Dear Prudence

Help! My Wife Died. What Should I Do With Her Embryos?

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

Photo illustration of an embryo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. Who gets the embryos? My wife and I had several embryos made and a failed surrogacy. My wife was suffering serious depression at the time and our marriage was struggling (we were in serious debt over the fertility treatments). We had a fight and I left. I went to a hotel and turned off my phone. She killed herself. She called me several times but never left a message. I am haunted by those missed messages.

It has been two years. Her family has been kind and never blamed me. I haven’t told anyone about the other embryos. I am paying for the storage but I am paralyzed about what to do with them. I don’t want to be a father now, but I don’t want to destroy the last bit of my wife left on earth, and I don’t know what to tell my in-laws. Giving them the embryos feels like passing the buck: “Here, take on the expense of surrogacy and raising a baby in your 60s.” Blind donation feels cruel; my in-laws deserve to know they have a grandchild in the world. I want to move on. I want to start over. I can’t with this hanging around my neck like a millstone. I don’t know what to do. Please advise.

A: This sounds absolutely devastating, and I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this profound and painful weight. If you’re thinking about moving but still aren’t sure what to do with the embryos in storage (and you can afford to do so), can you prioritize moving first before deciding what to do? You’ve felt stuck and honor-bound to the past for two years, and you might have more clarity about what to do with the embryos if you don’t feel like you have to decide what to do with them before you’re allowed to make changes in your life.

If you’re not already seeing a therapist, please do—you need and deserve all the help you can get in such a charged, overwhelming situation. You know already that all of the available choices have serious downsides, but you also have some clarity: You know you don’t want to be a father. So that’s one option you know you don’t have to pursue, because it wouldn’t be fair to you or to any children you might bring into the world. You could talk to your therapist about the possibility of asking your in-laws what their thoughts are before making a decision, rather than deciding on your own whether to donate the embryos or pass them along. It will also, I think, be helpful to deal with some of the guilt you feel over missing these messages before deciding on a course of action—the double burden of feeling responsible for not knowing what she was about to do coupled with the thought that these embryos are the last remains of your wife on earth is too much for any one person to carry alone.

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Q. Continue cutoff? I need help. I cut my mom out of my life a couple of months ago and told her she could contact me when she was three months sober. I initiated this after her last visit to in rehab; I honestly can’t remember how many times she’s gone in for alcohol detox. This last time she was brought in by ambulance because she was trying to drink rubbing alcohol.

Throughout most of my adult life (I’m almost 40), I’ve been her personal shopper, sounding board, driver, and banker, in addition to doing ”fun mother and daughter stuff” with her, which I don’t really want to be a part of since I’m already exhausted from her other requests. Now that the deadline of three months approaches, I don’t know what to do. Should I continue this cutoff? I feel a lot of guilt for cutting her off, but I’ve honestly felt a lot better recently without having to deal with her.

A: Keep the cutoff! You need the cutoff desperately. The cutoff is what’s responsible for the relative peace and pleasure of the last few months of your life, and you’re barely settling in. Even if your mother does manage to get three months sober and gets in touch, I don’t think you should have much more than one conversation about how she’s doing and encouraging her to continue with her recovery. If the two of you are ever going to be able to have a remotely healthy relationship, you’re both going to need more time—a few months isn’t much compared to a habit of almost 40 years. Find a therapist, find an Al-Anon group, keep a journal, focus on doing things you enjoy now that your time isn’t taken up by helping your mother manage her addiction. Don’t think of your request that she wait to talk to you until she had three months sober as a promise to become her best friend again once she’d managed to go 90 days without a drink, so that you’re now honor-bound to resume constant contact. All it means is that the two of you will check in, and frankly you’re allowed to change your mind about even that. You can support her recovery and wish her well without getting back on the “best friends with Mom” bus.

Q. Frozen but no longer frigid: My partner and I have been together for more than a year but have only had sex a handful of times. I have a pretty significant history of childhood sexual abuse, including being an unwilling participant in child pornography. After our first few times together, I realized I was completely dissociating during the act, and that my previously well-controlled PTSD-induced nightmares returned with a vengeance. We talked about it and agreed to put the brakes on that aspect of our relationship while I returned to therapy.

Eight months later, I think I’m ready to try again—but every time I begin to open my mouth and suggest it, the words freeze. I’ve indicated that I’m willing to try again, and they suggested I take the lead, like in initiating sex, but I don’t know how to do that. You can’t just say “Wanna make out?” can you?

A: I’m so glad that therapy has proved helpful and that you have a compassionate, patient partner. You absolutely can say “Wanna make out?” and in fact, I think that sounds rather charming. You can also say, “Wanna make out and nothing else?” so that you don’t feel like you’re rushing back into something if you’re still at the “freezing-up-trying-to-talk-about-it” stage. It sounds like the freezing-up has more to do with uncertainty at how to go about talking about what you want, rather than still feeling less than ready, so I think you have a number of options. It may sound a little goofy, but you could write something down for your partner to read; tell them a few things you do feel up for but ask them to take the lead if that sounds better; or ease back into it with a few makeout sessions. But in general, I think asking “Do you want to do [XYZ]?” is a great strategy for the two of you.

Q. Tolerating and dealing with my wife’s bad friend: I spare you and your readers the elongated preface you’ve heard before and skip to: “I love my wife dearly, but” I don’t love all her friends.

One friend I downright hate. I find this person’s actions to be consistently emotionally manipulative and selfish. When I’ve interacted with him, he has shown nothing but snobbery and condescension toward me. I could overlook that if his relationship with my wife were any different, but he constantly makes her feel guilty and neglectful. My wife insists that she values their friendship, but also admits that they wouldn’t be friends if they met today and that he is hard to get along with. My wife knows that I am not comfortable being in the same room with him, and yet she has now invited him over to stay at our home for a few days. What should I or we do?

A: It’s a bit late to call off this trip, but you can definitely talk to her about inviting surprise guests to your home in the future. I think it’s fair to say you’d like to be able to have a conversation together before either one of you invites someone to stay with you! In the meantime, I think you should make plans to see your friends while this guy is in town so that you only have to be polite to him in the evenings. Don’t totally vacate the house and leave your wife to deal with him alone, but don’t force yourself to make a merry trio for the weekend either. Be polite, but not much more than polite, and go see a movie. 

Q. Re: Who gets the embryos?: I’m so sorry you have gone through this. What a searing, devastating experience this must have been. Embryos often do not develop into babies; as someone who had many miscarriages, I can attest to that. If the embryos are donated and do turn into healthy babies, you have become a biological father. It is possible that those children may find you later in life. If you have misgivings, I would continue to pay for the storage until you resolve what to do. Therapy could help process your grief over your wife’s death and your feelings about what happened between you both, in your marriage, in dealing with the pain of infertility, and the financial and emotional struggles you both faced. What you have gone through is beyond the comprehension of most people, and it isn’t fair that you should have to face this alone. Your in-laws’ situation is secondary right now. You need to figure out what you want to do without feeling such torment and guilt about it.

A: That’s such a helpful reminder—I think the letter writer is (understandably) distracted by some of the big underlying feelings, and it’s good to bear in mind that these embryos do not represent guaranteed children. And I agree that the letter writer is so worried about his wife’s legacy and her parents’ feelings that he’s in danger of overlooking his own. I hope he sees this response and that it helps.

Q. Picking a picky eater: One of my good friends and I have romantic chemistry, and recently he’s hinted about dating. I would be interested and I think we would work well together, but for one fact: He’s a very, very picky eater. This might not seem like a big deal, but I love to eat and try new things, and we live in a town with tons of amazing restaurants. The fact that we wouldn’t be able to go on dates to try new places (or go to ones I already like but that he won’t eat at) kind of bothers me. Furthermore, our larger friend group often goes out to eat, and he usually just won’t go and meets us later. If he does go, he’s sitting there not eating, and when it comes time to pay the bill, we have to sit there and figure out his drinks—while normally we would all just split it—and I feel like people get a little annoyed.

Am I being unreasonable in believing this could turn out to be a big hindrance to us dating? The fact that I’m already thinking about it obviously means I’m worried about it, but is it something I should get past? And how would I get past it? Do I really give up on a chance of a great relationship for something like this?

A: At the risk of being incredibly obvious, food is a pretty important and significant social activity, and dating is often centered around food, so I don’t think you’re being unreasonable in worrying about how your friend’s picky eating might affect a potential relationship. (Also, he should be bringing cash to these get-togethers and paying for his own drinks; someone in your group of friends should tell him he needs to start doing that before your next event.) Can you see yourself happily dating someone who mostly doesn’t come with you to new restaurants—with you choosing to go out to eat more often with friends, and only occasionally asking him to join you? Is he generally good-spirited about making sure he has something he can eat, or does he tend to forget to plan and then take it out on others? It doesn’t have to be an objective, universal deal-breaker for you to decide that it’s a deal-breaker for you (and you certainly don’t have to say anything to him about it, you can just fail to pick up on his hint); wanting to date someone who shares your love for food and trying new things is a perfectly reasonable desire. 

Q. She’s lost that loving feeling: I’ve been with my partner for almost four years. For the last two, we’ve had a nearly nonexistent sex life. It slowed to a trickle, and we actually haven’t had sex in over a year. I still want and desire her, but she claims that stress has nearly destroyed her libido. She has had an extremely difficult and stressful year, but she also was in a five-year relationship prior to me that was sexless for three years. We’ve done couples counseling (didn’t stick), I’ve begged her to go to therapy (she thinks it’s quackery), or get on anti-anxiety medication (she is afraid of side effects). I’ve asked her to be honest with me about how she feels, to tell me if she’s just lost interest, but she insists she hasn’t.

It feels like it’s more than stress. I know I can’t blame someone else for my emotions but in the last year in particular I have come to wonder if I’m just disgusting. My own depression has flared and it’s hard to see much hope in my life. I love her, I want to be with her, we live together. I don’t know what to do. I know that “lesbian bed death” is a trope, but this doesn’t feel like it, given that we’re in our 30s still. What do I do? What haven’t I tried yet?

A: The only things you haven’t tried are opening up the relationship and breaking up. If you can’t bear the thought of the former, you should try the latter. I know you love her and you want to be with her, but there’s a limit to how much you can do to change your relationship singlehandedly. I don’t know what the underlying causes are of your girlfriend’s lack of interest in sex, but what we both know is this: She’s OK being in a sexless relationship and you’re not, and it’s starting to affect your self-esteem and happiness.

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Q. How to reach out to old friends: My freshman year at boarding school was a rough adjustment for me, and I experienced a severe bout of depression. During that experience, the school guidance counselor was a godsend and probably saved my life: She ran interference with my parents, worked with the school to help me find a therapist, and was a stable and supportive presence when I desperately needed it. Throughout the rest of my high school career, I remained close to her and her husband (one of my teachers). They now both work at another boarding school and I am doing very well in college, and I credit much of my positive growth to their influence and the lessons they taught 15-year-old me.

I remain in sporadic contact with them through social media, but I would like to reach out again. I know they recently had a child, and I was considering sending them a baby gift with a note about how I’m doing now and thanking them for the life lessons they’ve taught me, plus my updated contact information. I am concerned, however, about reaching out now since it’s been so long since we last spoke, and whether or not they would be suspicious of an unexpected package landing at their doorstep. All I want is to wish them well and give them my new email address, so the ball is in their court if they’d like to renew a more regular correspondence with me. Do you have any idea of how I can go about this without seeming creepy or invasive?

A: I think this is a lovely, kind idea! People often get in touch after a little absence during important life milestones, and there’s nothing creepy about sending a baby gift and a kind note. I think they’d be deeply moved to hear how much their influence has helped you become a happy, healthy adult, especially as they’re about to become parents themselves.

If you don’t have their mailing address, I think you should get back in touch through the social media channels you used to talk to them previously and ask for it, telling them it’s so you can send a baby present. You can also tell them your new email address in that same message, then go ahead and send the gift and note.

Q. Names: My grandfather died this past year; I am pregnant with a boy. My husband and I wanted to name our son after him but are unsure how to announce this. My grandmother and mother haven’t taken my grandfather’s death well. I confided in my aunt. She told me I was “showboating” and I would be making my grandfather’s death about me. It put me off on the name. I wanted this to be a statement and a sacrament for my family. My grandfather influenced my medical career, and we all miss him. I wanted to honor him. My husband wants to do the same. Are we wrong? Are we hurting people? My aunt really changed my thoughts on this.

A: I have to admit, that is a new one—I’ve never heard anyone call naming a baby after a beloved relative “showboating.” It’s not showboating, by the way; there are some cultures where naming a child after the deceased isn’t typically done, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the context you’re dealing with here. I’m very sorry that your aunt’s reaction was so bizarre and hostile, but your relationship with your grandfather was your own, your intentions are good, and you’re doing something that countless other people do every day. I think you should continue on with your plans, give your aunt a little distance, and hope she remembers how to behave politely and kindly in the future.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.

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

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Classic Prudie

My wife and I have been married for about two years. When we were engaged, she was finishing law school, and she now has a full-time legal career. Unfortunately, her job is incredibly stressful, which has led to tremendous weight gain and cystic acne breakouts. I try not to say anything about her appearance, but the job has also changed her attitude and makes her snappy and impatient about every single thing. I’ve suggested that she change jobs, and I often suggest going on long walks together at night, but she complains that she doesn’t have the time. When I try to plan healthy menus for the week, she hoards candy and eats it when I’m not there. Her trash can is filled with empty wrappers every week. Is there any way I can help her cut her secret junk food habit without coming across as a jerk?

And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.