She just texted us (my other sister, who also has kids, and me) that she is upset that the kids are out of school again for a snow day. Her husband works from home, and it appears that she doesn’t feel like she is able to send the youngest to preschool and still stay home without feeling like a failure. This has been going on since her oldest, who is now nine, was born. She home-schooled the two older kids until the baby was born, which was a HUGE struggle for her.
There are other problems, and it is hard for me to watch her be so unhappy in her life while working so hard to portray it as perfect. Do we say something to her? I’ve encouraged therapy in the past, but she has a habit of not telling the whole truth to doctors. For example, she didn’t her doctor that her youngest is now forward-facing in his car seat when the recommendations are to be rear-facing for at least two years. When she did make an effort to go to therapy, she made it to about three sessions before the therapist apparently told her she was fine. It seemed to me that she may have misled the therapist about what really goes on at home. Her older kids ask why she is so mean to them when we are around, and she texts us saying that they say that about her when their dad isn’t around, too. She has a much harder time when she doesn’t have backup from him, and she often snaps at the kids then.
She has a long history of huge expectations and setting herself up for failure, which is always easy for us to see from the outside. Any time we get to hang out as sisters she expects to be a blowout party, when really all I ever want is a quiet night with some wine and conversation. If she has plans to leave the kids and the plans get cancelled, she throws a fit.
I could go on. Any advice is appreciated. We are so close to the situation that it can be tough to think about it objectively. — Concerned For Unhappy Sister
What is it that you’re asking advice about? How to be a better sister or how to convince your sister that she needs professional help? From the tone and content of your letter, it certainly seems like the latter, but it really should be the former. Sure, therapy would probably help your sister. It would help most of us. But you know what would help your sister even more? Having a support system that actually… supported her rather than judged her at every turn.
Maybe you and the rest of your family DO support your sister and you simply didn’t include any examples of that in this letter, instead citing numerous examples of your judging your sister and her being stressed out in your presence. Do you think it’s merely coincidence that the two times she “is mean” to her children (and by the way, I don’t know any mother who doesn’t occasionally snap at her kids!) are when her husband isn’t around and she doesn’t have his help, and when you happen to be visiting? I’m going to make a wild guess here and say that your presence doesn’t put her at ease. I’m going to guess that the same judgmental tone that permeates this letter is probably pretty obvious in person, too.
I’m sure you do love your sister. I’m going to trust that you simply want her to be happy. But here’s the thing: maybe she IS happy. Maybe her happy just looks different than your happy. Maybe her private happy looks different than the happy she portrays on social media. Maybe what she portrays on social media isn’t a lie but is a representation of her happiest moments. Maybe all that work she does (?) to make it appear on social media that her life is perfect isn’t so much to convince other people that she’s happy but to convince herself. Because, let me tell you as mother of two young children, sometimes you need to remind yourself that the sum of all these moments — the tearful, screaming, crying ones, and the laughing ones, and the sink-full-of-dishes ones, and the laundry-piled-in-every-corner ones, and the what-the-fuck-am-I-going-to-cook-for-dinner ones, and the all-too-brief moments when all the kids are content and not demanding something — that the great sum of all of these moments is, in fact, happiness (exhausted, weary, bone-tired happiness, but happiness all the same).
So, maybe your sister IS happy, in the way a mother of three young children can be happy, and maybe that kind of happiness looks different from your kind of happiness. Maybe it looks different from your other sister’s happiness even though they’re both mothers. Having different kids and different spouses and different schedules and different demands and different personalities means that things will be…different. The happiness I experience now with two children is different than the happiness I had with one, for example. My stress level is different, too. It’s greater. There’s more at stake. There’s more to balance and juggle.
In the moments and days that are more challenging than others, you know what helps me? Having a supportive spouse and supportive community who give me permission to vent and be flawed and who check in and ask where and how they can help (and I do the same for them). You know what makes me feel worse? Thinking that I’m a bad mom. I guarantee that there is nothing worse for a hard-working mother than to feel like she’s failing. One of my worst moments in motherhood came one afternoon on the playground when I took my eye off Jackson for two minutes and he misbehaved and a neighborhood nanny screamed at me (in front of everyone) that I was a bad mother. It was one of those challenging days and I was commiserating with a new mom friend and then, suddenly, I was being ambushed in such an aggressive, hostile, embarrassing way. It really shook me. Later that evening, my friend emailed me and said, “You’re a good mom.” Sometimes, that’s all you need to hear.
Tell your sister she’s a good mom. Ask her what she needs to make things a little easier. Can you offer to take the two older kids out on a Saturday afternoon (or an overnight at their aunt’s)? Can you offer to babysit all three of them one night when they’re in bed so she and her husband can get out? Can you indulge her in fun night out every once in a while so she can blow off steam and remember that she’s more than just a wife and a mother? And can you listen to her like you would want to be listened to and reserve passing judgment on the state of her life or marriage or mental state and accept that what she’s venting about may just be a reflection of the worst moments and not the sum of all of them?
Maybe you aren’t asking advice for how to be a better sister, a better person. But that’s the advice I’m giving. After all, there’s nothing else in your sister’s life you can control except how your treat her and how you help foster a relationship with her. If you care about her and her well-being, don’t under-estimate the impact just being there can have. The rest of it is for her to work out. And she’ll be better able to if she knows her loved ones have her back.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.