Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. And if I suddenly go silent it's not because a question was shocking, but because Pepco is my electricity provider. (We lost power four times yesterday.)
Q. Breast-Feeding Mother-in-Law: I had a baby two months ago. About two weeks ago, my husband had to go out of town for a few days, so his mother came to stay with the baby and me. One night I heard the baby crying, and heard my MIL go to him. I thought she was going to bring him to me to nurse so I stayed in bed for a while. When she didn't bring him, I figured she was just rocking him back to sleep and went to see if she needed anything, like a bottle from the fridge. When I entered the room I saw her holding my son to her breast, letting him suckle. I was (and am) livid. I took my son back to my room and told her she had to leave first thing in the morning. I want to call the police, but my husband thinks that would be taking things too far. We're at an impasse. Should we call the police? I'm hesitant to let her near my son again.
A: Seeing your mother-in-law turn herself into a human pacifier must have been quite a shock. Your poor infant son also must have been wondering why mom's abundant supply was now Sahara-dry. At least you don't say that your mother-in-law gave some cockamamie excuse that she was just trying to protect your son from the bisphenol A in his baby-bottle nipple. But the fact that this letter is about your mother-in-law's nipple is enough to give anyone feelings of morning sickness. New parents get into all sorts of hassles with the grandparents over different styles of raising the kids. But this is the first time I've ever heard of a young mother having to say to her mother-in-law, "And I'd prefer you didn't put your breast in little Jason's mouth." I completely understand your need to ask her to leave. But though your complaint would be a classic on the police blotter, it is not a matter for law enforcement. Your husband needs to have a very serious talk with his mother about boundaries—emotional and physical. He needs to explain that if she can't respect and understand them, she will not have access to her grandchild. I'm also wondering if she might possibly need a mental health work-up because her behavior was just bizarre. In any case, if she keeps buttoned up, she should be allowed to have access to your son, but I understand if it's a long time before she makes it onto the baby-sitting roster.
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Q. Violent Homophobic "Jokes": My mom is pregnant by and engaged to marry "Chuck." I am in college, so until this summer I've only heard about Chuck from my mom and my younger brother. Over the Fourth of July, Chuck and his drinking buddies hung out at our house. They made numerous homophobic jokes. The worst one, made in front of me and my brother, was when my stepdad said he'd drown the baby my mom's pregnant with if he turned out to be a "[expletive]" If the baby is a girl and is a "[expletive]" then he'll let his friends "straighten her out." I was horrified by the joke and left the room. Later that evening I found my 16-year-old brother sobbing. He came out to me then and told me that Chuck frequently makes violently homophobic "jokes." Our mom brushes off his concerns because "they're just jokes." Now I am scared for my brother's sake and don't want to return to my college town in a week. I feel like I'm abandoning my brother. I need to protect him, but there aren't any grandparents or a dad I can turn to for help.
A: These aren't jokes, and I understand your brother's terror at finding himself living with this sicko. What a mess—a mother pregnant by a crude drunk and no other family members to turn to. You and your brother could try again to have a private talk with your mother about what's going on. Explain that the things Chuck and his friends are saying and doing are deeply disturbing, and you're concerned about the atmosphere in which all of you will have to live. It probably won't do any good because your mother is in too deep. But do not think about not returning to college in order to protect your brother. It is crucial you continue your education. Tell your brother as hard as his family life is going to be, he also must do as well as possible in high school so that he can make a successful escape. Then promise to stay in very close touch with your brother and monitor the situation. If it becomes too intolerable, perhaps there's an aunt or uncle who can take him in. Maybe he can live with the family of a friend. And if necessary, there is always foster care. How sad that a woman with two almost-grown children is starting over with a partner so unsuited to being a father. When the baby comes, if this unsuitability becomes ever more apparent, you should feel free to call Child Protective Services.
Update: Many readers have made the good suggestion that this brother and sister contact the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organization for gay youth, and PFLAG, another support network. Both these groups have hotlines, and people there might be able to direct the 16-year-old to a safe, supportive place.
Q. Newly Found Heritage: I have just discovered, through Ancestry.com, that my father's mother and her family were black. This was proven through census records, etc. I and my children are ecstatic about this newfound information. However, my sisters are in shock and do not wish to discuss it. I'm 61 years old and am hurt that no one told me or my sisters about our bloodline. All of my aunts, uncles, and our father are all dead. I am completely positive that no one on my mother’s side of the family knew anything about this, because we are from the deep South and unfortunately there are quite a few bigoted members. How can I get my three sisters to accept their family roots or at least come to terms with it. Myself? I embrace it.
A: What you and your children should do is embrace this fascinating discovery and find out more if you're so inclined. You may be able to contact a side of the family no one knew about. But you do not have to drag along your sisters. They're not interested. Yes, it may be out of racism, it may be that this news is upending their understanding of their roots and they don't wish to dig further. But their reaction, disappointing as it is, shouldn't affect your pleasure in pursuing your ancestry.
Q. Mentally Ill Mother: A few months ago I saved two lives at personal risk (though that wasn't on my mind at the time). The media covered the incident, and the governor kindly invited me to a state function where citizens receive commendations. The problem is my mentally ill mother, from whom I have been estranged for years. She was a terrible parent with some unholy combination of paranoia, delusional thinking, rage problems, and narcissism, and she refuses to seek help. She's always had fantasies about being around important people, and has been contacting me through various channels demanding that I bring her to meet the governor. Aside from my personal feelings, her behavior at public functions is so inappropriate that she would either be thrown out or jailed as a safety hazard. I've been trying to ignore her, but her latest tactic is to threaten that she will "tell the press what a horrible daughter you are." So now I'm entering the realm of lawyers, R.O.s, cease-and-desist orders, and the like. I'm wondering if I should just skip the ceremony—this is getting incredibly stressful, and I'm worried she'll crash it and ruin the day for others. Any suggestions?
A: Congratulations at being recognized for your heroic acts. How wonderful to think that two people will get to live out their lives because of you. You should also get a pat on the back for overcoming a horrific childhood. Do not let your mother ruin your day. You are taking what is unfortunately necessary legal action to keep your mother out of this event and your life, so let the authorities handle this. Also warn the people coordinating the dinner that sadly your mother is mentally ill and might try to crash the event. That way security will be on the alert and should be able keep her from getting in the door. If she wants to rave to the press about you, it will be immediately apparent to any reporter that they are dealing with a delusional person and nothing will come of it. Please go to the dinner and enjoy the honor you so much deserve.
Q. Re: Brother Needs Mentoring: Prudie, that poor 16-year-old needs a safe place to talk to someone—before the sister goes home, she and the brother should head for his high school—guidance offices are often open during the summer and counselors are sometimes available—and he needs to get help as soon as possible. I doubt if mom will be either sympathetic or helpful.
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