THE ECONOMY OF GRATITUDE
A person is usually grateful to receive a gift* But what is a gift? The question has two answers. In the conventional sense, a gift is an object or service freely given, even if it’s expected—a Christmas present, for example. But in the emotional sense on which I focus here a gift must seem extra—something beyond what we normally expect.1 The broader culture helps fix in the individual a mental baseline against which any action or object seems extra and thus like a gift Changes in the broader culture also shift the many tiny mental baselines that undergird a person’s sense of a gift. The sense of genuine giving and receiving is a part of love. So it is through the idea of a gift that we use culture to express love.
In The Gift Marcel Mauss explores how, in pre-state societies, one person gave gifts on behalf of his tribe or village to another who received them on behalf of his tribe or village—gifts in the first sense of the word. The Big Man of a Micronesian tribe might, for example, give a basket of cowry shells to the Big Man in another tribe as a gift from one group to the other. In such societies, the gift exchange functioned as a form of diplomacy and carried with it strong obligations to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. In modern society, the state takes on much of the function of gift exchange Mauss talks about. Gift giving, as we usually think about it, is between private individuals and gifts carry personal meanings. But my point is that, even in individualistic market societies, the personal meanings of gifts are surprisingly cultural.
Take modem marriage or its equivalent. In light of changing cultural ideas about manhood and womanhood, what does a wife expect from her husband? What does she take as a gift and so feel moved to feel grateful to him for? What does he want to be thanked for? What really feels to the husband like a gift from her? Is the gift she wants to give the one he wants to receive? Much depends on how cultural currents influence their “marital baseline”—what each partner consensually, if not consciously, expects of the other. Sometimes couples agree on the definition of a gift. But when strong cultural currents affect men and women differently, a marriage may contain two separate and conflicting baselines.
Неге I draw on a study of married heterosexual couples, but the economy of gratitude, of course, very much operates in committed gay and lesbian, as well as unmarried heterosexual, relationships. While gender culture impacts gay and lesbian couples differently, it is very much there, if only as an element to suppress. And so, in different ways, it enters into their economics of gratitude as well.2
Гаке the example of housework in a two-job marriage. A husband does the laundry, makes the beds, washes the dishes. Relative to his father, his brother, and several men on the block this husband helps more at home. He also does more than he did ten years ago. All in all he Teels he has done more than his wife could reasonably expect, and with good spirit. He feels he has given her a gift and that she should be grateful. But to his wife, the matter seems altogether different. In addition to her eight hours at the office, she does 80 percent of the housework. Relative to all she does, relative to what she wants to expect of him, what she feels she deserves, her husband’s contribution seems welcome but not extra, not a gift. So his gift is “mis-received.” For each partner sees this gift through different cultural prisms. By creating different prisms for men and women, larger social forces can reduce gratitude.
The economy of gratitude is Janus-faced. It faces outward to bewildering and rapid changes in the larger society and inward to the private meanings shared by two people. One way to grasp that often indecipherable link between social issues and private troubles, as C. Wright Mills put it, is to focus on the place where they meet—the economy of gratitude.
An economy of gratitude is a vital, nearly sacred, nearly bottom-most, largely implicit layer of an intimate bond. It is the summary of all felt gifts. Some marital economies thrive, others flounder. Crucial to a healthy economy of gratitude is a common interpretation of reality, such that what feels like a gift to one person feels like a gift to another. A common interpretation of reality in turn relies on a shared template of prior expectations, itself often bom of shared history.
Gratitude is a form of appreciation. We appreciate many acts and objects that we take for granted. But we feel grateful for what seems to us extra. In
the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, gratitude is synonymous with the term “indebted” or “obliged.” But gratitude as used in this essay is different and more; for a person may be burdened with a surfeit of gifts that formally obliges him to return the favor—without wanting to and without gratitude. Gratitude, as I’m thinking of it here, involves warmth, thankfulness, and a desire to return the favor. According to Joel Davitz, gratitude adds to “thanks” the feeling of an “intense positive relationship with another person… a communion, a unity, a closeness, friendliness and freedom, mutual respect and interdependence.”3
Let us start, then, at the beginning of a chain of social events—with a
recent mass movement of women into the cash economy. In 1969, 38 percent of married mothers worked for pay; in 1996, 68 percent did so. In the 1950s and 1960s, relatively few mothers worked. Now 74 percent of mothers with children six to seventeen are in paid work, 59 percent of mothers of children six and under, and 55 percent of mothers with children one and under.
Women’s movement into the cash economy has drastically changed their lives. Yet, at the same time, the traditional view that childrearing and housework are “women’s work” strongly persists. The culture lags behind the economy, creating what William Ogbum has called a “culture lag.”4
Because economic trends bear most directly on women, they change women more.’ As a result, culturally speaking, men lag behind women in their adaptation to the new economic reality. For women the economy is the changing environment, while for men women are the changing environment. Women are adapting more quickly to changes in economic opportunity and need than men are adapting to changes in women. A culture lag in the wider society, then, echoes as a “gender lag" at home. There is a lag both in behavior and in attitude: while women have gone out to paid work, most men have not greatly increased their care of the home. But, perhaps even more important, men emotionally support this change in women less than do women.
In uniting men and women, marriage intimately unites people who’ve changed less with people who’ve changed more. Behind this difference in cultural position lies a difference in interests; by holding to old-fashioned views, men enjoy more power, and by embracing newer views, women do. So marriage becomes an intimate arena in which to negotiate a broader culture lag and its consequences. So modern marriage is often not a “haven in a heartless world," as Christopher Lasch suggests, but a major shock absorber of tensions created by wider trends bearing unevenly upon men and women.1’ These shocks are finally absorbed—and felt—as the “mis – receiving" of a gift.
How, then, do various conditions influence how people attune themselves to gratitude in similar or divergent ways? How do divergences alter an economy of gratitude and so affect love? To answer these questions I draw from in-cepth interviews with fifty-five two-job families with preschool children in the San Francisco Bay Area reported in my book The Second Shift. A fifth of the husbands fully shared housework and parenting, while most of the rest “helped out.”7