This is behind a cut for sexual violence and violent threats.
Dear Captain Awkward,
Howdy. I’m 26 and currently living with my mother. She likes to buy gifts for people. Sometimes I come home from work and there will be a little present on my bed, like a little stuffed pug. It’s cute, and I appreciate the thought, but I have no space for a stuffed pug. What am I going to do with it? I literally don’t have room for it on a shelf or something.
A few months ago we were shopping together and she wanted to buy me a suitcase. I told her the trip I had been going on in a year had been canceled. She showed me a brightly colored suitcase with elephants all over it that cost $80. I said it was cute, but not my style. The next week, she had a surprise for me. She had bought me that suitcase.
Today I came home from work and she had several gifts for me. She had bought me a clothes hamper. I already own a clothes hamper, which I showed to her. She said she didn’t see it there, but anyway this one is bigger. That means it wouldn’t fit where I keep my hamper. She said this one has wheels on it. I live up a flight of stairs. She also bought me a big metal tumbler to take to work – I don’t carry refillable tumblers because I always forget them places, and they make the water taste weird, and my job actually just gave me one with the company logo on it this afternoon – and a portable phone charger – I already own one. I did not list the Reasons I Don’t Want The Things. I just thanked her for all the things.
I love my mom, and I know I’m so lucky to have someone who cares enough about me and has the funds to buy me presents at Target while I’m at work. But I do not want the things she is giving me. I can’t use them. I don’t have space to keep them anywhere. And I can’t give them to people who would want them because I live in her house. How do I curb the gifting without hurting her feelings?
Curbing the gift-giving will almost certainly hurt, or at least bother, her feelings, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You’re not obligated to live your life under a pile of her stuff/feelings. And there are potentially a lot of feelings here, from wanting to mother and care for you to wanting to choose things based on her idea of you mixed with wanting an excuse to buy things and telling herself that it’s for her kid gives her license to shop (I will not even hazard a guess as to the ratio in play here).
Next time she buys you something, you could say “Mom, thanks for thinking of me, but I can’t use it.”
She will explain how it’s great and you totally can use it either now or “someday.”
“Mom, let me rephrase: I like the one I have now, and I don’t want or need this one. But if you can use it, you should keep it.”
This will be very awkward and hard. You will be under a lot of pressure to keep/take/hold onto whatever it is. She might get very agitated and accuse you of being ungrateful for how much she cares for you. You might have to say something like, “Mom, I understand it means a lot to you to give me things, but I know that you also taught me to be thoughtful about space and money and to be honest with you. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I also don’t want another [elephant suitcase/laundry hamper that doesn’t fit my room]. How can we resolve this?”
She’s probably hearing “I don’t need an insulated soup mug” as “I don’t need you, Mom.” That can be both true and not your fault at the same time. It’s okay to be really honest with her about how all of this makes you feel. “You are so thoughtful and loving, and when you buy me presents I know you want to communicate that you were thinking of me and are taking care of me. But what I need right now is for you to listen to me and to respect me – I don’t need or want more stuff right now. I’d rather…
- …see you buy nice presents for yourself!”
- …spend that money on experiences we can enjoy together – a theater or concert subscription, or save up for a nice trip we can take together.
- …find a charity that’s doing good work and buy all the stuff on their wish list.”
- …pop a little more money into savings so that when I’m ready to get my own place you can help me deck it out in style!”*
- …have you write me a sweet note or card instead.”
- …pick out my own [suitcases, etc.]“
Whatever she says, to make this work long-term, you’re going to have to have a plan for what to do if she just won’t take whatever it is back or stop buying you things. It’s fine to communicate that you have a boundary, but if you don’t enforce it the other person will ignore it. You say “And I can’t give them to people who would want them because I live in her house” but I think it’s time to reexamine that, because you also can’t keep it all in your room! Repeat after me: Once a gift is given it is yours to do with what you want.
I recommend returning the item to a space that is primarily your mom’s and leaving it (and her feelings) there. You might have to let things awkwardly pile up there for her to either absorb into her life or return to the store. Or you can return it to the store for cash or store credit (that you should feel free to quietly hold onto), or absolutely re-gift it/donate it somewhere it can be used. And you will have to be consistent, like, a thing you can’t use => say “thanks, but I can’t use it/don’t want it” => put it in the usual place you put stuff you can’t use. If she doesn’t like seeing the hall closet fill up with stuff she bought you, or she gets mad when you donate that elephant suitcase to someone who can use it, maybe over time she will stop buying you stuff you don’t need? We can hope.
*If gift-giving is your mom’s favorite way of showing she loves you, if you get your own place eventually it will be both a relief and a new front in this battle, as she starts trying to fill your new house up with stuff and your tastes and wants are pushed aside in favor of hers. If you have kids someday, get ready for giant inconvenient gifts to them that fill up your house. I think you are going to end up donating a lot, and I mean A LOT, of housewares to local charitable organizations or taking them back to stores for a refund.
Good luck with talking to her. “I know you love me, but you’re not listening to me/seeing my actual needs” is a difficult, primal conflict to have with a parent and it’s bound to get a little bit messy for a while. This kind of thing is also hard to push back against, because to people who don’t know what it’s like to not be listened to or respected in the face of someone’s chosen style of showing love it sounds like good problem, like, “Oh, I wish my mom bought me presents! You’re so lucky!” You don’t have to listen to those people, or just keep accepting piles of stuff – it’s okay that you don’t like this and want it to change. Hopefully if you stay consistent you can curb at least some of it.
Thank you so much for your blog, which I’ve been reading for several years now. I know this is a pretty low-stakes question, but I need scripts, and I just cannot find a way to respond to this particular situation.
I visit my future-MIL maybe two, three times a year, and have done so for the past four or five years. This involves staying in her house. It’s rough because I’m an introvert and she is very much not, and I struggle to find alone recharge time when she is offended if we don’t spend all our time with her. But that’s another issue. The thing is, she insists I should feel comfortable and wear pajamas around the house. Great! I love pajamas and like to wear classic loose plaid pants, camisoles, etc., when I am relaxing *inside.* Except the following exchange happens literally two or three times every time we stay there:
Her: Time to go to dinner/ drinks/ etc.! [Or if I’m lucky, I get a ten-minute warning. They don’t do specifically timed plans. Also another issue.]
Me: I’ll just change!
Me: Because I’m wearing pajamas.
Her: But why?
Me: Because I can’t wear pajamas outside?
Her: Whyever not?
Me: . . .
Please help. This is not in a place where it is acceptable to wear pajamas outside; I would get stared at. And even if it were socially okay, I am not comfortable with that. I would feel gross getting outside dirt on my inside pajamas. I don’t take forever to get ready, I just spend five to ten minutes changing my clothes.
I also cannot comprehend why she feels the need to repeat this conversation over and over. Is this her way of telling me that I actually should not wear pajamas in her house? Am I being subtly called out for not being able to accurately predict when it’s time to leave? Can I please have scripts?
– At a Loss
(feminine pronouns, and my fiancé is male, if that’s relevant)
Hi Dear Captain,
I’m an 18yr old just on the last legs of high school. I’ve got this Huge! Life! Affirming! Exam!(equivalent to SATs) coming up on April, and I am so not prepared.
So, I’ve got a family that’s lowkey hellish to live with.My siblings are all nearly a decade older. My mum is diagnosed with a mental illness that manisfests in instability and extreme anger.I rarely get to see my dad. Growing up in this household surely messed something up, because I have low esteem and anxiety. Pair that up with subtle put downs and remarks about my intelligence and vague body shaming from my sisters, my feelings for my family are mostly contemptous and distrustful now.A big part of my life plan is GET FAR FAR AWAY THIS IS NOT HEALTHY RUN.
Unfortunately, to fulfill my escape plan, I’ll need to study well enough to land a scholarship to uni. Or else it’s forevermore being stuck in this place. As it currently stands, I’m officially unable to give a crap. About anything. Being overly sensitive and fragile,I tend to shut down and be an unresponsive zombie in the face of conflict of any sort. In previous letters you’ve said you have never been as unhappy later on as once a kid, I’d genuinely like to get to that stage from where I am right now. But it’s either running away or uni for me.
It feels like I know the starting position, I know where the finish line is, but I can’t muster enough willpower to work towards my goals. It just doesn’t register in my numbed brain that I need to study my butt off. I just can’t care about anything. It took me six days just to write this email.
I don’t know how to get out of this funk.Time is running out,I can’t afford to be depressed or I’ll be in even of more a clusterf**k.
So in short,how do I stop being a zombie and care about my future and everything else?
Sorry to dampen your holiday spirits,Captain. Merry Christmas to you and your awesome cat.
Longtime lurker, first time LW. Thanks for providing such a safe, thoughtful & humorous space for thinking through life’s issues.
My ex-stepfather (XSF) is elderly, ill & failing. I foresee him dying sometime in the next year or so. I do not wish to go to his funeral, but I believe many members of my family will view that decision as unforgivable. Allow me to elaborate:
XSF & my mom were married for about 13 years, but since their divorce they have had an on-again, off-again relationship. I lived with them both for six years, then left the state for college & grad school, never to return. He was financially generous (more than my bio father was able to be at the time), but that is the only positive thing I can say about him. My mom, who had worked since age 12 in a difficult industry, stopped working when I was in high school. XSF paid for everything: a beautiful home, clothing, vacations, etc. I accepted these things without question. He paid for half of college-I paid for the other half. I went on to borrow for grad school, pay for my own wedding & home, etc.
Unfortunately , XSF was and continues to be unapologetically misogynistic, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, verbally abusive, and paranoid. I grew up in a culture which actually embraces many of these qualities, & while I fled the state out of gut instinct to get the hell out of there, it was only with time & growth that I recognized that I needed to get him out of my life. This was pretty easy to accomplish because even when living in the same house, our relationship was managed through my mom. To give you a flavor of our relationship: XSF is fond of nicknaming people: one of mine was “Mouse” because I (uncharacteristically) was always so quiet around him. Another of my nicknames was “Sprout”, in reference to my developing breasts. Need I say how utterly impossible it was for me to have a real relationship with this man? My younger brother has always had a better relationship with him, since XSF had no other sons & my brother was eager to bond with a father figure (bio dad was largely absent).
Since the divorce XSF has made no effort to contact me. My long-suffering stepsisters (with whom I never lived) made minimal efforts as well, which was fine with me. At the time, it seemed to me that if my mother was allowed to divorce & not speak to him, I was also entitled to do so. It was a huge relief to not spend time with him during my brief visits home.
During times they have been back together, I made a few gestures (some big, some small) to reach out to him & establish at least a civil relationship, for Mom’s sake. She convinced me to invite him to my wedding (to a man of a race he frequently mocked while I was growing up!), because they were once again dating, & she wanted him there. Fortunately, he behaved civilly.
Since XSF has become more frail, my mom has become one of his primary supports: cooking, shopping, cleaning, etc. He is rude to health care providers, refuses basic supports such as physical rehab, & continues to be verbally abusive to his daughter & (probably) my mom. In short, he has not changed. Despite this, during a recent social event with friends, Mom characterized XSF as “a good stepfather” to my brother & me.
I fear that when the time comes, I will go to the funeral out of a wish to support Mom, be a “good” daughter, avert conflict, “pay my respects”, etc. I want to have a preemptive conversation with Mom, saying that I think it will be more awkward for everyone if I attend. She tends to believe in doing what is socially expected, rather than being true to oneself, but she fully knows how strongly I feel about XSF. I know she will be sad if I don’t go, but I think that sadness is really grief about the relationship XSF & I never had.
I guess what I need is a succinct way to explain to friends & family why I am not going, without coming across as a bitter, ungrateful, disrespectful grudge-bearer. They all know he is a jerk, but “he gave you so much!” In a culture where the standards for male behavior are so low, he is viewed as a “Good Ol’ Boy”. But….I just can’t.
Earlier this year my uncle (mother’s brother) coerced my 85 year old grandmother (his own mother, who is increasingly blind and deaf, has been housebound and reliant on in-home care for the last few years, with some memory loss/mild dementia) into “lending” him a four-figure sum of money that represented a significant chunk of her overall net worth. He claimed he had a mortgage coming through in a few days and would pay her back then. That was several months ago and he has still not paid her back. My grandmother admitted to other family members, but not to him, that she didn’t want to give him the money and felt coerced but didn’t know how to say no.
Since then we’ve taken steps to protect my grandma and her finances (my mother now has power of attorney but my uncle doesn’t, her chequebook is no longer kept in her house, her bank have been alerted that she is at risk of financial abuse and have put a watch on her account for large sums going out), but there’s nothing we can do about the money she already gave my uncle; in the eyes of the law and the bank it’s assumed she’s legally able to consent to giving such a gift, though I have serious qualms about her actual ability to properly consent, the fact that she said she felt coerced, the ugly power imbalances in play etc.
My mother’s reaction has been disappointing but not surprising. I learnt at a very young age that I couldn’t rely on her to have my back if her own anxiety was in play, and in this situation she refused to intervene because she was afraid that her mother/my grandmother “would be mad at her for getting involved” and she prioritised wanting to avoid that conflict over actually keeping her vulnerable parent safe. She doesn’t approve of what my uncle did, but she’s been expressing this mostly in Marge Simpson disapproval noises rather than, say, actually having a conversation with him about the fact that he did something so gross and unethical.
No one, as far as I can tell, has actually called my uncle out about what he did. I know I can’t presume to understand someone else’s financial circumstances, but this is a man who owns and rents out multiple properties, who pays no tax because his job is overseas most of the year and who has non-vulnerable family members with significant savings – there are at least two other people in his life whom it would have been more appropriate for him to try to borrow money from, and it sickens me that instead he strongarmed the most vulnerable person in the family.
My uncle and his family still send me a Christmas gift each year, usually a small amount of cash. What he did to my grandma is a huge violation of my own ethical boundaries, and I feel really uncomfortable taking money from him. I’m also experiencing a strong desire to call him out somewhere publicly and make him suffer and feel afraid the way he made his own mother suffer and feel afraid, in spite of not generally being a vengeful person.
However, I’m a pretty reserved person and don’t generally share how I’m feeling, and the idea of making a big deal of this (either on social media or in person) is horrifying to me despite the fact that I feel like there should be more personal consequences for him as a result of his actions than he’s currently experiencing. I’m feeling strong pressure from my mother to keep my mouth shut about this, because she doesn’t want drama either, but the idea of him getting away with this eats at me. I also don’t know whether my aunt and cousins know that he did this, and whether they approve of his actions or not if they do know about it. On the whole they’re a more emotive/dramatic family than we are and I can see a public callout going wrong if they decide they’re on Team Uncle rather than Team Grandma.
So, my questions: are there any classy ways to make my disgust and disappointment clear to him? To refuse a cash gift at Christmas (I just cannot take money from someone who thinks it’s okay to do what he did)? I’m really torn between wanting him to suffer and really not wanting to make a scene. It’s been a bad year to be a man who abuses power, but I’m also really aware of the extent to which I’ve been socialised to give bad men who abuse their power the benefit of the doubt – part of my discomfort around calling him out is that small voice saying “well maybe there are extenuating circumstances you don’t understand and you should avoid making a fuss just in case”. But I really don’t think he should be able to walk away from this with his reputation intact.
What to do?
Fuck You, Uncle Dickbag
This seems like a very minor thing to be asking for help with, I know. But I feel like even if there’s no solution to my “problem”, getting the input of a bunch of neutral parties (particularly neutral parties with solid understandings of boundaries) would make me feel better, and if you feel like this letter is a waste of time you can just delete it, no harm done.
I do not own pets, for a number of reasons. I feel like it shouldn’t matter, but in case it does, in no particular order those reasons are: 1) My husband is deathly allergic to cats/dogs. 2) My husband very explicitly does not want pets even if he wasn’t allergic. 3) I have had pets in the past and found that no amount of wanting to be a good pet owner changes the fact that I am not a good pet owner (I am not patient, consistent, or stable enough). 4) I am an extremely high strung (or anxious) person, and being in a constant state of panic (did pet just eat something they shouldn’t have!? Is pet sick!? What if their collar slips off while I’m walking them!? If I go to a dog park, what if pet runs away and I can’t catch them!?!) would be awful for both me and the pet. 5) I’ve now lived for a couple of years with no pets, and oh my goodness, I have learned to love not having fur everywhere so much.
I have 2 adult sisters, who have 2 dogs each. They are very much the “this dog is my baby” sort of people. They consistently ask me to care for their dogs while they go on vacation (which happens several times a year each). Years ago, I almost always acquiesced. When I moved in with my husband, however, I mostly stopped agreeing to pet-sit. I cannot bring the dogs to my place because my husband is allergic, so pet-sitting always requires driving 30 minutes across town, several times a day, or straight up living at their house for however many days they’re gone. In addition, these dogs are not well trained. The dogs are extremely food aggressive, they get into fights, they beg, they jump on people, they destroy furniture, etc. etc. etc. Hiring a professional would be too expensive, they say, although I also feel like part of the problem may be that a professional would not accept caring for aggressive dogs.
I have made it clear that I do not want to pet-sit. But they keep asking, piling on the guilt any time I say no. I am, at this point, known for being a terrible, selfish sister because I won’t take care of their dogs. I do not work, so they point out that they’re willing to pay me, and I have plenty of free time, so there’s no reason I can’t pet sit for them. I have turned them down several times this year, but yesterday my sister came over to “catch up and chat”. Turns out, that was just an excuse to ask me in person to pet sit for 4 days while she and my other sister went to Vegas together for a holiday vacation. She knew I wouldn’t be able to say no in person, and she was right. Now I am pet sitting next week. I guess I have a few questions for you and your commenters: Am I in the wrong for turning them down just because I do not want to pet-sit, when they’ve offered to pay me and I do have the free time ? Obviously I and my husband are pretty biased and think I shouldn’t have to regularly take on responsibilities because someone else has pets, but it seems like every pet owner we know disagrees and thinks we are just selfish, lazy people. (As a side note, I have no problems helping them with non-pet related things; I regularly edit resumes and help with landscaping projects and help decorate for parties, so it’s not like I’m refusing to ever lend a hand with anything.) Are there any scripts you could recommend for saying ‘no’ to favors for family, especially when saying no means potentially ruining major plans for them? And finally, is this just a thing I need to get over and stop being annoyed at (people are always going to ask for favors you don’t want to do, and you’re always going to be considered the bad guy if you turn them down, too bad, so sad, stop complaining)?
Thank you so much for your time,
Not a Willing Pet Sitter