I have always wondered if a sweary, loud American is what my in-laws envisioned for their youngest son. Over the three years I’ve known them, we’ve always got on well, and even after spending whole weeks in their company, we’ve made it through without any major hitches. Now, though, in the midst of this pandemic, we are stress testing whether or not we truly like each other in perhaps the most intense way possible: living together in isolation for the foreseeable future.
If you had told me six months ago that this would be my reality, I would have asked why my friends and family had disowned me and how both my partner and I had lost our jobs. But for six weeks I have been in rural Scotland with my partner’s parents, three dogs and a cat who is my nemesis. This is six times longer than any amount of time I’ve spent here previously. Living with my in-laws at 25 is a fate I have hoped to avoid my entire life. My Greek childhood, where I saw nearly every Greek kid my age growing up in the same house as their grandmother, meant that living with your mother-in-law in particular was a cautionary tale.
Like everyone else, my life has drastically changed – but instead of spending my time making sourdough and having drinks over Zoom, I’m discussing pension plans and the logistics around sourcing seeds for my in-laws’ new allotment. I am now someone who watches Britain’s Got Talent, near-daily episodes of The Chase and, for the first time in ten years, a Julian Fellowes period drama (which, in fairness, everyone in this house hated). Rather than bingeing on Netflix reality shows, I binge-watch my father-in-law’s slideshows of family holidays. We are all up and moving by 8am and only spend our working days apart, otherwise sharing meals, the television and every free moment in each other’s company.
While this may seem a slightly monotonous schedule, the insane circus of animals makes all of our lives – not to exaggerate – a living nightmare. The youngest dog is an energetic one-year-old who, despite his size, is often found jumping on the kitchen table and is known for tearing the entire front off my brother-in-law’s sweater (who is 6ft 3in and, crucially, was standing at the time). The seemingly sweet, gentle 15-year-old Lhasa Apso is a ticking timebomb, ready to blow at any moment. The cat, my nemesis, knows how to open doors on her own and hates all the dogs, plus most of the humans. My sweet dog, Martha, submits to all these pets and is often found crying in the corner over a stolen toy. It is rare for us to have a moment where at least one animal isn’t being tethered indoors on their lead.
Despite the pets, I have found living with my in-laws to be mostly painless. One unexpected side-effect is how much it’s made me miss my own family. Being around a set of loving parents is reassuring during a time as unsettling as this, but it makes you acutely aware that your own mother is across an ocean, and you have no idea when you’ll see her. My common refrain of “they’re only a flight away” has shown itself to be a flimsy idea. I’m now ingrained in a constant battle of trying not to think about how this may last another year, how my mom has a compromised immune system, and that she lives in the US, a country whose president is treating this pandemic as if it is a joke. While I’ve had moments of feeling out of my mind, I’ve gained a solid understanding that I like my in-laws (I’m not saying this because I know I’ll still be living with them after they read this column). “You know, it’s actually fine,” is the response I’ve given to all of my friends who have whispered the inevitable question over video chats and phone calls. They’re considerate, they respect boundaries, and are quite fun.
Being in lockdown with your in-laws is not something I would encourage everyone to trial, however. Had the pandemic not happened, I would have said it’s insane. But I know that for the rest of my life, I’ll never get such a strange, unexpected chance to get to know two people who are such an integral part of it.
Next week: Tracey Thorn
This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave