Dear Family Advisor

Where does family obligation begin and end? My cultural background says "go help mom," but my life is here.

Last updated:

May 25, 2009

My mom wants me to move back home and care for her even though she's not really sick. She's going through menopause, and is demanding and self centered. She and my dad are retired and live in China, while I live in the States. Recently, she has complained that if my dad died, she wouldn't be taken care of because she doesn't get along with my husband. She said she's worried about her future and is depressed and lonely. She claims she doesn't have any true friends and the only person she can rely on is me

Children from Chinese families aren't supposed to neglect their parents, but I've felt angry at my mom for almost ten years. Sometimes, I even wish that I could formally cease my relationship with her. How should I handle this?

I hope you don't cut your mom out of your life. But there really are cultural differences when it comes to caregiving, and you've chosen a new life in the States while your parents are living a lifestyle based on ancient traditions. You're torn between the old and the new, and you're going to have to work hard not to give up what's best for you.

Your first allegiance is to your husband and children. Will your mom get mad that you don't follow all of the old ways? Will your extended family disagree with your choice? They might, and they might even shun you, but since your home and your life are here, you'll have less of a fallout from your decision.

It doesn't sound like you need to physically care for your mother right now. Your parents are still relatively young, so I suggest saving the caregiving for when they really need it. Since your mom is bored and lonely, she needs to redefine who she is without work. If you try to fill this void, you'll keep her from figuring out what she's capable of.

On the other hand, your mom may not just be trying to manipulate you by saying she's depressed. Menopause brings hormonal changes, and she feels she's losing you and will be abandoned. If she refuses to talk with a therapist, try to listen to her and be a sounding board some of the time, despite your anger. Encourage her to discuss how she's feeling with her doctor, and reassure her that if your dad died first, you and other family members would make sure she was cared for.

And of course, there are elements of your cultural heritage that you probably want to keep, which may help her realize you're not giving up all the old Chinese ways. Celebrate the holidays and continue traditions you cherished as a child. Try not to badmouth your mom in front of your children, and remember that although you have problems with her, she's still your mom.

You can be firm about your choices without making a big scene. Continue to see your parents -- go there and have them visit you. Try to keep it light and pleasant and do activities that everyone enjoys. The more good memories you build, the more your parents and husband will begin to relax around one another other. When your mom says things that could damage the relationship, find a reason to leave the room. Over time, she'll get the message that you're simply not going to go there.

When your parents eventually do need care, you can help them figure out how to handle that, whether you're the hands-on caregiver or not.