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Hi, Carolyn: I’m 30 and live at home with my disabled mother and grandmother, and my younger sister and her two sons moved in with us last year. I love my nephews (1 and 3), but for the past year I’ve felt like a second parent, or at worst an unpaid nanny. Sister doesn’t work, but she’s taking online classes; I work full-time and do as much housework as I can.

From the minute I get home, I’m on Kid Duty: My sister will disappear upstairs, or be in the room physically but trust me to make sure the 1-year-old doesn’t choke on a crayon or the 3-year-old eats his dinner. I put the 3-year-old to bed every night and clean up after bedtime. If I go to my room, I have maybe half an hour to myself before Sister is texting me for help.

She’s going through a bad divorce, and I know she had postpartum depression. I feel like a jerk telling her I need time for myself, plus she points out that she has no time for herself, either. My go-to argument is that these aren’t actually MY kids, but saying that makes me feel like even more of a jerk.

Am I being unreasonable in wanting less responsibility? The father is in another state and has always been verbally abusive, and I do love the kids, so I don’t want to step away completely -- I just feel like I’m being taken advantage of. It causes a lot of strain in the house and I’m scared the kids will pick up on it.

– Aunt in Agony

First of all, you’re a mensch.

Not a jerk, at all.

You’re clearly an immense help to a mother under extreme duress, and you provide these boys -- and the world in general -- with some sorely needed compassion. Ultimately this will enrich your own life, especially through your bond with these kids.

But you need and deserve thoughtful limits. Figure out how many evenings you’re willing to help, then give your sis a schedule, then stick to it. Tell her you want to help and love your nephews, but neither of you can afford for both of you to burn out.

If/when she mentions being break-starved herself, then you can point out without being a jerk that you’re not a mother -- and, too, she actually does get breaks, because you’re the one giving them. And you’re not taking them away. All you’re saying is that you won’t provide child care every night on demand.

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With your new limits, in fact, she does gain something significant: breaks she can plan for and around, look forward to, and count on to be there. That can make it more restful to be off and less stressful to be on.

You, too, can squeeze more rest from your off hours because you won’t constantly wonder when you’ll get the cry for help.

So as part of this plan, your down time is yours, period. In extreme cases, depressed/abused/overwhelmed parents can harm their kids, so if needed, help your sister hire a “mother’s helper,” maybe a responsible neighborhood teen or even tween, to give you all some peace of mind.

Email Carolyn at [email protected],or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Helping out with sister’s kids overwhelms aunt

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