Motherhood

Class Anxiety: When You Live a Different Life From Your Parents

Class Anxiety: When You Live a Different Life From Your Parents

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.


P.S. Home as a haven, paying for your parents, and seeing your body with fresh eyes.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)

  1. Vaish says...

    I don’t know how I missed this one, but THANK YOU. This is amazing. I’ve been reading CupofJo for years and I’m so thrilled by the direction this blog is headed.

  2. Madalena says...

    I have been an avid reader of CupofJo for years. I began to worry that the blog had changed its voice – as Jo’s family and business grew. Thank you for bringing me back with this deep and real conversation about the realness of motherhood.

  3. Amy says...

    Like others have commented, I too was stirred by this post. Childless, I often wonder what sort of life experience I could offer my potential future children, who would grow up in a totally different social, geographic, and economic situation than I grew up in. I feel totally unprepared, and full of anxiety on being able to raise a child in the “life place” my husband and I have made for ourselves through hard work and lucky breaks. Children aside, I am trying my best to navigate an increasingly awkward relationship with my parents as my households’ successes have grown. It is almost as if they have realized that I am in a different sphere from them, and they can’t offer anything to me any more– to which I am trying to handle with great sensitivity and humility. I would love to see this topic become a regular discussion subject on Cup of Jo, because I feel that parenting (even living) a “step above” where you came from is largely unspoken of, but yet so many people experience. Thank you for sharing this important narrative.

  4. Lauren says...

    Would love to hear more on this!

    Class Anxiety: marrying “up” or “down”
    Class Anxiety: nostalgia for the simple (or opulent) past
    Class Anxiety: learning not to judge
    Class Anxiety: the beauty of difference
    Class Anxiety: growing up different

    and on and on!

  5. Jamie says...

    One of my favorite posts yet! Thank you for sharing your gift of putting emotions into words.

  6. Grace says...

    Thank you for this.

  7. Chuck says...

    This is so beautifully written and so true. Thank you so much. there are times when you really outdo yourself on your blog and it is SO wonderful!

  8. Olivia says...

    I really loved this story.

  9. K says...

    What a wonderful essay. Thank you Ashley for writing, and CoJ for publishing pieces like this!

  10. Lisa says...

    Thank you for this brave and honest post. Yes, I have that same struggle. I have a few friends who also grew up poor and are now navigating raising their kids in the middle class, but 99% of my friends would have no idea what I was talking about.

  11. Lodi says...

    Ashley, your words mean so much. My partner grew up in a securely upper middle class household. I grew up living paycheck to paycheck with my single mom. The guilt. The impostor syndrome. Flying but feeling like you’re doing so without a safety net. Thank you for being you.

  12. A says...

    Thank you Ashley and commenters for putting into words something that so many of us have felt (and felt alone in thinking)
    I’m the first in my family to finish high school on my mum’s side and the first to go to university on my dad’s. We were financially ok in that we were housed and fed, but my dad’s drinking problem (he’s not abusive, he’s otherwise barely functional but I’ve never been allowed to refer to it as alcoholism) meant that he was out of work a lot. His actions and choices inspired me to make better ones but have also contributed to episodic loss of self-confidence.
    In my working life (medical) I have been surrounded by people from various socioeconomic/cultural backgrounds but they have usually had education emphasised in their homes either as a means of social mobility or because of class-driven expectation. I never had that, and while my family are proud and supportive of me my success has always been viewed as anomalous rather than intergenerational progress or the result of hard work.
    I’m proud of where I have come from and occasionally talk about it with colleagues but I still have an underlying and pervasive sense that I don’t belong anywhere.
    Occupying this space – between survivor guilt and impostor syndrome – can be very isolating. It became a lot less lonely today. Thanks CoJ community.

    • Luna says...

      Very nicely written, A! You could be a writer! I recognize a lot.
      Greetings from an immigrants’ doughter living in the Netherlands.

    • MollyM says...

      You write beautifully.

  13. B says...

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful essay. I have a similar struggle with my mother due the vast differences between our education, class, and worldview. She grew up in a poor rural community that was ultra conservative, extremely religious, and had little access to education. I was raised in a suburb with an excellent school system, and when I was 18 I moved a 1000 miles away from home on a college scholarship then pursued a Ph.D. I’m now a tenure-track university professor. I feel deeply for my mom’s fears and anxieties–that I’m living a life she never knew was possible, that she has no idea how to guide or help me in the paths I’ve chosen, that my taste and personality has diverged in ways from my upbringing that she not only doesn’t understand and finds suspicious, and that I established myself in many ways without guidance from my family. But her inability to understand me and her anxiety about my life choices hurts deeply. I have not found a way to maintain an adult relationship with my mother that isn’t fraught. Yet this essay has given me hope and reminded me to keep trying.

  14. H says...

    Beautiful writing, Ashley! I appreciate your writing about this topic, and I do feel a little of that divide with my parents as well. It’s tricky to navigate, but your writing has given me much to think about.

  15. What a thoughtful post. I love Cup of Jo for giving Atlantic type topics a personal perspective, right next to a post about the most delicious looking easy hash and a poignant cute illustration about being human.

  16. Kat says...

    Such a beautifully written post.

  17. Natalia says...

    Thank you Ashley!!!!! It is always such a joy and privilege to read your words.

  18. Beautifully written Ashley. You are clearly smart and curious. You will go far as a writer.

    These stories remind me of Lady Bird. You guys should all see if if you haven’t already :) I wonder of Greta Gerwig’s relationship with her mother.

  19. Suzan says...

    I had to comment. This is beautiful writing.

  20. EMH says...

    This post is so interesting to me for a few different reasons. As someone who grew up in a lower-to-(eventually)-middle class family I would get so frustrated when I we would go back to school shopping and we could only buy off the sale rack, and my mom’s rebuttal to my complaints was that I was lucky to even get *new* clothes, considering she grew up extremely poor and only got hand-me-down clothes & shoes and one winter coat to last her until she moved out of the house. Obviously, I didn’t understand as a teenager and it caused a lot of heated moments. Now, as an adult living in one of the most expensive cities in the country, I see how children are raised and what they are offered and I find it completely unnecessary and am assured they must be so ungrateful… oh how the tables have turned

  21. So true. How can you prepare your child for something you’ve never had? I guess we have to evolve our behavior and learn to think in a new way. Thank you for the article

  22. Alessandra says...

    Interesting and beautiful. I would like to read also something about tre opposite experience. In Europe and in Italy many families are experiencing a new situation of poverty due to the economic crisis, where old parents are reacher than their children.

    • CJ says...

      I agree!! This is much more common these days and in grad school my professor said we’ll be the first generation to have less than our parents (I’m now 40 years old). It is true and my parents made better choices, saved more and had better outcomes from buying and selling real estate in the booming years of the 80’s and 90’s. They had less credit debt and more education. The cost of living was more on par with wages, although women still don’t make what men do. So I guess I am feeling this realization now, living in an incredibly expensive city with school debt and credit cards. How do we get back to the basics and stop the insanity? I’ve had to cut back on my social media exposure because, frankly, it is painful to see 20 somethings with big new homes and taking extravagant vacations when I am just scraping by with kids in tow. My husband and I both work full time and have a child in daycare but we chose careers that don’t bring in 6 figures. I’d love to read more about this topic if there’s more information on it. It can feel very isolating.

    • Diana says...

      I’d also love to hear about the opposite situation too! Our definitions of success are also so much different, and sometimes that can make me feel like a failure when confronted with my parents’ values and standard of living. But such a great post!

    • Carol Mitchell says...

      In our grandparent’s generation, the definition of success was having a perfect family, women stay at home, everything and everyone looks perfect. Our parent’s generation saw the struggle with that “perfect family” model (ie. started to get divorces) and changed the definition of success to making money. Our current generation saw the struggle our parents went through for that high pay check, and changed the definition of success to freedom. For Millenials, whoever has more flexibility, time to travel, time to volunteer, etc is seeing as “successful”.

    • Carol Mitchell says...

      *is seen as “successful”.

  23. Elizabeth says...

    This explains some of the tension that exists between my folks and I that I haven’t understood until reading this. Every time I read one of your posts, Ashley, I am so glad you’re on this site!

  24. f says...

    Tears… thanks for sharing! I also grew up without much money, though my dear parents never let us kids feel that way. I feel so lucky to have grown up that way as it has helped me realize what is and is not important. I’m trying so hard to not spoil my kids while giving them all that I can. Such a hard balance!

  25. Jen says...

    Great piece, I can see how it would have been like that for my mom and her mother. I’m the second generation middle class and although I can understand this, don’t feel it at all myself with my mom!

  26. Thank you so much for this. I grew up in survival mode and it has been challenging to flip that switch and recognize that I have enough and I can thrive. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, let alone go on and get a Masters. I sometimes feel too like I’ve left that part of me behind. Most people don’t know that I grew up working class and poor. Yet, it has shaped me in so many ways. I also think it is something we don’t talk about enough, so thank you for opening up this conversation.

  27. Claudia says...

    Simply beautiful!

  28. Phili says...

    Beautiful, thank you Ashley. We don’t talk about class enough.

  29. Layne Dettor says...

    I love when this blog puts into writing the feelings I have but can’t express. Thank you Ashley.

  30. Thank for for this excellent true story. It is so refreshing to read on Cup of Jo! For more stories like this, and to experience the transformational power of true storytelling check out TMI Project ( http://www.tmiproject.org ). Full disclosure: This is a non-profit org that I truly believe will one day “change the world, one story at a time AND I also consult for them.

    Sara

  31. NoraK says...

    Thank you Ashley! This is honest, substantive story-telling, something I’m looking for more of on lifestyle blogs. Thank you for sharing.

  32. This has been so great to read!
    Your post evoked so many emotions in me because this subject is so sensitive. Please keep going. I love to read your stuff.
    Have a great week!

    -Daria

  33. Anja says...

    I really loved this piece! Thank you so much Ashley. I have been in a very similar situation as your friend, thinking my daughter might get too spoiled. I grew up in such a different way, but your words give me a lot of confidence. Thank you so much for that!

  34. Hannah says...

    Thank you for putting these thoughts and words into the world. The sentiment that you’ve captured so accurately and eloquently resonated deeply with me. Beyond the worry of accidental (or intentional) condescension, I worry that as I continue to live in a world much different from my parents’, we will have less to talk about, or will lose some of our closeness and trust. I feel this trust or ease of communication get warn away by small comments when I’ve thoughtlessly shared something that happened in my day that seems foreign or just plain frivolous to my parents. I worry that they look at me and see someone overly materialistic or overly job-focused because I can easily talk with them about my job or easily get them nice gifts for Christmas. I guess deep down, I worry that the reflection I see in their eyes (not religious enough, satisfied with living in a place as appalling as NY, focused on my career) is the real me and that I am somehow lacking in values or missing something essential that they tried to instill in me. I will probably continue to worry about those things, maybe even more so in the future if/when I raise children and fail to take my parents advice or do as they did with my sister and I. But this article reminded me of that feeling I have when I go home to visit my parents and know, instantly, that they’re my mama and pops and that they are home to me.

    • Yulia says...

      Hannah, this is exactly how I feel. Exactly. THANK YOU.

  35. J says...

    I didn’t fully appreciate how much I related to this post until I started reading through the comments. While my father had a successful career and my needs and wants were more than met growing up, both sides of my family have been solidly working class for many generations and that mindset permeated my childhood in unspoken ways. My sister and I were absolutely expected to attend college because the way had been paved for us and it was our obligation to do so. I did (the first in the family) and that class jump experience certainly influenced and challenged my relationship with my family. On the other hand, my sister was a rebel and chose to start working instead. During those four years I walked through a door I cannot go back through and they developed a sort of camaraderie with her that I am now firmly outside of as the educated professional. It reminds me of the quote from The Crown, “Elizabeth was my pride, but Margaret was my joy.” I did exactly what was expected, but some days I feel like I missed out.

    • Wow. Thank you so much for sharing this. I often feel the same way about my mother, and my younger siblings who decided to stay in our hometown, or not go to college. It’s such a tricky situation. I wonder how much of it (for me) is real, and how much is just me being insecure about the relationship. Lots to think about!

  36. MB says...

    Ashley, this is brilliant writing, and captures the dynamic in so many families, including my own. Thank you for addressing the difficult subject of class in America.

  37. Luna says...

    Wonderful! Such an important topic and so well written! greetings from the Netherlands!

  38. Sarah says...

    ASHLEY IS THE BEST HIRE EVER, JOANNA!!! Thank you for bringing her into our lives!

  39. Jill says...

    Such an interesting piece. Thank you!

  40. Andrea says...

    Ashley, i knew it was you that wrote this as I was reading. It’s perfect! I too was holding my breath reading it like, “me too! I totally feel this was too”! I will read all that you write;) thank you!

  41. Sara says...

    Just beautiful. I’m glad to read your voice here.

  42. Hannah says...

    This was really well written and struck a chord with me.

    I also grew up in survival mode with a single mother taking care of four kids. Today, I still support her financially in a lot of ways. But the strange thing has been trying to move away from being her only source of emotional support. As I went to college and moved away and got a job-things I needed to do for myself to “grow my wings” – I had to put some emotional distance between my mother and I and the way I grew up. Sometimes I have a lot of guilt about my financial success and it feels like my being/personality is split in half. The half of me that grew up hungry sometimes and in a world of scarcity and the half of me who lived in Paris and travels around the world and can afford food and clothes whenever I’d like. I’m not a mother yet but this is something I think about all the time. How do you impart upon your kids the lessons you learned in being fierce and kind and independent without putting them through the same things you did?

    • This resonates so much with me. Only yesterday I was telling a friend that I know my parents may need money to help them rally through the month but yet, I bought a new camera to help me grow my business. I continue to support religiously every month but I do want to grow on my own and sometimes I feel extremely guilty for not having the same life I grew up in. It’s really a bittersweet moment for me.

  43. M says...

    ashley… you’re a revelation. Thank you for his piece.

  44. sara says...

    I like reading you and it touched me, how thankfull you are to your mother and how the relationship changed during the time.

    I don´t know, but here in Germany I see a different development: as a single mother (43), with a master degree, I will maybe reach with 50 years the standard of my parents. My parents had a house with a big garden, could travel abroad, new car, other mothers could stay at home. You could live from one salary. I instead live in a three-room flat, have a 15 years old car, mothers have to go to work.
    Compared to 20 years ago life is much more expansive, but the salaries didn´t climb. And because my parents don´t live anymore, I´m really on my own.

    • Jessica says...

      I live in the US but you are describing the reality for many people my age. I’m nearly 32, my husband and I both have Master’s degrees, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to own a home or enjoy the comfortable existence that both of our parents do.

    • Nina says...

      I had the same thoughts and I live in Los Angeles. My husband and I are professionals but are so far from affording the same life that my parents had. My dad and I are both dentists but the life it afforded him is so different from mine today.

    • sarah says...

      Same here! I’m in the USA, same town my family has been in for generations. Although I’m the first to go to college, I doubt I will ever have the same standard of living my parents had. They had a house in one of the nicest neighborhoods in town and raised 3 kids, on ONE salary! His job was basically entry level too, no college degree required. It blows my mind to think about compared to now.

  45. Deborah says...

    Made my cry. Thank you and blessings to you and your lovely Mother xx

  46. Amy says...

    This is such honest writing. This hits home in so many ways. Thank you for sharing!

  47. This becomes an interesting dynamic when two people from different economic backgrounds get married and have kids, as is my case. I’m the upper middle class one, my husband is not. We live an upper middle class life, which I navigate easily but my husband is still feeling his way around, even after ten years of marriage and parenthood. While we’re not raising our children EXACTLY how I was raised, we are not even close to raising them how he was raised. It’s something I think about all the time, but something we don’t discuss much because it’s hard to do so without seeming judgemental and also wanting to be sensitive to my husband’s feelings about this.

    • Stephanie says...

      Ashley this is so well written and touching , thank you for sharing
      Nancy my husband and I are the inverse (I from the lower income and he raised with a middle income family) and I struggle with class issues and perceptions daily in regards to raising our child. The idea of financial priorities, safety nets and exposing our child to all class experiences is something we struggle with so often. Growing up in survival mode provides a level of guilt in enjoying success at times, but I appreciate that my child does not have that burden. I identified with your comment and thoughts and glad we are all trying to be conscious of one another.

  48. Michelle says...

    This x 100 – my mother is my rock, my home and I am her only child. We struggled growing up and now I am doing well and feeling guilty. This hits home for me in so many ways. Thank you.

  49. While i always enjoy the articles, this the first time I comment on Cup of Jo because this piece is so beautifully written and eloquent.

    I myself was raised in a survival class and now become a middle class parent. I can really relate to this article. I sometimes have the exact same thoughts. So, thank you for this.

  50. Rose says...

    This is probably my all time favorite Cup of Joe post. I “got out” so to speak from the place and the class I grew up in and as grateful as I am for getting out and for all the incredible sacrifices my mom made for me to, it’s lonely being in a position where all your colleagues have lived such different lives. You work so hard to get to a better place, but when you’re there, who do you talk to, who do you become friends with? It’s uncomfortable to talk about your family, about things that you want to share with close friends, because you know they don’t understand and frankly, it can feel embarrassing at times.
    Loved this article, your mom must be so proud of you.

    • Charlie says...

      So many thoughts!
      I’d love to hear other readers on:
      Why do we, who grew up poor, often with single moms, feel guilty? How do we channel that awareness in a positive way.
      How do you try (or do you) to make your middle class friends see others realities more clearly? Sometimes the bubble they live in makes me feel sad or frustrated.
      What can we do as newly middle class to empower kids and moms who aren’t?
      How have you all taught your kids the lessons you learned about resilience, generosity, grit, in their middle class lives? I don’t want my kids growing up without those lessons.

  51. Kristen says...

    This is so wonderful. Thank you so much, Ashley, for putting words to something so personal and relatable. I really enjoy your openness, please keep sharing your insights and wisdom with all of us!

  52. Katie says...

    I’m so glad Ashley is here. I’ve always loved this blog and almost always mostly to the content, but this is deep, good stuff. Bravo, COJ.

  53. Marion says...

    I literally NEVER comment on any of the blogs I read, but I had to here. This was beautifully written – such an insightful, kind, smart piece. Thank you so much for writing this Ashley.

  54. Morgan says...

    Beautifully written. This resonates with me, too. I have found that this difference of experience between my mom and me widened yet again each time I became a mother.

  55. hatty says...

    thank you so much for this! it brought tears to my eyes. i worry about this all the time and i try so hard to keep my kids grounded. there are so many unknowns in parenting, and also in just being. i guess with each new generation, you wish better for them, but don’t want them to forget their history.

  56. Kelly says...

    The fresh fruit comment really touched me. I did not grow up poor or without a father, but my mom was not able to parent like she should. You don’t realize how much you’ve missed until you have your own kids. You then want to give them the world. And, then you realize they have it all with a “present/assessible” mom. Beautiful writing by the author.

  57. Amy says...

    When I read the title of this article, my breath got caught in my chest. It was a totally “Is this person me?” moment. I grew up lower middle class, and now I’m a SAHM with a new baby, and husband who makes enough money for us all to live quite comfortably. My other siblings also did well for themselves. My mom, who was also a SAHM but not by choice, is happy for all of us, but occasionally says things about my lifestyle or spending habits that make me struggle to hold back tears–sometimes they are sharply judgmental and tinged with jealousy, sometimes it’s just a wistful comment that makes my heart hurt because her circumstances were so much harder and there’s so much she couldn’t experience while trying to raise us.

    This piece is brilliant. Thank you. Fucking love this blog.

    • Morgan says...

      Same here. Rather than being happy for the choices I am able to make for my kids, she takes them as a direct reflection or even attack against all she wasn’t able to do for us as kids to the point that she struggles to be around me as a mother. I wish it could be different.

  58. Amanda says...

    This is beautiful.

  59. Bridget says...

    Anna Sale from the Death Sex and Money podcast has recently done a series called Money Costs on class differences. I’m sure you’re aware of that already!

    • That was an amazing series.

    • Kate says...

      Yes! It was so good!

  60. Liliana Burgos says...

    – but she’s still my mama, my truest home. I’ll always fly back to her. –
    I hope my childrens think the same some day

    • Elise says...

      That’s my deepest wish too, as someone who grew up with an abusive mother. I want to make that safe space for my kids that I never had.

    • Leah says...

      Exactly.

  61. LindyO says...

    Ashley,
    You are so honest and candid. I really enjoy your articles and feel the love of the women who have helped to shape you. Job well done, all the way around.
    My mom was always my best cheerleader, confidant, and compass. And her love was deep and endless. I miss her terribly. She passed just over a year ago.
    “Fly home” as often as you can.

  62. Kate says...

    This is so good, and I’d like to add that I think this “class anxiety” may also work in reverse. I came from what would probably be classified as an upper class family, and chose to go into, first, the ministry, and then later, social work. I think that part of the reason I did was because of my upper class upbringing. I had parents who insisted that “to whom much is given, much is expected,” who encouraged me to pursue my passion without much thought of how much it pays, and who helped pay for grad school. And I’m so grateful for all of that. But the differences between their life and mine are now stark, and oftentimes stressful. We have different ideas of fun and self-care, different vacation plans, different shopping habits, and different senses of style, especially as all of these relate to money. (It’s not that I don’t want or can’t appreciate expensive new jeans or an amazing trip overseas, it’s that I can’t afford it.) And just as you said that you once found yourself condescending to prove that you were an adult, I oftentimes feel like I’m not as much or enough of an adult, because I don’t have as much money.

    • katie says...

      Yes! So true. I went from a lower-middle class family, to a job that paid very well in my 20’s & sent me around the world. Then at 30, I realized what I really wanted to do was be a teacher. Back to grad school, student-loan debt, and opting out of a lot of things my friends enjoy. My financial u-turn was a choice, yes, though I often am not sure how to graciously bow out of things without overtly saying, “I can no longer afford to do XXX”.

    • kd says...

      Yes– to the ‘class anxiety’ in reverse. I want to add that it’s much more expensive to live today, generally. Our economy has shifted quite a bit in comparison. My husband and I still rent because we can’t keep up with the rising home prices vs. our student loan debt. My parents owned their own home at the age of 23!; And while not a great one, definitely not a bad one. My dad was a state-trooper and my mom was a dispatcher, neither of which at the time paid ‘very much’ according to them. I’m 32 now, and I’m no where near as close to accomplishing what my parents were able accomplish by this age.

    • Diana says...

      It’s so great to read this, I felt quite alone in a similar situation. This is true in many part of the world by the way, not only in the US

  63. sadie says...

    i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about class differences within families but i’ve never read a piece like this before. thank you, thank you ashley. your words have been helpful to me.

  64. Meg says...

    “ You only have to be their truest home.” That is my #1 goal as a mother. I just didn’t know how to put it into words until right this minute. Thank you. Just lovely.

  65. Laura says...

    Wow. Good stuff.

  66. Ashleigh says...

    This is really beautiful – thank you for sharing this part of your life. I’m recognizing some of these same things in my relationship with my mother/parents and trying to navigate it. This was incredibly helpful to read someone else’s twist on processing the same things.

  67. Vera says...

    This post resonates with me on so many levels. My own mother grew up extremely poor without access to any modern day advances. In fact, my mother bought her parents their first telephone when she was 20. After my parents immigrated to the States, they were very poor and often my mom states, “the hardest thing about being poor is just not knowing if it will ever end.” My parents literally ate dry bread to survive.

    Shortly after I was born, my father got a government job and was able to work his way up the ranks. This meant that as a child we never had much but we did have a stable roof over our heads, a vegetable garden in our backyard and bikes in the garage which we would ride to the beach on the weekends. As a child, I never understood why we could never have luxuries that other kids seemed to have all the time like meals out, trips to the movie theater or shopping trips to the mall. All of my clothes came from the thrift store except for a few treasured items which were purchased new from Kmart. My mother, however, constantly reminded us of her poverty as a child and called my sisters and I privileged. Even as my dad’s salary increased, my parents still opted to never indulge in any luxuries. As a teenager I came to resent my parents, mostly my mother for it. I distinctly remember using some of my money from my first paycheck as a 16-year-old hostess to buy a pair of jeans from the mall and my parents first response was, “must be nice to have that kind of disposable income.”

    My parents scrimped and saved so much that by the time my sisters and I went to college they were able to completely pay for all three of us to go to state schools. To this day, I think that besides having all of their children go to college my parents are just as proud, if not more so, that they were able to pay for this opportunity for us.

    And now as an almost 29-year-old resident physician, I am on the verge of making a large six figure income and I can’t help but wonder how my future children (if I am lucky enough to have them) will be raised. My two sisters and I are all extremely hard-working women who have good jobs, long-term relationships and own homes. I have to believe that part of the reason we all became this way is because my parents taught us the value of money very early on and gave us the life skills to become successful as a result of it. Will I hold back luxuries from my own children, even if I can afford them, to help teach them the value of money?

    In some ways, I resent my mother for constantly comparing my childhood to hers – I never want to do this to my future children. But in other ways, I have such a deep respect and love for my mother. She literally came from nothing and gave up everything to raise three amazing women. My only wish is that I will be half the mother she was to me and I’m hopeful that the rest will fall into place.

    • katie says...

      Vera,
      Your response to Ashley’s essay made me tear up. Love is an incredible, indelible thing. Your parents sound like real good people.
      Wishing you the best of everything in life, especially all the stuff that money can never buy.

    • Sarah says...

      Hi Vera,

      This was fascinating… congratulations on your success! I had the almost opposite upbringing. My family has been in the US for a few generations, and when I was growing up my parents, though never rich, were seldom less than comfortable. They taught me money was for spending on fun stuff like vacations, not for saving. They also taught me that money was easy to come by and there were a million ways to get it. It doesn’t matter what you do, you’ll find a way to make a living doing it.

      Fast forward to 2010, and I had just graduated with my humanities degree in the middle of the great recession. I couldn’t find a career in the field my degree was supposed to qualify me for, and had loans to start paying off. It was a wake up call.

      It has taken me years to realize that their way of thinking doesn’t apply to me in many ways. We are separated by generational and class differences. Shortly after graduation, I seized a government job at the opportunity and have worked over the past 8 years to start accumulating emergency savings, a pension, Roth IRA, 401K, and HSA. I don’t think I’ll ever have the same opportunities they had, because it’s a different time now. It’s not as easy. My dad dropped out of college and got an entry level job which supported the family and allowed us to live in one of the best neighborhoods in town. Those halcyon days seem long gone to me. I love my parents dearly and don’t think they did anything wrong. Like Ashley’s mom, they did the best they could. The choices they made helped form me into a financially independent and careful person. I have probably stepped down a few rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, but I appreciate the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

    • Chris says...

      Hi Vera,

      Thanks for sharing. This post resonated so much with me and was so needed at a time when I’m struggling with a lot of guilt and anxiety about completing residency soon and how having a 6 figure income will change my relationship with my mother and father, who are still working in an office job and as an Uber driver, respectively.

      My relationship with my mother has always been fraught with toxic emotions. Growing up, she would remind me how much it was costing her to raise me. When we had disagreements during my college years, she would often fire back “you think you’re better than the rest of us because of your college education”. And when I just told her about my interview for my first job as a physician (my dream job, really), she neglected to ask about the job itself but asked pointed questions about how much I would be able to support her financially on a monthly basis.

      On the other hand, like you, I recognize that her parenting must have instilled in me some sense of discipline and drive that has gotten me where I am today and I have no clue how to honor that glimmer of goodness when our past 3 decades have been tinged with so much jealousy and guilt-tripping. Good luck in finding your way :)

      And, thank you to Joanna and Ashley for the amazing essay.

      XO,
      Chris

  68. Lisa says...

    beautiful. thank you for this.

  69. Casey says...

    A lot of what you wrote echoes the relationship my mother and I had – I was able to help her, because we had worked/earned our way to another level. I enjoyed helping her, but she had a hard time accepting it. Your last sentence brought to light part of the reason losing her last summer has been so hard for me – there is no “truest home” to return to, now, other than in memory.

  70. Tess says...

    Thank you, Ashley, for writing this! It’s something I always felt alone in.

    My parents both didn’t finish high school and they never expected to become parents of me. Because I was – honestly no bragging here – a smart kid. They were always so afraid of people (with higher incomes and education) and their response was to put them down. School was called stupid (my father refused to step into a school) and the fact I loved learning made me ‘arrogant’.

    In high school, I started to act out. I got anxiety issues and wouldn’t pass any test. My parents couldn’t help or understand. So I left school and they were fine with it, as long as I would work (like they did).

    When I was 18 I applied for ‘open exams’ (something that’s possible in my country) and studied secretly at night while working. I passed my exams and went to college. When I told my parents, their response was: ‘What is wrong with us and why you always think you’re better?’

    At college I was introduced to a different class. It was so uncomfortable. I didn’t learn much social conventions, so I didn’t know how to interact with others. I’ve always been open and kind, but I just couldn’t figure out this world. I was always afraid to speak, because I was taught to listen and obey. And above all there was always this fear of them finding out I was a fraude and didn’t belong. So I took the most mondane things incredibly serious and practiced until I nailed it. It was a really confusing and lonely time. Eventually I did graduate in Social Work and Education.

    Lately, I can see the great things that come from both worlds: I can talk and empathize with practically anyone. I am tough and love to work hard. I know how to take care of myself and others. I got the most diverse group of friends and interests. And I’m a pretty descent teacher and parent. It’s awesome :)

  71. Sasha says...

    Beautiful, thought-provoking piece, Ashley! As an immigrant, I have to add that class is all relative. Growing up in communist Eastern Europe, we were very poor compared to typical Western upbringing. My parents, brother and me lived in one bedroom apartment, selection in stores for food, clothes, furniture, etc was very limited, we did not go to restaurants or have a car. However, everyone else we knew had a similar standard of living, so we did not feel deprived. When we moved to Canada, we were probably living not too far from the poverty line, but our material well-being increased tremendously. So even though we were pretty poor compared to some of classmates, I still felt growing up that I had a relatively privileged life, because I knew how different life could be. In fact, it made me very sad going back to visit my home country for summer vacation (our parents worked and sent us back home to stay with our grandparents), and seeing how people who are smart and hard-working, have a much lower standard of living based solely on where they happened to be born. This is why I think kids should be taken on trips that are not just first world vacations. Now my husband and I are well-off, and I hope when i have kids they will not end up living in a middle class bubble.

    • Charlie says...

      I love this comment. Class is so relative, and so much is based on comparison. I also like your idea of using your wealth to show your children what they have compared to others through travel. I’d love to hear other ideas for those of us who want to find ways to share the lessons of growing up poor with our middle class kids. Any other ideas?

  72. This is amazing. Ms. Ford, you have oodles of talent : ) Thanks for sharing a part of your story so eloquently.

    • katie says...

      Agreed with Monica! Love love loved this, Ashley.

  73. Brooke says...

    Ashley, you are a goddess! Just last weekend a group of friends and I, all longtime Cup of Jo readers, talked about what an awesome addition you are to the Cup of Jo team, and how we so look forward to your posts. Keep up the excellent work.

  74. Melisa says...

    Ashley, I love this. It took my breath away because I relate to your experience, and your friend’s experience, on so many levels. Your note to your friend was beautiful. Thank you for sharing it with us, and thank you for articulating what I’ve never put into words myself.

  75. Beth says...

    This was very moving. More articles like these please!

  76. A Martin says...

    I love this so much, thank you. I couldn’t help but think of class separation among parent friends (e.g. when kids go to school together and become friends, you usually get to know the child’s parent(s). We are working class but definitely are surrounded by pretty wealthy people. Even though we have a nice home (it is our cozy nest in the universe), I fear more judgement that our hiuse and car should be perfect (which they are not so I dont feel comfortable hosting playdates and carpooling) especially since our kids are what brought us together.

    • Jenny says...

      This is the situation we are in. I don’t feel awkward myself, but my older son is always comparing situations. I came from a family with two different classes — my mother’s side is poor, but my father’s side is well-off. I can go between the two classes with ease and feel quite comfortable, because I have known and loved and experienced both sides. My son, however, has only ever known middle class comfort with a tinge of “chosen” poverty. So being around wealthier families, I think he really sees a difference.

  77. Wendy says...

    Awesome post, thank you!

  78. Lizzie says...

    Ashley is such a gifted writer. The warmth and gravity of everything she writes lingers with me long after reading.

    • Agreed : )

    • Lauren says...

      Well put!

  79. Heather says...

    Ashley I loved this post, and readers, I am loving these honest comments.

    And now I’m going to ask for a book recommendation, because I know you all have them…

    I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately, simply in the frame of wishing my husband and I had better role models for money management. My parents always struggled financially working in low-paying jobs, and the moment they came into any money, it instantly vanished into something they felt they needed to look more financially secure to other people (a new car, new furniture). They were terrible at saving. I know this especially now that my mom lives with me because she never truly saved for retirement. My husbands’ parents were rich, and never paid any attention to how much money they were making or spending because they didn’t really have to. And so, my husband and I, being in a class in which neither of us has any meaningful experience, don’t know how to manage our money. How many vacations are we allowed to go on? Can we stay in nice hotels? How much is a reasonable amount of money to spend on clothes? Should we be investing in a nicer house? Should we be buying our kids clothes from Old Navy, or ethically-made clothes that cost 10x more? We don’t know. We feel sort of lost, and tend to swing back and forth from acting like we are rich, to acting like we are poor. We did hire a financial advisor who’s been a great help in making sure we have the right life insurance and retirement amounts, but I still don’t know how much I can reasonably spend on shoes.

    • I think it depends what matters to you : ) I usually try to procrastinate when it comes to spending money on anything…. and then see if it matters to me.

      Like if you’re going to buy a new pair of shoes, put it off until tomorrow. Do you care at all? Would you care if you put it off another month? Or 6 months? Same with vacation, same with anything! For a lot of things, I find that it just doesn’t matter. And then when it is something you do care about, that you do REALLY ACTUALLY WANT, then you say yes to the new bright pink skis or vacation to south america and go for it and ENJOY what you really do want!!

    • Court says...

      I have read a couple of money books, and my fave has been Bari Tessler’s The Art of Money. It will help you think about these issues in a compassionate and manageable way, so that you can brainstorm and clarify what matters most to you and how you’d like to allocate your money towards those experiences.

    • katie says...

      3 book ideas for you:
      1) Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Fully Revised and Updated by Vicki Robin
      2) Evicted by Matthew Desmond (personally, I think this is the best book about poverty & money out there, just good for big-picture stuff/social justice education).
      3) Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey (lots of Christian-y stuff in there, which of course you can take or leave, just a heads up) – he also has books on money & raising kids that may be of interest.

      COJ has published a lot of good stuff about money management over the years, you can type in ‘personal finance’ in the search on the site to find all their great posts & reccos about this stuff.

      (:

    • Kate says...

      Heather, read “The Automatic Millionaire” of David Bach. It is a simple book that is very useful for savings.

    • Lizzie says...

      The barefoot investor! I had the same types of questions and guilt factor too. It is primarily written for The Australian environment but if you’re willing to do your research into a couple of things I don’t see why it wouldn’t work!

    • Holly says...

      Heather, I am in the exact same boat and ask those same questions! I support my mother now who never saved. My husband grew up with money. I struggle with the kids clothing question especially. We have old crappy furniture because it’s wasteful to buy new furniture, but honestly my couch is disgusting…

    • Lindsay says...

      Ashley – It’s not often you read something so relate-able, written so beautifully and with lots of consideration for all of the emotions that come with this life experience.

      Heather – I can relate oh so much!! It always surprises me how much the ‘burden’ of coming from little and breaking out successfully can effect day to day life – guilty for being far from home, tempted to go back because of the guilt, dealing with the naysayers from your home-base, having a hard time buying anything expensive (even if its needed or would be a great investment!) because I was taught to always be frugal, anxious about spending money on vacations… the list goes on.

      Now I just need a therapist and some of these books everyone mentioned! <3

  80. K says...

    An unexpected topic that unexpectedly filled me with emotion. Well written!

  81. Jessica says...

    Thank you for this post. As a first generation professional, I feel the gulf widening between myself and my family. Thank you for bringing a familiar perspective to this blog.

    • Amber says...

      This is so true. I’m a first generation college grad (my mom had me at 21) and then went on to law school. I lived at home and had a full-tuition scholarship for college and paid my own way through law school in large part because I knew it would allow me to escape my tiny town and my controlling family. They always gave lip service to education, but in the same sentence would express disgust with successful, educated people.

      I have so many of these same internal conflicts as the author and her friend now that I’m a mother to two young boys who are being raised in a drastically different manner and environment from my own upbringing.

  82. jillian says...

    Excellent article topic and excellently written!

  83. Frances says...

    I related to this post so much. Probably more so than anything ever posted on here — and that is saying a lot. Thank you thank you for writing this. I would love to hear more or perhaps posting some of the reader comments from this thread.

    Thank you, again.