Winter delights: Halloween Christmas and mould vine or how family conflicts can lead to growth

Christmas! The time of the year to be jolly, generous and grateful. Christmas, the time of the year to be merry next to the people you cherish. Christmas – the time to enjoy good food and perhaps a cup of mulled wine. Unless, you’re challenged by a “mould vine” bonanza in your in-laws house.

“There’s mould on the back wall of the kitchen”, I said to my parents in law. They are old (although some may consider them quite young), with mobility issues and heart condition. So cleaning is no longer a priority.

“I know”, my mother-in-law replied. Apparently my father- in-law had already tried to clean it but it did not work.

I am the mother of a 9 month old baby, so cleanliness is more than a priority. Clean air and clean surroundings represent an absolute, non-negotiable must. The wall needed to be cleaned.

A few days earlier we were travelling from Belgium to England to spend Christmas with my husband’s parents that we had not seen in 3 years. They were excited to meet their grandchild whom they had seen only on video calls. But in their excitement they must have forgotten some of the basic needs of a baby: a safe house, clean environment and sleep routine.

An unfortunate trip, deception and generational gap

We arrived to England on a ferry-boat after a sleepless night. The two single beds cabin was too small to fit the travel kot we had brought for our baby, although we had upgraded the type of cabin. A shelf was placed between the two beds, so we couldn’t move the beds. Our baby had to sleep with one of us. He did not like it at all, therefore spent the night holding him in turns without getting any sleep.

“Nevermind, you’ll sleep when you get here”, my mother in law told me in a text message. So I dreamt about that magical moment when I would slip under a comfortable duvet and let myself drift in slumber, whilst my in-laws would care for the baby. I was fantasising.

Merry Halloween Christmas

As soon as we got there, we realised that the reality was completely different than our expectations: a clean house, a warm meal and support with the baby.

There was absolutely no food for us. We had to shop from scratch, which we knew, but we still expected some basic food in the fridge. After all, we were coming all the way from Belgium. Then the house needed serious in-depth cleaning. The carpets were full with fluff and I did not dare to leave our baby to practice his crawling. Thick layers of dust were covering every part of the house and spider and dust cobs were hanging from the ceiling in the bathroom. The dinning room was cluttered with boxes and parcels, making it look like a storage place, not like a room where a family with a baby could eat. And the grandparents were so immobile that taking care of a baby whilst we would be sleeping was simply unconceivable.

What is in your control?

We could not control or do anything about the grandparents’ immobility nor change their attitude. Although we gave it a try. What we could do was to do the things that were in our control.

Within minutes after arriving, my husband started hoovering the bedroom which was supposed to be our room for the next 2+ weeks. He hovered for about two hours but the dust incrusted in the carpet was very stubborn. Around the bed, due to overuse, the carpet had peeled off, so we were waking directly on the net. Later on I found out that my in-laws were using that room just for drying clothes. In any case, they knew the carpet needed replacing, just did not find anyone willing to move the furniture for them, so they concluded that it couldn’t be done. For days my husband hoovered the house again and again, whilst being conflicted between the urge to leave and the desire to stay. He was hoovering with my in-laws’ best generation hoover of which my father-in-law was very proud of. Too bad that the hoover does not hoover by itself.

After two nights in which my feet got frozen on the damaged carpet, whilst rocking the baby, I discovered mould in the bedroom. First in the wardrobe and then on the window wall. I informed my in-laws. I understand they must have felt embarrassed, but there was no other reaction. I was fuming. My baby was not going to sleep in dust and mould for two weeks. I cleaned the mould from the wardrobe’s rail.

Fighting the resistance to change and the avoidance self-defence mechanism

Then I found mould on one of the coats stored in the wardrobe. When I informed my in-laws, I got just a “thank you” reply. When I insisted about it, I got a “that’s enough” answer.

I was fuming. After all, they knew we were coming with a baby and cleaning services are also available for a one-off in-depth cleaning if needed.

The mould and the dust that were reigning in the house triggered all kind of emotions on both sides. The grandparents were ready to let us leave back to Belgium instead of thinking of how to solve the mould problem. “It’s not possible, we can’t”, they kept saying. I did not know if they meant that “it was not possible to clean the mould because they had already tried it” or that “they could not clean due to their health conditions”. They wouldn’t communicate it around it and I was left in confusion. Driven by outrage, whilst my baby was sleeping and my in-laws were sat watching TV in the living-room, I gave a try and approached the mould in the kitchen. In less than 30 minutes, the wall was clean. This operation, however made me discover a huge colony of mould on the wall behind the fridge. It was like a spreading jungle. The Christmas announced itself as a Halloween version, with mould, dust cobs and spiders. Merry Halloween Christmas!

More resistance to change

“It is possible”, I said to my father in law, showing him the clean wall.

“ Good luck with that”, he replied, meaning that if I wanted, I could clean the rest of the wall. He was not going to clean at that time of the night. And besides, his heart condition does not allow him to do much effort. This infuriated me and triggered a confrontational discussion about roles and responsibility. He did not like to be challenged in his own house and felt offended, thus he turned his back on me.

When my husband returned from his evening dog walk, we expressed our concerns. We, as parents, were worried for the well-fare of our baby. Something had to be done. We insisted that we either were allowed to clean the dust and the mould, either we would be returning home. A baby needed a clean and safe space. It was an emotional discussion, with tears on both sides. Tears because my mother-in-law had lost her mobility, wasn’t able to walk for long and couldn’t stand anymore, so she could not clean anymore, therefore was relying on her husband who did not use to clean most of his life. There were tears on my side too, tears of frustration, worry and disappointment. We had put a tremendous effort to come over, we had had a very stressful and tiring journey and this cleaning resistance seemed unbelievable and ridiculous. My in-laws were so loyal to their belief that nothing could be done to remediate the mould problem, that they kept finding reasons to explain it: an old house, chronic condensation, bad extractor, the neighbour’s moulded table in the garde, uncertainty in the world, economic crisis, high prices and so on.

We can do it!

For a week we kept dusting, hoovering and cleaning mould, all by trying not to disrupt too much the routine of our baby. It was exhausting. Kudos to my husband who did most of the heavy work. We aired and aired the rooms where we had cleaned the mould, whilst we we were juggling with the baby’s napping and feeding times and the hoovering times. We moved from the mouldy bedroom to the living room, until it got cleaned. Because the sofa-bed was too small to accommodate both of us, my husband slept in a cluttered dining room on a camp bed that he head to dig out from another room that was fully packed with boxes, furniture and bags. Had my husband made a wrong move during the night, he was risking to have a box fallen onto him.

The path to desolation can be explained but not excused

Old age, self-isolation due to illness, an over-burdened and slow health system and difficulty to get a simple doctor appointment are some of the factors that contributed to this situation. The medical service in the UK is deplorable and a GP appointment lasts between 10-15 minutes and it’s a hassle to get one. There is simply no time to properly care for a patient that has multiple health conditions, some triggering and influencing others. Then there is clinical depression and lack of proper mental health care. The local GP only prescribed antidepressants for years and no psycho-therapy, knowing that in many situations antidepressants by themselves don’t do much. Then there is the learned helplessness, fuelled by the clinical depression and the deterioration of the overall health and life-style. Not being able to walk, stand or go up the stairs can make anyone feel incapable. Not receiving any support to remediate this situation such as physiotherapy, counselling and nutrition makes the feeling of helplessness acute and chronic. When you lose hope and you expect no longer to be able to do the things you used to do before, then it’s the path to getting blazé and give up.

I am sorry for my mother-in-law, whose health situation deteriorated significantly over the years. I am outraged with the GP that she consulted over the years that they never prescribed psychotherapy, just medication for her depression, that they never prescribed any physiotherapy for her mobility issues or any support for the morbid obesity she is suffering from, such as cognitive behavioural therapy that would support her in reaching a healthier weight. I am perplexed by the fact that my in-laws just accepted this situation and stopped looking for alternatives. However their response is perfectly explainable. First of all, for their generation, a doctor’s word is highly regarded, due to the high authority that a doctor has. Therefore, if a doctor doesn’t prescribe treatment alternatives or other approaches, then my in-laws would not go beyond. And there is also the learned helplessness. A study made on mice that were trapped in a box and electrocuted every time they were trying to find an issue demonstrated chronic change of behaviour to escape and learned helplessness. After multiple attempts to escape and having the sole result of being electrocuted, the mice stopped trying to escape. The learned helplessness is not seen only in animals but also in humans.

Meanwhile most of the visible mould got cleaned. The main rooms were decluttered and more or less tidied up. The kitchen and the living room got cleaned in proportion of 90%. I cooked and scrubbed and tried to recover on some sleep. And when we thought things were getting smoother, another emotional outburst. After a sleepless night when my baby did not sleep for 3 hours in a row, I asked my mother-in-law to cancel her sister’s visit the following day. I did not know how I would feel and I was predicting that I would need a serious nap. Her sister was devastated as she really wanted to meet my baby. My mother in law got angry with me. By cancelling this visit, it seems I was the culprit for her sister’s tears. It did not matter that I was tired and potentially unwell and this can affect amongst others my breast milk supply.

Then there was a phone call that put oil on the fire. My husband overheard his mother saying how stressful things had been for them, how they could not have access to the living room as my baby had to nap or sleep during the night (whilst the bedroom upstairs was being cleaned by us, but this had not been mentioned), how they were looking forward us to leave and all kind of other heavy words to hear. How would you feel when you would hear your own mother implying you were not welcome? His reaction was: “I want to leave as soon as possible”. But hotels were fully booked and the ferry departure could not be changed. I thought that the entire situation was ridiculous. So I opened the discussion. I got emotional. They got emotional. We let it out. They had been stressed indeed. It’s stressful and disruptive to have a baby in the house, together with two more adults, when you’re old and sick. It’s stressful when you are used to have an entire house for yourself and you cannot have access to the rooms you wanted. It had been a horribly l stressful experience for us two. Never again, I said to my husband. But I pleaded to stay and find solutions. My husband was still very hurt and not convinced. But in the end we decided to stay for Christmas.

Positive outcomes

Besides the tears, high emotions and stress, there was also good outcome. Conflicts need to be expressed, talked about, otherwise things get rotten just like a fish that is hidden under the carpet.

What was good about all theae conflicts is:

⁃ My husband confronted his parents and expressed his concerns and emotions for the very first time. This was a very difficult thing to do, but given the circumstances he could no longer keep his emotions locked, which is his default way of dealing with stressful situations

⁃ My in-laws are now considering to renovate the kitchen. Hopefully this entails tackling the mould issue at a structural level.

⁃ My mother-in-law is now open to engage a cleaning company, although my father-in-law is not yet convinced

⁃ The house got cleaned

⁃ We breathe a healthier air

⁃ My in-laws got conscious of the The picture of the mould behind the fridge in the kitchen left my mother-in-law speechless

⁃ My mother-in-law got out of the house at least three times in a week, which is a huge achievement.

⁃ My baby got to spend time with his grandparents

⁃ My husband and I got to stick together for a commun goal

⁃ We learned that we were resilient

⁃ In terms of health, my mother-in-law learned that there were some options. It’s up to her if she wants to do anything about it.

It’s late Christmas Eve now, my in-laws are in their bedroom, my baby is sleeping and I am pumping in a relatively tidy dinning room. I am also tying this story, whilst my husband is wrapping presents in the living room. Today we finally got a Christmas tree or more to the point a conifer from a garden Center that we decorated as a Christmas tree. The in-laws did not want to dig out their artificial Christmas tree, nor to move the furniture in the living room to make space and a real pine tree was out the question. So we got a conifer. The kitchen looks clean. The mould vine is now just a horrid memory. The dust is still here and there, but is more manageable, whilst hoovering and airing became for now a daily habit in this old house.

Soon it’s Christmas. May we finally seat peaceful and jolly and enjoy some good time. No mulled wine for me, though. I am breastfeeding. And besides, I had enough of the mould vine.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Learned helplessness study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4416012/

Author: Gabriela D. Spencer

I support you to Balance your overall Well-being, be it physical, emotional, relational or social through Life Coaching and Laughter Yoga. My aim is to ‘support you to help yourself’ as you are the only expert of your life. My interests include positive psychology, body-mind balancing techniques, stress management, well-being and connecting with one’s inner child. I am a Multi-potential and an ISFP (according to the latest tests, but who knows). I write and express myself whenever my mind is bursting with thoughts and emotions. Read me mostly in Romanian and sometimes in English.

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