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David Eddie's Damage Control

My mom's coming to visit for two weeks - uninvited Add to ...

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The question

My wife and I moved away from Toronto last year, in part to be closer to her parents on Vancouver Island, in part for two new jobs, and in part to get some space from my mother. We feel quite guilty about admitting that. But you see, my father died about 10 years ago, and after the intense grief and sense of loss washed away, my mother "found" herself and basically regressed back to the mentality of a 16-year-old. In her "new self," she vowed not to "complain, explain, or apologize." In reality, what this meant is she became selfish, and exclusively focused on what she wants. My wife, who is without a doubt the most understanding, patient and caring person I have ever met, has less patience. Recently, when my mother called us up to say she was coming to visit and wanted to spend "two weeks getting to know us again," we did not immediately object, but told her we would look at our schedules and get back to her. This morning, she e-mailed to say she booked her flights and that she hoped it was "okay with us." We are outraged. If we call her on the rudeness of not checking with us - about arrival/departure dates let alone the length of her stay - it will cause a massive blow-up. We're thinking of waiting a few weeks then telling her that we both have business trips that happen to coincide with the second week of her stay, and asking her to change her return ticket. We feel guilty about this too. What can I do to manage both my wife's feelings and my mother's?

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The answer

First of all, Damage Control does not endorse this "Never complain, explain, or apologize" philosophy, at all.

Ye gods, if I had a philosophy of "never complain, explain, or apologize," I wouldn't have anything to say to anyone - particularly my wife. I would be mute. Complaining, explaining, and apologizing pretty much comprises all the (non-sexual) intercourse I have with her.

On a slightly more serious note: It's just a terrible philosophy all the way around - as you suggest, a catch-all Cloak of Self-Exculpation for all obnoxious, selfish, bull-in-china-shop-type behaviour. Which is fine - as long as you don't mind friends and family avoiding you; failing to invite you to things; and moving across the country to get away from you.

But coupled with her wanton disregard for being invited at all - well, that's quite a one-two punch your mom's got there, sir: "I insist on my right to be obnoxious, and also to show up without invitation for two-week stays wherever I can discern, through my fog of self-regard, if some family members are in the vicinity."

But listen: It's hard to grow old gracefully. Life flies by so quickly! ("We give birth astride a grave," as Samuel Beckett put it. "The light gleams an instant, then it's gone.") Suddenly you're old, and confronting so many things at once: creaking joints, your own mortality, a sudden short supply of "future," perhaps, and (also perhaps) an overabundance of "past."

And being alone (sounds like) for 10 years since your father, her husband, died, can't have helped either. She's lonely!

Is it any wonder some of us clutch at philosophical straws like "never complain, explain, or apologize" as a way of understanding/dealing with it all?

The way to handle these sorts of personal "reinventions" in our loved ones, I always feel, is with compassion - compassion, boundaries, and gentle (but firm) pressure.

Have compassion for your mother. Obnoxious she may be, but she's still your mother. Surely you can put up with her for two weeks.

Anyway, it doesn't sound like you have much choice. I understand your impulse, in the face of a two-week uninvited pop-in, to concoct a faux "business trip." But the image of your mother sitting in your house in B.C. while you sit in a hotel room across town pretending to be on a business trip just makes me sad.

Why not look upon your mother's two-week visit as a retraining/deprogramming period?

Gently, at first, but then perhaps more firmly, suggest to her she rethink this "never complain/explain/apologize" business, that it's not working.

You'd be doing her a favour. If you, her offspring, are finding her a little tough to take, lately, you can bet she's probably rubbing others in her world the wrong way, too.

What's the worst that could happen? She could take umbrage, book herself a standby, and fly off in a huff. Which would not be ideal, obviously; but sounds like your sorrow at seeing her go would not be unmixed with relief.

I don't envy you being stuck between wife and mother. Talk about a rock and a hard place! I think you should bend over backward during your mother's stay to make your wife happy. I think you're well within your rights to go out as much as you please, sans mère, while she's there, to dinners, movies, and so forth.

If she squawks - well, point out a) she's in violation of the "never complain" clause of her new philosophy; and b) the two of you have decided to take a page out of her book and never explain or apologize your own selves.

Maybe once the shoe's on the other foot like that, and she sees how boneheaded this new philosophy of hers is, she'll straighten up and fly right.

David Eddie is the author of Chump Change and Housebroken: Confessions of a Stay-at-Home Dad. Damage Control, the book, was released in March.

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