Are grown children obligated to care for their aging parents, even when that parent was abusive?
That’s the question one woman has posed to “Ask Amy” in the Washington Post. In her letter, the woman explained that her mother has an unhappy history:
My mother is a single, 60-year-old woman who does not want to be a responsible person. Her father was verbally abusive. She married my dad and both of them were abusive toward each other, and toward their children. They divorced 14 years ago.
Now, her mother is a smoker and an alcoholic who blames her problems on her ex-husband—the writer’s father—and her own parents. While the letter writer’s grandmother paid the bills before her death, now the writer’s mom expects her children to take care of her.
The letter writer states that her mother refuses to get therapy, saying she doesn’t need it. And while she does stop drinking at times, those dry periods are only temporary.
Currently, her mother is planning to spend her inheritance driving and camping around the country. But the mom told the letter writer that when she can’t do that anymore, she’s planning to come back and stay with her. Despite the fact that the mom remains verbally abusive to her children, she still expects their help.
That has left the letter writer torn. On the one hand, she sees the value of having an extended family:
I want my child to have grandparents around, because I did not have any growing up.
However, she hasn’t agreed to her mom’s plan because of her mom’s alcoholism and abusive behavior. She wrote:
Two of my siblings have blocked her from all contact. I block her while she is on her drinking binges because of all the verbal abuse, but I feel like someone should take care of her because that is what kids do for their parents when they age.
What the letter writer wants to know is whether she’s responsible for her mother, and if there is a point at which she should “call it quits for my own mental health, or to shield my child from her?”
In response, columnist Amy Dickinson asked the letter writer to “examine the other half” of a child’s obligation to care for his or her parents: “that of parents toward their children.” Dickinson put the letter writer’s situation in blunt terms:
Your mother did not protect or nurture you. She abused you, and now she wants to use you.
Dickinson pointed out that a more nurturing, non-abusive mother wouldn’t be in this position. In that case, the children would be “rallying around her” and the letter writer wouldn’t be agonizing over the question of caring for her.
While the letter writer can’t force her mother into therapy, she also doesn’t have to put up with her mother’s abuse and alcoholism. Dickinson wrote:
Your mother is choosing not to deal with her alcoholism. She has the right to live her life. She does not have the right to force you to support her choices.
Dickinson recommended that the letter writer seek out a support group for the friends and family of addicts, like Al-Anon. She also suggested the letter writer read more about codependency. Finally, she told the letter writer that the important thing she could do for her own child is to set a better parenting standard:
“You should be a different sort of parent to your child. Break the cycle.”