Dear Prudence

A Good Egg

My heartbroken sister-in-law wants our unused embryos.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have two beautiful toddlers who were born through IVF, and we are fairly certain we’re not going to have more kids. My sister-in-law survived a very aggressive form of cancer, but none of the embryos that she and her husband made were viable. They tried to use a pregnancy surrogate, who miscarried. It has been a heartbreaking five years for them. My sister-in-law desperately wants to have a child biologically related to her and has increasingly brought up our “leftover” embryos. Her husband is my second cousin, once removed, so the child would be related to both of them.

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My sister in-law will make a great mother, but I blanch every time I try to picture someone raising my biological children. I am possessive without even knowing if I want these potential children to exist. I am uncomfortable and resentful that my sister in-law would even bring this up to us, but then I feel bad because of how much she has suffered. My husband wants to make his sister happy. Am I being a horrible person here? Part of me wants to delay this by claiming I’m not sure we’re done having children, so I don’t seem like the harpy unwilling to give her sister-in-law a chance to be a mother. I just can’t stand the thought of seeing my niece or nephew and knowing that he or she is my child. I really need some clarity here. Please help me.

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—Not Mine

You are not being a horrible person, and you are not the only thing standing in the way of your sister-in-law becoming a parent. It is true that she has suffered greatly in her desire to have biological children, but that truth does not mean you are morally obligated to donate your embryos to her. You are morally obligated to be kind to her, to demonstrate compassion, to be patient and understanding—not to enter into a complicated, lifelong biological and legal entanglement that would break your heart. You are not a bad person for having reservations. No one should be pressured into providing embryos out of guilt; it is for exactly this reason that so many IVF clinics are very careful about screening donors. You can both feel compassion for your sister-in-law’s suffering and make it clear that you are not comfortable donating your embryos to her; if you allow yourself to be pressured into it, you risk spending the rest of your life feeling conflicted and agonized over your niece or nephew’s very existence. It is better to make your decision clear now, so that your sister-in-law can move on and explore other avenues. You have the legal and moral right not to create a child with your in-laws, and I strongly encourage you to hold your ground.

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Dear Prudence,
I had the most humiliating experience at work: a supervisor, politely and discreetly, told me I smell. I was so horrified, and now I don’t know how I can stand to show my face at work. I know it isn’t an excuse, but I’ve been suffering from gradually worsening depression, and a main symptom I experience is a lack of motivation for self-care. I had never dreamed it was this bad. I’m sure if one person said something, it stands to reason that several noticed. Aside from obviously finding a new zeal for hygiene, I have no idea how to move on from this. Should I try to explain myself by telling my boss about the depression? Should I quit my job, change my name, and move to a tiny remote island in the middle of the sea?

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—Humiliated

I’m so sorry for your current condition—no matter how politely someone told me, I’d be mortified too. I often hear from readers who aren’t sure how to tell a co-worker or friend that he or she smells, but almost never from people who’ve been told they’re the ones who smell. I hope very much you’re seeking medical and/or therapeutic care for your depression, because you should not have to go through this alone. If you trust your boss and believe that he or she could keep a secret and treat you no differently at work, I would encourage you to say, without going into specifics, that you’ve been going through a difficult time lately and have been finding it hard to take care of yourself. I don’t think you should do this as an attempt to “explain yourself,” because you are not in trouble, but because it might ease some of your embarrassment. There is no need to move to an island, I can assure you. This is embarrassing, of course, but you are addressing the issue, and your boss did you a (painful) favor by bringing this to your attention instead of avoiding you, presumably because your boss likes you and cares about your well-being. Your colleagues did not noticeably change their behavior around you, and I bet they will move on even faster than you. This is proof you are a person who matters to everyone at work; you will get through this.

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Dear Prudence,
My wife is a resident nurse at an assisted living facility. Recently at home I discovered a drawer full of dosage cups, some with pills in them, and many more empty cups. I think she is neglecting to dispense medicine to her patients (either by accident or to steal it), and she is either taking it herself or possibly selling it. Our relationship isn’t strong, and she has a history of dishonesty about our finances, so I’m not sure she wouldn’t lie to cover up. Could there be any other explanation for this stash? I feel I need to head for the door and shelter the kids as much as possible from the inevitable discovery by her employer and legal backlash, but I don’t want to tear apart their lives if there is a perfectly good explanation.

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—Negligence or Theft?

I asked nurses I know, all of whom said it’s possible that they might accidentally come home with an empty dosage cup in their scrub pockets, but not that they would routinely come home with medication, much less start an at-home collection in a drawer. All of them agreed that your wife could easily lose her job and her license over this and that there is no legitimate reason for her to squirrel away loose medication at home. If these dosage cups are unlabeled and tailored to specific individuals, there’s likely not much street value for loose pills, so she probably isn’t selling them. However, the fact that you think she’s capable of it, and that you don’t trust her to tell you the truth when pressed, speaks volumes about the level of trust that currently exists between you two. You should absolutely speak with her about it. Tell her what you found and that you’re concerned her patients might not be getting the medication they need, that you’re worried she might be risking her career, and that you want to know why she’s doing this. Bearing in mind the fact that you don’t trust her to tell the truth, I don’t think it’s very likely she’ll have an answer that will keep you from heading for the door, but you should give her the chance to explain herself before you make any decisions.

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Dear Prudence,
I have struck up a flirtation with one of my new neighbors. He is cute and funny, and I really feel a spark between us. We walked to a local bar, and he told me he felt the same way about me but that is he is in the middle of getting a divorce. They don’t have kids, but during the separation his wife got diagnosed with a serious illness and needs his insurance since hers is terrible. I have a rule about dating married men: don’t. But he was straight with me from the start and has lived in my complex since March. Should I give it a go? I am not looking to settle down anytime soon, and it is hardly fair for him to live like a monk when he is being generous and kind here. Thoughts?

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—Almost-Divorced Man

I’m less worried about the fact that he’s still married and more concerned that he’s your neighbor. You two live next door to each other; there are at least a dozen ways this could make your life extremely uncomfortable if things don’t go well between the two of you. I know plenty of people who have started dating someone in the process of getting divorced and things worked out; I don’t know anyone who ever dated a neighbor that didn’t quickly come to regret it. (If you, gentle reader, ever dated a neighbor, and the outcome was terrific, please write in immediately. I need to know your story.) If this is not sufficient warning, then the best I can say is to take it slow and think less about what is fair for him and more about what is best for you if things don’t work out.

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Dear Prudence,
When I was a baby, my biological father committed some terrible crimes. My mother’s testimony helped convict him, and she never truly recovered from his betrayal. She fled the state to avoid court-ordered contact between his family and myself. Fast-forward almost 40 years. My relationship with my mother is not very close: I resemble my biological father a great deal physically and in temperament (although I am law-abiding). I have contacted my biological father, who is still in jail. I am interested in slowly getting to know him and maybe meeting some of the family I never knew, and they are open to this as well. But I am worried that my mom will cut me off if she ever finds out. Is cultivating a relationship with the half of my family I have never known worth possibly alienating my mother?

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—Long-Lost Father

I can’t tell you whether developing these relationships is worth it or not, but I think you have to accept the fact that doing so won’t “possibly” but will in fact almost certainly alienate your mother. Whatever you decide to do, I think you should be honest with your mother about what you’re doing. Make it clear that you still care about her, that you understand her decision to cut off contact with them, and that you would never attempt to pressure her into seeing or hearing about any of your father’s family members. The worst-case scenario would be if you secretly pursued a relationship with your father and his side of the family and your mother found out from a third party. It’s been 40 years, and you have the right to get to know your family members if you wish, even if this causes your mother pain, but I think you have to do so transparently.

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Dear Prudence,
Recently my teenage daughter told me her mom (my ex-wife) went to India for a vacation but that she traveled there with a church group performing charity work. My ex has always been critical of organized religion, so her affiliation with a church was surprising—until my daughter told me her mom only went because the trip was cheaper that way. She feigned food poisoning for the majority of the trip to ditch the group and tour the area instead. I didn’t know how to respond to that information, so I said something vague and changed the subject. Last night my daughter told me she was traveling to Mexico with her mom—again, with a religious mission group. Her mom has already outlined how they will get out of their volunteer work to go to the beach, and my daughter is very excited for the trip. The situation makes me uncomfortable. Despite our bitter relationship, I try not to bad-mouth my ex around our child. But I also don’t want my daughter to follow her mom’s example. Is there something I can say or do?

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—Skewed Moral Compass

Oh wow, that’s a next-level long-con your wife is operating. It’s dishonest to defraud a religious organization by promising to perform charity work and then faking an illness to skive off. It’s also troubling because short-term mission trips are often destructive exercises in vanity that actively harm the local culture long after the church group flies home. You’re in a tricky situation because you don’t want to start a proxy war with your ex through your child, but I do think you can do more than just change the subject. Ask your daughter questions—what does she think about religious “voluntourism” as a practice? Does she know much about the long-term effects of short-term mission trips on the countries she’s visiting? What does she think about faking sick to get out of work? Would she encourage others to sign up for charity work in order to get a free vacation? She’s old enough that she’s going to start having to face ethical quandaries by herself, and rather than tell her what she should or shouldn’t do, you should encourage her to think critically about her mother’s example and what effect it has on the people around them.

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Dear Prudence,
I have been married for almost 20 years, and we have three teenagers together. Our marriage has been rocky for about a year: My spouse had been treating me poorly (talking down to me, challenging my professional opinion in front of others, not backing me up with our kids, delivering passive-aggressive barbs). Recently I happened to be at an event with his co-worker (whom we have socialized with many times), and I chose (wrongly) to unload much of the above behavior, with a few choice expletives thrown in for good measure. This co-worker gave my spouse a pretty verbatim account of what I said within a day or so. My spouse then came to me to extract an entitled pound of flesh—it was the wrong audience, wrong occasion, I was wrong, wrong, wrong. And I felt terrible for betraying our marriage. Here’s my question: When is my sincere apology enough? When am I able to discuss or try to point out anything that may have led me to have this chat without having to apologize again and again? My spouse doesn’t seem to get that many of my gripes are legitimate, or if so, uses my behavior as a deflection. I feel like I’m going crazy.

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—When Is a Sincere Apology Enough?

I have a difficult time believing that you didn’t realize, while delivering a diatribe against your husband to his co-worker and friend, that this was going to get back to him. Regardless of how condescending your husband had been in the past, dumping your marital problems on his co-worker (unsolicited!) was an extremely serious lapse in judgment. You are, perhaps, almost as good at delivering passive-aggressive barbs as he is. I think you two have serious problems and an almost total breakdown in communication, and while it’s great that you apologized for your transgression, an apology by itself is not going to be enough to re-establish trust. Get couples counseling. It may be that after several sessions you will have a better sense of whether this is just a rough patch you can heal from, or something more.

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Dear Prudence,
Everything my boyfriend does irritates me, but I’ve come to realize that I need to change more than he does. It’s always dumb little things—phrases he overuses, foods he won’t eat, socks on the floor, too much football. I even know where it comes from: My mother spent her marriage of 50 years being aggrieved and angry at my father (who was a very nice man). On the one hand she had no self-confidence and no sense that she had a right to ask for anything, but she also had this idea that people should intuit what she wanted and do it without being asked. So she never told him when she was angry but was furious he never changed on his own. I am working really hard not to be this way, and I do discuss the more important issues with my boyfriend, who is always sympathetic and responsive. But I also feel like a nag who carps on a million little things. How do I get past this?

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—Tired of Being Irritated

There are two issues here: One is how you communicate your expectations in a relationship, and the other is whether you should be with your boyfriend. I want to give at least one plug for breaking up with him, because your letter opens with a pretty dramatic claim: Everything he does irritates you. It’s possible that this is only because you are in the process of unlearning your mother’s “grit my teeth and hope everyone learns to read my mind” strategy that resulted in a miserable marriage and that with therapy and increased levels of communication this feeling will pass. It’s also possible that you need to learn to communicate better and you just don’t like your boyfriend. You should absolutely go to therapy over this, either with your boyfriend or on your own, but it’s pretty unusual to find everything a partner does grating in a good relationship. He might be a perfectly nice person who’s just not right for you.

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