Care and Feeding

I Can’t Stand How My Sister Is Taking Advantage of Our Mother

Should I intervene, or mind my own business?

A mother hands her baby to its grandmother.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by maruco/iStock/Getty images Plus. 

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Dear Care and Feeding,

This year, my sister had the first grandbaby in my family, a son. My parents are over the moon to be grandparents, and I’m really enjoying “Cool Aunt” status. Everyone gets along and, with the exception of myself, lives nearby. I visit as often as possible. The problem is that I am concerned that my sister is taking advantage of my parents, particularly my mom, when it comes to childcare.

Let me first say, I understand that raising a child is an enormous, around-the-clock job and that it takes a village to help a little one thrive, especially in the era of COVID. I’d also like to acknowledge that my mom is an incredibly generous person. She’s happy to spend time with the baby and, maybe more significantly, wants to lend a hand to my sister. My sister is a shift worker, so she is at work three or four days a week, and her husband’s hours change constantly. Like a lot of new parents, they weren’t comfortable putting their son in daycare right away. But now it’s almost a year later, and she is spending long, often chaotic days with a fussy near-toddler. She says she doesn’t mind, but I know she’s exhausted, sometimes frustrated, and increasingly overwhelmed trying to balance everything, especially around the holidays. I understand that childcare is expensive and having help during the work week is a blessing, but my sister has been dropping her son off even on days she’s not working and then not returning for extended stretches of time, way past when she said she’d be back and often without a great reason. For example, just yesterday she dropped her son off with my parents, communicated that she would be back by noon, then did not come back until 3:00 pm, without even a text to manage expectations.

Every new mom needs time for herself, and my parents aren’t setting boundaries, but my sister has a husband who is a great dad and my folks are starting to skip things they like to do to be available to her. I feel like the whole thing is a lot to ask of someone without ever really having a conversation about needs and expectations in the first place. I know I’m child-free, so maybe I really don’t understand. Am I being unreasonable to even have an opinion on the issue and would I be wrong to talk to my sister about the dynamic? Is it actually none of my business?

—Trying to Keep it Cool

Dear Trying,

It is actually none of your business.

While is not unreasonable to have an opinion, that doesn’t mean you get to insert yourself into a situation in which you play no part. You say your mother says she doesn’t mind, but you “know” she does. How do you know? Has she confided that to you, or are you assuming it? If you’re making an assumption, is it based on what you can see/hear, or on what you imagine “must” be true? You do seem to know a lot about the day -to-day activities of your sister and your parents, which makes me wonder who’s reporting them. Your mom? (Sounds like it, as it doesn’t seem likely that your sister would confide that she was three hours late and didn’t text.) But is your mother complaining, or is she just a compulsive reporter of events and you’re interpreting? I just can’t tell.

But I’ll say this. If you’re truly worried about your mother—either because she is telling you that she’s exhausted and overwhelmed, even if she “doesn’t mind,” or because you can see for yourself that this really is too much for her—then talk to Mom. Tell her you’re worried about her. And if she responds that you don’t need to be, that she can handle it—or even if she tells you she is indeed feeling pretty worn out but doesn’t want to let your sister down—then you need to back off, Auntie. At most, in the latter case, you might urge Mom to be honest with your sister, who may not be fully conscious of just how much she’s asking of your mom and the toll it’s taking on her. Beyond that, keep your own counsel. This is between the two of them.

— Michelle

More Advice From Slate

To tell the truth, I am sick to death of the holidays. My husband and I are both in the medical field and it is difficult to get off and then spend a week in a tiny house bursting with a bunch of ill-tempered relatives (last time my husband and I shared a room with my sister and her husband. It was not fun.) So this year, we decided to have a small celebration at home and then fly out to see everyone before the new year—smart idea right? Well, according to my mother and various relatives, I have broken my grandmother’s heart by not being there on Christmas. The fact that I will see everyone a day or two later makes no difference and the entire hullabaloo makes want to cancel our tickets and just go skiing instead. My husband tells me he will support whatever decision I make, but I am just not sure what to do. It may blow over once we get there and then again I might be spending a week hearing how I ruined Christmas. What do you think?