Dear Prudence: Stepchildren, texting, and crazy families.

Advice on manners and morals.
April 25 2011 3:35 PM

The Redheaded Stepchild

Dear Prudence advises a mom-to-be who doesn't want her husband's older kid underfoot when the baby arrives—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.

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Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let's get to it.

Q. New Baby on the Way: We are expecting a baby in a couple weeks. My husband has a 7-year-old son from a previous marriage. I am having a hard time dealing with the feelings of experiencing all this for the first time while my husband has already "been there, done that." I am also getting slightly possessive of the baby's things and room that my step son can't seem to stop playing with. Any advice for these feelings? Also, is it OK to set boundaries with my husband and stepson so that I can have some experiences as a first-time parent without my stepson? For example, I picture giving the first bath to the baby with my stepson trying to "help," but there are some experiences I want to have to myself or with just my husband and me.

A: I wish I could chalk up this letter to hormones. Guess what, you married a man with a young child. So being a loving stepmother to your stepson should have helped prepare you for being a mother to your child. This little boy is not taking away from your unique experience. Your experiences with him should be enhancing it. How lovely for the new baby to have a big brother who is excited to help take care of him. It's fine to set boundaries along the line of explaining that a baby is delicate, and that it can't hold its head up. It is not OK to say, "Stop sullying the pristine beauty of MY child's room." Now that you're going to be a mother, try to think of your stepson's life. In only 7 years he's had to endure his parents' break up and his father's remarriage, and accept that this new sibling means his parents will never get back together. Try to bring some compassion to him, and realize you will be enhancing your own child's life if you make the child who's already here a true part of the family.

Dear Prudence: Journal Invader

Q. Dinnertime Texting: One of my husband's friends comes over for dinner a few times a month—very casual meals: pizza or pasta, nothing fancy. However, he keeps his phone on the table and answers texts constantly through the meal (and throughout the visit). I've tried passively to make lighthearted comments about putting away the phone—he never does. Should I be more adamant about no phones at the table or just deal with his faux pas of phone etiquette? (I don't want to have my own faux pas!)

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A: You're right, it is uncomfortable to let a guest know he's being rude. But since he regularly comes to your home to enjoy your food and your company, and you feel like a waitress who can't get his attention long enough to take his order, it's time to speak up. Stop hinting, and set some ground rules: "Dan, we love having you over and catching up with you. But I've been feeling you're here in stomach, but not in mind. So I'm asking that you turn off the phone during dinner. I understand if you have to check your messages after we eat. But please, no phone at the table." If he can't comply, then give him the addresses for a local pizza parlor.

Q. Mom Offended by My Blog: I recently started a blog, which I have opened to general readership. My latest post is about a women's retreat I recently attended and a surprising (for me) encounter with the female divine I had there. In my post I mentioned my relationship with my mother, saying it is "constrained, fraught, difficult," which it often is, though not always. Those three words about our relationship are all I said about her in the post, but my mother found my blog, read them, and is deeply offended by my "unflattering description of her." I didn't intend to offend her and regret it, but at the same time what I wrote was true and was an important part of my story. (It is quite possible that she was also uncomfortable with the rest of the post, because I am certain she would not approve of my attending the retreat or being inspired by the Goddess, though she has not said anything about that.) I intend to continue writing about my life, and there are many important people who influence me in ways both good and bad. Is it possible for a person to balance the desire to write about life, to be honest about that life, yet not hurt the people who mean the most to them? Was I wrong to write about a difficult relationship in a public forum (she asks as she writes to Dear Prudence)?

A: Your encounter with the female divine prompted you to tell the world about the female rotten—your mother. Did the Goddess give you any guidance about starting a blog with a post about how difficult your mother is? I'm assuming that at least until your blog goes viral, your mother makes up the bulk of your readers. So surely you knew that posting an unflattering description of your relationship with her was unlikely to improve that relationship. Of course, novelists and memoir-writers would have to find another line of work if it was verboten to write about how terrible their parents were. I'm not saying it's wrong for you to write whatever you want for the world to see. What's wrong is being naive about how it's going to affect your most devoted reader.

Q. New Baby With Stepson: I have a friend who married a guy with two kids. It bothered her all the time that she and their child together were "not enough to make him happy." Imagine that you get divorced and a future wife treats your kid this way. It was no mystery when you married that your husband had "been there and done that," so GET OVER IT. I have seen how much you can hurt innocent kids firsthand.

A: Amen!

Q. For New Baby: Your letter reminds me of a family that we are friends with. The second wife has gone so far as to exclude the husband's daughters from his first marriage from participating in any holiday celebrations (e.g., trimming the tree) at his home because "their Christmas" is at their mother's. How the husband allows this ridiculous situation is beyond me, but trust me, you are headed down that path and you don't want to go there! You may be a first-time mom, but your new baby already has a brother, and your letter evidences a deeply held resentment of a situation you cannot change. For the entire family's sake, please seek counseling to deal with these feelings.

A: Double Amen!

Q. Can I Tell My Friends About My Cancer By Email?: A few years ago, when my daughter was a newborn, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which required a year of surgery and unpleasant treatments. My last mammogram shows that the cancer has returned. I am waiting to get the full details and an idea of timing on the next round of surgery, but it should be happening within the next few weeks, so I need to start telling friends and family relatively soon. I'm imagining people's reaction will be much like mine, shock and a feeling that is it super unfair, and I don't think I can face repetitions of it without being totally drained. Would it be too inappropriate to send an email to friends (we'll call family) laying out the situation, explaining that it is too tough to deal with the initial reaction, but that I am happy to talk once the news has sunk in?

A: I'm so sorry about this diagnosis and hope your treatments are successful. Of course people will want to zoom in and tell you they love you and offer to help. And it's perfectly understandable that dealing with others' emotions is too much for you right now. So go ahead and get the word out in the way that helps you the most. Send an email, giving as much information as you want. Explain in it that you're busy consulting with doctors and making plans for your treatment, and that you hope people will understand you don't have the energy right now for phone calls and visits. Maybe you can say you'd love to see their emails or get cards, but you apologize for not being able to respond in a timely way.

Then consider signing up for one of the sites—Lotsa Helping Hands, Caring Bridge, etc.—that allows a designated family member to post updates to friends and family on how you're doing. The sites will also allow people to organize the bringing of dinners or running errands for you, if you decide you want that. People will understand you are not pushing them away, you are just gathering strength for your next step.

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