Diary of a Marriage: Help Wanted?

When it comes to help from the parents, how much is too much?

Photography courtesy of Hemera.

Right before J. and I got married, we bought our Starter Home—a tiny, just-for-two townhouse that we decided we’d live in for a few years before eventually upgrading to a Family Home. The main benefit of the Starter Home was the fact that we could afford it, all on our own. We were desperately trying to establish boundaries with both sets of parents; accepting the few thousand dollars each set offered would open the floodgates, we thought, for unsolicited advice and opinions on how we live, decorate, even clean. No way, we decided, forming a unified front. We’d do it on our own.

And financially, we have. But every so often, the issue of parental help creeps up—in the form of mountains of  leftovers pressed into our hands as we leave, or his mom offering to whip up last-minute appetizers for my monthly cooking club, or my dad stuffing a $20 bill into my purse.  It leaves us wondering: Where do we draw the line?

J. does this thing when we go out to dinner with our parents; we call it “the reach,” and usually it’s done after we’ve exchange a knowing glance across the table, right after the bill comes. J. reaches into his back pocket, leaning over in his seat a little too far and yanking out his wallet a little too emphatically. It’s a bit of a show, the reach, because we know it’s futile. As soon it’s detected by a parental figure, it’s waved off, triggering an awkward, half-hearted argument: “Are you sure?” “Yes, don’t be silly,” “But let us chip in…” “No, no, it’s fine. You can get us next time.” Next time, of course, they’ll pay again, and we’ll sheepishly thank them and promise to return the favor.

Once alone in the car, J. and I rehash it: Did we put up enough of a fight? Can we still be considered functioning adults if our parents paid for dinner five times in a row? Sometimes we firmly decide beforehand that we’re paying; we vow to fight ‘til the bitter end, or at least until the waiter takes our debit card. This works every once in a while, though I notice our parents look worriedly at each other across the table, wishing they hadn’t ordered the filet mignon.

When we were first married, J.’s mother offered to make us dinners a few nights a week. “You both are so busy,” she said. “And I don’t mind.” I knew she was being honest, too: She wouldn’t mind. In fact, she’d love it. Plus, J. argued, I still hadn’t managed to figure out how to turn on our gas stove without nearly lighting my eyebrows on fire. What was the harm in a few dinners?

“Absolutely not,” I said. “We’ll starve before we have our parents bringing us over meals.” And, though we subsisted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and pasta and rice for some time, we eventually figured it out. What I did accept, though, was an offer from J.’s mom to teach me how to make her perfectly tangy tomato sauce for my monthly cooking club. She gamely walked me through the whole process — we wore aprons and sipped wine — and it was one of those tender moments that I probably won’t ever forget. I guess there’s something to that “teach a man to fish” wisdom.

The real test came, though, very recently, when J.’s little VW finally puttered to its death. Just after I’d convinced myself that a family car doesn’t mean the instantaneous death of our youth,we received an interesting proposition: Rather than buy a large car for the family we’re not planning to have for several years, his parents would give us their hardly-used car. It was too big for them; they’d been planning to get a new one anyway. They’d sell J.’s car, and we’d give them some money on top of that. We’d be getting a deal, and saving money. J. warily presented the option to me: “Whatever you want to do, babes.” I rolled the idea around for a while. It made sense to save the money now, but were we caving too easily? (“We won’t accept freebie meals, but a sweet deal on a car? Done!”) But if we didn’t accept it, were we shooting ourselves in the foot?

In the end, we accepted. We told ourselves that by doing so, we’d have more savings for our Family House, so we’ll be able to buy it all by ourselves. I guess the line between helpfulness and overindulgence is always changing.

Plus, we can always pay for dinner.

Do you and your fiancé or husband accept help from either of your parents? How do you decide when to accept and say thank you—or politely decline and slog through whatever financial struggles you’re having yourselves?


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