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I’ve been low-contact with my abusive dad for several years now, and my mental health has drastically improved as a result. I’m a queer trans person (they/them) and would be happiest never speaking to him again. I am in contact with my mother, who occasionally gives me updates on his life. I know my mother was victimized by him in her own right, but she also enabled and justified his abuse of me and my siblings. Now my mother is currently dying of a chronic illness, and her prognosis is only another year or two. I live across the country, although I plan to move to be closer to her this fall. But I’m already thinking about her funeral: I don’t want to go when it finally happens.
Growing up, I was mercilessly mocked for being too “sensitive” by my relatives. The environment was incredibly homophobic and transphobic. I don’t like showing emotion in front of them. I haven’t seen any members of my extended family in years and don’t want to. I have one sibling I sometimes commiserate with about how messed up our childhood was, but we’re not otherwise close. I realize not attending would likely destroy my relationship with my remaining relatives, but I don’t want to maintain that relationship anyways. I do feel guilty about not wanting to stay close sometimes, but I’d rather grieve with my partner and my friends, who accept me and love me for who I am. Based on previous interactions, I worry that attending might trigger a mental health crisis. But I also know these people think I’m overdramatic, selfish, and attention-seeking. The last time I tried to bring up my panic attacks to my mom, she told me to “just close my eyes if I get scared,” so I dropped the subject. What are my obligations here? How do I take care of myself when skipping your mother’s funeral is pretty universally seen as an awful thing to do?
—Can’t Grieve Together
I sometimes refer to the “gift of clarity” as one of the rare upsides that comes from realizing a relationship has been damaged beyond repair. Your relatives believe you are overdramatic, selfish, and attention-seeking and have mocked you for your suffering in the face of their homophobia and transphobia. I don’t think there’s anything you can do to change their opinion of you, not even if you were to attend her funeral and behaved according to their exact specifications. Given that it is not possible to please them, you have total freedom to disregard their opinions. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to immediately free yourself of residual family pressure or misplaced guilt (although you can process those feelings with a therapist, your partner, a journal, and your friends at your own pace), but it does mean you’re free to make your own decisions without taking your relatives’ feelings into account.
You don’t have to disclose this plan to your mother if you think it would hurt her. Right now she’s alive, and you’re prepared to offer her support and comfort, so focus on the task at hand. But she won’t be at her funeral, and deciding to keep yourself safe from the relatives who abused you and enabled your father’s abuse does not harm your mother, nor does it diminish the complicated but real love you feel for her. You also don’t have to tell people about whether you’ve attended your mother’s funeral, if you think they’d try to question your decision. This guilt does not come from some wrongdoing you need to make amends for, but is part of the abusive structure you’ve worked so hard to get distance from.
In February my daughter “Jana” stole a plush toy from the backpack of her friend “Erin.” She was caught and sent home for the rest of the week. My husband and I agreed Jana would apologize to Erin and the rest of the class, be grounded for the rest of the month, and have sessions with the school counselor. When Jana apologized to Erin, Erin’s mom, “Sylvie,” told her that her apology was not accepted, that she was a thief, and that Erin would never be her friend again. When Jana apologized to the class, Erin plugged her ears, and later she and several other girls called Jana names at recess. I understand that my daughter did something wrong, and I couldn’t change whether Erin would be her friend again, but this was going overboard. I tried to talk with Sylvie about my concerns. She told me I should care more about raising a thief.
Later that month, Sylvie told another mother that Erin wouldn’t be allowed to go to her daughter’s birthday if Jana was there. The quarantine put a lot of this to the side, but I recently learned that Jana’s group of friends have been having Skype play dates. They’ve also met up for gatherings at a local park. Sylvie has asked that Jana be excluded from these gatherings. I’m worried about Sylvie’s obsession with punishing Jana. Some of the other moms are uncomfortable with Sylvie’s requests but don’t know what to do. I know my daughter made a mistake, but she’s a kid, and she has been punished. I’m not sure what to do to protect her or if I’m biased and this is reasonable behavior.
—My Daughter, the “Thief”
There is nothing reasonable about Sylvie’s behavior. Her vindictive campaign against a little girl who swiped a stuffed animal is rapidly approaching Captain Hook levels of obsessed. If some of the other parents are uncomfortable with Sylvie’s demands that they snub a child who apologized for trying to steal a toy six months ago—frankly, they should all be more than just “uncomfortable” with it—they should stand up to her and tell her she’s behaving like a child, and not an especially mature child at that. She doesn’t own the school or wield actual power over any of the other parents, outside of the “power” to throw a fit when she doesn’t get her way. There’s no reason for them to wring their hands and ask, “But what I can I do?” She’s trying to enlist other adults in a six-month vendetta against a child nemesis, and those other adults should refuse to countenance it.
In the meantime, you can start arranging play dates for Jana with other children (whether over Skype or in a park, depending on your family’s risk management plan). Surely there are other parents at this school who don’t live in fear of Sylvie’s wrath. If Erin and Jana are going to be in the same class this fall, now’s also a good time to raise the issue with their teacher, so they can supervise the kids accordingly and make sure no one’s ganging up on your daughter. Jana’s already been punished to a pretty extreme extent, and one of the things she needs from you right now is reassurance that stealing a stuffed animal isn’t something that’s marked her character for life.
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A decade ago, I began dating an incredible woman, “Hannah,” a single mother to her newborn “Max.” Max knew from the beginning that I wasn’t his biological father, but he’s always called me Dad, and I legally adopted him when he was 4. Hannah and I were discussing marriage when she was killed by a drunk driver. It was the worst year of my life. I only got through it because I knew Max needed me. I tried to include Hannah’s parents in his life and even offered to move closer so they could see him more, but they said they didn’t want me “foisting a kid on them.” For Max’s sake, I try to be friendly. Two years ago, I started dating a wonderful man, “Luke.” (I’m bisexual.) Our relationship is great, and Max loves him. Luke moved in with us shortly before lockdown, and it’s been a godsend having someone to look after Max when I’m at work. (I’m an essential worker.) Hannah’s parents were appalled to find out I was dating a man after I told them last year and suddenly wanted to become “involved” once Luke moved in.
When they found out that Luke looks after Max while I’m at work, they called CPS and reported that I had abandoned Max with a strange man and “potential predator.” Luke and Max actually received a visit while I was at work, which established that Max was safe but also terrified and distressed both of them. I have now received several calls from social workers who have been told that Max lives with “two strange men,” neither of whom are related to him, and that his grandparents are “frantic” about his safety. Hannah’s parents say they’re going to sue me for full custody because I had “nothing to do with their grandchild.” I’m at a loss. They’ve always been low-key homophobic, but this is so extreme and out of the blue that I’m concerned for their stability. Aside from consulting a lawyer (which I’m doing), what should I do? How do I explain to Max, who loves his grandparents, what is happening? I don’t see how I can ever see these people again after their behavior. I have been exhausted since lockdown began, with increased pressure at the hospital, Luke struggling to work from home, and Max’s education, and this has honestly broken me. I feel overwhelmed just thinking about it.
—Not a Stranger
I’m so sorry Max’s grandparents are putting you through this nightmare scenario. I don’t wonder that you feel exhausted and overwhelmed. I’m thrilled to hear that you’re talking to a lawyer, which is the most important thing you can do right now. Not because your not-quite-in-laws have a solid legal case for disrupting a lifelong relationship between you and your son on the basis of your having a boyfriend, but because they’ve made it clear they’re willing to stoop to any levels to harass and intimidate you, and you deserve robust legal defense and counsel. You might also contact the National Center for Lesbian Rights (which advocates for all LGBT people, despite the name), which publishes guidebooks for LGBT parents and offers a legal hotline for further counsel.
I hope this goes without saying, but do not allow Max’s grandparents to have any further contact with him. There’s a small but real chance they might try to kidnap him, not to mention the distress and pain it might cause your child to hear, “Your dad and his boyfriend are dangerous and trying to hurt you.” These people are trying to take your child away—a child they had previously ignored—because you’re bisexual and in love with a man. They do not have Max’s best interests at heart, their homophobia is all-consuming, and you never have to see them or speak to them again. If your lawyer recommends you keep a log of their harassment, do so, but otherwise I think it’s time to start blocking their numbers and email addresses.
Obviously you don’t want to overwhelm Max with painful details, but he’s already aware that something’s going on, and kids have a pretty good radar for trouble. He’s already experiencing the violence and cruelty of homophobia, and he’s not too young to hear you talk about it. I know you’ve tried to speak kindly about your in-laws in the past for Max’s sake, but they’re putting him in danger, and it’s not retaliatory or unfair to be honest with him about the danger these people pose. If you and Luke have any friends in the area who can help, either by dropping off dinner, coordinating with other LGBT advocacy groups, taking notes during your calls with your lawyer, or just offering you a shoulder to cry on, please lean on them. You need (and deserve) all the help in the world while you protect your family.
Help! My Roommate Keeps Bringing Out Her Cat to Interrupt My Dates.
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I am a straight woman, 29, who has never been kissed, been on a date, had a boyfriend—you name it, I haven’t done it, even though I’m interested. No guy has ever seemed to be interested in me (and all the ones that I really liked were in a relationship already). Not only that, but none of my friends, past or present, have ever asked me about my dating history. Neither have my family members, not even my parents. I’ve never offered any information because there’s nothing to tell, and it feels a little embarrassing. But it’s like I live in this bubble of perpetual singleness that everyone pretends isn’t there.
I love the way I look and dress, and in recent years my self-confidence has made massive strides, and I think I’m a total catch. I’m friendly when I meet new people, and I have a decent-sized social circle. The only thing I can think of is my height—I’m 5-foot-11, so I’m taller than a lot of the guys I meet. But that can’t explain away an entire lack of interest! All around me I see people my age getting engaged and getting married, and I’d love to have a relationship of my own. I just don’t understand why it just seems to happen for everyone else, but not for me. For what it’s worth, I briefly tried dating apps but stopped because they made me feel jittery and uncomfortable. I’d much rather meet someone IRL! Could you help me get some perspective on what might be going on?
—Single and Silent
Let’s start with the things you have the most control over. You say your friends and family members have never asked you about your romantic life, which has contributed to a general sense of alienation and isolation. But it’s not true that there’s “nothing to tell” on that front. You want to date, you’ve been interested in specific guys in the past, you’ve made real progress when it comes to developing a personal style and general self-esteem over the last few years—that’s a lot to talk about right there. If you wait for others to raise the issue for you, you might end up waiting forever, especially if they’re worried about prying or seeming intrusive and overbearing. You may find yourself feeling a lot less alone if you start talking with the people you love and trust about what you want. Let them know that you do want to talk about your romantic life! You might even ask some of them to set you up with their single friends, since you’re looking to date someone with at least some real-life connection to you, rather than meeting online. That doesn’t mean such conversations are going to instantly result in a series of fantastic blind dates, but it might go a long way toward making you feel less like you’re in a “bubble” and totally isolated from everyone else in your life.
Asking a question like “Why haven’t any of the men I’ve ever met asked me out?” is a bit counterproductive, I think, both because it presupposes that they’ve all considered and rejected the idea (leading you to formulate theories like “Maybe nobody likes girls who are 5-foot-11,” a delightful and attractive height) and because you don’t want every man you’ve ever met to ask you out. You want to cultivate relationships with guys you like. Aside from the fact that every man you’ve been interested in was already dating someone else, do you have a sense of what you’re looking for? Are you willing to consider the possibility of asking a guy out yourself? Relationships don’t just happen to people (well, not most of us, anyway)—the pursuit of intimacy requires some risk, the willingness to seek out and name what you want, cultivating a sense of resilience and the openness to gracefully accept a response like “No, thanks.” You have a lot going for you already, and I think speaking honestly about your feelings on singleness to your trusted friends and relatives will be the first step toward developing a new approach to intimacy and dating. Good luck!
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“I am profoundly attracted to Elizabeth Debicki, and she’s 6-foot-3. Lots of people love tall chicks.”
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I’m a middle-aged married woman who just loves social-style dancing: swing, salsa, and low-key ballroom. I used to participate in a local dance culture where you don’t need to show up with a partner, the dress style is casual, and everyone relaxes and has a great time. But now with COVID, the dancing is off. I’ve asked my husband to dance with me just in private at home, but he absolutely refuses. He says he has two left feet. That’s nonsense—he’s a natural athlete. The truth is that he just doesn’t like it, and I don’t know why. Dancing with him would mean a lot to me and alleviate stress during quarantine. He’s usually so sweet and communicative, but on this issue he just gives me a flat no. We’re not doing exhibition dancing! It’s a waltz in the living room! What am I missing here?
—He Won’t Dance
You’re not missing anything: Your husband doesn’t like dancing. That’s a shame! I agree it would be nice if every once in a while he’d spin you around the room, even if only for a few minutes, merely because you enjoy it and without worrying about whether some of the steps are a bit clumsy. But he doesn’t like dancing, and he’s been pretty adamant about it, so giving him a list of reasons why he should like it isn’t going to change his mind. I hope you can safely rejoin your old dance partners soon, but in the meantime you can still spend quality time with your husband, and dance by yourself when you want to blow off some steam. Maybe it will look so fun he’ll reconsider joining you, or maybe he won’t. But if you feel moved to dance, don’t let the lack of a partner keep you from doing it. Waltz with a hat rack, twirl around an umbrella, or make like Rosie Perez and have fun.
I am a newly engaged woman. I have been so excited to start to plan our wedding! We’ve set a date, booked the venue, and are working on the guest list. Just about everyone I know has been sending us “best wishes” and asking the inevitable question: “When are you tying the knot?” I’ve found myself spilling the date to various people and in one cringey faux pas told a friend the date and venue, as well as the fact that it’s an evening wedding. While she did ask, she isn’t on the guest list. She’s really more of an acquaintance or friend of a friend. I feel so embarrassed. Granted, the wedding isn’t for another 10 months, and she might forget (plus with COVID-19 I do have an excuse for trimming the guest list), but how do I save face? Do I need to send her an invite? What should my response be going forward when fielding questions from people who just want to congratulate us?
While reading this column might be enough to convince you that almost every wedding is beset by unreasonable in-laws, furious co-workers, resentful friends, and a cheating would-be spouse, I believe the vast majority of people realize that engaged couples have to juggle a lot of competing interests when it comes to things like choosing a date, a venue, and a guest list. Assume that acquaintances, friends of friends, affable co-workers, and so on are simply expressing interest in a big milestone and looking to wish you well when they ask, “So when’s the big day?” Most are likely not hoping for an invitation (or an explanation as to why they didn’t get an invitation), nor do they feel that it’s somehow rude or embarrassing to discuss your wedding with anyone who’s not on the list.
You do not need to save face. It doesn’t sound like this acquaintance was trying to suss out whether she was invited. She expressed sincere excitement for you and hasn’t subsequently hinted that she now expects a dinner and a plus-one just because you had a pleasant conversation. If you convince yourself you owe a save the date to everyone who wants to wish you well and make the wedding equivalent of small talk, you’ll drive yourself to distraction. It’s also fine to say something like “December, we hope,” rather than “Dec. 17, at the Dorothy Parker Center,” but don’t beat yourself up for going into detail. You’re doing fine.
My husband was estranged from his parents for many years. He reached out to them when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. They didn’t have enough time to discuss and resolve their past, but they were at peace with each other when he died. Now my husband’s parents wish to keep in touch with me and my toddler-age son, as he is the only link they have to their only child. The problem is that my son is not my husband’s biological child. I had an affair, the biological father dumped me upon realizing I was pregnant, and my husband (to cut the complicated story short) decided to raise the baby as his own. He didn’t legally adopt our son—we simply put his name on the birth certificate and that was that—or tell anybody other than our marriage therapist. It was a painful, regretful, and humiliating episode of my life and I do not wish to tell even my own parents. But I feel incredibly guilty whenever my in-laws talk to me about how grateful they are to have a grandchild to remember their son, or make comparisons between my son and my husband when he was at a similar age. I feel like I need to come clean with them before they develop a strong attachment to him. They are already talking about changing their will to include their “grandson.” What should I do?
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