saying no to caregiving responsibilities because our parents were terrible people

I hear a lot of comments about how their other relatives refuse to help with caregiving, so it all falls on them.

Sometimes the reasons for this unfortunate family dynamic are not a mystery.

I’m going to bet that Gina and Jay did not help take care of their mother in her final days.

Some people are terrible parents, cruel siblings, abusive partners. Some people are neglected by everyone else in their lives because they spent their lives burning every bridge they encountered.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a man who’d closed his business and moved across the country to take care of his mom after she was in an accident. Well over a decade later, he was still there, taking care of her 24/7. He had a huge family and they all lived within a few miles of him and his mom, but he did everything.

He didn’t understand why his siblings let so much of the burden fall on him. Sure, they helped out here and there, but only when it seemed unavoidable. Even then, they were incredibly resistant.

Later in the conversation he mentioned how his father had beat him. He’d left home young to escape the abuse. His father hadn’t beaten his sisters, but he would come into their bedroom at night and rape them. They’d told their mother, but she stayed with their father until he died. No one ever intervened to protect them.

He may not understand why his siblings don’t want to help with his mom’s care. I understand.

What do we owe abusive parents? What of parents who abandoned their children? Who allowed them to be abused?

I was talking to a woman who’d been left in the care of relatives for most of her childhood. When they were no longer able to care for her, her mother reluctantly came and claimed her. Her mother was openly resentful of her responsibilities to her daughter. She hated her daughter and she made that very clear. She treated her like a servant when she wasn’t ignoring her.

When her mother fell ill, she moved back home, leaving her husband and children behind to fulfill her filial duties. After spending decades forging a new identity as a strong woman with a family who loved her, she was instantly turned back into a frightened, submissive child. Her mother treated her with the same tirades of abuse that had plagued her childhood.

There are a lot of terrible people in the world. Many of them are parents and siblings. If one of them is your family member, do you need to take care of them when they’re ill?

Are we obligated to take care of someone who is abusive towards us?

How far do our responsibilities to other people go? Are we morally obligated to take care of someone who didn’t take care of us? Whose care costs us more than we can afford to give? Is anyone morally obligated to allow themselves to be emotionally or physically abused by the person they take care of?

So many people say that caregiving isn’t a choice. It just happens. But when you ask more, it’s clear that people do choose to become a caregiver. 

Someone has an accident, gets a diagnosis, becomes too frail to care for themselves. No one else is around to help, so they do. That’s a choice.

Sometimes the right choice is to say ‘no.’

It’s funny how if you refuse to help, help comes out of the woodwork. Social services shows up and finds funding for professional care. Another relative volunteers to do it (and acts like they have no idea why you won’t do it). Let them go ahead and judge, they have no idea what the truth is.

Or you can choose to write a check, take care of the paperwork, do the sort of care that’s behind the scenes and protects you from direct contact with an abuser.

They were free to make their choices. You’re free to make yours. Maybe the world is better off without some people in it.

Remember, no is a choice. It’s a real choice. And sometimes it’s the right choice.

Written by Cori Carl
As Director, Cori is an active member of the community and regularly creates resources for people providing care.

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