How Do I Get My Mother-In-Law To Stop Cleaning?

My incredibly loving mother-in-law is the cleanest person I know. Her house, car, clothes, and body are all spotless.

When we had children she said: “Please don’t let them be dirty.”

When I send the kids to visit, she asks me to “send good clothes.”

Although my house is relatively organized by parents-of-young-children-standards and I have a weekly house cleaner,  I am also a very organic person who enjoys the outdoors and letting kids explore it. We often drag in random detritus such as snake skins, unusual plants or bug husks, and a few spiders. My children are healthy, but have a few stained shirts, torn holes in the knees of their jeans and often shaggy haircuts.

I wish the house was cleaner. I am not happy with it, which her presence brings out. As a matter of fact my husband truly and deeply accumulates chaos and it really bothers me  — I feel like if I can just clean enough we could get to the bottom of it — but it’s Sisyphean and other things usually take priority.

She is a really great mother-in-law: she takes the kids to her house for a week at a time and they love it there, she has taken care of me after surgery and when I am sick. She is thoughtful: she buys us new rags, sponges, squeegees, etc. every time she comes.

Before my in-laws visit I usually get the house spotless, by my standards, and do an extra kid scrubbing because I know it makes her happy to see us all clean.  I can’t sustain this level, however, and visits inevitably turn into cleaning fests. I feel apologetic about our filth, and she spends the whole time cleaning (I will say that even when she is in her own house all she does is clean– it is her Thing). We are both polite and kind about it, but is there anything I can do to help us both relax?

Thanks,
Sorta-slobby

Dear Sorta-Slobby, if that is indeed your name:

Based on your description, I’m having enormous trouble seeing your house as “filthy” as you say it is,  but I see two things:

  1. you feel self conscious about it, and
  2. it feels worse when she is there, because you feel judged. (You didn’t say you felt judged, but if my mother-in-law had said, upon discovering grandkids were coming: “Please don’t let them be dirty,” and then later “send good clothes,” I would have felt judged.)

My advice: let her clean, because it’s what she likes to do (she isn’t bringingyou new rags, sponges, squeegees, etc. when she visits. She’s bringing herselfthese things, because she is looking forward to relaxing at your house by doing what she enjoys and what makes her feel productive and helpful: cleaning).

Stop apologizing for your home and children, unless you left something out like the constant reek of cat urine, the hoarding of old Time magazines that leave only narrow paths for people to move through the house, the fact that your children bathe quarterly, or the fresh shit sculptures in the living room.

It is your home. Everyone is fine. You are doing nothing wrong. Don’t buy into the idea that holding cleanliness above all else is how you SHOULD be raising your kids, instead of the perfectly fine way you ARE raising them – knock it the hell off and unapologetically be you. A few facts: Kids with scruffy haircuts are categorically cuter than kids with neat ones — this is science. I wouldn’t make something like that up. There are also quite a few studies about kids who are exposed to dirt and bacteria and how much it helps their immune systems. Bringing home snake skins and unusual plants makes for a more interesting childhood than watching your mother vacuum.

Let her clean. Don’t apologize. Don’t sweat it. Don’t internalize her standards.

But there’s more, because there’s that line about your husband “truly and deeply accumulating chaos.” (Note for you to ponder: perhaps constantly cleaning and organizing around your children robs them of the ability to learn how to organize and clean for themselves?)

If your husband is the one who creates the chaos that you find distressing, why are you the one who is addressing it before and during your mother-in-law’s visits? I’m guessing I know why! Because you are the woman, and women are the ones who are supposed to take care of this stuff. This Message Brought to You By The Patriarchy.

That message is complete bullshit, and damaging besides.

Next time, before your mother-in-law comes to visit, remind yourself that no matter what you do, it will not feel like enough. So? Don’t do anything beyond what you normally would do if she weren’t coming.

If she gives you the side-eye, consider the following phrases:

“George wasn’t able to get his mess in the kitchen cleaned up before you came — he’s been so busy.”

“George was going to ask the house cleaners to come in before you came, since we know you like it clean, but life got in the way.”

Smile indulgently. Those men and their messes. Go outside to help your kids find some interesting bugs.

And then STOP. STOP TAKING IT ON. STOP.

Sounds like that’s what his mom wants to do, so let her.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on May 28, 2015.

How Do I Politely Exit A Conversation?

Thank you for your advice about smalltalk.  I have a follow-up  question.

How do you politely disengage from small talk? I don’t mind chatting with a random stranger for a minute or two, but I don’t want to get stuck awkwardly trying to keep up a conversation with them for half an hour. And I have.

It’s easier at parties because you can use standard excuses like “I’m gonna go refill my drink” or “Which way is the bathroom?” But even so, those feel like excuses.And blunter remarks like “I’m gonna go circulate some more” feel dismissive if the other person seems to want to keep talking. And sometimes even getting a word in edgewise into the other person’s monologue can be hard.

And it’s harder in situations where you can’t physically disengage. On airplanes, for example, I would often be happy to say hello to the person sitting next to me, but the risk that I’ll have to spend the next several hours talking with them seems too high. I’ve had flights where the person next to me wants to talk much more than I do, and I’ve heard people spend entire plane flights talking to their previously-unknown-to-them seatmate.

So what’s a polite and socially acceptable way to say “I don’t want to keep talking with you”?

Thanks,

Disengaging Conversationalist

Dear Disengaging Conversationalist,

There are so many ways to get out of a conversation.

You can use body language: step back out of “conversation zone” and look around the room while at a party, smile dismissively and pick up a book on an airplane, stand up when you were previously seated and talking, nodding in a goodbye sort of way as you go. If someone on a plane is particularly persistent, you put in earbuds and refuse to lift your eyes from your book. If all else fails, pretend to fall asleep.

You can also, of course, use common words indicating that conversations are now over in combination with these body signals: “. . . well, then. Enjoy the party!” Or: “It was very nice to meet you! I hope you have a terrific time in Boise!” or: “Well. It was great talking to you. Have a safe flight.”

I suggest all of these things, without any of the “excuses” that you say seem feeble. Because here’s the thing: you do not owe anyone your time and attention. You do not need an excuse. Excuses are for people doing things that are wrong or lazy or immoral. Moving on to continue your day, enjoy your flight in peace, or meet other people at a party is none of those things.You gave them some of your time and attention, and you are done now.There’s nothing to apologize for.

I think a lot of times, people confuse politeness with unendingly and uncomplainingly allowing people to be rude to you. This is not politeness!This is merely Experiencing Rudeness, and there is nothing particularly polite about it.

Do not cower, do not apologize, do not equivocate. You need to give someone else your time and attention now (even if that someone else is you). This is life. This is perfectly polite.

You seem like a very kind person who is concerned about people’s feelings (why are the lecturers never concerned with the comfort of their audience, I wonder?). So if it helps, consider yourself an educator to those holding forth.If enough people  interrupt them mid-word to say: “It was nice to meet you!”as they walk briskly away, they might — just might — get the message, and learn how to be better conversationalists and listeners.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on May 21, 2015.

What Should I Do About My Friend’s Drunken Spouse Harassing Me??

I was at a social function this weekend, surrounded by dear friends and their drunk spouses. Toward the end of the evening, I was followed out to the car by a drunk spouse, who wanted to tell me that he wanted to have sex with me (among other things). That’s not going to happen, but I’m not sure whether or not I should mention it to anyone. I shouldn’t tell my friend, right? I should just pretend like this didn’t happen, right? They’ve been having some marital problems, but I don’t think letting anyone know about this would do anyone any good…

Just checking.

Dear Just Checking:

How about you? Would it do you some good?

You’re talking about this like it was this small incident that isn’t even worth mentioning, and everyone else’s feelings matter but your own – just like women have been trained to do since for-fucking-ever. That’s how rape culture has told us that we should feel.

But I’m going to tell you that you do matter, and what happened was not your fault (and I am so so so so SO sorry it did happen).

All married people, even those who are faithfully monogamous, want to have sex with other people. We are human, and ruled by our junk. Most monogamously married people have even said or done slightly inappropriate things when drunk. If that’s what this was, I’d agree — no need to mention it; people are dumb.

But he didn’t flirt with you at the party. He didn’t make sexual innuendo in a crowd of people and make you sort of uncomfortable, or pull you aside for a “quiet moment” in a well-lit hallway (all of which would be bad enough).

He followed you in the DARK, when you were ALONE, to tell you unwelcome things he wanted to do to your body. He thought he had this right, because he was drunk and horny and you are female.

I don’t want to burden you with telling you that you are supposed to do something about this shit sandwich he lobbed into your lap. You were just trying to enjoy a party. He walked up to you and unloaded a bunch of crap and now you feel like you are somehow responsible for dealing with it.

Speaking up is doing something with it. Staying silent is doing something with it. Either way, this dipshit has you over a barrel.

I want SOMEONE to tell him that this drunken bullshit was completely and totally not okay. Either you, or  a trusted friend. I want someone to tell him to never ever do anything like that again. Come to think, a friend might be best. Then he knows that other people know, and that his stupid bullshit was not as cloak-and-dagger as he thought.

Sure, you are worried about his wife’s feelings, and that is commendable.But I will say this: if I had a husband who did that creepy, scary, and totally horrible thing to a friend– you can bet your ass I’d want to know about it.You know your friend better than I do. Would she? (It might be the straw that broke the camel’s back and help her do what she needs to. It might be the first in a series of realizations about what a fuckface she married. It might make her hate you as an evil seductress and never want to speak to you again. You know her; I don’t.)

I will say this: I think the idea that we shouldn’t tell women what their horrible husbands have done to us was invented by men who want to treat women like shit, consequence-free.

I hate to tell you that you now have a job to do. He put this burden on you, and if you feel best just not saying anything and avoiding him that is totally your right. But that fucker took advantage of you, and I kind of want him to feel a little scared, and think twice about ever doing it to anyone else ever again.

That said? What I want doesn’t matter. What do you want? How will speaking up make you feel? How will staying silent make you feel? When you’ve figured that out (and your feelings are the feelings that matter here), you have your answer.

This letter originally ran in bitterempire.com on May 14, 2015.

How Do I Get My Mom To Stop Mis-labeling My Autistic Nephew?

My nephew is a wonderful young teen with autism.  He is an intelligent, interesting, and caring person, and his parents (with the support of the rest of us) are doing an outstanding job of getting him the therapies and assistance he needs to learn the stuff that’s less intuitive for his brain wiring than for mine.

So what’s the problem?  The problem is that my mother keeps referring to him as having Asperger’s.  Even before they stopped using the Asperger’s diagnosis, it was never my nephew’s.  He was diagnosed with autism.  But Mom keeps saying Asperger’s – I don’t know why.  I think she thinks there’s less stigma?  (But there will continue to be more stigma if people don’t see that bright, funny, sweet people like my nephew are, in fact, what autism looks like.)  Or maybe it’s that it sounds higher-functioning?  (But…my nephew has the brain he has.  Difficulties and joys and all.  Just like the rest of us.)

I wouldn’t worry about the label – Kid is Kid, no two autistic people are the same.We work with how Kid is and not a label – except that Mom seems to come home from their house to say things like, “Kid wasn’t on great behavior today,” or, “I didn’t see a lot of maturity from Kid this visit.”  Like any person, Kid has times when he’s a jerk or immature – but most of the stuff Mom is talking about is not actually him behaving badly, it’s him being autistic.  So I’m concerned that her use of a label that isn’t accurate for him is feeding into her not perceiving his behavior accurately.  She’s very patient and loving with him when she’s been saying these things to me, so I’m not concerned about how she treats him, just about her perceptions and how she passes them on to the outside world.  How much should I push back on this?  How should I push back on this?  I know she just wants him to be as okay as possible, but he IS okay – just not the same okay as I am.

Signed,
Ally Auntie

Dear Ally Auntie,

Wow. There’s an awful lot packed into this letter.

First, for those reading this unfamiliar with some of this terminology and the history of it, here it is in a nutshell: autism is a neurological variation that occurs in about one percent of the population and is classified as a developmental disability. It affects a person’s instinctive ability to communicate with, understand, and interact with others. It also includes some sometimes seriously disruptive sensory integration issues such as intense reactions to loud sounds, bright lights, and certain tactile experiences. These characteristics can combine to create some behaviors that seem antisocial or immature as well as some intense outbursts.“Asperger’s” used to be a sub-classification of autism for those displaying fewer autistic traits, a designation that was artificial and simply based on the name of a researcher. Therefore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals in the United States, recently revised their guidelines for the autism spectrum, categorizing it all as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and removing “Asperger’s” entirely.

Autism and Asperger’s – in case you have been living in a paper bag under a log in a cave behind a waterfall for the last ten years – is also surrounded by stigma, confusion, misunderstanding, and a fair bit of apoplexy in our society at large. Autism and Asperger’s has been blamed for mass shootings, sociopathic behavior, a lack of empathy, and even the inability for certain misogynistic nerds to get laid.

Because of the complexity of this difference/disorder, the fact that it affects different individuals in varying degrees (that’s why it’s often called the autism spectrum, or autism spectrum disorder), and the stigma, there is a great deal of emotion surrounding autism, autistic people, and the language we use.

The way I described autism and autistic people (not people with autism) above, for instance, is a very specific political point of view based on social theories of disability. I believe from the wording of this question that this letter-writer and I share the same basic framework of understanding for autism.

But it sounds like, Ally Auntie, your mother does not have the grounding in these issues that you and I do. I’m guessing that she, like many people, has the mistaken impression that autism = rocking in the corner, nonverbal, and Asperger’s = lovable mathematical nerd genius who needs to take classes in order to make small talk.

It also sounds like, since you’re writing me instead of talking directly with her, that she is not the kind of person you can look dead in the eye and say: “Hey, Mom. Quit saying he has Asperger’s. He has autism. Using the wrong terminology is not only medically inaccurate, it’s damaging to people’s perception of autism, and I think you’re expecting too much of him with this idea in your head that he has Asperger’s. Double-you tee eff.”

So here’s what I suggest: the next time she uses the word “Asperger’s,” stop her and say: “Mom, can you explain why you use the word ‘Asperger’s?’” This can start a conversation instead of a lecture, and it may give you a chance to educate her on this topic in a back-and-forth chat. I think during this talk it would be great to work in that neurotypical relatives of autistic people often have to function as Autism Ambassadors to the world, and that you would love to talk with her about how autism affects maturity levels and behavior.You can even, if you think she’s receptive, talk about the importance of fighting stigma itself instead of trying to help individuals avoid it by being ‘stealth autistics.’

It sounds like she is a very loving grandma who might just need some more education on the effects of autism, but also on the sociopolitical implications of how we use language relating to autism. I think the best place to turn for learning about this is to autistic people themselves, and an excellent place to start is the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, run by and for autistic people.They do a really great job defining autism and advocating for autistic people, which is what I believe you are hoping your mother will start to do.

Good luck! You are a very good Auntie.

This letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on May 8, 2015.