Care and Feeding

No More Stuff!

My mom keeps piling on the gifts for my daughter, and we want her to stop. What should I do?

Photo illustration of a small child reaching out to a mountain of presents.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 2-year-old daughter who is my mother’s first granddaughter and is completely doted on by her. My mom is genuinely a wonderful grandmother, and since my daughter’s birth our relationship has been the best it’s ever been. But whenever she comes over to babysit (which we are truly appreciative of!), she always brings several new toys for my daughter and random household items for me, which drives me crazy.

My mother has always been a compulsive shopper. As a child, I was reluctant to have friends over because our house had so much stuff in it. I don’t think it ever crossed the line into hoarding, but it wasn’t a great situation. Now it bothers me from an environmental perspective, and also because I’m worried about my daughter being spoiled by the constant stream of toys. I really, really wish my mother would just put the hundreds of dollars she spends every month into a college fund for my daughter, or even just save it for herself, but I’ve suggested this and she won’t. We’ve also had many talks about dialing it back, and she will for a while and then start up again.

I guess my question is whether I should keep hammering this, or just take the free childcare and shut up about the literal things that come with it. My dad thinks I should get over it and throw the stuff away or take it to the thrift store, but I don’t want to be a storage facility until I have time to deal with the pileup of crap she brings over. I truly am grateful for her help. But I’m unsure of how firm to be with this boundary since, besides this one issue, we’ve been getting along so well, and my daughter adores her grandma.

—Too Much Stuff

Dear TMS,

The single most annoying thing about other people is that we can’t make them change, no matter how much we want to or how hard we try. Luckily, however, we can change our own behavior simply by deciding to and then making the effort to follow through. (And sometimes, as a bonus, doing things differently even eventually helps us to feel differently.)

There are three pieces of this problem to solve. The first is how to deal with your mother, which you can do by accepting that she is not going to stop spending her money on these items. Your relationship with her is otherwise “the best it’s ever been”—take a moment to appreciate how great that is—and she and your daughter are crazy about each other.
Concentrate on those two things and not on the one that’s infuriating you. When she brings over yet another batch of unwanted gifts, say, “Thanks, Mom,” and let that be the end of it.

The second is how to deal with your own feelings about this. I hope it will help at least a little to recognize that at least some, and possibly most, of your unhappiness about this has to do with your own childhood, living in what felt like a storage facility. The miseries of our childhoods, whatever they happen to have been, cannot be undone. But sometimes we can put them to rest if we understand the way they are affecting us in the present and remember that we have control over our own lives. Your mother cannot fill your house with stuff unless you allow her to. You may not be able to stop her from giving, but you don’t have to keep what she gives.

If you live in a part of the U.S. served by Second Chance Toys, they will make sure plastic toys stay out of landfills and are put in the hands of children who will appreciate them. Children’s hospitals are always in need of new, unopened toys. Family shelters, domestic violence shelters, and other homeless shelters will be grateful for donations of both toys and household items. If all else fails—as your father has pointed out—there’s always Goodwill. (Please don’t take Dad’s alternative advice to throw this stuff away!)

Once you’ve identified where to bring your donations, schedule a regular drop-off time. Instead of being resentful about that ever-growing pile of stuff while you wait until you can find time to deal with it, make these donation drop-offs a regular part of your life.

This brings me directly to my third piece of advice: Include your daughter in this process. The one exception to the rule that we can’t change other people is in the rearing of our own children. As parents, we have the power and responsibility to shape how our children behave—and also how they feel about the world around them and what they think. If you begin to teach your daughter now about sharing one’s abundance with those who have less, it’s going to become a part of who she is. If donating toys to children who need them is as much a part of her life as trips to the public library or the playground, she may grow up to be the sort of person who makes a difference in the world. And who knows? She might even teach your mother a thing or two. Just as you may gently be able to, if Mom asks about the whereabouts of last week’s bounty. “We have so much already, Mom. I thought I’d help out some people who could really use it.” But please say this with kindness. My guess is that your mother, like most of us, is doing the best she can.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My mother has always been a bit extreme about phone calls, and ever since she and her third husband split it has gotten out of hand. She expects my siblings and me to call her at least twice a day. She also calls us several times a day—so some days, I talk to her five or six times. If we don’t answer when she calls and she sees that we are on Facebook, she calls again (and again, and again). Plus, she sends text messages! I’m 40 years old, married, with kids of my own. My siblings have families, too, and we all work. None of us have time for this level of intensity. Each of us has tried talking to her about it, but she starts “crying,” claiming we don’t love her and asking why we’re mad at her.

Our mother works, she is part of a church, she has friends. I’ve suggested that she see a talk therapist, I’ve told our doctor about it (we see the same GP), I’ve talked to her pastor. Nothing helps. Since she and I live in the same town (my siblings don’t), it’s hardest on me because she drops in unexpectedly, too. And I work the night shift. My mom randomly popping in while I’m trying to sleep is stressful. She knows my work schedule—I’ve had the same schedule for a number of years now—but she always says, “I never know when you are working.” She knows, she just doesn’t respect my boundaries. She has a spare key in case of emergencies, and she has her own code to the alarm system, also in case of emergencies. I don’t want to take those away, but she won’t stop dropping by. How can I convince her to stop and also to get the help she clearly needs?

—This Is Not OK

Dear TINO,

You can’t convince her to stop, or to get the help she needs.

Shall I say this again? (That was a rhetorical question. I am going to say it again, because it should be the mantra of every adult whose parents are driving them crazy.) You can’t change her. You can only change the way you respond to her. This is easier said than done, of course. I know that recognizing and accepting that we can’t change someone else’s behavior can be painful when the person in question is one of our parents, especially if that parent’s behavior has been maddening, upsetting, hurtful, or traumatizing for as long as we can remember. But if they’re not acknowledging and fixing it after they have been told again and again that we need them to, it means they can’t. So stop trying to make them.

Take away your mother’s key and her alarm code to your house. (Give these to a friend or neighbor if you want someone to have them in case of an emergency.) By allowing her to keep them, you are enabling the behavior that is so distressing you. And you do not have to pick up the phone when she calls, even when she calls repeatedly. You can turn the ringer off altogether when you’re about to go to sleep. Tell your mother you will call her once a day (or however many times a day—or week—seems reasonable to you).

Yes, your mother needs help. But you cannot force her, or even convince her, to get it. Both her physician and her pastor are aware of what’s going on. If neither of them have referred her to a psychiatrist or psychotherapist, I would suggest that you ask them to do so because your mother is not willing to hear this recommendation from you—she’s made that clear. Meanwhile, it’s possible that if you (and your siblings, too) set firm boundaries, she will eventually, if grudgingly, get used to them. But first you’re all going to have to set them and stick to them. In other words: you’re going to have to start taking care of yourself. When your mother asks you why you’re doing this terrible thing to her, calmly tell her that. She won’t like it, but there’s nothing you can do about that.

• If you missed Friday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 5-year-old daughter had a full-blown existential meltdown this weekend. She is fairly advanced verbally, with big emotions. She’s also always been a big thinker—frequently asking about death, God, and the universe for the past year or two. But this weekend was different: Seemingly unprompted, she started asking about our cat (who died 10 months ago). Over the next three hours we covered questions about dying, heaven, God, and (in an unexpected turn) sex. During the course of this episode, she was at times hysterically crying—sobbing—and screaming. She also said things like “I don’t want to live in this world if I can’t be with (Cat) and (Dog).” She asked, “What does it feel like in heaven?” and “Does God eat?” She wanted to know, “What happens if a bad guy comes to the house with a gun?” She sees a behavioral therapist, and we will address this with her.

But I have two questions for you as I reflect on the episode. First: When she mentioned that she didn’t want to live in this world, it kind of freaked me out. What’s “normal” for this kind of thinking, and what does the “line” look like that we need to be concerned about her crossing? And second: all these questions about God and heaven! I have no idea how to answer them. I was raised Catholic, but would currently consider myself agnostic at best. I try saying things like, “Some people believe … ” but I feel like we end up talking about the biggest questions in life as if we’re discussing the tooth fairy. How can we talk about a heavy topic such as death without leaning on the crutch of the idyllic (antiquated) tale of heaven in the clouds? For what it’s worth, in the days after this happened, she’s seemed to be her normal self. She’s asked us a couple of things along these lines, but there’s been no crying or dwelling on it.

—The Metaphysics of Parenting

Dear TMoP,

I feel for you. I had one of these children too, and I remember every one of her existential crises, starting with the one on the eve of her third birthday, when she freaked out about Time itself. It shook me up so much that I once wrote about it at length. My daughter was also prone to making big, dramatic pronouncements about life and death and to asking questions for which I had no answers, like “Where was I before I was born?” Between these existential attacks, she was her “normal self”: curious about the world, full of questions, but not frightened and sobbing. So one thing I want to tell you is that although this was your daughter’s first major philosophical meltdown, it might not be her last. Another—more reassuringly—is that my own little philosopher is all grown up now, and that while she’s still a big thinker, she’s also happy and healthy.

What’s “normal” for your kid—and what was normal for mine—may not be the same as what’s normal for lots of other kids. (So, really, maybe what we should do is banish the word “normal.”) That said, I’m glad you have a therapist on hand for your daughter, because it’s hard for a kid to navigate this kind of thinking on her own, or even with her empathetic parents’ help. I suspect there’s a developmental lag between what she can process intellectually and what she can cope with emotionally, and a good therapist can help her deal with this. I wonder, though, if a behavioral therapist is exactly the right fit for her at this point. Behavioral therapy is very effective, but because it’s symptom-focused, it may not give your daughter (and you) all the tools you need right now. I think it would be worth your while to seek out a psychodynamic therapist with experience and expertise in treating children.

Turning to your second question, I can tell you that one way I addressed my 5-year-old’s curiosity about God and heaven (etc.) was with the help of a beautiful little book called Does God Have A Big Toe? by Mark Gellman. Because it is told in the form of charming, witty stories, no more didactic than the other stories we read, it gave this nonbelieving Jewish mother a way to talk about God that did not feel false or forced. Tomie dePaola’s Nana Upstairs and Nana Downstairs helped us talk about death, as did a scene in Maud Hart Lovelace’s completely wonderful Betsy-Tacy.

There’s one more thing I want to mention. I also learned over the years that sometimes what seemed to be an existential freakout was something else altogether. For example, my daughter, child of a Southern Baptist and a secular Jew, had a meltdown during an older cousin’s bar mitzvah service, turning to me in a panic, crying, “But what am I?” Luckily, because I knew I was way out of my depth, a unique pair of family friends—a nun and a rabbi—were on hand to help, sat down with her at the reception and assured her that God didn’t care whether she was Christian or Jewish, that such distinctions didn’t matter to Him at all. They also told her, more importantly, that she didn’t have to choose between her parents, which both Sister Camille and Rabbi Stu instinctively understood was what this crisis was really about. I think it’s fair to say that sometimes, for your little big thinker, what will seem to be an existential crisis may in fact be a very specific, personal one. It’s worth being on the lookout for that, too.

—Michelle

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