Q&A with Geoff: I’m burned out watching my widowed brother-in-law’s kids

q&a with geoff Sep 23, 2021

Question

Several years ago, the wife of my husband’s brother passed away. She left behind her husband and her young children, the youngest just a baby. A family member was able to go live with my brother-in-law and help him care for the children. After a few years, my husband, our children and I moved to the same town as my husband’s brother so that we could be closer to the children and build relationships with them.  

We’ve lived near my brother-in-law for a few years now, and things have deteriorated. My brother-in-law and the family member caring for his children had a falling-out, and the family member left to live someplace else. They felt they had been badly used over the years. My brother-in-law takes many trips, sometimes for work but mostly for fun. He strongly believes he needs to spend time with his friends away from his children to recharge.

Before he leaves, he usually asks my husband and me to watch his children for a few days at a time. My husband works two jobs and has demanding church responsibilities, and I am a stay-at-home mom. Despite having my own children to care for, I believe my brother-in-law thinks I’m not doing anything during the day and can come and watch his children whenever he asks.

I have watched his children many times in the past (for several days at a time), but I feel he asks too frequently.  

I want to have boundaries with my brother-in-law, but my husband does not agree to having boundaries. He feels a strong obligation to his brother (and feels he will answer to his parents and to God for saying “no”). His parents have told us that the children are too much for them and that they can’t come and help anymore.

I have suggested to my husband that we talk to my brother-in-law about him hiring a nanny or a long-term babysitter (which he could afford). My husband doesn’t want to do this out of fear that it will upset his brother and tear the family apart. Even though he feels stressed and overworked, my husband has told me he is driven by guilt and is adamant that he will never say “no” when his brother asks.

So when his brother asks “us” to watch the children, my husband always says “yes,” knowing full well that it will likely fall on me, at least for part of it, because of his job obligations. My husband means well, and tries to fulfill the obligation on his own, but he can’t be there all of the time. My brother-in-law is fine if we leave the kids by themselves when we’re unable to be there, but I struggle with that.

I am torn because I want to have a good relationship with these children, but it is very taxing on me. I struggle with my own mental and emotional health. I am in a better place than I have been in the past, but being put in a position to have to take care of these children on my own is overwhelming to me. The children are learning how to get by with a lack of supervision, but they fight a lot and are difficult to manage. 

I feel like I’m stuck between a rock and hard place and that I have no say in this matter unless I’m willing to turn my back on these children. I love my nieces and nephews, and I want to be there for them, but at the same time I am afraid that if I continue to have to take this on, I will slip (emotionally and mentally) to a place I don’t want to be. My brother-in-law has informed us that he will now be traveling more for work.

Whether he is traveling for work or pleasure, I am struggling with feeling guilty over not being there for his children when my husband has agreed to help. Is it my duty to step in and help whenever I am asked? It is true that I am home all day, but I am busy. Regardless, if I felt my brother-in-law had a real need, then I would be willing to help whenever asked, even knowing it will deplete my emotional reserve.

Do you have any suggestions regarding what I should do?

Answer

I’m inspired by the kind and supportive efforts to support this brother and his children after such a devastating loss. It’s incredible to see multiple families make significant life changes to show up and provide stability and care for this family. Your question signals to me that it’s time to make further adjustments so the support can be more sustainable. Let’s talk about your options.

First of all, please recognize that acute care and long-term care require very different plans and execution. Even though you’re now in a long-term scenario, you and your husband still feel pressure to respond as if this is an acute care situation. Now that years have passed since the loss of his wife, this family has entered a long-term care situation without a sustainable plan for everyone involved.

I can only imagine how difficult it would be for you and your husband to pull back and watch his brother’s family struggle. There are very real needs and you made significant sacrifices to position yourselves as helpers in the aftermath of their loss. You’ve been there for them from the beginning of this crisis, and it must be so difficult to know where to set limits on your time and energy.

Each of you have responded to this loss in your own unique ways. Your brother-in-law feels it’s best for him to travel and hang out with friends. This other family member made decisions to handle their stress from the caregiving. Your husband feels it’s best for him to be available at all times for any needs. It’s important for you to be clear about how you want to handle this.

Ideally, you and your husband would be aligned in your response. However, until that happens, you still have to be wise about protecting your mental and physical health.

This is terribly difficult, but you simply can’t carry the needs of two families on your shoulders. Your husband has a big heart and clearly loves his brother’s family, but he’s simply not able to follow through on his promises to provide the physical care for their needs. Even though he means well, you have to decide if you want him (or anyone else, for that matter) deciding how you’ll spend your time and energy.

I know I would eventually burn out if I let someone else run my schedule without my input. Since you’re the only one who can ultimately protect your own resources, you must determine what you can give.

It’s important to not let this split between you and your husband become a wedge in your marriage. You and your husband both have demanding responsibilities and must budget your time and resources to get everything done. If your husband feels like it’s important for him to be there for his brother at the drop of a hat, then allow him to take time out of his schedule to provide that.

If he believes you should carry out his desires for his brother, this could be a recipe for resentment. Make sure you continue talking with him and adjusting accordingly instead of acting out of obligation. Your long-term care efforts will eventually unravel if you don’t protect your own relationship. 

You mentioned that both you and your husband feel guilty for not doing more for his brother. Remember that guilt is a natural and healthy response to doing something wrong. Even though his brother is living a difficult reality without his wife and mother of their children, he’s actually the one who has the responsibility to feel guilty if he’s not meeting the needs of his own children.

Your first responsibility is your family and I suspect that any guilt you feel might be coming from the nagging sense that things feel out of balance in your own home. It’s also important to identify the complex feelings you’re experiencing. For example, it’s likely you’re feeling sadness, powerlessness, frustration and compassion all at the same time. These feelings may feel so overwhelming that you believe it’s your job to resolve them by doing more.

However, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh once observed: “My Life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.”

These strong feelings are a healthy signal that something is out of balance. Be careful to not just put your head down, double your efforts and hope that will create peace. You may need to hold your ground with your husband and his brother to set things in order. Speaking up with those we love is challenging for many of us, especially women. Women often feel responsible to maintain peace in relationships at their own expense. 

My wife and her sister co-host a podcast called “Speak up Sister,” which addresses the challenges women face as they use their voices in different settings. They share helpful examples, skills and encouragement to help women learn how to represent their feelings and thoughts with personal integrity.

I encourage you to spend time learning from them as you consider how to engage your husband and his brother in balancing everyone’s different needs and perspectives. You can access their podcast on their website.

I also want to emphasize that helping others isn’t supposed to make us feel miserable. Pay attention to the feelings you have when you feel the need to assist. Is it coming from fear, guilt or resentment? Or is it coming from a place of peace and compassion? Do everything you can to follow the peace. Please remember that we can love someone and still not do everything for them. This includes your husband, your brother-in-law, and even his children.

It’s a difficult situation to watch his children not have the life your children get to have. Please remember you’re not doing something wrong by not being the mom for your nieces and nephews. You can still do so much good for them in a healthy and balanced way. Helping them out in more specific and targeted ways will be more sustainable than simply being on-call for them long-term. 

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