Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: What can I say that doesn't alienate me from my sister and niece?
Monday 22 February 2010
My young niece wrote from Australia asking to stay for a couple of months so she could look for a job. I said I'd happily look out for employment, but that my partner and I can't put her up because our tolerance of having anyone else in the house extends only to a long weekend! I got a furious email from her mother, my older sister, reminding me I'd stayed with her when I was a student, and saying she never wants to see me again. What can I say that doesn't alienate me from my sister and niece?
Yours Sincerely, Alex
I'm afraid the alienating has already been achieved. You have been far, far too honest. It's too late now, but another time, for heaven's sake don't talk about tolerance levels. Instead, claim you already have someone lodging in your spare room for the year. Or that your partner has very selfishly taken it over as his study and is now working at home. Or that the ceiling has come down. What you need to learn is tact, and all I can say is that the only way you can salvage this situation is to backtrack like mad.
First, write back and say how incredibly sorry you are and how you quite realise how selfish you've been. Say you'd do anything to avoid a rift, and that of course your niece can stay, you'd be delighted. You just hadn't thought it through. Beg forgiveness. And then make plans, if your offer is taken up (and it may well not be after such a rebuff), about how to make the situation tolerable.
Everyone finds guests a strain after a few days. But if someone's staying in your house long term, what you need to do is lay down ground rules. "This is your key, this is your room, this is your television, this is your part of the house, we use the kitchen between these hours, you use them between these... this is your cupboard for your food, this is for ours. But please join us for supper every Saturday..." No one minds being given clear boundaries, particularly if they're young and they've got a free bed for a month or so. And remember – she'll want her privacy as much as you want yours. She doesn't want to hang out with a couple of selfish, stuffy old sticks night after a night. And after a month or so, I bet she'll be longing to find her own place with people her own age.
I'm also confused about your attitude to your family. On the one hand, you write to your niece as if she were some intrusive stranger, someone to whom you have no obligation, let alone affection for. And yet the next minute, you feel upset when your sister behaves towards you in pretty much the same way – wanting to turn you into a stranger in future. Do you feel strongly about your family ties or not? You can't have it both ways.
I really recommend you have her to stay. For a start, you may find that she is utterly charming and that when she goes you miss having a lovely, fresh young thing brightening up your self-centred lives. And if she drives you nuts, think of the blessed relief when she goes, combined with the saintly feeling of having done your duty.
Who knows, when you are both really old and doddery, you may be very grateful for the odd visit in your hospital bed or old people's home, from someone who feels fond of you and wants to show how much your good deed meant to her all those years ago.
Move out yourself
The first thing for Alex to do is get a piece of paper and draw two columns: in the left-hand one, write every favour or act of generosity that she can remember receiving from anybody (starting with staying with the older sister when Alex was a student); in the right-hand one, write every act of generosity or favour that Alex has performed. Then, Alex, go to your local free paper and find rooms or flats for rent and go and rent one for three or four months and contact your sister with the happy news that you have sorted the accommodation problem and look forward to seeing your niece as soon as possible. If your sister even hints at paying anything, tell her to look on it as the rent you saved as a student.
What's the problem?
You are in the wrong here and, God help us, what's so upsetting about putting up a niece on a sofa bed in your front room? Life is hard for young people. Finding both a job and a place to live will be daunting. You could have helped, but clearly you prefer your precious belongings to human beings.
As long as you do this, I cannot see you ever reconciling with your sister or your niece. And, frankly, they have not lost much.
You might enjoy her stay
I would say you have already alienated yourself from your sister and niece, so I think the situation now is one of damage-limitation. You don't mention how close your relationship is with them; are there issues that are influencing your decision? I don't have children yet, and nor does my sister, but I hope that if we ever did, we would happily accommodate each other's children if requested or needed.
We had an Australian cousin stay last year for five months. I was initially very hesitant, as I love my own space, but I really enjoyed her stay, helped by her being a very easy-going person to share space with.
One worry I have is that with our desperate job market, it can't be assumed that your niece will walk straight into employment, which is what our cousin took for granted, to her cost!
The fact that you stayed with your sister as a student is neither here nor there, in my opinion – the girl is your niece and it would be familial courtesy to offer to share your home with her. Why not set a time limit of three months? By that time, hopefully she might have found a job and can move into a flat-share or similar.
Who knows, you might enjoy it, like I did!
Don't alienate family
I think maybe saying that your niece couldn't stay was a little harsh. You say you and your partner don't like house guests, but she is family, and if you made sure she contributed to the household, then I don't see what the problem is. I can see why your sister was cross: why is it OK for you to stay at other people's houses for longer than the weekend, but when someone asks if you can help them out, you say no because you like your space. It's not fair, really. I would let your niece stay but make it clear she must be actively looking for somewhere else while she's there and that it's not a long-term plan. You don't want to alienate your family over such a little thing.
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