REFERENCE POINTS FOR GRATITUDE
We may trace gratitude to three sources: to current ideas about honor that derive from a moral frame of reference, to ideas about current realities that derive from a pragmatic frame of reference, and to precedents that derive from a historical ftше of reference. In describing how gender codes have a ripple effect on marriage, we have already talked of a moral frame of reference. Lets turn now to the pragmatic and historical ones.
To apply a pragmatic frame of reference, we invoke ideas about how common or rare a desirable attitude or action is within a contemporary marketplace of ideas and actions. For example, women married to egalitarian husbands nearly always mentioned how lucky they were to have a husband so unusually supportive of their work, so unusually willing to share the load at home, so unusually good with the children. Compared with other women, such women felt they had it good. When men spoke of luck, which they did far less, it was usually relative to that of other men, not women.
These luck-comparisons fit a certain pattern. When a woman tried to persuade her husband to do more in the home, she compared her husband to other men who did more. Husbands compared themselves to other men who did less. Underlying both comparisons, however, was a question of the gender marketplace: What was the going rate for male housework? For pitching in with the childrearing? For support for a wife’s work? For fidelity? Financial support?
Some working mothers also felt grateful for being shielded against the disapproval of kin or neighbors. Many told “shielding stories”—stories of
being protected from the dishonor of breaking the old gender code. One working mother was protected by a maid from the critical eye of a watchful neighbor. Another was protected by a co-worker from the disapproval of a boss. Another had earned an advanced degree in nursing much against the advice of her mother, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law. Her husband sometimes shielded her against this hostile climate of opinion. As she recounted appreciatively:
Once when I was at the library working on a lecture, my husband’s mother dropped by and asked where I was. Evan told her I was out shopping for [oey’s clothes. He covered for me. Otherwise she would have been very critical of me for leaving Evan and Joey on a weekend like that.
When the climate of opinion is so unfavorable to women’s ambitions, some unusual husbandly support becomes an extra chip in the marital bargain. This husband offered more than the "going rate” о I advantages a man could offer. So his wife felt lucky.
We may also invoke a historical frame of reference. Over all, more women than men among these Bay Area couples in the 1980s mentioned feeling "lucky” about some aspect of their work and family arrangement. They felt lucky to have a good babysitter, an understanding boss, a cooperative husband, a healthy child. A number said they were lucky because they needed so little sleep. In many ways, their husbands seemed objectively luckier. For only slightly longer hours, they earned two-thirds more. They did much less housework and enjoyed more leisure. Were they to divorce, they were less likely to become poor and more likely to remarry. How ironic, then, that women talked about luck and men did not. Why?12
Perhaps women unconsciously compared themselves favorably to yet more oppressed women of previous eras—their mothers and grandmothers, who had still fewer opportunities and rights than they. While many men have moved up the class ladder, men as a gender have lost certain privileges their fathers and grandfathers enjoyed. Relative to men in the past, they may feel unlucky. To put it another way: if life is divided into a female domestic realm and a male public realm, if the female realm is devalued relative to the male, and if over the last half century females have been entering the male realm and males are encouraged to enter the female realm, these changes are likely to feel to women like moving up and to men like moving down. So history, too, provides a reference point for gratitude.
We may receive a gift from a person and feel grateful or receive a gift from "life in general” and feel lucky. In either case the gift is a profoundly social affair. For to perceive a gift as a gift is to hold up a context against which we appraise the present moment. This context is partly moral: “How lucky I am compared to what die cultural code leads me to expect.” It is pardy pragmatic: “How lucky I am compared to what is available to me.” It
is partly historical: “How lucky I am compared to people of my kind in the past.4 We bring to bear these three frames of reference upon the ongoing stream of experience, and the comparison of frame to reality can produce a series of moments of gratitude.
This analysis of gratitude is not an alternative to an analysis based on power. It highlights just how deep inequalities of power go into emotional life. Power does not work around the feeling of gratitude; it works th rough it by establishing moral, pragmatic, and historical frames of reference which lower the expectations of women and raise those of men. Gratitude tells a similar story in relations between people of different races, social classes, and nations. In years to come we can, through them, look for the cultural ripple effects of globalization itself. Hundreds of moments in the gift exchange will tell the story.
Social trends alter the moral, pragmatic, and historical frames of reference couples bring to bear on all that happens to them. If marriage is the shock absorber of a strain between cultural and economic realities and between women’s and men’s viewpoints, then we need to understand “marital” problems in more broadly social ways. Certainly marriage is a union of two personalities: there’s good chemistry and bad. But something fundamentally social bedevils many modern marriages as well. For marriage is also a joining of two—often different, usually shifting—stances toward gender. Stances toward gender, in turn, affect what feels like a gift and a token of love. Much of marital dialogue is trying to work out just how much a stint of housework, disapproval-shielding, or “taking it from the boys about your wife’s higher salary” counts in the currency of gratitude.
The strain in modern marriage may have less to do with “personal hangups” than with the ripple effect of larger social trends upon the understanding of a gift. Daily realities strain the traditional economy of gratitude— because most women have to work and come to want to be valued for it. At the same time, the lower pay scales for women’s jobs mean strains for egalitarian marriages. For traditional and egalitarian couples alike, then, the notion of a gift is in flux.
The happiest of the twojob marriages I observed shared a common understanding of what a gift would be, and their understanding also fit the current realities of their lives: even highly traditional men in happy marriages did not come home, sit at the dining room table, and feel they “would be grateful” and “would feel loved” only if’ dinner were waiting on it—for often it wasn’t. Each found feasible equivalents for roses and apple pie. Happy egalitarian couples sought out the social support to fully internalize the new gender rules. Most important, they did not make do with less gratitude: they found a way to exchange more gifts on new terms and in this way solved the problem of “The Gift of the Magi.”