Dear Captain Awkward;
Hello! I am 48 years old, pronouns she/her, and having trouble with my parents, specifically, my mother and her hoarding. My mom is trying to give more stuff to me than I can handle, and the lever she pulls to make it more painful is, “but it was your grandmother’s.” if I take everything that falls into this category, my home will be a literal shrine to my grandmother, and that’s spooky.
A year and a half ago, I quit working full-time to take care of my parents. For various health-related reasons, they couldn’t care for themselves anymore. They are due to move into a retirement community in about six weeks. My mom’s hoarding problem has been Bad since the 90s, and worsening since. They can still use normal sanitation (toilets, trash cans), my mom can bathe and groom herself when she wants to, they have clean bathrooms available, my mom can prepare meals and do laundry, as long as I’m there at least three days a week to clear her clutter away from high-traffic areas.
My father’s mother was a nearly perfect person. She was a perfect hostess, wife, mother, friend, volunteer, grandmother, great-aunt. Everyone who knew her loved her. She was always generous with time, effort, money, support. I look a lot like her, and apparently a lot of my mannerisms are similar.
My father’s mother died when I was 23. I went into a spiral of unhealthy behavior for about ten years after that, but managed to pull myself out.
When I was growing up, my mother’s mother died when I was about five, and my father’s mother filled that void for my mom. When my dad’s mom moved into a retirement community, we inherited most of her furniture. When she died, we inherited the rest of it. My mom developed a fascination with antiques and ceramics, and a bad shopping habit. She started volunteering at her church thrift shop (as my grandmother did), and brings home stuff every week, unless I’m there to stop her from doing it.
My husband and I moved into a new house, to take on the responsibility of having my brother (who has autism) move in with us. My mom feels that “part of the deal” is that I will take her furniture and collectibles, most of which were my grandmother’s. This “deal” feels like I’m taking on all the physical and emotional responsibilities that my grandmother did in the past: being the family maternal type who does all the physical and emotional labor, creating the perfect home, etc.
So, now, “but it was your graaaandmother’s” is an argument that’s applied to everything from the armchair upon which she stitched the needlepoint cushions, to warped Tupperware from the 1950s. It’s bad enough that my mom thinks she should save everything (jars, twist ties, junk mail, anything) and re-use it, because my grandmother was always thrifty. My grandmother wasn’t a hoarder. She used the same wrapping paper for Christmas every year, she had a “waste not, want not” mentality, but that was an exception to a general rule.
I’m already getting therapy for my own hoarding tendencies. My husband gets exasperated with how slowly I sort out a box of stuff, but I have practice getting rid of things that I don’t need, and I’m getting to be good at it. I like making a box or bag of donations on a Saturday or Sunday morning, taking it to a donation center and going for brunch at the diner afterwards.
The rock-and-a-hard-place moment happened a week or so ago. I said that I regretted not being able to develop my own taste. That made her really mad. I have said to my mom that I need to make my own living environment look the way I like it to be. I’ve said that I need to make my home comfortable on my own time table. These statements made her angry. She expects that I will furnish and decorate my home with my grandmother’s things, in my grandmother’s style. She wrote me an angry email saying that I have no taste, that I need to develop an eye, and that someday I would come to realize that my grandmother’s furniture was better than anything else out there. When I asked my mother about it, she pretended it wasn’t a big deal and laughed it off.
If I accept all of the stuff that my mom is pressuring me to take, my house will look like an overloaded furniture store from the 1920s, with framed family photos on every wall and surface, and my grandmother’s wedding dress on a mannequin. I don’t want to live in a shrine or museum.
Behavior, rather than stuff, is an issue here too. Because of my dad’s health issues, he behaves like a child most of the time. If I treat him like how his mother would treat him, we get along fine (i.e., “sure, you can have another cookie before your nap.”), but if I treat him like a daughter, he gets angry, My mom needs me to indulge her rather than give her structure, i.e., “we don’t have to fold the laundry, you can take a nap.” I think they expect me to take care of them as my grandmother took care of others.
I miss my grandmother every single day, and no objects will change that. I’d rather remember her for the things she did and said, rather than the things she bought and kept. I’d like to move on with my life and do new things.
So, how do I say to my mom, “please stop expecting me to be Grandmom?”
Thanks for your time and consideration.
Shackled To Heirlooms
Hi there Shackled, aka LW #1216:
This isn’t a fix-it-with-the-right-words problem. A lot of hoarding behavior is tied to grief and anxiety, and I imagine your mom’s anxiety is at a record high with the prospect of relocating out of her house, and it’s bringing all the grief up, too.
This is so hard and I think you have to go in knowing that your mom will not accept any reasoning or explanation that you give her. She wants you to take everything that belonged to your grandmother (so that she doesn’t have to feel so bad about parting with it) and probably a good portion of the stuff she herself has collected, and every time she ever visits you she’ll bring or sneak in a little more. She wants your new house to be the annex of her old house. Anything you accept that is less than that will provoke an emotional reaction from her, possibly a very extreme one. Any explanation you try to give she will try to argue you out of. So even though you want to be gentle and reasonable, especially since you recognize that moving out of her home into a new environment is very stressful, you’re probably going to end up in much more of a “Sorry, I don’t want anything, you’ll have to make another plan” position than you intend. It’s okay, you have to take care of your home, your own mental health, your own well-being, you don’t have to abdicate and take every single thing that is being passed down, neither the physical objects or the baggage that comes with them are your burden to bear.
I think the right path is for you and your brother who is coming to live with you to each choose one thing that was your grandmother’s and say no to everything else. That one thing should be:
- To your current taste, where you actually love it and will use it.
- Portable, small, able to be transported and displayed and fit into your current home as is. Think: framed artwork, a ceramic pot to put a plant in, or something that makes you think of spending time with her. My late grandma got her ears pierced for her 80th birthday, and I have the very first pair of earrings she picked out for herself, blue topaz studs in 14k gold.
- Think of taking One Thing (even if you don’t particularly want one thing) as a defensive talisman against the rest. “But I have grandma’s very special ______ to remember her by, and all the memories we made together, so I don’t need or want anything else.” Quite honestly, your mom will see you taking anything as a reason you should take everything, your mom will see you taking nothing as a reason you should take something (and therefore everything), there’s no magical way to defeat this thinking, so use your judgment, but I think having one symbolic venerated object to continually reference might help you stay firm against the rest.
Your overall script for your mom is probably some variation of: “I know it’s hard to let go of anything that’s Grandma’s, but if we sell it or donate it we can put it in the hands of people who will use it and love it. If it comes to me, it’s going in a bin and eventually in a dumpster, because I refuse to live in a Grandma Museum. She wouldn’t want that for me, and even if she would, I don’t want it for me. I get to pick out the things that go in my house, and I need you to stop pressuring me about these things.”
I am sure you already know this and that your mom doesn’t care because she wants YOU to take it all, but there are people who would be delighted to have nifty old furniture and ceramics, there is a whole second life that is possible for your grandmother’s things. I’m writing this on a very beautiful secondhand desk, our couches and dining table and chairs and bookcase and bar and dresser are all things that somebody loved very much once upon a time and then let go. There are tons of resale shops that will pounce on the furniture if it’s good quality, you can either donate the lot or sell it. In Chicago where I live, here are two places that accept donations for resale for good causes, you mention the church thrift shop where your grandmother and mom worked, that’s a great starting point, they basically have to take her stuff, and maybe she has friends who would love to have something of hers, specifically. 😉 There are apps and marketplaces where you can sell furniture, you could also do an estate sale of some sort. To that end, you and your mom could clean up and photograph the things for sale and put the the photographs in an album to remember them if you wanted to, you could talk about your grandmother and your mom’s memories together as you pack it all up. (Or you could not do that if it’s too much work, the goal is to have fewer obligations and tasks, not more!) I know this doesn’t solve the emotional problem between you and your mom but I’m telling you anyway so maybe you will feel less guilty and more empowered to let it all go. Those big ticket items? Someone will love them. Someone will use them to start over. Someone will use them to build their dream home, their welcoming space, their small quiet room. If they’re outlived their usefulness? They were useful for their lifespan, that’s good, too. You don’t have to hold onto them like a life sentence.
You can re-craft it and repeat the script as needed, but I wouldn’t repeat it more than once or twice. The longer you argue about this, the more it seems like there is something to argue, and therefore something to negotiate. Say your piece, then skip to “We already talked about this, Mom, I’m not taking the stuff.” Ignore future weird emails. There will be weird emails. If she accuses you of having no taste, okay? You have no taste. You’re still not taking the stuff. She’s blowing off a bunch of her feelings, you don’t have to follow them like orders.
See if your spouse will step in and run interference when things get tense. Does your Mom behave a little better around your spouse? Can he deal with some of this without so many #Feelings, like, “That sure is a nice table but we can’t use it, let’s get it to someone who can!” and not open the same floodgates of heredity and filial obligation? There are enough unfair “Oh, you’ll listen now Because A Man Said It” situations in life, I won’t fault you for using one to your advantage if it is an advantage here.
Your mom can’t force you to take these things, so this is more about holding firm with yourself than it is about convincing her of anything. You have to move forward knowing that your mom won’t accept or agree or even see your point of view, but that still doesn’t mean you have to take the stuff, so, don’t take the stuff. Your mom can feel, think, or say anything she wants, as long as you don’t take the stuff, you’re free of the stuff. That is the territory of this conflict. You know you’re not taking the stuff. Keep not taking the stuff. She will stay angry and upset about it for a long time, maybe, but you still don’t have to take the stuff. Ultimately your mom has choices about the kinds of conversations she wants to have with you, if they’re all about a 60-year-old fainting couch* that’s up to her but you don’t have to have the thing in your house.
You are doing a very big job these days, taking care of everyone in your family. Your grandmothers would be very proud, and they’d probably tell you not to forget to take care of yourself in the middle of all this. Be free of their furniture, the love you shared doesn’t live in things.
*Someone will want this fainting couch.
Hi Captain Awkward,
I read through several letters that touch on similar issues to the one I’m having (eg, #352), but don’t quite capture it, so I’m writing in.
I recently moved closer to my childhood home so that I can live in a relative’s mostly empty apartment (they are in the process of retiring and spend the majority of their time elsewhere) a few minutes away from where my mom lives. The plan is currently that this is temporary measure while I am on a one year child-rearing leave from my main job and taking some classes, although my parents have both started pressuring me to consider staying in the area long-term so that my mom can help with childcare since I will be a single mom by choice. I’ve already emphasized to them both that that is being premature and that we will need to see how things go during this year.
Since moving back a few weeks ago, it’s become apparent that my relationship with my mom was awesome because we had the boundary of 4 hours of travel time between us. I’m 30 and have mostly lived away from my childhood home since I was 16, between school and work.
She definitely still treats me like a child. Any decisions I make that she disagrees with are met with sourness and commentary every time they come up, regardless of whether they have anything to do with her or not. For example, she disapproves that I’ve chosen a chiropractor who isn’t in my insurance network because they could see me sooner for some pregnancy-related issues, and even an offhand mention of an appointment is taken as an opportunity to express yet again that she thinks I’ve made a foolish choice. She comments on what I’m eating or not eating, she tells me I need to rest for the baby during the few times when I have any energy and am trying to get things done since I’ve just moved and nothing is ready, and she’s incapable of not repeating herself multiple times any time I disagree with her in the hopes of wearing me down. Sometimes she does succeed in wearing me down, and then it’s “Well now you’re saying the opposite so I just never know what you want.” I’m usually pretty good at setting boundaries—not necessarily with grace and poise, but definitely with firmness—but the more she comments and repeats, the snippier I get, and the snippier I get, the more we revert to the dynamic we had when I was a teenager.
I hate feeling so negative all the time, and I realize some of this is stemming from my own anxiety about the upcoming birth and general moving stress and that she is also probably feeling some anxiety about becoming a grandmother and having an infant to help take care of for the first time in a long time. But also, this pattern is going to really kill our relationship, especially if she applies it to every decision I make about the baby that she disagrees with (probably almost everything based on how some of our discussions have gone).
Is there any way to convince a parent that while you’re their child, you aren’t a child?
-At the screaming point and it’s only been three weeks
Hi At The Screaming Point aka LW #1217:
I do have some suggested steps. They probably won’t be new ones for readers of this blog, but let’s review them anyway.
You need short, regular rituals with set beginning and end times. What is the ideal frequency you’d see or visit or talk to your Mom? Set up a routine thing at that interval. A weekly phone call to check in. Lunch every other Sunday. Something enjoyable and ironclad but not overbearing. Something where you can have a pleasant meal or chat and then leave before things get intense.
You need boundaries around visits and your living space. NO spontaneous visits, pop ins, “I was in the neighborhood so I thought I’d drop by.” Some relationships can handle that. Yours can’t right now. Maybe you need to hire some help with household tasks and see your mom on neutral territory right now. No keys. And you need to observe the same courtesy for her, no dropping in on her without notice.
You need pleasurable, safe things in common. A show or author or hobby or game or activity you both like. Find one. Make one. Get a theater subscription, join a book club, take up a sport, ride bikes, get really into a community organization or cause. That way, you can always talk about _____________________. You can always get together for __________________. Find a thing that’s not your body, pregnancy, childhood, family stuff, that two adult human people can talk about.
Maybe judgmental people don’t get to know details about you for a while. Also known as “an information diet.”Don’t tell your mom about food, medical stuff, energy levels, how much you’re resting, don’t ask for her input on things you don’t want her input on, don’t give her ammunition about anything she harps on in a way that makes you angry and upset. Give her less information! She’ll say “You should be able to tell me, I’m your mother” and you’ll say “I should be able to tell my mother that stuff” but clearly you can’t, so stop for now. Start answering questions with “Nothing new to report.” “Fine!” “Same old same old.” “All good here!” Want to talk reverting to feeling like a teenager? Get ready to be vague as fuck about the things she grills you about.
She’ll notice and she’ll be weird about it and your answer could be “Ok, let’s figure this out. If I tell you details about my life, you start an argument with me and tell me I’m doing it wrong. If I don’t tell you the details, you start an argument with me and tell me I’m doing it wrong. When we go two weeks without an argument about something that has to do with my body and not yours, maybe we’ll try that again, but I think my doctor and my eating and my sleep are just going to have to be my business for now. How’s [safe fun thing] going?”
You need local friends. Find people your own age, groups for pregnant people, volunteer stuff, community organizations, swim classes, a choir, theater, I don’t know what you like to do but I know that you will be happier if you can find a gathering or activity or social outlet with people who aren’t your mom. If you’re going to maybe stay here for a while, you need to see if you can really live here, this is part of it.
Practice saying ‘no’ once and once only. You say “and she’s incapable of not repeating herself multiple times any time I disagree with her in the hopes of wearing me down. Sometimes she does succeed in wearing me down, and then it’s “Well now you’re saying the opposite so I just never know what you want.”
Sometimes the longer we discuss something, the more up for discussion it all seems. Not everything is debatable and it’s okay to put boundaries around specifically that. This is something you (and LW #1216) can both practice. You can say “No thank you” or “I don’t think I want to do it that way, but I will consider it and let you know if I change my mind” or “I’m not asking for advice, when I want some I will ask” to your mom the first time she suggests something you don’t want to do. After that, when the repeating game starts, don’t get sucked in to rearguing your point. BE BORING. Don’t give her the argument she’s looking for or the chance to repeat things. Shrug. Change the subject. Tune her out. “You already know my decision.” “I haven’t changed my mind, so please stop.” Cut the visit short if she won’t let you change the subject. If it escalates from there? Leave and say why. “Ok, you’re obviously not listening to me, so that’s all for today, let’s try this again next week!”
If you change your mind, so what? Say that. “I thought about it once I had some peace and quiet and you know what, I changed my mind.” But don’t repeat yourself or your arguments or try to talk over her. Just go, “Yep, I heard you, thinking about it, you can stop trying to convince me now.” If she gets sour, let her be sour. Don’t apologize or smooth everything over, especially if you’re sure you’re being reasonable and she is overstepping.
It’s okay to level with people who are hurting you. “Mom, it’s only been three weeks and we’re fighting constantly. What’s going on with this? How do we change it?”
“Mom, you’re worried about what’s ‘good for the baby,’ but arguing with you is stressing me out so much, that’s honestly my biggest stressor. I need you to back off and wait until I ask you for help or advice.”
Her answer CAN’T be “Well, if you would just do everything I say it would be fine.” I mean, it can be, but if it is, pack your shit now and move, this isn’t going to work. It would be good to know, why does she think you’re fighting? Is she enjoying this? What isn’t she telling you?
Scripts to keep in your back pocket: “What is it that you are so worried about?” and “Ok, what would you recommend that I do?” and “In a perfect world, how do you see this working?” and “What’s the worst thing that happens if we do this my way?” and “What would it take to get you to change the subject?”
She has choices about how she interacts with you. Constant conflict and “sour” words and commentary over stuff that’s your decision is a choice, and she could make a different one. I once had luck with “Mom, pretend I’m someone from work, a fellow adult, someone you recently met, someone you like. Great. Now, for the rest of my visit, don’t say anything to me you wouldn’t say to that person.”
Sometimes over time things get better. You find positive ways to interact with formerly contentious people and push down the negative patterns into memory, sometimes people learn that you can’t be pushed around, sometimes your parents learn that you can actually live with their disappointment and worry and concern but you can’t & won’t live with them being mean to you, so if they won’t change how they interact with you, you’ll have to be around less. Sometimes they don’t get better, which leads me to:
You need to be realistic about whether you’ll be happy here. There’s a reason you moved away. Family help with child care is amazing and valuable and irreplaceable…unless it stresses you out all the time and sets your teeth on edge and makes you feel like you’ll never be listened to. And there’s a reason you moved away. So try to be happy here, but be honest with yourself about whether this is the place that you are really set up to have the happiest life. Maybe you needed that 4 hour drive in order to have a happy relationship with your parents. Maybe you can withstand some stress for a few years until kiddo is in school because the tradeoffs are worth it. Some readers might say “the childcare help from family is worth it” and others might say “the cheapest way to pay is with money, don’t subject yourself and your kid to constant arguing and stress” but only you can know what will make you happy and how likely your parents are to chill out.
Don’t default to anything yet, ok? Keep your moving away options open, keep your career options open, keep all the options all the way open. Some help isn’t helpful and it’s okay if you are still evaluating which kind your parents are offering. Best wishes for a smooth pregnancy and a general chilling out.