Dear Bitter Butch,

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 bringing you new rags, sponges, squeegees, etc. when she visits. She’s bringing herself these 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.

BITTER BUTCH aka Haddayr Copley-Woods is a queer, a cripple, a nerd, a mom to two kids with neurological differences, and has a truckload of opinions on everything including sex and relationships, parenting, disability issues, family relationships, work dynamics, gender/sexuality issues, and etiquette. You can reach her with all your questions at bitterbutch@bitterempire.com

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