Dear Family Advisor

My husband and his siblings want me to quit my job and be their mother's caregiver -- and I don't want to!

Last updated: Nov 03, 2008

My mother-in-law recently fell and broke her hip, and her doctor is recommending that she no longer live alone.

My husband and his family have approached me about being my mother-in-law's full-time caregiver. Their idea is to move her into our home and have me quit my job, and they will pay me a small salary -- about $150 a week -- to care for her. They act like this is an offer I can't refuse. Well, I can. I don't want to be her caregiver!

I stayed home with my kids for 22 years. I'm 58 years old, and for the first time in my adult life, I'm not taking care of somebody. I love my job. I have to think about my own mother too. I know she'll need me in the next ten years or so. I want to be out there in the world while I can.

I'm afraid if I express this to my husband, he'll be hurt and his family will think I'm uncaring. I'm not. I'm willing to help out, but I don't think it's fair that I get pressured into caregiving.

Daughters-in-law often wind up being the "family caregiver." Sometimes this is because there's no daughter in the family, and sometimes it's agreed upon by a son and his wife. And sometimes women are just expected to do it because they're "nurturers," already staying home with their kids, or don't earn as much as their husbands.

This way of thinking has got to change! Caregiving isn't just for females. The many husbands, sons, and nephews who are caring for family members are showing that men can make great caregivers.

Caregiving for a parent is the responsibility of that person's children. You have a choice in the matter, and that's how you should approach it.

First, you need to have an honest conversation with your husband. Make it clear to him that this is your decision to make. Just tell him what you're telling me -- that you care about his mom, but this isn't, and shouldn't be, your duty or responsibility. Remind him that when it's time to care for your mom, you won't consider it his responsibility to be her caregiver.

Let him know the reasons why you're not going to take his family up on the offer. Tell him you like your job and you've decided to stay with it, so he and his siblings will need to get together and come up with another plan. You're happy to be part of the solution, but you're not happy to be the solution.

You may be surprised -- he may not be upset with you at all. If he is, it's not the end of the world. Being married doesn't mean you have to do everything your partner asks of you. If you stayed home (or didn't stay home) and raised your children, you've held up your end of the marriage bargain. You don't "owe" him or your mother-in-law anything.

If your husband or other family members try to pressure you into doing this, hold your ground. They may have genuinely thought they were offering you a good deal, but they may also have been looking for a quick and easy solution that doesn't disrupt their lives. If they're angry at your response, this is probably the case. They need to see that.

Does your husband agree with his siblings that his mom needs to live with the two of you? That's certainly very commendable, but you and he should make the decision together and set up rules and boundaries before she moves in.

If you agree that your mother-in-law will live with you, make sure your husband knows that he and his siblings still need to plan for her care. Perhaps they can all chip in and hire a full-time caregiver. (Assuming that you and your husband share expenses, you'll be helping pay for this out your salary, too, so don't feel guilty about it.)

There are other options, too. Can your husband or another family member stay home to care for Mom? Can they take turns? Do any of them have flexible hours? Like many adult siblings, they may have to cobble together a plan, and local community resources and home healthcare companies can be part of it. If they were going to pay you, they should be willing to pay somebody else.

This may all sound pretty hard-line, but too many wives and even girlfriends just give in to becoming caregivers to avoid a fight. But caregiving isn't something you just jump into -- it's a very demanding job. If you do what they're asking, you'll probably end up feeling resentful, and that could greatly affect the quality of both your care and your marriage.

If your husband's family truly accepts your decision, you may want to offer to help them brainstorm and research solutions. Or you may prefer to wait until they've sorted out the daily caregiving and the boundaries are established, and then offer to pitch in. As you've said, you'd like to help out. Caregiving takes many people, and even if your part of it is just one Saturday a month, it'll really help.

You're wise to be thinking ahead to your own mother's care and to pace yourself. You and your husband both have mothers to care for, so make a plan together for the future. But also plan to take care of your relationship. Take those trips you didn't get when your children were growing up. Build the back porch you've always wanted. Life goes so quickly. Give willingly, love wholeheartedly, and reserve some time and energy for yourself and your marriage.