Dear Prudence

Handle With Care

Can I help my developmentally delayed child avoid being labeled “wrong”?

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Dear Prudence,
I am the mother of a beautiful girl who will be 3 in August. She is a very loving and carefree child, and she means the world to me. You might wonder what could possibly be wrong with this scenario. Well, she is severely developmentally delayed. She did not walk until she was 2, and she is not yet speaking. She receives weekly therapy for speech, fine and gross motor skills, and she goes to a special school for delayed children her age. The doctors say she has autism or pervasive developmental disorder. My problem is that many people assume that she is “normal,” which is fine. But at work people ask me what she is doing now since this is such a fun age. Also, when I take her shopping or out with friends, people will talk to her and ask her what her name is, how old she is, etc. When we’re at the playground, parents will want their kids to play with her, but most of the time she does not like being around other kids. I am in desperate need of advice on how to respond to all of this. I don’t feel like telling everybody she has autism or PDD. I also don’t want to tell people in front of her that she is delayed, because I don’t want her to grow up thinking she is labeled as having something wrong. What is a positive way to respond?

—Concerned Mother

Dear Concerned,
As is the mother of any toddler, you are your daughter’s ambassador. At this age all children’s social skills are weak and attention spans are short. Even those who can talk often won’t to a stranger. Rebecca MacDonald, of the New England Center for Children, a school for children with autism and similar disorders, says you can do a lot to make the encounters you describe successful. When an adult stranger asks her name, you should step in and speak on her behalf. If another child comes over to play and your daughter starts to withdraw, you can say, “What a nice shovel!” and point out that your daughter has a shovel, too. If your daughter likes the swings or sandbox, place her there where she can enjoy herself and become more comfortable with the comings and goings of other children. As for inquiring co-workers, you can tell them that she loves books and butterflies. If you care to, you can add that, while her development is delayed, she is getting excellent care to address it. And please join a support group of other parents who are in your situation—your child’s school is a good place to ask about one. Whatever you say about your daughter’s problems, make sure you confidently convey what you so clearly expressed in the opening of your letter—your joy in and love for her.


Dear Prudie,
I am in my early 20s and have been dating a wonderful guy for a long time. My parents are great people whom I love dearly—they live about five hours away, and we try to see each other every couple of months. Recently, my boyfriend decided to take a fantastic opportunity and finish his last year of grad school in Rome. I am hoping to go to Italy to see him for a week in the fall. Before this, we have never been apart longer than a week. My parents think it’s very cool that I get to go to Rome—no one in my family has ever been out of North America. My mother thinks it’s so great that she has invited herself to come with me. My father refuses to accompany her—he says they cannot afford it. Prudie, I do not want to spend my week in Italy babysitting my mother, and I am certainly not comfortable letting her wander around Rome on her own. I have tried to explain this to her, but she isn’t getting it. My boyfriend will be sharing a house with four other students and there is no way she can stay with us. If my father was coming I would be comfortable leaving the two of them alone to vacation, but I certainly don’t feel good about ditching my mom in a foreign country! What can I do? Am I a horrible person for not wanting to share my vacation with my mom?

—Selfish Daughter

Dear Selfish,
Rome is the “eternal city.” If your mother is so interested in visiting it, it will be there for her sometime when you’re not. Your mother is certainly old enough to decide if she’s comfortable touring a foreign city by herself; obviously her motivation is that you will accompany her. She is pretending not to hear your objections, but have you been too oblique in your explanations to her? You might have to say, “Mom, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but David and I are planning a romantic week in Rome, just the two of us, and this is not the trip for you to join me.” Since a package tour sounds like the perfect thing for your mother, you could even do some research for her and get brochures for trips—whose departure and arrival dates don’t coincide with yours.


Dear Prudie,
After four years of commitment, my fiance has thrown me out of his life. We started fighting several months ago about a friend of his—a female friend. They have known each other for seven years and I never had a big problem with her until I felt like she was moving in. One day, I went to get the vacuum and it was not where it usually was, so I asked my fiance where it was and he replied that she was borrowing it. Then I went to do laundry, only to discover her clothes in the washer and dryer. Turns out he had given her a key to the apartment. I left and went to my parents’ and a couple days later, I came back to discover her bra hanging to dry in the kitchen! We have been fighting about her ever since. He says I’m overreacting and being stupid, but I’m really hurt. I don’t want to lose him, especially to her.


Dear Sad,
Let’s retire the phrase “the elephant in the living room” and replace it with “the bra in the kitchen.” Once it appears, there’s no use pretending that your fiance is simply letting a friend with a cleaning fetish use your appliances. He doesn’t have the guts to tell you what the bra in the kitchen so eloquently conveyed: Your fiance has set up housekeeping with his female friend, in the very apartment you and he share. Accept that it’s over, but don’t just walk away without a fair division of your property, especially the vacuum cleaner.


Dear Prudie,
My boyfriend and I have been seeing each other for about nine months now. He is an emergency room resident and works a lot of long hours, many times on night shifts. He doesn’t have a lot of time, but does spend a majority of his free time with me, which I really appreciate. However, it seems that he is rarely interested in sex. We are both very young and once a week or less just isn’t enough for me. I have tried asking him about it several times and he always tells me that he is merely tired and would sometimes just rather go to sleep. When we are intimate, it’s great, and he says he cares about me and loves hanging out together and that I shouldn’t take it so personally. Am I just being overly sensitive?


Dear Confused,
If you’re considering your long-term prospects with this man, normally a sexually wan premarital relationship does not turn into a barn-burner of a postmarital relationship. But given the hours young doctors work, I wondered if maybe there was an “emergency” exemption to this rule. I spoke with a friend who is an emergency-department physician, and she said that while she’s never stumbled on the classic scene from a million medical television shows—two young doctors doing it in the supply closet—from what she hears, the residents still find plenty of time for sex. Try initiating intimacy early in the evening or on a morning he’s not rushing to work. If he is not responsive, then you need to have another consultation with your MD about how this relationship can better address both your needs.