Oh Captain My Captain:
I’m running into a communications problem, and could use some advice.
First the backstory: I live with my parents. My mother, who is nearing seventy, is having arthritis issues and needs a little bit of extra help around the house; generally more help that I can reasonably provide while being a full-time student. A year ago, a friend of mine had to choose between an abusive situation and homelessness, and I convinced Mom that we could offer her a third option. Now we have Kat in our guest room, doing dishes and minor housecleaning tasks for ten dollars a day plus room and board.
Now, the problem: Mom is unhappy with Kat’s performance. A lot of this is coming from the fact that Mom isn’t actually talking to her. She doesn’t remind either of us of routine tasks (because we’re intelligent people and she shouldn’t have to explain the obvious), and deals with extraordinary requests by telling me that they need to be done (with the unspoken riders of “so get Kat to do it” and “you should already know how I want that task performed” and “I will be Very Upset if you do this yourself instead of making sure Kat does it to my specifications.”) When, somehwere along the line, communication inevitably breaks down and something *doesn’t* meet with her approval, I get to listen to Mom rant about how she’s not getting what she’s paying for and how Kat isn’t ever going to be able to make it in the real world if she can’t complete simple tasks. Mom does not, generally speaking, ever voice concerns directly to Kat.
Do you have advice/scripts/etc. for how to stop being the Mom-to-Kat translator in this arrangement?
The Messenger Is Tired Of Being Shot
Dear Tired of Being Shot:
It could be that your mom’s critiques about Kat’s domestic services are about just that. If Kat folded the dishtowels *just so,* all would be well. If your mom could just tell Kat how to do it, Kat would do it right. Solved! Why put you in the middle?
I think your mom’s rants are about something more, though. The comments about Kat’s ability to “make it in the real world” and “I need to get what I’m paying for” and “do not do it yourself, absolutely make her do it”, etc. are hinting at a larger subtext, one in which your mom is not happy with the overall arrangement. This is a complete mental recalculation of Kat’s status from “child’s good friend who I am helping out in return for some help” to The Help. I know that you don’t want to play translator or run interference between them, but Kat’s continued housing stability in the short term may depend on you doing so. This has crossed over from an “employer” wanting to correct a mistake to a judgment on *what kind of a person* Kat is. What does your mom say to her when you’re not around, I wonder?
I have sympathy for your mom – it’s difficult to adjust to needing help, to physical pain and limitations, to the awkwardness of having someone who is between a houseguest and a roommate and a maid around in your space all the time – I get it. But whenever someone talks about “the real world” as a place distinct from here and a place where you are sure to be found wanting if…(you don’t do what they want you to do), you are about to enter the World of Power-Tripping Bullshit. Does it get more “real” than having to flee an abusive situation and live as an unpaid domestic servant on dependent on the goodwill of a lady who resents you and rants about your work while passing judgments upon your character? Seems pretty fucking real to me.
There are three big issues or needs here:
1) Getting your mom some help with household tasks and easing her burden,
2) Buying your friend some more time to put together a stable housing and employment situation for herself, so that she can move out on her own terms, and,
3) Protecting your study & work time and not making the household slack (or conflicts around it) fall on you. This is the question you asked, and the answer is simple (but not easy, and not without consequences): “Mom, why don’t you tell Kat directly? I’m sure she’ll fix whatever it is right away if you just tell her.”
If it sounds like I am Team Kat in all of this, I will confess that I am, though I feel for you and I think that your proposed solution last year was a very kind one. It had a lot to offer in terms of a short-term solution that filled a lot of immediate needs. But after a year it’s definitely time to revisit the whole thing, because now these seem like competing goals. My sense is that you can pick any two of the three goals to advance at the same time. I think the uncomfortable truth here is that Kat might have traded one insecure, walking-on-eggshells living situation for another. As tempting as it is to say “Mom, tell Kat directly what you need but leave me out of it,” I think you need to tell Kat what your mom’s grumblings are (or at very least that she has grumblings). I also think it’s time to have a talk about what Kat’s plans are. There are caregiving jobs (that pay real wages!) that also provide housing: residential advisor if she’s in school, nanny, caregiver. “You are my friend, not my maid, and I want to figure out how to help you transition to a very stable, happy living situation where you’re paid what you are worth.” There’s protecting your mom from Kat’s weaksauce towel-folding or whatever, and then there’s protecting your friend from a sudden “This isn’t working out and you need to move out right away” edict from your mom. Which is you in the middle again, where you don’t want to be.
So, how to make it better in the short term? Here’s one way to maybe make it a little better for now. (Yes, that IS a lot of qualfiiers, isn’t it?)
The rare times I’ve been able to hire cleaning help, the service sends a giant checklist of what they do and don’t do and you agree on pricing and a time estimate up front. Then the cleaner walks through the space with you on the day and goes over exactly what will happen. Then you do a walk-through at the end and make sure everything is cool. Everything is very well-defined, because while the cleaner might be very diligent and great at cleaning, they don’t know all the quirks of your house and how you like things to be. It protects everyone if things are written down and agreed-upon in detail. It sounds like Kat and your mom need such a contract to be in place (and if there already is one. it needs to be more detailed). Professional cleaners do this, so why would Kat just magically know how everything should be done? Also, pro cleaners work set, defined hours and charge way more than $10/day.
You and your other parent (where are they in all of this, btw?) and your mom could spend a day or so building a list of all the tasks that need doing around the house on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. You could approach it from the standpoint of “Mom, I’m trying to figure out how to make sure whatever help we get around the house is actually helpful, and it’s clear from some of your complaints that there are whole areas of stuff that you quietly took care of for years that Dad & I have taken for granted. I’ve printed this list off from a local cleaning service as a guideline, will you take a look at it and then walk through everything with us so we can make a master list of what needs to get done on a daily/weekly/monthly basis?”
This master cleaning list is not an “Assignments for Kat” list, btw. There are laws against having an unpaid full-time servant living with you, for many, many good reasons. The list is a basis for deciding what will your mom still like to handle, what will your dad do, what will you do, what is Kat’s, and what might you hire additional people to do. The list is also a way to get your mom to articulate exactly what her needs are. Something too “silly” or “basic” to go Officially On The List? “You should just already know what to do” won’t fly anymore. It goes on the list, or it’s not important, and you (all of you, Kat too) have permission to not give a fuck about it.
[EDITED TO ADD]In consultation with local legal experts and abiding by local laws[/edit], your family and Kat can put in place some kind of contract that spells everything out. The contract should have an end date on it, and stipulate a process for extension or renegotiation at that time. In my opinion, the contract should spell out real world rates for whatever services that Kat performs, and then articulate that those rates are discounted in exchange for $x worth of room and board. If your mom is so anxious to put a price on stuff, put a price on it. The contract should also have a checklist of things that happen AND the time frame for work to happen in, like, 2 hours/day, dusting on Wednesdays, etc. The script for talking about this is “Hey, now that we’ve been at this a while, let’s revisit things to make sure that they can work for everyone.”
Short of a comprehensive contract or list, you could try a script of “Ma, can you write that down for me? If you really need me to be the one who gives instructions to Kat, I guess I can do that, but it would help me a lot if you wrote a list.” She will grumble that she shouldn’t have, to, y’all should just know, etc. and you can say, “Mom, whether you should have to or not, I would really like you to do it. I want you to have the help you need, and it would help me so much if you could spell it out on paper. Thank you.” Stay very positive and polite, but always push for the written list before you promise to take any action. Her actions after you ask her to write things down will also get right to the crux of the matter – Does your mom actually want the cleaning to get better, is this about her trying to get your attention, or is she starting the case for evicting Kat?
Upsides: It’s good for a family if everyone understands what makes the household run, this list will be useful in hiring services down the road post-Kat living with you, and the list will help generate a list of reasonable expectations, and it may make your mom aware of what market rates are for this kind of service. I think if anything has a chance of making things smoother, spelling it all out is that thing.
Downside: Figuring out the list, delegating things, taking on more household tasks is work, work that maybe you don’t want to do. It advances the goals of getting your mom the help she needs and preserving Kat’s situation for now, but it doesn’t support your goal of disengaging. Again I ask: Where is your other parent in all of this?