When I was growing up, there were certain inequalities of life of which I was acutely aware. For instance, I noticed that one of my many aunts, Judy, had a house which was much bigger than my family's. I also noticed that she had nicer furniture, a much, much newer car, and brand name snacks were always in the house. From a kid's point of view, having a relative who always had Hostess Ho-Ho's on hand or my favorite brand of barbecue potato chips was pretty significant. My family was scrimping together returnable bottles for their deposits and hunting up stray change at the end of every month so they could afford milk, and her refrigerator was always fully-stocked.
Though I wasn't aware of this so much as a child, my mother was always competing with my aunt in a battle that she could never win. That is, a lifestyle battle. She overspent and got my family into debt because she wanted to keep up with Judy, but Judy had an edge in more ways than one. For one, her husband wasn't disabled and living on social security benefits like my father. For another, she lived with my grandmother and grandfather whose pensions helped augment her family's lifestyle in numerous ways.
It was the latter which I think galled my mother most. My aunt Judy was constantly being helped out by my grandmother from funds to finance a nicer home with better furnishings to new cars to free babysitting and support for her children when they were born. I think it was more upsetting for my mother because Judy was "the baby" of their large family and always had been my maternal grandmother's favorite.
All that being said, my aunt Judy paid a price for the relative affluence of her life. My grandfather was bedridden and had to be looked after all the time. He had worked in coal mines and suffered from black lung disease. He died when I was still too young to understand just how much of a burden this would have placed on those living in my aunt's house, but, as an adult, I now see the hardship clearly in retrospect.
As the years went on, my maternal grandmother also became increasingly weak, sickly, and somewhat senile. In the end, my aunt ended up having to look after her as well. To be fair, my other aunts and my mother did their best at times to stop in and look after their father while he was alive to give my aunt Judy and my grandmother a break. My mother actually lived closest, so she helped out more often than most.
At any rate, one lesson I learned from my upbringing was that the children who end up living with their parents benefit immensely for quite awhile materially, financially, and in terms of support for their young children, but then end up bearing a burden for awhile as well. My family was poor and lived in a really terrible house and my aunt lived in a nice, middle class place, but she also had a lot of the responsibility and stress as both of my grandparents became enfeebled.
As of late, this situation has come to the forefront for my husband and I, but not through my family. It has become an issue with my husband's family. His sister has been living with their mother and father for the past 19 years and now their mother has developed a degenerative disease which has left her showing increased signs of senile dementia and unable to walk or look after herself. She needs round the clock monitoring, careful scheduling of medication, and assistance with many basic needs like using the bathroom and washing.
My sister-in-law at first was not intimately involved with my mother-in-law's care, but merely gave breaks to my father-in-law. Now, her role has expanded greatly and she's become increasingly frustrated and stressed out by the responsibilities coupled with my father-lin-law's resistance to complying with her method of caring for his wife. She has two brothers, but both of them are residing in Japan so they cannot help in any measurable way. It's simply logistically impossible.
Usually, I don't get very involved in my in-laws' lives because the truth is that they have never had much interest in us. About 16 years or so ago, my sister-in-law needed some help with Photoshop and both my husband and I tried to establish a cordial relationship with her via e-mail. After she got what she wanted though, she begged off on further correspondence claiming she was too busy to really keep up much of a written conversation.
Additionally, and I believe I have blogged about this before, but I'll repeat it as a reminder. My husband and I were flat out refused when we asked to temporarily reside with them when we lived in California. We lived with my husband's best friend's family instead. When we left for Japan, his father begrudged storing some of our boxes in his garage and wanted us to put our items in paid storage. In other words, his family has not done much to support us when we needed help nor shown more than a cursory interest in our lives, particularly if maintaining a relationship with us has required any more effort than talking on the phone.
As of late, my sister-in-law has been pelting my husband and brother-in-law with long, detailed letters venting and explaining about the details of her situation with her parents. She has even intimated that, if her parents exhaust their copious financial resources, she may call upon my husband and his brother to bear some monetary burden. The ludicrousness of that can't be overemphasized. Both my sister-in-law's husband and my father-in-law make a great deal more money than my husband and I combined.
At any rate, my husband doesn't have a talking relationship with his sister from a distance for the aforementioned reasons, but my brother-in-law does. Today, my brother-in-law called my husband to vent about a conversation that he had with their sister. Apparently, she expressed some anger and resentment that she is bearing the brunt of the care of her elderly parents and is increasingly burnt out from coping with it. She is especially put out by the fact that she's had to put "her" life on hold to deal with these new responsibilities.
While I do feel empathy for my sister-in-law, I also know that she has benefited greatly from living with her parents from free babysitting services for her two kids when they were younger, to free food when they used to have meals together, to having the opportunity to invest in and live in a piece of prime real estate in one of the most lucrative areas in California, to a certain level of support and security, she has had benefits that one brother (my husband) was overtly and specifically denied and the other has not been present for.
Because I grew up around extended family who had such a markedly improved life via their association with my grandparents, I have always been aware of both sides of the coin. It strikes me that anyone who benefits from cohabitation with their parents should see that the road ahead is likely to end in a particular way, but some people are too self-involved to realize that they had it better than their siblings and too selfish to realize that their responsibility will be proportionally greater when the time comes.