I didn’t learn the term “latchkey” until I was much older and it no longer applied. As articles pop up around the Internet, all mentioning Gen X’s adaptability in the face of self-quarantining, they all also seem to think we had absent parents and more or less raised ourselves.
My parents worked, but they weren’t absent. As an only child, I spent a lot of time with my parents, especially on the weekends. Even if it was just going to the store or hitting up Burger King, we did a lot together. I never felt neglected. I was never sad to come home after school and have to let myself in (except on days when I’d forgotten my key). If anything, it was a relief to me to have the whole place to myself. After a day of social pressures at school, time without interaction was sacrosanct.
Maybe that’s just because I’m an introvert and need alone time to recharge my batteries. So, yeah, being asked to stay home now doesn’t feel like any massive hardship to me. We’ve got a house and yard and are making the most of them. (Thank goodness, though, that we moved into the bigger house last year, because if we were in the old house right now, we’d be strangling one another.)
I grew up able to entertain myself, both with and without a screen. Sure, I had Speak & Spell. But I also had books. Colorforms. I made up one-player versions of board games for myself. I had My Little Pony. I wrote stories. I went out and rode my bike or roller skated. Coloring books. I had learned to cross stitch. And if all else failed, I knew how to sit and think. I did not require constant input or attention.
Again, I don’t know if that’s a Gen X thing, or just a personal thing, or some blend of the two. I knew some kids who went home to empty houses and just as many that didn’t. I knew kids who seemed to need stimulation and an audience and just as many who were content to be overlooked. (I was somewhere in the middle, and still am—I like recognition, loved being acknowledged by my teachers, for instance, and now love the same from readers and peers, but I don’t need an unwavering spotlight.) We are, like any generation, or any large group of people, a mishmash of personalities. The things we experienced broadly were like the outer planets in an astrology chart—everyone shares those aspects because those planets move slowly. But our individual experiences were varied. For example, a favorite statistic for the Gen X kids is how many kids’ parents were divorced. And I knew a few people with divorced parents. But mine weren’t, and neither were many of my friends’. So… I was aware of single-parent households but had no real experience with them outside visiting friends who lived with only one parent. I don’t recall thinking it was weird or anything. It just was.
And maybe that’s Gen X in a nutshell. Things just are, and we accept those things and get on with life. “You do what you gotta do” is probably our motto. If I had to come home to an empty house, do my chores and homework, and get dinner started, that’s what I did. It never occurred to me to not do those things if they needed to be done. Rebel I was not, at least on that front. I picked my battles for the things that mattered most to me. Getting out of housework didn’t rank all that high, and I never minded contributing my time and effort to the family. I might not love chores, but they weren’t difficult, and I could entertain myself while doing them. I could think or sing or write stories in my head. No big deal.
Still, when it came time to choose whether my kids would come home to an empty house or not, I gave up working in publishing and stayed home. In part because publishing didn’t pay enough to cover child care costs, so I might as well stay home anyway. And in part because staying home gave me the chance not only to be there for my kids as they grow but to pursue my writing. So there are practical reasons and selfish reasons for the decision, as well as the desire to be the one to raise my kids and not miss out on those years. I like the idea I’m making memories for and with them.
Because, while I do have good memories of times with my parents, they are all a bit foggy and vague, too. Gen X tended to make memories with their peers more than parents or family. And sure, I want my kids to have fun with their friends. And I want them to be able to go to their rooms and entertain themselves (without the computer, iPad, or phone). I’m raising them with slightly less benign neglect as I was used to, but only slightly. Because I do want them to be independent and self-sufficient. I want them to figure things out on their own. But I also want them to know that coming to me in an emergency is an option. Which is maybe what Gen X couldn’t count on in our youth. Not necessarily because our parents didn’t care (I know some would say they didn’t, but I believe my parents did), but because I couldn’t just text them if something happened, and what could they do from across town anyway? Still, I lived in a neighborhood where I knew who was home and who I could count on if it came to that. That’s not so much a given anymore. And I always counted on myself first and foremost. Not out of pride. More out of an aversion to causing trouble for others. Out of the idea that figuring it out myself was a better option than going next door and bothering Mr. Kirkpatrick. I think I would have had to be close to dying before I’d have done that.
Where was I going with all this? I don’t know. After reading articles about how this is Gen X’s big moment, I just think: eh. Quarantine is maybe easier for us because we are so adaptable, and so many of us self-isolate anyway. But maybe that’s just true of introverts in general. Then again, being self-sufficient and figuring out how to do things when the usual ways don’t work seems to be in our nature. We’re problem solvers and innovators. And we know how to keep ourselves entertained, with or without technology. Damn, I wish I still had my roller skates…