On Being Multiple People

With me, it’s always complicated. I have to bridge various identities that don’t seem to connect and that frustrate the people that occupy the spaces within those identities. One of those people is my fiancé. We’ve known each other since junior high, when he was a wise-cracking cool kid and I was the freakish smart girl in a failing, extremely poor neighborhood. We always talked, but I went off to Stanford for college and he stayed home and finished school there. I was an outlier in my community, the first in my family to go to college, and while he and I share that in common, Stanford and the elite institutions were a whole different world that I had to become accustomed too. When a very small percentage of the place you live has people who look, talk, act, and think like you, and a majority of the campus comes from a world that seems foreign, even if it is only three hours away from your parent’s house, it’s a little weird. None of my friends from back home understood what it was like, and when they visited they were so horrified that many of them wept through the visit, including my now-fiancé. My Stanford friends respected where I came from but didn’t understand it either, and I often found myself acting as the poster child for people in poverty everywhere. When the two meet each other, it usually ends poorly, with hurt feelings on all sides. My friends from home think my Stanford friends are pretentious at best and bigoted at worse, and of course, in their way they are right. They are playing out the cultural scripts laid out for them, although all of my friends are good people who attempt to go beyond that; it’s the primary criteria for being my friend. My Stanford friends think my friends from back home are strange and edgy. We have a nasty wit streak that they should expect by now, but apparently it hits them in the face when there is more than one of us in an area. Also, they don’t understand the dialect I speak when in the presence of my own kind.

Dating in this environment was complicated. And further complicated by the fact I was raised by crazy progressive, rocker cool parents who are secular and white. I had no stated community, I could belong nowhere, but on the bright side my mom’s final statement to me on graduation was that I had accomplished everything she wanted: I had gotten the best education possible and I also hated yuppies. Thanks Mom. Because I am white, people assume that I come from a privileged background and this usually makes for awkward party interactions wherein someone says something bigoted in front of me and I—being the ghetto B girl that I am—tear them a new asshole. You’d think that they would learn that bigotry isn’t a way into a lady’s heart, but this was shockingly common. I took up drinking in college to tolerate the social scene. But I did date in college. I dated douchebags from privileged backgrounds who thought I was exotic and confirmation of why capitalism works. I dated working-class boys whose accent would come out when they drank, and drank often they did. I dated granola loving hippies who thought they were the most brilliant thing on the planet and who wore flannel, but who became annoyed and couldn’t deal with my family, who besides being brilliant and beautiful and loud also have all the trappings of poverty, which means early pregnancy, drug use, early death, violence, and military service. I wasn’t ashamed of where I came from, I wore it like a badge of honor and didn’t try to hide it, in fact, if anything I was louder about it than necessary. But I think some men saw this as a fun and exotic challenge. And I think a few of them were being honest about loving me, but were incapable of being strong enough to fully embody what that meant.

So, after the hippie and I went up in flames because he just couldn’t deal with the fact that I was never going to be anything but edgy, and I couldn’t deal with the fact that he cried all the time, I made a decision. I decided that I needed a working-class boy who was educated. Preferably one from a community similar to mine. I knew two. One of those two is my current fiancé. After a rocky road in the fall, where I made some drunken mistakes, he finally got me to settle down and commit (and stop drinking). And because we had been friends for so long, I knew I had to do it correctly. Because if nothing else, this was one of my oldest friends, and where I come from those bonds are forged in blood. So, if we were going to be together it had to be really serious.

But that didn’t change the fact that I still had to bridge the two worlds. Like the good Stanford student that I am, I had an epic plan for life. But when you commit to someone, you commit to building two lives, so for the first time ever I was seriously taking into account someone else’s needs and preferences. So I moved. I took a job that ultimately injured me and that I hated because it was what was best for us. As my friends saw me drink less and make these decisions, the Stanford kiddos among them became really upset. This was not how things were done, but it was how I was going to do things. I got injured and really sick in the fall, years of stress accumulated, and I found out I had a genetic disorder that stopped me from working. So, now the plan is up in the air. At the same time, my fiancé and I started having serious discussions, setting timelines and working out sticky questions about how things would work. We combined finances, moved forward. Because our relationship moved forward even while my career didn’t. And this turned out to be the most radical decision I could make. But at the end of the day, there is this: my career won’t bring me tea in bed, or make sure that I have Coca-Cola for my migraines, or tell me to go back to bed when I should, or hold me when I am feeling hopeless about the changes that happened to my body. But he will. There is comfort in the fact that when he holds me and says he understands, he really does. That we will never have the fight about whether or not he can handle my roots, because my roots are his and we both think our roots are beautiful. There is a part of me that is always both, but what I learned from my Mom’s remarriage (my mom divorced twice, the second time resulted in a man imprisoned for the abuse of her two eldest daughters, i.e., me and my older sister), was that the right love truly makes us better. The right love is the love that makes the struggle full of joy.

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  • Karen

    This was very well written, thank you for sharing your perspective and being vulnerable with us. It is a hard thing to live in multiple worlds. It takes a lot of courage and the ability to be self reflective to see what is happening in a clear, level-headed way. Kudos to you for quitting drinking and being able to figure out what was the best decision for you and your life.

  • Thank you for sharing this. My husband is the first in his family to go to college and the first to get married in a non-shotgun wedding (in three generations) and so much of this rings true.

  • “But at the end of the day, there is this: my career won’t bring me tea in bed, or make sure that I have Coca-Cola for my migraines, or tell me to go back to bed when I should, or hold me when I am feeling hopeless about the changes that happened to my body. But he will.”

    This is so, so true. Our families, our partners – those are the people who take care of us when life is rough. A career can bring fulfillment, yes, but it isn’t what matters in life.

    • How about: Your career won’t leave you for a younger, hotter career.
      Why do women always have this false choice: Career or love. We don’t ask men to make this choice. You’ll never hear a man that quote. Why can’t we have both? Because we force each other to choose from a false choice.

  • RS

    This was incredibly relatable to me. I come from a poor, white, rural area, and my family were just as poor as anyone else in it. They were also extremely smart, liberal hippie types who had made some bad financial decisions over the years. The other trailer park kids could smell this on me, essentially, and many treated me with suspicion and hostility. I would always accidentally use the wrong word or express the wrong idea, and they’d know I didn’t fit.

    When I moved in high school and made middle class friends, they took me as one of their own and then were baffled when I didn’t have the material things they did, or had been through things they considered terrifying (one boyfriend asked me, when I lamented my lack of transportation, “why doesn’t your mom just buy you a car?”).

    As this writer expressed, in my adult life people assume that I’m from a middle class background because of the way I speak, and yes, because of the color of my skin, as non-PC as that may sound. When they find out I’m not, some of them act said they don’t want to accept it, because it doesn’t fit within one of their preconceived categories of people and upbringings. I am certain that I am guilty of this, too, with others. I was just so glad to see this concept written about, to know that I’m not the only one. The writer did an excellent job, too.

    • meg

      Yes. So much of this. Including the twist of the liberal hippie parents, which further complicates things. You learn duality by about seven that way.

    • Rebecca

      Are you my secret twin? This sounds exactly like my life. I am still resolving some of these thoughts and feelings, but sometimes the incongruence of my present and former lives just smacks me in the face. The house I live in now, the one my fiance and I bought less than a year ago, would have been beyond my wildest dreams as a child. In fact, I remember being a kid and being somewhat aware of how poor my family was at times, but it’s the experiences of the present that give those memories an edge. When I was a kid, we would often visit my mom’s sister who was just so perfectly middle class. Her kids had piano lessons and their own bedrooms. There were prepackaged snacks in the house. All of the clothes weren’t homemade. The house was big with a lovely lawn (like, with actual grass and plants that had been planted with deliberation and not just colorful weeds). I wanted so much to live in that house, and now, in a way, I do. I marvel at this often, but it also makes me nervous in a way that my fiance (always middle class, never poor) doesn’t understand.

      • Katey

        I, too, marvel at the house I currently live in with my husband. When friends come from my hometown in Oregon to visit, I feel irrational embarrassment that I outwardly appear to have become one of “those people.” I also worry that my son won’t appreciate the values I grew up with, and will take for granted the privileges he will have as a result of my choosing a different path than those of my friends.

        A book that has helped me process some of these feelings is called “Limbo: Blue-collar Roots, White-collar Dreams.”


        It helped me appreciate the larger magnitude of this duality and begin to consider how it will influence the way I raise my children, particularly given that my husband comes from a solidly middle-class family.

        • Class of 1980

          Whoa! We just mentioned that same book below. Highly recommend it.

          • Katey

            It really was a great book! I will have to find the other two you recommended. It is rare to come across others who share this experience and are vocal about it.

          • Class of 1980


            Go to http://www.joebageant.com and you can read a bunch of his essays and order his books.

            He died recently from cancer, but I think he was a great voice on the subject of poor rural whites.

        • Class of 1980

          On the house thing …

          We know a lot of people living in very large lodge-style houses here in the mountains. Two friends who are my age both live in that type of house.

          They both went to high school in the same semi-rural small town. One friend told me that some of their old friends from high school complained that the other friend had put up a picture of her large house on Facebook. It’s the first thing you see if you go to her page.

          The old high school friend said “Do you know how that makes some of us feel when we’re living in trailers and struggling to make ends meet?”

          Both women have been financially comfortable for years, but it was the “in your face” aspect on Facebook that created bad feelings towards one and not the other.

          • That sounds a lot like Rachel’s post this month about the internet breeding negativity. This month’s celebration of the Good is a timely reminder that other people’s successes (of any type) do not reflect on our own.

        • Amy

          Wow, that just nailed it for me. My family was very solidly middle class growing up as was my husbands, but due to education/work we’re living a much more upper-middle class lifestyle (and live in a fancy suburb that propagates some of these fears ). I worry quite a bit about the values my son will grow up with and how to make sure he’s ‘normal’ when the social norms around us are all about things that simply weren’t normal for us as kids (international travel as children, multiple sports leagues, expensive private lessons for just about everything, etc.). I struggle with wanting to give him these experiences while not leading him to expect them. Honestly, I see a lot of volunteer work in our future as a way to instill the notion that not everyone lives this way.

          • Katey

            I have similar thoughts about volunteer work! I want my son to interact with those who have not had the same opportunities without feeling guilt. I want him to understand that having these privileges results in a responsibility to assist those who did not receive them, all while respecting their values and worth as people. The most frustrating thing I see with my husband’s family is the assumption that people who struggle are ‘less’ than those who went to college and/or have salaried, white-collar jobs.

            I work with students who are attempting to be the first in their families to go to college, and one of the biggest struggles for them is to respect their parents and the path they chose while simultaneously doing everything in their power to avoid the same fate.

        • Rebecca

          I will have to check that book out. And I am so with you on the irrational embarrassment front. I actually didn’t have a housewarming party and didn’t post gratuitous photos of the house when we moved because of that.

          • Not Sarah

            I didn’t post photos of my condo online after I bought the place, but I did have a housewarming party. I almost didn’t because I too felt embarrassed about the milestone, but I decided that was ridiculous and it was something worth celebrating. Thankfully, none of my friends here would make me suffer from irrational embarrassment or guilt for something like that.

        • DriverB

          I just stumbled here and I loved this entry, but also? That book changed my life. It is the story of me. When I first read it a few years ago, I bawled my face off. Of course I haven’t resolved everything that it brought up for me; that will probably take a lifetime! But just knowing that there was a good, concrete reason for my struggles, and that other people shared in that, was a godsend.

          • Katey

            I was right there with you! It was such a relief to realize there is a larger cultural context for the things I have experienced. I also found comfort in knowing there are others like us. :-)

      • Staria

        My gosh! I relate to so much in the article and the comments!

        First, similarly to the article – when all my friends around me were getting married and having kids and I was just not meeting anyone despite my best efforts, I made a decision that I would move interstate (1000 k’s) back to where I grew up – back to a regional area of around 40,000 people compared to the city of 330,000 that I was living in. I had a feeling I would have better luck there. I did. I met the most wonderful man, who it turns out went to primary school with people I went to high school and was friends with. We grew up living half an hour’s drive apart. I had driven past his family’s farm to get to my friend’s house! His dad taught with my mum’s friend who is the dad of a girl I went all the way through school with! And we think similarly in many ways – he gets my mix of on-the-farm and hippie-philosophy upbringing, because he had a similar one.

        Where I am getting a similar feeling from the comments. His family is a bit better off than mine – mine are distinctly working class and mostly not traditionally educated, with lots of tradies and military people. He feels ok just earning enough to get by and living in an older house (which his family helped him buy and is tough for him to afford, but he likes having his own place). I can’t stand a house that doesn’t work well/can’t regulate temperature well, so I rent a newer house, and I always want to earn as much money as possible, because I just don’t want to go back to living in a hosue that’s uncomfortable and doesn’t work well. I have done it and I don’t need to do it again. I honestly think it’s that difference in our backgrounds that leads us to these choices.

    • Heather

      My parental situation is further complicated by the fact that both of them were on really hard core drugs (meth) when I was younger. So even though my mom is brilliant, and even though she is well-read, I still had to struggle with that reality (among other things, like her abhorent taste in men when I was a child which put me in an incredibly difficult situation where I was sexually, emotionally and physically abused). In many ways, I had it harder than any one else in my neighborhood, not that I want to play Suffering Olympics, which I don’t but just to say that I had advantages and disadvantages and people’s perceptions of my reality have been incredibly difficult to combat.

      • I’m sorry to hear about the abuse. FWIW, your willingness to write your story honestly is very heartening. I think you’re a brave lady :)

        • I second! You are very brave indeed. I hate that we have to feel bad about feeling bad (…don’t want to play Suffering Olympics). Thank you for sharing. Internet hugs.

    • Blue

      YES. To the original article, and most especially your comment. I was the first person in my “white trash” rural family to go to college. I hooked up with other artsy kids who all had trust funds and stock portfolios and parents who went to Europe on vacation. They were good people but I might as well have been from a whole other planet to them. They weren’t trying to be condescending or bigoted, they just literally did not comprehend that places like the impoverished rural area that I grew up in could still exist. I remember once, when my best friend and I had rented our first off campus apartment, and he spent his monthly allowance on something frivolous instead of on putting down a deposit on the utilities to the tune of 1500 dollars…and he couldn’t understand that I couldn’t just call my dad and have him wire me the money, because my parents didn’t MAKE 1500 dollars in a month at that point.

  • EB

    This grabbed me from the beginning. You’re so tough and real!

    • Heather

      Thank you! Always just tryin’ to keep it real.

  • KM

    YES. I have had a similar experience – with the added element that I’m gay and grew up in a poor rural, conservative community. My wife and I grew up in that same community, went to the same high school with no resources but brilliant dedicated teachers, struggled as first generation college students at different out-of-state colleges where we both had to deal for the first time with people from real wealth and oblivious privilege, and found our way back to each other (well actually, I *pursued* her, because I have excellent taste). We’ve both since gone on to privileged graduate degrees and started building our careers in big cities far from our hometown.

    It is one of the strongest ties that binds us, that we do not have to explain to each other how our families and hometown have shaped and influenced us, and how living in dramatically different communities of privilege has built our character – because we both ‘contain multitudes’ and have developed the adaptability to exist from and within all our experiences.

    It was a relief during the wedding planning process, as it has been at several stages of life, to understand that we were feeling the same tension about our wedding being “too flashy” for our hometown community and families but simultaneously “too cheap” to other friends we had made along the way. With a few rare exceptions, this turned out to be more of our internalized concerns about pulling everyone from our varied experiences together for the first time (because, as the writer above notes – grace and thoughtfulness is a requirement to be on our VIP list), but it was enormously comforting that this was so instinctively understood between us.

    My wife is now living and working abroad on a one-year contract in extremely difficult circumstances doing work that has the potential to do incredible good, while I continue in a privileged job that brings me no joy and look for rewarding work that will pay me much less. Friends and family on both sides of these experiences think our choices are crazy. Hell, we do too, sometimes. But we rarely have to explain to each other how we got here. And I am so grateful for that shared starting point in our ongoing discussion about where we are headed together.

    • meg

      God, just, exactly to all of this. The wedding, the ties that bind, the whole whole thing.

    • Heather

      Yes, yes and yes.

    • “Friends and family on both sides of these experiences think our choices are crazy.”

      Yes to that! I think some of our choices are seen this way too, or maybe just seen as “quirky” and atypical. But we like them and are on the same page, so that’s the important thing.

  • Sabee

    ““But at the end of the day, there is this: my career won’t bring me tea in bed, or make sure that I have Coca-Cola for my migraines, or tell me to go back to bed when I should, or hold me when I am feeling hopeless about the changes that happened to my body. But he will.”

    Indeed. I think it takes more courage and commitment to realize that than we often admit to ourselves. That the things in our lives, though important, aren’t what define our lives or our marriages. The real glue is love.

    Thank you for sharing! I’ve been feeling this tug-of-war for a while.

  • Hillary Clinton

    I identify with this so much. I grew up in a trailer in the woods with holes in the floor big enough for possums to come through, and now I work on the 23rd floor of a high-rise. Life’s funny. I never really feel like I completely fit anywhere, but the good part is that I fit kind of, with a lot more people.

    • meg

      “I never really feel like I completely fit anywhere, but the good part is that I fit kind of, with a lot more people.”

      • Class of 1980

        Well, it’s uncomfortable a lot, but it also makes you more aware of the realities of chance in life … and more empathetic probably.

    • Heather

      I like this. You kind of become a chameleon. You learn to code switch. Its a good and important life skill that I am incredibly grateful to have, especially as an aspiring teacher in urban schools.

  • Laura

    This is a beautiful piece. I’ve seen the same dynamics play out in my parents’ relationship. Both came from impoverished, white, rural farming families. They met during college and bonded for many of the same reasons you describe. They share the same roots, and it’s part of their strong marriage bond.

    A generation later, I find myself having to bridge even more worlds and forge an identity that includes all of them. There’s my decidedly middle class upbringing (albeit, an upbringing that occurred in a rural, impoverished area); my private college world with so many friends seemingly unaware of their privilege; and my graduate program in an even more elite private institution; and my parents’ impoverished hometowns and roots. Add my husband, whose parents were raised in an upper middle class suburban lifestyle, and there are a lot of selves to merge.

    But what’s beautiful to me is that I am a product of these many interwoven strands of history. My parents’ histories, my grandparents’ histories, and now my husband’s history. All of those people have imprinted me with their prides, faults, quirks, and prejudices. I am who I am because they are who they are.

  • This is as beautiful as it is real. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • I was born in a working class family who became middle class by the time I was about 15. I have a very well spoken southern accent which means people always assume I have a more middle class background than I do. At school I was not as middle class as the middle class kids or as working class as the working class kids. I am proud of it though, even if it took a lot of time. I’ve had criticism for being too much of both in my time but I do love my family and that always wins out.

    My husband has a completely different background to me, but his was complicated in entirely different ways. We are still learning to understand those differences I think, but we can see the person they resulted in and we both have the same values from that (for the most part) and that matters.

    But this post kind of resonated with me. And made me see some things clearly (like how I had a completely different upbringing to my siblings who are considerably older and what that means) so thank you very much for writing it. It really hit home and I need to think about it an awful lot more.

    • That place of hovering between classes is its own sort of confusing. I can’t really complain because honestly I’ve always had “enough” – but never enough to fit in with my friends who had money, and never enough to fit with those who didn’t. It makes it hard to relate sometimes when you’re being treated as if your experiences are so vastly different from what they actually were.

      • I can’t exactly this enough Sheryl!

  • I know all about duality and being more than one person, although for different reasons than you describe. This post was beautiful and so thought-provoking; thank you for sharing!

  • KC

    I wish there was a guide to class migration (including geographical differences, since East coast vs. West coast vs. Midwest vs. [I presume] Southern are just not at all the same thing, let alone bringing other countries into it). I came from a confused, multi-cultural, multi-class household and haven’t gotten unconfused yet (for lo, I am not savvy like Meg). It would especially be useful to know expectations; I ran into that with our wedding (“but the only proper way is to…” – with totally conflicting information from tons of different people of different classes, generations, and home cultures), and I continue to run into it in regular life (live example: which groups/sorts/ages of people expect hostess gifts at which sorts of events?), and ideally one wishes to avoid accidentally offending people (they don’t know you don’t know their rules… see the comments on the bridal shower post for how easy it is to do something considered shockingly rude by some while doing the thing considered ideal by others), while also avoiding running around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to do all the things all the time.

    Anyway, thank you very much for this post. (I also hope you feel better soon and that you find more than enough grace and courage and humor and all other good things for the rocky parts of navigating illness; even with an awesome non-career bringing you things in bed, being sick sucks)

    • meg

      I don’t know if I’m unconfused. I just learned to go undercover (sort of the hard way, like, people will not accept you if you’re not undercover). I don’t like it very much, I just got good at it by about 30. I think being married to someone from home, and never having to pretend within my own home really helps, though.

      It’s just such a tough thing, and it often feels like there are so few of us going through it… and it takes awhile to find the other people… because they’re all undercover too.

      • KC

        I totally wasn’t meaning to imply that you’ve got it all together or that it all makes sense to you or is comfortable to you… but if you have the ability to go undercover, you truly are one step ahead of me. :-)

        (as I flail around online for the “rules” for reception apparel and behavior and hostess gifts and try to guess which culture each piece of information is coming from and whether that matches the culture of the people hosting the events in question and… yeah. Did you know that in a lot of cultures you’re supposed to find the hostess and say goodbye when you leave a party, no matter how large and loosely-formed that party is or how insanely busy she is? I totally didn’t, and have probably been offending busy hostesses for years [so *that’s* why some people would occasionally wend their way all the way through our crowded living room, away from the front door, to the kitchen, and try to shake my hand as I’m taking more munchables out of a hot oven to let me know they’re leaving instead of saying goodbye to whoever they were last talking to and just leaving! Aha!]. Oops. Honestly, the general politeness rules “do what you would like best if you were in their shoes” and “do what seems like it would be most convenient/ideal for them” do not totally work if your starting assumptions are sufficiently different, although I think they’re still good places to start, along with “interpret everything charitably as far as possible”. But “send flower arrangements to the funeral if someone in their family died, even if you never met the person who died” is beyond me being able to guess it. And although I do grasp the whole “social stuff increases in monetary cost as the income of the group increases” thing, more or less (I think this is how it works maybe?), there’s also some serious cognitive dissonance in spending more on just my part of a celebrate-a-friend’s-achievement dinner out than I used to spend per month on food, total. As I said, I wish there was some sort of guide to these things and which things are offensive and which are ideal and which are optional in which groups and subgroups, generally…)

        • meg

          Mmm hum. Yeah this all took me FOREVER to learn. Well, not this stuff specifically, but all the class gaps that weren’t filled in. It’s complicated if you look a certain way. Because of my skin color/ education/ whatever, people just assume I was raised upper middle class, which can be exhausting, and confusing, and… offensive. You live with your hackles up half the time, and no real way to explain why to people.

          • KC

            Rather than having hackles up, I’m more of a confused and hunted rabbit, but I think that’s probably a personality difference in response to similar stimuli (and probably equally baffling to people as I skitter and dodge).

            For me, the worst of it is that I don’t know what other class gaps there are (and what important-to-me-peoples’ feelings are being hurt by my doing/not doing something expected by their culture; pretentious dude gets offended by the incorrect use of a fork, I don’t care [okay, unless job prospects are on the line]; but awesome friend thinks I don’t care about her because I do or don’t do X [which is significant in her culture and not in mine], that’s a problem), and I don’t know how to find out about those gaps, really.

            … so… maybe you could write your next book on how to do class migration without buying into *everything*, like you wrote a book on how to have a wedding without the WIC? That would be pretty awesome.

      • And class is such a silent thing in our society (the US). Completely not discussed. We’re all supposed to be able to make it to the comfortable middle class… but that’s such a fiction.

        Thank you for posting this.

    • Emilie

      Yes to including geographical differences!

  • My best friend and I talk about this all the time. We come from a tiny place. My father’s home was literally a utility shed that had running water but no indoor toilet. I worked in a sawmill from the time I was 9. She has vivid memories of her mother, dying of breast cancer, counting out $20 bills, trying to figure out which bills to pay that month.

    She now takes fabulous vacations (is in Egypt this week) and has an incredible life; I have a PhD and have an incredible life. Sometimes it is inconceivable that we have made it to these places, and sometimes it is difficult. When I got married last year, she and I had a lot of very hard conversations because to be honest, she felt like my husband…sweet, gentle, kind man that he is…was a step backward for me…like while he has some of the same background that I have, he hasn’t carried himself as far away from it as I have. Some of those conversations were ugly and painful.

    And some of the conversations I had to have with my husband were painful. It’s not that I wanted to change him. It’s that the things that he said he wanted for us and our family weren’t necessarily compatible with where he was.

    We were with some friends just this past weekend–friends we hadn’t seen since our wedding–and I was surprised to hear him say that he’d had to make some hard choices about what was and was not compatible with his life. That the drinking and the drugging and the running around wasn’t something he could participate in or be around or condone anymore…it was a part of his past and making that choice meant that he’d lost friends (that was the surprising part because we hadn’t discussed that piece of it).

  • Class of 1980

    I have a book somewhere on this subject and can’t remember the name of it. It’s about people who were the first in their families to go to college. Some of the families objected to their plans and some supported them. And it’s about what it’s like to live in one world while coming from another.

    Also good reading from Joe Bageant about growing up rural and poor and then being middle-class as an adult, plus the invisible white underclass:

    Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War

    Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir

    If nothing else, people who have this experience grow up to be a lot more sensitive and aware I think.

  • Anonymous Coward

    Class is hard to talk about, mmkay? Limbo, referenced above, is one of many books and articles I’ve been reading recently on the topic. I only really started to explore my own relationship with class background a few years ago, when I was dating someone who grew up differently from me. We clashed over and over on issues related to our worldviews on money, family, and culture; eventually we broke up because we just didn’t have that much in common.

    This paramour was raised working-class, was one of the few in his extended family to attend college, definitely the only one to go to graduate school. Now he has an MBA and works in the tech industry and makes a bunch of money. His attitude toward managing it is that you might die before you get to go on your big vacation, so you’d better go now instead of paying off student debt first or saving for retirement instead. (Still pay off debt and save, but don’t prioritize it above living well.)

    I was raised upper-middle class by one parent who’d grown up that way and one who’d had an upwardly mobile experience a bit like my paramour. It was expected that I would attend college and probably grad school, as both of my parents did. As a kid, I didn’t have to go without. I wasn’t really interested in *things* or *stuff*, though, so I didn’t ask for a lot and my privilege went largely unexplored until after I graduated college. Now I work in the service sector (making decent white-collar money), am finishing graduate school (which I worked and paid my way through) and have no debt. I hate debt, so I’ve given up a lot to get out from under it. My wife and I live on a small budget and save like crazy because we have goals we want to meet in the next 5 years AND because my attitude toward savings is that you can never really have enough. I have a strong fear of eating cat food in my later years (still trying to figure out why), and because we are both on track to be public servants with middling wages, I know we need to be saving for retirement NOW.

    My wife grew up without a lot of money or power, pursued education to the extent possible (couldn’t attend her choice of college despite being accepted and offered scholarships because it was too expensive, so worked her way through junior college; is now planning to finish her BA and get a teaching certificate), and has a strong family connection and an even stronger work ethic. We have really intense discussions about class and race and privilege, and our financial profiles don’t line up completely, but we’re committed to sharing our goals and the work it takes to reach them. It seems likely that we will raise our own family under circumstances somewhat below where I started and above where she did, and that’s hard for both of us sometimes. But because we can discuss it and work through our issues together… well, that’s why I married her (when similar class issues ended that other relationship).

    • Class of 1980

      That’s it! That’s the book I couldn’t remember.

      Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams

      Great book.

  • Alex

    I understand this. I come from a working class family on the outskirts of a well to do upper middle class town. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college and have an actual career. I went to NYU and that was like a whole other world — and I’m engaged to a man who I went to high school with, completely on the other side of the spectrum. Has well off parents, everyone went to college, everyone has a career. Sometimes it is like living in two worlds. We go to our hometowm and visit his parents where they are part of the local country club and golf, have their second home in Flordia, ect, meanwhile my parents just separated, my mother is fighting a forelosure suit on my childhood home and living off food stamps and my fathers social security, How do you marry (forgive the wording) these two seemingly different worlds? It’s hard to maintain perspective sometimes, but at the end of the day, my fiance loves me for me, and despite our difference we;re creating a new world and future together, with our own experiences.

  • This is just one facet of the topic at hand, but I am constantly glad my husband and I grew up in similar households when it came to cleanliness. While his childhood home seems to have only been cluttered or messy and mine was more like an episode of Hoarders complete with the vermin, we both have a mutual dislike of mess and also an ability to live within it. I don’t have to feel terrible if the kitchen becomes a hot mess and he’s always willing to get off the couch and clean for an hour when my tolerance for mess swings like a pendulum.

    Its small, but being comfortable that my husband doesn’t condemn me for coming from a bad place nor that on occasion the laundry covers the entire bedroom floor, is priceless.

  • ferrous

    Great post! I’m also from an impoverished background (military, abuse, etc), my high school had metal detectors and drive-by shootings. Then I went to Yale; I’m also a POC. Going to the Ivies was like entering a different universe, and race added a whole ‘nother layer… but back to topic, YES, I totally understand the drive to find a working class guy. I feel so lucky to have found my partner, who has a background so similar to mine, who is also now educated. We understand coming from that world, compared to the world we now live in. Thanks for reminding me how much that means to me.

  • Not Sarah

    My parents paid for my college in full – I never even saw the money. Neither of my parents went to college (but my dad’s parents both did). We were never poor, but my mom was always careful with the money and I respected that they were paying for school and I saved a lot of my summer job money throughout college. I even took extra courses when I figured out the sixth one each semester was free and didn’t even think about the fact that it wasn’t me that was paying, I still made it cheaper. I found used textbooks instead of new ones, had cheap rent ($350/month with utilities the last few terms!), and only went home occasionally.

    I was in this strange place in between people whose parents paid for college and those who didn’t. I didn’t have any student loans, but I wasn’t spending crazy amounts of money either like “the rich kids” were. I remember one of my boyfriends in college who was paying his tuition with loans, spent a ridiculous amount of money on coffee and I couldn’t understand how he would do that when he had loans that would cost him money in interest. Or another boyfriend who didn’t even have to for pay rent or food while working OR in school (I paid for my own food past the first year) who dwiddled his money away. He even got an allowance. I remember watching him try to figure out if he had enough money to make it through eight months without a non-parental income until graduation and it just boggled my mind. I was raised that no matter how much money you have, you still don’t need to spend excessively.

    Now, post-college, being in a world where everyone makes more money than even my parents did is mind boggling at how some people can spend it. I remember going home for Christmas and one of my cousins having the same designer jeans that I have, but she makes minimum wage. It’s so hard to find a partner who was raised in a similar environment to you when you’ve moved around so much and to a different country. And honestly, I think that’s been the root of many of my difficult relationships – being raised in different “cultures”, in different environments. It’s not like I wasn’t raised with parents with similar incomes to mine now, but there are so many people around me that just spend it all. Different life priorities, I guess.

    Watching other people pay for weddings…it’s strange. I don’t see why I would spend more than $200 on a dress or more than what I can save for a wedding in 2-3 months. A honeymoon shouldn’t cost any more than a normal vacation. I would be perfectly happy getting married in my parents’ backyard and I don’t see why I would buy a $600,000 condo like one of my friends thinks is normal.

  • Resonated with me as well. Really nicely written. I have a couple things to add.

    Be happy. None of what those people think is going to matter one single bit (whether they are rich, poor, snarky, intellectual) when you are 66 and your knees are going and the most exciting thing in your day might be what kind of scones they have at the bakery across the street. By then many of your college buddies, and even some of the growing-up buddies, will be long moved on into their respective roles in life. Some might increase bigotry and evolve into hatred. Some might learn new things about how the world functions.

    But only one will be bringing you coca cola in bed.

    Lovey and I are root-culturally different. He is Trinidadian and I a Mutt, previously very poor, American. Over time I have come to cherish every second I can possibly find not only with him, but with his parents.
    See, his parents grew up in Trinidad. By our standards, extremely poor. Through that American Dream they have succeeded in becoming extremely well off.

    But they couldn’t care less. When they are near you, you’ll immediately forget about your life challenges and worries and whether or not you said the “wrong” thing at the “wrong” party or made the “wrong” career choice.
    If you try to talk to them about it they will make a face at you and wave it off and say “it is only money. Do what you believe in. Here’s why…” and then enrapture you with a fascinating story of struggle and achievement and disappointment. When you complain that your job is not right they say “it is only right now. Get yourself pointed in the right direction and the rest will fall into place…”and then they will re-direct you toward discussing something beautifully simple and wonderful like the merits of Turmeric and accepting people that rub you as they are. Because my lovey’s parents know poor. And they know rich. But all they care about is achieving happiness.

    Be the most badass, witty, sharp you you can be. The rest will fall into place. In the meantime you have exactly the right idea in cherishing the beauty in small things.

  • C

    Like many other commenters, I found this post very relatable, and I really apprec

    On an (admittedly somewhat silly level), this is one of the things that concerns me most about the wedding. I don’t want my friends and family from my hometown to think that I’m spending too much on the wedding (but I suspect some of them will regardless of what I do), and I know that some of my college friends will likely think it frumpy and too casual, regardless of what I do. I don’t think anyone who truly loves me will actually judge me for it, but as a worrier and a people pleaser, it’s a dynamic that I am certainly aware of.

    Two things that have helped me with these fears so far is:
    (1) we are paying for almost everything ourselves. Although there are a number of downsides to this, one positive aspect is that it’s really easy to explain our choices to ourselves (and, where necessary, to others).
    (2) we are making decisions to include things that are reflective of our personalities and values, and I hope people will see that. So, for example, we personally are very excited about our iPod playlist, because we love making iPod playlists together. We personally are excited about our casual invitations, because we like them, and they are designed and produced locally, which is something we value.

    Would be interested to know how others have dealt with similar feelings or concerns in making the plans that are right for them…

  • May

    Oh man. How true this rings. My life has catapulted from one extreme to another. I grew up in the poor immigrant community, the daughter of Chinese academics who fled the communist regime. My parents went from being university lecturers to factory workers and cleaners. Over the years they built our family back up to the point of being what I guess you might call “well off blue collar”. They gave me the best possible education they could, and I grew up to be a middle class professional in my own right. There I stayed for my 20s, proud of what I had achieved but never afraid to reveal where I had come from.

    Then I got engaged to a wealthy man and suddenly I was catapulted into the 1%. These days I barely recognise my life. I don’t understand this world that I now live in, the unspoken rules and etiquette. I don’t understand where I fit; a striving professional in a world of housewives. I am constantly asking my fiancé “don’t you want someone more sophisticated? Someone whose favourite food is not Domino’s pizza?”

    My fiancé is the only part of this whole equation that I am absolutely certain of. He understands the bizarre reality that we live in and is very aware that it’s not normal. He doesn’t care what other people think, and he has never asked me to be anyone bedsides myself. Not my blue collar self, or my middle class self, or my emerging 1% self. The me that makes an enormous mess in the kitchen every time I cook. The me who loves to fling her arms around in the car in some vague approximation of dancing. The me who loves him unreservedly, whole heartedly…. and who receives that love back ten fold every day. He allows me to be my 100% authentic self, for richer or poorer.

    • Not Sarah

      “Someone whose favourite food is not Domino’s pizza?”

      This. No matter how much money my dad made, getting pizza delivery was still a treat. My mom doesn’t like Domino’s though — too much sauce. Panago is much better.

    • The last paragraph you wrote was beautiful.

  • Sam

    Wow, you sound like an absolutely fabulously interesting person! Great post.

  • Itsy Bitsy

    Love this.

    I grew up middle class (mid vs lower mid? I have no idea) and while we were blessedly confortable growing up, my dad had been *poor* when he was a kid so that mindset is something I grew up with. My fiancé’s family is decidedly better off so there are days when it feels like we are very, very different. But for us (obv not for everyone) this difference has helped us a lot. He has helped ease my anxiety about money and helped me learn to spend wisely rather than not spend at all, all the while pointing back at my ability to live on less as a serious strength. “See? We can do it if we have to. You’ve helped us do it before.”

    All this is not to detract from the OP’s (beautifully made) point. Having someone understand where you’re coming from is really a big deal. I just happened to luck out finding someone who was so invested in figuring it out. Despite my different experience, this has gotten me thinking about my own feelings on duplicity in a way I was never really able to articulate it before. So thank you, thank you.

  • Sabee

    Class is such an uncomfortable thing, isn’t it? Trying to bridge the gaps and embrace your past and present, and the people from then and now, all at once, can be quite the challenge. I know I’m echoing a lot of other people, but thank you for showing us a graceful example.

    This post resonated with me for a lot of reasons. I’m single, so it remains to be seen how I’ll navigate the whole roots vs. present vs. future balancing act with a spouse. But I’m still witnessing it/struggling with it in my singledom. My mother has been married three times, going from an ill-advised match with some who shared her poor, rural Mississippi roots (but not her ambition to distance herself from them) to an ambitious middle-class businessman (my dad) to a wealthy lawyer who is determined to have the best that money can buy. Now, let me be clear that I don’t think your income or education have anything to do with your character, and being wealthy is not a character flaw.
    BUT. I’m so sick of this cultural noise that says we’re supposed to do better/have more than our parents. Also, I’m also tired of being made to feel guilty because my parents “gave me every opportunity” to “make something of myself” and I…..squandered it. What’s more, I don’t want what they have. I feel out of place in this ritzy suburb, with it’s giant houses, luxury cars, private schools, and revolving parade of glamorous parties. It’s not for me. It’s not my goal. I got in a stupid tiff with my mother because I said I didn’t care to know how to set a table for a formal, multi-course dinner party. She said I might need to know how. And I said I didn’t want to be part of a social circle that would gossip because I put the silverware in the wrong order.
    I’m also irritated that she seems to have forgotten, practically over night, what it’s like to be poor (like I am now, and we were when she was a single parent).
    But, I don’t want to go back to the rural, dead-end community I was raised in either. I’ve chosen to study something that will land me a solidly middle class job, where I won’t have to work myself to the bone to keep the lights on, and will still have a little money left over to spend on things I actually do care about. And I want to socialize with whoever I damn well please. It’s not my goal to “marry up” or fit in with the rich kids. And while I admire people who can navigate different worlds gracefully, I wish it were culturally acceptable to opt out of that too.

    • KC

      YES on the more-and-bigger-is-not-necessarily-happier. Being poor enough that you don’t have housing/health security can negatively influence happiness… but so can trying to keep up An Establishment if that’s not your thing.

      I personally prefer to only be friends with people who would not be offended if we didn’t have matching plates (so far: success! Even our upper-class friends don’t blink an eyelash at being seated on weird-and-ancient folding chairs at our place for dinner; honestly, we have an awesome, eclectic, kind collection of friends. Business associates and acquaintances [who are often less charitable] are a bit harder, though, and I have not figured out how to navigate that world.). I don’t quite know where we’ll end up yet either geographically or in terms of strata yet, but I sincerely hope it’s not somewhere where your clothes must be in fashion and your house must be decorated according to the prevailing style and where people would severely judge your silverware choices, etc. (and please, please let it not be somewhere where it’s considered lazy and sloppy to not put makeup on before you get the paper from your front porch)

      (plus, silverware layout for a multi-course dinner: something you can totally look up if you ever wanted to. I cannot imagine a situation in which that would be a timed, closed-book, not-previously-announced exam.)(knowing which part of a placesetting to use when: more useful to actually know, but still most likely something you can fake by just waiting a second after someone else picks up their fork, as long as there are enough people at the table. :-) )

    • Audrey

      The guilt over not being better off than your parents is really interesting to me as someone on the opposite side of the coin. I feel really guilty that I happen to have interests and strengths that have landed me a solid upper middle class job where I can afford my favorite luxury (eating out often) and generally not have to worry about day to day expenses that come up like car repairs.

      Meanwhile neither of my parents finished college and my mom is about the age where she’d love to retire but financially can’t and has a very small income she uses very frugally. I try to help out here and there but it doesn’t feel right and she doesn’t like having to rely on me. Meanwhile I feel guilty about what I do have.

      Can’t win for trying, I guess?

      • KC

        This is maybe kind of crazy, but could you start (or add to) a tiny retirement account for her? So, it’d be totally your choice how much to put into the future-fund at any given point, but would be her money, her choice what to do with it when she retires, and it’d be a little bit more of a safety net for her, maybe (a car repair or overbilled utility or something), and not her-taking-your-money in the same way that asking-and-getting or urgently-needing-and-getting sometimes feel like?

        Families and money (and lack thereof) are complicated, though, and it totally might not work. Just an idea.

        (And, yes, illegitimate guilt and familial misunderstandings can tack themselves on to pretty much *anything*. Wrong kind of pickles? You Lose. It sucks.)

      • Sabee

        I certainly understand why it seems weird. It’s kind of a guilt trip thing. “We sacrificed so you can have more than we had. Why aren’t you successful? We worked hard and did well for ourselves. If you haven’t it’s because you’re lazy.” Etc, etc.whilst completely ignoring the fact that this is a really sucky time to be a twenty-something, student-debt saddled young person. And that a lot of people are struggling, despite working their asses off.

  • Emily

    For me, growing up with divorced parents meant shuttling between two neighborhoods. One inner city, one suburban. The difference in the average median income of the two zip codes was (and is still) more than our current household income. What’s always been interesting to me is that I didn’t have trouble adjusting. I felt at home in both places. (Although I had a much deeper love for the inner city neighborhood. I’m not a suburban girl.)

    You know who did have a problem with the places I lived? Friends. I’d never heard my Dad’s place referred to as “the ghetto” until my suburban friends started doing it. And I definitely observed that weird combination of being impressed/being judge-y when friends would come stay at my Mom’s.

    But you know what? Ian has been to my Dad’s neighborhood and doesn’t even think of it as ghetto because he grew up outside of Nairobi on a farm where there wasn’t enough hot water and the electricity didn’t always work. It’s all relative.

    Class can be an incredibly uncomfortable subject, but I think at the end of the day it’s not that big of a deal–or at least not a bigger deal than other issues–if everyone involved is willing to talk about it openly and honestly. Empathy is key.

    • I agree with that conclusion. Reading this comment thread, I think the “straddlers” could be helped if they are allowed to tell their own story, rather than having assumptions made about them. And then, having that story honored. Our stories, like you say, involve class and all kinds of other sticky subjects, and we are the only ones who can tell them.

      • meg

        It’s interesting, because I’ve found that people really don’t want to hear straddlers stories. In fact, they make people angry and defensive, so most of us learn to shut up, tamp it down, and pass.

        I’m not sure why, though I’m fascinated by it. I suspect it has to do with the way we treat class in this country: we pretend it doesn’t exist. So when it does come up, it sparks massive guilt reactions in people, which often just turn into lashing out. There is almost NEVER real listening that happens, in my experience. And often, if you’re going to understand a straddlers story, not only do you have to listen, you have to listen long and hard, because there is going to be a ton of nuance.

        Its interesting stuff.

        • I hope all us smart, savvy readers can start to turn that around. That long and hard listening needs to happen.

  • Heather

    All your guy’s comments warmed my heart and day so much. I am at a job fair today, so I haven’t had the chance to reply, but I will dedicate some time to this this evening.

    Thank you!!!!

  • Ericka

    Disclaimer: class, in both the monetary and social senses, is really hard to talk about. But this is an awesome essay and I love the sharing of experiences in the comments, so I’ll give it a whirl.

    I’m probably not going to make it any higher than upper-middle-class, but that’s cool, I will be just fine with what I have. I grew up on a small working family farm in the Midwest, and if you know the area you know that means land-rich and cash-poor. Big beautiful inherited farmhouse, scrimping for day-to-day money. My father’s family were hardcore plains Democrats with a big wide Socialist streak left over from the Nonpartisan League movement in the twenties. It was a really comfortable life, with a really clear moral system: be thankful for what you have, don’t covet what you won’t get, and share and share alike with neighbors. Sheltered out at the farm, I never had to worry about violence, or housing uncertainty, or really even much in the way of poor life decisions — my parents didn’t drink, so I wasn’t too interested in it either.

    And then I hit my teenage years, and my father died, and all of my grandparents died, kind of in a row, and I found out that in the seventies my dad had been a serious drug addict and drug dealer. And I found out my older half-brothers had been abused by their stepfather in the eighties, before I was born, and my mother had been an alcoholic and a self-described really poor parent to them. And they had grown up with violence, and abuse, and poverty. And two of my brothers had been to jail.

    My idyllic life… was unique to me, out of all my family members. And due to my inheritance from my father, I live a much more middle-class life than I did when I was a child, and I’m certainly farther up the class ladder than much of my family had managed by this age (although thankfully all of them are out of poverty now, by their forties). I have to worry less than I think they ever did.

    It’s a distinctly odd feeling, being the odd one out from your family as far as life experiences goes.

    And now I have my fiance. And he has his own demons in his past, similar to those my brothers fought before I was born — violence and substances and unstable childhood. But in his present his position is similar to mine: his life is the most stable of all his family, in terms of health, of satisfaction, of class, especially at his age. He sends money to his mother, not the other way around.

    I love that we understand each other. I love that we don’t demonize our families, but we’re not eager to share their past realities with them, either. I love that we’ll be happy with wherever we end up on the monetary ladder, as long as we hang on to the life lessons our families taught us, by example and counterexample. I love that we both know the signs of abuse to watch for, but that we’ve each personally been spared that particular demon. I love that we have stability in each other and compassion for life’s instability.

    Sharing that foundation of life in two worlds, of learning from other people’s pasts as well as your own, is a really important thing for us. It’s hard to articulate in mixed company, of course, because it’s so rooted in all the dark swirly bits of our lives. But understanding each other’s dark swirly bits, that’s priceless.

  • It’s so interesting to hear this perspective. I’m living out (somewhat) the opposite version.

    Growing up, I suspect we were upper-middle class (it’s hard to tell the lines exactly when you’re a kid); I never heard my parents worrying about money, but they were, and still are, very careful with it. My mom clipped coupons and shopped sales. My dad has a PhD and my mom a Masters. Not going to college was never a thought/question/option, and they paid for it. I did go to a state school, got myself graduated in three years, and also received about 1/2 off in scholarships, which was considered my contribution.

    Now, as a 30-year-old, I work with and for people who have not been to college, or who have been to jail, or who don’t have husbands working well-paid jobs, or for whom English is not their first language, or who are scraping and pulling themselves and their families up by their bootstraps. And I find myself hiding parts of who I am and how I got here. I don’t advertise my college degree or my blog or my love of language and “big words”. Depending on the circumstance/person, I change my vocabulary and my sentence structure. Sure, some of this is to help bridge language gaps (boy do I wish my Spanish teacher had been half as effective as my French teacher!), but some of it is me not wanting to highlight my differences or invite speculation/judgement of my life.

    • blue

      Thank you for also bringing up this side of the class issue – it goes both ways. Like you, I grew up firmly middle class, but choose to live and work in a different environment. (And as a result of those work choices, now technically (income bracket wise) am not middle class – though I realize my background and education outweigh my bank balance in this regard). I find it just as difficult to fit in with my coworkers and neighbors as many others are describing here. I too have to go “undercover” as described above. And there is a lot (A LOT) of guilt. I think this is a testament to how bad we are as a society/culture at talking about these issues. Thanks to everyone who is sharing their experiences – let’s hope this eventually moves us forward.

  • Heather

    Just wanted to say that its really great that this resonated with so many people. I’ve found that people have a really hard time talking about class in an open, and honest way so it sometimes feels lonely. This made me very connected and supported today.

    • Not Sarah

      Yay! We’re glad to help :)

  • Jeanie

    Did anyone else just read a story that had all the plot movements of their own life and different details? I grew up in a tiny rural town the outlier daughter of educated parents who grew up comfortable (Mom) and rich (Dad) but didn’t find their own financial success. I had big dreams of big cities that stuck out like a sore thumb in a place where town pride and glory was more valued than super-ambition. I learned to pass as solidly upper middle class once I moved to New York (and also went to NYU, Meg (and with Maddie to boot)). Now I’m back “home” and going to a public university to finish and I stick out like that thumb again. Thank you so much for publishing this story!

  • amy

    I cannot tell you how much this speaks to me, thank you.

  • Lilia

    So hear you. I grew up on and off welfare and now, from an income perspective, I’m in the 1%.* I’m not white, I’m biracial, which means in a way I’ve always sort of lived in two worlds and had to navigate between them. I think regardless of ethnicity / if you speak a certain way / work in a certain job, drive a certain car / live in a certain neighborhood, people assume you can’t be from poverty.

    I accidentally shocked my coworkers into speechlessness on Monday when I accidentally let slip, as part of a story, that as a kid I’d once slept in the car at the gas station because the car wouldn’t start. Then they all laughed and decided I was kidding. And of course I didn’t correct them.

  • Blue

    This really rings true. I grew up in a very impoverished rural area instead of a city, but the experience of being two people is very similar. The friends I made in college were good people, but my childhood and my home town and the “hardness’ that you get growing up both strange and poor in a small town were alien to them.

    My first husband came from money. He liked to play the role of down to earth hippie and when we met that was who he was, but as we grew up and graduated and moved in together as “adults” he became more and more the upper middle class respectable oldest son. Because both those men (the hippie, and the respectable middle class son) were so different than all the men I’d known growing up, I figured that his world should become my world and therefore I would be guaranteed never to end up in a trailer anywhere cursing my bad decisions. But I don’t think it can work that way. Not saying that coming from similar backgrounds is prerequisite for happiness in a relationship, but in our case the differences were ultimately too much to allow us to have the fundamental understanding of one another that makes a marriage work. In the end, I was his parrot. The edgy, colorful souvenir of his wild college past. He wasn’t able to live those hippie ideals because the obligations of family and society prevented him from doing so and he didn’t dare fight them, but as long as he had a wife with multiple tattoos who could drive stick and knew how to turn live animals into food products, he wouldn’t be completely doomed to vanilla. I didn’t fit in his world, though, and years of trying to shove myself into that narrow box started to wear me down. Obviously I don’t mean that to sound cruel or simplistic, and obviously relationships are complicated. But I think you did the right thing by finding someone who quite literally knows were you’re coming from.

  • Denzi

    It’s been fascinating to me seeing how differently my parents-in-law are from my parents, and how this informs the way Spouse and I deal with problems.

    Our parents all come from similar class backgrounds ~ish in different part of the country, but their experiences couldn’t be more different. My mom: 5th of 5 kids in a very frugal immigrant Catholic family that strove to imitate the middle class as best as possible. (So you always make your own Catholic school uniforms from your dad’s worn out dress shirts, but you also occasionally go the symphony. Or travel the country for engineering conferences, camping at parks the whole way because hotels are too expensive.) My dad: poor inner-city white kid in the 1950s, from the “wrong side of the tracks,” from a family that used to be very, very WASPy; alcoholic dad, middle illness as bugbear that you Get Through On Your Own. Spouse’s mom: second of four kids in an immigrant Italian family with an absent, unfaithful father. Spouse’s dad: seventh of nine kids, family of coal miners.

    Spouse’s parents were teenage parents who worked their asses off, got help from their parents, eventually went back to school, and are super-frugal, super-practical, and embody American Values in the sense of hard work and frugality = living the Middle Class Dream. So Spouse learned working class values and a middle class life.

    My parents were firmly middle class (and don’t look at the mental illnesses behind the curtain). And then when I was 11, my dad lost his job and just didn’t get another one. Sat there, depressed (shh, don’t say that). So I know how to be a hidden poor kid in Middle Class Land, take what you can get and like it, and don’t ever tell anyone that you’re on free lunch or how you know that Publix gives away its day-old bread. The pride breeding shame, and from my dad’s depression, the external locus of control–it’s the world against us, so we don’t have to try.

    It’s fascinating how flipping a few variables has made Spouse and me so completely different: he’s terrified of not having money, because it means you’re Not Working Hard Enough, and I lived with no money, negative income always, for long enough to know that you can break your pride and take the handouts and tighten your belt in between. But at the same time, I have the privileged manners and the lessons on how to navigate privilege to get what you need, and he has the make-a-feast-out-of-stones creativity and know-how. It works, because we balance each other out, and because we both have the working class background enough to understand each other.

    Basically: thank you, Heather. This hit home.

  • Theodora

    Wow. I can relate to some of this. Both sides of my family are very working class. I’m from the Rustbelt, so steel workers and auto workers, mainly. The women worked as secretaries or bookkeepers, if they worked outside the home at all. My dad bucked the trend, and became white collar, although still no education beyond high schools. Cousins on my mom’s side were community college educated, but it opened up good jobs. My dad’s side is still very working class. I was the first one on that side of the family to attend college, let alone graduate. Heck, I’ve got first cousins on my dad’s side who couldn’t grasp the concept of doing well in high school.

    There was always a gulf, but once I graduated from college I moved away to the big city, leaving the Rustbelt behind. Even though I make a bit more than the average American household income, I’m told I’m doing so well financially that my dad’s side of the family can’t figure out how I’m doing it. One word: education.