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My brother is in a very difficult situation. His wife separated from him a year ago. They have two kids, at the time 3 and 5 years old. They moved out of their common apartment, each one into their own. They share the kids mostly on a weekly basis, one week with mom, one week with dad.

I see that my brother is completely overwhelmed and exhausted. After over a year he still has full moving boxes standing around in his new apartment. He barely gets the housework done and is lucky that his employer tolerates it that he often has to leave earlier to pick up the kids from daycare but he feels bad for it. He tells me that in the week when the kids are with his ex-wife, after work he just falls onto the sofa to rest with no energy left for doing nice things for himself, like following a hobby.

I have talked with him often about getting support. I have registered on local childcare portals, read through nanny profiles, made him aware of such offerings, and even discussed in our family that we would share the cost of a nanny among us.

His first reaction was pushback. Then, he warmed up to the idea but never followed through. Later he said he thinks that it would take his time with his children away. All those nannies also offer help in the household, like doing laundry or dishes, he could choose how often they come, and they could do other support like picking the kids up from daycare or school for him to get some relief with his work schedule. But no. He is going back and forth and gets aggressive quickly when I pick this topic up.

I am an expat living on another continent, so I can only help remotely with organizing things. Our father passed away a year ago, our mother could still take care of the kids once a week for a few hours but he doesn't want to leave them there because he is afraid that she could not handle it.

At this point I don't know what to do anymore. It seems clear to me and to all common friends that I have talked with that he is overwhelmed. He needs help but doesn't accept any. On top of all of that, the pandemic has amplified everything.

He loves his kids and is a great father with moral integrity and only the best intentions. But I am worried that it hurts him and ultimately also the kids.

How can this father be helped?

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  • As you describe your brother, with "no energy to do hobbies" you may take account on depression too. Such a big change in live could be trigger for this, and having no energy, not even for accepting help, could be a sign of this illness. – Allerleirauh Dec 28 '20 at 10:04
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The most important thing for you to do is to remember your role is to support your brother, not to fix him. The absolute most frustrating thing as a parent (or, as a person!) is to have people trying to fix you by second guessing your choices.

If your conversations are primarily "You should do X," or "Why aren't you doing X," then your brother likely is mentally pushing back against you already, and may not be very receptive to additional suggestions. Consider adjusting your language - and maybe backing off suggesting anything for a little while to let the relationship reset.

This isn't to say you shouldn't do anything, by any means, though! The most important thing is to be receptive and listen. When he tells you he's frustrated about something, instead of offering a suggestion for how to change it, give him your emotional support - use what I call the "once more, with feeling" method. If he tells you about something that clearly upsets him, you make it clear to him that you understand and sympathize by repeating (not verbatim) what he is upset by, and show that you empathize with the feelings by expressing those verbally. He may be unable to do that - to identify the feelings himself - and doing that both shows you truly understand him, and helps him identify the issue.

This:

I got home yesterday and my house is such a mess that I didn't know where to start - so I just collapsed on the couch. Ugh!!

Can be responded to with:

I'm sorry, man, it can be really overwhelming sometimes to deal with all of the chores alone - who'd have thought Mom would prove to be right?

Here you make it clear you get the specific thing he's frustrated by - the overwhelming mountain of chores, alone - and even add a personal connection you have with him.

The key here is to be nonjudgmental, and not offer a suggestion for how to fix - unless he asks for it. Just be there and make it clear you empathize. You can certainly still make it clear that you are happy to help with money/strategy/whatever in ways that don't force them on him - though probably wait a bit on that if you've been pushy with specific things.

Just want to make sure you know I'm always here for you - whatever you need, I've got your back.


Stepping back a bit, part of why this is important is that even if you got your brother to accept all of your suggestions - they won't fix the ultimate problem. Your brother, it sounds like, has a lack of executive function right now - a very common issue in people with depression. Executive function refers to the ability to plan your life and make choices - this is easily seen in the "where should we go for dinner??" trope (where nobody can decide where you should go for dinner, despite everyone having opinions), except it is more crucial when it applies to things like "should I lie down and rest or should I do the dishes".

Removing some of the problems can help, but ultimately he has to solve this underlying problem - whether by himself, or by seeking help from a therapist or psychiatrist. He has to choose to do that, though, you can't make him or convince him - which is why what's most important for you is to support him and be a good listener, so he can work his way to the place where he can begin to fix this.

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  • Great answer!!! Wish I had 10 upvotes to give! – anongoodnurse Dec 24 '20 at 20:33
  • @Stephie and Joe, thank you both for your great answers. It is touching how much time and effort you put into answering a strangers’s question, I really appreciate it. I read your answers multiple times and they’re so incredibly insightful and helpful. I wish I could accept both answers. Ultimately, I chose Joe’s because it has this additional layer of psychological analysis that helps me understand even better what’s going on. – thisparent Dec 28 '20 at 19:51
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You might have to treat the situation like one should for new parents - while they often get offered babysitting, it can go against their instincts of not letting the baby go. So offering relief from everything else is the better way to go.
There is one quote in your post that seems to indicate exactly that:

Later he said he thinks that it would take his time with his children away.

If your brother is a dedicated father, I can see how he may hate being separated from his children half of the time. So he will want to maximize the time he has with them. And offering help with kids duties is not going to help here. He may intellectually see the benefits, but his hesitation to follow through is interesting.

Instead, find ways to get help that will help him free up the time with the kids. Instead of a nanny, suggest a housekeeper or cleaning person. Have him delegate tasks like laundry (some people struggle with letting strangers do that, but maybe Granny would be able to help here?), whatever you can outsource. Help him get the boxes put away, even if you spend some time at your next home vacation for that. That may even mean that he can work more in the weeks without kids, if his boss is ok with that.

A second hint that may help is that including the kids in mundane tasks can be a very good thing - he will teach him how life works and spend time with his kids. This may mean that some tasks take longer with the kids in tow, but need not happen in some extra time slot.

The core message should be “what can I do for you” over “I have an idea how you could solve your problems”.

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    Excellent answer @Stephie as usual. I imagine this is how my husband would be if I were ever out of the picture. I think asking Grandma to help with the housework is the best idea. It can be phrased like she wants to spend time with the kids/family so dad doesn’t feel like he’s a failure. He doesn’t need any more blows to his self esteem. Also, piled up boxes and laundry...it’s not ideal but as long as the space is just messy/cluttered and not filthy, it’s ok! This guy is putting so much pressure on himself. His endurance and dedication is admirable! – Jax Dec 24 '20 at 15:02

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