The Gift-Giver: Gifts as a Substitute for Wages
If there’s one thing I could change about single parenting, it’s the financial burden. An extra $10,000 a year net, if I had someone who would sleep on the couch and bring in $10,000, it would be great
While conventional lore dictates that middle-class status is established by self – sufficiency through one’s own efforts, Rebecca’s comment above and the stories of other single women undermine the assumption that a paycheck alone is the basis for middle-class standing.1-5 Gift giving, the monetary equivalent of Rebecca’s wish, is an important part of the economics of family life that is not obvious at first glance. These women challenge the tenet of middle-class self-sufficiency.
Grandparents provide financial support, which serves to pull kin closer, obligating their daughters and grandchildren to visit and call frequently.14 Grandparents’ gifts pay the daycare expenses (or even private school tuitions) that allow their grandchild to be well taken care of while their daughters are employed. Few women expect these gifts to stretch to supplement a college education. These income transfers from parents to children are not insignificant, even though they are without a lifetime guarantee. This money often becomes like the “second income” their own mothers once brought home when their fathers were the primary breadwinners—slightly unstable and not quite as lucrative, but important nonetheless. A quarter of the women in this study had received nonwage income in the form of a gift or trust within two years of their interview.15 Often this gift giving begins at the point at which a child enters the woman’s life. Women with working-class origins are not likely to receive this financial help from their parents, with the exception of financial help to defray adoption costs.
Colleen, an artist, decided to transform her Victorian home into a bed-and – breakfast after her father, who lived with her and her daughter, died. To replace the contribution of his Social Security check to the household budget, she rented out seven rooms that were decorated with the family’s heirlooms. She discovered herself again as the owner of a bed-and-breakfast:
There are a lot of aspects that just work well for me. I like decorating and that’s sort of related to art. So it was fun to be able to afford to do a lot of stuff and keep everything in good shape. I like to cook a lot and I found out I seemed to be more sociable than I had thought I was gonna be. So I enjoyed my guests a lot. And it also takes a lot of time away from work, which is hard. I’m so independent. I like working for myself. So, mainly when I considered how to make a living, rather than applying for jobs, it was What can I do? How can I market whatever?”
The bed-and-breakfast slowed down the pace of her artwork production, which frustrated Colleen, but it allowed her to maintain her lifestyle. The smells from the kitchen were a wake-up call to her ever-changing guests, and while they ate their eggs and hot muffins, she sipped coffee and enjoyed the adult company. The space that Colleen could trade gave her something more important than just the income as she was raising her adolescent daughter.
I like having people around to talk to. One of my big complaints with my life early on was that I was lonely a lot. Having a daughter and having people live in a house provides me with people to do stuff with. “You want to go to the movies tonight?” “Sure, let’s go to the movies.” “You want to take a walk?” Whatever.
While superficially her decision to make her home a business appeared to be purely economic, for Colleen having people in her home was about more than just the money. It provided her with an instantaneous, though ever-changing, community.
When women rent out a room, the line between the market and family becomes especially blurred, as roommates share kitchens, living rooms, and bathrooms. Patricia initially expected her roommate to simply be a check. Instead, she found that the woman who lived with them became close to both her and her daughter, despite the economic transaction of rent.
The other person who is really becoming very supportive is Marie lie, our roommate. She and Gemma have. . . Marielle is pretty important to Gemma. Gemma can be really tough, and I feel like she’s toughest on me and Marielle, ’cause we’re the ones in her life. So she feels like she can get angry at Marielle or whatever. Marielle is quite reserved, but she has exposed Gemma to a lot of different music. She’s from Spain and she is a flamenco dancer. She does have a full-time job, but they dance together a lot and though she doesn’t actually babysit a lot, she keeps this house. She actually does a lot of the housework, which is great. It just worked out that way. She’s folded my laundry and things like that.
She uses my car sometimes and it kind of works out.
While Patricia and Gemma did not routinely share meals or food supplies with Marielle, and did not name her as family, Marielle had taken on more importance than just being a renter. Not all roommates work out as well as Marielle, but in this case the tenant gradually became more intimate with Patricia and her daughter. Gemma was a toddler, unable to distinguish between family and tenant, when this living arrangement began. Indeed, Marielle did not fit perfectly into either category. When Marielle was home, Patricia often invited her to join them for dinner, and Marielle loved playing with Gemma. Though the two women were a study in contrasts, gradually they discovered they had a lot in common. Patricia introduced Marielle to her activism, and in turn Marielle shared her cultural experience. While there had been no initial expectation that she would take on this place in their family, Marielle was important as another adult in both the mother’s life and the child’s.
Ellen, whose story opens chapter 5, spoke candidly about the flexibility of having another adult in the house. While Ellen maintained her own separate space in the apartment she created in the top floor of the house, her renters would keep an eye on her daughter occasionally.
It frees me up so I can go out in the evening after Skylar’s gone to bed. If they’re staying in, I say, “Okay, you’re on duty for fire rescue or whatever.” And then I can leave. So it gives me a lot more flexibility than I would have if I were literally living just me and Skylar alone in an apartment or whatever, which I think would he much harder.
Even though the renters were paying Ellen for a room, there was still a measure of support and flexibility afforded by having other adults in the house, though the relationship between her daughter and the tenants was very casual. The rental income was an addition to Ellen’s sizable salary as a financial analyst, but Ellen clearly valued her tenants beyond just their rent checks.
Some women include their renters more formally in their lives. Kerry’s arrangement with her roommate, reduced rent for child care, began with an unusual baby gift from a friend who specialized in recruiting and interviewing potential job candidates. Kerry’s friend offered to screen roommates to find the perfect candidate.
I had diis seven-room apartment and I needed help. It was way too much for me.
And although I have a lot of wonderful friends who help me a lot, it was just on the day-to-day, run-of-the-mill things, that were hard. Basically, you can’t go to the grocery store. For my baby shower, a friend of mine said, “If you want, as your present, I will put an ad in the Tab and I will interview people and present you with a couple of finalists.” So after the first year and a half, I thought, “Okay, now it’s time.” So she did and she found Eleanor.
Kerry struck a deal with Eleanor, exchanging fifteen hours a week of child care for board. This gave Kerry some evenings off to be with friends and the ability to meet some work demands.
care providers paint a picture of a child’s life from nine to five and interpret it in developmental terms, some even going so far as to send out nightly e-mails. Leigh placed her child in such a day care setting.
I don’t mean the usual day care report, you know, “Maya did a poop at two o’clock, she ate four green beans, she wouldn’t drink her milk.” This is a complete story, a narrative of what the children have done all day in terms of their play. If they have built castles, what did Maya do in building the castle and what did she have to say? What was an idea that she had at one point? And then if the play turned to hospital, was she the nurse or did she want to be the doctor? And how did she and Nathaniel get along? It is this very strong narrative that weaves through. So that’s a storytelling that takes place, that I’m a part of as a listener.
So I would say that those are the ways that I do it.
Leigh might not be with her daughter during the hours she was in day care, but that did not exclude her from her child’s life. She engaged via these narratives in order to make herself a witness to her child’s day, even when she was not a participant. The e-mails also allowed her to monitor her child’s development and ask questions of both her daughter and the child care provider. Leigh kept a file folder of such records as a sort of diary that she planned to one day give her daughter.