I’m 29 years old, living with my parents, my older sister and my niece.
My mother stopped work when she gave birth to me, so she’s pretty much been a housewife all her life. My father is that wonderful combination of breadwinner and financial abuser (i.e, he has enough money to buy expensive shoes and perfumes for himself, but asking him for money so we can have food and power supply is like talking to a wall), so when things are down, it falls to my sister and me to pick up the slack when it comes to money. My sister just started a new job, and I’m still entry-level at the job I’ve had for nearly three years.
The thing is, it usually falls to me to pick up the financial burden. I’m asked to pay the cable, the internet, the groceries etc all the time. I’ve asked my sister for both of us to split the bills, but she doesn’t agree. And when I ask my mother to talk to her, her preferred method is to placate me rather than talk to my sister. Usually, this means that I’m counting every cent until payday because I don’t have a lot for myself. Despite this, anytime I buy food/toiletries for myself, I’m expected to share with the two of them. I plan out my groceries and needs for the month, and I literally cannot afford to be replacing items if they finish earlier than expected.
I need help saying no, especially to my sister. Every time I try to be firm, I’m called ‘selfish’ and ‘I used to be so nice’ and ‘we’re family, so we share everything.’ I don’t think it’s selfishness to want to let my personal groceries last as long as possible, especially when I can barely afford to look after myself, and especially when my sister won’t do anything. I’m at that point where I’m seriously considering buying a small cupboard/fridge, putting it in my room and keeping everything locked up when I’m not home. What should I do?
– Not Selfish
Dear Not Selfish,
I don’t think it’s weird to ask adult children who live at home to contribute to household finances, but I don’t think it’s okay for your sister or your mom to pressure you to share your scarce resources or to call you mean and selfish when you won’t or to enforce a rule like “we’re family, we share everything, which means you share everything and I share nothing.” Them ganging up on you to keep you in line (instead of working out a fair, transparent agreement) is where this stops being a story about the women in the family helping each other survive an abusive man and becomes about a sick system replicating itself.
Your letter describes your sister as an antagonist, but what if she is someone whose example could be useful to you? By which I mean, she has learned how to say “no” to paying the family bills. And what happened? The sky didn’t fall. The key to resisting the kind of manipulation your mom is throwing at you is to accept her insult of your character. By typecasting you as “selfish” or “unkind” your mom manipulates you to prove that you aren’t selfish (by doing what she wants you to do). To turn the tables on her, agree with her assessment of your character, and then refuse to do the thing you don’t want to do. For example:
“Yes, I’m selfish! Also, I can’t pay the cable bill this month, so you’ll have to figure something else out.”
“I used to be very nice! Not so much anymore. Also, those are my groceries, and they need to last me the whole month, so don’t eat them.”
See also the “sorry you feel that way” non-apology, which, in my opinion, can be used FREELY with manipulative people. “Sorry you feel that way, Mama, I’m doing the best I can, and I can’t afford to cover that bill anymore. I hope you can work something else out.”
Go ahead and get containers that lock if you want to. Your mom and sister will throw a fit. You will be called terrible names, probably. But your dad didn’t get kicked out of the family for being an asshole. Your mom hasn’t gone back to work at any time in the past 20 years and she has a say in how the household is run (no doubt a complicated set of decisions, but, she has found a survival strategy). Your older(!) sister gets to say no to financial manipulation without the same pushback you’re getting. So, why not you? Either the cable will get turned off (and they’ll manage) or someone will figure out how to pay it (and they’ll manage). It’s far from an easy or uncomplicated thing that I’m suggesting, because it involves realizing that your family situation is messed up and deciding how much their opinion of you gets to matter to you. It means swimming against a current of powerful emotional and cultural messages. It means being even more uncomfortable in your own home than you already are. Only you can figure out what it’s worth to you – is it cheaper to pay with money, as you have been doing, or is it worth kicking yourself free of your abusive dad’s way of living even if you can’t take everyone with you right now?
My big question for you is, how much longer do you plan to live in this house? How many generations does your dad get to financially control and keep dependent on him? If I were to say, “Is it time to find a roommate and a cheap place of your own where you decide the rules?” I sense that question would unleash a flood of automatic resistance from you. “But I can’t afford it.” (Maybe you can’t…yet….but if you paid less to household bills maybe you could save up?) “But if I move out, my mom won’t be able to survive without me.” (She will, tho.) “But I owe them!” (Do you owe them every minute and every dollar for the rest of your life?) How much of that resistance is you talking, and how much of that is your family, who would like to keep you stuck in their financial dysfunction? I feel like the effort you would put into trying to change your mother and sister’s minds and hearts might be better spent rolling with their insults for now while you take care of yourself – with locks, with the word “no,” with savings, with a plan to get out of that place by the end of the year.
In fact, before you pay one more bill at home, maybe it’s time to open a bank account that your family doesn’t know about and start your G-T-F-O-Fund.