Carolyn Hax: Wealthy relatives keep asking for help with childcare

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Dear Carolyn, A wealthy family member of mine, “R”, is getting divorced. R has two school-age children who live in the family home; R and her ex-spouse rotate into the home and return to their own apartments when they are not “on”. They have an afternoon/evening nanny and each grandmother takes the children one weekend a month.

Nevertheless, R is asking me and other extended family members for help with childcare and says she and her ex are “burnt out”. I’m sure the divorce is difficult, but I find R’s requests to be legitimate and clueless. I get the impression that neither R nor her ex wants to raise their children.

Yes, I feel judgmental, although I know my focus should be on the well-being of their children, who seem quite stressed.

So far I’ve politely declined their requests, but I feel a little guilty. I work full time and am also a carer for my elderly mother, and I cherish what free time I can get. Should I agree to their requests even if it makes me feel angry?

Feeling judgmental: This answer can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.

The simplest is that you are already a carer, so you cannot reasonably support anyone else. We all have our limits. And we all have the right to say no to people, especially when they ask us to overstep those boundaries. “I have my hands full with mom.” In fact, if you are not available while your mother is in your care, please make that clear to your relative. Save her for spinning wheels.

The more complicated answer depends on the children’s distress. They are their parents’ responsibility, yes, no doubt. But will that logic reassure them when their parents abdicate that responsibility? Will it help them roll with the instabilities? Make them A-okay with feeling un(der)loved?

We can point fingers precisely, be understandably incensed and rightly feel taken advantage of, absolutely, yes – but still. Every family, community, society that wants their children to grow into healthy adults shares some responsibility for supporting parents who fail.

I therefore hope that everyone who knows this couple will think about what they can do. Again – if it’s nothing, then that’s fair enough. We can’t all together. But if there is something that falls within your emotional capacity, try it. Do the children see each other once a month or every other, perhaps to create a bond?

Even better: Take this family member out for coffee and say, “Okay, what’s really going on.” Because it may be premature or misinformed to dismiss her cries for help as convincing to you.

A final complication is an extra-credit-like thing, but has its own kind of immediacy. I read these letters several times before answering them if I see new things. With this one, though, I’ve wondered the exact same points each time, whether you would think, choose, or feel differently if your needy family member wasn’t rich.

Aren’t there any variables here that might matter? Don’t rich hearts break, rich divorces hurt, rich psyches break? Is abuse—emotional, physical, financial, substance—overwhelming expensive homes?

Wealth creates opportunities, yes, no doubt, and pays nannies. And people who have options while implying they don’t will test someone’s nerves. But dysfunctional parents can’t just buy their children new parents.

So maybe think about people involved here, consciously, whenever the judgmental waves begin to swell. It doesn’t have to change anything you agree to do; it’s just something that might change your mind.

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