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My wife and I have always been huge Harry Potter fans, to the extent that we were both on our colleges’ Quidditch teams. Now we have a 7-year-old daughter, and for the past month my wife has been reading my daughter a chapter from the first book. Three days ago, I listened in on the reading and discovered that my wife has been changing Harry into a girl! Her name is Harriet Jane Potter, and my daughter is utterly enchanted with the girl that my wife has created. I am furious! This bothers me as much as if she had tried to change our daughter’s religious upbringing without telling me. I thought about telling my daughter that Harriet is really a Harry, but haven’t yet. I think there are plenty of good female role models in the books. Just look at Hermione! My wife doesn’t understand why I am so upset and refuses to back down. What do you think?
—Muggle in Distress
I think your wife should expand beyond merely changing Harry to Harriet and actually create her own fan-fiction universe. She should write down her best flights of fancy, and then she won’t be indulging in blasphemy but creating her own potential blockbuster. You may be a Harry Potter fan, but you’re being a tad hyperbolic at claiming your wife’s little rewrite is tantamount to changing your daughter’s religion. (Although I would understand your objection if you overheard your wife explaining to your child that God gave his only begotten daughter, Jesse, to the world.) Your wife turned a male character beloved by millions into a female character beloved by one. This is creative, and at worst a literary misdemeanor. But Harry Potter is such a canonical part of childhood that it could be humiliating for your daughter if she starts blabbing on the playground about her favorite book, Harriet Potter. Dad, cool off and ratchet down the rhetoric. Tell your wife that you’ll stop objecting to what she’s doing, but that she has to show your daughter the book and explain the author actually wrote about a boy, Harry. Your wife should agree to explain she loves these books, but always wished the main character was a girl. Then she can say in her reading she will stick with Harriet if your daughter likes, but your daughter needs to know that outside her bedroom, everyone knows Harriet as Harry.
I am a 38-year-old woman, recently divorced, and am extremely fortunate in many respects: I have a beautiful 3-year-old daughter, a blossoming career, and a positive relationship with my ex. However, I have long wanted to expand my family and, with time running out and no male prospects in the picture, recently began looking into sperm donations. I figured my parents would be excited to hear this news, as they only have one grandchild, but their reaction was far from enthusiastic. They expressed concern for my mental health and seem to think I am crazy for pursuing this. Their doubts have made me reconsider what I know is ultimately my decision. Am I nuts for wanting to have another child, when I have the means to do so? Will it cause problems down the road if one child has a father present and the other doesn’t? I don’t want to be selfish, but I also don’t want to miss this opportunity to expand my family.
I assure you that if you go ahead with the pregnancy, the moment your parents hold their new grandchild their protestations will melt into a stream of “goo-goo, ga-ga” joy over their latest addition. Your parents grew up at a time when assisted reproductive technology was the bastion of science fiction, à la Brave New World. Sure, if you’d had to use IVF or some other intervention while you were married, they would have been delighted such breakthroughs were available. But you did it the old-fashioned way, so they’re now having to adjust to the idea of their newly single daughter picking out the next father of her child from a catalog. They are reacting badly, but the good thing is it’s forced you to think through the various contingencies of your plan. Since you get along well with your ex, you should discuss with him whether he would be willing to be something of a father figure to this child (emotionally, not financially). It would be difficult for the younger sibling to see the older traipse off happily for weekends alone with Dad. When you are contemplating having a child solo, you have to carefully think through plans for backup care, guardianship, etc.—but these are things a thoughtful adult should address in a systematic way. This is one of the most profoundly private decisions a person can make, but you have asked for outside counsel, and I say your desire is neither crazy nor selfish.
I’m 73, and I was recently informed by my pulmonologist that I have idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The prognosis is three to five years. I don’t know how far along I am. My current symptoms are shortness of breath, but not to the extent that it is noticeable by others. My wife is 68, in good health and we have a wonderful marriage. At times I experience severe stress associated with the diagnosis, but I want to delay telling my wife as long as my symptoms are not noticeable, or until I need her support. I’m told there’s really no treatment, and the prognosis is that of a gradual decline that becomes rapid toward the end. My dilemma is when to tell her. Doing so now would just cause her to experience the stress I have and would not really help me. But we have never kept secrets from each other during our almost 20-year marriage. Her first marriage ended in her husband’s death. Delaying telling her the stark reality of my prognosis is the right thing to do for her, isn’t it?
—Waiting to Exhale
I’m sorry for your diagnosis. Dealing with such news is profoundly sad and stressful. You want to protect your wife, who lived through the sorrow of losing her first husband, from the news of your prognosis. But I have to disagree that withholding it is the right thing to do. This revelation will be a terrible blow for her. But because she loves you, surely she will rally and be the source of intimate support you have known for two decades. There is no love without risk, and except in rare circumstances one member of a couple is destined to be left behind. In just a few lines in the poem, “My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close,” Emily Dickinson conveys the enormity of this. You don’t know exactly what’s ahead, but you do know that you have an illness that’s progressive. Don’t bear this burden alone. Given how you two always confide in each other, I doubt you will be able to keep this to yourself for long. Your wife is going to recognize something is up. It’s a loving but ultimately fruitless gesture for you to try to protect her from this stark reality. Our spouses, if we are lucky, are the very people who can help us make reality a little less stark.
My wife reads to our son in a dramatically overaccentuated baby voice. I use unusual voices when I read to him too, but they’re a little different than the usual ones you might hear from parents reading to their kids. I don’t know if I’m being snobby, or if I’m just judging her for a lack of creativity in the face of such a fun opportunity for invention. Maybe I want him to grow up with a more sophisticated ability to parse language. She’s a writer and I know she’s going to set a pretty high bar for the caliber of kids books he encounters based on her own discerning tastes, and I know she’ll curate other aspects of his developmental life. But I’m a podcast, audiobook, and music guy so I have a broad spectrum to my auditory palette. Should I chill the hell out or encourage her to relate these stories in a less cutesy way?
—Can the Valley Girl
My husband did the bulk of the reading aloud to our daughter. I do not know if he did it in a singsong voice, or called male characters by female names, or vice versa. I was not lurking in the hall surreptitiously supervising this activity, but happily downstairs having a glass of wine. You may not like the tone your wife’s voice strikes when she reads to your son, but apparently he does. If you bring this critique up with your wife, she may have a complaint about your tone instead. She may even note that the broadness of your auditory palette is matched only by the pomposity of your person. Leading her to this conclusion would not be good for your marriage. So on those nights she discharges bedtime book duty, I suggest that you go to another room, put on your headphones, and perhaps listen to a podcast on how to be a better husband.
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