Dear Captain Awkward,
Now that my spouse and I have purchased a house, my mother (who is a difficult person, reminiscent of Alice, but with her own special nuances) is constantly sending us my family’s old junk.
Here’s how the conversation goes: Mom says (for example), “I have all of these lawn ornaments that have been sitting in a box in the basement for 15 years. Do you want them?” I say, “No, we really just want to choose our own stuff.” She says, “Think about it.” The conversation closes. Then, the next time we talk, we have EXACTLY THE SAME conversation. Then, she sends it to me or brings it with her when she comes to visit. And I take it to a thrift store. When she visits, she looks for the previous stuff she has given me, and becomes either sullen and pouty or aggressively angry when she can’t find it. It makes visits extremely stressful.
None of the stuff on offer is anything with which I have a sentimental connection. All of those things—stuffed animals, correspondence with friends, books—my mother got rid of a number of years back (and not by giving them to me). Additionally, during my childhood, my mother took away things I liked away as a form of punishment for (often imagined) bad behavior. This happened over and over again with basically anything I had a connection to, eventually extending to pets that were re-homed and with friends that suddenly became “bad influences” that I wasn’t allowed to see. So I have a weird relationship with stuff in general and with stuff from my childhood in particular.
And now there’s this wave of childhood stuff coming at me. And it sort of feels like an apology? But there’s another part of me that thinks she’s using me, so she doesn’t have to feel guilty for throwing all this stuff away. So she transfers the guilt to me.
She’s a boundary-ignorer and a grudge-holder and a non-apologizer. What do I do?
Drowning in Junk
You are already handling this exactly right with your mom. “No, thank you,” + “No, I don’t want it,” + donating or throwing the stuff away when it inevitably comes. If you wanted, you could try being even more terse in the first conversation (“No, Mom“), even more explicit at the second conversation (“Mom, I’ve already told you ‘no.’ Please don’t bring it to me or send it to me. If you do, I’m just going to toss it),” and even more demonstrative when she shows up with something (“Mom, don’t forget your box – we don’t want it.”) but you are already telling and showing your mom exactly what to expect when she “offers” you her unwanted stuff and then following through.
The next step might be some raised voices. “Mom! I want zero things from your house in my house! I do not know how I can be any clearer about that! What would it take for you to stop insisting on this and then picking a fight about it later? I have had it with this being a point of contention between us! Don’t ask me again – you already know the answer!”
Or you could go on as you have been – tell her no, immediately donate or toss anything she brings, and when she inevitably brings it up, say, “Well, believe me next time when I say I don’t want something and we’ll never have this argument again! Howabout that local sports team? Do you think they can play their sport in this weather that we’re having?”
I think you’ve tried avoiding losing your temper at her this far, and sometimes there is satisfaction in “being the more mature person” or “the bigger person,” but sometimes letting pushy people know exactly how pissed off you are is what gets them to back off. They can’t be convinced with logic or reasons, but sometimes they can be Told, especially when you consider that what your mom is doing is a power play. She is trying to unload her crap on you and then use that process to manufacture conflict and a situation where you either bend to her will (“admit” that you do want it after all, or demonstrate that you will let her bulldoze over you) or where she gets to grind on about how ungrateful you are (for the “favor” she is doing you). It was a gross power play when you were a kid, too, but now she is not an authority figure in your life and you don’t have to both put up with her behavior and protect her from the consequences of it by playing nice when she is not.
By the way, welcome to the Fuck Its.
You grew up and moved out of the house where your mom gave your pets away (and also tried to isolate you from your friends) and you made your own place that you 100% control. Your mom is trying to reassert control and command your attention, and she is gonna keep offering you crap you don’t want, imposing it on you, searching for it when she comes by, and trying to hold you to account for it because she doesn’t really care what you want and never has. That’s how she rolls. So, fuck it. Let her feelings be what they are. Let her hold a weird grudge. Let her be really difficult. Let her avoid you and pout for a while. She has earned a lifetime of the “(shrug) Sorry you feel that way” non-apology.
Surviving this means setting & maintaining your boundaries (which you’re already doing) and finding some way to decompress and take care of yourself around her behavior. Let go of guilt and the urge to please her. Whether that involves planning something relaxing and rewarding after you interact with her, making your house a lovely oasis of only the stuff that you value and cherish, using a journal or counselor to talk through all the old feelings that this is bringing up for you, and/ or taking a therapeutic sledgehammer to whatever she brought you before throwing it in a dumpster next time she drops off a bag of childhood bullshit – you have options. You have already survived the worst she can throw at you, so I know you can survive a few awkward grudges and donated lawn darts. ❤