There really is a gulf separating those of us who live in my vague Generational X-ish sphere and Boomers like my dad, and the chasm between us seems virtually impassable. But I suspect this impassability has more to do with the comfort of familiar nostalgic narratives than anything real.
On the phone with my dad Sunday morning while he waited in Nebraska for a flight to get him back to California after a series of snow delays, our conversation turned to my sister and her husband calling my father for more babysitting duties.
Shorter Dad, the Boomer: Young folks today with families are shirking their responsibilities and have too much free time.
Shorter Ding, the Gen X-er: Young families/single people today have totally different (and in crucial ways, more demanding) responsibilities than the ones you guys had back in the 70s. Life is different now so don’t expect solutions to be the same as back in the day.
And this is where the dangerous power of nostalgia comes in. I love and esteem my dad in a huge way, but there are some crucial gaps in his memory. Gone is the fact that he and mom didn’t have an extended network of family around them – there were no cousins, aunts or uncles to take up any family slack (which isn’t usually the norm), so he and mom going it alone was a matter of necessity rather than choice; gone is the fact that mom was a secretary and he was a civil servant, so their professional obligations were very different than the ones my sister, brother in law and I have; gone is the fact that the cost of living/raising a family was considerably lower then than now; gone is the memory that my sister and I, through our elementary and junior high lives, had babysitters to watch us after school until our parents came home from work, though it’s somewhat comforting to think that mom and dad provided every moment of care themselves; also gone is the uncomfortable fact that, at the height of his pastorate, my father spent 90% of his time away from the home and family.
(Also forgotten: the bulk of their parenting advice came from our hardened, cranky, arid as Texas, Depression era Baptist pastor whose relationship with his own offspring was, shall we say, less than ideal.)
Nostalgia, however, paints a golden patina over all of these potholes of memory until the surface looks smooth and glossy. Instead of highlighting how he and mom operated in a parenting context that reflected their social and economic context, their childrearing is a simple story of two parents stalwartly facing the music and going it alone because, naturally, that’s what parents do.
But perhaps my sister and I are guilty of the same kind of nostalgia, too. Perhaps, in our mind's eye, we have a comfortable idea of what grandparents are: accessible, doting on the grandchildren, service-oriented. But that's not who my father is at all. Like others of his generation, he has a very fixed outside life from family. There's a strong feeling of "I put in my time and now it's Me time." Who can argue with that? What right do we have to impose on what little time he has left? (heh.) The grandparents now aren't the grandparents of whenever: they get depressed, restless, horny, impatient and, frankly, don't want to relive the years of raising kids.
My father teaches, goes on conferences, counsels, and preaches. (Sometimes he even goes out on a date.) And he deliberately bought a car that won't fit a child's car seat, let alone two. Deep down, the single childless woman in me respects his independence, applauding and encouraging it.
So if we are more similar than we think, why can't our generations keep nostalgia from clouding our perceptions of one another?
(next: take this job and shove it!)