Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. (R. Eric Thomas is filling in as Prudie for Jenée Desmond-Harris while she’s on parental leave.)
Q. Concerned out-of-district voter: My sibling is a toxic, narcissistic, controlling codependent type who is estranged from several people in our extended family. They are verbally and emotionally abusive to their spouse and extended family, including our aged father. While we were moving Dad into assisted living, we discovered they had secretly changed his estate planning documents to give themselves complete control (Dad didn’t realize what the revised documents actually said). They lied about it when it came to light. They’ve also been fired from multiple professional positions due to toxic behavior.
They are now campaigning for local political office, with little substance behind positions, but with great publicity and lots of photo ops. Like many in the current political arena, the narcissism is the likely driver behind the campaign. I think our sibling is “unfit” for office. Should I write a letter to the local paper (about why I can’t support them) or otherwise get involved? Do these character issues really matter, or is the family discord irrelevant and impairing my view?
A: The situation with your sibling is a little similar to that of Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, whose six siblings spoke out against his reelection campaign. It generated a lot of press, but ultimately he was reelected. So it’s worth asking yourself what result you’re hoping to get. Not to put on the election strategist hat, but do you think adding your voice to this election will have the result you intend, or will it simply bring more drama into your life? That’s not to say you shouldn’t speak out if your sibling’s polling numbers are too good, but that you should be clear what you want to accomplish here and if your tactics can achieve that. Some of the things you intend to write about are, unfortunately, going to come off as family issues and may be less persuasive. Others, like financial elder abuse, are illegal and, if provable, should be aired. But if you can’t prove it, you open yourself up to libel. In an ideal world, character matters. But in the worlds of politics and PR (and family), it’s not always that clear.
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Q. House-hunted: My father died six months ago unexpectedly. We hadn’t spoken in years, so I was shocked to find out he left his entire estate to me. He left me two paid off properties: his childhood house and his three-bedroom condo in the city. As my rent is about to rise sky-high when my lease runs out, I have been debating about which property to sell and which to move into.
I asked my mother for advice. Apparently, her husband leaked the information to his daughter, “Debra.” My mother remarried when I was in college, so Debra and I didn’t have much to do with each other beyond the occasional holiday. Debra is getting a divorce and desperate to find an affordable house in a good school district, which fits my house. She looked up my house and then called me up, begging me to sell it to her. I “had to.” The conversation left me very uncomfortable and I put Debra off by saying I needed to talk to my lawyer.
I have a lot of internal conflict over how things ended between my father and me, and selling his childhood home to anyone I know feels like a recipe for disaster. On top of that, my family has also been pressuring me on Debra’s behalf. I understand she is going through a rough time and my mother considers Debra’s kids her grandchildren, but I have zero connection to them.
How do I deal with this? My lawyer told me to just put the house on the market, but I am afraid of the family backlash.
A: Inheritance is so rarely without some sort of trial or tribulation, at least judging by the Dear Prudence letters, and my pet theory is that it’s because inheritance is an unholy marriage of legal/financial business and familial emotion. They’re simply different languages. However, the house and the sale of a property is very clearly the in the category of legal language. You should explain to your family that whomever you sell the house to, it’s going to go through your lawyer. This is a business deal with a lot of legal liability on both sides and a lot of money at stake. Your family may want you to “just sell it” to Debra, but I don’t think one can “just sell” a house. Offloading the entire conversation to your lawyer because of the headache, the paperwork, and the legal protection will also allow you to sidestep any conversation about price. Your lawyer doesn’t have to get you a record-breaking price on the house, but they do have a responsibility to protect your interests.
Chances are, the family will pressure you to give Debra a deal. Telling them that you’ve entrusted your lawyer with this business dealing isn’t a foolproof way of getting them off your back, but it will help place the conversation back in the business arena rather than the family emotions arena. Also, see if you can have a one-on-one conversation with your mother to explain that you’re trying to protect yourself and protect Debra. She may not be able to fully mitigate the family pressure and tension, but hopefully she’ll understand where you’re coming from.
Q. Poop-free weekend: I have a group of college friends that have known each other for more than 20 years. We haven’t been able to hang out for a long time because of the pandemic. One of my friends, “Gabby,” offered to host the five of us for a weekend this summer. I am beyond excited to spend time with everyone.
However, I was able to see Gabby recently at her house. I hadn’t been there in years. Her house was disgusting. She allows her dog to urinate and defecate everywhere. In just the short time I was there, an afternoon, the dog peed twice and pooped once on the floors. Gabby grabbed a dry towel to wipe the urine—no cleaner, not even water in the clean-up process. The place smelled awful. I asked her why she allows her dog to do this. She didn’t want to talk about it, and just said that she leaves for work and can’t let the dog out during the day, so it is used to using the floors at its toilet.
I do not want to stay there for a weekend. I would offer my place, but we are getting our house ready to sell. I was thinking of suggesting a rental somewhere, but Gabby is single and works a low-wage job that doesn’t leave her much disposable income, and I don’t think the other friends would understand why we would need to do this without me saying that Gabby’s house is too gross to be in. Is there any way to diplomatically manage this weekend? Is there a way to do say something without hurting Gabby’s feelings and so we don’t subject everyone to her dog’s foulness?
A: Oh my! It’s neither here nor there but I really don’t understand Gabby’s reasoning and it deeply concerns me. Like, not on a clinical level or anything, just logistically and hygienically, I’m vexed. Sounds like you are, too. If you don’t want to get into it with the friend group, see if blaming it on allergens might work. Suggest that you all rent a house because you found that there’s something about Gabby’s dog that’s setting you off. It’s a weak-ish excuse but it’s not technically a lie. You should also reach out to Gabby one-on-one and offer to pay her portion of the rental, if you can, and explain that you had a reaction in the house (again, not technically a lie) and you hope she doesn’t mind. She might see through this, but I don’t know that that’s a problem. You’re not under an obligation to stay in a home that’s unpleasant and it sounds like you’re willing to do the extra work to manage everyone’s feelings around it, which is very kind.
Q. Never the right fit at the time: I (25F) recently graduated with my MFA, making it my third degree. Summa cum laude, “gifted kid,” blah blah blah. All of my degrees are creative in nature, and my dream is to work in a very specific, extremely competitive industry. While logically I know I’m young and it will take time to get to where I want to be, I don’t know how to avoid getting burnt out while searching. I obsessively stalk job boards, I have over 100 (seriously) tailored cover letters, and I keep my portfolio up to date. I feel like I’m doing everything right! But I’ve been applying to internships and entry-level jobs for three years now, and I always get ghosted or wake up to an automated rejection. It’s depressing and degrading. And yet, I see a new job opening and can’t help but get excited, even though I’m just setting myself up for disappointment! I wish I could just give up on it, but I’m currently in a non-creative career that makes me miserable, and something inside me won’t let me quit. I know it’s way too soon to let go of my dreams, but how can I possibly stay encouraged?
A: As someone who worked outside of my desired industry for more than a decade before finding a way in, I understand your feelings of frustration and disappointment. I can’t tell you that it won’t be hard, especially in a competitive field where there are more nos than yeses. But I can tell you that the thing that changed things for me was cultivating my practice on my own for myself. It’s one thing to keep your skills sharp and your resume updated, it’s another to do creative work for the sake of doing creative work. This can be hard to fit into the schedule of working full-time, I know. But if you don’t remember why you love the work, the grind of trying to get paid to do the work will wear you out. Find a place in your practice that is just for your own enjoyment and guard it fiercely. Even if you’re looking to, say, go into TV development and you don’t consider yourself a creator per se, there was some part of that world that sparked for your initially and some way that you expressed your creativity before the schooling and the applying took over. Don’t let go of that.
Q. Hoping to breathe easier: Ten years ago, my father died of smoking-induced lung cancer. Since then, my mother has actually taken up smoking again. For my siblings and I, this has been hard to cope with. Our mother is respectful and doesn’t smoke in front of us, but when we return home, the house smells like an ashtray. It’s deterring us from spending time there.
How can (or should?) we bring this to her attention? We love our mom, but her smoking is becoming a barrier to us enjoying time with her at home. What advice do you have for us?
A: As I’m sure you know, your mother’s choice to pick up smoking is likely tied up in grief, old habits, and the pull of nicotine, which makes it impervious to logic and medical advice. Your mother probably knows this too, so having a conversation that is as free from judgment and shame as possible will help you. Pick a location that’s comfortable and private, but not her home. Maybe use your home instead, or if that’s not geographically possible, try a phone call. Using “I” statements, let her know that the smell of the smoke in the house is hard for you to be around, from a physical comfort standpoint and from an emotional one. Tell her what you wrote here—that you love her and want to spend time with her, but that the smoking and its effects are creating a barrier. Tell her you want to come up with solutions. And if the conversation goes well, you may also want to ask her why she’s smoking again and if she’s considered quitting or alternatives. But if you ask that, you have to be prepared to accept her answer, even if the answer is “I don’t want to quit.”
Q. Re: House-hunted: Property law and estate law are among the most complicated and arcane areas of the law, so you want to follow everything to the letter, and that’s why you leave it to your lawyer to deal with this. What you don’t want is to have this come back and bite you because you didn’t disclose something to your stepsister that you didn’t know about because you have never lived in that house, and then have her demand, post-sale, that you owe her money to get something fixed. Prudie is right. Leave this to your lawyer(s), and make sure you use a reputable and experienced broker to handle the sale. “Just selling” it (which sounds more like code for giving it to her at a substantially below-market price) will bring on a world of hurt, even more than having people be angry at you for protecting yourself.
A: Yes, I really worry that the family is encouraging LW to cut her stepsister a deal, which makes mixing family and business even more complicated. Leave it to the professionals to hash out!
R. Eric Thomas: Thanks for your questions and comments, everyone. And just a programming note: The live chat will be taking place on Tuesday next week because of the holiday. Be good to yourselves!
From Care and Feeding
My husband and I were lucky enough to find a great day care less than a mile from our house. I typically drop our 3-year-old off on my way to work, and my husband picks him up on his way home.
My husband owns multiple cars and often rotates which he drives to work—but he only has one car seat. I assumed he moved the car seat in the morning when he chose what car to drive, but discovered he was not doing that. He admitted that if he happened to drive a car that didn’t have a car seat in it on a given day, he would simply buckle our son in normally (as if he were an adult). I was livid and told him I felt like this was dangerous and really irresponsible. Am I overreacting?