Fred didn't want to hate his mother-in-law, Sharon. He'd tolerated her — and she, him — for three decades of holiday gatherings, Sunday night dinners and summer barbecues. But after suffering a small stroke a year ago, Sharon had become increasingly dependent on Tiffany, her oldest daughter and Fred's beloved spouse, for nearly everything: rides, errands, meals, companionship, reassurance. All those activities took time — time away from an increasingly irritated Fred.
Tiffany's cellphone rang repeatedly whenever she and Fred came home from work, ate dinner and watched TV. With each new call from Sharon, Tiffany rolled her eyes and Fred groaned in protest, not loudly, though, because he didn't want to make Tiffany angry at him for seeming insensitive. Instead, he just tried to look impatient to hurry her off the phone.
He didn't blame Sharon for having a stroke but was miffed at her anyway for disrupting his marital life. But there was a part of him that was also angry at Tiffany for letting her. He wanted to be a bigger person who was more understanding of his wife's need to help her mom. In his mind, though, a year was a long time to put up with this.
Caregiving tests even the best relationships
The rigors of caregiving can strain all family bonds. The in-law relationship tends to be the weakest link and therefore shows the most duress. The daughter may be devoted to her ailing and lonely mother while the son-in-law, with whom she's had a lukewarm relationship, is ambivalent about the sacrifices he's now being asked to make. Should he hang in there to please his wife? Or should he ask for more for the marriage and himself? And how does the wife feel about being whipsawed between her allegiances to her mother and her husband? Marriages have foundered on such questions.
How can the in-law relationship be strengthened so the adult child caregiver isn't stuck in the middle, irked at both her parent and her spouse? Here are some ideas.
Learn to balance spousal expectations
The main fight really isn't with the in-law. It's about the differences of perspective and opinion between the spouses. Of course, the adult child feels a greater sense of obligation to the parent than does her partner. But almost all of us have multiple family roles — child, spouse, sibling, parent — and degrees of obligation to each of them that must be balanced. I've heard caregiving adult children say, “My spouse is going to have to wait. This is my parent's time now.” That rarely works well, however, unless the period of caregiving is short — days or weeks, not months or years. You can't put your marriage on the shelf indefinitely without repercussions.