'I sacrificed having a life taking care of mum'

PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

"Dear Thelma" is a relationship advice column that appears in The Star, a publication that is part of the Asia News Network.

Dear Thelma,

I have been caring for my sick mother for 12 years now. She is not bedridden but she suffers from some sort of chronic pain.

I have sacrificed so much for the family and I feel like I am the main victim in this unfortunate state of affairs. Although my mum cooks for the family, I have to handle the rest of the household chores. I take care of the grocery shopping too.

And because I have to take care of my mum, I couldn't leave home for better prospects in the big city. So here I am, working part-time in a small company. My job is boring. I have no social life. I feel so cut off from society.

I have always dreamed of working abroad but now at the age of 37, I have nothing to show. I do not own a house or even a car. I do not even have a full-time job.

I hope to meet someone special although sometimes I feel it is too late in life and I've missed my chance for love.

I have a job interview coming up. I am riddled with guilt. If I leave home to work in the city, I feel my mum will be crushed although she tells me she wants me to go seek my fortune elsewhere.

I cannot think clearly anymore. This may be my last chance for a better life. If I miss this opportunity, I may regret it for the rest of my life. I am also overwhelmed by feelings of guilt at the thought of leaving my mother.

- Last Chance

Dear Last Chance,

You are looking after your mum, doing the housework every day, and taking care of the family. But why are you doing this alone? Why aren't the other family members doing their share? I don't see why the entire burden should fall on you.

As for your needs, you say you want several things: a social life, perhaps a husband and a family of your own, an opportunity for more exciting work, and some financial security.

You state these wishes as if you're the most selfish beast in nature but they are such natural aspirations. Really, you are dreaming of a very normal life. So please, don't feel guilty.

You have a job interview coming up which you think will offer an opportunity that you crave. This seems like a great prospect which offers positive change and the circumstances will help motivate you.

Now let's get down to the nuts and bolts: how should you go about it? As you have been in this difficult situation for 12 years, it is going to take some effort to change. People aren't quick to relieve others of the burden of housework. After all, it's boring and it's so much easier if someone else does it.

Also, there is a big obstacle to overcome, which is your own feelings of guilt.

You should listen to your mum: she has already told you to take this chance. I suspect you are not taking her advice because you have somehow decided that looking after everyone is your job. It is not.

In a family, everyone has their share of responsibilities. You say your mum suffers from chronic pain, yet she cooks. This is an excellent example of how everyone should contribute.

I suggest you call a family meeting and discuss how you are going to make changes. You have two basic options: either the housework is divided among the family or you pay someone to do the work. You might also combine the two.

For example, you might agree everyone does their own laundry, that you all take turns to shop for groceries, but that you hire a weekly cleaner to do the floors.

Whatever arrangements you make, you have to be very clear about one thing: these changes start immediately and they are permanent. They don't rely on whether you get the dream job or not. You are not the family maid. You've done more than your fair share for 12 years; enough is enough.

Hopefully, your family will jump on this and make the changes simple. However, people tend to be very resistant to change, especially if it means they have to clean floors and do the laundry. You may face sulking and complaints which might fuel your feelings of guilt.

Your mum is your best ally in this. She has already said you need to pursue your personal needs. A quiet chat with her about presenting a united front before the family conference might be sensible.

Now, about the job, the social life and the personal finances. You need an action plan that helps you pursue your goals in a sensible, organised way.

First, you can take advantage of all the free education that is around. You did not say what you do, but there are lots of free talks offered by schools and businesses. These are listed in The Star, so keep an eye open.

There are also free college courses online from all over the world, including the University of Oxford and Harvard University.

The two easiest ways to get started is either to visit www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses or if you have an Apple phone, download the iTunesU app. For a huge list, Google MOOC (massive open online course) or visit www.mooc-list.com.

Start listening to the lectures today and know that you are improving your skills and knowledge.

Next, talk to your HR manager or find a career advisor. Find out what you need to do to improve your employability. Make a one, five- and 10-year plan. As you improve your career, you will improve your finances. So this is a two-for-one step.

Finally, your social and love life. Basically, you need to widen your social circle. We are social animals, so having friends will help you be happier. Having lots of friends also means you have a better chance of meeting someone who interests you romantically.

You say you feel it may be too late for love. Believe me, it's absolutely not! There are many people who marry young, find that they don't suit, and then divorce. At 37, you will have plenty of opportunity to meet single and newly single people.

As soon as you've finished reading this, call an old friend from school, and go and have coffee. Then when you go to work, pick someone you'd like to know better, and suggest going to the coffee shop for lunch. You're feeling isolated, so these are easy ways to get into the habit of socialising again.

As soon as your finances permit, join a club or take a class. Pick something you like to do, in order to meet new people who share your likes.

For example, you can join a bird-watching club, take a cooking class, learn to arrange flowers - they are all fun things to do. The changes you make will help you feel happier very soon.

One caveat: please do not volunteer for charity. I know this sounds strange but the reason I say this is because you tell me you're feeling listless, guilty and tired. These are all signs of depression.

I think you are probably not in a fit state to start getting into situations where you have to deal with orphans, abused animals and other sad cases. So please, focus on happy activities. You've done the 12 years; you deserve personal time.

About the symptoms of depression I see in your letter. Hopefully they will all clear as you make changes to your life.

However, if you find yourself depressed for more than two weeks, please get assessed. And if you ever have the slightest thought of hurting yourself, then get help immediately. Go to the nearest public hospital for assessment and ask to speak to a mental health professional.

The changes you'll make will help you be happier very soon.

- Thelma

More about