Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns—your first month is only $1.
My daughter is very bright. She constantly tests in the top 10th percentile on standardized tests and was reading at an adult level by age 9. However, she is lazy. Her grades were constantly mediocre because she just didn’t do her homework. I tried to encourage, punish, and inspire her, but nothing seemed to motivate her to just do her homework! She left for college last year, and once again, her grades, while not bad, were well below her capability. She was in danger of losing an academic scholarship that has a very strict GPA requirement, and I told her I would not pay her full tuition if she lost it. So what did she do? She got some quack doctor to diagnose her with ADHD and give her an Adderall prescription. I am beyond livid. Why can’t she just do her work?
When I tried to discuss this with her, she blew up at me. She claims that I put undue pressure on her by never considering the possibility that she might have a learning disability. But she doesn’t! I’ve seen her sit down and read a large book from cover to cover in one sitting. She can play video games for hours. She clearly does not have an attention problem, she’s taking the easy way out by taking dangerous drugs. My husband is no help. He claims that since she brought home straight A’s last semester, we should let it slide. But I don’t want to encourage this behavior. How can I get through to her?
This reads like a parody of an unreasonable parent unwittingly describing a workable solution! I’m not sure what kind of behavior you don’t want to encourage in your daughter—an increased sense of independence? Getting straight A’s? Finding a doctor who listens to her and a medication that helps her effectively manage her time and energy? Telling you long-overdue truths? Having ADHD doesn’t mean a person is incapable of reading a book or playing video games for hours, and a doctor who prescribes Adderall for a patient with ADHD is not automatically a quack. You’ve spent years trying to punish and manipulate your daughter into performing according to your exact specifications, and it doesn’t sound like that’s worked. Why don’t you take a year or two off, if only for the novelty? She’s an adult now, and she’s going to spend the rest of her life making decisions in her own best interest, whether you like them or not. —Danny M. Lavery
From: “Help! My Daughter Got Some Quack to Diagnose Her With ADHD, but I Think She’s Just Lazy.” (Oct. 30, 2018)
I’m adopted. I’m in my late 40s, married, have two children, am well-educated and financially secure. A few years ago, I decided to locate my birth parents. My hope was for a connection, but I was willing to settle for medical history and information about my heritage. My research revealed that my birth mother married several years after my birth and has recently divorced. The marriage produced two sons, my half-brothers. Both sons are married with children, and there are lots of other relatives. I sent my birth mother a certified letter with corroboration about my being her biological daughter. I gave a brief personal history, some photographs, and I assured her I was financially stable. I waited a month but she didn’t respond, so I sent the letter a second time. Again, no response. Finally, I telephoned her. I’m sure that phone call was one of the worst conversations of both of our lives. She had received my letter and was horrified to hear from me. Only her eldest brother and deceased parents had known of her pregnancy. She had spent her entire life keeping my existence a secret, and she would be ruined if people found out about me. I tried to salvage what I could from the conversation. I asked for information about my birth father and she adamantly refused to tell me anything. I told her since I had located her she could be confident I would find him, with or without her. I suggested she should inform family members about me and trust that their feelings for her would not change. She just kept repeating that I had ruined her life. I am the mother of a daughter, and I simply cannot fathom my birth mother’s response to me. A year later, I sent a second letter informing her of my intent to contact other family members and encouraging her to communicate with them about me. Again, I received no response. Part of me sympathizes with my birth mother’s wish for privacy. But another part of me feels I have a right to know who my father is, and that I have a right to pursue relationships with other family members. I’ve given her ample opportunity to control the message. Do I have an obligation to do anything more?
What you experienced is the one of the worst-case scenarios an adopted person has to be ready for when embarking on this search. Your direct question to me is whether you need to give any more warning to your birth mother about your intentions. I agree that everyone is entitled to explore his or her origins, but I suggest you consider a different way of going forward. When you heard the terror in your birth mother’s voice, of course that was painful and disappointing. But if you’d thought through her possible reactions, you might have been able to pivot and say you understood your reappearance was a shock, and the last thing you wanted was to cause her distress. Instead you brought out an emotional bazooka with your warnings about ferreting out your biological father’s identity, and letting everyone she loves know what she’s been hiding all these years. You are entitled to go ahead and contact your relatives, regardless of her importuning. It could be the siblings will be shocked but thrilled to hear from you and they will help turn their mother around. But be prepared that out of loyalty to her, they may tell you they can’t pursue a relationship.
You started on your quest with a desire for connection and information. But without connection the information is going to be scant. Despite your sleuthing skills, consider that in the absence of cooperation from your birth mother, you may never find out who your biological father is. Her refusal to tell may simply be that she is still filled with the shame of a previous era for being a girl who got in trouble. But perhaps your conception was traumatic; you could be the product of rape or incest. Although she probably now dreads the sound of the mail through the slot, it may be time for another letter. In this one, say you understand you caused her upset and you regret the tone you took. Say you are not looking for a relationship with her, but you are hoping that the two of you could meet privately over a cup of coffee because you’d like to know something about your heritage. Maybe she will agree to these limited terms, and such an opening could lead to a thaw. If you don’t hear back, wait awhile as you consider your next step and how to take it. You haven’t mentioned your adoptive family, but I hope you have a wonderful one. I know you feel there’s a hole inside you that needs filling. But you’ve made a successful life and have created a family of your own, so whatever you do, try to find a sense of peace being with the people who do know and love you. —Emily Yoffe
From: “Help! My Biological Mother Says I’ve Ruined Her Life by Finding Her.” (March 21, 2013)
Our 19-year-old daughter decided to ghost us. She goes to college eight hours away from our home. We set her up in a dorm, paid her tuition, sent her money, and talked to her almost every day. After she complained about her roommates, we agreed she could move to a more independent-style dorm the next year. She then told us she was staying at school for a summer internship (turning down a good internship in our hometown to do so). When we traveled with her siblings to surprise her for her birthday, we were shocked to find out that she did not live at the address she gave us. After a number of calls, she finally told us she had moved out and started living with a guy she met at a coffee shop near campus. We took her to dinner and said we wanted her to stay safe and focus on finishing college. We tried not to show our anger and disappointment, but she refused to tell us anything about the guy—not even his last name.
She said she would continue school and would work to pay her share of the rent. We tried to talk to her about her options and not rushing into adult responsibilities. She agreed to come home after her internship and spend two weeks with us. That was a year ago. Since then, she’s taken all the money we ever gave her out of her bank account. We had to cancel her credit card after she maxed it out. She doesn’t speak to any of us, even her old and ailing grandparents. We all call and text her almost weekly, but the only time she ever responded was a message about her health insurance (we are still paying for her health insurance and cellphone).
For me, her silence is painful, being her mother. I cannot imagine what I, her father, or any of us did for her to callously disconnect from her family. When people ask me how she is doing, all I can say is she’s well, and then I want to sit somewhere and cry. We saw on Facebook that her boyfriend is 26, not in school, and works at a hardware store. He also has posts of him smoking pot. She now has two jobs and is still enrolled in college. I am sad because that is not the college experience that I was hoping for her. At this point it’s hard to pretend like I don’t care because I do, and I miss her beyond words. I am making excuses to her brothers and sisters and grandparents when they want to know why she doesn’t want to be a part of our family anymore.
I’m so sorry for the pain and bewilderment you’re experiencing right now. The good news, as you say yourself, is that your daughter is safe and well. No, she’s not having the college experience you envisioned for her, but she’s working hard, (mostly) supporting herself financially, and still attending classes. And while you might not have chosen this particular boyfriend for her, she’s healthy and functioning and has made the choice to continue living with him.
I hope you will stop pressuring yourself to come up with cover stories when family members ask you about your daughter. If her siblings are very young, I wouldn’t encourage you to be overly blunt, but you don’t have to make up excuses. You can simply and truthfully say, “Sometimes people pull away or need space, and they don’t always tell us why. I don’t know why [Sister] is distant right now, and it does hurt, but I hope someday we can talk about it, and I’ll be here for her when that day comes.” If friends ask you about her and you feel like going off to cry, please give yourself permission to do so. You have every reason to be sad about this, and you shouldn’t always try to mask your grief—find appropriate outlets for it, and let it out. Please consider seeing a therapist. Not so you can find someone else to explain why your daughter has pulled away, or agree that you’ve never done anything that might merit her sudden silence, but so you can honor your own grief and figure out what you need to do in order to build a life that’s relatively serene and useful whether or not your daughter answers your calls. You should also scale back on how often you try to contact her. Since she almost never responds, it’s a counterproductive habit that doesn’t actually get you what you want and probably just increases your agitation and stress.
I have no idea if your daughter is going through a rebellious and insensitive phase that she’ll later regret or if there are more serious reasons behind this estrangement. It may be that, as you and your therapist go deeper into the history of your relationship with your daughter, you’re able to identify parts of the story you want to take responsibility for or can acknowledge you did something harmful. That doesn’t mean it’s your job to assign immediate blame to yourself. But since you’re not going to be able to force answers out of your daughter, the most productive source of insight is going to be your own memory and your own psyche. —D.L.
From: “Help! My 19-Year-Old Daughter Ghosted Us.” (April 13, 2019)
About six months ago my doctor gave me two more years to live. I started using that time to make peace with my family, especially my wife, as we’ve had a turbulent marriage. Things have been going well so far and our marriage is probably the best it’s ever been. What I am wondering now is if I should tell my wife that I’ve had an affair for eight years with another woman. It ended a couple of years ago and we’re not even in contact anymore. But there is always a chance that my wife will find out. I don’t want her besieged with unanswered questions or anger she can’t express after I’m gone. I am also worried that if she were to discover the affair after my demise, she will feel as though the last good years of our marriage were a sham. But on the other hand, I don’t want to spend the last year or two we have together dealing with this revelation. What is your take on all this? And yes, I know I’m a total jerk, among other things you can’t publish publicly. Please spare me the judgment and give me some advice here.
Since you say your marriage was turbulent perhaps your wife knows on some level that you weren’t entirely faithful throughout the course of it. You have both received shocking and painful news and are now dedicated to making the best of what time you have left. I hope that will be some considerable amount, and since the affair is well and long over, I agree that in this delicate period of rapprochement, you don’t want to spend it dealing with the fallout of a past affair.
This doesn’t mean you never tell your wife, but it may be something you decide to do later. Perhaps there will be a time when you can say to her that rededicating yourself to your marriage has been the sweetest time of your life. That you want her to know what her love and support has meant to you, and that you are sorry you weren’t always the husband you should have been. She might say, “It doesn’t matter now, I don’t even want to talk about the past.” Or she might want to know what you mean, or you might feel the need to explain you feel guilty about the past and don’t want it to shadow your present. But even if you tell her, being honest in this circumstance doesn’t necessarily require you to reveal with whom or for how long. You can just explain you don’t want her to ever think that there was dishonesty in your last years together, but that she should know this time together has been real and true. —E.Y.
From: “Should a Dying Husband Confess Infidelity?” (June 27, 2011)
More From Dear Prudence
I met Ray the first week at college. He’s gay and I’m a lesbian, and it’s been great to have a friend who gets it. Last week his parents were in town and I ran into them all at a local restaurant and asked them if Ray’s boyfriend was going to join them. It kicked off. His parents were livid, there was a very frosty fight, and then they left town early without a word. He’s livid with me and is telling all our friends what I did.