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The Way to Her Heart is Through Her Parents’ Front Door

The Way to Her Heart is Through Her Parents’ Front Door: Illustration by MARK TODD

Illustration by MARK TODD

One weekend I went to stay at my boyfriend’s parents’ house in Texas. I was meeting them and his sister for the first time, which is always awkward, but at that initial meeting everyone is on their best behavior—right? We were all heading out to a “getting to know you” dinner when I ran upstairs to use the bathroom. While in there I heard his OCD dad downstairs alert everyone, “Okay, it’s time to go!” My boyfriend’s mother chimed in, “Hilary’s in the bathroom.” I was thankful for that, but then his dad said, “Well, what’s taking so long?” I could hear all this plain as day. His mom started to defend me: “Relax. It’s fine.” Thanks, I thought. Then she continued, “She’s probably just taking a shit.” Oh. Um, no thanks! The dad said, “Great. She’s taking a shit and we have to leave.” At this point, I was furiously finishing peeing (in case you were interested) and trying to tuck in a complicated shirt. I heard my boyfriend walk up and enter the fray. He asked where I was, and his dad jumped in: “She’s taking a shit.” Finally I came out of the bathroom and ran down the stairs. With the best I’m-pretending-you-weren’t-just-discussing-me-shitting smile I could muster, I said, “Let’s go to dinner!” Fun, fun memory. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I actually want to discuss dealing with your girlfriend’s parents, but I didn’t want to do it before pointing out that your parents can be a fucking nightmare too.

You have to deal with her parents one way or another. Getting through that first polite meal is easy. You can feign interest in her mom’s herb garden and talk to her dad about sports. You can boil down your career ambitions to a few good sentences (“I don’t have to go places; I’m already places”—cue laughter—“I just have to keep doing what I’m doing”). Where you grew up and how you came to root for the teams you root for (“I always liked dolphins, so Miami seemed like a natural fit”) will probably get you through the entrées. And barring someone fucking you over by ordering a soufflé that takes 30 minutes to bake, you’re home free. You can just lob a few “What was she like as a kid?” softballs and be out the door before Mom can order a coffee (half decaf or she will be up all night!). The first meeting is pretty straightforward. But if things go well in the relationship, the dinners/visits/family events just keep on coming. Your reward for doing a great job at something you dread is having to continue doing a great job at more things you dread. I’m sorry, but we can’t let you off the hook.

Yes, I need and want you to go with me to my cousin’s wedding 3,000 miles away, even if you have to use a vacation day. And yes, we will be there for all six miserable hours of it. And we will not be at the fun young people’s table either. We will be at a table with my parents. And you will hear the same stories from my mom and dad about people you didn’t know when you first heard the stories. It’s rough stuff. I get it. I grew up with them. I know my dad is monitoring that appetizer you ordered that he didn’t think we needed. I know my mom is spending 10 minutes trying to remember what street her story took place on, even though it doesn’t affect anything in the story. It’s torture to you but not to me. When I look over at you and you’re nodding like you might be able to help Mom think of that street name and shoveling in that last bite of appetizer so it doesn’t go to waste, it’s like buying me 200 roses. It’s an amazing gift (that I forced you to give me). And that is something. Something you can’t get with Amazon Prime. And girlfriends appreciate it. We really do.

We know it’s not easy for you. I’m sure there are times you wonder how the incredible woman you love came from these two strange people who don’t listen to each other but still finish each other’s and your sentences. People who split a single chicken breast. Save Dad’s dessert for later in Mom’s purse (don’t worry—there’s some Tupperware in there). And tip like it’s 1920. But the incredible woman you love didn’t just come from these people—she was a reaction to these people. She bounced off each of these walls and came to the wonderful middle where you can waste things (food, money, your youth!) and tip like the waiter’s livelihood depends on it (because it does, Mom!). We know our parents can be annoying, but it’s that annoyingness we love. Our parents’ flaws are those weird moles we run our fingers over when we’re anxious. They’re the quilted blanket covered in moth holes that’s the only thing we want when we’re sick. It’s annoyingness we’re comfortable with. So don’t fight it. Just earn a bunch of relationship points—nod politely at stories about our old neighbors and let us escape into our parents’ comfortable flaws for a few dinners/weddings/birthday parties. We like being reminded of where we came from. But we want you there because you remind us of where we’re going. And you can always vent like hell on the car ride home.

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