Care and Feeding

My Father Abandoned Me Years Ago. Now He’s Back—and Asking Me to Donate Bone Marrow for His New Kid.

To him, I am only worthwhile while he can get something out of me.

An adult son, angry with his father.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My father walked out on me when I was 10, because I didn’t treat his mistress the way he wanted me to. I wanted my mom and dad together, and she very obviously was the reason why I didn’t have that anymore. Mom had to go to court over child support. My father and his new wife immediately started having kids and my dad didn’t think he owed what the state told him because of that.

I’m now 22 and I didn’t hear from him until this year. My half-sister needs a bone marrow transplant. I got halfway through dinner with my father before he brought this up. I owe his kids my body parts because we share a father. That is what the conversation boiled down to. Dad got ugly when I suggested it was unfair to expect me to be a better sibling than he was a father to me.

I left the restaurant. I feel guilty. I don’t want this kid to die but it makes me sick to think of justifying what my dad and that woman put my mom and me through. To him, I am only worthwhile while they can get something out of me. I don’t want this kid to die. I don’t know if I am compatible or not. What do I do here? Every solution feels like failure.

—So, Now I’m Hearing From You

Dear SNIHFY,

Your dad is a real piece of work. Frankly, I am so proud of you for saying it was unfair to expect you to be a better sibling than he was a dad. I am sure he did indeed “get ugly” about that, but, well, good.

You do not owe your half-sibling anything. She is like any random stranger to you. That being said, I would crisply ask (via email) for more information about the child’s doctor and for your father to give permission for you to meet with said doctor and get tested for compatibility. If you are not a match, block him from everything and never speak to him again until the heat death of the universe.

If you are a match, though, I would consider doing it. Bone marrow donation has improved hugely as a process over the past 10 years; it is not at all like giving someone an organ. I’m on the registry myself. If you do not want to do it, which is 100 percent within your rights, the doctor will tell your father that you are not a compatible donor. Doctors do this all the time with donations.

Or, you know, you can just say “no,” which is fine. But I personally think that if you can save a child with a relatively straightforward procedure, you are unlikely to regret having done so. It might be easier to think of this child not as a half-sibling you resent but as a totally innocent child you just happened to be a match for. And then, feel free to tell your father, “I never want to hear from you again after this.”

Best of luck, and please keep me posted on this one.

Enjoy holiday content from our Care and Feeding columnists, including Jamilah Lemieux on self-care items to help parents survive the holidays and our Ask a Teacher columnists on gifts teachers actually want

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband’s father has been mostly absent from the lives of my two young children due to distance. He lives across the country and has visited once every few years but is interested in them and what’s going on in their lives. He sends them substantial gift cards for their birthdays and for Christmas, but they’re always for fancy department stores that we never shop at. Last year we were able to get my son two pairs of pants with the $75 card.

How can we ask him to get them gift cards from stores they actually like, like stores with toys, without sounding like ungrateful jerks? We don’t expect him to get the kids anything, but we feel bad that his money and effort doesn’t result in them getting something they’re excited about. My husband’s relationship with his dad is somewhat strained due to his parents’ divorce when he was a teenager, so their rare conversations on the phone mostly consist of small talk. The last thing I want is for their relationship to get more strained and awkward.

—The Most Wonderful Time of the Year Is Back

Dear TMW,

This is actually pretty easy. Your husband should call him and say “Oh, heading into the holidays, you’ve always been so generous with the kids, but they’re so little and don’t appreciate fancy things like we do. If you want them to really love the gift, you should opt for [national toy store] and not [fancy department store].”

If he responds badly, well, he’s deeply unreasonable. That’s not your fault. I suspect he’ll respond just fine. If he says nothing and your kids get either zero presents or more fancy department store gift cards, that’s his choice. As you know, we cannot spend other people’s money for them, however much we wish to.

If they receive your preferred, age-appropriate gift cards, make sure to have the kids (well, you and your husband, mostly) make very nice thank-you notes and send pictures of them playing with whatever they got. I think that will be really reinforcing and appropriate.

• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I need some help dealing with my father-in-law, “Bernie.” He recently texted my wife (his daughter) with some unsolicited advice. He stated, in no uncertain terms, that he thinks our daughter “Alice” is overweight and my wife needs to monitor her diet more strictly. He also pointedly brought up my wife’s lifelong struggle with weight management and made some rather unfair comparisons to me (I’ve purposely lost a lot of weight in the past few years).

For the record: Alice is healthy. She’s in the 10th percentile for height and around the 50th percentile for weight, which makes her BMI higher than average. Her doctor is aware, and while she has recommended healthy eating and lots of activity, she’s specifically recommended against any restrictive diets at this point, mostly because Alice is NINE YEARS OLD and still has a lot of growth and development left. We don’t need to be focusing on this to the point where we’re priming her for eating disorders.

My wife took a day to calm down, then replied back to Bernie that 1) what he said was unnecessary, hurtful, and offensive; 2) it would irreparably damage his relationship with Alice if she ever found out he thought that about her; and 3) he was to never criticize Alice’s weight or my wife’s parenting again. She got a reply back later that day: “Sorry you took my message wrong. You will not hear from me again on the subject, even though I feel I had to say something. I wish you would consider for Alice’s sake.” So yeah, total deflection of responsibility, he still thinks he’s right, and basically “sorry not sorry.”

I feel like I need to say something. My wife is steaming mad and is not talking to her dad right now. Bernie likely knows this, but probably doesn’t know that he’s about to have two of his most important relationships seriously limited, as my wife is terrified that he’ll say something to Alice and therefore isn’t planning to let them have much, if any, contact, including over the holidays. I’m angry too, but I also don’t want him, my wife, or my daughter to lose their relationships. Is there anything I can say to him that might spark some genuine understanding of what he’s done and possibly motivate a sincere apology?

—Nine!

Dear Nine,

Ugh, how upsetting. I’m so sorry you and your wife had to hear that from him.

I agree with limiting contact with Alice over the holidays while tempers are still hot, specifically trying to avoid any scenarios where they are eating a meal together. I sense that if Bernie broke out a “Do you really need that second helping?,” you and your wife would probably flip the table.

For now, however, I think you should take him at his word that he will not engage with you again on this subject and resume regular interactions in the new year. You will not get a real apology, and you will not be able to convince him he’s wrong, so don’t waste that emotional energy. You and your wife can steam until you’re less steamed, and if he never brings it up again, as promised, you—like many people—will simply have a grandparent who clearly disapproves of some aspect of your parenting but keeps his mouth shut about it.

If he brings it up again? I wouldn’t talk to him or respond until he backs down and initiates that conversation.

Please convey my sympathy to your wife, and tell her she’s protecting her daughter beautifully.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My sister and I are both in our late 40s now. I have two adopted children and my sister has three stepchildren from her second marriage to a widower. Many years ago, my husband and I ended a pregnancy after our younger son got very sick. There was no way we could afford to have a baby at that time. While we regret the circumstances, we didn’t regret the decision.

Recently, my 15-year-old niece got pregnant and had an abortion. She was far too young to be a mother, but she had her doubts. My family has always been pro-choice but we live in a red state. I told my niece about my abortion. I wanted to comfort her and give her a chance to see that “normal” women have them and not just what the propaganda paints. My sister got very quiet during this conversation. My niece cried, hugged me, and told me she felt better.

Later my sister confronted me: She thought I would tell a story about having an abortion in college, not during my early marriage. She grew angry with me! She wanted to know why I didn’t think of her before I “killed” my baby since I knew she was struggling with infertility at the time. It was like watching my sister be replaced with a pod person. I was in shock. I told her she had to be insane, my son was in danger of dying, but I should have been more concerned with her?

Did she think I owed her to carry the pregnancy to term and give her the baby? She didn’t answer me but that was obviously the answer rattling in her brain. I told her that was the most selfish and sickening notion I have ever heard. Did she want to force her stepdaughter to continue the pregnancy, too? Thank God, her husband actually loved his daughter. My sister yelled that I wasn’t being fair and I yelled back what part of this conversation was fair to me? We have not spoken since. No one else knows about the fight. Our husbands and kids still get together and I have faked migraines to get out of them. I never knew what my sister was really like. This side of her disgusts me. I knew she and her first husband tried to have children and failed, but she was never obsessed over it. I thought she loved her stepkids like they were her own. I don’t understand why this is happening now, and I don’t know what to do going forward.

—This Is Insane

Dear TII,

Oh, so much to unpack here. I can answer one question very easily, which is “why is this happening now?” It’s because of her daughter’s abortion and her feelings around it as a person with some form of infertility. That is not, however, an excuse for her absolutely shocking and ridiculous conduct.

I am very glad that your niece received comfort and support from you sharing your own experience. That is the most important thing. She is the most vulnerable person in this scenario. You have acted out of love and have done the right thing. Please remember that.

You need one hell of a break from your sister. I often recommend people write letters to get everything out, but that simply does not work with people who are not thinking clearly. Or maybe she’s just a colossal bitch and it took you awhile to notice.

May I ask if you told her that only her husband actually loved their daughter? It’s not clear to me if that was part of your rant to her or just for us. If the former, that was something that will stay with your sister and I suggest that you apologize for it when and if the two of you are speaking again. I know why you said it, but it’s a hell of a thing to say.

I think you do not need to keep faking migraines; have your husband communicate to your sister that you need a break from her because you were intensely hurt and confused by her hateful rant, and then hold to it. If you have a good relationship with her husband, which you seem to, you can instead pass that message through him.

What a clusterfuck.

—Nicole

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