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I'm sick of being free labour for my cousin's reno

The question

My cousin invited me and my spouse to a floor-sanding party at her house. We don't want to go. The last invite was to help paint the walls. We work, have kids, and don't have much free time. Should I lie and say we're busy, or risk a rift by telling her she's treating us like free labour?

The answer

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Sure, she's treating you like "free labour," but is that not the very definition of family?

I've got three kids, two of them teenagers now, who although certainly capable and cheerful (to a point) when it comes to helping around the house, mostly lie around like jellyfish until prodded to do otherwise. At this point, I would estimate my ratio of paid labour to free work-around-the-house (mostly cooking and the unholy, never-ending dishes) to hover at approximately 1:1.

It's the same for my wife, so overall ratio of free housework to paid work, including the kids' contributions, in our household = 2.0001:1.

I'm not complaining, I am happy to help and consider "service" to be the point of my existence. Like the evangelists say, the six words you most want to hear at the Pearly Gates are: "Well done, good and faithful servant."

(As opposed to "Sorry, bub, gotta activate the trapdoor.")

Now, true, on top of all my domestic duties the last thing I would feel like doing on a Saturday is going over to a cousin's house, getting on my hands and knees, and sanding his or her floors.

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I understand that. And I agree it's a bit off to cloak "help me out" in the notion of a "party."

(Also, isn't your cousin taking a bit of a risk? I mean, wood flooring is expensive these days. One slip by a half-crocked floor-sanding "party" guest, and all the money she saved by not hiring a professional sander could go up in a cloud of sawdust.)

Final anti-sanding-party point: Generally speaking, I am opposed to one's house-guests lifting a finger in any way.

We've been guilty, I hasten to add, in innumerable ways. We've had pot-lucks, we've even had parties where the notion is: We supply the house, someone else does the cooking.

But in the fullness of time these arrangements have left me feeling guilty, even a little ashamed of myself.

If someone comes over to your house, maybe they open a bottle of wine with a corkscrew, but beyond that, you pooh-pooh all offers to help, tell your guests to sit down, relax, and be decorative – you'll take care of all their unmet needs.

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That, to me, is "hospitality."

Having said all the above, though, since your cousin has invited you, and your only real choices for wiggling out of it are between lying and being unnecessarily blunt – why not just go and get it over with?

You say you don't want to. Well, life is full of duties we don't want to do but do anyway: funerals for people we hardly know, thank-you calls for parties we didn't enjoy, etc.

Sometimes you have just to suck it up and show up.

For one thing, it's good karma. You're helping someone out. It's definitely related to those let's-all-put-up-a-barn parties they have in Amish and other rural milieus – at least according to the movie Witness.

And a floor-sanding party sounds almost kind of … fun, in a worky kind of way. You get cocktails and a sense of accomplishment.

Most importantly, you're making a sizable (second) deposit in the bank of You Owe Me Big Time, Cuz. Someday, you might ask your cousin for a favour in return. For example, if there's a problem in your bathroom, you could invite her over for a toilet-unclogging party.

Nyuk, nyuk, just kidding. But you would obviously be well within your rights if you had her over for a tit-for-tat "painting party" – chardonnay, canapés and paint trays.

And if she tries to dipsy-doodle, blow you off with a phony-baloney excuse (and human nature being what it is I could easily see this scenario unfolding), then you have all the information you need. Next time she asks you over for some recreational renovation you are well within your rights simply to say "sorry can't swing it" without further explanation.

Don't regret the time and energy already spent painting and sanding at your cousin's. Look at it this way: It could be just the thing to tip St. Peter's ledger in your favour.

What am I supposed to do now?

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