A few months ago I attended a little dinner party to celebrate my then-boyfriend’s birthday. The scene: two couples at a known Greenwich Village Italian restaurant where the food is about 62 percent as good as the pricetag would suggest, but the remaining 38 percent can be justified by the frequent celebrity sightings and the scent of peonies blasting from the gigantic arrangements populating the place. There was a mink stole present. You get the picture.
I’m making fun of the place, but I had a lovely evening, the food was good, the company delightful, and all was right with the world. Then the bill came, and owning that this was my boyfriend’s birthday, I reached for the bill. And the funniest thing happened: Everyone at the party — in unison — shouted, “No!” and the the tab was quickly split by my boyfriend and the husband. I mean, my boyfriend paid for his own veal rollatini on his own birthday. I felt a little humiliated. This isn’t Europe, for crying out loud! In the United States, other people treat you on your birthday. Yet this national custom was broken that night. Why?
First, I convinced myself that no, I did not dress like a hobo. Then I considered that there were a couple of outstanding factors at play:
First, maybe it was a gender thing. After all, in the other couple, I happen to know that the wife makes at least double that of her husband, yet he’s the one who attacked the bill with the AmEx card. So there’s that dudes-paying quotient.
Also, age. I was the youngest of the group, as the others were about five, 10 and 20 years my senior. There are plenty of social situations where it is an unspoken rule that the young’uns of the group are covered. Like when college students or interns are dining with real adults. I’m a 35-year-old professional divorced mother of two with a mortgage and a chip on my shoulder about the disconnect between the amount of taxes I pay and the state of public education in this country. Pretty sure I qualify as an adult.
The last piece of the puzzle – the explanation that I’m clinging to – is that I’m a single mom. This other couple knew all about my family, and that I’m a freelance writer (which also screams ‘POVERTY!’) . But all four of us work in media, so I have an idea what people earn, and I estimate that I make more than two of the other three in our party. Of course, my boyfriend knew what I make and played along with this whole show even though when it was just the two of us was quite sensitive and fair about paying on dates (more on this in another post).
The bottom line: Everyone assumed I’m a poor single mom, felt sorry for me, and denied me the satisfaction of participating in a cultural tradition that is normally a benign expression of generosity, love and getting toasted on one’s birthday.
Another way of looking at it: Joke’s on them, and I’m laughing all the way to the gym with my overpriced (but free to me) meal gurgling in my gut.
But neither stance tells the whole story, does it? Because in addition to that meal in question, as the only member of our party with young children, I was the only one also paying a babysitter $13 per hour. And I was the only one forced to do a quick mental calculation to figure that it was worth spending $20 on a carbide home to save the 45 minutes it would take on the train, so as not to pay the sitter the extra hour. And was the only one who paid the emotional tax of not putting my children to bed that evening, or would fork over the energy surcharge of getting up twice in the night to comfort stirring kids who missed their mom.
So why don’t I just shut up and say to these nice people, “Thank you” ?
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.