Being Middle Aged, Single And Childless Does Not Make Me Some Kind Of Social Failure

Rhona McAuliffe might not be a trained therapist but she does have very big ears, quite a long nose and a gaping heart. If you have a problem that won’t just go away, she’d love to hear it.

Dear Rhona,

About eight years ago I decided to end the long-term relationship I was in. He was a great guy, loyal, supportive, sincere but I’d started to think of him as boring and couldn’t get it out of my head. Things kind of spiralled downhill from there. I haven’t met anyone since and have come to the conclusion that I’m better off alone rather than with the boring guy. (I also spent my entire 37th year regretting dumping the boring guy). Anyway, my problem is not that I am single but that because I am single, my two sisters and brother expect me to take care of my widowed mother and pitch in when they need help with their thirteen kids (they have roughly four each). They expect me to do things at the drop of a hat, barely ever ask and don’t respect my time or plans. From various comments they’ve made, they think of me as some kind of social failure, lucky because I only have to think about myself but lacking in all other ways because I’ll never know the reality of rearing a family. They’re also often mean to my mum and take advantage of her as a local babysitter (she’s 73). My brother just goes with the flow but my sisters are pretty toxic and all about appearances. On top of this, I live in Dublin and they all live in Kildare, within about 2 miles of each other. I’m fed up with it now – as is my Mum – and don’t know what to do. I can’t cut ties but don’t want to be their skivvy anymore. Oh, and they never invite me to anything fun either, I’m always called in as staff. Over It, Dublin

I think it’s great that you’ve finally reached this point. You’re seeing your siblings for what they are – shallow, selfish, patronising and rude – for possibly the first time.   Yes, they have a tonne of kids and are likely to be stretched to their limits but that’s not your problem. Much as you chose to relieve Boring Guy of his duties (poor BG!), they have chosen to create a mini Rugby League team between them. Unless they opted for the withdrawal method (you’d be surprised) or were sharing a faulty pack of condoms, they pretty much committed to the notion of a big family.  Even if they didn’t choose it, if there were a couple of happy accidents along the way, this is still not your gig.

When we help friends or family, we are either duty-bound or we are operating within a reciprocal community of love and support. Often, you would do anything for friends or close family in need.   But that’s not always the case and I sense you’ve moved way past that point. Your initial willingness to help has a) not been appreciated or returned and b) relegated you to home help status.

I met a friend last week who I haven’t seen in fourteen years, for no other reason than we lived in different countries. 13 years previously, she found out she was pregnant with twins. She told her then-boyfriend of one year and he fled, almost immediately, to New Zealand, never to return. So, there she was, a single mum with twins on the way. Her mother, who was very religious, hid from the news and didn’t visit for two whole years. My friend was very close to her elderly aunt, an ex-nun in fact, who lived nearby. Her aunt promised to do whatever she could to support her and when the twins were born, and my friend was permanently at breaking point, her aunt would just show up out of the blue. She’d bring a bag of groceries (usually the ingredients for dinner that night, which she would cook) and an overnight case, so that she could do the late shift. She did this at least twice per week until the girls were three years old and sleeping soundly. She never said when she was coming – so as not to establish a routine – but was always there. It’s fair to say that Super Aunt single-handedly saved my friend’s sanity during a very tough time and restored her faith in humanity.

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What a woman. I’m tearing up here just thinking about her. But I think the story also serves to highlight an important factor: expectation.   My friend didn’t expect her aunt’s help - and never relied on it - but without it she would have been in a much darker place. Your siblings seem to think that because you don’t have children you are at their disposal. They expect you to be their on-call back-up and general gimp. If you rocked up to your sisters’ unannounced, once a week with a bag of groceries they’d ask you why you didn’t call or say it was inconvenient or squeal in disgust at the glutinous bread you’re trying to smuggle in. Did you forget I was intolerant? Possibly. The truth is that anything but a hearty welcome would mean that contact is never on your terms.

Clichêd as it sounds, you need to set some boundaries here and decide how much of yourself you’re willing to give. Let them know how often you are planning on visiting and what your primary commitments are (having the lols in Dublin, obvs). You can make a separate arrangement with your Mum, your biggest ally here anyway.

In terms of your siblings, I’d focus on the kids, and all the middle children who are probably close to hitting explosive levels of acting out. Organise big days out – the cinema, bowling, adventure centres etc relevant to age group and car space. Then the cousins get to hang together and you get to spend some time with them. Maybe you could take each group out twice per year?

You might not drive or this kind of commitment just doesn’t work for you but whatever it is, nurturing a relationship with the kids will ensure that adult drama never factors.   If this doesn’t work for your siblings or is too difficult to organise between rugby, Kung Fu, horse riding and trampolining club then choose a day or night once a month where you visit each sibling, ideally for dinner; not to fix the washing machine or shampoo the cat.

Be prepared to say NO a lot at the start. They need to reset their expectations and find new back-up. If they are interested in resuming a healthy, mutually gratifying relationship then great. If not, that is their huge loss and your liberation.

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