Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Of A Certain Class

I was struck by this post which talks about marraige frictions which derive from class assumptions:
Oliver and Maggie are young, very much in love, and planning their honeymoon. What should be an exciting series of conversations becomes surprisingly unpleasant. Maggie resents Oliver’s nonchalance about where the trip should be; he’s seemingly happy with almost any destination. Oliver finds the normally easy-going Maggie strangely rigid and demanding about where to take the trip, and doesn’t understand her anxious, almost obsessive research into the possible details of each honeymoon location.

Finally, it occurs to Oliver to ask a question: “Do you imagine that this is the only trip we are going to take together?”.

Maggie bursts out “Of course it is!” and starts to cry.

What is going on? Oliver grew up middle class and therefore anticipates a lifetime of travel with his future spouse, of which the honeymoon is only one journey. Maggie grew up in a community where virtually everyone was flat on their uppers. For her, a honeymoon is the only trip a couple would take, the sole travel memory they would share between themselves and with their children and grandchildren for 50 years to come. For her the choice was thus fraught with fear that she and Oliver’s one and only venture into the wider world would be less than perfect.

Another couple, Alphonse and Pat, generally get along well until something in their household breaks and a long-running feud comes to the surface. When the dishwasher floods the floor, for example, Alphonse digs out the service manual and his tool kit and commences to tinker with it over a few days until its function is restored. Pat simmers with anger at the days without a dishwasher and the grimy tools and grease stains on the kitchen floor. Alphonse is bitter that Pat doesn’t seem to admire how handy he is at fixing things around the house.

What is going on? Alphonse grew up in a blue collar home in which calling a repairman was considered an extravagance and in which men were supposed to know how to fix things with their own two hands. Pat grew up in an upper middle class home in which the only thing in the tool box was a cell phone. When Pat’s high-powered professional parents needed something to be repaired, they hired someone and it was done immediately, no muss no fuss.
MrsDarwin and I have very nearly identical class backgrounds, so I don't think there's ever been a time when we've found ourselves working from different assumptions like this. There have been a number of times at work, however, when I've found myself suddenly conscious of my background assumptions as compared to those of other people. American class distinctions seem fairly soft, as compared to the extreme class consciousness one runs into in any modern British TV or literature, but there are still basic assumptions about spending that will either make me aware of the fact that we're a single income family, while most of my coworkers have two incomes roughly the size of mine, or else that my family had less ready cash when I was growing up than those of a lot of my coworkers.

Vacations is one area that springs readily to mind. My family took one big trip that I remember as a kid, out to see the solar eclipse in Hawaii in 1991. (My dad was a planetarium lecturer, so the interest was semi-professional.) In general, however, we simply didn't go places on vacation. Thus, it always throws me when people at work talk about trips to Florida in the spring, skiing trips to Colorado in the winter, etc. as if it was pretty normal to take one or two big trips each year in which the whole family stays in a hotel and participates in some sort of fun activity. (In our case, we basically only travel to weddings and baptisms. This gets us one to two big family road trips a year. If that ever slows down, maybe we'll take a vacation.)

There are also certain kinds of work around the house we've realized that we define ourselves as being "normal people" because we do them ourselves. We've never had a yard service: I mow the lawn, cut trees, etc. myself, and while I'm sure it makes sense ot free up that time, the fact is I just wouldn't feel right about hiring someone to do that work for me. Similarly, most of the families we know on our street have a cleaning service come in to clean the house a couple times a month, but MrsDarwin feels much the same about having a cleaning service in as I would feel about having a yard service.

That one can invest a fair amount of identity in some of these thins despite the fact that they are quite trivial is, I think, part of what makes them class issues. Sure, there's some money involved, but the amount of money isn't necessarily all that much, and I'm sure there are other areas in which we spend more money that other people would feel comfortable with. Yet somehow or other I find myself with a deep feeling that "people like us don't have vacation cottages" or "people like us do our own yard work".


bearing said...

There's a lot here to think about.

The first part of your post about unspoken class-based assumptions in marriage -- the sort of things that create friction which eventually surfaces -- reminded me a little bit of me and my husband. Not because of assumptions that come from class differences, but because of assumptions that came from this difference: A large fraction of my cohort of friends came from divorced families, and not a single one of my parents or my parents' siblings had stayed married; whereas in my husband's family and cohort, almost everyone had stayed married.

The next thing I thought of was my own schizophrenia, because I was mostly raised by my schoolteacher mother, who never felt she had enough money to do anything fun, and spent weekends with my father and stepmother, who owned expensive cars and jetted all over the place and took us to expensive restaurants. This can make you grow up with odd attitudes towards money.

It was a big mental hurdle for me to hire someone to come in and clean the bathrooms once a month. Needed to be done though. I felt extremely squicky about having a strange woman come in to clean my toilets, but I solved this problem by -- and this probably says a lot about me and my own assumptions, so that I'm almost reluctant to reveal -- hiring a male cleaner.

bearing said...

By the way, is the writer of that article a Brit? I thought the comment section was really weird, possibly because there were UK and US commenters both, which always makes a discussion about class kind of strange with people talking past each other.

Jenny said...

Growing up, my family went on vacation on fairly regular basis. Not every year, certainly not twice a year, but every three or four years we would take a big multi-week vacation. Granted the pop-up camper played a big role in our accommodations.

When I was younger, the vacation came with a car full of groceries and prepacked food. When I was older, the vacation came with restaurants.

I approached our honeymoon with the idea that it would be one of many trips. Certainly not every year but I expected to take vacations on a semi-regular basis. Twelve and a half years into our marriage, we have gone on our honeymoon and spent two days in Chattanooga in 2009 with the children. And that's it.

When my husband was teaching, we had the month of June in which we could schedule a vacation, but no money to actually take one. Since I have been working, we could scrape together a vacation budget, but all my vacation (and sick) time gets eaten repeatedly by maternity leave.

So I guess, in retrospect, I wish I had cared a bit more about the honeymoon since it appears to be the only trip I am going to get for a long, long, time.