Dear Wayne and Wanda,
My brother and I were basically raised by my mom. My dad was around but didn’t really show up until years later. Now, it’s all good, and we’re all close, but it’s like my brother has forgotten the fact that dad was so out of the picture in our childhood.
I’ve wondered if that’s because he’s the son, I’m the daughter, and he’s going to just more naturally align with my dad, but whatever the reason, it’s become an issue for me the past few years. After we went away to college, my brother left Alaska, and my mom didn’t visit him once the whole five years he was gone. My mom at that time did not have a lot of money and was only working part-time. But my brother now routinely brings up what a “bad mom” she was for never visiting him. This was the same span when he met his wife. They’re now back in Alaska. And she sings the same song he does, repeating how “bad” Mom was for not being part of their life while they were gone.
I’m flabbergasted by this. Because after he finishes saying for the hundredth time how absent Mom was, he’ll praise dad for being so great. Has he lost his mind? Has he forgotten our entire childhood? It’s like he has selective memory and only remembers things from the past decade. It doesn’t help that his wife is a drama queen who seems to hate my mom and talks smack about her whenever she can. She also really bullies my mom on social media. She makes fun her in this teasing way where you might think she’s being playful but really she’s just being a bully. Like making fun of my mom’s cats, and teasing her over the books and movies she’s into. Ugh.
I’m sure you can tell I’m frustrated. I just don’t know how to handle this because it’s definitely impacting my relationship with my brother, and his wife, and it’s making my mom sad because she can tell there is something off. Any advice?
Family dynamics are so fun, aren’t they? The most important relationship here is the one you own and half-influence, and that’s not the relationship between your mom and bro, that’s not your brother’s marriage, it’s the relationship you yourself share with your brother.
So sit down and have a chat with your brother. This doesn’t have to be confrontational. It could be enlightening, even informative. Focus on how you feel and be honest about it. For example, I’m picking up on some lingering resentment about your dad’s absenteeism in the early years. How does it feel that your brother is now so forgiving? Share that. Likewise, you’re protective of your mother given her sacrifice in the early years, but how does your brother feel about her having never visited him in the Lower 48? Clearly it’s upset him if he still brings it up. Why does it bother you? Explain it to him.
Definitely don’t give up and don’t throw in the towel. Don’t let frustration override a lifetime of family fun and memories. These conversations can be hard because they feel uncomfortable and even invasive but being frank about your feelings can shortcut a world of hurt later.
But the stuff between your brother and mom — that’s for them to work out. You can share your thoughts and opinions if you think it will help, but resist the urge to play intermediary or even give the impression of taking sides, because someone will get alienated in that scenario. Start small, have a heart-to-heart with your bro, and see where that takes you.
I’m right there with Wanda on reopening a line of clear and thoughtful communication with your brother. If he meets you with honesty and openness, this can go a long way to getting the family pointed back on a positive path. But I also feel that feelings are too raw right now and that this massive familial freight train is already teetering off the tracks … and I see a catastrophic wreck coming. So I’m going to also strongly encourage you go a step further: talk to a counselor.
You’re ears-deep in a lifelong mess of love and resentment, frustration, betrayal, bitterness and shifting allegiances. And as much as your heart is in the right place, you’re too emotionally invested in this situation — sad for mom, mad at dad, confused with bro, annoyed by sis-in-law — to be a neutral party or family fixer. A therapist can pull you out of the muck to see the situation more clearly, and understand where everyone, including yourself, is coming from and what you all are dealing with individually and as a group. The good ones will be an independent ear and voice who won’t take sides. That’s something you certainly won’t get from a family member.
They will also provide you with tools that you can use to navigate tough conversations and interactions with every family member. And maybe one day you can encourage your brother and mother to see their own therapists, or even see a family therapist with you. But right now, it’s important for you to focus on getting to a solid, clearheaded place before you can expect others to listen to you, agree with you, or follow your lead.