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Dear Care and Feeding,
I’m the mom of two kids, 20-year-old “Kayla” and 23-year-old “Josh.” Josh is autistic and needs a lot of support. We’re tied into all our local public, church, and other support services, but it’s still been really hard. Our kids were a strain on our marriage that eventually caused divorce, and I’m parenting Josh alone, although my ex provides some money. Kayla was a great babysitter and sister to Josh growing up, but at 18 she decided she wanted to go to college in another state, rather than staying local so she could help our family. This seemed like a bad choice since she has to pay rent instead of living at home, and we can’t afford to help her with any school costs. We argued, but she was stubborn and found her way into some kind of scholarship.
She’s been distant while at school, but comes home to the family every summer.
Last week, Kayla called and dropped two bombshells on Josh’s care and my retirement plans. She lied about going for social work. She’s been getting a math degree and will be going to a finance internship this summer instead of working here and helping the family. In addition, she announced that she has zero plans of moving home and taking over Josh’s care after college and that I’ll have to “figure it out.” I’m heartbroken that I’ve raised such a selfish kid, and that she would choose money over our family, and over loving her brother. I also have no idea how I’m going to arrange for Josh’s care as I get older. She won’t take my calls and ignores my texts. How do I get her to change her mind?
You don’t. Stop trying.
At some point, you decided that Kayla’s wishes and hopes shouldn’t matter; that she has no right to make decisions about her own future. I think it’s admirable that she worked hard and landed a good scholarship despite you discouraging her at every turn; it probably took real strength and courage to make her own path despite a lifetime of being told that she was selfish to want anything for herself. Your daughter isn’t choosing money over family or “bombing” you in any way. She is choosing to live her own life and make decisions for herself—which she has every right to do—instead of allowing you to dictate what happens to her.
I think it’s really sad that you blame your children for what happened in your marriage. It is never the fault of children when adults divorce (though it’s sadly common for people to try to pin this on disabled children, especially). Though I don’t dismiss the reality or the importance of Josh’s needs—we should all get the support we require!—your letter raised some questions for me regarding how he’s been treated as well. I also find it tragic that you’ve undermined your kids’ relationship by telling Kayla that loving or supporting her brother has to mean giving up all thoughts of anything she may personally want. By attempting to control your daughter’s life and her choices in this suffocating way, you’ve effectively deprived your children of a sibling relationship that could have been close, important, and nourishing to both of them.
Though our situations are very different, I am the parent of an autistic child who gets a lot of support, and I am not a stranger to some of the worries you probably have. But meeting her needs—which includes thinking about the future and what will allow her to have the most independent life possible—is ultimately my responsibility, not her sibling’s. Their relationship and bond is theirs, not mine, to define, and I view their responsibility to one another primarily in terms of love and respect: I just want them to always be part of each other’s lives.
I am not saying that siblings can’t or shouldn’t be involved in supporting disabled siblings. If Kayla wanted or felt able to move home to be more available to you and Josh, that would be one thing. But I suspect that even if she once imagined making that choice, you’ve now made it feel fairly impossible to her by continually dismissing and driving her away. It’s not her fault, and it’s certainly not Josh’s. Kayla isn’t “selfish” for wanting to go to college, pick her own major and career, and live where she chooses. I don’t know if you are ready to take responsibility for your actions, apologize to both your children, and let them figure out what kind of sibling relationship they want to have or build. But whether or not intrafamily healing is possible at this point, between you and your children or between the two of them, I strongly encourage you to seek the professional help you need to deal with your issues so you can stop making them your children’s burden.
Correction, March 2, 2023: This column originally ran under an incorrect byline.