Dear Prudence

Home Alone

Prudie counsels a reader whose neighbor leaves her baby solo while she runs errands—and other advice-seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week’s chat is below. (Read Prudie’s Slate columns here.)

EmilyYoffe Writes: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Mom Leaves Her Baby Behind To Pick up Groceries: My neighbor is a stay-at-home mom. We live about five minutes’ walking distance from a supermarket. Recently I’ve noticed she will leave her baby (3 months old) while he naps to pick up her groceries. Although she only leaves him alone for about 20 minutes at a time, I feel uneasy about this—a baby that young shouldn’t be left unsupervised, just in the unlikely scenario something were to happen. Am I obliged to say something? I’m not in the position to offer baby-sitting services.

A: If you’re certain there, in fact, is not a babysitter, then yes, you need to speak up, and speaking up doesn’t imply you will provide sitting services while she runs errands. A baby should never be left unsupervised, period. I’m trying to imagine what else this dopey mother doesn’t know about child care if she leaves her infant alone. Sure, it’s likely nothing will happen while she’s out. On any given car trip, if you fail to use your seatbelt it’s likely nothing will happen, too—you wear them for those rare occasions when something awful happens.

Trying to sound as un-judgmental as possible, you need to tell her you’ve noticed she sometimes goes off and leaves the baby alone. Say that you know it’s hard to take a baby to the grocery store, but you’re very concerned that she’s leaving her child alone—that’s simply not safe, and she has to have a babysitter whenever she goes out because you know she’d never forgive herself if something happens. And if she continues to do it, the next time you see her leave her baby alone, call the police.

Dear Prudence: Always a Bridesmaid … Literally!

Q. New Relationship: I recently met a wonderful man who I can see a future with. We had an instant click and have become somewhat close after only five dates. Recently, he disclosed to me that has MS and is on drug therapy for his condition. He also says that he is fine, that his life has not been limited in any significant way, and that in the past decade he has only had a small handful of MS episodes. Since his disclosure, we are still dating as I think he is a wonderful person. But I cannot stop wondering how this disease may progress or impact a relationship with him. On one hand, I think that I should not worry about it and that if we end up spending our lives together, I will simply have to live with the idea that I may become a caregiver to my spouse—which is something that could happen to anyone without prior warning. At least in this case I have an idea of what my life may look like down the road. On the other hand, I’m not sure if this is something that I can really handle. While he is symptom–free, it is easy to be with him, but what happens one day when the disease has progressed? I don’t want to hurt this person in any way, but I am having trouble wrapping my mind around the situation. I haven’t spoken to him about any of this since his disclosure, because I feel awkward and unsure how to even broach this topic. I’m glad that he felt close enough to me to tell me, but I know that very few people in his life know of his diagnosis, and so I am reluctant to discuss this topic with anyone that he or I know. Any advice would be appreciated.

A: I often get questions from readers with chronic, but not obvious diseases who wonder when to disclose this to potential partners, and who fear that their news will be a romance-killer. So thanks for this illuminating look at what happens when you hear news such as this. It sounds as if he chose the right time to tell you—five dates is early in a relationship, but if things are really humming, to withhold it much longer could seem deliberately misleading. Your reactions are perfectly reasonable and normal. Yes, this throws a spanner into your fantasies of a long, trouble-free future. But if you look around you, few couples make it through life without some wrenching difficulties along the way. I think you need to do two things: Educate yourself more about MS and talk about how you’re feeling with your new beau. Medicine used to have almost nothing to offer people with MS, but fortunately that has changed dramatically, and there are some highly effective drugs, which are keeping the disease in check. And the course of any individual’s illness is highly unpredictable. For some, it’s seriously debilitating; for some, it’s more of a minor difficulty.

As you know, no one comes with a health guarantee—you could decide you want a partner with no pre-existing conditions, find one, and then he could be struck with a serious illness. But you are dealing with someone with a potentially serious illness now. He took the brave step of telling you. So you should be brave enough to tell him that you’re full of roiling thoughts. If it becomes clear to you that there are no circumstances under which you could deal with this, then end it now—there’s no point in wasting his and your time. But if you’re just not sure, then educate yourself about his condition, and more important, about him. He happens to have MS, but what’s most important is that he is a wonderful man.

Q. Not Invited: Thanks to the joys of Facebook, I just found out I wasn’t invited to this weekend’s baby shower of a friend I had considered myself close with. I am terribly hurt and not sure how, or if, I should express my feelings to my friend. I had also recently asked her where she was registered so I could buy her a gift, and she said she hadn’t registered yet. Any advice on how to get over my hurt feelings?

A: When my daughter was in elementary school, there was a rule that kids were not to distribute birthday invitations in school, unless the whole class was invited, so people’s feelings wouldn’t be hurt. But now, thanks to the joys of Facebook, the whole world is an elementary-school classroom. You and your friend are Facebook friends, so you’ve probably got a real-time feed of the festivities. Since you had up until now believed you were close, you’re rightly taken aback and there’s no use pretending you don’t know she had a shower. I’m generally against asking, “Why wasn’t I invited?” But being left off the shower list of a close friend is different from complaining you weren’t included at a dinner party. So just tell her that since you are Facebook friends, you see she had a shower last weekend and that you’re uncomfortable saying this, but you feel stung you weren’t there. Then you can evaluate what she says to have a better understanding of where you stand (and what kind of gift you want to get).

Q. Mother’s Dogs: My mother has two little dogs that have, over the years, become like her children. There have been several times now when she visits us, and the dog(s) have accidents in our house. My mother usually brushes it off like its no big deal, but it really bothers my wife and me. When she comes to visit, we always have the dogs at the front of our minds, worrying that they are going to have another accident. My mother is coming to stay for a week to help us out while my wife recuperates from surgery, and we’ve asked that the dogs not come. My mother was offended. Were we in the wrong?

A: You are an Adult Child of a Dog Lover. I once wrote a piece about ACDLs, and they had endless stories to tell about parents who left weddings early because the dog was lonely or who neglected the grandchildren because they just weren’t as compelling as the schnauzer. Your mother is coming to help your family while your wife recuperates. That means not making your wife anxious about having to have the rugs professionally cleaned after the visit. It’s actually offensive to expect other people to accommodate your pets if they don’t want them in the house. Your mother can surely find excellent dog care while she’s gone—perhaps you can offer to pick up the tab for that. Then if she refuses to come without her pets, you have to decide if recuperation with dogs will just end up going to the dogs.

Q. Baby Shower Dilemma: Since when do pregnant folks invite their own guests to a baby shower? Aren’t they usually thrown by someone else? And often a surprise?

A: Baby showers are not surprise parties. And anyone who’s throwing one should have the sense to consult with the honoree when drawing up the guest list.

Q. Re: New Relationship: “You could decide you want a partner with no pre-existing conditions, find one, and then he could be struck with a serious illness.” A sorority sister of mine had to have part of one breast removed due to cancer. Her creep of a husband told her not to ever let him see what was left of her breast, because it would upset HIM too much. He also refused to be intimate with her from then on. She justifiably divorced him.

A: What an awful way of finding out who you really married. Fortunately, there are more cases of spouses stepping up and nursing loved ones through illnesses.

Q. Petty Co-Workers: There are a few co-workers who like to spend a lot of time together. They huddle in the kitchen, not working. Walking near them is like 8th-grade cafeteria: They laugh VERY loudly after certain people walk near them. They make up stories about co-workers and have HR believing their stories. I keep my head down, do a good job, and try to ignore them. I know that eventually this B.S. will catch up with them, but it is difficult to ignore. Any advice for what I can do and how I keep from turning on them one day and ruining my career (which I believe is their sick aim)?

A: From my e-mail, I get the sense that the average workplace is filled with two kinds of people. One group is those who spend the day giving themselves pedicures, making personal calls, looking at porn or online catalogues, and standing in cliques making fun of other people. The other group is the people who actually do the work, including the duties of the people otherwise engaged in foot-care or mockery.  Your strategy of avoiding these petty slackers and actually discharging your duties is an excellent one. But I’m wondering if two or three of the people left out of the huddle could get together and speak to a supervisor about the tensions in the office and the unfair workload. If you make a brief, professional presentation without any ad hominem attacks, someone in management should be forced to deal with this.

Q. Street Urchin: There is a 6-year-old boy who lives across the street who is allowed to play outside with little to no supervision. We find him inside our house and backyard virtually everyday. This happens to many neighbors, too. Last week, he rang the doorbell at 7 a.m., barefoot and in his PJs, saying he was cold. He was dirty and apparently had been playing in our garden, unbeknownst to me or his parents. He rings the doorbell constantly (10 times in 10 minutes after being told my kids do not want to play) and will come in the house uninvited if he realizes that the door is not locked. He refuses to leave when asked—we have had to physically escort him home against his will (i.e., kicking and crying)). This is driving us crazy, as our kids don’t like to play with him because he plays too roughly and does things they are not comfortable with. His parents seem nice enough but are often MIA and have no idea he is outside, and don’t seem to understand that he can’t just come over. How can we get this kid to stop bothering us?

A: I hope with intervention this will not be the story of the woman who leaves her baby while grocery shopping. The parents of this boy are not nice; they are at worst neglectful, possibly abusive. (He’s scared to go home!) Yes, it’s annoying that he’s ringing your bell, but please, this is not a matter of sound pollution; this is a little boy in extremis. Please call child protective services—someone needs to step up on behalf of this child.

Q. Don’t Want Wedding Gifts: My finance and I are both in our early 50s. We will be merging two households when we marry early next year. We absolutely do not need or want any wedding gifts beyond the presence of our guests at the wedding itself, which will be local and, hopefully, a lot of fun. I have read that it is gauche to actually print “no gifts please” on the invitation. What is the best way to communicate that we would prefer not to get gifts?

A: Yes, it’s gauche to mention gifts on the invitation, but I’m all in favor of getting the “no gifts” message out effectively. I really don’t think anyone takes great umbrage at being told to save their money and forget about a gift. But instead of putting it directly on the invitation, you could enclose an insert that gives directions to your celebration and print on that: “We look forward to seeing you. No gifts, please. Your presence is our present.”

Q. Leaving Baby Alone: I think you’re way off-base advising the neighbor to call the police when the new mother leaves her baby alone for 20 minutes. A sleeping 3-month-old, in a crib, is at an incredibly low risk for anything dangerous happening if the mom has made sure to, for example, turn the stove off while she’s out. I have a 6-week-old and an 18-month-old at home, and our pediatrician specifically advised my wife to sometimes take advantage of the 6-week-old’s naps to take our pent-up 18-month-old son for a walk around the block, which is about a 20-minute trip. This neighbor isn’t doing the bedraggled new mom any favors by policing her mothering like this, and the level of hyper vigilance you’re prescribing is excessive.

A: I’m hearing from a lot of people who say leaving the house for 20 minutes is no different from a parent taking a shower or a nap while the baby sleeps. I agree the chances of anything happening are remote. But I’m astounded a pediatrician would suggest leaving the house with the infant inside. It’s easy enough to put the sleeping baby in the stroller while the 18-month-old walks along beside. Other people are saying leaving a sleeping baby in the house for short periods is very common in other countries, and we’re a nation of hovering hyper parents. I absolutely see the point, but I’m just not going to advocate going to the grocery store with a baby in the house alone.

Q. Work, Entertaining, and Reciprocity: Some colleagues from work like to entertain a lot at their home. I am very shy and can’t stand the thought of having to go to parties in my off hours. That said, I know it can be a career killer to avoid all contact with work associates, so I have reluctantly attended. Now some of the colleagues are hinting that it is “my turn” to host. I thought, this is just too much, I don’t even want to attend these functions, much less host them. How do I explain to these people that 40 hours a week is “plenty” with these people, without actually saying it?

A: Of course you are entitled to a social life (or the absence of one) outside the office. But you recognize that many work places have a culture in which there is some after-hours socializing. Your office’s sounds particularly robust. If you’ve been attending social events at co-workers’ places for years, despite your despising socializing, I think you should force yourself to do it, if just once. Plan something that’s not open-ended—a brunch is a good choice for this. It’s good to stretch yourself, and guess what, it may be more fun than you think.

Q. Leaving a Baby Alone: In some jurisdictions, it’s actually illegal to leave children under a certain age alone and unsupervised. Most people manage to haul their babies around with them every where they go. I did.

A: Good point about there being legal restrictions to this. I’m getting tons of reaction pro and con—including stories about short trips gone awry. (Mom falls and breaks a limb in grocery store. Mom comes home to find house on fire, etc.) Others say they lived in Europe and infants who were left for brief periods almost all managed to grow into productive citizens. I’m still voting no to baby alone. But let me re-emphasize that before the neighbor notifies authorities, she should have a conversation with the mother to confirm the baby is alone. Then the neighbor should kindly point out that this is unwise—and illegal.

Q. Gift Etiquette: I was invited to a party the other day in honor of the 25th wedding anniversary of two good friends. The invitation said: “Your presence and blessings are our gifts,” so I assumed that the couple did not want gifts to be brought to the party. Upon arriving at the party, I saw, very prominently, a huge table filled with beautifully wrapped gifts from other guests. Now I am very embarrassed. Should I give them a gift and explain that I misunderstood or just let it be? How do I avoid this embarrassment in the future?

A: Probably the table was cleared when it was clear that everyone had ignored the “no gifts” plea. The next time, please take the hosts at their word and don’t bring a gift. Do not give your friends a gift now. They are busy trying to figure out what to do with 12 espresso makers and nagging each other about thank-you notes.

Q. Re: The Shy Co-Worker: I sympathize with the shy partygoer who wrote in. I’m not shy; I’m introverted and can’t stand gatherings of more than four-ish people. I agree that this person does have to host once, but could you refrain from the comments about how he or she might enjoy being social if he or she just gives it a chance? It’s likely he or she already has and knows his or her tolerance for such events better than you do.

A: I’d prefer to believe in people’s capacity to pleasantly surprise themselves. You and the shy co-worker are not going to become the social director on a cruise ship. But it is possible that when the others leave after a couple of hours of eating shy co-worker’s delicious waffles s/he could feel, “Hey, I did it. And I even enjoyed myself!”

Emily Yoffe Writes: Thanks everyone, talk to you next week.

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