The news you have to tell is so disturbing, and has been secret for so long, that I can only emphasize that you should not go ahead without discussing this thoroughly with counselors, and possible others in a support group, about how best to tell your daughter and your parents and how to help them deal with the news. After your boyfriend's letter ran I heard from people who questioned the need to even tell your daughter. They pointed out she is at a vulnerable age and this is a big bombshell to drop suddenly. I think this is a legitimate consideration, and one that needs to be aired with a counselor. I also heard from several people who were told they themselves were the result of rape. They all said that while obviously the news was disturbing, it did not shake their sense of themselves because they were raised in loving families and felt totally accepted.
What is so sad in your letter is the sense that you have had to hide the assault so you would not be seen as a "rape victim." Unfortunately, this sense of shame allows rapists to get away with their crimes. Even though you were attacked a long time ago, I think you need to talk this through privately with a counselor of your own. You need to get to the point where you accept this was an act committed against you. It does not define who you are and you should not let it haunt your life.
Q. How Old Is She?: Can one politely ask the age of their ex-husband's new girlfriend? My ex-husband and I are in our early 40s and have two kids in grade school. His girlfriend, who he is dating seriously, looks like she could still be in high school. She's sweet, smart, albeit a little bubbly. My ex-husband tells me he's serious about her, and our kids think she's great. My curiosity about her age persists, though, and Facebook snooping hasn't produced an answer. Given that she's got a future in the life of my children and my ex-husband, do I have a right to know her age?
A: If only she had been the nanny, you'd know all about her. If your husband is dating a minor, that's relevant. But surely you are exaggerating that you think she's still in high school. You know what kind of relationship you have with your ex, and if it is cordial, it seems reasonable for you to say, "I understand you're serious about Courtney and that the kids are spending a lot of time with her. Could you tell me a little bit about her?" But since even you don't have anything bad to say about her, unless there is evidence the kids are down the hall from a father who's committing statutory rape, the fact that he has a much younger girlfriend is really none of your business.
Q. How Long Is a Proper Time To Mourn My Estranged Husband’s Death?: About six months ago my estranged husband committed suicide. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic after he returned from Afghanistan about two years ago. The illness tore apart our marriage, and for safety I pretty much had no choice but to move on. We had been separated for about seven months when he committed suicide. Although we were in the process of divorcing, it was still quite a blow to me. We had been together since I was 15 years old (I'm 24 now) and had pretty much grown up together. I knew my ex-husband was not to blame for his illness and I held nothing against him. Well, recently after much convincing, my mom asked me to go to a family friend’s wedding, where several men were trying to get my phone number and asked me to dance. I danced a little bit and enjoyed myself. Then today I spoke to my friend who also went to the wedding, and she said she heard the table next to her saying how inappropriate I was for not only coming, but dancing with men, considering my husband died six months ago. Am I being disrespectful? The honest fact is I hadn't seen my husband for about seven months when he died and we were in the process of divorcing (papers filed, court dates set, etc). I care about his memory and don't want to be rude or disrespectful. What is appropriate?
A: What a sorrowful situation. But it sounds as if the people at the next table had been just watching The Forsyte Saga. There is a shocking scene in which a young woman, still wearing mourning black after the death of her father, gets up and dances at a social event. However, since that melodrama was set in 19th century England, it's really not applicable to 21st century America. You are entitled to dance, sing, date, and love. You went through hell with a sadly damaged man. You are entitled to the happiness I'm sure is out there for you.
Q. Daughters Vacationing With Dad and His Girlfriend: For spring break my adolescent daughters will embark on a tropical vacation with their father and his girlfriend, Gwen. This will be the first vacation on which Gwen accompanies my ex-husband and my daughters. I trust her, and I like her. I also try to stay out of my ex-husband's love life. But before my ex-husband makes the reservations, I'd like to talk with him and Gwen about what my daughters will be exposed to on this vacation. For example, I'd feel more comfortable if he and Gwen stayed in separate rooms, even though that will probably be more expensive. I've also noticed (thanks Facebook!) that Gwen favors very tiny bikinis. I would feel more comfortable if I knew that she's going to wear something a bit less revealing. I'm not sure what I have a right to ask for as a mother, and I don't want to come off as intrusive. What's your unbiased opinion?
A: Ah, a theme: "My ex is dating a sexy young woman and it's driving me crazy." My unbiased opinion is that you are another woman who's lucky you and the kids like the new woman in your ex's life. You will not win by dictating that your husband and Gwen sleep in separate rooms and that Gwen would be happier on the beach wearing a muumuu.
Q. Stepmother: How would you behave toward your stepmother, who is suppose to be the grandmother of your children, if she cut you out of your father's will? I find, now that my father has died, that my stepmother has retained all of my father’s estate for her and her son, yet my father's intentions were for that not to happen.
A: I would behave cordially to her and retain a lawyer to see if you can challenge the will. Perhaps your father was ill or pressured when you were cut out. Perhaps you have evidence that he intended to leave something to you and your children. I only reluctantly recommend turning things into a legal situation, but if your father had a substantial estate, unless you and your father were seriously estranged, it is very strange he would want to leave everything to his stepson and nothing to his own child.
Q. Step Kids: I have recently remarried and love my wife with all my heart. She is an incredible woman! I came to the marriage with two small children whom she loves and cares for willingly. She is, however, often short with them. She realizes that she gets impatient and needs to work on this, but I am worried that this is something that needs to happen NOW for the sake of my children, who have already been through quite a bit. How do I help her to understand that this is a serious "just do it" kind of a topic?
A: Find some parenting classes nearby—the YMCA or other similar agencies can be a good place to start looking—and ask her to accompany you. Tell her you appreciate the love she has for your kids, and you know it is a huge change to suddenly become a mother to two small children in pain, but you think you could brush-up on your skills and she could learn better how to handle her understandable exasperation.
Q. Dad-Related Dilemma: My mom left my dad for another man 10 years ago, when my brother and I were in grade school. She took us with her, and the loss of his family turned my father into a bitter man. He now considers himself a men's rights activist. From what I can tell, the men's rights movement my dad belongs to believes that American law and society has institutionalized misandry. One website my dad frequents warns men not to date single mothers because their children might accuse the boyfriend of molesting them to reap the benefits of victimhood. My dad speaks often about the men's rights movement, and when my brother and I don't want to listen, he accuses us of being brainwashed by feminists. His behavior doesn't come across as crazy so much as it does misogynistic. Now I'm 18 and could stop seeing him if I wanted to. But my brother is younger and still has to see him. My mom doesn't know the full story because we don't want her to overreact. What should we do?
A: Your mother leaving him may have caused your father's personality change—it may also be that his personality was in place and your mother couldn't take it anymore. Both you and your brother are old enough to have some direct discussions with your father about your relationship with him. Talk to your brother and see if he wants to join in such a conversation, and if he doesn't, make some time alone with your father. He needs to be told that his activism is his business, but you don't want to be his audience anymore. Say that you both understand he has strong feelings about women and the legal system, but being lectured to is poisoning your relationship. Reassure him that you love him and want to spend time with him, but you want to talk about things that are less painful and volatile. If he won't curb his enthusiasm, then you can start peeling off from your visits. Now that you're 18, spending less time with your father would be bound to happen anyway. But if you do that, be a sounding board for your brother on how to deal with Dad's ugly obsession.
Q. Facebook Trouble: I recently saw a photo posted on Facebook of a co-worker doing something extremely dangerous at the office while most of us were home on vacation. She was frying a turkey out on the deck outside the employee break room. Since we are on the second floor, a fire could have burned down the whole building, which includes dozens of other businesses. I could tell the boss, but since no harm was done, it will simply lead to a guessing game about who told. Only a few of us have access to her Facebook page, so people would probably figure out it was me. Do I have an ethical obligation to tell?
A: I'm trying to imagine how this conversation would go: "Boss, Sandy did not burn down the office over the holidays." You don't know if Sandy asked for permission or was nutty enough to bring the Fryolator to the office. In either case the turkey has been cooked and digested, and you should move on to more current topics.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. My best wishes for 2012.