Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, FEB 10, 2005
My mom’s a slob, my sister’s a loser. What is wrong with these people?
My question is a simple one of whom to be mad at.
Here’s the background: My mom has always been a horrible housekeeper. My dad actually left her because of it — he would come home from working 50 hours a week and then clean on the weekends. My mom would instead read romance novels, talk to her friends in Ohio, and dote on my younger sister and me. After my dad left, the house got messier and messier — the carpet discolored, the dishwasher broken since 1992 (it’s still there). I was kind of an introvert until I hit college and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary about this lifestyle.
My sister never went to college. Let me rephrase: She went to five certificate programs ranging from massage therapy to fashion design, never graduating from anything, until she went to a two-month pastry chef program and finished — hallelujah! She moved out at 22 with her boyfriend and got a job in the big city, and we all thought she had grown up. Unfortunately, she quit under mysterious circumstances (reportedly, her “crazy” boss was about to fire her for being lazy), the boyfriend went to AA, and she moved home into the basement.
In this house live my mom, my weak grandma, who is starting to get some pretty depressing dementia, my sister and five cats. I came home for a month-long stay from my home in New York. The house has been more neglected than I can possibly sum up. My sister and mom both chain-smoke, so I’ve been cleaning cigarette tar off the walls. I’m finding cat poop in random corners. There is junk everywhere. And to top it off, when I was washing the walls, my mom asked me to get a few dark spots from the skin oil of our dog where he used to lay — our dog died two years ago.
I could live with spending my visits cleaning if it weren’t for my sister. She’s 24 and my mom keeps spoiling her. Cooks for her, pays her phone bills, buys her whatever she wants with the money she’s working a 40-hour job for. My sister has proceeded to turn the house into her personal frat house. Her boyfriend spends the night, she leaves her dirty dishes next to her unmade bed, she leaves towels smudged with her eye makeup throughout the house and leaves my mom to return her movie rentals. She has a minimum-wage job at a bookstore and is now taking mythology classes (mostly online so she doesn’t have to go) at the local community college with the intention of becoming a therapist.
After a few weeks of cleaning, I told her how much it would mean to Mom if she helped out. She agreed to help, then covertly left the house only to call me at midnight from the big city — she and her boyfriend were drunk and needed me to pick them up.
I’m pissed at my sister for refusing to care about our home or her life. Maybe I sound jealous of her carefree lifestyle, but I got my butt in gear and learned to cook my own meals years ago. I’m also pissed at my mom for letting my sister walk all over her and not just kicking her out for her own good. My mom protests that when she asks my sister to clean, she just won’t do it, so it’s worthless to ask. I’m also conscious of being the “successful” daughter with a master’s degree and a fancy life in NYC, snubbing my nose at their lifestyle. I’d pay for their maid if I could afford it.
I’m worried that at this rate my sister will never learn a sense of responsibility. She’s 24 and has had two abortions. I’m worried that my sister will get killed in a car accident — she’s already been in two — which would crush my mom. I’m worried that my sister will come to me to support her one day when our mom dies and I will have to say no, get a life.
Any advice would be greatly appreciated!
If your question really is whom to be mad at, my answer would be: Don’t be mad at anyone. Leave them alone. Go back to New York and quit trying to fix your family. They are responsible for themselves.
But I sense you are asking more than just whom to be mad at. You are asking why the situation is the way it is and what, if anything, you can do to fix it. What is your role in this, and what are your responsibilities? How can a person of good conscience just abandon her family when it’s clear that things have gone wrong and they need some kind of help?
First, try to put yourself in their shoes. Think how you would feel if your sister and your mother showed up at your home in New York and started cleaning your apartment and rearranging your stuff. You would feel that they didn’t respect you, that they were overstepping their bounds. My guess is that your attempts at helping them are making them feel small and inadequate, and they probably resent you for it.
Next, consider what they might be getting out of living the way they do. Why, you may ask, would anyone in her right mind choose to live like that? And who, having been shown there’s a better way, would continue?
Well, we all do things that don’t seem to make sense to others but that give us what we happen to need. It can be maddening, I know, to watch someone do something one way when you know it would be much easier and smarter to do it a different way. But often the benefits of our seemingly absurd actions are known only to us — and sometimes we ourselves do not really understand what we are getting out of it.
A family is a dense, complex web of dependencies and interdependencies. It is a nurturing place but also a dangerous place, full of threats to our egos, to the way we think of ourselves. There may be individual pathologies at work as well — you mentioned your grandmother’s dementia; perhaps there is depression and drug abuse at work with your mother and sister.
Because the family is such a dangerous place, we all figure out ways to protect ourselves from each other. The dreams, ambitions and shortcomings about which we are most vulnerable are the very ones that we keep most carefully hidden from the family’s view. So it’s no wonder that our actions often seem inexplicable and baffling to the family: Afraid of ridicule, we go to great lengths to disguise our true objectives and our true failings. That is why it is so difficult for one family member to help another one recognize and deal with a problem such as drug abuse or alcoholism: You are trying to help, but you are perceived as a threat.
Not only can your well-intentioned aid be seen as a threat, but so can be your worldly success. Faced with the success of a sibling, we are driven to differentiate ourselves, lest we feel bested, overshadowed. But we must not acknowledge that we are differentiating ourselves in reaction. That would be tantamount to admitting our weakness, our jealousy, our resentment and fear. So we pretend that we are just doing what we’re doing.
Sometimes we go overboard in this symbolic differentiation: If you are going to become the secretary of state, I will become a crack head. That will show you. If you are going to be a pot head, I am going to become a Republican. If you are going to go to New York and become successful, I am going to go home and live in the basement with five cats. That will demonstrate … what? That you’re not right about everything. That you don’t know everything. That you’re not the boss of me.
And so it goes.
To think that you can walk into such a system and fix everything by cleaning the cigarette smoke off the walls is very human and very understandable but quite clearly doomed.
Why not, instead of trying to fix your family, try to understand what emotional needs they are getting met, and what deep and universal values they are exhibiting — for instance, the value of tolerance and patience, of unconditional love. And the love of place and togetherness. No matter how screwed up things seem, they are at least together. They are a family. What is this saying to you? Might it be saying that there are some things even more important than getting your butt in gear?
This may help you stop being mad at everyone. After you stop being mad, please do consider what forms of practical aid you can offer. A regular cleaning service, if you can afford it, would be ideal. And if there are clear clinical pathologies present, then consult with appropriate specialists.