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.

Q. Secrets: My husband had cancer treatment this year (he's fine). At the chemo center we encountered the aunt of a friend of mine. We chatted and it emerged that she has a very aggressive cancer with very poor prognosis. She asked me not to tell my friend and I haven't. She was intending not to tell anyone in her family. My friend's mom died a few years ago and she is close to all her aunts and I feel bad that she doesn't know. I also feel her aunt deserves loving care and support from her family. Should I tell my friend somehow?

A: This is somewhat different from the letter about the dying mother with an estranged daughter. It's terribly sad to think that someone with a loving family would want to face a painful death by herself. I understand you're torn, so maybe you could contact this aunt and say you wanted to check in and see how she was doing. Then you could bring up that you don't want to violate her privacy, but you know how much your friend loves her and you're feeling guilty at not letting your friend know what you found out. See what the aunt says—let's hope if there's no real reason for her silence and she will come around. When you saw the aunt at the center, she could have declined to let you know anything about her condition. Her telling all put you in a very difficult situation vis a vis your friend. If the aunt doesn't give you the go-ahead, weigh what you would want your friend to do if the situation were reversed, then act accordingly.

Q. Kids Playing Around Recovering Addicts: My husband and I live across the street from a church. The church runs a halfway house program and also serves breakfast and dinner to homeless individuals on weekdays. Oftentimes the people these programs serve hang around on the street corners and in the park near our home. My husband and I don't feel comfortable allowing our kids (11, 7, 5) play in the front yard or the park without our supervision. We don't think all of the men and women in the program are dangerous, but we've seen them get into fights and be inebriated and passed out. My sister-in-law thinks we are bigoted and that we should become involved in the ministry before we make judgments. Are my husband and I out of line?

A: I don't see how you're out of line to want to supervise young children, period. I'm assuming your very judgmental nonjudgmental sister-in-law sent her children off to a park where people with substance abuse problems gathered. It's a wonderful service this church is performing, but since this minsitry brings troubled people into the neighborhood, the church has a particular obligation to make sure the park remains a safe place for children. So go over and discuss this with them. It is not bigoted to want a park to be free of fighting. I would also stop this discussing this with your high-and-mighty sister-in-law. However, I think she does have a good point that since you're across the street, it might be helpful for your family to volunteer there and feel more connected to this service in your neighborhood.

Q. Re: Sept. 11 Birthday: KidsPost ran an article on it two years ago.

A: Thanks for the link.

Q. Obsessed Mother, Weight Issue: What do you say to someone who was been obsessed with your weight for the last 10 years? I'm in my mid 30s, married and successful, yet my mother talks about my weight constantly, alone and in front of others. She sends me healthy recipes, etc. She talks about things that can come from obesity—heart issues, blood pressure, joint problems, diabetes. I don't think she is doing it to be mean, I think it is a health concern. I have tried many, many times to do a lifestyle change—I lose the weight, then it eventually comes back. I've been to the doctor and my thyroid/sugar is fine. I know I'm fat, I don't need constant reminding. I have told her multiple times that she makes me feel terrible about myself and I end up in tears on the way home from meeting her because of these things she says. How to I get my mom to drop this, once and for all?

A: Your mother has to learn that her nagging is not going to get you to lose weight, but it could make you lose your relationship with her. Next time you see her announce the new rules: "Mom, I know you care about my health, but I'm an adult and you have to stop talking about my weight. I hope you've noticed the only thing you accomplish is to make us both unhappy. So when we're together, no talking about what I eat or my body. If you can't do it, then we can't be together." Then, next time she brings it up you say, "Mom, this has to stop now or I'm leaving." If it doesn't stop you get up and say, "I'll see you some other time, Mom." Either she learns to change the subject, or you stop being the subject of her harangues.

Q. Wedding D.J. Mess: I got married this weekend, and the D.J. was horrible, despite plenty of meetings before the wedding. I won't go into the details, but he was awkward, cheesy, and unprofessional. I was in tears because of this guy. My question is: What is an appropriate response when wedding professionals don't hold up their end of the bargain? Should I write the company a letter? Leave bad reviews on wedding websites? I am so embarrassed that this D.J. tarnished our lovely evening. Hopefully it will be funny one day, but not yet! I want some kind recourse, especially because this company prides itself on its professionalism. What to do?

A: Your letter has me thinking of Adam Sandler as The Wedding Singer, so while I know you're upset, to an outsider it's kind of funny right now. Please do not let some cheeseball leave you in tears thinking your wedding was ruined. Your wedding is ruined when the groom doesn't show up, not when the D.J. is a jerk. Believe me, the best weddings are the ones that give people something to talk about on the ride home. If you can laugh about this with your friends, it will no longer be embarrassing. That said, you didn't get the services you paid for. So absolutely contact the company, enumerate the ways their services went totally wrong, and ask for recompense. In these days of public ratings, they should be very interested in trying to make this right.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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