Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie's Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. The need to know: We've been happily married for over 20 years, and we are blessed with two wonderful children (twins). But, there's a deep family secret: Everybody knows we used in vitro fertilization, but only my wife and I know the children came from donor eggs. The donor was of my wife's general ethnicity, skin and hair color, etc., so the children's looks are a near-perfect blend of hers and mine, and nobody suspects. The issue is whether or not the children ever know their origin, and if so, when? My point of view is that there are important medical issues potentially at stake, and they should eventually be told. Anyway, they will find out immediately if either one ever has a DNA scan—the results will come back with the "wrong" country of origin, and better they hear the news from us instead of from some lab. My wife's point of view is that telling the children that fact would be like taking her children away from her. I agree that it's much more important to her than to me, and so far, I've respected her wishes. However, I still think they should know when they are 21 or so, even with the social and cultural dislocation they'll certainly feel. What do you think?
A: You have quite an existential dilemma about whether to tell about the eggs. I'm generally in the camp that people have a right to know their biological origins, even as I think we put way too much emphasis on genes in cases of adoption, gamete donation, or even extramarital affairs. Though Steve Jobs, who was adopted, contacted his biological mother as a young man (and never spoke to his biological father), he always insisted that his "real" parents were Paul and Clara Jobs. Still, people understand that hidden parentage packs an emotional punch, that's why it's been used by storytellers from the Greeks to Dickens to George Lucas. In the case of sperm and egg donation the rules are still being figured out. Keeping an adoption hidden (as they sometimes used to be) is today agreed to be destructive and almost impossible. But it is possible to keep secret the fact that a sperm or egg was purchased. At least, as you point out, until some kind of genetic testing or blood work later in life might be the cause of the big reveal.
The thing that really makes me think your children should be told someday is that you call this a "deep family secret." Those tend to come with corrosive emotional burdens for the people keeping them. It's sad that your wife thinks the truth would take her children away from her. But telling the kids (and you don't say how old they are) is not something you should do unilaterally. In addition, this is information that would be hard to process for young children. My suggestion is that you tell your wife you understand and accept her feelings, but suggest you two periodically review the topic as the children get older. It would be helpful to seek a support group of people in a similar situation to find out what they've done. You can learn if people have told their children, when and how, and what the reactions have been. But I hope your wife knows that whatever her children find out, she will always be their mother.
Q. Wedding white lie: When I got married I received a large, expensive vase from a group of friends I see about once every couple of months. It didn't suit our humble home and wasn't really suited to our tastes either. Hence, I got it exchanged for some practical household items I happily use on a daily basis. I wrote my friends a thank-you card for what they gave me, without any mention of my exchange. When I met up with them after the wedding they asked if I had used the vase yet, and I told a white lie—that I hadn't gotten around to unpacking everything from moving into my new home. I thought they would forget about it and not ask me again. But since then, they have asked a few times why I haven't used my vase or have it displayed somewhere. I repeated a slightly different version of my white lie the second and third time, and it's gotten to a point where I feel too embarrassed to tell the truth. In addition to admitting I exchanged their gift, I now also have to admit I lied to them several times. Do I come clean or just hope they forget about it?
A: What an irony that in order to preserve your relationship with an entire group of friends you have to make sure they never enter your home again. It's funny how explosive the subject of gifts and their proper appreciation is, but humans are very sensitive to feeling slighted if their generosity is not acknowledged. However, you properly acknowledged their generosity. Having done so, you are free to dispose of their generosity as you see fit. Their constant badgering of you about the vase is rude and even hostile. Don't you bring the subject up. But if they do, you might as well tell the truth if only to stop the harassment. Say you thought it was gorgeous; you used it and realized it didn't fit with your more humble decor. If they want to drop you over this, then they didn't fit in with your life any better than the vase did.
Q. My husband's sperm donation: My husband's brother and his wife are unable to have children. More specifically, he can't have children. They decided against adoption because it's important to them to have a biological link to their child. Then they asked my husband if he would be willing to donate his sperm. I am angry I was left out of this because I feel it's also partly my decision. He says he would like to do it but I feel completely uncomfortable with having a nephew or a niece who in fact is biologically my stepchild, and my children's half-sibling. I told my sister-in-law I am adamantly against this decision and now she is upset because I've apparently taken away the one chance for her to have a child. I told them they could use anonymous donors but that's not what they want to do. The way I see it, that's not my problem. Am I being selfish here? My husband won't do it as long as I am against it but he feels guilty, and I sense some grudge on his part because he can't help his brother.
A: Thank you for providing the flip side to the egg dilemma above. It's one thing for your brother-in-law and sister-in-law to ask to borrow your husband's chain saw without checking with you. It's another to request a turkey baster of his sperm without including you in the discussion. If this had been presented in a respectful, low-key way among the four of you, you surely still would have objected, but you would not have felt they were trying to snatch the family jewels. I said in answer to the letter above that I think people put too much emphasis on genes, but I understand your feeling that it would be too much to know your niece or nephew is secretly your own children's half-sibling. It's also too bad that your in-laws are so hung up on genetics that a child who's genetically half theirs (through sperm donation) wouldn't be good enough, and one who wasn't genetically theirs is out of the question. Your objection is not preventing them from being parents. Yes, infertility is a blow, but it does not mean people can't have children through other means. The four of you need to try to repair your relationship, but your in-laws need to do their own work on figuring out whether for them DNA trumps all.