My sister is risking her life to be a supermom. Her husband doesn’t care.

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Dear Caring and Nurturing,

My sister has been diagnosed with cancer. It is very serious and the treatment is very difficult. I decided to move house temporarily to help her because we are close and I knew that her husband, who is much older than her and recently retired, participates very little in parenting, cooking and household chores. They have two young children.

Now that I’m here, it’s sad to see how my sister refuses to relax and how little her husband does around the house. He’s often playing on his phone while my sister cooks, cleans and takes care of their kids. The kids are spoiled: both parents always give in to them at the first scream. They’re disobedient. When they’re done with their toys and shoes they throw or spill them wherever they want. It takes an hour or two to get them to sleep at night. The kids are very smart and I love them. When I ask them to help cook or tell them they have to put something away before starting a new task they usually do well – unless my sister is there to tell them they can get a reward without following instructions or to tell them they don’t have to clean up after themselves if they don’t want to. My sister is very defensive about her parenting choices and often tells me my help isn’t needed. Although she is quite controlling and has probably prevented her husband from gaining confidence as an active parent throughout their marriage, he is a typical lazy husband who thinks his only responsibility is to take care of his family financially.

The kids get excited when I’m there and ask me to play, read stories and help with bathing. I know my sister is scared and feels guilty and worried about the “impact” her illness is having on her children. Her health is expected to decline in the coming months. How can I encourage her to rest, ask her husband to take an active role in the house and ask him to delegate parenting to me for a while so she doesn’t have to work so hard when I’m gone? Right now, she lets me do some of the laundry, bathing and cooking (but only when she’s so tired she can’t stay awake). I can’t imagine the complex emotions everyone is feeling, but shouldn’t she and her husband understand by now that they are putting her life at risk?

-In loss

Dear Loss,

I know you love your sister and are worried about her. Of course you are. But helping her does not mean running her life. Help This is something that can only be defined by the person receiving help – not the one giving help. Your sister does not want you to take over raising her children, not even temporarily. (And unless she has asked you, she certainly does not want your opinion on this His Parenting.) So if you really want to help her, help her in the way she needs it. If she tells you she’s too tired or sick to cook, do the laundry, or bathe the kids, do so. And without giving her unsolicited advice about her marriage, criticizing her or her husband, or tsk-tsking about how much more you could do for her if she’d let you. Bonus round: don’t call her a “controller” (or even think of her as one) when she’s insisting on taking control of her life. You say you can’t imagine the “complex feelings” your sister and brother-in-law have – but then you quickly add that they should both recognize that they’re putting her life at risk, which negates your acknowledgement of how complicated this is for them. You have to step back and let them figure this out for themselves. You can’t force them to handle it the way you want.

I also wonder if she asked you to move in temporarily? Did you make the offer and did she gratefully accept? Or did you decide to do so without consulting her? I think the answer matters. You and your sister may need to have a conversation to clarify.

—Michelle

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