Somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, my husband and I whisper-argue on a mattress strewn across the floor. His hand gestures say, “Lower your voice.” Mine say, “I’m a big-haired Spanish woman from Jersey. Fat chance.”
But his Anglo-Southern penchant for quiet subtlety is probably the best approach right now. We don’t want to wake the 13-month-old who co-sleeps between us, but our real concern is my parents. They might overhear our debate: to stay or go back.
We temporarily left our fifth-floor walk-up in Washington Heights almost six months ago for my parents’ ranch-style home in Pennsylvania. Our decision to hunker down amid the corn and canola came days before New York City’s stay-at-home order, when I got preemptively spooked. Binge-watching Containment hadn’t helped, but even before that, I wondered, Could something terrible happen? What if our son is orphaned?
Not much scared me before I became a mother. My husband loved that about me. It was even in his vows — something about my fearlessness, how I never “punked-out.” Now, I’m always envisioning worst-case scenarios, playing them out in my head over and over, voicing them, loudly. Like here on this mattress. I’m listing all that could go wrong in the city come fall. I can’t imagine he finds this sort of pillow-talk attractive.
Coming here had meant fewer germs, deeper isolation and space for our son to play outside. It meant he’d hear some Spanish at home. After almost 20 years, though, it also meant living with my parents — this time, as a wife and mother. That would change things, right?
Ultimately, all has gone surprisingly well. We eat homemade paella for special occasions, we have help on-hand when Zoom commitments conflict, and my parents never seem to tire of quarantine with their grandson. Likewise, our son lives for the nightly kitchen-sink baths his grandma draws, and for his afternoon “garage tours” with Papi. “Chatito! Vamos!” my father exclaims as he scoops him up for their daily walk-through. With stoic concentration, my son points to the zero-turn mower, the rainbow-striped lawn chairs, the crisp American flags that grid the concrete walls.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and now that I can take a shower each day, I get it. But you know what they don’t say takes a village? A marriage.
The thing about moving in with your parents as a married adult is that, while your partner is still your partner, you’re not still you. Not entirely. Or, maybe, you’re somehow more you. It’s like you suddenly spiral, kaleidoscopically, into all the parts of you from all the years before.
Maybe that’s because age is cumulative, a concept I first encountered at age 18 when I read Sandra Cisneros’ story “Eleven.” Her young narrator explains:
The way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. … When you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.
During quarantine at your parents’, one minute you’re the 12-year-old who tears up when she perceives her mother’s dishwasher comment as passive-aggressive. The next you’re the 23-year-old who, after a glass of Marques de Riscal, thinks it’s a good idea to challenge her father’s political views. You’re the angsty 16-year-old who forgets that napkins go on the left, the one who envisions flipping the table upside down as she watches her father silently correct each place-setting. Sometimes, you’re the 4-year-old who wants to curl right back up on their laps. And then you’re the 37-year-old who finally understands that your time with them is limited.
Whether he knew it or not, my husband married all the me’s inside of me. And all of them, I’ve recently come to understand, have something rather troubling in common: They all crave my parents’ approval. I imagine this is also not terribly attractive.
Worse, every single quarantine marital scuffle we’ve had is linked, somehow, to my perception of my parents’ approval of my husband, too — which is really just about their approval of me.
So what does that look like? It looks like my husband living under panicked micromanagement: I hound him daily to “help” him avoid missteps. I ask if he’s remembered to wash the nonstick egg pan, if he’s planning to take out the recycling bucket before my mom sees it full, if he insisted firmly enough that we pay for the pizza this week, if he turned off the light in his makeshift basement-office, if he remembered to buy turnips for the caldo gallego, if he parked exactly perpendicularly to the shed, and if he has a plan for how he’ll play with the baby when my parents are listening.
That I ask these things, incessantly, fearfully, all day long is not really the problem though. The problem is what my questions signal: He’s not good enough for us.
But, of course, he is.
And really, my own microscope is likely far more fixed on him than theirs is, but you can never be too sure. His work, his affection, his parenting — all on display. Figuring out marriage while parenting is hard. Figuring out marriage while parenting in front of a live audience of in-laws is even harder.
While my parents are clear that we’re always welcome, maybe it is time to go.
My husband doesn’t say much about his frustration — not directly anyway — but he doesn’t have to. Mostly, he’s taken to ignoring my “helpful” micromanagement, sometimes even rebelliously so. Other times, he clams up and takes a backseat entirely, likely afraid he won’t do or say the right thing anyway.
Recently, though, when he asked how long we should co-sleep with the baby, he implied that perhaps I co-slept with my parents for far too long. “Maybe co-sleeping makes everyone a little too . . . attached,” he suggested. “Why the hell would you say that?” I barked, defensively.
But I knew exactly why he would say that.
After all, here I am. In the nest. While my family may not all cram into one shared bed anymore, we certainly maintain plenty of other old arrangements. We’re sticklers for ritual, hardest on those we love most and unflinchingly loyal to one another — to our past. Had I really expected my husband to seamlessly integrate into this 24/7 intergenerational living experiment?
When we’re too tired to argue about the “right time” to return home, we watch Netflix, our headphones connected by a cord splitter that rises and falls across the baby’s chest. We know we’re not going anywhere just yet. We know we’re lucky we don’t have to. And ultimately, we know this is all temporary. The virus outside, the baby in the bed, the grandparents alive and well down the hall — none of it’s forever.
But in some ways, maybe it is. Maybe all of it — each joy, each trial, each argument-about-the-recycling-that’s-not-really-about-the-recycling — maybe it’s all somehow always with us. Maybe families, the new ones and the old, are just the sum of their time together, each and every moment holding on tight to the next. Maybe the deepest kind of love lives in layers, like onions or wooden dolls, or like the rings inside trees.
Christen Madrazo, a writing instructor at CUNY John Jay College, is currently working on a collection of essays called Boys on the Road.