esther calling relationships self

‘Why Won’t My Siblings Help Care for Our Sick Mom?’

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

This week’s caller says that she resents her family for making her be the “good” child. Their mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor shortly after their father was diagnosed with cancer, and of the three children in the family, she was the only child who showed up to help out. Sometimes I feel like siblings can check out in different ways,” the caller says. “I want to honor their reasons for doing so but I find that it still hurts to feel alone.” The caller’s family tends to avoid conflict, so she doesn’t know how to address the feeling that her siblings abandoned her. How can she avoid being consumed by bitterness or resentment?

On top of all that, as the youngest of three raised in a Midwestern Catholic family, she has never been fully accepted by her sister or her mother for being gay. “Leave your sister and the geometry of the family aside for a moment and focus on what you need from your mother,” Esther Perel suggests. Ultimately, the caller realizes she wants to feel seen and heard by her mother before she dies.

Esther Perel: Describe to me the situation. Where is the family at? What are the forces that impinge on the family at this moment? What are the requirements of the different family members? How have the roles changed or not changed enough? 

Caller: My senior year of college, which was three years ago, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Following his chemotherapy — he’s healthy now — my mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor.

There was a lot of tension even in that first diagnosis. My sister, who is very Catholic and wanted to get married and start her life — which she couldn’t really do based on her belief system without getting married — had moved the wedding date up. That meant that my mom decided to wait and push her surgery date back … and it’s kind of been a roller coaster ever since then. She really was like the alpha in our family, kind of like the center. I think it really upended a lot of stability for us. Then, just this summer, the wound on her head never fully healed, and so they had to graft skin to put on the top of her head to close it, which is like a very complicated surgery and ended up being seven hours. And I was the only sibling in attendance for that surgery, and it was just really hard to be there by myself with my dad.

Esther: Where was everybody else? And who is everybody else? 

Caller: So my sister, she lives close to my parents now. She just moved in the last year. She has two kids now, both below the age of 2, so she’s definitely very busy with them. My sister’s the middle child, I’m the youngest, and my brother’s the oldest, and he … I don’t know.

He kind of just checked out this round.

Esther: So let me tell you what I’m hearing and if this reflects it. Your family is organized in such a way that Mom is the pivot and there are three children around. Your dad is important but not central. And both of them have been going through major medical crises that have demanded that the children step in to help. But the primary person that has stepped in is you. You’re doing it, but you also find it very burdensome and overwhelming and lonely to do it alone. Everybody else seems to have explanations for why they do or do not show up. You can’t even think about that because you have to show up, so you don’t even ask yourself. And you’re upset or you resent it. 

I’m curious when I listen to you, what do you sound like when you are angry? Because this is a very gentle voice that says, “I would like not to be resentful,” but with the sweetest, kindest, most forgiving, most accepting voice I can imagine. So what do you sound like when you’re not that sweet and kind? 

Caller: Um …

Esther: What is the voice you don’t want to hear inside of you?

Caller: Yeah, I struggle with feeling angry. Um …

Esther: In what way do you struggle? As in, “I don’t have the permission to be angry? Everybody should do what their heart tells them or what their God tells them or what their values tell them, and therefore, I have no right to ask for more?” What is the rationale in your head that is tripping you? 

Caller: Well, when I get upset — because I did express some concerns going into the surgery, to my mom, wishing my brother would accompany me and trying to explain where I was coming from. I remember her being like, “You just gotta get over that.” I have also held onto that frustration with my sister. It’s not that I let it affect our everyday experience, but when these moments of crisis come up again — because there’s been twists and turns. Every time I think it’s done or we’ve reached the end, there’s, like, another setback. So I think back to that experience, and I just can never seem to understand why my sister made the decisions that she made, even though I do understand the belief system that informed those decisions.

Esther: So let me make sure I understood this. Your sister wanted to have kids. In order to have kids, she needed to be married. And in order to be married, she needed your mother to postpone her brain-tumor surgery so that she could have the wedding first. Is that what you’re telling me? 

Caller: A little bit, I mean, my sister wanted to be able to live with her …

Esther: Yes, yes. She wanted to live with her partner, and for that she had to be married first. She wanted to have sex with her partner and particularly maybe to procreate with that person, and so for that, she needed to be married. And in order to be married, she needed your mother to postpone her surgery. Or am I missing something here? 

Caller: Essentially, yes, but the date was set first and then they didn’t ask my sister to change it.

Esther: And your sense is that they are more understanding and compassionate with your siblings than with you. To you, they say, “Get over it.” And to them they say, “Whatever you need.”

Caller: I don’t know what the conversations sound like when they’re with my siblings directly. But I do sometimes feel like they know that I can understand these other perspectives. I think that my mom and dad really value family unity, but the kind that’s “as long as it looks like it’s peaceful,” not the kind that is actually. I think that they would just prefer things to be without conflict.

Esther: And where does that leave you? They don’t want conflict. You’re reluctant to experience resentment or anger or aggression. You find it easier to be sad than to be mad. Have there been other major disruptions in the family that required collaboration, understanding, action, tough decisions, acceptance? 

Caller: Yeah. So I’m gay, and that was a major upheaval for my mom and my sister in particular. That’s been really challenging. My sister’s pretty homophobic and also in denial. Like, she won’t say, “My sister’s a lesbian.” I think that was like another element of why her wedding was so hard, because it felt like this solidifying of these very two different worldviews. My sister’s husband is also very homophobic and comes from a very large Catholic family, so it almost felt like losing her in a new way. That’s difficult. And with her having kids, it raises new questions because I recently wanted clarification and asked if I would be able to have my partner around her children. And she said, yes, only if they’re viewed as a friend because she can’t risk her children going to hell, which is really frustrating. I don’t even know how to negotiate that, really.

Esther: You know, what I’m watching you for is your original question, right? “How do I not let resentment get to me?” And my one thought I have is, why wouldn’t it get to you? Why wouldn’t you be mad? It’s very different than frustrated

I’m not even going to necessarily focus at first on the specific. “I’m taking care of my parents, I’m the one who lives far away, I’m the one who travels home, I’m the one who attends the seven-hour surgery. Where is everybody, and on what basis am I supposed to do this? And I’m not even accepted and I do more than anybody else.” That’s a whole subject we’re going to come back to. Because it happens, this particular transition of parents getting older and parents getting sick and how the family organizes around this and how there is a role distribution and who’s allowed to check out and who’s allowed to have other priorities and who’s demanded to show up. But in addition, there’s something broader here that is the question that may not be related to specifics. It’s just that you’re coming with a particular situation, which is your relationship to anger. 

And I’m not talking about fighting and yelling, “This is not right” or “This is unfair” or “This is uneven.” You are going to do what you’re going to do because you want your conscience to be clear. So you’re going to show up, not because your siblings don’t show up, but because that’s what you choose to do. And one day you want to be able to look in the mirror and say, “I acted according to my values and my integrity and I did what I felt was right. The fact that I’m also upset that my siblings just left it all up to me is added to this. It’s both.” You’re not going to do those things because of how they act. You’re not going to be reacting to what they do. You’re going to choose your values and your behavior and how you want to be with your parents. But the broader story here is: What is the family’s relationship to anger, and what is your relationship to anger? 

Caller: If I’m angry — or just upset because I don’t know if it’s interpreted as anger, if I get to that point — but I feel like it disrupts the family system. My mom is a huge influence, she’s kind of a compass, especially because of everything she’s been through. She’s always been sad that my relationship with my sister has been trying. And sometimes I think that I work to …

Esther: And she wants you to be the one to harmonize. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: The fact that she thinks it’s too bad you and your sister don’t get along is one thing. But who should make it better? You. Or at least, I think that that’s your sense: “My sister gets to say, ‘I don’t like this. I don’t want gay in my house. You can’t tell my kids who you are. I can’t show up. I need to get married.’” What makes you angry is the fact that you are forced to be good, dutiful, suppress your needs, act according to the higher powers, and your sense is that your sister gets away with stuff. For some reason, she’s seen as the one who needs to be able to express, to explode, to say no, to say this is it. But you have to be higher than thou, and you have to bring in the holiness in the house. That’s how I’m hearing you. Am I off? Am I traveling in my own imagination? 

Caller: I don’t think so. I guess that’s how I at least view it.

Esther: And how much is coming out related to that? Have these two coexisted with each other for a long time? 

Caller: Coming out definitely exacerbated some of that or just put more of those dynamics on display.

Esther: As in, “Since I am claiming something that is so not what my family stands for, I now have to be good in every other domain of life? I’ve used up my entitlement quota”? 

Caller: I think part of that was, I was so afraid I was gonna lose my mom and I really struggled. That summer, I remember going home to talk to her just for a couple days after, and it didn’t go so well. After that, I just remember feeling so sad and not sure what to do. I think with time and interaction of just not focusing so much on that rupture, but just enjoying who she is because — I adore my mom.

Esther: I hear you. She’s awesome. 

Caller: It did help. But I think maybe knowing the depth of that fear of loss makes me wary of …

Esther: “I don’t want to do anything that would upset her. And could make her more sick. So I want to save her as much as I can with her. And I’ll deal with my feelings about all of this another time.” 

Caller: Yeah, there have been so many times within the last couple years where I felt like I’ve lost her in different ways, but the fact that she’s still here almost feels like a miracle, and I don’t want to take that for granted. But sometimes, in the process, I can lose sense of my own needs.

Esther: Does your partner support you? 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: Do you have friends who support you? And do you find support outside the family? 

Caller: I do. I have really remarkable friends. They listen to me and show up for me in so many ways. I couldn’t ask for better friends.

Esther: Has anybody ever traveled home with you? 

Caller: No.

Esther: Could you imagine that? Would you consider that? 

Caller: Yeah, I could definitely imagine it. It’s a very remote place, where home is. It’s in the Midwest, a very small town, so it would be an experience for someone that’s from the East Coast.

Esther: It would be an anthropological field trip. 

Caller: It really would. There’s one stoplight in my town.

Esther: But it would make you feel that you can savor your relationship with her and be supported by those who have some to give. Sometimes waiting for your siblings to show up is a little bit like Moses and the rock. You hit, you hit, but the water doesn’t come. So you have water in your life, but it’s not in your nuclear family. 

Caller: Right.

Esther: Bring the water with you. And what I’m hearing you say is, “I experience all of this in such precariousness right now. It’s so fragile. I don’t want to jeopardize anything. I don’t want my mother to be surrounded by strife.” Which is your choice. You’ll deal with your siblings afterwards. You can basically think to yourself, “at this moment my priority is to be with her. And I’ll organize myself in a way that makes that possible for me.” If you want to have a conversation with your sister or with your brother, you can. My question to you is: Is there a part of you that wishes that your mother would stand up for you? 

Caller: Yeah, I do.

Esther: That’s the other resentment. You see, there’s a part of you that says, “I should not have any needs, because she takes up all the space at this moment, and she’s the priority.” And there’s a part of you that wishes that she would actually stand up for you. 

And that’s less about resentment, and that’s more of a conflict. “How do I ask for something? How do I express or have any needs without experiencing my needs as crumbling her? And so the only way that I can preserve her is by suppressing any need that I have.” 

Caller: Yeah, that feels very true.

Esther: Say it in your own words. If you said it to her …

Caller: I think I would say … “Mom, sometimes I just want you to have my back. I just want you to see things from my vantage point and in a way that I see you do for my sister and my brother. I don’t want to feel like my feelings are too much or that they’re gonna break the family system.”

Esther: Keep going. You’ve had this conversation in your head many times. 

Caller: “I sometimes think that you think I can be too sensitive or that my emotions are too disruptive or destabilizing, but all I really need is for you to say, ‘I hear you and I see you.’ And that would be enough.”

Esther: “And while I try to do everything in my power to keep you alive, the anticipation of this recognition, this feeling heard and seen — for that to never happen feels like another loss that accompanies death. I will lose you as my mom, but I would also lose never having received that recognition from you.” And it may demand guts from you to say to her, “We are on treacherous ground. I’ll be there for you, and it would mean the world to me if I could feel from you that you see, if you would have my back. I can imagine in the future if one day you’re not around that this is going to be the loss that will be the hardest for me. I could accept your going if I know that I have had you in that very special way. That I have had from you your back, your eyes, your ears, your understanding, your empathy, your compassion.” 

How does that register with you? 

Caller: I think that is what I look for. She did write me a thank-you card. And it meant the world to me. It made it feel like it was all worth it. I think knowing how significant that is really points to that desire of mine to feel recognized by her fully.

Esther: Did you answer? 

Caller: I called her and said that I really appreciated it. I find writing her is actually one of the best ways to get all my thoughts out. That’s actually how I came out to her. I was too afraid to say it, and I didn’t want to hold her accountable to her first response. I kind of wanted her to have a moment to process it.

Esther: So pick up exactly there. You have the card. Write back and say, “I know I said how much I appreciate it, but I’m not sure that I actually told you what it means for me: What I’m after, and why this meant so much.” You have the entrance door right there. 

Caller: Yeah. She also put this image on the front of the card. My friends had come to visit and someone got a picture of me jumping through the air. The fact that she loved that picture — and it’s funny because it’s kind of me feeling free and fun and happy. And I think that also in a weird way meant a lot too, that she values that.

Esther: “And I would jump even higher and feel even freer when I feel that you have my back. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you how important that is for me.”

See, if you focus on your sister, you triangulate, you think your mother cuts her slack that she doesn’t cut you, that you are in the responsible role, and all of that may be true, but it’s not the priority in the moment. 

Caller: Yeah, that’s really helpful, because I think in the past, I’ve used my siblings as points of comparison and it does complicate it and detracts and distracts from what we’re actually trying to emphasize.

Esther: That’s right. Leave the geometry of the family aside for a moment and focus on what you need from her. Your mother got it. She responded to you. She sent you the perfect picture. You are that child for her. You’re the one who left. All the others are in a small town. You’re the one who’s having the life that your mother didn’t have. You’re the one going to school. You’re the one making very tough choices. You’re the one claiming your identity, et cetera, et cetera. You’re far more of a bigger picture than you think you are. 

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: You don’t know if to smile or to cry. 

Caller: Yeah, that happens to me quite a bit. I do laugh through hard times. And cry. But that’s definitely a way that I manage things sometimes.

Esther: “When you write me a card like this, I melt because …” And then you tell her how important this is and how she is the mother that you need her to be. 

This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

More From This Series

  • ‘Why Is My Husband So Boring?’
  • ‘Why Do I Panic and Break Up As Soon As the Honeymoon Phase Is Over?’
  • ‘Our Relationship Ended Because He Was Too Close With His Ex’

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Esther Perel , 2024-05-20 18:00:10

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