January 8, 2004
Does Help Betray Sister?
My sister and her husband are observant Jews. Their daughter, my teenage niece, comes over to my house regularly and asks me questions about boys and sex. Her questions are typical teenage fare but clearly not topics she feels comfortable raising with her own parents. If I talk candidly with my niece, am I betraying my sister's religious beliefs?
Many parents clam up when it comes to talking about sex with their children, irrespective of their religious beliefs or practices. And it is always nice to have a stand-in for those occasions when subject material can get too delicate -- or too loaded -- for a parent to tackle. In my book, it's one reason godparents were invented.
As for the content of your talks, hormones are hormones; they do not stop at religious boundaries and they are neither likely to go away, nor adapt themselves to different liturgical interpretation. The facts of life in no way conflict with your sister's religious beliefs.
Your sister is lucky you are there for her. That said, you should of course make it clear to her that her daughter is coming over for talks about topics that she is not comfortable discussing at home. A good mother -- and sister -- will be grateful there is someone else there to share the responsibility, and the trust. You will of course make it clear to your sister that your generosity stops short of taking her daughter to the gynecologist for birth control pills.
Feeling Like a Stepmonster
Twenty-one years after I married her father, my stepdaughter still refuses to accept me as a part of her family. She has a new baby and refuses to let her call me Nana. I'm to be called by my first name, which makes me feel hurt and excluded. What do I do?
There is nothing wrong with telling your stepdaughter that this is hurtful and leaves you feeling excluded. That said, if you have not raised the subject with either your stepdaughter or your husband in the past 21 years, it may well be too late to do so now. The bond stepchildren feel for stepparents has to do as much with the age at which the new parent enters their lives and the circumstances of the parents' parting, as it does with the play of personalities. I don't know enough about your situation to say which applies in your case. But whatever the explanation, 21 years of entrenched behavior is not likely to be undone. As soon as you stop hoping for a relationship with your stepdaughter that will never meet your expectations, you will cease to be disappointed by your stepdaughter's failure to deliver. And that, too, might inspire a little more generosity on her end.
To Church or Not to Church?
My wife and I were invited to attend the wedding of a dear colleague that was being held in a church. I did not want to attend, but my wife convinced me otherwise. The ceremony turned out to be a traditional Roman Catholic affair and everyone in the church received communion. There were long periods during the ceremony when the entire audience was kneeling -- except for my wife and me. How does one finesse such a situation in the future?
A simple "no-church" policy is my choice. (Orthodox Jews would say it is the only choice.) Picking and choosing between churches and ceremonies is sure to leave some bride and groom offended while making you look like a bigot.
A more open-minded individual might say there is no way to finesse the ceremony other than the way you did, which was beautiful. We live in a pluralistic world. You were there for your friend, and you participated in the event to the extent that you were comfortable. One can't ask more.
Friend With Tunnel Vision
My oldest friend has chosen to be a stay-at-home mom. I respect the choice she has made. What I cannot tolerate is that her children now seem to be her only topic of conversation. I dread talking to her. Is there a nice way to say, "You've turned into a colossal bore?"
No More Elmo
Working outside of the home is not what makes an individual interesting -- although it may guarantee additional expertise in topics other than diaper rash and teething. Suggest to your friend that she join your book club (if you don't belong to one, start one). There is nothing less interesting than conversations about children: If the children are not your own, you don't care to hear the particulars, and if you don't have children, you don't care to hear the generalities. The one exception to this rule may be between husband and wife, but even that exception should -- for the sake of a marriage -- come with a time limit. Next time you meet, gently try to preempt your friend by introducing topics of conversation you once found mutually engaging. If that effort fails, and she is indeed your oldest friend, try the "colossal bore" line and hope it shakes her out of her stupor.
Send letters to Ask Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954 Lexington Ave. Suite 189, New York, N.Y., 10021.