Care and Feeding

My Nosy Neighbors Are Making Way Too Much Out of a Friend’s Harmless Comment

A woman looks sad and anguished with her hands on her head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Credit: PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband passed away recently. I have two daughters, ages 8 and 6. My 8-year-old, Olivia, has a best friend, named Hannah. Hannah’s parents Brian and Stacy live down the road, and they helped us out a lot when we were dealing with my husband’s illness, and we are very close. Her parents, Brian and Stacy, regularly cooked, ran errands and cared for my kids while I visited my husband.

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The other day, Olivia, Hannah, and others waited for the school bus. Brian and another mom, Kathy, were present. Hannah didn’t want to go to school and asked Brian, “Why can’t I just stay home and hang out with you all day?” Brian replied “Well, I have to go home, kiss your mom, and then go to work,” at which Hannah’s face went bright red and she stopped complaining. Olivia found it funny, her sister found it gross.

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Kathy heard the conversation at the bus stop and didn’t say anything to Brian, but later reached out to me about it, apologizing that this happened and wondering how Brian could be so insensitive to my kids (presumably because they don’t have a dad who can kiss their mom anymore). She said how awful the joke, and by extension Brian, was. I didn’t find the joke awful at all. In fact, Brian messaged me later that day and apologized for the joke, and I let him know it was OK. Some part of me hurts every time I see happy couples walking around, knowing how life has taken that from me, but I know that everyone has a right to be happy. I wouldn’t have been mad if Brian had made that innocuous joke in front of me, and Olivia found it hilarious and kept repeating the joke when she came home.

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Kathy has a lot of friends who have all messaged me telling me how sorry they are and how awful Brian and his family are, and I’m overwhelmed. I tried to respond to a few of them telling them that I found the joke funny, and they either said something along the lines of, “It’s OK, you don’t have to be nice, you can tell the truth.” The worst people have even gone so far as to insinuate that Brian and I are having an affair, which as you can imagine is very hurtful for a recent widow.

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I don’t want to be mean to them. Kathy has been nothing but nice before, but this is a side of her I’ve never seen before and if she’s this mean about other parents, what might she say about me or my kids if I make her mad? Since  she usually hangs out at the bus stop, we will see her frequently. I’m exhausted and having trouble thinking of ways to get this to stop.

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— Mind Your Own Business

Dear MYOB,

Hello, fellow recent widow. I don’t know about you, but I get frustrated when people walk on eggshells around me, or take umbrage on my behalf, because of my husband’s death. I know that it comes from a place of compassion, but it can make me feel like I’m under a microscope—almost like people are watching me to make sure I am the “appropriate” amount of sad or managing, as if there was such a thing.

These neighbor ladies are doing just that. Despite you saying otherwise, they have decided that the joke was hurtful to you. Maybe they think they are being supportive, or maybe they have a preexisting dislike of Hannah’s parents, and this is just an excuse to throw some Mean Girl Energy their way. My guess is both.

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The way to nip this in the bud is to stand up for your friends while politely redirecting Kathy-and-Crew’s energy. Something along the lines of, “You know, Brian and Stacy were a godsend throughout my husband’s whole illness, they are very kind people. But I really appreciate you are looking out for me; if I ever do get into an uncomfortable situation with someone, I know I can come to you for support.” Doesn’t mean you ever have to go to them, but it will let them feel like they helped, and regardless of intentions, I think that should close the chapter for now.

For future situations (and oh, they will come), I’d come up with a succinct phrase you can deploy in a kind but matter-of-fact way when people’s concern gets to you. I’m personally a fan of “I’m sad, not shattered,” because I think it sends a signal to folks that widowhood is not your only biographical data point. Just because you are grieving doesn’t mean you don’t laugh, and it doesn’t mean others must hide their marriages from you. The simple fact is that sometimes grief is all-consuming, and sometimes it is not. It varies by the person, the day, and the minute. Also, this advice might not appeal to you, but I talk about my husband and his death casually in conversations, because it normalizes it. I think if people can see you acknowledging death as a part of your marriage and life, it lets them know they don’t have to act all careful around you.

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If you want more widow perspectives, I recommend the books by Nora McInerny and Confessions of a Mediocre Widow by Catherine Tidd. Just remember, you aren’t alone, and you aren’t responsible for the comfort of other people. Stand by the people who stood by you in your most trying times and ignore the noise from others. My condolences and best wishes to you and your girls.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I think my husband and I need to call Adult Protective Services (APS) on my mother-in-law, Marie, for self-neglect, but we both have some concerns about what comes next.

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My in-laws moved to our town five years ago. They had some pretty significant hoarding tendencies, financial struggles, and a very unhealthy family dynamic, including my FIL verbally and emotionally abusing Marie for the duration of their 30-year marriage. My FIL passed away in early 2021. Marie has Complex PTSD and has a therapist whom she meets with weekly over Zoom. Following my FIL’s death, my husband and I worked with Marie to clean up her apartment and make it a safe place for her, including arranging a cleaning service to come monthly because we know she has some difficulty keeping up with housework.

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At Thanksgiving 2021, Marie went to visit other family out-of-state, and when my husband and I went to feed her cats, we were horrified by the state of the apartment. There was cat waste everywhere, trash and dishes piled up, and a very terrible odor throughout the home. (Again, this was AFTER the cleaning service had been coming regularly.) Additionally, the cats were not well. Despite being indoor-only, they had fleas, and one had untreated diabetes.

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We worked hard to get the place back in order. We also upped the cleaning service to come every two weeks, which is as much as Marie can afford on her limited budget. After this disaster, I gathered my husband, Marie, and my brother-in-law together for a family meeting, and I implored my husband and his brother to keep closer tabs on their mom.

In January, I had a first baby. I refused to take our child over to Marie’s house for health reasons, and I was preoccupied with our baby, so I did not keep tabs on Marie as closely as I had. Since her cleaning person was still coming twice a month, I assumed things were better.

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Fast forward to Thanksgiving this year: Marie was away so ,hired a pet-sitter, who called me in a panic. My husband and I went over to Marie’s; lo and behold, there was a fly infestation, filthy litterboxes, and even rat droppings. When we raised the issue of the flies with Marie, she brushed it off and blamed it on tenants moving in and out of the building.

I want to call APS and schedule a visit for them to intervene. My husband doesn’t want APS to deem his mother unable to live independently. I think he is also ashamed of the state of her situation. My husband and I both work full-time, demanding jobs, and we have a 10-month-old baby. We do not have the capacity to be Marie’s main caretakers.

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The bottom line is that the issues are beyond what we can handle. I just don’t know how to plot our next steps. Do we call APS? Do we report anonymously, or should we tell her we are reporting her? And what if APS doesn’t provide enough support–where can we turn?

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— Overwhelmed in Oregon

Dear Overwhelmed,

Before you make any decisions about calling APS, you need to educate yourselves on what they can and can’t do. The specifics vary by state, but I would start with this FAQ from the National Center on Elder Abuse, a subset of the Administration for Community Living (ACL) within the Department of Health and Human Services. I would then do thorough research on APS in your state so that you understand the gamut of possibilities that could result from their involvement. But understand that APS will not be legally allowed to discuss your MIL’s case with you or your husband—so while they might do an investigation and make recommendations, you could be privy to none of it, and receive only your mother in law’s anger and embarrassment. You both will have to decide if this is the right course for you. Either way, though, I’m not sure it will be the silver bullet you hope it will. The ACL, linked above, might provide more options to consider.

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APS is only one factor in your situation, though. It sounds like you attempted this once before, but you three need to have a serious discussion now about what you will each contribute, financially and logistically, to MIL’s care. The brothers need to decide what outcome they want from this. Do they want MIL to be taken care of? They need to be active agents in making that happen. They need to have a serious discussion with mom about how she needs to live, the steps they all need to work together on to get her there, and what happens if she can’t maintain a healthy home for herself. Someone needs to obtain power of attorney (medical and durable), too. If Mom can’t live on her own, will she go to a residential facility, or will she come to live with one of you? If the former, scope out her options and get on a waiting list now. If the latter, start saving for any renovations that might be needed. (Also, the cats need to be rehomed immediately, for their sake and hers.)

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Final thoughts: you are exceptionally lucky her pet sitter is as conscientious as they are to have called you. Why the heck were the cleaning crew not doing the same? If they didn’t have your contact info, be sure they have it now. If you are going to invest resources—yours or your MIL’s—into caretakers, be as sure as you can that they are folks who will alert you to a problem when it happens.

I don’t know the whole backstory, but I do know, as do you, that abuse and its resulting mental illness is not the victim’s fault. However frustrating or arduous it is, MIL needs help and she deserves to receive it. Good luck to all of you as you navigate that.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

Our daughter just turned 4 years old. She is a very intelligent child with unusually good memory, love for trains and cars… and consistent dislike for engaging in social situations. She rarely speaks up to non-family members, plays only with 1 or 2 boys at preschool regularly, does so without proactively speaking to them, just following or playing next to each other, and dislikes any bigger social gatherings.

What triggered me to write this letter is that we had some guests over for her birthday—her only two preschool buddies with their moms, and then a neighbor couple with their 8-year-old son the next day. As a result, I had more than the usual time to see my daughter interact with others. With the kids, she did the usual playing next to each other and very little with each other, and often interrupted by her running to tell me that some of her toys got displaced in the process and that it really upset her. I have wondered if our daughter is on the spectrum, and these events made me wonder again.

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But any diagnosis here is a challenge because there are several factors that could contribute to her preferring limited social interaction. We are expats living in a Nordic country, and our own native language is a different one (from central Europe). Nordics are not exactly known for warmth in personal relationships, nor spontaneity. Our daughter has been immersed in the local language through school since she was 19 months old, but there is still a significant language barrier. Then there was COVID. I used to think these factors explained my daughter’s behavior, but my intuition tells me there is more to it.

She exhibits some other behaviors that make me wonder, like strongly disliking loud music, doesn’t respond to people saying “hi,” that sort of thing. But there are things that go against my hypothesis. She’s always spoken in full sentences, almost never making mistakes and using many elaborate words. Eye contact with parents or family has never been an issue, and she likes hugging and playing with us. She makes jokes with people with whom she is at ease.

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What is going on here? Is it a language or culture barrier, the fact that we don’t have a lot of people coming over to our home, or the spectrum? How can we help her? How do we get a diagnosis in a country which we call home but are not culturally rooted nor speak the language?

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—  Lost in Translation?

Dear Lost,

I’m not a psychologist, and like you say, this all could be typical development or a sign of neurodiversity. That said, I think it’s usually worth trusting your gut when it comes to parenthood, no matter the situation.

I don’t know what telemedicine is like in your country of origin, but if you were American I would be encouraging you to find an American psychologist who would do an assessment over Zoom. While this means of diagnosis is relatively new and is still being assessed for accuracy relative to in person assessments, the results are promising and the process is becoming more common. If this is an option for you, I think it would be a great place to start, because you’re eliminating a possible variable for your daughter’s behavior, and you’ll be able to fluently discuss the results of the assessment with the clinician. From there, you and the clinician can decide whether a Nordic in-person assessment is also called for. Both practitioners might even be able to compare notes to get a fuller picture of what is going on with your daughter. If telemedicine isn’t an option, I’d reach out to your closest major university or teaching hospital, as the chances of finding someone multilingual there is higher than the typical doctor’s office.

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Meanwhile, I would gently experiment with additional social situations (in both novel and familiar contexts). Your daughter is just at the beginning of the transition away from parallel play (playing near but not truly with others) towards cooperative play. It still may take a year or two to emerge, but practice is how she’ll get there. I’d also look for novel experiences overall for your family. One of my sons had a significant language delay until we took a long weekend trip to a new town with a few friends, and then his language exploded. Some kids need a diversion from their routine to prompt them to do the hard-to-them stuff. If you’d like, you can keep a journal through these experiences so that you can note in real time what you’re seeing from your daughter. This may help you identify progress or better explain concerns to a psychologist.

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Final thought: a diagnosis can sometimes take years before it’s definitive. If you can spend your time now really learning your daughter’s needs and wants, you’re that much closer to helping her grow into a comfortable and successful (by any standards) adult, no matter what the doctors ultimately say.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m writing on behalf of my neighbor/friend and her daughter, who is my kid’s best friend. The kids are both around 2-½-years-old and started their first Montessori nursery school program in September, after two years of full-time nannies. My kid (Callie) is having a blast at school, and we’re all getting so much out of it. Friend’s kid (Haley) is not. Haley does half days, so she only goes from 9-11:45 and still naps at home; the transition has still been a nightmare, though, with Haley crying “no school!” every morning (or even when she sees her backpack on the weekends). Haley’s teachers say she does just fine as soon as she gets there, but that’s only when she actually goes. Like a lot of kids, Haley has been constantly sick since the first week. RSV, flu, ear infections, and more. Because of this, Haley hasn’t ever gone to school for a full week. Haley’s family kept their nanny on, so more often than not she’s home with her (but Haley’s mom is still paying tuition).

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Haley’s mom has had enough and wants to pull her out of school. Part of me wants to encourage her to keep at it. Callie’s skills have exploded in just a few months, and Haley, too, has advanced: they sing songs and do dances they learn at school together on the weekends, they’re both learning bathroom skills, they’re better at cleaning up after themselves and playing with others. The only reason we sent Callie there in the first place is because Haley was going– we pictured taking the daily walk and organizing class play dates and potlucks all together.

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On the other hand, I get it. Everyday Haley’s mom texts me in the morning telling me how poorly Haley slept, that their pediatrician is getting tired of them with all the sick visits. And it’s not like pulling Haley out will mean she’ll miss learning the ABCs, and they already have full-time help. Maybe they should just try again next year.

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I feel weird being her sounding board on this because we’ve had such a different experience and have different philosophies/approaches in general. She is always convinced she or Haley is sick, whereas I will downplay every symptom and power through (which is a letter for a whole other advice column). I love the curriculum and am excited for how it’s setting Callie up to learn in the future, but I also love my friend and Haley and hate that they’re not getting that. I’m certainly not going to tell her what to do with her family, but I don’t think she’ll get a straight answer from the school admins either. What do you think she should do?

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— Sick of School

Dear Sick of School,

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I do hope you stand by your statement that you aren’t going to tell her what to do unless she directly asks—too many landmines to step on. But, since you’re curious what I think, my bet is that if Haley were in school more consistently this wouldn’t be as big of an issue. Transitions are hard on kids this age, and Haley is getting two transitions three hours apart, when few or none of the other kids are (I assume a majority of kids in the class are full time), without a consistent pattern of days she attends school. If Haley is like my kid, an uneven routine like this comes with other “bonus” challenges, like fights about wake-up times, whether we can have TV and when to get dressed. So, it’s no wonder things aren’t going well from your friend’s perspective.

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If Haley’s mom were the one writing in, I would tell her not to make any decisions until she could see how Haley did after daily attendance for, say, three weeks. That said, some things just aren’t worth the fight. Judging by the fact that Haley’s mom is paying for both a nanny and a private preschool education, I’m guessing attending the school was not about money or childcare and more about enrichment for Haley. If mom is at her wit’s end and doesn’t even want to utter the word “school” for the next six months, I would raise a glass and congratulate her on making a choice that was good for her child and good for her own sanity.

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If she does look to you as a sounding board, ask questions that will help her unravel her thoughts or explore her options—don’t offer advice or opinions. And when she does ultimately make a choice, whatever it is, you know the mom-friend mantra of how to reply: “That sounds like a great decision!”

—Allison

More Advice From Slate

My husband and I have been married for 15 years, and we have two kids. A few months ago, I discovered that my spouse had long been out of work and had hidden this from me. He had secretly opened multiple credit cards and incurred over $100,000 in debt. What should I do?

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