Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Welcome back! Who would you like me to yell at for you today? Let me know and I’ll see what I can do.
Q. Want a Normal Wedding: My fiancé’s mother “Dorothy” is driving me up the wall. Her latest move? Inserting herself into our upcoming wedding by demanding that we allow her to let her perform a five-minute aria from Puccini’s Turandot right before the first dance. For context, Dorothy is a classically trained opera singer who has been out of work (aka off the stage) for about two years now, and it’s clear her ego’s been pretty bruised by the lack of fanfare and recognition. My fiancé “Derek” doesn’t know how to stand up to her, so even though he agrees that Dorothy performing at OUR wedding is ridiculous, he has allowed her to believe that it’s OK. Derek tells me it’s the least we can do given that his family is paying for the catering and insists the aria will be “over before you know it.” I don’t want to be rude to Derek or Dorothy, but there is no way I’m letting this happen. Prudence, please advise.
A: Oh no! Why did Derek tell her yes without your permission? That was a bad, bad move. I actually think it would have been fine to say no in the first place, but now, it would be kind of messed up to change the plan. You’re going to be having an amazing day that will fly by. Can you just use the given minutes to drag your big dress into the bathroom and freshen up your hair and makeup before the first dance? If you want to die on this hill and really put your foot down, you can but expect hurt feelings and drama. I think you’d be better off letting Derek know his unilateral decision-making was not OK and setting some standards for how you plan to create boundaries with his mother in the future. Because this won’t be her last big performance, I promise you that.
Q. COVID Cop-Out: For years I’ve been suffering from a chronic illness. Very few people in my life provided any support or understanding. Even my parents, who helped me when my symptoms got particularly bad, would make passive-aggressive comments implying that I was lazy. My father’s extended family has been particularly terrible. They all ganged up on me right before I graduated from grad school because, not only did I take longer to graduate because I had to go part-time, but I didn’t work full-time to support myself. Mind you, I had a scholarship with a small living stipend that I was very lucky to keep when I went part-time. Even my friends, who believe me about my symptoms, constantly say things like “it’s just stress” or “have you tried yoga/acupuncture/massage.”
I finally found a good doctor who was slowly helping me get better, then I got COVID. I ended up with some long COVID symptoms that slowly went away after a few months. I’m still dealing with some lingering symptoms or my chronic illness could just be in a period where it’s worse for no known reason. A few weeks ago, I had to cancel plans with my family because I was just too tired. I’ve been feeling better and this weekend I went to a cousin’s birthday party. My family has done a complete 180 on how they treat me and my illness. I realized at one point that they all think I still have long COVID, which they all completely accept as a legitimate chronic illness. Some of them even offered to let me take the potluck leftovers home so I wouldn’t have to cook. I was stunned.
A part of me was so mad at the moment, but now, I’m starting to think I should maybe capitalize on this and just let people believe that I have a long COVID. I realize I may not be able to do this forever, but do you think it’s unethical for me to let my family believe that my symptoms are related to COVID? If I said something like, “I’ve continued to have symptoms after getting COVID,” I wouldn’t technically be lying. I feel so relieved that my family is finally offering some support, but it makes me feel bad that it’s under false pretense. What do you think?
A: Go for it! They haven’t treated you well, and you don’t owe them 100 percent.
Q. Why Do I Do This to Myself?: I am an intelligent, high-functioning professional in a high-stakes field. I’m well-liked in my job and perform well on the actual specialty-specific portion of my work. But I have a serious problem. I procrastinate. Not on everything, and not necessarily on the hard stuff. But every once in a while I get a task I just can’t make myself do. A recent example: I was invited to speak at a conference and developed horrible paralysis about booking the travel to the point I nearly lost my place. These episodes of being “stuck” happen randomly, often over stupid things, that get worse the longer they are ignored. How can I make myself stop doing this? Why don’t I just do these things as they come up?
A: You are not alone! Many people do this. I do this. I am sure you’ve thought about whether a therapist or coach could give you some tools to change your habits. Without involving anyone else, one thing that has really helped me is the Pomodoro Technique, which basically involves setting a 25-minute timer during which I am not allowed to use the internet for anything other than the task at hand, or do anything else. I tell myself I’ll just start. Usually starting is the hardest part and it’s not actually that bad once you get going. But how do you get yourself to actually set the timer and say “Go?” I find it helpful to think about how good it will feel to have it done, and how nice it will be to wake up the following morning without it hanging over my head. Or I’ll save something I want to do—like jump into a gossipy group text thread, shop online, or listen to a podcast—and not let myself do it until I do the dreaded-but-not-actually-that-terrible thing.
Q. Older Sister: How do you find closure when all the major players are dead and gone? I grew up in a nuclear family that consisted of my parents and my dad’s best friend. As an adult, I believe that it’s likely they were privately all in a relationship, but as a kid, it was just mom, dad, and Carl. My mom was an incredibly strict parent with a huge emphasis on outward appearances and the phrase “what will people think?” was burned into my brain, probably because she was struggling with hiding her own relationship. I believe her parenting often rose to the level of abuse, and even when my dad or Carl disagreed with her, in the household her word was law. I still struggle with an eating disorder and poor self-esteem I developed in childhood, now in my late 50s.
When I was 19, moved out, and married my first husband with a kid of my own, my dad died suddenly. Within a year, my mom was remarried to Carl. They eventually had two “second chance babies,” which he took a much more active role in raising, and both of my half-siblings talk about what a warm and loving childhood they had. We remain in touch because we don’t have much extended family, but it’s deeply painful to remember seeing them raised so much better than I was, and even today they both live much more stable and happy lives than I do. How do I let this go, when both my mother and Carl are gone at this point, and I have to make the best of what I can?
A: You’re not upset that your half-siblings had a better life than you did, you’re upset that you were abused and had a miserable childhood full of secrets and lies. You don’t have to let that go. It just might be a matter of separating your very legitimate issues with the way you were raised from the grown-up “second chance babies,” to the extent that is possible. It is not too late for therapy to try to heal and get help for your eating disorder and self-esteem. I think if you’re actively addressing the painful parts of your life, it might be easier to be in touch with your half-siblings, and maybe even open up to them about your struggles. I would not be at all surprised to learn that if you dig deeper, you’ll hear that they had some of the same experiences you did.
Re: Q. Want a Normal Wedding: OP, you describe this as MIL’s “latest move”—have you both butted heads previously? Where has your fiancé stood in those situations? If he is normally behind you 100 percent and this was an aberration, then yeah you can probably just hold your breath and get through it. If he routinely defers to her over your wishes or agrees to things without consulting you, this is a much bigger problem than wedding entertainment. Once you are married, you need your spouse to be on your team first (within reason), not his mother’s.
A: Great attention to detail. “Latest move” tells a whole story, doesn’t it? Also, I guess “demanding that we allow her to let her perform a five-minute aria from Puccini’s Turandot right before the first dance” is pretty obviously not the behavior of someone who insists on herself one time only. I feel confident that this is not an aberration and agree that, wedding program aside, LW will be miserable if she doesn’t work to change the husband-MIL dynamic.
Re: Q. Want a Normal Wedding: Sure, it was wrong of Derek to agree without talking to the LW, and maybe future MIL could have asked differently, but LW is complaining about having a professional singer perform for free—for FIVE MINUTES—at her wedding. Most people would consider it a wonderful gift. Sounds like LW’s ego is the one that would be bruised in this situation. Maybe ask MIL to sing something different that’s more to your liking?
A: Totally agree that a quick song doesn’t sound like the worst thing ever. But weddings are very personal and people put a lot of effort into planning every detail, so I can see how a musical interlude that didn’t fit the original vision would be annoying. In any case, as the previous commenter said, it’s not really about the singing as much as it is about the (potentially) much bigger problem between LW, husband, and MIL.
Re: Q. Want a Normal Wedding: The synopsis for Turandot does not scream “just perfect for a wedding.”
“Turandot, daughter of Emperor Altoum, has decreed that she will only marry if a suitor of noble blood can answer three riddles. If he cannot, the price shall be his head. Her most recent suitor, the Prince of Persia, is to be executed at the moon’s rising.”
Re: Q. Want a Normal Wedding: An aria at the ceremony could be really lovely. It can be a nice personal gift from a loved one and is very appropriate for a ceremony. I think it would kill the vibe at a reception.
A: OK, I’m learning more about opera by reading these responses. But I just want to say again that it doesn’t matter what we think might be lovely for any particular part of the wedding. The people getting married get to decide what happens. The rule is not, “Everyone gets to put themself on the program and the bride and groom can only remove them if their performance doesn’t sound nice.” Vibes are beside the point. If LW agrees to this it’s because she is strategically avoiding a fight and saving herself stress, not because it’s okay for MIL to go around insisting on stuff like this.
I live in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country, but on one of the more “modest” streets—mostly doctors and lawyers and family business owners. (A few blocks away are billionaires, families with famous last names, media moguls, etc.) I have noticed that on Halloween, what seems like 75 percent of the trick-or-treaters are clearly not from this neighborhood. Kids arrive in overflowing cars from less fortunate areas. I feel this is inappropriate…