The Generation Gap

Last week I did my first book club guest author visit. It was so much fun. Every reader takes something different from a book, so it’s fascinating for me to learn which parts stick with different people.

One of the women in the book club made an observation that had never occurred to me. As she noted, I write a lot about the need for independent female friends. MWF Seeking BFF is largely about the importance of strong friendships that are separate from romantic relationships. “I think that’s generational,” she said. She went on to explain that whenever she tells her mother about how, say, all her girlfriends went on a vacation, her mom’s first reaction is to ask “what were [the husbands/boyfriends] doing?” To her mom, the idea that the ladies would go off and do all these activities independent of their husbands was strange. In her mother’s generation, this woman said, women didn’t just up and go out with the girls. And if they did, they first talked to their husbands to make sure they had plans, or were otherwise taken care of.

I’m not sure this is specifically generational. The woman who brought this up was about my age, and our mothers are probably similar ages. My parents, who were married for 30 years before my father died, spent a lot of time together but were also quite independent. My mother would leave for quilting retreats. My father, an American history buff, once went on a solo road trip of the antebellum south. I thought this was really strange at the time. Now I think it’s pretty cool, and was probably quite smart. When my mom left to quilt with the ladies, she didn’t feel the need to make sure my dad was cared for every second that she was gone… he was a competent guy, after all.

But I have heard these kind of questions. The “But what will Matt be doing??” inquiry, to which I usually respond “I don’t know, you should ask him.”

So I’m wondering, do you think the notion of it being ok to focus on friendships, even if that means leaving the men to fend for themselves, is a generational one? And what changed to suddenly make this more acceptable?

It’s Valentine’s Day! You know what makes a great V-Day gift for your be sties? (What? You love them too, don’t you?) MWF Seeking BFF. You can:
Order a copy
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20 responses to “The Generation Gap

  1. I don’t think that it is necessarily specifically generational, although I think that in my mother’s generation is was more common. I still find that some people, even now (my age – early 30s) think this way, or hardly do things on their own – or plan things for specifically when the boyfriend / husband is busy or otherwise occupied. I find is quite insulting if someone does this to me – i.e. want to schedule a meeting when suits them based on this. I don’t plan my life around my husband. Granted now that we have a toddler a little more planning goes into organising an evening out. A lot of this I guess comes down to that I appreciate it if someone makes time for me, is willing to “sacrifice” an evening away from their partners to spend with me – after all, I would be doing the same.

  2. Check out the feb 20th issue of time magazine. There’s a cool article about animal friendships!!!

  3. J

    Ummm the guys have always had sports and poker games and other “male bonding” activities, and no one ever asks them “But who’s taking care of your wife and kids while you’re away?” I don’t know if this thinking (that men deserve their own solo activities but women don’t) is so much generational as it is, frankly, mildly (or majorly) sexist. Perhaps women have “traditionally” kept such activities within the home (bridge club, volunteer activities, civic organizations) so maybe what struck this woman as “unusual” was the idea of women traveling together, or taking these social activities outside of the home. I have gotten some of this type of reaction from my mom, who would never think a thing about my husband going out “with the guys” for an evening activity (or hiking or fishing trip with the guys) sans wife and kids, but always wonders why my husband isn’t included if I go out for a ladies night. I ignore her. 🙂 Thank you *so* much for making the point, loudly and repeatedly, that BFF relationships complement romantic ones, and don’t compete with them. (On that note, have you, or do you plan to, write about lesbian relationships? I have always wondered if my happily coupled lesbian friends have the same platonic friendship needs that I do).

  4. Mom

    I agree with what J. said, and would add that in my generation, and especially my parents’, men often traveled for work on their own, while the women stayed home with the children.

    I do think that Dad and I were a bit unusual. I even had friends who thought it odd when I wanted to have dinner with them without our husbands!

    Once when you and Alex were very small (4 and 7), I went on a trip to France with a cousin. People were totally shocked that Dad would have to stay home and take care of the children alone. When they asked how he would manage, he was infuriated. “Don’t they think I can take care of my own children?” he asked. To him, having this extended time with his kids was really special. As I said, unusual.

    • J

      that is awesome, Rachel’s mom! Reminds me of one of my major pet peeves… when people refer to dads staying home with their own children as “babysitting.” Grrr! I’m a college professor (child psychology) and I’m always trying to point out the unexamined assumptions we make about what’s “normal” and “best” for children / families, and this is one of those unexamined assumptions… that women are expected to care for others (their husbands, their children) and not make time for their own needs, and that when men care for their own offspring it is worthy of a medal or something. You guys did good! 🙂

  5. Mari

    hmmm…its not a generational gap at all. I’m 23 and most of my friends think like that. I do like doing things as a couple, but I also love my girls’ nights. I have to admit that I have been guilty of planning around time with my boyfriend sometimes, but it is mainly because he works full-time and is a full-time student so I don’t really see him much (even though we live together).

  6. Kara

    Hi Rachel – I do think it’s a generational thing, and perhaps also a cultural one. My mother is Asian, and would never have dreamed of taking off on her own for a Girl’s Trip. She thinks it’s odd that I do things like that, and throws out the, “but who is going to take care of S. while you’re gone?” question – as if he didn’t have the ability to feed and clothe himself! There are some sexist undertones to this argument (along with generational, but I think those two can go hand in hand) along the lines of J’s comment, however those double standards are still pretty prevalent in today’s generation and culture as well as previous ones. The change has been a gradual one, but I think it started occurring around the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, when more women were attending universities and working outside the home, and forging their own friendships independent of their boyfriends/husbands and having the financial and social means to stand on their own and facilitate independent activities. Ultimately, I think it’s more generational than anything, but I feel very lucky that our generation (in general) is free-thinking enough to encourage female bonding trips and activities, rather than question them.

  7. Melissa Best

    Your parents sound AWESOME! I think that is Great! I always feared that once I got married, I would never have “me time” or “girl time” again. Luckily I have a wonderful husband who wants me to have girl time, will do laundry (my chore) for me if I need to go get a manicure, and is advocating me go on a trip with some college friends in March solo. I think its just important to keep the lines of communication open, and to spend time together as a couple as well.

  8. I’ve got college-age kids so I’m kind of inbetween generations here (ok, I guess I’m more toward the older generation than the younger….but still), most women I know go on vacations or dinner or drinks with girlfriends on a regular basis. And I have never once heard anyone say: “what will your husband/boyfriend do?” However, when our kids were young, sometimes people would say (if I was going out): “is your husband babysitting the kids?” I always said “No” because it wasn’t babysitting, it’s his kids too! And I do think THAT kind of attitude is a generational thing — I hope so!

  9. I agree that it is generational, and I agree that it seems to have a connection to sexism. My mom was mad at my sister once for not going ice fishing with her boyfriend and all of his friends. Why would she even want to? That wouldn’t even be fun for her, and yet my mom wouldn’t stop talking about it as a sign of a problem in their relationship. I hope that I will always put a priority on friendships. When I was in college my art history professor talked about a trip she took with all her girlfriends to look at the ruins in Rome. They were all middle aged (so there are probably exceptions), but I thought “good for them!” That is what I hope to be when I am their age.

  10. I think this is a really interesting post. In some ways I think it is generational, but like other comments I think it is also tied to sexism or at least the idea of women and men having different roles and what those roles are defined as. Those roles were much more rigid in other generations. Then again, my parents, like yours, were very independent in many ways and even as they grow older they still have their own hobbies and might go on separate trips. Then again, I would say that my parents were feminists. They hyphenated their last names (both of them, not just my mom) and shared equal roles around the house. When I was younger I thought that was the norm, but as I spent more time around friends and their parents I realized that it was not the norm for people of that generation. My friends had moms who were housewives and dads who were the breadwinners. I think for those families the norm tended different from my family.

    However, I do think that circumstance and personality have something to do with this. For example, my husband is from another country and when we moved to the USA he knew no one, while I had a network already established. That meant that we tended to do things together because that was the best way for him to get to know people and I felt bad if I went and did something without him, not because I didn’t have the right to, but because he was a “stranger in a strange land” so to speak. And then we moved some place where neither of us knew anyone so we tend to do stuff together. As we establish friendships locally I expect that will change, but circumstantially we tend to do things together much more often than separately. I think when that happens and people see that you do stuff together a lot it makes them more likely to ask what your significant other is doing because you are usually together – but the subtext is not necessarily that the spouse needs to be taken care of otherwise looked after.

  11. I don’t think it’s really generational. Such a weird expectation is a clear product of a patriarchal society, so this change is just a sign of progress in terms of women’s freedom. But we still have a long way to go even on such simple things: I recently took a vacation to Vancouver by myself, and people were always asking me why my partner wasn’t going with me. Ugh.

  12. Tomorrow I leave to spend a week with my college roommates, we are in our 50’s. I do not think it is generational. I have friends who will not plan anything unless their husbands and adult children do not need them and I have friends who will make plans before running it by their families. I can say the same thing for my daughter and her friends (in their 20’s). I think it boils down to how women define themselves. If they see themselves as the caregiver and get a lot of enjoyment from that then they are more likely to put everyone before themselves.
    These vacations with my friends have been at one roommate’s house (who happens to live all over the place) and even though she is OK spending her time with us she still makes sure the husband and kids are fed and their basic needs met even though they are more than capable. But that is her thing and that is OK.
    So if you see 4 ladies (in matching coats, Peru 2010) going through a Smithsoniam Museum this week say hi.

  13. I don’t think the value on independent friendships has changed it’s just that many people move away from where they grew up so they have to travel to see friends and family. Plus, travel is so much cheaper & easier now so friends can jet off for a girls weekend if they can afford it.

    I also think it just depends upon where & how you were raised. Most of my family is in the same area. I live abroad and only go home once per year so I travel back to the States a few weeks before my husband to visit family. My dad can’t imagine spending that much time apart from his spouse and I think my mom just can’t imagine traveling that far by herself. My cousins are all close to my age but their views cover the spectrum.

    I’ve never asked my husband if anyone questions him as to whether he feels ok with going on a guys trip without me…

  14. Bonnie

    Along the lines of women not going out or on trips independently of their husbands, I was having a conversation last night with a woman who runs the Caring Committee for my congregation, and she noted that when a man is sick, it is assumed that the wife will care for him and cook for him. But when a woman is sick, the caring committee rushes in to bring meals. In my family, my husband does most of the cooking, and during his recent knee replacement, no one from the Caring Committee contacted us. I hope I re-educated my friend last night not to make assumptions about gender roles.

  15. The difference is not generational, I think it’s cultural. I too have a mom who values spouse/family interactions ABOVE ALL THINGS! But I have a lot of friends whose parents are more social than they are and take a lot of “girl” trips. I think the warning here is generalizing based on our own experiences. The thing I love about MWF is the science used to back up the claims Rachel makes. It puts our experiences in a bigger context. I think all too often we jump to erroneous conclusions based on our experiences, like I *just* did above 🙂

  16. C.

    Interesting question – I was wondering about Matt while I read your book. More so when you went out during certain times of the week – Brunch on Sunday? A Friday night girl date? I’m older 50+ (I bought the book because I know your mother-in-law. LOVED the book, learned so much, thank you!) my husband and I have an unwritten rule – couple’s time on weekends. I think it’s a case of what goes around comes around. Neither of us want to compete for each other’s attention on the weekend. During the week, okay.

    I do tend to work around his schedule though… maybe it is generational!

  17. Last year my dad considered going to the south of China for 6 months to work on a crocodile farm! It didn’t happen, but it might still. He and my mum took separate trips to China last year as well (at overlapping times!) because they knew they would want to do different things while they were here. They overlapped in Shanghai to visit me, but otherwise they went off and did their own stuff. I don’t think this is usual, though.

    As for my boyfriend, he asked me the other day if it was OK if he made more Chinese friends so he could go out and practise what he’s studying. I said that he didn’t need to ask for my permission, but he said he just really likes spending time with me and that new friends might mean less time spent together (aww!). He does encourage me to hang out with my own friends and be on my own though, because he knows both are important to me. He gets a lot more alone time during the week than I do, so it’s hard to balance that sometimes.

  18. Emily

    I think this is an issue of respect. Having to ask permission for a simple friend outing indicates that the party asking for permission is somehow less than the one granting permission. That said though, I never make evening or weekend plans without checking with my husband first, and he does the same with me. Neither of us is asking the other for permission – there’s a difference between asking for permission and respectfully making sure that solo plans are convenient for both of us. We’re checking to see if there is something particular going on that night that we’d forgotten about, or making sure that there isn’t a specific reason to pick a different night/time for the girl/guy outing. It’s about respecting one another and realizing that when we got married we merged our lives. We’re still 2 people with individual needs for friendships and independent activities, but it would be selfish to not factor each other’s needs and desires into our planning.

  19. DJ

    I think it’s a mixture of generation and culture. 5 of my friends and I go on a girls’ trip once a year, and the only person who’s ever said a thing about leaving the husbands behind is one friend’s grandmother. And let me tell you, she is VERY disappointed in this friend! How DARE she leave her husband behind with nothing to do?

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