DEAR ABBY: My cousin "Opal" and I grew up together. We were always close. She has gone through some rough times, and I have been trying to help her out.
She has five children (ages 10 to 2) and I have one child who is 13. The fathers of her children are not helpful. I recently completed my education and am looking for work, so money is tight.
Opal doesn't feed her kids before bringing them over or provide diapers for the little one. She promises to reimburse me, but rarely does. Most of the time I keep my mouth shut because I know she doesn't make much as a server. How can I make her understand that even though I have only one child that doesn't mean I have the money to help her out with her five?
Also, when I baby-sit her children, they are rowdy and destructive. But if I try to raise the subject, it creates tension between us.
I love Opal. I want to help her. But when is it enough? I don't want to withdraw my help completely, but it has become more than my household can bear. -- CARING COUSIN IN MISSOURI
DEAR CARING COUSIN: Nothing will change until you are ready to tell Cousin Opal enough is enough and set some strict rules. That she has had five children with different deadbeat boyfriends is not your fault. One accidental pregnancy -- or even two -- can happen. But five should be a clue that your cousin is irresponsible.
Tell Opal that unless her children are fed before they arrive and she provides diapers, you will no longer baby-sit for her. (It wouldn't be a bad idea to tell her to include some snacks as well.) Tell her that before her children come over she is to instruct them to be on their best behavior. Her household may be chaotic because there are no rules -- so don't blame those children for their bad behavior.
When they arrive, tell them that in your house there are rules. Explain clearly what they are and that there are rewards for good behavior. Make clear that if they can't be good, they won't be welcomed back without their mother.
If the penalty for drawing the line is that there is tension between you and your cousin, the upside will be that you will be taken advantage of less often.