Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. For this edition, Alicia Montgomery, vice president of audio at Slate, will be filling in as Prudie. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
Three months ago, a horrible accident occurred just a few blocks away from my house. My good friend “Grace” was the main witness, and ended up being essential to defining what happened. A mom was standing with her 3-year-old son in the front yard, on the phone with someone. She had her back to the street and was loosely holding her son’s hand. Grace’s cat followed her outside, and it started playing with a toy on her porch (across the street). The little boy pulled away from his mom and ran into the street, presumably to reach the cat. They lived midway up a hill, and cars come down fairly quickly. Tragically, the toddler ran directly in the path of a pickup truck and was killed. Grace not only saw what happened, but the security camera above her garage filmed the entire awful event. The driver was below the speed limit, it was getting dark, and the video shows the mom facing in the opposite direction from the street and her son while speaking to someone else, but she was holding his hand tightly and clearly didn’t expect him to tear away from her that quickly. In the end, it was determined to be a tragic accident.
But the family of the little boy believes that the driver was in the wrong, and are convinced that Grace missed something, that her security camera was pointing at the wrong angle, and even have blamed her for allowing her cat to leave the house, as she should have known that children would come and pet it, or that she was an irresponsible owner for letting it outside and couldn’t be trusted. (The cat is 11 years old and walks with a limp, it can barely run, and is very attached to Grace.) The parents, as well as their relatives, friends, and even other neighbors, have been implying that it’s thanks to Grace that “a murderer is going free,” both in public and on Facebook. Grace has been accosted in front of her house by family members, and her neighbors have become incredibly cold and no longer include her in their social events. She has received cruel messages and is the subject of multiple nasty posts that all but spell out name her directly.
Grace and I are both widows in our mid-60s, and her closest family is several states away. Witnessing a horrific accident was already incredibly traumatic for her, and now she’s being isolated and bullied by our community, led by the family who she thought she was helping find the truth of what was ultimately an awful accident with nobody at fault. The same people who she used to attend church with have now implied they no longer want to see her on Sundays. My friend, once a social butterfly and widely recognized as a good citizen, now frequently tells me that she is scared to leave her home and that I am the only support she has left. I desperately want to do something to help her, but it’s obvious that the people targeting her are angry and grieving. How should I go about this? Write an op-ed about “loving thy neighbor” in our church newsletter? Send a letter to the parents who seem to believe that an elderly woman is purposely covering up a murder? Find Grace a therapist?
—Worried Widow in WI
Dear Worried Widow,
What a tragedy for your friend and for these parents. Yes, they’re being irrational, cruel, and unjust to Grace. As terrible as this is for your friend, I ask that you try to see this from that mother’s perspective. Every moment is now filled with grief, guilt, and the final memory of her child’s hand in hers, wondering if she had held tighter, hadn’t been on the phone, would her child still be alive? Perhaps the only thing that’s keeping her from hating herself every second is reimagining this scene with Grace as the culprit. We all hope that, were we to endure something as awful as the death of a child, somehow we’d still find it in our hearts to be good people and treat others well. But this is just three months into an incomprehensible, unending nightmare for this family, and it’s not realistic to expect them to do better right now.
Your community is another matter. There’s no excuse for them—the church, the neighbors—to join in targeting Grace. Every time someone in that circle says something in your presence about Grace, tell them in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, that Grace was a witness to a terrible accident and has tried to do the right thing at every step. Don’t get into debating details with the amateur conspiracy theorists in that crowd. Just stand uncompromisingly in the truth about Grace. I believe that there are plenty of people in your community who already understand what’s happening is wrong, and by continuing to speak up on her behalf, you may give some of those folks the courage to speak up as well. An op-ed is not a bad idea, as long as you don’t fall into casting blame onto the bereaved family for not doing better in the wake of a toddler’s death. For what it’s worth, you can alert Facebook to what’s going on, and see if they’ll do anything to address the online harassment.
Finding a therapist might be good to help Grace deal with this trauma. Also, if you and Grace are close, reach out to that family she has several states away. If it’s possible, find out if someone could stay with her for some time, or even just visit regularly to keep her from being alone in her house. As painful as it might be to consider, it may be time for Grace to leave her home and be in a safe, welcoming community closer to people who love her. In theory, she should be able to stay in her house because she’s blameless. In practice, that could mean settling in, waiting—potentially for years—for this incident to recede into memory, for the child’s family to come to their senses or leave the community themselves. Then she could righteously stay in a home that—no matter what—will be forever associated with this accident, surrounded by neighbors who have been actively or passively complicit in letting her be bullied. I wish that doing the right thing would be enough to make this OK for her, but that might not be the case.
Continue to be a good friend to Grace. Your relationship may be the best thing in her life right now.
I was assigned to a new workgroup recently and for the brainstorming phase of a new project, they generally go to lunch and throw around ideas. The lead invited me to ride with her. I am pretty seriously lactose intolerant but have found it easy to accommodate at restaurants through my own careful selection and simple menu changes like asking to omit cheese from a sandwich, for example, so I didn’t bother to mention it. On the way, I asked where we were going and she said there was a place nearby known for the macaroni and cheese they all love.
When I looked at the menu I saw it wasn’t that they’re known for their macaroni and cheese—it’s literally a macaroni and cheese restaurant with very few other offerings, all of which heavily include dairy! Without major changes (which I wasn’t going to ask the kitchen for as it’s not their fault I can’t eat dairy and it was a busy lunchtime), I wasn’t going to be able to eat anything there. I just ordered a drink and explained the situation to the other team members, saying not to worry and that I had plenty of snacks at my desk when we got back.
Later that afternoon, as I passed by the lead’s office, I heard one of the other members of the team complaining about how now the group won’t be able to go there anymore because of me and how it was so obnoxious of me to make such a big deal out of it when I’m the new member of the team and should’ve just gone along with what the established team already does. I promise you, I didn’t make a big deal at all, I looked at the menu, realized I wasn’t going to be able to get anything, and then just casually explained to the group after I ordered only a soda. I didn’t pout or complain while there. Should I do anything to try to smooth things over with this team member or just ignore them?
—Not Team Dairy
Dear Not Team Dairy,
No, you don’t need to do anything to smooth things over. It’s likely that one of these things was at play in that moment you overheard:
1) You’re working with some very boring people, who share this complainer’s opinion that the lunch order of a colleague is worth commenting on, hours after the meal ended. Or…
2) Your colleagues don’t like you for some other reason, and this lunch order just gave them a (flimsy) excuse to mouth off. Or…
3) While this pout-fest was in progress, most of your co-workers were silently wondering why your lactose intolerance led to this much chatter from your teammate.
No matter the reason, your path ahead is to pretend that you didn’t hear any of this nonsense. It’s not a big deal, and any reasonable person on your team will realize that. But if your co-workers enjoy these kinds of petty, tedious conversations, be grateful if you’re never invited to lunch again.
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My 24-year-old son has a daughter from a one-night stand that he refuses to be a part of her life. He feels the mom is “crazy” and will ruin his life. In the beginning, he expressed a desire to very much be a part of her life and even had the soon-to-be mom stay with him for a while. Then she returned home and he became involved with someone else.
Now he completely refuses to acknowledge his daughter, who’s now 3 months old, and gave me an ultimatum that either I could have a relationship with him or with her. I believe strongly that babies need both parents and it’s his responsibility to be a dad. His dad has convinced him this woman will ruin him and have him locked up every chance she gets. I decided that I wanted to be a part of my granddaughter’s life and now both my children refuse to have a relationship with me at all. Was I wrong to want to be a part of my granddaughter’s life? I felt extremely guilty being involved and am essentially miserable over the entire situation. My granddaughter’s mom is allowing me to see her and keeps me updated on a regular basis. He thinks I took her side because I see the baby. He feels it’s my fault that she is seeking child support. I have always been extremely close to my kids and I’m devastated.
Dear Broken-Hearted Mom,
You’re absolutely in the right. Your grandchild deserves to have the love and support of both of her parents, and it’s good of you to step up when your son won’t. I’m bewildered about why your son’s dad and sibling think this is OK. But no matter the explanation, they’re profoundly wrong. I don’t care what this child’s mother is like, there’s no excuse for abandoning your kid.
Full disclosure: I had one of those dads who opted out of fatherhood shortly after he and my mom divorced. My grandparents demonstrated their loyalty to him by staying out of my life as well. That was 40 years ago. It still hurts. Please don’t do that to your granddaughter.
Your son doesn’t realize this, but you are doing the right thing for him, too. This child is his legacy, regardless of whether he accepts that. One day, if you are part of what helps her to grow up happy, secure, and thriving, she might find it in her heart to forgive him. He doesn’t sound like the kind who would thank you, but he should.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that your son or your other child will follow through on this threat, or maintain it for long. What are they going to tell people about why they don’t speak to their mother anymore? She spent time with her grandchild when they wished that the whole family would ignore and abandon her? But even if your son continues to demand that you stop seeing your granddaughter, explain that you love him, and one way you express that love is by making sure his child is well-loved and looked after. Full stop. Don’t be drawn into debates or negotiations. Take heart that you’re being a good mother by showing your kids that it’s important to do the right thing, even when it costs you dearly.
Shortly after I went to college, I learned that a beloved high school teacher, Mr. Larson, had been arrested for sleeping with a student. He was 41 and she was 15 when the affair began. I’d been close to Mr. Larson—it was a small school; I took many of his classes—and was disgusted by his behavior. I didn’t think much of him, though, until a new hire joined my team… It was Mr. Larson. It’s been years since he got out of jail. I still find his crime repugnant, though, and don’t have any idea what to say to him when we have to work alone together (which we will). He has tried to reach out to me over Slack, but since they’ve been personal messages—he basically wants to clear the air—I ignore them.
I don’t want to torpedo my career, and as much as I’m dying to seek advice from my work friends, I don’t know that “exposing” him is the right or professional move. I’m also still close to several high school friends, including the sister of his victim. I don’t know how to get over my discomfort, “clear the air” with Mr. Larson, and talk about this with my friends. Help!
—School’s Back in Session
Dear School’s Back,
Just a bit of clarity here: There’s no such thing as an affair between a 10th-grader and a 41-year-old. It’s rape. I’m not saying that to shame you or to be the language police. It’s just that a lot of us—myself included—grew up in society at a time when these kinds of “relationships” were seen as scandalous, but not inherently abusive. They are, and it will take a concerted effort from all of us to establish this understanding across our society.
Your discomfort is natural, and getting over it shouldn’t be a priority. One of the unfortunate lessons of the tumult of #MeToo is that the respectful silence of people who know a predator’s history—even if it’s well-intended, aimed at giving that person a chance to do better—often makes it possible for the offender to hurt someone else. It doesn’t sound like you’re certain that your employers know Mr. Larson’s history. You should make sure that they do. This isn’t about “exposing” him; this is about making sure that—if your company consciously decided to give him a second chance in society—they’re doing it in a way that’s as safe as possible.
If you’re concerned about how this disclosure may follow you professionally, I want to assure you that, should you keep silent and Mr. Larson takes advantage of someone else—an intern, the daughter of a colleague—that could follow you as well, if not professionally, then personally. If you don’t want to get mixed up in this at your office, which is perfectly understandable, this might be a good time to start quietly looking for work somewhere else.
I have a friend, “Anne,” who got married about five years ago. Since then, she has slowly faded away as a friend. I get that’s happening, but the problem is, she basically sees me as a friend only when her husband is away. She told me once that she feels “uncomfortable leaving him at home.” Meanwhile, he spends several days a week leaving the house on his hobbies. I realize that friends change when they get married, but she almost completely blows me off when her husband is in town. I’ve struggled to find friends that I enjoy as much as her, I just feel like an afterthought. Am I being unreasonable? Is this just one of those things that I have to accept as a part of her personality now?
Dear Distant Friends,
You’re not being unreasonable. This is just one of those things, but you don’t have to accept it. A lot of women—and I’ve been guilty of this, too—focus their energy on their romantic partners, and neglect their friends as a consequence. It’s hard to have a friendship fade like this, but you’re doing your part, and she’s not doing hers. You’re not required to be a better friend to her than she is to you.
You could reach out to Anne, and be explicit. Say that you value her and her friendship, but that you feel like she only contacts you when her husband is gone and she feels lonely, and that it hurts your feelings. See how she responds, and let that guide you in your decision about whether to work on this relationship or let it go.
My son just got married and refuses to send thank you cards. I’m very embarrassed by this and told him so. Some of the people who sent gifts were my co-workers and relatives and I think he is showing a lack of respect, in addition to just being rude and selfish. He feels his life is his own and will not do something just to make me happy. How do I go forward with my relationship with my son? Just let it go? I’m really having difficulty.
—Needing Some Thanks
Dear Needing Some Thanks,
Your very brief letter left me with a lot of questions. If your son just got married, is he refusing to send out thank you cards, or has he not gotten around to it yet? Why are you very embarrassed about the lack of cards sent to relatives and co-workers? They know he’s a grown man, and you’re not responsible for his actions. Did he invite these relatives and your co-workers to participate in his wedding at all, or did you? Are they all reaching out to tell you they’re distraught over not getting a card, or are you opening up this question with them?
I agree, your son and his spouse should send thank you cards for wedding gifts. But in the hierarchy of moral lapses, this isn’t close to a top 10. If he were playing Chutes and Ladders—does anyone still play that?—this would cost him 15 spaces or 25 spaces, but not the whole game.
So that leads to another question: Is there something else going on between you and your son that this feels like a relationship-threatening failure? This is the phrase in your letter that troubles me most: “He feels his life is his own and will not do something just to make me happy.”
His life is his own, right? That’s not just a feeling, but a fact… A fact that I think a mom would want to celebrate on some level, even if he makes some decisions you disagree with. How much of your anger with your son is about his failure to send out thank you cards, and how much is about his refusal to prioritize what you want him to do? He’s not going to center your wishes and happiness in his life, not if he wants to have a successful marriage. I’d suggest that you talk with someone, a therapist, about whether that—and not these cards—is what’s at the root of your difficulty.
If you continue to make a big deal of this, you may not have the choice whether to end your relationship with your son, because he may end it first.
Catch up on this week’s Prudie.
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I recently found out that my husband of five years has been cheating on me for about two years. Of course I am angry and devastated. I kicked him out, got tested, and have started divorce proceedings. This should be pretty cut and dried, but there’s a catch. Over the last two years, he has been taking pieces of my jewelry and giving them to his mistresses. Normally I would just call it a wash, since he bought most of the jewelry.