Help! My Son Thinks His Mentally Disabled Sister Will Be a Distraction at His Graduation.

Advice on manners and morals.
April 16 2013 6:15 AM

All About Me

In a live chat, Prudie advises a woman whose son has asked for his mentally disabled sister to be watched separately during his graduation.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the 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.)

Q. Disability at Graduation: I have three children, my oldest ("Ryan") is incredibly bright and graduating college in a month. My youngest ("Amy") has physical and mental disabilities with the mental age of about 4. When Ryan was home for Easter he talked to my husband and me and requested we get somebody to watch Amy at his college graduation. We said we would think about it and have been unable to make a decision. On one hand, Amy can be very difficult to handle in crowds and has a hard time empathizing with others and giving them the attention they might want or need. There are also only two tickets for handicap accessible seating, which means my family would not be able to sit together during the ceremony. Ryan was 6 when Amy was born and he has always been loving and compassionate toward her, so I think this stems from a desire to have this event be about him, not about all the logistics that surround a handicapped person. On the other hand, I am afraid that this will set a terrible precedent. What other events will Amy be excluded from, weddings, funerals, our 50th wedding anniversary party? How would we explain this to Amy, who is very sensitive? My husband and I would appreciate any guidance you have.

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A: It sounds as if no matter what you do someone will have to sit separately from your group with Amy. Presumably that would be either you or your husband. Even if you two can't sit together, Ryan will still have both his parents watching and applauding as he walks across the stage. But as I understand it, what Ryan is asking for is that a friend or caretaker watch over Amy, who has trouble with crowds, so that both you and your husband can attend his big day without distractions. That doesn't seem like such a terrible request or precedent. Amy needs special attention and a patient caretaker could be just the right person to help her through experiences that make her agitated. This would let Amy to be there for milestone events while also allowing the rest of you to fully participate in them. You say Ryan has been a loving and compassionate brother. Sometimes the needs of the typical kids in a family with a special needs child can be subsumed by the amount of attention the special child requires. Ryan is not trying to exclude his sister, but he is telling you what he would like on this unique day in his life and it's worth talking this out with him. If you take his suggestion, it seems you would be able to explain to Amy that there aren't enough tickets for everyone to sit together. So she and whomever you choose will have seats with the best view so that she can cheer on her big brother.

Dear Prudence: Kinky Mom

Q. Wedding Speech: I love my dad but have always felt he has singled me out my entire life as the good child. He's always singing my praises which of course I am thankful for, but it makes me uncomfortable, especially around my other siblings and when we are in public. During my cousin's wedding, he was making a very informal speech at brunch and even said I was his favorite daughter, right in front of my sister (and my bro, and our significant others). He felt awful and immediately apologized, and then I felt awful too. I still do. I am very nervous about what he is planning to say at my upcoming wedding, but don't want to hurt his feelings on how to bring up this topic to him. Any advice on how best to approach my dad about this?

A: How refreshing to hear from a favored child who sees how destructive this special attention is. When it comes to the feelings of his children your father has apparently spent a lifetime trampling on them. You, golden child, are in the best position to point this out to him. Use your special status to have a bracing conversation with your father. Say that after the embarrassment at the brunch, you want to make sure nothing like that happens again. You can say his favoritism is not a favor to you—it has only complicated your relationship with your own siblings. Tell him you love him and look forward to him toasting you at your wedding, but you want him to make sure at your wedding, and always, that he remembers he has three children whom he should love equally.

Q. Thanks for the "Big Girl" Clothes... but No Thanks!: I have a co-worker that recently lost about 50 pounds. I am very happy for her, and I applaud her efforts and results. Earlier this week she offered up some of her "big girl" clothes to me. I was taken aback at first, and then was gracious and just said “OK.” She said she had shorts that were too big for her now, but she thought I would like them. This is a working relationship; we talk about some personal family stuff, but we have no friendship outside of the office. This woman can also be a bit passive-aggressive regarding her weight loss, in that she brings food in and makes up plates for the rest of us to eat. The food she brings in is hardly low-fat, so she enjoys trying to sabotage our own weight-loss efforts. Needless to say, if she offers food, I turn it down or throw it away. So, what should I do with these clothes? The message to me is: "Hi, I've lost weight, so here are my 'fat' clothes to wear." Am I overreacting?

A: Your co-worker should hang on to her big girl shorts. It certainly sounds as if she hasn't resolved her relationship to food if she's bringing in fattening platters for the office. She might soon be finding her "small girl" shorts are too snug. Unless you were truly interested in her hand-me-downs you should have simply declined the offer. If she comes in with bags of her cast-offs tell her your wardrobe is taken care of and she should feel free to donate her old clothes to charity.

Q. Re: Disability at Graduation: I would like to comment on this letter, as I am also a typical child in a family with a special-needs sibling. What Ryan is expressing is a totally normal feeling and thank you for not making him feel guilty. Another alternative here is to have a celebratory dinner afterward that includes Amy, but keep the ceremony for the rest of the family. This is what my family did at my law school graduation because there were similar concerns with behavior, seating, and logistics.

A: Thank so much for this perspective. Yes, another important thing to consider is that graduations, while wonderful, are also among the world's most tedious events and it may be a kindness not to make Amy sit through one.

Q. Hateful, Hurtful Words: My niece and her partner got married at the first legal LBGT wedding ceremony in our city (yay!). I posted pictures of the wedding on Facebook and luckily saw that my aunt had posted the following comment about the album: "Ugh, yuck, barf." I immediately deleted the comment. My question is, how do I deal with my aunt? I want her to know that those remarks were unacceptable and yet I still would like to retain a good relationship with her. She's elderly and entitled to her opinion but I don't want my niece hurt by her great-aunt's attitude. I was stunned by my aunt's response to the photos (which are beautiful). She must know that I'm LBGT-friendly: There have been previous posts had said that I supported gay marriage, I'd shared items from PFLAG, etc., and she had not posted anything similar for those.

A: There are two ways to go here. One is to accept that the majority of people with your aunt's reaction are not in the vanguard of life, let this go, but block your aunt's ability to see or comment on your wall. The other one is to reach out to her and explain that you know she was raised in a world that had different attitudes about homosexuality, but back then it meant that gay and lesbian people had to hide and pretend. Say you know she loves her niece and you're hoping that even through her discomfort she can support her niece's personal choices. You know your aunt, so can decide which approach would be most productive.

Q. Dad's Weight Problem: I am at a complete loss over how to help my father. He's been overweight my entire life, and I'm reaching a point of feeling like I have to do something about it. I found out when I went home that he's broken 300 pounds. My mother has tried countless ways to get him to start being healthy and losing weight, but it isn't working. I've been overweight pretty much my entire life to some degree, though I never went as far as obese. I'm proud to say I lost weight as soon as I went to college (I'm 20 now) and have successfully kept it down. But because of that, I understand what feelings my dad has if my mother or I try to comment on his weight. But it's terrifying to see my dad like this. I fear for their marriage and for his life. I'm afraid he won’t be around to walk me down the aisle, or meet his grandchildren. He has also been a daily drinker my entire life—nothing more than a couple of glasses a wine a night, but obviously a problem. In the past few years, he's tried on and off to stop, but my mother recently divulged she thinks he's gone back to drinking, started hiding it from her, and even gone to hard liquor. The reprimand he gets from the occasional doctor's visit only leaves an impact for a few weeks. Prudie, I am so lost and confused about how to help.

A: Let's deal with the alcohol question first. If a 300-pound man has a couple of glasses of wine in the evening, I don't see how that makes him an alcoholic unless he pours his libations into vases. You want to do something about your father's weight, but as you've discovered, there's really nothing anyone can do about someone's else's weight. Indeed, he may be significantly shortening his life. That would be sad, but if you make the time you two have together revolve around how big his coffin will be, then you'll all be miserable. You can make a final stab at helping. Say you'd love to have him join you at Weight Watchers, or whatever, because you love him and want him to be around. If he won't go then let him know that despite your worries, you're going to stop cajoling and commenting on his choices.

Q. Re: On the aunt who posted rude Facebook comments: If we're excusing the aunt for being elderly and growing up in a different generation, then we've also got to remember that she almost certainly grew up in an era when manners were more emphasized than they are now. There is NO excuse for posting things like "yuck" or "barf" to someone's wedding photos. There is room for polite disagreement, but that is just rude and uncalled for. Sheesh, whatever happened to "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all?"

A: Great point. Yes, Auntie's remarks certainly sound contemporary, even juvenile. My point is not to excuse her, but to weigh whether getting into it with an elderly bigot is worth it.

Q. Ex-Girlfriend Woes: I just got out of a nine-year relationship with a man who had a child from a previous relationship. She was 2 when we met, and over the years we became really close. I enjoy a good relationship with the child's mother, but I have zero interest in having the ex-boyfriend in my life. I've been struggling how to act toward the daughter. I moved a few hours away, and of course I miss her. But I don't want anything to do with the father, who cheated on me for most of the nine years and now has a new girlfriend. I don't think I can be part of the kid’s life without having him involved. I feel like a coward for avoiding her, but I just don't know what to do. I've remained Facebook friends with her, and she asked me to go to her play, but I chickened out. What should I do?

A: I wish you had gone to her play. It was a brave invitation on her part. It's probably the case that in the long run you will ease out of her life because of the end of your relationship with her father and physical distance that now exists. But it will be a good for this girl to know you truly did and do care for her, irrespective of what happened with her dad. She is growing up with a father who treats women badly, so she could use some more trustworthy adults in her life. Because you have a good relationship with her mother, use the mother as a go-between. Say you don't want to just disappear from Diana's life, but you want to avoid her father (which mom should understand). Maybe you can pick Diana up for an occasional outing, such as a trip to a museum or a baseball game. Keep in touch with her on Facebook. Let her know that even if you and her father are no longer together, she remains an important person to you.

Q. Sorry He's Not Sorry ...: My husband had an affair with a co-worker a while back. We're separated but in marriage counseling. The marriage counselor has stressed the importance of us caring about each other's feelings. Today my husband told me that he's not sorry that he had the affair, or that he remains friends with the co-worker. Our marriage had problems prior to the affair, and we've made tremendous progress in healing from those problems. The affair, however, has been the elephant in the room throughout counseling. He doesn't seem inclined to cheat again, but is there a point to trying to continue a relationship where I can't get an apology for such a transgression? The closest he's gotten has been "I'm sorry that you got upset" or "I'm sorry that you're jealous."

A: Sure, it's more expected that he would be wearing sackcloth and ashes and flogging himself for his violation of your vows. But if under the sackcloth he's spelled out "Ready to party!" with the ashes, you're better off knowing his true feelings. What he's said is very painful, but the therapist's office is a safe place to air difficult truths. He's not sorry he cheated, he's just sorry you found out. That seems to me clear evidence that he's not committed to your admittedly troubled marriage. Since he's been willing to be so blunt, you should be too. In your next session you need to raise the question you've asked here for both of you to ponder: "Why should I stay in this marriage when my husband isn't even sorry that he cheated on me?"

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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