Dear Prudence

Choose Life

Prudie advises a woman with two special needs sons who wants a third child—with genetic counseling.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. Let’s get started. 

Q. Two Special Needs Kids—Should We Have a Third Baby?: I have two young sons, both with a rare genetic disorder which means they will not survive beyond their 20s. My husband and I want to try for a third child—this time with genetic counseling—as the idea of being bereft of children in our 40s is far too devastating for us. But we wonder at the ethical implication of having a child who will lose both her siblings while in her teens, as well as growing up with parents who will be focused on caring for two highly dependent, special needs children. Is what we’re contemplating totally selfish? I am torn and in need of an objective, third-person perspective.

A: Please let’s stipulate that whatever I say will just be a data point for you two in weighing this enormous decision. I am so sorry about the very hard hand all of you have been dealt. Your desire to have a child without the disorder is perfectly normal, understandable, and not selfish. I have heard from people in situations similar to yours who have said that while they deeply love their child with medical problems, they are also grateful to see their child who is free of these issues blossom. You not only need to talk to a genetic counselor about how to conceive a without this disorder, but you should turn to a support group for people who have children with genetic maladies and discuss with them what it’s like to raise a typical child while caring for ill ones. (You might also want to read the book, Saving Henry, by Laurie Strongin, a mother who faced a decision similar to yours.) You want to make sure that you have plenty of support in the coming years, whatever decision you make about another child. You need respite care and help in your long and difficult journey. That you are aware of the potential psychological pitfalls ahead for your family if you conceive again means you will do your best to address these so all of your children feel loved and cherished.

Q. Friend Wants to Marry Me: A female friend asked me to marry her. She’s in her late 30s, and I’m slightly younger. She wants to have a baby, and wants me to be the father because of my values and because I do not already have any children. I do want to have at least one child, within marriage. Although I’m not necessarily on a clock, I wouldn’t want to have a child 45-plus years younger than me. I’m also fairly anxious to get married and have sex; I am a virgin, because I refuse to remotely risk having a child out of wedlock. So in some ways this seems ideal. But she says I need to commit to her soon, or else she’ll have to find someone else. I really want to say yes, but I’m not sure this is a good way to begin a relationship. I know that you got married rather quickly for reasons similar to hers, so maybe you could help.

A: I did get married after knowing my husband for four months—for childbearing purposes we were superannuated and realized we had to get cracking. But a difference with your case was that we were in love, and also my now-husband assured me I wasn’t taking his virginity. I don’t know if your friend is looking for a sperm donor, or a true life partner. If the latter, I don’t see how this situation will promote that. You sound like you’re someone in your early 30s who has hung on to your virginity out of fear. That, and the surrounding issues about relationships, are what you need to address before you can even consider bringing a new life into yours.

Q. Too Sensitive for My Job?: I have more than 10 years of experience working in human resources. Recently, I’ve been working in an HR position at a relatively small company, where there is not much structure. I’ve been feeling increasing pressure to do things that are out of my comfort zone. These are things that are questionable morally, as well as legally, but I am told that “they happen all the time in the business world.” If I try to question anything, this is seen as a challenge by my manager. I’m then met with her wrath—yelling, berating me, threats of being fired, and snide comments to the point of making me cry. Several people have said that this is just how businesses work. Is this something I need to just get used to as a subordinate, and start keeping my mouth shut? Or do I have a right to be upset by the things I deal with? Am I just too sensitive for this line of work?

A: Checklists are all the rage for making sure the basics get covered at a workplace, so see if this one sounds like your company: Embezzling—check; back-dating documents—check; lying to clients and employees—check. If so, here’s the one item that should be on your personal checklist: Find another job. You say you have more than a decade of experience in your field and for the first time you are working at a place where things are done in a manner you’ve never encountered. That should signal to you that not the way businesses work, it’s the way your company works. It sounds dangerous for you legally and emotionally. While you get your résumé out there, make sure you stay within the proper side of the law, no matter what your boss screams at you.

Q. Re: Two Special Needs Kids: For the mother with the special needs kids—please focus on the “getting help” part should you choose to have a third child. I grew up as one of three “normal” siblings with one sibling who, even when we’re adults, takes up 90 percent of my parents’ energy and focus. It’s hard as a kid because you understand why your parents need to devote so much time and energy to your sick sibling, but it still doesn’t mean that you want that attention any less and it doesn’t hurt less when they can’t provide that. For your future third child, in addition to the childhood of being kind of ignored, they’ll then have to deal with the conflicting feelings of relief and grief (and the guilt for feeling that way) when their older siblings do pass. Make sure that this doesn’t happen and use as many resources as you have available to give you respite and help so that all three of your children get the love and attention that they deserve.

A: Thank you for this powerful insight from someone who has lived it.

Q. Asking About Absent Parents: Is it ever wrong to ask about someone’s absent family member if you’re just curious? My best friend (we’re both college students) always talks about her mom but has conspicuously never mentioned anything about her dad. Is there a polite way to ask about the situation, or should I stay out?

A: You’re right, if you’ve known someone long enough to consider each other best friends it’s strange that the standard personal items—What do your parents do? Do you have siblings?—have not all been ticked off. You clearly felt something verboten in the mentioning of a father so didn’t ask early on, “So what’s your dad like?” or some such. But feel free to go ahead now. Next time your friend mentions her mother you can say something like, “I’ve never asked about your dad. What’s he do for a living?” Be prepared for something awkward from your friend—maybe he died when she was little, maybe they are estranged. If she tells you that, be prepared to say, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Then see if she wants to go with that opening or close it. If she doesn’t say more you can say, “Thanks for telling me. That must be hard. So are you interested in going that concert on Thursday?”

Q. Re: Two Special Needs Kids: If you have another child, be very, very careful with how you treat the concept of “special needs.” I was raised with a moderately autistic brother and was expected to be joyous about it and fit with the “special needs children are perfect and blessings” attitude my mother wanted. If I ever expressed anger at the fact that I couldn’t have friends over or that it was difficult to read when my brother would blast his television shows at top volume for hours on end while I was trying to do homework or play violin, I was called “selfish” and a “bitch.” When I finally told her I wouldn’t agree to take care of him when they died because I wanted to live my own life, she told me that I “obviously wasn’t fit for the job, anyway,” and “most people would do anything for their siblings.” If you have another child, make sure she has as much quiet as she needs, can have friends over without her siblings around, and can vent her feelings, no matter how selfish, cruel, and irrational they may seem to you.

A: I’m sorry you had to live the model of how parents should not do it. Yes, the burden of caring for a special needs child is a hard one, but parents cannot impose it on the other children. They have to recognize having a sibling with difficulties makes the other children’s lives difficult, too. But the letter writer sounds very attuned to making sure another child’s life would not be subsumed by the needs of the ill brothers.

Q. Grandma’s Quandary: My lovely daughter is the mother of three small children. She is a wonderful mom in many, many ways. However, I am greatly concerned because she sometimes holds the baby in her arms or nurses her while her husband is driving! This has happened a few times when I’ve been in the car, and I’m certain it also occurs when I am not present. I know she is aware of the risk, all three kids have appropriate safety seats. I cannot believe she would take such a potentially deadly risk. Should I speak up? I happen to be a professional roadway safety advocate and she must know how I feel.

A: I hope that because you are a professional roadway safety advocate she isn’t deliberately flouting crucial safety rules just to play out some old patterns with you. If your son-in-law were to stop short for any reason that baby could fly out of your daughter’s arms and … OK let’s not think about that. Yes, you have to speak up, but you must do so in your best professional, nonjudgmental manner. Say you know that when a baby is fussing in a car seat it’s just awful to listen to, but that you also know all too well the potential hazards that await driving with an unrestrained child. Say that on any given instance it is likely nothing will happen. But if something happens the consequences are too terrible to contemplate.

Q. Re: Too Sensitive for My Job?: The original letter writer should document and keep records of everything sketchy that she is asked to do. Write a note, date it, print it, put it in a file. Send your supervisors emails asking to confirm instructions whenever you can. If you can, document your objections. Print it and save it in your file. If these practices ever come to light, these people will lie to try to save their own behinds, and you will be left holding the bag, or hanging along with them. And find a new job as soon as you can.

A: Good advice, thanks. And yes, the thing she should focus on is getting out of that asylum.

Click here to read Part 2 of this week’s chat.

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