Dear Captain and Awkward Army,
My husband and I live a few hours from my extended family and often go to visit them, staying with my aunt and uncle. My parents live out of state and also stay with my aunt and uncle when they come to visit, but they will be moving closer to these relatives very soon. My aunt has commented sadly that no family members will stay with them anymore (they are great hosts and love hosting), since my parents will have their own house and, everyone presumes, we will go stay with my parents when we come to visit.
The issue is that I would much prefer to continue to stay with my aunt and uncle because my mom keeps their house ICE COLD. She seems to have the idea that since she hit menopause, this gives her complete and unquestionable control over the thermostat. As an example: On my WEDDING DAY, I was in my dress at my parents’ house before going to the church, and I was so cold my fingers were turning purple, and when I asked my mom if I could turn the temperature up, she said, “I turned it up earlier, but I got too hot, so I had to turn it down again.”
My dad is cold like me but just deals with it with thick sweatshirts and what not. This says a lot about their relationship, but that’s a separate issue. My husband has also told me how much he dislikes staying at their place because of the cold.
My mom is extremely sensitive to criticism and also can be passive-aggressive. Meanwhile, my aunt is always super-concerned about hurting people’s feelings, so I think she would feel horrible about having us stay at her house if she thought my mom was going to be hurt in any way.
So as I see it, our options for visits will be:
1) Stay with my parents, freeze, continue to suffer in silence.
2) Insist that my mom turn the heat up if we are going to stay with them, deal with the backlash, then deal with passive-aggressive comments about how hot she is the entire time we’re there.
3) Find a way to continue staying with my aunt and uncle and run the risk of damaging several family relationships.
4) Stay in a hotel, which we can’t really afford and which is kind of silly when there are two homes with rooms for us.
5) Not visit family anymore??
Are there other options I’m not seeing? Any suggestions for how to have the necessary conversations with my mom and/or aunt for minimal backlash?
Dear Frozen Out:
This letter made me think of my grandparents’ house, where they kept the temperature around 58 degrees, even during a Massachusetts winter. They had a whole closet full of cardigans, and the ritual when you went into the house was to take off your coat, put it on a hanger, and choose your sweater. As a consequence, there are many family photos of everyone in their best holiday attire + a weird Mr. Rogers cardigan + you can’t see anyone’s hands because we have all tucked them inside the sleeves of the sweater. Whenever I slept over there in winter as a child, I would pretend that I was Sara Crewe during the “freezing garret” parts of A Little Princess. Endearing in hindsight! Itchy & freeeeeeeezing at the time.
While your mom may very well want you to stay with her and be miffed if you don’t, my opinion is that if your mom takes “It’s really cold in here, can you turn up the heat?” or “We’re going to stay with aunt & uncle, but we’ll see a lot of you guys, of course” as horrible, evil, mean personal attack, that’s completely 100% on her. That’s the kind of “hurt” where you were eating with a fork, your mom got a running start and impaled herself on the fork, and now she’s mad at you for stabbing her with a fork.
The fact that your aunt is so afraid of upsetting your mom (thanks to your mom’s EXCELLENT job at being controlling and making everyone anticipate and worry about invoking her anger) is also not your problem to manage. Your aunt’s “I bet no one will stay with us now” is premature. Nobody needs to be spun up about the question of Which Guest Room Is Best? this far in advance of an actual visit.
Things you can’t control:
- Your mom’s comfort at a given temperature
- Whether your mom will get angry and upset
- Whether your mom will turn up the heat when you ask
- Whether your aunt will get upset if your mom gets upset
- What people presume about where you’ll stay and assume about what that means about your relationship
Things you can control:
- Where you actually stay
- How much you try to manage everyone’s feelings and worry about this
Good news, you don’t have to decide every single instance of where you’ll stay for the rest of time. It can be a case-by-case thing. If you want to, stay with your aunt and uncle. Your reason can be “We like staying with them!” or “We’ll just be more comfortable there” or “Mom, we don’t want to freeze, and we don’t want you to fry, so this just made more sense.” If you want to stay with your parents sometimes, may I suggest summer?
You can give your parents’ house a try and if it’s too cold (and you can’t find an agreeable heat setting, and your stealthy attempts to change the thermostat yourself do not stick) you can move to a hotel, or Aunt’s. “Mom, we love you, but it’s freezing in here. We want you to be comfortable, but we also can’t take it! We’ll be at Aunt’s and see you tomorrow.” “Mom, we’ll be more comfortable at Aunt’s, and you’ll be more comfortable if you can keep the temperature how you like it.” “Aunt, we’d love to see you, and we’d love to be warm. If you’re willing to have us, we’re willing to ride out Mom’s temper-tantrum.”
The truth is, your mom and dad get to decide how their house gets to be (and how their marriage gets to be). They have to live there. There are also predictable consequences to keeping your house at walk-in cooler temperature, and that consequence is that no one will hang out for very long. It’s not a mystery! Your love for your parents should not be measured in chilblains, and if they make your ability to endure cold weather into some kind of emotional test, they can look forward to failing that test.
Visit them when you can/want to. Hang out as long as you can stand it. Let the emotions fall where they may. You might have one really big tearful blowup, or some terse passive-aggressive drama, but the great thing about boundaries (and enforcing boundaries with your absence) is that eventually either your mom will figure out that you are serious about your own needs and set the heat at a slightly more comfortable level, or resign her self to the fact that you aren’t sleeping there anymore.