Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Surprise kid: Six years ago, I had a brief fling with “Jane” the summer after I finished college. She ended things by moving away without telling me. Last month, Jane called me up and dropped a bombshell: She had been pregnant when she left. I have a daughter I have never met. My name is on the birth certificate, and now Jane needs me to surrender my paternal rights so her fiancé can adopt my daughter. It was impossible to process and Jane acted irritated with me because I had questions and wanted to know about the child. I got a paternity test. This little girl is mine. I looked her up on social media and she looks exactly like me. It knocked the breath out of me.
I contacted a lawyer who told me I would have to pay child support (which I am willing to do) but I could also easily get custody rights. I haven’t told Jane this. I have been trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting with my daughter. Jane has been borderline hostile with me. She has told me she doesn’t know why I am making this difficult, and that her daughter already has a dad and doesn’t need a “deadbeat” around to confuse her. I snapped that Jane doesn’t get to use that word—I didn’t walk away without a word, I wasn’t given any choice or chance to be a father until a month ago. She had years to get used to this, I had less than a month. Jane has reluctantly agreed to let me meet my daughter.
I already know I want to be in my daughter’s life, but I don’t know if I am being selfish or not. My lawyer advised me to be prepared for difficulty from Jane. I haven’t told anyone but my sister yet. She is livid with Jane and says I have every right to want my own child. It would kill my parents for them to miss out on being grandparents. Jane hasn’t given me a straight answer about why she didn’t tell me other than she thought I was too “immature” to be of any “use.” I don’t know what to do here. Can you help me?
A: I can’t help you any more than your lawyer can about the specifics, but I can certainly affirm what you already know to be true: You have a right to get to know your daughter and to pursue shared custody, especially since you’re also willing to provide child support for her care. It’s not selfish to want to parent your own child, and it’s not selfish to feel hurt and aggrieved that your child’s other parent only told you about her existence when she wanted you to terminate your rights. I’d certainly encourage you to speak to Jane only through your lawyer from now on—based on how she’s acted these last six years, I don’t think you can assume good faith on Jane’s part, and you should focus on accessing your legal rights rather than trying to appeal to Jane’s goodwill.
My only other piece of advice would be to find a therapist with some experience in hostile custody agreements, and to prepare yourself for meeting a child who may be initially confused, reserved, or upset with you. Don’t try to rush her into closeness she may not be ready for, and have an outlet for processing your anger and grief elsewhere. Do your best not to speak unkindly about her mother, even if her mother doesn’t return the favor (that doesn’t mean you have to pretend you just didn’t want to see her for the first six years of her life; you can certainly be honest about the facts, albeit in age-appropriate ways). Again, there’s nothing selfish about what you’re seeking to do here, but it’s important to keep your daughter’s welfare in the forefront of your mind, and not to destabilize her life any more than absolutely necessary. Insist that your parents and sister do the same before they meet your daughter; they may also be very angry with Jane in their own rights, but it’s imperative not to overwhelm your child with an entire new wing of her family who may all want to work out their frustration with her mother during their first meeting. Proceed patiently and cautiously, and with good legal counsel, but don’t let Jane convince you that it’s your responsibility to sign away custodial rights simply because you didn’t know you had them to begin with.
How to Get Advice From Prudie:
• Send questions for publication to [email protected]. (Questions may be edited.)
• Call the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast at 401-371-DEAR (3327) to hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. Is my friend attracted to me? I’m a woman, and I live with my friend “Dana” and her husband. I think something has changed between me and Dana! I don’t think I am gay; I date men. I feel awful admitting this, but I think I have a crush on Dana—or, I just care deeply for her and I have come to appreciate and admire her as we’ve become closer living together. Dana and I have gotten a little affectionate with each other over the past year—our feet touch when we’re sitting down and sometimes it feels like I can orgasm. I’ve never had that with someone. She’s introduced this quirky house game where we poke each other unexpectedly and she’s tickled me and touched my breasts when in a silly mood. We’ve had two long hugs that have felt like electricity through my whole body, and I feel nervous when our faces are close. Does she like me, and do I like her?
A: I think if you feel on the precipice of orgasm from a breathless, unacknowledged moment of foot-touching with another woman, you can safely rule out the possibility that you simply admire her! And I think you must know that too—this reads like fan fiction tagged with “roommates to lovers, slow burn.” Yes, it is possible to date men and to fall for another woman; if you don’t think you are gay, “bisexual” strikes me as a potentially useful term. (You may also want to reflect upon whether you’ve ever felt this way about any of the men you’ve dated! You don’t have to be gay, of course, but it may be worth re-evaluating some of your prior assumptions in light of this new state of Dana-induced electricity.)
I also think it’s safe to say that Dana introduced this “quirky house game” (am I being pranked?) that frames tickling/breast massage as “silly” rather than “foreplay” at the very least because she “likes” you, yes. Whether she’s prepared to openly discuss and avow the obvious attraction between the two of you is another question entirely, but yes, you can trust the evidence of your eyes, ears, and other sensory receptors and say, “Dana likes me, and I like Dana.” She lives with you and is close to you, and she’s affectionate with you, turns you on, and finds ways to touch you, because you two like one another. Whatever you decide to do with this information is up to you, of course, but I can answer your question in the affirmative with perfect confidence.
Q. A comparison game: My younger brother has, somehow, escaped many of the mental health issues that plagued me my entire adolescence and early adulthood. While I spent time on SSRIs and intensive therapy, he was off building a life for himself that’s honestly better than mine.
I live in a tiny studio with no significant other, a good but low-paying job, and little to no idea about how to change either of those. At a year younger than me, he’s already purchased his own house, settled into a well-paying government position with a ton of upward mobility, found a life partner, and started his own company. He really enjoys sending quarterly email updates to our extended family that, in reality, are just sharing his news, but come off to me as braggy and arrogant. I’m finding it hard to genuinely be happy for him because he’s doing better than me by every measure. I can’t help but think, “This is what my life could be like if I wasn’t mentally ill”—which of course sends me into a downward spiral. I am happiest when I’m not in contact with him, because that takes away the constant comparison. I don’t want this to be our dynamic forever, though. What can I do to put this behind me, be proud of his successes, and be able to get close to him without getting sick with jealousy?
A: For the immediate term, filter his mass-email updates so they don’t show up in your inbox and go straight to spam, or an innocuously-named folder where all incoming mail is automatically marked as “read.” If you know reading those updates brings you real anguish, but know he’s just trying to keep in touch and not trying to hurt your feelings, put them someplace where you can skim them from time to time, or just leave them be. If he’s generally open and warm, you might even consider giving him a call and letting him know that you’d rather keep in touch some other way. That doesn’t mean telling him everything you feel vulnerable and insecure about, or asking him to change something innocuous, but I should think you have room to say, “I’m really working on getting over my need to compare the two of us all the time, but sometimes it’s hard. Your email updates are sometimes difficult for me to read, so I’m going to filter them out of my inbox for a while [or was wondering if you’d take me off the recipient list until I let you know I’m ready for them again]. Maybe we could catch up over the phone once a month [or once a quarter, or once in a while—whatever feels manageable to you, letter writer]. I want to be able to be excited for the good things that happen in your life and make the changes I’m eager to make in my own, too. I appreciate your patience and flexibility here; it will mean a lot to me.”
Of course, you don’t have to say anything if you don’t think your relationship is ready for such a frank conversation. If you just want to create the filter and then catch up over Christmas, that’s fine too. Good luck.
Q. The beautiful ones: The other day my partner and I were talking about how women are often more likely to date someone who is less conventionally attractive than men are, and my partner let it slip that he thinks most people would think he’s the more attractive partner in our relationship. He was quick to say that he doesn’t feel that way, that he thinks I’m beautiful, and that conventional standards of beauty are stupid.
The thing is, Prudie, is that this is probably true. People have always told him he could model. I do the best with what I have and I put myself together well, but no one is asking me to sign any modeling contracts. He apologized, said it was a dumb mistake, and that he never should have said it. He said that by conventionally attractive, he meant society’s standard for beauty, such as models and actresses.
I am hurt by this, but trying to forgive, as I know that he is attracted to me and loves me. I also feel very ashamed that I care what others are hypothetically thinking about our perceived levels of attractiveness. I’m trying to not care, but I also can’t un-hear this, and it brings out a lot of insecurities, like many women have, that I’ve always had about my appearance. How should I approach how I’m feeling?
A: Patiently and respectfully, I think. You do not have to rush to forgive someone just because you know they love you, or because you believe they did not intend to hurt your feelings. Nor do I think that your boyfriend is entirely persuaded that conventional beauty standards are “stupid,” otherwise he wouldn’t have had an in-depth conversation with his partner about beauty standards, gendered relationships to beauty standards, his relationship to beauty standards, and what “most people” believe his relationship to said beauty standards to be. Which is to say that, like many people, your boyfriend’s relationship to convention is complicated.
It’s not shameful to care about what other people are thinking, especially since you already seem fairly aware that it’s not the only thing that matters (nor, indeed, that you can always guess what other people are thinking!), and especially when your boyfriend is the one who brought up what other people might be thinking about the two of you in the first place. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling insecure (is there anything more self-defeating than trying to berate yourself out of insecurity?), don’t blame yourself for the composition of the water you’re swimming in, and don’t take your boyfriend’s good intentions as evidence that you don’t have a right to feel hurt or dismissed. You do! Feel your feelings, and take your time about them.
Q. Closeted bisexual applying to grad school: I am a cis woman who has identified as bisexual for a number of years. I am not out to anyone other than my boyfriend. I am applying to graduate schools, and many applications give the option to identify yourself as LGBTQI+, probably for purposes of diversity. Is it unethical for me to identify myself as part of the LGBTQI+ community on my applications when I am still in the closet to most people? This feels wrong to me, but I am having a difficult time putting my finger on why. I would love to hear your perspective.
A: I wish I could give you a stronger perspective! The most energy I can work up over this question is “Check whichever box you like,” I’m afraid. I doubt very much this box is either going to make the difference between an accepted or a rejected application, or even how much funding the LGBT center gets in the academic year (I’ve asked a university professor for more detail: “It’s probably illegal to take such information into account while hiring [if it’s a public school], and will only be used for data collection—to confirm that they’re not biased against potential LGBT candidates, for example”). It’s unlikely to make much of a difference one way or the other. If I were to guess why you’re having a difficult time with what amounts to a fairly brief moment of box-ticking, it might be that part of you wants to acknowledge your bisexuality outside of your boyfriend and a note on your grad school application. I would encourage you to pay attention to that feeling, and to ask yourself what you might like to do with it!
Q. Wounded cougar: Six months ago, I began dating a wonderful man who is 15 years younger than me. When his parents found out, they said a lot of really nasty things because of our age gap. They tried aggressively to get him to break up with me by saying I was old, that I was a predator who was manipulating him, that I would wreck the family’s future, and they questioned the health of my eggs—all without knowing anything about me but my age. He chose me over them because our love is real.
Now his parents have changed their tune and are extremely nice to me, presumedly to get him back in their lives. It appears like they have come around and accepted me and our relationship. But none of this feels OK to me. All of their awful criticisms of me are now internalized shame. They wrecked my body image, made me feel badly about my age, and generally did real damage to my self esteem. I’ve been going to therapy to rebuild over the damage they’ve done, but I’m never going to forget how they tried to destroy my beautiful, happy, healthy relationship.
Now that they perceive things as fixed, they pressure us to socialize with them constantly with time-intensive experiences like travel or a days-long Thanksgiving plan. When we do see them, it is awkward and tense for us because of the things that happened months ago and often ends in an argument between my partner and his parents. I want to marry their son one day and have a great relationship with them in the distant future, but now it just seems so forced. Is waiting and politely staying away from them until time heals this an option?
A: I’m skeptical that “time” is going to heal something that actually calls for “meaningful redress, apology, commitment to behaving differently in the future, and not making demands upon someone you’ve previously insulted to treat you like their new best friend.” Why on earth should you feel OK when these people called you an evil vampire trying to suck the youth out of their babe-in-the-woods son, and are now demanding you stay with them for a Thanksgiving weekend as though nothing happened? If you want to stay with your boyfriend, that’s one thing, but I’m not sure how you can have a “great” relationship with his parents unless and until, at the very least, they apologize for insulting your age and treating you like a rapacious zombie for dating a younger man. If he expects you to simply make nice with them without an apology, then I’m not so sure how long this relationship will last before something eventually blows up.
Q. Trouble abroad: My partner and I had a wonderful baby boy at the start of the pandemic. My parents live nearby, but my mother-in-law lives abroad and so still hasn’t met her (first) grandson. This must be so hard for her, as she is putting increasing pressure on us to fly over and visit, despite the pandemic worsening globally.
I really don’t want to fly right now, let alone quarantine for weeks; it feels irresponsible and extremely stressful. She is getting increasingly desperate and irrational about it, and I feel like our relationship is worsening as a result. My partner is very laissez-faire about the whole situation. What can I do to help her feel better (as I feel video chats are making it worse!)?
A: Start handing the phone (or forwarding the email, or passing off the video call, or whatever) to your partner whenever your mother-in-law brings it up again: “I’ll let Remuel take this one; I’m afraid it’s time to feed the baby again!” (Sorry if that’s rather shameless, but I think you should be shameless as often as possible here, and use the baby as a convenient excuse for letting your partner deal with their mother. If your partner wants to be laissez-faire, that’s fine, but they shouldn’t do so by letting all this work fall on your shoulders.)
Obviously this could backfire if your partner is especially malleable and ends up buying plane tickets without your knowledge just to get their mom off the case. But I think that’s rather unlikely (and of course you can always simply decline to board the plane). “Telling your mom no about the visit is your job now” is the best way out of this, I think. You’ve got enough on your plate as it is, and she needs to leave this alone!
Q. Re: Surprise kid: Just as Jane had the right to decide whether to give birth, you have the right to be her father, both legally and emotionally. If she didn’t want you involved, she should have left your name off the birth certificate. Fight for your daughter, but be prepared to have lawyers and courts involved in your lives until your daughter is old enough to make her own decisions and be able to act on them. Courts like emotionally engaged fathers, and you can demonstrate that you were kept in the dark until she wanted to terminate your rights.
A: Thanks for this! Another commenter wanted to add, “Whether or not your ex’s judgment of you back when she was first pregnant was accurate, the fact remains that you have a strong desire to be an active part of this little girl’s life…that’s admirable,” and I think that’s useful, too. Of course the idea of dealing with lawyers and courts for the next 10-12 years may feel daunting, and I hope that you and Jane are eventually able to co-parent civilly, if not amicably. But it’s not Jane’s choice to make for you.
Q. Re: Closeted bisexual applying to grad school: I would like to remind the letter writer that imposter syndrome is a very common feeling that bisexuals experience. Since we technically “have a choice” versus others who are only attracted to one gender, it sometimes can feel like we are pretending to be marginalized. If nothing else, remember that this would never cross the mind of a straight person, as they’d simply check the “heterosexual” box without a second thought. You identify as bisexual, so there’s nothing wrong with simply being honest about your orientation.
A: I think that’s the right attitude! It’s a brief question that you can answer honestly, not an attempt to force you to “prove” something; if you want to pay attention to this feeling afterwards because you realize there’s something else troubling you, so much the better, but when it comes to the form itself, don’t overthink things.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much for your help, everyone. Remember, you can acknowledge that you’ve hurt someone you love and make meaningful amends without offering them money whenever they ask for it, or letting them move in with you.
If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.
Discuss this column on our Facebook page!
From Care and Feeding
Q. Screaming for help: My daughter is 12, and up until two years ago, she was a ray of sunshine. She was the happiest baby and an easy toddler. Right around the time puberty reared its ugly head, several things happened. We relocated 600 miles away, her paternal grandparent was diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness, and her biological father lost his ever-loving mind. He’s been minimally involved in her life and in and out of jail, rehab, and psychiatric treatment. (My husband has raised her as his own.)
Understandably, my daughter’s now pissed at everyone and everything. I can sympathize to some extent, but she’s been absolutely vile. She’s hateful to her brother, sometimes even physically aggressive (for what it’s worth, they are close in size and age). She screams at me constantly or is disrespectful. She will follow me around to continue (screaming) arguments even if I try to put her in her room or close myself in my own room. We offered therapy (I go, her brother goes, we’re very therapy-positive), and she told me she’d say that we abuse her. I’m tired, scared, and desperate. Read what Carvell Wallace had to say.
Get the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book. Save $5 when you buy it from Slate—and listen in your preferred podcast app!
Slate Plus members get extra questions, Prudie Uncensored with Nicole Cliffe, and full-length podcast episodes every week.Join Slate Plus