Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members. R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
Q. Son of a pickle: I’m having some major reservations about my boyfriend. We’ve been together for eight months and it is by far the healthiest relationship I’ve been in. Since about month 4, I thought he was going to be the one that I ended up with. I’m in my mid 30s and he’s in his early 40s. He told me about his teenage son fairly early in the relationship, but it wasn’t until recently that I found out his son is a major problem child.
The son resides mostly with his mother, who has experienced a lot of financial instability over the past few years. My boyfriend thinks his son’s behaviors, including vandalism and smoking pot, are because of his mother’s instability. He has said he is considering fighting for shared custody.
I met his son for the first time this week and, I am not exaggerating, this is the worst kid I’ve ever met. He was never once enjoyable, didn’t listen to his father, and cussed every other sentence. Plus, my boyfriend didn’t seem to know what to do about this behavior. I do not want a kid like that in my life. I can’t imagine his behavior will get any better and I worry that he will just get worse and worse, which would eventually affect my boyfriend and I if we got married.
I’m at the point in my life where I want to start settling down and having a family of my own, so I want to make sure I’m with the right person. I told this to some of my friends, and they all had a very negative reaction. I was a good kid when I was younger, but some of them weren’t, and they say it was just a phase that they grew out of. I said I knew that was a possibility, but my reservations stem primarily from the fact that I don’t think he has stable home or good parenting, and I don’t want to live with him while his father tries to figure out how to parent a troubled teen. This kid won’t graduate for three more years and if he does, there’s not a guarantee that he won’t try to stay at home after that. My friends say I should give it time, but I don’t want to grow too attached to this guy and have to break up with him when it’s harder.
I want a family and my own kids, and I need to be dating the person who can give me that. Am I being too quick to judge? Should I wait everything out for a while? If I do break up with my boyfriend, should I say it was because of his son or just say it was because I think we’re not compatible in the long run?
A: Look, the kid’s not going anywhere, so you can either figure out how to incorporate him into your life or gracefully exit his and his father’s life. It sounds like you’re drawing a hard boundary between this kid and a family of your own, which is something you’ll want to unpack. While he won’t be your biological child, if you and his father stay together, you will be a parental figure and your relationship will suffer if you’re not able to see him as a part of your family. You write that you don’t think he has a stable home or good parenting. I have wonderful news: you can provide both things. In fact, it’s imperative that you do. You may have a set notion in your head about the ideal life and family, but life never goes according to plans. You don’t want to incorporate this kid into your plans, but you can’t avoid the unknowns or difficulties of parenthood simply by rejecting him.
Think about what’s going on in his world—he’s splitting time between two households, both in flux. His mother is experiencing financial instability, which has got to be very scary. His father is in a new relationship (and he probably gets the sense already that his father’s new girlfriend doesn’t care for him). Of course, he’s going to act out. This doesn’t excuse it, but it’s not a mystery. What is mysterious, however, is why you’re being so unsympathetic to this kid whose father you love. You’ve got work to do here and you’ve got to do it now. If you can’t or won’t, then yes, you should break up with your boyfriend, but not for your own well-being, but that of his son. Don’t tell him it was because of his son’s problems; tell him it was because you refused to find a way to love his son. That’s what’s happening here.
Recently, after a few drinks, my mother confessed to me that my stepbrother years ago had been arrested for downloading child pornography and spent three months in jail for it. Apparently she and her husband (my stepbrother’s father) only recently found out when my stepbrother was asked to leave a family function by someone who knew about it. She promised both of them to never tell a soul and has felt burdened ever since. She blames herself for breaking the promise and feels guilty for telling me. But I was able to persuade her to tell my brother about this because he has children who have met my stepbrother. I’m proud of her for telling us, but I want to let the rest of our stepsiblings (all adults with children) know, since I think they have the right to decide for themselves how to deal with this information.