I’ve spent most of my life counting.
For most of my life, everything has been numbers. Everything has had a price.
When I started to work at 16 years old, I learned that even my time had a price: $7.14 per hour. Eight hours of cashiering, standing on my feet, and pushing Target credit cards on customers–that was worth $57.12.
Plus the ten percent discount on anything I bought there.
Minus the cost of uniforms.
Minus the cost of gas and car insurance.
Plus a hot dog if I got to work the food court—and if there were any left at the end of my shift.
When I started college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was surrounded by new rules that I didn’t understand.
Why didn’t she finish her fries? Is she just going to throw them away?
Where did this “North Face” brand come from? Everyone here is wearing it.
Am I going to what? Rush? Rush what? What are you talking about?
At some point in my freshman year, I learned that thirty percent of my classmates were coming from families with an average income over $200,000. Over $200,000.
I couldn’t even imagine it. $200,000. It was an astronomical figure. It was fourteen full-time Target cashiering jobs. Fourteen!
I was fairly certain that my parents may have managed to pull in about $75,000 together, at the height of both of their careers (but then downsizing and disability stepped in.)
Although I moved solidly into the upper middle class when I married my husband (yes, I’m one of those kind of women), I still don’t feel like I belong. For me, this new social class is a coat that I’ve been trying to zip up for the past ten years. I can’t ever get the zipper to the top to keep everything in place because it keeps getting stuck on past assumptions and expectations.
I feel this tension at odd moments—when I’m talking with another mother who is pushing to get her 2-year-old in the next class, because he can already count to twenty. Or when I overheard a group of college girls talking about when their flights leave for home. Or how about when I was sitting with other members of my church, and they were talking about just how many activities their kids have to do to get into college. Orchestra, soccer, show choir, it’s outrageous!
I find myself nodding politely in these situations, fake smile across my face, Oh yes, that’s a tough spot.
I feel like a liar.
I feel like an impostor.
I feel like at any moment, someone is going to figure out that I don’t belong here and call me out on it.
It wasn’t until I got married and we joined our bank accounts that I felt like I could really breathe. I had about $50,000 of student debt from my undergraduate degree (working while going to college didn’t make that much of a dent). Thankfully, my graduate degree came for “free.” All that was required of me was two years of my youth and my commitment to teach and grade stacks of essays for first-year composition courses.
Although my husband got a job as an electrical engineer as soon as he got out of college, I stumbled around academia and the world of on-line education for five years until I couldn’t stand making $18,000 per year anymore. During those five years, my time was segmented and measured unevenly. $11.00 per hour for the on-line tutoring job. $18.00 per hour for grading standardized tests on-line. $1200 for teaching a three credit hour course for ten weeks. Multiplied by three courses. Minus any benefits. Divided by the uncertainty of knowing if I had a job in another ten weeks. No one could decide how much I was worth and so *I* couldn’t decide how much I was worth.
When will we have full-time jobs? Well… we want to stay small. And your pay is similar to what others are being paid for the same work elsewhere, sooo…
Although everyone wanted a piece of me, no one wanted to take a big enough piece that they would have to insure me. And they certainly wouldn’t take a big enough piece of me that would require them to accept any criticism or–as I call it–“guff.”
Do your job, keep your opinions to yourself, and we’ll all get along fine.
As fortune would have it, when I finally decided that I had had enough of academia, the floodgates of international students opened and ESL teaching jobs became abundant where I lived. Full-time jobs for everyone!
Benefits? Yes! Full benefits! Can you start tomorrow? Do you have friends we can hire?
It wasn’t easy for me to make the mental shift into the middle class.
I remember a few weeks after we got married in 2005, my husband and I were shopping for a Christmas gift for my parents. We decided to buy them new sheets and a new comforter set. We stood in Target and all I could do was look at the price tags: $69.99… $89.99… Oh, here’s one that’s only $49.99! I picked up the cheapest set of sheets and handed them to my husband.
He turned the package over in his hands and then gave it back to me.
“Sweets, we should get them nice sheets.”
I looked back at the price tags. Is he really okay with spending $69.99 on sheets? I reluctantly picked up the more expensive set.
He shook his head and picked up the $89.99 set.
I was dumbfounded. That set hadn’t even been a possibility in my mind.
“You don’t think that’s too much?” I asked.
“No. They’re your parents.”
I bit my lip.
“What about the comforter set?” I asked.
“Okay,” he turned to look at the options on the shelves. “Which one do you like?” he asked.
“We’re still getting a comforter?”
“Yeah, that’s what we came for, right?”
“I just didn’t know we were spending so much money.”
“It’s Christmas. It’s your parents. How much money did you think we’d be spending?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know… maybe $50?”
We had a lot of these conversations early in our marriage. Me, constantly dumbstruck that we had enough money to go out to eat several times on the weekend; constantly amazed that my husband never, ever looked at the prices of food when he bought them; constantly waiting for a bill to come in the mail that we couldn’t handle.
That moment never came.
Maybe I was so surprised by his somewhat cavalier attitude toward spending money because he also came from a working class family. He was the youngest of six kids. A Catholic family. His father was a carpenter, his mother a stay-at-home mom. Money was always tight—but somehow they made it work.
And that was how I remember my childhood. My father was a baker (and later a bakery specialist).
My mother was a cake decorator. Our family of six moved from rural Minnesota when I was four to a rough part of Dayton, Ohio. We adopted my youngest sister (my biological cousin—a long story) and became a family of seven.
In urban Dayton, I learned the difference between poverty and working class.
Poverty was the children at my school who descended hungrily on their hot school lunch trays, ripping the plastic film that sealed them, scraping the sides of each compartment clean. Not one carton of chocolate milk went into the trash.
Poverty was a friend’s house that I visited when I was six—its carpet spotted with dog shit.
Poverty was that friend’s refrigerator, warm to the touch, holding ketchup and orange soda.
I was not in poverty.
When I was seven, we moved away from the urban Dayton to a working class suburb, Huber Heights, Ohio. There, we rented a three-bedroom ranch house for the seven of us. My parents got a room. My two brothers got a room. My sisters and I got a room. It was 1,080 square feet of close quarters. We furnished it with a living room set from Rent-A-Center and my parents even splurged on a Nintendo (five years after its original release date).
But it was home.
For me, I still see the world through working class eyes. I feel deep compassion for issues like increasing the minimum wage, providing universal, affordable health care, and fighting food insecurity. I’ve seen the difference that an extra $100 can make. It means a week of groceries from Aldi. It means you can afford to stay home from work while you’re sick.
Seeing the world through upper-middle class eyes feels like an exercise in putting on someone else’s glasses. Everything is distorted. Prices seem too expensive. I underestimate how much my time is worth. But it’s more than money. I also do this with possibilities and opportunities. The world is not my oyster–at least this is my default mode. I have to jazz myself up with positive self-talk and assurances that things can change. My life can be different. I can reach the goals that I have set for myself. If I lose that rational, optimistic side of my brain, I become a prisoner to my own self-doubt.
Growing up as a child of a working class family shaped my core identity. It set limitations and boundaries on my dreams. (Maybe I could be one of those typists in a courtroom!)
It taught me that my chief value as a human being was determined by what I could do for others, especially when I could be used to help someone else make a profit. In those situations, I had the most value. I wasn’t explicitly taught these lessons. Instead, I learned them by observing my father put up with a stressful job his whole life, rather than looking for another job somewhere else. I saw his fear of the uncertain–the fear of redefining himself. He was a bakery specialist. That was who he was, damn it. How could he be anything else?
I’m keenly aware of my own struggle to define and redefine myself.
Fat girl, thin girl. Poor girl, rich girl. Retail girl, academic girl. Single girl, married mother. All of these boundaries I’ve crossed and all of those that still remain ahead of me.
…it’s not like crossing over, as if you leave those things behind.
I’m still overweight and poor, a retail worker and a single girl.
It may have been years since others have seen these facets of my identity, but they are still there, buried beneath the others layers of self that I’ve put on over the years.
I still have all of those identities. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave them behind because they are too much a part of who I am.
Who I am is… every version of myself that I have ever been.
These are the things I can’t leave behind.
This might be the biggest weight upon my shoulders as I consider parenthood–knowing that the life that I build around my daughter is creating its own set of assumptions, limitations, and boundaries. This life that we are creating for her is also creating things that she won’t be able to leave behind.
This cannot be avoided–it is a part of socialization.
But I feel that one of my greatest responsibilities (perhaps even greatest “calling”?) as a parent is to create opportunities for my daughter to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
Because this fosters compassion.
And compassion, I believe, is the only thing that has ever changed the world for the better.