My sister is going through a very messy divorce right now. She has a handful of kids and turns to me a lot for support. She comes to us nearly every Shabbos, and needs to talk on the phone at least once a day.
I am really sad about what she’s going through and want to do everything I can to be there for her. The problem is that I am starting to fall apart a little from it. When I’m not with her, I’m so worried about her. And when I am helping her, I feel so guilty that I am not giving my kids (age 3-7) or my husband my full attention.
I definitely do not want to drop my sister (she doesn’t really have anyone else who is close to her), but I’m so scared that my own family is suffering. Am I doing something wrong?
Dear Supportive Sister,
What a tough spot you are in. You really value family, and find yourself wondering if you’re acting against the best interests of your newer family while being there for your older family. This is a tough call…
First, I would check in with your husband. How is he viewing this? Is your openness to your sister and her family feeling like you are closing him off? This deserves a conversation. But before you even start talking to him, be aware that you may not like what he has to say.
Your strong drive to protect your sister may get kicked up if you hear him say something like, “Does she have to come so often?” or, “Let her try to manage on her own a little.”
So look what could happen if your protective instinct takes the wheel: in trying to show hubby that you value him, you may hear something that sounds like he doesn’t care about your sister. That may set you off, and not look pretty. Then what message will he get? That you actually don’t value him.
Once you start getting defensive you will know that you have officially disconnected from your husband’s emotional camp.
The key to having this conversation in a way where you can actually hear your husband’s needs is to take it real slooooooowww.
As soon as you start to feel yourself shifting into a tenser posture then it’s time to take a breather. That’s right, simply pause the conversation, say you need a short break, and tell hubby that you will be back in a few minutes. Go do something else like take a walk, shower, or watch a funny YouTube clip, and reset. Come back to your husband and try again to see if you can hear him.
It may be that your husband is fully supportive of you turning toward your sister when she needs you. That’s great for your marriage, but what about your kids?
Even if your kids are mature and “understand” that Aunt Sara is going through a hard time, and that’s why Mommy’s not going over our homework these days, well, intellectual understanding doesn’t quite cut it. No matter how understanding or unaffected your kids seem, they will always have the emotional needs of secure attachment from their parents. And that cannot be soothed by their sympathy for their aunt.
If you are noticing that you haven’t been as attentive to them as you used to, then for sure they notice it too.
That doesn’t mean that you have to hang up on your sister. All it means is that you have to meet a certain quota of Mommy Time before you go to Sister Time.
Let’s say you have your sister and her kids over for a Shabbos. Make sure that at some point you are alone with your kids and totally focused on them. Of course you don’t want to do this in a way that makes your sister feel neglected or like she is imposing.
You can either sneak it in in small increments, like snuggling with the kids on Shabbos morning or, you could actually tell your sister that your kids have been vying for your attention and you will be available in 20 minutes.
The same goes for a weeknight. When your kids are come home from school, there should not be any phone calls, texts or emails. Your sister can wait a couple of hours and you will feel way less guilty knowing that your children feel that they are a priority.
I would suggest making a curfew for you, as well. You have to take care of your health and staying up late won’t help that.
This is a very tumultuous time that will calm down in a few months. But, until then, having boundaries around your time will let you be there for your sister, sans the guilt.
Aviva Rizel, MA, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Aviva maintains a busy private practice in Cedarhurst, NY where she sees couples, families and individuals. She previously served as the Clinical Director of The Five Towns Marriage Initiative. She is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), the most effective, research-based model for strengthening couples’ connections. Aviva is also active in educating therapists and laypeople about EFT. Mrs. Rizel and her husband, Meir Rizel, MS, a Mental Health Counselor, enjoy co-lecturing across the tri-state area together almost as much as they enjoy raising their three children together in Far Rockaway, NY. To reach Aviva, email AvivaRizel.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 347-292-8482 To find out more about Emotionally Focused Therapy, go to iceeft.com.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.