Oracle Of Ybor: Don’t Tell Your Sister Her Husband Is Failing At Fatherhood

Dear Oracle, 

My sister and her husband had two children under the age of four. While I know my brother-in-law LOVES his kids and tries to be a good dad, he doesn’t do a lot of things that I think fall under “parent duty,” which is making my sister very overwhelmed and resentful. I know they’ve talked about it, he’s made excuses, and she’s just accepted that it’s the way things are. But she calls every day to complain, and I don’t know what advice to offer her. I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent, but I do know what it’s like to be married. How can I talk to her and tell her that something has to change? 

–Sisterly Concern 

Cards: King of Cups, Queen of Cups (rev.), Knight of Pentacles, The Hermit (rev.), Ten of Pentacles (rev.) 

Dear Sister,

As someone with a sister and strong “let-me-help-you-with-that” genes, I absolutely understand your impulse to help your sister through this tough time. Parenthood can strain even the most solidly built relationships and widen cracks that were already showing. However, to paraphrase Tolstoy, I think this unhappy marriage is unique. While you can certainly sympathize, you admit that you aren’t a parent, which is an integral part of this dynamic and might create some blind spots for you.

That being said, I think you’re reading the situation correctly. I think your brother-in-law, as the King of Cups, very much loves his children and his wife and has the best of intentions when it comes to being a loving father. But, with the reversed Queen of Cups, I don’t think he’s clocking that his relationship with his wife — who is also doing her damnedest to be a good mother — is suffering. The good news is I think there is a lot of love here, which hopefully means both will be willing to work on their relationship.

Since toddlers are lovable little agents of chaos, it’s no surprise to see the Knight of Pentacles here, on top of his wild horse from hell. In this instance, I think you need to be your sister’s calm, cool-headed knight. Her world might feel upside-down right now (toddlers can cause this on their own, without the additional marital drama), and having just a calm anchor to vent to might be one of her few lifelines.

I think your sister is turning to you because she needs people to talk to, but I don’t think you can be the person to tell her that things need to change — one, because I don’t think she’ll hear it coming from you. The relationship between sisters is unique, and communication can be fraught at times. What would sound like a valid concern coming from a friend might sound like a criticism coming from a sister. (To be fair to her, telling your sister her marriage needs to change is a criticism.)

The second reason I don’t think you can tell her to change things is that this is a marriage and a family unit that you are not a part of. In order for change to happen in this marriage, both parties have to want it. They have to be the ones who see that something is wrong and decide to fix it.

This doesn’t mean your hands are tied. On the contrary, as the calm Knight of Pentacles, I think you can be a voice of reason and encourage your sister and her husband to seek professional help.

There is an element of divine knowledge with The Hermit, which can be about connecting to a source of wisdom outside of yourself. In this case, it might be a family/marriage counselor.

A professional will also be able to help them see a variety of different options and have more answers than the casual observer because they’ll be able to get a fuller picture and have the experience to suggest things that may not occur to you.

A professional has the advantage of clinical distance, so they can make observations that don’t sound like judgments (which is not often the case for family members). If your brother-in-law is slacking off, a therapist can tell him to cut that shit out in a helpful way and then work with him on ways he can step up.

I do think your sister and brother-in-law can work this out. The Ten of Pentacles is a card of family legacy and the reward after hard labor. But again, this is their issue to work out.

I know how hard it can be to sit out and watch someone we love struggle, especially if we think there’s a simple answer. But the truth is, the answer is rarely simple. Your sister’s marriage and family dynamic has many dimensions to it, and in order for real improvement to happen, it has to come from within.

Which, again, I think is likely. For now, you can be compassionate with your sister while also setting some boundaries (maybe no more than three vent-calls a week?) and encourage her when you can. Life in the country is incredibly stressful for parents, and no one wants to feel like their partner isn’t stepping up. Tell her what a good job she’s doing. If you live close by and are able to, perhaps offer to watch the kids so they can go to therapy or have a date night or do whatever. If you don’t, maybe provide support in other ways (Uber Eats gift card? Instacarting groceries to their house?) that help make parenting a little easier. Hopefully, things work out. 

But keep being that calm knight, even if nothing changes, and the resentment grows, therapy fails, and they end up divorced. In the worst-case scenario, you can be your sister’s port in the storm, and you can provide a safe haven for her and the kids, emotionally or physically speaking. 

Just don’t say, “I told you so.” Sisters hate that shit.