Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Happy Monday, everyone. Now is the time to get all of your non-holiday questions off your chest before the second week in November when we inevitably start talking about whether you have to invite your cousin who stormed the Capitol to Thanksgiving. Go!
Q. Feeling Lost: My daughter has decided to hold me entirely accountable for her dad’s bad behavior, and I need advice. My husband is not a violent man and would never raise a hand to me or our daughter, “Kate,” but he does have a filthy temper that has caused issues over the years. For example, he blew up when Kate got a boyfriend, aged 14, yelling and calling her names, and then years later when he found out she had a boyfriend who she had kept secret (aged 17), he was so angry at the secret-keeping that he broke her laptop and said she’d have to use the school computers for work. I want to be clear that he apologized profusely for both these incidents and others like it, and that Kate has her share of responsibility, too—she would scream back at him, deliberately broke reasonable rules (like no underage drinking or boyfriends!), and generally went out of her way to antagonize him. It was a nightmare being in the house with them at each other’s throats throughout her teens. I hoped that since she moved out for college and got her own place that things would calm down between them.
Instead, Kate refuses to speak to her dad at all and has not been home to visit since 2019 (only in part, due to the pandemic). He misses her terribly and has asked what she wants from him, but she hangs up the phone if he speaks to her and won’t answer emails. After years of her bluntly ending conversations with me whenever I tried to raise speaking with her dad, she finally told me in a recent call that she blames me for her dad’s “emotional abuse” (not a term I agree with at all nor one she was able to defend when quizzed) and that I should stop paying things like her phone and car bills for her since she thinks we should “part ways.” She offered to send a check when I bridled at the nerve of this, but I know she can’t afford that. I asked what I had ever done to merit this attitude—I hardly raised my voice throughout her entire childhood and we used to be close—and she said I did “nothing” and this is “the problem.” The call ended with both of us crying.
I don’t know what to do. I am terrified to tell my husband what she said as it will break his heart, and I am also angry with Kate. I don’t think she is looking at things clearly at all—her account of her childhood suggests it was a Dickensian horror story, when in fact she was often spoiled, dearly loved, and given countless opportunities at great expense to both her parents. Can you advise on what I can say or should do to try and heal the breach between us? Am I wrong to think her reaction is grossly disproportionate to what, by her own account, amounts to a childhood in which her dad sometimes yelled at her? I feel lost and badly need an outside perspective.
A: Yes, you really do need an outside perspective. I’m going to be transparent: I’m on Kate’s side here. I believe your husband was emotionally abusive. I strongly disagree that a teenager shares blame for emotional abuse. I think it’s probably incredibly painful for Kate that you didn’t (and still don’t) stand up for her. I don’t think a young adult would make the decision to cut off her parents and turn down financial support lightly.
So, this isn’t a breach that can be healed unless you get your head around the idea that this was much, much worse than “a childhood in which her dad sometimes yelled,” truly believe that, and grapple with your role in it. I understand that you’re attached to the story you’re telling yourself about your family, and that really being honest about the kind of person your husband is could cause a lot of things to fall apart, emotionally and financially. But that’s what’s going to have to happen if you want a relationship with your daughter.
Q. Why Would You Ask That?: Last week one of my co-workers asked if I was pregnant. I am definitely not. I vacillated between feeling embarrassed for her and wanting to laugh it off as I said, “No, why would you think that?” She replied, “You eat like you’re pregnant.” She then said that lots of pregnant women eat oatmeal, which I eat for breakfast every day. This woman and I have always been friendly toward each other. We work in a profession where empathy and social intelligence are perhaps the most important values. At first, I wasn’t bothered but as I drove home that night I spiraled into self-hatred and anger. (What if I had been pregnant and didn’t want to tell anyone yet? What if I’d been trying and desperately wanted to be pregnant and couldn’t be? What if I’d just miscarried?) I guess my question is—should I say something to her? It’s such a deeply insensitive thing to ask and I did not get the sense at all that she felt bad about it.
A: Let me be clear. This lady has no home training and was dead wrong. But I don’t think you have to say anything to her. Here’s why: Co-workers are just random people with whom we’re forced to be in close contact, including in ways that can feel really intimate, like sharing meals and bathrooms. If your goal is to train them to behave the way a friend you chose would, you’re going to be in trouble—or at least have a lot of frustrating work cut out for you. I think it’s much wiser to work on acceptance. Repeat after me: “There are a lot of people in the world who don’t play by any rules, have no idea how to interact with others, and suffer from intense cases of Not Knowing How to Talk to People, and some of them will work with me. This isn’t personal.” Vent to your friends. Re-post passive-aggressive memes on your Instagram stories. Work to be a better and more sensitive person than she is in your own life. Remember you’re not getting paid to worry about her shortcomings. So don’t. And keep enjoying that oatmeal.
Q. How Do I Stay Away From the Bad?: So this is something I’m not going to face for a while at least, but I’m worried about it and want to have my ducks in a row. I’m heading to college, where I will hopefully get an undergraduate degree, and then I hope to go to med school to become a surgeon. I’m white, and I’ve been made somewhat aware of racism in the medical world (based on testimonies/stories of friends and friend’s-friends). When I hear about how my friends who are people of color have been treated, medically, I think it’s clearly horrible and racist. But I’m worried that in the course of med school, I’ll pick up the same tendencies those doctors have. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but I guess my question is: How can I make sure that in learning how to be a doctor I don’t fall prey to racist ideology?
A: I think simply being aware of and worried about this will take you far, and may even be your solution. That said, I know extremely stressful experiences like medical school can be disorienting and cause people to lose sight of their values. So, you may need to build something into your life to keep you anchored. Poking around a little, I saw that the University of Washington School of Medicine has a health equity book club that aims to increase “understanding around where we have fallen short and demonstrate commitment and accountability to improving healthcare equity at all levels of the organization.” Look for something like that, or if it doesn’t exist, make it a point to surround yourself with people who share your outlook and will hold you accountable.
Q. I Want This to Work: My boyfriend lives two and a half hours away and wants me to move in with him. The only issue is, I have a son that goes to school here and I don’t have it in me to take him from his friends. He loves going to school there. I want to move in with my boyfriend. How do I make this work?
A: Boyfriends come and go. Your kid is forever, and it sounds like your gut is telling you what he needs. Stay where you are. The boyfriend can move to you if he wants.
Re: Q. Feeling Lost: Uh, your husband IS A VIOLENT MAN. Violence is not held within the boundaries of physical hitting. He smashed her laptop. Called her derogatory names for dating a 17-year-old. Verbal abuse is violence, madame. I’m sorry you’re so resigned to this behavior from your husband that you think it’s OK. Your daughter has drawn a boundary and you need to support that. Your violent, abusive husband made his bed. You can lay in it with him or make an effort to understand your culpability and make amends.
A: Yes to all of this. I’m 100 percent sure LW has experienced his abuse too and I feel bad for her but it’s time for her to follow her daughter’s example and stand up to this guy.
Re: Q. Feeling Lost: Wow, this mother is still blaming her daughter for her husband’s abusive behavior and has the temerity to wonder, “What have I done to deserve this?” Her daughter’s contact with her is a hell of a lot more than what this mother deserves.
A: Yeah, the (intentional?) cluelessness is overwhelming.
Re: Q. Feeling Lost: Ma’am, you need out of this relationship. Your husband is verbally and physically abusive. While he never laid a hand on you or your daughter, he has abused both of you. Her response makes perfect sense. You did not protect her from his tirades. I am so sorry you are in this situation, but you need out and probably some therapy with yourself alone and together with your daughter.
A: I’m really glad LW is hearing this from so many different people. I hope it sinks in!
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