So it’s taken me this long to realize the ways that economic issues are generational. It started last fall, when I was talking to my mom about Occupy Wall Street. I loved how different versions of the Occupy movement dealt with different economic issues, issues that varied according to region as well as the political drives of the members. I felt for the kids in New York and college towns across the country, the kids with BAs (or MAs or PhDs), tens of thousands of dollars in school loans, and no job prospects.With a different role of the dice (or without my willingness to move to Alabama), I could have been in the same boat.
When I saw Shopgirl, the most appealing part of Steve Martin’s whole affair with Claire Danes was the scene where he paid off her student loans.
My mom understood the older protestors in Florida and Nevada, people who bought into the American dream in the form of real estate. She really is in the same boat, not underwater but paying two mortgages. She and my stepdad retired to Florida, but their house in Illinois has been on the market for longer than either of them could imagine.
I thought of them in March when Paul and I saw the revival of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. Willy Loman and his wife Linda constantly talk about the house. When will we pay it off? Why did they hem us in with these apartment buildings? Willy can’t bear to kill himself until after they make the last house payment. “We’re free and clear.”
I’m moving into my first non-parental house ever at the end of June. We’re redoing the floors, painting the walls Silver Screen and Aqua Whisper, buying a new refrigerator. As a long-time dorm- and apartment-dweller, this all seems shockingly permanent. Are we becoming Willy and Linda? Am I taking on that long-suffering-wife mantle, preparing for that time 30 years down the road when I remind my ungrateful kids that “attention must be paid”? It’s a weird feeling, moving consciously from one phase of life to the next.
But I’d thought about that part of “The American Dream” already. What struck me this time around was how Willy’s kids were getting shafted. We see these grown men sleeping at home. One of them, Hap, is a successful businessman who can’t quite move up the corporate ladder because he keeps sleeping with his bosses’ fiancees and wives. The other, Biff, is one of those guys for whom high school was the best time of his life. (I always feel sorry for those guys.) He failed a math class, bailed on summer school, and drifted for the next sixteen years. I know Philip Seymour Hoffman’s a great actor, but Andrew Garfield really killed me as Biff. He had the James Dean/Marlon Brando tear in his voice. He bought his dad’s BS about charm and being well-liked and being a perfect physical specimen as the sine qua non of American culture. Now he’s an insecure kleptomaniac and his nerdy next-door neighbor is arguing a case before the Supreme Court.
It’s hard for me to imagine how parents would feel with a son like that in 1949. But now, 40 percent of young adults move back in with their parents. I’ve been trying to figure out what difference this will make in terms of development, family structures, and the individuation of the self. Will these kids all end up like the one on the Time magazine cover, suckling at their mothers’ teats until everyone looks away in disgust.
Or maybe that’s just my (personal? generational?) reaction. I’ve tried to think about attachment parenting as existing on a continuum with the Badinter/Mad Men-style detachment parenting on the other end. I have no idea where I’ll land until I try it. But it does seem like the attention to children can be read both as an anxiety about economic opportunities later in life and as a swing of the generational pendulum, as Lee Skallerup points out.
I must admit I’ve read less about attachment parenting than I have about the “helicopter parent” phenomenon, especially as it interferes with college-level teaching. Terry Castle wrote an article decrying the closeness between parents and children that she sees in her students, arguing The Case for Breaking Up with Your Parents. We need to separate ourselves from our families, she says, in order to understand ourselves as individuals. Huck Finn did it, Dorothy did it, and by gum so should her Stanford undergrads.
Of course, that separation is more difficult to come by when Americans under 25 have an 18% unemployment rate. Quoting Charles Zigmund in the comments:
The constriction of economic opportunity caused by the Great Recession may necessitate children remaining closer to their parents today than in the past. After all, many are returning to live with their parents after college, as they can’t find work and yet still have to begin to pay back their enormous loans. This may promote a closeness that earlier recent generations, with their better economic prospects, could afford to avoid.
So this is the first Mother’s Day I’ve spent as a woman who wants to be a mother. Not abstractly, not someday, but soon. I think about what it means to put down roots. I feel grateful for my husband who hyphenated his last name, for the ability to afford electrical work and Silver Screen paint. And so the American Dream gets handed down from mother to daughter.