My friend Rachel and I are two of very few women in our neighborhood who don’t work. Thank G-d, we have the luxury of being full-time moms, and we are both grateful for this fact. We tend to spend a great deal of time together, as both of our husbands work long, hard days and it can get lonely. So we do appreciate one another’s company tremendously. Also, a few of our children are close in age and can play together.
Rachel is really terrific. She is a smart and loyal friend. We have a lot in common and it’s always enjoyable to be around her. But there is one problem and I’m not sure how to deal with it. And as we become closer and spend more and more time together, it is becoming more apparent and getting worse.
Although Rachel and I have a lot in common, we are different in two important areas. The first is in how we keep our homes. I’ve always been a neat freak. I don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink or papers lying around, and I tend to any mess that I can control. Obviously, when my children are playing, there are toys out, but I always put everything away at the end of the day so that my husband comes home to a neat, clean home. When I hang out at Rachel’s house, I make sure that my children and I clean up everything that they played with … and sometimes things that they didn’t play with. If I see puzzles lying around with scattered pieces here and there, even if my children haven’t touched the puzzles, I’ll still put the pieces back where they belong and generally make sure that everything is tidy. Sometimes Rachel will jokingly yell at me about my need to clean, saying, “Don’t bother. What difference will it make? They’ll only mess it all up tomorrow.” Frankly, I’m not so comfortable in her house due to the clutter and general messiness so we hang out at my house more often.
When Rachel and her children are at my house, her kids are like little tornadoes, pulling things out, messing things up, and never cleaning up after themselves at the end of the day. When they leave my house, I’m busy for quite a while getting things back to normal. And I resent it.
The other problem is that I am a much stricter mother than Rachel is. I insist that my children are polite and say “thank you” and “please,” and if I see one of my children being aggressive toward one of Rachel’s children, I immediately intervene and make sure that it stops. Rachel seems to have a blind eye toward her children’s behavior. Whether it’s in my house or hers, she never really seems to notice if her children are being aggressive toward my children or in ways that create breakage, which has happened more than once. I’m also concerned that her children may be a bad influence on my children.
My question is, what is appropriate for me to say and what isn’t? Can I insist that Rachel clean up after her children at the end of the day or should I let it slide? Do I have a right to tell one of her kids to say “please” when they ask for a drink? Can I tell Rachel that I’m upset when I see her son pushing my daughter? As of now, I’ve been quietly swallowing all of my frustrations, but I know that this can’t go on much longer. As some point, it’s going to become too much for me and I’m afraid I’ll explode at her. I don’t want this friendship to get destroyed in the process, because Rachel is a big part of my life at this point. It’s just that with young children, so many other issues come up. What are my rights here?
This is a tough one. I hear your frustration, and anyone would, because the issues you bring up are relevant to you and other parents with a similar orientation toward parenting and cleanliness. To you they are serious and you have every right to feel frazzled and even worried.
You are touching on two separate areas. One has to do with the hardship you experience each time you are busy cleaning up after Rachel’s children when they leave for the day. I’m sure it feels like a major pain to you each time you have to get on your hands and knees to put your house back in order for your sake and, as you mentioned, for your husband’s sake. You don’t want him to walk into a mess, and I respect that. Though it must feel unfair and annoying, it’s your choice to hold your home to a high standard and I’m sure you take tremendous pride in your efforts. But it’s the cost of doing business if you want to enjoy your long days together with Rachel. And it’s your choice to spend more time in your house because you’re not particularly relaxed and comfortable in the confines of Rachel’s house. So this is the price you have to pay, and I think you can make peace with it.
The second part of this problem is much more serious. It sounds as though Rachel’s children are an unruly bunch. Besides the damage they occasionally create within your home, their lack of good behavior and manners can influence your own children, particularly if they are spending major amounts of time together. And that’s not something you should have to be dealing with. If your children are experiencing conflicting messages from Rachel and her children and from you, it’s confusing for them and challenging for you. I think most people would agree that this particular price tag is absolutely too high.
So where do you go from here? Most parents are sensitive about their parenting skills and might find it hurtful to hear from a friend that they are not doing their job well. It’s one thing if Rachel asked you how you manage to have such polite children and then you shared your thoughts on the subject. But for you to bring it up on your own could result in hurt feelings and a fractured friendship. That’s a risk I suspect you don’t want to take. The children will grow up and do their own thing eventually, but your friendship with Rachel is something that you very possibly hope will last a lifetime.
I think your only option is to start restructuring your time with Rachel. I assume there are times when the older children are in school. Use those hours to connect. Besides the fact that you won’t have to deal with messes and questionable behavior, you will be so much more relaxed and enjoy the friendship in a more satisfying way. If there are times when you are absolutely jumping out of your skin, in need of adult company, and all the children are home, meet up in a public space, where at least you won’t feel responsible to clean up and the public nature of it might keep Rachel’s children more in check.
You may also want to see if there are other women — friends or relatives — you can spend time with during the day. Surely, not everyone is working. Your time with Rachel and her children has become very intense, and shaking things up a bit will also lower the temperature.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.