How to Deal with Deep-Dark Family Secrets

Comedian Michelle Buteau helps solve your etiquette problems

<p>John Nacion/Getty Images</p> Photo of Michelle Buteau wearing all black.

John Nacion/Getty Images

Photo of Michelle Buteau wearing all black.

Michelle Buteau is a mother, wife, dog mama, actor, writer, comedian, and TV host. Her book of autobiographical essays, Survival of the Thickest, is a Netflix series. She also cohosts the popular podcast Adulting on the Exactly Right network. With all this life experience, we trust Michelle's ability to navigate a number of social quandaries. Here's her advice to our readers in the November 2022 issue of Real Simple.

Spilling the Family Secrets

VIRGINIA: A long time ago, my uncle embezzled a lot of money from the family business, practically ruining my dad. My uncle lived happily ever after while the business and my parents’ health suffered. Now his daughter wants a relationship with me, and I struggle because she knows nothing about the crime and adores her father. Should I tell her the history or let it lie?

MICHELLE: I’m really sorry that you and your family had to go through this. As someone who has had many difficulties with family, I always find that communication is healing. Sometimes people aren’t ready to hear what you have to say, but you’ll feel better, and perhaps an open and honest dialogue will help you start fresh. While it may take time to get to a place of comfort, by putting the truth out there, you’ll make sure the next generation can learn from the previous generation’s mistakes. You could try to have a relationship with your cousin without bringing it up, but I’m guessing you’ll just start to harbor resentment toward her, and that doesn’t serve anybody. Rip off the Band-Aid and let the family wound heal. You’ve got this.

Unwanted Gifts

PAIGE: My kids (7 and 9) have been begging me and my husband to get them a puppy. We’ve repeatedly said no and made it very clear that we will not be getting a dog now or in the future. My mother-in-law was aware of the kids’ desire and our refusal. Without talking to us first, she surprised them the other day with a pup! So now we have one in our home, against our wishes. What should I do?

MICHELLE: Paige! I can’t even believe this! You should see the look on my tired, bloated, freckled face right now! As a mother of two human children and two furry children, I’m really trying to wrap my mind around this. While I understand that Grandma loves her grandchildren and wants to see them happy, surprising you with a puppy, essentially another family member to take care of for 10 to 15 years, is not a gift. An Edible Arrangement? That’s a gift!

You need to have an in-person, heart-to-heart conversation about boundaries with your mother-in-law. You and your husband should come up with a game plan so you’re a united front. Tell her that, even if you were looking for a dog, there’s so much research that should happen first. Which breed fits your lifestyle? Is a young pup even a good idea? She made those decisions for you and crossed a line. Of course, you’ll be the bad guys for a good while if you rehome your puppy. Maybe she can take it herself so the puppy can still be in the kids’ lives. No matter what, have a sit-down with her. I hope you all can get on the same page, Paige!

Surprising you with a puppy, essentially another family member to take care of for 10 to 15 years, is not a gift. An Edible Arrangement? That’s a gift!

Riding With Dangerous Drivers

MADONNA: I have a very dear friend who is a horrible driver. It’s terrifying to ride with her, so usually if we go anywhere, I drive. But I have a new Jeep she’s unable to climb into. Am I being unreasonable by refusing to ride with her? And before you ask, she’s been in many accidents, and I’m not the only person afraid to drive with her.

MICHELLE: Well, Madonna, this is a first for me because I have more questions than answers. Does she know that she’s a bad driver? How many accidents is “many”? Does she know that people are afraid to drive with her? This feels more like an intervention than a question of whose car you should take! Safety is key. Not having anxiety in a car is paramount. You basically have two choices, from what I can see:

1. Find a step stool to get her into and out of your vehicle so she can ride with you.

2. Take a taxi when y’all go out.

We shouldn’t have to endure something scary when we’re supposed to be having fun. I’m sure you love your friend. If she’s putting herself and others in danger, don’t let her drive!

Sharing the Spotlight

MADDIE: I’m in a pickle. My mom is a bright light. She does amazing things in our community, she works hard, and she’s been called, on more than one occasion, a “force of nature.” The problem: She talks so much about all the great things she does. It’s hard because sometimes girls night turns into her best onstage performance. I love her and I’m so proud of her, but I wish I could ask her to share the spotlight without dimming herself down.

Maddie, this is a pickle! I absolutely love what I do, and sometimes it can be hard to shut it off and be fully present with family time. When you care about what you do, it takes up space—sometimes too much space. This is a good old “not what you say, but how you say it” situation. Clearly your mom is fun, full of life, and a bright light (as you say) in the community, but you need some quiet mother-daughter time to feed your soul. If you’re close enough to have a girls night, then you should be able to tell her how you feel. When you talk to her, lead with compliments. Perhaps give her effervescent personality a nickname, like an alter ego! And let her know that, say, Force of Nature Mom has arrived. This could be a fun way to speak your truth when she’s holding court and bring her down to reality. Learning how to ask for things you need isn’t always easy, but you’ll be so much better for it in the long run.


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