By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

My husband and I both turned 70 this past year, and we’re taking this age very seriously. We’ve made a serious commitment to change some of our ways and we’ve begun to approach life differently as we have arrived at this new (and probably final) chapter of our lives.

We decided it’s time to stop pandering to everyone while putting ourselves last. We feel we’ve earned the right to live a more authentic life, spending more time doing what really matters to us and less time doing stuff that we always viewed as “musts.” We’re no longer going to run to every dinner honoring people we barely know. We won’t necessarily go to every simcha of people we barely know. We are no longer going to put everyone and everything ahead of our own needs.

For instance, in the past, we’ve never allowed ourselves to spend more than a long weekend at our apartment in Florida because we always felt that we needed to be closer to home in case our children needed us to babysit or help out in some other way. We actually just got back from two weeks in Florida and it felt great to just relax and enjoy and not feel any guilt over finally putting ourselves first and taking care of ourselves.

What’s so nice is that my husband and I are on the same page, and so far, so good — it’s working out great. But we are stuck on one particular issue and are curious to hear your thoughts on the subject.

We have four children and 11 grandchildren. Regarding our children, we have very good relationships with three of them. We talk often, see one another, and know that if we need a favor of some sort, we can count on them to help us out. However, one of our children has chosen a different path. She’s much more connected to her husband’s family, seeming to prefer them over us, and many weeks can go by without hearing from her. Honestly, we don’t know a lot about what’s going on in her life. We’ve stopped asking her for favors long ago because we know that there will always be an excuse. Whether she’s busy at work or with personal issues, I can’t remember the last time she extended herself for us in any way. Mind you, on the rare occasions that she needs something from us, we show up quickly and without any questions asked.

As my husband and I are preparing our will, we are disagreeing on how the inheritance we leave should be divvied up. I feel that this daughter should not be gifted the same amount as her siblings. She really doesn’t deserve it! As I’m trying to live an honest life right now and make decisions that are logical rather than expected, I don’t know why our other children shouldn’t get a much bigger piece of the pie (till 120.) If I’m being totally honest, I don’t feel as though she loves us all that much or even cares that much about us. Why should we reward such behavior? My husband feels that we have to divide up the inheritance equally. I’m having a hard time agreeing. So that’s one issue I’m curious to get your take on.

Secondly, out of our 11 grandchildren, who range in age from older teenagers to young adults, seven of them are wonderful to us. We tried very hard to have close relationships with all of our grandchildren, calling each and every one of them very often. We always took them places and were very generous with gifts, and we tried to get to know them on a meaningful level and to be closely connected. Somehow, four of them never took the bait. When we are lucky enough to even get through to them and ask them questions, we get one-word answers and rarely a reciprocal question.

Last year, my husband was in the hospital for a minor procedure. The seven grandchildren to whom we feel so close all visited, called afterwards, and showed tremendous caring. I’m embarrassed to admit that those other four did not even pick up the phone once to find out how he was. It was shocking! (By the way, only one of those four distant grandchildren belongs to our difficult daughter!)

My feeling right now, as I’m living this new, liberated life, is that those four grandchildren don’t deserve the generosity we’ve extended to them thus far. For instance, on Chanukah, we generally give all 11 grandchildren identical, very generous gifts. Seven of them express their gratitude, and the other four can barely eke out a thank-you. I’m tired of this: always giving and feeling so unappreciated. Going forward, I want to know if it’s OK to no longer give everyone the same gifts, but rather continue our generosity toward the grandchildren who seem to care about us and for the other four we’d give maybe just a token something. After all, why should their terrible behavior be rewarded in such a big way? Shouldn’t everyone learn that there are consequences in life and that you get what you give?

My husband is a little nervous about making these changes, though ultimately he will defer to me. He thinks I’m getting a little carried away in my new approach to life. I just think I’m finally being “real” and honest. But I am curious to know whether you think maybe I’m going overboard. I’m just so tired of feeling taken advantage of in so many ways.

Tired

Dear Tired,

I feel that some congratulations are in order as you and your husband have liberated yourselves in such a mindful way. Some people never take the time to take stock, evaluate the patterns of their lives, and determine whether or not meaningful changes would be helpful. People get stuck in patterns, and sometimes those patterns aren’t necessarily providing them with their best options for a fuller life. So kudos to you both for being on the same page and making changes that you seem to have earned and are ready to implement.

Making an executive decision regarding whether or not you need to attend a shul dinner, however, is very different than the decisions we make that involve family. The former decision can be based purely on logic and you don’t need to allow emotions to deter you in any way. The risk of collateral damage is unlikely. Not so when it comes to family. The wheel goes round and round.

Let’s take the issue of your will. Till 120, when it is read in front of your four children, should you leave to three of them significantly more than you leave to your fourth (your aloof daughter), you are setting the stage for tremendous in-fighting between these children. You and your husband won’t be around to suffer the consequences, but make no mistake that your children  —  and possibly their children and even generations to come — will feel the effects of such an action. So the question you and your husband have to ask yourselves is whether you are willing to take such a risk that can have long-term negative consequences. Is it really worth making such a statement?

Regarding your grandchildren, the answer is not quite as black-and-white. They are no longer children and, frankly, they should all know better. Perhaps they behave so badly because they are not particularly warm individuals, or they are dealing with their own issues that you know nothing about, or maybe they are simply uncaring, unkind individuals. Whatever the case, I think it would be helpful for you to explore issues of “quid pro quo” within yourself. In real life, it rarely exists, though we’d all like to think that if we do the right thing, we will be reciprocated in like fashion. Therefore, it’s important to explore what motivates your behavior. Do you do certain things because you expect a certain amount of payback (which is not a crazy thing in some cases), or do you do them because it feels right for you and you want to continue behaving in a certain way that is consistent with your personality?

You might ask yourself whether these generous Chanukah presents, for instance, are meant to bring your grandchildren close to you. If it’s clearly not working with some of them, is it time to chuck the idea? Or do you feel the need to be equally generous to one and all, just because — for no reason other than that they are your grandchildren. There is no right or wrong answer here.

You do mention that you’re left with a feeling of being “taken advantage of.” But no one is forcing you to be so generous, so no one is taking advantage of you. It’s really about whether you experience warm, fuzzy feelings from the act of giving, or whether they are contingent upon the outcome. Again, no right or wrong answers here.

I do want to touch on your issue of not wanting to reward bad behavior. We all use different approaches to get our points across. You and your husband have every reason to be disappointed and upset over the lack of obvious caring from four of your grandchildren after his surgery and in general. You might want to talk to them about your feelings and see if you get anywhere. Then again, you might want to back off on your total generosity and see if this helps them get the message. Either way, you may not get the results you’re looking for. If that’s the case, it’s up to you to do a bit of soul-searching and be clear exactly what these gifts represent and whether or not some tweaking is in order.

Esther

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 mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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