Care and Feeding

My Mom Keeps Jetting Off for Months and Leaving Me Responsible for My Dad

I have my own kids to take care of, and I feel taken advantage of.

A woman with her arms crossed, looking frustrated, next to an older woman lounging on the beach in a towel and talking on a phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by SIphotography/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Anrodphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother has hit a midlife crisis and decided to travel the world while she is still young. I don’t blame her; I wish I had done the same before I got married and had children.

Trouble is, she is still married to my dad who is much older, has many health issues, and doesn’t like to travel. She said she wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t there for him in case he needed me. I live in another town miles away and have small children that make it hard to leave at a moment’s notice.

This has gone on for years, and each of her trips takes months. Several times my father has had emergencies (he fell once, and another time he crashed while driving), and I have fortunately been there in under an hour, but I fear one day I won’t make it in time if he has a bigger emergency. This weighs heavily on me. I fear his life depends on me being able to get to him quickly.

I don’t know what to do. While I love that my mother is happy and enjoying her life traveling, I am frustrated she has passed on the responsibilities of being a wife to me because I am the daughter. I cook occasionally for him, but moving my dad in with my family is not an option. Health issues aside, my father doesn’t deserve to be alone in his golden years.

—Daughter, Not Wife

Dear Daughter, Not Wife,

You need to talk to your father, and then the two of you need to sit down together to discuss this with your mother. She goes away for months? That’s unacceptable under these circumstances and, frankly, cruel.

It’s possible your father doesn’t mind this situation, but I think it’s much more likely that he is hesitant to be the bad guy. I certainly do not want the poor man to feel like a burden being shuffled from hand to hand. You should tell your mother that your father’s needs for more constant support are only going to increase; you should point to the (in my opinion, frightening) series of incidents that have already occurred; and you should tell her that your recommendation is for her to cut her trips to such a length as to cover the cost of at least a part-time home aide for your father when she is off at the Alhambra.

It may come down to you saying, “You have said in the past you wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t here to take care of him, and I am telling you: I am not here to take care of him.” She can travel shorter distances, she can travel more infrequently, she can hire elder care, but she can’t ask you to hold the bag for your ailing father indefinitely.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife (we’ll call her Jessica) and I moved our family of four in with her grandmother about two years ago for two reasons: to assist Grandma as her age-related mobility issues make it difficult for her to live alone, and to make it financially feasible for Jessica to be a stay-at-home mom for a couple of years. Grandma gradually became more and more emotionally abusive toward Jessica and me, eventually demanding that our family “get the hell out of her house” this week. Thankfully, she’s never shown any ill will toward our kids, nor has she yelled at us in front of them.

We are bunking with Jessica’s mother for a week or two while we arrange an apartment to live in, and have had some financial good fortune at the right time to make a decent living situation possible now. We have told our 5-year-old son, who absolutely loves his “nana” and has never been mistreated, that she doesn’t feel well and needs some time alone right now; but eventually he is going to want to visit or have a slumber party with his nana.

Should we make a clean break with this woman who has been emotionally abusive toward Jessica and me, or make some occasional exceptions for our son’s sake? And if we decided to be done with Grandma for good, how should we break it to our 5-year-old? FYI, our other child is only 1 year old, and doesn’t have these same attachments.

—Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,

I recommend giving the whole relationship a very generous amount of time to “settle,” since tempers are running high and you are still in a very vulnerable place while you wait to able to make safe and reliable housing work.

After that, I think the level of relationship to shoot for is “minimal,” as in: You go with your son to have a meal with Nana occasionally, and leave if she becomes inappropriate or abusive. There’s been no sign from your letter that Nana was an abusive person prior to the onset of extremely old age (and a difficult living situation), and I would encourage your mother-in-law to try to make sure Nana’s mental and neurological health is being monitored by a doctor.

You don’t have to tolerate any bad or abusive behavior from anyone, but this doesn’t seem to me to be a situation in which you need to completely cut off a relationship that brings pleasure to your son, who has been living with her for all the time he remembers being alive.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My ex and I split up before our daughter was born. At the time, neither of us was religious at all. He stopped visiting before our daughter was a year old and stopped contacting me shortly after.

Last summer (my daughter had just turned 4), he reached out again. I decided to let her get to know her dad. He now has a family of his own and has found religion for the first time, and it seems to make him happy. What concerns me is that I want my daughter to be able to make her own choice about religion and what she believes, and now her father is telling her about God. My daughter talks about him all the time and how he made everything and will ask why God made things a certain way.

I am not sure how to approach my ex on this so that he will know my point of view without offending him and having him feel that I’m attacking his beliefs.

—I Don’t Know How to Answer These Questions

Dear IDKHtATQ,

Well, you may not be able to approach him on this issue without him becoming in some way offended, but I would like to pull back for a moment and ask you if you have a legal custody arrangement in place. My guess is no, based on the course of events you describe around your daughter’s birth and early life.

I am not a lawyer, but in any situation where there’s been no relationship with a co-parent and then one begins to emerge and evolve, a quiet consultation with a family lawyer may be something that saves you a lot of agita in the future. It is not my place to speculate on the specific legal issues that might pop up as this goes forward, but this is the sort of situation where things can drift sideways very suddenly.

That being said, for now I recommend answering your daughter’s questions with: “People believe a lot of different things about how the world works! Your father believes in this religion, most people from X part of the world believe in that religion, and I don’t think any of us knows for sure! Why do you think the sky is blue?”

But, please, go have that consultation.

Dear Care and Feeding,

She’s my 11-year-old niece. She is a pretty one. I want to teach her how to fight so she has some tools if she is attacked. What say you?

—Concerned

Dear Concerned,

I am not sure that you are a real person, but if you are, I suggest as a present for her next birthday a gift certificate for one of the many, many professionally run courses aimed at teaching younger people real-life safety skills based on awareness of one’s surroundings and basic self-defense moves.

Street smarts!

—Nicole