Dear Annie: I'm 64. I have known "Ashley" for seven years. She is a mother of two young boys, ages 7 and 5. In her early mommy years, she needed a lot of help. She would call me in the early mornings and ask whether I could care for the kids so she could go to work. I would make the long drive after throwing water on my face.
Ashley's boys call me Gramma. It's a heavenly title. Being able to enjoy these kids has truly filled a void in my life. I did not get to enjoy my own grandchildren because of a tragic divorce, losing my girls to parental abduction.
But Ashley has never been very mindful of my needs. I have had several surgeries. She would always say she would fix food and bring it by, but she never did. I'm low-income, but despite that, last Christmas I spent over my budget on the kids. I got them nice gifts and was excited to see them. It was February before I got to see them.
The boys are now both in school. Ashley is meeting lots of other moms with kids the same ages, and I hear less and less from her. I did get the courage to ask whether I'd done something to make her angry. She assured me that I'm "family" and that she's just busy. Then I didn't hear from her.
I feel like an idiot for allowing myself to love those boys as much as I do. The hardest thing of all is that I truly thought Ashley cared. The little signs were there that I was being used, but I love the kids so much that I ignored them.
I suppose I should just be grateful for the time I did get to be a grandmother. It was wonderful! But oh, I do miss those kids. I sure wish there were a magic switch to just shut my heart off. -- The Friend Who Wasn't
Dear Friend Who Wasn't: The dangerous thing about voids is the lengths to which you'll go to fill them -- even at the expense of your own well-being, even if it means being used. And yes, maybe Ashley used you, but I don't think she did so consciously. Most young parents would have a tough time resisting free baby sitting. In any case, fixating on what she did wrong gets you nowhere now.
Instead, turn your focus inward. That's where you'll find true spiritual fulfillment -- which is much different from filling a void. Consider reading some books on codependency ("Codependent No More," by Melody Beattie, is one of the most famous, and "Boundaries," by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend, is another) and/or attending counseling.
Take up some more activities on your own, whether it be cycling, kayaking, meditation, painting by number -- anything that helps you appreciate the peace in solitude. And consider volunteering somewhere you could interact with many different children (e.g., being a docent at a children's museum), because it sounds as though children love you.
Once you've accepted that you are enough and that you don't need any external person or thing to be complete, you will come to view your big heart as a gift, not a liability.
"Ask Me Anything: A Year of Advice From Dear Annie" is out now! Annie Lane's debut book -- featuring favorite columns on love, friendship, family and etiquette -- is available as a paperback and e-book. Visit http://www.creatorspublishing.com for more information. Send your questions for Annie Lane to email@example.com.