My family is in trouble. To what extent is it my duty to help?
March 19, 2013 10:17 PM   Subscribe

My sister (late 30s) has recently given birth to a baby who is probably affected by Down syndrome. There will most likely not be a father in the picture. She also has an 8 y.o. daughter from a different, also absent father. They live at my mother’s house in a small town. My sister has a story of emotional instability and I often fear for my niece and nephew. My sister was molested by my father when she was in her late teens. She is extremely dependent on (and at the same time hostile to) my mother. My mother (divorced), in turn, is struggling to help her and the little children, while having to deal with lack of money and her own (physical) health issues. I (male) am the middle child, 8 years younger than my sister. I´ve lived in a big city for the last 6 years. I´m economically independent (yet also struggling) and starting a career in academia. I feel that if I don´t go back to my home town and help my family, things will deteriorate further. On the other hand, my chances of professional growth would be reduced by moving back there. Do you think a sacrifice of this sort is the right thing to do?

My sister probably suffers from bipolar disorder, but refuses to seek professional help. She sometimes expresses concern and affection for her brothers and mother, but is overwhelmed by anger and depression. She is, among other things, often difficult to interact with, often (verbally) aggressive, controlling, volatile and negligent of her personal appearance and health. I´m afraid she is doing things that might be harmful to her children at different levels e.g.: she refused to allow her daughter to sleep in a separate bed till my niece was 6, insisting that they should sleep together, my sister would also keep their house front door wide open to the street all night in the summer while she was in bed (even though they live in an area where crime rates are high). She loves her children and makes just enough money to support them, but she seems to have too serious, unsolved issues to be a healthy mother. I suspect by what she says and does that she had children (both times out of casual relationships with men who soon disappeared) to fill her loneliness and give her some reason to live. She recently said she wants to move with her children out of my mother’s house.
My mother cares greatly for her family, and kept the family together when my (diagnosed bipolar) father had a deep and long psychological crisis and finally left home. Nowadays her main source of income is the small rent she collects from a couple of low cost apartments she owns (just enough to cover her living expenses). But she really dislikes running this business and finds it very difficult to confront the often abusive tenants. She is a meek and kind person who prefers to avoid conflict and therefore often agrees to whatever conditions tenants want (rent included), however unreasonable those may be.
I know I could relieve my mother from the burden of that work she dislikes (and she would gladly accept). I think I might also help protect my nephew and niece (so far she is doing fine, but I am worried about what the long-term consequences might be) from my sister´s issues, and eventually influence my sister to seek help. I realize the latter is a long shot. I also know that I have a duty to myself to try to become the researcher I want to become. It´s just that the two alternatives are literally hundreds of miles apart and seem mutually exclusive today.
Which path (or combination) do you think would be both preferable and morally sound? I would greatly appreciate your views on this conflict.
PS: We have one younger, adult brother we are on good terms with, but he has already made his choice to pursue an artistic career away from the family problems.
posted by Basque13 to Human Relations (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I feel that if I don´t go back to my home town and help my family, things will deteriorate further. On the other hand, my chances of professional growth would be reduced by moving back there. Do you think a sacrifice of this sort is the right thing to do?

I have made a similar sacrifice. Whether or not it was the "right" thing to do, it wrecked my life, and my academic career, badly. My sibling, also with untreated bipolar disorder, trashed or disregarded everything I tried to do.

One tells oneself that one does these things without expecting recompense or gratitude or reciprocity, but that's rarely actually true. If you can make a real, accurate account of what you think you'd actually get out of helping--and whether it's realistic and sustaining and worthwhile to, I am not kidding you, derail everything else about your life in order to do it--then maybe. I would seek a trusted adviser or a really sharp therapist to help you figure this out and then, to live with the choice you make.
posted by liketitanic at 10:27 PM on March 19, 2013 [28 favorites]

And no, you are not going to influence your sister to get help. That's not a long shot. It's a fantasy. She'll decide on her own, with or without you.
posted by liketitanic at 10:28 PM on March 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

That's a lot buddy.

Firstly though, has the idea of putting the recently born up for adoption viable? Sorry to be frank, but that doesn't sound like a house that can handle Down syndrome.

I would almost lean to suggest you ask if your niece could come live with you.

Your sister needs help. If she won't pursue it, she will drag you into the mud too. If she wants to be independent she needs the help to do that... she may even want the "space" to do that as well. How things are though, she isn't going to be able to break the cycle with you or without your presence at home. She needs more help then you and most of that is help she needs to give herself.
posted by Bodrik at 10:32 PM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

It is really honorable of you to feel an obligation to help your sister and mother. I happen to think it is a valid obligation, but not at all costs. From your brief description, I would look a the longer term picture and stay on your career path. You will be better able to serve them if your life is not in crisis itself, you are more stable financially, and you have the luxury of perspective afforded by distance.

I would stay on my path, send as much money as possible home to your mom, stay in touch regularly, visit often and lead your own life.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:33 PM on March 19, 2013 [45 favorites]

It's ok to value your own happiness over being sucked in by your dysfunctional family, whom by your own acknowledgment you probably won't succeed in helping. Even if you could succeed, it's still ok to value your own happiness more.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 10:35 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I like JohnnyGunn's idea in your circumstances. If the six year old is mostly thriving, having two uncles with good careers who can offer holidays away from the chaos and later on more help is a great help. There are nuttier mothers than your sister out there, community and family and the child's own resilience make up a lot. Having a nutty but loving mother beats foster care.

Giving a portion of your salary regularly to your mum for your niece and nephew's school/medical, or directly (can you cover their insurance maybe?) would probably help with stability and stress in that household. It will also lessen your guilt about staying away. Make it a personally significant amount and you will adjust to it pretty fast budget-wise, and not resent it. Maybe the half difference between your salary in this place vs what you might be able to get if you had to move down?

Down syndrome babies can be adopted quite quickly - Reeces' Rainbow is the organisation I know of, and there are open adoptions so the baby would still grow up knowing your family. But Down Syndrome can mean a range of health and intellectual challenges, from mild to severe, and at the baby stage, raising a baby with DS is often not significantly different. Plus there are organisations to help.

Your happiness is tied in some ways to the lives of your niece and nephew, your sister and your mom. You love them, and having them suffer when you could do something makes you feel guilty and bad because you love them, which is a good thing. So figure out what you can do longterm that will make you a happy functioning person (giving up part of your salary means no fancy dinners out or cool trips overseas, but would you enjoy them knowing your mom is struggling to buy groceries?) given that you feel love and caretaking towards these people.

Some people will call you a dupe or foolish or weak for that, but I think it makes you stronger and happier being able to help people you love. It's finding a healthy balance - you shouldn't have to eat ramen so they can eat sushi, sort of thing.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:14 PM on March 19, 2013 [4 favorites]

I agree strongly with JohnnyGunn. Do what you can to help, but from afar, while working on your career. You will most likely be dragged down into the mud and it's possible that your mom and sister will both look at you uncomprehendingly. I've asked variations of this question to many people over my life and I've realized that I can do more to help young people I care about by keeping to my path, helping them materially when needed, and staying in touch so that they will always see a way out and know there is another way of life out there. Giving it all up to go back sounds noble, but usually isn't what we think of it. There's usually a lot of pressure on "survivors" to "give back to their communities" (here, your family), but to do that you need to have something to give back-- not just money but emotional fortitude and self-worth. If my successful relations had kept in touch with me when I was younger and mentored me it would have really made a difference; instead, I felt resigned to the abusive, downtrodden life I'd been brought up in.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:06 AM on March 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

With all your good intentions, I doubt your going back will achieve anything very helpful for anyone, especially not you.

Is it possible for your mum's properties to be managed by a real estate agent? It would cost something to do so, but possibly the loss of stress is worth it, and she might end up out in front anyway, if her tenants give her a hard time and don't pay or whatever.
posted by thylacinthine at 12:18 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, to clarify, I'm not saying ignore your family. But you don't owe it to them to sacrifice your dreams or do everything you possibly can to help. It's ok to have limits and boundaries and higher priorities.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:25 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

It might help if you take 'duty' out of the equation. To what extent do you *want* to help?

I read your post whilst trying to imagine it was me writing it. I could not leave two little children in that vulnerable position. The effects of Down's Syndrome vary quite a bit, but it can be very, very hard work to deal with. And that's with two emotionally and financially stable, well-educated, proactive parents.

However, I don't think your options are as black-and-white as 'give up your career and move home' or 'bow out altogether'. You owe it to yourself to take care of your own career interests, but I, personally, could not do what your brother has done and wash my hands of the situation.

Your issues are both too broad and deep to really be addressed here. Please, go and see a therapist. There's a lot going on here, and I think it's going to be really important for your future (meaning: career, mental health, family relationships, self esteem) to deal with this properly.

All the best. You sound like a wonderful, caring person. I really feel for you.
posted by Salamander at 12:48 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

So many tragic stories have a part that goes, "and then I left college/graduate school/my job to help out my family after [crisis]." The thing is, I don't think it makes much of a difference in those cases. Your mom and your sister are adults. What are you going to do there that they can't do for themselves and would be willing to accept your help in?

I like JonnyGunn's advice. However, if you make any major decision out of a sense of obligation, I would suggest this: leave academia for a much more lucrative career so you will be in a better position to economically help your mother, sister, niece, and nephew. If you feel you need to be "the provider" in this situation, do it that way. Don't nuke your career just for the privilege of being nearby while all of the problems happen, which will happen with or without your immediate presence.
posted by deanc at 1:33 AM on March 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do not move home. Your mother and sister have poor job prospects where they are; yours will also almost certainly be lousy.

Your mother and sister are, to a degree, responsible for taking care of themselves. You cannot step in and do daily life tasks for them and have it turn out well. They won't cooperate, for one thing. You'll be bitter and probably lonely, since this small town is unlikely to provide you with many kindred spirits. Your whole household will be under the gun financially - even if your sister and your mother continue to earn, the problems you describe tend to expand to eat up all the available money. And your mother and sister probably won't continue to earn if they feel that you've come home to take care of them.

I used to be very sympathetic to the whole "no sacrifice is too great if it's the right thing to do, especially for family" mindset. I've since realized that this was far more about me feeling guilty and scared about my own life and looking for an apocalyptic moment of supreme sacrifice which would foreclose my own story and thus my own need to make choices. Honestly, the fact that you are even thinking of giving up your career (into which you've already put a lot of time and money) in order to move to podunk where you'll scrabble for work - that makes me wonder what issues you are working out. What guilt do you carry about your family? Are you trying to "protect" them now when you couldn't before?

My father gave up an academic career for much less grim reasons, but also out of a sense of duty. some ways it kind of blighted his life, and that loss had dramatic impact on our whole family, yea unto my generation. He has been extremely lonely as an adult, despite a good marriage. He wasted his talents - it makes me angry even now to think of someone who is extremely smart (you want "broke the IQ test" like in that thread from last week? My dad broke the IQ tests.) and extremely creative working his whole life in jobs that bored and frustrated him, jobs which produced nothing. I have always wished that he'd stuck to academia, because it was where he was at home and where he belonged.

You'll be able to help your family much more by getting a proper job that is not in podunk. In the short term, you can contribute money. In the long term, you will have the skills, connections and the worldly wisdom to help your niece and maybe even help your sister negotiate the difficult situation she is in.

Do not move back home. Consider carefully what self-abnegating or self-destructive urge is motivating you to think of doing so.
posted by Frowner at 1:42 AM on March 20, 2013 [33 favorites]

Following on from JohnnyGunn's comment, one way of feeling like you are doing something to help whilst persuing your career, might be to put money into a trust fund for your niece and nephew.

Good on you for considering such a move, but it may actually be better for the kids to have a relative outsider looking out for them and helping to provide for them.
posted by greenish at 4:34 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Put your own oxygen mask on first. You can help them much better when you yourself are in a strong position and not being dragged down as well. Keep in touch with the children, write, call, skype, show them that a good life is possible, let them visit you and go visit them as much as you can. Be the uncle that listens and that they can turn to for anything.
posted by meijusa at 4:56 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you think the children are in danger or that they are not being cared for properly, or that the mother's condition makes her temporarily unable to care for them properly, contact Children's aid with your concerns. If the children need to be fostered temporarily, it's not the end of the world, and it might be the only way that your sister will agree to a psych evaluation. You can call anonymously.
posted by windykites at 5:14 AM on March 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Do what you can from afar. Your mother chooses to do what she's doing. Your sister chooses to do what she's doing. If you can provide practical support from a distance, e.g. by helping your mother with her rental business do that. But the main focus for me would be to support the children as much as possible, especially as they grow up. Check in with them, let them know you care and think about them, support them in their interests and hobbies. Be the stable, caring adult presence in their life away from the drama your sister may create. Let them know you care, support them and are proud of their achievements so they feel they can reach out to you should they need to. I am not suggesting your sister doesn't care about her children. But it seems unlikely, that they may not have the most stable, consistent upbringing in her care. And to know that you care even if you're not physically there will help them on a day to day level. And to have a close relationship with them will allow them to reach out to you should there be some kind of crisis that requires intervention later on.
posted by koahiatamadl at 5:21 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Don't make your own life into a mess out of a misplaced feeling of guilt for other peoples' lives being a mess.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 6:19 AM on March 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Create a fund for the baby that benefits the family now. It could be an investment fund or a giving pot that you, family members and friends can put money to pay for immediate home improvements that will benefit the entire age spectrum.
posted by parmanparman at 6:20 AM on March 20, 2013

This is one of those situations where you need to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

Stay where you are, doing what you are doing.

Now, come up with a game plan where you can help from where you are. One thing is to turn over the running of the rentals to a management company. It may cost a couple hundred bucks a month, but it's worth it in peace of mind for your mom.

Your sister may be eligible for state, county and federal assistance. Approach this from a money standpoint first. The more money coming into the house, the less stress there will be.

Now that the money situation is squared away, you can start talking to each of these women about some theraputic care that would help them and help the children. Your Mom may want to seek out a support group of Grandparents caring for their Grandchildren/Adult Children with mental illness.

Your mom feels tremendous guilt about your sister, that's why she's doing what she's doing. Your sister, has been severely traumatized and may have ancillary mental illness in the bargain. This is no recipe for a stabile homelife.

The good news is that the new baby will probably bring some sort of Social Worker into your family's life. Someone who can advocate for that child and help the family, not only monitarily but with support and with resources.

You can help from where you are so much better than by going there and imposing your ideas on your family.

Hang in there!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:23 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recommend your mom use a realtor for her rental units. I used one and it was a great experience since I too am very conflict adverse. The realtor charged me a percentage of the rent to screen potential tenants, collect rent, and field any and all maintenance issues. The lease we used had the renters pay the 1st $75 of any repair and I covered the remainder. The realtor was the point of contact at all times for the tenants and even deposited the rent check for me! In addition to all that, the realtor insisted on increasing the rent to attract a better class of tenant and that increase covered her fee.

As far as your moving back there ... don't, there's not much you can do to manage a pair of adults. Take care of yourself so that if needed the children will have a safe haven with you.
posted by Allee Katze at 8:44 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some other practical ideas for helping from afar:
Can you assist with dealing with the tenants? Get you mom to always say "Let me check on that and I'll get back to you." then she calls you and you help her make a decision about the right way to handle it, maybe even making a stern phone call if appropriate.

Can you take on some tasks for researching the resources and social services that might be available to the family? Figure out exactly what they need to do to (for example) get on food stamps, get a social worker for the baby, after school care for the older child, etc, then present that to the women and follow up to see what needs to be done next.

I'm not sure how physically far away you are, and how easy/cheap it is for you to visit the home, but if it's easy, could you take off a Friday or Monday once every month or two to drive home and do stuff -repairs around the house, stern visit to the tenants, take the kids to the zoo, help the women get set up for social services, etc. as an infrequent in-person influence (there's a poem in there somewhere).

If I were you, the ONLY way I would even consider moving back home is if your sister takes positive steps to treat her illness. If you think about it, they seem like they are spinning their wheels and not going anywhere. If you move back and get a shitty job to help out, you will add more power to the spinning, but they are still not going to get anywhere until your sister draws a line in the sand and gets treatment.
posted by CathyG at 9:41 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

First thing you learn in surf life saving is you can't help a drowning person if you are drowning too. Don't let your family pull you down as well or then it is all of you going under and no one left to help. You would help them more by getting yourself into a secure position and then helping them as you can from there. There have been some great suggestions by others here so I won't repeat them.
posted by wwax at 10:09 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's not going to help your nieces(/nephew) if you are there everyday fighting with their mother and working a crap job while always knowing what you gave up to be there in the back of your mind. How are you planning to solve the problem of her leaving the front door open all night? If she wants it open, is she going to be ok with you closing it? Are screaming matches at 3am the solution here?

You mention making sacrifices to help your family, but you don't mention any real tangible plans to help your sister and her kids (and your mother could hire a company to take over her job and deal with the tenants, there's no reason for your life to be put on hold for that). If your sister wanted help, she would be admitting she needs it first off.

Honestly, the best case scenario I see is you giving up everything you've worked for to take over some ornery tenants and fight with your sister about her choices until she flips you off and moves out with the kids. The only way to be in charge of making choices for them would be to have her parental rights terminated, and it doesn't sound like she's near being that dysfunctional.

No parent is going to appreciate you trying to protect their kids from them, and since she has the power to choose who spends time with the kids, why would she let you?

Being a stable, healthy adult with your oxygen mask firmly in place would be a far better way to be there for them. Make sure they always know you care about them and they can reach out to you anytime, and they will if they choose to.
posted by Dynex at 10:23 AM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Stay in contact with your family, but don't move back there. It sounds like your mom's biggest problem is your sister (she doesn't like the landlord business, but alopt of people don't like their jobs, but do what tehy have to do). I like the idea of helping her find a realtor to manage her properties.

As far as your sister goes, if things get out of hand, anonymously report her to child protective services. Probably the only way to convince her to get help.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:27 AM on March 20, 2013

I can add only slightly to the advice given above: research social services, perhaps take on an insurance payment, and so on. A couple of "don'ts" from my own experience: Don't co-sign anything. Don't destroy your own life in an attempt to help. Don't insert yourself into the daily mix by taking on things you are not equipped to actually handle (child care, auto repairs, relationship issues with non-family members).

In my case, the key to sanity was in understanding my limitations, not in trying to fix all the problems (of certain of my relatives). Sad things sometimes can't be remedied. You don't have the authority to require compliance, so it's best to avoid doing things that hinge on agreements of behavior ('s some gas money, but don't buy cigarettes with it... and such.) This will help keep you out of those maddening codependant loops that always make people do stupid and hurtful things.

I can't see any way that this won't be a rollercoaster ride, but I believe it doesn't have to be all agony and dispair. Good luck.
posted by mule98J at 11:04 AM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

You need to go watch Stuart Saves His Family.

It might be a SNL movie, but it has a very important message for all of us with toxic, barely-functional families. I watch it myself whenever I get the impulse to help them.
posted by winna at 4:50 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think it's moral and appropriate to think about how you can help and also that you don't have to give up your own life to support theirs.

Lots of good advice above. My paltry additions:

Expand your job search parameters post-degree so that you're open to jobs that might make it easier to help your family while also feeding your psyche (soul?) and your bank balance.

Material supports for the whole family now, possibly more targeted supports for the kids as they get older. For example, could you buy a better locking screen door for the summer?

Research what interventions are available for families in your sister's area both subsidized and those with fees. Ask questions about bursaries, other programs, etc. to get more supports into the home.

Learn about Down's syndrome for yourself so you don't have an overly fatalistic view of the future for the new baby and can act as an advocate from these early days.

And then be there as often as you can in person or on the phone, so the kids know who you are and that they can rely on you.

Best of luck,
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 7:49 PM on March 20, 2013

I´m afraid she is doing things that might be harmful to her children at different levels e.g.: she refused to allow her daughter to sleep in a separate bed till my niece was 6, insisting that they should sleep together

what exactly are you suggesting here? if you suspect your sister is sexually abusing her daughter then you absolutely need to call child protective services. do it anonymously if you don't want to use your name.
posted by wildflower at 11:42 PM on March 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I frequently remind myself about mental illness that, by definition, it's self-reinforcing. People who have serious mental illness, whether bipolar or something else, are pointed toward disorder. It's a combination of biological and environmental factors, often not even one someone's fault, but there's that tendency to veer off in the wrong direction. It's nigh on to impossible for a person, even a close family member such as yourself, to help a seriously mentally ill person start pointing in a healthier direction. Do what you can without following them off the rails.
posted by wnissen at 11:46 PM on March 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just an add-on to what I wrote above: when children and teenagers see someone like them succeeding in the world, doing things that fascinate them, they think "I could do that too!" Even if things are hard, they realize they're not inevitable. When they see someone like them with potential being dragged down in the mud by fate and having to deal with the messes of other people, they think, "he/she had potential, and even they came back to help, so it must really be my duty to stay here, no matter what." When, as a girl, I saw smart women give up very important things for relationships with bad men, I thought "it's incomprehensible to me, but that must be my lot as a woman." When I saw someone poor/working class escape and then come back I thought "it must be too difficult to make it out of here." These were not complete thoughts and they were not worldly or wise, but neither are most teenagers. Role models really matter-- if someone is successful and also kind and takes a personal interest in you, it can make all the difference in the world. From experience!
posted by stoneandstar at 1:32 AM on March 21, 2013 [8 favorites]

Thanks everybody for those thoughtful insights. Many of your suggestions had crossed my mind at some point, but were then often blurred with conflicting urges to be more directly helpful and committed. Moral compass welcome. I suppose we sometimes need reassurance to feel we are not so way off, specially in complex and sensitive issues with no obvious right solution.
Incidentally, yesterday I got a small job offer to move back home. Although the position was not bad, the pay was low for my current standards and I politely turned it down.
I think I´ll stick to my career here for the time being, assisting in whatever way I can from the distance (with my own oxygen mask firmly in place).
posted by Basque13 at 8:28 AM on March 21, 2013

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