When my younger sister Rivky started dating Max, my parents, siblings, and I were not excited about it. Max just wasn’t easy to like, and we all believed that Rivky was settling. But she felt she was getting older, and she is not one to be easily influenced by anyone else. So despite all of us trying to get her to break off from seeing Max (some in more obvious ways than others), Rivky eventually married him.
None of us had high hopes for this marriage and it didn’t surprise us when six years and two children later, Rivky announced that she was going to get divorced. We all understood why she couldn’t stand being married to him. Max is a very unpleasant, unbearable guy. With two young children in the picture, though, it wasn’t so simple, and we suddenly had mixed feelings. But as usual, Rivky did what she wanted to do and got divorced. Rivky does not have a specific career and we all knew from the beginning that Max would try every trick in the book to give her as little child support and maintenance as possible. The divorce dragged on for a while, but now it is finally a done deal and Rivky has to face her new life.
We are a close, supportive family. None of us are rich, but we are a generous group and feel comfortable pitching in for one another. Rivky, however, is acting very strange (though consistent with her personality) in this regard. Maybe by allowing us to help, it makes her feel like she is admitting that she should have listened to us in the first place, or maybe she just has an abundance of misdirected pride, but she doesn’t allow us to help her, even in the smallest ways.
Honestly, I’m not sure how she manages to pay her bills or feed her children. At the beginning, I tried bringing over meals occasionally, which she rejected immediately. I also brought over clothing for her children, which she also rejected. If she has some secret way of taking care of herself and her children, that would be fine; I don’t have to know where her money is coming from, as long as I can sleep at night knowing that they are all well cared for.
But I sometimes see her children wearing clothing they have clearly outgrown, and they just don’t look happy to me. Her daughter, who is only five years old, seems mature beyond her years. She seems to see and know too much and has a lot of responsibility on her. I have a seven-year-old daughter, and when I see the two of them together, it’s like my daughter is the younger one, because, in comparison, my daughter is so carefree and happy. Rivky’s daughter, on the other hand, has such a sad, worried expression on her face all the time. Her son is only 2, so he’s too young for me to comment on.
I guess my sister is trying to prove some kind of point to us — that she’s got things under control and knows exactly what she’s doing. But I’m convinced it’s all a façade to make us believe that she hasn’t messed up her life and isn’t continuing to mess up her life. If it were only her life involved, maybe I could try and look away. After all, she’s an adult and will figure out her life, and will probably continue to be the stubborn person she’s always been, not taking advice from anyone. But with two innocent children involved, I just don’t know what to do.
How do I get my sister to accept help from me or from my parents or even from local organizations? I once mentioned to her that she should take advantage of Tomchei Shabbos. She nearly bit my head off for suggesting such a thing. But who knows what they eat on Shabbos! Though I invite them over every Shabbos for meals, as do the rest of my family members, she rarely takes us up on our invitations. I don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.
What do you suggest we do to get Rivky to understand that this is no time to hide behind her pride and that she should allow us in and let us help her and her children in any way possible?
Worried Sister and Aunt
It sounds like you pinpointed the problem. Rivky suffers from misdirected pride, which, taken too far, can be downright damaging to herself and her children. When I think of all those divorced or otherwise needy women out there who would be so thrilled to have a sister like you and a family like yours — ready, able, willing, and anxious to help — it feels so unfair and ironic! The fit between individuals within a specific family is at times mind-boggling.
Obviously, you can’t force yourself and your “services” on your sister if she’s not interested in accepting them. And since her children are quite young, the same applies to them. It sounds as though you’ve already tried various gestures of generosity that were rebuffed, and your suggestions about utilizing neighborhood services were equally rejected. So what is left for you to do?
First off, I would be vigilant in your observations regarding your niece and nephew’s appearances. It’s a fine line when trying to determine where neglect takes over carelessness. Obviously, none of us wants to see any children, let alone children we love and in whom we have a vested interest, walking around in clothing that should have been retired a year before. Is it a crime? No. But sometimes, coupled with other observations, it may suggest something more serious that might require intervention. You mention that your niece is serious and very mature. Again, in and of itself, it can be attributed to her nature. But putting all the pieces together, you may suspect that these innocent children are not being cared for properly.
If a line is crossed — and as an aunt, you’ll know if that’s the case — you may have the burden of determining whether you have to become really proactive, talking to neighbors or people at school, if, in fact, you believe there is reason to be seriously concerned. But assuming that nothing sinister is taking place, I nevertheless encourage you not to give up. Continue working on your relationship with your sister. Maybe you can approach her in a gentler way so that she doesn’t feel even the slightest bit judged. Maybe you can ask her to do you favors (that are realistic for her to do) in the hope that she might be more willing to allow you to do favors for her in return.
Would she be willing to accept the gift of psychotherapy? That would probably be the best starting point from which she could learn to reevaluate her life and her needs in a healthier way. If there was some way you could offer this to her, the rest would eventually follow.
Meanwhile, continue showing up. Don’t stop inviting her over. Maybe someday, you or someone else from your family will offer an invitation at just the right moment, when her defenses are down, and she’ll cave in. If she feels uncomfortable with gifts of new clothing, bring over your daughter’s hand-me-downs and ask her if she’ll do you the favor of taking the clothing off your hands, as you have nowhere to put them. Try to come up with more creative ways of helping her out that aren’t obvious or direct.
We all respect a dignified individual who doesn’t always have his or her hand out for help or freebies. But everything good can be taken too far and can turn into something harmful. Rivky may well be trying to prove to you and everyone in your family (and probably to herself as well) that she is independent and quite capable of taking care of herself and her family. But if your suspicions are correct, the price she and her children are paying for this possible illusion is high and hurtful. Someday, her choices may be unsustainable. If and when this happens, you want to make sure you’re there to catch her from falling. Therefore, don’t allow your frustration at her to derail your present good intentions. Stay plugged in and ready to act if and when the opportunity arises. Rivky may not know it (yet), but she is extremely lucky to have you on her team!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.