Help! My Daughter Was Born on 9/11. What Should She Say When People Make Comments?

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 4 2013 6:15 AM

Not-So-Happy Birthday

In a live chat, Prudie advises a mother whose daughter was born on 9/11.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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 prudence@slate.com.)

See Emily live! She will be talking to Slate editor David Plotz and taking questions at Sixth and I in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11. For tickets and more information, click here.

Q. Sept. 11 Birthday: My daughter was born on Sept. 11, 2001. It goes without saying the connotation that most people make with this date. For her whole life, people cringe when she gives them her date of birth, or occasionally makes a comment about being born on such a tragic day. Last week, when signing up for a rewards program at a bookstore, the clerk said "That was such a sad day," and my daughter responded, "I can't help the day I was born. By now everybody knows what happened on Sept. 11. I don't need to be reminded." I know my daughter came off as ungracious and bratty. But in a conversation with her later, she revealed that she feels guilty when people respond in that manner, she feels as though she should apologize for reminding them of however this tragedy affected them. But then she feels awkward, because she truly cannot help when she was born and is usually just trying to get through some sort of administrative task. I told her that this will be an issue she will have to deal with her whole life and we will work together to find a quick phrase for her to use. So far I've thought saying something like "That day affected everybody differently." But that sounds awkward as well. Do you have any advice for us?

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A: When I was pregnant with my daughter the doctor said her due date was Dec. 7, and I replied, "A date which will live in infamy"—FDR's memorable phrase about Pearl Harbor. (She was born a few days later.) I doubt that today many young people would have any association at hearing "Dec. 7." Your daughter's situation is complicated by the fact that 9/11 itself is the shorthand for the horrific attack and that she was born on the day of the event itself. You're right, your daughter will hear some echo of these remarks for years to come, although the further away we get, the more it will start being a more normal day. Your daughter is about to turn 12 so it's pretty hard to expect someone that young to be the soul of graciousness when reminded that the beginning of her life was the day thousands died. I think when your daughter is dealing with strangers handling forms who make some kind of remark all she has to do is nod or say, "I know what you mean," and move on. It's going to be a little more difficult to deal with comments from friends or others she has relationships with and I agree your daughter needs to be released from feeling she bears some kind of burden for having a birthday that is a shorthand for loss. She needs to nonhostilely acknowledge the remarks and also shut down further conversation. Maybe she could say something like, "Yes, I do have a birthday that's also tragic day in history. But terrible things have occured somewhere on every date, we just don't know about all of them." Readers, better suggestions?

Dear Prudence: Middle-Aged Twilight Fanboy

Q. Dealing With Love Child: My husband cheated on me a couple of years ago. I forgave him, we moved on and worked a lot on our marriage. However, my husband has a daughter as a result of the affair. I accepted this from the beginning and I have accepted this girl into our lives willingly and I love her. We have two toddlers of our own, ages 2 and 1 and she falls in the middle of them in age. We are spending time with the girl and inevitably at some point in time somebody will see us with three children. Even though I have forgiven my husband, I dread the day extended family, friends or acquaintances ask who she is, or when my kids start saying they have a sister that is not mommy's daughter and people put two and two together. I fear the embarrassment of people knowing about the affair, being the topic of the day and having to answer uncomfortable questions. Please help me figure out a wise reaction to this!

A: Thank you for being an example of how to do this. If you are staying with a man who fathered a child with another woman, you are right, you have to accept this innocent child into your own lives. And if you can't bear the sight of this reminder of your husband's infidelity, then ending the marriage may be best for everyone. Yes, your family situation is going to provoke curiosity and questions, so you need to answer them with minimal facts. First of all, you're putting too much pressure on yourself if you're trying to keep this secret from you family. There's a child, she's the result of an affair, so let the family blabbers blab away. That doesn't mean you have to answer any questions. If you get asked you can just say, "Jeff and I are together and Deana is a lovely addition to our family." Period. Surely, you're comfortable enough to tell friends, again in a brief, factual way. As for the acquaintances like other school parents, etc, who are trying to figure out who's who and what's what, you can just say, "Deana isn't my daughter, but she's the girls' half-sister and a great addition to our family." If anyone wants to know more you can say, "I don't like to discuss my personal life, thanks for understanding." As with so many awkward, difficult issues what is often most important is not what you say, but how you say it. If you can convey that you recognize you have a somewhat unorthodox family and that's just fine with you, that message will be heard by all your girls and anyone who asks.

Q. Re: Sept. 11 Birthday: "My family tells me that my birth created a reason for joy in the face of that tragedy. "

A: That could work and it's a good conversation ender. But I also don't want the girl to feel that somehow she carries a special life obligation because of the date she was born.

Q. Communicating Family Tragedy: My wife's sister is gravely ill, dealing with an advanced stage of cancer. She has three adult children. The youngest "Julie," has been estranged from the family for a couple of years and lives several states away. Though Julie learned of her mother's cancer diagnosis several months ago, she has made no recent attempt to find out how her mother is doing. Julie's behavior has caused everyone in the family to cease communication with her, so now my wife and I are debating whether to tell Julie. My SIL has insisted that the relationship is too toxic, and still (while literally on her death bed) does not want Julie to know the current situation, until after the memorial service. The other two children are honoring their mother's wishes, however we feel Julie has a right to know what is going on. Do you think we should tell Julie?

A: I'm assuming Julie is deeply ill herself in some way. Your sister-in-law has made her wishes clear. You could bring this up with her two other children and say you are concerned about the fallout for them after your sister-in-law's death of withholding the information even about a memorial service from their sister. But if they say that their sister has been informed of how dire their mother's condition is, and it's been her choice to stay estranged, then let this be.