Carolyn Hax: A ‘too-busy’ sister gets an unfair break

Carolyn Hax
Columnist June 23, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

How do you kindly tell a family member that she is no more “busy” than anyone else in 21st-century America?

My sister is always given a break by my mother. She gets out of all sorts of family obligations, gets tons of child-care help and sympathy, gets passes on forgetting birthdays and milestones and engaging in generally surly behavior a lot of the time because she’s just so “stressed.” My sister works 40 hours a week.

So do I. However, my mother often cannot help watch our kids because my sister “needs” her so badly. If I can’t make it to Aunt Gertie’s 80th-birthday blowout, it’s a guilt trip. But she gets a pass because she’s so “busy.” I am sick of it.


(Nick Galifianakis)

My sister’s latest thing is not returning phone calls because she’s just so scattered. It is beginning to cause major resentment for me. Her husband works long hours, too, but hey, so does mine. And we’d like to warrant the same compassionate, you’re-busy-here’s-some-help treatment without having to behave like complete messes to get it. Help?

But I’m So Busy!

Let it gooooooo . . . just drop your end of the rope. As legitimate as all of your complaints sound, they’re only as useful to you as they are productive.

And what have they gotten you? Has your sister ever said, “You know, I really monopolize the family’s attention — I’m so sorry”? Has your mom ever said, “You know, I realize you’re just as busy as your sister, but deep down I feel responsible for her inability to get it together, so I let her suck me into the drama, and that’s not fair to you”?

Hafta think not.

If so, it’s time for Step 2, to stop looking for returned calls, child-care help or validation from your family. Unfair? Sure is. But dwelling on that only amplifies the impact of the unfairness on your life.

If you mentally (emotionally?) write them off as being too low-EQ to recognize their messed-up dynamic, then you start looking elsewhere in your life for satisfaction and validation. Your spouse, your kids, your work, your circle of non-family loved ones, your causes close to your heart, your ability to live within your organizational means. They’re your rock.

They’re also, not coincidentally, the things over which you have some say. You have no say in how your sister and mother run their lives, so scratch them accordingly off your list of things you need to manage.

And when you can’t make it to Aunt Gertie’s birthday party, stop seeing it as a problem. Some people will always be disappointed that you can’t come, and some of those will always be too unhealthy just to say, “Aw, sorry to hear that” and instead will try to send you on a guilt trip. To all of them, from now on, you are this person: “Yep, I’m so sorry, I just can’t make it . . . so how are you doing these days?” And if that doesn’t stop the guilt-tripper, this will: “Aw, cheez, gotta go — bye, say hi to Auntie for me!” Click.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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