Q: My sister is expecting. She called to inform me she has chosen her 23-year-old, childless sister-in-law to be her baby’s guardian if anything should happen to her.
Her reason for not choosing me is my son. He has ADHD, learning disabilities and depression. He has threatened us in the past, but obviously never followed through.
My sister is listed in my will as guardian for my three children. I told her that since she is uncomfortable with my son, I could find someone else. She told me she is still willing to be their guardian.
This leads me to believe that A: she feels she would be able to parent my child better than me or B: this isn’t about my son at all and she thinks I am a bad mother.
Carolyn, every single day is a struggle because of my son’s problems and behavior. Over the years I’ve been judged by teachers, other parents and complete strangers who don’t “see” anything wrong with my son, and look at me with disgust or tell me he should be better disciplined or “just needs a good spanking.”
I am a SAHM. I didn’t go to college. I’ve been raising children my entire adult life; it is my full-time job. Our life is definitely not normal, but I do my best for them every day.
So for her to choose someone so inexperienced and young, over me, makes me feel like she’s been watching me and judging me the same way strangers do. It feels like she’d choose anyone but me.
I don’t know why she told me. The probability of anything happening to both her and her husband is very slim. I’m not mad at her, I just don’t feel like we’ll ever have the same relationship that we did before. I don’t feel safe with her; I feel guarded now, and I don’t know how to get over this.
A: Please – stop. Breathe. Full-bellied breaths.
Your identity is tightly entwined and profoundly invested in your role as mother. I’m not judging this in any way, I’m just presenting it as a fact.
“Professional mother” is the lens through which only you view yourself, though – meaning, just because you think it, doesn’t mean it applies to the way anyone else sees you or defines you. Others may still see you as sister or friend or prankster or eager volunteer or bedrock of the family or whatever else. They have their own lenses.
And that means when someone like your sister says “no” to you, it’s possible she’s just saying no to the specifics of a situation and not to the entirety of who you are and how you define yourself.
The specifics here, as it happens, are more than sufficient to explain your sister’s decision. Your words: “[E]very single day is a struggle because of my son’s problems and behavior.” Even if there weren’t a safety issue for a baby – which there is, and which you can’t deny just because he hasn’t acted on his threats – you could still interpret your sister’s decision not to pile more work onto someone already overworked as a simple act of compassion. And sense.
She could think you’re Mother of the Decade and make the calculation that your son needs and deserves all you’ve got.
I’d say to talk to your sister directly about all of this, but in this case I don’t recommend it until you can break the habit of responding defensively when you get near the subject of kids.
Kid-specifics aside: For one’s peace of mind, it’s a good idea in general not to jump to the worst conclusion available from the facts at hand.
The disgusted strangers, for example, could be indicting themselves as ignorant or presumptuous vs. indicting you as deficient. Your sister could be staying on as your chosen guardian as a gesture of good faith and not a declaration of superiority. Your son’s struggles could appear to anyone who knows anything as nature vs. nurture. Your being a stay-at-home mother and not going to college could be what shapes this period of your adult life and not the entirety of it.
There is always room for flexibility in your thinking. It sounds as if it would be a kindness – to your sister, to those teachers and judgy strangers, but mostly to you – for you to let go of the dark narrative you’ve written in your mind and push yourself to look for some light.
It’s no reflection on the job you’re doing that you’d feel better with someone to lean on, too. Even if you’re not depressed yourself, you might find respite in talking to a good family therapist. Given both the responsibilities you’re carrying and the emotional weight that comes with them, though, and that depression could be in your wiring as well, it might make sense for you to get screened.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com