Care and Feeding

I Think It’s Finally Time to Cut Ties With My Sister

A woman holds her head in her hands.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have five siblings. We’ve been fractured in various ways since my mom died a decade ago. My eldest sister, “Jane,” who has MS and Bipolar (semi treated) has decided (I think?) to be houseless by choice (she’s living in her minivan) in another state, far from where I live with my husband and kids. Jane visited recently for over a month (that she overstayed her welcome is an understatement).

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I’m the only family member Jane is in contact with besides my own kids and occasionally my brother (a mentally ill drug addict I’m not in contact with). I pay for my sister to have a phone with unlimited data. She texts me, but I rarely speak to her because the stories she tells me when we do talk give me so much anxiety. She can’t come here to live because she can be (and has been) abusive. I need to protect my kids. All of this said, though: I feel a lot of debt to her because of how she took care of me in my own childhood, when there was no one else to do it. And I love her, despite everything. So I am pretty much constantly tormented by this situation.

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Now I’m going home for a few days for a graduation in the family. I told Jane I’d see her on Saturday (the rest of the time I’ll be with my siblings she doesn’t talk to). What I meant was: I’ll take you out for lunch. But now she’s group texting me and my kids about “adventures” we can go on while we’re there. I am not going to do that. My kids are still recovering from her visit. But it seems it’s impossible to set boundaries with her. Every time I try, it means a big blowup and her cutting contact with me for a while. Which is fine. I can track her phone. It’s the big blowups I can’t do anymore, but it’s like she has no other way to behave. She HAS to repeat the pattern. I just don’t know where to go from here.

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—At My Wit’s End

Dear AMWE,

If you read this column regularly, you know that I am loathe to suggest cutting off contact with a family member entirely. I believe that these connections are precious and deeply meaningful, and that when we lose them, we make our lives smaller, lonelier, and without a sense of continuity, which I think of as essential to a fully realized life.

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When I say this, as I often do, to people who are struggling with a family member who is making them miserable, I pair it with an entreaty to do everything they can to make the relationship work in some way (and in however reduced a fashion may be necessary) before giving up on it. But you seem to have done this already. It sounds like you have been working at this for years. It’s interesting to me that what you say you “can’t do anymore” are your sister’s blowups at you—that this is the one thing you can’t live with any longer, that her inability to change the pattern (you propose boundaries, she blows up) is untenable. But you’re in a pattern too (you propose a boundary, she blows up and cuts you off, and then she comes back and the cycle starts all over again). If your sister cannot abide by your reasonable boundaries, you are the one who has to break the pattern. Go ahead and tell her what you meant when you said, “I’ll see you on Saturday” (either she knew and pretended not to, or she didn’t know because she doesn’t understand how damaging her behavior has been to your children). Make it clear to her that you are not going to see her with your kids: that this is the limited relationship you are willing to have with her. And if she blows up this time—as I assume she will, since you assume she will—it’s time for you to cut this relationship off. I know how painful this will be for you. I know it’s a last resort. But if it is impossible to keep her in your life while also protecting your kids (and, frankly, yourself) from her abuse, then it is time to put an end to it. I am so sorry.

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Slate Plus Members Get More Advice from Michelle Each Week

From this week’s letter, I’m Full of Resentment About the One Thing Every Other Family Seems to Have: My next step might be to break down in tears, which I don’t want to do either.”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I hope you can help me, because I’m feeling a little—well, OK, a lot—like I’ve entered the Twilight Zone. I am a forward-thinking, open-minded person. Politically liberal and a longtime champion of gay rights. My older brother is gay. My youngest son is gay. I love them both and I swear I don’t have a homophobic bone in my body. But I feel like the ground is shifting in a way I can’t make sense of. In the last six month, two of my grown children—I have three altogether, all sons—have made announcements about their spouses that I simply don’t know how to process. “David,” my youngest, who came out to me as gay when he was 12 and married his longtime boyfriend as soon as gay marriage became legal, tells me that “Jason,” his husband, isn’t his husband anymore: that is, Jason is no longer using he/him pronouns, doesn’t want to be referred to as my son-in-law, etc. Jason now identifies as nonbinary.

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That was just before Thanksgiving, and I am still trying to absorb and understand this. I’m doing my best. I do slip up and say “he” more often than I’d like, and definitely more often than Jason and David would like, but I love both my son and his spouse and I want to get it right. But in the midst of this, just two weeks ago, my middle son, “Sam,” broke the news to us that his spouse, “Melissa,” the mother of my only grandchild, has concluded that she (now they) is also nonbinary.

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Can you explain to me in a way that I can understand what on earth is going on? I read your column. I’ve seen all the references to gender being more “complicated” and “nuanced” than it used to be. But this is not an explanation that helps me. It doesn’t really explain anything. Can you tell me something that will? I need help with this.

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—Baffled Middle-Aged Mom

Dear Baffled,

I got you.

Let’s start here: what I’ve said—by now more times than I can count, I’m afraid—is not that gender is more complex, nuanced, and subtle than it used to be, but that our understanding of gender is [all of those things that I don’t want to repeat yet again for fear of sounding like a broken record]. Gender identity has always been complex (etc.). It has just not been widely recognized as such in our culture until recently.

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And let’s stipulate, too, that you are far from alone in your bafflement. I myself am past middle age, and I have friends older than I, in their 70s and 80s—both straight and gay—who are having a hell of a time with this too. It’s confusing to discover, so many decades into one’s life (even for people who are otherwise open-minded), that things may not be quite as one has supposed.

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But of course you—and some of my friends—are at an advantage in “processing” this (even if it may not feel like it right now) because you have a history of being open to ideas other than those that were presented to you (even forced on you) in your own childhoods. I feel confident telling you that you’ll get there. If I, born in long-ago 1955, and mostly straight, and mostly pretty much at home with the label “woman” (more on that in a sec), can get there, so can you.

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Here is as simple an explanation of “nonbinary”—which can mean a number of different things—as I can summon:

Some people who identify as nonbinary at times feel male and at other times female. A novelist I know, Marjorie Celona, in their novel in progress, The Year of X, writes: “It’s not so difficult to explain, if you just let your mind relax. If you stop being so rigid. For instance. Think of a woman as the ocean. Think of a man as the land. Being nonbinary is the shoreline. At high tide, you might feel a little more feminine. At low tide, you might feel like you were supposed to be born a man.” But others who identify as nonbinary feel both male and female at the same time, always. I have a close friend who has felt this way all their life without putting it into words, and only recently began to acknowledge it socially, publicly—even fully to themselves for the first time—as the recognition dawned that there is in fact a way to express this understanding of themself that once seemed inexpressible. And since making the decision to abandon the he/him/his pronouns that never really accurately described them, and switch to they/them/theirs, they tell me they feel happier, more at home in the world, than they ever have.

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But there are also nonbinary people who identify as neither male nor female, who think of themselves as genderless. I have probably given the most thought to this variation of what it means to be nonbinary, because although I am comfortable enough with the identifier “woman,” thinking of myself as a woman is not high on my list of self-identifiers, just as “girl” wasn’t in my childhood. “Woman” appears way down on the list of the ways I think of myself, well below  “from Brooklyn” and “writer” and “mother” and “second generation American,” and “secular Jew,” and many other nouns with which I describe myself. I have never felt particularly “female” (and I have only occasionally felt “feminine”); yet I do not in the least feel “male.” (Indeed, the very notion of male versus female as an “identity” has always seemed vaguely silly to me, and the idea of being reduced to my parts is embarrassing.) This doesn’t mean I consider myself nonbinary—or even that I know what it feels like to be nonbinary in this last sense I’ve described; it only means that I can sort of imagine my way into the idea of it. And that has helped me to imagine my way into the idea of other ways of being nonbinary. Perhaps there is some version of this that you too will find easier to understand than others. But whether there is or isn’t, whether you have to relax your mind—as Marjorie Celona suggests—or think harder, what’s important is to accept on faith the way others define themselves. You don’t have to fully understand it. You only have to trust and respect it.

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The truth is, the categories we grew up with—male and female—are to some extent categories of convenience. They help us divide up and make sense of the world, because seeing every individual person as an individual instead of as part of a known group seems overwhelming. We need such categories, I suppose, to function as a society. (At any rate, we have them—we have so many of them.) But recognizing that such categories—this binary, when it comes to gender—aren’t always useful or accurate is one way of enlarging our understanding of humanity, and of loving our families and our friends better and more completely.

I hope this helps.

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Submit your questions about parenting and family life here. It’s anonymous! (Questions may be edited for publication.)

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a mother of four adult children. My oldest, “Christina,” is 30, married, and childfree by choice. My other three kids (ages 28, 27, and 25) are all also married, but all three have very young kids. Christina has built a pretty full child-free life. She has a good marriage, an amazing career, and close friends; she travels a lot, is a bit of a gym rat, and spends a lot of time on her hobbies. She and her husband are also a very involved aunt and uncle in their nieces and nephews’ lives and provide lots of free childcare. She frequently takes the kids hiking and camping with her to give her siblings a break.

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Recently, my younger children have confided in me that they’re jealous and resentful of Christina’s relatively care-free life but feel guilty about it because she’s such a huge help and support system for them. My other two daughters are stay-at-home moms and are feeling isolated and like they gave up on their career ambitions, while Christina continues to get promoted and excel at work. They’re feeling self-conscious about their post-baby weight, while Christina has made exercise a top priority. My youngest child (my son) is exhausted from working 12-hour days to support his wife and daughter.

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I’ve tried to explain to all of them that raising young children is exhausting and draining, even with a lot of support, and that it will get better when the kids are all in school. But they all just seem burnt out. Is there anything I can say to them or do for them to make things easier? They love their sister and genuinely appreciate her help, but I think it’s hard for them to see her living such a different life from theirs. I remember what it was like with four young kids, and I know their unhappiness will pass, but I don’t want them to be resentful of their sister! I want to support all of them as best as I can.

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—Referee to Sibling Rivalry

Dear Referee,

Stop refereeing. The way to support all of them is just to listen when they complain or vent. There is absolutely nothing for you to do about any of this, and they don’t expect you to do anything about any of it! I have a feeling you may be projecting your own feelings here, too, and that you don’t quite understand why Christina isn’t following in your motherly footsteps (this is just a guess, of course, but there’s a bit of protesting too much when you describe her perfect life and her perfect behavior). Be a sounding board when the younger three confide their resentment. Make sympathetic noises. (Do not keep telling them that things will get better later. Somehow, this never makes anyone feel any better in the moment.) Let them get it off their chest and then, once they’ve finished (but do let them finish), ask a question that will redirect the conversation to something it makes them happy to think and talk about. Everything that you’ve described sounds perfectly normal. Don’t turn it into a problem for you. And try your best to remember that what you want your children to feel (in this case, that they be resentment-free—that everything between them is sunshine and rainbows), you cannot control this. It is not your job to control it.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

• If you missed Friday’s column, read it here.
• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

The other day my child and I looked through the second grade photo feed, and I asked why there were no photos of her playing with Olivia, whose name comes up a lot at home. My child casually responded, “Because her mother doesn’t like me, so she knows to move away to play with another kid when the teacher gets the camera out.” So my question is: What level of rage is appropriate? On a scale of 1 (“let it go, maybe the kid misheard”) to 10 (“shame them on social media and carve mean things in their lawn”), where should my reaction fall? I think I started at a 7 (quiet seething) and am trying to get myself down to about a 5. My daughter is sociable, has many friends, and I am not aware of any behavior that would make GROWNUPS tell their child to avoid her. (I talked to her a bit about this, and she said, “Honestly, I’m glad Olivia told me the truth. We are still friends, and my feelings would be hurt if I thought she was leaving me for no reason.”)

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—Mom in a Rage

Dear MiaR,

Honestly, it sounds like your daughter has this under control. She doesn’t seem to be distressed that there is an adult who dislikes her—she doesn’t even seem to wonder why!—and since learning to live with the brutal fact that sometimes other people won’t like us (for reasons we can’t understand or control) is important and very hard (many full grown adults can’t make peace with this, and spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to make everyone like them, which is futile), she is ahead of the game.

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I understand completely, though, why this enrages you. It would infuriate me too. (Hey, my daughter is nearly 29, and I sincerely believe that if there were anyone who disliked her—but could there really be such a person?—they would by definition be a very bad person.) And taking a dislike to a 7-year-old is flat-out bonkers. Who knows why Olivia’s mother feels the way she does? But really—what difference does it make? Let it go. Chalk it up to Some People Are Awful (some people really are). Your daughter and Olivia seem to have worked this out on their own. I do give you permission, however, to indulge in my favorite nineteenth-century social convention, the “cut”: If you ever run into the woman, feel free to ignore her. If she speaks to you, pretend you don’t hear. She’ll likely think you are the crazy one, but it may make you feel a little better. For moral support and practical instructions in this effective method of making your disapproval clear without saying a word about it, read the novels of Jane Austen.

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—Michelle

More Advice From Slate

I feel like I am in crisis. I have three wonderful, adorable young children. For years, I have been unsatisfied in my marriage for very typical reasons. My husband and I have no physical and little emotional intimacy, though we do have a low-conflict household. I carry the bulk of the labor in our household concerning all domestic and child care responsibilities, despite the fact that I work full time at a stressful career. My husband is impatient with the kids and does not seem to like being around them. I can’t help but feel I’d be happier divorced. What should I do?

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