Family

“You Have No Poker Face Whatsoever”

Rhonda, 70, went to live with her daughter Jennifer and help take care of her grandchild. Things got tense.

Illustration of a woman clearing off a kitchen table as her mom looks on sternly, sitting with her arms crossed. There are toys and shoes under the table and birds outside the window.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Rhonda, 70, and her daughter Jennifer, 42, live in Apex, North Carolina. Rhonda and her husband moved in with Jennifer and her family at the beginning of lockdown. Jennifer works in fundraising; Rhonda has one other daughter, is retired, and helps take care of her 4-year-old granddaughter, Hannah.

This is part of “I Miss You. I’m Worried About You. Get Out of My House.,” a series of conversations between parents and their children about how their relationship has changed since the beginning of lockdown.

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Jennifer: In January of last year, we first decided you and Dad were going to move in with us. We had this whole plan of how we were going to give each other space and how we were going to be out of the house a lot and everything.

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Rhonda: You were going to travel one weekend of the month and leave us the house.

Jennifer: I was going to work at a coworking space. Steve [my husband] had just graduated and was going to get a job out of the home. You moved in the last weekend of March 2020. So none of that plan worked. At first, we were tripping over each other all the time. We were able to move into a bigger house after interest rates fell through the floor due to the pandemic.

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Rhonda: That has certainly helped. But living together has been, I think, a learning process for all of us.

Jennifer: Things started to get tense pretty early on. I remember you guys were hiding in your room all the time, or my husband was hiding in our bedroom. People were avoiding the common area. We weren’t talking to each other much.

Rhonda: Some of our fights have played out around parenting, since we’re helping take care of Hannah.

Jennifer: We give Hannah a lot of freedom.

Rhonda: Yes, you do. We had a new couch delivered recently, and Hannah was so excited about it she started jumping on the couch. When we got furniture in the old days, we did not jump on couches. I’m old-school compared to today’s generation. Your father and I might tell Hannah something and it’s from the way we used to parent, but today it’s totally different. Now, when your child is upset, it’s kind of “Well, I know you’re having big feelings. Let’s sit and talk about those feelings.” Thirty years ago, you’d just say, “No.” I try not to chime in.

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Jennifer: You have no poker face whatsoever, so when I’m dealing with one of Hannah’s tantrums and you’re not agreeing with how I’m dealing with it, I can definitely tell.

You’re also one of the neatest people I know. We’ve all become more conscientious about making a mess because nobody wants you coming behind us and cleaning up after us because then it makes [us] feel guilty.

Rhonda: I’m good at the guilt.

Jennifer: You are very good at the guilt.

Rhonda: I’m good at rolling my eyes and staring.

Jennifer: You’ve got this way of asking questions when really you’re giving directions. I’ll just sit down for a second and you’ll be like, “When do you think you’re going to mow the lawn?” That kind of thing. I’m like, “Oh, right now obviously.”

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Rhonda: Well, you should be used to it. You grew up that way. Your husband, not so much. I think his mom picked up for him all the time.

Jennifer: I thought about parenting a lot when you and Dad moved in, but I didn’t really come to terms with the fact that it means you always have an audience to your marriage, which can be very stressful. For instance, my husband and I love to talk about politics, and we’ll have heated discussions about politics all the time. It never really struck me as that big of a deal. But now that you and Dad are there, you’ll be like, “Gosh, you guys are getting so tense.”

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Rhonda: Meanwhile, your dad and I don’t fight usually. We try not to. If anybody’s upset, it’s “We need to go out. Let’s take a walk.” That way, we’re not on top of you and Steve if things are tense for whatever reason that day.

Jennifer: You just kind of snip at each other. Steve and I will look at each other and wink because I don’t even think you notice that you’re doing it sometimes.

Rhonda: We’ve been married 44 years.

Jennifer: Also, there has been stress there about who was going to cook and whose kitchen it was. People get territorial about their kitchen. Steve loves to cook.

Rhonda: What would he say to you? Like, “Get your mom out of that kitchen”?

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Jennifer: No. No, no, no. The most recent one was leaving pans in the oven. That drives him batty. He’s like, “There’s a whole drawer under the oven just for pans. It’s pan-shaped and everything.” And then I was like, “When the drawer for the pan is on the floor and you’ve got people who don’t bend over very well because they’re in their 70s … ”

Rhonda: Oh, no.

Jennifer: Dad also … I don’t think I’m speaking out of school saying this, but he talks a lot. He’s known for it. He’ll get in a conversation and he will just talk and talk and talk. Our family, because we know him, can say, “OK, we’re going to stop now.” But my husband—

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Rhonda: He’s too polite to do that.

Jennifer: Yeah, he doesn’t want my dad to be mad at him or anything, so he’d literally sit there and talk with him for two hours.

Rhonda: If I would catch them, I’d give the cutoff sign, like “Stop. That’s enough.”

Jennifer: Steve also grew up in a very different socioeconomic status than we did, and that has probably been one of the bigger clashes. His family was poor growing up. He suffered from food insecurity. There are certain things he’s very sensitive about that we have to really keep in mind. You treat your dogs like your kids. At the end of dinner or whatever, you give them leftovers. My husband would see steaks going to a dog and flip out. He just gets touchy about what he considers this kind of bougie way of living. And I’m like, “Sorry, dude, we’re in one of the more expensive neighborhoods in our town now, and this is who we are. Gotta get used to it.”

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I think I’ve said “We have to have a little grace for each other” more times than I ever care to remember, but that’s felt very true during the pandemic. We have to have compassion for each other. This is hard for me because I’m in the middle. You and Steve definitely talk to me instead of talking to each other.

Rhonda: I don’t always feel comfortable going to him directly.

Jennifer: As the year has gone on, I’ve realized I haven’t been as empathetic as I could be about you having to go from having your own apartment with all of your stuff to living with us. It’s not easy giving up that kind of autonomy.

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Rhonda: That was a very hard thing for me. I still have tons and tons of things that we collected for 40 years in boxes.

Jennifer: Now you’ve set up this entire bird sanctuary in our backyard. We’ve got eight feeders and a fake tree and all this stuff. We have probably literally 100 birds visit a day to eat. I think that’s helped a lot. I just decided, “Hey, whatever you want to put back there, you put back there. That’s fine.”

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Rhonda: Your father has so gotten into bird-watching now. It’s a great way to calm down. We can open the door a little and listen to all that chirping and see all the birds just starting to molt and turn colors with their spring feathers.

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I do feel like having that plot in the yard helps me feel ownership over a space. Truthfully, I think a lot of people in my generation suffer from having too much stuff that they’ve just packed and unpacked and repacked. I found that in the end, I didn’t need all this stuff.

Jennifer: Meanwhile, the idea of having a house full of even more stuff has been hard for me to get used to. But I do think we’ve gotten better. We decorated for Christmas with a lot of your things.

Rhonda: We had two trees. One tree upstairs, which was the family tree. Then we had my mauve English rose kind of stuff downstairs.

Jennifer: It was like the opposite of the Rockwell family Christmas, where the kids helped decorate the tree and everything. It’s like, “No, don’t touch it. It’s all fragile.”

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The pandemic’s been hard on everybody. I mean, it’s been hard on my marriage. But even through the tension, having all the support from you has been huge for me. Even though I’m an adult, it’s hard to escape the fact that you’re my parents. I still work to impress Dad because I’ve spent my whole life trying to impress my dad. I still want you to think I’m keeping up a good household.

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Rhonda: I think you’ve gotten so much more chill.

Jennifer: Have I?

Rhonda: You used to let things bother you a lot more. I think you have found out that there are certain things that really are not important.

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Jennifer: I’ve also realized how much I’ve learned from you. I was at [my sister’s] house the other day and we were talking, and she just stopped me and said, “What are you doing?” I realized I was picking up her kitchen because I was like, “Well, I’m not going to just sit here.” That’s something you would do.

Rhonda: Wow, I’m just waiting for my granddaughter to get like that. Bring her plate to the counter, learn which trash can’s recycling and which is just household garbage. Then I’ll know I’m good, I can relax.

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