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Carolyn Hax: Brother-in-law plays a part in babysitting brouhaha


Dear Carolyn: I think I overstepped the in-law boundary. My loving wife has a younger brother who lives near us. Brother is in his mid-30s, but still lives at home with (off) their mom. I tried to encourage him to move on and out of mother-in-law’s house, to no avail. The three of them — my father-in-law is deceased — are always arguing about his lifestyle, the women he dates (much younger), and how he doesn’t clean up.

So, here’s the issue: My mother-in-law spends lots of time in warmer climates. Brother waits until mom is away, goes wild, and it upsets my wife. Well, Mom was away, and my wife asked her brother to babysit for us (two kids under 5). He said he was busy (“new girlfriend”) but I called him to encourage him to babysit for us.

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

He did, but after the kids fell asleep, he called someone else over to babysit — a 19-year-old cousin we don’t trust. We came home to a different face in our home.

My wife was upset, so I had a few not-so-kind words with Brother. He hung up on me.

Well, it has been over a month with no contact. Mother-in-law is back, and she and my wife are upset that he won’t attend any family functions because I told him not to come over to our house unless he apologizes and starts getting it right.

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

I guess I should have let their family drama play out as a spectator, but now that I am in it, how do I gracefully get out of it and return them to their previous dysfunctional selves? — Mouthy Husband

I see overstepped boundaries, but kicking out your brother-in-law till he “starts getting it right” wasn’t one of them; you had standing and justification to do that.

It was not your place prior to that, however, to “encourage” him to support himself or even “encourage” him to babysit after his initial refusal. I also question your wife’s asking a man to babysit with whom she’s in a pitched battle over his immaturity.

You two can’t get up in his business and then ask for favors. You just can’t. Each action undermines the other, because he’s either irresponsible in your eyes or not; he can’t toggle between the two based solely on what you need from him at the moment. Not if you value your integrity.

Likewise, your mother-in-law can’t absolve him of adult responsibility while also chastising him for his irresponsibility.

And, neither she nor your wife has any right to browbeat the son/brother for his choices and then get upset at the one person who actually holds him accountable.

I realize the latter two issues are not yours to resolve, but I include them to illustrate that inconsistency reigns throughout.

Your path out of this dysfunction is for you to get consistent, starting now: Buy Brother lunch, and spell out that you’ve been wrong to pressure him, be it to move out or babysit your kids or change whatever aspect of his life you all have opined on uninvited. It’s his life.

Then explain that, with the babysitting bail, it wasn’t his life anymore, it was your children. Say you’d like to hear that he gets that. Then listen.

Obviously, this assumes Brother will agree not only to meet you, but also examine even one of his dubious choices — a lot of assuming. You can only try though, in earnest, and if trying fails, then you can only wait.

* * *

Dear Carolyn: My husband and I live in an expensive East Coast city, my home town. I have a lot of friends and family here, and we both have graduate degrees and good jobs.

He just got a job offer in his Midwestern home town, where a lot of his friends and family are, for more money. This is pretty much his dream job. But it means I have to give up my job and friends for him to have his. Also, we have a baby and can’t afford a house in a good school district here — both would be fairly easy, even if I didn’t work, in his home town. So it would probably be better for him and the baby if we move.

I’m just worried that I won’t be able to find a job or friends, and I’ll miss my family and friends here. It really comes down to me. How do I figure it out? — Nothing Clever

It sounds as if it’s two well-beings against one — meaning there’s no way you can oppose relocating without being selfish. Everyone who uproots from a beloved place misses friends, and harbors fear that new roots won’t grow.

Tell him you’ll go and give it your best — meaning, actually try vs. toughing it out — in return for his willingness to move back to your home town in X years if you’re miserable. Deal? And while you’re there: Save, save, save.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at

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