Q: My mother-in-law has spent much of her life accumulating collectibles, heirlooms and furniture with the rationale that she will give them to her children and grandchildren someday. Her four grandchildren are still in high school. She’s decided that "someday" is now and is getting upset that her family isn’t jumping at the chance to own figurines or her great aunt’s china set.
The thought that none of us will take all her things even when she’s gone is causing her genuine angst. Unfortunately, donating doesn’t bring her joy and she’s gotten very upset with me when I donate items she’s given us. I know this is an increasing problem for many of us, the "sandwich generation." Is there any hope for middle ground?
A Loving Daughter-in-Law
A: Don’t lose sight of what this is about. Her reaction says it well: It’s about feelings, not stuff. As it has always been. Stuff acquisition showed everyone who you were or wanted to be, and handing things down said you lived on in people’s hearts and homes in some small way. .
So, make sure that when you say no to (most of) this stuff, you’re mindful of the feelings. Be kind and complimentary. Ask for stories behind things. On occasion, find some small and/or useful things to accept. And, ask her to hold certain items for when the grandchildren have homes of their own.
If she asks you to hold them?: "I would, if I had the space. So do you want to store it for them, or would you rather donate it?"
Be her partner in "Kids these days ... " confidences, too, to the extent you can do so sincerely: "I know, this china was a status symbol for so long. Now status is in using less and traveling more ... and please don’t kill the messenger!"
Some tokens excepted, you’re still saying no to it all, of course — which means there’s a risk throughout that your mother-in-law will see through you far enough to resent you. Ultimately, though, your responsibility to her feelings is to respond to her kindly — not to do what she wants or expects.