Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
I had a really, really dumb fling with my wife’s sister before we were married. I was 17 at the time, my girlfriend (Anna) was 18 and her sister (Bec) was 16. Bec and I hooked up when we were both high and drunk. It was nothing. A one-off mistake. Bec is not even into men, and she has never been my type. Anna and I had a fight and weren’t speaking; I bumped into Bec, whose first girl crush just rejected her, at a party; and one thing led to another. We regretted it when sober and vowed to never mention it.
Five months later, we found out she was pregnant. She had no idea. Until she started getting pains in her side and went to the doctor, and she hadn’t gotten a period yet (her family are late bloomers, her sister didn’t start getting periods until she was 17, same with their mom apparently). Bec said she did not want kids, especially at 16, but it was too late for an abortion. She pretended it was a random guy, and her family supported her through a closed adoption in another state. Anna and I went on to get married four years later and had three kids of our own. Bec married a lovely woman, Sarah, and they also had two kids, carried one each. The four of us and our four kids were close and still are—the only reason I use were is that Bec passed away a year ago. Her kids are teens, and she died in her 40s from COVID.
Three weeks ago, a young man came looking for his mom. Bec never told her wife and kids about her son she put up for adoption. Anna and I didn’t tell them either—not our story to tell. (I never told Anna about the one-night stand.)
The kid, Henry, has apparently had a good life and loves his adoptive family but is looking for his roots. He was able to access his birth records when he was 18, but it took him a while to track her down. No father was listed. He’s been staying with Sarah and the kids; they were in shock, but they are a lovely family and have really taken to him. Sarah is treating him like her stepson, which is lovely. But he has been asking about his dad. Anna knows nothing, as Bec refused to talk. She firmly told her sister she was a lesbian and her one mistake with a man wasn’t going to define her. Sarah knows nothing—she didn’t even know about Henry. She was hurt over that, but her love for Bec is stronger than that. My kids actually suggested to Henry that he do a DNA test—my kids and Sarah’s kids have both jumped on board and reckon they are all going to order test kits together with Henry “for fun.” I am in a fucking panic.
I love my wife and family. I have it so good. Can I really be ruined for a mistake I made 30 years ago as a stupid drunk kid? We have three young/teen kids. They deserve to have a happy, non-broken family. What can I do to stop this DNA test? I’m thinking of inventing a fake father. Saying Bec told me about him but didn’t want anyone to know as he was a bad guy. Maybe if Henry thinks his dad is a seedy asshole, he won’t bother looking. Or will that blow up in my face? He seems like a nice kid, and I know he wants to stick around to get to know his mom’s two kids, his stepmom and his cousins, but I just need him out of here. How can I make him go away? Without revealing the truth? I’ve been nice but a bit distant to him. I reckon he looks like me. No one else has noticed, though, thank Christ.
—Mistakes Won’t Stay Away
Often, we ask the wrong questions in response to the problems in our lives, perhaps hoping to receive answers that will fit what we want. But what we want and what can happen are two different things. The question of how you can stop the DNA test is, I’m sorry to say, not the right one. Short of some kind of caper, you can’t. It feels like this situation has already escalated—Henry is living with Sarah and her kids. This feels like an unusual step, to be honest, but it’s already occurred. He is a part of your family and he rightfully has more questions about his origins, and inventing a fake father isn’t going to satisfy those questions, only produce more.
Also, not for nothing but he is your son. I know you didn’t intend to have a child, but a person exists and his mother is deceased and you are plotting ways of getting rid of him. You’re asking the wrong questions at every step. So what are the right questions? How can you prepare yourself and your family for the news when you deliver it? You will need to be honest with your loved ones. I’d suggest telling the adults first, then the kids, and then tell Henry one-on-one. Each party will have a very different reaction, I imagine, but by being proactive and owning your part in this, you will save everyone involved a lot of hurt. Another question, this one you asked, albeit rhetorically: Can you really be ruined by a mistake you made 30 years ago? No. In this case, the mistake is information, neither malevolent nor benevolent. But you can be ruined by the actions you take in the present if those actions aren’t about setting things right.
I’m a full-time specialist teacher. My principal has hired a part-time teacher to do my job for a specific grade. She is his friend since college, 20 years or so. I trained her, but she does not hold certification to sub in a classroom if needed; her classification is paraprofessional, a teacher’s aide.
My problem is that he treats her like she is senior like me. She has zero initiative and no sense of responsibility. Other homeroom teachers do the lion’s share of her group project work, and as soon as the coast is clear, she slips out and hides away. My principal shields her from work, and she has a strong sense of independence and entitlement. My principal makes me go through him to assign her tasks, even though she is technically an aide and we work in the same room. He has told her that their friendship is first priority and that he doesn’t want her to feel overworked.
As for her workload, she keeps it as light as possible. She initiates nothing. He never asks her to do any adjunct work, and he puts her on the clock with zero structure or accountability—basically, at certain times of the year she even gets paid to come in and “plan” rather than actually see students or help other teachers. He has given her much more paid free time than certificated teachers are given by our contracts.
Recently, I underwent surgery, and she didn’t tell me that the last day we worked together she had tested positive for COVID. She waited until administrative notifications from the district started coming to my inbox to tell me, days after my surgery. She argued that she told me that her husband was positive ( … I was supposed to assume she was positive too, even though she stated that she tested negative?). I’m sick of her doing so little but being accorded the authority and independence of a veteran teacher, and I’m furious she said nothing about testing positive when we work so closely and she knew I was going into surgery.
In short, she acts like a child. Never a team player, she has to be carried by others, assumes little to no responsibility, and is a shirker—but she’s the boss’s buddy, and neither of them will be going anywhere. I feel so deflated from this pattern that I want to retaliate by doing less and less outside of my classroom responsibilities. If he doesn’t ask her, then I don’t want him to ask me to do additional work. But I anticipate he will push back and assign me other jobs if I decline my current responsibilities that served the school. What to do?
Dear Principal’s Pet,
It sounds like you have your own personal Ava Coleman, the feckless principal from Abbott Elementary. And just like on the show, it may take more effort to try to fix her than to just work around her. First, I wonder if you’re part of a teachers union. This is exactly the kind of situation that a union rep can and will help you navigate. If your district isn’t unionized or if your school is charter or private, I would hope that there is an HR representative to whom you can bring your concerns about COVID procedures.
But generally, I think that there’s very little you can do to make an unmotivated worker with a special relationship to the boss work more. And I fear that declining work will only put you on your principal’s bad side. This may feel worth it, but it seems like a Pyrrhic victory. Instead, I wonder how possible it is for you to avoid this colleague as much as possible. She clearly doesn’t want to work and that’s not going to change, but it’s clear that cataloging all the ways she’s getting special treatment is starting to wear on you. I truly hate to write this, but is there a way to accept that this is just what the situation is and, like Janine Teagues on Abbott Elementary, keep working with the people who are there for the good of the students and the school? This sounds a little Pollyanna, but I think it’s really self-preservation. Constantly comparing her workload to yours is going to make you feel worse and worse about your job. There are some situations where you won’t be able to avoid her, even if, as you mention, she should be avoided for public health reasons. But compartmentalizing her as just another of the unpleasant realities of the office rather than an obstacle you have to overcome might rob this unfair situation of some of its power.
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How do I have a fun bachelorette if nobody drinks?
I know the question sounds awful, but hear me out. I am a 30-year-old woman marrying my wonderful husband this summer. Everything about the wedding is really nice, except for this one thing.
I have four bridesmaids, and three will not be drinking for the event. My maid of honor is three years sober, one bridesmaid stopped drinking for dietary/health reasons, and one bridesmaid is pregnant. Obviously, I DO NOT want to make them drink, given their reasons. I’m not worried about the wedding, but the bachelorette has me full of misplaced self-pity.
I’m not a big drinker myself, but I had wanted my bach to be fun and bonding and all the things I’ve experienced at the bachelorettes I’ve been to. Since childhood, I have suffered from pretty intense anxiety that manifests itself in public. I am very medicated and in therapy, but it still only does so much. Because of my anxiety, I missed a lot of the classic American girl rites of passage. I was very excited for my bachelorette, as kind of a chance to finally have that experience. I’m also worried that without drinking, my anxiety/personality won’t let me “kick back.” The girls don’t know each other, so my anxiety will be on high alert/hostess mode anyways.
I also feel left out. Around here, bachelorettes are typically multiday destination affairs; for example, my eldest sister-in-law went to Miami, my next SIL did Vegas, my cousin-in-law did a week at Wrightsville Beach, and my closest SIL did a long weekend out at a lake in a gorgeous VRBO. Due to everyone’s schedules, my bach is the day before the rehearsal dinner, is one evening, and is obviously local. I already felt like I’m missing out a little, and with my girls not drinking, I really feel that way.
How do we have fun without alcohol? How do I not feel like I’m missing out? Are there ACTUAL fun things to do at a sober bach? I feel like all the ideas I’ve read are like “go bowling,” which just bums me out more. Despite my anxiety, I have a pretty high bar for adventure, and bowling won’t cut it. (No, cosmic bowling won’t cut it either.) I’m so torn between feeling sorry for myself, feeling like a spoiled jerk for feeling sorry for myself, and dreading my inevitably lame bach. What can I do?
Dear Bummed-Out Bride,
This sounds like a great opportunity to call in your bridesmaids to do some of the traditional bridesmaids’ duties, namely planning a spectacular bach for you. These three friends don’t drink, but presumably they are still fun to be around and know how to have actual fun on their own, so they’re probably great resources for planning an event that doesn’t revolve around booze. I have a number of sober people in my life and some of them throw real ragers. Reach out to your friends to let them know you’re anxious about not having a fun, epic bach like your sister and others did and ask for their help. Putting them all on a group chat about this will also relieve you of a little bit of pressure to introduce them all on the night off. You don’t have to shoulder this alone, and your friends will want to make this special for you. So let them help.
You may also want to bring up your desire to drink at your party. I don’t know how you feel about being the only one in the group drinking, but if none of them has any problem being around a person who’s drinking and you want to lower your anxiety enough to have a good time, you should go for it. It’s your party.
My marriage was a misery that only got worse after my husband died. We were separated at the time. My adult stepdaughters did everything short of accusing me of murder in order to steal away the estate. They were not happy with getting personal effects of their father and what was promised to them in the will—they tried to take everything that wasn’t nailed down. And then came back with a crowbar. His apartment had been ransacked and his work truck had expensive equipment go missing. I had to work with his employer to get the items back from my stepdaughters. It took the threat of a lawsuit to make them cough it up. The stress was so bad I started to lose my hair.
I had given back my engagement ring to my husband after we separated, since it belonged to his grandmother. I had no idea what he did with it as it wasn’t in his box at the bank. My stepdaughters accused me of deliberately hiding it from them. They confronted me at the funeral. One of them nearly got physical with me and a family friend had to get between us. I finally had to get a restraining order against two of my stepdaughters because of their continual harassment of me. We were never close, but I was never anything but fair to my stepdaughters. I gave them everything their father left them in his will and other sentimental items that he didn’t, like their grandmother’s quilts. I didn’t deserve to be treated like this.
After nearly two years, I finally decided to sell my husband’s old sports car. He was a pack rat, so I had the car professionally cleaned. The ring and a large wad of cash turned up tucked away in the emergency kit. I gave half the cash as a reward to the honest cleaner, but I don’t know what to do about the ring. I do not want to reengage with my former stepdaughters. At all. They were not close to their father at all, and despite inheriting his generous life insurance policy, they went after my home and even the vacation house I inherited from my parents. Part of me just wants to toss the ring into the ocean. Part of me wants to send the ring anonymously to my gay ex-sister-in-law. She was always at least polite to my face. And it would drive my stepdaughters nuts to see the family ring on her finger, despite the fact none of them have ever been married but have a multitude of children. Am I being petty, practical, or personally setting up family conflict here?
Dear One Ring,
You have a variation of the Rose-in-Titanic problem, although to be fair the submariners who were looking for the Heart of the Ocean necklace weren’t her abusive ex-stepdaughters.* But I suggest you both share a solution. Rose decided to keep the necklace’s location to herself and (spoilers for Titanic) toss it into the ocean at the end. This was controversial, in my opinion. She could have pawned it or opened up a Smithsonian with it or bought Twitter 20 years in the future. It’s less controversial in your case. It feels impractical and unhealthy for you to invite your ex-stepdaughters back into your life after successfully extricating yourself. They didn’t engage with you in good faith at all, and while that doesn’t justify depriving them of the ring, I think it makes a big difference here. Ethically, it may be gray, but you wrote to me, not The Ethicist, and I think that ring should never go back to them.
That said, giving it to ex-sister-in-law is going to poke the hornet’s nest and invite even more drama into your life. I think the objective here should be getting away from this family for good.
Part of inheriting heirlooms is becoming stewards of their stories and legacies. A piece of stolen artwork that was passed down should be returned. A contentious plot of family land isn’t going to get less contentious after the will is settled. In the same way, the energy that your ex-stepdaughters brought into their interaction with you and the energy that your ex-husband brought into your marriage are tied to that ring. Nothing is without cost or repercussion. Initially, I thought you should sell it and do something good with the money, but I don’t know if possessing the ring at all exposes you to legal liability with the estate. I’m not a lawyer. I think it’s best for you to just get rid of it. Give it to Goodwill or someplace similar. Release yourself.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“I love a petty flourish, especially with a slow burn, but it sounds like the stepdaughters are too powerful.”
R. Eric Thomas and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
I’m finding myself at a crossroads in my relationship. I am almost 40 and have been with my boyfriend for three years, on the path towards marriage. He is an incredibly sweet, supportive partner who I love to spend time with. But I’m finding myself frustrated at his lack of follow-through in many areas of his life. He has major anxiety issues but won’t put in the work to try and find some ways to help that anxiety, aside from therapy. He’ll have a huge anxiety attack and then promise he’ll do something so next time it’s not so bad, but he never does. He also has been talking about certain projects that he’s never finished over the years, and at some point I get frustrated hearing about the new idea he has that I know he won’t follow through on.
I am extremely motivated and have many things going on at once, and have made a name for myself in my career. I am worried that his lack of motivation and follow-through is something I just can’t handle in the long run, which terrifies me because we are a truly great pair in so many other ways. I talk to him about these issues in a gentle manner, trying to not be pushy but supportive, but still there’s been no movement forward in the years we have been together. I also worry that I will fall more into his way of life, and that I’ll slow down myself, which has already happened some but is also partially due to just getting older. What do I do?
—Motivate My Man
Dear Motivate My Man,
At a certain point you have to ask yourself, “Am I my partner’s coach, or am I my partner’s partner?” Sure, every relationship is a mix of both, but I think there’s a distinction between thinking that it’s your job to make sure your partner changes and thinking it’s your job to recognize who your partner is and be in a relationship with that person. We all change and grow throughout our lives, but it feels like you have expectations for your partner’s growth that he doesn’t necessarily share. Take the anxiety attacks, for instance. He’s already in therapy for his anxiety, which is one of the major ways of putting in the work. Yet your letter expresses frustration that he’s not doing something more to fix them. This feels a little unreasonable to me. I also wonder—and this is a non–clinically informed question—how much his anxiety is exacerbated by external pressure to be better.
Your motivation is your own. From the way you’ve written about your relationship, it seems that you hold motivation in high enough regard that slipping into a slower way of life by accident seems unlikely. You both may meet each other in the middle more as life goes on, but you will both always be independent people. The question you might want to ask yourself is, can you accept the person that he is? Does it harm you to hear about a project he won’t follow through on, or is his creativity and enthusiasm part of what draws you to him? If you’re a great pair in every other way and you manage to get done all the things you want in your life, why does he need to be more like you?
I am a highly successful professional with a long career. I am not bragging—it’s true. I am being honored by a local organization for my work, and I deserve it. Self-esteem is not the problem here. The problem is that I cannot tell people that I am being honored. I cannot stand to ask for recognition, and I did not ask for or apply for this honor. I do not like to be the center of attention. I am actually modest, shy, and highly introverted, but I found my calling and I’m good at it. My avoidance of the spotlight is a strong counterreaction to having been quite conceited as a child and having been told that this was not an attractive quality, and it’s true, it’s not! So I stopped! I tell people very little about my work and have told almost no one outside my immediate family about this upcoming honor, not even my siblings. I think my reaction is extreme and even a little weird, and maybe I’m depriving my family and friends of a chance to celebrate with me (which cannot really be done because it’s happening at a private ceremony). But I’m not comfortable asking for congratulations. “Oh, by the way, I’m being honored by XYZ Agency soon.” It just feels … icky. What should I do?
—False or True Modesty?
Dear False or True Modesty,
I find myself confused by the goings-on on LinkedIn most of the time, but one of the things that I like about it is the ability to passively update your network and have the site solicit congratulations from your friends and associates. Is there a member of your circle who loves to share news and might be able to act as your personal cheerleader on LinkedIn? I know that you’re hesitant to ask for congratulations, but think of this as sharing good news. We share good news with each other all the time. Sometimes that news elicits congratulations. But the basic sentiment is “I’m happy for you.” If you’re excited about your honor, consider that you’re sharing your excitement with those who care about you. In this way, good news is a kind of gift. Being conceited or braggadocious is a selfish act, but sharing your light is one of the more selfless things you can do.
Correction, May 13, 2022: This column originally misidentified the Heart of the Ocean necklace as the Gem of the Ocean necklace.
I love my fiancée, Janet, but I have concerns about the way she treats my 8-year-old daughter, Carly. The three of us recently went to a local water park. I gave in and allowed Janet to pay, but I was concerned because Janet gives gifts with strings attached. When Carly refused to go on any of the “scary” water slides, Janet complained bitterly and said she wasn’t getting value for her money. I’m concerned that Carly is more mature and honest about her own feelings than Janet is. Carly told me, “Daddy, I’m terrified of heights, I don’t want to go, and if you make me it’ll be really cruel of you.” Janet was unmoved and continued to sulk and make snide comments. Because we can’t have children, Janet wants us to adopt after we marry, but I’m reluctant to bring any more children into the picture until Janet has resolved her issues. What should I do?