Gender Roles and Gift-Giving in the 80s

The 70s were a confusing time for kids. The culture was changing and like all culture changes, while there’s always the revolutionary group moving forward with new ideas and new challenges to entrenched thinking, there’s also the stalwart holdouts plodding forward and pretending their sky is indeed, not falling.

But the 80s…well, the 80s made the 70s look like Hilary Farr on Love it or List it would look if she had a three-hundred-thousand-dollar budget to spend on an 800 square-foot house (I’m saying the 80s were crazy and excessive). But, in ’79 my dad got re-married to a woman eighteen years younger than him and if you think that wasn’t bound to cause problems no matter what the decade, you’d be very, very wrong.

Time would prove all the usual reasons why 45-year-old men with young kids shouldn’t marry 27 year-old-women with no kids, but in the short-term, the difficulties weren’t as obvious. But, when problems did arise, they tended to blow up in your face.

I have always been the type of person who wants to please others. I’ve gotten pickier as I’ve gotten older and my circle of those I feel I need to take care of and keep happy tend to only be those I care enough about to send Christmas cards to. But as child, I craved attention and acceptance. As an adopted child, I’d had my share of being bounced around and trying to fit in with new families and it was no different with my dad’s new wife. I wanted her to love me and I longed for her acceptance in everything I did.

But, she was a bit of a rebel. When she married my dad, she was young and fit and drove a blue Mustang. She read books like, “The Sugar Blues” and she jogged. Despite whatever stories she concocted to convince herself that she was ready to settle down and “be a mom,” it was a flimsy cover-story at best. One Mother’s Day in the early 80s I found out just how flimsy a cover it was and boy did I learn a valuable lesson.

We didn’t get an allowance growing up. Oh, my dad tried to stick with an allowance program once or twice, but the guilt my parents gave us when we reminded them they “owed” us money wasn’t worth it, so for all practical purposes, I never got an allowance. And that never changed, even when I was in high school and had to remind my parents to give me lunch money. After a while, I stopped and spent all my lunches in the library reading or studying so I wouldn’t have to explain to my friends why I wasn’t eating.

To earn money, my brother and I did various tasks. For about two years, we collected aluminum cans from the sides of the road. We’d collect them in a burlap sack and then on the weekends we’d smash them flat either with a sledge hammer or by just stomping on them as hard as we could. A large sack of smashed aluminum cans would net you about $7 at the local recycling plant. At that rate, you didn’t want to do the math on the hourly cost of collecting and recycling cans, but my dad approved because it built character and taught us the value of a dollar. And he was happy to drive us to the recycling center of a Saturday morning and was a saint not to charge us gas money for the ride.

We also raked yards in the fall. That was where the real money was. My brother always did the negotiating, which was basically him ringing the doorbell and offering a dollar figure for the job, which the homeowner would take or counter. Still, on an average yard in Mobile, we could earn anywhere from $20 – $30 for the job. This wasn’t easy money either. The pine straw fell thick and a typical yard took us easily 3-5 hours on the weekend. Still though, it paid far better than aluminum cans so we stuck with it for several years.

I’ve always been a saver. I plan ahead and fully expect that at some point, I’ll need a stash of cash, so I saved and scrimped and only bought things I really wanted. Rarely did I spend frivolously. And so when Mother’s Day rolled around one year, I was super excited to pull my money together so I could buy our new mom something great; something she’d really love!

Mom spent a lot of time in the kitchen in those early years. She wasn’t working then, so her job was keeping up the house and taking care of the kids. And in my little kid-mind, I thought there could be no better gift than something that would make her housework easier. So my dad took me to the store and I looked and looked and finally found it. I found THE gift that would make her everyday work go faster and smoother, and honestly, who wouldn’t love that?

Mother’s Day finally came and as usual, I was up before everyone else. I fixed myself some breakfast and sat watching cartoons, waiting for the rest of the house to stir. Soon enough, my parents roused themselves from their beds, got some coffee and began their usual routine of reading the paper and generally waking up.

Bouncing with energy and excitement, I pestered my parents to hurry up so mom could open her Mother’s Day gift from me. With gleaming eyes and big grin on my face, I handed her my gift. Wrapped, it was roughly the size of an old-school tape recorder and my mom smiled as I handed it to her and she turned it sideways trying to figure out what it could be.

She started pulling the tape off (come on!) and finally, in a burst of impatience, she ripped off the hanging paper, turned the box over so she could see the picture on the front, the picture of the “Under-Counter-Mount Electric Can Opener” (space-saving appliances were all the rage) I’d bought her for Mother’s Day.

I was so excited. I just knew she would be excited. We didn’t have much counter-space in our kitchen, and I thought what better than an electric can opener that tucks away under the counter? It’s portable, it’s hidden, it’s electric! Oh man, I was in heaven.

As she turned the front of the box towards her, my mom’s face froze. Replacing the expectant smile was a “half-smile, half-realization of something terrible” look and my world collapsed. She calmly put the boxed-gift down on the counter and in a rush of “FIX, FIX IT!” I started blurting out all the reasons why it was such a great gift.

They fell on deaf ears. She turned around, walked out of the kitchen and went into her bedroom and closed the door.

I wouldn’t see my mom again at all that day and when she did finally come out, she didn’t speak to me for at least another day. After a couple of hours behind closed doors, my dad came out and explained to me what happened. I doubt I need to explain it to any of you. In fact, I’ll bet every woman today, and most men, already know the reason she reacted as she did. But as a kid, I was lost. My dad explained that the gift reminded her of what she’d given up and it made her feel that I–that we as a family–expected her to just stay at home and take care of the house and the kids. Forget the young, carefree life she’d left. It was gone. Now, it was all about can openers and toasters and answering the proverbial, “What’s for dinner?”

Weeks later, my dad did install the can opener and to this day, I still believe it was a good gift. But, maybe for Christmas rather than Mother’s Day. I mean, for Christmas one year my wife gave me a vacuum cleaner and I was thrilled.

Times change. People’s expectations change. Still, we need to remember that children don’t see the world as we do. They don’t have hidden motives. They can’t see into our screwed-up adult heads and understand the lens through which we see the world and our place in it. That’s a good thing. We could all use a little more wide-eyed innocence and trust, and a little less “jaded” in our lives. But maybe now and again it takes a can-opener to help us see things as others do and to remind us that we’re all a little different. And that’s not a bad thing.

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