Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Babysitter blues

By offering free childcare, is this reader being a good sister or just interfering in her sibling's rocky marriage?

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

My sister married two years ago to a man who’s turned out to be really useless. They have a two-year-old daughter, whom he doesn’t seem to care for, and they recently separated, though they’re living in the same house. My sister works and I’ve been co-opted to do lots of childcare. I’m very fond of my niece and she sees me like another mother, but should I continue to play such a role in her life? I feel if I go on caring for her, they'll  never get a chance to sort things out. What do you think?

Yours sincerely,


Virginia says...

The answer to this depends a great deal on how much you care for the child. It also depends on whether you feel that bringing up a child to feel safe and secure, at least for the first seven or eight years of its life, is one of the most important contributions you can make to humanity, society and the general good.

If you feel it is worth sacrificing the security of your niece to teach her parents a lesson (one that they are highly unlikely to learn if they haven’t already done so) and highlight how irresponsible they’re being, then of course you should stop looking after her and leave her to their mercy.

If you really believe that without your help and support, her mother and father will suddenly have a blinding flash of light and say: “Good heavens! We’re putting ourselves first in this terrible situation! How shocking! We must reform and mend our ways in order to be good and loving parents to our child, come what may!” then it’s an excellent plan to abandon her.

And if you feel that you’re getting so irritated by looking after this little girl, getting  so little pleasure from becoming a trusted adult, and perhaps losing your temper with her because you feel the situation’s so unfair, then it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference whether you shove her back on her parents or continue caring for her in an atmosphere of resentment and reluctance.

But if you feel that this child has no one responsible in her life except you at the moment, and if you have the time to care for her, of course you should carry on as you are. Even if deep down you don’t feel great attachment for the child, but can keep up a good act, and can give her nothing more than a certain reasonably affectionate stability, then this is perfectly adequate.

It may be that your sister and her husband will sort out their screwed-up lives. Then, of course, you can slowly hand back responsibility, as long as you remain always available and loving throughout her life.

But if they don’t, who has this poor mite got to turn to? At the moment you’re the only good thing in her life. I can’t imagine anyone having the heart to turn away from a child just for the sake of some weird kind of principle, a feeling that it’s “not fair” or that her parents “ought to behave”, when you know perfectly well they won’t. You may not like my conclusion, but I’d say that morally, you’re lumbered with her, whether you like it or not.

Readers say...

Time to back off

I think you are probably too involved, not to the detriment of anyone but yourself. If you go on providing childcare, your sister and her ex will never feel the urgency to get a formal childminder, and once they start dishing out lots of money on a nanny your ex-brother-in-law might actually want to help out a bit more. You are probably a great help to your sister, but you are letting your brother-in-law off his responsibilities. 

Naomi, by email

Don’t let her down

Your sister’s marriage is for her and her husband to sort out, and not something you should get involved in except maybe to support your sister when she needs it. Your niece, however, is a different matter. If your are so fond of her, and who could fail to love a little two-year-old, who is probably aware of tensions with her mum and dad (whom she will love even if he doesn’t seem to care for her), if you can be there for her, she will benefit from your love and caring. It will give her added security at a time when she could be feeling worried and fearful. She is the important one here, so don’t let her down if you can help it.

Penny Joseph, by email

Next week’s  dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I’m line manager of a department in a big conference centre, and recently one of the staff who’s under a different manager failed to unlock the fire exits during a performance when I was in charge. Her manager was away at the time. I sent her an email pointing out the dangers and have now had an email from the other manager accusing me of being high-handed with his staff. It was personal and vindictive. What I can’t understand is that when I meet him on a daily basis he’s all nicey-nicey. How do I respond to his email?

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise Rhona to do?

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