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#418: My mom wants me to prioritize caring for my sister over caring for myself. What do I do?

Hey Capt., 

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? 

-Just empty.

Dear Empty:

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.

Recommended steps:

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.

4) Be really nice to yourself.

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.

Scripts

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)

(process it)

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.

or

“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.

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115 comments
  1. katyisbutthurt said:

    You know, most women manage to have their second, third, or fourth children with the help of the guy who helped put the baby there in the first place, or their own friends, or manage to get things sorted out on their own. I realize this is a novel idea for your mother and sister, who think that you are meant to serve out your life at your sister’s beck and call because she’s faaaaamily, regardless of your own mental health needs, but frankly, your sister needs to get used to relying on her HUSBAND, the FATHER of her children, rather than on YOU because Mom made you.

    Start embracing the role of the “selfish” one, the “bad guy”, because you’re going to need to do that. Her husband already resented the hell out of you after the last time, why would you want to foster a shitty relationship with your brother-in-law? This is HIS home, too, and if he doesn’t want you or your mother intruding, he DOES get a say in the matter! And I’m sure he does feel like your family intrudes, and wouldn’t be surprised at ALL if he feels like you all pushed him out of the way like he didn’t matter the last time your sister was pregnant.

    Tell your mother bluntly that a)she can’t make you do a damn thing, and b)you’re not going to push YOUR mental health to the side because your sister is popping out another kid, which women have been doing successfully for millennia, and c)your BIL needs to be happy in his own home with his wife and children, and if that means that you and Mom aren’t intruding, that’s the way it SHOULD be. And then ignore the guilt trip-inducing comments from your mother and sister. No one can send you on the Guilt Express unless you take the ticket from them. Don’t do it.

    • M Dubz said:

      +100000 Clearly your presence in your sister and BIL’s home is making your BIL unhappy, so hopefully he at least will be supportive of your decision moving forward!

    • griffykate said:

      “No one can send you on the Guilt Express unless you take the ticket from them. Don’t do it.”

      This is great advice. I would only add the information that you should expect to FEEL guilty, because they are expert at manipulating you into that feeling, and the feeling won’t just go away overnight. It will be terribly hard at first, to just sit with that guilt, and feel it, and not give into it. You will feel awful. But you will be doing the right thing. The guilt is not because you are bad, it is because your family has raised you to have a guilt-switch they can push to make you do stuff that makes their lives easier.

      Sit with it. Breathe. The first few times, it will be the hardest damn thing you ever did. Then, gradually, incident by incident, it will start to get a tiny bit more comfortable a bit at a time, as your own experience begins to teach you that the world will not end just because you feel guilty when you shouldn’t have to.

      • Can I recommend writing down why you feel guilty too? Often I find it way easier to see the Guilt Trip Cliches for what they are when they’re written down.

        And many Jedi hugs to you, LW, because your family sound like they are not being great to you right now. Would you perhaps be able to start thinking about moving out? If not, can you arrange to be out of the house a little more often? That would at least cut down on the amount of time your mom and sister have to play the Guilt Cards.

        • griffykate said:

          YES. Writing down the Why of the guilty feeling is an AMAZEBALLS idea, and I am totally going to do that the next time I find myself spinning in a guilt-trap.

  2. Myrin said:

    The Captain has excellent advice and really wonderful scripts, as usual, and I hope they will also be of help to you, LW.

    I don’t have any useful stuff to add, but I want to say that I’m really, really angry right now. At your mum mostly and to a somewhat lesser degree at your sister and her husband. I really cannot believe those people!
    I know my anger doesn’t help you, LW, but maybe it can show you that you are not at fault here and that this is not a healthy situation and that you can be angry too, if you want to, without having to feel guilty. Fingers crossed and take care of yourself!

    • Megay said:

      Agreed. Very very angry and so very, very sorry that you are going through this.
      Best wishes.

  3. Bunny said:

    +1 to everything the Captain said, but I do want to highlight one point.

    “Why are other people’s needs automatically covered by “faaaaaaamily” but yours are not?”

    LW, your sister is family. SO ARE YOU. If “family” means people put their own needs and wants aside to help others who require it, then that includes you. For several years you have put aside your whole life (let’s not beat around the bush – if you’re being made to take multi-hour round trips daily, take over housework and household duties for an entire family and even leave your own home on demand, that doesn’t leave much time for you to study, seek work, seek friendships and relationships or even just enjoy hobbies) for the well-being of someone else.

    If “family” meant as much as claimed, your mother would not only have advocated on you sisters’ behalf, but she would have done it on yours as well. Whether that meant taking turns with you on the sister-helping, enlisting another family member to help out or just plain saying no to your sister once in a while or not demanding so much of you in the first place. She would have helped you negotiate an arrangement with your sister that was fair to BOTH OF YOU.

    You’re a human being, not a service robot, and your needs are just as important as your sister’s.

    I don’t know your family situation, and frankly it’s none of my business, but long-term, is not-living-with-your-mother an option? I don’t know whether you live in her home, or whether she lives in yours, but depending on the circumstances, it might be easier to deal with all this if you’re not living under the same roof, especially if it IS her home, as it is so easy to feel extra-indebted if you’re still dependent.

    *As an aside, is it out of line for me to ask what the hell your sister’s husband was doing during all of this? While he was getting annoyed with you for “intruding” and “not doing enough”, how much of the housework and childcare was he taking on to relieve the pressure on your sister? Where was his side of the family in this – could none of them take turns with you to relive the pressure on you? Did he even ask?

    • yes yes yes!

    • violettaknave said:

      “If “family” meant as much as claimed, your mother would not only have advocated on you sisters’ behalf, but she would have done it on yours as well.”

      YES. YES and YES. I wanted to touch on this point and Bunny’s comment summed it up well. I can relate to this dynamic a little. My relationship with my mother and sister is such that my mom will pass along the beginnings of any drama that my very domineering, very vocal sister wants to start with me, but then exit the picture. Over time I have realized that this is a one way channel. It used to confuse me until I started seeing it as the sh*t simply rolling downhill. Now I step aside and say, “Huh. She’d probably say something to me, if it bothered her that much.”

      As a recovered passive person, I ABHOR the idea that if something is bothering a person it’s their duty to speak up or else they are asking for it, but I do believe it has a little value when dealing with someone who likes to manipulate others indirectly.

      In this situation it is being demanded that you put quite a lot of energy and time into something with not a lot of direct communication and zero regard for what you are communicating. You definitely don’t need any other excuses other than you can’t do it this time around, but if you did, taking care of yourself is a job only you can do right now and someone else needs to take this round of baby after-care.

  4. Has your sister ever thanked you? Does she want your help? Does she ask you for it herself? What does your dad think? It seems like this whole thing is being run by your mom on her ideas of what’s best. She isn’t an expert on anyone’s feelings or needs other than her own. The ‘I understand you’re depressed but so is she’ screams of suck it up-attitude. Not helpful. If she really understood, she wouldn’t say crap like that.

    And I feel sorry for your sister, but after three pregnancies it can’t be a complete shock that they tend to be difficult. It isn’t the first time round, when I could maybe see some kind of stress-fueled acting out as somewhat okay. It’s her fourth kid on the way. It is her and her husband’s choice to have more children. You don’t have any responsibility to help out.

    I have the same suspicion as the Captain, namely that your mom already said yes about coming to visit. That doesn’t make it more okay in any way. She made the call and now she has to take the consequences for it. This is likely to be a bumpy ride for you, but I promise you’ll feel much better once there are good boundaries in place. Good luck!

    • 100% this: it is/was your sister and her husband’s choice to have babies. Were you invited in on the discussion about whether to have another? Unlikely.

      If their capacity to parent depends on you dropping everything, and effectively negating your need to choose your own life path, then *that* is selfish, not you asserting your right to a little say in how you get to spend your time.

  5. Vivinator said:

    Hi LW, please please please prioritize yourself and your own mental health. The only person you “have to” or “should” take care of is yourself! (I’m wary of anything that starts with “should” or “have to” because that usually involves needless amounts of guilt and blaming, as seen here with your mother’s demands) Do what is best for you, follow the Captain’s excellent advice, and the rest will fall into place.

  6. e271828 said:

    Honey, you have to stop living with your mother.

    That’s the only way you will get away from this and get better.

    Your mother is using you as a surrogate. If your mother is worried about your sister, she can care for her. If your sister does not want your mother around, that is not your problem.

    Everyone around you is set up to keep you in this situation, so you will be called a selfish ingrate for not wanting to live with your mother. There is no need to respond. The only people involved here are you and your mother, and the only person whose welfare you can secure is you.

    • Erika said:

      THIS. I know money is tight right now for everyone, and jobs are few are far between, but it sounds like even a roommate off Craigslist would be better for your mental health right now.

      It’s hard to tell Mom not to invite Sis over to stay when it’s Mom’s house.

    • unagi said:

      Yes, yes, yes! e271828 is right. You could not find a worse roommate than your mom, it seems. So is it at all possible for you to leave? Nothing short of total financial dependence would mean that you can’t leave right now.

  7. As good as the Captain’s scripts are, I’d also like to remind you of something else we say around here: “‘no’ is a complete sentence.”

    Anything else you say around the ‘no’ is generally aimed at bringing the other person around to accepting your position. And frankly, considering what you’ve described, I’d say that’s quite a long shot no matter what you say. So feel free to stop at ‘no.’ Repeat as needed (as it clearly will be, a lot). The only thing it occurs to me to add is “I can’t be your go-to person anymore.”

    Do not feel guilty!!! You did not repeatedly impregnate your sister. You have paid your faaaaamily dues for the next several reincarnations. They have worn you into the ground with unreasonable demands as if your life, your body, your time and energy were theirs to commandeer, and they are never going to stop on their own; they will stop only when it stops working. Now sounds like a good time to usher in that new era, don’t you think? Because you know what? If you did not exist, they would find a way through. They will find a way through now, too.

    • This times a thousand. “No.” leaves little room for argument and can be repeated over and over, even if you do end up feeling like your two.

  8. LW, this sounds like a really frustrating and draining position for you to be in. I think the Captain has some great scripts and advice and I hope they help.

    One thing I noticed in your letter is that you and your mom live together right now; I wonder if that means you don’t feel like you have a safe space of your own to get away from her pressure on you. Is there something outside the home (friends, hobbies, work/volunteering) that you might be able to devote more time to, or even use as an excuse when you’re just escaping to read at the library for a few hours?
    I don’t know if it’s feasible for you to find a different living situation at the moment, but some of your self-care right now might look like getting away from your family when you can, so you can have time to yourself (or with supportive friends).

  9. mintylime said:

    The Captain’s advice is sound and wise, and so I have little to add other than to reiterate in very short words:

    This Behavior On Their Part(s) Is Not OK. Just … Not OK.

    It may seem normal, because it’s what you’ve lived for so long, but … it’s not ok.

  10. Suzy said:

    You’ve mentioned your mother is the one making all these HORRIBLY unreasonable requests of you, but is your sister? Like, is she making them because your sister seems to require round the clock care and can’t speak up for herself, or because she *thinks* that??? It could be very possible your mother is just taking this upon herself to…well, interfere in everyone’s lives.

    This is where the Captain’s advice about cutting your mother out of this is great because your sister might not even be expecting this. For all you know, she could be thinking “wow, I can’t believe my sister is willing to do all this.” That said, if she has had so much trouble being pregnant, maybe she should have thought of that and concentrated on looking after the children she ALREADY HAS.

    • Moi said:

      ^ this, so many times over. Since your mom is the one passing on these messages, it does raise the question of how many are passed on and how many are generated by her.

    • I agree with what you’re saying, but just wanted to point out this bit…

      “That said, if she has had so much trouble being pregnant, maybe she should have thought of that and concentrated on looking after the children she ALREADY HAS.”

      … comes off as really judgmental. Sister has every right to have as many children as she wants/can support, regardless of whether they are problematic pregnancies or not. (And “problematic pregnancy” can mean any number of things.) It doesn’t make it LW’s job to take care of her, for sure, but her children are her choice and insinuating she’s irresponsible for having them is unproductive to the discussion.

      • caryatid said:

        that’s exactly the point. however many children you have is YOUR choice and responsibility. NOT your parents or siblings to be responsible for.

        i absolutely think it’s irresponsible to place demands on someone who has had (nor should have) any say in the matter.

        • I completely agree – I just think snarking about the sister (in the form of “maybe she should care for the children she already has rather than having new ones”) is unnecessary to the discussion. We’re not here to comment on how many children Sister has or whether she should be having more (in fact, I’d argue we’re on the side of NOT butting our or anyone else’s noses into that discussion).

          We’re here to tell the LW that zie has every right to assert zir boundaries, get proper health care, and stop being the family servant.

          • Suzy said:

            Okay, I definitely didn’t mean to derail the discussion or sound judgmental, it just sounded like the LW was being expected to drop everything, put her life on hold repeatedly each time this happened. And that absolutely isn’t fair. I think children being born into a family is a wonderful thing and the rest of the family should definitely lend a hand if needed. But this is so far over any line that it’s just not okay.

            But I wasn’t trying to be judgmental about how many children she was having, it’s just that the LW shouldn’t be the sole carer. However, the sister’s choice to have however many children is absolutely her choice, but it shouldn’t be forced on the LW as well.

            Apologies again for the derail.

          • Bunny said:

            I agree. I’d also point out that, even if LW’s sister DID just have the one child and not have any more, that still wouldn’t make the fact that the family bullied LW into caring for her sister and infant until she collapsed and burst into tears okay.

            It wouldn’t change the fucked up family dynamic that means LW gets treated as though the purpose of her life is to serve them, and I’d even venture a guess that the family would have found something ELSE to hoist obligations and guilt onto LW with.

            And if LW’s sister was in the exact same situation she is in now, or was even having EVEN MORE children, but was simply managing her needs better and spreading the care work amongst multiple people, enlisting her husband more or hiring help, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

            There isn’t anything productive to be gained by judging, questioning or looking down on LW’s sister’s choices. What is LW supposed to do, go to her sister and tell her “the internet thinks you should stop opening your legs so much, you hussy!”?

  11. Moi said:

    Yikes. LW, I am so very sorry that you’re going through this, and wish you the best. Definitely secure your own oxygen mask first, here: you’re family too, as others have pointed out, and it is in no way fair that your depression is something for you just to deal with, while your sister’s needs external management because of Grandchildren. I heartily second the idea that your mom should go be caretaker if FAMILY is that important, and she can spend the money she’d use to kick you out for a while on just that.

    I’m not sure if this would work in your situation, but is it possible to get BIL on your team at all? If he is feeling marginalized or ignored in the decisions in his own household (which I’ve seen happen over the gendered notion that WOMEN KNOW BABIES BEST SO GTFO) consulting with him might be a means to do an end-run around mom. A conversation along the lines of “I understand you and sis may be feeling overwhelmed; I’d love to hire a babysitter for you two to be able to have a date night” or something may be useful just to bring him into the conversation? I am just able to see “resentment at intrusion” = “I can take care of my wife and kids so why is she throwing herself in the middle*?” [*not that you were, but it may have been misrepresented to him as such because the FAMILY (SIS) TAKES CARE OF EACH OTHER (ME) feelings floating around].

    ALL THAT SAID, your health needs to be your priority. If addressing BIL’s position may help with that, awesome. If his needs/wants are likewise unreasonable (and at this point, anything you don’t want/feel up to doing IS UNREASONABLE), then forget ‘em.

  12. Katie said:

    LW, my best wishes as you deal with standing up to your family. It is really hard and I found personally that physical distance made it possible for me to stand up to my parents in a meaningful way. If I didn’t want to talk to them at all, I didn’t.

    That only seems doable if you are not living with your mom. If you want advice about moving out of your house or creating boundaries within it, do a search in the archives here for “living with my family abusive” and all sorts of relevant posts come up. Good luck!

  13. Several people have suggested moving out. But — LW refers to “my house” and says she and her mother live together.

    If you own the house, LW, and finances permit, you might want to consider telling your mother that her living with you isn’t working out, and start looking at alternatives (up to and including selling the house and moving somewhere that fits you and only you). If, for example, you bought the house you grew up in from your mother and let her continue living with you, that may be feeding her tendency to treat you as a child to be ordered about; you’re still frozen in the roles of your childhood. She conveniently “forgets” that you are the one paying the mortgage.

    • mintylime said:

      +1 to this comment.

      Even if your finances don’t permit you to live alone – you might consider encouraging your mother to move out and find a housemate who would (at the very least!) not be all “faaaaaamily” at you. Having strangers around your depression can be awkward, but this is arguably making things worse for you.

    • Maybe instead of completely having the mother move out they could look into jointly paying for renovations necessary to create a separate suite for the mother, complete with cooking area, sitting area, and bathroom. This would create the illusion of separateness while still allowing the cohabitation.

      I lived with my parents both ways: As an adult under their roof and in a very close but physically separated space on the same land. When I lived in the same space with them (i.e. still using my old bedroom), it was just constant chaos and drama. They weren’t used to dealing with me as an adult, I felt like like my life was on hold, etc. When I was able to move to the separated space, I was still living at home (I ate meals with them and hung out with them and they babysat my dog during the day), but having the space to retreat to really helped. If I could sense things were amping up, I will just gather up the dog and we would say our goodnights and GTFO.

  14. Saz said:

    Captain is bang on with her answer.
    Your family are being wholy unreasonable.
    I had 2 thoughts reading this:
    1: Where is the husband in all this? He’s responsible for half this situation, so should be pulling half the work. It’s NOT YOUR PROBLEM that he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants at conception time. He needs to step up to the plate.
    2: Sorry, but a person who has to be bed-bound throughout their pregnancy… Perhaps pregnancy 2 (and certainly 3!) were bad news waiting to happen!

    I understand it’s REALLY hard to say no, and to cause friction in the family, particularly when you live at home still. But you need to start using your words here, even if it makes you the bad guy. Like someone above said (really well I thought) “”No” is a whole sentence”. You don’t have to justify yourself 400 times. Just say “No, I won’t be doing that. How about that fiscal cliff thing eh?”

    NOT YOUR PROBLEM.

    • Pterinochilus murinus said:

      Sorry, but a person who has to be bed-bound throughout their pregnancy… Perhaps pregnancy 2 (and certainly 3!) were bad news waiting to happen!

      Hey, this is a pro-choice blog. That means trusting women to make the right decisions about their fertility. LW doesn’t have to support her sister, but her sister still has the right to get pregnant and continue that pregnancy to term.

      • Ditto to this.

      • Siobhan Clarke said:

        Sister definitely has that right, but in this case she’s making choices in a context that insulates her from some of the consequences and it’s costing the LW. The family culture as defined by Mom and imposed on LW seems like it’s led Sister to believe that if she’s on bedrest again, LW is already on reserve as the built-in home help aid. If the go-to solution to difficult pregnancy after difficult pregnancy is that LW works herself to exhaustion and depression, then LW is psychologically absorbing the costs of the pregnancy, and literally, too since she’s either losing work time or time when she could be pursuing work or training. Yes, some families work like that, but it’s usually a stay-at-home or retired grandparent who *volunteers* to be the on-call help, not a sister who’s gang-pressed.

        • Yes, I get the feeling it’s taken for granted that LW will be the nurse/nanny/indentured labour. To me, having more kids on that basis (if that’s how it’s playing out and isn’t more to do with LW’s mother) is absolutely NOT okay, because it’s depriving LW of her choices.

          And as a few people have said already – why the hell isn’t papa doing his bit?

        • Emmers said:

          I think a lot of these comments would come off better if people phrased them as “Sister shouldn’t be basing her pregnancy decisions around the availability of LW-slave-labor” rather than judging Sister for her decisions.

    • griffykate said:

      “Where is the husband in all this? He’s responsible for half this situation, so should be pulling half the work. It’s NOT YOUR PROBLEM that he couldn’t keep his dick in his pants at conception time. He needs to step up to the plate.”

      While we’re talking about respecting reproductive choices, let’s not forget that men also get to make reproductive choices, and have just as much right to have those choices respected. ‘Couldn’t keep his dick in his pants’ reads exactly the same as ‘Couldn’t keep her legs shut’ to me. A lot of men want to be fathers, very much. Whether or not they take responsibility for that choice while the child is growing up, it’s still not okay to reframe a man’s choice to be a father as a mere base animal lust whose consequences he wasn’t smart enough to consider.

      • Absolutely!! Can we PLEASE stop making this thread in any way about how many babies the sister and BIL have chosen to have? People — including people with medical issues, including mental health issues — get to have 0 babies. They get to have 4 babies. Or 7, or 10… That is their own damned business.

        Where these folks have gone astray is making it the LW’s problem that they have 4 babies and it turns out it’s haaaaard.

  15. I’m just gonna echo the sentiments around here that say that you should, if it’s possible, live on your own. I also think it’s funny that “but she’s faaaamily” is never used in your defense. That’s not fair.

    The thing about “selfishness” is that it’s “in the eye of the beholder”. From where I’m sitting, it’s your mom, and maybe your sister, being selfish.

  16. hooplord said:

    tbh, i’m surprised no one here has picked up on the mention in LW’s email about how much reprisal she faces if she dares let her depression/stress get to her

    “Around 2 weeks into that time I broke down sobbing. My sister threw me out”

    i mean clearly her sister has free rein to be depressed or overwhelmed, it’s encouraged, your family has constructed an entire system to support her enfeebled state, but when YOU break down, what happens?

    You get thrown out (of a place you were never wanted, hello BiL) you get reminded of your family duty, you get guilted and blamed for your weakness in the face of your sister’s….. weakness.

    the hell is going on here.

    • When the LW’s mother pressures her to hurry up and get over her depression, one can’t help thinking that getting away from a family that treats her like Cinderella and getting some sleep and maybe even a chance for some exercise and self-care might do wonders!

      • Cinderella is exactly who came to mind for me with this scenario.

        • griffykate said:

          Yes. Yes, yes and yes. Honey, the fairy godmother isn’t coming. The prince is a fiction designed to keep you in your sweet, compliant place. Get out. For the love you owe to yourself and yourself alone, please, get yourself free of your family.

      • Redgirl said:

        Yeah, I couldn’t help wondering if the LW’s family situation is actually the CAUSE of her depression.

  17. 4 pregnancies in 4 years is a lot. That’s your sister’s choice, and that’s cool, but it being only her (and her husbands) choice makes it only their problem. It is not fair to you to make you shoulder any part of the burden of her reproductive choices. Many people manage to have kids without forcing some members of their family to uproot their lives.

    Several of my friends had parents who agreed to be the daytime care giver for their young children. When that didn’t go great the first time around, the kids went to daycare. This is an example of WHAT TO DO. What your faaaaaaaaamily is doing is bullshit.

    You don’t mention much about your employment/money/housing situation in your letter. Which makes me wonder if perhaps you are under or unemployed and your faaaaaaamily is also using that to bully you into doing things you don’t want to do? Whatever your situation is, your time is still valuable and you still get to choose what you do with it. My partner is a one of the very long term unemployed from this recession. I get really annoyed when people just assume that I can make him do arduous tasks that I do not want to do myself by virtue of the fact that he’s got the time. That’s not how being individuals works.

    If you are unemployed, volunteer work is a great way to get out of the house and feel like you are at least making a contribution to society. It would also provide you with some responsibilities to people other than your family, which I think would be good. (I personally loved volunteering at an animal shelter, they almost always need dog walkers. But there are lots of organizations who would welcome your help. My mom used to volunteer at the hospital cheering people up just to get out of the house.)

    Whatever your situation is I agree that some distance from your mother if at all possible might help your situation. And I loved Moi’s suggestion that you involve your brother in law in the discussion.

    Another avenue to consider is that if you’re going to be giving over large amounts of your time to help your sister out, you should be compensated for it. One of my family members is a full time care giver for another. That’s her full time job, she gets room and board and takes care of her Uncle. This is an arrangement they both seem to really like, but they CHOSE it and they are both benefiting from it.

  18. Eevee said:

    What I’m guessing is that the LW has depression and can’t work, or doesn’t have a job that makes enough money to live on her own due to the economy, and since she is dependent on the mom financially the family takes the attitude that she needs to be at their beck and call to “pay her debt” to the family. So telling her to move out of her mom’s house, assert her independence…well, if the alternative is being homeless, that’s not really something she can do.

    I also have to seriously question why a woman with mental issues to the point that she is likely to self-harm or harm her children is having 4 children one right after the other, and needs constant monitoring to keep herself and the children safe. That’s not something the LW can deal with anyway. The sister needs professional help for that.

    • Briznecko said:

      I also have to seriously question why a woman with mental issues to the point that she is likely to self-harm or harm her children is having 4 children one right after the other, and needs constant monitoring to keep herself and the children safe. That’s not something the LW can deal with anyway. The sister needs professional help for that.

      We are not professionals. This kind of armchair diagnosis it 100% not ok.

      • Eevee said:

        What armchair diagnosis? Like I said, she needs a professional. The information about the sister self-harming or harming the children comes from the LW’s letter. It’s possible she’s wrong, but I’m assuming she isn’t wrong about something as important as that.

        • Without weighing in on anyone being in the right or wrong, technically it doesn’t actually say self-harm. It says worries for her physical health. This may well be a matter of connotation – at least to me, self-harm is actively doing something to cause yourself injury or pain, such as cutting, picking, scratching, pulling out hair, etc. Worries for physical health, otoh, could be things like not eating or sleeping enough, which is something that’s a side effect of not doing anything – passive rather than active – or in the case of kids leaving them in wet diapers too long so they get rashes or not feeding them promptly. Technically the latter is self-harm or harming the kids, but that’s not how I, and I suspect a lot of other people, would describe it, and that’s not what I’d generally interpret self-harm to mean.

          • Knights Who Say Knit said:

            This. Also, I didn’t see anything in the letter suggesting anyone thought that the sister would harm her already born children. LW said that zie had to make sure the sister didn’t jeopardize her baby’s health WHILE she was pregnant. That could mean anything from preventing major self-harm to making sure the sister didn’t eat any soft cheeses.

        • Briznecko said:

          This is a space to discuss the LW’s response to the actions of her sister and Mother, not the mental status of her sister.

          Women endure enough “questioning” about whether or not we’re making the right reproductive, parental, body choices, so turning this into “questioning” those very things about her sister because she has acted in an assholeish manner is gross, and again, not ok.
          Unless you have proper certifications and have had in-depth sessions with the sister, then it is not our place to assign any sort of “mental illness.”

          • Briznecko said:

            Holy constant html FAIL Batman!

  19. I love Bartleby!!! White Jacket is another fabuloso Melville book!!

  20. Leela said:

    There is a big difference between a short term all hands on deck scenario and a habitual “you must surrender your life for months at a time because I say so.” In the first case, as an example, I was driving 2 hours round trip a day from my live-in job to walk my family’s three dogs. Mom was out of town and dad had a massive, unexpected work project land in his lap. He did not have the two plus hours to walk them- he barely had time to eat and sleep. And I did it. Because they needed me to, and backing up family when they need it is what my family does. However, if, once my mom returned and dad’s work calmed down to normal, they were refusing to walk the dogs because they didn’t want to, I would have said no. They own the dogs, they live with the dogs, it is not my job.

    I just tl;dred, I know, but think about it. Your mom is expecting you to drive three hours daily to walk dogs that don’t need walking. Your BIL is there. If your mom wants, she can go there. If they need to, they can hire help or get a rota of nearby people. Note that word, “need.” “Because you have done it in the past” is not a need, it’s a want.

    Stand your ground. And good luck.

  21. clairedammit said:

    Captain, I love that you wrote at length about direct communication. This is a bad habit of both my family and my husband’s and it took me a long time to catch on to the pattern. It’s not always a bad thing, but it’s a practice that can be abused, a lot.

    I’ve noticed that in my own family the people who love to be the go-betweens are also a bit manipulative and they don’t always report what was said accurately. So someone says something to them like, “Clairedammit doesn’t like to talk on the phone sometimes” and it becomes “Their feelings are hurt when you don’t want to talk on the phone and you were wrong to cut the conversation short” when actually they were fine with it and understood perfectly. So, LW, direct communication can be so much easier!

  22. caryatid said:

    this is some serious bullshit – to have that many kids in such a short amount of time and expect (demand) everyone else to make it manageable for you. parents need to come up with their own solutions for help if they insist on creating a difficult situation for themselves. agreed, it’s their own choice but consider the fact that many parents choose NOT to have more children because they don’t have resources for enough help and wouldn’t dream of putting family in the position that the LW is being put in.

    LW – absolutely no one here thinks you are in the wrong for taking care of yourself first from now on. best of luck!

  23. eahill58 said:

    I am Speaking now as a woman who gave birth five times,and looked after these children completely alone,(except for the two weeks the Father had off from work,) had no help from family, and would not expect it, these were my choices,i would not have done it if i could not cope with it!!!..,you are just as important as your sister, she has chosen this ,you haven’t!
    I would make myself absent when you know she is giving birth, and that should be easy to predict if she is having a C-section, (i had one too),because i am worried that you maybe ‘guilted’ into ‘giving in’ at the last minute,and there maybe ugly scenes when they realise you mean it,book a holiday, a visit with friends a plane ride or long drive away, you need to put yourself first now, spoil yourself,make it a plan which is hard to break,just in case you feel bad at the last minute, unfortunately sometimes the people we love the most, like our families, can be the most toxic to our recovery.You are an amazing person,really kind and selfless,Your only responsibility now is to your own recovery.

  24. Not It said:

    Hi LW,

    You have my sympathies. I’m wondering if there is also some religious or cultural expectations at work in your situation–that maybe your mother also as a fun bonus invokes God/gods or tradition in an attempt to manipulate you. If so, don’t fall for it! You live in this century and in the US? Canada? and it’s time for your family to assimilate to 21st C North America?. God/gods and your sainted forebearers do not want you to be this unhappy.

    I’m also assuming you are female. Would your mom try this if you were a man? I think not. And what does your dad have to say? Does he just agree with mom on everything?

    I’m just throwing these ideas out there; no need to answer. The Captain has given you excellent, practical advice. I think this sentence sums it up: “I don’t know why your sister and your mom automatically default to the solution that is the most inconveniencing for you.” It’s like they’re trying to come up with the most complicated way to solve very common problems.

    Your letter makes me really angry on your behalf. My aunt was the lone female in her generation and I am the lone female in my generation, but holy cow, there is respect and dignity to be found in that role within the family. I hope that you get to be the wacky, fun aunt, who makes balloon animals and jumps in the bouncy castle (OK, that’s not dignified, but it is fun), rather than nurse/scullery maid.

    And family relationships work both ways. That’s the beauty of being part of a family! Other people should be doing for you.

    Grrrr.

    • Emmers said:

      Pure speculation, but this is what I thought too — that the LW’s family was from one of the more extreme religious groups that places great emphasis on reproduction — traditionalist Catholic (my own background – and I know at least one 30-year-old from my church with four children already), Mormon (although you’d think they’d have more support from within the community itself?), Quiverfull (seems most likely given the lightning-speed timing — 1/year!?), etc. So there are almost certainly other cultural factors at play here.

  25. Selenugg said:

    LW here. I just want to thank all of you for your support and advice.

    As far as my mother being a go-between she is actually the opposite. In fact it’s mostly me that all of my family relays messages through. I’ve done much to squash this with repeated “I don’t know, ask them.” And variations of “I’m not an owl!” Its worked pretty well so far.

    As for the BiL help that’s a whole other can of worms that I’m not sure I want to open. I’m sure part of him would be receptive but… Like I said can ‘o’ worms.

    I am going to take all this great advice and put it into practice. Thanks again Awkward Army. I really appreciate all of it.

    • “I’m not an owl!”

      I love it. That is perfect.

      Best of luck to you, I hope things get better for you. We all do.

  26. LW, I have the feeling that maybe you’ve been the black sheep of your family your whole life, and so that’s why you’re the one who’s on call to serve everyone else now. And why you’ve done it for the past few years; you were raised and trained into the role.

    Our families of origin can manipulate us like nobody else because they had us from birth to program our hot buttons into us. If they need us pressurable by guilt, they train us that way from the very beginning. It’s terribly difficult to deprogram ourselves sometimes!

    You, though — you’ve noticed that Something Is Wrong. You’ve started the reality check and are beginning to notice the evil bees that have been living in your family home your whole life.

    You can get out! It starts with these scripts. It probably involves moving out. It might involve cutting contact and/or moving far away. All of the steps you’ll need to take will be hard and you’ll endure a storm of pressure.

    But trust me, when you’re out, you’ll have a still, quiet space that is all your own, that nobody will ever even try to kick you out of. You’ll learn about what you are and are not willing to do, and how far you will drive each day to support someone. You will meet people whose love is all about helping *you*, instead of demanding you empty yourself out to help them.

    • Truthseeker said:

      Can I just say an “Amen” to “You will meet people whose love is all about helping *you*, instead of demanding you empty yourself out to help THEM.”

      As a fellow blacksheep myself, I have been in your shoes, LW oh so many times. It’s as if we aren’t recognized, treated with dignity and respect, and in a weird way, not seen until we facilitate the role that we’ve been assigned and trained to do all of our lives. Once we fall back in line, we are “loved” again. We’re accepted back in. When we have proven ourselves by emptying ourselves out to help them.

      Once we say “No.” these people who claim to love, respect and appreciate us, choose not to respect us when we use our words. Some families are like mini cults. Every person has a role in their families, which was defined and reinforced over and over again, year after year. These roles must stay intact at all costs. “No” is never a complete sentence, rather a one-sided negotiation.

      LW, Your mother behaves as if your sister is YOUR daughter. Is she not the sole puppet master in all the unbalanced families toxic dynamics here? What kind of mother and father, passes the buck onto their own child, and allows that child to believe that they are responsible for how your sister and the “group” feels and behaves? Wow. What an incredible responsibility you have been conditioned to take on as your own. To never feel like you are enough. That you are seen. To be taken advantage of because you are sensitive, empathetic, unselfish, and always caring. I am so sorry you have felt in any way responsible for all of your families mental health. It’s hard to step back and express that your mental health comes first, when you are being told that you and only you decide the mental health of your family as a whole. Yet when you leave, create distance to get healthy and whole, you are a traitor. Translation: if you break away and get healthy, you are betraying us. What an unfair burden to put onto another human being.

      LW, I get the sense that you understand the unfairness of this all. I would ask that you take a step back, and ask yourself these questions; “If I were pregnant, healthy and whole, mentally, pregnant again, would my family work this hard for me? Would I be comfortable with siblings helping me when I never asked my siblings, but was being helped only by way of triangulation? Would I be okay upsetting someone else’s life, their schedule and their responsibilities without speaking to them myself?

  27. emmych said:

    Wow, what a shit pile situation, LW! Jedi Hugs and a pot of Psychic Soup for you. :(

    I totes feel you, here: sometimes you really do have to step back and take care of YOU, even if someone you love is in crisis mode. The way I see it, how can you care for someone else when you are literally unable to properly care for yourself right now? I mean, you wouldn’t send all of your firetrucks to a neighbouring town when your own city hall is ablaze, would you?

    It is okay to let go of other people’s feelings and problems when you need to focus on your own wellbeing. Your sister may very well be in the worst crisis ever right now, but this is why we have Team Me’s with more than one person in them! Sometimes our numero uno doesn’t have the means to help, since they are a person who has ups and downs, too. Your sister has other resources she can look to for help, and asking her to talk to them instead of you this time is okay.

  28. duck-billed placelot said:

    I just wanted to tap in on an issue in comments; Awkward Army! Let us not judge and shame women for their reproductive choices, m’kay? Sister is totally allowed to choose to have four children in quick succession. Hell, if I were going to have four kids, I’d want to have them one on top of another, because who wants to deal with diapers for 18 years? Anyway, I’m pretty sure we can be supportive of LW, who is completely right that she needs to be better treated by faaaamily, without any breeder-bashing.

    LW: get on with your bad self. You’re such an awesome helper that your sister thought, ‘Difficult pregnancy? NO SWEAT: ON TO THREE MORE!’ Which I find a pretty awesome level of helpitude. However, if you’re expected to be a caregiver, then you should have been part of the ‘should baby #4 happen right now’ conversation, and if you weren’t, then nope, nope, they’re on their own. Maybe buy them a lovely soft receiving blanket and consider yourself done.

    • Ditto to paragraph 1!

      • Suzy said:

        I definitely wasn’t trying to breeder-bash, I was more saying that the sister should be expected to take responsibility herself rather than having it be assumed by the faaamily that LW drops everything without argument. Of course, I’m not saying people who have difficult pregnancies shouldn’t have children and that the sister should suck it up. I was more highlighting another instance of how it seemed to be believed that the LW would and should just drop everything and get over her own issues.

        But I wasn’t trying to breeder-bash or enforce anyone’s reproductive choices. Yay, choices!

        • Perhaps everybody’s sentiments on the subject could be better summed up as: “Your sister and her husband need to be making their reproductive choices under the assumption that they will be responsible for all parts of the process.” Currently someone — either they or your mother or the invisible fairies that are evidently putting ideas into their heads — is asserting that you will be responsible for some part of this whole pregnancy and childrearing thing, without consulting you on the matter first. They are not your children. No matter how much you love them, you are not responsible for them.

          Also, nthing the “get out” part, and the “broken record” part. I knew my mother was weird and stressful and aggravating while I still lived with her, but I had no idea she really was GODDAMN CRAZY before I moved away for college and met normal(-ish) people. I then spent an entire semester refusing to answer the telephone for any reason, because she couldn’t have a conversation either at a decent hour OR without picking a fight and then telling me it was my fault, right around the time I started crying. I also hung up on her a few times during the callbacks, after specifically telling her that I wasn’t going to discuss whatever she wanted to fight about and that if she kept pushing we were done talking. She eventually twigged and modified her behavior quite a bit.

          • Suzy said:

            Yes, this! That’s exactly what I meant! That’s summed up much better than I said it! Have as many kids as you like, sure, but don’t just assume that people will just wait on you hand and foot.

          • The last part is why therapy is so often a good idea even if the person has no diagnosable conditions. Sometimes you need someone outside your situation to go all wrinkly-foreheaded and say “wow, that is so not normal!” before you realize it’s ok to not be ok with how you are being treated.

      • emmych said:

        Yessssss, that one! The problem here isn’t the having more kids thing, anyway, but rather disrespect of boundaries and expectations on the LW! This could be about a sister with a debilitating illness, or who broke her leg, etc. and my feelings would still be the same — the baby-having is irrelevant, in my mind.

  29. duaecat said:

    I want to add an additional +100000 to the Communicate Directly part. My mother’s favorite game in the world was sitcom-esque Telephone.
    Me-to-mom: “I hope sis brings the pumpkin pie to Thanksgiving, instead of the pecan. I like the pumpkin better.”
    Mom-to-sis: “Duae doesn’t want you to bring the pecan pie because she hates it, and says you do a terrible job on it, and it makes her want to puke. Bring pumpkin, not even you can screw it up. I tried telling her what an amazing pie maker you are, But you know how SHE is.”
    Sis-to-me: “Did you really tell mom you wanted me to bring pumpkin pie and not pecan?”
    Me-to-sis: “Well, yeah….?”
    Sis-to-me: *RAGESPLOSION* “You are the nastiest human being EVER!”

    And my sister would think I was a horrible person, and I would think she was blowing up over nothing, and mom was there to pat us both individually and tell us we were both right and she was on our side.

    So not saying that’s what’s happening, but your mother has the potential to be making things much much worse without you knowing. She’s obviously skilled in manipulating you and pushing your buttons, why not your sister’s too? Could your sister have brought up “Hey, how about I hire someone?” and gotten a lecture on how insulting that would be to FAMILY and her sister has wanted to do this again for years and now she’s going to be insulted and cranky when she comes over because she knows you thought some meddling stranger would be better than her own flesh and blood?

    And maybe she’s not, in which case it’s still an excellent boundary to have that really can’t hurt anything at all!

  30. I know a woman on Twitter who’s been working as a nanny, and one of her completely justified bugbears is how unvalued that sort of caring work is. Providing live in help, essentially all day every day? That sort of thing should be paying hundreds of dollars a week, especially when it’s for something as highly valued as people’s kids. The only reason it’s so unvalued is because it’s “women’s work” and capitalism operates on the back of women’s work. Usually family isn’t going to be paying market rates anyway (though in some situations this is hugely abused, like here) but they need to recognise exactly what they’re asking of you.

    I gotta say, at first I assumed that your sister was single because you didn’t even mention her husband for so long. What is he doing? I would assume working, but how much is he doing to help outside of working hours? Considering this pregnancy is so much easier than the past ones, what exactly is he unable to help with that would require you to step in, and why? In your situation I would be wanting to make those questions very clear to at least force your mother and sister to acknowledge them, whether or not they were able to give a proper answer. Though, even if they did have a proper answer, it’s still not your job to do this! I doubt they’ll be able to though because last time her husband didn’t even like you being there. That implies to me that he, personally, did think he could do more of the work, and quite possibly felt a bit slighted at the assumption that he couldn’t. If you have any kind of relationship with him you might want to talk to him directly as well to see what his opinion is. You could even open by saying that you noticed he wasn’t happy last time and don’t want to do that to him – recognising that his feelings here are important too. He might well be able to be on your side in this.

  31. Good luck, Selenugg!

    The thing I find most worrisome is that you’re living with your mom. Either she’s a pleasant roommate in all other ways (which strikes me as unlikely), or there’s some reason you can’t kick her out/move. If that reason involves financial or other dependence on her, it makes saying no even more fraught.

    I hope I’m wrong! But if not, maybe someone smarter than me has advice on how to resist manipulation by somebody who’s supporting you in some way.

  32. Cady said:

    Selenugg, can you fill in any details about your living arrangements with your mom? And when/how your sister chose to live three hours away? You are asking about scripts to alter the power dynamics between members of your family; understanding who owns the literal “turf” — and how they got to do that — might help refine the answers you get. This is a fraught, painful situation and we want to do our best for you!

  33. JR said:

    There’s every possibility that if LW stands up for herself and says no, her family will shun her. And I’m talking about this possibility because I want LW to know that’s okay. See, I read this situation as abusive, with Mom and Sister using LW shamefully and feeling no compunction about emotional manipulation and blackmail to get what they want. As someone who has distanced herself forcefully from an abusive, emotionally damaging, toxic family, I can assure you that the aftermath feels better than the split will hurt. I constantly see my friends struggling with toxic family relationships and being afraid to stand up to overbearing relatives and I feel an amazing freedom and relief that I chose to walk away from my own.
    There are disadvantages to walking away from bio family, it’s true, but you have to weigh the disadvantages against the advantages. Are things like control over your own life, not being constantly made to feel like a bad person, and freedom from emotional blackmail and a crushing workload for unappreciative relatives worth the costs to you? If they don’t respond to the Captain’s suggestions for how to politely say no, remember a time comes to be impolite and free yourself.

    • griffykate said:

      I recently split from everyone in my family except my lovely laid-back dad who doesn’t expect things of me. I identified with your first paragraph something wicked. I have independent adult friends whose parents don’t know that they smoke because, yikes, that would create PROBLEMS. I am so glad to be free of that BS. And that’s only the minor stuff, of course. Breaking free of the Adult Sibling Network of Evil Bee Domiciles was the hardest, scariest and best decision I ever made.

      • ReanaZ said:

        Ahaha. Yes. I am one of those friends. I recently joined a friend for the holidays and she made a comment teasing me about my tattoo and how we better come up with a story about it so her family didn’t think I was
        “one of those”, and I was like, “It’s okay, I can just make sure to always wear shirts that cover it.” and she looked at me all aghast and said she was totally kidding and it wasn’t a deal and even if it was, so what? And then I asked if what topics were off-limits in front her of her family and she was like, “What are you talking about?” and I explained how when I take friends to my family, we have to do the pre-meeting debrief about how not to swear or mention that I drink or really that you drink and not that I’m bi or anything about my religious views or tattoo and definitely not smoking and maybe not that one weekend…

        Needless to say, she was more than a little horrified.

        This was maybe okay when I was a teenager but I am a grown fucking person who has been financially and location-independent for nearly a decade. Sigh. I have some not giving a fucks and subsequent harassing to come to term with.

        • griffykate said:

          Good luck and Jedi hugs for that. The process sucks, I won’t lie, but I’ve found life is better on the other side!

        • Emmers said:

          Oh CHRIST, the pre-meeting family debriefs where you get together and figure out what subjects are okay to talk about and what subjects are not. I *so* do not miss those.

        • Oh, man, I am so with you there.

          I have started whittling down the amount of Fucks I have available with regards to Family and The All-Important Parental Opinions… and y’know, for me, it wasn’t that bad. Sure, my folks will never understand me and probably think I’m having a personality crisis*, but it’s been very freeing.

          *In a way, I am having a personality crisis – the personality I want to have is in conflict with the personality I was groomed to have. Guess who’s winning? >:D

  34. n said:

    I think you’re trapped with your mother. Make it one of your top long-term priorities to get out of that trap.
    When you broke down and cried your sister threw you out? Do that again! Break down and cry every time you see her, even at your own house. Slam doors and stomp away too. Refuse to help with anything and cry every time you hear an order or a demand. Scream at your mom. You’re depressed so use it for defence. Your depression is on your side. Demand that _they_ help you because you’re family. Stop being the Good One.

  35. n said:

    I think my method’s called Lose Control to Gain Control. Worked wonders for me.

    • This is unfortunately useful advice. I used to do this as a teenager. Whenever my parents started yelling over something and wouldn’t stop, I burst into hysterical tears. They switched from angry to contemptuous, but that did let me escape to my room and shut the door. If you’re sincerely stuck, you do what you can.

    • J. Preposterice said:

      Me, too! This was my primary defense mechanism against my nutbar father. It is seriously maladaptive in my romantic relationship with my spouse, and is one of the things we’ve dealt with in therapy, but as a defense mechanism as a child it was unparalleled in its usefulness. (Oh, you just demanded I do something? And you plan to scream at me and threaten me unless I do? WELL, I CAN SCREAM TOO.)

  36. DameB said:

    I don’t think I saw this point made anywhere else, but if it was made, it still bears repeating.

    Even if you were PERFECTLY HEALTHY IN ALL WAYS, you would have the total right (or even, I think, responsibility) to say no to this insane demand.

    Caring for children, especially infants, is a job that hollows you out, sometimes. It can be exhausting and depleting. Being forced into it by your family is wrong and bad and all those things those smart people above me have said.

    I say this only so that if you get healthy and your sister gets pregnant, you are prepared for folks to say “But you’re better now, so you should do this insane thing!” And you should be prepared to repeat all those awesome scripts above, but omitting the “I need to focus on my health” bit. I almost kinda sorta wanna say that you should just drop it from this go-round, as well. You have the right, as a person, to say no, regardless of your health.

    • Though even when you’re healthy focusing on your health is important so you can STAY healthy, especially if you have suffered from poor health in the past. Totally agree though. No one is obligated to do this sort of shit. You have not signed a contract.

  37. Sheelzebub said:

    LW, how old are you? Are you in high school? Are you in college? Are you working?

    If you are at the legal age of adulthood and are working/in school, can you find friends to stay with? If you are still a minor, are there relatives you can live with? Can you talk to a school counselor? Because wow, this is not okay.

    I am going to leave my thoughts about your mother and sister out of this–suffice it to say that I think they are out of line and I’d like to millionth what was pointed out upthread, that YOU ARE FAMILY TOO AND YOUR NEEDS COUNT TOO. Also, your BIL can step up to the plate.

    You can be as strong as iron in your refusal to be your sister’s unpaid lady-in-waiting, but I think your mother will make your life very uncomfortable for you since you live with her. So I think putting a lot of physical distance between yourself and your mother (and frankly, your sister) would be an effective way to stop that, and give you a chance to breathe air that’s not polluted with YOU DON’T COUNT molecules.

  38. Selenugg said:

    I guess since some asked for some clarification I will ….clarify.

    I own this house. But I am unemployed. My mom pays the bills.

    My Mom is not actually that bad about anything else except with my mental health issues and where it comes to my sister. Where someone up thread said I had been trained to do this hits pretty close to home. Since we were children I was always held responsible for my sister and her actions.

    And my sister is really manipulative with me and my Mom. In the beginning we were afraid if we told her no she would withhold the children from us. And she kinda did at times. And just today my sister had her eldest call my Mom and ask her to come down. And even though I wasn’t on the phone I know that my sister was probably right there coaching my nephew on what to say. This is the kind of thing she does.

    I know how gross it is. How gross my sister’s behavior is. Which is why I try to be there as much as possible for the kids. I want these children to know that they have a safe place to go. I want there to be a safe place for them if they ever need it. Cause having grown up with my sister I’m fairly certain they are going to need it.

    • Sheelzebub said:

      OK, this helps.

      Follow the script the Captain gave you. When your mother says, “Yes you are” to your “I’m not going to provide the help sister demands,” simply tell her that you are not asking for her permission, you are informing her (and your sister) of your decision. You are family too. Your needs count too. This is not a negotiation.

      Yes, it’s important for you to be there for the kids. The thing is, if you and your mother keep jumping every time your sister pulls this manipulative bullshit, they will learn one of two (or both of two) things:

      1) It’s okay for people to manipulate you, and you must jump at all times when they do
      2) It’s okay to manipulate people

      Draw that boundary. Use the script. Be a broken record. If your mother doesn’t like it and threatens to leave, she can leave. If she continues to mention it, you should feel free to tell her “This is no longer under discussion. It will not be spoken of again and if you do not like the fact that I refuse to do this, you are free to go.” It sounds cold, but this is actually a really big deal. This isn’t a small thing you’ve had to put up with–for your entire life, your very personhood has been subsumed by your family. That has colored your views on what’s going on and frankly, it’s really fueled the depression. So if your mother gets stroppy and goes, know that you can find roommates to pay rent and cover your costs.

      You must concentrate on getting well. I will echo the Captain here–if you do not have a good therapist in place (and possibly a meds regimen), find one. It is absolutely imperative that this be your first priority. You need to be in a good headspace to live your life (and enjoy it and thrive). This is not something you can find a quick fix for (oddly enough, your mom doesn’t hound your sister to find a quick fix for her issues–there’s a really stinky double-standard in your family, and it is NOT OKAY).

      I do not know where you are financially–if you’re getting unemployment or disability or any sort of income coming in. If you are able to work and you’re looking for a job, try and get something–anything–even if it’s part time or a contract/temp position, so you can get out of the house and get some money stashed away.

      I’d also set those ground rules. I’m just echoing the Captain here, but if sister wants to visit, she can stay in a hotel. Your mother cannot and should not invite her over without asking you if it’s okay, and if you say no she should accept it with good grace.

      I would also not take messages from your mother or anyone else that your sister passes along. “Sister hasn’t said anything to me about that.” If they say, “Well, I’m telling you,” you can respond, “I am not going to operate this way. If sister needs/wants something from me, or if she has an issue with me, she is welcome to speak with me herself. I do not want to hear these things second-hand from you.” Repeat as necessary. And do what the Captain did–wait for sister to bring it up. And remember–when you refuse, it is not a negotiation. You’re informing your family members of your decision, and they have to respect it.

      At some point during your therapy–especially if you have some physical distance between you and your family–you may find you’re pissed off at them. I mean LIVID at them. If that happens, it’s okay. If you can get there now, it may help in setting some mile high, steel-reinforced boundaries.

      If your mother feels the need to provide round the clock care for your sister, she can either pay for it herself or she can do it herself. She is not your boss, and she cannot “let” you do anything.

      • Moi said:

        When your mother says, “Yes you are” to your “I’m not going to provide the help sister demands,” simply tell her that you are not asking for her permission, you are informing her (and your sister) of your decision. You are family too. Your needs count too. This is not a negotiation.

        I second everything above, but especially this. Renters are easier to find than a good place to rent, I’ve found, so you have the control there.

        On the subject of your nieces and nephews, it is wonderful that you’re willing to be the safe place for them if and when they need it. Just please remember that you helping now won’t mean she stops holding their affections and time hostage. It just means she knows an effective way to get you to help against your own self interest. If they have email or Facebook or similar, can you reach out to them that way? (And, honestly, showing them that taking care of one’s own mental health is important is being a damn good role model).

        All my best wishes to you, LW. I hope you’ll keep us posted. We’re all rooting for you!!

      • Chiming in on the “you may be LIVID” bit. Hell, I kind of am on your behalf, and I’ve never even met these people. Being really, really, blazingly angry at people you love can be scary, but it’s an okay — and sometimes necessary — feeling to have.

    • n said:

      Wow, this sounds terrible, Selenugg. Has your sister threatened or casually mentioned the possibility of hurting herself or the kids? Anything about refusing to care about anything and/or to control herself? Has she made any threats or implied any? In other words, is she psychologically abusing you and your mom? Is there any actual or possible danger to the kids?
      Being cut off from the kids for some time (if that’s her worst threat) might actually be a good thing. At least you’d get some respite from their horrible mom aka your sister. I’d say, enjoy your time off. She will let you in again, I think, if you’re her only option of free childcare/babysitting.

      • Elikit said:

        Accepting being cut off is great advice. I once had a falling out with a dramatic friend who was asking WAY TOO MUCH and since I didn’t want to give it, I was failing her like everyone else in her life. So we didn’t talk to each other for a while, and I was like, “Well, I guess we aren’t friends anymore? Maybe I should reach out?”

        And another levelheaded friend said, “Just you wait, Eli. She needs you more than you need her, so she’ll be back.”

        Less than two weeks later, she put the feelers out, and now we’re back on speaking terms, and I am fairly certain that she gets that if she pulls DRAMA, I am prepared to walk away, and the friendship is more even.

    • Siobhan Clarke said:

      In my family, everyone drinks the Kool-Aid about my sister’s mental-health issues except me, and at one point this meant I accepted being cut off from her while she was living (as an adult) in my parents’ house, so when I would go home for holidays I’d get the silent treatment from her, or she would move to a friend’s house temporarily…fun times! It was awkward as all heck and went on for years, but I quickly found it was a huge relief when I wasn’t actually home because I could de-couple my sense of who I was from who she was, and it let me grow into the person I hadn’t been able to be while I was enmeshed in my family’s pact of silence.

      Eventually, my sister approached me because my life was moving on and the rest of the family was part of it, so if she wanted to be in the family, she had to allow it to be reworked on my terms.

      I know it feels like those kids are hostages, but you are going to be a WAY better refuge for them when they need you if you have established that your home is a no-bullshit space where your sister is concerned.

      Courage! You can do this. None of the fallout is going to be as bad as you think, and it may help your mom enormously to see you taking the lead in standing up to this bully in the family.

    • Bunny said:

      Oh man! Okay, if the house belongs to you, then that actually helps a bit. For one thing, it lets you lay down solid ground rules with your mum, and I think it would be a good idea to do that if you can.

      House Rule #1
      This is my house, not yours. It is not okay for you to invite other people to stay in my home without consulting with me first. It is totally not okay to make arrangements regarding my home that would require me to vacate it temporarily without my express agreement. No, not even if they are family. This is my home. I get to be the one that makes those sort of decisions.

      House Rule #2
      My health is just as important as that of any other member of the family. I get to decide how best to manage my mental, physical and emotional wellbeing and I get to set my own boundaries. I will* offer as much help to family as I feel is reasonable. I am not an unpaid maid. I will not be ordered around as though I was.

      Obviously, I’ve gone kind of really harsh here, mostly because I’m feeling a tough of HULK SMASH towards your family on your behalf.

      *As much as is reasonable may vary according to your needs at any given time, up to and including such needs as “I don’t want to”. But that part can remain unspoken.

    • popesuburban said:

      “She’s great except for the fact that she clips her toenails and doesn’t throw away the bits” is one thing. “She’s great except she foments drama, hijacks my whole life, and blatantly disregards my mental health in every way” is another thing entirely. One is a quirk that can be tolerated. The other is someone who may well destroy you. Your mom, it seems, raises velociraptors. Bitey ones. That drop guano all over your carpet and make it impossible to do anything, ever, because you’re so busy trying to clean up after them and not get bitten. Sure, there is only the one right now, but it is such a lot of bitey, ungrateful, guano-making work! You do not have to be bitten by a velociraptor. It is hazardous to your health and no reasonable person would expect it of you.

    • Mostly Lurking said:

      I hear what you are saying – you want to be there for your sister’s children. But I think that part of the ‘being thereness’ has to be to model sensible behaviour – to let them know that what they experience at home is not ‘how the world works’ and ‘how everybody behaves’ – by modelling clear boundaries and adult behaviour (including not accepting abuse) you will be helping them. They might not come to appreciate that help for some time, but I think they will.

      Your sister is her own person. She is free to tell lies about you to her children or not; to forbid them to speak to you or not. Nothing you say or do will guarantee that she behaves how you want her to (as a rational adult being); she *wants* you to believe (and it sounds as if other family members have bought into that myth) that you are responsible for her actions, that bad things may/will happen because YOU didn’t concede to her demands… but the truth is, you have no control over her. (If you did, she’d behave differently already!)
      What I can guarantee is that this is affecting *your* mental health negatively… and that IS something you can change.
      Please invest some time into planning an exit strategy. What is the worst that can happen? If your mother moves out, or refuses to pay your bills, how will you get a lodger, or in the worst case, sell your house? Yes, that would totally suck, but it’s an not entirely unrealistic scenario, and if you have a plan B, you will be able to weather the storm better. If you think your sister will try to cut you off from her children, what can you do now to keep contact with them? To build your own relationship with them? Are there family members who would convey birthday cards behind your sister’s back, if the worst comes to the worst? If you want to provide a person and place they can turn to, your priority is to be that person and have that place – that is not entirely under your control, but much more under your control.

      I wish you all the best. Look after yourself.

      • +1

        This is really solid. I’m in a similar situation with my cousin and his kids, and although right now they’re too young to understand what a juicebox their dad is, someday I’m sure they will (unless they grow up into juiceboxes themselves, and God I hope not), and if/when they come to that realization they will always know that Cousin C is a safe dad-free zone where they are always welcome. That’s the best I can do, and I’ve accepted that as my only realistic role in the situation.

  39. thesurfmonkey said:

    I love the Bartleby the Scrivener reference. That is absolutely the way to handle unreasonable or unwanted requests from manipulative people. If the Bartleby phrase of “I prefer not to” feels too archaic, there is one of my favorites: “That’s not going to happen.” Repeated over and over and over again.

    Also, my passive-aggressive side noticed a loophole in the arrangements. After saying “That’s not going to happen”, or one of the Captain’s scripts about hoping they find a solution that works for them, you may still find yourself hounded to go drive the 3 hours and do all sorts of stuff. If you are hounded, you can always get in your car and drive somewhere else. You can go to a movie, or the library, or a therapist’s office, or a class, or any number of places. At the very least, the 3 hours they are expecting you to be en route, you can have a peaceful time to yourself. And then when the flurry of calls or texts begins, you can simply reply that you had already told them it wasn’t going to happen. And then you can turn off your phone and continue with your own plans.

    This plan has the additional benefit of switching from being the reliable one to being the unreliable one. And I think that’s ok, given that your family has been relying on you in an unreasonable and unhealthy way. If you suddenly can’t be relied on any more because you just don’t show up, they can use their resources to figure out their own solutions.

    • Maz said:

      This is genius!

    • I *love* that idea! Three hours is a long time to be able to get some space, calm down and be enjoying yourself. And then probably another half hour or hour after they realise you haven’t turned up at sister’s place, that gives you some great out of the house time while simultaneously teaching them that you’re not going to be their servant.

    • roramich said:

      Genius!

    • Mostly Lurking said:

      If you are hounded, you can always get in your car and drive somewhere else.

      I love this, and it’s the ultimate in boundary setting: ‘I am not going to do this’ followed by NOT DOING IT. There will be fallout, but once you have demonstrated that you WILL NOT DO IT (and enjoy yourself during that time!) that line should be firmly drawn.

    • cuntessvonfingerbang said:

      Ohhhh, brilliant! I’m c+p’ing this to my gmail drafts folder as a reminder to myself that THIS IS AN OPTION! Beautiful.

    • So much smartness!

  40. Not It said:

    “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”–Audre Lorde

    • JenniferP said:

      Beautiful.

    • roramich said:

      SPOT ON. Thank you for this, it’s totally helpful.

    • Not It said:

      Do you want it embroidered on a pillow? I might be able to come up with a pattern!

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