Dear Carolyn: My niece just turned 15. Physically, she reminds me of myself at her age — she looks about 19. I lost my virginity when I was 14, so, ever since last year, I've been wondering if there is a way I can talk to her about what she's thinking about sex. She has a good mom, but they are very different — her mom (my husband's sister) is religious and was always kind of nerdy and well-behaved in school, while my niece is not religious, is a popular cheerleader, and has always tended a bit more toward the wild side than her mother ever did. So I'm not sure how much they have or have not talked about this.
I pretty much only ever see my niece when the entire family is there, but she doesn't live that far away. Should I ask my sister-in-law if they have had this conversation, and/or if she thinks it would be helpful for me to approach this topic with my niece (given my status as hip younger aunt with similar wild-child past)? Should I invite my niece out with me and try to un-awkwardly bring it up?
Carolyn says: "Since I was popular, since Daughter is popular, and since you were one of those people in high school not even thinking about sex because, well, that's obvious, isn't it? I was thinking I could pinch-hit for you when it's time for The Talk with your daughter. You know, since I actually know something."
Besides being awful in about 17 different ways?
Only one of those kinds of awfulness really matters: This girl has a mother. A good one, by your own estimation. Your quest to be part of her education ends there, unless and until mother or niece takes the initiative to invite you in — and even then, you tread lightly.
That's because the mere act of volunteering for that role would say to or about your sister-in-law, "I don't think you're up to this." And who says she's not up to it just because she is different from her daughter, and her views are different from yours? Differences might even help.
If you care about your niece, then care about your whole niece, not just her early bloom. Talk to her about all kinds of things. Even better, listen to her about all kinds of things. Even even better, rewind the world and start laying this foundation when she's 5 or 7 or 10, if you haven't done that already. Your interest is suspiciously close to being about how groovy you are, vs. what your sister-in-law and niece actually need. I hope I'm wrong about that, but it's up to you to make sure I am.
Loan turns messy
Dear Carolyn: Will you tell me where my thinking is flawed? Five years ago, my mother-in-law was having financial problems. We lent her several thousand dollars to be paid back when she sold her home, which was on the market. Several months later, when the economy soured, she took it off. She has never tried to sell it since.
Soon after, her business did a 180-degree turn and has made phenomenal profits for the last three years, with no end in sight. She now is beyond flush with cash.
We now have financial pressures and I would like to ask for the money back. Because my mother-in-law has given my wife extra money and gifts for Christmas and birthdays for the last three years, my wife believes her mother owes us nothing and will not ask her for it.
This has led to several arguments and apparently I'm a jerk for not recognizing that my mother-in-law has paid us back already through gifts. Help me understand.
Carolyn says: There's nothing wrong with your lending math. Your mother-in-law owes you every cent she borrowed, plus a sorry-it-took-so-long-even-though-my-business-was-booming bonus.
Your thinking becomes flawed when you try to use that math to solve a problem that's personal, not business. Your wife doesn't want to ask her mom for the money.
It's not for me to say why, but she'd hardly be the first person to fear that calling in a loan — or just transacting business in general — would hurt a highly valued relationship more than the money is worth. Obviously the adults involved shouldn't bring it to that point, but "shoulds" are not valid plans.
I hope "jerk" was your word, not hers, because the idea of treating gifts as loan repayments leaves abundant space for two reasonable people to disagree, but few marriages have room for that kind of disrespect.
Your objection is legitimate but it's her relationship with her mom that's on the line, so I encourage you both to acknowledge openly the validity of each other's position on this. Then, please accept that your wife's bond with her mom trumps money, and drop the subject for good.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.