Guardian­ship de­ci­sion hurts

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - CAROLYN HAX tellme@wash­post.com

DEAR CAROLYN: 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 stay-at-home­mom. 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 as if she has 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 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.

— Anony­mous DEAR READER: 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 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 chil­dren.

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, you might find respite in talk­ing to a good fam­ily ther­a­pist. Given 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.

Chat on­line with Carolyn at 11 a.m. each Fri­day at wash­ing­ton­post.com. Write to Tell Me About It in care of The Wash­ing­ton Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. N.W., Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071; or email

Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group/NICK GAL­I­FI­ANAKIS

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