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Monday, May 16, 2005

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Dawn

We're both worse -- I'm much worse, Brett's not quite much but still worse.

Brett grew up in a middle-class family that was careful with money. He lived in a tony suburb so always felt poorer than he was but his parents could help pay for college and now are having a *lovely* upper middle class retirement. His dad was in the army in his twenties, retired from the company he started working for after his dischrage and his mom always worked at least part-time. They were careful with their money and are enjoying life now.

My dad made six figures in sales and management and my mom never had a job until after the divorce. My dad went on to invest his money in a restaurant, lost everything and married his former secretary. He will never retire, had two more children but now makes six figures again. He spends money ridiculously fast. My mom worked her way up and now makes a very good living but during our teen years, my family really struggled.

Brett and I make decent money now but for a few years we had a combined income of less than 30K and at one point less than 25K and at one very difficult point, less than 20K. I quit my job to be home with Noah and that loss of income was very, very difficult. We are still now struggling to get out from under it so while we make decent money now, we're still paying for that hard time. (Paying off debt, catching up on savings.)

I think of our family as being more like my grandparents, both sets of whom struggled a great deal. I guess we've boomeranged back to where our families were.

bj

You know, I'm fascinated by this conversation, and I wish we could have it more completely as a society, and find the statistics don't capture the reality.

I'm much much better off than my parents were when they were growing up, and much better off than my family was when I was growing up. But, I like Emma am wary of claiming that I do not come from privelege. Why? because I'm an imigrant. My parents were, by American standards, dirt poor when they were growing up. By Indian standards, they were, respectively, lower and upper middle class. My dad grew up in a village that didn't have electricity until the 80s. My mom's dad died at when she was a young girl, and her family was cared for by a teenage brother (who managed to marry off 2 of his 3 sisters to men who have cared for them handsomely, and loved them as well -- frankly a testament to his love for his sisters, given how things could have turned out). When we came the US, we lived on a graduate student salary (my dad came as a grad student). And, there, lies the other "privelege." The privelege of education and knowing what it means.

I am to all intents and purposes, the "American Dream" come true. We came to the us somewhere near the bottom quintile, and are solidly ensconced in the top quintile now. I really really believe in the American Dream. I believe it's possible, and am proof. That doesn't mean that I think it's there for everyone, but it was there for me, growing up in the 70s in the mid-west. What frightens me beyond belief is the feeling that we may be killing it. My rise has it's roots in free public education and free libraries. I know that even in the 70s, they weren't there for everyone, but they were there for me. Now I fear they are disappearing for everyone.

I think it's interesting how we all say are wary of not admitting the priveleges we grew up with, while others (for example our current president, seem completely oblvious to the extreme privelege they grew up with).

bj

Jody

On the theory that I can never talk about myself too much, I'd just say that I'm in a much different, more secure place at almost-35 than my parents were. The summer she was 35 and about to turn 36, my mom initiated my parents' divorce. Mom and Dad had 3 kids (ages 15, 12, and 9), their house was mortgaged to the hilt, no savings of any kind, and my mom was working a part-time job and had a year's worth of credits at college, earned 17 years earlier. Dad was in the midst of what turned out to be his best job (he worked for Northwest airlines and flew first class for free, albeit on Standby--he once went to London for a single day, since sleeping in first class ain't so hard) but the divorce was pure emotional devastation for him.

The next 5 years would be the most stressful for Mom financially of any in her life: she actually lived with my grandmother for six months, which given their relationship is a huge testament to how bad it was. Dad did better financially (and met my future step-mother, too) but I don't think he'd want to relive 35-40 again. He was the custodial parent and found it very difficult.

On the other hand, I have a hard time making these kinds of direct comparisons, because 35 for Mom and Dad felt so much older than 35 feels for me (not that 35 doesn't feel plenty old, what with my continually receding gums and stretch marks and stuff). They were really at a different stage of their lives, children all approaching teenager status, while we still have another year before kindergarten.

That's one of the awkward issues of infertility, at least in my family. There's almost an attitude that childfree/childless adults exist in some sort of fugue state, and the 19-year old new mom is "older" than the 30-year old infertile wife. Not the funnest part of the gig, although obviously not the worst part. Is that just my family, or do other people run into that, too?

Louise

That's a difficult question to answer. Financially, I'm probably at about the same place as my parents were at my age. But I am 25, a student, unmarried, and without kids. At my age, my parents had one child and were expecting the second. In fact, they were probably even worse off financially than I am.

I suppose the next five years will be more telling. I likely will be well-employed and better off financially than my parents were in there late twenties. And if I can start the adoption process sometime in the next 5 years, I will likely be closer to replicating my parents' situation at my age, but with far more education and better employment prospects than they had at the same period in their lives.

Though there is no apparent attitude in my family which suggests childless/childfree adults are existing in some kind of fugue state, I can't help but feel as though that is an unspoken thought when I go to family events. Much of the problem comes from the fact that the vast majority of my cousins are a good 10 to 15 years older than me, but even those close in age to me with children seem to be accepted as "older" than me, as in Jody's family. It's frustrating, especially when there is nothing I can do right now to change this situation.

Emma Jane

Wow, what thoughtful responses! Thank you, everyone.

Dawn, it's wonderful to hear from you, and I feel dumb that I hadn't realized you'd reopened your blog—I have some catchup reading to do!

BJ, I too don't understand how we're collectively managing to abandon or destroy public institutions that used to help people, well, climb, for lack of a better term. I don't know where I'd be without the public magnet school that I (and hundreds of immigrants and children of immigrants) attended, but places like it are rare and getting rarer.

Jody, remember that wedding I went to? (Alas, Japanese Weekend has eliminated the dress I wore from their site, but it's in the same fabrics as this—empire waist, knee-length, extremely silly, better be stretchy enough to get me through the next two weddings!). The bride's parents married young, had kids, and divorced when they were about the same age as the bride is now. Her (distinguished academic) father, in his toast, actually had the nerve to abuse her for how late she was marrying and to suggest she spawn as soon as possible... perhaps she's trying to run her life a little differently from how you did, sir?!

And, Jody and Louise, you've given me a new reason to be grateful that my extended family is small (and my in-laws basically sane). Although, I have to confess, I hadn't really realized how much older I'll be than my mother was, until I wrote this entry. See, she was 27, and that's old to go have an illegitimate baby. Especially back then. And that fact is I'd kept track of, not how much older I'd already gotten.

Elizabeth

Interesting question. When my mom was my age, she would have been pregnant with me, with an 8 year old and a 5 year old. My dad would have been teaching at NYU, and they'd have recently moved into a just-built apartment building (where they still live). Financially, they'd have been just starting to do fairly well, now that my dad had finished both his residency and his army service. They'd have ranked higher than us on the education and occupation rating, lower on net worth, and I'm not sure about income.

But I'm sure it was a very tough time, emotionally, for my mother. She'd have been pregnant with me after losing a premature baby and having a close to full-term stillbirth, so the pregnancy must have been a source of constant anxiety. And my dad, as an early career research scientist, must have been working crazy hours.

Thanks for asking the question; I had never thought about my parents in those terms.

Shamhat

I recall my parents telling me that when they first married, they ate nothing but cornflakes for 3 months to save up a down payment on a house. Won't work for me.

My father also got an automatic raise when I was born, because obviously his wife would need to quit working, and a smaller one for my little sister. That would probably be illegal now.

I was doing pretty well in my first marriage: a suburban stay at home mother, shielding my husband's career from housework and child-rearing and moving whenever he got a better job offer. But when my husband took off I had three kids: 10 months, 5, and 8.

Now I'm remarried but struggling to give my kids a "middle class" upbringing. Social Security thinks I sat on the couch eating bonbons for all those years, and I won't even get the spousal benefit for the money he earned during that marriage. We made contributions for his retirement but not mine. And to top if off, we moved to Manhattan right before he left, so I'm stuck paying a fortune to live here until the kids are grown--or until he chooses to leave.

I think my parents had it better.

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