Dear Prudence

My Family Is Pressuring Me to Donate Sperm to My Sister and Her Wife. Again.

They’re blaming my girlfriend for my refusal.

Sperm sample cup and a man looking puzzled
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Dear Prudence,

When I was 20, my older sister and her wife approached me about being a sperm donor for them. My family was all for it. Looking back, they all put a lot of pressure on me to say yes. I love my niece, and she understands the circumstances of her birth, but I’ve had a few uncomfortable moments where she looks and acts so much like me that I instinctively think, “Oh wow, she’s my kid.” I don’t regret my decision, but I wouldn’t do it again. I’m now seriously dating a woman I see a future with. My sister and her wife have separated twice (it’s been a tumultuous marriage). They recently reconciled and decided they want a second kid—and for me to donate sperm again. I said no, and my sister got really upset. She said I was “destroying” her chance at a second child because she wants a biological link between the kids. She even tried blaming my girlfriend (they don’t really get along because their personalities clash), but I told my sister to back off, that it was sick to think anyone “owed” her sperm, and that babies don’t fix broken marriages.

That offended my sister-in-law (who, frankly, my parents prefer to all of their own kids). Now my parents are picking apart my refusal: Am I planning to get married and have kids with my girlfriend soon? You said yes before, why not now? Don’t you think they are good moms? Why don’t you want to give us another grandchild? Even my other sister is puzzled about my refusal. I pointed out she could donate an egg to help them out and she said it wasn’t the same. I am beating my head against a brick wall here. I don’t get why my “No” isn’t enough, especially since my family is supposedly very liberal and supports reproductive freedom. This is putting a lot of stress on my relationship because my family has decided to scapegoat my girlfriend rather than deal with my older sister’s entitlement.

—No Round Two

Saying your family put “a lot of pressure” on you to say yes the first time sounds like an understatement. They may all have other wonderful qualities I just didn’t get to hear about in this letter, but I pity any grandchild who grows up in an environment of such unchecked entitlement and invasiveness. There’s also something deeply creepy and infantilizing about their collective insistence that this decision must be due to your girlfriend’s quiet manipulations, that you couldn’t possibly have an opinion about your own sperm and when or whether you might like to use it to create another human life. Certain disagreements can benefit from a frank discussion, an explanation, or arguments, and maybe at some later date your family will be available to hear some of them. But they’re currently unprepared to listen to reason. Unrelenting collective pressure got them all a “Yes” from you last time, and they’re hoping if they just keep trying, day in and day out, they’ll be able to extract another “Yes,” regardless of the toll it might take on you.

For now, I think you should give them all a wide berth. Tell them: “I’m not answering any more questions about this, and I’ll thank you to stop blaming my girlfriend for my reproductive decisions. I said no, and I meant it.” I hope that will get you a lot further than trying to explain for the 50th time why you deserve reproductive autonomy in real life, not just in theory. Stop beating your head against that brick wall. You don’t have to. You deserve space, you deserve peace, and you deserve to surround yourself with people who truly value the expression “no means no.”

Dear Prudence,

When I met my girlfriend, she was taking a break from the workforce after burning out. I assumed this was temporary and thought it seemed reasonable. Three years later, I am very happy with her but have gained a clearer-eyed view. She’s taken a few jobs for months or weeks but seems to run into a lot of personal conflicts, struggles with staying emotionally regulated throughout the workday, and has burned bridges, quit, and gone through long periods of staying home and not really job searching. She lives off her savings from her pre-burnout, well-paid job, and I’m not paying her bills, so in some ways it’s none of my business. She’s an amazing person, and there are many other things I love about her.

But I’m stressed as hell about our future. We want to get married and have kids, and I don’t know how we can do that if she never holds a job for longer than a few months. I can’t support her financially when her savings run out. We’re both women in our 30s, if that’s relevant. I grew up in a home where one parent couldn’t keep a job and the other struggled with having to be a stable wage earner, and I have no desire to relive that dynamic. I want to offer my partner unconditional love, support, and patience while she finds her way, but I don’t want to find myself five years from now in the very situation I hoped to avoid, wishing I’d paid attention sooner. Where’s the line here, Prudie, between none of my business and totally my business?

—Breadwinning for One

If you’re talking about getting married and having kids, discussing your career plans and shared financial expectations is very much your business. Tell her you’re worried about what happens when her savings run out. Does she know when she’ll need to start earning money again? How much do you two want to spend on a wedding, and how long would it take you to save enough for it? Does she know that you’re both unwilling and unable to support her financially? If you haven’t said as much before, now’s the time—not to mention your fears about repeating a familiar and painful financial dynamic you experienced as a child. This is the sort of nitty-gritty conversation any couple contemplating a serious, lifelong commitment should be able to have together, so you don’t have to tiptoe around it or apologize for bringing it up. Being afraid of repeating a pattern isn’t the same as saying, “You’re exactly like my father, and that terrifies me,” so don’t overthink it.

I don’t know what compromises or strategies you two might produce during such a conversation, but the alternative, where you quietly panic as her savings dwindle and then wait to discover whether she was secretly assuming you would take over her bills during a moment of crisis, sounds pretty unbearable. She’s probably pretty aware of the trouble she’s had finding and keeping a job, so it’s not as if you have to deliver surprisingly bad news. Offering your partner love and support and saying “Let’s have a conversation about money” and “How are you planning to support yourself once your savings are gone?” are totally compatible. You can do both of those things right now.

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Dear Prudence,

My sisters and I are very close. I always knew they were uncomfortable around our maternal uncle, but I thought it was just because he’s strange and made a number of poor life choices that affected the rest of the family. I’ve tried to keep in touch with him and his family (particularly his young children) and have often been angry with myself for what seemed like a baseless discomfort around him. Recently, one of my sisters told me that she avoids him because he tried to molest her when she was 11 during a camping trip. They were sharing a tent, and he put his hand down her underwear and likely would have done more if she hadn’t rolled over and “pinned” his arm so he couldn’t move it. The next morning she told our mother what happened. Our mother called her AA sponsor for advice, posing it as a “hypothetical scenario,” and my mom’s sponsor apparently said, “If you don’t report him, I will.” Instead, my mother told my uncle to leave the state because it was “out of her hands.” Aside from a single surprise appointment with a child psychologist that my sister was subsequently forced into (and found very traumatic), nothing more was ever said on the subject.

I’m horrified, and I feel utterly disgusted by my uncle. This knowledge explains so many other incidents I never understood as a child. I would never want to punish my young cousins, but I don’t ever want to see or speak to him again. We’re not celebrating weddings and holidays together right now because of the pandemic, but someday that will change. How can I best express my loyalty to my sister without destroying my family or causing collateral damage to family members who aren’t involved? What about how my mother handled it? The worst part is that this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this story—only when it was told to me as an adult several years ago, my uncle’s hand “accidentally rolled” onto my sister when he was “asleep.” I feel sick that I never questioned that! I believe that people can learn and change after making mistakes, but where’s the line? Don’t people need to acknowledge and apologize in order to show that they’ve changed?

—Family Skeletons

I’m so sorry for the way the adults in her life failed to protect your sister when she was a child, and I’m so sorry for the pain and grief you feel now, having learned the profound extent of that failure. Your primary responsibility is not to save your mother from feeling guilt—nor to make sure your extended family always feels happy, comfortable, and peaceful—but to the children currently in your uncle’s care, your own conscience, and your sister’s well-being. You were given a euphemized version of your sister’s molestation a few years ago on purpose. That story was designed to placate and reassure you so that you’d never ask follow-up questions and to inoculate you against the truth, just in case the truth ever came out.

Before you can consider your responsibility toward your sister, you must first protect your young cousins who are in your uncle’s care, and therefore at real risk of ongoing abuse. You would not be punishing them by reporting their father and making sure they are safely away from him. They are in real danger, and they need an adult who is willing to do what the adults in your family did not do for your sister all those years ago. If you need guidance or support as you file a report (you may wind up filing multiple reports or activating other mandatory reporters based on your disclosures), you can contact RAINN’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. But you know that your family cannot be trusted to create a safe environment for children. That includes not just your uncle but his entire network of enablers, who work to minimize, excuse, and dismiss his abuse of children. This cannot be handled “quietly” within the family, because the family itself has provided him with children to abuse, alibis and cover stories to adopt, and advance warnings to avoid consequences. Contacting the police and CPS will not immediately or single-handedly fix everything. Many institutions outside of the nuclear family fail to thoroughly and rapidly investigate such reports, and you may have to take action more than once to ensure those children are safe. But that initial report is still necessary, and you must make it immediately.

Once you’ve done that, you can ask your sister what she needs from you in terms of support, and get support for yourself from trusted friends, a therapist who specializes in trauma and the aftereffects of child sexual abuse, and elsewhere. You’ll need it—it’s likely that some or all of your relatives will attempt to make you the problem for failing to keep quiet about family abuse. Such a response can be emotionally and psychically overwhelming, and I’m so sorry to have to prepare you to expect it, at least at first. But you can do the right thing no matter what your family tries to throw your way. Take the first step and make a report today.

Help! I Got a Dog Sitter Fired for Walking Around Our Home Naked.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Ben Gullard on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

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Dear Prudence,

After a year and a half of dating, my boyfriend and I moved to a new city together in the middle of the pandemic. (We’d planned the move beforehand.) It was difficult to suddenly adjust to working from home together in a one-bedroom apartment, but despite some rough patches, we made it work. But lately he’s been getting more controlling, and I’m not sure if I can keep chalking it up to pandemic-related anxiety. We’re in Canada, and our city has gradually lifted some restrictions since we have almost no new COVID cases. I’ve been hoping to meet some friends outdoors for a socially distanced drink, but my boyfriend basically forbade it (even if it were just the two of us and it was otherwise empty). He’s also freaked out when I want to go on a bike ride or to take a walk on the beach by myself, or even gets mad or pouts when I haven’t made dinner yet. I’m 28, and he’s 38, and we’re both men, so I don’t think it’s a gendered thing. He says he’s scared about the virus, but I wear a mask, stay away from others, and wash my hands thoroughly.

One night we took a walk together, and he wanted to turn back and play video games—then said he’d break up with me if I didn’t accompany him right away. I told him the next day that was unacceptable and planned to leave for my parents’ house to cool off. But he said we’d planned to see his mother in a few weeks and that she wouldn’t let him see her if she knew I had “broken the bubble” by seeing other people within the past two weeks. I know he and his mom are scared, but it’s frustrating because I think their fear goes beyond reasonable medical advice. I can’t help but think that him threatening to break up with me is a red flag. Am I being selfish by wanting to take modest risks in a relatively safe city?

—Trapped Together

I’m less interested in the question of selfishness or which risks an informed, reasonable adult might decide to take than I am in the question of whether you want to keep dating your boyfriend. It’s not an either/or question or a mathematical equation, where you have to stay with him if his anxieties are justified by medical reality or else you get to break up with him if he’s making unreasonable demands. Do you want to break up with your boyfriend? Do you like the way he treats you, generally speaking? You can make allowances for a pandemic and not judge anyone too harshly for occasionally freaking out or snapping because they’re dealing with a lot of stress, but you’re still allowed to look for patterns in how your boyfriend treats you and decide whether you like that pattern. The same goes for language like “red flags”—if you find it useful, great, but it’s not the only rubric available to you when you decide whether to dump somebody. How did it feel when your boyfriend said, “Come home with me and watch me play Fortnite right now or I’m breaking up with you”? Did you find it easier or harder to trust him after that? Do you think he’s likely to say something like that again because he knows it gets him what he wants? Have you told any of your friends about that night, and if so, are any of them concerned on your behalf? Do you feel an obligation to stay with him, possibly against your own inclinations, because he tried to make you feel responsible for whether he gets to see his mother?

You told him the way he’d treated you the night before was unacceptable. But it doesn’t sound like he apologized, or committed to acting differently in the future, or considered your desire to see your own parents as equal to his in importance. You don’t need a formal “red flag” designation to break up with your boyfriend, and you don’t need to prove that you’re right and he’s wrong. It’s possible for reasonable adults to disagree about COVID-related risk management. The question is how those reasonable adults justify those disagreements and how they treat people who disagree with them—either with respect, clear boundaries, and kindness, or with manipulation, temper tantrums, pouting, and threats.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

Danny Lavery and Nicole Cliffe will return next week to discuss a letter in for Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I have a brother who has been a toxic presence in my life—emotionally manipulative, condescending, and occasionally very cruel. With the help of therapy, I’ve intentionally distanced myself from him over the past few years. We have a cordial relationship when we do occasionally see each other, but we are not close. My therapist has recommended I explain how I feel, but I believe this would do irreparable damage to our relationship and larger family dynamic. I’m not willing to risk that, and I’m fine with our distant, polite relationship.

The problem is that he always wants to know why I’m keeping him at arm’s length. He sends me long (often very hurtful) messages about how sad he is that we aren’t closer and how it’s my fault because I’m not making an effort. I recently tried to set a boundary by saying that I need space and I hope he can respect that, and he completely flew off the handle. How do I get him to understand I’m not interested in a closer relationship with him without also sacrificing the cordial relationship we do have? I’m tempted to be forthright with him but believe that will cost me not only my relationship with him but also with my parents.

—Not Your Keeper

It may not be possible to keep your cordial relationship, given that he regularly sends you angry messages demanding to know why you don’t like him more. It takes two to maintain cordial distance, and if he doesn’t let up, no matter how polite your responses, you may need to accept that this dynamic of remote friendliness is no longer possible. That doesn’t mean your only remaining option is to give him a complete rundown of your every resentment against him and blow up your relationship with the rest of your family. (It’s also worth considering—possibly in therapy—why your family dynamic isn’t threatened by the fact that your brother regularly upbraids you over text but would be threatened if you said to him, “I don’t want to be best friends and talk on the phone every day.”)

You may never be able to get your brother to understand that you don’t want to be closer, but you can tell him that you’re not going to respond if he flies off the handle, threatens you, calls you names, or disparages your character for something as reasonable as saying “I can’t talk now, but let’s try to catch up later this summer.” To that end, when he next sends you angry messages, be polite, friendly, and inflexible as iron: “I’m sorry you’re upset, but it’s not possible to have a conversation when you’re this angry.” “I’m sorry to hear that.” “That’s a shame.” “I’m comfortable with this distance. I’m afraid I can’t help you with whatever frustration you feel as a result.” You can’t make him agree that your boundary is reasonable (I think it’s unlikely he’ll ever see it the way you do). What you can do is enforce your boundary, calmly and without guilt, whenever it needs enforcing, and refuse to soothe your brother when he throws a fit and demands you give him what he wants.

Dear Prudence,

In 2019 I left my job of several years for a position at a more prestigious company. I’d become very close friends with a co-worker there, “Jessica,” who’d started just a few months after I did. We both hoped to move to the company I work for now. She was supportive and encouraging when I got my offer. After a few months, another position opened up here, and I encouraged her to apply. When she came into the office for interviews, I mentioned my excitement to “Amanda,” who had also worked with us at our old company. She was shocked and told me Jessica had always been deeply competitive toward me and had often tried to undermine me secretly. In fact, Jessica had spoken to our supervisor more than once (unsuccessfully) asking to be promoted into a position above me. I had no idea Jessica felt this way! I had thought it was a little odd when Jessica took over my office the day after I left, but I didn’t worry about it. (It did have a great view.) Later, I spoke to other co-workers we had in common, and they confirmed what Amanda told me. Now I realize I was being played: Jessica acted like a close friend to gain an advantage over me but didn’t actually care about me the way I cared about her. I feel like an idiot, not to mention sad over losing a friend. I’m also embarrassed over sharing details of my personal life with her.

Fortunately, Jessica did not get the job at my new company, but ever since her interview she has been distant, and we’ve stopped communicating as much. Should I tell Jessica directly what Amanda shared with me and try to discuss the situation? Is it worth even trying to salvage the friendship? How do I avoid falling into a trap like this again?

—Bestie Betrayal

I wish I knew more about what exactly Amanda told you, because the details you’ve shared here are hardly damning—they’re not the acts of a deceitful rival, nor are they undermining. You weren’t using the office anymore, and promotions almost always by definition involve moving a level above former colleagues. If Jessica had been spreading lies about you, or blaming you for someone else’s mistakes, or telling your supervisor you were actually a terrible employee whenever you left the room, then you’d have real grounds to reconsider your friendship. But I think there’s an opportunity to learn more and give Jessica a chance to share her side of the story before writing her off completely.

You also don’t have to give her that chance if all you want is to maintain a polite distance and process your feelings elsewhere. (Maybe Amanda shared more damning details you haven’t relayed here and you’re certain that Jessica’s affection was sufficiently tainted by professional rivalry that you have no interest in trying to salvage your friendship.) You don’t have to say anything. You’ve moved on and don’t seem to have suffered much professionally as a result of Jessica’s resentment (personally is another matter). You’ve already mostly stopped talking. You can simply write off the friendship, mourn its loss in private, and move ahead. Plenty of office friendships—even sincere ones that are untouched by competitiveness—cool off naturally once both parties no longer work together. But you don’t have to start treating all friendly co-workers with automatic suspicion just because one turned out to be more self-interested than you’d realized.

Classic Prudie

One of my good friends, “Chelsea,” has been dating a seemingly nice guy, “Larry,” for the past six months. They are both in their late 20s and Chelsea is very open about the possibility of settling down and starting a life with Larry. Through a shared acquaintance I recently learned that while Larry was in college he was accused of murdering his roommate. During his trial he was found innocent, but all materials from the case make the verdict seem only as a result of a lack of evidence. Chelsea has never made mention of this and I am not sure she is even aware of Larry’s past. I fear for her safety and think Larry’s murderous history is important for her to know. Is it within my place to inform Chelsea?