Care and Feeding

My Mom’s Estate Is Driving a Wedge Between My Sister and Me

Twins arguing.
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,

My Mami died suddenly when my twin sister and I were 16. It was devastating for all of us, and I knew Mom was heartbroken and missed her, but she did her best to raise us on her own. The night she got back from dropping my sister and me off at college, Mom committed suicide.

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Now my sister and I—18 years old, so legal adults—are trying to deal with our parents’ estate and all the legal stuff that comes with inheritance. We’re a working-class family, so it’s not a huge amount of money, but they owned their house and cars, and some possessions like art and collectables were insured. It’s all split down the middle between me and my sister.

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My sister wants to sell everything right now and take the money. She’s angry at Mom for what she did, and she says she never wants to see that house again. I feel like I’m going to have a breakdown when I think about both never seeing the house or any of the stuff they loved enough to will us, plus the actual work that would go into removing all their stuff (where would we even put it?) and selling the insured items, etc. I want to leave it all as is and figure out how to handle it once we’ve healed a bit. My sister and the lawyer have good points about how the house costs money just to sit there, it’s too far away for me to live in while I’m in college, and we could use the money for college instead of taking out loans.

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However, the lawyer also says having property with no mortgage is great for starting lines of credit at our age, and we can sell the items anytime. My sister can’t really sell her half without my consent, at least for the house and property, and she says I’m being selfish and causing her pain like Mom did and this is “a weight around [her] neck.” I want to wait, and I think she might regret getting rid of everything of our mom’s in the future. I guess I need clear-headed advice from an outside perspective on how to best handle this.

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—Overwhelmed Sisters

Dear Overwhelmed,

I’m so sorry for the loss of your mother. The reality is that grief hits us all in different ways, none of which are right or wrong. Because you and your sister are financially and legally linked in this current situation, you’re going to need to find ways to accommodate both of your needs. My suspicion is that your sister might be willing to give you some space and time to grieve if you could agree on a timeline for when selling could start. Can you decide together to begin selling the personal property in, say, six months or a year? I strongly recommend that you set a timeline that you can be comfortable with and stick to it. It’s doubtful you’ll ever feel ready, but if you keep the house and possessions in limbo for too long, you actually run the risk of the process becoming that much more daunting—because “you’ve waited this long, so you better do it right.”

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If you and your sister cannot agree on a timeline to move forward, could you agree on categories of belongings she can start clearing out without you? Maybe you don’t care about the contents of the kitchen or garage, for example. That way, she feels like she’s moving forward while you still take time to sit with your grief. She could also sell you her half of the house so that you can retain the property as long as you personally want.

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As you are already discovering, it is not easy to go through grief with someone who has a different set of needs and expectations than you. I recommend you each find a support group where you can get both practical advice and emotional support. If you are able to do therapy together, that also might help you find compromise on how to move forward (think of it like marriage counseling, but for sisters).

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Bottom line: you probably won’t ever feel great about giving up these tangible reminders of your mom, and your sister may never feel great about keeping it around. You have to find the path that allows each of you some comfort, knowing that this is—no way around it—just a crappy situation for everyone.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two daughters, Amy (3) and Anna (7 months). Amy very much looks like my husband’s side of the family. Anna looks like mine; specifically, she looks distinctly like my mother’s father. Anna is the only one to share his looks; neither myself, my brothers, my mother or her siblings take after him. This would be endearing (and I think it is!) except my maternal grandfather died in a workplace accident when my mother was 5, and neither she nor her younger siblings got over the trauma. A week after he was buried, my grandmother sold everything and moved them all across the country to live with her own parents. It was a tremendous amount of change and grief all at once, and it impacted my mother and her siblings in ways they still struggle with nearly 60 years later. Every time they see Anna, they comment sadly on how much she looks like their father. Even Amy’s starting to notice they seem unhappy with baby Anna. How do I address this while being respectful of their trauma? I’m worried they’re not going to get past this and will continue to treat Anna differently.

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— Deceased’s Doppelgänger

Dear Doppelganger,

My two boys each looked like their great- and great-great grandfathers when they were young, and absolutely neither of them looks like these ancestors now. So while there is a possibility that Anna may continue to resemble your grandfather, it’s just as likely that the resemblance will fade as Anna grows and develops more of her own personality and “look.” (I mean, babies just look like old men, you know?) Try to keep that in mind as you weigh your options; while this is frustrating now, time may solve the issue for you.

However, your spirit might not be able to wait for that to happen, in which case it is perfectly reasonable to speak to your mother, with or without her siblings. The next time they break out the sad routine, find an opportunity during the visit—either in the moment or later on (once your girls are napping or something)—to gently bring it up. Express that while you respect that Anna’ appearance is a sad reminder of what they have lost, their reactions are impacting how you feel about their visits, and you’re concerned about the dynamic it’s building between them and the baby. Absolutely mention that Amy has picked up on it, to underscore how (unintentionally) disruptive their approach has been.

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Doing so is not disrespectful. It’s kind of you to be sensitive to their feelings, but this is their hurdle to overcome. Anna’s appearance is not her fault (nor yours) and it is unfair of them to make her into a talisman of their grief. I’m sure it’s not what they want, either. And perhaps, once this issue is out in the open, you can all brainstorm a way to honor your grandfather in a way that feels good to all parties.

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Catch Up on Care and Feeding

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

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a high schooler. This is going to sound really pathetic, but I have no friends at school. For middle school, I went to an independent school, so when I got to high school, I didn’t know anyone. My freshman year was all online, so obviously I didn’t really meet anyone. When school went back to in-person at the start of sophomore year, I hoped to make friends but just couldn’t. I have a hard time going up to new people and can be a little quiet. It has felt like everyone already knows each other. It’s so pathetic because there are a handful of people from my old school who I see around campus sometimes and they seem to have lots of friends, and I don’t know why I can’t be the same. Sometimes, I’ll check social media and see my classmates going to parties and having fun on the weekends, all while getting great grades in school.

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Every morning I tell myself that today will be the day I make a friend and go out of my comfort zone, but when lunchtime comes I get too scared and end up sitting alone. It makes me really sad because I feel like high school is supposed to be fun, right? And I know that this is all my fault and no one else’s because I can’t expect people to come up to me and initiate a conversation. I know a few people in some of my classes who are nice, and I try to talk to them, but that’s it. I do have a few great friends who go to different schools, but now that we are getting busier with school, we don’t get to meet often. I’m also an only child so I don’t really talk to people my age that much. I often feel lonely and have no one to talk to. I have my parents, of course, but it’s not the same.  Their advice is to just go up to someone and ask to sit with them, but they don’t understand that it’s not that easy, at least for me. Is there any advice you can offer me that doesn’t involve going up to a random person?

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— Lonely at Lunchtime

Dear Lonely,

This doesn’t sound really pathetic. Not only do I know a high schooler who was in your same situation a year ago, but I’ve heard numerous similar stories from neighborhood parents where I live. What’s more—and I don’t know if this will make you feel better or not—parents often feel this exact same way when they try to make friends with other parents. There are just a ton of nerves surrounding making new relationships, and there is nothing pathetic about that.

Have you joined any extracurricular clubs at your school? That was the turning point for the teen in my life; it gave her a structured social situation to be in with her peers, based on a common interest they had. For her—and for me, many years ago—that club was drama club. Theater kids tend to come in many stripes, from artistic to nerdy to gregarious, so in many schools, it’s a place that has something for everyone. Maybe your school has a different activity that fits this mold; a guidance counselor or teacher might have some insight to share. Music? Student government? Mock trial? A group will give you structured time with other kids, and it will give you an activity to bond over.

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The other thing I would suggest is trying to make your goals smaller—a lot smaller. When it comes to changing behavior, you’re bound to fail if you’re too complicated or vague. For example, telling yourself you’re going to clean your whole house is daunting. But if you say you’re just going to wash the dishes, it’s doable.

In your case, don’t try to sit with people and make friends. Try to just sit. Find a table with a seat on the fringe and ask if you can sit there, but then intentionally busy yourself with something else—homework, your cell phone, whatever. Then, the next time, find a spot and ask to sit “for a couple minutes” (pretend you have somewhere to be shortly) and give yourself a goal to be social just for 5 minutes, and then leave. In this way, you’re training yourself to make the ask, not “make the ask and form connections.” Think about other ways you can break this all down into smaller steps. It’ll be easier to make progress, and you’ll be able to see the progress you’re making.

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There are friends out there for you. It just might take a little time to find them. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am expecting my second baby in the spring and unfortunately it has not been an easy pregnancy. I have had hyperemesis gravidarum since week eight and recently had to start wearing splints on my wrists due to carpel tunnel. My almost-3-year-old son is understandably upset that Mama hasn’t been able to play as much as before or do much more than cuddle and read books. I’ve tried not to tie my illness to the coming baby in my explanation to him as I think adjusting to a new sibling is going to be bad enough.

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He gets really upset when I am throwing up but insists on accompanying me to the bathroom. If my husband tries to keep him out, full-on meltdowns ensue. He has taken to giving me a big hug and saying “I’ll make you better” after I’m sick, which is sweet but then gets upset when I vomit again (I’m not such a fan either!). When I started wearing the wrist splints, he asked what they were, and I told him they were to help my hands stop hurting. He now kisses my hands “to make them better.” I know he’s mimicking our behavior, so his treatment of me shows he is learning empathy. But I’m also worried that I’m raising a boy who thinks he’s the solution to all problems. I recognize I might not be in the best headspace after months of feeling awful, so maybe this is a non-issue that reflects my guilt at not being able to physically contribute to parenting more right now, but is there a good way to approach this while raising a wonderful son into a caring and non-savior kind of man?

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— Is This the Pregnancy Hormones Talking?

Dear ITtPHT,

I do think you’re overthinking the situation. No worries, it happens to the best of us.

I think it’s wonderful that your son is trying to minister to you in the same way that you and your husband do for him. At this age, the more he can practice those skills, the more it reinforces to him that other people have needs—and that he can help. This will come in handy when you need him to reach a toy for his brother, and it will melt your heart when you see him kiss his crying brother to try to cheer him up, too. If he’s sad that his kisses aren’t “fixing” you, just reassure him that they make your heart feel better, even if your tummy is still sick.  But overall, be proud of his empathy skills development and let the other worries go.

One last note: I know you didn’t explicitly ask about this, but try not to feel guilty about the lack of direct parenting tasks you’re able to do right now. I know you want to be there for your son and deliver on his physical and emotional needs, but you are about to be very busy and preoccupied with the newest member of your family. This might be the perfect opportunity for dad and son to bond over something that they do with each other—maybe some of that can even be a gesture for you, like drawing you a bath every Sunday night. The fact that they have the opportunity now to cultivate their relationship with each other and as a team of “Mama’s helpers” can only come in handy once the baby is here.

—Allison

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My aunt died recently. She was in her late 80s, it was in her sleep, we’re all at peace about it. Here’s the problem: In her will, she left my 14-year-old daughter her horrible bird. It’s a monk parakeet, which the internet tells me can live from 15 to 20 years. What do I do?

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