DEAR HARRIETTE: I visited my sister recently, and I hadn’t seen her for about a year. I was surprised to see that she had gained a lot of weight. I mean a lot. Heck, I’ve gained weight, too, but I don’t know. I feel that if she doesn’t do something soon, she could get really sick. Our family has a history of high blood pressure and diabetes. I bet you anything she has got some of those conditions right now. She would have to. I also know how sensitive it is to talk about weight gain. She has been on the gain for years, and she would never talk about it. Now that I’ve gained weight, maybe I could bring it up about myself, too. I don’t want to do or say nothing and then see her get sick or die soon. Advice? — Annie, San Francisco, Calif. Dear Annie: You are right to be concerned and sensitive to realize how difficult it can be for people to address weight issues. Who knows if you will ever break through to your sister to get her to take action? But it’s definitely worth the effort. Why not research a weight-loss program that you can participate in together — remotely. Invite her to join you in a contest to see who can lose anything in the next month. See if you can bait her into the competition. There are many national programs that are monitored online or with telephone support. Find one and then work together on the honor system to see how you do. If your sister says no, go for it anyway and keep her in the loop. E-mail her with your progress, including the triumphs and difficulties. Be mindful not to brag. Instead, celebrate little victories and admit defeats. Continue to invite her to join you. Remind her that you love her and want both of you to be healthy.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I’ve have been married for 10 years. When my husband and I were dating, he cheated with his ex-girlfriend, which resulted in a baby. His son, my stepson, is 12 years old now and has been living with my mother-in-law for a year. My husband still pays child support. My stepson’s mother does very little for her child. My husband spends a lot of time at my mother-in-law’s helping my stepson with schoolwork and other things.
I feel that our two children and I are not a priority, so it’s causing problems in our relationship. If we tried to get custody, my stepson’s mother would suddenly want to be a part of her son’s life. My mother-in-law is raising my stepson to be selfish and lazy.
I refuse to ask my husband to choose between our children and me and his son and mother. Would it be selfish of me to separate from him, because I just can’t handle this? — Bernadette, Detroit
Bernadette: I can imagine how difficult it must have been for you from the beginning, knowing that your husband produced a child with another woman while you were dating. Yet you married him knowing this. Whether you like it or not, your stepson is a part of your life. The sooner you welcome him and your mother-in-law into your life fully, the sooner you will experience some relief in your marriage.
Your husband is doing the right thing — paying child support and paying attention to his son. That’s the responsibility of a father. Because he divides his time between two residences, everybody is suffering. Rather than requesting custody — at least immediately — talk to your husband about having your stepson spend some time at your home. Create a space just for him, at least a bed. Welcome him into your family and encourage your children to treat him well. Stop beating up on your husband. He is doing his best in a prickly situation, albeit one that he created. Don’t give up.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My fiance and I have been together for two years and we have a 6-month-old son. We come from different backgrounds (I’m Hispanic and he’s from the Middle East). The problem is I think he’s ashamed of me. Recently one of his friends had a traditional Middle Eastern party. Instead of taking his family, he went alone. His excuse was that he didn’t think that the culture would interest me and that the next time he would be sure to take our son. I’ve taken him to my family functions … why can’t he do the same for me? — Kenya, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Kenya: From what you’ve described it seems demeaning that your fiance would not invite you to this event — and worse that next time he will bring your son but not you. Did you talk to him about what he said?
Before you get married, address what marriage and family mean to each of you. Talk to him about your understanding of these two matters. Start by explaining that when two people get married both partners’ families become one. That you come from two different backgrounds can be wonderful for your family, if you approach it that way. Your child can come to know and appreciate his varied background, and each of you can learn to respect and admire each other’s heritage. Otherwise, your differences may cause more friction than your relationship can bear.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I appreciate your advice to Rama in Cincinnati, who worried about keeping in touch with her mother and grandmother. For more than 15 years, my mother and I had a “date” for a phone call on Saturday mornings at 9:30 a.m. Using a 3-cents-per-minute phone card, we could talk for an hour for less than $2. No matter how much we talked during the week, that hour was reserved for her. I still think about her every Saturday at that time, even though she’s been gone for four years. Tell Rama not to give up. — Kathleen, New York, N.Y.
Dear Kathleen: Thank you for the reminder. It is a blessing for anyone who has parents or other family elders still alive and communicative. Don’t squander that blessing. Stay in touch with your family members, even if you move away. As you point out, it can be affordable to place a long-distance call once a week, too. Plus, e-mail works beautifully for any elders who are comfortable using the Internet. When they are, consider getting a video-cam attachment for each of you so that you can see each other as you talk. That will make you feel even closer.
This question reminds me of what happens in my family. I am the middle child of three girls. My mother and my younger sister and her family live in my hometown. I live in New York. My older sister lives in Los Angeles. All three of us talk to our mother regularly. My mother recently told one of her friends that my sister Susan who lives farthest away calls her several times a day to check in. Distance does not have to be a barrier in how close you remain to your family.
DEAR HARRIETTE: My husband and I decided to live in New York City after we had our children because we wanted to make sure that they have a multicultural experience. When I walk around, I see and meet people from all over the world, and I think that’s awesome. I grew up in a small town in the South, and everyone there was the same, neighborhood by neighborhood. We grew up in a predominately black neighborhood; others grew up in predominately white neighborhoods. I want my kids to see that Americans can live and work together and go to school together. I’m telling you all of this because, sadly, the opposite has happened. The schools in New York City are largely segregated just like when I was growing up. My children are in private school where almost every student is white. Black students populate most of the public schools, though white students are in special classes that you have to test into. So we have to create opportunities for our children to engage with a variety of children of different backgrounds. What a disappointment. — Belinda, New York, N.Y.
Dear Belinda: I live in New York City and fully understand your plight. I would venture to say that even adults who want to expand their friend group have to actively work at it. While there is more opportunity for people of different backgrounds to live in the same buildings or neighborhoods, people often naturally self-segregate without even realizing it. Plus, in the challenged public-school system, many parents who can afford to put their children in private school do so immediately. But given the decline in the economy, private school has become less of an option for many parents, especially people of color who tend to have lower household incomes than their white counterparts.
Economics and social conventions frequently segregate even the most well-meaning people. What my husband and I have always done is to gravitate toward people who interest us regardless of what they look like. We encourage our daughter to do the same, and then we consciously work to make time to spend with these people. Yes, it will likely take extra effort for you to cultivate multicultural opportunities for your children. Don’t give up. It’s worth it.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I think I caught a sexually transmitted disease from my new boyfriend. I am so embarrassed I don’t know what to do. I had some itching, you know, and that never happened before. I like this guy, and he’s from a prominent family. Plus, my family thinks he’s “the one” for me, finally. I have to attend to this problem, but I don’t want my whole life to cave in. — Sylvia, Philadelphia, Pa.
Dear Sylvia: First, go to the doctor. If there’s even a chance you have an STD, you need to get it treated, pronto. No one has to know about your medical condition, so you can keep that confidential.
If you believe that your boyfriend exposed you to a venereal disease, face that. Don’t get caught up in this man’s background. Who is he to you? Why do you remain interested in him? If it’s because of his pedigree, is that enough to build a life with him? Answer this honestly for yourself.
I am not saying that you automatically write off the man if or because he infected you with an STD. That’s something you need to address directly with him. People live with diseases of all kinds all the time. How you deal with it is the issue. Talk to him about what’s happening. His response will tell you whether it’s worth continuing in this relationship.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I thought I might offer a different perspective on Jen’s “dilemma.” I am a stepchild who grew up with two stepparents — my mom’s husband and my dad’s wife. It was hard enough dealing with the divorce of my parents, but when you threw into the mix a stepfather who never wanted to be a dad and a stepmother who wanted to ruin the other relationships early on, life was very difficult. My stepdad grew into his role and did a wonderful job until he and my mother divorced. We still have a good stepfather/daughter relationship.
My stepmother and I, on the other hand, wound up not speaking for several years. She relished the authority of parenthood but couldn’t seem to deal with the day-to-day issues of actually parenting, therefore alienating not only me but my brother as well. Jen needs to realize that having a stepchild could be a beautiful thing — or a painful burden. If the child thinks Jen doesn’t want her, she will stop trying to find love in Jen’s life, and that will also affect her marriage. I have an active relationship with my stepmother now, but had it been maintained earlier in life, it would have been much more fulfilling. I wish Jen all the luck in making the right decision for herself and the sake of her new family. The love of a child is unconditional, and she should do everything in her power to enjoy it while she can. — Star, Brooklyn, N.Y.
DEAR STAR: You bring up many key points, among them that a child’s love can be the most precious to experience. Children love with full hearts, unless or until they are taught otherwise. A child who is the product of a divorce and who is learning to accept a stepparent is faced with tremendous challenges of trust and loyalty. A stepparent has the opportunity to build and strengthen the trust of such a child, which — as you pointed out — can help foster a wonderful relationship. Is forging this type of relationship easy? No. But the alternative — of suffering a contentious relationship for years — is guaranteed to be more difficult to endure.
DEAR HARRIETTE: I am the fifth grown child in a family of six who grew up being told that I wasn’t wanted when I was born due to my gender (the fourth daughter). In many ways, my family has proven to me that it wasn’t a joke.
My older siblings married and moved hundreds of miles away, while I stayed in the area and helped take care of our parents. After their deaths, everyone went through their belongings, and everything was divided. When everyone left, I spent a week cleaning out the home. I took with me many old family photos and offered to divide them at a later date, but I never got the project finished, owing to severe health and other issues.
My nephew got married awhile ago, and at the family gathering, I brought many old family photos to share. My older sister had computer equipment with her and offered to copy the photos so everyone would have a copy. I thought this was a great idea, but this project didn’t get completed, and my sister asked me whether she could take the photos home to copy. She said she would return them “right away.”
Three years have passed, and my sister refuses to return the photos. When I ask, she gets defensive, accusing me of taking them without permission. She is retired, has no children, and doesn’t understand how my children cherished these photos. She now thinks it is up to her to decide who gets them. The family doesn’t understand why I’m furious. I feel lied to and cheated. I feel I took what was leftover, and my family doesn’t even think I’m entitled to that! I am tired of being the “picked on” little sister. What can I do? — Elizabeth, Garland, Texas
DEAR ELIZAEBTH: I have learned that what is past is past, even family possessions. When family members die, typically some members behave badly, especially as it relates to who gets what. You fell prey to this. But your challenge is deeper. You believe you were a mistake. You need to discover how valuable your presence in the world is.
Seek out a therapist. Work through your challenges. What you possess in stuff is far less important than what you possess in spirit. You are valuable! Claim that.