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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. Stepmother: My second wife has always gotten along well with my kids from my first marriage. Since our marriage, she became a typical mom who cooks healthful meals, frets over safety, and plans fun activities. However, I overheard her whispered telephone conversation with her mother about how she never really loved my kids. She said her heart is not in it and she's only cared about them because she loves me. She said she feels guilty admitting this but all the nice things she ever does for my kids is out of obligation, not love. I'm not sure how to discuss this issue with her as there's nothing to fault with how she treats my kids.
A: Good for your wife for faking it so well that neither you nor the kids have gotten a hint that she's anything but a fully enthusiastic second mother to them. What you heard was the equivalent of your stumbling on her diary. One thing that makes life interesting is how complicated and surprising people are—even the ones we think we know best. So you have found out that your wife struggles with the fact that because of her love for you she has to try to be a mother to your kids, a role that does not come easy to her. I hear about too many second wives who either openly make the first family unwelcome or subtly undermine the father's relationship. Your wife has wholly embraced her obligations and is making a delightful home for your kids. That should make you appreciate her all the more. Don't say anything about the overheard conversation. But a few weeks from now, after perhaps a long and exhausting weekend with your children, tell her how much you appreciate what she does for them. Say that you know being a stepmother can be thankless, so you wanted to thank her what she does. (And also make sure that your children express their appreciation to her. Not in a rote or obsequious way, but because you are training them to be grateful to anyone who goes out of their way for them.) Years down the line, she may discover that as far as your children are concerned at some point—she can't even put her finger on when—she found her heart fully engaged.
Q. What's in a Name?: My husband and I have been married for six and a half years. We have an extremely strong relationship with one small point of contention: my name. When we got married, I had the intention of changing my last name to his, but I got cold feet about it. I feel that if I change my name, I'll lose my autonomy. Couple this with the fact that people automatically assume my last name is his and end up calling him Mr. Smith, instead of Mr. Notsmith, and you can see where my husband would be more than slightly annoyed. Am I way out of line on this one?
A: If people assume that you have your husband's last name, I don't get the sense you are annoyed or offended when they make that understandable mistake. But your husband feels demeaned by people who don't know him well calling him Mr. Smith. I actually don't see why this should bother him. I didn't change my name so at our dry cleaners my husband is Mr. Yoffe, and he's never said that picking up his shirts using this moniker has left him feeling unmanned. What to do about a name change is highly personal and I would hope that six years into it your husband could respect your choice and laugh off any silly confusion over it.
Q. What to Do With My Diaries?: You mentioned diaries in your earlier response. I have kept diaries since I was about 12 years old. I'm now in my 40s and still write faithfully. Recently, my 8-year-old daughter has become interested in what I write. I've told her the diaries belong to me and are private. But, it got me thinking. Are the diaries something I should destroy sometime before my death? Or, do you think they should be left for my daughter, even though there are details about marriage troubles, conflicts with her, not so nice things about people, etc.?
A: Diaries are such a wonderful way to work through the troubles in one's life, but if they are used primarily for that purpose, they would give a distorted sense of the completeness of your experience to someone reading them. You were right to tell your daughter that diaries are private. But instead of closing off that subject, since she's raised it, I think you should give her a gift of a beautiful journal. Tell her that when you were not much older than her, you found writing down your thoughts really helped you. You can say a diary is whatever the person wants it to be—she can write her thoughts, poems, even make drawings. But the most important thing is that it's her private place and you will respect that.
It overwhelmingly likely that the issue of what to do with your diaries won't be real for many decades. Now that you're a mother, I hope you and your husband have a will. What to do with your diaries is something you can note in it. Maybe you will just ask they be destroyed. But if you decide to leave them for her, you can explain in a letter your overwhelming love for and pride in your daughter, and say that the diaries were a place you worked out your conflicts and more painful thoughts.
Q. Alcoholic?: My sister-in-law insists on making every event an alcoholic event. We held a birthday party for family and close friends for our 1-year-old that started at 10 a.m. We had it catered with breakfast food and were surprised when she showed up with a half of a case of wine. We had a family reunion schedule for a local amusement park last summer. She cracked out the wine at 9 a.m. in the parking lot for some "pre-game" as she called it. She's usually the only one drinking that early. The strange thing is that she doesn't drink much—a glass or two at most. Even at nighttime parties for adults, she never gets drunk and doesn't drink much, so I'm having a hard time believing she's an alcoholic. I've asked her friends, and they say she drinks a normal amount, and they've never seen her drunk. Is she just socially awkward or is it something else?