Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Aunt Feels Pulled Into A Family Problem

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I am a single aunt with no kids, but I have been party to conflict and tension between my brother and my mother. My mother helps my brother and his family quite often with babysitting, overnights, transportation, and caring for his kids when my brother and his wife are out of town.

My mother attends some of her five grandchildren’s events, but not all, as they are involved in many activities. She adores her grandchildren, but she is retired and has a full life of her own with activities she enjoys.

Recently my brother copied me on an e-mail he sent to my mother, stating he did not understand why she chose to attend the local college football game instead of her granddaughter’s dance recital. The email was lengthy and guilt inducing. I know it will hurt my mom’s feelings. I am protective of my mother and believe my brother is not as grateful as he should be, and that he is expecting too much of my mother.

Should I get involved and give my opinion, since he included me, or should I stay out of it?

I want to begin by highlighting a pet peeve of mine: the use of cc’ing in e-mails. Sometimes it is clear why someone has been cc’ed, other times it is a bit of mystery, as with the e-mail you received from your brother.

It would have been a simple matter for your brother to send you a separate copy of the e-mail he sent to your mother explaining why he wanted you to know about it: for example, “I would like your opinion on what I expressed . . . I want you to know what is going on between mom and me, but I am not asking you to get involved . . . I would like you to facilitate a discussion between the two of us without you taking sides.” You get the idea.

If your brother had clarified why you were cc’ed, you would be in a better position to know what expectations your brother has for you. You would then be clearer about how you might be willing or unwilling to participate in the situation between your brother and your mother. So, one immediate step you can take is to respond to your brother’s e-mail by saying: “I do not know why you cc’ed me on this e-mail, so please explain.”

Here is another option: By virtue of your brother cc’ing you on the e-mail, I think you can safely assume that he was “inviting” your opinion. A gentle approach is to empathize with him about how difficult it must be raising four kids and how overwhelming it must be at times; you might suggest that your mother’s availability as a resource must be such a lifesaver for his family.

Then you can say that he needs to remember that as loving and available as your mom is to his family, she has her own rich and varied life and that she won’t always be available to him and his family, as disappointing as that will be to him at times.

You may want to point out that you are not trying to side with either one of them, but to merely point out that anger and guilt really don’t have a place in a situation where someone (your mom) is volunteering her time to be a helper to him and his family – she acts from love and kindness and you wish that her loving generosity is received with gratitude, not criticism.

However, if you feel your brother is out of line, you may decide to respond with a stronger message in which you make it clear that if you were in your mother’s shoes, you would feel under-appreciated, perhaps even taken for granted, by your brother. If you chose to deliver this kind of a message, you run the risk of alienating your brother. Based on your history with your brother and other family incidents and events, only you can determine if you want to take relationship risks with him by being so candid and blunt.

If your brother expresses disappointment, perhaps even anger, with this kind of response from you, you always can remind him that he cc’ed you and you interpreted that to mean that he wanted you to describe the situation as you saw it. If he expected you to side with him, it may take some time for him to get over whatever negative feelings he might be feeling towards you; sadly, he may be miffed indefinitely. The best-case outcome is that he surprises you and thanks you for helping him appreciate how singularly focused he was being in not factoring in his mother’s generosity with her time in helping him with his children.

Your situation is a good reminder that expectations must be clear when it comes to any involvement in others’ relationship difficulties.

Update: Two Weeks Later
Thanks so much for your wise words. I e-mailed my brother separately and asked if he meant to copy me, and if he did was it because he wanted to talk about the situation? I said if so, we could chat, but that regardless I did not want to get in the middle. I said I really hoped he could work things out with my mom.

He responded saying he did not want me in the middle, but just included me so I would have context in case my mom spoke to me about it. My mom did come into town the day before I left on a trip and we talked. I did not bring up the situation between her and my brother, but eventually she did. She did not seem troubled and mentioned that she got “chewed out” by my brother for not attending my niece’s recital. She said he apologized to her the next day for what he said in his e-mail.

I took the opportunity to really validate her in the way you suggested by pointing out how loving and helpful she is as a grandmother and a mother, and how they are all so blessed to have her. I suggested my brother’s comments were about his own stress and not reflective of her and all she has done for them. I do intend to have a conversation with my brother, sharing some of the thoughts you suggested.

Dr. Gramma Karen’s Response

Sounds like things are moving in the right direction! I want to suggest that the reasons for this positive movement include:

  • You pressed your brother on why he cc’ed you
  • You didn’t jump into a fix-it mode
  • You made it clear you did not want to be in the middle of it
  • Your brother apologized
  • Your mother accepted his apology
  • You were able to articulate to your mom how important she is to helping your brother
  • You suggested that this situation was basically more about your brother’s stress than about his feeling your mom should have been attending his daughter’s activity

Good lessons here for all of us!

Note: Readers are invited to listen to Dr. Gramma Karen’s 10/16/2015 interview with VoiceAmerica.com, “Turn the Page” host, Hemda Mizrahi. Dr. Rancourt’s topic is: At Home or At Work: It’s All About Relationships.

(VoiceAmerica™ Internet Talk Radio. The World Leader in Internet Talk Radio.)

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

E-mail queries to [email protected]

Visit www.AskDrGrammaKaren.com to learn about Dr. Gramma Karen’s new book,
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen, Volume II: Savvy Advice to Soothe Parent-Grandparent Conflicts

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