As a true Generation X member, I sometimes write about the influence of the generation called the Baby Boom. I don’t really understand Boomers that well and I am alternately fascinated and horrified by the impact they have had on my world. I suspect that the reason I don’t connect well with them begins in my youth. My father is older – born in 1923 – and he had little in common with the parents of the kids I went to school with. My father was just shy of his sixth birthday on Black Thursday and grew up in rural
My mother was my father’s second wife. Born during the Baby Boom in
Neither one is perfect, but my father worked to make sure my mother could stay home, and my mother ended her career outside the home to raise us all.
I am doing my best to mirror this part of their life. My wife became a stay at home mom when our first son was born and continues to care for our children full-time. I strive for positions where I can set my own hours and spend afternoons with my boys. Although we occasionally speak about getting a sitter, we haven’t really looked for one in over a year; we have too much fun with the little men! We prefer to send the boys to the other end of the house with pizza and a new movie while we have a romantic dinner for two right in the coziness of our own room. No money shelled out for a sitter, no driving for hours to get to a decent restaurant, and we get the fun of the boys running in, laughing and talking about their movie when it’s all done.
Well, my reaction to this article by Adair Lara should be no surprise. The article is obviously meant to describe how hip, urbane, and modern women are breaking the traditional paradigm of matriarchal roles via their own fierce independence. In actuality, the writer and her peers are examples of how society has changed in ways I think are bad for them and our future. I understand that Ms. Lara was writing for a target audience in a magazine with a fairly tight focus, but it ends up as an unflattering look at the seeming disregard many Boomers have for their own children (especially their daughters). I also wish to discuss the possible ramifications of these changes in how the extended family interacts. Ms. Lara writes:
“One recent Saturday morning my daughter, Morgan, and her husband, Trevor, were feverishly trying to pull their new apartment together with Ryan underfoot and the baby wailing. "Can you watch the babies while we work?" Morgan called to ask…. She lives three blocks away from me in
Look, I'd love to nip over and whisper secrets into 1-month-old Maggie's ears, or to dress 2-year-old Ryan in the black leather jacket I bought her recently and take her to look for late blackberries in Golden Gate Park on my bike (with its deluxe new kid seat). But I have a job. I'm a reporter, I have two books to write, a husband who wants to go to
In short, she’s too busy to help her daughter and her son-in-law. She mentions no meetings, no pre-scheduled trips, no real plans at all. She is just, well, busy. The reaction of Ms. Lara’s daughter, and Ms. Lara’s acknowledgement of it, are very telling. Ms. Lara writes:
“…my answer. "I can't, sweetie. I'm working," I told her. "Okay, Mom, we'll manage," she said, with that briskness she uses to cover up disappointment. I put the phone down, realizing I'm going to have to live with that guilty feeling.”
First of all, it seems obvious that Ms. Lara’s daughter, Morgan, is used to being disappointed by her mother. Ms. Lara implicitly acknowledges that she has hurt her daughter’s feelings, and that Ms. Lara feels guilty about it. Her response is very telling “I’m going to have to live with that…” In other words, no actions, no making up for it, no change in her attitude or behavior at all, just ‘I’ll live with it’.
To me, guilt is an indicator of error; you feel guilty when you have done something wrong. When you are justified in doing something, guilt should not be there. I feel that somehow, somewhere, Ms. Lara and her peers realize that they are making mistakes. Ms. Lara writes:
“One friend [of Ms. Lara –ed.], also a grandmother, was recently entertaining members of her board when the call came asking her to babysit at short notice. She couldn't do it. Inevitably, her daughter was angry and fed up, saying, "You make time for other people, but not for me."
This bit shows that Ms. Lara admits that the anger and frustration of her friend’s daughter is something to be expected, a natural reaction, ‘inevitable’. But Ms. Lara has more examples! For instance, she wrote:
“…[my friend]… feels bad that, because of a long-planned book signing and a scheduled day on the bench, she couldn't drop everything for a week when her oldest daughter, Susan, had another baby…”
In other words, her friend skipped being there for the birth of her grandchild, let alone helping her own daughter after childbirth, because of a book signing and a day of work. She didn’t reschedule one and take a day off, she didn’t even work around them and see her daughter in-between appointments – she just gave it a miss. Ms. Lara goes on to quote this same friend as saying:
“…it's not important for me to come to their birthdays….” and “I'm not willing to give up my writing or my traveling.”
This is actually the key to what is (in my opinion) going on here. The Boomer generation was and is focused on self-improvement. They were trained that personal achievement, personal fulfillment, personal triumph, is the sine qua non of life. While it may simply seem that none of these women hold the needs or desires of others in any esteem (well, Ms. Lara does discuss how her husband wants to go to
Ms. Lara admits that she and her peers had mothers with a different attitude. Ms. Lara mentions that her own mother was always there for her, as was her mother’s mother. The entire article acknowledges the help and comfort that the selflessness of her mother’s and grandmother’s generations gave to her and her daughter. She then quotes her own daughter as saying:
“…I can't help wishing you could help more. I thought that was what grandmothers did.”
The use of the past tense may be telling.
How do the women of the article justify themselves and this attitude change? Ms. Lara does mention that the average age that a person becomes a grandparent today is roughly the life expectancy of someone at the beginning of the 20th Century, so attitudes toward life may have changed. She does quote a friend of hers as saying:
“…we're young enough that we still want to enjoy ourselves”
My reaction to reading this was – isn’t spending time with your grandkids ‘enjoying yourself’?! And their daughters, who are young, in need, and want some help to get by, have to wait until later in life to enjoy themselves, I suppose?
Lest you think that Ms. Lara is oblivious to how some people will take her little manifesto, she states;
“You may think I'm being churlish, but at least I'm not alone.”
This does seem to be a relatively common attitude in her generation, so we must forgive her for thinking that being in broad company makes things any better. But you don’t gain any moral currency from the company you keep.
Before I continue, let me pause and interject something. I like Ms Lara’s writing and I envy her smooth, easy style. I have read and enjoyed her column for the Chronicle and I look forward to reading her work in the future. While writing this I called her up and found her to be an approachable, warm person that seems to love to talk as much as I do.
She and I spoke briefly of the article I am commenting on and the puzzlement in her voice at the hullabaloo her article is brewing seemed genuine. I did a little fawning over her skill and she informed me she is writing a book about grandparents. She obviously loves her grandchildren and other works show that she cares for her daughter.
So let me be clear – Adair Lara is a rich, complex person (like we all are) and one article intended for a specific audience in a specific market does not an opus make. I am using her article as an illustration of what the societal changes of feminism and liberalism have wrought.
“So”, you ask, “what is so wrong with self-improvement?” Nothing, as long as we keep two things in mind. First, self-improvement does not trump obligation; and second, not everything focused on the self is improvement. As was noticed by virtually everyone while I was surviving high school, the Boomers quickly became the Me Generation focused on money, status and stuff. The focus on self improvement easily becomes the focus on the self. In the name of improving ourselves, we reject the other. A desire for self-perfection is a very small step from narcissism, and I think far too many of us (from any generation) have taken that step.
Therefore Ms. Lara and her contemporaries are rejecting the roles and actions of their mothers and grandmothers and treating the needs of their own grown children and their grandchildren as on par with trips to
This brings me to the other major point that shines through from the subtext of the article; the inevitable, unceasing focus on things. Part of Ms. Lara’s definition of herself as a grandmother was:
“…the person ready to open her fridge, her wallet, her house, and her heart to them”
When she describes her own grandmother, she discusses the things her grandmother did, like knitting and coming by at the drop of a hat. When she illustrates the differences between her generation and her grandmother’s, however, it is primarily a physical description:
“[today’s grandmother] has short red hair, a Mini Cooper, frequent-flier miles, and an iPod in her Kate Spade bag.”
A great deal of the description of her interaction with her grandchildren is also materialistic; the jacket she bought for one, the cool kid seat on her own bike, etc.
Why am I flogging this? Well, where her own family members once knitted sweaters for the children, she buys them (I assume). It is part and parcel of the rejection of the personal for the produced, the difference between connection and commodity. Stuff cannot substitute for time, and “Quality Time” is no replacement for true involvement.
Again, this is from a focus on the self. So many of us want to “have it all” that we aren’t willing to compromise. The result is not having it all, but a sort of equivalency – all that we have is equal. A whitewater rafting trip is just as important as a grandchild’s fourth birthday; a day at the golf course is as crucial to our happiness as a day at the beach with our son’s family. This focus on the internal first leads to an inability to discern differences in quality in the external. The impact our words and actions have on others is meaningless to us; only the impact of words and actions on us is important. This is the ultimate expression of selfishness wrapped in a cloak of “I’m OK, You’re OK”.
This explains the current popularity of the concept of ‘that is true for you, but not for me’. If reality is uncomfortable or inconvenient, we ignore it; if we want it to be true and it isn’t, we act as if it is true anyway. Post-modernism is the academic expression of this disregard for external differences in quality in favor of internal desires – a philosophy of self-absorption, as it were.
“OK”, you say, “what do you care? After all, if they are so self-absorbed….” Well, more and more often, this selfish desire for reality to bend to our own whims is bleeding over into politics. And politics affects me through things like, say, legislation.
But more concerning to me is…. What will become of these distant, oh-so-busy grandmothers, and their spiritual heirs in younger generations? Many of them, if not most, only had one or two children. Their own children are having even fewer kids of their own. (If you want an exhaustive look at population demographics, please see my archives). Psychologists are reporting that the daycare/preschool/public school/quality time culture is resulting in people who are incapable of forging meaningful interactions with other people (I plan to discuss this at length in an upcoming article), resulting in fewer and weaker ties between family members.
Demographics show that, unless things change rapidly, by 2100 a substantial number of people in the Western world will be third generation only children – no siblings, no aunts or uncles, and no cousins. The two-income family with high divorce rates will almost certainly be surpassed by the never-married single mother as the primary family type, meaning that many of these young adults will have a family that consists of a mother and a grandmother. Period. They will have been placed in daycare at an age of 6 weeks, transitioned to pre-school at age 3, and the public school bus will have taken them to after-school daycare or activities until age 18, when they left to live at college. This article is part of the evidence that many of them will have little, if any, interaction with their grandmothers in a manner that differs from their interactions with their largely-absent working mothers. Indeed, their grandmothers will almost certainly be seen much less frequently and regularly than their mothers, as evidenced by the culture we see reflected in Ms. Lara’s article.
So; a future with almost non-existent family ties.
Social isolation is, bluntly, chronic loneliness. Usually associated with the disabled or the elderly, in fact it can exist in anyone who lives alone or is alone for long periods. Social isolation can lead to mental illness and physical degradation. And it seems to have a more pronounced effect on women. There is some evidence that family connections are more important than social connections in avoiding social isolation.
Let me end with a question: are these new, hip grandmothers who need a penciled-in appointment to see their grandchildren dooming themselves to an early, lonely death?