Advice on manners and morals (July 10, 2008).

Advice on manners and morals.
July 10 2008 6:47 AM

Life Swap

I'm convinced I was switched at birth. Should I tell my biological family?

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Dear Prudie,
I learned a few years ago, after both of my parents had passed on, why I had a different blood type than everyone else in my family. I was not adopted—it would have been easier to learn the truth if I had been. I was born in a really crummy hospital that shut down long ago. Someone at that hospital switched me with another newborn; there were only two baby girls born that day, and they mixed us up. It took a lot of research and a cross-country journey, but I tracked down the woman who got "my" family. Since "her" family is very close and means everything to her, I didn't tell her what I knew. I was writing a college paper at the time; the assignment was to find someone who was born on your birthday and interview them, so I interviewed her. She and her children look exactly like the family who raised me, and when I saw her family pictures, I knew beyond a doubt; I look exactly like my birth mother. All four parents went to their graves never knowing they'd raised someone else's child. It turns out that I have several birth siblings. I'd really like to contact them, but I have a couple of friends who tell me, "Let it go" and "Don't mess up someone else's life." But my parents never gave me up! What would be a graceful way to approach this family, who has never known of my existence? I would like to help my "switchee" meet her birth family, too. She may need to know certain things about her genetic history. And I'd like to know my birth family's medical history for the sake of my children, if nothing else.

—Someone Else's Child

Dear Someone Else's
Perhaps you have incontrovertible evidence for your theory of what happened to you, but it is not presented in your letter. As you can see from this chart, it's perfectly possible for your parents and siblings to have A or B blood, for you to have O blood, and for you all to be related. If both your parents had O blood, and you have A or B, then, yes, at least one of your parents is not your biological parent—which happens more often than switched babies. After your rather creepy cover mission to scope out this woman, you make no mention of her even commenting on the strange coincidence that not only were you two born at the same hospital on the same day but you also were a carbon copy of her mother. I believe in the rights of people to have access to information about themselves. I've been consistently in favor of adoptees who choose to find out about their biological origins. (And they also need to be prepared that their search might be painful and disruptive.) But in this case, I have to side with your friends. There is no "graceful" way to disturb this family with your story. All the parents involved are dead, and there is too much pain and not enough benefit to saying a terrible error was committed. As for the need to get medical histories: It is rare they reveal startling and crucial genetic news. For the sake of your children, teach them good health habits, and bury this story. 

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I have been with my wonderful girlfriend for two years now. I came to this relationship in my late 30s. I spent years having trouble putting out of my head what others were saying—"being a lesbian is not acceptable"—so for a long time, I did not follow my heart. After two broken engagements, I finally acknowledged that I was never really happy with men. I am blessed to have found the love of my life and the kind of relationship everyone dreams about. I have come out to my friends and parents, but not all of my family. My parents have taken the stance that while they will not "disown me for being with a woman," she does not exist to them. She cannot participate in any family functions or step foot in their house, and I cannot tell anyone in the family about this, especially my brother. My girlfriend rightly feels slighted and hurt. This is the biggest thing we argue about. My parents are in their 70s, and I can live with the fact that they come from a different era. But how do I start this conversation with my brother? How do I tell him that for the last two years I have been in a relationship that our parents want him to know nothing about without creating a rift between him and my folks? I accept that he will be hurt when I come clean, but I don't want to hurt Mom and Dad, too.

—Out and Stuck

Dear Out,
Your parents have gotten to live their own lives, but they don't get to live yours. You are an adult, so stop quavering when they make ridiculous demands and put outrageous restrictions on you. Refuse to accept your parents' edict that the woman you love has to be treated like an embarrassment. She is right to feel slighted by your parents, but she must be livid at you for accepting their rules. The way you start the conversation with your brother is by having the conversation. You can explain that, out of misplaced respect for your parents' prejudices, you have been hiding from him that you are in a happy, fulfilling relationship. Say that at everyone's earliest convenience, you would like to introduce him to your girlfriend. Assuming he's more enlightened that your parents, he can also be an advocate with them on your behalf. It's time to explain to your parents that your girlfriend is part of your life and needs to be included by your family. Let them know that if they want to see you for family events, then they will have to welcome her. It can be amazing how much people are able to change when they realize they can no longer push you around.

—Prudie

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Dear Prudence:
My husband and I are both graduate students at different universities, and we both teach introductory-level classes in our fields as part our programs. My husband, however, refers to this teaching requirement as his job—as in, when people say, "What do you do?" he responds, "I teach at College X." He will not bring up the fact that he is a graduate student and will evade questions about his role unless I mention that he's a student, not a full professor. This is causing some tension between us. I feel that he's being untruthful and trying to make himself look more accomplished and successful. (No one we know, at our age, is a full-time faculty member at any university.) But he thinks I'm undermining and disrespecting him when I tell people that he's in grad school. Am I being petty, or is he being pretentious?

—All But Dissertation

Dear All But,
You're being petty, and he's being pretentious. If you'd kept your critique private, he'd definitely be ahead of you in pretentiousness, since he's deliberately trying to inflate his role at the university. But you acknowledge that you get so bugged by this that you point out to people just how silly your husband is; that's pretty petty. Is this a new character trait of his? If so, you need to talk about what may be causing this overcompensation. Perhaps he's having trouble with his thesis. Maybe he's worried he'll never finish or that, even if he does, it won't be good enough to get him the kind of faculty position he covets. Check in with him about how he's feeling about his life—and make the discussion separate from this squabble. And when you're socializing and he shades his description of what he does, don't say anything. Respond to the questions about yourself straightforwardly, and decide it's not your job to grade his answers.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I am in my late 30s. Many years ago, my best friend from boarding school died in a plane crash while training to be a pilot. Our friendship saved me in many ways, and when he died I handled it poorly. I withdrew from any contact with his parents and siblings. I struggled to understand why he died and deal with the guilt of being around when he wasn't. I have not spoken to his family since the day they dedicated a memorial to him at our old school, just shy of 20 years ago. Today, I have a successful career, a wife I hardly deserve, and a magnificent little baby boy, whom we named after my friend. When our son asks, I'll tell him how proud he should be of his name. My question is: Should I tell his family? It doesn't feel right to pop back into their lives, happy and, well, alive, and say, "Ta-da! I named my son after yours."

—Haven't Forgotten

Dear Haven't,
What a tribute to your friend that almost 20 years after his much-too-short life ended, that life had such an impact on yours that you would honor him by giving your son his name. There is nothing "ta-da" about what you are doing. Yes, it feels horribly awkward to reappear to this family after so long. And surely there will be some degree of pain for them at the reminder that their son never got to live out his promise or have a child of his own. But it is more than likely that they will be deeply moved that their son lives so profoundly in your memory that you hope to imbue your child with his qualities. Write a letter, apologize for your long silence, and enclose a photo explaining the reason you felt you had to get in touch.

—Prudie

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