Dear Carolyn: I live overseas with my husband and two boys. My sister visits often due to work travel and generous vacation benefits. Sounds great — especially as I have no other family member who can visit as often, and I would like my kids to know my part of the family.
The problem is my sister. Her visits cause extreme exhaustion for both my husband and me. She doesn't help or take care of herself in any way while visiting. So in addition to juggling work and two kids, we find ourselves with another "kid" to cook for, clean up after and entertain.
I have tried being more direct — asking her to set the table or pick up her stuff — but it doesn't work. I am now not being as welcoming for when she offers to visit, and will try to limit the time she can come; I can take three days max before I go crazy. What else can I do?
— Sister Crazy
Sister Crazy: Have you tried being direct-direct vs. just "more direct"?
"Your visits are really important to me, and I love that my kids have a chance to know you, but between work and kids I don't have the energy to be a host in the traditional sense. What I'd really like is for you to pitch in as if you're a member of the household. Would you be willing to do that? Another option is a nearby hotel, but I'd rather make it work with you here."
As I was typing this, all I could think was that if you could say this to her without her getting defensive, then you probably would have long since done so — or, even better, she would have had the self- and other-awareness to recognize that you don't treat working parents of two kids as your chef, maid and concierge on your travels.
But, since you're already in the process of cutting your sister off by silent means, you might as well take a shot at keeping her close through communication means.
That effort also can include being more forceful in establishing your limits. "I'm cooking tonight, but I have a late meeting tomorrow. Would you please take charge of dinner?"
If she doesn't get huffy in response to clearer expectations but also doesn't get any more considerate of your time and effort — some people just can't, or won't or mysteriously don't see the connection between the domestic labors that occur in their presence and the decency in assuming their share of them — then you can of course keep pulling back on the visits.
You also, though, can just pull back on the time and effort you put into them. Don't "host" in the classic sense, don't entertain her, don't clean up after her (till she leaves, of course, and consider hiring that out). Just establish new terms for the visits and live by them yourselves, thereby leaving her to choose between acting more like a member of the family and pitching in more toward your household when she's there, or remaining in the guest role and enjoying fewer comforts therein.