How to Survive a Visit From Your Mother

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A weeklong series on the art of entertaining, for women who are too busy for Pinterest.

The most important thing to do before having your mom come to visit is to put out towels. Leave the towels on the foot of her bed.

This is over the top, and not something she’d do for you, certainly not something you’d do for yourself. What you are doing here is overachieving the mom visit: You have to front-load the effort so that when she gets here and you start to wither, you’ve got the towels to fall back on. Write the Wi-Fi password on a small piece of paper and place it on top of the towels. Do this the morning she’s set to arrive so that whenever you get stressed out, you can pace the house and feel better when you catch a glimpse of the towels and the Wi-Fi password. Look at you being a thoughtful host and not a teenage girl who erupts at the first sign of criticism! You’ve never used a washcloth in your life, but maybe your mom will want to. See, you’re a good person. The perfect host. You’ve transcended your upbringing. Everything will be fine.

After you put out the towels, text your mom: “Any grocery requests?” She won’t have any, but that’s fine. “I’m just excited to see you!” she’ll say. Or, “Don’t get anything on my account.” What she means by this is “wine.” She will bring her Starbucks instant coffee herself. Think fondly about the way she stocks her own refrigerator with the food you ate in high school whenever you come to visit. Soy milk. Wheat thins. Boar’s Head turkey. English muffins.

Ideal conditions include a guest room and a pre-visit therapy appointment. Otherwise, a friend to whom you can text skull emojis continually works just as well.

Go to the grocery store and buy those English muffins and expensive jam. Breakfast is a nightmare with house guests and you must safeguard against it: No one’s going to be wearing a bra and cereal will seem like a failure. Yogurt with fruit and honey sounds nice but your mom will ask how you can eat the Greek stuff. She eats an Activia in her CR-V on the way to work every day. She might try to sneak out and buy some for her stay. When you see it in the fridge, try not to scoff and say, “Please eat all your poop yogurt before you leave. I’m just going to throw it out.” This achieves nothing.

You might say to yourself, “Oh, maybe one morning we could have pancakes,” but here you would be misguided. Do not even try. Pancakes seem whimsical in theory, proof that you are a happy, well-adjusted person who knows how to experience joy, but in this case pancakes are an opportunity for your mother to say that she never eats pancakes, they make her feel sick. “You know I just can’t eat that much in the morning.” Don’t open yourself up to this kind of commentary. The night she gets in, simply gesture toward the English muffins — special but not too special, indulgent but not really, no prep required — the night before and tell her to have one when she inevitably wakes up three hours before you to have her instant coffee and sit on the couch in the dark.

Remember that by the time you drag yourself out of bed she’ll have been for a walk around the neighborhood and be wanting to check out a really cute vintage store she saw that of course wasn’t open at 6 a.m., or whatever. (It will turn out to be either an abandoned storefront or a Duane Reade.) “Did you have an English muffin?” you’ll say. When your mom says she doesn’t like to eat breakfast right away, just let it wash right over you. Do not keep asking her every 30 minutes if she’s hungry. Just shrug and pad into the kitchen and make yourself a goddamned English muffin. Repeat she’s an adult, she’s an adult, she’s an adult to yourself anytime you have the urge to scream.

Two days before she gets there, before the towels and the grocery text, when the panic is amorphous but still repressed, seeping into other areas of your life (“Why does my mom always manage to come to town when I am COMPLETELY stressed out?”), sit down and make two lists. One is a list of things to clean, another is a list of things to do while she’s here.

Clean in the hour before she arrives. Do not let it take up any more of your life. Do not let your partner mop the floor days in advance only to muck it up again in the meantime. Do not let anyone else clean at all. This is your burden. They’ll be cleaning while she’s here, while you’re too preoccupied with regressing to your teen years to exercise enough executive function to put in a load of laundry or do the dishes.

If you start quietly weeping because you have no time to get everything done and her flight lands in 40 minutes and you need to go to the grocery store because you forgot the wine, have someone else go get the wine. Better yet, stop by the wine store on the way home with your house guest, your mom, and maybe she’ll pay. It’s an outing. If she picks it out herself you’ll get to hear about how great it is for years to come.

Making a list of things to do while your mom is in town might not seem like a priority, but it’s actually the most important thing. Your mom will say, over and over, “I just want to spend time with you,” and you might be tempted to believe her. She’s my mom, who cares. We’ll just hang out. No. Resist this thinking. You have to take care of your future self and write up three to four possible scenarios. Parks, lunches out, happy hours, ice cream, shopping. When she looks at you expectantly a day or two in and says, “What should we do today?” say, “Hmmm,” and then go stand in the kitchen and review your list. Put it in your phone. It’s not an itinerary; it’s your savior. Wander back over to the couch and make it sound like you’re just thinking off the cuff. “We could go walk around downtown and stop for ice cream, check out the bookstore.” Something like that. “Ehhh,” she might say. “I don’t need to see downtown.” Breathe deeply and suggest the next thing.

When in doubt, go get a pedicure. Yelp it ahead of time. Know what it costs. Remember that moms love getting sushi. They love going to botanical gardens. Are you writing this down? They love drinking wine and eating crackers and telling you that “just a salad” sounds good for dinner.

Moms love to lie back on the couch with a glass of wine and talk about how full they still are from a lunch six hours ago. “I shouldn’t have had those fries.” Simply narrow your eyes at this. You’re well-adjusted. You’re happy. You’re immune to her performative abstemiousness. Do not scream, “WELL I’M FUCKING HUNGRY, OKAY? AND I DON’T WANT A FUCKING SALAD.” Have at least one concrete dinner idea in your back pocket. The recipe is saved in your email, the ingredients in your refrigerator. Salad on the side. Bonus points if the recipe is something like eggplant, which you never ate as a kid. She will text you a photo of eggplant weeks later to let you know she’s broadened her horizons. This will be more satisfying than you’d care to admit. “What’s miso?” she’ll say. Chuckle to yourself. Wikipedia it in advance.

You have a plan, a meal to make. Say, “Okay. Well. I have a whole thing planned. Maybe you’ll be hungry by the time it’s ready.” Feel imperious; glide into the kitchen. Put out some cheese and crackers and decompress while your mom watches Facebook videos of animal mishaps on her iPad, at full volume.  

Have a glass of her Australian Shiraz while you cook and try not to berate yourself for having an appetite, having a body. No, you don’t need to eat salads for dinner every night, too. Let it go. Make your goddamn Smitten Kitchen miso dressing and talk yourself down.

Soon your mom will wander into the kitchen with cheese on a cracker, asking you if you’ve ever heard of a cheese called Gouda. “Yes, I’ve heard of Gouda, Mom.” “Well,” she’ll say, unflapped, “I like it.” You can laugh. If you don’t laugh, you’ll spiral.

On the last day of her visit, go to the movies. Never mind that she can go to the movies anywhere, that you both can. Go sit in a creaky chair and eat popcorn and drink Diet Coke and laugh together in the dark. Let her put her arm around you on the walk to the car. Let her put her head on your shoulder. Instead of rolling your eyes and changing the subject, manage a little laugh and a “hmm” when she brings up the latest guy she met on Match. Buy more wine on the drive home and let her cry the next day when she leaves you at the airport. Feel the lump move up your gut, through your chest, and into your throat as you wonder why the fuck you’re crying on the walk back to your car.