Q. OK to Contact Extended Relatives After Adoption?: My father was adopted from a foreign country about 50 years ago. While he knows enough information about his mother to have tracked her down, he never did. I’ve done some Internet investigating of my own and found out much more about her, including that she married and had more children. I would really like to contact my father’s siblings, but I know he would be angry. Do I have a right to contact them? Does my father’s desire not to contact them trump my interests? I would worry about causing the siblings distress, but it’s possible they would want to know us. It seems such a shame to never know them, or to know more about my father’s mother.
A: It is certainly fine to contact biological relatives after an adoption if you’re the person who was adopted. Beyond that, the adopted person’s desires should be respected. Your father long ago decided not to be in contact with his biological mother. The family he was adopted into is your family. However, if you haven’t had a conversation with him about this subject in a long time, then reopen it with your father. Do not say you’ve identified some of his biological siblings. Explain to him that you have an interest in this part of your family history. Then ask if it would be all right with him for you to pursue this on your own. If he objects, then you must weigh what going ahead would mean for your own relationship with your father versus a potential relationship with a bunch of people who don’t know you exist.
Q. Psychotic Stepsister: My dad lives across the country from me, and I visit him every summer. He married “Annette” in April, so now I share a room with her daughter “Alissa.” I have always gotten a creepy vibe from Alissa, but I chalked it up to the stress of meeting new people and the wedding. I now realize Alissa has serious psychological issues. When we’re alone, she becomes a different person: aggressive, threatening, abusive. I’ve also noticed she lies through her teeth and steals from me. When I try to talk to my dad about Alissa, he finds excuses to explain how I misunderstood her actions. He’s begun to accuse ME of being the disturbed one. If I tell my mom about Alissa, she’ll force me to come home. If that happens, I’m worried I will never see my dad. It hurts he doesn’t believe me. I need advice, please.
A: Your father may not want to cause problems with his new wife and the stepdaughter he spends more time with than his own daughter. But if his own daughter comes to him with stories of being threatened and having her property stolen, he needs to show his concern, play close, attention, and take action. You are torn in the most painful way—you don’t want to be estranged from your father, yet you don’t want to feel unsafe when you visit him. You need to bring this up with him again in a private setting. Perhaps when you get home, you can arrange to have a Skype conversation while he is at work. Calmly tell him what went on and why being in a room with Alissa is disturbing, even frightening. If he starts to get his back up, suggest that maybe you two can change the way you see each other—maybe, for example, you and he can take a vacation by yourselves. I understand you feel your mother will only be hostile about your father, but I hope she also has the ability to listen to your concerns and help you figure out a plan. If you’re certain she can’t, then ask to get a therapist when you’re home. A neutral person can help you figure out strategies for dealing with this difficult situation.
Q. Re: End of Life Issues: There may be another way of looking at this. The brother that cares for the father may be in denial that these are his final days. When my mother was dying of multiple causes, one of which was lung cancer (not the thing that would ultimately kill her, however), I was a fanatic about not letting her smoke, after 50 years of being a chain smoker. She was miserable, I felt like a jailer, and in the end it didn’t matter. I wish now I’d just let her have her cigarettes—they gave her comfort and didn’t shorten her life. Maybe the brother needs a gentle reality check.
A: Great points, thanks.
Q. Re: Ice Cream: Have you considered using all of the vanilla first to make root beer floats, then leaving the chocolate and strawberry for your brother? This is of course the only acceptable use for vanilla ice cream, but it is a good one.
A: I think this is something for the judge to suggest during the trial.
Q. Mommy Dearest?: My soon-to-be 5-year-old has recently started saying things like, “I love Daddy more than you” and “Don’t you remember? I don’t like you that much.” I know it’s partially because he says that Daddy is “more fun” and that I yell at him, but given that I’m not the only one disciplining him (but he only seems to resent me) it still hurts. I’m not sure if I should force him to spend one-on-one “quality” time with me when he’d much rather be with his father, if given the choice. The last thing I want is to make him feel like spending time with me is a punishment of some kind and make him resent me even more.
A: It’s brutal, but you’ve got to give your son credit for honest feedback. First of all, it’s not unusual for a child to play one parent off another; it’s amazing how early in humans Machiavellian traits emerge. You’re right, Mom, you don’t want to try to improve your relationship with your son by making being with you into a punishment. You want to improve your overall relationship with him. Parents are allowed to be human too, and sometimes we lose it and yell. But if yelling is your standard discipline technique, you need to rethink your approach. Read some books on being a more effective parent. Parent Effectiveness Training is one, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk is another. Learning to ratchet down the conflict will allow you to spend more time having fun with your son. Which will make both of you happy to spend time together.
Check out Dear Prudence's book recommendations in the Slate Store.