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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I wonder how many women feel just like me. I spent the best years of my life married to an abuser and cheater, raising three children who were my world.

Now, as I approach my twilight years, I have a sick husband who needs my care and three children who are self-sufficient, successful and self-serving. I feel used by all of them. I hear from them only when they need me to baby-sit, provide a shoulder to cry on during breakups, etc.

My husband is a sick old man who appears to be headed toward dementia, and I can't find the courage to walk away. I don't know what you can do for me because I know I'm only one of millions of women in the same position: We can't afford a divorce; we want to remain a part of our children's lives; yet we yearn to give our love to those who can return it and appreciate the loving, competent women we are. What are your thoughts on this? -- LEFT BEHIND

DEAR LEFT BEHIND: Your family is not going to change. If you want change in your life, you will have to create it for yourself. Accept that you have been partly to blame for your current situation. You tolerated the abuse and cheating and focused so much attention on your children that they grew up thinking you would jump when they snapped their fingers.

If you want to be appreciated, stop acting like a martyr and make yourself less available to all of them. Use the time to carve out an identity of your own before it's too late. Donate some of that "empty" time to charities you believe in or causes you care about, and you will be appreciated. And while you're at it, talk to a lawyer and find out what your options are. You may find you're not as trapped as you think.

DEAR ABBY: Our three grandchildren have come to live with us because their mother got mixed up with drugs and their father died. The middle boy, "Clay," is such a picky eater, it borders on an eating disorder. He is 11, weighs 60 pounds and is skeletal to look at. He is the smallest child in his grade. He will eat chicken, potatoes, rice, some cereal and peanut butter sandwiches. One day he will like something, the next he won't. We have caught him making himself vomit after we have insisted he eat something.

We have tried not making a big issue about it, saving his plate for the next meal, making him sit at the table until he has eaten everything and had him see a psychologist for a year. Clay is a sweet, engaging child who has convinced two psychologists there is nothing wrong.

We know this is the way he has some control over his life, but we are fearful for his health and happiness. We have tried counseling in this community of limited mental health resources. Any suggestions? -- IN A FOOD FIGHT IN ARKANSAS

DEAR IN A FOOD FIGHT: Yes. Stop turning mealtime into a battleground. Take Clay back to his pediatrician and find out whether or not his physical development falls into the range of normal. Explain that the boy is living on protein, starches and carbs and ask what supplemental vitamins he should take for his health.

So far, all you have accomplished has been to make your grandson associate mealtime with punishment, and that isn't conducive to anyone's health and happiness -- not his and not yours. If the doctor says Clay is developing normally, then accept it, as well as the advice of the two psychologists. If he isn't, consult an expert in eating disorders.

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