Generational Guilt Coupons
“Don’t tell my mom we booked EVEN MORE SPACE”
How many reluctant rather forced traditions do we have out of respect for a parent? Going further, out of respect for what that parent would think their deceased parent would think? Think of all the societal conventions that were once so sacrosanct that to live in any other manner would be Hester Prynne-like scandalous. Extremely devout beliefs by previous generations that were up there with religion, which is likely a good analogy to how they would hold up over time. Cohabitation before marriage, sex before marriage, the utter definition of marriage, gender roles, stay-at-home Dads, assigning a title to said stay-at-home Dad, calling that stay-at-home Dad Mr. Mom with reckless abandon to how one identifies.
These forces seem to be as powerful in ones decision-making as they are outdated. Other than the obvious in terms of ceremoniously “settling down” with courtship, I personally find this to be the case when it comes to spending money. To embellish the notion with an example of how my mind usually works, in self-directed made up old movie scenes, I think of the Don-Draper era ad-executive who wants to keep up with the Jones’s with that new Cadillac purchase, but then is flooded with memories of his depression-era father doing milk routes for pennies and urging him to be conservative. I think of the WWII veteran walking with his grandson down an avenue in the West Village and seeing vegan-friendly food shops interspersed between brightly-colored fitness bootcamp studios and rolling his eyes. The well-worn “society has gotten soft” or “in my day” adage is beyond a cliché at this point and has been around ever since Starbucks. It matters less that we consider senior-citizens as thrifty tippers and more about how we internalize if we’re living in some pre-concepted generational approval system.
I believe this is so top-of-the mind for me lately because for the first time in a lot of our lifetimes we’re seemingly hit with a very real inflationary spiral. Regardless of how nice one dresses or what fancy gym they go to, the majority of us are used to being somewhat *comfortable*. Meaning, credit card bills and stopping at the gas station wasn’t filled with as much anxious analysis as it is now. Looking at housing prices now is like parsing through Baltic Avenue Monopoly funny money listings. “Who are these people paying all cash!” My point being, its the first time we can truly visualize that seemingly absurd comparison of “My grandfather buying his Manhattan townhouse for $50,000.” I find myself questioning my weekly hotel housekeeping tip. Is $5 now cheap if its literally one gallon on the likely long drive the staff has to do to fancy Westchester County, NY? Unlike the exact young parents that get the derision I’m referring to from older generations and won the bidding war in Rye, NY or Darien, CT, the nice Marriott crew likely doesn’t live in these nearby “tony” towns. My point is now, as I get older and as I’m no longer “the young generation” and I see culture flying by me as fast as prices are rising, I for the first time can see how my parents would look at these price levels. Not a lot of us have gotten pay raises, and yet grocery stores and open houses do not care.
Also on a personal level in thinking of “how things used to be,” I have small kids at home and am constantly begrudgingly comparing myself to dads of previous generations in terms of children supervision. This is not a good quality as it breeds some resentment and I want to stop it. Yet, older movies/period TV shows and every single phone call with my parents seems to reiterate the fact of how INVOLVED fathers are now. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it means that the fruits of gender equality are FINALLY seeing a lot more women blossom in careers. It doesn’t fall on the man anymore to just “make the money” and then get his whiskey with coworkers before hopping on the metro-north home with the kids already tended to in bed. If anything, this should make fathers feel less entitled, as economic burdens are shared. Yet, given how illusory money can be at times, it perversely can make them feel even more expectant, because no one is around for them to walk into that “hot meal ready when I got home” the way it was for their grandfather. It’s an endless loop and as futile/persistent as both parents rightfully feeling they are the ones that need a break, regardless of responsibilities.
As usual, I have veered dramatically off course with my stupid stock-footage movie references. I think a concrete recent example will qualify the above. My sister is getting married next month in Florida. A decent journey from Boston but nothing dramatic. My wife tends to be an anxious mother and is abundantly thoughtful about both the needs of our health-challenged four year old son and the obvious logistics of a ten-month old daughter. In terms of child-care/accommodations, the “old guard” would just “make it work” — perhaps taking turns with relatives during the on-site ceremonies to corral the gaggle of little tikes. Five sleeping to a bed? Yeah, that works. Modern day mothers don't work this way. There are (justified) special dietary needs, a seeming truckload of more allergies of late, and set schedules that if broken, will cause a world of hurt for future sleep patterns. How would a child get their afternoon nap in with all the ruckus? (deep sarcasm) So, needless to say, we have gone through every imaginable scenario under the sun for childcare so that we can be present for my sister. At first I thought we would perhaps keep them at home with my mother-in-law, but my wife feels guilty. She’s getting older and frail and my four year old makes a bull in a china shop look like a lap dog. Maybe someone in Florida, a friend of a friend? This wouldn’t get the wife vetting process, naturally. They would need to stay with us of course OR we would need to get them a room at this schmanzy $500/a night factory indicative of the modern-day wedding industry boom. To cut to the chase (sorry), my wife wants to fly someone she knows down with us and stay with us. Paying by the day. It’s like writing a check for $2k to make a problem go away, yet have that problem even more in your space.
Upon hearing this, my mom was in disbelief. It was if we were in the Gilded Age and an entire staff/team of maids would attend with us as well to serve us our meals. Using her words carefully, all she said was “People are going to wonder what Brett does!” I mean, I get it. It is insane. But its the compromises we now make. Involved parents that pay for (slight) peace of restless minds. Because, the truth is, our parents do have the money for the upgrade, or the dessert, or the perk. But it’s how it makes them feel in avoiding this luxury that makes it even more indulgent than taking part. Their parents would be proud. They are saving more for their bequest and legacy. How it impacts us is a great motivator. Younger generations will always blur the line between humble aspirations and instant gratification. The only thing that will be constant is it gets more rigid as you get older. There will never be a “right answer” and you likely will not be living on the street. So, enjoy your life, and be the one that buys your parents that round. Don’t idolize Don Draper though.