My best friend calls me his baby’s “aunt,” but he won’t let me babysit. I think I know why.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single woman. My best friend “Jake” and his husband recently had a daughter. I’ve never wanted children, but we’ve bonded extremely closely. Jake calls me her “aunt,” and he and his husband talk about how wonderful it is that their baby will have a supportive woman in her life.
Overall, it’s brought the three of us closer together. But there’s one problem: They won’t let me babysit … and I’m afraid it’s because I’m disabled.

I have an autoimmune disorder that has warning signs days in advance when I’m going to have a serious attack. When I’m not having an episode, my body and brain are capable of everything she needs. When I’m at their home visiting and they’re both around, I’ll take care of her needs and they don’t seem anxious. Jake has always fretted about my health. He is wonderful at advocating and caring for me—but he sometimes decides that I “can’t” or “shouldn’t” do certain things that I generally don’t have a problem doing, and he slips into stereotypes about disabled people that indicate he sees my disability as more limiting than I do. I’ve never said anything; he’s so wonderful regardless.

He’ll stress about needing a babysitter for a day. I’ll offer to come over, but no matter how dire, he’ll say that it’s okay, they’ll figure it out. They’ve wished that they could afford a nanny a few days a week; I told them I’d be more than happy to do it, we should set up a schedule; they always say “oh great, we’ll discuss it” but then never do. Aside from constantly brushing me off, we’ve never discussed why.

I recently learned that Jake, despite money being tight, hired a local college girl to babysit. I felt kinda blindsided. Jake has resumed talking about how they need more help, how this girl is too expensive, and again I’ve offered myself up … but an artful dodge always ensues. It’s clear that they don’t want me to solo babysit. There’s only one way to solve my paranoia: ask. On the other hand, despite being friends for 15 years, I couldn’t stay close with somebody who so stereotypes me and am terrified of losing our little family. I’ve started saying “That’s really tough, I wish this was easier for you” when Jake complains, but he’s picking up on my quiet resignation and sudden lack of offers. What’s the right call?

—Disabled in Delaware

Dear Disabled in Delaware,

I’m not suggesting that you’re reading your friend’s signals, or this situation, incorrectly; just noting that I probably wouldn’t want to take a close friend up on their offer of free childcare several days a week unless I was desperate. It can be awkward for some people to mix friendship and business (or whatever you want to call the provision of much needed childcare). That said, I get why this is frustrating and hurtful, and why you think ableism is the culprit—especially given past signals you’ve gotten from Jake. If you feel it’s important, you can ask him what’s behind his refusal to take you up on your generous offer. I’m sure that would be a tough conversation to have, but you’re correct that it’s the only way you’ll know for sure.

The risk of confronting your friends about this is that you’ll feel differently about that friendship if they admit to thinking you’re not capable of caring for their child alone due to your disability. But it seems like your friendship is already being affected by this open question you have, right? So if you choose, you can let Jake know how you’ve been feeling, pointing out past comments he’s made about your autoimmune illness that have bothered you. Acknowledge that it’s hard for you to bring this up, but you are doing so because his friendship means so much to you.

I make no excuses for ableism. It’s not an excuse to say what you already know: It is so common, so deeply baked into our thinking and our institutions and our daily lives. Nondisabled people have to teach ourselves to see it, challenge it, and root it out in ourselves. And sometimes we learn to do that partly because other people take on the hard work of challenging us, letting us know when we’ve said or done something hurtful, and giving us an opportunity to do better.

In similar if not identical scenarios, I’ve come to think of my choice to be honest—to say when a loved one’s offensive comment or unthinking stereotype has personally hurt me—as an expression of care; a sign of how much those people matter to me. With certain people I’m close to, speaking up has often felt necessary precisely because I want to preserve our relationship. There are other people I’m not as close to, for whom I wouldn’t necessarily expend that energy or labor—those are the people I’ve let go of.

To be clear, in no way do I believe this is an obligation or labor you should have to take on with anyone in your life. I don’t think disabled people owe nondisabled friends or family tolerance of ableism. I certainly don’t think you owe Jake continuing education on the subject. You have choices to make about this important friendship, and how you want to respond if your fears are confirmed. If you decide to discuss all this with Jake, I hope he can listen without defensiveness and give you the respect you deserve.

—Nicole

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