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Miss Conduct

The pregnant puffer

Can I tell an expectant woman to stop smoking? Plus saying no to pet-sitting requests

By Robin Abrahams
May 31, 2009
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A friend of a friend whom I see on occasion at my friend's house is pregnant with her third child -- and she continues to smoke. I realize that her habit is legal and is none of my business, so I say nothing. But I wonder if it is ever OK to speak up on behalf of the baby, whose health is being affected and who can't speak for itself.
L.M. / Quincy

Thanks, L.M.! Because you know no matter what I say, I'm going to get a ton of hate mail and be praised or excoriated on every mommy blog in existence. And what with a new book out and all, I could use the exposure.

So here I go: You can't say anything. This woman isn't even your friend. If she were, I might do my classic "Say something, but make it clear that you're doing so because of your need to express yourself, not out of the belief that this will change the other person's behavior, and promise not to mention the topic ever again." But she's not, so you don't even get that one.

Sure, it's OK to speak up on the baby's behalf -- if you are the mother's obstetrician. That's the role of the doctor, no one else.

Do you seriously think that this woman is unaware of the possible ramifications of her actions? Of course you don't think that. If there is one thing that all the mothers I know and/or whose writings I read are united on -- attachment parents and Ferberizers, stay-at-home moms and working moms, bottle feeders and breast-feeders -- it is that they are sick and tired of being treated like public property, to be judged and critiqued by friends, family, and often complete strangers. Which means: Back off.

I own a home-based business and have been asked many times by a neighbor to take care of her pet when she is away. I am often called when she is already en route. I am feeling very used by this person, who assumes that I will always be available for her needs when she goes away. I am an animal lover and have two pets myself. Even though I am home working, how do I tactfully say no without causing friction?
S.B. / Rye, New Hampshire

You need to discuss this with her at a neutral time -- i.e., not when she is already on I-93, calling you blithely from her cellphone to let you know that Fluffy's medicine is on the dining room table and the key is under the mat. In those circumstances, you pretty well have to go retrieve Fluffy. You can't get into brinkmanship when an animal's well-being is at stake.

The way to decline a favor without causing bad feelings, in cases like this, is to acknowledge the role you've played in setting up the dynamic that you now find annoying. It's not fair to go along with being the person who always takes Fluffy or organizes the softball game or plans the office birthday parties, and then one day start yelling at people out of the blue for taking advantage of you. They didn't know. Because you've always been there for Fluffy in the past, your neighbor probably assumes that it's no problem for you, and perhaps that you like having Fluffy around to entertain your own pets. So disabuse her, gently: "You know I love Fluffy, but the fact is having an additional animal around the house affects my schedule more than I realized. I don't think it's going to work for me to keep being the on-call pet sitter."

If you're willing to sit under particular circumstances -- weekends, day trips, once every few months -- let her know what the conditions are. If you've used a pet-sitting service or kennel in the past that you've been pleased with, give her that info, as well.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a Cambridge-based writer with a PhD in psychology. Her new book is Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners.

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