Each week, Prudie discusses a tricky letter with a colleague or friend, just for Slate Plus members. This week Jenée Desmond-Harris and Joel Anderson discuss Prudie’s response to: “Auntie Irrelevance.”
I’m in my 60s and have significant health issues. Recently, I was hospitalized for two weeks (plus at-home aftercare) for something quite serious. Not one of my siblings or their children called, emailed, texted, or contacted my daughters. Not one. Very late last night, one of my siblings called needing a shoulder in the midst of a relationship problem. Nobody even told her I’d been hospitalized. And when I told her I’d just been discharged earlier in the day, she asked whether I’m home and if she could talk with me about her relationship. I don’t expect anyone to clutch their pearls every time I’m seriously ill or have surgery. But a two-week-long hospitalization is not for nothing.
I’m always there for them and for my nieces and nephews whenever there’s a tough spot. Always. I spent thousands at the drop of a hat a few months ago to give one sister a safe break away from an abusive relationship so she could find peace and security while she moved forward. I helped get another sibling’s son into hospice care when he was passing from cancer last year and FaceTimed with him many times every day because I absolutely loved that guy and my sibling was so utterly brokenhearted that she had trouble letting him go. I GoFundMe’d the heck out of his medical expenses, which were far beyond anything one family could ever handle. I have been there every step of the way because I love them and care about them with all my heart. They’re my family!
I’m just so sad. It feels like I’ve become irrelevant to my family of origin, as if my cancer and other health troubles make it seem that I’m already practically dead and they see no need in keeping in touch with me. How can I adjust my expectations and be at peace with “it is what it is?”
Jenée Desmond-Harris: I don’t know how personal you want to get but this sounds familiar, right? I really am convinced it’s a common family dynamic.
Joel Anderson: It really is. Without being too specific here, I can think of at least two people in my life who spent much of their adult lives caring and looking out for their siblings—and other family members—and who grew increasingly bitter when that care wasn’t necessarily returned to their liking. And it’s easy to understand their disappointment. But I also think a fundamental issue here is: Doing things for people isn’t how relationships sustain themselves. It’s about the relationships themselves and how you interact with those loved ones.
Jenée: Absolutely. A generous GoFundMe contribution is not a down payment on future care when you’re hospitalized. You can’t buy or serve your way into affection. But, in this case, it seems like LW has a strong emotional relationship with at least one of her siblings, who called for relationship advice.
Joel: Right, but it does make me wonder how in tune the LW was with this particular sibling? Like, what has been the tenor of their relationship over the years? Is it just that the sibling has traditionally vented and that the LW listened and that’s just the way it’s been? I’m a believer that most people and relationships don’t change without intervention or serious intentionality. And you can’t get to this point in your life and expect something different from a relationship with someone without specifically asking them for it. Yes, the sibling was being particularly thoughtless in this situation here. But, like, this surely isn’t a revelation to the LW?
Jenée: So, you’re for intentionality and specifically asking. Do you support my group chat idea? Like “Hey guys, I could use some attention! I’m struggling over here! Check on me once in a while.” Might that actually work?
Joel: It could work, for sure. And if it doesn’t, then the LW will still have an answer about the kind of relationship she has with her siblings and other family members. Then it’ll be up to her to make a decision about how to proceed with them, if she wants to do so at all. I’m being a total hypocrite here because—like so many other people—I’m not the best at telling people when I’m hurt and asking for what I want/need. But it’s really hard to see how the LW will get the sort of attention and care that she’s seeking without making it clear that that’s what she needs. It could be that her siblings are totally clueless and have been needing her to bring this to their attention! Or it could be that they’re assholes and truly don’t care about her. She should aim to find out which one it is.
Jenée: I think the problem with my advice is that the kind of person who always has their shit together and always shows up for others is almost certainly NOT the kind of person who is comfortable explicitly asking for help or sharing that they’re hurt. But I really do think the siblings are clueless, so I hope she can push past what comes naturally to her and try to create the relationships she wants instead of just going, “Fine, nobody cares about me, I’m at peace with it.” Like, give people a chance!
Joel: You’re absolutely right. People like this are really on foreign land when they’re being vulnerable. But, hey, the LW is literally and figuratively vulnerable right now! Lean into it! Try to cultivate the kind of relationship you wish to have with your family! It’s not always personal when people aren’t thinking about you, specifically. Keep in mind that everyone has their own lives, concerns, and vulnerabilities and even the most-thoughtful person might not have you at the top of their mind. Reminding them that you need them sometimes, too can only help. If they’re not responsive to that, then you should feel free to adjust your expectations.
Jenée: “It’s not always personal when people aren’t thinking about you” is so true. You get a lot of credit for being there for others when you have the money, time, and mental health to support visits, check-ins, and donations. But when you lack those things, it doesn’t always mean you don’t care.
My last thought is, if LW makes an explicit ask and these relatives continue to disappoint, it’s time to move on to friends. You know, there’s a reason the phrase “the family you choose” exists. For a lot of people, the family you’re born into, for whatever reason, just doesn’t deliver.
Joel: The kids might say “that’s a bar.” But seriously, that’s it. Think about the other people you have in your life and consider prioritizing them more, if possible.
And, hey, I fear it’s too late for the people in my life who’ve found themselves in similar situations but please don’t wait on relationships to get better if you’re not getting what you need from them. You don’t want bitterness and resentment to set in, because then it’s too hard and probably too late, to salvage things. While you still can, try to let the people you love and support know that you’re also looking for their love and support. And maybe then you can forge a new relationship that’s strengthened by that bit of honesty and vulnerability.
I’ve always had a strained relationship with my parents, and I limit my visits to a handful of holidays and special occasions, mostly to see my little sister. About four years ago, my mother started making passive-aggressive comments to me about money and responsibility, but she wouldn’t give me any details about what was upsetting her when I asked. I didn’t think much about it, since she does this kind of thing a lot. This year, my dad casually announced that “the reason Mom is so upset” is because he has allowed her to believe a personal loan he took out several years ago was for money I asked him for and am now defaulting on.