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, we (me, my husband, and our children) 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. In spite of 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 is adamant that he will never say no when his brother asks. My husband has told me he is driven by guilt and he will not tell his brother no. 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 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?
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, for that matter) deciding how you’ll spend your time and energy. I know it would burn me out pretty quickly 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 have to 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 counseling 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 stewardship 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.”[i]
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 started a podcast called “Speak up Sister” to address the challenges women face as they use their voices in different settings. They share inspired examples, scriptures, quotes, 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 (https://speakupsister.net).
I also want to emphasize that service isn’t supposed to make us feel miserable. The Lord’s standard for identifying where we are to spend our efforts is clear: “[That] which doth not edify is not of God, and is darkness.”[ii] Pay attention to the feelings you have when you feel the need to assist. Is it coming from fear, guilty, 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 an inspired and balanced way. I believe that God can direct you to meet some of the needs of this family in specific ways. I also believe God can inspire their own father as he wrestles for the best way to provide care and support to his children.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
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About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[ii] D&C 50:23
Katherine CrapoSeptember 26, 2021
I think if I were in that situation I would consider adopting the children. Being a part-time caregiver i think would be more difficult than being completely in charge and being able to creatively provide a loving, structured, consistent environment for these children. Sometimes the seemingly harder path turns out to be the most fulfilling and in the end easier one. If your brother-in-law or husband balks, your offer would only serve to awaken them to the heavy responsibility it is to care for a family.
MikeSeptember 22, 2021
I am going to disagree. My sainted grandmother graduated from nursing school a year before the Spanish influenza. She saved many lives and helped many more into their transition to the next life, including both of her parents. She raised her children during the Great Depression. When grandfather had a stroke and couldn't work as hard, they lost the dairy farm. They moved into the little rock house up in the mountains in a climate about like Sundance Ski resort. They had 5 rocky acres and grew quite a bit of their food. They raised chickens, cows and a pig. Her sons poached an occasional deer when their was no meat left. The 3 room rock house was the size of a one car garage with 2 bedrooms and a kitchen. They had no electricity, and heated it with a wood/coal stove. They had a spring right outside the door and the privy was a short walk away. They raised their 9 children there. The little ones slept in the same room with the parents and up to 5 girls in one bed in the other room. The boys slept outside on the back porch. When grandma's sister was killed, the grieving louse of a husband left their 6 poorly disciplined children with grandma and ran off to a life of adventure in California. Her 2 oldest daughters married young. One to a drunk who beat her. She moved back to the rock house with her 2 children and her ex-husband's illegitimate child from a 15 year old girl. One teenage daughter got pregnant by a soldier home on leave at a similar age and eventually they married after the war, but she lived in the rock house, with a baby. Grandma's 4 sons and 4 sons-in-law fought in WWII. Her oldest son was missing in action for 3 years and came home with severe shell-shock after spending the time hiding in the jungle and as a prisoner of war. He never fully recovered. Her second son was wounded in the battle of the bulge. One son-in-law lost his legs in Italy and another lost an eye and his hearing. Her youngest, the smallest and scrappiest of the boys, was 1 of only 3 out of a group of about 50 guys in his unit to make it home alive, with terrible scars on his face. A group of 3 pregnant Japanese women were hiding nearby in the mountains because they did not want to have their babies in a prison camp. Grandma gave them food and firewood and delivered their babies. She got other ladies in the tiny town to help them. One day she went to visit them and found them all dead. She got blamed for "poisoning the japs," but was never prosecuted for it. When I came along, life had improved. They had a better house, financed by the soldiers pay the 8 boys had saved. I knew all of these people and the next generation were my cousins. I got the impression that the years in the rock house were the happiest times of their lives. I guess bad experiences do make for great memories. When it comes to children, especially close kin, there are no self-focused boundaries and no legalistic excuses. If the original parents can't cut it (or won't) people like my grandmother have to step in. Else the problems get magnified each generation. A few of my cousins went on to do great things. Most are living normal lives. One became a gangster, killed and raped people, and died in a shoot-out. A couple struggled and eventually overcame alcohol or drug abuse. A handful got pregnant before marriage. Most but not all of the boys served missions. A few had divorces. Grandma made a huge difference, down to the 3rd and 4th generation. These numbers would have been markedly skewed the other direction without her sacrifice. This challenge is an opportunity for you to be, not just a good person, but a saint. The children will pay you back for your efforts, one way or another. Image being there for their graduation, from school or prison, the birth of their children, into a loving marriage or into desperate conditions. Take the long view; not weeks and months, but decades and generations.