Ask Dr. Helen: Getting What You Ask For

The first question was emailed by a reader who has a bit of an ethical dilemma:

Dr. Helen,

My wife and I have a 4 year old daughter, and she's 8 months pregnant with a donor egg IVF. We don't plan on having any more after this - she's 45, I'm 47. We have 8 frozen embryos left from the donor cycle. The egg donor is an extraordinary young woman—an athlete and lawyer, with successful siblings and grandparents who were active until they were 100. I'm not quite that outstanding, but I do have multiple graduate degrees in technical fields.

In a few years we would like to donate the embryos to an infertile couple, but we feel a deep responsibility to make sure they go to what we consider good homes. We would want them to go to a happy, healthy, married, stable heterosexual couple with good incomes and college educations. We would prefer that they go to a couple that wants more than one child, and would try for more than one from this batch. We would like some kind of infrequent communication—a yearly letter, perhaps—to let us know how they are doing. Later in life we would like them to have the chance to meet our child, their genetic sibling.

Are these desires reasonable?

Dear Reader,

First, let me start by stating the reason that I think you have chosen to ask this question—perhaps there is a part of you that is uncomfortable that you have these desires as our society focuses so heavily on the politically-correct concepts of "tolerance and equality" in our society. While this might be a political ideal, when it comes to personal decisions such as who to have children with, having specific desires is entirely reasonable. Why? Because if you were going to have a child with someone the natural way, you could pick the person of your choice. You could decide that you want your partner to be healthy, happy, financially stable, college-educated and exclusively heterosexual if you were choosing a mother of your children, or even if you were putting a child up for adoption. So why shouldn't you choose the couple who will receive your donor eggs the same way?

As for wanting open communication and letting the children meet later in life, experts seem to think this is a fine idea. In fact, there was a letter in "Dear Prudence" that I read recently that addressed the topic of genetic siblings who were adopted finding each other later in life. Prudence states:

It's hard to believe that people who choose open adoption have kept it secret from their child that she is adopted. Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, told me that on reunion registries, adoptees are as interested in finding their siblings as their birth parents. He himself is the adoptive parent of a daughter who has full and half siblings by her birth mother, and has always known about them. You can't control what the adoptive parents reveal, but Pertman says that unless there are strong extenuating circumstances, more openness is better for everyone, and it also avoids the awful question, "Why didn't you tell me sooner?"

Although your situation is a bit different with using donor eggs as opposed to adoption, it still boils down to asking the donor recipients—just like adoptive parents—to be open with the children that they have and agreeing in writing to allow the siblings to meet later in life if they so desire.

Good luck with everything.

The next question is from a reader who is afraid of being perceived as rude and ends up getting walked all over—literally:

Dr. Helen,

My wife pointed out a particular neurosis (aka whineyness) that I've been dealing with for a long time. Getting down to the point, I have an unreasonable fear of people thinking I'm being rude when I am not.

For example, when my wife and I are out for a walk with our infant daughter, I will often move in front of or behind my wife rather than walk with her, because I don't want to be in anyone's way. On some occasions where I muster the nerve to actually walk with my own wife, I'll inadvertently crowd my wife to one side to make way for other people. It's almost like I don't feel like I deserve the space I was allotted, so I try to use less of it.

My wife thinks I've been conditioned by society to think I'm always in the wrong, and am just acting accordingly. This certainly jibes with my tendency to beat myself up for making mistakes. (Something I didn't learn from my parents, who subscribed to the "Okay, you screwed up. Now what are you going to do about it?" school of errors.)

So we come to my question: Do you think there might be something to my wife's theory that I'm just responding to societal expectations that I'm incompetent and rude?

For bonus points, could you suggest someplace I might take rudeness lessons? An excess of politeness wouldn't go amiss if I lived in, say, Fargo. But I live in a suburb of Boston, and one of these fits of pathological politeness can be physically dangerous if they happen while driving on the I-95. (Come to think of it, maybe I'm just compensating for the rudeness of the general population, trying to bring down the average as it were).

Dear Reader,

I think you are going to have to do some soul-searching on this one. I don't know enough from your letter to truly understand where this behavior is coming from so I will take a look at two possibilities, one of which might fit you. The first possibility is that your "pathological politeness" as you call it, is due to a sense that you do not have the right to act like a "man" and perhaps have internalized a sense of shame from a society that tells you that you are part of the patriarchy, are part of a group that has trampled on other people's rights and that to act in an "aggressive manner" is a negative way to behave. For example, old gender studies have indicated that men typically take up more personal space than women and tend to spread out more than women. Going back to your situation on the sidewalk, perhaps your fear is that you will be seen as "too manly" and thus, perceived as an unenlightened thug if you demand your fair share of space.

I have seen this fear of manliness in many modern husbands and fathers. Some men today are afraid of appearing like their own fathers, whom they thought of as unfair, controlling or condescending to women—the son swears he will not act the same way. Unfortunately, he often goes to the opposite extreme of letting his wife or others run all over him. These men are often doing dishes, watching the kids and earning much of the money all the while feeling guilty if anyone is unhappy with them. If you think this may be your problem, I have a couple of suggestions. Pick up a copy of %%AMAZON=1875989285 How To Be a Man%% by John Birmingham and learn how to gain more self-confidence in being a man. In addition, get %%AMAZON=0061243582 The Dangerous Book for Boys%% and build a treehouse, make a go-cart or learn to engage in fun activities that will make you appreciate how much fun it is to be a man. Ignore the societal pressures and male bashing and practice carrying yourself with pride until it feels real.

The second possibility is that you are not responding to societal pressure about being a man, but are actually afraid to grow up. You do not see yourself as a grown man with a child and wife to take care of, but rather, view yourself as a kid who does not feel entitled to respect and at the same time you are bothered by the subsequent responsibility that comes with being an adult. You mentioned "whineyness" which is what kids resort to when they don't know what is expected of them. You also may feel uneasy walking proudly beside your wife as this would symbolize your status as "father and husband." If you are afraid to assert yourself in life for fear of what it means psychologically, you might want to consider a few sessions with a counselor or professional who might explore this with you for further insight.

Finally, forget the "rudeness lessons"—a gentleman has both self-confidence and manners which do not include being rude to others who have done no wrong. I think the "lessons" you are looking for might be assertiveness training—this is something that might be helpful if your problem is just plain shyness and an inability to assert yourself because of low self-esteem or other reasons.

Here is some online information, or you can contact a professional in your area who specializes in assertiveness training.

Drop a line in the comments and share your thoughts on either of the questions above. Or if you have a question you would like answered, please leave it below or email me at [email protected]>[email protected]. Your questions may be edited for length and clarity. Please note that your first name only or no name at all will be used to identify your question-if you want me to use your name, tell me, otherwise you will be referred to by your first name or as "a reader" etc.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee and blogs at

This advice column is for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not purport to replace therapy or psychological treatment.