Cliff notes. My sister got pregnant three years in a row, giving birth to three healthy babies by c-section. With baby 1 she was put into bed rest almost immediately and I was assigned to make sure she didn’t jeopardize her or the baby’s health. This was a difficult task only made worse after the birth because it meant an additional 4 weeks at the least. Around 2 weeks into that time I broke down sobbing. My sister threw me out and my parents let me have the morning off before insisting that I return to make sure my sister hadn’t hurt herself.
Continuing into the next two pregnancies I was told I had to stay with my sister because my parents were afraid for both her mental and physical health. This involved me sometimes driving 3 hours daily back and forth to my sister and her husband’s apartment. Where I was welcome by my sister but resented by her husband for being there and also for not doing enough while I was there.
I am realizing that I was depressed. Slowly over the last few years I’ve been trying to recover. And I’ve felt like I have been. (In part thanks to this blog.)
Now my sister is pregnant again. It’s been the easiest pregnancy yet. When I told my mom I was not going to do what I did before she said that yes I would. I felt like I had been slapped. I tried to tell her no but she told me it’s family. I told her a little desperately that if she didn’t want me to resent that baby and my sister even more than I already did she wouldn’t make me. She just repeated the family bit.
That was a little over a month ago. I am depressed. My sister, who had already spent christmas at my house, wanted to spend the week following new years here as well. I told her no, and I told my mother I can’t do it. I am depressed and I just can’t face it. My mom offered to pay for me to take off for a few days so that my sister can come and spend the time here.(My Mom and I live together.) She says that she understands that I am depressed but she thinks my sister is too and she might need to come up to get some relief.
Captain Awkward, I am being asked to leave my own house. I am being hounded by my mother to find a quick fix for my depression. And I am sincerely at a loss. Can you help me?
While new parents and people recovering from surgery can definitely use the help and support of their family and friends, it’s not something that can or should be compelled. If your sister needs care, it’s her job to sort out a solution that works for her. She can collaborate with her husband. She can collaborate with your mom. She can ask friends. She can ask you to help in a reasonable way, like, occasionally babysitting your nieces and nephews or coming down to spend quality time with her. She can seek her own mental health care for her own depression. She is the boss of her own situation. She is not the boss of you.
Your mom is also not the boss of you. Bluntly, if your mom wants your sister to have round-the-clock company and care, your mom is welcome to get her ass to your sister’s house and provide that care. She (and your sister and her husband) are also perfectly free to HIRE that care. Nannys, babysitters, home health aides, college students who can do light housecleaning and run a few errands all exist. Being the (I assume) unmarried, childless sibling does not turn you into the family servant. Your life didn’t stop or become unimportant when your sister became a mom, and it troubles me how automatically your folks assume that you’ll be down for the job given how badly it went last time. Caregiving is WORK. We do it for the people we love to the extent that we can. But it is work, and the burnout rate is high.
I think you are very smart, and very brave, and very right to draw a line on how much and what you are willing to give. I think it is a very radical and awesome act of self-care to speak up as you did. Your family might frame it as selfish, but you are allowed to prioritize your own mental health and your own well-being, and to do what you can to make sure that the arrival of a new niece or nephew is a cause for celebration rather than abject dread.
As I see them, your priorities right now should be to a) treat your own depression and take it absolutely 100% seriously b) to refuse outright to take on the burden of your sister’s care right now. You can repair relations with your family when some boundaries have been established, when the current crisis of caregiving has passed, and when you feel your feet under you more strongly.
1) Please find some kind of mental health treatment if you don’t already have some in place. Now. That is your number 1 priority.
2) Pick a script or two for saying “no” from the list below and use it anytime your mom or sister brings up the idea of you helping. Repeat until you can change the subject (or until they drop it). Leave the conversation if necessary.
3) If you want to preserve a good relationship with your sister, try to find ways of interacting that are about things you enjoy & have in common. If you have the means and you feel up to it, hire a babysitter so that when you do drive three hours for a visit you can take her to lunch and a movie and catch up instead of getting sucked into her household chores. Send her a thoughtful gift like pretty pajamas or her favorite tea or fresh flowers. Hire a housecleaner for the day. Freeze a bunch of soups and stews so that they have good meals around when the baby is born. Have a phone or Skype date every couple of weeks to chat and catch up. Also, encourage her to take her own mental health care seriously and treat depression like the illness that it is. There is a lot you can do to be supportive and helpful short of moving in or hosting her around-the-clock.
Keep this in mind: If the relationship is strained right now despite your best efforts, you are not the one straining it. Your sister & mom are straining it by having unreasonable expectations and demands.
Wait until your mom or your sister makes a request (or communicates the assumption) that you’ll drop everything and help out. There’s no need to even talk about it again until then, right? Then, here is a starting script for your mom and one for your sister.
“Sister, I love you, and I want you to be supported and well during your pregnancy, but I am also feeling depressed and depleted and need to focus on my own well-being right now. I’m not going to be able to host you here right now, and I’m also not going to be able to travel out there to you the way I did in the past. I want to be very up-front about that so you and (husband) can make some other arrangements so that you can have the help you need.”
“Mom, I love Sister, but I know for sure that I am not going to be able to help out the way I have in the past. I need to be honest and up front about that now, so that everyone can make other arrangements. I really need you to take me at my word on this and not pressure me. Sister and I (& nieces & nephews) will have a better relationship if I can offer what help that I can give on my own terms.”
(listen to what they say)
“I understand if that was not what you wanted to hear and if it will take a little time for us all to process everything. Thanks for hearing me out. Let’s change the subject to something else, ok? How is (x subject change thingy)?”
Next, I’ve included some responses that you can use if they try to pressure you. The important thing when dealing with someone who is trying to manipulate you is to keep it very short and very clean. Avoid offering reasons or explanations or get drawn into lengthy discussions where the other person can try to “solve” your reasons or argue with them. You want to go full Bartleby the Scrivener here. The fact is, you prefer not to, and you don’t actually have to, so you won’t.
“But she needs you!“
“I am telling you this now, so that you can find another solution.“
“But she’s family!“
“I won’t be able to help this time, so you should make another plan.”
“You’re just being selfish!“
“I need to make my own health a priority right now, so I won’t be able to help.”
“You’re not really that sick!” or “Are you trying to compare your problems to hers?” or “You just need to snap out of it!“
“Wow, that’s a pretty hurtful thing to say. Nonetheless, I’m not going to be able to help (sister) right now, so you and she should make another arrangement.“
“I’m doing my best to work on my mental health. Believe me, I’d like this to clear up even more than you would. Until it does, this is my reality, and I’d appreciate it if you did not pressure me anymore about this.”
“Don’t you love your sister?“
“I do love her, and I love my nieces and nephews, but I’m still not going to be able to help this time. You guys should make other arrangements.”
“But how are we supposed to _________?” + :list of woes that you are causing with your selfishness that they’d like it to be your problem to solve now, aka, “Forced Teaming”, where they try to make their problems into shared problems:
“I don’t really have a good solution to that. I hope you can find something that works for you.“
Bonus catch-all script:
“That’s not going to work for me, but I hope you can find something that works for you.”
Rehearse, if necessary, with a good friend or a counselor so you can get the words out.
And let’s unpack the statement “But we’re a faaaaaaaamily” when it’s used to manipulate you into something you don’t want to do. Your sister is family, and if she needs you, maybe she needs you. But you also need something from her, and from your mom: You need respect for your boundaries and some time and space to get your head together. Why are other people’s needs automatically covered by “faaaaaaamily” but yours are not? An interesting question, no?
Also, I get the sense right now that you guys communicate through your mom a lot. Your sister expresses a need to your mom, and your mom passes the news/orders onto you, adding an extra serving of Mom Guilt and Family Obligation along the way. I think it might be a good idea to talk to your sister directly. Establish some kind of regular contact with her where you guys talk or email or IM. If she has requests for help, encourage her to make them to you directly (and to hear your “no” directly, or work out some solution for what help you are willing to provide directly) rather than going through your mom. It will help you clarify what expectations belong to your sister and what expectations are being manufactured by your mom. I think your mom is a bad negotiator on your behalf, especially the way she promises/suggests your help in advance and then badgers you to deliver. Taking her out of the middle of this relationship might help you and your sister find an equilibrium.
It can be tricky to manage this, especially when the habits of communication have been ingrained for this long and you’re basically trying to train your family to interact in a different way by modeling different behavior, but here’s a rough guide:
- If your sister asks you for something directly, that request exists. You can consider it, honor it or refuse it, and communicate about it with her. “Can I come stay with you guys for a few days?” “Sorry, it isn’t a good time right now.”
- If your sister’s request comes through your mom, that request does not exist. It does not exist until your sister asks you directly. Until then, it’s just speculation or chatter. So when your mom passes on a request from your sister, you say “Mom, thanks for letting me know, but if that’s the case I’d like to talk to Sister directly about it. She should call or email me and we’ll talk.”
- If your mom brings it up again, and your sister hasn’t contacted you, just say “I haven’t heard from her about that. As soon as I do I can make a decision.“
- If you do talk to your sister, treat the request like it doesn’t exist until she brings it up. You are literally refusing to hear messages that are passed from her by your mom. Over time you can tell her exactly what’s up – “Sister, if you need something from me, just ask me and we’ll work it out. When mom tries to broker some deal between us, it always goes badly. Thanks.” She’ll either respect that or she won’t. If she won’t, you will totally ignore her requests that come through mom.
This accomplishes a few things:
- It puts the decision about whether you’ll accede to the request off for the moment.
- It’s makes it a discussion between you and your sister, not between you and your mom.
- It takes your mom out of the negotiator position and takes away some of the reward for pressuring you about it. “Cool, mom, Sister and I will talk about it. What’s on TV tonight?” Her role as your mom is obviously important, but her role as the manager of the relationship between you and your sister needs to become totally unimportant.
I suspect that the whole thing with your sister wanting to visit again is such a clusterfuck because your mom already told her “Yes” or invited her without asking you and now feels pressure to make it happen by any means necessary.Instead of paying you to leave your own house so that sister can catch a break, howabout your mom travels to where she is and rents a hotel room? Sister can stay at the hotel and have a day or two of privacy and mindless television, her kids can get time with Grandma, and you can have your own house to yourself. That sounds like way more of a win-win to me. I don’t know why your sister and your mom automatically default to the solution that is the most inconveniencing for you.
This is primal stuff that isn’t going to get resolved overnight, so don’t skimp on the “be nice to yourself” step, ok? You deserve all the care and consideration in the world, and don’t have to abdicate your own needs here.