I received a letter from a distraught mother and her daughter. After all the children were married, the mother took her elderly parent in to live with them. There is no question that this is the fulfillment of a great mitzvah and a wonderful example for her children to follow when she herself ages and needs help caring for herself. The problem is that once the mother was in this child’s care, the other siblings took minimal responsibility for their parent. As a result, Emma (not her real name) became the full time caregiver with no help.
The stress in the house rose to the point that Emma often lost control, and lashed out verbally at her family both publicly and privately. Emma’s children were aware of where the stress was coming from. They readily forgave their mother for the hurtful things she would say to them. However, the hurt does not go away, nor does the embarrassment, even though Emma has apologized for the outbursts. Meanwhile her other neglectful siblings have become the target of everyone’s anger.
When the mother lashed out at her children, they focused their blame, anger and hurt on their aunts and uncles. The mother similarly blamed her outbursts on her siblings. They all felt that if the other relatives would only do their share, all their problems would be minimized.
It is important to realize that the only person whose behavior you can control is your own. All the anger in the world, all the resentment will not change the behavior of another (in this case the neglectful siblings) unless they choose to change. What you can do is deal with your own resentment, realize how detrimental it is to you and try and set the right atmosphere for change.
Setting the atmosphere for change is not easy. In a similar family, another daughter came over less than once a week to visit with her mom at her sister’s home. The custodial daughter, though desperately needing this time for herself, could not help but heap her built-up resentment on her sister each time she came. In order to avoid the blame and angry looks that greeted her visits, the sister came less and less to avoid the unpleasantness. This, of course, made the situation worse for everyone.
One day, the custodial sibling decided to change her tactic. She swallowed her pride and resentment (not easy to do) and chose to look at the situation differently. She looked at it from the basis of her needs. When her sister arrived, she was pleasant and told her sister how much she appreciated the break the visit gave her and thanked her for her time. She did this consistently for the next few visits and discovered her sister began to come more regularly as the atmosphere felt more friendly and less toxic. Over time, her sister began to respond to requests for added help more positively and the relationship between the sisters improved as well. The change in atmosphere may not work in every case, but it may be worth a try.
The best way to deal with your resentment of others is to give up the expectations you have of them. As long as Emma expects her siblings to be more attentive to their mother, the more she will do harm to herself and her family with her rage. Emma must accept reality and learn to stop trying to change her siblings. She must look to herself and not them for the cure to her stress.
She must also learn not to take out her stress on her own children. Though they do understand where the nasty comments are coming from, the hurt remains long after the understanding and apology are forgotten. Emma is also setting in place the script for the future − unless she changes her own behavior now. When it is her time to be cared for by her children, they will probably react to their children and their siblings in the same way that Emma is behaving now. We usually parent by example, and so Emma is setting the stage for continuing this pain and anger into the next generation.
This article is not intended as a discussion of the right and wrong of who and how often one should visit and care for aging parents. I am merely trying to give some ideas of how to cope in a difficult and stressful situation. As long as we vent our resentment in an attempt to change another’s behavior − rather than making life easier for ourselves − it will get us nowhere. It is only when we take that same energy and focus it on what we can do to help ourselves, can we start to see results. I’ll discuss practical ways how we can help ourselves next week.
You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org