How long should the sister-in-law stay?
May 12, 2011 12:46 AM   Subscribe

How long is reasonable for a world-traveling sister to drop in and live with us (a family with small children)? And how do I gently help her to go? Am I being the family jerk?

My sister-in-law (SIL) is a world traveler, but no permanent home, job, or funds. For the past 3 years she's dropped in whenever the current job has ended and stayed anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months. She has a knack for languages, so she ends up working for NGOs or small businesses in countries like Japan, Mongolia, or China.

We have a small house and two small kids (4 & 6); two bedrooms (both occupied), plus a foldout couch. I work fulltime+some; wife doesn't but very busy. Kids both in school. Last time SIL stayed, she was unemployed for around 3 months before leaving for Mongolia - this was about a year ago. She's back, and this is her third stay with us - it's not longish yet, but I'm worried it might be.

What I've said is, as family she's welcome anytime for a visit, and she can always stay for a week or two. The problem is without a job or apartment lined up now, I'm afraid it'll be another 3 month stay, and I don't want to have to say anything mean before she decides to find a place for herself. I guess I should add that while we don't fight, we're not great friends: I don't enjoy talking to her. She doesn't seem to have other friends in our city.

She's not super-ambitious: she's 40; she tends to watch a lot of TV and surf the net, maintain strange hours (reasonable, I guess, with the time difference), leaves the house once a day to buy food for herself. She will babysit once in a while (maybe twice a month?), but not drive kids around, errands, or housework. She doesn't eat with us or go out with us on weekends. She doesn't have a big impact on the house - but she does take up the living room and couch. I'm sure she'd let us watch TV if we asked, but it's awkward having someone sleeping on the couch half the day, and I can't take a shower without walking past her in a towel. She buys some of her own food.

She can't stay with her mother, father or brother : she says they won't let her stay with them anymore. My wife can't really say no to her. I think she enjoys having her sister around for a visit, but I feel having her around wears thin on my wife's patience after a while (which mostly should be reserved for the kids' shenanigans), which ends up making people unhappy. I think if I didn't say anything, she would be able to tolerate the sister for a pretty long time (months), but not be internally very happy about it. My wife ends up sneaking her money from time to time (sent her $1000 about a month ago to help her return from Mongolia).

So what's reasonable for a sister-in-law? She's only 1 week into her stay now, but she hasn't started looking or talking about a job or apartment. Should I wait another week before asking her about moving out? Should I say something now, or is that rude? Should I say it myself or is it more polite to come from my wife? (On my side of the family, we've had a sister stay once for 3 months, so my wife wants some "equality" for her side: on the other hand, that sister had a fulltime job the entire time, and is now married and owns her own house, so it's not a perennial thing like with SIL).

If we do nothing, SIL will probably end up staying around another 3 months; she'd like to relax, take some time to find another NGO job out of the USA that she likes, and prefer not to have to get any apartment in the US while she does that. We haven't really talked about it yet : I want your advice before I say anything I shouldn't!

As anyone with small kids knows, family life with a fulltime job is already pretty stressful; we're trying to settle a lawsuit from wife's past business; and all marriages needs constant upkeep. Yeah, I'm looking for the magic answer that resolves all conflicts and makes everyone happy - or failing that, some advice on how not to be a jerk to family! Thanks metafilter!
posted by radagast to Human Relations (44 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like she's taking advantage of your family - if you take the sister part out of it, it's like you've got a short term extra roommate who doesn't pay rent. Considering the number of times you mention how stressful taking care of your family is in this question, do you think you could ask her to help you with the kids at all? I think that might make her seem like less of a burden and more of a family member. I don't think it's unreasonable for you to point this out to your wife or to her. Is there some other aspect of your life she could help you with, in order to compensate you for room and board?
posted by Mizu at 12:53 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Establishing firm boundaries and sticking to them doesn't make you a jerk; it makes you a reasonable, rational adult who is doing the right thing by his or her family. Enabling your SIL to be a freeloader doesn't do anyone any good. The magic answer you're looking for is to sit down with your wife, develop a game plan, and then, as a unit, approach the SIL and ask her about her plans. Then inform her that as much as you enjoy her company, her extended stays at your house equate to her being a live-in roommate and as such she needs to contribute rent and labor during the times she stays with you -- or move on to her next adventure, complete with "wish you were here" postcards.

You can do it. Good luck!
posted by patronuscharms at 1:00 AM on May 12, 2011 [16 favorites]

Either she pulls her fair share, or you kick her out. End of story. 1 week or 2 weeks visit is fine, but you need to have an intervention and say that this little college summer vacation fantasy of hers is over.

I'm glad she's a world traveler. I'd love to be (more of ) a world traveler. But having herself think she has some sort of privilege to just crash at your house, being a lazy couch potato is ridiculous.

Your house, your rules. If she can work and travel the world, she can work and travel to a job, wherever she is, be it Kathmandu or Kmart down the street.

I know you know all this already. You need to give her some tough love. She's totally overstepping her boundaries.

It would be soooooo much different if she would pull her own - like babysit every day. Do things with the kids, do errands for, I'm sure, you're very busy S.O., do reasonable home improvement things - I don't care if it's fixing the gutter of mowing the lawn. C'mon!
posted by alex_skazat at 1:01 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Two weeks is the outer limit of what is reasonable in these circumstances. She's a grown-up and either already understands this or she needs to learn it. She's acting like a particularly selfish early twentysomething and she needs to cut it out. Even if you had an extra room it would be unreasonable for her to stay more than two weeks without an express and insistent invitation to stay longer.

Moreover, the time difference between you and wherever she was staying several weeks earlier is irrelevant to her rude and inconsiderate couch sleeping habits. Jet lag lasts a couple of days, not a month.

The advice of others above is correct. You need to first confer with your wife to make sure you have a united front and an agreed-upon game plan. Then approach the SIL together and lay down the law.
posted by The World Famous at 1:04 AM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think you're being the family jerk at all; I think all the objections you raise are perfectly reasonable -- you don't have the space, time, patience, or funds to support a 40-year-old for three months.

That said, I don't believe there's anything productive that you can do unilaterally here. You and your wife need to have a discussion (perhaps more than one discussion) in which you both get on to exactly the same page about this -- and then it's your wife who will have to communicate to her sister the boundaries and expectations you two decide on together. For example -- and this is just off the top of my head -- you two might decide together that she can stay up to three weeks, and she needs to take care of the kids by doing tasks A and B at least X days a week. After that, she will be moving on to whatever next arrangements she makes in the meantime. (The fact that other members of the family will no longer allow your SIL to stay with them indicates to me that you're not alone in needing to draw boundaries with her, even as she knows on some level that she's taking advantage of her family.)

Whatever you decide on as a couple, you will need to put up a united front and stick to it. You do this by recognizing that even though your wife loves her sister and enjoys spending a limited amount of time with her, your own immediate family's needs should come first. Your SIL clearly is not going to automatically respect what your family needs until you make it clear what those expectations are.

What I've said is, as family she's welcome anytime for a visit, and she can always stay for a week or two.

Who, specifically, have you said this to? Your wife? Your sister-in-law?
posted by scody at 1:08 AM on May 12, 2011 [15 favorites]

It sounds like she's taking advantage of your family - if you take the sister part out of it, it's like you've got a short term extra roommate who doesn't pay rent.

I agree. I am an adult in my mid 30s, and I am engaged in a year of living like this, and I'm not sure when this lifestyle will end. But whenever I've stayed with someone for an extended period of time—even my parents—I've had a conversation up front about how long it would be, what I could provide for my hosts in exchange with being in their space (whether that be money or taking care of certain chores or buying/making them dinner or what have you), and I've always made it clear that, if they are feeling like I'm starting to overstay my welcome, they should tell me without feeling like it's a problem. Of course, no one has, but I believe this is at least in part because I've always tried hard to be as good of a guest as I can and pay attention to the true feelings of my hosts.

Sounds like your sister-in-law is not clued into this. She has a responsibility—no matter how convenient it is for her to take her time and find another gig at her leisure, while living off of you guys—to behave like an adult and take responsibility for her own cost-of-living.

That said, you folks have to take the initiative, step up and issue conditions if you don't want to go crazy. If it's okay with you for her to stay three months if she contributes something, figure out what that something is and tell her. If you can only handle her for x amount of time, state clearly what x amount of time is and remind her that x amount of time is coming up quick, and we need that room for another guest/storing this thing/etc.; you shouldn't feel bad, it's your decision how you live your lives and what you do with your house including who gets to stay in it, sister or no.

And if you're wife is not willing to have this conversation with her then that is the real problem which you first have to resolve. It's at least partially not your sister-in-law's fault if she has been given implicit permission from her sis to act this way. So that first means you should have a conversation with your wife to clarify exactly what the two of you can deal with and how you are going to present it to your sister-in-law. That may be the hardest part, but the most important.
posted by dubitable at 1:08 AM on May 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

You've got some great advice so far, but for as long as your wife wants her there, I suggest making this a little less comfortable for your SIL and better for you by reclaiming that living room and putting her in a cheap cot or bedroll behind a folding screen in some less trafficked area such as the dining room. It sounds like she'd be fine with it, given her lifestyle. Taking up the living room for months at a time would not be acceptable to me, but if she could pretty much store herself away and occasionally do stuff to help around the house, then you know, whatever.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 1:15 AM on May 12, 2011 [13 favorites]

2nding the making life less comfortable for her - there is no need at all for you and your family to tip toe around her if she sleeps during the day. It's her choice to be on your sofa (as opposed to making other arrangements), it's her choice to be up late, she can't expect those that have a job to go to and chores to do etc to keep it down half the day to accommodate her late nights. Or her TV programme choices when you're all at home....Or to accept her failure to contribute in a meaningful way to family life whilst she stays with you. That would be helping with chores, driving the children around, helping with the garden or whatever.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:45 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Maybe she thinks or rationalizes that it's OK. You need to make sure that she knows exactly what's OK and what wouldn't be OK. Talk to her. It's hard, but do it.

My guidelines in a talk like this are to be 1) Honest, 2) unselfish, 3) loving, 4) pure.
posted by krilli at 2:00 AM on May 12, 2011

If she's a world traveller, then she's damn good at finding an apartment by now. There might be local commune type living arrangements that she'd really enjoy, given she presumably loves meeting new people while traveling.

I'd expect she's also good at applying for jobs once she starts looking. If she's certified to teach ESL, well that's doubly easy.

In the long run, the best deal for your wife is if her sister has local friends with very flexible living arrangements, i.e. commune people, laid back landlords, etc., as well as local work contacts with very flexible work arrangements.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:50 AM on May 12, 2011

Does she do the washing up at least?
posted by mary8nne at 2:54 AM on May 12, 2011

It sounds like she constructs your place and your relationship with her as her "parent's" place. As in, there's always your place where she can retreat from her adventures and take it easy, being taken care of, being fed, no real responsibilities. We'd all love that place. But at 40, it's time to readjust.

I'd say: "It's great to see you n all, but our house is small and we have a lot on our plate. It's fine for us to adjust to a visit for a week, but you must sort yourself out after that. The open-ended situation of your last few visits adds stress on our family life, and part of the traveling gig, has to be a provision for you to still take care of yourself when you're back in this country... I hope you don't mind us being direct, but we've given this a lot of thought after your last stay with us, and that is what we've decided."

It would drive me bonkers to have to walk to n from the bathroom in a towel past my husband's brother, or to try to have a sex life or to just sit quietly in my living room with a book whilst wearing my ugliest pants with a witnessing guest. After two days, I'd be done. So you get a medal from me for your efforts so far.

[As a Couchsurfing host, who has a lot of traveling types staying here, I think she should be up early every morning, putting her things out of your way so the lounge retains it state as a family lounge, not a guest bedroom, offering to shop, to do some of the cooking for everyone, offering/undertaking babysitting, buying flowers, not using the TV or computer unless invited to do so, offering to pay for meals, or buy a bottle of wine etc. That's guest behaviour. Child behaviour is expecting other people to function as parents for you.
posted by honey-barbara at 2:59 AM on May 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

I think she enjoys having her sister around for a visit, but I feel having her around wears thin on my wife's patience after a while (which mostly should be reserved for the kids' shenanigans), which ends up making people unhappy. I think if I didn't say anything, she would be able to tolerate the sister for a pretty long time (months), but not be internally very happy about it. My wife ends up sneaking her money from time to time (sent her $1000 about a month ago to help her return from Mongolia).

Its obvious you need to talk to your wife...and not the internets.
posted by hal_c_on at 3:09 AM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: My wife ends up sneaking her money from time to time (sent her $1000 about a month ago to help her return from Mongolia).
Its obvious you need to talk to your wife...and not the internets.

Seriously, I forgot that I wanted to reference that most important detail. Foot needs to come down - ma n pa surrogates aren't what you signed up for, and it sounds like that's what you've become.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:14 AM on May 12, 2011 [8 favorites]

Yowzers. Surely your wife realizes there's a reason that SIL isn't allowed to stay with bro, mom, or dad any longer?

In addition to the very nice suggestions above about two weeks being a visit but above that she needs to contribute, I can't help thinking that if she intends to use you guys as her lifetime crash pad, she needs to kick in equity for you to buy a slightly bigger house with a "mother-in-law" apartment. Or nanny apartment. Or whatever they call it around you: a separate bed/bath, ideally with a small kitchenette and a separate entrance, usually over the garage or in the basement. You can use it as a guest room when she's not there, and keep it as sacred to her visits when she is. Put an old TV and a slightly outdated computer in it and it sounds like her perfect between-jobs crash spot.

And she still needs to contribute while she's there, and leave it pristinely clean.

I realize my suggestion is unlikely particularly given SIL's need for monetary support. But maybe it would at least get your wife thinking about how stressful this is?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:59 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: we've had a sister stay once for 3 months, so my wife wants some "equality" for her side

It sounds like this situation is more of a disagreement between you and your wife. For the sake of a happy marriage, I would resolve that disagreement before doing anything, and let your wife take the lead in any conversation with her sister.
posted by Houstonian at 4:04 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites] a slightly bigger house with a "mother-in-law" apartment. Or nanny apartment. Or whatever they call it around you
Around these parts, that's called a granny-flat.

I just love the name.
posted by coriolisdave at 4:42 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was shocked when you said she wasn't doing any household-helping. Babysitting, cooking normal dinners, cooking special dinners, chores, errands, nothing. And then I was shocked to see that she was 40 (!!!) and not helping at all. That is just bizarre. I am having a really hard time imagining how she can rationalize that to herself.

Maybe try talking to the other relatives who kicked her out -- find out how they did it, what worked, how they wish they'd handled it differently.

But definitely in a very nice, sweet, non-accusatory way, solely because you are concerned about the stress it causes for her and not about any personal feelings on your end, get your wife on board with your need to set boundaries here.
posted by thebazilist at 6:11 AM on May 12, 2011

She's not a "world traveler," she's a bum. The fact that the rails she rides involve airplanes and multiple continents may make her a more interesting bum than average, but she's still a bum.

Enabling her slacking isn't good for anyone. She needs to take care of herself, and the fact of the matter is that she's entirely capable of doing this, she's just decided she doesn't want to. Anyone who is sufficiently competent to work for an NGO in a foreign country is sufficiently competent to get and hold down a wage slave job. Those are harder to come by than they used to be, but the only reason this person can afford to be picky is because you're letting her.

Also: she's forty. If she were twenty, even twenty-five, I'd have more patience for this sort of thing. But she's more than a decade past the point where this sort of thing is remotely appropriate.

Two weeks? Okay, it can take that long to transition from one gig to another, and that's certainly the kind of obligation that relatives owe to each other. But more than that? When there isn't some kind of compelling reason and a definite end-point? Just taking advantage.

Out she goes.
posted by valkyryn at 6:18 AM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

When you have a long-term houseguest, you need to set a clear move-out date if you want the person to leave on your schedule. It's not rude to set a date, and it's not weak to just let the person stay indefinitely. It's all a matter of choices. You and your wife would both prefer that your SIL spontaneously move out of her own accord after staying a couple weeks. That's not going to happen. Her past experience tells her you're both ok with her staying indefinitely, and that's what she wants to do: she thinks the current situation is just peachy. You're going to need to explicitly tell her otherwise.

So first, you and your wife need to agree on what you want: she stays for X number of weeks? she helps with the kids? she gets up earlier or spends more time out of the house? Whatever it is, make peace with what you want. It's not rude to want privacy. It's not rude not to want a houseguest for three months (even if she's family). It's not rude to set expectations with your guest (even if she's family). The only really rude thing you could do would be to stay silent and then finally blow up at her--"When are you going to leave?!?"

I would recommend that you not phrase any of it in terms of her past behavior. That will just make her defensive. Instead, frame the conversation in terms of what you can and can't do now. "We can host you for three weeks this time. We're telling you now so that you don't have to scramble to make new plans at the end of the month."

If she pushes back with "But last time I just stayed until I had other plans," you can say, "This time we can't accomodate that." Not, "Yeah, and that was miserable for us," just, "This time, that won't work." If she pushes back with, "But why? How is my staying for a couple months a problem?" you do not owe her an explanation. Just say, "We're happy to host you for a couple weeks, we're really glad to see you, we just can't offer you a place to stay for more than three weeks. If you need to stay in town longer and want help finding a sublet, let us know."

Remember: you are being kind and generous by offering her a place to stay. You can be kind and generous without being a doormat. Even if her reaction is to get upset or feel hurt, you are not being a jerk by setting the expectation that she will move out at a set date.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:32 AM on May 12, 2011 [9 favorites]

Why does her age matter? Why is it okay at 25 and not 40? Maybe she was ultra-responsible at 25 and is now finally exploring her freedom?

Responsibilities come with age, and they aren't optional. They aren't something you can just decide that you don't want to deal with. "Exploring her freedom" would mean pursuing non-traditional career options while continuing to support herself and paying all of her own bills, because it is only under those circumstances that she would have any freedom. Right now, she's exploring her relatives' freedom. Which is not the same thing at all.

If you saw a movie about her, you'd probably think she was a glamorous free spirit.

No, I wouldn't, because bumming off relatives is neither "glamorous" nor "free". She's a mooch.
posted by valkyryn at 6:41 AM on May 12, 2011 [13 favorites]

I would make this really simple. Sit down with her today, let her know you love her, but your willingness (be sure to make it clear that it's not that you "can't" but that you are not choosing to have her stay) to host her ends in one week, she'll have to make other arrangements.

She's this way because people have enabled it.
posted by tomswift at 6:51 AM on May 12, 2011

Tell her that you have established the Radagast NGO and that volunteers to that NGO will be given free room and board in exchange for working 8-hour days. They will rewarded with the knowledge that they are helping to improve the world and solve domestic issues on a local level.
posted by JJ86 at 6:59 AM on May 12, 2011 [16 favorites]

Just want to repeat for emphasis. She is your wife's family, not yours. And your wife is the one who has to set the limits with her.

If your wife feels as you do, this is her responsibility to deal with (though you should feel free to let her "blame" you: "I'd love for you to stay, but it's really hard on radagast, I can't ask him to keep devoting his already tight space, time, and energy to you without limit")

If your wife doesn't feel as you do, then the problem you have is not the problem you think you have.
posted by escabeche at 7:35 AM on May 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

Question to the other posters: Why does her age matter? Why is it okay at 25 and not 40? Maybe she was ultra-responsible at 25 and is now finally exploring her freedom? If you saw a movie about her, you'd probably think she was a glamorous free spirit.

I think that's an excellent question - and that it's part of the OP's specific problem here.

With couch surfers who are significantly younger than their hosts (and we still deal with loads of teenage & 20something couch surfers, not because we are fabulous - we are Brits a mere handy hour from Manhattan with loads of roving nephews & nieces etc), the hosts can freely huff and puff like old farts about house rules, & limits on stay, without worrying about giving offense. That's an expected part of the generation gap.

When you can't use any age-related deference as a basis for who is in charge and why, the host-guest relationship gets awfully complicated.

It's not that young guests aren't cynical about needing free board (and I do enjoy the contorted emails we've had requesting a stay "I've always SO wanted to get to know you and uncle Paul a bit better...." - when my husband's name is, in fact, David!).

But when you are automatically regarded as a substitute parent figure if only because of your advanced age, you tend to avoid those awful seething one-sided communication dramas...
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:58 AM on May 12, 2011

I think the specific problem here may be that she isn't a house guest in the traditional sense nor is she staying with the OP out of some unexpected hardship. If she was visiting to see them or having a hard time this would be really different.

She clearly isn't there to have a visit with them or because she has had some sudden and unexpected problem. The problem is that she is using the OP and his family as an integral part of her lifestyle which is probably why other family members have put their foot down.

Why is this ok at 20 but not 40? Its ok at 20 because as a young person you're figuring out what you want to do etc and maybe working abroad then staying with parents is fine. But when you're 40 if you want this kind of lifestyle you need to own it. The sister needs to own the fact that she is nomadic and that her grown and married with children sister should not be responsible for her choices.

She needs to keep a buffer of enough money that she can get sublets when she is in town between trips or rent a cheap room to use as a permanent crash pad.

I think the best thing to do is talk to you wife about what the limits of this relationship are. How long is ok and where you draw the line, or if there are things you want from her, chores, eating with you, sleeping on a more compatible schedule to yours which would make this easier.

But ultimately it seems like this is going to mean a really tough conversation with your wife about setting boundaries and what kind of relationship you want with the sister and what you can provide her with.

Good Luck!
posted by SpaceWarp13 at 8:22 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why does her age matter? Why is it okay at 25 and not 40? Maybe she was ultra-responsible at 25 and is now finally exploring her freedom?

It's not OK at 25. It's understandable and somewhat excusable at 25 because we assume that a 25-year-old is a bit clueless and doesn't understand that it's not OK. But a 25-year-old who mooches off of people for months on end, interferes with their life, imposes on them, and refuses to do anything to mitigate for the imposition is a selfish, lazy jerk just like a 40-year-old who does the same thing.

If you saw a movie about her, you'd probably think she was a glamorous free spirit.

There is already a movie about her. Her character was played by Brad Pitt and was named Floyd. I'm not sure "glamorous free spirit" is the first description that springs to mind.
posted by The World Famous at 10:05 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tell your wife that her sister must find a job and a roommate/room-for-rent very soon in order to maintain peace and sanity in your household. It's unfair to your family unit to accommodate sister in the ways you have in the past. Period.

Give your wife some time to get a grip on how this must be handled.

Is sister older or younger than wife? I kinda think the age order plays into this drama a little. Be sensitive, you're likely treading on some deeply ingrained patterns between these two. But you know what? It's time for your wife to approach her sister from the perspective of an adult, a wife, and a mother. They're not children anymore. Wife needs to grok this and then pass the message on to her sibling.
posted by jbenben at 10:35 AM on May 12, 2011

I am of a slightly different mind here. First, I think it reasonable for a SIL to stay for up to a month before she becomes unwelcome. Second, I do not think you kicking her out or setting some sort of boundary is going to end well for you or your wife. I think this has to be a deal made with your wife and the accommodation for putting up with it comes from your wife, not SIL doing chores or babysitting or whatnot. I think the best you can hope for without your own domestic troubles is to set a move out date approximately 3 months after she arrived a la your sister and to agree to terms for any future visit such as a one or two week max with certain contributed efforts.

My conversation with my wife would go something along the lines of, "Honey, your sister sure is an interesting woman with an envious lifestyle. However, she is cramping my lifestyle and is a burden on the family. You know I would like to spend more time with you and with the kids. My sister stayed for 3 months once, long ago. That was a mistake. I would like to set a limit of 3 or 4 months for your sister and make it her last long-term (over 2 weeks) visit. "
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:08 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

She's 40? I totally thought you were talking about someone in her early 20s.

Talk to your wife first then tell her sister, "hey, we love you, and we love having you for a visit, but this isn't your extended vacation home or momma's house, and you're an adult: if you want to stay for more than a few weeks you've got to earn your keep by paying rent and helping around the house."
Doesn't have to be a sit-down uncomfortable conversation or anything.
posted by Neekee at 11:23 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Q: How long is reasonable for a world-traveling sister to drop in and live with us (a family with small children)?

A: Your sister, with those features? One week.

Q: And how do I gently help her to go?

A: By realizing that even if she was a rent paying sister who watched the kids - you and yours aren't really extended family, extended stay type of folks. That's okay. The goal is for home to be a safe, calm refuge. Yours is that way when it's parter and kids. So, the, "We love you, and love you coming over for a week. But beyond that, any visitor gets onerous. So I'd like to give you a week or so to come up with new plans." Every response to any GRAR is, "I'm sorry you feel that way. I'm sorry this is difficult for you. But we need you to move out by the end of the week. I still love you."

Q: Am I being the family jerk?

A: No. She's being the family jerk. You are the one not letting her jerk your family around. Boundaries also apply to those we love unconditionally, particularly if we dislike, or are adversely affected by, some aspect of their behavior.
posted by anitanita at 11:50 AM on May 12, 2011

Even if she was paying rent, she's still a 40-year-old bum who has taken over your living room, sofa, and TV. What's the market rate to rent someone's front room?
posted by The World Famous at 11:56 AM on May 12, 2011

You are NOT being the family jerk.

But your wife needs to be the one that handles this. You and she have got to come to an agreement. That's your first priority.

I have a SIL that I love; she lived in our basement for about nine months, I think, when we were in our late 20s. My husband and I had two kids at the time. Eventually, I told my husband that his sister needed to find her own place. And we weren't really even cramped for space; it was just that having another person living with us was a stressing thing that we didn't need.

My husband didn't want to, but he talked to her; she found her own place. We've had very good relations since. I don't know if she has bitter memories of that transition, but I don't really care. Pulling your weight is part of being a grownup.
posted by torticat at 1:05 PM on May 12, 2011

Consider that if you and your wife sit down with your SIL and tel her that things are harder this visit and you both need more from her, like daily child care and her making dinner (or whatever), after she tries this out for a week she may realize it's easier to live on her own.
posted by onlyconnect at 6:33 PM on May 12, 2011

I had the exact same thing going on for five years. It all ended badly.

Put some boundaries down, stat.
posted by roboton666 at 7:36 PM on May 12, 2011

I don't disagree with people on this thread about needing to set boundaries and being absolutely within your right not to want SIL to stay in your house for months on end without helping or having a plan for leaving, but... I feel I must defend her a little because I live a somewhat similar lifestyle. I'm 32 and able to pay for plane tickets, but still, that wasn't always the case.

Jet lag coming from China to the United States doesn't last "a few days"; in my experience it lasts a couple weeks. Combine that with the recovery you need from reverse culture shock and it can be pretty harrowing to come back for a visit sometimes. Almost all expats I know need a period of rest and recovery period (in their home country) after living in such a different culture as china where daily life can be hard on the body and mind (very hard). This might explain her inactive and anti-social behavior during this time.Besides, if she's working in China and Mongolia at non-profits or local businesses, she's likely not making enough for plane tickets to the states or apartment rent at US prices.Maybe Asian family values have worn off on her too- in Asia, family is family and it's expected that they can stay with you rent-free. (this is at least the case in China).

I wish people wouldn't call her a "lazy bum". Speaking several languages and adapting to vastly different lifestyles and standards of living is extremely difficult and not something everyone can do, especially someone who is lazy. I understand that she is not being considerate in this situation, but if you keep in mind her point of view it might be easier to have the discussion with her with more empathy.

I go home periodically for visits and I stay longer than a couple weeks because a.) jet leg lasts for two weeks for me, and b.) I want to be able to see my family for a significant period of time since I live all the way across the world and we miss each other a lot. There's no way my mom would expect me to pay rent during these visits. Most young people (and even not-that-young people) living as ex=pats in Asia or whatever expect that when they go home they can stay with parents for a few weeks, to a month to relax and recover before their next gig. And staying with parents is not an option for her, so she probably thinks of your house as "home base".

I know the situation you have is a bit different than mine, and it definitely sounds like you need to have a talk with her. I just wanted to present a case for a bit of empathy.
posted by bearette at 2:15 AM on May 13, 2011

Best answer: Most young people (and even not-that-young people) living as ex=pats in Asia or whatever expect that when they go home they can stay with parents for a few weeks, to a month to relax and recover before their next gig. And staying with parents is not an option for her, so she probably thinks of your house as "home base".

I was an ex-pat in Asia for five years (and have been an ex-pat for more than ten) and that isn't my experience among ex-pats who were 25 or older. A few had that expectation, but most regarded themselves as independent adults, for whom being able to stay with family is a lucky bonus, not a right.

I also have never heard of jet-lag lasting two weeks and I know a lot of people who travel internationally over all sorts of distances. I don't doubt that there are a minority of folks, like bearette, for whom it exists and perhaps the sister-in-law is one of them. However, bearette puts up with severe jet-lag because she loves to be close to her family. It sounds like this SIL is not in the USA because she's close family, instead she's in the USA because she wants to relax after living abroad. There's nothing wrong with wanting to relax, but she can do it cheaply on a beach in South East Asia and avoid her jetlag altogether.

One part of the question that worries me and which I haven't seen anyone pick up on is that her last stay was one year ago for three months and this has been going on for three years with the OP and presumably for years before that with the rest of her family. It sounds like a lot of her life has been spent living off other people. If she needs to relax for an extended period between jobs, but cannot afford to do so independently, then she has a problem with her lifestyle that she needs support in fixing.

I would suggest that sooner or later the OP & wife are going to run out of patience too and then the SIL will have nowhere to go. Since she's going to have to deal with this issue anyway, why not address it now, while she still has one person in her family with whom she has not burnt bridges?
posted by Busy Old Fool at 5:47 AM on May 13, 2011

I also have never heard of jet-lag lasting two weeks and I know a lot of people who travel internationally over all sorts of distances.

Busy Old Fool,
I agree - warmly - with all your points - except for this detail about jet lag duration!
Sure YMMV, but allowing a day for every hour of time difference is not unusual as a general guide for full recovery.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 6:09 AM on May 13, 2011

Sure YMMV, but allowing a day for every hour of time difference is not unusual as a general guide for full recovery.

I'm not sure that general guide includes sitting on a couch all day long watching TV and surfing the net and only leaving the house once a day at most.
posted by The World Famous at 9:19 AM on May 13, 2011

no permanent home, job, or funds

First of all, it sounds like she does have a job, or rather jobs, it's just that they are short term or contract jobs. And assuming they aren't volunteer positions, she does have funds, though it sounds like she's not managing them that well.

She's not super-ambitious

She may not be your kind of ambitious, but she sounds pretty darn ambitions to me. Living in new environments all the time, learning many languages, starting different jobs...that sounds like it takes a lot of drive, especially with the constant reinforcement from American society at large that if you don't have a "normal" life, especially as a woman! at 40! you're a failure.

So what's reasonable for a sister-in-law?

Whatever you and your wife decide, really. One week could be reasonable, or one year, it really depends on what your family is happy with. I don't think you're a jerk for not wanting her to stay for months, I know I'd probaly go crazy if someone else was in my space for more than a few days! But what I don't see in your question, and I'm sorry if I've missed it, is whether you've told her any of this. From her perspective, she might assume you're happy to have her. As you said, she doesn't really have a big impact on your daily life. I agree with everyone who says you need to talk to your wife about this. I think it's fine if you tell your SIL that it's too stressful having this other person come and go for months at a time. But I think you both have to tell her. I'm wondering if your wife feels as strongly as you do. That's something you have to compromise about, and it's more of a relationship issue than a slacker relative issue imho.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:54 PM on May 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

the constant reinforcement from American society at large that if you don't have a "normal" life, especially as a woman! at 40! you're a failure.

I don't like the idea of labeling people "successes" or "failures." But I frankly don't see how your argument in that regard holds any water when we're talking about someone who has apparently managed to alienate every single member of her extended family and is now down to one sister and brother-in-law who are at the end of their rope because of exactly the same inconsiderate behavior that alienated everyone else.
posted by The World Famous at 4:25 PM on May 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

The World Famous - I guess I didn't read alienation into it, just that the other family members have been upfront with the SIL while the OP and his wife have not. Possibly because the OP's wife doesn't want to be. And I just think it does no good to be silently judging and resenting the SIL while she has no reason to believe she's not welcome. Of couse she could be horrible, but I don't think there's enough info in the post to tell.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 5:21 PM on May 13, 2011

I don't spend an afternoon at someone's house without helping. I'd make a list of the things that you least want to do, that would really make her stay an asset for you, and let her know how much you would appreciate her taking care of those things.

And definitely get her out of the center of your house. When I stay in someone's house, I definitely get up and out of the way. You would be doing her a service to help her learn these things. Maybe if she had better guest skills, the other people in her life would welcome her back. Maybe.
posted by Ellemeno at 9:07 PM on May 13, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for calling me on getting straight with the wife first. Funny how everyone picked up on it! We talked and agreed and she's doing the talking to SIL as we type. Turns out neither of us had been super-explicit about boundaries for this trip.

I wrote SIL a short list of 6 tasks I'd like help with (nothing big or dangerous - "make the kids' lunches", "put the dishes in the dishwasher", "bake cookies for kids", "run some loads of laundry"). No actions yet, but at least she knows what she could do, if she wanted. We'll see if she gets around to any of them in the next week. She's been sick with a headcold, and noticing that it's super hard to get any medical care with no W-2, no job, no insurance, no pay stub from the last 2 years... even the free clinics want some evidence of job hunting. She's just ... nearly sociopathic in being unable to pick up on social cues or obligations (as noted by friends meeting her at gatherings we held last year).

SIL's total assets are $1000, her laptop and 2 suitcases. She's being rational, if presumptive, in taking advantage of our house. We offered to help front for a security deposit.
she sounds pretty darn ambitions to me
You're right, I wasn't being fair with that adjective. I only meant she says she doesn't want a job or place to live or other "traditional" measures of stability. I'm a planner myself, so having nothing at 40 would scare the pants off me, but then she doesn't have a husband or kids. What happens if she gets disabled, sick or just plain old, I don't know.
Right now, she's exploring her relatives' freedom.
That was a really helpful way of phrasing it! Very Ant & Grasshopper : we have the house and insurance SIL wants, mainly because we have the job and bills that are the opposite choices from what she made. It actually helped me see her as more of a rational actor.
allowing a day for every hour of time difference is not unusual as a general guide for full recovery
Yeah, the TV room with the couch is actually in the basement (so is my bedroom/bathroom), so she's not getting any daylight at all. She's one of those always sick (cold & cough) people, so her weird hours are probably that more than jet lag, honestly.

It's toughest for my wife. She's eldest and been a bit of an annoyed enabler - by her own admission - all along. Wife and I really need to work on making our relationship and family happier. Of course I don't know if it's SIL making us stressed or stress making us unable to handle SIL, but either way I think smarter for her to go.
it really depends on what your family is happy with
Sure, but I really appreciate all the posters who let me know what would be reasonable for them and their family (or some random American family with 2 small kids) ...cause I do want to be a normal loving BIL too.
posted by radagast at 12:00 AM on May 14, 2011

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