by Rachel Kurzius
I am a man in my early thirties, and I have been married for four years. My wife and I have been lucky during this economic downturn -- we both still have our jobs and live in a nice house.
My wife’s cousin has not been so lucky. She is in her late twenties. After she lost her job, she couldn’t find a new one and ultimately was not able to pay her rent, so she lost her apartment about a year ago. My wife and I said she could stay in our spare bedroom --temporarily-- while she figured it out. My wife and I talked about this before it happened. I wasn’t sure I wanted her cousin to stay with us in case she couldn’t find a new job, but I was too ashamed to tell my wife this.
Now it is a year later and the cousin is still here. She pays for her own food with unemployment checks and food stamps and she does odd jobs to pay for her share of utilities. She is very grateful for the roof we’ve given her, and she does cleaning around the house. She also spends a lot of time looking for jobs but hasn’t found anything “real.”
Even though she is as good a guest as she can be, I still wish she weren’t there. I get annoyed seeing her in the kitchen, on our porch, watching TV, or wherever. I don’t always want to have a conversation with her when I get back from work. I feel bad about how resentful I am of her, and I try not to show it. I am embarrassed to tell my wife how I feel because I am ashamed of my lack of generosity. Even if my wife’s cousin annoys me, I don’t want her on the street.
My wife and I are thinking of having a kid soon, but we’ve put plans on hold until her cousin leaves the spare bedroom. Do I have to wait until this woman jump starts her life so I can start a new chapter in mine?
Dear Unwilling Flophouse,
If you think you feel bad in your home, imagine how your wife’s cousin
feels. No longer able to support herself, she is stuck living in a house with at least one begrudging host.
You deserve to feel a sense of control over your home, which you seem to have lost. The first way to regain it is to speak to your wife about how you feel -- something you haven’t done out of a strong sense of shame regarding your own feelings.
So why are you embarrassed about your feelings? Probably because you feel guilty that, despite emerging unscathed from the worst economic crisis of our times, you no longer want to extend help to a family member who has not been as lucky.
Of course, there are other ways to assist loved ones. Perhaps these other options are more appealing to you. However, the true definition of help is giving people what they need (in your wife’s cousin’s case, a roof over her head), not what would be easiest for you. This might mean some inconvenience. The real question, though, is whether she needs your help, or has just grown comfortable receiving it.
The cousin is trying to limit inconveniencing you as much as possible, by cleaning and paying utilities. In some ways, her good behavior makes it harder on you. It gives you less of a righteous justification to ask her to leave. When she spends time in the kitchen or other common spaces, she reminds you of her presence in your household and the bind in which she puts you.
This is clearly not a sustainable situation. The notion that the cousin’s residency puts your plans of having children on hold is just the kicker. To start, you must have a frank conversation with your wife about how you feel. Talk about what some other options for the cousin. You say that if you kick her out of the house, she’ll end up on the street. Is that a histrionic turn of phrase, or are you truly her only support net?
The other part of your letter that caught my eye is that the cousin hasn’t found any “real” jobs yet. Presumably, she means a job that puts her back on a career track. But if “real” jobs exist then “fake” jobs must, as well. And they don’t. There are just jobs that make money and jobs that don’t. This cousin ought to find one that does make money, even if it’s not her ideal position.
Try not to stew in guilt about your feelings. Instead, do something about them. In this case, it all starts with a conversation.
Rachel Kurzius revels in giving advice, and has provided counsel both as a columnist and a friend. She lives in Washington DC, where she works as a news producer. Real Talk with Rachel is published on All Life is Local and the Cleveland Park Listserv, www.cleveland-park.com, on Wednesdays. Need advice? You can write to Rachel via http://bit.ly/realtalkwithrachel.