally unkind to never let my sister see these pictures of her baby as a 4-year-old as it would be to tell my brother he could have gotten a full-ride scholarship. And once I make a decision, there will be no taking it back. What should I do?

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This is an absolute mess, and I’m so sorry you’ve found yourself in the position of having to sort through it all. There are no fantastic options available to you, but I think the best one (or maybe just the least-worst) is to give your siblings a very general impression of what you’ve found and ask them how much they want to know: “I’ve found a lot of paperwork that Mom and Dad appear to have withheld intentionally over the years, and I’m not sure what to do about it. Some of the information they kept from us involves medical treatment, professional opportunities, and personal relationships. In some of these situations I don’t think there’s anything to be done about it, but I don’t want to make that decision for the rest of you. Do you want me to hang onto this paperwork in a safe place in case you want to look at it sometime in the future? Do you want me to give you the paperwork that directly affects you so that you can read it, even knowing some of it might be quite painful?” This communicates the general tenor of the information without going into the kind of “spoiler” detail that would make it impossible for your siblings to decide for themselves.

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The one exception I think you should make should be about anything related to medical/mental health diagnoses, since that might be necessary information for your siblings to share with their doctors, therapists, and treatment teams—I think you should pass that along immediately. —D.L.

From: “Help! I Found All the Things My Parents Hid” (April 6)

Dear Prudence,

My family moved from one state to another when I was in my late teens. I stayed behind to help my aunt recover from surgery. During this time, I had a one-night stand and found that I was pregnant. I confided this in my aunt, and she asked what I wanted to do. Abortion seemed too scary, and I said that I’d like to adopt the baby out. She arranged with my parents that I could stay with her until I graduated high school and helped me arrange the baby’s adoption. Right or wrong, this was done without informing my parents, and after the delivery, adoption, and graduation, I joined my family in our new state with no one the wiser.

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I’ve never second-guessed this decision, but my sister contacted me last week saying that someone on a DNA ancestry site came back as related to her, and she couldn’t figure out how. After she shared a couple of pictures of this person, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s the baby I had 20 years ago—they bear little resemblance to me but have the very striking features that attracted me to their father. Their age and region are accurate to being my baby as well.

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I had no intention of saying anything about how this person is related to us, but since discovering them, my sister has been theorizing that our dad may have had an affair. I don’t know what my next move here should be. I never expected to hear of this baby ever again, but they’re in active communication with my sister trying to figure out where the family tie is. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before they or my sister find themselves on the right trail.

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I never did and still don’t want to meet or interact with them. What my family chooses to do— whether they puzzle this out on their own or whether I “come clean” is up to them; I just don’t know what I should do or say from here. I know that regardless of how the family connections are discovered, it’s going to be a rocky road with a lot of questions ahead, many of which I believe aren’t anyone’s business but my own.

Your situation is tough to respond to because I really believe you’re right that none of this is anyone’s business, and in a perfect world, you would enjoy the level of privacy you expected to when you arranged the adoption. You never could have predicted then that DNA ancestry sites would be created, that your family would begin to raise questions, or that the child you gave birth to would find you. But here we are: The facts are coming out, and your baby is their own person whose needs now have to be considered…

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Read the rest of the We’re Prudence column from Oct. 29 here. We’re Prudence is available for Slate Plus members only—sign up now to never miss a Prudie column.

Dear Prudence,

A few months ago, my boyfriend “Ed” and I started couples therapy. The initial reason was due to arguments over his insomnia—he would have a tendency to get in and out of bed multiple times a night, and we would fight bitterly over it. The counselor recommended some medical and eventually psychiatric tests for Ed, and we walked away with some new diagnoses. Insomnia was expected.

ADHD was not. He’s probably had ADHD for most of his life, but Ed is unbelievably sharp. (That was, incidentally, another thing we would fight about: If I came home with a problem like something bad happening at work, he wouldn’t ask me what was wrong, but has this annoying tendency to just look at me and figure it out, and then proceed from there.) The diagnosis led to some new medication, new therapy strategies, and some new revelations at the couples therapy we’re still going to. At our most recent session, he admitted to “having trouble focusing on only one thing at a time,” usually thinking along multiple lines at once, and just viewing that as normal. I asked him if there was ever a time he was ever solely focused on me, thinking about nothing else, and he said no. It hurt a lot to hear that.

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I want to be accepting of neurodiversity, and I know he’s not intentionally trying to ignore me or anything. But now I can’t seem to feel emotionally connected to him. We’ll hug, or be in bed, and I’ll be totally in the moment and he’ll be thinking about me. And his job. And his plans for his hobbies, or the latest bridge column, or God knows what else. It shouldn’t bother me, but it hurts terribly and I don’t know how to get over this. What can I do?

I can see how it would be upsetting to learn that he’s not ever 100 percent focused on you, but maybe none of us ever focuses 100 percent on a partner. Keep track of your own thoughts and you will probably notice that even when you’re really enjoying spending time with him and not especially preoccupied, other thoughts do enter your mind. He’s described this phenomenon to you because you asked, but it doesn’t sound that far out of the ordinary.

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Either way, I don’t recommend going down the road of monitoring what’s happening in your partner’s head. I think if any of us did this we’d end up pretty unhappy. Can you focus instead on how he behaves? When you’re hugging or in bed together, is he acting as if you’re his main focus? Does he dedicate time to your relationship? Does he do things to make you happy? Does he take your needs into consideration? If he’s treating you well and doing all the same things that someone whose brain worked differently would, is there really a problem? You mentioned his annoying tendency to look at you and decide what’s wrong instead of asking you—I think you should focus on issues that truly affect your day-to-day life with him instead of things you would never have known if he didn’t tell you. —J.D.H.

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From: “Help! I Am Disturbed by What My Boyfriend Revealed to Me in Therapy” (Oct. 13)

Dear Prudence,

I have a daughter who is very depressed and suffers from anxiety and outbursts of anger. She is trying medication and also sees a psychologist regularly. We are just trying to manage things the best we can for her. We even welcomed a puppy into our family to hopefully help lower her anxiety. However, most interactions, even the most basic of topics, are strained and difficult with her. She is always seeking out any way possible to push back on everything we say or be argumentative. She is a smart, beautiful girl and is quite developed for her age. My question is: What is the best way to discuss dressing appropriately with her? She makes fairly good choices for school except for the odd midriff (which is not worth the argument). At home she dresses in short shorts that are far too revealing and often a shirt that is low cut.

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We have always had the family rule that we must always be dressed or wear pajamas around the house for the respect of ourselves and others in our family. My sons have both said they are uncomfortable when their sister wears this inappropriate attire. Our family is quite progressive, and we want to see the societal norms around labeling women by how they’re dressed change for the better. When we have brought up our daughter’s dress, she has sharply retorted that how can we judge her for having legs, and why should she have to cover up her perfectly natural body. In some ways, I agree, but that is the perfect attitude for living alone, not in a small house with four other people. Please help me with the right words to reach her.

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I do have some words I think will prove useful to you, but they’re for your sons, not your daughter: “I’m sorry you feel uncomfortable when your sister wears shorts. I’m also sorry for how I reacted when you first shared this with me, because I was wrong to agree that your discomfort was her responsibility. Regardless of how someone else’s outfit makes you feel, you’re responsible for managing your own reactions and treating everyone respectfully and appropriately.”

By your own account, your daughter follows the family clothing rules. If she were naked in the common areas of the house, you would certainly have grounds to intervene, but I think you’ll set yourself up for unnecessary conflict if you try to monitor all of her hemlines. I’d also encourage you to rethink that line about how your daughter is “quite developed for her age,” the implication being that she’s unable to dress in a way she finds comfortable and stylish because she has to keep herself covered up, lest she “invite” sexual attention.

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The problem with the clothing rule is the unspoken corollary, which is apparently something like, “Keira has to wear shorts that reach the knee, because it’s inherently disrespectful for a girl to have uncovered thighs.” You’re trying to punish your daughter for violating an unspoken rule, and I think because you’re aware on some level that this violates your supposedly progressive values, you’re also trying to make her responsible for both her brother’s discomfort and yours. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a teenager (or preteen—you don’t say how old your daughter is!). Your sons need to cultivate a stronger sense of personal responsibility, and it’s incumbent upon you to help them do so. They must learn to treat everyone with respect, even if they personally feel uncomfortable at the sight of a girl’s leg. That does not make their discomfort the problem of the girl in possession of the leg. Punishing your daughter because you have failed to teach self-discipline, respect for personal space, or respectful attitudes to your sons is inherently anti-progressive, and your daughter is quite right to object to being made the scapegoat.

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I realize I’ve been rather sharp here, but all parents make mistakes in trying to live out their values, and you have plenty of time to course-correct. It’s difficult to lovingly parent kids with varying needs, instincts, bugbears, sore spots, and temperaments, especially when those temperaments come into conflict. It’s especially difficult to lovingly parent a kid who’s struggling to regulate her own emotions, and I don’t doubt for a minute that your daughter has a knack for pushing your buttons. I’m sure you’re doing your best—but I think you need to change your priorities here and ease up on your daughter. —D.L.

From: “Help! My Sons and I Want My Daughter to Dress More Appropriately” (Jan. 28)

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I got off work early and decided to pick up my daughter early. There is a side door where parents can enter without knocking, so I did that. I started the sign-out process, and as I was doing so, the day care assistant walked by and saw me. She tried to engage me with conversation, but I wanted to get my daughter so I brushed by her. When I got to the area of the house where my daughter was, I about fell over. The day care provider was NURSING MY BABY!

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