Dear Prudence

The Selfish Gene

My father doesn’t want to find his biological family—but I do.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudie,
My father was adopted as a baby in the 1950s. About all I know is that his birth parents eventually married and that he has full brothers and sisters. He does not want to know anything about his biological family, and I respect that, I really do. However, my husband and I want to have children in the near future and I feel it is important to have a more complete family medical history, though it’s not that the presence of some horrible disease will likely sway our decision. (My niece does have a rare, genetic blood disorder which my mother points out could be from her side of the family.) I have asked my mother many times over the years how I can get this information, to no avail. I’ve thought about hiring someone to track down the biological family or having genetic testing done, but these things are simply too expensive. My mom supports my dad’s decision to know nothing and feels that it is not my business to ask such questions. My dad doesn’t have much adoptive family left and they would probably be insulted by such an inquiry. Should I talk to my dad about all this? If so, how can I explain that I support his decision not to have a relationship with his biological family and that I am purely interested in shedding some light on my own family medical history?

—Bill of Health

Dear Health,
It’s a good thing your mother didn’t require the guarantee of a medically hardy family tree from your father, or you would not have been born. Such knowledge was not always even available: For much of human history it was common to lose a parent early to infection or accident, leaving people with little knowledge of the genetic diseases that might stalk them. I understand that your father’s lack of interest in biological family leaves you with some blanks in your own history, medical and otherwise. But his desire to have his adoptive family be his only family outweighs your interest in what’s lurking in your genes. It’s also clear you really haven’t thought through how you’d like to collect this information. You can’t simply announce yourself to an extended family, request their medical charts, and wave goodbye. Mull over exactly why you’re so consumed with your family tree, since you acknowledge you’d have children pretty much regardless of what turned up. Though you say you can’t afford genetic counseling, it is the best means to satisfy your concerns. If you’re not able to put money aside for it now, consider how you’re going to handle the cost of raising children. A genetic counselor can discuss what you can know and can’t know, recommend some tests (maybe even clarify the origins of your niece’s condition), and generally put your mind at ease. But even if you could afford to have your genome sequenced, anyone who has a child is taking a chance on the unknowable. All this, however, doesn’t mean you need my permission to talk to your own father about your concerns. Instead of approaching him with demands, try telling him that now that you’re considering becoming a parent yourself, you want to hear about his own beginnings, and what being adopted has meant to him.


Dear Prudence: Beleaguering Brother

Dear Prudence,
I found out entirely by accident that my husband urinates in sinks. He does it not only at home, but in other people’s homes as well. Afterwards, he rinses the sink with water from the faucet, so at least he’s making an effort at cleaning after himself. When I spoke to him about it, he responded that it wasn’t a big deal, and that he was doing his part to “save water.” How do I handle this? Is he really saving water?

—No Flush

Dear Flush,
I’ve known several men who occasionally bellied up to the sink and took a whiz (my husband insists I note he is not among them) so this is not as bizarre as you may think. Because of anatomical requirements, peeing in the sink is a gender-restricted activity, but it’s not really so different from the gender-neutral indulgence of peeing in the shower. Your husband is right that with a flick of the faucet the evidence is down the drain, and a quick rinse of the sink surely uses less water than flushing. If you’re worried whether this is unsanitary, urine is generally quite germ-free. However, since you don’t mention you’re married to environmental fanatic Ed Begley, Jr., it doesn’t sound like you’re really buying your husband’s ecological argument for his habit. More likely he does this because it’s naughty. If there’s no evidence he lets it all hang out at more inappropriate venues, let’s assume he has a slightly odd relationship with bathroom fixtures. It’s one thing, however, to do this at home, but it’s not a good idea to do it elsewhere.  (That goes for the sidelines at a football game.) Tell him that if someone accidentally walked in on this at a friend’s house, the assumption would not be that your husband was a dedicated conservationist. After you’ve said that, ask him to keep the door shut at home, which will help prevent you from being pissed off about his habit. At least he’s not so into recycling that he opens the bathroom window and waters the plants.


Dear Prudie,
About 15 years ago I had a several-years-long affair with a married man who was much older than I was. The affair ended when I met my now-husband. While I had a good time while it was happening, hindsight has made me see how hurtful my behavior was to his wife and child. My former lover and I would still occasionally see each other, and the last time I saw him he seemed despondent. His business had failed and he was in desperate financial straits. Recently, searching for information on him online, I found an announcement from his wife that he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s this past spring. Seeing this made me incredibly sad. I’m not sure what to do, if anything. I wasn’t his first affair and I wasn’t his last. I know his wife has had a terribly difficult time even though they stayed married. I’m sorry for him and I ache for her. Should I contact her and offer my sympathies and apologies? Should I just leave it be?


Dear Regrets,
You had an enjoyable a time with this married man and surely your husband benefitted from your sexual education. But now that you have a husband of your own, you understand what it would mean if every time he said he was working late you wondered if he was with one of his young lovelies. You learned some life lessons from your lover, and now you’re going to learn another: Stay away and don’t make things worse. Yes, it is heartbreaking that he is sinking into dementia and that he has left behind a financial ruin. This once-dashing swordsman has finally come home for good to his long-suffering wife, the only one left to clean up the mess. Surely you understand that the last thing she wants is pity or a too-late apology from one of the string of women who made her life miserable. This situation sounds like the premise for a short story by Doris Lessing or Alice Munro. Instead of bothering your former lover’s wife, pick up some story collections by these great writers and read that sometimes there are no tidy endings.


Dear Prudie,
My friend is amazing and generous and I love her like a sister. I am having a holiday party and for the fourth year in a row, she has declined to attend. I chalked the first year up to her being very shy. She admitted she hasn’t attended because she was uncomfortable being one of the few people without a date. Each year I was disappointed she didn’t come, but I understood because our relationship means more than attendance to a party. But this year she is engaged and I was thrilled to invite her fiancé. It would give me a chance to know him better and I hoped now she would feel comfortable going with him and wearing her beautiful new ring. But last week she sent me her regrets, with no explanation. Because she and I are so close, I am hurt. I have told her before how much it would mean to me to have her there. I am afraid I will say something I may regret later. I have plans to go out with her in two weeks that I’m ready to cancel because I’m so upset. Am I overreacting?

—I’d Do It for Her

Dear Her,
For some people the holiday season—the cheer, the chatter, the eggnog, the grog—makes them want to flee to the safety of their pajamas, a quiet corner at home, and a good book. Your “very shy” friend is one of those people. Sure, it would be nice if she made the effort to attend your celebration. But she also probably thinks it would be nice if you didn’t hassle her every year about her anxiety at holiday parties. She may be more comfortable having a fiancé to cling to, but if he’s like her they probably would just stand around like cornered rabbits waiting until sufficient time passed to make their escape. Anyway, it’s impossible to get to know someone while shouting over the din and circulating among your guests. Ask that he come to the dinner you’ve planned so you’ll have a chance to really talk. You say she is a dear, generous person, so be one yourself. Understand the cocktail party is not her métier, let this go, and enjoy the guests who look forward to your bash.


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