“My Mother-In-Law Reeks”

My in-laws live overseas and they visit us one to two times per year. We used to visit them each year until we had a baby a few years ago and now they come to us. When we visit them, we stay in their big house in the country. When they visit us in the city, they book an Airbnb.

However, last year they couldn’t afford an Airbnb and so they stayed with us in our small two-bedroom apartment for two weeks. I love my in-laws, but I wasn’t comfortable with their sleeping over because: 1. We have a tiny apt, an active toddler, and one bathroom; 2. It’s a long stay for overnight guests; 3. My MIL is a massive chain smoker and the apt REEKS of cigarettes when she comes. (Even though she doesn’t smoke in the house, it took a long time to air out the apartment after the two week visit.); 4. My MIL doesn’t wash her hands after using the bathroom, and then she goes into the kitchen and starts cooking dinner.

I acknowledge that #3 and #4 also occur when we visit them in their house (except my MIL smokes in her own home) AND would occur even if they had an AirBnB — but much more so if they stay over.

We have a language barrier between us, so there’s potential for hurt feelings or miscommunication. My husband always presents us as a unified front (and his mom’s hygiene bothers him too). So, yup, that includes reminding his mother to wash her hands after going number two and then going into the kitchen. (Reminders don’t work, by the way.)

I can see how it’s offensive to confront someone about her hygiene, but I also think being a little cleaner than usual is a courtesy when you’re someone’s guest. And as a parent, I wouldn’t want to stay with a young couple with a child for two weeks because I would feel I was imposing.

This year my in-laws can again only afford plane tickets but not an AirBnB. I don’t want to deny them time with their granddaughter and we can’t fly to them. Should I put up with this seemingly new tradition going forward? The upsides are that their visits are once a year, I truly enjoy their company, I want to make my husband happy, and they pay for our plane tickets to their home country when we stay with them, so I feel selfish for being reluctant to return the favor. Am I being selfish or unreasonable? I’m struggling with my feelings, so I’m open to any insight, good or bad! — Bad Daughter-in-Law?

You’re not being selfish on unreasonable for not wanting your in-laws staying with you in your tiny apartment for two weeks. What you — and your husband — need to do is establish a rule for how many nights houseguests can stay with you and then communicate that with your in-laws, as well as help them find a suitable and affordable alternative for additional nights they want to stay in the area. For example, you may decide that you can deal with them in your home for four nights, so you tell them: “We’re so excited to see you! As you know, we have a very small apartment, with only one bedroom and a very active toddler, so because of that we now have a 4-night limit for houseguests. That will help all of us feel more comfortable and enjoy each other’s company more. And since you want to stay in the area for two weeks, we have found some alternative places for you to stay during the additional days you’ll be here.”

What will those additional places be? I don’t know! Start asking around — maybe you have neighbors who will be gone and would offer their beds for free or cheap in exchange for pet/house-sitting. Check AirBnB in your area or cheap motels that might even offer senior discounts that your in-laws might qualify for. If you could afford to pitch in with costs — even a night or two — that would help soften the blow of your new “houseguest rule” and also ingratiate your in-laws to you a bit. And if there are any other costs they usually incur when they visit that you could help alleviate — dining out, rental car, cabs — that would also go a long way in making the trip more affordable for them.

It may be, with this new rule, they decide to shorten their stay to a week instead of two, or maybe they make the trip every two years instead of one. Are you prepared to see them less, because that is a likely consequence of your creating some boundaries, and you’ll have to weigh it against the consequence of your continuing to allow them to crash in your home for two weeks at a time.

And why can you no longer fly to see them? Traveling with a toddler is more challenging than not traveling with a toddler, but it’s not impossible, and if your in-laws are willing to buy the plane tickets for you and you have a free place to stay – one that is much bigger and more conformable for all of you to hang out together – I’m not sure why you wouldn’t make the sacrifice of an uncomfortable commute for a more comfortable visit.

As for the not washing of the hands, I would have your husband continue harping to his mother about how important it is for all of you, but especially for the health of her grandchild, that she clean her hands after taking a shit. But yeah, beyond constant reminding, and maybe handing her a diaper wipe before ever handing over your child for her to hold, there’s not much you can do. Except, don’t let her cook any more of your meals. If she asks why, tell her to talk to your husband, and instruct him to tell her it’s because her lack of hygiene is a health risk.


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  1. Avatar photo Skyblossom says:

    We travel abroad to see my husband’s family. For us it is a major expense and not worth going for just a week due to the number of days spent traveling combined with the jet lag. If you don’t want them staying in your apartment I think you should volunteer to pay for them to stay somewhere else. That balances out the fact that you aren’t spending your money to go and see them.

    For the hygiene issue I think one way to handle is to have your husband tell her that the doctor says your toddler can’t eat any food cooked by someone who hasn’t washed their hands before cooking and also can’t be held by anyone who hasn’t washed their hands after using the bathroom. Then hold firm to those rules. If she didn’t wash her hands before cooking you cook something else with the claim that you have to anyway because the toddler can’t eat what she made. If she came out of the bathroom without washing her hands ask her to go back and wash them because the doctor requires it for you child. Ask every single time it happens.

    1. RedRoverRedRover says:

      This is what I was gonna say. Can you pay for the air bnb?

      About the hand washing, you said the reminders don’t work. Did you mean that your husband reminds her that she didn’t wash them, and she brushes it off? Doesn’t wash them even when she’s told? I would say that she’s not allowed to cook food at all unless she’s washed. Your husband will have to stop her and make her do it.

  2. Echoing the idea to pay for them to stay somewhere else.

  3. Whatever one else has said thus far. Why not offer to pay for AirBnB for 1 of the 2 weeks.

  4. The hygiene thing is totally valid (yuck!), but you really need to offer to pay for their rental, or to at least split the cost with them, especially since you’ve decided to no longer visit them in their home country.

  5. Is it possible that her lack of hygiene is a cultural thing? Maybe she simply doesn’t get it because its not the norm where she grew up or where she lives now?

    I’m with the suggestion to pay for a hotel or a rental for at least part of the time they are coming to visit. Do they do anything besides hang out with the family when they stay with you? You could put a positive spin on it and say that you want them to enjoy their trip more as a vacation and be able to spend some time alone and sight see, travel around your area, etc.

    The smoking would personally drive me insane, the smell gets into everything.

    1. Where exactly is the lack of hygiene a cultural thing?

      1. jilliebean says:

        Many, many places!! You would be amazed at what we in the US consider basic cleanliness standards, that in some countries they do not. Some is cultural and some is lack of hygeine education. Regardless, I agree that they need to live up to the LW’s standards (which don’t seem unreasonable) when in their house with your young child.

        As for the visit, LW – I have been there. My in-laws were also from another country and would come to visit once a year for two weeks. We lived in a small house and we were all on top of each other for those two weeks. So much about it was annoying and difficult but — I sucked it up. Imagine only being able to see your grandchild once a year. I would want to be with the child every minute that it was awake and staying elsewhere would not make that possible. I decided I could live with the annoyance for two weeks a year because it made them happy and my husband happy (even though it annoyed him too).

        So my bottom line is — suck up the staying-with-you part, but have your husband insist on the handwashing because that’s just gross and could spread disease. The smoking is more difficult…not much you can do about that…stock up on Febreze I guess.

      2. SpaceySteph says:

        Any place that doesn’t have reliable clean, running water. Even if the in-laws live in an industrialized country now and have for many years, if she didn’t grow up with that habit it’s harder to establish in adulthood.

      3. yes, and also different circumstances can bring about different behaviours- I’m usually pretty clean, (a bath everyday) but having been on mad projects where you are getting two hours sleep a night I can testify that once you smell- you can’t tell. It’s horrifying dealing with the clothes once normal cleaning starts after project ends- dear god! How could I have smelled like that and not known! So your ma in law has no idea. The hands are different though, even on two hours sleep we all wash our hands all through the day, and however uncomfortable it is, LW has to be firm on that one. BTW health professionals in my country now say hand sanitisers are no substitute for soap and water, so don’t rely on them. I’m so glad LW is hosting however it’s done, though, as having kids in a smokers’ house is not on.

  6. In-laws can be tricky but two full weeks IS a pretty long time to share one bathroom and main living area with guests. If they have a big house in the country and they are willing to pay for your airline tickets could you suck it up and travel with your young child? If your child is around two now, maybe it wouldn’t be as difficult to travel with possibly potty-trained toddler or pre-schooler in another year.

    I agree with others who say that if you would prefer for the In-laws to come visit you, you and your husband should try to contribute something to the comfort of their visit. If offering to host them in your home for two-full weeks is simply too much, perhaps your husband can gently suggest one week? Or perhaps you can offer to contribute financially to a comfortable, close space as others suggested?

    I think Wendy’s four-day houseguest rule might go over easier with them because you already gave a longer visit a shot. This is your husband’s mom and dad so much of the decision will have to be based on his comfort levels and how much these visits mean to him.

    Perhaps you could rent an AirBnB in less expensive area that is large enough for everyone to have enough personal space?

  7. The chain smoking alone would be more than enough to convince me to make the in-laws stay elsewhere since I absolutely loathe the smell of it. Second hand smoke can be even more dangerous than actually smoking the cigarette yourself. Not a good thing for toddlers to be inhaling. Blink14 is absolutely right too, that smell gets into EVERYTHING and takes a long time to eliminate.

    1. zombeyonce says:

      Yes, the second hand smoke thing to me is even worse than not washing the hands after using the bathroom. Per the CDC: “Secondhand smoke causes numerous health problems in infants and children, including more frequent and severe asthma attacks, respiratory infections, ear infections, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).” -http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/secondhand_smoke/health_effects/
      My kid’s doc asks every time we go in if anyone in the home smokes, and they are super intense about how smokers should wash their hands and change their clothes between smoking and holding a child. It’s a huge reason that staying in a different place (for the whole visit!) is more important than the place being too small for that many people.
      LW, start saving a bit of money every payday for the annual visit so you can pay (or help pay) for a hotel for them. Even her hygiene issues aside, the secondhand smoke is sinking into your furniture and carpet and exposing your child to it long after the in-laws have gone home.

    2. Agreed! I didn’t bring up the smoking – health wise – as a reason to mention staying somewhere else, because presumably the LW deals with it when they visit their in-laws.

      It is SO dangerous, especially for a small child. I used to get headaches every time I’d go to a particular friend’s house – her parents smoked like crazy. It got to the point that my friend always came over to my house because I couldn’t tolerate it.

  8. SpaceySteph says:

    Even if your MIL smelled like roses and was scrubbed like a surgeon before every meal, having 4 adults and a child living together and sharing one bathroom for 2 weeks seems excessive to me. The lack of privacy makes me shudder.

    I suspect there is a cultural element, not just a monetary one, that makes it difficult to ask your in-laws to stay elsewhere. Perhaps expectations about hospitality and respecting elders? However, I think there are things you can do that are a gesture of hospitality without requiring you to put them up: do the legwork of finding and booking an airbnb or hotel, pay, lend them a car (if needed) for their trip if you can so they can come and go to their hotel as they please (vs feeling like they have to ask you to take them back for an afternoon nap), put together a welcome basket with necessities (snacks, coffee, breakfast goodies, etc.) for them to use during their stay.

  9. bittergaymark says:

    Honestly? How do you KNOW that she doesn’t wash her hands? I mean, I always wash my hands — but I have absolutely ZERO idea how anybody would possible know this as I do it in the privacy of the bathroom.
    The whole cigarette smoke smell issue is a WEE BIT over the top. People’s hypersensitivity to the smell of smoke was last years Glutten Free b.s….

    1. J Mansell says:

      When the water pipes can’t be heard and you know the taps haven’t been turned on. Also, when the toilet is flushed then two seconds later the person emerges from the bathroom.

  10. Keep a hand sanitizer dispenser in the kitchen and lead by example. You use some every time you are about to cook anything and ask her to do the same. When she gets to the kitchen and is about to pick any utensil, hand her the sanitizer. Done.

    At least your family´s health won`t be at risk anymore.

  11. Constance says:

    I wear a mask around all smoke due to sensitivities. Tell her you and child are sensitive and offer to air her clothes outside. Agree with hand sanitizer. Have everyone use it. You can manage 2 weeks a year for this visit.

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