Rebuttal letter from Elizabeth's daughter-in-law stating the Millenial position on family stuff
As she so often is, our mother (in-law) is right. A generational and cultural shift has occurred across America over the last thirty years. Piles of forlorn wedding china, paper ephemera, and steamer trunks in thrift stores around the country are evidence of this shift. But why has this shift occurred? Is it because we don’t love our endlessly doting parents who saved every art project, toy, or family heirloom? Ask any Millennial, generation X-er, or “Xennial” and you’ll get an emphatic “No!” So then, why?
The answer lies in both large and small societal changes, and the complexity of family relationships. As has happened with every generation before us, these changes are not massive tectonic shifts, but rather an accumulation of little moves, which have altered the way we build our identities, our relationships, and our homes. We hope that as you read this book, you will think back to your family relationships, and the “things” related to them, and remember that there really is “no new thing under the sun.”
The opening story of this book provides a perfect example. When we were engaged, we lived in a 750-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath apartment. Each room shared a dual function—the kitchen was also the laundry room, the living room also the dining room, and the guest bedroom also a home office. (Luckily the bathroom only served one purpose!) Between a full-time job, part-time job, and finishing a graduate degree, we excitedly began planning for the wedding, including creating a registry that would accommodate all budgets. Not long after sending the wedding details and registry to friends and family, we received several concerned e-mails and phone calls from family members imploring us to register for formal dinner and flatware, so guests could purchase more traditional gifts. And so we registered!
As items arrived, we gratefully tucked them away for safekeeping and dreamed of the day when we would have the space to host a large, candlelit (and very adult) dinner party with these beautiful items. But imagine our surprise and confusion when, in addition to the dinnerware on our registry, we began receiving shipment after shipment of family china, childhood toys, family memorabilia, and many other items. In total, we received four full sets of wedding china in our tiny apartment, with two total kitchen cabinets to store them all!
The way that we, and our mother (in-law), viewed this chain of events tells you about our stage of life, our ability to envision the future, and our very different relationships with the same objects. While she felt confused and ignored, we felt overwhelmed and frightened. How would we store these precious items, let alone use them without fear of chipping or breaking a precious heirloom? Why had family asked us to register for the same items they wanted to send us multiple versions of? Just as our mother (in-law) has repeated throughout this book, both of these reactions are equally valid. But we didn’t have a face-to-face conversation about either of our feelings until this book was written. So, unpacking this story, just as we unpacked the china sets, there are a few things we think are important to highlight from the other side of the “No thanks Mom” equation.
Why don’t we want five sets of formal china? First, we spent most of our childhood holidays hearing our female relatives complain for days about having to pull the formal china and silverware out of the cupboards, wash and polish it before family arrived, and sweat over the sink for hours cleaning it two hours later, while the men unbuttoned their pants and watched whatever coma-inducing sports event was on TV. We certainly don’t remember the “fun” times of polishing silver. Instead, we remember the admonitions shouted from the next room—“Timmy, don’t you DARE even LOOK at that plate!” As a result, we listened, learned, and developed a healthy fear of Grandma’s plates. Would she smite us in our sleep if we let the fork clatter on them? Nary a discussion of their heritage or family meaning entered the picture!
Yet now that we’ve grown up, these high-maintenance items have morphed from a burden lurking in dust covers at the back of the cupboard to the most precious thing in the world. With few positive memories to associate with them, we would rather have a set of IKEA dishes and flatware ANY DAY if it means we get to spend time at our dinner parties or holidays making memories with friends and family instead of scrubbing turkey giblets out of Aunt Mildred’s gravy boat. (Not to mention many of these brands practically were the IKEA of the day, no matter how fancy we want to make them seem now since they’re 50+ years old.)
Second, we don’t want them because we don’t have the time or the disposable income to pay for the domestic staff prevalent when such specialty items as a dish they were used or created. Considering that the Pew Research Center reports that wages adjusted for inflation have been flat or falling for the last five decades, if we want to send our kids to a decent school, have decent healthcare, and save for retirement, both adults must work full-time. And we are connected 24/7 to our electronic devices, with clients, friends, and family members demanding our time and attention at every moment.
Why don’t we want those beautiful linen sets? While we own irons and ironing boards and know how to use them quite well, most women I know are not eager to finish a 10-hour workday with a relaxing hour of ironing clothes and linens. Frankly, we would rather spend time in the garden with our hands in the dirt growing sustenance from the earth, or drinking a beer and planning the next march against whatever shitty, discriminatory, outdated law has been rammed through our “duly elected legislatures,” or in the library researching and writing a paper to support the Fourth Circuit’s latest (somehow?) controversial ruling that assault weapons shooting hundreds of rounds a minute are not in fact covered by the Second Amendment.
Do we wish some days that we had multi-generational communities to sew a trousseau over the span of a year for each of our female relatives? Sure, but not nearly as many days as we wish that we had multi-generational, diverse communities of female entrepreneurs, CEOs, and future presidents, to reassure us that we are worth more than the linens we can bring to the marriage in our ridiculously heavy steamer trunks. (Ah, the year 1890, such wonderful memories. The year our great-grandmothers crossed the ocean, uphill both ways, with their beautiful trunks full of handmade clothes and man-catching linens.)
Why don’t we want those Persian rugs? Design aesthetics change, just as they have for all time. Remember when you (and your parents) covered up beautiful wood floors with horrific floor-to-floor shag carpeting? Even that hasn’t come back in the latest mid-century modern craze. We all have the urge to create the space we call home so that it is a relaxing, unique, and welcoming environment. Crowding rooms with excess furniture, rugs, or other décor items reminds us of a time when we had little control of the world around us. No one likes to be reminded of that feeling. Remember, you raised us to be intelligent and independent adults, not tiny versions of yourself. While that rug might remind you of an exotic trip or a promotion that allowed you to invest in such a cherished piece, we don’t have those same associations. We see it as a design element that either crowds or complements what we are attempting to create in our home. Just as you have likely felt when you’ve donated or hidden gifts we’ve lovingly picked out for you over the years, we too will feel guilt over keeping something that doesn’t bring us joy in our homes.
What do we want? In the end, we have different design tastes, living arrangements, and financial constraints. But that does not mean we do not dearly cherish the history and memories of our families’ items. We want to know about their history, your memories, and that of our families. Less visible than the piles of china and linens at your neighborhood Goodwill, yet infinitely more fragile, are the piles of attempted, but often unspoken, conversations between parents, their children, and their peers about the feelings, memories, and constructions of self and family inextricably tied to each these items.
Starting the conversation by asking your children or grandchildren how soon you can offload three sets of china probably won’t get you the result you are looking for, especially if these items were rarely used or regarded with little significance throughout their time in your home. Instead, think about sharing only the items that truly have meaning to you, not just because they are supposed to have meaning according to popular culture. Instead, start by sharing the wonderful, funny, and frustrating memories of the family meals served on that china. Or maybe how the beautiful set of linens reflects a generational difference in women’s roles in your family, and your struggles to reconcile your identity with the expectations of work, society, and family. I promise that we children and grandchildren will be far more likely to cherish these items and the memories they represent. Yes please, Mom. Always.