Dear Family Advisor

My mom is a pushover -- and my sister is taking advantage of her kind heart!

Last updated: Oct 18, 2011


My sister is getting a divorce and is moving back in (with her two kids) with our mom -- who is already caring for our dying grandmother. I've tried to tell my sister this is just too much on our mom right now. My sister, though, has always been the kind of person who thinks that whatever she's going through is worse than anything anybody else is facing.

Mom's on the edge these days -- she and her mom are really close. Our grandmother is in hospice, but at home. Hospice said it could be weeks or months, but my mom is by her bedside 24/7.

I help out on the weekends, but I have to work. I don't see my sister pitching in, either. In fact, I guarantee that she'll expect our mother to watch her kids after school until she gets home at 7 at night -- and she's already dating again!

This just isn't the time to add drama to our mother's life. What can I do?

Some people have a tough time saying no, and much as you want to protect your mom, you might not be able to. Her relationship with your sister has been built over a lifetime, and she's the only one who can change it.

The good news is that sometimes caregiving is so intense that we just tell it like it is. Your mom's devotion to her own mother may give her the courage and focus to say "no" to your sister.

You can try to confront your sister yourself, but unless you offer another solution to her living situation, you may not have much of an impact. Your sister is self-protecting, and her "need" is based on fear -- a fear that if she doesn't control and even manipulate the situation, no one will come to her aid. So before you blast her, try to help her find a solution. No, it's not your responsibility, but if you want to help your mom, you should probably start by helping your sister say out of your mom's house (and hair).

And yes, some people are takers. They act on the belief that life owes them something. You can't change them, and all you can do is recognize when a "crazy-maker" is in your midst and make sure your boundaries are secure. You can still love your sister, but you must also love yourself by not allowing her to run rampant through your life. The problem is, your mom has to recognize this as well. And most mothers don't like facing ugly truths about their children, no matter what age they are.

But I have to ask: Is there something about your mom that attracts this? Has she always been the "hero-mom?" Has she always taken in strays, helped neighbors because they had no one else, and had one of the most generous hearts you know? That's commendable, and the world needs givers, but she may have tilted a bit too far. This could be a lesson she needs to learn (we all have lessons), and you may need to let the situation run its course without your interference.

And I hate to have to ask this question, but why does it bother you so much? Have you always been your mom's protector? Have you always been angry at what your sister does with her life, even when it doesn't directly affect yours? Are you also a "hero" -- a hero for the underdog? Do you find yourself defending others, getting impatient and frustrated with the injustices of the world? That's also commendable, unless it too has tilted and has an unhealthy impact on your life, to the point that others may not need or appreciate your input.

I know all this sounds strong, but I've learned that caregiving can bring out the best and the not-so-best in us. I know it did for me. The upside is that it allows us to look at our lives and see what's pushing our buttons. It gives us the opportunity to take stock of our family issues, to let go of some and to simply accept others.

What would happen if you just loved them both as is? What if you decided to stay in your own territory and let them have their relationship without your interference? What if you came over and sat with your grandmother to relieve your mom, just because you wanted to? What if you brought dinner and a rented movie for everyone, just as a gift? What if you practiced accepting your sister just as she is, not because she's perfect but because she's family? What if you didn't have to fix or solve anything?

See how that feels. Can you breathe a little easier? Or do you hear yourself saying, "Yes, but. . . ." It's so, so hard to step out of the hokey-pokey middle and only dance our part. When we do, we stop making new tangles, and others might not even know how to act around us. But they're somehow grateful for the trust and space we give them. Let your mom and your sister figure this out for themselves -- or not.