Dear Prudence offers Mother’s Day advice about undermined looks, competitive gift-giving, and poison.
Photograph by Teresa Castracane.
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I’m a college student who’s a little chubby and doesn’t have perfect skin, but I’m able to look in the mirror and smile. Unfortunately, my mother doesn’t feel the same way about me. When I became a teenager she started telling me about the benefits of plastic surgery. I simply don't want to do it. I have tried explaining this, from polite statements, to tantrums, to cold indifference, with no effect. Once, when I was in high school, she told me she wanted me to come with her to visit my grandmother, but she pulled up to a plastic surgeon's office, where it turned out she had set up an appointment. It took my tears to convince the doctor that we were there without my consent. After we left, she refused to talk to me for a month. Now she constantly insists that men will not be interested in me because of my nose or other things. I’m going to a therapist, and it helps emotionally, but the therapist also doesn't see a way out. My father doesn't get involved in family issues and usually ends up saying if my mom wants something for me, it’s for my benefit. I'm going back home this summer. Next term, my face might not look how it does now! What can I do?
Your mother may be the progenitor of a new psychiatric illness: Instead of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, let’s call it Wildenstein syndrome by proxy. If your mother is such a fervent believer in the life-enhancing arts of plastic surgery, then she is free to offer herself up for a Joan Rivers look-alike contest. But it is abusive for her to harass and demean you over your looks, or to use subterfuge and emotional manipulation to try to get you to become the Barbie of her dreams. It says something remarkable about you that in the face of this endless disparagement of your face you’ve managed to stay strong and confident. I’m glad you’re seeing a therapist; it’s important to have a sympathetic person to unload to. But you should consider finding a therapist who takes a more active approach to helping you manage your parents. If you’re financially dependent on your parents, that complicates things, but it doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to extricate yourself from this oppressive situation. Unless you are committed to a summer job at home, run to your college placement office and see if there are positions that would give you room and board—maybe as a research assistant or a camp counselor. When you are at home, set firm ground rules. The first time your mother brings up surgery, tell her that no elective surgery can be performed without the patient’s consent. You don’t want to submit, so the discussion is ended. If she keeps pressing, get up and explain you will leave the room each time she talks about it. If she gives you the silent treatment, think of it as blessed relief from the lectures on rhinoplasty. And when you brush your teeth, continue to smile at your perfectly lovely face.
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My husband's parents divorced about two years ago, which was the same time we were getting engaged and then married. He’s in his early 30s, but the separation was still extremely upsetting for him. We learned his mom had been having an affair with a married man before the divorce. His dad was completely devastated and relied heavily on my husband for support. Supporting his dad took a real toll. Meanwhile, his mom was living it up and going to parties with her boyfriend. Now, wounds are healing, and my husband has returned to having a loving relationship with his mother. Before all this I had a pretty good relationship with her, too. But I've lost so much respect for her. We all live near each other, and I try to be pleasant, but inside I'm still a little bitter. Am I being ridiculous for holding onto this grudge? If so, how do I can let it go?
—Bitter and Strained
Be grateful you’re describing a happy ending to this mess. Many grown children whose parents have divorced go through life pressured by one parent to forever punish the other. It is not your mother-in-law’s fault that your father-in-law overstepped his bounds and turned his son into his confidant. Fortunately, it sounds as if that phase has passed, and, most importantly, your husband no longer feels he has to side with his father against his mother. In the years to come you will see versions of your in-laws’ drama played out among your friends. These marital misadventures will confirm just how messy, painful, and even silly life can be. While your husband continues to restore his relationship with his mother, focus on being cordial and enjoying her company. Having a good time with her will help blot out your mental images of her good times. If you someday have children, she will be their grandmother, and probably a devoted one. In that case you’ll realize despite her failings, you’re lucky to have her around.
I have been married to my husband for four years and have a wonderful, happy 7-year-old stepson. My issue stems from how his mother handles holidays and birthdays, and how my husband feels forced to compete. She and her family buy him numerous extravagant gifts starting the month before his birthday, and she tells us all the gifts he is getting and how much they cost. We live on limited means, and we buy one large present for his birthday. But even after my husband and I agree on one gift, he will go to the store and sneak another gift in. We have very young children together, and I don't want to be giving something to one that we can't provide for all. My stepson is not spoiled, but he is beginning to expect this kind of treatment. I know this will cause confusion with my other children when they are old enough to understand, and I’m not sure what to do.
What you do is have the kind of celebration and give the gift you think is appropriate without regard to what your husband’s ex is doing. That also means you don’t respond to her patronizing and gloating. You just smile and say, “Samantha, I’m sure little Joshua is going to love his Nerf Vortex Nitron Blaster and his WWE Colossal Crashdown Arena.” Then you talk to your husband and say you understand he may feel guilty that he can’t shower his kids with the same extravagance as his ex. But living within your means and being grateful for what you have is an important lesson you and your husband should be teaching your kids. It's also one that will benefit them more than having a birthday celebration to rival that of Kim Jong-un. If Joshua says something about not getting the same birthday gala at your house as at his mother’s, tell him that every family celebrates their own way. Don’t worry about your children eventually noticing the disparity—they will come to understand that Joshua has a different mother, and all that entails. The confidence you convey in your own choices as a mother will benefit your entire family.
A couple of months ago you answered my letter asking for advice regarding a situation involving my hateful mother-in-law, whom I suspected of tainting my food or drink at family functions at her home. You had suggested swapping plates with my husband to see if my mother-in-law would react. However, as you noted, that would have required bringing my husband into my confidence. I did not feel it was wise to do that, because he already didn't believe that his mother treated me badly. But the next function was at Easter. She provided a traditional prime rib dinner, set up buffet style, and I could see no way that could be problematic. However, when we arrived at her home, the dinner table was set with place cards and in front of each was a ramekin of horseradish sauce and a small pitcher of au jus. When nobody was looking, I switched the ramekin and pitcher between my husband's place and mine. After my husband and I returned home, he became wracked with diarrhea, but I was not ill at all. In the morning I told him that I had switched the horseradish and au jus. He looked at me with such hatred in his eyes that I knew he had known all along what his mother was up to. His only words were to accuse me of poisoning him! I quickly packed a couple of bags and raced out of there. I have hired a divorce lawyer and I won't be looking back. Thank you and your commenters for your advice and concern.
—Alive To Tell the Story
I so appreciate your giving us this chilling, stomach-turning update. Thank goodness you got out before your mother-in-law’s condiments turned lethal. When you confer with your divorce attorney, do ask about the possibility of criminal charges. And Readers, on this coming Mother’s Day, if your mother thinks you’re beautiful just the way you are, and your mother-in-law is not trying to kill you, happily lift a glass of (unpoisoned) champagne and celebrate the women in your life.
More Dear Prudence Columns
“A Minor Flaw: I'm dating a man who was charged with soliciting a teen for sex; I wish I'd never discovered this!” Posted July 28, 2011.
“Cat Got Your Tongue?: A woman involved in the mysterious disappearance of a feline doesn't know whether to cover up or confess.” Posted July 21, 2011.
“Almost Famous: My rock-star ex wants his sexy photos back. Should I relent or play hardball?” Posted July 14, 2011.
“An Innocent Man: An ex-girlfriend falsely claimed I raped her. How do I reveal this hurtful incident to future love interests?” Posted July 7, 2011.
More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts
“Confronting the Queen Bees: Dear Prudence advises a teen who longs to stand up to her cruel classmates but fears retaliation—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted July 25, 2011.
“Bozo Boyfriend's Nose-Job Nightmare: Dear Prudence advises a man who convinced his girlfriend to have plastic surgery that left her disfigured.” Posted July 18, 2011.
“Should a Former Hottie Burn the Evidence?: Dear Prudence advises a woman whose ex-husband took nudie pictures of her and still has them—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted July 11, 2011.
“Boyfriend Is Thick as a Brick: Dear Prudence advises a woman who is reluctant to wed her dim-bulb suitor—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted July 5, 2011.