Dear Prudence: My dying mother’s letters are holding me emotionally hostage.

Help! My Dying Mother Wrote Me Letters a Decade Ago. Do I Have to Keep Reading Them?

Help! My Dying Mother Wrote Me Letters a Decade Ago. Do I Have to Keep Reading Them?

Advice on manners and morals.
Nov. 26 2014 6:00 AM

Red-Letter Day

The notes my dying mother wrote to me a decade ago are haunting my life milestones.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe.

Photo by Teresa Castracane

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Dear Prudence,
More than a decade ago, when I was 15, my beloved mother died of cancer. My siblings, our dad, and I grieved and stuck close together and moved toward healing. My dad did a great job of seeing us through to adulthood. In the months before her death, my mother decided to write her children cards and letters to read at different points along our paths: high school graduations, weddings, etc. I believe that doing this helped to steady her during a time of great anxiety about what would happen to her children, particularly a teen daughter without a mother. My siblings and I have shared some of the letters with one another, and we have appreciated learning more about her early life from them, as well as laughing at her wit and energy coming back to us. However, I’m getting married in a few months, and I am now dreading reading the Wedding Letter from Mom. I understand what she was doing for us, as well as for herself, but the letters cause an emotional upheaval during times that are already emotional enough. Knowing that the stack is dwindling is painful, but knowing that I have to read them on her timeline is making me a little resentful toward her because it’s holding me back from closure. My aunt stressed to me that Mom never intended to control me through these letters, and I believe that she wouldn’t want me to be the perpetual “little girl lost” years after she’s gone. But the idea of sitting down and reading through all of them at once so I won’t have to open them during big life events seems so final and sad. Any advice?

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—Little Girl Lost

Dear Girl,
My heart lurches over your dilemma. I can imagine your dying mother writing you, the daughter she knows she’ll never see become a woman, putting on paper the things she would want to say to you on the eve of your wedding. What a painful paradox to have your long-gone mother’s voice come alive on the page while feeling taken back to the worst time in your life. There also must be something unsettling about getting advice from a mother who knew who you were then but doesn’t know who you are now. Rebekah Gee, a physician and daughter of the former president of Ohio State, experienced the same dilemma you face when her late mother left her a ream of letters—her story was told on This American Life. I can see how it could be unnerving to hear your mother’s voice anew, speculating about who you are and who you are marrying. I think you should put the letters away for now. You know they’re there, and you know your mother did not want you held emotionally hostage to them, so it is not a betrayal of her memory to say, “Mom, I’m going to read these later.” Later could be after the wedding. Later could be years from now. Later could be when your children say, “Mommy, what was your mommy like?” And you say, “Well, I’ve got some mail from her. Let’s read it together.”

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
After the last kid, my wife was off the pill for about a year, and we used other contraception. Eventually we agreed that she would go back on the pill for a year, and then I’d get a vasectomy. The snip is upcoming, but my wife is a much nicer person when on the pill. I know the rational part of her brain would agree because it manifests itself in how she interacts with the kids. It’s subtle, not Jekyll and Hyde, but she seems so much healthier and happier as well. Would it be soul-crushing for her if I just blurt it out one day over pizza? I guess I could lie and feign a stereotypical aversion to the snip. Can she handle the truth? Or do I just suck it up and live with it?

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—I Love You, but Take This Pill

Dear Take,
I do wonder about marriages in which people have to tiptoe around the most basic truths about each other. I hope you wouldn’t be mortally offended if your wife pointed out to you, “Honey, when you have that third martini, it just doesn’t make your personality more sparkling.” Or, “I’ve noticed you get really cranky when you haven’t been getting enough exercise. Let’s start taking walks after dinner.” Many women experience monthly mood swings because of rising and falling hormones. Some find the pill can even out the lows, and your wife is apparently one of them. The good news is that since she’s on it, you don’t have to time your conversation for the days of the month when she’s least likely to take it the wrong way. So just tell her, in a gentle, loving way, that you’ve noticed she doesn’t experience the premenstrual blues when she’s on the pill—maybe she’s even noticed this herself—and ask if she wants to keep the status quo. Say that you are not raising this issue to back out of your agreement on getting snipped. After that, it’s her decision. Surely if you handle this right, she won’t offer to do your vasectomy on the spot.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My wife and I have been married for nearly three years. We married shortly after we learned she was pregnant. However, she miscarried, after which she slipped into a deep depression. For months she said she would never be the same until she was pregnant again. I strongly resisted, because I didn’t want a kid, and I thought it was a poor reason to have a child. However, after seven months, I gave in. It was a big mistake. The first year of my son’s life was miserable, and I felt like I was forced into doing something I really didn’t want. While she was pregnant with our son, my wife and I agreed that she would get an IUD to prevent another pregnancy, but she never did. Eventually, we were sleeping in separate rooms and rarely having sex, and I was questioning my marriage. Then she became pregnant again. I begged her to get an abortion, but she wouldn’t. Now our second son is here, and my life is more miserable than ever. I feel completely betrayed by my wife. How can I stay with someone who so callously disregards my feelings on the most important decision two people can make?

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—Big Problem

Dear Big,
Maybe you and the dad above can go get snipped together. Most teenage boys, even if the purchase is only aspirational, have braved the checkout lines at drugstores and bought themselves condoms. You should have joined them and kept some condoms in your nightstand for those rare occasions of sexual congress. Surely, even if you skipped sex ed, you figured out what caused the arrival of son No. 1. Nothing but your own genitals betrayed you in the making of son No. 2. You have two children whom you think of as millstones. This is awful for everyone, and even if you didn’t come to fatherhood enthusiastically, there’s something deeply off with your inability to find any joy in the arrival of your sons. You say your wife struggles with depression; maybe you do, too. Or maybe your problem is an inability to take responsibility for your actions. This is why therapy exists. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, go figure out how you can make your situation better. That means you must address what’s wrong with you and try to find a way to reconnect with your wife rather than blowing up your family. Maybe if you stop thinking about your own misery, you can look in the faces of those two little boys you helped create and commit to providing them with security and love.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I live less than a mile away from his ex-wife, “Trudy.” They have three children, and I have two from a previous marriage. Trudy forcefully interferes with our time with the children during the holidays. For example, for Halloween she took her children through her neighborhood and then demanded to join us when we took all the kids in our neighborhood. I feel that my husband and I should be able to create our own traditions with the time we have with our large blended family. That’s difficult because Trudy demands that she be part of every holiday and every event. When my husband explains things are different than when they were together, Trudy has huge temper tantrums, screaming at him and accusing me of controlling him. Am I wrong to want to have our own thing and spend private time with my stepdaughters, or am I being unreasonable? Should I allow Trudy to continue to come to our home on holidays as if all of us are a family?

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—Goodbye Trudy

Dear Goodbye,
All blended families figure this out for themselves. I’ve heard from people with new spouses and bunches of shared kids who all go off and rent a vacation home together. Others treat the new spouses as if they’re radioactive. It’s much better for everyone to have a kind of easy camaraderie, but it sound as if you’re an uneasy hostage to Trudy’s demands. I’ve never quite understood people who are willing to make scenes to get themselves included. They don’t seem to realize no one wants to include them because they’re the kind of people who make scenes. But I agree it’s time Trudy realized her former husband is your husband now, and one consequence of that is that she must make her own holiday traditions. This is a conversation for your husband to have privately with her. He found the wherewithal to end his marriage, so he needs to start setting some limits and enforcing them. However, I’d expect this Thanksgiving to be saying, “Trudy, can you pass the yams?”

—Prudie

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