Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Sister punishes them for turning down potential guardianship
Hard Choices: So my sister asked us to be guardians to her kids in the case of her and her husband's death, and we said no because we don't think we have it in us to be parents. This does not mean that we don't love her kids. It just means that we don't want kids and did not have any of our own for a reason.
But this has caused friction with my sister. Although she said she understood, she has been withdrawn, stopped inviting us to her kids' birthday parties, and generally has marginalized us from the family. When I asked her if something was wrong, she explained that she is unable to get past the fact that we would be unwilling to give her kids a home in the event that they were orphaned. I don't know how to get past this with integrity.
Carolyn: I'm sorry. The way I often construct advice for people who have hit a brick wall is to imagine what the brick wall is thinking. In this case I'm hitting my own brick wall, because I can't imagine what your sister is thinking. Hurt feelings, check, fear of a future in which the kids are orphaned, check, disbelief that you aren't as devoted to her kids as she is . . .?
Maybe that's where I'm getting stuck. The buck stops with a parent, and everyone else — everyone, even grandparents — can pass it. I realize this isn't the norm in a lot of cultures, but let's say the culture dictates that the buck stops at the whole extended family. Would it serve the kids for their guardians to step up only because they were under societal pressure or guilt?
Maybe you have reasons that others might deem selfish, but it's your life and they're your reasons. Maybe mine isn't a warm-fuzzy-family way to look at the world, but there it is.
And so as hurt or incredulous as your sister may be, it's just beyond the pale for her to punish you for your decision — and your candor. And if she did have a good reason, then she owed it to you to say it to your faces, and not profess to understand while doing anything but.
I guess she has now, but the punishment came first.
Since the route to reconciliation is through sympathy for your sister's feelings, your best move would be just to address her pain in your argument for being allowed into the children's lives again: "I know we shocked and disappointed you in our decision not to be guardians, but that doesn't mean we don't love your kids or want to be part of their lives. We hope we can still play a significant role — both now and in the unlikely event something unspeakable happens."
There's not much you can do beyond that, except give your sister any time she needs to come around, assuming she ever does.
In the meantime, continue to act as you always have around your family. Sometimes you just have to will yourself past an agonizing stage of your life.
Tomorrow: There's more to the story.