Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Sister Uses Our Whole Family for Free Childcare”

My sister, who is six years older, had a child immediately after high school and was left as a single mom (I was 13-ish). She had plenty of help from my parents, grandparents, middle sister, and the dad’s parents. She was helped financially with life and school. My father bought a duplex for her to live in, which she has been trying to buy from him ever since (nineteen years now). Six years ago she had another daughter, yet again with a dead beat dad; however, the landscape has changed and I’m sorry to say the first child (now 18) had a lot of responsibility in helping take care of the new one. My sister constantly calls me with “it’s an emergency–could you please watch…(niece)?”

She lives two blocks away and it’s starting to feel impossible to not be at her beck and call. She has convinced her first daughter to continue living with her to help with daughter #2 and has now enrolled her daughter #2 at my children’s charter school (with questions of carpooling with us, etc). Her daughters have very much had behavior problems pretty typical to the situation. They are good girls and we do love them, but they are difficult to watch. They do not have much discipline or adherence to schedule. When she asks us to babysit, it is almost always an all-day/night affair. My husband and I feel we need to “deprogram” our two children, after we have watched hers, from the bad behavior they have seen displayed. We do love our nieces and this is hard to type.

My sister constantly forces herself upon us with “paying us back” when it’s not wanted or needed (i.e. she will show up and ask to take my daughter for the day and call to keep her overnight). It is great that she wants to try to reciprocate; however, it tends to be in times that we don’t prefer our daughter to be away.

My heart does go out to her being a single parent, but I don’t understand how she does not have childcare figured out at this point. She has a decent paying job and has the ability to pick up very good paying extra jobs during her slow months. She works in theater, which also adds to the chaos of her schedule.

She has exhausted me, my husband, our other sister, and our parents with this. My parents are always watching her daughters as well which leaves very little to give to their other two daughters with children. I have kept mostly quiet and let my mother vent, but it has been a point of contention with my middle sister. I want the children to see each other and I would like to help my sister out, but it turns into her constantly asking us. We’ve asked if we can help find childcare and have tried to explain it’s hard with our two and their different schedules. When we set those boundaries, she goes radio silent for months, but I know it turns out as an overwhelming amount of work for my other sister and mother. She doesn’t have a constant schedule, so there’s no trying to delegate it out.

Help! What do I do to get her to understand we want to help but that these weekly “emergencies” aren’t emergencies at all — it’s her just not planning properly? I don’t want to ruin or lose relationships, but I’m burnt out. Thanks for taking the time with this; I hope I have explained it properly. — Tired of Being Free Childcare

You’re not going to get her to understand that she isn’t planning properly. To her, she IS planning properly because she always manages to get free childcare! She’s kind of planning better than the rest of you, I’d say. She’s managed to get free childcare (and free housing?) for eighteen years!! And all of you have enabled her. There is literally no incentive for her to change. Until your whole family has a “come to Jesus” moment and decides together to stop enabling her and start setting collective, group boundaries, there will be no change.

I would strongly urge you to talk with your other family members about doing just this — setting up some collective boundaries, reclaiming your collective time, and standing firm. But just as you can’t control your oldest sister, you can’t control anyone else either. The only person you have control of is you, so start setting your own boundaries. Say “no” more often. Say “this isn’t a good time, but how about a play date on Saturday at our place for two hours before John and I go out to dinner” (it’s super important to have an end time!). Explain to your other family members that you are reclaiming your time, you will be saying no more often, and unless they follow suit, you are worried that they will get stuck picking up the slack and they’ll get burned out and not have time for you and your kids. Again, you can’t control how they behave, but you can certainly make your thoughts and opinions very clear. You can check in with them periodically and continue urging them to set some boundaries.

It’s likely that when you start setting these boundaries, your oldest sister may go “radio silent” on you again. I understand the pain and discomfort that might cause. You don’t want to lose the relationship – with her or her daughters. But just because SHE might go radio silent doesn’t mean that you have to. I would suggest you reach out to her and invite her to do things at a time that is convenient for you. Or you could invite her daughters over. Or you could say: “We miss you guys; we’re pretty free this weekend if you want to get together, or if you have something you need to do, we could watch the girls (or her younger one, since I’m sure the 18-year-old doesn’t need supervision, so I’m confused why you say your family “watches her daughters” all the time…) for a few hours on Sunday.” Again, when YOU reach out, YOU get to pick the time that is convenient for you (always have an “out” though — a specific end-time that is not flexible because you have plans at a specific time following the play date/babysitting session).

Finally, it sounds like you have a lot of resentment toward your sister, and while I get it to an extent, it’s important to remember that her behavior is supported by decades of enabling by your family. If you’re going to feel resentment, it really needs to extend to everyone who has had a hand in letting her believe that childcare can be free and irresponsible parenting will be rewarded. I suggest, however, NOT feeling resentment and, instead, releasing yourself of that burden. Accept that she is different than you are — that even though you were raised by the same people in the same environment, she’s an entirely different person with different strengths and different weaknesses and has made different choices that have led her down a different path. She SHOULD be lying in the bed that she’s made, but when everyone keeps helping her make the bed, she has failed to learn that lesson. It’s not too late to stop making her bed for her. And it’s not too late to be a role model and an example to her daughters for how to live responsibly and take ownership of one’s decisions.

I have been dating this guy for about six months and things are mostly good, but we fight about one thing: he won’t stop talking to the girl he was seeing before me. We met on a dating site and he was seeing her when we met; he said they were never exclusive or official in any way. He met her on a different dating site a few months prior to meeting me. They have no history of friendship. He still won’t stop communicating with her, saying they’re just friends. I don’t feel like he would cheat on me, but she gives me a terrible feeling. I reached out to her at one point, with his permission, to try get to know her. I was honest and told her I wasn’t sure how to deal with his being friends with an ex-lover. She became extremely defensive and told me my issues aren’t her problem.

Anytime she texts him or vice versa I have really bad anxiety, and this is starting to take a toll on my mental health (I have made an appointment with a therapist up help with the anxiety). He is not always honest with me about when they talk; he’s lied to my face and on occasion has admitted that he’s lied to avoid the same discussion over and over with no resolution.

This is clearly not in the best interest of my mental health; however, that does not seem to have any impact for him. He said he will not give up a friend because he would never ask me to do that. He’s divorced and said he won’t be told what to do anymore and my asking him to take my mental state into consideration is telling him what to do. This ex of his has tried to tell him that I clearly need mental help and that I’m not ready to be in a relationship. She tries to manipulate his opinion of me.

He tells me he loves me but he is unwilling to let go of an ex lover. I would have way less issue if they had been friends previously or if it hadn’t ended between them because he met me and that wasn’t long ago. The anxiety of the fighting makes me sick and I’m not sure how to get him to pick me over her. I’m afraid if I gave him some type of ultimatum, I would lose him or he would just try to hide the fact from me that he still talks to her, but I don’t want to be that person. I want to know how to either be okay with her or how to get her out of the picture entirely.

He also won’t stop talking to the woman with whome he had an affair that ended his marriage. I actually have less of an issue with her because they were friends before the affair. I don’t like who she is and their history, but I’ve been dealing with her better than his most recent ex-lover.

Everyone I’ve spoken to about this has told me he’s being disrespectful and I deserve better. Advice from an unbiased third party would be much appreciated. — Suspicious of the Ex

He’s being disrespectful and you deserve better. But, echoing my advice to the first LW today, I have to say to you: take responsibility for your own behavior here. Why are you relying on this guy you’ve known for six months to take care of your mental health? Shouldn’t that be YOUR top priority? And if you’re dating someone who is causing this much mental anguish, shouldn’t you MOA (you should). You say: “This is clearly not in the best interest of my mental health; however, that does not seem to have any impact for him.” Swap “me” for “him” and that’s how I’m reading your issue. Dating this guy is clearly having a big effect on your mental health. Is that having enough of an impact on you to leave? I sure hope so!


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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​

21 comments… add one
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    becboo84 November 9, 2017, 9:34 am

    In regards to the first LW, I sympathize with you a tremendous amount, and I get how very frustrating it is when it appears that a close family member is being “rewarded” for bad behavior, but Wendy is right: Quite frankly, your entire family needs to stop enabling her, but even if everyone else is unwilling to do anything, you can still set boundaries for yourself! Your sister sounds flaky and disorganized, but nothing from your letter indicates that she is a malicious person or bad parent. She has simply never suffered the consequences for her disorganization, so she’s never been forced to develop better habits.

    Also, I am with Wendy and confused about the constant need to watch both daughters. Unless there is something going on that you haven’t mentioned, the 18 year old shouldn’t need to be watched at all, and even the 12 year old can probably be left alone for short periods of time.

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  • Essie November 9, 2017, 9:41 am

    LW2: You’ve been dating him for only six months, and the relationship is making you so unhappy that you’re seeking therapy? Why on earth are you still with this guy?

    If it upsets you to date men who have friendly relationships with exes, then don’t date men who have friendly relationships with exes! What you should have done is said, as soon as you discovered that a) he was talking-to exes and b) it made you very unhappy was say “You know what, I just don’t think we’re compatible. ” Because you’re not.

    When you date as an adult, people come with all sorts of…other people. Ex-girlfriends, coworkers, family members, friends, even ex-wives and children. You don’t get to banish the ones you don’t like. If there’s something about the situation that you can’t accept, you move on.

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    Cleopatra Jones November 9, 2017, 10:16 am

    WWS and also…did LW #2 have an official conversation with her ‘boyfriend’ that they were in a monogamous relationship? Because I feel like they didn’t. I get the vibe that he thinks that they are casually dating and she thinks it’s a serious monogamous relationship. Hence the anxiety, and trying to get rid of all of the other women in his life. Honestly, as long as he didn’t agree to be in a monogamous committed relationship with LW, he’s not wrong to have the other women around, and he’s not wrong to not want to talk about those other relationships with her. Also, LW’s attempts for force them all out feels controlling.

    Also, the other woman is correct, LW isn’t ready for a relationship so instead of going to therapy to fix a 6 month relationship, she needs to be in therapy to learn better relationship skills.

    MOA LW#2!

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  • Ron November 9, 2017, 10:23 am

    LW #2 —
    You say he wasn’t ever official or exclusive with his ex. You never say that he is official and exclusive with you, from which I conclude that you likely have no such commitment from him. You say you are not worried about him cheating on you, but clearly that is your worry. You should be worried. I’d say 90% probability he’s fucking all 3 of you. If that’s not acceptable to you, move on. Never a good look/play to pull the ‘you have to be totally faithful, because of my mental health needs’ card. Of course the ex called you on that. You are either manipulative or in need of therapy, but yes, you are being cheated on, if it is possible to be cheated on in the absence of a promise of monogamy. This guy isn’t for you. MOA and work on yourself. Next time pick a guy who isn’t such an obvious player.

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  • SpaceySteph November 9, 2017, 10:35 am

    LW1 this really stuck out to me: “My parents are always watching her daughters as well which leaves very little to give to their other two daughters with children.”

    Sounds to me like her problem is that her sister is monopolizing all the free grandma daycare and LW wants her piece!

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    • Hannanas November 9, 2017, 10:51 am

      So what?

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      Skyblossom November 9, 2017, 10:57 am

      It isn’t necessarily free daycare that she wants. If the grandparents are always exhausted then they won’t want to see the other grandchildren or when they do see them they won’t be interacting with them. It affects whether they have any physical and emotional energy left over for the other kids. It can be the difference between having fun grandparent/grandchild time and not having it. The tired grandparent is not going to say lets play catch or bake cookies or go for a walk or read a book together. The tired grandparent will hope to do that some other time.

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      • SpaceySteph November 9, 2017, 11:07 am

        But she didn’t say “little to give my children” she said “little to give *me*”

        The truth of families is that sometimes one child needs more and takes more than the others. It sucks to be the “together” child who doesn’t get the free childcare or the financial bailout or attention or whatever from the parents because they’re spending it all on the screwup sibling. But I wouldn’t trade having my shit together for being reliant on my parents to bail me out… that would suck worse. .

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        Skyblossom November 9, 2017, 11:31 am

        If most of the time that she has with her parents is spent listening to her mom complain about her sister then it is having a negative impact on their relationship. It would be nice to drop by to see them and have some fun.

    • Northern Star November 9, 2017, 11:04 am

      I don’t think it’s a crime for the LW to want her own kids to have some quality time with their grandparents instead of the sister’s kids taking up most of the grandparents’ attention and energy.

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    • MMR November 9, 2017, 2:46 pm

      This is it!

      Wendy’s response is mostly about how to manage the LW’s relationship with her sister (which, of course, does need to happen), but she also needs to communicate with her parents.

      I don’t know about the “should be over it” part though. This type of imbalance shouldn’t be ruining your life, but I don’t think there’s anything unhealthy about wanting some quality time with your parents. Or for your kids to have time with their grandparents.

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        Dear Wendy November 9, 2017, 4:36 pm

        The whole second paragraph of my response is about how the LW needs to communicate with her parents…

  • brise November 9, 2017, 10:43 am

    LW1: the difficulty is the unexpected and unstable requests for help. So perhaps you could solve the problem in saying to your sister: I can have your daughters one evening/night per week (or every other week) on Friday (or whatever is ok for you). So you do help her as you wish to do, but it is on your terms, on an a stable, predictable basis. Then, you don’t accept other demands, and decline without any scruples. Or you accept them when it is ok for you, but don’t feel like it is a problem.
    As for the girls’ behaviour: you can very well impose your rules at your place. Don’t be afraid to do so, lovingly but firmly. It will help them later, they will respect you more.

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  • Kitnkabutle November 9, 2017, 11:46 am


    I’ve gotten a front row seat seat to a similar set up with my inlaws. Your sis has no incentive to change, she’s got what she needs. Set boundaries that work for you. Be an example to others. And yes, it is ok to want your children to get attention from their grandparents, too. I feel like my inlaws think over compensating for one child benefits the others. But it doesn’t. It only creates resentment.

    Good luck to you!

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    Skyblossom November 9, 2017, 11:59 am

    LW1 You can’t force your sister to change and you can’t force your parents to act in a different way. What you can do is set your own limits and stick with them even if your sister quits talking to your for a while. You can turn down requests to babysit, especially emergency requests but feel free to turn down most or all requests. You can say you are busy and that it doesn’t work for you. “That doesn’t work for us today/this evening/tonight.”

    You can also see if your other sister would like to do the same. If she is fed up you will probably get better results if the two of you start giving the same responses but it isn’t necessary for both of you to do the same thing.

    Do try to be kind to her children because they didn’t get to choose their mother or living situation. That doesn’t mean you drop everything to babysit all of the time.

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  • dinoceros November 9, 2017, 12:35 pm

    LW1: In an ideal world, you could say that you want to keep your relationship good and that you want her to stop mooching off you for child care, and expect that to happen. But this isn’t an ideal world. You don’t really get to decide that you want all the good things and no negative consequences. That’s no reason to not set boundaries though. She’s an autonomous person, as you are, and while you are exercising your autonomy to not be a door mat, she can exercise hers to get mad at you and potentially not speak to you or whatever.

    LW2: I don’t understand how a person can say that their partner lies all the time, but they believe they wouldn’t cheat. Like why? A person who is dishonest a lot probably is most likely to cheat because it indicates that they have sort of a fluid view of the morality (as in, if they don’t get caught, it’s OK) and lying is typically required for cheating because you are lying when you say “nothing is going on” or when you have to cover for where you’ve been. Move on. Even if he’s not cheating, why would you date someone who lies to you?

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    Skyblossom November 9, 2017, 1:13 pm

    LW2 You don’t trust your boyfriend. That’s the bottom line and based on good reasons. He cheated on his ex-wife. That tells you everything you need to know about him in an intimate relationship. He cheats. You can try to drive the other woman away but that won’t make him any more honest. The problem is him being a dishonest person. Your problem isn’t the other woman. Your problem is why you are trying to make this bad relationship work. He isn’t worth your mental health so why hurt yourself over a six month relationship with a liar. Walk away today. You are more valuable than this guy and there are much better men out there. Go ahead with the therapy. It can help you to understand your own needs better and to do a better job of picking worthy men.

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  • anonymousse November 9, 2017, 3:42 pm

    I don’t know, clearly your sister needs help, in more ways than one. Most families I know all chip in to help enable the person with the lowest ability to function because that’s what family does. Sure, it might not be “right” or “fair” or even for the absolute good of the person, but it’s what happens when you have young pregnancies, immature parents and eventually immature adults in your family. I would suggest finding a few really good people to vent to or with and try to distance yourself from her without forcing your nieces to suffer any different treatment from you.

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  • anonymousse November 9, 2017, 3:47 pm

    But also, she’s your sister. Have you told her how you feel? I have a sister I’m close to. I have zero problem telling her my thoughts about her behavior. Maybe a big blowup would be good for both of you to get all this shit sorted out or at the very least- openly acknowledged. Sometimes that’s actually good for family/intimate relationships.
    Big blowup being subjective.

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    • Sarah November 10, 2017, 7:02 am

      “Most families I know all chip in to help enable the person with the lowest ability to function because that’s what family does.”

      I love this line!

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        Dear Wendy November 10, 2017, 9:06 am

        I’m not sure I agree with it, myself. I mean, yes, if there are special needs or circumstances at play, of course, good family and friends chip in to help. But when a person has the ability to function and chooses not to, and instead relies on family to function for them, I can’t agree that the enabling is helpful or healthy.


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