Dear Family Advisor

I do all the caregiving work, and my "golden boy" brother gets the glory.

Last updated: Mar 10, 2010

I'm so sick of my parents playing favorites. Oh, they would never admit to this, but it's so clear to me. For the past 18 months they have lived with my husband and me and our three kids. We take them to doctor appointments, cook for them, and manage their bills; in exchange they put money toward the household bills. It's a good arrangement, although money is still tight. I wouldn't mind, except for the fact that all we ever hear about are the once-in-a-blue-moon things that my older brother does for them.

He lives across the country and swoops in every few months to do something outrageous, like take them to an expensive dinner (but he would never help pay for their food bills). Or he buys them fancy things they don't need -- last week it was a computer, which I can tell you they will never use. He doesn't seem to see the very basic needs and he never asks me how I'm doing. Forget telling me to have a talk to him. I've tried and nothing changes...all he cares about is to be the Golden Boy in their eyes. How can I get Mom and Dad to stop lording him over me, and how can I get Mr. Moneybags to spend his money in more useful way?

It's not fair that your brother gets the "fun" part, but sadly, this basic dynamic isn't likely to change. Your brother's role as giver of lavish gifts and "golden son" who swoops your parents off their feet allows them to enjoy the glamour and excitement that their day-to-day lives lack. I'm betting you wouldn't choose to razzle-dazzle them any more than your brother could do the quiet constant work you do. In some ways, your parents need a little of both.

Anger, jealousy, and comparisons won't solve this battle. So stop making it a battle. Your brother will probably never come around and do things your way as long as you're demanding it. As soon as you stop giving him the power to aggravate you, the more you'll be content right where you are. So even though you're frustrated, let him be who he is.

Deep-down your parents, and probably your brother, know you're the real deal. You'll be happier when you stop comparing your parental relationship to his.

Do you think your parents might be egging on a rivalry between the two of you? Don't be surprised if they don't enjoy the drama. Remember, too, that for parents, children are a kind of report card for what kind of mothers and fathers we are. If they appear less than admirable, then we feel as if we've failed. Your parents may fuss over your brother in an exaggerated way out of a determination to see him in a good light. Another possible influence: Some people with big personalities seem to charm anyone and everyone they meet; even their parents can be sucked into all the hoopla. You can't expose this without appearing jealous and petty, so don't try. Just be yourself and feel your own worth.

Decide what you could really use from your brother in terms of financial help (maybe something he'd feel would make him look good as well) --- and then ask for it in front of your parents. You can't necessarily change who your brother is, but you may be able to use it to your advantage. Catch him at his own game, if you will. That new computer? Use it yourself.

At the same time, do try to see the good your brother brings to your parents' lives. Even thank him for it. There's no better way to deal with our frustrations and challenges than to turn around and show gratitude for them. Do this not because your brother does or doesn't deserve it. Do it because of the kind of person you're choosing to be. If he makes your parents' faces light up, isn't that a good thing? If he makes your mother smile and blush and look forward to seeing him, then doesn't that enrich her life?

If being the dreary one (in comparison) really bothers you, ask yourself how you can bring a smile yourself. Maybe you've been so locked into caregiving duties that you forget to celebrate life. (Please don't think I've forgotten how exhausted and overwhelmed you are.) Use your brother's style to spur you forward.

Know your value and view caring for your parents and being in their everyday lives as the privilege it is. Think of your situation this way: Would you rather be the parent who gets to take your child to Disney once a year, or the parent who gets to tuck him in every night and teaches him to ride a bike along with, yes, dealing with the spiking high fevers and the temper tantrums that are part of the package? Isn't that what family is all about, really being there...and not just for the fun stuff?

I hope you'll fill your heart and time with thoughts about what really matters, and shine a golden light on the great life you have, independent of your brother's choices.