My husband and I are moving away from our home town, so that he can take a job in another city. In fact, he has already moved there, and I have been staying with his parents since we sold our house. I hope to join him soon, but my job is demanding and they haven’t found a replacement yet.
I get along with my in-laws for the most part. Because of my job, I’m not able to do much housework and cooking. I had a rare day off the other day, and spent it reading and napping. When my mother-in-law got home, she went on a vacuuming rampage. Usually, when she gets home from work, she relaxes a bit. I couldn’t help but feel like she was mad at me for not helping more. Once, when my husband was back visiting for a weekend, she got upset about our shoes being left by the front door. We talked about it, and made more of an effort to pick up our shoes. But, I felt like she scolded me.
How can I turn down the tension in this house? I don’t want to leave town on bad terms with my mother-in-law.
Not a Child
Dear Not a Child,
Congratulations on your new life in a new city! This is a stressful time for you and your husband, even though it is an exciting opportunity.
I suspect your mother-in-law has mixed feelings about the situation. Assuming she had an empty nest before your stay, she probably enjoyed having control over the household. When guests enter the equation, the atmosphere changes. She’s (probably) happy she can help her son and daughter-in-law during this time of transition. But, she’s also probably sad that her son, his wife, and future grandchildren are moving to another city. Situations like these are bittersweet for everyone.
When it comes to the day-to-day details of life, she’s used to doing things her way. We have no way of knowing what she was feeling while she was vacuuming. Perhaps her intensity triggered an insecurity in you? Maybe you felt a little guilty about lounging around for the day? That’s the nice thing about having our own space. We can decide how and when we want to clean, or not! Here’s a great article from Psychology Today on The Trouble with Houseguests.
Did you and your husband discuss with your in-laws any ground rules of living in their home? Families often don’t discuss details like these. It feels unwelcoming, or persnickety to treat relatives this way. But, when house rules are assumed, well, you know what happens when you assume. Difficulties arise when we don’t live up to our host’s expectations. You did talk to her about the shoes, and tried to abide by her wishes. Good for you! But with the unspoken rules, you’re on eggshells wondering which ones you’re breaking.
Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.
— Benjamin Franklin
The best way to dial down the tension in the house is to abide by her wishes and desires as best you can. If you need clarification on something, ask! Or, take the initiative by saying something like: “Show me how you load the dishwasher, so I can do it the way you like.” There may be an awkward pause as she responds. Hopefully, she’ll see your question as a way to clear the air, and get some help, too! You are busy with your work, but it is part of being a grown-up to contribute to your living situation by paying rent, or buying groceries, sharing in the cooking and cleaning, whatever it takes to maintain the household. You are benefiting from this arrangement, so graciously and generously show your appreciation. Given time, after you’ve made your move, your in-laws will recall your kindnesses, and the inconveniences will slip from their minds. Remember: You’ll return the favor when they come to visit. It will benefit everyone to establish good ways of communicating now.
Above all, clarify when you will wrap things up with your current employer, and join your husband in the new city. An end date will lift the tension better than 1,000 vacuumed living rooms or the best stacked dishwasher. Good luck!
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