Parenting in Front of a Live Audience of In-laws
Micromanaging my husband, I realized how much I still craved my parents’ approval.
In March, Christen Madrazo, Jason Williamson and their son, Asa, left their New York City lives behind to live with her parents, Tony and Judy Madrazo, in Bath, Pa. Credit...Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
By Christen Madrazo
Aug. 27, 2020
Updated 10:14 a.m. ET
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.
Judy Madrazo kisses her grandson Asa as Tony Madrazo gives him a tour of the garage. Credit...Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
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.
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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.
Since leaving their apartment in Washington Heights, Madrazo and Williamson have spent the last six months navigating the unique balance that comes with an intergenerational household. The couple are committed to returning to New York City to live in the near future.Credit...Jose A. Alvarado Jr. for The New York Times
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.
Updated August 27, 2020
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