Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers on Mondays at noon ET. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Hope everyone had a good weekend! Let’s get started.
Q. Not the Mama: This is a weird problem. I have two brothers. One is Zach (38). The other is my younger brother Gil who’s 15 and is convinced that I’m his biological parent and that I was forced to give him up to be raised by our mom and dad as a teenager. He’s believed this since he was 13.
It isn’t true. I was 17 so it was technically possible, but it never happened. The problem is that there is no way that I have found to convince my brother of that. He will let go of it every now and again, but then it will bubble back to the surface. He approached my ex-boyfriend to ask if he was Gil’s “real” father, called our parents “grandmother and grandfather,” and made bitter, inappropriate comments about me “raising my other children” at family events. My children are toddlers and don’t really understand him, but I want this sorted before I have to deal with that too. Zach wants us to do a DNA test to settle this but other proof we’ve offered (photos of me that year not pregnant) just made Gil dig his heels in harder. I believe Gil needs some real psychological help. And anyway, our parents won’t agree. They say we shouldn’t dignify his delusion by addressing it.
That said… his birth was really weird. I was in France for a semester and Zach was at college—neither of us ever saw mom pregnant. The idea that our parents might have adopted a baby is weird (From who? And why, when they’d always expressed relief that she would have an empty nest soon?) but not impossible. It’s a box of worms that I worry about opening when Gil is already in such a weird place. So with that in mind, what seems like the best way to get Gil to stop harassing me about being his mother? I feel mean writing that, and I know he’s always struggled that Zach and I aren’t as close to him as we are with each other, but I also just want him to stop.
A: This is indeed weird. Why don’t you go ahead and do the DNA test just to put it to rest? I agree that a two-year-long obsession with this topic is troubling, but who knows, maybe his instinct that he’s not being told the whole truth is right. Either way, it seems it would be worth it to put his mind at ease (or nudge your parents to tell him the truth about his adoption!) Also, if he won’t accept the evidence or develops another theory about being an outsider in the family or being lied to, that will confirm that there’s an issue with his emotional and mental health that’s bigger than this question. If he goes “Whoops, sorry, I guess my hunch was wrong” and doesn’t lash out, you’re left with a brother who, like you said, would really like to be closer to you. Hopefully, with this issue out of the way, you can make that happen.
Help! My Mom Doesn’t Think My Fiancé Is Enough.
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Q. Immovable Object Versus Unstoppable Force: My aunt loves to talk. It is her mainstay. She has always been this way. We used to talk several times a week, but I got tired of the fact that she never asks anything about me or my family. It is entirely about her. When I remind her, she will inquire for a little bit of time, but then everything goes back to her. I love her dearly, and I know there is no way to change her, but I recently blew up and told her how much it hurt me that she didn’t ask about us. After a few months of non-communication, she wants to resume as usual, but she is exactly the same. We are talking, but my resentment is building again. Is there anything I can do when there is no way to change anything?
A: This sounds like a good opportunity to practice acceptance. And also steamrolling. Let me explain: You are not going to turn your aunt into someone who is polite enough to remember to ask about you. And you’re going to continue feeling really frustrated if you keep hoping she’ll change. I don’t know why she’s like this, but you say “She’s always been this way” and she probably always will be. So accept that. If it doesn’t make you want to cut her off, here’s where the steamrolling comes in: You get her on the phone and just start talking about yourself. You know how she has a way of going on and on without taking a breath and without giving you any chance to interrupt? Practice doing that! Say all you want to say. If she speaks up and turns the conversation to herself, keep talking over her. Only pause if she’s asking a relevant question. And then, when you’re done and you’ve been thoroughly heard, ask her how she’s been.
Q. Plantation Abomination: My wife and I (both women; together for six years, married for three) have taken the opportunity of both our jobs going fully remote to move from a condo in a crowded, expensive Northeastern city (on which we made a fantastic profit) to 18 gorgeous acres in the semi-rural Southern area where I grew up, close to my family. The land currently contains a nasty old single-wide trailer where we’re living with our dog and three cats until we can build our dream house, after which we plan to start a family. However, we’re having trouble agreeing on the style of the house. My wife, who is Black, but physically close to white-passing, and grew up in the urban Northeast, has her heart absolutely set on a white plantation-style house, with big pillars all around. But as a Southern-reared white woman who is nonetheless doing my best to live an anti-racist life, the idea of living in an imitation of a relic of slavery makes me cringe.
My wife thinks I’m being silly because it will be a brand-new house “with no history but ours.” Neither of us is a fan of modern architecture, but my first choice would be a Mediterranean-style house, which my wife insists would be “all wrong” for the area and the site, which is full of magnolias and mossy oaks. She’s shot down French provincial and Craftsman as well. Should I give in and let her have her plantation house, even though it’ll mean a lifetime of protesting, “But my wife is Black!”? Otherwise, how can I talk her out of this?
A: First, a clarifying question: Are you against the house because the idea of living in an imitation relic of slavery makes you cringe? Or are you against it because you’ll have to say “But my wife is Black!” when and if people judge you for it?
If it’s the latter—that you’re just trying to stay on the right side of Black people and seem anti-racist—defer to the main Black person in your life and let her have what she wants, assuming it’s really feasible to build in such a style in 2023. And just kind of absorb any resulting comments or side-eyes from the public.
If it’s the former—and the idea of living in a plantation-style home is upsetting to you personally—put your foot down. White people are allowed to (and should) dislike slavery too, and it is possible that your local upbringing attunes you to this aesthetic in a more immediate way! Just like anyone would be within their rights to pass on a house styled after a high school best known for being the site of a mass shooting, even if they hadn’t personally been affected by a mass shooting, you are within your rights to not want to wake up every day in a physical reminder of human suffering. Tell your wife that. And—exactly like every couple with wildly different tastes featured on House Hunters—find a compromise.
Q. Don’t Want My Butt In Your Face: This is a low-stakes question, but here goes. I’ve noticed that recently when I’m sitting in the middle or window seat of a plane and have to get up, instead of also getting up to let me out, people will just gesture for me to clamber over them, which is putting me VERY IN their personal space. Like, I’m basically in their lap (it’s economy! There’s not a lot of room, to begin with). I don’t know if this is standard operating procedure or if people are just doing it because I’m a woman in my early 20s and I seem … agile? I’m not getting up a ridiculous amount, but sometimes it’s a six-hour flight and you’ve gotta pee. It’s not a big enough deal that I’m going to ask people to get up instead, it just seems super awkward to me, so I’m just looking for a take on what the social contract is for this situation.
A: Flying is so uncivilized these days. I really don’t feel like there are any social contracts. Just think of the debates about whether it’s okay to recline your seat, whether toddlers should be allowed to watch cartoons without headphones, and whether adults should give up a seat for a parent and child who want to sit together. Nobody agrees! And people get MAD. Some madman was just talking about offering people large sums of money to take off their masks. I mean what the hell. We weren’t made to be stuck next to strangers in a confined space for long periods of time. It’s honestly amazing that there aren’t more physical fights in the air.
Two tips: 1) Say, while looking your seatmate in the eyes, “Excuse me, do you mind getting up for a minute so I can get out?”
2) GET AN AISLE SEAT so you’re less vulnerable to whatever strange choices other people make.
Q. Rotten Candy: I have an in-law who sends me emails pitching her children’s fundraising efforts for school activities (the usual stuff: selling candy or whatever to finance trips or equipment). The emails are polite and low-pressure. It irks me, however, that she is doing this on behalf of her children (she even wrangles the cash via Venmo).
If the kids actually reached out to me (they are tweens), I’d buy. We have a direct relationship and sometimes text each other. But the mom doing it seems lame to me. I should also mention the school is wealthy and the activity groups are probably decently financed. So I feel like the core reason to do these sales is to teach these kids that things cost money and they benefit from investing in their activities. Am I being an old fuddy-duddy? Should I tell the mom that I’ll buy something if the kids do the work? Or just be a bad uncle and not buy anything? Or just suck it up and buy stuff?
A: I have a friend who has her daughter make a personalized video for each person she’s asking for support for her fundraisers. Then the friend texts them out. It really shows that the little girl is invested and did some work. I also imagine it takes a LOT of time and effort for everyone. More time and effort than most people who aren’t total overachievers could spare.
Kids and parents these days are so incredibly busy. I imagine your in-law got the news about the kids’ fundraiser at the end of a long day of work and parenting and felt social pressure to raise some money and decided to send out a quick mass email after bedtime instead of spending the weekend bugging her teens to make sales calls. That, to me, is totally understandable. It’s also 100 percent fine if that doesn’t inspire you to buy the candy. Just ignore the message and save your money for supporting the kids in some other way that actually feels good to you—like by shoving a $20 bill in their hand the next time you see them. They’ll probably remember and appreciate that more anyway.
Re: Q. Not the Mama: Is it possible that Gil has picked up something from the more uninformed or misogynistic parts of the internet that would lead him to believe that women over a certain age are past their “sell-by date” and therefore can’t get pregnant? I’m wondering if he’s so convinced his parents cannot be his parents because he thinks it’s physically impossible for his mother to have been pregnant in her 40s. If he’s misinformed on the biology of pregnancy itself, maybe a sex-ed lesson can help clear up some of his misconceptions. In either case, it sounds like something happened to trigger this and it might be good to find out why it started in the first place.
A: Hmm would not have thought of this but who knows! I would never doubt the internet’s ability to convince a teenage boy of something weird. You’re right that more questions about what’s behind his thinking would be a good start.
Re: Q. Rotten Candy: I’d tell my in-law, “Please have Jake and Thea call me. I’d love to chat about what they’re up to in school and hear about this upcoming trip/new uniforms/what have you, and we can talk about the candy sale.” Then buy generously to reinforce the phone call.
A: I have to admit I don’t love this approach. It just seems like a forced interaction that isn’t going to leave anyone feeling great. But it does serve the purpose of the LW putting the burden or candy-selling back on the kids, which seems to be what they want. Why not just text them instead of the parents?
I really dislike hugging my parents and family and have no idea how to tell them that it makes me very uncomfortable and anxious. When I was younger, my mother was especially distant and rarely hugged me or told me “I love you.” My father was more open but was not around as much because of work commitments.