My husband and I have been married for one year, and we have been together
for seven. I am 30 and he is 34. I am an only child, and my parents
are older than most, with my father being 84 and my mother 70. We have
no other extended family living near us (my parents are from England)
and now that my parents are getting old the burden of responsibility
for caring for them is mine exclusively.
My father is very frail, and my mother, being
much younger, looks after him. She is a very bitter person, and is
getting worse all the time. On one hand she does not want anything
to happen to my dad, but on the other she resents that he is old and
can't do very much anymore. I try to do what I can for them, take
them shopping, take them out for the day or a weekend, to try to make
their life a little better. They have no friends either, so they are
housebound and isolated.
My responsibility to my parents, and my parents
themselves (particularly my mother) is causing problems for me in
my marriage. My mother is a very difficult person, very negative and
easily angered. She does not care for my husband, and she lets him
know it. He does not want to be around them much, and I can understand
that, but he also feels I should not be so involved in their lives,
or worry about them so much. I realize my own health is suffering
because of my worrying, but I don't know what else to do. I am the
only person who can help look after them.
We would like to have a baby in another year,
but by that time my parents will be even worse off, and I don't know
if I can take care of them and a baby too. My husband and I have had
numerous fights about this. I feel he can't understand what it is
like for me, since he came from a broken home and was raised by a
stepfather he hated. How can I make everyone happy here, least of
ANSWER: It is not your job to make everyone happy. Your responsibility
is to your marriage and children first. This does not mean that you
turn your back on your parents. It does mean that you set limits to
what you can do to help them, and consider possibilities of elder
homecare or a retirement residence for assisted living.
Your husband may be at a loss to influence you in
this direction because you discount his views. Because he experienced
divorce in his childhood does not mean that his feelings and observations
do not have merit. Nor does your having a biologically "intact" family
experience in childhood mean that your family patterns are a picture
of health. The difference is often that children from divorce may
potentially benefit from the mistakes their parents made because the
negative patterns of interaction resulted in divorce, while adults
from intact families may not have ever identified toxic patterns
of interaction because their parents remained married.
Certainly your husband's experience may give him
greater opportunity to know what doesn't work. And your parents' interactions
do appear to have a somewhat toxic effect on you. Consider that what
he is saying to you may be in the best interests of the marriage.
He has to be the voice for the emotional health of your family because
you are not! You are too embroiled in your parents' marriage and life
problems to focus on your own.
Examine the guilt and overresponsibility you are
feeling towards your parents right now. You cannot change their marriage,
their current isolation or their growing frailty. It may be that your
parents situation is caused and exacerbated by their difficult relationship
with one another. And you may be experiencing a pull to help them
based on anxiety about the marriage, compounded by their growing dependency
which further highlights their marital stress. Perhaps the more you
do for them, the greater their increased helplessness.
Encourage their independence in realistic ways. This
will be better for their mental health as well as your own. Separate
your feelings about their relationship to one another from their growing
frailty. Do what you can to help them with external services and environmental
changes that can ameliorate the negativity between them, but let go
of hearing about any distress your father has caused your mother.
It is unhealthy for you to be an emotional dumping ground for their
Research government resources for ways to help your
parents with daily living that will decrease your responsibility and
open up your time with your husband and child. Or ask your husband
to help you with this! County agencies usually have offices that specialize
in aging that can help identify possibilities for assisted living.
This could help relieve your mother's stress and increase her freedom.
There are some very lovely retirement residences that include cleaning,
cooking, social activities, transportation and outings which your
mother might enjoy. She needs to make some friends!
It is not in your mother's or your best interest
to continue to use you as her only social outlet. You cannot be her
best friend. And she is nonsupportive of your marriage to boot! This
undermines your relationship with your husband, putting yourself in
Take yourself out of the middle. Be aware that though
this may be a familiar position for you, it is harmful for you to
be used to buffer the stress between your parents. The down side of
being an only child is that you have no other siblings to unite with
to see your parents more objectively. "Only" children can sometimes
be easily swept into a dysfunctional negotiating role in the parents'
marriage. But it is not your job to make them happy together. Their
marriage may be miserable, but you have a right to succeed where they
have failed! It is not too late to change course and put your own
life and family in focus.
Find a middle ground that includes your family's
development rather than prohibits it. Is your husband ready for fatherhood?
And what do you want? If your parents were not weighing so heavily
upon you, would you want a child? Center yourself to focus on your
needs and what you want. Let that as well as your husband's needs
and wants influence your decisions. You and he should be making decisions
about how to delegate resources together. He is your partner, not
Solve this problem together by bringing your nuclear
family into the forefront. Find ways to address your parents needs,
so that they recede into the background. Remember that your parents
have not fared well with their own marriage. Do not allow dysfunctional
patterns in their relationship to repeat themselves. You will not
be able to "save" them, but perhaps you can change what is passed
on to the next generation!
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