How do I plan ANYTHING when things are very unstable in my family?
January 24, 2023 9:00 AM   Subscribe

Things are unstable in my family. My life is hectic and overly scheduled at the best of times. How do I plan anything?

As detailed in recent questions, things are VERY up in the air wrt my family's health.

My mother is currently hospitalised. She has had any number of urgent medical issues crop up in the past months. It's been really hard.

I am seeking help with a minor yet stressful thing that keeps coming up: how to plan ANYTHING, in the full knowledge that I might have to drop things at a moment's notice. This isn't dissimilar to a previous question I posted, but that was about big Life Things; this is just about the day to day.


Some months ago, before the shit hit the fan, I'd planned a holiday with friends. Bookings were made, etc. Now it looks like I may not be able to go. But this has an impact on my friends' plans and financial outlay as well (i.e. the accommodation costs will change as they will be split among fewer people).

I have a wedding coming up. I REALLY want to go. Can I even RSVP, knowing that I may not be able to go? As the wedding involves travel and staying with friends, again my not turning up at the last minute may involve extra outlay on my friends' part.

I'm on a list of potential fosterers for rescue cats. This is because, although I want a cat, I cannot really commit to owning one when my family health situation is so up in the air. But I've had to cancel on fostering cats at short notice because something comes up with the family.

This is a past example, but illustrative: I had to deliver a full-day training last week, but as a result of my mother having a crisis which I had to deal with, I had to back out on the morning of the training and hand over to someone else. Thankfully, they were able to step in. My work is event-heavy and a lot of the time my physical presence is necessary. My work is... not really very understanding of the whole 'sick elderly relatives' thing. The constant refrain I hear from bosses is: don't you have someone else who can manage these situations? (No! I don't!)

I've never been a flake, but I have had to cancel COUNTLESS social things over the past months.

As it is, I am experiencing caregiver burnout and it makes things doubly upsetting when I can't plan and look forward to things. I've honestly tried my absolute best to come up with contingency plans and back-up - my family has 24/7 at home care and the best medical care we can afford - but emergencies happen and there is no one there who can actually make decisions about things but me. (The carers do their best and are the best I could find but cannot make decisions about, e.g., taking to the ER, talking to doctors, etc.)

The safest thing feels like to plan nothing apart from the bare minimum, knowing that something might come up and I might have to jump onto a plane or spend hours on the phone to manage a crisis. But that feels very depressing. I don't want to just do less. It depresses me not to have things to look forward to. I am the kind of person who plans their life months into the future. Not being able to do that makes me feel kind of destabilised and weird.

How do you live a normal life when you have sudden urgent responsibilities that keep cropping up? I can't be the only one who has this problem!
posted by unicorn chaser to Grab Bag (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You don’t have to actually have to make all these choices for other people. For the wedding, call and tell them the situation and that you want to attend but may have to let them know last minute. Maybe it’s a buffet with no seating chart and not that big of a deal if someone can’t attend last minute. Maybe they’ll say “we’d love for you to be there too, but we do need a firm headcount at least 3 weeks in advance, otherwise we’ll have to pick up some heavy costs for no shows.” Basically, you tell them what’s going on and let them make the choice. Maybe your absence means there a friend they’ve just started to make who they’ll invite instead.

For the friend trip, the same idea. Tell them that you may have to miss (and the courteous thing would be to still pay your accommodations as you were planned to be going, but if finances are tight, perhaps you can cover 50% or they have time to cancel and get a smaller Airbnb, etc.).

I would say now with COVID, last minute cancellations are much more expected anyway.

Just plan for things, and plan for things that you can afford to cancel. If you plan to see a concert with a friend but need to cancel last minute, eat the cost of your ticket and have them bring another friend on your ticket. It sucks that likely in addition to other medical and care taking costs you might have to absorb these other ones as well, but that’s the kind way to handle it. (Or as future events are planned “I’d love to come on the girls trip, but if I had to cancel last minute I wouldn’t be able to cover the cost of my accommodations. Do you still want to plan for me to attend?”)
posted by raccoon409 at 9:36 AM on January 24 [16 favorites]

For stuff where it's mostly about money, the easiest thing to do is to simply plan to eat the extra cost if you have to cancel at the last minute. When my husband was sick, we would still make travel plans, but we definitely had to eat the cost of nonrefundable airfare at least once. We planned with that in mind - I only made completely refundable hotel reservations, for example. You don't *have* to have an impact on your friends' financial outlay - you can offer to pay all or part of the your expenses even though you can't go.

I'm not saying it doesn't suck to pay for a vacation that you can't take! But for me, at least, it sucked less than not planning/taking vacations at all.

With both your friends and the cat rescue, I think the best thing to do is just be up front with them and say, "I know this is not ideal, but I have a lot of family stuff going on at the moment and I want to give you a heads-up that I may have to cancel at the last minute." Maybe this will put you at the bottom of the cat rescue's list of potential fosters, but maybe it will work out OK and they'll desperately need a foster at a moment when you have some time and headspace for it. Maybe your friends will decide to book the refundable hotel room instead of the nonrefundable AirBnB.

With your work, it doesn't really sound like you have the option to not plan things, and your work is not being spontaneously helpful. Do you have some kind of legally-protected way of taking time for your family (in the US this would be FMLA but IIRC you're not in the US)?

Ultimately I think a lot of it comes down to prioritizing the things you really care about (or that you need to do for financial security, i.e. work) and letting other stuff fall. It's not "normal" and it sucks a lot of the time, but all you can do is work with what you got.
posted by mskyle at 9:38 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Can you pivot some stuff to more cancelable/less committed options? For example, maybe fostering cats is too stressful for both sides (honestly just the stress of not knowing if you'll have to cancel/guilt feelings could be adding a lot of background stress), but instead of fostering, you could visit a cat cafe regularly, or see if there's a shelter you can volunteer at intermittently without hard commitment. For travel, choose options that you can buy travel insurance for or that have last minute refundable policies.

For things that are more obligatory, like work stuff, planning back up plans whenever possible might reduce some friction if things need to change last minute. Like having a backup person ready to take over the workshop, and them having all your notes/materials/presentations in advance, or possibly you being able to join the event/meeting/whatever virtually if needed.

Hang in there, and hopefully life evens out soon!
posted by carlypennylane at 10:01 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Yes, just be upfront about your potential conflicts. This is obviously not the same as your situation, but I have small kids in daycare, which means they get sick like every other week. That’s extremely disruptive at work. My six year old can mostly take care of herself, so I don’t need to call off if she’s just resting and recovering, but if my three year old is sick, or my six year old needs to go to the pediatrician or needs help with vomiting or something, I have to take the day off work, and often the next day as well. This has interfered with things like scheduled presentations. But work knows there’s no other option. Somebody has to take care of my kids, and my wife’s job doesn’t have the flexibility that mine does.

I try to stay in front of things as much as possible. I do as much of my work as I can in the cloud so that if someone else needs to take over for me, it’s all there for them. I try to stay ahead of deadlines so that if I do miss a day, it doesn’t screw me. And if I get a warning from daycare that something’s going around, I give my manager a heads up so that it doesn’t surprise her if I do need to leave.

For work, that’s all you really can do. Even the most egregious 80-hour-a-week jobs realize that there are still things outside of work that place demands on your time.

In terms of your social life, you can still make plans, but just think of them in pencil. And make sure others know that. I’m outlook calendar terms, you never accept an invitation; you’re always tentative. And be clear: if your absence changes a friend’s financial calculations, they should plan on your absence. That way you don’t burden them; they were already budgeting for the extra expense.

One more thing: take advantage of the time you do have by being more spontaneous. Instead of planning a big weeklong vacation with a dozen friends, grab one person on a Saturday morning when things are going well and spend the night somewhere a couple hours away.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:22 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

Nthing the advice to be upfront. When I was in your shoes that's what I did, and (almost) everybody was really understanding. Work people who desperately didn't want to reschedule would take a raincheck for after my life settled down, and everyone else just rolled with the cancellations and low availability.

Beyond the advice, which I think has been well covered, I also want to provide some sympathy, though. I hear your frustration and I really get it. It is an unsung and very difficult part of this phase of life that you are in. I agree with others above that COVID has forced more flexibility and resilience on everyone than before, and that can only make things smoother for you in terms of how your cancellations are received by others. However, I know that that probably doesn't make things easier internally, and may even make it harder, depending on where the pandemic has left your personal emotional reserve.
posted by eirias at 11:00 AM on January 24 [3 favorites]

How do you live a normal life when you have sudden urgent responsibilities that keep cropping up?

The three broad ways for your personal life are:

1. Scale back. When my baby was 4 weeks old, my dad had a TBI. I cut out some of my goals for a couple of years. It isn't forever.

2. Be comfortable with uncertainty with friends and holidays and things. The advice for the wedding above is great. Friends will work with you.

3. When you can, grab the spontaneous moment. One weird time, I went down to watch my dad in ICU and they wouldn't let me in. So I walked over to the art gallery and saw a Cindy Sherman exhibit. Then they called and we made decisions while I walked back. It should have been horrible but it wasn't.

Work - kevinbelt kind of has it above. Having everything done as ahead as possible is huge.

Another approach is to talk to your boss and say that during this period of your life -- remember, this is not forever -- you want to make sure things are as smooth as possible. Maybe there's someone on your team that would benefit from shadowing/backing you up. The magic phrase for this is "cross-training." I got a promotion once being on the other end of this. (And no, the person who gave me the opportunity didn't get stabbed in the back.)

Can you use time to your advantage? For example, with my dad I would check in with his care team just after 8. I'd pre-empt the kind of 11:30 am call right in the middle of height of meeting time at work. We sometimes were able to also head off last-minute decisions by doing that.

I also learned to say "when do you need a decision by?" Sometimes with my dad's team anyway, they would be asking for a decision but really they weren't going to do the change until the next shift/whatever.

Ultimately though, this is just a tough time. All strength to you.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:07 AM on January 24 [9 favorites]

Honestly, don't commit to anything far advance with big finances that you can't afford to waste. I know you haaaaaaaaaate not being able to plan and look forward to things, but if literally anything can and will be thrown asunder at the last second, then there's no point in trying to. It's easier on your soul to just say no now and get used to the idea than hoping that you can do it in X number of months, for that number of months and then illness strikes again. And it frustrates the hell out of anyone else who's counting on you to be there if you may not be able to be there. (I say this having had a conversation with a friend who doesn't drive and who had a friend who insisted on committing to things months in advance and then flaking at the last minute, knowing friend had no way to keep doing the plans without her.)

Only "commit" to things where you CAN bail at the last minute and it's not a major issue. Take yourself off the foster cat list, you have too much else to juggle already. Don't plan a trip where you have to make plans months in advance. As for the wedding, have a talk with the inviter and your friends and see how they feel about your having to bail at the last minute. Can they live with that or will they be resentful paying for the meal you didn't eat, or whatever. Check your finances and see if you can afford to eat that money if you can't go. Don't say you can do anything or plan on doing anything if it can't easily be bailed on.

Your question is how do you live a normal life? Well, you don't. Your new normal, at least for right now, is different. Everything with you now is tentative. You won't know if you can do something until the last minute. Don't buy tickets in advance (I note in post-covid times I actually get a lot of things like show tickets last-minute or a day in advance and they are still available, especially if you buy single ticket and aren't having to find seats for four). Find places you can travel to where you could get last-minute hotel rooms for, preferably within driving range. Don't make your presence required. Tell all friends you may or may not be able to make it to anything. Embrace the suck, as they say.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:19 PM on January 24 [6 favorites]

Sending love from the Orlando airport, where I’m about to fly home after rearranging my previously planned vacation to drive halfway up the state to deal with my own parents failing health.

Mostly, I’ve been asking others who want to spend time with us to take on more planning of vacations and things, and I’ll do my best to make it and try to let go for a week. Sure, our last two trips have felt like I was only half there, but it’s been so good for me to get away and at least put down my work and have some vacations, even when I I have to scramble to make it work. For me, half a vacation is better than none. Was I fully present this vacation, knowing I was going to drive three hours to my mom in subacute nursing?Nope.

Of course, that’s my own position of privilege. I can afford to lose out on a flight and other costs and it’s part of the risk of trying to juggle it all.

There is no right answer, but please try to find things that refuel your soul, even if it’s in town and just for a weekend.
posted by advicepig at 12:26 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

How do you live a normal life when you have sudden urgent responsibilities that keep cropping up?

Just recognizing that you can’t, in fact, do this is probably the biggest thing you can do. And then letting others know both that you really want to do X but you are managing an unpredictable and priority situation that may need to take precedent at the last minute. And then as others have suggested let them decide what is appropriate for them given the situation.

For employers, close friends, and other VIPs in your world you do owe them some indication that things are not normal for you right now generally as well as in relation to specific, one-off events, so they know how to help themselves and to help you. This sort of communication and planning is the opposite of flaky. And allows for what is possible to both survive and thrive!
posted by desert exile at 2:11 PM on January 24 [4 favorites]

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