Last year, my husband and I cracked the $100,000 income barrier, a mark my parents didn’t hit until they were well into their 40s—at least, I think they didn’t. I suppose all those trips they took to food pantries when I was a kid could have simply been a cover, masking my family’s secret hidden wealth.
Our combined $102,000 puts us just into the top 20 percent of households in the country, according to U.S. Census data. We are indisputably comfortably well-off, solidly lower-upper- or higher-middle-class depending on your point of view. While we don’t spend much (we’re too weighed down by crazy levels of student debt and a lifetime of habits learned from practicing the art of paying off one credit card with another) I no longer stress out too much about buying new shoes or an extra round of drinks.
I even find myself wandering the mall near my house sometimes knowing I can afford to shop, but not sure I’m capable of buying my way out of my problems or where in the spectrum of mass retail therapy I fall—not quite yet J. Crew, but long past Forever 21.
We did nothing particularly brilliant to get to this point. Both of us work, though no harder than most, and we’ve been lucky, though no more so than many. We went to good schools and graduated with good grades. But, so did my parents. And malls, for them, were just places with free air-conditioning.
And then there’s this: We don’t have kids.
I grew up poor. That was always simply a fact, and one likely brought on by my existence. It wasn’t an exciting, bohemian, Rent-style poor or a social-worker-involved, drug-addled, abusive Precious poor. It was just two working-parents-hovering-near-the-poverty-line poor.
The truth is that my sister and I barely noticed. My parents worked hard to take us to museums on free days and bring us to plays where they were working. They taught us extra math lessons and made us write history reports during summer vacation, so we wouldn’t fall behind, as poor kids tend to do.
My dad was an actor, but chasing dreams doesn’t pay bills (how’s that for a lesson internalized?). When he played a character at Disney World, we got to go to Disney World. When he drove a taxi, we sat in the front seat. And when he delivered pizza, we were treated to leftover pizzas. It was everything you would want a childhood to be: filled with all the things money can’t buy. But, it would have taken someone more self-assured than I was to notice that the other kids didn’t get their school check-ups at free clinics.
I knew we were poor, just as I knew my birth had been an accident. It was never a secret, largely because you don’t even need basic math skills to know no one plans to attend college graduation nine months pregnant. My mom sat in the stands and watched her classmates march across the stage, because the heat and crowds were too much for a pregnant 22-year-old. And, besides, I could have come into the world in between commencement speeches.
My parents graduated from good state colleges and had big plans to get out of these small towns, to make it. They met while working at an outdoor summer theater in Texas and I was born the next June.
They struggled post-college, I’m sure, like so many people we know now or are now, to figure out what they should do and who they should be. They had all the same kinds of odd jobs after graduating that I had 20 years later. They headed back to graduate school, just as so many of my friends do now. But, where I had a cat I could barely afford, they had my sister and me. Their money went to clothe us and put us in childcare and move us into better school districts and later, when there was more of it, to try to give us what we didn’t have. Their time went to bussing us to school and to extra activities—thank you, Chicago Park District—and to fighting HMOs and to working in the tiny computer lab at the private Lutheran school in order to pay off what it cost for us to go there, so that our future might not be dictated by our income.
I don’t remember the first time my mom told me not to have kids too young, to wait. It was some time long before I was doing anything that could have resulted in babies.
“Don’t make the same mistakes I made,” she once said, which really is all it seems anyone ever wants for their children: to make different mistakes.
In June, I’ll turn 28 and be the oldest any woman in my mom’s family has been without popping one out. I’ll also be far wealthier than my parents were at my age. I look around our condo and don’t even know how a kid would fit in if I wanted one right now, and don’t know what we’d have to stop buying to afford another person: sandwiches from Whole Foods? Marathon race entries? Writing classes? Probably all of the above. And to be honest, I would probably resent the kid for every one of those far easier choices than my parents ever had to make. I make four times (or more) what my parents made when they had me. Yet, I am convinced I couldn’t afford to do the same.
My husband and I cracked the $100,000 barrier and nothing changed other than the inability to go back. The gut-wrenching painful anxiety over the basic cost of living—the kind the wakes you up in the night counting dollars in your head to see if there’s enough for a bus to work in the morning—is gone, hopefully never to return. But the aimlessness of being 27, of waiting for something to happen, is still there. It’s the knowledge that I’m living out an unoriginal episode of Girls, but with nicer accessories (and less of the weird sex stuff).
In college I worked two jobs and piled up student debt and once won a much-needed $500 in cash at an off-the-books bingo game that went straight to paying that month’s rent. But, I felt flush with money and freedom. Sometimes, after loan checks had come in or work paid up, my roommates and I would get dressed in our secondhand store best and take the train downtown to Nordstrom’s. We’d ride the elevator to the top floor, where the tourists flocked to the penthouse-level Cheesecake Factory, and order appetizers, pretending we just weren’t that hungry. We’d look down at the shoppers and families crowding Union Square and feel, for just that time, like we belonged. And, when the bill came, we were always short.
Now, I walk through The Village (a fancier version of a mall) near where I work, not sure if my money yet qualifies me as belonging or buys me a spot among the wealthy stay-at-home moms. If I purchase some Lululemon capris will that be enough? Or, does it have to come with the $2,000 stroller?
Wandering by myself, then, I almost always call my parents. But, since both my sister and I left, they’re nearly always out. After working their way up the rungs of the American economic ladder, slowed by dragging their kids with them, they have plenty of money now. They totally got taken by one of those timeshare companies and make semi-annual trips to Puerto Rico or Cozumel. I don’t know if they know or care how much I make, or if this was how they wanted it to turn out when they were deciding which debts to default on or moving us into my godmother’s attic so we could pay off my sister’s hospital bill. I don’t know if they hoped that I wouldn’t have to make the same choices they did. I hand my credit card to the store clerk and hope my mistakes have been different enough.
Kelly O’Mara writes for a living, mostly for places you’ve never heard of.