Dear Carolyn: When I was a teenager and in college, I was a slob. No two ways around it. I am now 28 and own a condo. Over the past few years, I have started keeping my place significantly neater and have a cleaning service to do the heavy lifting. Nobody who has come to my home in years has commented on the condition negatively.
Except one person: my My mother. She makes comments about small things (the glasses in my cabinet were not arranged according to size) when she visits and alludes to the fact that I am slovenly. At family gatherings, like a recent wedding shower when the bride received a vacuum cleaner, my mother exclaimed, “Good thing you didn’t get that, you wouldn’t even know how to use it!”
Yes, I was a messy teen and college student. But I am now a gainfully employed professional with a clean condo. Any tips for pointing this out to my mother? I don’t want to sound petulant, but this really bothers me.
No Longer a Slob
This is actually pretty typical — not the cleaning arc, though that’s common, too, but the Mom-won’t-let-her-image-of-me-grow-up problem.
I suggest a two-pronged attack:(1) Have the Conversation. “I can think of many occasions lately when you’ve made an issue or joke of my cleaning habits: (example or two here). I get it, ha ha, I used to be a huge slob. But I’m an adult, well past a lot of stuff I did as a kid, so I’m mystified that I still have this label.” Is there something you’re trying to say, something that’s bothering you?” Hear her out and do your best to respond charitably vs. defensively. Defensiveness is a brick wall.(2) No matter how she responds — be it defensiveness of her own, or lip service, or genuine change — be prepared to let the subject drop. People hold on to things for all kinds of reasons, many they can’t articulate.
A common one is that people form impressions, organize them in a way they understand — and hang on to that filing system because it’s more secure-feeling than recognizing that over time, they have to reacquaint themselves with the people they supposedly know best in the world.
In this case, too, Your mother might be harboring significant anger that you were a slob on her turf but magically reformed on yours — and be lacking the self-awareness to form this into words. So, she jabs and snarks and swipes.
Whatever the case, make your point, listen to hers, and assure yourself you’ve done what you could. After that, treat any remaining obnoxious behavior from Mom as a bit of grit in the clam.
Dear Carolyn: Thanks for pointing out that I was a slob on her turf, but not my own. I am sure, even if subconsciously, that is part of the issue. And she absolutely deserves an “I’m sorry I was messy in the late ‘90s.”
Sure thing. (The “in the late ‘90s” isn’t snark, right?)
She might not respond in the fence-mendingest of ways, especially if you startle her again by behaving against stereotype, but it will still have been the right thing to do.