Dear Prudence

My Wife Is My Sister

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a man about an unthinkable discovery.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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

Also in Slate, Emily Yoffe writes about what grown children owe their abusive parents.

Q. Nasty Surprise: When my wife and I met in college, the attraction was immediate, and we quickly became inseparable. We had a number of things in common, we came from the same large metropolitan area, and we both wanted to return there after school, so everything was very natural between us. We married soon after graduation, moved back closer to our families, and had three children by the time we were 30. We were both born to lesbians, she to a couple, and me to a single woman. She had sought out her biological father as soon as she turned 18, as the sperm bank her parents used allowed contact once the children were 18 if both parties consented. I never was interested in learning about that for myself, but she felt we were cheating our future children by not learning everything we could about my past, too. Well, our anniversary is coming up and I decided to go ahead and, as a present to my wife, see if my biological father was interested in contact as well. He was, and even though our parents had used different sperm banks, it appears so did our father, as he is the same person. On the one hand, I love my wife more than I can say, and logically, done is done, we already have children. I have had a vasectomy, so we won’t be having any more, so perhaps there is no harm in continuing as we are. But, I can’t help but think “This is my sister” every time I look at her now. I haven’t said anything to her yet, and I don’t know if I should or not. Where do I go from here? I am tempted to burn everything I got from the sperm bank and just try to forget it all, but I’m not sure if I can. Please help me figure out where to go from here.

A: This is a seminal question about the nature of assisted reproduction. As David Plotz discovered in his book, The Genius Factory, on the alleged sperm bank of Nobel Prize winners, many non-geniuses were moved to spread their seed far and wide. So the question has always hung over this: What if the offspring meet and fall in love? Well, you’ve met and it’s true that if you had researched your origins and disclosed them to each other, you and your wife would now likely be close half-siblings. I understand your desire to burn everything. But if you are now looking at your wife and thinking, “Hey, sis,” I don’t see how you can keep this information to yourself. She’s bound to sense something off in your behavior and you simply can’t say, “I’m struggling with father issues.” I think you have to sit her down and show you what you’ve discovered. Then you two should likely seek out a counselor who deals with reproductive technology to help you sort through your emotions. I don’t see why your healthy children should ever be informed of this. That Dad didn’t want to find out who his sperm donor was is a sufficient answer when they get old enough to ask about this. I think there’s way too much emphasis put on DNA. Yes, you two will have had a shock, but when it wears off you will be the same people you were before you found out. Shocking news has the effect of making people feels as if the waves it sends out will always rock them. But I think you two should be able to file away your genetic origins and go on.

Q. Auntie Moniker: My brother and sister-in-law have an 18-month-old son who is absolutely adorable. My SIL and I have a decent relationship; we are friendly, but not particularly close. When my nephew was born, my SIL’s group of close-knit friends referred to themselves as “aunties” to him. I assumed this would pass, but now that my nephew can speak and identify people, he refers to them as “Auntie First Name.” This bothers me because I’m afraid my nephew will not be able to distinguish between family and non-family members. My gut reaction tells me to let this go, that the conversation will only cause an unnecessary wedge between me and my SIL. But in practice, I am finding this hard to do. How can I get over this?

A: How wonderful that your sister-in-law has friends who are so close they are like family. A gaggle of loving “aunties” is only going to bring joy to your nephew’s life. But if you want to be the real aunt who’s been frozen out because she’s crazily jealous, then sure, speak up.

Q. Parents: I wrote to you around July 2009 about buying a home and having my mother and stepfather stay in the finished basement. It worked out for about three years before I could no longer take their free-loading and had to ask them to leave. The people in my family don’t really have the “need to be successful” gene, which somehow I did get. I am the only one who has a four-year college degree and doesn’t still live at home with my grandmother. Since my mother and stepfather have moved out and back into my grandmother’s house, my father has asked to stay with me, as well as my mother-in-law. The only parent who has not asked to stay is my father-in-law, whom I have never met! I have had to refuse them both and be the ungrateful wicked child. I understand that later in life you are expected to take care of your aging parents, but I am in my mid-20s, just starting out and my parents are all in their 50s! Am I wrong to deny them (we have the spare rooms), or is it OK to want to enjoy my 20s and be free of the stress that parents bring?

A: In your original letter your dilemma was that your friends couldn’t believe your desire to buy a home that could accommodate your (free-loading) parents, which back then you were happy to do. As I mentioned in my answer, it’s lovely if multi-generations can happily live together, but there’s a reason that as soon as people got the means, they fled the family home. Your parents are in their 50s so you could be hosting these parasites—I mean loved ones, for the next 30-plus years. Forget ascribing your success and their failure to genes. You have worked hard for your independence, and they would prefer to mooch in the basement. So let them scrounge in someone else’s basement. If they want to call you wicked, when you come home each night to your blessedly parent-free home, cackle with joy like the Wicked Witch of the West.

Q. Re: Nasty Surprise: I know you/we cannot know, but color me skeptical that this letter is legit. The odds of such a “match” have to be very small. I can’t help but wonder if this letter is a fiction pushing a political agenda. Your advice, by the way, was spot on.

A: I rarely publish letters I think are likely fake, and I agree that this raises the skepticism alert. But the sperm bank industry has started trying to limit the times a donor can give just to avoid this kind of situation. Google Dr. Cecil Jacobson, the fertility doctor who may have fathered 75 children using his own sperm. At the time, the question was raised about what if some of his offspring met in high school or college and fell in love. So maybe this is that kind of case. It does present a vivid human dilemma. And I doubt there’s a political agenda to it.

Q. Warring Parents: My adult sister and I (both late 20s/early 30s) keep finding ourselves in the middle of our warring, but still married parents. My mother learned of my father’s infidelities, and while she has never raised the issue with him or confronted him, she has spent the past five or so years punishing him without telling him what he’s done wrong. It’s gotten to the point where my sister and I want to sit our father down and explain why he’s being treated the way he is, but it’s not our place to have that conversation with him. Beseeching our mother to have the talk herself has proved ineffective in the past. Neither of us want to be piggy in the middle any more, and while my father is certainly guilty of wrongdoing, my mother is only making things worse. Any suggestions on how we can get them communicating?

A: Stop letting yourselves be collateral damage. I have the feeling poor, old dad has a sneaking suspicion that his infidelities have something to do with his angry wife. He may appreciate her treating him miserably since it allows him to utter the immortal phrase to other women: “My wife doesn’t understand me.” If being with your parents is a misery, you siblings should sit down with them and explain the wear and tear of spending time with them is getting both of you down, and you’re going to tail off your visits unless they can behave decently when you’re all together.

Q. Fiancée Weight Issues: Over the past few years, while my fiancée has been in medical school, she has gained somewhere between 10-15 lbs, and to be honest, I don’t care—I’d love her if she had gained 200. That being said, she complains and complains and complains about how she’s gained all this weight, and no matter what I say she ends up blowing up on me. It feels like displacement. I, too, have gained weight, but because I’m not a medical student, I have more time to go to the gym, and it’s also easier for me to lose weight—she had her thyroid removed and her synthroid messes with her weight sometimes. I love her more than anything in the world, but hearing her complain and complain and then tell me to keep my mouth shut drives me nuts, and it always ends in a fight. How do I talk to her about this in a productive way? I just want her to be happy.

A: Endless hours, crappy food, and stress, stress, stress. Becoming a doctor is a good recipe for being unhealthy, and your girlfriend is suffering from this syndrome. As you’ve discovered, your girlfriend doesn’t want advice, she doesn’t want encouragement, she just wants someone to listen to her rant. But you’re her boyfriend, not a backboard, and you have limits. Tell her you understand she’s overwhelmed at work and frustrated by her weight gain. Say you think she should make the time to get her thyroid medication checked, say. Explain you’ll go to the gym with her or do whatever she’d like that would help. Tell her she looks great to you. Then say she has become fixated on this topic and you don’t want to get into fights with her over it. Say you’ll let her vent on this for about 10 minutes, then you’ll both have to agree to change the subject. And if she won’t, get up and say you’re going for a walk and you’d be happy to have her join you, but only if you talk about something else.

Q. Re: “Aunties”: My mom’s best friend was “Auntie First Name” when I was little. Since we lived three hours or more from my “real” aunts, it was great to have a stand-in. There was never any confusion about blood relations and everyone treated everyone else like family (good and bad).

A: I’m getting lots of letters from people who had unofficial “aunties” in their lives, were never confused by it, and who basked in their love.

Q. Future In-Laws Haven’t Acknowledged Engagement: On Valentine’s day, my boyfriend proposed and we became happily engaged. We announced our intentions to both sets of parents months earlier, so we didn’t feel an obligation to announce the engagement to them privately before sharing it with others. The next day, I posted a picture of the ring on Facebook to share with my short list of Facebook friends (which includes three of my fiancé’s siblings). Congratulations came pouring in for both of us, but his family remained mum through the weekend—even as they called him to discuss other topics. I know they’ve been online to see the update (which takes priority in our friends’ news feeds because it’s tagged as a “life event”), but my boyfriend says they may be expecting us to come over and deliver the news in person, since his family is neither as informal or as high-tech as mine. The problem is that neither of us wants to do that. His mother reacted with displeasure when he first announced his desire to propose almost a year ago, and my fiancé fears that if we tell his family in person, we’ll subject ourselves to the scathing criticisms they feel entitled to make in the comfort and seclusion of their home. They are more like hermit crabs than homebodies and will certainly not meet us anywhere else to discuss it. What’s the best course of action?

A: Even technophobes have telephones. So your fiancé should call his parents and tell them he wanted them to hear the good news that you’re formally engaged. If a negative word passes Mom’s lips, he should say, “Gotta go” and end the call. Not getting close to the crabs is the best way not to get caught in their pincers.

Q. How To Tell Mom?: I’ve just discovered that my dad has children by another woman (Note to cheaters: Facebook isn’t as secret as you think it is). This other woman has held herself out as my father’s wife. (My parents have been married for the past 30+ years.) Suddenly, my father’s money problems and “traveling salesman” job make a lot of sense. I plan to tell my mom, but I’m not sure how to do it. Do I try to get iron-clad proof? (All my proof is Web-based.) Do I confront him alone? My mom’s been through some rough patches lately, and I know this information will devastate her.

A: You definitely need to talk to your father about this first. Sure, you may have stumbled on the truth, but you need confirmation from the source. Then discuss this with your father. You don’t know if your mother knows, or perhaps she kind of knows and doesn’t want to know. As I mentioned earlier, tread lightly when you’re stepping into the middle of your parents’ marriage.

Q. Should I Say Something?: My best friend, who is a delightful person in all sorts of ways, is a horrible storyteller. Her stories are typically of the “you had to be there” type or they go on forever without much of a point. Last week, a bunch of us were at dinner, and someone asked her about her vacation to Florida. She spent a good five minutes describing how difficult it was to find a parking space at the airport, then told us a very detailed story about having to repack her bag to get through security, at which point someone gently asked her to tell us about the beach. She’s such a nice person that it’s hard to get irritated, but I do find myself drifting off and thinking about other things once she launches into a story. Should I say something to her and, if so, how? I really don’t want to hurt her feelings.

A: If in order to survive a story by your best friend, you have to mentally take yourself to a desert island, then she needs help. You need to tell her that you love her, but she needs to be more aware of the prolix nature of her anecdotes. Suggest she go to Toastmasters. For a nominal fee this organization will give her feedback and training in speaking effectively that will benefit both her personal and professional lives. 

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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