Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Modern problems: The letter from the IVF parents recently triggered a question I have had for a long time and have been putting off deciding on because I won’t have to answer it for years. But here it is:
My youngest daughter was conceived with my sperm and a donated egg. When my daughter was 2 years old, my wife died. I have been raising her as if her biological mother died when she was 2—she has no memory of her mom and is happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. She has no idea that her biological mother is probably still alive with at least one probably living daughter, who would be her half-sister. Then there are the 14 embryos we donated after she was born, who would be her full siblings if they were successful.
If there wasn’t a “23 and Me” business out there, the decision would be easy: Just keep it a secret and let it die with me. The issue is she may decide in the future to have her ancestry checked, and then she would be in for a big surprise—and may be angry that I didn’t tell her and give her the option to meet her biological mother and siblings. And then what if I do tell her and then her biological mother doesn’t want to meet her? Or doesn’t get along with her? Or her biological siblings reject her?
My current plan is to talk to a therapist when she is 17 and make a plan for when she is 18 for what to do. She is currently 11 so I don’t feel a need to make a decision for a while. What are your thoughts?
A: This does have a lot in common with that question and I’ll suggest a similar approach: Consider letting a family therapist give you some advice or even facilitate the conversation. And don’t delay and make it a big, scary secret that feels life-changing when it is revealed. If you think she’s old enough to understand the basic science of human reproduction, I can imagine you saying something as simple as: “When your mom and I wanted to have a baby, we needed some help and a nice woman let us use one of her eggs. Then we helped out other families by donating the embryos we had left after we had you. This doesn’t change anything about our family—Mom carried you and gave birth to you and loved you a lot. But in the future, if you’re interested in trying to find the woman whose egg we used and any other children who came from those donated embryos (who would be biologically related to you), we can do that. It’s also OK to do nothing.” By framing it as not a big deal rather than “You have a mother and siblings out there!”, you’ll be making the news easier to handle and also preparing her to keep things in perspective if she does one day get in touch with these people and finds there isn’t a strong connection.
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Q. Trying to support sibling sobriety: My older brother who, as far as I know, has been sober for more than a decade, has recently started drinking again. Twice this week, I’ve seen him drink a beer, in full view of myself and other family members, like it was no big deal.
I’ve heard him credit AA’s “Big Book” with inspiring an epiphany in his life and every time I’ve seen him offered a drink previously, he has refused. I feel strange commenting on a behavior that, were it anyone else in my life, I wouldn’t think twice about. At the same time, and I know this isn’t fair, I feel a little like a core thing that I know to be true about the world—that my brother is an alcoholic who has been sober for as long as I can remember—has shifted beneath my feet and I’m pretty shaken.
What’s the protocol? Do I ask him if he’d like company to go to a meeting? When he asks my partner if he can grab a beer from the fridge, do I interrupt to say, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea”? Do I call my other sibling, with whom he has a closer relationship, and snitch? I know my brother has been really struggling of late, and he’s planning to move closer to home soon to work on getting back on his feet, so do I just wait until then and hope he gets the help he needs?
A: When it comes to contemplating things like snitching and cutting off his refrigerator access, you’re about 10 steps ahead. Yes, your brother has a problem with alcohol, but that doesn’t mean you can’t speak to him directly like you would anyone else. How about something like: “I noticed you’ve been drinking again. I didn’t want to make it weird in the moment but I’m kind of worried. Do you mind talking about it? What’s going on?” If he’s been open about being in AA for all these years, this topic shouldn’t be too touchy to discuss. And the purpose of your asking him is to understand what’s happening with someone you love, not to shame him or become the sobriety police.
It’s possible he’s decided that he can drink moderately and be OK. But it’s also possible that he’s relapsed (which is very common) and is out of control or moving in that direction. The people who know most about how this works and how to help him are his AA sponsor and friends. If you push him to do anything, it should be to contact these people. They speak the language of the Big Book and have possibly even been in his position before.
And the people who’ve been where you are before are in Al-Anon, a group for people who are worried about loved ones with drinking problems. Whatever he says about why he’s drinking and how much, it feels like there’s a decent chance that he’s heading toward a crisis that will be hard to watch. You should attend a meeting, where I imagine you’ll be reminded that his relationship with alcohol is his alone, and there’s very little you can do or say that will change what happens next.
Q. Too old for love? I am 86 and I may be bisexual. I would like to be gay but am I too old for anybody who would take me on? Is my age too late for friendship or other?
A: Congratulations on having this revelation about yourself and exploring the idea of living a life that would make you happier. You can be definitely (not “may be”) bisexual and definitely gay even if you don’t find a partner. But I think maybe you can find one! Older people get into relationships all the time. In my experience, they actually seem to move pretty quickly—maybe because of a sense of having limited time left, or maybe because once you get to a certain age, you just know what you want. Why don’t you start poking around on Our Time, the dating website for older adults? There are, of course, no guarantees for anyone of any age or sexual orientation when it comes to meeting someone who’s a good fit, but I think you’ll regret it if you don’t try.
Q. Tired of listening to it: I call my mom on my way to work and on my way home from work every day. We get in a good 45 minutes or so of talking each day. The problem is, she complains nonstop, mostly about my dad. I’m tired of listening to it and frankly I don’t think it’s right. While I don’t disagree that he can be a total jerk, it’s not fair to me to have to listen to it. I don’t know what to do.
A: “Mom, I know Dad can be a jerk and I hate how he treats you, but I don’t want to let that take away from our relationship. Can we complain about Dad for five minutes at the end of every call? It kind of brings me down and I want to hear more about how you’re doing and other fun stuff, and tell you how I’m doing.” Hold up your end of the bargain by having plenty of other topics to discuss and steering the conversation in another direction.
Q. Just break up already: One of my friends, “Anna,” has been in a relationship with a man, “Dave,” for nearly two years now. I’m sad to say that Anna and Dave are that couple who don’t mind having an audience when they get into a verbal fight. It started out small, if not annoying, in the beginning, where they’d whisper-fight and drop the subject. A lot of their issues stem from feelings of jealousy, infidelity (physical and otherwise), conflicting views on life such as kids, and general incompatibility. Over time, it escalated that they not only would have shouting matches in front of strangers, they’d do it wherever they were and despite whatever would be going on—grocery stores, restaurants, streets, and even birthday parties.
Just a couple months ago, they went to the house of Anna’s cousin for a family reunion of sorts. They ended up having such a loud, disruptive fight that neighbors called the police. Anna’s cousin kicked them both out, and the two are still at odds over the embarrassing event. A lot of our friends have stopped hanging out with them because of this, and they know it, which adds to the tension to the relationship. Recently, Anna had confided in me that she’s heavily tempted to be with a new man, but is hesitant to end a nearly two-year relationship over what might amount to a fling. She’s asked me my opinion, and so far I’ve avoided a response. Truthfully, I think her relationship with Dave is a dead end regardless of if she gets with this new guy, but I normally make a point of not giving relationship advice. If I told her what I think but she stays with Dave, I feel like I’ll become the bad guy. What do you think I should do?
A: This reminds me of a tweet I saw: “My friend got dumped yesterday and we immediately had a Group video call where everybody shared how much we hated him and it was two hours of going through what garbage this man is. At one point I said NASA is still looking for his hairline. And now they’re back together.”
Awkward! Don’t get yourself into a situation like that. Encourage her to pursue the new guy, without ever mentioning Dave’s name, such as: “You like him! You should listen to yourself,” “You never know, this could be your soulmate!” and “I think he sounds great! I can really see you with someone who you can have a peaceful relationship with.”
Q. Re: Modern problems: I would HIGHLY encourage the letter writer to tell their daughter sooner rather than later. Eleven is not too young at all—and I’m sure many therapists you speak to would agree. By keeping it a secret for longer, you make it into something huge (and potentially shameful) instead of a purely logistical fact of her conception. I believe the best practice now is to tell children from birth that they are adopted/from donor sperm/eggs, whatever.
That’s not to say you’ve irrevocably messed up your daughter by not telling her until now—there’s no point in beating yourself up about it—but I think telling her sooner rather than later is going to make her less likely to feel betrayed or hurt that you kept it from her. And if she does show interest in meeting her biological mother and siblings, please encourage it! She knows who her mother and father are; it isn’t a reflection on the life you’ve given her for her to show interest in her biological siblings/mother. And while the outcome could prove hurtful for many reasons, she’ll be better equipped to face those things knowing she has your unconditional support.
A: Yep, I wish he would have told her earlier.
Q. Re: Modern problems: The daughter mentioned in the letter does not have a mother just floating about in the universe. There’s an egg donor who helped her parents conceive her. A mother is someone who stays up all night with a sick infant; a mother soothes a crying toddler when they fall; a mother holds the hand of a child when crossing the street. The egg donor (while kind and self-less) is not her mother.
A: I agree that this is the best way to think about it. The egg donor is a woman who offered (actually, probably sold) an egg to help another woman become a mother, and that’s a much better way to frame it than “you have a real biological mother out there somewhere.”
Q. Re: Trying to support sibling sobriety: Be careful of the line between supporting your brother’s sobriety and policing it. It is a fair ball if you decide not to serve your brother alcohol in your home (and you should discuss this with your partner). It is also fair to tell him you have noticed he is drinking again. If he starts an argument or tries to justify it, don’t engage, but just tell him you have noticed it so he had information. But don’t push him to go to meetings if he doesn’t want to, and don’t push him on his drinking unless he puts himself or others in danger.
Managing his sobriety and recovery is his job, not yours. As hard as it is, your first priority is to protect yourself and your own mental health.
A: I agree with this. I think if anyone is going to know how to push (or nudge, or just support), it will be the people in his AA community. And again, Al-Anon will be the place to figure out what to do, what not to do, and how to manage the reality of not being able to control how this turns out for him.
Q. Re: Tired of listening to it: Or….stop calling your mom twice a day, every day, and talking for 45 minutes. Obviously your mom has run out of things to talk to you about twice a day, every day, for 45 minutes. I’m really not kidding.
A: Ha. I talk to my mom for about this much time every day so it didn’t seem strange to me but yes, the letter writer can cut back. I do think they should try making the conversations better before making them shorter though, since the length wasn’t one of their complaints.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Thanks, everyone. We’ll wrap it up here and get together again next week to discuss our problems and how other people should live—same time, same place. See you then!
From Care and Feeding
I’m a single mom to a 7-year old son and a 1-year old daughter. I want to be able to have conversations with my son about his body, girls, sex, and everything in between, but I recently grossed him out just by saying penis. How can I begin to approach these topics so that we can have open and honest conversations? I don’t think I’ll have the same issues with my daughter, who I’ve already started to talk to about body autonomy—hopefully, vagina won’t be as gross later on.