Help! My Neighbor Neglects Her Infant Daughter—To Care for Her Disabled Son.

Advice on manners and morals.
July 16 2012 3:13 PM

When Parents Aren’t Enough

In a live chat, Prudie offers advice on neighbors who care ceaselessly for their disabled son—to the neglect of their infant daughter.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of this week’s 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 prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Should I Call the Authorities on a Loving Mom?: My neighbors have two children, ages 4 years and 9 months, and the older child is profoundly disabled. For whatever reason, the parents have opted to keep him at home rather than placing him in a facility. They don't have hired help, maybe for financial reasons. The dad works and mom is alone with the two children all day. Because the older son needs round the clock care, the younger daughter is constantly left alone. She doesn't cry when she wakes up because she knows nobody will tend to her. Mom rushes through feeding, practically shoving food in her mouth, before going back to the older child. The daughter is at an inquisitive age, so she's blocked off from the son's bedroom, where mom is for the most of her day. The parents have baby-proofed the living room and leave her alone there all day long. When dad gets home, the parents take turns sleeping in shifts so the daughter still doesn't get a lot of attention. I try to take the baby out every now and then and it's heartbreaking to see her so enthusiastic when I talk to or cuddle her. I would have called the authorities for neglect a long time ago if I didn't know the special circumstances of the family, or how upset they also are over not being able to give their baby the attention she needs. But I feel bad for the little girl, and keep thinking that somebody should intervene. They are socially isolated, so it won't be difficult to figure out it was me who called. I'm torn between doing something for the baby, and wanting to support the parents who already have a hard time. Is there a win-win situation here at all?

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A: This is a heartbreaking situation and you sound like a friend as well as a neighbor. You will not be harming this family by calling Child Protective Services. There is a child who is being neglected and needs protection now. These parents have been given an painful burden, but there are many social services that should be available to them, from relief caregivers to respite care, but for some reason they have gotten themselves so isolated, they are not taking advantage of them. No one can be a caregiver 24 hours a day. Having the mother collapse will be of no benefit to her son, and not being a mother to her daughter will have profoundly damaging long-term consequences for the child. Picking up the phone and having the authorities intervene in an untenable situation sounds harsh, but doing it is the best way of supporting this family.

Dear Prudence: Sexy Version of "Rear Window"

Q. Tainted Engagement Ring: My husband proposed to me with a beautiful heirloom engagement ring that originally belonged to his grandmother. I treasured it and looked forward to passing it down to my own kids one day. Recently my SIL got engaged, and while on the subject of rings, my MIL mentioned how relieved she was to finally get the family ring back. It turns out my husband previously gave the ring to a former fiancée (which I didn't know he had). They broke up, and she fought viciously to keep the ring. They even had lawyers involved, until the ex-fiancée decided it wasn't worth the trouble and returned the ring. I'm furious that my husband recycled a ring he previously gave to his ex-fiancée. I thought my engagement ring had beautiful love stories of previous generations of happy marriages, but now I've discovered that it's "tainted." I'm thinking of giving the ring to my BIL in case he wants to use it in the future. My husband is annoyed and thinks nothing of it, insisting that we keep it to pass down to our children. Am I being silly here?

A: I'm less concerned about the history of the ring than the fact that your husband neglected to tell you he was previously engaged—that's the issue that needs addressing. Your rock is a piece of compressed carbon. It does not contain either the happiness or unhappiness of its previous wearers. However, if you must, do some kind of incantation over it with a stick of burning sage leaves and free it from the misery of the ex-fiancée. Taking it off and passing it on is not going to improve your own marriage. Instead you need to say to your husband, "It sounds like a terribly painful episode that I understand you're reluctant to revisit, but I'd appreciate hearing something about the fiancée from hell."

Q. Dad's Girlfriend Never Eats: My dad's girlfriend Julia rarely eats. She keeps the temperature in their apartment low to burn more calories and has a bunch of other strict rules about eating. Mostly she seems to try to keep from eating at all; for example, she regularly fasts 36 hours a week and has resorted to eating baby food as "portion control." She lies about having IBS so when we go to parties she doesn't have to eat anything. My brother and I think her eating habits are unhealthy, but she and our dad like to say she's "focused." When we've raised our concerns about Julia's eating habits before, Julia has acted like we're sabotaging her desire to be thin. I know my dad loves how thin she is, because he tells her she's beautiful all the time. Julia is very, very thin. My brother and I don't know what to do, because we've been raised to trust our dad's judgment. He tells us Julia doesn't have an eating problem. But her behavior is so odd and obsessive. Sometimes our dad and Julia forget to buy food for my brother and me to eat on the weekends. We refuse to eat baby food. My brother and I fear if we tell our mom about Julia's eating habits that she'll take it to the courts and/or that he'll be angry with us. We're 15 and 17 so maybe we should mind our own business?

A: Julia sadly has an eating disorder and your father is her enabler. But you are not going to change their dynamic. You and your brother need to ignore her bizarre behavior to the best of your ability—which means bringing heavy sweaters even in summer. However, you two are teenagers and you need a full refrigerator for the weekend. Start suggesting to your father that when he gets you on Friday you all go to a grocery store and stock up for the weekend. If he won't supply anything other than pureed prunes, you do need to tell your mother your father's cupboards are bare.

Q. Drunk Driver: My father-in-law died due to his own drunk driving about six months ago. Up to his death, none of his family had any idea that he had a problem with alcohol. Nobody else was harmed in the accident. My husband is grieving and we are still closing up details on the estate. My mother has always been adamantly opposed and—honestly—very judgmental about drunk driving. Recently, in conversations, she started making passive-aggressive remarks about my father-in-law's death. Thus far, my husband has not been around to hear them, and I never want him to. Any tips for the conversation that I have with my mother? I would like her to know that she is certainly entitled to her opinion, but expressing it around me, and especially my husband, is very insensitive and unnecessary.

A: I am also adamantly opposed to and very judgmental about drunk driving. I can't understand any other reaction to drunk driving. Unless it was a strange one-time drunk driving episode, it is odd that no one in your husband's family was aware he had a drinking problem. These things can be hidden, but usually the truth comes out. Nonetheless the man is dead and he fortunately didn't kill anyone else. You need to tell your mother that your agree with her about drunk driving—only an idiot would defend it—but your husband is grieving his father's violent death. Tell her she doesn't need to express the horrors of drunk driving to her son-in-law; he is experiencing them, and she needs to respect the mourning process.

Q. Awkward Boss: I'm writing to ask how to handle my boss who feels the need to comment on my ethnicity constantly. It's not in a negative way; in fact, I feel like he is doing it to be "cool" or "hip," or to try and relate to me more. It's annoying though, that he turns it into a big story anytime he meets someone who is of the same ethnicity as me or when he reads an article about the country my parents originate from. My parents are immigrants, but I was born and grew up in America. I very much embrace my culture but it's weird that he points it out so much. I grew up in a diverse community and went to a diverse college but I am one of VERY few minorities in my workplace. I'm not used to that, but I would be OK with it if he didn't feel the need to constantly point it out. It makes me feel like I am their token minority. He's a cool guy for a boss, otherwise. Should I just let it go? Am I making this into a bigger deal than it needs to be? I've tried pointing out to him that I grew up here and am very American in many ways but he hasn't quit talking to me about all-things-related-to-my-culture and generalizing my interests, tastes, etc.