The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carolyn Hax: Brother pushes sibling to ‘return’ foster daughter to agency

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
4 min

Dear Carolyn: I am a foster parent who may soon become an adoptive parent. I’m happily single, in my 40s, and my parents recently moved within a half-hour of me. My parents are supportive of my decision to foster and potentially adopt, but my brother has been vocal in his nonsupport. He has written me emails expressing “concern” that my foster daughter will infect my parents with covid because of her young age (3) and the fact that she is not yet vaccinated. At one point, he wrote me an email suggesting that I return her to the agency because of her behaviors, stating that I was putting someone else’s child first and our own parents last.

I ignored these emails, as they did not warrant a response. I sought out therapy as a result of his berating me, which has occurred throughout my entire life. I am in a healthier place and my foster daughter’s behaviors have simmered down after an adjustment period.

Fortunately for me, my brother and his family live nine hours away. However, my parents seem eager for them to see their new home and spend holidays together. I have never complained about my parents’ closeness to my brother. After all, he is their son. Even so, I do not feel comfortable making believe everything is fine between my brother and me.

I realize I may not have many more holidays with my parents because of their age. How can I make them happy without putting myself in a potentially miserable situation? My parents seem to take his side since they moved to my geographic area and not my brother’s. My mother constantly makes comments about how she wishes the two of us were closer.

— M.

M.: “I do too, Mom. I hear you and I know you are in pain. But when he talks about the child I’m caring for, a traumatized child, as if she were a shelter dog, that’s not going to happen.”*

Some positions are so egregious that choosing not to name them as such makes us complicit.

Then, gently, calmly: “I have heard you. This is between me and [brother]. I am not going to discuss it with you anymore.” Then don’t.

The moral outrage of your brother’s stance notwithstanding, this is one of those letters where the points of disagreement don’t matter so much as the fact of each disagreement itself. Your mother is butting into your relationship with your brother. Your brother is butting into your household, family planning, relationship with your parents, and bond with a child. Both buttings-in were problematic the first time they tried them. Through repetition, they became untenable.

The only answer to each one is to apply what you already seem to have come to in therapy with respect to your brother’s emails. You’ve ignored them as not warranting a response, which is Boundaries 101. This new situation with your parents and their hopes for sibling harmony and holiday visits from long-distance brothers is no different from the intrusive emails: You stick to your business, let them worry about theirs — and when they try to cross over into yours, you do not engage. In the relationship at all, if that’s the only choice they leave you.

Give yourself the gift of this clarity, that each of their tramplings into your business, whatever form it takes, is just another email that doesn't warrant a response.

It’s hard when the topics are so emotional. This is a child! These are holidays with your parents, who likely don’t have many holidays left! But those details only intensify the feelings; they don’t change the bones.

Here’s the one area where the fact of a child’s involvement does make a difference: You are this girl’s emotional foundation now. It is therefore your job now to protect her as much as you can from harmful people, especially one who has already made it clear he will diminish her for his own advantage.

No holiday has standing against that. Having Thanksgiving only on the third Thursday in November only with one’s family of origin only because that’s how your mother wants it is not a god worth anyone’s devotion. As long as your brother is at your parents’ home, you and this child are not. There are other, better ways to honor your mother’s love — like being a good parent yourself.

*Before anyone hits “send” on outraged comments: I don’t believe in treating shelter dogs like shelter dogs, either.