Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: My sister-in-law, “Mary,” has always been a mess. She has two kids with two men who never see them and don’t pay child support, and she doesn’t work. Mary and her children lived with my mother-in-law, “Kate,” until Kate moved into a 55-plus community and told Mary she was on her own. Mary has been living with her boyfriend since then.
A few weeks ago — not for the first time — Mary unexpectedly dumped the kids (5 and 3) on my husband, “Dan,” and me, saying she was going on a trip. This week she texted us that she’s staying where she is and we should send the kids to live with her mom. Kate, of course, can’t take them.
Now Dan is talking about assuming permanent custody. They are sweet but energetic, and love it here since they have a yard and stability. Mary will jump at the chance to get rid of them.
I know these little ones need us, but this is not how I saw us building our family, and will delay our having our own children.
While I am trying to do the right thing, I am crying inside. If I turn these children away, I’ll feel like a monster, but if I take them in, I’ll feel like a martyr. What to do?
Carolyn says: I feel for you, and know exactly how hard it is when something you’ve counted on, even lived for, won’t happen. It’s a kind of grief.
But I disagree that your only choices are monster or martyr. “Mom” is available.
And I’ve come to see “how I saw us [blank],” whether it’s “building our family” or “starting our careers” — or any future we envision — as a false promise at best. We can want and dream and plan, but life always gets its say. Always.
And so I see the path to happiness not as the milestones we strive for but as a mind open to the opportunities, even beauty, in what we receive.
This “will delay … our own children” — yes — but these can soon become your own children, too, thereby accelerating vs. delaying your promotion to parent. These kids need you and are attached to you, and their chance to grow up in a loving and safe environment isn’t just a gift for them. It’s a gift for you.
It will get you outside of yourself, it will give you sharply illuminated purpose, it will produce two planets to your sun — at least until they are independent, which is also a gift to you in the form of a sense of accomplishment.
Is it Plan A? No. Will it be easy? No. These kids have been raised indifferently, and you can expect some emotional fallout. But everything worth doing takes a piece out of us — that’s what makes it so, the investment of an essential part of you.
Absolutely do go cry it out with friends or a therapist — but when you’re ready, please open yourself to the possibility that life just gave you more than it took away.
Please get legal advice. Protect yourselves and them in case Mary decides she wants to take them back even for a limited time.
Carolyn says: Of course, thanks.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.