Last week I wrote about the sadness involved in moving to a new home, about the memories I will be leaving behind from my daughter’s first year of life and from the transformation her arrival set into motion. But for all of the sentimental attachment I feel for the house we live in now, I have to admit that my sadness has less to do with my nostalgia for those black and white photographs of maternity leave and more to do with my feelings of financial inadequacy.
Inadequate seems too simple a word, though, to explain how I’ve been feeling. I thought this week that money was the theme I wanted to write about, but as I’ve written around and around in circles without ever really getting to any clear point, I discovered that what I’m really looking at here is identity. I’m sad about leaving our house, but mostly I’m sad about leaving our neighborhood. I’m sad about leaving our neighborhood because I understand that it’s a nice place to live, but I’m mostly sad about leaving because we made the decision based almost entirely on financial factors – we thought this was the kind of neighborhood where we wanted to put down roots, but we cannot afford the kind of house we want if we stay in this kind of neighborhood. And this makes me feel like a failure.
Growing up I was exposed to a lot of different people and a lot of different places. I had friends with wealth that was almost incomprehensible, and I had friends who lived in neighborhoods that were too dangerous for me visit for sleepovers. My family existed somewhere in the middle. I went to public school, to private school, to catholic school. I had expensive new clothes and I had clothes bought from the thrift store. We had a nice house with not so nice cars parked in the driveway.
My adult life has more or less mirrored this experience. I’ve had a lot of friends who have done very well for themselves (or have done very well with the money handed down from their parents). I’ve also had friends for whom financial survival is a struggle. I exist somewhere in between.
Perhaps because of these varied experiences, I often find myself vacillating between ambivalence and desire as far as money is concerned. Some days I leave my house and feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my nice little house, for my safe, reliable car, for my ability to dress well and to eat well and to provide my daughter with everything she needs, including the time together that I am able to create thanks in large part to my comfortable, stable job. I understand that we are doing well. On other days, though, I leave my house and feel insecure, feel not enough, feel I am losing the struggle. I know that this feeling of failure comes from internal insecurities rather than external influences, but it seems to me that the longer we stay in South Pasadena, the more pronounced this feeling becomes.
On paper, I understand that my husband and I are doing well, but we manage to find that sense of not-enough-ness even in details that others might see as fortunate luxuries. We have no difficulty paying our bills, but we worry that we aren’t paying off our debt at a fast enough pace. We place few limits on our day to day spending, but we can feel more than a pinch when unexpected expenses come our way. We are able to send our daughter to a top-rated private day care program, but we are bracing ourselves for public school once the tuition rates double in kindergarten.
But this is not simply a question of money. It’s a question of identity – the ways in which identity changes with time and the ways in which it remains unchanged.
When my husband and I first moved in together, we were both artists making lots of work and working for just enough money to get by – we felt rich just because we were able to swing the rent on a two-bedroom apartment in a newly gentrifying neighborhood. Marriage upped the ante. Somehow this pact meant that we were required by God and by law to demonstrate our stability as a unit through the acquisition of nice things and a nicer place to live, so off we went in hunt of that elusive, affordable single family home.
If marriage raised the stakes, pregnancy created a whole new game. Our move to South Pasadena was decided while delirious with hope for everything our new child could grow to become, if only we could give her the right foundation. This may not have been the life I would have wanted for myself six months earlier, but it was certainly the life I wanted for my child.
As I continue to grow into motherhood, though, I’m beginning to believe that it might not be such a bad thing for my daughter to grow up with values and experiences similar to my own. I’m beginning to believe that the way for me to be a good mother is to simply remain true to myself, rather than working to conform to some generalized idea of what successful life should look like.
I have heard rumors that South Pasadena has secret, hidden ghettos, but for the most part it is home to the well off and the even better off. It is picture perfect and perfectly safe. Our new neighborhood is not perfect; some people call it an oasis, others simply call it transitional. But it is also diverse and inclusive, with an active neighborhood association and opportunities for civic engagement. The residents are a part of, rather than apart from, the larger community. It is the kind of community that makes me feel proud, not inadequate.
This weekend we have had lots of lookie-loos stopped in front of the for lease sign in our front yard. In just a few days of having the sign up our landlady has gotten dozens of calls, young families eager to get their feet in the door of the South Pas lifestyle. We hear the excitement in their voices when they show up for tours, hear the pleading desperation as they stop us on the street to ask “Is it nice inside? What’s the rent? Why on earth are you leaving?”
I would be lying if I said this hasn’t given me pause, if I said I wasn’t second guessing my desire to back away from this supposedly desirable world. But one person’s desire is another’s disappointment, just as one person’s success is another’s quicksand. And maybe my primary job as a parent will not be to decide what is best for my daughter, but to demonstrate how she might grow to decide for herself someday.