This year a bumper crop of letter writers let me know what happened after I answered their questions, a trend I encourage. The most recent was from Want To Be a Dad, the white guy with an infertile Asian wife who concluded as long as they were going to use an egg donor he’d like the donor to be white. I gave him hell and told him it was a good thing he ran this by me before bringing it up with his wife. He wrote back: “I have decided that this isn't something worth risking upsetting her with so I am going to keep my thoughts to myself. I'm fine with having a biracial kid and if my wife makes it clear one way or another that's what she wants, that's what she'll get. But if we're choosing between whites and Asians I will lean toward a white donor.”
As an unexpected bookend, I got a follow-up letter from a father who wrote in last year with his own donor-egg dilemma. His wife had been reluctant to tell their twins they’d been conceived using a donor egg, as she feared they would feel she wasn’t really their mother. I said that the husband shouldn’t tell unilaterally, but he should encourage the wife to change her mind and that talking to a support group of people who’ve used egg donors might make her more comfortable and provide advice on how to tell the kids. Here’s what happened, according to the husband: “You were the first person I reached out to, and it took another year, but my wife finally just relaxed and told me to go ahead and tell the twins the whole story. It turns out she was just really afraid that her kids would disown her in some way or not love her anymore. It was just the opposite! The twins were surprised, but their view of her as their mother hasn't changed. They are more grateful than ever that she went to such lengths to bring them into the world. They have no real interest in the egg donor herself either. The subject is now totally dead after only a week or so.” I was delighted to hear the mother came around and got such a loving response. But I did tell the father that while the subject may be dead for now, the children might get more interested later, and they should make sure the subject is not taboo.
In April I ran a letter from a young widower whose wife had been an older woman with a grown daughter. He and his stepdaughter had been providing emotional support for each other; then the stepdaughter confessed she was developing romantic feelings for him. He was overwhelmed with conflicting emotions and wondered what he should do. I said since this young woman had been his stepdaughter for a decade, it would just be wrong to start a romantic relationship with her. I solicited a follow-up from him, and he wrote that shortly after her confession, he went to see his stepdaughter and explained that they could never have a relationship. “She was very upset that I seemed not to reciprocate her feelings. Why was she not good enough? Had she done something wrong? Was there someone else? On and on. Finally I just walked out and left her crying, alone, and utterly devastated. I was dumbfounded, the world was sideways and everything was just gray.” Shortly afterward he was sent overseas for a months-long work trip. He alerted his stepdaughter of his return and she met him at the airport. “We hugged, she kissed me ... fully. I let her, but when she was done I could see that she finally got it. I told her to go home, and that was the last that I have talked to or seen her. And that, I guess, is that.”
I also asked the man whose fiancée was treating his young daughter badly what had transpired since he wrote. In the original letter the father had recognized that his fiancée, Janet, was less mature than his 8-year-old, but his main concern was that Janet, who couldn’t have kids, wanted to adopt and he didn’t feel she was ready to be a mother. I agreed she wasn’t, and added that his poor daughter shouldn’t have to put up with an evil stepmother and he should dump Janet. He wrote back to say that Janet continues to behave badly but that she has finally agreed to attend individual and couple’s counseling. He concluded: “I've not taken your advice, although I know I should. I'm hanging in there, hoping my partner will change, although I know she won't.” If you’re reading this, Dad, save your daughter years of therapy and get Janet out of your lives.
Another letter writer’s experience underlined the excellent point that I worry about every time I suggest therapy: Some therapists are nuts. This woman had written in because her therapist was pushing an incest agenda on her, although none had occurred. I said she should cancel her next appointment and start looking for a therapist who could actually help her. She did that, and after another bad fit, she reported: “I found one who actually listens to me and lets me guide where my therapy goes and I am much better for it. I am still drug free, have gotten a new great job, and am now working on building healthy relationships with my father.” As a reminder of how much letter writers leave out, she mentioned that she had been sexually abused, although not by her father. But a big issue in her life was that her father hadn’t protected her when she was young.
I also contacted the college freshman who had been adopted by a Hispanic father (now deceased), had taken his name, and was raised to believe her biological father had also been Hispanic. It turns out the bio dad was probably Armenian. However, she had been offered a scholarship for Hispanic students and wondered if she should take it. I said yes, for which I was attacked as a tool of the racial and ethnic preference lobby. Here’s the freshman’s follow-up: “I've taken the scholarship and am morally and ethically at peace with it. I was raised thinking of and identifying myself as Hispanic. My adoptive father—the only father I knew—and the assumptions I was raised under makes me still feel and identify as Hispanic. Taking the scholarship has given me a sense of obligation to academic excellence to prove my worthiness.” I think there are legitimate questions about affirmative action. I also think they aren’t going to be resolved by making it harder for one young woman, who thinks of herself as Hispanic, to pay for college.
Four years ago I got a letter from one Unembraced, whose problem was that she longed, tearfully, for her darling new boyfriend to cuddle with her all night. He refused on the grounds of sweatiness. I said I was with the boyfriend and that being entwined all night made me feel like I was sleeping with a boa constrictor. She wrote a few months ago: “I married the non-cuddler and we are super happy. I feel now that problem was so insignificant. We now sporadically cuddle before bed and in the morning. You were right and I needed some perspective. And I learned not to take it personally.”
Then there was a letter from a woman who had been "adopted" by two little neighbor girls who were growing up in deprived, difficult circumstances. She liked the girls but wanted to tell them, nicely, to get lost. I encouraged her to step up in a limited way—maybe an hour or so a week—and do an activity with them and be a warm presence in their lives. I did not hear back from this writer, but I did hear from two other people who had been in similar circumstances.
The first, Corine Hollingsworth, wrote in to say that when she was a college student 15 years ago, she met a 6-year-old neighborhood girl one evening while walking her dog:
Within weeks, the 6-year-old and her younger sister were constant fixtures on the porch of the home I shared with my roommates. Their single mother worked long hours, and they left colored pictures on our porch, along with gifts of rocks and twigs. They came over for tea parties, dress up, or help with homework. We were all busy college "women" with papers to write and parties to attend. However, I am so glad that we did not view our little neighbors as pests. Oh, what I would have missed! Some of the best advice I have ever gotten came from them: "Don't worry about him; he's not worrying about you." "It stays lighter in the summer time because there are more fun things to do outside." “When people love you, they just do.” I moved from that town over ten years ago, but I came back to celebrate the youngest girl’s high school graduation. When I told her about your letter writer, she begged me, "Tell her what they'll miss." She meant the little girls, but I am telling you for the writer. Little neighbor girls are a blessing she shouldn't miss.
Another reader told this story:
Many years ago, when I still had my three children at home, the doorbell rang at 6:30 a.m. on a school day. It was the little 8-year-old neighbor boy, holding a science project. He lived with a single dad who had some impairments. He asked me to drive him and the project to school. The boy was hungry. I fed him breakfast and packed him a lunch. I fed him several days a week for eight years. When he was in college he told me that I could have no idea how important that was to his life. He said he always knew ‘where to find food and a smile.’ Set boundaries, but give to those girls.
Finally, a sad one. Last May I ran a letter from a woman in her 40s who was dying of cancer and had decided to stop treatment. Her loved ones kept urging her to try some extreme and painful procedures, hoping for a miracle. She wanted to know what to tell them. I gave her some suggestions and links to articles for her to print out to help them understand her choice. In August I got an email from a friend of the letter writer saying she had shown my answer to people, and that she had died the night before, surrounded by her family. The friend wrote: “She was an amazing human being, loving and funny and crazy and so, so kind; I am incredibly lucky I got to have her in my life. I just wanted to let you know that your compassionate response was a comfort and an answer for those who loved her, and we appreciate it.” It is an honor to think this column might have helped ease the pain surrounding someone’s last days. And it is a reminder for all of us to remember how precious our time with our loved ones is.
Thank you for letting me share another year of your amazing questions, and insightful and provocative comments.