Be supportive to your brother and niece, but stay out of it.
My brother and his wife have been married over 10 years and have a son, 9, and a daughter, 7. Over the last five years my sister-in-law has become, in my opinion, obsessed with her looks. She’s a stay-at-home parent in name only who spends hours (and sometimes overnight trips) at the gym every day, constantly enters beauty pageants/fitness competitions, and seems to spend close to no time with her children. At best she ignores them and at worst she treats them with contempt. My brother is paying for several of her plastic surgery procedures. Even when she is at home, she listens to music with her earbuds in so it is very difficult for any of them to initiate an interaction with her. My brother works full time and takes care of the children and the household—paying bills, laundry, cooking, cleaning, yardwork, helping with homework, getting the kids to and from their activities, etc. It has become obvious to my husband and I, as well as others in our family, that the kids need attention and are suffering. I have repeatedly expressed my concerns to my brother and told him that no matter what he decides I am here for them. He is not willing to make moves toward a divorce or go to counseling. He says if he divorces her, he will have “failed.”
At Thanksgiving, I was saying goodbye to my niece and nephew while my brother was saying goodbye to relatives in the other room. My sister-in-law was sitting nearby. During this exchange, my niece told me, loudly, “Auntie, I love you more than I love my mom,” then looked very pointedly at her mom and hugged me again. It was obviously a very awkward moment. I said something to the effect of, “Now, now, I’m sure you don’t mean that.” My sister-in-law feigned surprise and then just laughed. I realize a holiday dinner with a house full of people is not the appropriate time to ask my 7-year-old niece about her feelings. I still feel bad. I feel like I failed my niece by contradicting her feelings, and I also feel like I unwittingly condoned my sister-in-law’s behavior. Is there something else I could have said or done in that moment?