Dear Family Advisor

My mother's growing needs are putting a strain on my marriage, and I find myself wondering which will fall apart first -- her, my marriage, or me. What can I do?

Last updated: Apr 28, 2008

Since my dad died five years ago, my mother has had hip-replacement surgery and been diagnosed with early-stage bladder cancer. I quit my part-time job to be available for her. Every day, it seems, I spend more hours transporting her places and comforting her until late evening. When I'm not with her, I'm rushing around to care for my two teenage girls. More than ever, I need my husband of 17 years to pick up the slack at home, but he has a high-pressure job and says he can't reduce his time at the office. I think he's happier there than at home. I'm increasingly angry and defensive with him. He wants me to hire a caregiver and go back to work to ease our financial pressure, but Mom isn't comfortable around others. I want to feel that I did everything I could for her if this cancer turns out to be terminal, but I miss my husband terribly. We communicate mostly by e-mail, and sex is a distant memory. And no, we have no money or time for couple's counseling.

It's time to put your marriage first. Your mom is substituting you for her husband, but you can't begin to fill this void. And if you try, it could cost you your own marriage. As much as you love your mom, you need to wean her from your constant attention.

What you're going through is very common. Care giving can put a big strain on marriage because it demands that everyone in the family adjust and make sacrifices. And it's not unusual for this to happen at a critical marital juncture, what we might call in your case the "17-year itch."

So first, turn your attention to your husband. Have a heart-to-heart talk with him about these things. Put it all out on the table -- the neglect and avoidance and exhaustion -- but also tell him how much you miss him. Then do your best to move past it.

To do that, you need a plan. It's been easy to avoid one another -- he stays at work while you're with your mom -- but you can't let that continue. Try starting some new traditions. Plan a date night once a week, even if it's just eating takeout sushi and watching a video in your bedroom with the door locked. Meet for lunch every other week. Plan to get out of the house together at least once a month. Buy him his favorite cookies. Continue to e-mail (e-mails can be fun and flirty!). Take some morning showers together. These things may feel a little contrived at first because you're out of practice, but they can become spontaneous. However you two show affection -- whether it's hugs or kisses, winks or water-gun fights -- bring them back into your relationship.

If financial worries are putting pressure on him, let him know that they're your concern too, and talk about a reasonable way to deal with them without neglecting your mother. Or you might tell him that you're working on a plan to reduce the hours you spend with her, and by the end of a certain period -- say, six months -- you'll be available to help the family financially. Ask for his input. Deal with this as partners.

Then, have a serious conversation with Mom. Let her know that you love her and will continue to care for her, but that you need to put your marriage first. No explanations are needed. You don't need to involve her in your marriage issues. Just let her know that this is the way it's got to be.

Make a six-month plan to get her through this initial phase of cancer. If you normally leave her house at 8 p.m., begin leaving at 7:30. You don't necessarily have to announce it to her -- just move a little faster or even make up an excuse, if necessary -- but begin the process. In another week or so, leave by 7 p.m. Within four or five weeks, you may be leaving by 5:30. Explain to her that you need to do this to have dinner with your family, and tell her that's a priority for you. Let your husband know about this plan so that he can help keep you on track and even assist you once he realizes that you're both on the same team.

This may take an initial time investment -- and willpower -- from you. If she needs other people to provide care when you're not there, consider home health aides, friends, and community and church members. She may hesitate and insist on having you, but this isn't healthy for either of you. You might try talking to her about why -- about the void that her husband's death left in her life and how it's time to fill it in by branching out and meeting new people. Let her know that you still need to care for your daughters. And for your part, don't think that teenagers (or even college-age "kidults") don't need their parents. They do. You don't want to miss your time with them. (Remember the bumper sticker: "Be nice to your kids, they'll be the ones picking out your nursing home!") If your mother goes further and tries to sabotage your plan, even unintentionally, be prepared. Stay the course.

It would also be wise not to talk about Mom too much to your husband, especially while you're trying to recover the core of your relationship. Try ranting to a trusted girlfriend, writing in a journal, or screaming while you're alone in the car, but cultivate good habits in your marriage. Focus on the two of you, not the three of you.

Finally, and not least importantly, invest in yourself. Those of us in the "sandwich generation" can get so caught up in other people's needs that our lives become one big to-do list. How do you fill up your own well? For example, do you get exercise every day? Start small. Walking the dog for 10 minutes and humming a song you love can set the tone for the rest of the day or help you unwind at night. Care giving is rewarding and necessary, but it shouldn't consume us to the point of damaging our health and closest relationships. Very likely, you'll outlive your mom. Love her well, but don't sacrifice yourself or your bonds with your husband or children along the way.