Dear Dr Ren,
Gene and I have been together for seven years now. We did it all right, thoroughly discussing our values and negotiating a contract for how our relationship would progress. We agreed we did not want children or even pets. We have good jobs that afford us time and means to travel, and we enjoy a comfortable urban lifestyle.
Gene is 42 and I’m 34. He has a large extended family, but they’re not particularly close. All I have is my sister and her two kids, who mean the world to me. Our parents died when we were young, and we’ve been each other’s support systems ever since, especially since Ellie’s husband was killed a couple of years back.
Now Ellie has been diagnosed with a lethal and rapid form of cancer and will probably not survive beyond another year. She has asked me to assume guardianship of the kids.
I thought this was a no-brainer, but Gene says that, though he is sympathetic, the situation doesn’t change our contract. He didn’t want kids before and doesn’t want them now. I say we’re solid and smart enough to accommodate this necessary change.
Don’t people who love each other roll with the punches? Shouldn’t we be able to resolve a crisis together? We’re both . . .
My sympathies to all of you. Let me see if I can help with some perspective on the issues.
What you know is this:
• You will lose, and must grieve the loss of, your sister;
• Your sister’s children will be orphaned and must do their own grieving;
• Someone must assume the care of those children;
• Both you and Gene must reassess your values and relationship.
What you have yet to learn is this:
• How will you and Gene negotiate such a potential change to your relationship contract?
• What are the best options you can find for resolving this dilemma?
You and Gene thoughtfully agreed to a relationship free of the responsibility and lifestyle of parenting. Though you may feel entitled under these circumstances to change the rules, Gene very likely feels betrayed, and quite possibly guilty for feeling so.
I understand why your initial response to your sister’s request was affirmative. However, have you honestly considered whether you want to become a parent? “I had no option” may not be the best reason for doing so. Every child deserves to be a wanted child, and you need to be enthusiastically willing to change your life completely.
You can continue meaningful involvement in the children’s lives without becoming a custodial parent. There are so many childless people longing to welcome children that some creative planning could manifest a happy, though possibly non-traditional, ending.
Enlist professional help and prepare to work like crazy. Forget avoiding grief and strive instead for promoting creative problem solving. Concentrate on what is best for the children and stay on the same team.
Though the clock is ticking, you all deserve the time to consider the consequences of your decisions. Losing both your partner and your sister to take on something for which you lack aptitude and enthusiasm may never be balanced by your love and dedication to the kids. Other family — or non-family — members may appear who are a better fit. The kids themselves may have opinions. Take time to explore all your options.
Remember, this is not a test of how much Gene loves you or how much you love your sister. In fact, it’s not a test at all, except perhaps of how difficult our choices can be at times. You will all do the best you can with what you have to work with, and somehow, that will be enough.