We have a trans son who came out to us four and a half years ago. At first our focus was on his well-being, because we found out that he was self-harming. Immediately, we found a gender clinic in our area. As we sought to understand the struggles of our child and worked to get him the mental-health services that he needed, other issues started to pop up, like our child’s social transitioning.
I am from Turkey, and I am married to a U.S. citizen. We moved to the United States 10 years ago. I come from a Muslim family, but I grew up in Istanbul; my family can be considered modern. I am about to travel to my home country without my husband and children.
In the last year, our son began to transition: He had his top surgery this year and started hormones when he turned 18. Everyone in my family knows about his social transitioning — except my father, back home in Turkey. Using my son’s preferred pronouns is not a big deal, because Turkish has neutral pronouns. But now his voice is changing, and he may get a beard soon. My brothers and my mom asked me not to talk to my father about it, as he is a worrier, and he usually cannot sleep at night when he has things on his mind. He is a very healthy 88-year-old, takes daily walks and eats very healthy homemade food, and I know that he will be around for a while still.
I am so torn about making him confused and lost if I tell him about our trans son. During my stay, he can talk and ask me questions, but I know it will be a big shock for him. Because of the language barrier, our kids do not speak to him much if he calls, but he sees them on our video calls. So he gets the news about how they are doing only through me.
The other option is to wait until we all go back a few years from now and he sees a grandson instead of a granddaughter — and most likely has a heart attack. What should I do? To hide it is to essentially lie to him, but I do not want him to get upset. Name Withheld
I am so glad that your son has been able to grow up with a supportive family. Many trans kids around the world are not nearly as lucky. It’s great that you can focus, as a result, on how just one other member of your family can be brought to accept him. You, your brothers and your mother obviously know your father better than anyone, so I’ll assume you’re right about the distress that discovering he has a trans grandson will cause him. Still, you’re denying your father an important truth about his family: that he has a grandson he isn’t aware of. Even if he does have to struggle to accept this, it’s the only way he’ll ever be able to know this young man.
And if the plan is for your son to see him in Turkey one day on a family visit? It isn’t a good idea to reveal the truth only then, and not simply because your father would be shocked. He would also learn that the whole family, including his wife, had been keeping something important from him. He’d reasonably feel he had been disrespected. There’s also a concern about acting as if your son were a source of shame, a secret to be hidden from the paterfamilias. That’s not your intention, I realize, but don’t think just about how revealing the truth might affect your father; think about how concealing the truth might affect your son.
Perhaps you and your mother could sit your father down while you’re in Turkey and explain the situation to him, allowing him to ask all the questions he will no doubt have. Whatever his response, it’s not likely that he’ll literally fall ill. You’ll be able to reassure him that your son lives in a social and familial world where he can be accorded the respect he deserves. And you’ll also be treating your father with respect. For him, it should be worth a few sleepless nights to get a chance to know his grandchild.
Every time I visit my mother-in-law, I become obsessed with worry about her. She’s in her 70s but has numerous health problems, including near-constant U.T.I.s and fatty liver disease. Despite that, she drinks almost every night. I don’t know how much, because she’s not very forthcoming, but a few years ago she was bedridden and asked my husband and me to buy her alcohol. She was drinking about two to three servings of hard liquor a night.
She has had multiple falls and car accidents as well as episodes that seem as if they may be related to dementia. Recently, for instance, she was driving so erratically on the highway that two people banded together to get her off the road. When they confronted her, she was so disoriented that they called an ambulance and the cops. Nothing was found medically wrong with her, and although she was slurring her words and unable to balance, the cop didn’t smell alcohol on her, so he didn’t give her any kind of test. He did call a relative who lived nearby, because he didn’t think it was safe for her to drive. A few weeks later, she got into another accident, which, luckily, didn’t involve anyone else. She doesn’t seem to remember much about either of these incidents. She later found out she had a U.T.I. and blames it for her confusion.
My husband and I live in another city, but we came to visit her after hearing about these incidents. Since we’ve been here, his mother has seemed in fine mental and physical health, but she hasn’t been honest about either of the driving accidents. And recently when she drove to pick us up, she seemed very drunk — talkative and off balance and slurring her words. My husband thinks it’s the effects of a current U.T.I. that she’s not properly treating. Either way, she probably shouldn’t have been driving, and I took over driving once she arrived.
My husband has a more patient approach of wanting to listen to his mother and gently nudge her toward more healthful choices. I get more exasperated and want to confront her about her drinking and how it’s affecting her health. After all her falls, she has had very hard recoveries in the hospital, and I can’t help wondering if some of it is withdrawal symptoms. Should I respect my husband’s wishes and let him handle it his way? Or should I push for confronting the elephant in the room and getting her the treatment she needs but doesn’t want? Name Withheld
You refer to the treatment she needs, so let me stress that you can’t be confident about what needs treating. Does she have a drinking problem? Has she been experiencing U.T.I.-induced delirium, hepatic or uremic encephalopathy, a series of mini-strokes? Is it the onset of a neurodegenerative disease, such as vascular dementia or Alzheimer’s? Is it some combination of these conditions? Another issue?
What you can be more confident about is that something is wrong with her, and that she shouldn’t be driving. She should get a proper work-up to see if she has a neurological problem (which may or may not be connected with her fatty liver disease). Facing that possibility, like facing a drinking problem, can be harder than lurching from one crisis to another. You and your husband have to decide, together, what the most effective way is of getting to that goal. Point out to him that his mother’s driving puts her and others in serious danger, and that this matter is too urgent to be dealt with just by gentle nudging.
When you talk with her, you and your husband might emphasize the real possibility that she could be dealing with conditions that can be mitigated or prevented from worsening with proper clinical management. And if you want to encourage her to put away the car keys, you’ll need to think too about how to deal with the practical problems that may arise as a result.
In the age of ride-hailing services, for instance, the cost of getting back and forth to do her shopping and socializing, if she plans it right, will be as manageable as the cost of maintaining a car; and these days, many things can be delivered. She’ll have one less thing to worry about in seeking medical help if she sees that she can manage without driving — at least until whatever is causing her episodes of disorientation has been cleared up (assuming, yes, that it can be cleared up). Whatever you decide to do, though, you’ll need to make a shared plan with your husband; he has known your mother-in-law longer than you have, but as a loving son, he may also have a harder time seeing the situation clearly.
Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)