Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: My Wife Wants to Adopt. When Do I Tell Her I Won’t?

August 28, 2016 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “My Wife Wants to Adopt. When Do I Tell Her I Won’t?


My wife and are I childless. We can’t have children of our own, and in any case, I have never wanted children. Now we are in our 40s, and my wife is starting the process of adoption. She is very well aware that I do not want to adopt a child, but to keep the peace in our relationship, I go along, under protest. I drag out every task required of me (writing application essays, for instance) for as long as I can, hoping either to change my mind (not happening yet) or to change hers (not happening either). This is putting a big strain on our friendship, as I feel she is pushing something on me that I don’t want. I also understand that I take away something from her that she really longs for — to be a mother.

I know that I will not go through with the adoption, but I am not sure when to pull the plug. There is a high chance that our relationship will fail over this. She is still young enough to start a family with somebody else. I would rather be alone than be a miserable family man I never wanted to be.

Should I let her continue the process and stop it when we get closer, or should I do it now? Is it ethical to play along, in the hope that she will stop the process herself? Name Withheld

My response: I can’t help but wonder how long either or both of you knew about what appears a fundamental incompatibility in a marriage, not that it would reconcile things at this point. Not every pair of people are compatible to live together forever. What you wrote suggests you’re both stringing each other along, hoping for change, which, I guess, could happen. In the meantime, you sound to me like Woody Allen’s great line at the foundation of Annie Hall: you both need the eggs.

As usual, I don’t think asking others what you should or shouldn’t do. They don’t have to live with the results. You do. And what difference does some abstract philosophical label of ethics matter? Different people will consider different approaches ethical or not.

My usual advice applies: think of as many options as you can, think of its results on people, and do what you think is best. I recommend also practicing whatever conversation you have if you ever clear the air, since communicating your feelings, interests, thoughts, and so on that conflict with hers while remaining calm or at least communicating productive will help a lot.

I see the issue as a matter of making the best of a conflicted situation. Unless one of you spontaneously changes, I don’t see how you can avoid both getting hurt. On the other hand, I don’t see how you can live life at all without getting hurt.

The New York Times response:

You must know that what you’re doing is horribly manipulative and disrespectful. It’s a fine piece of folk wisdom that nobody really knows what’s going on in someone else’s marriage, but I would be seriously worried about the prospects of a relationship centered on an unreconciled difference this deep. You’ve already imagined her marrying someone else who wants to raise a child with her. To figure out if you have a real marriage, you would need to have an honest conversation, in which she decides whether her longing for a child is more important to her than a life with you, and in which you work out whether your feelings about fatherhood really mean that you can’t give her what she wants.

My brother’s wife and her two boys became estranged from our side of the family when she divorced my brother, some five years before he died. I have had little contact with them since. However, my nephew, now in his late 30s, recently contacted me through my sister. He has an arrhythmia and wanted to know if he inherited it from his father. I suffer from this, as did our father, but my brother did not. I assured my nephew of this, but he wanted more details, doctor reports, death certificates and test results, none of which I have. What he doesn’t know is that his father did not die of a heart attack, as everyone was told by my parents, but as I know, by suicide caused by severe depression and alcoholism that followed the failure of his marriage. Should I tell my nephew the true cause of his father’s death? T.M., Pennsylvania

My response: I answered this question in this post: “How to Choose“. I also covered it in my first Harvard talk, on choosing.

The New York Times response:

For medical purposes, your nephew already has the facts he needs. You barely know him and may feel that you don’t owe him more than you’ve provided.

Still, he can probably find your brother’s cause of death without your help, because he has a name and knows where his father lived. The death certificate is available to next of kin in most states. And it does sound as though he’s really trying to find out more about his father. Would the truth here do him much good? It’s not going to make him happy. But it will fill in an important part of the story of his family.

Ask yourself what you would want to be told in his situation. My guess is you’ll decide you should tell him. Your sister-­in-­law’s choices don’t bind you.

I am facing the biggest ethical challenge of my life. After providing loving care for my mother, who had Alzheimer’s for many years, my 84-year-old father is frail and of limited means, with his Social Security check his only source of income. He has one asset: his house. He is now selling the house to use some of the modest proceeds to repay me and my brother and sister-­in-­law for the financial support that we provided during her illness.

My father, who supported us kids financially well into adulthood — and my brother well into his marriage — feels an enormous obligation to repay anyone he can. But in doing so, he will leave himself with insufficient funds to meet his basic needs and make himself ineligible for Medicaid when those funds run out. (As a lawyer explained to him, he must use the proceeds for his own care; any distribution of the proceeds from the sale of the house will be treated as gifts by Medicaid and make him ineligible for five years. The lawyer said, “Anyone who loves you would not want you to do this.”)

Regardless, my father is adamant that, ethically, he must repay everyone as soon as he can. (While we have taken on debt for this, none of us have a desperate need to be repaid.) He gave us far more, even as adults, than we have been able to give him, yet he says he couldn’t live with himself; he believes that forgoing future care is his only noble option. He says that his potential medical needs don’t matter, hoping that he won’t get sick. My family members are willing to accept the money regardless of the consequences, saying that they “will do whatever he wants.” They say it is wrong for me to oppose his wishes. They do not believe that there are any other appropriate considerations and have ignored all my efforts to discuss how his needs will be met when his health declines — as has he. I have no means to pay for my father’s future care, having depleted my entire savings to care for my mother. Please help us identify the most ethical solution. My father is trying to do what he believes is right with, it seems, a broken lens and heart.

Perhaps it is also important to note that family members ignored much of my mother’s illness. She lived at home with my father during her eight-year journey with Alzheimer’s. My father did much of the caregiving. After I learned about Medicaid, I organized the additional in-home support that became necessary as her needs increased. For years, I begged my father to ask family members to help with simple chores or by keeping my mother company. He refused, because he does not believe it is appropriate to ask for help. When I asked them for help myself, he would tell them nothing was needed. They adhered to the belief that they should do only “what he wanted.” I have heard from social workers that it is not uncommon for men to be unable to ask for help and that this issue often deeply compromises the quality of a loved one’s care and a family’s chances for survival. Name Withheld

My response: In the simplest terms, you sound like you want to change someone who hasn’t asked you to change them. Have you found much success trying to change people who didn’t ask you to? I haven’t heard of many people enjoying that process or its results.

I haven’t had much success taking responsibility for other people’s behavior either. You sound like you believe you know better than your father what choices he should make. You haven’t said he’s insane, just that you have different values, as far as I can tell. You can ask for people’s opinions on the “most ethical solution,” but their responses only give you their opinions, not some absolute answer. I suggest the bigger issue is how to keep your relationship as strong as you can, as well as your peace of mind while another adult makes choices you disagree with with his money and time. I suspect meddling in his decisions will cause more problems than it solves, no matter how much you think you can improve his life for him.

The New York Times response:

How do you distinguish between the legitimate desire to maintain your self-­respect and the vanity of refusing to acknowledge any kind of dependency, even on your own close family? Not easily. But your father isn’t hovering on the line; he has crossed it. He’s treating family members as if they were strangers. When people give you money without conditions, you owe them nothing but gratitude — and your father doesn’t want to owe anyone even that much.

To go by your account, of course, the other members of your family aren’t behaving well, either. Having done less than their share to help your ailing mother, they’re now willing to take money from your father that he is going to need to cover his health expenses.

I agree with you that “whatever he wants” isn’t an all-­purpose alibi here. Even if he hadn’t been generous to you all when you were younger, a family member should want to make sure that an aging parent has the resources for a dignified end of life. And, you note, what your father wants to do could suspend his eligibility for Medicaid (which can be an especially critical resource when it comes to long-term care that Medicare doesn’t cover). He may resolve to forgo future care, but loving family members will resist watching him die of neglect.

Far from freeing you from a burden, then, he is imposing one on you all. Financially and emotionally, this could prove a toxic form of pride. Try again to make him understand his error; try to get the other members of your family to see that by going along, they’re culpably complicit.

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