March 05, 2015
(++++) LOVING ADVICE
30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. By Karl Pillemer, Ph.D. Hudson Street Press. $25.95.
Mission: New Baby. By Susan Hood. Illustrated by Mary Lundquist. Random House. $16.99.
Serial monogamists are neither the subject nor, apparently, the intended audience of gerontologist Karl Pillemer’s 30 Lessons for Loving, a followup to his previous book based on extended surveys of and discussions with older Americans, 30 Lessons for Living. The new book is cut from much the same cloth as the prior one, and has much the same advantages and limitations – more of the former than the latter. Pillemer’s interview subjects are people who have been married or in committed relationships for a very long time indeed – generally 30 years or more. This makes them atypical in a change-your-partner-often society, and indeed some potential readers may question whether there is much to be gained by young people from listening to those who are much older and have very different life experiences. Pillemer is aware of this, and addresses it early on by saying that older people are a fount of wisdom on the big questions of life (if not necessarily the smaller ones of everyday existence), and that, when it comes to love and marriage, older Americans “have gone through all the marital problems and traumas that keep younger people awake at night.” This is a bit of an overstatement – few people in their 80s have worried about sexting or the impossibility of being sure that compromising relationship-revenge pictures have been removed from the Internet – but the basic reasoning is sound. And so, it turns out, are the basic ideas of the people in Pillemer’s book. Some of what these older people say may be less than revelatory, for instance when they talk about the importance of an “in-love feeling” in choosing a mate; but other comments are both surprising and insightful – such as the recommendation to pay close attention to “a visceral, intuitive, nagging sense that the relationship is just not right” before making any long-term commitment to another person. Younger readers can surely take some of the thoughts in this book and adapt them to the admittedly very different circumstances of life today. One 67-year-old who met his wife in college suggests new couples “go on a work camp together or something like that where you see each other all muddy and dirty doing stuff, and see how that goes.” A version of that advice surely applies today. Also, although the importance of a sense of humor has been remarked upon by many people studying relationships, and the references to it are therefore nothing new in this book, the idea of watching how your partner plays games is an intriguing one that is less likely to be common knowledge.
Some ideas here may be difficult for younger people to implement, even if they seem useful. For example, the people Pillemer interviewed often suggested writing letters to each other – thoughtful, reflective letters – in times of strong disagreement. Indeed, Pillemer says that those making this suggestion “do not mean texting, G-chatting, or other instant messaging” – but those may be the only forms of written communication with which younger people are comfortable now. Still, a great deal of what passes for wisdom in 30 Lessons for Loving really is wisdom. An 80-year-old woman, married for 47 years, say that “marriage is much harder than you think it’s going to be.” Another woman, this one married for 53 years, comments, “I think ‘happy’ is not the right term; it’s a word that doesn’t apply to a marriage. …[Instead] it’s like a roller coaster of romance, disillusionment, and joy…” And another woman, this one age 84, comments on the everyday needs of making a life and home together, and the way to apportion them: “Whatever needs to be done, the person who can do it best is the one who should do it.” Comments like these may seem irrelevant to some younger people. And that does not even approach their possible reaction to these older people’s discussions of sex, such as one from an 86-year-old woman: “If you’re really physically and sexually attracted to somebody and your head is working right, then you should be able to feel that all the way until the end of your life. And what fun that is!” Indeed, some readers may find it hard to accept Pillemer’s assertion that “for most elders in long-term relationships the spark never dies,” but certainly the people he quotes say that is the case. Pillemer acknowledges that “it is of course difficult for a twenty- or thirty-year-old to have the same sense of a limited lifetime as a ninety-year-old,” and that this sense of life drawing to a close is a foundational element of elders’ formulation of the ideas on love and marriage contained in this book. But lacking the same life experience does not mean being unable to benefit from it, Pillemer argues. At the end of 30 Lessons for Loving, he distills much of the thinking of the people he has interviewed into a series of recommendations, including “respect each other,” “be a team,” “accept your partner as is,” and others. These sound like simplistic clichés when taken out of context – but it is worth considering that they may have become clichés because the grains of truth they contain are so large. Not all readers will accept all the ideas offered by the “experts” (as Pillemer calls them) in this book; and it is true that times have changed so significantly in some ways that perhaps some of the thinking here is, if not irrelevant, then less relevant than it used to be. But there is nevertheless a great deal of nourishing food for thought in 30 Lessons for Loving, and anyone, of any age, can benefit from reading the comments carefully and deciding which ones do still apply in 21st-century relationships – as significant numbers of these ideas still do.
Loving of a different kind, told from a very different perspective, is the subject of Mission: New Baby, which is an unusually creative big-sibling book. The older people interviewed in Pillemer’s book look at the stresses associated with child-rearing as an element of marriage to be absorbed and managed; Susan Hood and Mary Lundquist, on the other hand, approach the subject with enthusiasm bordering on exuberance. It all starts when a friendly-looking baseball-cap-wearing robot from “headquarters” gives siblings a “top secret” mission “to train the NEW kid on the team.” Hood’s writing takes young readers through all the stages of becoming older siblings, from “attend briefing” (with Lundquist showing ways in which parents tell children that a new baby is on the way), to “test gadgets and gear” (setting up a crib, making sure a stroller is ready for use), to “meet new recruit” (seeing the baby for the first time), and so forth. The mundane everyday needs of adapting to a new baby become intriguing and even exotic here: “Familiarize Subject with Headquarters” means showing the baby his or her room, while “Introduce Associates” means pointing out the cat, a stuffed animal and grandparents. Mission: New Baby continues with “Show Credentials” (looking through a scrapbook with baby pictures of the older sibling), “Begin Instruction” (learning the alphabet, playing peek-a-boo, and so forth), and more. The chaos associated with a new baby becomes more tolerable, and even endearing, when babies’ tendency to throw food is shown in “Report Incoming Missiles,” a kitchen scene in which bits of food end up on the floor to be eaten by the dog, on the cat’s back, and on the way to hitting Daddy’s pajamas – while the robot who gave the original “assignment” shouts, “Warning! Warning!” Certainly introducing a new baby to a family is not nearly as easy or amusing as Hood’s words and Lundquist’s illustrations make it seem. But giving this book to a big-sibling-to-be, and reading (and re-reading) it along with him or her, is a great way to help de-stress the coming big event. And the baby pictures of the authors on the book’s rear flap can help reinforce the idea that grown-ups were once children, too, and may be just as confused and unsettled by Mission: New Baby as kids are.