Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Hoarder Mother-In-Law’s House is Too Dirty To Bring My Baby to Visit”

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I’m 23, recently married, and 21 weeks pregnant with my first child.
Throughout my whole relationship with my husband, my in-laws’ house has always been always disgusting. My mother-in-law is a hoarder and addicted to shopping. In addition, there are three dogs and two cats in the house, and one dog goes to the bathroom in the front living room and the feces will not be picked up for days to almost a week. The very second you walk in the house you smell the dog feces as well as cat urine. The bathroom is indescribable, the kitchen is a disaster, and now my in-laws are talking about my child visiting once she’s born. We have talked to her for months about cleaning and de-cluttering the house and that we would help, but she refuses to see or hear what we have to say — she always have excuses or she will say, “You’re not having the baby tomorrow.” Then she will try to shift the conversation. She gets so defensive and feels like we are attacking her, but we are not. Unfortunately, I am at a point where we have to give her an ultimatum to clean the house or the baby will not come over and visit. I don’t ever want to get to that point, but I don’t know what else to do. Please help me. I am desperate. — Hoarder’s Daughter-in-Law

First, congratulations on your marriage and your pregnancy. This is an exciting time for you and I know how easy it is to get caught up in the desire for everything to be perfect as you begin this new life. But the fact is, life is messy (literally and figuratively), and navigating your in-laws’ house and lifestyle is but one challenge you’re going to face as a wife and mother (and adult, in general, regardless of your family status). The fact is that you can issue an ultimatum to your hoarder in-laws, but it’s not going to do any good, especially BEFORE your baby is even born and the incentive to clean up is still just an idea and not something that can be held and seen just yet. And you can offer to help clean up, but, if the situation is so bad that there’re animal feces and urine regularly on the floor and furniture, it’s going to take more than some well-meaning family members to turn things around.

Your in-laws (or, at least your MIL) likely needs professional help, and not just in the way of professional cleaners. The lifestyle you describe is often a symptom of some mental issues that don’t just go away when there’s an incentive, like a grandbaby, to clean up for. And getting your in-laws that kind of help really isn’t your job. They have to WANT the help in the first place. They have to accept and admit there’s a problem and they can’t face it alone. They have to want to get better. If they aren’t sharing those kinds of revelations or having those kinds of discussions with you, there’s not much you can do at this point.

Obviously, you can’t bring your child into their home (and I’m surprised you would even want to go over yourself). Rather than issue an ultimatum, it would make more sense to just tell your in-laws that you don’t feel comfortable bringing a baby into a home where there are so many germs and, if they want to see her/him, they’ll have to come to your place or meet in a neutral space. And this will just have to be the way you conduct your relationship(s) with them from now on. If you frame it as “I’m not comfortable,” or “I’m worried about germs,” rather than “You’re so dirty” or “Your place is too filthy” or “You need to clean,” (i.e. use “I” statements that reflect your feelings, rather than making “you” statements that convey judgment or demand action) this will minimize your mother-in-law’s feelings of being attacked. That doesn’t mean she won’t be defensive and hurt — she probably will be — but you aren’t responsible for her reaction; you can only control your own behavior and words.

Finally, these are your husband’s parents, so whatever communication you have with them regarding their living environment and how it affects you and your family should be communicated by your husband (after you both agree what should be said and expressed). Let HIM be the one to navigate this relationship. That will also go a long way in minimizing your MIL’s feelings of being attacked and will help protect you from the more direct reaction from her, whatever that reaction might be.

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

36 comments… add one
  • Lyra

    Lyra February 23, 2015, 9:27 am

    Yeah it’s hard to navigate things like this when they aren’t YOUR parents. I’m planning my wedding right now and I had the question of how much my future in-laws wanted to contribute to our wedding. Now they HAD discussed with us and told us that they wanted to contribute so that wasn’t the issue, but we were trying to budget and that was hard without an exact number. There was no way I would have been comfortable with that kind of conversation, not to mention it wasn’t my place to discuss it with them. Anyway, I digress.
    .
    There IS a possibility that when your in laws realize that you will not be bringing your baby around their house that they may be motivated to get help. They are probably expecting that you will bring your baby to their house and once your husband has a conversation with them explaining the situation that *may* help them get the kick in the pants that they need. However, it’s not guaranteed. Stick to your guns. Invite them over or meet them at a neutral location like Wendy suggested.

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    • avatar

      Ella_ February 23, 2015, 9:48 am

      Lyra, you always have really thoughtful stuff to say, but referencing your fiance or wedding or something else about you that is only tangentially related to the issue at hand distracts from the helpful stuff you have to say. I wouldn’t have commented but I’ve been noticing it for a while now.

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      • Lyra

        Lyra February 23, 2015, 9:59 am

        Gotcha. I didn’t realize that until now. Ugh, sorry guys!

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        MissDre February 23, 2015, 10:03 am

        It’s cuz you’re super excited.

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      • Lyra

        Lyra February 23, 2015, 10:16 am

        That’s true! 😀

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      • Lyra

        Lyra February 23, 2015, 10:17 am

        But seriously, I’ll be more mindful from here on out.

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      • Addie Pray

        Addie Pray February 23, 2015, 12:06 pm

        For what it’s worth, I don’t mind – I like hearing your wedding planning sagas! I also understand Ella’s point but… fun tangents are… fun. I say keep on keep on – until you start showing signs of bridezilla, ha.

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      • avatar

        Ella_ February 23, 2015, 10:21 am

        As you should be! Maybe a forum thread about wedding planning or something would be interesting?

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      • Lyra

        Lyra February 23, 2015, 10:52 am

        Yeah I really didn’t even notice I was doing that! We’re already 6 months out so it’s on my mind more than I would like…

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      • juliecatharine

        juliecatharine February 23, 2015, 11:27 am

        I’ve been lurking for a bit but decided to register today and this comment thread is such a great example of why this community is so awesome: heartfelt insights and adult responses. SO nice to read. Congrats on your upcoming wedding! 🙂

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      • Dear Wendy

        Dear Wendy February 23, 2015, 11:29 am

        I concur. Lyra’s response to constructive criticism (given in a thoughtful way) was mature and not what you usually see on the interwebs.

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      • avatar

        Anonymous February 23, 2015, 1:37 pm

        Sarah B, if you’re reading, THIS is a great example of how people should respond to constructive criticism.

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      • avatar

        Katrina March 7, 2015, 6:08 pm

        I’m new to the website and just wanted to say how impressed I was by the way both Ella & Lyra handle yourselves. It’s nice to see someone who knows how to offer constructive criticisms with out making snide or nasty comments. It’s also nice to see someone who can respond in a positive manner to such criticism. Very impressive ladies!

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    • avatar

      tbrucemom February 23, 2015, 2:54 pm

      I thought your comment was relative to the story and didn’t think anything about it. I think when you can relate to these letters in a personal manner, even if it’s not EXACTLY the same situation it helps put things in perspective. I think most people tend to interject their own experiences. Unless it literally had nothing to do with the topic, like you were promoting your business or went off on a tangent just to create controversy, I like to hear about them. Anyway, your comment was super classy.

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  • avatar

    Sunshine Brite February 23, 2015, 9:39 am

    You and your husband need to stand together and set your boundaries. This is absolutely mental illness and the defensiveness and behaviors will continue without ongoing, likely intensive, professional help. Help like this usually is not accepted right away.

    I would suggest that your husband discuss the boundaries decided upon for the baby as soon as possible and repeat as needed. After the first discussion if she brings up having the baby over he can repeat the boundaries, discuss the behavioral changes needed, and have resources in their community that he can offer his parents to assist them. A call to the local social services line to discuss resources or United Way 211 should be able to give you a few places they can start looking into when they’re ready for help.

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  • Crochet.Ninja

    Crochet.Ninja February 23, 2015, 9:45 am

    I would drop it for now and wait until the baby is born. once the baby is here, you can make it clear, nicely, that once the house is clean you’d be happy to bring the baby over. just keep repeating that. it’s possible they will never ‘get’ it. see if you can find someone in your area that can help counsel hoarders. this is not something they can do on their own. and just cleaning the house won’t work – it will go back the way it was pretty quickly. invite them to visit the baby at your place.

    and talk to your husband, who hopefully understands.

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  • avatar

    Ella_ February 23, 2015, 10:05 am

    This sounds like a tough situation. I would just wait until after the baby is born and then say you’d rather have them visit you and the baby at your house. If their house is to the point where there’s dog poop on the ground for weeks, it probably isn’t healthy for anyone to be there, let alone a baby with a really delicate immune system. Like Wendy said, I’d make sure you and your husband are on the same page and he is with you on this one about communicating this to his parents.

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  • Portia

    Portia February 23, 2015, 10:07 am

    WWS. People can change when presented with circumstances like these, but a disorder like this doesn’t change without a lot of work (not just cleaning). Although hoarding and smoking are not at all the same, my grandmother, stopped smoking once I was born because my parents made it clear she needed to in order to spend time with the baby. Even then, she didn’t stop until I was actually born, so definitely drop the topic with them for the moment. And start talking this out with your husband to make sure you are a united front and that he is prepared for taking to his parents about it when the time comes.

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  • avatar

    RedroverRedrover February 23, 2015, 10:08 am

    Please stop going over to their house if there is cat feces around. And make sure you get tested for toxoplasmosis. It’s no joke. The baby can be born deaf, blind, mentally retarded, etc. My best friend got it while pregnant and it was terrifying. She was lucky and her child didn’t have any birth defects, but it’s a high-risk condition.

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    • Portia

      Portia February 23, 2015, 10:12 am

      That is terrifying.

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    • Mr. Cellophane

      Mr. Cellophane February 23, 2015, 10:14 am

      What RR said. Toxoplasmosis can cause blindness and serious birth defects. It is the reason that pregnant women are not supposed to clean litter boxes!

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    • gigi

      gigi February 23, 2015, 10:50 am

      It is very serious, however, my Dr explained to me that if you have been around cats all your life, you have probably been exposed already & won’t have a problem. No reason to not take precautions (such as no litter boxes), but don’t panic either.

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      • avatar

        RedroverRedrover February 23, 2015, 11:10 am

        My friend has had a cat for over 10 years and she didn’t have it. I’ve also had cats for years and I didn’t have it. If your cat doesn’t have it, you won’t get it, so it depends on that. Anyway, I certainly wouldn’t risk it if I were her.

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  • FireStar

    FireStar February 23, 2015, 10:18 am

    Yeah – you can’t go there. Quite frankly you’re pregnant – maybe start the boundary laying now. Tell them no and offer an alternative so that they know you aren’t rejecting them just their house. “Sorry we aren’t comfortable coming over given the state of the house. I’m afraid it just isn’t safe. Would you like to meet up for brunch instead?”

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  • something random

    something random February 23, 2015, 10:24 am

    WWS. Rather than issuing an ultimatum to you MIL, I would focus the discussions with your husband. It wasn’t so long ago he was living there and he might have built up a tolerance to the hoarding. I could see your MIL putting the animals in one room or keeping one area “clean” and expecting that to be enough. I think you should both be clear that baby is only going to meet in neutral places or your house until his parents are in control of themselves again.

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  • juliecatharine

    juliecatharine February 23, 2015, 10:40 am

    I’m not sure I see the value in pussyfooting around the issue so that her MIL won’t go on the defensive. She knows what the problem is and she’s in denial. ‘I’ statements are a must but I think that the MIL is likely to continue brushing off their concerns until it’s necessary to lay it out in explicit terms. If this is an addiction (and I believe it is), I think approaching it ‘intervention style’ might be the way to go. Ex: I love you Mom, but it breaks my heart (and nose) to see how you’re living. You’re always welcome in our home but we won’t be going to yours until you’re ready to accept help. And stick to it. You can be kind while being brutally honest. Spending time in a place that disgusting enables this woman to pretend things are normal in her home-they’re not and it’s ok to proceed accordingly.

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  • muchachaenlaventana

    muchachaenlaventana February 23, 2015, 10:58 am

    This seems like a fairly clear cut situation. I don’t think you need to issue an ultimatum I think you just need to stop going over and let your husband know or your in laws know that you will not be bringing a baby to their house. Not only is it not safe for a newborn with a fragile set of lungs and immune system but as soon as your baby starts crawling and then walking, it will be terrible as they will be even more exposed to that level of filth. Your in laws may be in denial but likely they know there is a serious issue going on. Set this boundary now and make sure your husband is on board with you not going. I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t go on his own, sans you and baby when it arrives, but you definitely need to just set that boundary. I wouldn’t hold out hopes an ultimatum would make them change their ways, so like Wendy said don’t even issue one. Regardless if they want to see their grandchild just let them know it will be at your house or a neutral space. I agree it may be best coming from your husband, but if it were me I would probably want to have that conversation on my own.

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    • avatar

      Vathena February 23, 2015, 11:26 am

      That was my first thought too – it’s bad enough with a delicate newborn, but at least you can hold them in your arms. This house would be a horrific ordeal with a toddler.

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  • findingtheearth

    findingtheearth February 23, 2015, 11:35 am

    Hoarding is a symptom of a mental illness. She needs to know why she hoards before it gets better. Also, I know as someone who has depression, cleaning is hard when I am depressed. I don’t like to do it when I feel well, so when it’s bad, I don’t clean. However, children can be incentives. Knowing my daughter needs a clean place to play has helped me a lot. Also, my grandmother is a hoarder, more a shopper and a clutterer than anything gross. When my daughter was born, she wanted to take her for the day while I worked sometimes. Her only guest bed is super super full of stuff all the time. I told her, “Aspen needs a safe place to sleep, especially when she outgrows the crib.” She keeps the guest room cleaner now and bed clutter free.

    I wish you luck in dealing with this. There is no guaranteed route or easy solution. If your MIL doesn’t see she has a problem and your FIL encourages it, it will take a lot of work for them to get to a point where you might feel comfortable. Don’t feel obligated to do anything that could harm your child or put your child at risk

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  • avatar

    absurdfiction February 23, 2015, 11:52 am

    Ugh, this hits close to home. My father is a hoarder, and his late sister and parents all were hoarders, and it has had wide-reaching consequences. My poor mother has had to learn to choose her battles for the sake of marital harmony, and it’s no joke that something like piles of old newspapers can become so emotionally fraught. Fortunately, there is no food/animal filth involved in the cases in my family, but it’s still really, really tough to deal with.

    It’s good that you and your husband are having conversations about this now, because this will probably always be a problem that impacts your family, new baby aside. Please read up on OCD and how you and (primarily) your husband should handle this. Someone upthread mentioned United Way, and that’s a great starting point – also look into NAMI, they have great resources for families. This will be important for you two to understand now, because as his parents age, especially if your husband is an only child, this will become more and more your problem. Think about who will be responsible for all that stuff if they have to move into nursing care, or after they pass. No need to panic now, but even if y’all just decide to keep baby visits to neutral territory, this won’t just go away. That doesn’t mean you guys jump on them to fix this RIGHT NOW, just that you’ve got to have some ongoing conversations and really educate yourselves on the best way to handle this. Don’t pretend it’s not an issue just because you find a workaround for your kid(s)!

    Good luck, and congrats about your pregnancy! 🙂

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  • bittergaymark

    bittergaymark February 23, 2015, 12:51 pm

    Eh, hoarders are most often hopeless. Stop worrying and fretting about this. Doing so is a HUGE waste of time. Tell her instead that until things change — and they won’t, so be ready for that — she will simply have to visit you.

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  • mylaray

    mylaray February 23, 2015, 1:05 pm

    My parents are hoarders, and I tried for years and years to help them in many ways, and I gave up. They’re not going to change. They think maggots in the kitchen sink is normal and that I’m being dramatic. I get sick every time I go there, which I actually haven’t been to their house in years. I don’t really have a relationship with them, but my husband and I talk about when we have a kid, if we will let my parents see them. Going to their house is out of the question. I’ve made it clear with my parents the conditions for me to be in their house (which sadly are quite simple) and they can’t meet them. They are aware their house is disgusting, but I know they don’t understand the seriousness of it. I can’t even let my parents in my house because they will make a mess of it so quickly. So, I have very strict boundaries with them and cleanliness.
    .
    And your husband needs to set some boundaries as well. I think “I” statements are very helpful, but I also don’t think it’s helpful to be too gentle with them. His parents aren’t going to like it and since hoarding is a symptom of deeper issues, I’m sure those other issues his parents have are affecting his relationship and he needs to set boundaries there too. I’m sure it’s a really tough issue for your husband, especially growing up in that filth. It affected me socially for a long time because while I kept an immaculate place, I instinctively never invited friends over and they had to ask why they had never seen my place. There were a lot of things that took adjusting to. I’m guessing your husband might be sympathetic toward his parents, but it is important that he set some boundaries because this issue won’t just go away.

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    • avatar

      RedroverRedrover February 23, 2015, 1:29 pm

      Pretty sure my mom is a hoarder as well. She keeps talking about downsizing to an apartment, and I hope she does. Because if we were left with her house the way it is now… Jeesh. It’s going to take ages to get through it all. She’s a “clean” hoarder, at least. All of her stuff is nicely organized in those big rubbermaid bins, and stacked. Her house isn’t dirty. Just very, very full.

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      • mylaray

        mylaray February 23, 2015, 2:17 pm

        Yeah there are so many varieties of hoarders. My parents rent so they move every few years or so and it’s amazing that they throw out so much stuff each time, yet always go right back to the hoarding again.

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  • avatar

    Scotty December 26, 2016, 6:27 pm

    Ah well I’m in this same boat myself. My wife’s mother lives alone and has some serious personal issues. Her house is small and PACKED with stuff! You can barley sit down, her furniture is over sized so moving through the house is a task. There’s so much stuff no cleaning is happening on a consistent schedule. Dishes in the sink… she would invite us for holiday dinner and I’ll do my damdist to keep us from going or pay any cost to eat out. We have a 2 yr old and I hate bringing her to visit, it’s a child death trap. The baby spends the night with my mother but I would NEVER allow her to stay with my MIL and that’s sad. I litterly get ill when we are there. We have offered to come down and help her clean, under the impression of visiting and talking and just spending time and she complains and says no she’ll do it. Of course it never gets done. She buys things for the hell of it for a need or not. “It was on sale so I bought 3 of them”, but you don’t need it… “well it was on sale, maybe I’ll just give them away at work”. — agh! SMH!

    It’s never gonna change. It’s a dam sad situation I tell you.

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  • avatar

    Tk1980 February 20, 2017, 11:28 pm

    My partner and I are in the same boat, only it is my mother. My mother is completely oblivious. She says often that she needs a bigger home, because her house (4bedrooms and several outbuildings) are just too darn small. Won’t even think about getting rid of things. She also has pets urine and feces on the floor regularly. Our baby will be walking soon, so visits will be short and no more over night stays. This all makes me very sad but I remember the Serenity Prayer and the fact she has made her own choices that have led up to this.

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