Dear Family Advisor

My mom won't stand up to my bossy sister!

Last updated: Mar 23, 2011


My mom has severe osteoporosis and vertigo, and she can no longer live alone. My sister, who always thinks she knows best, has already chosen a care facility near her. But she lives 1,200 miles away, while our two other siblings live near my mom's hometown, where she's lived all her life. I know moving isn't what Mom wants, but she's fragile physically and emotionally. My sister just bulldozes right over her (and always has), and then my mom comes to me and complains!

Mom's only 77, her mind is sharp, and she's active in her community. I've tried convincing my sister to respect Mom's input and to remember that she has four children who all want to be a part of her life.

I'm afraid my sister will go ahead with her plans and Mom's going to be stuck. I'm also tired of being the moderator. How do I stop my sister from being so bossy and encourage Mom to stand up to her own daughter?

Decide whether to speak up to your sister and be your mother's advocate or excuse yourself and step out of the middle. Neither choice is wrong, but I hope you'll pick one option and stick with it. Why? So neither your mother nor your sister will use you as a weapon of family destruction.

Your mother is just as culpable in this relationship triangle. She may be meek, but she also may be passive-aggressive. She appears too weak or shy to stand up for herself, but she's using you to complain to and hoping you'll do her dirty work for her. In truth, she needs to do that for herself -- or live with the consequences.

Let's say you decide you do want to be your mother's advocate. Stage a conference or Skype call with your mom and all your siblings, with the clear purpose of helping Mom decide where she will receive the best care and the most family support. Remind everyone that this isn't about rehashing family history; it's only about Mom's care. Everyone gets to weigh in, but you be the moderator and don't allow anyone to veer into side hurts and resentments. In order to pull this off, everyone needs to have information on care homes, assisted-living facilities, and other options, so that it's an informed decision. If one of you thinks in terms of graphs or charts, then ask that person to organize all the facts to show costs, convenience, who will be close by, and how often family can visit. People who have nearby family members who visit often receive far better care and attention than those who have no outside support.

At the end of the conversation, suggest that your mom take the time to consider all her options. Give her a date to make her final decision with the agreement that no one will try to influence her.

If you decide that you need be out of the middle, then tell your mother and sister that they need to work this out alone. In a phone call, e-mail, or letter, share your heart. Tell them you feel that it's undermining your relationship with both of them. Be honest and let them know your concerns: Mom has more family members out East to help shoulder the load; you're concerned that she'll miss her community and friends; your sister is asking for a huge load that the rest of you won't be able to help shoulder due to time, travel, and financial restrictions.

After you've said your piece, assure each of them that you love and care for them, then repeat that you're removing yourself from the situation. Refuse to get sucked back in, and stop any future conversations by saying, "You will have to say this to my sister, not to me, Mom."

Hopefully your mother will respond to either approach because she's being expected to take charge of her own life. Give her the courage to speak up by respecting her and not allowing old, dysfunctional communication behaviors to creep back in. Keep reminding her that she gets to choose what she wants. Praise her for every small decision along the way. And don't fall back into taking the lead. Find other ways to enjoy your mom's company -- talk about things other than your sister, learn to crochet together, or read a book and discuss it together.

And admit that you've been complicit. Somewhere along the way you agreed for this situation with your mother and sister to become the norm. Many siblings find themselves in the role of the family messenger: Everyone else acts out, and you're the one who carries their news. It happens all the time (including in my own family). Laugh at yourself when you feel that you're reverting back to those old ways; there's no need to beat yourself up. It's simply time to realize that taking this role no longer serves your best interests, or anyone else's.

You're going to feel much better after you make your decision. And even if you do choose to be your mom's advocate this time, I hope you'll begin to notice how you've been drawn into battles that aren't your own, so you can start to step back. Sign up for a yoga class or walking club, finish a huge project that means a lot to you, spend your time and thoughts investing in your life. Your mom has to live her own. She may give into your sister; if she does, then love her as is, and let the two of them work this out.

These old ways of handling family squabbles can finally be over. To quote Maya Angelou, "If I'd known better, I'd have done better." Now you know better.