LIGHT AND HEAVY MEANINGS: GRATITUDE TO NURTURANCE
Sometimes a “mis-giving" stays light, in the sense that a missed exchange does not make one or another person feel unloved. At other times, it cuts dangerously deep into signs by which partners know they are loved. Consider a light “mis-giving” between Peter and Nina Loyola, married twelve years, the parents of two. Peter was a sensitive, articulate man who runs a bookstore. Nina, a tall, lively woman, was a rising star in the personnel division of a large and expanding company, і. ike the Delacortes, they began their courtship on traditional terms. But as Nina’s company grew and opportunities for women with MBAs opened up, Nina was promoted and promoted again, until she began to earn three times Peter’s salary.
Proud of her career, Nina was glad to contribute her salary to the family coffers. She was glad to enable Peter to do work he loved, running an innovative bookstore, rather than slogging away at a more lucrative job in real estate. As Nina commented, “My salary and benefits make it possible for Peter to take some risks, starting the store. I’m really glad he can do it.” In essence, Nina said, “Here you are Peter; here’s my gift to you.”
Peter knew Nina meant her salary as a gift. But he couldn’t accept it. Peter was glad to do work he loved and appreciated what her salary allowed—a down payment on a new home, a second car, and a private education for their eldest daughter. But, as much as he loved Nina, he couldn’t quite say “thanks.” That was because Nina was giving him the sort of gift he thought he should be giving her.
Peter felt ashamed that Nina earned so much more than he did. What was the source of this shame? Peter didn’t compete with Nina, nor did he sense her competing with him. He genuinely appreciated Nina’s talents and accomplishments. As he put it, “Not all women could do as well as my wife has.” He also appreciated her physical appearance. “She’s a good-looking woman,” he volunteered. “I love seeing her in the morning, her hair washed
and shiny, when she’s all fresh for the day.” He wanted his daughter to be “just like her.*
Peter felt proud for and of Nina, but he couldn’t share in her new status.
He couldn’t feel “given to” by her. So Nina could not give her new status to him. Indeed, her rise in status reduced his—not in Nina’s eyes, but in the eyes of his relatives, neighbors, and old friends—especially the men. Through Peter, with Peter’s consent, these imagined others discredited Nina’s gift. For they judged his honor by the old code.
Far from receiving Nina’s salary as a gift, they both treated it as a miserable secret to manage. They didn’t tell Peter’s parents—his father, Peter explained, “ would die,” Nor did they tell Nina’s parents, because “she even out-eams her father.” They didn’t tell Peter’s high school buddies back in his rural hometown in Southern California because “I’d never hear the end "of it.” Her salary was treated like a rotting fish. As Nina explained in a near – whisper, “I was interviewed for an article in Business Week, and I had to call the reporter back and ask him please not to publish my salary. When he interviewed me, I was a little proud of saying what my salary was. Then I thought, ‘I don’t want that in there—because of Peter.’" The taboo on talk of Nina’s salary extended to Peter and Nina themselves. As Nina noted, “After a while we stopped talking about my salary. We still don’t.”
Another matter diminished Nina’s gift. Her salary might make her expect more help from Peter at home. As Nina reported:
Occasionally I’ve wondered if [my salary] bothered him. Because if we’re having a disagreement over something, he sometimes indicates he thinks I in acting high and mighty, like “Who do you think you are?7′ I say, “You never used to say that.” He says, “I do think you’ve gotten much more assertive [nervous giggle] than you used to be.” I do think Peter might equate my assertiveness with my income. I don’t know in my own mind if that has anything to do with it. Or if 1 was just tired of doing all the housework.
If Nina’s greater salary meant Peter would have to do more work at home, well, what kind of a gift was that?
In the climate of opinion he sensed himself to be living in, Peter felt like a “one in a hundred” kind of man. For, as he said with great feeling, “Most men couldn’t take it if their wives out-earned them this much!” They both felt Nina was lucky to be married to such an unusually understanding man.
So the gift, as Peter saw it, was not from Nina to Peter, but from Peter to Nina. Nina, too, felt lucky because only with such an unusually understanding man could she be both successful at work and happily married.
Nina gave Peter the kind of gift it was a “man’s place” to give a woman. Peter wanted to give Nina his own high salary and the choice of whether or not she should work. But Nina didn’t need that choice. Given her skills and opportunities, she would always choose to work. Instead, Nina really wanted
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Peter to share the housework and childcare. As it was» Nina had to ask and remind Peter to help. His participation was not a settled matter. Because she had to ask, Peter’s help did not feel to Nina like much of a gift. Given Peter’s shame about her salary, though, Nina did not want to push Peter about the housework. So she rarely asked, doing the lion’s share of it herself. Nina made up for out-earning her husband by working a double day.10 In this way, the old gender code reduced the value of new’ economic opportunity for women and introduced a power imbalance in their marital economy of gratitude. In the end, Peter benefited from Nina’s salary. But he also benefited from a second order of gifts his wife owed him because she had given him the first gift—an apology expressed in housework.
Given how traditional most men are, the “new man” could make a fine marital bargaining chip out of his sympathy with the new code, or even his attempt at sympathy. Peter gave Nina an unusual amount of personal support for her motherhood and her career. What he did not give her was an acceptance of her career’s public reflection on him. Curiously, Nina was “doing it alT—being the prime provider and housekeeper too—and feeling grateful as well. We have here the emotional underbelly of gender ideology—not, as we might imagine, in its more popular form of anger and resentment, but in its more common form of apology and gratitude.
Nina and Peter talked to each other in ways that reduced the importance of this mis-giving. They sidestepped the issue and exchanged many other gifts. Nina also came to sympathize with Peter’s view of the matter, so that they formed a united cultural baseline, according to which Peter’s mis-giv – ing was not a marital problem, but only Nina’s personal problem of “role conflict," her personal weariness from too much to do.
In other marriages, mis-givings run deeper. Seth Stein, for example, was a hard-driving internist who worked eleven hours a day, and, three days a week, twelve. “I finally arranged to come home at 6:30," he explained, “when I realized і had missed the first two years of my son’s growing up." Officially Seth supported his wife Jessica’s career. As he commented, “I’ve always known my wife was a career lady.” He also believed that women in general had as much place in public life as men. But it was also dear that his outward rhetoric cloaked deep and different feelings on the matter. Seth was an egalitarian on the surface and a traditional underneath.11 He acted and felt as though his work mattered far more than Jessica’s. This was because the reputational talk of fellow doctors mattered dearly to Seth and to such doctors—themselves career believers. It did not matter how many times he read “The Three Little Pigs” to his son. For Jessica, he thought, it must be different.
But Jessica had earned her own way through medical school and now practiced as an internist. To a certain degree, Seth felt proud of his wife; he didn’t want her to be a housewife, or even a secretary. But the egalitarian
code stopped at midpoint; he resisted the rest of its logic. His wife would be a professional, like himself. But her work would not be as important to the family or to himself as his work was to her and the family.
Because his work took priority over hers, its rewards—nurturance and relaxation—took priority over hers too. As Seth drove home from a grueling day at the clinic, he fantasized a fresh cooked meal, wine, the children in bed, and from Jessica a mood of open appreciation of his work, of him. Much to Jessica’s dismay, Seth sought no exit from his extraordinary hours and insisted on thinking of them as his gift to the family. In return, he wanted this gift—this homecoming—from her.
For her part, Jessica wanted Seth to share the work at home with her. Failing that, she wanted Seth to feel bad about not sharing. Even if his career could not permit it, she wanted Seth to want share. Failing that, she wanted Seth to set aside his concern for his own work, so he could appreciate Лег parenting. In contrast to the traditional Carmen, Jessica most of all wanted Seth to appreciate the sacrifice she was making—time away from her career in order for him to go full steam ahead in his. As Seth explained:
fessica has been very disappointed about my inability to do more in terms of the childrearing and my not doing 50-50. She says I don’t do 50-50, that I have left the childrearing to her. Her career has suffered. She cut twice as much time, instead of me cutting time back from my career. She complains that I’m not more like some imaginary other men or men she knows. Such a man does take time with his children because he wants to and knows how important it is. I don’t do enough parenting. So she’s disappointed in me for not doing my share. On the other hand, she understands the spot I’m in. So she holds it in, until she gets good and pissed and then she lets me have it.
Their gratitude clash extended to nurturance. I asked Seth what he was not getting from Jessica that he wanted. He answered ruefully:
Nurturing. She don’t take care of me enough. But the deal was so straightforward from day one that I ’m not bitter. But when I do reflect on it, that’s the thing I reflect on. I ain’t got a wife taking care of me. Every once in a while I will be upset about it and long for someone who might be sitting around waiting to make me comfortable wThen I get home. Instead, Jessica needs her back massaged just as much as 1 do.
Seth could not make a first claim to nurturance. But he badly wanted that first claim, though he was not convinced he had the right to want it. This was the first point in the interview at which he broke into ungrammatical English, as if to distance himself from what he was saying, as if to say "someone less educated, someone not me is talking.”
Jessica proposed a different bargain: 1 If you help me at home, I will feel grateful for that and love you.” Through their different stances on the gender code, they created a deep fracture in their understanding about what
was and was not a gift. Both felt they were thanklessly giving gifts that were continually lost on the other. As Seth finally put it, “I work, and I work and I work, and I come home to what? Nothing." As Jessica put it, “I’m making sacrifices he doesn’t even see.” Each felt short-changed. Disappointed and deprived of “gifts,” each now resented the other. In another, yet more adversarial marriage, a similar husband explained miserably:
I could dig a twenty-foot ditch and she would not notice. Barbara complains 1 am not doing my share. We get into arguments. We are both equally convinced that we are doing our share of chores around the house and Jude [their two-year-old]—in a sense—is considered a chore. One or the other of us is always thinking we’re getting ripped off.
Surely part of the cause of the problem in marriages such as that of Seth and Jessica lies in some early injury to human character, an early sense of insufficiency that projects itself onto the daily details of adult life. But misgivings also seem to occur to couples for whom this does not apply. The larger problem lies in “The Gift of the Magi.”