Dear Family Advisor

My sister is a caregiving martyr!

Last updated: Jul 13, 2010

Our mom is in her 80s and has had a series of health issues lately -- surgeries, rehab, that sort of thing. Her mind is fine, and she lives in a swanky assisted living place, but my sister keeps trying to "out-caregive" me. If I can't be there for Mom's surgery but my sister can, I never hear the end of it. It's not like having two of us in the waiting room is going to make Mom heal any faster. If I take Mom to a doctor's appointment, my sister calls to find out what was said and ask why I didn't take notes. She goes on and on about all she does, or she calls me to get me to worry with her about things that aren't worth worrying about, like whether Mom will be able to make it to a family party six weeks from now. She also calls Mom every day and implies it's uncaring of me not to do the same.

I think Mom is fine with my approach, and our relationship is fine -- but my sister's guilt-tripping and one-upmanship is tearing us all apart. (By the way, we have a third sister who lives across the country and stays out of everything, and nobody gets on her case!) How can I convince my controlling sister to lay off and let me help our mother in the way I see fit?

Tell your sister just like you told me: "Let me help our mother in the way I see fit." Make sure your tone, body language, and conviction back up your words. Your goal isn't to pick a fight; it's to establish that you're there for your mom, just in a different way from your sister "“ and your way isn't up for debate or question.

It's common for siblings to have very different caregiving styles. What makes one person feel safe -- such as the way your sister plans things out, takes control, and micromanages -- makes the other sibling feel smothered, controlled, and overwhelmed with a myriad of details.

Your sister's actions can be read a couple of ways. One is that she has a type A personality; she approaches everything, even relationships, with a clipboard in hand. Since you've known her all your life, you'll know whether this rings true. Type As tend to be headstrong and tackle things head on, then dictate to others what they think should be done -- and when and how. They were doing this when they were 4 years old, bossing all the other kids on the playground. If this describes your sister, it's OK that she's a take-charge kind of gal -- this can even be useful -- but it's not OK that she judges you for relating to your mom in a different way.

Or some of her actions may stem from (fairly or unfairly) not feeling recognized and thanked by her sisters for the things she does for your mother.

Another possibility is that she's running scared. Many people go into hyper-drive when they're bored or unfulfilled in other aspects of their life. Some are afraid that if they stop or slow down, they'll start to feel all the overwhelming emotions of helplessness, hopelessness, and grief that they're trying so hard to outrun. This safety mechanism keeps them revved up; unfortunately, responding with love and patience can feel like you're trying to hug a teddy bear wrapped in barbed-wire.

Continue to be just who you are. Do what feels right. There's no "wrong" way to be with your mom. There is some sacrifice that comes with caring for someone -- there are times when you may need to inconvenience yourself or stay at the hospital all night -- but do it because you know you have a choice, not because you're guilt-tripped or goaded into it.

Begin to envision the two of you -- and your third sister -- as equals. Call your out-of-town sister and keep her posted. Reassure her that your mom needs her, too. She may feel pushed out by your pushy sister, or she may not realize that her contributions would be valued. Encourage her to speak up and visit your mom as much as she can.

I truly believe that we're given the parents we need -- and parents are given the children they need. We learn from one another, and each relationship is unique and necessary for personal growth. The same is true of siblings. You have a very intimate connection (no matter how much static it may sometimes have), and there's much to learn from one another. Even the arguments, hurts, and misunderstandings that come with family life can be valuable. When you see yourself and your other family members in this light, it's easier to "hold your own" and not back down or feel threatened when issues start flying around like sand in a desert sandstorm.

Proceed from a place of quiet confidence. When we truly know our own value, others begin to treat us differently. I can't promise your sister will do this -- she may stay in overdrive -- but the best gift you can give yourself, your sisters, and your mom is to stay true to you. By encouraging each sister to appreciate the unique contributions of the others, you can come together to care for your mother.