Carolyn Hax: Advice

Carolyn Hax: No bad guys in this family squabble

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I have been married for almost six years to a great guy and have three small children. My widowed mother-in-law, “Nancy,” recently had a stroke and needs daily care, so she moved in with us. I love her and am glad to be there for her, but even though I’m a stay-at-home mom and we have hired a part-time aide, it is a lot. My husband and his younger brother work long hours in the family business, plus there is a limited amount Nancy is comfortable having her sons do for her.

I asked my sister-in-law, “Lena,” whom I have a great relationship with, to pitch in with Mom’s care. Lena is a nurse practitioner who only works three days a week and lives 10 minutes away, yet has flatly refused to help. I know she and Nancy aren’t close but I was still shocked.

I since found out that Nancy treated Lena somewhat badly early on (long before I joined the family). Even though Nancy is, and always has been, like a second mom to me. My husband says Mom was unfriendly to Lena, who is from a different culture/socio-economic class. The unfriendliness tapered off after my niece was born — 15 years ago!

I think Lena is being petty but she says she’s showing her daughter that “women don’t have to be doormats.” Needless to say, this is driving a wedge between us. Am I right that she’s being vindictive, or is she right that she’s simply refusing to be a martyr?

Anonymous

I don’t think any of us gets to decide when someone who has been mistreated for her “culture/socio-economic class” is obligated to forgive based on what we think is sufficient passage of time.

Everything else here is just details.

If it is too much for you, then do absolutely request, even insist on, more help than you’ve currently hired — but don’t expect anything from Lena or resent her for not giving it.

Independent of the mistreatment issue, Lena has solid grounds for saying no: She did not have any say, apparently, in the decision to provide your mother-in-law’s daily care at home versus some kind of assisted living. I can see having a real problem with watching a bunch of things decided by others — your taking her in, her not letting the sons handle much of the care, your having three children to care for, the sons’ working long hours — result in responsibilities devolving to her. You are making a gender-based calculation that it’s her duty to pitch in.

You opened your home to your mother-in-law out of kindness and affection for Nancy. That doesn’t entitle you, however, to expect the same values, priorities and loyalties of others. You speak and act for you, not for Lena or anyone else.

If I were in Lena’s place, I might pitch in occasionally out of respect for my friendship with you, but I can also see drawing a line out of respect for myself. Out of friendship with Lena, please do this same exercise — not just putting yourself in her place, but looking for ways to agree.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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