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Carolyn Hax: Telling mother-in-law her scented products make me sick

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: This is kind of a silly problem. My kind, sensitive mother-in-law makes me sick. She stayed with us for a few weeks while I was pregnant with a now-6-month-old. I was pretty vomitty, and one of the many triggers was the scent of my MIL’s hair spray and, to a lesser extent, perfume. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I didn’t want to hurt her — she’s sensitive about her appearance — and was also choosing battles, because cooking meat was an even bigger trigger. I figured out how to minimize my exposure and accepted the vomiting as par for the course.

Now she’s back for two weeks to meet the 6-month-old, and I am unexpectedly still sensitive to these scents. They don’t make me vomit, but I’m finding them nauseating and generally unpleasant. They never bothered me before the pregnancy, so I’m guessing my body is doing the association game.

Should I just suck it up, avoid where I can and give my body a chance to outgrow the associations? Will it outgrow the associations? It feels as if there’s no way to say something that wouldn’t be hurtful.

— Vomitty

Vomitty: It’s not silly, not even kind of.

You feel physically ill, and you’re distancing yourself from a kind, sensitive person. These are both important!

If you had asked me back when the problem first arose, then I would have urged you to be honest with your MIL. It’s not personal, and it wasn’t “about her appearance”; it was about chemicals. That’s it. So that was the thing to have said.

Because the problem persists, that’s the thing to say to her now. “There is something in your hair spray and perfume that I’ve started reacting to. I’m hoping it’s just a postpartum thing that will go away, but in the meantime, I’m wondering if you’re willing to stop using them or try different ones?”

It will be awkward, yes, and she may do exactly as you expect and take personally what is plainly not personal (because that seems to be 50 to 99 percent of the world’s favorite side hustle), but besides being tactful, civil and kind, it’s not your job to calibrate your words to elicit a specific reaction. Your job is to give the people you care about enough information to stay close, and enough room to process the information as they see fit.

Plus, when someone repels you physically, it’s really, really hard to keep that out of your body language. The truth, no matter how insulting or awkward, is probably less insulting or awkward than whatever explanation her imagination has conjured up for your recoiling.

And, yes, pregnancy can change your tastes and sensitivities permanently, and “outgrowing” isn’t always an option.

Readers’ thoughts:

· I used to like myriad scents and have, over time, become increasingly negatively affected by them. And there’s one ingredient in particular that will cause a migraine if I’m in proximity for an extended period — and I don’t know what it is, but I do know that the people who like Scent A will discontinue if I mention my problem, then move to Scent B, which also contains it, as does Scent C, etc. Ask for a cessation of scented products altogether when she’s at your home.

· You can also provide her some face-saving space. “During the pregnancy, I developed some chemical sensitivities that are lingering, and I am having to make adjustments and, sometimes, ask other people to help me.”