Dear Emuna,

My mother is very narcissistic and does a lot of complaining and talking about herself. She sometimes goes on for hours, literally, and it's very hard to take. If I do anything other than listen lovingly, she goes into victim role and tells me I'm putting a hole in her heart. How can I still do the mitzvah of honoring my parents when she is almost unbearable? Thanks,

Bored to Tears

Dear Bored to Tears,

It’s important to clarify the mitzvah of honoring your parents. It involves (this isn’t the Ask the Rabbi column so I’m just giving broad parameters) making sure your parents have food and shelter. The mitzvah of respecting your parents is concerned with issues like standing up for them, not correcting them and so on. Neither mitzvah mentions listening to your parents talk indefinitely. However, mitzvah aside, it is still a kind and compassionate act to listen to your mother as she speaks. Imagine she were a stranger. Would you be able to be more generous and listen without judging? This may be a helpful tool.

You need to recognize that she is not going to change. And I’m sure it’s very difficult to listen to her go on and on. On a practical level, it’s probably good to call her when you are out running errands and thereby not taking time away from other activities or where there is a natural and predetermined end to the conversation. It sounds like it’s not just the unending conversation; it’s the negative quality of her comments. Complaining is difficult to endure and can harm our own attitude. Try to keep perspective and remind yourself to focus on the good as she is speaking. As difficult as it is to listen, she is your mother who gave you the gift of life. You don’t always have to pick up the phone and you don’t always have to listen until she is ready to end the conversation.

You should feel free to put a time limit on your conversations – “I have to pick up the kids now,” “I need to put dinner in the oven,” “I have an important meeting that I need to prepare for.” You can also try to find others to help play this role – you don’t mention if you have siblings who could participate, perhaps an individual therapist or a group setting, volunteers who visit the elderly – it may be worth doing a little research to help ease your burden.

It also sounds like there may not be much going on in her life. I don’t know how old or energetic she is but there are lots of senior citizen groups that take trips to movies, plays, lectures and other cultural events or that play games like mahjong, bridge and canasta. If she would be busier, she would perhaps be happier – or at the very least distracted.

Additionally, no matter the age, the best way to get someone to stop focusing on themselves is to encourage them to give to others. Perhaps she can find somewhere to volunteer – reading to children at local libraries or schools is an example that springs to mind but there are so many more – and that will get her out of the house and out of herself. Making these things happen is certainly work for you but ultimately they will provide relief. You don’t need to be her sole entertainment or be her constant sounding board, but you do need to strive to act with compassion.

Deadbeat Son, Ungrateful Daughter-in-Law

Dear Emuna,

Our son got married to a Jewish girl after years of not realizing the huge spiritual gain to doing so. They now have a year old baby boy and are committed to a Torah-observant lifestyle. However, for reasons only God knows for sure, our son has been unable to find lasting employment for over five years, a problem that began before he got married. They are on food stamps and have been living rent-free in our beautiful rental home for three years.

It is difficult for us to determine the exact cause of this dilemma on a practical level. He claims because of his religious appearance and work limitations concerning holidays, Shabbat, etc. some employers do not want to hire him, which compounds the problem. His wife does not work nor has any desire to. The baby is well cared for, and is dressed to perfection. So is his mother. Our daughter-in-law refuses any help from us with cleaning the house or caring for the baby so she could perhaps seek part-time work. Perhaps her parents are supplying her money.

The house is a disaster, dirty and cluttered, although my son has always been extremely neat. This, of course, is the least of the problems. They seem to be making do, but how long do we continue enabling them with regard to the rent which they had agreed to when they moved in? We think three years is long enough. They claim they cannot pay anything. She has never expressed any gratitude for what we are sacrificing. We feel so guilty to be enablers, but on the other hand, so grateful to have our son married and raising our precious grandson according to Jewish tradition. How can we set a time limit on their staying in our home and then proceed to "evict" our own children? This is the most difficult decision. It is really a lesson not to rent to family members, but in our case, it's not like telling your uncle, nephew, or niece that they must move. We've tried to set deadlines but somehow they manage to extend it, and we agree. They cannot afford to live anywhere. What to do and how to do it?

Feeling Used

Dear Feeling Used,

This is a tough one with so many complicated factors. It sounds like you have built up some resentment of your daughter-in-law due to the fact that she isn’t working and her house is messy. This may be clouding your ability to look at the situation rationally. Without knowing many more details it is of course hard to say anything definitively. Let me begin by reminding you that this is a very tough economy. College grads, kids with MBA’s and other advanced degrees are having a very difficult time find jobs. Frequently when they do find something, it is way below their qualifications and their financial expectations. Whether your son’s explanations for his lack of employment are valid or not, I don’t know. I certainly believe he could be sincerely looking for employment and still be unsuccessful.

I also don’t know your financial situation. Do you need the rent or are you just frustrated that you aren’t receiving it? If you need the rent to survive yourselves, then there may be no choice. If you don’t need it, then perhaps you need to sit down with your son and set some deadlines – while simultaneously helping him with his resume and introducing him to anyone you know who could help. If you see that he is making a sincere effort to work then you way still wish to be flexible with the deadline. If he is not, it may be that a little tough love will actually make him a better father, husband and son. You may also suggest that he visit a career counsellor.

The most important thing is that they shouldn’t feel judged and they should all feel loved. Don’t take your frustrations out on your daughter-in-law or you will lose your relationship with your son, your daughter-in-law and most of all, your precious grandson.

Out Almost Every Night

Dear Emuna,

I have a job that requires me to go out a lot in the evening – entertaining clients, reviewing the latest show or restaurant and trying out new products. My husband is more of a homebody. He likes to stay home with the kids, trying out new recipes and just relaxing at the end of his long work day. He says he doesn’t mind that I am out almost every night and that he is perfectly content with our roles and our marriage. So am I but a lot of my girlfriends have suggested that I should change my schedule or eventually our marriage will pay a price. What do you think?

Unsure

Dear Unsure,

In general, I think girlfriends should mind their own business – but not always. If they are good friends, perhaps they are picking up on a subtle change or signal that you aren’t noticing. Hopefully they only want your good and are concerned about the future. (In the worst case scenario they are jealous that they don’t have such an easy arrangement!)

While I certainly can’t tell you that you and your husband aren’t happy if you claim you are, I admit to being skeptical. If you both work during the day and you are out every night, when are you and your husband spending time together? All relationships need nurturing and our marriages most (not least!) of all. If you haven’t experienced any marital difficulties yet, you are very lucky but I’m with your girlfriends. I’m afraid they will come if you don’t change your schedule. Can you reduce it slightly so that you are out half the nights and home the majority?

Your job may not last; all those perks or obligations may disappear. At the end of it all you want your husband there and a live and vibrant marriage. You need to put the work – and time – in now in order to ensure that for the future. It seems to me you are lucky to have girlfriends who care enough to call you on your behavior.