Popping Out of the Bubble

In response to B-Mama’s last two posts, I also want to apologize for jumping down your throat, and I wanted to share that leaving the graduate school environment was a very difficult transition for me and for my family, and I am not sure we are even finished getting over it yet.

My husband and I went straight from university life at Princeton to grad student housing at Uva, and I have to admit I just loved the dorm like environment. I lived with my parents until I was 18, then a University owned building for the next 9 years. In grad school, all the families are pretty much broke, so socializing was casual, pot luck-type get togethers, small, friendly birthday parties at home, perhaps a splurge on bagels after church. Since we were living on loans, any thing that we went without felt virtuous, rather than depressing, especially since we also knew that our prospects for the future were better, we would not be this poor forever, so our beat up sofa didn’t really get us down.

Even better than the financial side of things was the camraderie of the school environment. It was so easy to make friends, just like in college, because every one was right there and looking to meet people and because we were in a place with lots of people like us — intellectual, hard working, somewhat type A people in their mid 20s.

How does that contrast with life as I am living it now that we are out in the real world? Well, because of those student loans and the much higher cost of living, even though we have about 5 times as much annual income we have still not been able to replace our couch, and since the couch is still useful for sitting I am now seeing that it may be several more years before a new couch becomes a priority. We no longer eat “government cheese”, but it turns out that cheese, and all of the other things that our family needs, use up every cent of the income which, back in grad school, had me dreaming of total financial flexibility and family vacations. Now, unlike a few years ago, when a friend gets married a plane ride away we can afford to go, but we still have sticker shock about the costs of things that many of our friends who went straight into banking have been doing for years. Don’t get me started on the costs of dressing a man for an office job in Manhattan, but I am sure that working as hard as he does my husband would have thought that a new belt would not be seen as a luxury for which he would have to wait until Christmas!

The financial side of things is complicated by the fact that we have lived our lives a little bit backwards, although we do not regret any of our decisions, they put us out of step with many of our peers. While some of our friends are just getting married or starting families after several years of living, and hopefully saving, with two incomes, we are about to buy a home that is a few levels above a “starter” because of the needs of our large, and growing, family. Don’t get me wrong, I feel extremely blessed to be able to buy this home, but I also know that this will bring us into a neighborhood where most of the families are older, more established in their careers, and have more typical American suburban priorities and lifestyles than we plan to have or are able to have. My house will not be on the charity house tour, instead it will have one or two unfurnished rooms for the next few years.

I know myself well enough to know that this is trouble for me — while B-mama may have been turned off by the yuppies at the mall, I want so badly to be like them. Not really like them, but in my crazy head some sort of better, super Christian mom version of them, with a clean, new looking stroller, clean kids with nice haircuts, a put together outfit and a touch of lipstick for myself, laughing over a latte with friends at the playground, knowing that my plethora of kids are well behaved and under-control, we are the perfect example of a beautiful Catholic family, and so we are just primed to do apostolate and share the Good News with the burbs! This is so never going to happen. On a good day, we are trailing cheerios behind us and our dirty stroller and I am just hoping that nobody vomits, perhaps I have taken a shower and gone out with my hair still wet, when someone asks me about my family I am either sarcastic or incoherent. I never have these Kimberly Hahn moments where I say the one totally right thing that is going to make someone run to confession, then home to throw out the pills have more kids!

Now, while the former picture of a Catholic SAHM may not really be possible for me, my question lately has been why I have given in to the latter. There has been some sort of pride (or is it vanity?) in being so “removed” from the mall culture of my upscale community that instead I cutivate the annihilated, burnt out mom look. This is not doing me, or anybody else, any good. When I first moved here, I met a mother of many who wears a habit. That’s right, she dresses like a nun. For about a month I thought about this, and wondered if she was actually out and out crazy. Then, I started to realize that she has done something wonderful and significant for her soul. She has removed herself from the materialistic culture of female attire, she has made her life more efficient, she probably saves a ton of money. Could I do that? Should I? She may have all kinds of complicated demons to fight, slightly different from my own, but on prayerful reflection I have realized that while I admire her courage and convictions, God has put me out in the world because I need to learn balance. I need to respect myself and my family enough to take care of my body and my home, to make them functional, attractive, welcoming, because really hearth and mother come together to create the home life. Both most be clean, cozy, ready to meet you with open arms. Both must be healthy, functioning, and have the things that you need. Part of my vocation is to work hard to create the home life for my family, to do it within a reasonable budget according to my situation, and to do it without getting caught up in materialism or keeping up with the Joneses.

In our new home, we hope to entertain alot, we want our house and our family to bring people together, and while I want to provide good and adequate food, I will burn out if I try to be too showy about it, or blow the budget on lots of prepared items. For my husband’s job I sometimes need to go to social events with him, and I need to have some nice suits and appropriate shoes and accessories so that I can go and do that with out embarrassing him or having some sort of self esteem melt down. However, there will always be lawyer’s wives dressed in designer labels, and I will probably never be one of them, I aspire to Ann Taylor, not Chanel. This is not a judgement, I will just never get enough pleasure from clothes for it to be worth that much money, I would rather buy books (which are available for totally free at the library, I just like to own them, this is my biggest shopping related weakness).

My grandpa worked on trusts for very wealthy Europeans, and he always drove a new (2 or 3 year leases) buick. My dad had a much bigger law practice, but we drove broken down vans. One day I asked my mom about this, and she explained that for my grandpa, it mattered to have a very balanced image, his clients wanted a respectable attorney but not a wealthy one (that would mean that they were over paying, and also, as titled Europeans, they were class conscious). It mattered very much how he dressed and what car he used to pick them up at the airport. A BMW would have been inappropriate, but so would my dad’s VW bus. My father worked for corporations who never saw his car, and for him, cars were just a mode of transportation, so the car had to be bought with what was left after education and orthodontist bills. My father is not much interested in luxury, and he does a really good job of being “in the world but not of it.” Growing up in private school in Manhattan, which is exactly what you would expect, this made me a bit of an outsider, which was probably good for me, but may also explain why I continue to struggle with some of these things as an adult.

In this economy, I am increasingly aware that we are blessed to be able to provide comfortably for our needs and still have room for at least some of our wants. My husband works hard at a good job that he doesn’t hate, and that in itself is a huge blessing. I am trying to be mindful that others are having to go without what I would consider neccessities, that while $4 gas is something to talk about at cocktail parties where I live, it is also truly changing the quality of life for some familes within our own community. I am also trying to not take advantage of unethical labor practices, easily extended credit and cheaply made imported goods to make it possible for me to fake the good life until I make it. I hope not to replace my grungy towels until I can afford to do it with American made towels that are not “treated” with any sorts of chemicals, and which I will not have to carry as a balance on my Visa. I have made a small decision not to buy any more paper towels and to use rags instead, because I heard a story on the news about a single mom who can’t afford paper towels anymore because food prices are so high. I hope to donate the small monthly difference to my local food bank and besides, it is better for the Earth. Still, even while “poor” in graduate school, I admit that have never really known what it means to go without.

As I mentioned in my post about Alice Gunther, here on Long Island I have found myself most at home within a wonderful Catholic homeschooling community. I do not see those people everyday, and few of them live in my town, but I meet them often enough to get my fill of support and like mindedness, so that I have not minded not really having close friends on the playground. The reality is that outside of the grad school bubble, the people on the playground have long held ties to the community, they already have friends. They are perfectly happy to chat while pushing the swings, but they are not about to just invite you to join the book club the way we would have at Uva.

At the end of this week, when we move to New Jersey, I am happy that I will already have some friends and family nearby for support, but in many ways I am going to have to start over again, introduce myself, adjust to a new community, deal with the fact that I am a misfit. I am quite certain there will be tears and at least one regretable shopping spree, but I also know that after about a year I will have made two or three really good friends. We have moved so many times but it always happens that way. I am going to offer prayers as I pack this morning for all families in transition, especially mine, B-Mamas’s, and Kat and ET, who are also leaving grad school for the complicated blessing of life with a full time working father!


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