Care and Feeding

My Otherwise Sweet MIL Has Unbelievably Bad Body Odor

A woman holding her nose in disgust
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo 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,

My mother-in-law is a little wacky but she means well and has a lot of love in her heart. But her body odor will knock your socks off!!! I haven’t asked her particular questions about her hygiene, but I know from previous visits that she will go a week without a shower or changing her clothes. Although she is very good about washing her hands with soap, she often has a new angle on how washing your hair makes it fall out or how deodorant gives you cancer. My husband is not much help—he says it’s not that bad and asks me to “hold my nose” and ignore it. But it’s really bad. I have seen waiters and people in shops visibly recoil, and my mother keeps the car windows down when the three of us drive anywhere together.

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My brother and sister-in-law once insisted that she start using deodorant, and a tremendous argument ensued. My husband and I have thus far been able to kick this can down the road because when we lived in small apartments, she stayed in a hotel. Now that we live in a place with a guest room, we haven’t seen her due to respect for pandemic restrictions. But I know that we’ll—hopefully!—soon start visiting loved ones again. She is SO excited to stay with us and spend quality time with her grandchildren. She is really doting and sweet with our kids, and they are rapidly coming to an age when they might ask, “Why is Grandma stinky?” Or worse: “Grandma, why are you stinky?”

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My mother-in-law is extremely intelligent and sensitive, and I can imagine this might be an embarrassing and delicate topic … or become a standoff. Can you please offer me some advice on how to address this issue with dignity for my mother-in-law while at the same time being able to enjoy her company without triggering my gag reflex? I know that asking her to stay in a hotel is always an option, but I’d at least like to give her a chance to wash!

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—The BO Blues

Dear BO Blues,

You’re absolutely right—it’s just a matter of time before one of your kids addresses her body odor in a not-so-tactful way. But that may not be such a bad thing.

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I had a habit of exercising at home when my oldest daughter was about 3 years old, and I didn’t shower until about an hour or two afterward (gross, I know, but for some inexplicable reason, I didn’t even notice it). One day I tried to hug her after a workout and she said, “Eww, Daddy, you smell like poop. Go away!” That was the wake-up call I needed to shower directly after my workouts. I kept thinking, “Dang, I’m glad my kid kept it real with me, because I’m sure I offended a lot of other people who were too polite or scared to say anything.” Today I’m hyperaware of my hygiene, and much of that stems from that incident many years ago. Sometimes it takes filterless kids to activate our self-awareness systems—and if her beloved grandkids found her repulsive, I bet she’d change her ways.

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You may not want to wait until that day, or you may not want your kids to be the ones to crush their grandma’s spirt by doing your dirty work for you (no pun intended). Your husband clearly isn’t an ally here, either because he can’t handle difficult conversations or because he’s nose-blind due to countless years of being around the same stench. So unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to fall upon your shoulders. BUT, I would give your husband a chance to discuss this with his mom before you do (and you should be present when it happens, to ensure the message is being conveyed correctly). If he doesn’t step up, or if he decides to skirt around the issue, then let him know you’ll have to handle it on your own.

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I’m always a fan of the direct approach, and I’d suggest pulling her aside in private and having a discussion with her along the lines of this: “I keep smelling an odor when you come over, and I think it’s coming from you. I want to tell you this in private because I care about you and don’t want it to affect our relationship or your relationship with the kids. I hope you know that I’m coming from a place of love, and I hope you would tell me the same thing if the situation were reversed. I have a few ideas that can help.”

You’re not sugarcoating it, you’re addressing the issue head-on, you’re not hammering her about it, you’re showing love and empathy, and you’re providing her with an action plan. Of course, there’s always a chance she’ll still be offended, and that’s when you’ll repeat the steps again until she knows that you won’t budge on this. If she’s “extremely intelligent,” then she should realize she needs to fix this problem for the sake of everyone involved.

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It’s also helpful to keep a little perspective. It’s not like you need to confront her for being a racist, a bigot, or some other variation of a deplorable human. She’s a good person who smells bad—it isn’t the end of the world, and it’s easily remedied. I know it’s not fun to be put in this situation, but this too will pass like … never mind.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I love my neighborhood, but there’s one neighbor who really bothers me. We both have daughters in the third grade, and the mom constantly brags about how much of a high achiever her child is. She reads multiple books a week, is fluent in multiple languages, and is even a superstar in sports. Meanwhile, my daughter is the kindest soul I know, but she doesn’t do any of those things. This mom often utters passive-aggressive comments like, “Oh, that’s a shame that your daughter doesn’t enjoy reading. It may be hard for her to compete against other kids later on if she doesn’t.” How I can I politely tell this woman to shut up? Our kids are going to grow up together, so I don’t want to be too rude.

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—Stop Bragging, Lady

Dear Stop Bragging,

Sadly, we all know parents like your neighbor. As much as you probably want to flip her the bird, you should smile and offer congratulations when she goes off about how amazing her kid is. The thing that caught my attention is how this woman is trying to shame you and your daughter in the process—and that nonsense cannot fly.

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As the famous saying goes, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and just because your daughter doesn’t read as much as her classmate means absolutely nothing in the big scheme of things. I hated reading when I was your daughter’s age, and now I’ve written four books—my mom would be the first one to tell you she didn’t see that coming. In other words, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s parenting playbook. Also, I know you’re doing an amazing job because your daughter is the kindest soul you know, and that’s way more important than reading a few books a week and speaking multiple languages.

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When your neighbor tries to pull her passive-aggressive BS regarding how you’re raising your daughter, simply smile and say: “Thanks for your opinion, but I don’t focus on comparing my daughter with other kids. She’s an amazing human and I’m so thankful to be her mom.” Then leave it alone.

By the way, you should take pride in knowing that many of the parents who tend to openly brag about their kids are the ones who are the most insecure about their parenting skills. Don’t let her see you sweat. You’ve got this.

· If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I am home with my three children (10, 7, 1½) every day while my husband works; we know how blessed we are with this arrangement. My two oldest are doing virtual learning, so they are always around and often making messes during the day. This would not be a problem, but the 1½-year-old gets into everything! (We also unwisely got a COVID puppy; we love her, but she’s a lot to handle right now.) Recently, I started seeing both a therapist and a psychiatrist, and while I try my hardest to make the sessions during my youngest’s naptime, it’s not always possible. All sessions are virtual and I’ve tried to do them with my baby in tow, but it’s distracting and I have occasionally had to end a session early. I know mental health is important. This last session was way too early for naptime. I ended up putting the 1½-year-old in a crib with some books and toys; there was crying the whole time. Is this OK? If so, how often is this OK? If this is not OK, do you have any other advice?

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—Mama Just Needs Some Therapy

Dear Mama,

In addition to the fact that we both believe in the value of therapy in our lives, our situations are eerily similar. I work from home while my wife is an essential health care worker outside of the home. Two of my kids are the same ages as yours (10 and 7) and I adopted a pandemic puppy as well. The only difference is I don’t have a toddler in the mix—and quite frankly, there are many days when I feel like curling up in the fetal position and waving a white flag, so I gotta give you props for surviving this far.

Therapy is supposed to be relaxing and should serve as a time to escape from all of life’s stressors for a short period of time (even though we end up talking about said stressors during our sessions). No matter what solution you choose, if you find yourself worrying about the welfare of your baby then I don’t think that helps anyone—especially you.

Speaking from experience as a guy who meets with a therapist weekly, here are a few options that work for me. Have you considered meeting with a therapist who’s available mornings, nights, or weekends when your husband is home to ease your parental burden? Because of the pandemic, I’ve noticed that many mental health professionals are changing their hours to accommodate people like you and me. I meet with my therapist virtually for an hour each weekend, and a few of my friends meet with their therapists around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m., when their kids are sleeping.

If that doesn’t work, can you enlist the help of a trusted friend or adult family member in your bubble to babysit so you can take part in your session stress-free? It’s only an hour, and it would give you some peace of mind knowing that your kids are safe.

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Again, I’m not here to tell you if leaving your crying baby alone is a good move or not because every parent has different views on that. I’m here to tell you that prioritizing your mental health is of the utmost importance for you and the people and puppy who count on you. Do whatever you can to be relaxed during your therapy sessions while also ensuring that your little ones are safe. No matter what you choose, do not stop participating in your therapy sessions!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a single mom of a 2-year-old, and I have an amazing best friend who has been by my side through an extremely messy divorce, the death of my dad from COVID last year, and other awful situations in my life. The only issue I have with her is that she has a really dirty mouth. It seems like every other word from her is F that or MF this, and since we spend a lot of time together, I know my son hears her. The tipping point was when my son said “f–k” at dinnertime last night. I’m sorry—I’m not OK with my kid swearing, but I also don’t want to offend the second-most-important person in my life. What do I do?

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—No Swearing Allowed

Dear No Swearing,

I know a lot of parents will disagree with me on this, but I’m with you. I don’t think it’s remotely funny or cute when kids swear—and this is coming from a dude who curses like a sailor when I’m around my adult friends.

If this woman is as close with you as you say she is, this shouldn’t be a big deal at all. Pull her aside and say, “You know I love you, but could you please not swear around my son? He just said the F-word the other night and I really don’t want him cursing.” If she’s a reasonable human and friend, she’ll apologize and keep her dirty mouth to herself. Additionally, if she swears as much as you say she does, she probably doesn’t even realize that she’s doing it.

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If she gets offended—and a best friend shouldn’t get offended by that—then she’s choosing curse words over you and your son, which would speak volumes. The point here is that difficult conversations with people you love shouldn’t be difficult because of the love you have for them.

—Doyin

More Advice From Slate

I have been happily married for 22 years and we have two children. Almost every day I have risen, showered, shaved my legs, and spent nearly an hour putting on makeup and fixing my hair. I’m tired of it, so I recently stopped doing it on Sundays. Mind you, I don’t look like a total slob, but my husband is having a fit about my grooming-free Sundays. He is worried that this is the beginning of a “downward spiral.” I think he’s being ridiculous—is he?

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