Dear Prudence

Help! My Sister Thinks I Should Give Up a Promotion to Continue Being Her Free Babysitter.

It’s not my fault her life is a mess.

A woman with a child clinging to her leg points accusingly at another woman smiling as she packs up her house to move
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by shironosov/iStock/Getty Images Plus and grynold/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.

Dear Prudence,

I am happily single, while my sister is married to the biggest man-baby on the planet. He thinks putting a dirty dish in the sink is worthy of a parade and being a good parent is telling my sister the baby is crying before going back to his video game. Both work full time, but my sister takes care of the kids, the house, and the dogs, and she constantly leans on me to help out (while complaining about her husband refusing to). I have been watching and raising my young nieces since they were born when my sister can’t. I love them to pieces—but I have been waiting for them to get old enough so my sister doesn’t have to pay for expensive infant care. I am tired of being expected to pick them up from school five days a week and to take care of them when my sister works weekends while my brother-in-law goes camping with his friends. My sister has gone back and forth about getting a divorce for years, and I have tried to be as neutral as I could possibly be, but we have fought about it. She tells me I can’t understand that a marriage is about compromise and companionship—I don’t get an opinion.

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My problem is I put in for a promotion that requires me to move fairly far away—and I got it! It is a huge step in my career. When I took my sister out for a celebration lunch, she grew upset when I told her about the move. She said I couldn’t abandon her now. She was pregnant again and would need me. I told her that was the most selfish and self-centered thing she could possibly say to me. Did she really expect me to orient my entire life around hers and her freaking failure of a husband? My sister told me to shut up and insulted me—it isn’t like I had anything worthwhile going on in my life. I shot back that at least I wasn’t as willfully stupid as she was; her husband didn’t lift a finger for baby one and two, did she think baby three would be any different? She got up and left. She refuses to talk to me other than calling me to help out with my nieces. I am frustrated beyond belief. I love my sister, but I have given seven years of my life to propping up hers, and she can’t be happy for me for once. What should I do?

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—Moving On

Dear Moving On,

I guess it’s true that marriage is about compromise and companionship—although the way your sister used that combo to defend her husband’s unhelpfulness is less than compelling. But relationships, of whatever sort, are also about communication and shared understanding. And it seems like, in your relationship with your sister, that’s where the breakdown is happening. You feel like you’re supporting her more than her actual husband is, and now you’re being asked to make big life choices based on other life choices you had nothing to do with. She, on the other hand, feels that this is part and parcel of being sisters, I guess. Neither one of you is wrong, per se, but you have the right to redefine whatever you want. It’s possible that your sister is envious of the freedom you have, of your ability to make better life choices, perhaps. It’s also possible she’s freaked out by the logistical challenge of caring for her kids without you. That’s all reasonable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t move to take on this new job.

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I know you want her to feel happy for you, but I think you should try adjusting your expectations a little bit. Her reaction suggests she is probably too caught up in her own life to think empathetically about what you need. But you have done that thinking and you’ve made a decision that will be good for you. If your sister won’t celebrate you, you can celebrate yourself in your new digs. Frankly, I think some time apart will be good for the two of you. Your relationship needs recalibration. She’s mad at you about your success, but she’s still calling you to help care for her kids? Part of this is the way family works, sure, but part of it is not seeing you as a person with your own life. So, go live that life. She and her husband will hopefully improve on their companionship and compromise. Or they won’t. But either way, this is work that you can’t do for her.

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Dear Prudence,

My sister “Jess” and her husband “Leo” had unsuccessfully tried for a baby (IVF and everything) for six years. Eventually they decided upon the path of adoption, and were connected to a young pregnant woman who was in the process of interviewing parents. The three of them hit it off straight away, and Jess and Leo covered all the medical bills and went to every ultrasound. When the baby was born, they were ecstatic: Little “Leo Junior.” Everything was great, Junior was spoiled rotten and adored by his parents. When Junior was about 1.5, though, Jess found out she was pregnant. This was a major shock, as after Junior was born, they had decided one was enough and stopped trying altogether. But they were so thrilled with the news of their miracle baby, named “Mia.”

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Fast forward: Junior is now 12 and Mia is nearly 10. I’ve recently been living closer to Jess and her family, and I’ve noticed something I hadn’t before: Junior and Mia are treated quite differently. Junior gets told off a lot, but when Mia does the same thing, it is laughed off. Mia has been moved into the bigger bedroom, and has her own TV and a couch in her room. Junior doesn’t (despite being older), and my sis just said it is because there is not enough space in Junior’s room. Junior takes the trash out, does the dishes, and sweeps the back porch. Mia does nothing. Mia has the latest $2,000 flagship phone; Junior has a decent phone, but just the $500 smartphone (First World problems, I know). Junior asked to go to the movies with his friends on Friday night, but his parents said it was too expensive. Then they gave Mia $30 to go ice staking with her friends the next day. Junior isn’t neglected and has all of his needs met, but I just don’t see the same connection with his parents that they have with Mia. As another example, both our families recently went out for the day, and Mia picked where we went. Junior had a suggestion too, a museum. But as soon as Mia said the zoo, there we were going. It was like they didn’t even hear Junior say the museum. The museum here is actually amazing, and I do want to take my kids, so will probably ask if I can take Junior as well.

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Anyway, he has been in this family since the day he was born, and it breaks my heart to see this favoritism for his sister. I feel it is really damaging. What can I do in this situation? I’m trying to spoil Junior as much as I can while I’m living here, but we will be gone soon. How can we broach the topic of Junior’s treatment to Jess and Leo? I don’t want to risk getting cut off from my niece and nephew or my sister and so want to mention something but in a gentle way. Is that even possible?

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—Long-Distance Auntie

Dear Long-Distance Auntie,

Offering parents advice about how they’re raising their kids is like the final boss of conversational minefields. And with a sibling? Sheesh! Normally, I suggest that if you have an opinion or want to offer a suggestion, you should ask permission first, i.e., “I had a thought about Mia’s and Junior’s treatment. Are you open to hearing it?” But even that feels risky. I think your best bet is to talk about specific instances when they happen so that you’re not perceived as casting judgment on the way your sister and BIL are parenting. Maybe this museum trip could be an entry point: “I’d love to take Junior with the girls to the museum. I felt like he wanted to go the other day and got overruled. Did you notice that?” It’s harder to set a foot wrong asking people what they saw in a situation and going from there. Trust your own perception, but be open to the idea that you don’t know everything that’s happening in this family.

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Another way of getting a better understanding of what’s going on while still respecting their boundaries is to keep working on your relationship with Junior. Spoiling him is great, but it’s probably more important to create a circumstance where he can talk to you and you can ask him questions about his feelings. If there is an imbalance in the way he’s being treated and he notices it, having a safe adult he can talk to will help him. And, if he so desires, bringing up what he shared with you with his parents takes you out of the hot seat.

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Dear Prudence,

Late last year, my husband and I bought a house that has been divided into two units from a family friend who was tired of being a landlord. We moved into the larger unit, but the small one continued to be occupied by “Ed.” He had lived there for over a decade and had always been a model tenant, but he survives on a fixed income. His rent hadn’t been raised in five years. He wouldn’t be able to find anything close to this on the current market. We agreed to extend the lease for a year at the regular rate. Ed’s health has been rapidly going downhill. He used to be an active senior who could take the bus to go grocery shopping, but more recently, he has fallen twice and has to use a walker now. We were the ones who took him to the hospital and all his follow-up appointments. We are the ones doing his shopping and heavy chores like laundry (even making his bed). I even cook meals for Ed three times a week after he hurt his dominant hand.

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We didn’t mean to get this involved. Ed is a nice old man, and after his first fall, it was just the kind thing to do to get him back on his feet. Months later, it has become apparent Ed isn’t getting any better. The end of the lease has come and gone. My husband and I tried to talk to Ed about other options, and he burst into tears. This was his home and he didn’t want to leave. We agreed to another six-months lease, which will be up in October. Ed doesn’t have any surviving immediately family, his sons died young, his sisters are dead, and there is a niece that lives out of state. She has no interest in helping Ed. We have contacted senior services and are on a waiting list to even get an appointment. We have gotten some respite from a local church that will drive Ed to church and other places.

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My husband and I don’t know what to do. We had vague plans to merge the house back to its original state. That isn’t happening. We had plans to try for children. That isn’t happening. We had plans to go on a two-week vacation. That isn’t happening. We worry about Ed. He is a sweet guy who we are very fond of, but we aren’t his family. Ed doesn’t have much in terms of savings, even if we saved and gave back his rent. It would be less than $3,000. We have college loans, property taxes, and a mortgage to worry about ourselves. If Ed was able to live on his own, my husband and I would happily keep up the arrangement. We care about Ed, but now it feels like we care too much. What can we do?

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—Divided House

Dear Divided House,

I have been subbing in for Prudie long enough to know that this question will split the comments section in two like the Red Sea. There will probably never be a consensus around these parts about what responsibility a landlord has to a tenant. You write in your letter that your friend sold you the house because he was tired of being a landlord. While you’re going above and beyond, I have to wonder what brought about your friend’s fatigue. Not to say you didn’t come into this situation with eyes open, but that being a landlord is often more complicated than it first appears. Additionally, you bought the property knowing it was partially tenant-occupied. Now you’re having a landlord problem and a human problem.

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First the human problem. I think it’s fair to have a conversation with Ed about the amount of care that he needs and to tell him that you’re overextended. He has to face some hard realities about his health and his abilities. And you should ask him to be an active participant in working out a plan. That’s easier said than done, of course, especially since so many seniors find that there are no options. But if Ed doesn’t have the ability to cook for himself, he needs more help than even the two of you can offer. Is there more support he can get from his church community? Does he have friends? Will his fixed income allow him to move into an assisted living facility? These are questions he needs to work through.

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The landlord issue is a different thing. It sounds like he’s paying his rent, so his obligation is met. And you extended the lease originally because he wouldn’t be able to find anything in the current market on his income. The market is not your fault, but I’m not quite sure what was supposed to have changed in his circumstances between now and then. I know you write that you’d happily keep the arrangement if his health wasn’t a factor, but you also write that you had other plans for the building and it sounds like keeping Ed at a discounted rate is putting financial strain on the landlord arrangement. So at least a small part of your exhaustion is probably coming from not being able to do what you want with your building. This is a landlord problem. And the landlord solution is that you don’t have to let him keep living there. I don’t think you should evict him, and I don’t think you want to. So at this point you have to look for solutions to your human problem—enlist Ed in working on a plan that keeps him safe.

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Dear Prudence,

I love my best friend dearly, but she is constantly bombarding me with texts and phone calls about the most mundane things, and she is a negative person who complains a lot. I am in panic mode right now as she has applied to work where I do, and there is a good chance she will get the position—and her office would be right next to mine. She is truly a wonderful, caring friend, but I have always been very, very adamant about keeping my work and personal relationships separate; things are less messy for me this way, and when I am at work, I like to focus completely on my work. I am freaking out because I know she will constantly be in my office talking and complaining, and this will interrupt my work and focus. I know that if I shut my office door, she will still come in to talk. I also am worried that she will talk negatively about our office or co-workers, all of whom I respect and admire, and that would hurt me deeply. I am not a confrontational person, and I want to keep our friendship. How do I set boundaries in this situation?

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—Just Let Me Work

Dear Just Let Me Work,

A lot of us are slightly (or even drastically) different at work. This is, I think, common knowledge. Work friends aren’t always outside friends, work jokes don’t play to the happy hour crowd. So use the new environment as a pretense to talk with your friend about how you can best be successful in the office together. Tell her that you’re excited she’s working there and that you want to make sure weird work stuff doesn’t bleed into your friendship. Tell her you like your job and your co-workers and you really like to focus on work at work. Ask her if you can leave the office at the office and also use work time to do the things that pay the bills. Talking about it beforehand helps to set an expectation. You don’t want her caught off guard by the person you are at the office. Hopefully she’s professional enough to understand that we do what we have to do to get the job done.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Whenever I hear people talk about friendship couples counseling I just wonder, what are we doing here?”

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R. Eric Thomas and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

My sister never got along with our stepmom, despite the fact that she was perfectly fine. She wasn’t cruel or rude; she honestly didn’t interact with us much beyond basic civility (asking how our day was or reminding us about our chores). She left the parenting to our dad, but was a pleasant person who made our dad very happy. Our mom died when we were young and our dad met his second wife when we were all in our midteens. We did do family counseling, but it never seemed to sink in with my sister. She always finds something to nitpick about (e.g., our stepmom got her pink PJs for Christmas, my sister made a fuss that she hated pink, so for her birthday in February, stepmom got my sister a gift card—then my sister complains about it being too impersonal). My brother and I have spoken about this to my sister because she keeps making family gatherings impossible. You never know when she is going to get a bee in her bonnet.

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Our dad has fought with our sister over her behavior in the past, but it finally reached a crescendo when he recently announced our stepmom was expecting. My sister freaked out—she told our dad it was “disgusting” for him to be having a baby at this age (our dad is in his late 40s, our stepmom is 40, and my siblings and I are in our mid-20s). And she accused our stepmother of trying to “steal” our inheritance, because our dad wants to sell the family house and move to a more family-friendly area. Our dad told our sister she crossed the line: She could apologize now and put on a smile or leave and not come back. Our sister left.

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The rift stands. She is very unhappy that my brother and I are not on her side. But we were there and witnessed her meltdown. Our parents were high school sweethearts and had me just after college graduation, so suddenly getting a new sibling now is a bit weird, but not terribly so. Our brother brought up that we got everything we wanted from both Mom and Dad when we were old enough to take care of family heirlooms and our education was paid in full. What else did our sister expect? She cried and accused us of ganging up on her. My brother told her she had a “screw loose” and needed professional help. I bit my tongue and I am now the only person my sister will talk to. She cut our brother off and all she wants to talk about is her persecution complex. I have a hard time talking about how her boss/co-workers/customers did her wrong when I have seen her behavior with my own eyes.

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I love my sister, but I am emotionally drained of being forced to play peacekeeper. She is a young adult, with emphasis on “adult.” Our parents were married with two kids at her age. I don’t expect anything similar of us (I kill my plants!), but come on, grow up or shut up. I am tired of this, but I am terrified of cutting my sister loose. Help!

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—Cinderella’s Sister

Dear Cinderella’s Sister,

There is something deeper and more complex than just a persecution complex going on with your sister, as I’m sure you know. It’s possible that this is all rooted in unresolved grief, it’s possible there is a chemical imbalance at play, it’s possible something else is happening. But she won’t know and you won’t know unless she gets more help. Letting her continue to complain to you is not doing either of you any good. There are ways of setting a boundary that are kinder and more trauma-informed than the way your brother did it. Your sister may still have the same response, but I fear that nothing will change if she can keep telling herself the narrative that everyone misunderstands her.

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Try having a conversation with her when she’s not mid-complaint. Tell her that you’re concerned about her and the pain she’s in and you don’t feel that you can provide enough support for her. If she tries to pivot to talking about ways others have wronged her, bring it back to her feelings, what she’s doing to take care of herself. Make it clear that you’re not available to be a sounding board for complaints but that you care enough to want her to feel better. She may not be in a place to accept this; she may lash out at you, too. That doesn’t mean you have to capitulate and keep letting her put you in the middle of her disputes. Hold the boundary. It may feel like you’re abandoning her, but in reality, you’re abandoning a cycle that’s not helping either of you.

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Dear Prudence,

I’ve been taking some time away from my house of worship, but I have reached a point where I think I’d like to start coming again for the periodic Sunday. The problem is, before I took some time away, there was someone in the congregation trying to get friendly with me who I’d rather keep as more of a polite acquaintance. I used to be a little friendlier with him (he uses he/him pronouns, but I’m not sure how he identifies based on his chosen presentation) until he asked for my number. I gave it to him since we’d generally been getting along, and I could use friends.

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I very much regretted this, because not only did he send me constant, incredibly long texts, but they were largely in this baffling, eye-searing style—the best way I can describe it is baby talk, though not exactly. As you can probably tell, I hated this so very much. I only texted back the minimum amount I had to in order to stay on OK terms with someone I had to see once per week. I tried to get some distance in person and over text, and I could see him picking up on me being newly put-off by him; in other words, he got the message but chose not to take it.

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After I took some time away, he texted me some (I did notice the baby talk is gone, but I can’t get past the fact that it happened at all) and eventually he asked me to hang out sometime. He’d asked this before, and I deflected by only responding to a different part of the text. But this time I was worn out from moving and just never answered. Since then I haven’t heard from him.

So, I’d like to go back to my house of worship, but I am afraid of seeing him, especially since I ignored his last text about hanging out. How should I proceed? For context, it’s a smallish congregation, so there’s nowhere to hide. For another context, I’m Midwestern, and I truly cannot do conflict.

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—Cornered in the Congregation

Dear Cornered in the Congregation,

It can be hard when places we go to find solace, peace, and community also take on complicated social dynamics. Because houses of worship, in particular, are nexuses of vulnerability and shared stories, sometimes we need to set clear, kind boundaries. I know you are conflict-averse, but I would like you to consider a clear, kind boundary as an alternative to conflict. You can even be proactive about it, telling your fellow congregant that you’re dipping your toe back into the worship services and you’re very excited to focus solely on worship while you’re there. While before you were also open to the social aspect, it’s understandable and reasonable that this time around you want to prioritize your spiritual experience. If that is too close to conflict, your next option might be to be cordial if you run into your acquaintance, but to keep it brisk and limited, just like your texts. You don’t have to feel bad about ignoring the text or make an excuse. If he asks about why you didn’t respond, this might be a good place to introduce the idea that you’re trying to silo your experience of worship. This person may not be picking up on the social cues you’re sending, so, again, something unequivocal is going to help you both out.

Classic Prudie

I am a 26-year-old woman living in a quaint tech town. I have been a social worker since graduation, most recently with hospice patients, and the experience made me feel I was headed for a nervous breakdown. I saw terrible things with the families and the job filled me with deep sadness. I’m working on changing careers but struggling to find a field that interests me. I’m happiest in my quiet home, cleaning and making beautiful meals for my partner. I walk my dog, go to the gym, volunteer cleaning up a local forest and do things that promote tranquility. He makes enough at a tech firm to support the both of us, but I am paying my share of bills with my meager savings. We have no children and don’t see any on the horizon. He was supportive of my quitting, assuming I would quickly find another job. But social work now terrifies me, and I don’t know want to do for a career, if anything. Is it wrong to ask my partner to support my quiet at-home life for the sake of my mental health? Am I crazy to drop out of the workforce so early?

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