Jenée Desmond-Harris is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. Silenced niece: Over the past year, my dad has had a very sudden decline in health due to Alzheimer’s and dementia. He is in his mid-70s. He has been in the hospital for more than four months waiting for a long-term care placement. He still recognizes people but has lost most of his ability to speak, etc. I am assisting my mom as much as I can with hospital visits, paperwork, and so on.
One thing I am really struggling with is that my mom refuses to tell any of my dad’s siblings (who live in their home country) about his condition, and has asked me not to tell them either. She says they will just ask useless questions and give her unsolicited advice. I offered to update my aunts and uncles myself while asking them to direct all questions and comments to me, but my mom still said no. My parents have a historically rocky relationship with their siblings due to various temperaments, but I know my aunts and uncles do care about them. I have my own relationships with these relatives and I think they would want to know about their brother. My mom would be very upset if I told them without her permission, but I also feel guilty keeping my relatives in the dark; I’m in touch with a few of them quite regularly. My dad could take an even worse turn anytime and I’m sure my relatives would be sad not to have heard any updates earlier and possibly connected with him while they still could. They would also wonder why neither my mom nor I reached out sooner.
I feel really torn between respecting my mom’s wishes and withholding significant information about their own brother. If I were in their position, I would want to know! Do I need to just accept my mom’s stance, or are there any other options?
A: If you do what you think is right and tell your aunts and uncles, it sounds like the consequences will be that your mom might face being annoyed by questions. If you do what your mom wants you to do and keep the secret, the consequence will be that your relatives are heartbroken to be left out of this part of your dad’s life. The latter sounds much worse to me, so I think you should go ahead and tell. Your idea to ask them to direct all questions to you is a great one. Hopefully they can process the news without even bothering your mother.
How to Get Advice From Prudie:
• Send questions for publication here. (Questions may be edited.)
• Join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.
Q. Childhood home: My husband died a decade ago. Our daughters are now 23, 21, and 20. My youngest just announced her engagement.
The old house has been a burden on me for years. It is too large, too far away from my work, and held down by too many memories. My partner of the past three years wants me to move into his new town house. I helped him decorate it and it is 15 minutes from work.
The market is red-hot right now and I decided to sell. I told my girls if they wanted any furniture, they needed to tell me now so I could set it aside (though honestly most of it is old and worn). The girls took most of the sentimental items years ago, so I didn’t think they would mind this much.
My youngest was absolutely furious with me for even considering the idea. This was the “family home” and her father would never “forgive” me for selling it. I explained I needed to downsize and the hour-plus commute was very stressful for me. I want to move on to the next phase of my life as well. My daughter started making awful remarks about my partner. I told her if she can’t be civil, I was ending the conversation.
Everything escalated after that. My youngest two daughters are firmly set on me keeping the house and are trying to convince me to rent it out instead. I don’t want to be a landlord. They have called me pleading and crying; my middle daughter told me it was like “Dad dying all over again.” I sobbed after that call. My oldest told me I should do what I need to do but she always imagined bringing her children around to spend holidays in her childhood home.
This hurts so much. We moved a lot when they were very little but settled down here when my oldest was 8. I thought about moving to be near family after my husband died but decided the girls needed the stability of the same school district.
My partner is impatient with my daughters’ “dramatics” and reminds me the town house has a guest room. His family is in the military, so moving was second nature to them. My sisters think my daughters are acting like idiots. I feel like I am failing as a mother. What should I do?
A: I understand the attachment to a childhood home but I also kind of … don’t. Millions of people (myself included) grow up in a series of different apartments and, as a result, learn to see the importance of people, relationships, and traditions rather than buildings. I would think that losing a father would have put things into perspective for your daughters and reminded them that what’s meaningful is the connection they have with their loved ones (including a mother who is still alive and whom they’re wasting valuable time being mad at!) rather than real estate.
It’s fine that they’re a little sad and sentimental, but their outrage over you doing what you need to for this phase of your life is honestly giving me spoiled and selfish vibes. Make the decision you need to and I assure you they’ll eventually get over it, perhaps after they have more time to process their father’s death. You can acknowledge that there’s some sadness accompanying this transition, but the way to handle that is to get everyone a nice framed painting of the family home from an artist on Etsy, not to derail your life.
Q. Debilitating plan: When the pandemic started, I was very, very lonely. I was too afraid to leave my house, and to compensate, I started working a ton. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I overworked myself and physically burned out. I had to quit my job and move in with my mother. I got kicked off of my insurance. Figuring out what is wrong with me has been a nightmare. I’ve struggled to even work part time. I was too exhausted to do most of the normal fun summer stuff I do. My mom thinks I’m just depressed and need to do more fun things or get a more fulfilling job. She doesn’t seem to get that I just can’t do those things.
In a show of tough love, my mom has told me I have to be out of her house by next year. She somehow thinks that being self-sufficient will fix me. I have a few ideas of what my condition is and at least one of those things could have me bedridden if I get worse. I’m really worried about this happening while I live on my own.
So I’m thinking about doing something that seems a little bit terrible: working really hard for a while and making it seem like I’ve gotten worse. I don’t think my mom would kick me out then. I really cannot support myself. Am I a terrible person for trying to trick my mother? I know there are resources for people with disabilities, but you have to have documentation and as of now, I have none. I just don’t know what else to do.
A: I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this—being exhausted and having to worry about how you’ll keep a roof over your head is a lot to deal with. I don’t think your plan to trick your mom is a great one, though. First, you aren’t actually able to work harder, right? So it would be tough to implement. Second, you might actually make yourself worse in a way that would be irreversible. Third, since there’s no concrete evidence of your illness, even if you got worse, your mom still might not believe you!
Instead, use the period of time that you have a place to live—about four months by my calculations, if she’s serious about wanting you to leave by 2022—to get a diagnosis. I don’t want to suggest that this will be easy. You might have to go to multiple doctors (which could require applying for Medicaid or other assistance), really advocate for yourself, and do a lot of research—all things that could take up a lot of your limited energy—but the payoff will be significant. For starters, your mother might find some sympathy for you if a doctor has put a label to the symptoms you’re experiencing, even if that label does turn out to be depression. Depression is a real thing! Even more importantly, you might then actually qualify for disability benefits and resources. I wish you luck getting to the bottom of what’s going on and getting better.
Q. One-way communicator: I have two sisters with whom I am always trying to communicate—they are pretty much all who are left of my family. One lives nearby and the other about six to seven hours away. I send text messages every few days to check in and plan events so that we can get together. I also work full time and have multiple business ventures and properties on top of that, but I make an effort to contact my sisters. (One sister is always lamenting the loss of connection with the three of us and other family members, and she goes out of her way to interact with really dysfunctional, more distant relatives.)
My husband and I bought a property in New Orleans a few months ago, which fulfilled a life goal of ours. Hurricane Ida obviously just swept through. EVERYONE asked how our property fared (we don’t honestly know ourselves yet and are very concerned, but appreciated the outpouring of support)—everyone, that is, except for my sisters. I finally called them out several days after the storm, saying I felt unsupported by their silence. Their reasons? They were “busy” (I am not?) and “didn’t want to bother me.” I finally just said I am tired of my communication efforts going one way, and that they can contact me when they are ready to plan something.
I am the person who shops for all birthday gifts, gives discounts on my various businesses, throws surprise parties for milestones, plans trips, etc. I really don’t think a text message saying “Hey are you OK?” is too much to ask. They didn’t even know if we were at our New Orleans property or not during the storm! The sister who pursues the drama-toxic relatives threw out some guilt trip that she was distracted because we lost an aunt several years ago to alcohol-related illness in September. Uhh, the hurricane touched down in August…
I am tired of these excuses. Should I just give up on these relationships and move on?
A: This is a really tough situation because your frustration is completely justified and you’d be well within your rights to give up on these relationships, but I don’t actually think that would make you happy. You love your sisters and you do want them in your life, so being right won’t bring you a lot of joy.
What can sometimes happen in long friendships—and especially sibling relationships—is that people take on certain roles and get used to them. My guess is your sisters love you and want to be in touch with you, but they know you’ll do all the legwork to keep the connection going because you always have. And maybe they assume you’ll be OK because you always have been. It sounds like you’re organized, ambitious, and really have your life together, and they’re accustomed to you being the one who reaches out and makes things happen, and the one who doesn’t need anything. That pattern can be difficult to break, but I think it can be done—without writing them out of your life.
My suggestion is to try to think about your intentions each time you interact with your sisters, and only call (or plan a trip or event) when you’re doing it because you truly want their company. That way, your reward is the connection itself, and you’re not waiting to even the score by receiving a call, discount, or check-in. In other words, only do what feels good to you and makes you happy, not what you think you should do. And if possible, do it without any expectations.
I’m hopeful that if you pull back and leave some room for them to fill in the gaps, they might step up and reach out to you more often, taking more responsibility for the relationship. But if they don’t, I think you should use your extra time and energy (and business discounts) to connect with the family you choose—close friends who have as much to offer as you do and who will happily pull their weight.
Q. Re: Silenced niece: I just wanted to mention that there may be things that the niece may not know that would justify the mom’s decision, such as a history of abuse, financial fraud, or something similar. Disclosing could potentially cause harm to the mom or even the dad in such a case. I suggest the letter writer talk to her mother again before opening this floodgate.
A: Wow, didn’t even think of that! Yes, the letter writer should make sure there isn’t a reason for keeping them out of the loop that’s deeper than “they’re annoying.”
Q. Re: Silenced niece: Yes, relatives and close friends ask useless questions and are great at offering unsolicited advice. I had this recently when my mum had a health emergency. They still deserve to know about their sibling’s health.
Things that helped me:
• Group WhatsApps or texts—some people actually came to my defense and called annoying comments out.
• Consider starting a CaringBridge with someone (preferably a bit more distant from your dad than you) designated to update and field questions.
• Keep it written as much as possible, so you’re not caught on the phone. Obviously you get to let it go to voicemail.
• Get a point person if someone is being too difficult/draining/out of line. I had to do this with mum’s cousin; I texted his daughter and said it might be selfish but I only have so much energy, so could she be a point person for her father? She knows what her father can be like—and thankfully I never heard another peep.
A: Great advice.
Jenée Desmond-Harris: Thanks as always for asking and answering questions. Enjoy the short week and I’ll see you back here on Monday.
From How to Do It
I’m a 35-year-old married mother of two small children, and I’ve never had good sex. I do not have orgasms from intercourse alone, which I have gathered is not unusual. None of the men I was with when I was single in my 20s were interested in learning about the clitoris. Neither is my husband. My question is whether all men are like this—because in my dating life, they all were—or whether it’s worth it to try to have an affair.