My Wife Is My Sister
In a live chat, Prudie counsels a man about an unthinkable discovery.
Photograph by Teresa Castracane.
Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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.)
Q. Nasty Surprise: When my wife and I met in college, the attraction was immediate, and we quickly became inseparable. We had a number of things in common, we came from the same large metropolitan area, and we both wanted to return there after school, so everything was very natural between us. We married soon after graduation, moved back closer to our families, and had three children by the time we were 30. We were both born to lesbians, she to a couple, and me to a single woman. She had sought out her biological father as soon as she turned 18, as the sperm bank her parents used allowed contact once the children were 18 if both parties consented. I never was interested in learning about that for myself, but she felt we were cheating our future children by not learning everything we could about my past, too. Well, our anniversary is coming up and I decided to go ahead and, as a present to my wife, see if my biological father was interested in contact as well. He was, and even though our parents had used different sperm banks, it appears so did our father, as he is the same person. On the one hand, I love my wife more than I can say, and logically, done is done, we already have children. I have had a vasectomy, so we won't be having any more, so perhaps there is no harm in continuing as we are. But, I can't help but think "This is my sister" every time I look at her now. I haven't said anything to her yet, and I don't know if I should or not. Where do I go from here? I am tempted to burn everything I got from the sperm bank and just try to forget it all, but I'm not sure if I can. Please help me figure out where to go from here.
A: This is a seminal question about the nature of assisted reproduction. As David Plotz discovered in his book, The Genius Factory, on the alleged sperm bank of Nobel Prize winners, many non-geniuses were moved to spread their seed far and wide. So the question has always hung over this: What if the offspring meet and fall in love? Well, you've met and it's true that if you had researched your origins and disclosed them to each other, you and your wife would now likely be close half-siblings. I understand your desire to burn everything. But if you are now looking at your wife and thinking, "Hey, sis," I don't see how you can keep this information to yourself. She's bound to sense something off in your behavior and you simply can't say, "I'm struggling with father issues." I think you have to sit her down and show you what you've discovered. Then you two should likely seek out a counselor who deals with reproductive technology to help you sort through your emotions. I don't see why your healthy children should ever be informed of this. That Dad didn't want to find out who his sperm donor was is a sufficient answer when they get old enough to ask about this. I think there's way too much emphasis put on DNA. Yes, you two will have had a shock, but when it wears off you will be the same people you were before you found out. Shocking news has the effect of making people feels as if the waves it sends out will always rock them. But I think you two should be able to file away your genetic origins and go on.
Q. Auntie Moniker: My brother and sister-in-law have an 18-month-old son who is absolutely adorable. My SIL and I have a decent relationship; we are friendly, but not particularly close. When my nephew was born, my SIL's group of close-knit friends referred to themselves as "aunties" to him. I assumed this would pass, but now that my nephew can speak and identify people, he refers to them as "Auntie First Name." This bothers me because I'm afraid my nephew will not be able to distinguish between family and non-family members. My gut reaction tells me to let this go, that the conversation will only cause an unnecessary wedge between me and my SIL. But in practice, I am finding this hard to do. How can I get over this?
A: How wonderful that your sister-in-law has friends who are so close they are like family. A gaggle of loving "aunties" is only going to bring joy to your nephew's life. But if you want to be the real aunt who's been frozen out because she's crazily jealous, then sure, speak up.
Q. Parents: I wrote to you around July 2009 about buying a home and having my mother and stepfather stay in the finished basement. It worked out for about three years before I could no longer take their free-loading and had to ask them to leave. The people in my family don't really have the "need to be successful" gene, which somehow I did get. I am the only one who has a four-year college degree and doesn't still live at home with my grandmother. Since my mother and stepfather have moved out and back into my grandmother's house, my father has asked to stay with me, as well as my mother-in-law. The only parent who has not asked to stay is my father-in-law, whom I have never met! I have had to refuse them both and be the ungrateful wicked child. I understand that later in life you are expected to take care of your aging parents, but I am in my mid-20s, just starting out and my parents are all in their 50s! Am I wrong to deny them (we have the spare rooms), or is it OK to want to enjoy my 20s and be free of the stress that parents bring?
A: In your original letter your dilemma was that your friends couldn't believe your desire to buy a home that could accomodate your (free-loading) parents, which back then you were happy to do. As I mentioned in my answer, it's lovely if multi-generations can happily live together, but there's a reason that as soon as people got the means, they fled the family home. Your parents are in their 50s so you could be hosting these parasites—I mean loved ones, for the next 30-plus years. Forget ascribing your success and their failure to genes. You have worked hard for your independence, and they would prefer to mooch in the basement. So let them find scrounge in someone else's basement. If they want to call you wicked, when you come home each night to your blessedly parent-free home, cackle with joy like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Q. Re: Nasty Surprise: I know you/we cannot know, but color me skeptical that this letter is legit. The odds of such a “match” have to be very small. I can't help but wonder if this letter is a fiction pushing a political agenda. Your advice, by the way, was spot on.
A: I rarely publish letters I think are likely fake, and I agree that this raises the skepticism alert. But the sperm bank industry has started trying to limit the times a donor can give just to avoid this kind of situation. Google Dr. Cecil Jacobson, the fertility doctor who may have fathered 75 children using his own sperm. At the time, the question was raised about what if some of his offspring met in high school or college and fell in love. So maybe this is that kind of case. It does present a vivid human dilemma. And I doubt there's a political agenda to it.
Q. Warring Parents: My adult sister and I (both late 20s/early 30s) keep finding ourselves in the middle of our warring, but still married parents. My mother learned of my father's infidelities, and while she has never raised the issue with him or confronted him, she has spent the past five or so years punishing him without telling him what he's done wrong. It's gotten to the point where my sister and I want to sit our father down and explain why he's being treated the way he is, but it's not our place to have that conversation with him. Beseeching our mother to have the talk herself has proved ineffective in the past. Neither of us want to be piggy in the middle any more, and while my father is certainly guilty of wrongdoing, my mother is only making things worse. Any suggestions on how we can get them communicating?