#1200: “My mom is bugging me to clean my room.”

Dear Captain,

About a year ago I was able to save just enough money to say, “F@&$ you!” to a really depressing living situation and moved cross-USA into my mom’s new house in the very expensive area near where I grew up. I’m lucky that my mom and I are fairly compatible personality-wise (and that my younger siblings are as well; the one I get along with best also lives here) and she doesn’t want me to pay her rent. After a few months of depression, followed by temp work, followed by getting into a great volunteer gig, a great part-time job, and re-entering community college to change careers (from the arts to a very applied science, which is un-coincidentally not viewed as prestigious or intellectual unlike my previous field), I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting back on my feet emotionally and financially.

The problem is, my room is still crowded with unpacked boxes and is not very clean (I have pets which are creating messes I am slow to clean up). We bought paint and furniture months ago but I’ve been too busy and overwhelmed to put my room together and so I’m living out of laundry bags. I know this situation is untenable and unpleasant (for me) but I do try to keep the worst of the mess to my own room and to keep up with my pets’ needs. (UfYH has helped with that and is helping me keep the worst of the mess down.)

But I think my mom has been going in my space (expressly against my permission) and she keeps giving me bullshit ultimatums disguised as “help”.
Example: Mom non-sequiturs: “This weekend we are *going* to move your desk into the dining room so you can unpack.”
Me: “I don’t want to move my desk (because I have other more important things to do like laundry for work and eking out a little self-care and also I use my desk and also where TF did that come from?)”
Mom: “But you *can’t* live like this!”

Captain, I know it’s not great, but it isn’t a pigsty and I am already barely keeping up with my new responsibilities and I just don’t have the energy to do polishing touches on my room. There are too many steps to take before I am even close to that. My mom talks to me like an incompetent child whenever it comes to cleaning (or calling out sick from work!) and rags on me whenever I try to talk about the volunteer work I’m doing in my new field. She has *suggesti-told* me to quit whenever I say I’m tired (because it’s physical, outdoor work), and it makes me so, so angry. How can I tell her my priorities are different from hers and how can I express my feelings without her complaining that I’m just bad at managing my life? (I’ve been trying to keep her on an information diet because she’s been so critical but it’s backfired because now she thinks I have “sleep issues.” Which she just *told* me to see a doctor for, like that’s so easy or even the problem. I snapped back that my health is none of her business. Have I mentioned that I’m fat, queer, and happily single? I.e., failing at traditional womanhood?) I’m tired and overwhelmed because I’m still not out of my depression, but volunteering and working is helping, and if my room stays a mess for the next year it will still have been worth it for me! I know it’s her house but it is *my* room and *my* stuff she complains about.

I think part of the problem is that my new career is lower-status than what I originally went to school for (and declined to get an expensive Master’s for). I have heard her dismiss my work in conversations with family like she thinks it’s some sort of phase. Captain, I am in my thirties, I know I’m making good, sensible decisions for my future. I am “behind” my peers because I decided to start over, not because I’m incompetent. My life trajectory is different because I am different. I feel like my otherwise-lovely, supportive mother sees my room as visible evidence that I am a failure at adulting.

Thanks for any kind of scripts/assistance/creating this vaguely friendly void of an email account to scream my frustration into!

Darling daughter is doing just fine. (She/her)

Dear Darling Daughter,

As the reigning queen of “I’ll deal with the housework later, I’ve got important WORK things to do instead, plus, mental health stuff makes it hard to have energy for everything I have going on, plus, get off my CASE, Mom” I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but…

What if your mom is kinda….right…. about your room (and only your room)? What if the answer really is: Block out a weekend in advance, embargo all room-talk until that time, make some lists, take a few days off from volunteering, ask your mom and a friend to help you if possible (the friend can serve as both helper and buffer), unpack your shit, paint the walls, set up the furniture, make yourself and your pets a pleasant living space, and end this particular argument once and for all.

Let’s pause in case smelling salts or a cup of tea are required. Still with us?

Here’s why I say this: The first words in your letter are “About a year ago.” Your stuff has been in boxes and laundry bags for a year. You’re talking about leaving them there for another year while you get more school and work under your belt. Which, sure, up to you!

But fixing the room won’t take a year, it will really actually take a few days of dedicated attention, for which it is possible to hire help btw (Once I hired a nice man on TaskRabbit and he came to my house and assembled a bunch of Ikea furniture that would have taken me and Mr. Awkward DAYS and LOTS OF SWEAR WORDS in about 20 pleasant minutes and then just walked around the apartment spotting and doing various handyman tasks like some kind of magical Dad-God. Cost = $60 to get All The Things done and not have any weird feelings happen. Amazing.) Asking your mom or a friend for help, or hiring someone for a day will probably FEEL scary because with mess and disorganization there can also be a lot of shame, you’re inviting someone into your sanctuary and saying “here, deal with my shame,” but I think after a year, with the possibility of letting it go for another year, it’s time to consider it.

I know, it’s overwhelming. There’s a thing when you start coming out of depression where it gets worse before it gets better, because as the fog lifts you can suddenly see all the things that you let pile up clearly but you don’t quite have the energy to deal with them yet, so you start to long for the numbing fog of depression again because this feeling of shame and avoidance is so sharp it’s almost worse, and that’s where it sounds like you might be right now with all of it. When I’m in that place I can usually keep it together professionally but that takes all I’ve got, and at home I’m just a lump of “don’t wanna” for at least a few more months, letting the piles continue to grow, and flourish, with the idea that I’ll get to it at some point when I’m feeling better but not yet, except the “kind of crisis mode” becomes “the new normal” because my habits calcify into habits of Not Dealing With Stuff and then I have to dig out of THAT. So please believe, I’m not unsympathetic, sometimes the answer is “I’m doing the best I can and this is just how it has to be for now.” But sometimes the answer is, “Help me, I can’t do this alone and I’m going to avoid it forever if I don’t get some help, I actually need some external accountability [dates on a calendar][a buddy who will come over and help me hang all my art on the walls and get my desk back to NORMAL-messy desk from APOCALYPSE-messy desk]” and that’s what gets me the rest of the way out. Because what I feel once I ask for help and once the thing that seemed so impossible is actually possible and done? Is mostly relief, relief that was never going to come as long as I kept not dealing with the stuff that piled up. So that’s where I’m coming from, Letter Writer, I want you to have that relief. You sound like an incredibly motivated person with a strong work ethic – you are doing SO MUCH STUFF right now! – so what’s the worst thing that happens if you take a break for a few days to apply that motivation to your living space? Does your mom “win” if you do? Do you lose something critical at school or work?

I know, it’s YOUR room and YOUR stuff and it shouldn’t be an issue, but it actually IS an issue, you and your mom are fighting about it all the time, it’s making you feel bad, (plus “pet messes” translate to me as pet pee/poop, which would concern me too if you and these pets were living in my brand new house). While it’s very possible that the room has become, as you say, “visible evidence of failure at adulthood,” what if it’s also evidence of a different question, one called “Well, do you live here or not, kid?”

Are you and your mom two adults intentionally sharing a home together, or are you just crashing for a while?

Your mirror version of that question is a valid one: “Well, do you accept me as me, your actual daughter, or not? Are we two adults intentionally sharing a home for a while or am I your weird project?” And that’s why you’re digging in your heels so hard, because you sense that this is primal stuff, a fight for your existence, and I get it. Obviously, the fight about the messy room isn’t just about the room, it’s a fight for the new life you’re making for yourself, for autonomy, for a career you want, for a place to heal from depression and recover and bloom again, to be your fabulous fat queer self. And you deserve that, you absolutely do. You deserve safety and comfort and privacy in your living space, you deserve to have your boundaries respected. You and your mom might not actually be all that compatible as housemates and you might immediately get a burst of happiness and freedom down the road when you do eventually move into your own place, but that’s not where you are now, you’re in a place where you need her, so you need to negotiate a sustainable peace. 

If you can’t work on the room right now, then you can’t, and you don’t have to. To that end, scripts like: “I love my job, even if it makes me tired sometimes, it’s one of the things I do to feel better even it doesn’t look like that” and “Mom, when I want advice or help about that I promise I will ask you, but you have to let me ask, otherwise you’re being weird and overstepping boundaries” and “I have a disability and sometimes I don’t have capacity to do everything I want to do, so I have to do my best to do the things I can do, and setting up my room just isn’t a priority for me in the same way it is for you, I don’t want to fight but I’m really going to need you to drop this topic until I bring it up” might get you through the next year. “If we’re going to live together as adults, we’re going to have to have adult rules, like, we don’t go in each other’s bedrooms or comment on what’s going on in there.” “It’s okay if we have different standards for that, Mom.” Introduce her to the story about the spoons. All reasonable & necessary! 

Plus, you and your mom would probably benefit from finding Three Safe Topics of Conversation that aren’t about your life and how you’re living it. A show or an author you both like. A board game or card game or video game you both like to play. Some fun activity you do together regularly as adults who enjoy each other’s company. Plus some topic where it is emotionally safe for you to ask her for advice, where you can really let her be the expert, so it’s not always a game of resisting everything she has to teach or offer. You talked about putting her on an information diet about work and health stuff (smart!) but think about some ways you can fill the conversational space with low-key, not-fraught things that pleasantly engage her at the end of the day. 

I experienced a ton of conflict and emotionally-scarring fights around being tidy as a kid, something my undiagnosed #ADHD-self was just not able to do but because I was smart in other ways it didn’t occur to anyone that I was legitimately struggling and not just “lazy.” So, imagine a childhood with surprise inspections from my former-Marine dad, who would walk across the floor and deliberately step on and break any toy that was left there in order to “teach” me not to leave my things out, where anything that wasn’t in a drawer or on a shelf could be suddenly seized and taken away or thrown away without warning for being out of place. Did it teach me to be tidy? Readers, it did not. It taught me to be ashamed, and angry, and to have a “eff you, it’s my room and I can keep it how I want it” attitude when I moved out, and attitude that does not always serve me in adulthood when my baseline tendencies actually need someone to be the grownup and just do the thing, already.

I tell you this because chores/cleaning/tidying have a lot of extra baggage for me, and one reason I’m turning off comments is that I know they have a lot of baggage for others, too, and I’m not in a place to moderate or even read the inevitable “But why can’t you just make it clean and keep it that way, I don’t understand” vs. “Wanting someone who lives in your house to keep their room clean is like murdering them, basically, your mother is trying to murder your soul, HOLD FAST!” comment-storm that always happens when issues of household cleanliness standards arise. I don’t want to add to anyone’s burden or make them feel ashamed, but I also feel strongly that I, personally, do better with all of it when I remove feelings/moods/relationships/history as much as possible from questions of household tasks and organization. The litter box doesn’t care about my feelings, it will just stink forever if I don’t clean it, and I’m not sending some glorious FU back in time to my dad’s obsession with neatness during the 1980s or defying “the system,” I’m just making more work for myself the longer I put it off and being a dick to my cats.

Letter Writer, I think that honestly, as long as your room is the way it is, your mom’s gonna feel the way she feels about it, and it’s gonna be a weird *thing* between you. It’s not because you’re failing at everything (you are actually doing amazing things to take care of yourself and your future!), it’s because she can see this one thing where a little care and attention could make a huge difference, and she wants you to be able to give that care and attention to yourself. She wants you to settle in and be at home here. This is a choose your battles situation. What is the easiest way for you to remove this particular topic as a battleground? Have a bunch of boundary-setting talks or unpack some boxes, stick some others in the attic or basement, set your room up like you live there and plan to stay for a while and save the boundary-setting for some of the other issues between you? 

It’s up to you what you do about it, just, I know that it feels like if you acquiesce about the room, you’re agreeing to all of it, all of your mom’s standards for what a good life for her daughter should look like, but what if it’s not the “slippery slope” you fear? What if it could be one project, something where you could actually use some help, and the situation is actually pretty fixable, and what’s waiting for you in exchange for a few days of dedicated attention is actually freedom from dread, a palpable sense of relief

In the meantime, you’ve got a great resource in UFYH, asking “What would Rachel Hoffman do?” probably isn’t the worst approach to this dilemma. I wish you well and hope this helped at all.