Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

When helping isn't helping

Making the most of other's good intentions

Kelly runs a tight ship at home. She’s organized (okay maybe some folks would say a little bit obsessive) but when her mother offered to come down and help after her baby was born, Kelly jumped at her offer. Now it’s a couple of days post-mom and Kelly is about to scream. Her mom washed and dried her new expensive blouse that is meant to be only handwashed and never ever put in a dryer – now it would barely fit a 4 year old. And then she apparently overwatered the plants and left a huge water stain on one of the dressers. And she still hasn’t been able to find the blender even though she tore the kitchen apart looking for it and her mom can’t remember seeing it. Did I say she was about the scream? 

This is one of those situations where good intentions cross with unspoken expectations. Kelly knows in her rational mind that her mom was just trying to help. Her mom didn’t know the nuances of the household, she was in a different environment, there were different rules (like the blouse) and standards that her mom was clueless about. Kelly doesn’t want to call up her mom and scold her, but she is reluctant to let her move off the couch the next time she visits. 

Obviously there is a communication problem here (or lack of) but also something else. Part of Kelly’s upset is about her and her coping style. She leans on control to manage her anxiety – she knows where things go, follows her own routines, stays obsessed..uh, organized. When things are going to plan, everything is fine. Even with enough notice of changes to come she can adjust. But when the plan (that usually stays only inside her head) gets thrown off unexpectedly, her anxiety goes up and it usually comes out as irritation and control. 

And there’s another problem as well – a tension created within Kelly by the nature of having someone, even if it is her mom, helping in her house. Part of the tension comes from Kelly, on one hand, wanting and needing help, but on the other, wanting to give an appearance that things are still pretty much in control, that her house still presents well, that she really normally doesn’t need help even though she is acknowledging that she does.

The other source of tension is that even though Kelly knows her mom is openly and voluntarily coming to do what needs to get done, Kelly still would like her mom to also be able to feel like a guest in her home. Wanting both seems like a conflict of roles – worker, guest – which Kelly mentally and emotionally has a hard time reconciling. 

What to do? Some tips to make the best use of helping hands: 

Decide if you really want help. Kelly may say yes to her mother’s offer to help, but deep down in her heart she knows it would be easier for her to just ask her husband to take some time off work. Her yes is to avoid hurting her mother’s feelings. She is afraid her mother will feel left out of the start of a new chapter in her life, or that she will feel unappreciated. Kelly feels obligated to accept. 

Kelly needs to not go on auto-pilot or fall into good-daughter mode and instead decide what she wants. If she rather her mother stay home, she can say that – Part A – and then follow up by being sensitive to her mom’s possible reactions – Part B. She may something like “I really appreciate your kind offer, mom, and I hope you don’t feel left out, but right now I think I just need some nesting time with Tom (her husband) and the baby.” By acknowledging how her mother might feel and by explaining her intentions, her mom won’t misinterpret her response and will be less likely to feel dismissed. 

Decide what help you need. Kelly’s mom is doing her best to be helpful and so without guidance gravitates towards what she notices, what she would likely focus on in her own family and home. To both help her mom do what is most needed and help give Kelly some sense of control, Kelly can assign her mom tasks. These need to be concrete and clear: Can you wash the sheets, can you buy these items on this shopping list at the grocery store down the street, can you put the dishes in the dishwasher. Saying “Please do the laundry” “go to the store” “clean up the kitchen” is too vague and subject to misinterpretation and potential dire consequences there goes the blouse). 

Let the helper know what not to do at the start. This is where Kelly talks about the blouse (or better yet hides it under bed so it’s safe from her mom). This is where you talk about quirky appliances – don’t jiggle the handle on the toilet because it will... – and taboos – don’t wash my daughter’s blanket no matter how gross it looks, don’t water the cactus, don’t leave the closet door open because…it’s just a me thing but it’s one of those things that can easily drive me crazy. But keep these to a minimum – 3, 4 big items. Too many and the helper begins to feel excessively micromanaged or seen as incompetent, and feels like she is being treated like a child.

Give plenty of compliments. Reward the troops. Even if your eyes instinctively zero in on all the faults that they don’t seem to see, praise the effort and intention, not the outcome. Loading up on the positives helps move the dial more towards guest and less like Cinderella and slave. And by pointing out what’s good, rather than bad, you can positively help shape the other’s behavior.

Try to lighten up. It’s easy to get territorial in your own space. Again think of the intention. Think of it as going to a hotel where everything isn’t absolutely exactly right in the room, but you don’t rant at the desk clerk for every little thing, even if you are paying for it. If you find that’s tough to do, it’s usually about your level of stress and anxiety. Address it directly – rant to your partner, ask for a hug, go for a walk around the block, go grocery shopping yourself to get out of the house. Don’t be a martyr but don’t be a drill sergeant either. Try for a stance somewhere in the middle. Think of this experience as temporary and generous.

And... best of luck finding that blender.

 

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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