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. My Feelings Were in Storage: My older sister and I are not close. I found some years ago that I didn’t like how she treated me—using me as a doormat, taking out her frustrations on me. It finally hit me that her behavior was narcissistic. I limited our contact, and felt great about my decision to do so.
Last month we were together for an extended family visit. We spent some time together, me cautiously. She confessed to me that she had, during a recent period of serious illness (COVID and cancer) for her husband and herself, failed to pay the rent on the storage locker where we siblings kept our late mother’s belongings. The items are now irrevocably lost. It’s extremely painful that we lost several family photo albums and personal things that are part of our history. I also am angry at my sister for the way she told me, briefly just as we were parting, so that we had no time to go into detail. I was so stunned by the news I was speechless.
I would like to send a furious email about this to her, but I imagine doing so would feed her various pathologies, her narcissism and her sense of being a victim. I can dimly understand how she made this stupid blunder, but I am not sympathetic—I am enraged. My feeling is: I thought I had made it possible for her not to get to me, but she found another way to cause me pain. I would like to cut her off, but I also don’t want to award her with too much emotional attention while doing so. And yet, and yet. Where do I go from here? Is this just the price of COVID?
A. Mistakes happen, oversights occur, but I don’t think this is the price of COVID. I can’t tell whether your sister has any malicious intentions here, but the way she told you was callous and odd. Still, I would trust your gut instinct about not sending the email. Who’s to say if it would feed her pathologies, but crucially, it wouldn’t change anything for you. Right now, your hurt and anger are the only things in your line of vision. I think it’s fair to sit with those, to work through your feelings, and to refrain from contacting her. Talk to someone else about your shared history and this recent transgression, work with a professional to sort out the ways she’s able to cause you pain. And if, after that, you still want to decisively cut her off rather than just never reaching out again, you should. But I think the thing you should focus on right now is acknowledging and working through your own feelings.
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Q. Can’t Face the Music: My partner of five years is a wonderful human whom I love dearly. He is also a person who writes and composes songs, and records them on CDs. From the beginning, he had me listen to them, and I lied and said they were great, and have kept lying. They’re not great. They’re mediocre and at times, grating. But songwriting is a huge part of his life. What does it mean for the relationship that I think poorly of his art? Shouldn’t I at least like his art if I love him?
A. Ideally, our partners would love our art, but sometimes art is a job, other times it’s a hobby, and we don’t ask our partners to come to our offices or the golf course and judge our performance there. So you’re not obligated to love his art just because you love him. And you’re allowed to pull away from listening if it’s driving a wedge into your relationship. He presumably doesn’t make art for just you, but it’s clear that he appreciates your approval. So you’ve got to ask yourself if you love him enough to continue lying a little. But I really don’t think that disliking his output spells trouble for your relationship. They can’t all be hits.
Q. First Timer: My fiancé and I are expecting our first child in August. During a visit around March, his mother declared they would be present for the birth. At that point, we hadn’t even discussed what our delivery day would be like, let alone having visitors at home or the hospital.
We agreed in the moment, but ever since then I’ve not only been resentful of her declaration but stressed over the idea of his large family being with us during those early days. I don’t like to be crowded when I’m stressed, and he has a large and tight family. I know they want to welcome our daughter into the world and help out, but I’m not looking forward to it. I want to breastfeed in private and bond with my new family without people breathing down my back to hold our daughter.
I thought I could compromise and make it easier on myself by stipulating that the adults are welcome but the young children are not. Frankly, I don’t want to hear anyone else crying but us. I told this to an older lady friend (I’m 33), and she basically told me I was being selfish to exclude the children and that this would rub them the wrong way for years to come. I told her it’s my delivery, and I don’t understand why I have to consider their feelings when I’m in pain, emotional, and sleep-deprived. Not only that, but kids are germ magnets, and I don’t want to supervise people. Am I being selfish? I know there’s a whole no-visitors movement by moms putting their foot down because of the stress family can add after bringing a new baby home, and I’m here for it. I’d appreciate your insight.
A. I hope that people who have had children will chime in in the comments, but since I haven’t, I would like to give my perspective as one of those family members who could potentially add stress by showing up. Keep them as far away as you want for as long as you need. I simply can’t fathom what child is going to hold it against you that they didn’t get to be in a hospital room with a newborn, so your older friend’s advice is frankly perplexing to me. I’ve had many friends and relatives give birth and, besides sibling visitors, kids were never there. Maybe this is how some people operate, and that’s fine. But if it’s not how you operate, then it doesn’t need to be a point of discussion. The new grandparents, your in-laws, are a slightly different story, but not so far off. They can welcome the new baby, but they have got to do it on your terms. Figure out what feels most comfortable for you, talk with your husband to be sure you’re aligned, and set a boundary.
Q. Asking for a Friend: I’m looking for some perspective around friendships and my seeming lack of success with them. I’ve long been insecure about having friends, how many I have, feeling like people don’t like me, being left out, etc. Growing up, my parents didn’t have friends and never seemed to care. As a teen and in college I invested most of my time in friendships, maybe in response to that. I felt—still feel—that one’s chosen family can be a more powerful source of connection. But now, years out of college, I talk to exactly zero of those friends. When I moved to my current city almost five years ago, the line of communication with one of my best friends vanished. I often wonder if I did something wrong or if they realized they didn’t like me. This is a pattern: I can’t seem to maintain long-term, consistent friendships, and it only gets harder to make new ones as I get older. Apart from this, I’m happy with my life. But I can’t shake the feeling that I must be doing something wrong or that I’m an asshole. Do you have any advice for reframing this or gaining a healthier perspective?
A. It’s my personal feeling that a lot has to go right for a friendship to stand the test of time. It doesn’t always seem like that from the outside. Plenty of people stay in each other’s lives for decades, picking up where they left off after time apart, making plans together, etc. But for all the effort that long-term friendships take, there’s also a certain amount of luck. Sometimes we don’t get lucky, even with the best friends. Life takes different turns, circumstances change, schedules get crowded. So, I don’t think it’s you. It isn’t that you’re not making friends, so my first guess wouldn’t be that you’re an asshole. I think it’s hard to always know how much to pursue friends, especially when distance becomes a factor, if you don’t have good role models. But all is not lost. It is literally never too late to reach out to someone by text or even (gasp!) phone call to tell them you’re thinking of them. See if you can finagle a trip back and meet up for lunch. Long-term, consistent friendships may not look the way you want them to look or imagined they would, but consider all friendships to be ever-evolving things and start thinking about how you can (re)build these friendships, or new ones, moving forward.
Q. Re: First Timer: OMG—please put your foot down, or talk to your partner and have them do it. We told my in-laws that we would call them when it was time to come for a visit, but because we had to induce our son’s birth, my mil burst into the delivery room while I was laboring. BURST IN WHILE I WAS LABORING. Fortunately, she was pretty tough, and I told her politely that it wasn’t a good time and she should leave. The “older lady” has no effing idea what she’s talking about. Keep everyone out, please, for your own mental health.
A. Burst in the room!! My goodness gracious! I understand that emotions run high during births, but even well-intentioned relatives need to practice a little patience and make sure they’re respecting personal and medical boundaries.
Q. Re: My Feelings Were in Storage: Get creative. Send a message to extended family, making sure that your sister is cc’ed on it. Inform that family that because your sister failed to pay the rent on the storage locker, you’ve lost almost all of your memories of Mom. Ask extended family if they have photos, etc., that you can use to fill them out. Emphasize that you are not mad at your sister, merely a little disappointed. If you phrase this right, you can make yourself look very, very good, and make your sister feel awful. If you’re lucky, repeating that you’re not mad and that you forgive her will send her into a downward spiral that makes her feel even worse.
A. I like the idea of soliciting memories and mementos from family, but I worry that the rest of the gesture is a little too transparent and will just create more controversy. Also, if the sister has a problem with narcissism and a victim complex, this will undoubtedly feed that.
Q. Re: First Timer: Don’t tell them anything. Don’t tell them when you’re in labor, where you will be delivering, when the baby comes. Wait until you’re home, and then tell them when they may come, and in what configuration. Don’t let anybody in early/with kids/whatever you want. Tell them your pediatrician endorses it. I promise s/he will back you up.
A. I love this stealth approach! It might be a little extreme, but you know what—better safe than sorry. Go full Mission: Impossible with it.
Q. Re: My Feelings Were in Storage: I would contact the storage unit and see if they know what happened to the contents. If they were auctioned off see, if you can contact the winner.
They are of no value to them so maybe they can give them back or at least sell them to you. It is worth a shot!
A. This is a great idea! A few other people also suggested that and it makes perfect sense. These items are gone now but they’re not gone without a trace.
Q. Re: First Timer: Many hospitals are still restricting visitor policies due to COVID, so you should check where you are delivering and see if that gives you an easy explanation to limit the people present during and immediately after giving birth. For the time when you get back home, you absolutely should decide with your husband what you are comfortable with, and then it is HIS job to communicate that and manage his family. You will be recovering, bonding with baby, and generally in need of rest, so he should take on the burden of managing his family and their reactions. If they get upset, so be it. This is your and your husband’s time to rest, heal, and bond. If an example helps, I just delivered my first in February in a big city, and could only have two support people in the hospital, so I only allowed my husband and my sister (whom I am very close to). Then back at home, we had my husband’s parents over at the end of week one, then my parents at the end of week three, and the rest of the siblings and their spouses around week four. We spread out the visits so we didn’t get overwhelmed. And zero children were allowed to meet our baby until he got his first round of vaccines at two months, which was what my pediatrician recommended. Fevers and other illnesses in babies younger than two months are a very big deal and warrant trips to the E.R., so use COVID and your baby’s health as an easy excuse to stand your ground. And congratulations!
A. Yes! Great call on noting that the husband needs to take the lead on running interference here. The LW absolutely doesn’t need to be involved in any debate about this, now or after the delivery.
Q. Re: First Timer: I can’t imagine anything I’d like to do less as a parent of young children than endanger a newborn with their germy little hands. My toddler recently caught a terrifying virus that landed her in the hospital and seems to be the “Parechovirus” that is causing deaths and seizures in young children per the CDC. I could never forgive myself if one of my kids passed it on to an infant. Absolutely say no.
A. I can’t get over the older friend’s advice about kids. It just doesn’t make any sense. Cousins and other kiddies can stay home. It’s better for them and it’s much better for the infant.
R. Eric Thomas: Thanks for your questions and comments! That’s all we have time for this week. Be good to yourselves!
Don’t miss Part 1 of this week’s chat: Help! My Selfish Sister Forgot to Pay a Bill and Lost Precious Family Heirlooms.