Every week, Mallory Ortberg answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. My mother-in-law “forgets” about my child’s allergy: My 4-year-old son was diagnosed as a baby with a peanut allergy. He is under the care of an allergist, has an EpiPen for accidental exposure, and has been taught to always ask if a food contains peanuts.
He seems to understand the danger, but my mother-in-law does not. She routinely “forgets” about the allergy and laughs it off. She puts peanut-based candy in Christmas stockings; she brings cupcakes made in a facility with peanuts for his birthday party; she offers him candy with unknown origins and no labels when she visits; etc. Every time this happens we have to hastily take it away from my son (taking candy from a child isn’t very fun) and explain to her the dangers while she just says, “Oh, haha, Grandma isn’t too good with remembering the allergies!”
I am furious. I would understand if it happened once but not repeatedly. This is dangerous and could be deadly. I don’t think she should be allowed to babysit for our kids since she has shown that she, at the very least, is forgetful or is, at the worst, downright diabolical. My husband thinks I’m overreacting and that she’s not doing it on purpose. What should we do?
A: I can’t understand why your mother-in-law would dismiss her own behavior as being “not too good with remembering” what food can kill her grandson. Even if these lapses are mostly accidental, surely even your husband can agree it would be cold comfort if your son were to suffer a serious allergic reaction under your mother-in-law’s care.
Give her the benefit of the doubt and take her at her word that she’s forgetful (or, more likely, that she’s forgetful because she doesn’t understand the seriousness of food allergies and on some level considers it an affectation rather than a physical condition), and sit her down with your husband. Tell her that you know it’s hard for her to remember your son’s allergy but that it’s incredibly important that she not offer him food with peanuts in them.
Give her something short to read about peanut allergies—get some material from your doctor if you don’t have anything to hand—and stress the pain, disorientation, and panic that accompany an allergic reaction. Tell her it can lead to anaphylactic shock and even cardiac arrest. Ask her if she thinks she is capable of remembering this. It will sound more than a little condescending, but condescension is warranted here, I think, in order to stress how her little lapses in memory can have serious consequences.
If she’s not able to commit to that, you’ll have to tell her that, as much as it pains you to do so, you won’t be able to let her spend time with your son unsupervised. If your husband balks at holding his mother to account, make it clear that you’re not making accusations about her intentions, simply instituting a baseline for your son’s safety. She’s free to spend as much time as she likes with your son as soon as she can stop trying to feed him things that might kill him.