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What Do I Owe My Difficult Mother-in-Law?

Once again, providing ongoing support is a gift you can’t simply take back. That’s something to consider when you offer help in circumstances like these. You’re entering into a commitment, even if you don’t explicitly make a commitment. You say you know their child is not your responsibility. Yet assisting with the child has now become your responsibility.

It’s also true that dependency doesn’t justify ingratitude. Harried as they are, they should be mindful that yours is an act of a devoted friend and respond appropriately. In the meantime, let’s hope that there is indeed an end in sight; as the pandemic ebbs, they may be able to return to using professional support. If you decide that you don’t want to see them through this crisis, you should try to help find them an alternative — maybe by putting them in touch with organizations, public or private, that could help them look after their child. Most cities have such resources, and your friends may be too preoccupied to do the necessary research.

The rest of us might take a moment to ask ourselves about those whose help we’ve come to rely upon: Are there people we’re taking for granted?

I switched medical practices pre-Covid and was assigned to a male practitioner. My first appointment is coming up, and today I learned from a friend who also uses that medical practice that my doctor has transitioned (or is transitioning) from male to female. Since I have not yet met this doctor, I am wondering about what is appropriate and whether there should be any conversation about the transition. Is there any reason that the doctor should speak about it, even if it is to determine whether I, a cis woman, am comfortable seeing a trans physician?

If my friend was not a patient at this practice and had not forewarned me, I would have been confused to see a female enter the exam room, because I would have been expecting a male doctor. Is this transition process such a private thing that it is inappropriate to talk about it? Obviously, I am in uncharted waters.

Name Withheld

Your new doctor is negotiating a difficult phase of a trans life, which is handling changes in relationships with people the trans person knew when presenting as another gender. You’re someone she hasn’t yet met, and so you will meet her first as a woman. Indeed, it may not have occurred to her that you signed up with her when she was presenting otherwise. She no doubt has already had to deal with questions from patients she knew when she was presenting as male, and I’m sure that it hasn’t always been fun. You can play a small part in our important social transition from transphobia toward trans acceptance by sparing her from having to answer such questions for the umpteenth time. It’s no more incumbent on her to inquire after your comfort level with her identity than it would be for a physician who is Jewish or gay or Black (or all three) to do so. Her gender expression has no bearing on her capacities as a doctor.

Let her decide if she wants to say something. She has the same professional competence as the doctor you signed up for, because she is the doctor you signed up for. She has simply decided that she’s ready to live as the woman she really is.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to ethicist@nytimes.com; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)

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