Dear Prudence

Help! My Ex-Wife’s Family Is Asking a Very, Very Personal Favor of Me.

I want to help, but not in this way.

An outstretched hand in front of an illustration of an embryo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns.

Dear Prudence,

My ex and I used IVF to have our son (she had ovarian cancer). We had multiple embryos made, but our marriage dissolved a year after our son was born. The embryos are currently on ice, and legally we both have to consent to their use. I pay for the storage. It was too painful a topic to talk about during the divorce, and neither one of us wanted to speak about the potential children we could have had.

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Our son is 6 now. We have equal custody and a civil relationship, at least until my ex’s sister lost her husband in a car accident last year. It was an unbelievable tragedy, and the sister was injured so badly she had to have a hysterectomy. I would have done anything to help, but the sister is now fixated on our embryos as her only solution to have a child. She wants to hire a surrogate and have us donate the embryos to her. My ex is all for it. She sees it as a chance to bring light out of darkness and give our “children” a chance to live.

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I just can’t agree to this. I love my son with every fiber of my being, but I don’t want more children with his mother. I also don’t want someone else raising my children. I would not be able to cope with this. I told them no. It has wrecked my relationship with my ex. Her parents have called me begging me to relent. Her sister has sent me several long handwritten letters that I refuse to read. Our son is confused and sad; he has overheard remarks about me “not letting” his little brothers and sisters be born. In our last conversation about it, I told my ex that unless she wanted to get lawyers involved, the discussion was over. She hasn’t brought it up since.

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I feel tremendous guilt over this entire affair. I cared for my brother-in-law and mourned his loss. My former sister-in-law is a nice woman and doesn’t deserve the hand she was dealt. Am I being too selfish?

If suffering worked like a math problem, I might be able to make a ruling about whether you’re being selfish—”If Angela has suffered X due to a terrible car accident, and believes Y would make her Z-quantity happy, and Brian does not consent to share Y, how bad a person is he? Solve for miserliness.” But you can see, I think, just how quickly such an analogy falls apart when it comes to something as complicated as reproductive autonomy, co-parenting, consent, and family dynamics. It’s terrible that your former sister-in-law was in a car accident and that she had to have an unexpected, unwanted hysterectomy; she deserves excellent medical care, robust emotional support, and the opportunity to grieve. But it doesn’t negate the importance of joint consent when it comes to the future of the embryos you and your wife stored, and it doesn’t mean you can simply ignore your feelings about your relationship to whatever children those embryos might produce.

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You did right to draw the line with your ex after she drew your son into the conversation (what an awful way to try to manipulate a child), and I think you should insist on only speaking through your lawyers about the embryos in the future. You may need to have a clarifying conversation with your son on your own—resisting the temptation to fight fire with fire or use him to get back at your ex—where you answer his questions in honest, age-appropriate language so he has a better understanding of what a stored embryo is besides “my little brother that Mom says Dad won’t let come live with us.”

The fact that you feel guilty is unsurprising—not because I think you should feel guilty, but because more than one of your relatives has pulled out all the stops trying to make you feel guilty, and guilt trips often work. But it would not be right to donate these embryos knowing as you do that you would be unable to think of them as your sister-in-law’s children, committing to a lifetime of (possibly antagonistic) co-parenting. You’ve done the right thing, I think; it just doesn’t always feel good. —Danny M. Lavery

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From: “Help! My Ex-Wife’s Sister Wants Us to Donate Our Embryos to Her.” (Sept. 8, 2020)

Dear Prudence,

I love my fiancée, Janet, but I have concerns about the way she treats my 8-year-old daughter, Carly. The three of us recently went to a local water park. I gave in and allowed Janet to pay, but I was concerned because Janet gives gifts with strings attached. When Carly refused to go on any of the “scary” water slides, Janet complained bitterly and said she wasn’t getting value for her money. I’m concerned that Carly is more mature and honest about her own feelings than Janet is. Carly told me, “Daddy, I’m terrified of heights, I don’t want to go, and if you make me it’ll be really cruel of you.” Janet was unmoved and continued to sulk and make snide comments. Because we can’t have children, Janet wants us to adopt after we marry, but I’m reluctant to bring any more children into the picture until Janet has resolved her issues. What should I do?

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So Janet must be really great in bed. Or maybe she’s on the Forbes 400. I’m trying to come up with a reason you fail to mention that would explain why you are engaged to this jealous, manipulative, punitive woman. But even if she’s done things in bed you’ve never gotten anyone else to go along with or she has an enviable bank account, that shouldn’t be enough for you to consider marrying someone who bullies your child. I get an unfortunate number of letters from people like your daughter who describe childhoods in which their father married a woman who resented them. The stepmother, true to fairy tale form, did everything she could to make the children’s lives miserable and estrange them from their father. The fathers, knowing the hell to pay by standing up to the new wife, became passive jerks. Blessedly, you haven’t yet married Janet. You are both able to see her character with great clarity and admire your daughter’s wisdom and strength. Break it off with the fiancée and vow the honor your obligation to your little girl by finding a partner who will enhance all of your lives. —Emily Yoffe

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From: “Help! My Husband Sought Casual Sex Before He Died. How Do I Honor Him Now?” (Aug. 9, 2012)

Dear Prudence,

I am dating “Simone,” and we are on the verge of getting serious. She is pretty, funny, and the complete package, except for one thing. She doesn’t think people can be friends with their exes.

I can understand her perspective, because she got pretty badly burned by past boyfriends who cheated on her with their ex-wives or girlfriends. I have been lucky that all my relationships except one ended on good notes. Either we broke up over different life choices (wanting kids) or careers (moving for work). I actually ended up playing matchmaker for a few. Simone freezes up with my friends after finding out I dated this one or slept with that one in college. We have told each other about our serious past relationships, but recently she has been needling me about being a “player” and dropping plans with my friends if one of my known exes is there. She says she trusts me, and I have reassured her over and over.

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One of my serious exes will be staying with me for a few weeks while she house hunts. She is married to my one of my best friends, and they are moving back from out of state. I will not actually see much of her beyond picking her up at the airport. I will being seeing them socially when they move here. How do I prepare Simone? I want to be a good boyfriend here.

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It sounds like Simone’s biggest reactions have arisen when she’s met a friend of yours whom you’ve later revealed to be an ex. The problem isn’t just that you’ve stayed friends with a lot of people you’ve dated or slept with—the problem is that you don’t share that information with Simone upfront. This is a pattern you’re about to repeat, inasmuch as you’ve made plans to let one of your exes crash with you for “a few weeks” but don’t seem to have shared that news with your current girlfriend yet. Which, by the way, I think is absolutely fine, but you do need to share this information with Simone before your houseguest arrives. I don’t think you have to do much in the way of “preparing” her other than being honest; if Simone wants to get serious with you, she’s going to have to accept that you’re close with some of your exes but that you’re not trying to cheat on her with any of them. If she can’t accept that, it’s probably better to know sooner rather than later. —D.L.

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From: “Help! We Block Access to Social Media in Our Vacation Home. Are We Rude Hosts?” (Jan. 3, 2018)

Dear Prudence,

I’ve been married just over two years, and if you had asked me two weeks ago I would’ve said my husband was near perfect. We’d been trying for almost a year to get pregnant, so I was over the moon to show him the positive test result. Then everything came crashing down when he asked me to take a paternity test for his “peace of mind.” I’ve never given him the slightest reason to doubt my fidelity (which he acknowledges) and he doesn’t have a history of being cheated on (although I am his first serious relationship). But he says he just can’t bond with our child until he knows for sure it’s his. I absolutely refuse to do a test during my pregnancy—there is a (very) small chance of miscarriage that I’m just not willing to take for a non-medical reason. He agreed to wait till the birth, but has now turned into a different person—distant and polite. I know that the next step is counseling, except I’m at the point that I’m not sure I even want to save the marriage. What sort of dad is he going to be if his love and trust for me is so conditional? Part of me is strongly tempted to say “You’re right, this child is not yours,” and just raise it myself. Am I overreacting?

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There’s a strange mental disorder called Capgras delusion in which a person thinks a loved one has been replaced by an imposter. But you are actually living this—your husband has been replaced by a cold, hostile, accusatory lunatic. He doesn’t even have the excuse of having some kind of pregnancy-related hormonal disturbance. I don’t blame you for feeling, “Who is this stranger?” But the stranger is your husband who until this bizarre personality change was the love of your life. You need to tell him you two need counseling now, that you have never been so shaken, and that he is making you question the foundation of your marriage. If he won’t go, then you have to go by yourself. Do not make any major decisions right now. Let’s hope that long before your child is born, your husband will have returned from what turns out to be a temporary derangement. —E.Y.

From: “Help! My Husband Won’t Love Our Child Without a Paternity Test.” (April 21, 2014)

More Advice From Dear Prudence

I’m a woman in my early 30s. My housemate is a man in his mid-20s. We became friends through work this year and decided to become housemates. It was a good personality fit and an economic benefit for us both. We have separate bedrooms and a shared living space. It’s pretty plum in every way, except that he seems to think I’m his girlfriend.

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