Low stakes question here regarding the delicate situation of my housemates’ generally lovely parents. I live in a house with several people, including a couple with two kids who are also my landlords (the couple, not the kids). I’ve been here for five years and I love it! The situation is wonderful, the dynamic is relaxed and positive, and we’re all on the same page re: cleaning, respect, visitors, whatever. The couple (I’ll call them Fred and Joe) will sometimes invite Joe’s parents to stay and look after the kids while they go on vacation, a situation which we are all generally fine with.
However, I am becoming increasingly annoyed that Joe’s parents completely take over the house when they are here. For example:
1) Joe’s mother has a predilection for cleaning, rearranging and reorganizing the house. I’ll come home to find dishes reorganized, things put in different places, etc. I realize she is trying to be helpful, and I don’t mind (and am in fact grateful) for the fridge to be cleaned or the shelves dusted, but I find it annoying to open a closet and find things completely reordered. It’s my stuff too, not just Joe’s — though I have to say, even if it were just me, and MY mother came and reorganized things without asking, we would have words!
2) Things get loud, especially in the mornings. Loud talking, Facetiming, playing with the kids (it’s a big house and usually Fred and Joe move the kids away from the bedrooms in the mornings so others can sleep), etc. I work late and have a night-owl schedule. I have a white noise machine and ear plugs, but last night the noise in the morning was loud enough that I woke early anyway. I addressed this once and it briefly improved things, but time passes and maybe they forget…?
3) They don’t seem to realize that I am an actual member of the household and not a guest of their son. For example, I left a note out to inform everyone that my friend was coming to stay for a few days. They insisted that I call Fred and Joe to ask permission. I believe Joe’s father’s exact words were, “Please text Joe — it’s not my house, so I can’t say yes or no.” Captain, I’m a grown woman who pays rent, utilities, and groceries at a home I’ve lived in for years. I realize not everyone can be privy to a group dynamic of which they aren’t a member, but is it weird that I find it deeply insulting that they, who are themselves guests in the place where I live, are treating me like a child? Am I being oversensitive here?
I’d like to find a way to preemptively deal with these things, either internally for myself or externally with Fred, Joe, my other housemate, and Joe’s parents, without causing friction for anyone. Joe’s parents are actually really nice people, and I’d like to have a cordial relationship with them. I also don’t want to jeopardize the dynamic of the house. What do I do? Do I just put up with this because they are only here a few times a year (though it is usually for a week or more)? Do I say something? If so, to whom, and how? What do I do preemptively and/or in the moment? If they were my parents it would be one thing, but they aren’t. I realize this is low stakes, and maybe I should just deal and try not to be around much, but it feels shitty to be made to feel this way in my home, however well-meaning they are.
Thanks, Captain! Love your site and look forward to your take.
The dog treats are on the low shelf for a reason kthx
P.S. As of the time I’m writing this, Joe’s mother has moved the Tupperware to the place SHE wants it for the SECOND TIME THIS WEEK — after I moved it back to its home *again*. Please help.
Hello Low Shelf!
Thank you for your question, sometimes I could really use a low-stakes one, and who could remain unmoved by your plaintive cry that “the Tupperware got moved AGAIN?” Not me. Not me.
I think the main conversation you need to have is a Fred & Joe conversation. They are the ones who are best equipped to remind Joe’s parents of the house rules before the next visit, like, “We LOVE it when you come to stay, it is such a giant help! But quick reminder…”
- …Housemates live here, they aren’t our guests (or minions/wards) and don’t need permission to invite people over.
- …Please move the kids away from the bedrooms in the morning and keep it quiet in that end of the house when people are sleeping.
- …We love it when you help out, it is such a giant favor! But please don’t rearrange the cupboards, it’s not just our stuff in there, it’s housemate stuff, too!
And I would definitely do this in context of the next visit, like, “Oh, since your parents are visiting again can you remind them of x, y, and z?” As you’ve noted, they don’t have a long memory for this stuff, you can assume that hints won’t work and that they will need reminding more than once. I understand wanting to address the problem when it’s fresh for you, so maybe go ahead and talk to Fred and Joe now, but make it clear that you don’t want them to talk to the parents now, you just want to make sure that the reminders exist before the next visit. My honest feeling is that bringing it up to the parents in the context of a past visit probably won’t get anything you want done but will stir up feelings about it. Results > feelings.
There is also probably some value in having a housemate discussion before the next visit about how to channel the cleaning and re-organizing impulses of Joe’s mom. I don’t think you’ll ever get them to stop, but it might be possible to redirect this energy.
I’m descended from lots of This Kind of Person. My maternal Grandma Louise used to babysit for her grandkids sometimes at her house and sometimes at theirs, where if left to her own devices she’d dive into her daughters’ ironing pile and when she finished that she’d iron anything else she could get her hands on, which is why my brothers and I had extremely sharp creases in our Toughskins jeans and cords all through elementary school. Well into her eighties Grandma would have to be physically restrained from cleaning the entire kitchen after holiday meals, even when the meal was not at her house. My Yia-Yia (Greek for Grandma, on my dad’s side) was the same, she’d also show up with a ton of food and go through the fridge, cluck about its inadequacies, and replace our inferior food with her superior food. What daughter-in-law would not enjoy a bunch of “helpful” reminders like that?
To this day my dad will open my drawers and test out cabinets to see if they close smoothly, comment on the organization of the silverware and utensils within, and wonder aloud why the bookcases are on this wall vs. that one. Have I asked him to knock it off? Yes. Have I asked my parents to stay in a hotel instead of with me? Also yes. I have done many things to try to stem this behavior, at this point the man is in his 70s, he is not going to change, and I don’t feel like fighting with him about it anymore, ergo, the last time he came to visit, we had a list of tasks all ready for him. We didn’t spring it on him the second he came in the door, like, “Be our guest! Be our guest! Put your handyman skills to the test,” we just made the list of things that needed installed or whatever, and whenever he started critiquing our domestic arrangements during the visit we asked his advice on something from the list knowing there was a strong chance that he’d want to do whatever it was himself because the thought of it being done Wrong was unbearable. The good news is that he is incredibly handy, so, “Hey Dad, what’s the best way to hang our drapes in our new place, also what kind of drill should we buy?” etc. are questions he can’t resist weighing in on (think of it as scattering seeds or grains of rice to distract a vampire in the legends that say they have to stop and count everything while you run away) and he can also be trusted to execute whatever it is pretty well. Also he loves Mr. Awkward (it’s mutual) so there was a lot of “Let me show you how to do this, son” vibe going on that was pretty damn adorable. He grumbled the whole time, like, how DARE we put him to work, but he enjoyed himself (and our drapes got hung RIGHT).
(Would he have done the same thing if we’d just asked him directly from the start in advance like adults? Yes, absolutely. Was it more fun this way? Also yes. ;-D Because being useful WHILE having an excuse to grumble is Peak My Dad and Tom-Sawyering the man who first read me Tom Sawyer is just funny.)
Both my family’s line and this behavior dies with me and my generation – I promise I won’t clean or rearrange anyone else’s stuff without being asked – but I recognize how ingrained these dynamics are so this where I’m coming from: Should our parents and grandparents be able to hear the words “Hey Ma, please don’t go re-arranging all the stuff in our cabinets when you visit, spending time with the grandkids is so helpful, honestly, put your feet up and relax the rest of the time!” and translate that as not rearranging all the stuff in the cabinets and closets when they visit? 100%.
Will Joe’s mom actually learn to respect this? Not in a million years.
Is it worth it to Joe & Fred to push this issue at the expense of free childcare when they want to go on vacation and time for their kids to bond with Grandma & Grandpa? Almost certainly not.
And if there is Primal Territorial Stuff going on between Joe and his parents? You do NOT want to be in the middle. Trust. If Joe needs to have a “Quit Rearranging My Stuff, Mom!” Fight, Where Scores are Settled and Things Are Said, that’s his prerogative, if you try to have that fight for him or push him into one, the odd one out will be you.
So: Joe should CHANNEL HIS MOM. Before she visits, he could make a list of things around the house that could use doing and hopefully generate a few tasks that could occupy her, make her feel useful, and not annoy the heck out of you. You and Joe could get a label maker and label all the shelves in the closet and cabinets with where you want stuff to go before she comes, so if she wants to muck about, there are guidelines. He also could buy a couple of photo albums, give her access to the Family Photo Storage hard drives or cloud folders, and see if she’d be interested in selecting and organizing that stuff for them. He could see if she’ll teach the kids to cook the classic family recipes. I don’t know, I’m just spitballing, Joe knows her best, he’d have the best idea of what appropriate Extreme Grandma Stuff his mom would like. She doesn’t have to do any of these things (seriously, put your feet up lady!), but if she starts getting antsy, at least there’s a list. To be clear, it’s not your job to figure all this out – “Joe, can you keep your mom from rearranging all the things this visit?” is pretty much where your responsibility ends, I offer “Maybe you can channel her into useful directions” as bonus content if Joe is receptive.
While I think your best plan is to talk Joe & Fred and let them handle it, it doesn’t mean tiptoeing around these people just because they are giving off Strong Parent Energy while they’re guests in your house. If the kids wake you up, you can herd them away from the door: “Oh hey, kids, remember how we don’t play in this end of the house in the morning? Thank you for letting me sleep!” Try addressing it to the kids vs. “correcting” the grandparents. If once doesn’t work, remind them. Pretty soon the kids will take care of it for you, they love enforcing rules on adults, like, “Shhhhh, grandma, we’re not supposed to.”
When you have a friend coming and it’s suggested you ask permission, try “Oh, I already discussed it with Fred & Joe, just like they let me know you were coming, we always clear visitors with each other first. I’m just making sure you aren’t surprised when my friend shows up in case his flight gets in early while I’m still at work.”
When you’re accessing something in the doubly-rearranged closet, you’re allowed to say, “Wow, thanks, you really did so much work here, but did you see where _______ went? Also, I’m going to go ahead and move some of the things back where it’s most useful to me to store them.” (Also: CONSIDER THE LABELMAKER. Nifty AND fun and a good joint adult-kid project that will help them learn to put stuff back where it goes).
It’s more a matter of tone than anything else. If you can keep things constructive and friendly, you can rest pretty assured that if you accidentally trip a passive-aggressive “Well, I was just trying to be HELPFUL!!!!!!!!!!!!” wire, you can reply with “Oh, I know, and I know that Joe & Fred are so grateful for everything you do! Just, I keep the dog treats down here for a reason, you had no way of knowing since you don’t live here” and know that you’re not the one making it weird when…
…if you stop and think about it…
…it’s actually incredibly weird to go to someone else’s house and rearrange all their stuff…
…and even weirder to be mad at them if they don’t love it when you do.
It’s not fair that you should have to makes so many accommodations about this or keep reminding someone about this, but “fair” and “what it is possible to get a nosy Grandma to do” or “fair” and “one of the aspects of this otherwise great living situation” can be very different things. I wish you luck and properly stored Tupperware and for everyone to keep their senses of humor.