The children have loads and loads of toys, which litter the entire house and are never culled. Nothing is ever donated or thrown out, and the children get new toys weekly.
If they want to color, then new coloring books and crayons are purchased even though they already have a cabinet full. The closets and dressers are overflowing with clothes, and the kitchen has so many appliances there is no room on the counters. Most have been used once.
Mary is constantly ordering more stuff, as well as a host of containers to put more things in. Boxes are delivered every day. Food is purchased in quantities they will never use before the sell-by date, shoved in a cabinet and forgotten about. For a while she seemed to be collecting pets (they have multiple dogs and cats, birds and a lizard).
I have noticed my older grandson has trouble parting with anything — even his old schoolwork, from kindergarten on, is still cluttering up an ever-increasing number of drawers, crates and plastic organizers.
Meanwhile, needed repairs to the house are not addressed on the grounds they “can’t afford” to do so.
I am worried about the impact this is having on the kids and the huge waste of money this entails. They are not wealthy. I have not said anything to my son about this. We were not close for many years, and it was Mary who encouraged him to let me back in his life. I am afraid to say anything for fear of precipitating another rift.
— Concerned In-law
Concerned In-law: This could be my daughter-in-law you are talking about (minus the pets.) Their house is not kept up to my standards, but I realized long ago that my standards only apply to me. My DIL is a lovely person. And yours sounds like she is too, to have encouraged your son back into your life. Lucky you! Are husband and kids healthy? Happy? That’s all that’s important, not whether the kids are sentimental about their kindergarten art. My DIL also buys containers and tries to organize all their stuff. She makes the effort, but it’s just not in her DNA. So lighten up. I don’t know what alienated you from your son before Mary came along, but I suspect it may have had something to do with speaking your mind and overstepping boundaries. It’s their house and their lives. My advice would be to zip it and close your eyes to the clutter. Better to appreciate the finer qualities of DIL and grandkids and be glad that you get to enjoy time with your family.
Concerned In-law: Uh-oh. I can see my own family in this. With the exception of being short one child, some birds and a lizard, I could be “Mary.” Now, would I want this pointed out to me? Nope. Is my husband oblivious that we live this way? No, he is not. In fact, he contributes to the clutter as much as I do.
I have so, soooo many blankets. Blankets knitted for me by friends, hand-sewn by family members, passed down from grandmothers, etc. My children have toys they will eventually stop playing with as they age into teens. I can donate them or toss them at that time (which will come soon enough). My children have drawings, crafts and projects they put love and effort into which they can purge from their rooms when they are ready to do so. My husband has multiples of the same tools, but he is innately disorganized and it would cause me endless frustration to organize his things only to have him not keep it up. So for the sake of a happier (if messier) household, I let him order another hammer or whatever (what Mary may be doing with the coloring books).
We are cluttered but not a health hazard. We clean, do the dishes, wash the multitude of clothes and care for our pets.
Someday, the children will be grown and off to college, we will eventually retire, and all the stuff will get tossed, donated or sold as we downsize.
For now, we’re happy with our clothes-filled, toy-filled, tool-filled, blanket-filled life. And yes, we’re aware of it. No need for a bossy, nosy grandparent to weigh in on how we choose to live our life.
Concerned In-law: Is the house so full that it is dangerous, such as not having a fire exit from each room?
Are rooms so cluttered that they cannot be used for their intended purpose? Such as, no place to sit or no table space? Or no place for kids to do homework?
Is the house being cleaned?
Are the pets well cared for?
Are dogs being walked and litter boxes and bird cages being cleaned?
If these are not problems, then leave them to live their own lives. Perhaps, if there is expired food that would be dangerous to eat, you could help them find and dispose of it.
Especially in light of the fragile relationship with your son, I’d leave them alone unless there is clear evidence that their safety is in danger.
If there are safety concerns then that is the way to approach the topic. Express concern about the consequences of people being trapped in an emergency, sickened by spoiled food or pet waste or kids flunking school because they cannot study.
Concerned In-law: 1. Don’t contribute to the problem. Give experiences and quality time as holiday gifts.
2. If you can afford it, offer to pay the contractors needed for the home repairs you mention.
3. Build stronger, warmer relationships with every member of this branch of the family. After some time, this will give you the ability to broach — and have your relationship survive — questions about the sheer amount of STUFF in this home, and their feelings about it. Focus on your grandson and his siblings first, then Mary, then your son; you have more ability to assess and make an impact with your grandchildren, and your kindness to Mary will pay dividends that extend to your relationship with your son. (As an estranged kid myself, I can assure you that it’s much harder to cut off a parent who has genuinely warm, loving relationships with your kids and spouse.)
4. And seriously: only open-ended questions, to better understand what’s going on, NOT suggestions or judgment. No one likes unsolicited advice or judgment, but especially not hoarders, especially not when they’re married to your previously estranged son.
Concerned In-law: Where is your son in all of this and how does he feel about it? Given his reluctance to let you in makes this question sound like you think it’s your job to meddle in their lives and tell them how to live. Or question their adult choices for their own children. No matter what is going on in there unless someone is being abused there is little you can do about your daughter-in-law’s perceived affliction. What you can do is “get in where you fit in.” Meaning, when you go by, do you ever offer to help or do you just go and point out over and over the same things about how she is somehow failing her family based on your opinions? Wash the dishes, help fold or sort the clothes, find a charity doing a drive and offer your assistance in getting rid of the things they say they don’t need. NOT what you say they don’t need. Otherwise, there is nothing to be done by you about this other than being grateful to have them in your lives.
— Mind Your Own Business Mom
Concerned In-law: My initial reaction is that unless the possible hoarding is physically endangering the children, this is a good situation in which to do nothing. Your son and daughter-in-law are running their household in a way that differs from how you would operate, and while the difference in this case might be more outwardly obvious than some other situations, it’s still their choice. Unless, again, there is some physical danger involved, it sounds like staging some sort of intervention might pose a risk to a fragile relationship that you value. Leave it alone. While you might consider offering to help with those needed household repairs, that’s a choice, too. Don’t do it if you can’t do it without making judgmental comments. I think I’d summarize my comments by suggesting that you put your relationship ahead of your opinions at this point. Eventually, you might find opportunities to offer your assistance in culling some of the unused toys and linens, etc., for possible donation, but I think that needs to wait for just the right opening.
Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat. Read last week’s installment here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.