Last weekend I had someone use this term in reference to M and I, as both a couple as well as individuals. While the characterization is flattering, I have to reject it as inaccurate. We try hard to give generously – money, time, energy. We do so because giving and sharing benefits us directly; it makes us feel good, provides a sense of satisfaction in doing the right thing, and/or we have time with people we admire and/or like being around. There is no driving need to save the world or be viewed as benefactors.
First thing this morning M’s sister called about her vehicle. Backstory is that we gave her a 1999 Honda Civic a couple of years back. It had been ours, then my son’s, and then ours again when he purchased his present civic, and we had taken care of it with oil changes and routine maintenance, minor repairs. Despite high mileage, it was smooth-running and a terrific little car for her. Until it was damaged earlier this year by one of her neighbors. Insurance paid for repairs, but cars must be maintained, especially older vehicles.
Last week she’d called because it had overheated and she wanted the name of our mechanic. We take our vehicles to this mechanic because he is trustworthy, not because he’s charges less than anyone else. Sister-in-law took the car to him, he determined the radiator is cracked, and gave her an estimate on its replacement. SIL wanted the cost of having it repaired instead of replaced. Mechanic does not repair radiators, because there is no benefit to him or his business to provide that service. SIL then calls M complaining that mechnic is expensive and asking for his help.
We have helped her in the past. If she’s hungry we go to the grocery store and buy her food. If she needs a ride we pick her up and drop her off. Because of the dynamics between her and her adult son/family, we choose to never give her money directly. On the car and repairs, though, the line has been clear and direct: we provided an older car in excellent mechanical and physical condition, she is completely responsible for its insurance, ongoing maintenance and repair. We also strongly suggested she not loan it out to her son or daughter-in-law. Her son has a history of DUI convictions and has been responsible for wrecking every car he has had and the damage to every car she has owned/loaned to him. Plus neither son or DIL have a valid drivers license between them. The car was a no-strings gift, but M did his best to impress that she needs to take care of herself and protect it.
This morning, M had to tell her we could not help her pay our mechanic to replace the radiator and knows of no one who repairs radiators. It is really hard for him, because he knows she does not earn a lot of money. However, this is where our own judgment gene flares: our 40-something nephew is an alcoholic and he routinely, selfishly asks his mother for money knowing she cannot, will not say no to him.
Now that M’s father has died, SIL has no financial backstop. I’m not espcially surprised she has not contacted us for help sooner, but M and I both knew it would only be a matter of time for some extraordinary expense to arise.
This is not my decision or my choice. If M felt we should help her, it would happen without objection or question from me. Despite my being the earner in the family, our money is our money, and if he wants to use some of it to help his sister out of a jam I am never going to say no. But we both have strong feelings about helping those who help themselves, and SIL has never taken steps to ensure her own financial stability before putting her limited resources toward her son and grandson. Family cycles of behavior do not tend to peter out or end themselves organically; there is typically a catalyst or a disciplined new behavior to replace it. We cannot make it happen for her, but we can and do choose not to enable it.
And it completely feels awful to be us in this situation right now. We do not feel superior, we do not feel “right” in our convictions, we do not feel anything but shitty about declining a family member’s plea for help repairing her vehicle. This is not a new situation; it has been going on for years, before I ever met M. He is very proud of her for establishing independence despite her disabilities, yet so feverently wishes she could cut the cord with her amoral son who sees nothing wrong with asking/taking money from his mother for his own pleasures (beer, pot) and lifestyle.
Family. Sometimes it’s ridiculously difficult.