Fam­ily faces huge and un­ex­pected chal­lenge


DEAR AMY: I mar­ried my hus­band three years ago. We’re in our early 40s. His younger sis­ter has two chil­dren, ages 8 and 2. The chil­dren were in a very bad sit­u­a­tion, which ul­ti­mately led to them be­ing sent to live with my in-laws two states away. The courts are in­volved and the chil­dren are in coun­sel­ing.

My in-laws are well into their 60s. It’s clear to ev­ery­one that my sis­ter-in-law won’t get the chil­dren back likely ever, and my in-laws are not in a po­si­tion to raise kids for an­other 15 years.

My hus­band and I are child-free by choice and have, frankly, no de­sire to raise a fam­ily not our own.

This is caus­ing anx­i­ety and stress, but we are uni­fied in the knowl­edge that we might need to step in when his par­ents can no longer han­dle things. His mom has shown some se­ri­ous lapses in judg­ment dur­ing the time she’s had the kids.

I’m strug­gling to rec­on­cile my self­ish feel­ings of not want­ing a fam­ily, and tak­ing on the fam­ily of some­one who was ir­re­spon­si­ble. Not to men­tion, the emo­tional trauma the chil­dren will con­tinue to have. I’m so an­gry at my sis­ter-in-law.

We had plans to travel far and wide. Now we’re talk­ing about set­tling down some­where where his par­ents could po­ten­tially live near us with the kids. None of us want this, but foster care isn’t an option. I don’t know what to do with any of this. — RE­LUC­TANT

DEAR RE­LUC­TANT: I ap­plaud your re­al­iza­tion that you will make a choice to ben­e­fit these chil­dren. Fam­ily mem­bers who pick up the pieces and raise in­no­cent chil­dren caught in the cross­fire of fam­ily dys­func­tion or the ad­dic­tion cri­sis are un­sung he­roes to a generation of chil­dren.

You men­tion that you both have no de­sire to raise a fam­ily “not our own,” but these chil­dren are in your fam­ily, and I hope you will start the process to make them your own.

You should try to take this in stages, start­ing as soon as pos­si­ble. Get­ting to know the chil­dren when they are this young will help all of you to make a tran­si­tion to­ward liv­ing to­gether.

You and the grand­par­ents could start by shar­ing par­ent­ing du­ties (as many fam­i­lies do). Even if you are the pri­mary par­ents, the grand­par­ents could be enor­mously help­ful, pos­si­bly giv­ing you and your hus­band op­por­tu­ni­ties to travel a bit.

Yes, this is NOT what you had planned for. Yes, you are an­gry, and yes, you will mourn for the rad­i­cal shift in your plans. But this is what life is about. Ill­ness, job loss, ran­dom acts of vi­o­lence -- or kind­ness -- will turn many of our lives up­side down. And making eth­i­cal and com­pas­sion­ate choices, some­times in op­po­si­tion to your own de­sires, has to be its own re­ward.

A pro­fes­sional coun­selor could help both of you to come to terms with this, and ar­rive at an ac­tion plan.

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