Q I have been married for fifteen years and in the last five years, my in-laws have been living with us. They are my husband’s parents. We have gotten along pretty well, and even when there are differences, we respect each other very much. We often spend a lot of time together, in the home and I attend to their needs, diligently. They have also helped with taking care of our children, especially when they had more energy. Recently, I enrolled in graduate school and spend ten to fifteen hours a week on my studies. My attention isn’t as focused on my in laws’ needs and my husband has picked up some of the responsibilities. However, my in laws believe it ought to be my duty to take care of them. They feel as though they are no longer a priority for me. I feel torn, as I understand their needs and the Indian cultural preferences but I also need time to pursue my education. What are some ways to deal with this dilemma?
A You sound pretty conscientious about your desire to help care for them and are quite aware of their feelings. Most people get used to a certain structure and lifestyle and don’t want things to change. You have obviously initiated a significant change in your life and they are feeling it. Communicating why you have chosen to study is a good conversation to have with your in laws. Share with them how your studies is impacting your life and career and how in the long run that would also benefit the family. They also need to be reminded that they are not being replaced or forgotten just because you have another commitment. Speak about how you respect them and are still involved in their lives. Doing even little things to symbolize that is a good way of communicating as well. Aging makes many people afraid of becoming a burden on others. There is a vulnerability that is hard to speak about directly, especially if they see that you are busy. They might wonder if you are resentful of them and want to get away from their needs.
You do have actual needs that are your own. As priorities change, people’s roles have to adjust. Essentially there is less of you available for the family. Walking this cultural tightrope puts a lot of pressure on the wife. This is where your husband needs to communicate with his parents and explain how life is different here in the States than it may have been in India. If this is done in a sensitive manner, it will be heard. Let them also hear how much you have to juggle to educate yourself in mid-life with children to raise. If your husband plays the role of the interlocuter between you and your in laws, they will most likely be more accepting of these changes. This ought to give you more breathing space and support from the family as you continue your studies.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com.