Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. The need to know: We’ve been happily married for over 20 years, and we are blessed with two wonderful children (twins). But, there’s a deep family secret: Everybody knows we used in vitro fertilization, but only my wife and I know the children came from donor eggs. The donor was of my wife’s general ethnicity, skin and hair color, etc., so the children’s looks are a near-perfect blend of hers and mine, and nobody suspects. The issue is whether or not the children ever know their origin, and if so, when? My point of view is that there are important medical issues potentially at stake, and they should eventually be told. Anyway, they will find out immediately if either one ever has a DNA scan—the results will come back with the “wrong” country of origin, and better they hear the news from us instead of from some lab. My wife’s point of view is that telling the children that fact would be like taking her children away from her. I agree that it’s much more important to her than to me, and so far, I’ve respected her wishes. However, I still think they should know when they are 21 or so, even with the social and cultural dislocation they’ll certainly feel. What do you think?
A: You have quite an existential dilemma about whether to tell about the eggs. I’m generally in the camp that people have a right to know their biological origins, even as I think we put way too much emphasis on genes in cases of adoption, gamete donation, or even extramarital affairs. Though Steve Jobs, who was adopted, contacted his biological mother as a young man (and never spoke to his biological father), he always insisted that his “real” parents were Paul and Clara Jobs. Still, people understand that hidden parentage packs an emotional punch, that’s why it’s been used by storytellers from the Greeks to Dickens to George Lucas. In the case of sperm and egg donation the rules are still being figured out. Keeping an adoption hidden (as they sometimes used to be) is today agreed to be destructive and almost impossible. But it is possible to keep secret the fact that a sperm or egg was purchased. At least, as you point out, until some kind of genetic testing or blood work later in life might be the cause of the big reveal.
The thing that really makes me think your children should be told someday is that you call this a “deep family secret.” Those tend to come with corrosive emotional burdens for the people keeping them. It’s sad that your wife thinks the truth would take her children away from her. But telling the kids (and you don’t say how old they are) is not something you should do unilaterally. In addition, this is information that would be hard to process for young children. My suggestion is that you tell your wife you understand and accept her feelings, but suggest you two periodically review the topic as the children get older. It would be helpful to seek a support group of people in a similar situation to find out what they’ve done. You can learn if people have told their children, when and how, and what the reactions have been. But I hope your wife knows that whatever her children find out, she will always be their mother.
Q. Wedding white lie: When I got married I received a large, expensive vase from a group of friends I see about once every couple of months. It didn’t suit our humble home and wasn’t really suited to our tastes either. Hence, I got it exchanged for some practical household items I happily use on a daily basis. I wrote my friends a thank-you card for what they gave me, without any mention of my exchange. When I met up with them after the wedding they asked if I had used the vase yet, and I told a white lie—that I hadn’t gotten around to unpacking everything from moving into my new home. I thought they would forget about it and not ask me again. But since then, they have asked a few times why I haven’t used my vase or have it displayed somewhere. I repeated a slightly different version of my white lie the second and third time, and it’s gotten to a point where I feel too embarrassed to tell the truth. In addition to admitting I exchanged their gift, I now also have to admit I lied to them several times. Do I come clean or just hope they forget about it?
A: What an irony that in order to preserve your relationship with an entire group of friends you have to make sure they never enter your home again. It’s funny how explosive the subject of gifts and their proper appreciation is, but humans are very sensitive to feeling slighted if their generosity is not acknowledged. However, you properly acknowledged their generosity. Having done so, you are free to dispose of their generosity as you see fit. Their constant badgering of you about the vase is rude and even hostile. Don’t you bring the subject up. But if they do, you might as well tell the truth if only to stop the harassment. Say you thought it was gorgeous; you used it and realized it didn’t fit with your more humble decor. If they want to drop you over this, then they didn’t fit in with your life any better than the vase did.
Q. My husband’s sperm donation: My husband’s brother and his wife are unable to have children. More specifically, he can’t have children. They decided against adoption because it’s important to them to have a biological link to their child. Then they asked my husband if he would be willing to donate his sperm. I am angry I was left out of this because I feel it’s also partly my decision. He says he would like to do it but I feel completely uncomfortable with having a nephew or a niece who in fact is biologically my stepchild, and my children’s half-sibling. I told my sister-in-law I am adamantly against this decision and now she is upset because I’ve apparently taken away the one chance for her to have a child. I told them they could use anonymous donors but that’s not what they want to do. The way I see it, that’s not my problem. Am I being selfish here? My husband won’t do it as long as I am against it but he feels guilty, and I sense some grudge on his part because he can’t help his brother.
A: Thank you for providing the flip side to the egg dilemma above. It’s one thing for your brother-in-law and sister-in-law to ask to borrow your husband’s chain saw without checking with you. It’s another to request a turkey baster of his sperm without including you in the discussion. If this had been presented in a respectful, low-key way among the four of you, you surely still would have objected, but you would not have felt they were trying to snatch the family jewels. I said in answer to the letter above that I think people put too much emphasis on genes, but I understand your feeling that it would be too much to know your niece or nephew is secretly your own children’s half-sibling. It’s also too bad that your in-laws are so hung up on genetics that a child who’s genetically half theirs (through sperm donation) wouldn’t be good enough, and one who wasn’t genetically theirs is out of the question. Your objection is not preventing them from being parents. Yes, infertility is a blow, but it does not mean people can’t have children through other means. The four of you need to try to repair your relationship, but your in-laws need to do their own work on figuring out whether for them DNA trumps all.
Q. Sleeping in separate quarters: My husband and I have been happily married for 10 years. We have an active sex life and are both happy. The problem? We sleep in separate quarters. We both like to watch TV to fall asleep; however, I cannot tolerate his channel surfing. We are both fine with this arrangement; however, his kids are not so sure they understand … are we normal?
A: You don’t say if his kids are living with you two or are adults who visit occasionally. If they’re under your roof, all you need to say is, “We love each other very much. We also love a good night’s sleep, so this works better for us.” If they’re adults, what business is it of theirs where you two sleep? You two have a great sex life, are happy, and have come up with a perfect solution to a nagging problem. From the perspective of my inbox, that’s not normal. But it sounds pretty good.
Q. Need to know: Donor eggs and other nontraditional ways to have children are becoming more and more common. Odds are, your children’s generation is going to be less taken aback then we are. When your children are old enough to start asking where babies come from, their origins should be woven into the narrative. They should grow up knowing—and odds are not caring—it’s just another facet of their background, like their height or hair color. As for your wife’s discomfort, I would urge her to find a support group or therapist that specializes in these issues. I think she will find that nothing is to be gained by secrecy. And if the children find out on their own, that will be much more damaging.
A: Lovely answer, thanks. It used to be that adoption was considered something shameful that needed to be hidden. I agree the wife needs to work out these issues because her discomfort about the children being hers or not hers is going to undermine her own confidence as a mother. Before this egg donation narrative gets woven, both parents have to be comfortable with the telling.
Q. Suggestion for “large, expensive vase”: Can you tell another white lie, that you used it so much that one day—oops!—you accidentally dropped it, and how heartbroken you now are? (Assuming, of course, that they don’t buy you a replacement.)
A: Many people are suggesting the “I broke it” solution. But that does run the risk of getting another one as an anniversary gift. The badgering friends are in the wrong, but I don’t think the recipient should feel bullied into having to tell a lie.
Q. Loaning friend money (lots): A few months ago, a very dear longtime friend asked me for a loan because she had fallen on hard times, having worked only part-time for a couple of years. I was glad to help her, having myself recently been in a situation where I took a job at half my former salary. She said the amount I gave her put things to rights. So I was very concerned to hear from her this week, when she said she needed a pretty considerable amount to keep her home from being sold at auction due to back taxes and other issues. I told her of course I would help her again, and sent the money. Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m worried: What if this time doesn’t fix things either? And I’m ashamed that I feel a little resentful—I work out of state now in a job that pays very well, and it seems I’m the go-to person when people need help. But I need to be saving, too. My friend was a basket case when she asked for the money, so I didn’t press for details. How can I ask her to repay me anytime soon when she is on the brink of ruin? She does have a full-time job now, but if she needs more help, I just can’t do it. All around, I feel terrible. What do you advise?
A: Sadly, this story is being told millions of times over these days. Having given to your friend generously once, I don’t think you should have ponied up again. Unless you have unlimited resources, which you don’t, you are not in a position to dig her out of her financial hole. It would be great if you see any of this money again, but you need to start thinking of it as a gift, not a loan, because that’s what it’s going to end up being. If she comes to you again, be straightforward and tell her what you told me: You’re all tapped out.
Q. Re: the need to know: The original poster does not say how old his donor-egg-conceived children are, but the majority of experts who have opined on this topic advocate telling your children of their genetic origins early (in an age-appropriate way) and often. Finding out at age 21 that your parents kept this a secret from you all your life would be far more psychologically damaging than an early, matter-of-fact and simple, explanation. If the father is looking to find information from other parents who have faced this dilemma, I would suggest the nonprofit organization Parents via Egg Donation. They offer a wealth of information for parents who have taken this route to parenthood.
A: I agree the age-21 announcement is a very bad idea. And thanks for the recommendation of the organization. In order for the children to know in an age-appropriate way about egg donation, both parents have to be onboard, so Mom has some work to do here. I’m interested in the telling about this “often.” I understand what you mean about making this fact just a normal part of life and not taboo. But I’ve also known adoptive parents who seem to harp on the fact that their kids are adopted, mentioning it all the time. Sure, it’s a discussion that’s not a one-time event, but can parents also err by bringing up biological origins too much?
Q. Re: husband’s sperm donation: Prudence, I agree with your advice that the couples should try to repair their relationship, and the other couple should do some introspection about why they want that biological connection, but doesn’t it behoove the writer to do the same? It’s understandable that she’s uncomfortable, but shouldn’t she ask why is she uncomfortable? Isn’t a truthful and thoughtful answer to that question just as important and potentially healing as the other couple doing the same?
A: This proposition should have been presented in a respectful way to both the brother and his wife. And yes, she should have then said she would think about it, even if inside she was saying, “No, no, no, I hate this idea.” Then she and her husband should have explored their differing reactions. However, if a wife is uncomfortable with her husband being the father of her niece and nephew she is entitled to that reaction and the onus is not on her to change her mind. Other people are writing that she is being selfish and making a life-changing decision for this other couple. But having to face infertility does not give you a right to demand a solution from your relatives.
Q. The wedding gift: Asking how one is using a gift is now considered badgering, along with being rude and hostile? I just can’t agree. The problem here isn’t the gift givers, it’s the person who received the gift. She made the choice to lie about what she did with the gift, and now she dug herself a hole that she can’t get out of, because she was completely unprepared for there to be any kind of follow-up.
A: I have given many thoughtfully chosen, even handmade gifts to family members. Sometimes I see they use them; sometimes I have to assume the gifts went to Goodwill or the Dumpster. I would never ask Where is that platter I lovingly decorated? You give a gift, you get thanked (hopefully), then you let it go.
Q. Photography: I’ve taken photography courses and am fairly good with the camera. So when my friends have functions on, I’m happy to be the volunteer photographer for a part of the evening. I enjoy it for the most part, except for one friend making the job something of a nuisance. She is incredibly self-conscious, particularly when it comes to taking photos. She insists on checking every photo with her in it, as soon as I take them. She has repeatedly asked me to delete pictures in which she thinks she doesn’t look good. When I try to say “don’t worry, you look great” she will plead with me until I relent. I can understand if it’s solo pictures of her but sometimes they’re a group photo or her and one or two others. I’ve promised not to post photos of her online without her permission but this is not good enough. I’m tired of spending a bulk of my evening getting approvals from her on my photos. It also annoys me to delete so many after taking careful shots, simply because she doesn’t like them. I don’t want to be rude to her or ask her to exclude herself from group pictures. What’s a polite way to get her to stop bugging me?
A: I read that after a photo session Marilyn Monroe used to look at the contact sheet then draw an X across the negatives that she felt were unflattering. You can understand how an actress known for her sex appeal would feel the need to control her image. For the rest of us it used to be that an unflattering snapshot at worst ended up in a dusty photo album. Now we all have the reassurance that those photos that make us look like bloated frogs will be posted online and become a permanent part of our history. You don’t say what you’re doing with these photos, but I assume like everyone else these days, you’re making sure they’re accessible to everyone on Facebook. Sure your self-conscious friend is being a pain, but the right not to have everyone you know see you looking terrible is being eroded. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to record your happy social events. When you want to start snapping, you should just say, “Sandy, I’m going to be taking pictures now. So make sure you’re standing behind me.”
Q. Girlfriend’s string of temporary jobs causing conflict: Prudie, I have a high-paying career at a university. Both my girlfriend and I hold bachelor’s degrees. While mine was in computer science, hers was in communications. Since graduating a year ago, she’s held a string of temporary but relatively high-paying positions: online writing, temporary work handling a website’s advertisers, and now online tutoring. She’s great at diversifying and insists she’s happy doing what she’s doing. I feel it’s a little irresponsible that she’s no longer looking for a career. Am I wrong?
A: Your girlfriend graduated from college a year ago and has figured out a way to make decent money and you’re complaining? She’s happy with what she’s doing, and she’s getting valuable experience in her field doing a variety of tasks in lots of different places. That sounds like great, résumé-enhancing experience. What she may not be so happy about is a snotty boyfriend who’s undermining her.
Q. No boil, toil, or trouble here: I have two wonderful cats that I dearly love. I acquired one during a time I was depressed a few years back and one just last year. They were both wandering the streets, taken to a vet, nursed back to health, and now live happy healthy lives with my roommate and me. We have a great bond. They wait for me at the door. They come nuzzle me when I am sad. They even sprint around the house when I am angry! The issue is my mother. She has seen this behavior and now thinks they are evil and wonders if I might be a practicing witch. Why? Because they are black cats (though this is pure coincidence). When my mother was visiting, the oldest opened her unlocked door, put a paw between the blinds to peek, and began to do that clicking sound when he saw a bird. She thought he was possessed! How can I express to my mother that they are simple loving and smart felines?
A: I wish that having a cat sleep on my head like a purring beret for many years made me a witch because there are so many spells I would have liked to have cast. It’s a good thing you and your mother are not living in colonial Salem, or else you’d already be burned at the stake. If you mother believes in witches and Satanic possession she may have more problems than her concern about your cats. However, just tell her, “Mom, you’re being silly. My cats just happen to be geniuses.”
Q. Mentioning adoption: The “harping on it” language put me off a little. As a mom via adoption— what constitutes harping on it? My 9-year-old daughter easily admits to being adopted to friends/strangers, considering it a cool thing about herself. She hasn’t yet expressed any interest in her bio origins, but when we for instance see something on TV about adoption (even the cartoon Miss Spider is an adoption story) we ask if she has questions, etc. I’d say it comes up easily a couple times a week. But now you have me wondering if that’s too much.
A: Please don’t let a remark from me make you question what obviously is excellent parenting! It also sounds as if this is a topic your daughter generates conversation about— all for the good. I’m talking about situations in which parents bring up adoption almost reflexively, even if it doesn’t seem relevant at the moment. But, please, I’m just throwing it out there, not making a pronouncement.
Q. re: photography: He/she did say that the photos would not be posted online without her permission.
A: I took that to mean they were going to be posted, but he’d check with her about the photos first, which isn’t really doable over the long term for someone who’s “the photographer.” I think she should be warned first, then it’s her job to stay out of the picture.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. That’s the end of the pronouncements from me! Talk to you next week.