Dear Rabbi,
Help! I feel like I'm being stretched--or maybe crushed--between the needs of my mother, my kids, and my work. My 72-year-old mother was widowed two years ago and is now struggling with cancer. Her doctor says she is doing well in her treatment, but she is depressed (in a hostile, agitated way) and extremely anxious. She seems to need me every minute (I'm an only child). I get 10 calls a day at work, often about minor things, and she expects and demands that I not only go with her to all her doctor visits, but also spend every weekend with her. I have two teenagers, and I feel they are getting shortchanged. Although they are older--14 and 17--and my husband is a wonderful dad, they still need their mom sometimes. I am so stressed and exhausted. How can I cope?

Dear Sandwiched,
Our parents take care of us when we're helpless. So it's only right that we do the same for them when they become similarly so. We're obligated by G-d in the Ten Commandments to honor our parents, and one of the ways we do so is to be there as they become older and more dependent.

But G-d does not expect this responsibility to supersede or upend all our other commitments, particularly when we have a family that we have to look after. The general rule of thumb is this: we are absolutely obligated to take care of elderly parents up until that care begins to severely disrupt our relationships within our own family, upend our marriage, and leave our children in a state of chaos.

I believe that elderly parents should move in with their kids when it is no longer possible for them to take care of themselves. But this is only true if both spouses are amenable, which I hope they would be, but the demand cannot be made in every marriage.
You have to explain to your mother that you love her and will always be there for her. Show her you are not casting her off by always being patient and loving with her, even when you must attend to other responsibilities.

Tell her outright that you love her, but she must understand when you have to leave or hang up the phone because the children need dinner, need to be taken to an after-school activity, or your husband is taking you out for a romantic dinner. Tell her you will call her just as soon as you get home. Show her she is on your mind, even when you are busy with other pursuits.

Point out to her that you know she loves her grandchildren and her son-in-law and never wants them to be neglected. Explain to her that you also have a job which is essential to your family's financial health, and your bosses won't tolerate your being on the phone with your mother ten times a day. Then, suggest the following limits...

1. You and your mother communicate by phone up to three times per day when you're at work.

2. You will accompany your mother to every other doctor's appointment.

3. Your mother will come and stay with you every other weekend, so that she can see her grandchildren and bask in the family environment.

Throughout this period in your life, keep your husband and your boss in the loop. Explain the situation to them. Get their feedback. Your husband, and even your boss, should be very understanding so long as you don't take them for granted.

Remember to be respectful but firm when setting boundaries with your mother. Always address her lovingly and courteously. But make it clear that there are things you have to do, and you cannot constantly speak to her or run over to see her.

Also, don't respond to her guilt. If she tells you, "You don't love me or care about me," respond by saying, "Mom, you know that's not true. You know I love you. But I am a good daughter who has taken to heart everything her Mom taught her about being serious about meeting all of her responsibilities. I learned from the master. So I am going to go now. But I'll call you in three hours."

Meanwhile, work on connecting your mother with a social circle that can benefit her. Her tragic loss of her husband has left her extremely lonely. But much of her previous life remains intact. You are its most vital element. But there are also friends, relatives, and a wider social circle that she dare not lose.

The most important thing is to begin to reclaim elements of your life without making your mother feel that this constitutes an abandonment of her. Trust me, it is possible for you to attend to your other responsibilities while honoring your mother at all times.

G-d bless you,

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