Caring for an
In-law or a Stepparent
Being the caregiver of an in-law can be very different from taking
care of your own parent. It brings out unique emotions and requires
good communication skills. The same can be true when taking care of
a stepparent, especially if he or she is someone who joined the
family after you reached adulthood or if there has always been
friction between you.
Every newlywed soon learns that you donít marry an individual; you
ďmarryĒ a familyóa family that may be very different from your own
family of origin. But even newlyweds may not realize that a promise
to stick by each other ďin sickness and in healthĒ can include a
family memberís sickness, too.
Being an in-lawís caregiver is a task thatís both easier and harder
than being your own parentís caregiver. Itís easier because you
probably donít know your mother-in-law or father-in-law as well as
you know your parent, and the roles of caregiver and care-receiver
may feel less awkward. You have no memories of being cared for by
this person. And your in-law probably isnít able to push your
buttons the way your own family members can. With an in-law, itís
sometimes easier to feel one step removed. This doesnít mean you
arenít concerned or you donít provide compassionate, loving care,
but no matter how close you are to your in-law, itís just not the
same as your relationship with your own mother or father.
On the other hand, it can be harder because you may feel youíve been
forced into this role. Itís not uncommon for a son to want to take
care of a parent but the daughter-in-law who provides the care. You
may have little interest in taking care of an elderly person ó
especially someone who is pretty much a stranger. The relationship
youíve had with your in-law changes; you become the caregiver, and
your in-law is the care-receiver. In that situation, you canít help
but invade your in-lawís privacy. Now you see your mother-in-law
disrobed and need to help her with a bath. Now you know your
father-in-lawís financial situation. It can lead you to feel
resentful. Why are you putting so much of your time and energy, so
much of yourself, into helping your spouseís parent?
These are some suggestions for how to cope with your new role:
From the very beginning, involve your spouse as much as possible.
What youíre doing is a wonderful gift to your spouse, but itís also
something that can be extremely hard on your relationship. Your
spouse may have unrealistic expectations about what you can do. You
can become the focus of your spouseís anxiety as your in-lawís
health continues to deteriorate.
Get your spouseís siblings involved. Plan ahead and talk
early and often with the family. If they live out of town, maybe
they could help with finances (if thatís needed) or with keeping
extended family members up to date on whatís happening. They can
offer you some respite time.
Set limits when necessary. With emotions running high, your
spouse or a sibling may say, very emphatically, ďI canít do
that.Ē Your silent response, with equal passion, may be: ďAnd what
makes you think I can?Ē Be honest. You can do some things, but you
canít do that. Donít hesitate to bring in as much outside help as
you need, even if the family frowns on that because it just ďisnít
the way we do things.Ē Their way of doing things may be stepping
back and letting the burden of being primary caregiver fall on your
shoulders. No one can carry that load alone.
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