Dear Prudence

Help! My Husband’s Surprise Teenage Daughter Needs a Home, but I Really Don’t Want to Be a Mom.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

15-year-old girl standing holding a bag with a giant X crossing over her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by dimamorgan12/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every Thursday on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I never wanted children—we preferred to travel and spoil our dogs. He got the snip before we even met. Only, six months ago, we found out that he has a 13-year-old daughter, “Ella,” from a college fling. The mother gave up the baby to a relative for an adoption, only for the family to fall apart when the adoptive mother died. (A relative tracked my husband down on social media and we had a paternity test done.) The adoptive father dumped his daughter with her birth family and never looked back. Ella currently is sleeping on the couch of her great-aunt and has no stable adult in her life. Her grandparents are disabled and sickly, the biological mother is in jail, and the rest of the family isn’t great.

My husband feels obligated to take Ella in. We talked to Ella via phones and Zoom. She seems to be a perfectly nice girl who got dealt a bad hand, but I have no idea how to parent a teenager. I had severe mental health issues growing up and while therapy and medicine have helped, it isn’t a cure-all. My own mother suffered from severe depression and was told that having a baby would “fix” her. Instead, she had my brother and me—and took her own life when I was a teen. I refused to inflict that horror on someone else.

I know my own capacity and taking on the full-time care of a troubled teen isn’t it. If Ella was much older or younger, I would be fully on board financially. But she is too young to live alone and too old for a nanny. We have given the great aunt money for Ella’s care but she has bluntly told us that my husband needs to come and get her. My husband tells me he can’t do this alone and needs me. Help!

— Not a Mother

Dear Not a Mother,

This is such a hard situation for everyone involved. Nobody, including your husband—although he of course took the same risk everyone in the world takes when he decided have heterosexual sex—asked to be here. You definitely didn’t do anything to deserve it. And Ella really, really didn’t. Poor Ella. You have no official obligation to her. But at the same time I desperately want this innocent kid to have you and her dad in her life. I found your letter almost impossible to answer because of that.

When I begged for help on Twitter and the responses from readers started rolling it, it became even clearer to me why it was so tough. The wrong person wrote to me! The advice I really want to give is not to you, but to your husband. He has to take responsibility for his child, and it is not fair at all for him to say he can’t do it without you. Ella is his kid, and she needs him. He should be saying “I hope we can stay together, but she’s moving in one way or the other because I refuse to abandon her.”

A few people pointed this out:

Her husband is making a choice between her and Ella (a difficult but compassionate one IMO), and now she must choose between staying or going. Ella won’t be 13 forever, the years fly by, and the net benefits to her AND reluctant stepmom could be unimaginably wonderful. —@clairehoworth

He’s her father, and more importantly—he wants to be her father. She needs to either let him do that and step away, or get on board, STAT. The safety of a minor is at stake, more so than the wife’s preferences. —@karenohuber

The husband needs to step up and be a father. But she does not need to be a mother. He needs to stop putting his decision on her shoulders, saying he can’t do it without her. He may have to, and that’s not her fault. It is fully his. She has a right to protect her mental health. —@AdrianAnnMiller

Since he didn’t ask for advice (the people who really need to never do!) I want to reiterate to you that you don’t have to do this. But I think you should seriously consider it. Open your mind to the possibility that, while your preferences and your concerns about being a mother figure are extremely valid, this could work out much better than you think it will. You have a lot going for you. You are caring for your mental health and, most important, are conscious of not wanting Ella to have a negative experience because of you. That means a lot.

It *might* help the LW to recognize that she has much better information about her mental health than her mom did—it sounds like her mom had criminally terrible doctors. Best way to really learn something is to teach it. She should go for it. It’s going to be hard and a growth opportunity, and while not everyone should be parents, I think [LW] is better suited for it than she thinks. She doesn’t seem willing to hand down the pain she experienced. That, to me, is the first and best criteria for being a good enough parent. Self-awareness is important, but many of us are skewed toward self-doubt reflexively, especially those of us with anxious/depressed mothers. Get into some couple’s therapy and buy some extra snacks. —@igotnothin3

I hope this tragedy becomes an opportunity for you to heal from the awful hand you were dealt as a child, and surprise yourself with your capacity to love. I had a similar situation of unexpectedly raising a teenager, and it led me down the path of (a very joyful!) motherhood. —@aarti411

I do, of course, think you may do better with her than you think you will if you go that route, because of how much of your dread comes from what you think you cannot do, rather than what you do not wish to do. Many people who were not parented well become good parents. —@lindaholmes

If I’ve convinced you, there is one important conversation that you need to have with your husband before Ella arrives: Being a woman does not make you the default parent. He has to take the lead here.

If he chooses to take in Ella and she chooses to stay in the marriage, she must talk with her husband explicitly about what his duties are. He can’t accept assuming that she’ll be the primary caretaker. —@heyitsbrigid

^ this times 1000. The expectations around gender, etc. are going to be a huge potential stumbling block here. —@cleanandgritty

Finally, the two of you should get absolutely all the help you can find and afford.

Not to say they’re in any way required to take her in, but she’s definitely not too old for a nanny! It won’t be the same job description as for a toddler, but if they have the financial resources, the right fit will enrich both the nanny’s and Ella’s lives. —@OleaBlossom

I agree with those saying she isn’t too old for a nanny. Hire professional childcare for after school & Saturdays & get a therapist & a family therapist. Make sure your husband knows he will be the primary caregiver & will be the one making sacrifices socially, at work, etc. —@NYCJessa

13’s not too old for outside help. It’s a tough hand for all of them. —@Aloe9678

Find a good school and therapist for Ella. Put her in activities. Make parts of life automatic: We always eat her favorite dinner Tuesday, friends always get gift certificates for birthdays. Explain your mental health struggles aren’t about her. Build a community, ask for help. —@amandamdarling

Do this both to ease the burden on you and your husband and to provide Ella with even more people who love and support her. She’s going to need that.

Classic Prudie

My neighbor sends me religious texts every day, usually a passage from Scripture and a “daily blessing.” I’m agnostic, so I try to keep an open mind, but I sometimes find it annoying and certainly preachy. Should I block her number and risk missing important messages, ask her to stop and risk offending her, or try something else?