My brother-in-law died suddenly around eight months ago. He was a young man with three young children. It was such a shocking and tremendous tragedy. My sister-in-law, Rebecca, and my wife, Kayla, have always been extremely close. They have one brother who lives in Israel. Their parents are older and not the most involved parents, and they live in a small apartment.
From the first week of my brother-in-law’s passing, Kayla and I both went into “saving mode” and invited Rebecca and her children for Shabbos. At the beginning, she spent a lot of time in our home. Naturally, she was a wreck, and we were her support. We were grateful that we were able to be there for her. We have a mid-size home and it meant shuffling around our own three children, but we were all on board with making it work.
It felt normal to everyone for Rebecca and her family to continue coming to us every Shabbos, and it just became the norm. We stopped accepting Shabbos invitations or inviting people to our home for a Shabbos meal. Our weekends became totally about Rebecca and her kids. They would usually stay until late Sunday afternoon, so if we planned anything for our family, their family came along.
At the beginning, I felt really good about what we were doing and pleased with myself that I came through for them. I do believe I’m a good-natured person who is happy to help out those in need. But about two months ago, I started finding myself feeling some resentment. During the week I work long hours. I come home from work exhausted and not able to have too much meaningful conversation with my wife and children. It used to be that on Shabbos and Sunday, we would catch up as a family. I looked forward to those times and, honestly, also to socializing with our friends on weekends. None of that is happening anymore.
Oh, and by the way, we’re going away for Pesach. Guess who is joining us? You got it!
About a month ago, I asked Kayla when she thought it would be a good time for Rebecca to start seeing what it would be like to stay home for a weekend, to start becoming independent and comfortable being home. I also suggested that it would probably be good for her children to be with their friends on Shabbos and also for Rebecca to connect with her friends more. Maybe some of her neighbors or friends would be thoughtful enough to invite her for Shabbos meals.
Kayla looked at me as if I had suggested that Rebecca be sent to prison or something horrible like that. She basically said that I was being selfish and not understanding that Rebecca is still in a lot of pain and still needs her family to support her fully. I told her that I’m all for that but that I wondered whether that meant that I would never be able to enjoy a Shabbos alone with my family ever again. No response.
So my question is twofold. Do I have a right to insist that we occasionally take a Shabbos for ourselves? And if I have that right, how do I approach it with Kayla so that she doesn’t bite my head off and act as though I’m being a terrible brother-in-law?
First off, let me confirm to you that you’ve been an amazing husband and brother-in-law. The fact that you immediately jumped into action, bringing Rebecca and her children into your home without the slightest issue, is amazing. This has been going on for such a long period of time. Not all husbands would be as accommodating to one’s wife, sister-in-law, and her children. I’m not going to go so far as to say you deserve a medal, but you do deserve a tremendous amount of appreciation and gratitude. Yes, you did the right thing, and for an extended amount of time, despite the hardship it brought upon your family. I hope that Kayla has been effusive in her gratefulness.
And now, on to the present. Aside from your needs, which we will address next, you make some excellent points. Certainly, at the beginning, you and Kayla immediately stopped at least some of the “bleeding” by opening up your home and your hearts to Rebecca and giving her and her children a safe place to land. Having that haven was no doubt a game changer for her, an act of kindness from you and Kayla that she will never forget.
However, the question you pose is a good one. At this point in time, should Rebecca be making some effort to function successfully on her own over a Shabbos and Sunday? Are you enabling her to continue to live as the victim, rather than grow into a more independent woman who is capable of caring for herself and her children? I think this is an excellent point, worthy of conversation. There is nothing wrong with inviting Rebecca for the weekend, even somewhat often, but the consistency of every single Shabbos might be holding her back from making peace with her new normal and seeing where that growth may take her.
Regarding her children, I don’t know their ages, but most likely they, too, might do well by having play dates and experiencing Shabbos and Sundays the way many of their friends are. Feeling loved and protected is great. Feeling different … not so much!
I have to wonder whether Kayla is getting some needs met by continuing to have them every weekend. We all love feeling like heroes. It gives us a purpose. Perhaps being Rebecca’s savior has become a role Kayla has assumed and has truly connected to in a profound way. For a while there, it made sense for everyone. Now, though, it may be getting in the way of some necessary development.
And finally, your needs. For many couples who work hard and have children, it’s not unusual for husband and wife to feel like two ships passing in the night. Thankfully, weekends and Shabbos in particular serve as a very important time to reconnect. It grounds couples, brings them closer together, and serves as a reminder of who they are as a unit. Surely, that has been missing from your lives for quite a while, and I’m sure it’s taking a toll and causing some serious ramifications.
I do believe you have the right to discuss your feelings with Kayla. It’s important that she “hear” you, and not just react as though you are trying to toss out her sister, which may be the narrative that she is presently holding on to. These are very emotional issues. I’m sure Kayla feels enormous pain and concern for her sister and perhaps a bit of unwarranted guilt thrown in, just because. So if you need to bring in a third party to help smooth the way for a productive conversation, please do so. Again, it’s not as if you’re saying that Rebecca can never stay by you again. You’re just suggesting that it’s time to recalculate a bit and figure out what makes sense for everyone’s well-being, not only your own. How often you plan to host Rebecca and her family will be a joint decision between you and Kayla. And certainly, you will hopefully make these changes in a gentle, subtle way, as you wean Rebecca off her weekly expectations of staying with you.
It sounds to me as though enough time has gone by for Rebecca to think about what it would be like to make some necessary changes, and at least take some baby steps toward that ultimate goal. She, too, may need the help of a therapist, if she isn’t already working with someone, to help her navigate her way. Life is full of change, sometimes tragic, and the necessary growth that is required as a result. We are thrown hardballs that force us to take pause as we try to survive, but ultimately we need to move on to a healthier place.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295. Read more of Esther Mann’s articles at 5TJT.com.