How To Survive a Christmas Visit With Your Hoarding Mother

Illustration for article titled How To Survive a Christmas Visit With Your Hoarding Mother

My mother is a hoarder. Is yours? And will you have to see her over the holidays? If so, I'm sorry. It's the worst! Not to worry; this guideline I've created will provide you with all the tools you'll need to— who am I kidding, it's going to be a disaster no matter what.

  1. Do not go into her house. Do not stay there overnight, do not go there for a visit. You will get sucked in metaphorically and possibly literally. What my mom and I do is meet at a nice lunch place – we have lady sandwiches with cucumbers and such, egg salads, that sort of deal. This way, no one has to be covered in pet hair for the rest of the day unknowingly because it's all over the back of their sweater.
  2. Give her perishable gifts or personal photographs. Got a family cookie recipe or a new picture of your baby? Mom would love that. Plus, you are not adding something to the clutter that will, let's face it, be lost in two weeks time.
  3. Do not go shopping with her. If you're anything like me, you can't say no to your mother wanting to buy you a wind-up music box of Snoopy and Woodstock doing some jaunty Christmas dancing because of the special place in your heart they hold from happier, cleaner times. On the surface, this seems like a totally okay thing: the hoarder gets the excitement of buying something, but the thing doesn't add to the clutter, because you'll be whisking it away to another state in a few days. Ha ha, says the universe, because what happens is, she asks to keep it. And now you and that darling music box have become part of the problem.
  4. Do not let her trick you into going shopping. Only go to places where the nearest store is at least two blocks away. Can't find a restaurant not close to a shop? What about a park? A movie theatre? A gas station? The possibilities are limited, but you'll think of something. If stores cannot be avoided, wait outside in the cold while she shops, and dismissively say "no" when she pokes her head out and asks you if a shit tchotchke would look cute on her mantle.
  5. Avoid alcohol consumption. This is for you. If you drink, you will invariably become super sad about her situation, your relationship with her, the irreplaceable photos of your fifth grade Dance-A-Rama that are now ruined, etc., etc.
  6. Call in reinforcements. For me, this is my husband. Being funny and disarming—this is where he really shines. Or perhaps bring a childhood friend along to your lady sandwich luncheon? A neutral party can help bring out the best in her, plus they can help steer the conversation to more benign topics like reality television and celebrity hairstyles. Have you a sibling or two? Here's where they might prove quite useful, I am guessing. However, if Mom's a hoarder, chances are someone else in the family has inherited this or the negative image of this, OCD, so if the sibling's presence makes it twice as much work for you, pick someone else.
  7. Try to have sympathy. When I am at my most mother-resenting, I force myself to remember that hoarding is a disease; and despite what I might think to the contrary, it's not easy for her or anyone else to recover from it even a little bit. That said, I believe it's okay to set boundaries to protect yourself. For me, I no longer give her loans or weigh in on family disputes about my deceased grandmother's jewelry.
  8. Remember: you are not your mother. No matter how many Seventeen magazines you still have from the 80's (one with a teenage Whitney Houston on the cover!), this does not a hoarder make. However, it is good to get into the habit of periodically purging and organizing. I love my label-maker and my husband, and together they provide me with enough motivation for me to keep all but the garage clean. And the closets. And pantry. And two junk drawers.

Good luck.

Christy Stratton is a TV writer/producer, most recently of MTV's Awkward. Find out more about her struggles with hoarding at

Image via A&E.



I love this post — very practical and kind to all parties concerned.

It also made me think about how my relationship with "stuff" changed after my mother died. The first few days after she died, I was all like, "OMG, a half-eaten bag of lemon drops! A receipt from CVS! I am saving these FOREVER because her fingers touched them." I was not ready to let go of anything at all. Then, gradually over time, not so much.

The stuff that is weird to deal with now is the stuff that SHE saved because it was sentimental for ME. Like a container of my baby teeth. _I_ don't want my own baby teeth, but I kind of want to keep the evidence of how much she loved me. My notes, my old artwork, the Halloween costume she made for me when I was three (X The Owl, if you must know.)

And then comes the question — what do I save for my own daughter? She does NOT need a container of my baby teeth, or, really any of the letters between me and my mother, whom she never knew. Photos of people long, long dead. Things that will cease to have any meaning at all when I die. I do not want to encumber her with having to deal with that stuff, and every year I find the ability to get rid of it a little bit more, but it is still hard.

Hope the rest of your holiday goes well. It does sound like you love your mother a lot. xo