Are we going to have to support my flaky mother-in-law?

My husband's mother is heavily in debt, has no money, and frankly I'm worried.

Published June 29, 2005 6:18PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My husband and I are approaching a bad situation, and we're not sure if there's any way to get out of it.

We've been married for six years, and have worked very hard to get where we are. My husband has just graduated from law school and landed a job with a top firm. I'm on the career path I want. While we do have my husband's minimal student loans to pay off, we're financially secure, and finally at the point where we can start seriously saving for retirement, a house, our son's college education. Until a year ago, we were incredibly happy that all of our plans were seemingly working out and that our years of budgeting and living frugally were paying off.

The problem is my mother-in-law.

She is not financially stable and never has been. She is massively in debt, not just with maxed-out credit cards but with piles of student loans, and has always lived paycheck to paycheck. Without warning, last year she decided she didn't like her job and quit. Just quit, without having another one lined up! She planned to work for her sister just for the summer while she looked for another job.

I don't have to tell you that we were appalled. We're 20 years younger and would never, ever take a chance like that. People our age (late 20s) are struggling to find jobs; we don't know why she assumed she could just find another one instantly. Especially since, quite frankly, she's a strange woman. (She calls herself "eccentric.") She does not interview well. She refuses to dress for an interview, wearing shabby dresses and sandals. In the past year she has had a total of five interviews. No one, of course, has hired her. We don't think she'll ever find another job.

Right now she's working part-time for us as a nanny for our 6-month-old son. She volunteered after learning we were interviewing people for the job. This arrangement (only 15 hours a week) will end in July. We assume she will go back to working for her sister, but we're afraid to ask. Keeping her as a full-time nanny is out of the question; we can't afford it.

My husband and I are sick with worry because she simply does not make enough to cover her incredible expenses. One of my husband's sisters has told us that creditors are constantly calling her apartment, and that her kitchen is empty ... she doesn't have the money to buy food. We're worried for her, but we're ashamed that we're mostly worried about us. We're terrified that she will ask to live with us, or for financial support that we can't give. She will not listen to our tactful advice on wearing the right interview clothes. She will not check out any of the job Web sites we tell her about. She will not consider taking a job that isn't in her "dream field," even temporarily. I personally am so angry that she's put herself into this situation. And I'm even angrier because despite the fact that there are two other children, the burden seems to be on us, and not on my husband's sisters.

We feel that our hard-earned future is going to be, if not ruined, then seriously compromised by her complete lack of responsibility. My husband is beside himself over what to do if she does ask us for help. Neither one of us would be happy with her living with us -- it would be horrible -- but could we really say no? I can only say so much -- it's not my mother.

Is there a solution? Is there anything else we can do to push her to support herself?

Getting Bitter in NYC

Dear Getting Bitter,

I think you should first try to find out if your mother-in-law is undergoing any kind of psychological breakdown. Is she losing touch with reality and the ability to take care of herself? Or is she just taking some risks in order to accomplish some greater, unspecified goal? One person's gross irresponsibility is another person's eccentricity. There are degrees in such matters. Clinical social workers and others in the helping professions are trained to assess these things. Such an assessment would be helpful.

At the same time, I would also do a little personal soul-searching. Ask yourself if concern about the future is the only thing you feel, or if you also feel that in some way her cavalier behavior is a subtle rebuke to your way of living. What other emotions might you be feeling -- anger at your husband for his inability to control his mother? I know that sounds crazy, but consider everything. Do you fear that some of her "eccentricity" may have rubbed off on him? Not all our emotions are grown-up and practical, but they affect the relative importance we assign to matters, the intensity with which we feel certain issues must be solved.

Why, may I ask, have you assumed that the burden of caring for your husband's mother rests with you, and not with either of his two sisters? That question is worth pursuing, and it's worth discussing with them in some detail. You impress me as a practical, realistic person; I suggest you and your husband have a family meeting with his two sisters to ascertain what assistance they are prepared to offer, and to make clear the limits of your own commitment. You should ask the question in clear terms: What does happen if she becomes unable to support herself?

I also suggest that in thinking about your mother-in-law's behavior you try to broaden your view, and construct a narrative that identifies long-term trends and themes in your husband's family. It is sometimes easier to deal with people if we try to understand how they got that way. There are usually social and psychological processes that have led them to be the way they are. If you look at her over the course of her life, you may find a story that is not just about failure and chaos but about aspiration and change.

She has lived a full life already. She has raised two daughters and a son. So has she always been irresponsible with money and her professional life? Was she a rebel in high school? Does she have a history of drug and alcohol abuse? What were her parents like -- your husband's grandparents? Did they exhibit signs of not being able to handle money? What were her aspirations upon graduating from high school? Did she attend college? Is your husband's family filled with rebels and misfits, or is she the black sheep? Is your husband the first of his family to become a professional? How does she feel about her son's becoming a lawyer? Is she proud of him? Or did she perhaps want him to be an artist? What is her intelligence level? Is she bright? Normal? Dumb as a fencepost? Is she a creative type? Does she have fits of anger? Is she on any medications? What is her history of handling money? What is her marital history? Is she divorced? Widowed? Was she vocationally prepared to live on her own, or has it been a great struggle for her? (I am assuming, because you do not mention a husband, that she is single.)

See what I'm suggesting here? Before you can come up with solutions, first try to just figure out what happened. Know the whole story. When did her slide into irredeemable irresponsibility begin? Did it happen when the kids all left home? What was life like before that? Did she raise all three on her own? She refuses to work in any job that is not her dream field. Why is that?

In telling this story, try to put yourself in her shoes. Say you had a plan for your life, as you obviously have, but your attempts to implement that plan were stymied. Say your plan required you to attend certain schools but for some reason you were not admitted to any of them. Say your plan was the same plan many other people had, but they were admitted instead of you. Say you then turn to Plan B, which you had mapped out. What if Plan B didn't work? What if you went through all your plans alphabetically and got to Plan Z and that didn't work? Would you not then feel some slight tremor of desperation, some feeling that your lifelong plan for yourself might not work out as planned? And might not that feeling of panic drive you to perhaps take a desperate measure or two? Might you possibly make an impractical decision under the stress of all that? Is that not possible?

Say that, for instance, you had done the lifelong work of raising three kids, always praying that when they were grown you would be free to turn to your true calling, perhaps an artistic calling. You see where I'm going with this? Try to imagine what she might be feeling.

I'll say one more thing and then try to move on. We all live with psychic pain. It is called different things -- anxiety, depression, anger, regret, worry, sleeplessness, irritability, impatience, hypersensitivity, perfectionism, addiction, being hypercritical, instability, emotional coldness, neediness, childishness. This pain often causes us to do things that other people don't understand or approve of.

I, for instance, feel pain -- a palpable sense of anticipated regret, a feeling of despair, of failure -- when I consider reaching the end of my life without having achieved certain things. But the things I want to achieve are difficult. They involve the cooperation of many other people over whose choices I have little or no control. It is by no means certain that I will achieve these things. The older I get, the more urgent it seems that I do these things. Yet it becomes no more certain that I will succeed. The thought of failure elicits feelings of panic and alarm. Over the course of my life, I have sometimes taken abrupt actions and made snap decisions because I was not able to ride out these sensations with equanimity. In a sense, you might say I couldn't take it. I wrecked some things that were promising -- walking out before they had reached fruition. In other cases, I dedicated too much time to things that were doomed and never did pan out. Am I a complete loser? No. I have done the best I could. I'm still doing the best I can. But life is not always an orderly progression.

Have family and friends always understood and approved of everything I did? No, of course not. Had I been raised by research scientists in a giant terrarium in a laboratory in Princeton, N.J., with wires connected to my brain, my genitals, my liver and my ass, recording every deprivation and joy, then it might all make sense! But we do not live in giant terrariums. We live behind walls. We are opaque. What we experience is inscrutable. There will always be people who disapprove or shake their heads in dismay or confusion. What can you do? How can others possibly know what we are going through?

So without taking your mother-in-law's side, I confess to a natural affinity for the screw-ups of the world. Some of them are up to something they just can't explain. I can tell you with confidence, on her behalf, that unless she is undergoing some sort of breakdown, what she is doing probably makes sense to her. That's why I suggest you endeavor to first have her evaluated, and then learn all you can about her. Construct a narrative that places her in the context of her life and her family. In that way you can understand what she is likely to do next. That may allay your fears about having to support her in the future. Or it may turn out that your fears are well-grounded. You can then prepare for that eventuality, like it or not.

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