A friend and I were hanging out at the playground, as her little boy jumped from one structure to the next, when she turned to me and said…
“Sometimes, I wonder if he’s not a little too happy.”
I didn’t know what to say. He was a good kid as far as I knew, only causing the requisite amount of trouble to be considered a healthy five year-old. Was there even such a thing as a child being too happy? “Of course, I do everything so that he can be happy,” she said. “But I grew up poor, and I worry I’m not preparing him for the real world.”
This I understood. In fact, it was something I was also dealing with on the flip side. Even though I’m 31 years old, in my family, I am the Too Happy Child.
As we continued to walk and talk, I was able to get to the root of my friend’s worry. “I didn’t grow up middle class,” she said. “I grew up in survival mode. I don’t know how to raise middle class kids.” Her words hit me right in the gut.
I was raised in a working class structure, just like my mom, who spent almost 25 years working as a confinement officer at the local jail. She would work whatever shifts brought in the most money — and in the months leading up to Christmas, even more than that. There was little time for homemade meals, so we ate fast food or packaged meals that would allow her to spend more time sleeping, doing house repairs, or whatever she could to make us all a bit more comfortable. She was on her own with four children to raise. I was her oldest child, and we both wanted another kind of story for my life.
Once I went to college, things began to change. Even at my medium-sized Midwestern university, I was exposed to new ways of understanding the world around me. I took my first flight; then I took another. I started going to therapy. When a former teacher saw me during winter break and asked what my favorite part of college was, I answered her honestly: I could get fresh fruit whenever I wanted.
My roommate and I were good students, and we were also the poorest young women on our floor. During the day, we worked and studied. But some evenings we holed up in our room, laughing, eating pizza and candy from the dining hall, and talking about the families we feared we’d left behind by coming here. We worried we were losing our tribes.
Back home, my mother accused of me of rebelling, when I didn’t see it that way. I didn’t eat fast food much anymore because it didn’t feel good to my body, and I let my natural hair grow out because I was no longer afraid of it. Because my mother wasn’t helping me pay for school, she had little say over the choices I made outside of her house. I only saw myself growing up and having adventures. Wasn’t that what she’d wanted for me? Of course it was. She wanted me to have wings. She just never considered that sometimes I’d fly away.
My mother — like my friend from earlier — worried she was losing her child to a world she didn’t know how to navigate. To her, I was too happy. To her, happy people stop paying attention to danger. I don’t believe my mother or my friend are very different from most parents who want to be the guiding force in their children’s lives for as long as possible. But few want to admit how a class transition can challenge that role.
My mother was torn. She saw my exposure to new things, and my delight in the world opening up to me, as proof that she had done something right while raising me. She also saw it as an attack on her place in my life. There are certain aspects of the way I was raised (hitting out of anger, etc.) that I would never repeat if I became a parent. Not because I’m angry at my mother, but because in my mind the point of all of this — the point of her sacrifices in my childhood — was so that I could have a better life experience, and so could my hypothetical future children. I don’t begrudge my mother for what she didn’t know or wasn’t able to give me when I was growing up. She did her best for her kid. Because of that, I am required to do my best for my own.
This past weekend, a week after our initial conversation, I texted my friend a note: “You don’t have to be the best middle-class mother to your middle-class children. You only have to be their truest home. Maybe they’ll experience the world much differently than you did, but they will always know where home is.” I could send her that message with confidence because I know it to be true.
Over the years, my mother has become more and more comfortable with our changing roles. Her need to be my guide in all things has reduced (a bit), and I don’t condescend to her to prove my competence as an adult woman. I make it clear that she can always ask for financial help because I have enough, and if I don’t, I’ll say so. She makes it clear that needing my help will never feel as good as she wants it to. Paycheck to paycheck is the language we used for most of my life. Now that I’m have financial stability, we are learning a new language together. Our dynamic may have changed, but she’s still my mama, my truest home. I’ll always fly back to her.
(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)