Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How A Farm Became A Prison

October 6, 2003

A farm woman writes about the tensions she feels in her own family and between her family and her husband's parents.

Fifteen years ago we were married and my husband's father "invited" us into a farming relationship, so in time we could work our way into the family farm without getting into debt. Eventually we would step in and take over. However, no agreement was ever signed. We were young and sure that a father would not betray a son.

She tells her story of what happened to their hopes and dreams as time passed.

As the years progressed, our problems increased. My in-laws would say the word and we would do the work. They made critical comments about our comings and goings. They are cold and unfeeling toward the children. They have never really accepted me. They show no concern for my husband or his feelings...and the list goes on.

It is easy to get trapped into a bad situation when it unfolds gradually. Hindsight is always 20/20. In situations like these, young couples need to take a stand a lot earlier and then take steps to leave if changes don’t happen.

Young couples feel like they have alternatives if they have prepared themselves with education and skills. Self-confidence comes after having success doing other things. For this couple, the passage of the additional years will require even more in the way of courage to face facts and to start over. The carrot of the farm still pulls in the opposite direction, even more so because of "sweat" equity.

We have considered leaving the farm, but we have become attached to it. Also, we will have wasted 15 years of our lives if we leave now. We both have education, beyond high school, but it would be extremely difficult to step into a new occupation at this point, with a family to support. The present situation is not good for our children either, so we are trying to keep an open mind as to our options.

Again, the easier path, - the path of their dreams, the path that justice will prevail - leads them to hope things can still be worked out.

There is never any talk about when, if ever, we would ever take over. Needless to say, we have continued with this situation, and are still very unhappy, still hoping that someday soon we could have a life all our own. In the meantime, our marriage suffers and emotions run high.

I have urged my husband to get something down in writing to correct a big mistake. My husband is reluctant to pursue this and it causes many problems between us. He has worked on this farm all his life and is afraid he will lose all he has worked for all these years.

His father has a nasty temper and an always-right attitude and, when confronted, becomes unbearable to work with, making it seem like we are serving a prison sentence instead of living life.

The husband's love of farming, his personal insecurities, and his fear of confronting his father lead him to stall and to buy time hoping that rationality or some other miracle will come along to solve his problem. Even though he may be intimidated by his father, he does resist his wife's efforts and suggestions, causing friction between them.

My father-in-law is at retirement age. Whenever anything is mentioned about retirement, we are accused of pushing him out, and not ever letting him come back. And he is right. With all the bitterness that happened between us, that is about how we feel.

How sad that family life should come to this - that a young couple would hope against hope for an unexpected retirement or even the death of parents as their only chance for happiness. Read between the lines as the writer continues.

If only he (the father-in-law) would set a date and say he would retire then, it would be so much easier to live with, but now we are puppets on a string waiting for the next move. We think of his age and oh, how we hope this is our lucky year.

Does this woman really believe that this man will retire based on what she knows about him? She seems to be engaging in the same magical thinking as her husband. Given her situation, maybe it is her only comforting and hopeful thought, no matter how unrealistic it may be.

If there are parents out there who recognize even a little bit of themselves in this story, don't go to your graves with your children despising you. Family relationships are more important than having total control on a family farm. Be generous. Let go. Make plans that consider the needs of the family who has worked hard for the farm. Soften up your attitudes and your heart.

To the woman who wrote - wherever you are, don't count on it. You and your husband need to take control of the situation and exercise your options. It is not too late for you to change either. Staying put and living with bitterness at this point is a self-inflicted wound. Your prison is a prison with open gates.