Being a family caregiver doesn’t always stop at caring for our own aging parents. Our significant other’s mom and dad often look to us for care, too, especially if we already have a bit of experience under our belt. Some of us take on this responsibility without hesitation. Our in-laws are our spouse’s parents and our children’s grandparents. Often, we love them, or at least like them. In more difficult cases, relationships with in-laws never really blossomed or have been downright impossible to cultivate.

Regardless of how you feel about your mother-in-law and father-in-law, taking on the care of another person (or even two people) is a serious challenge. Furthermore, when your care recipient is a person who is merely a relative by marriage, how much say do you truly have in their care decisions compared to blood relatives like your significant other and their siblings (if any)? Is it our responsibility to care for our aging in-laws no matter how we feel about them? What happens if you are divorced or widowed? What is your obligation then?

Caregiving coach Cindy Laverty provided care for her former in-laws long after she and her husband had divorced.

“As odd as it might sound, I cared for my ex-husband’s parents for six years—15 years after our divorce!” she explains. “I had a good relationship mostly with my former father-in-law because he was a wonderful grandfather to my daughter. It was a journey that I was wholly unprepared for, but I learned more about myself during those six years than I ever could have imagined.”

Perhaps Laverty’s decision is considered highly unusual, but many people provide care for their spouse’s parents. Deciding whether to sign on to care for your own in-laws is a highly personal matter that must include a variety of factors that are unique to your own lifestyle and family dynamic.

Women Bear the Brunt of Caregiving

Most of the questions I receive about caring for in-laws come from women. Of course, if a woman has a solid marriage and a tight-knit family, then banding together and caring for her in-laws would be natural, at least to a point. But where are the men in these scenarios? Some of them are pulling their own weight, of course, but many are not. Most men just aren’t comfortable with providing hands-on care, so the care of their own parents often falls to their wives, or, as in Laverty’s case, ex-wives.

Every family is different, but when it comes to caring for aging parents, we often see a marked gender division. Typically, the man handles the financial aspects of their parents’ care; they make the big decisions. They may handle some of the items on their parent’s household to-do list if Mom and Dad still live in their own home. But doing hands-on care, especially for, say, their wife’s parents? Quite an uncommon sight. Even for their own parents, it’s still generally the women who are left to handle more intimate care tasks, willingly or not. Nonetheless, wives who want to participate in their in-laws’ care may still come to resent being assigned these tasks “by default.”

Encouraging Husbands to Participate in Their Parents’ Care

There are countless reasons why certain people choose not to become caregivers to their aging parents. Some are legitimate, while others are weak at best. Regardless, talking someone into taking on even a small aspect of this role is usually an exercise in futility. But these are your significant other’s parents after all. If your spouse is going to call the shots, then they need to put in some man hours (pun intended) to get a feel for what unpaid caregiving is actually like and how it affects your day-to-day life.

Below are a few points that I’ve suggested wives use to help convince their husbands to take a more active role in caring for their own parents.

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  • You only get one shot at this job.

    Caring for those we love isn’t something we can go back and redo later on if we wind up regretting our lack of involvement. Encourage your spouse to think about the care they provide and the rewards that come with it or, conversely, the care they don’t provide and the priceless opportunities they’ll miss with their parent(s). You want your significant other to feel good about the care they’ve provided once his Mom and Dad are gone. Be sure to mention that caregiving isn’t all or nothing. He can still pitch in, maintain boundaries and be proud of his contributions.
  • Caregiving may be awkward, but it isn’t emasculating.

    While women have historically been the nurturing, domestic gender tasked with caring for children and elders alike, many male caregivers boldly accept this role and run with it. There is often some discomfort involved, but elder care isn’t pretty and what needs to be done must get done. Try to convince him that it’s not below him or so outside of his skill set to spoon feed his mother or help his father bathe. These are simply acts of caring. Powering through personal discomfort to help those we love exemplifies nothing but strength and dedication.
  • Everyone in the family has their own jobs to do outside of caregiving.

    One of the most popular excuses that spouses who avoid caregiving use is their commitment to their career. Work is undeniably important. Bills must get paid or else the entire household grinds to a halt. However, every family member does their own share of “work,” even if it doesn’t occur outside the home or bring in a traditional paycheck. Whether you have a part-time or full-time job, wrangle the kids, manage the household, or handle all the above, remind him (again) that you work hard, too. If he thinks he doesn’t have enough time or energy to provide hands-on care before and after work and on weekends, then how does he expect you to fit this into your own schedule?

Deciding Whether to Care for Your In-Laws

If, like Laverty, you love and respect your in-laws and appreciate their role as grandparents to your children, then providing whatever care you are willing and able to would be natural. Your spouse—their child—should absolutely be doing their fair share, though. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how much you want to participate and set the appropriate boundaries. Figuring out where you draw the line on caregiving—and communicating that very clearly, very early on—is crucial for ensuring you don’t suddenly find yourself entirely overwhelmed and functioning as the “primary caregiver.” Make your reasonable contributions known and then your spouse will need to figure out the rest.

If you have a poor relationship with your in-laws, but your significant other still insists that you both provide care as a couple, again, you must decide what you can and cannot do. This situation is a little pricklier because you probably don’t feel compelled to go out of your way to care for someone you aren’t close with (or downright do not get along with). To avoid issues with your husband, try offering to cover a few tasks that aren’t hands-on and don’t require much one-on-one time with your in-laws, such as grocery shopping, running errands or doing a few chores. Drive home the fact that you love your significant other and are willing to help their family, but reiterate that you are not spearheading their parents’ care.

There’s no reason why you should give up your life to care for anyone, including your in-laws, regardless of whether you like them. But if you are still married, then you should try to help in some small way for the sake of your marriage. Resentment can breed quickly on both sides, so open, honest communication is key. If you are no longer married, then the ball is in your court. Caregiving is rarely, if ever, black and white. Every family plays by its own rules and usually makes them up as they go along. The only fundamental requirement in caregiving is understanding and respecting your own physical and emotional boundaries. If you don’t, then no one else will.

Ignoring the fact that your aging in-laws need help is not an option. The question is how much assistance do you personally provide? This will be different for every family, every individual. The only rules regarding your contributions are the ones you make.