Tuesday, April 10, 2007

In a class by herself

Miss Baby is growing up in different context than either Pynchon or I. That's only natural in some ways, I guess, seeing as we were children in the 1970s and can remember the introduction of microwaves as a household novelty, while she is a Child of the New Millenium and Will Be Raised By Computers.


I'm thinking more of geography, of experience, of, well, class. I'm not quite sure how to write about this, but, seeing as I've been thinking about this on and off for months, I figured I might as well make a go at it.

Miss Baby is born into a different material context, and will be raised in a different social and cultural environment. She's the child of university-educated parents, white collar professionals; she's an urban baby, plunked into the very heart of our small city. I was a rural kid, a way-the-hell-up-north kid, and my mom was a college-diploma'ed elementary school teacher. My stepfather works in forestry. Pynchon's parents are missionaries, his mother a trained as a nurse and his father in the military. I'm two generations away from outdoor plumbing; he's two generations from illiteracy. Miss Baby is two blocks away from a Starbucks, a rep cinema, and an organic market.

I wouldn't want to overdraw the contrast. My stepfather is solidly into management now, and my mom retired on a very generous pension after working her way up the ranks, including the earning of a BA while I was a child. They drive a luxury SUV. Pynchon's parents purchased a home outright in their retirement, and his dad earned his own BA over 10 years of part-time study. Our families have been moving up for a long time, for generations. So the fact that Miss Baby is positioned higher on the socioeconomic scale that were her parents is, really, a continuity.

What I'm thinking is that this difference makes her childhood something of a mystery to me: the multi-raced friends, the urban landscape, the material ease, the amenities and riches of the schools. I might share these experiences with her as an adult, but she's starting somewhere different from me, a place I've never been.

Too abstract? I guess the fulcrum on which this pivots for me is this: I remember in grad school, being both in awe of, and resenting, the professor's kids. An awful lot of PhD students have parents who are professors. Obviously, brains run in the family, but what struck me was the ease with which these grad students navigated the social terrain: it was the one they grew up in, as familiar as breathing. Doctoral programs are largely an acculturation to The Ivory Tower Lifestyle: ways of behaving, of dressing, of thinking, of eating and drinking and watching movies. All this is passed on implicitly: they know who professors are, how they act, how they live. They live that way too. Not me. My parents were unclear on what I would be qualified to do with a PhD: my dad thought I might teach high school. To get from where I grew up to the Harpers'-subscribing, Toyota-driving, French-theorist-reading, fancy-wine-swilling place where I am now required changing a lot of me.

And now? Now, my God, I've given birth to a professor's kid.

And I wonder how she'll turn out, what difference it will make in her life to have organic brunches among the PhD'ed, to be so completely surrounded by books of impressive densities, lulled by the background chatter of research and grading and institutional politics. And of course, to be raised in a city, to travel by airplane, to have access to a world of information I could never have imagined. To meet a variety of people I never knew. To be, I guess, different from what I was, by being raised by who I am now.

As you can see, when I get a full night's sleep, I am really at leisure to grasp at things to worry about. But a professor's kid. I don't know how I wound up with one of those.


Jenifer said...


You touched on something I (actually we, Hubby and I) think about a lot. We are the first generation to complete University. Both my mother and father completed high school. My mother is about to retire at age 60 at the end of the month from a 20 year + job in a high end Call Centre. She has a home, a nice car, travels with her husband, and spoils my girls.

My father came here from England as a child and dropped out of high school in Grade 9. He eventually went back to finish and went on to be a very successful pioneer in his industry and very well known. There is a scholarship in his name. He rose from a warehouse person, to salesman to President of the company with his keen knowledge of what he loved.

Hubby's parents came here from Greece as young adults with nothing. They managed to buy a restaurant and make a great living for themselves. They are now retired in a large house. My father-in-law lived through the Depression and spent much of his youth as a shepperd tending to his sheep. He slept outside and had no shoes. Once in Canada he turned his life into something completely different. He arrived in Halifax with $5.00 in his pocket and the address of his brother in Toronto.

I wonder if I would have such courage, I doubt it. When things are going wrong and my father-in-law is complaining about something, my Hubby is always quick to remind him of all he has accomplished. His life, if a reflection in his children is a miracle. He not only changed his life he made way for the next generation.

This is mind-blowing in so many ways and while I could go on and on and kind of have, this really is an unbelievable time we are living in. I got my first computer at the end of high school, my girls see two laptops on the table every day. I got my first walkman in Grade 9, Papoosie Girl knows what an iPod is already.

We worry about how this will impact our girls. I so understand your worries.

Sorry to overtake the comments...obviously a hot-spot for me!

Em said...

I love this post!

My father left school at 14 to be an apprentice fitter and turner ... as an adult he went to night school to matriculate... he was the first in his family to go to university.

My parents divorced when I was seven and I was raised in a single parent home with barely enough $$ to go around... when I went to law school I was surrounded by the children of lawyers and judges who were comfortable in their surroundings and their chosen profession.

Now my children are children of lawyers. They are surrounded by wealth and privelege (not to mention technology and computers). How did we come so far so quickly? their childhoods will be so different to mine, to my father's...

Alpha DogMa said...

This is too much for me to process on right now - I just wanted to comment that you've both given me lots of material to mull over tonight.

Beck said...

WOW. I would say that in almost every way, my husband and I are a lower social standing than our parents. They had the 70s and it's guaranteed high-paying jobs, both of our mothers worked (and hello, my mother was a teacher earning her BA throughout my childhood. Are you my sister?), we have more kids than they did, and in every way they seem more affluent than we do now. And we've moved back north, too! We're losing ground! Ha.
When I was younger, I dated (for years! Years and years!) the son of very affluent people, people who had been rich for generations, and in the end the differences between who he was and who I am were too huge.

David said...

Well, I was raised firmly middle class. Both my parents went to university and we lived very well. My dad grew up very poor, my mom was firmly middle class, maybe even upper middle class.

Sugar Daddy upper middle class in South Africa. A prof's kid. His mom was an English prof, his dad's a journalist and novelist, and he grew up pretty comfortable in what I would consider pretty high profile circles (his parents knew J.M. Coetzee and various other South African writers)... it was weird when we first met and he said he'd spent Christmas with some of my profs or other occasions.

Prof's kids. Yeah. I remember one son of one of my prof's was hardcore socialist but it seemed a bit absurd given that BOTH of his parents were tenured profs.

cinnamon gurl said...

Crap! That was me. I'd just about finished my comment when I noticed it was in my huz's google acct but i hit publish instead of use another account.

cinnamon gurl said...

But we will be raising Swee'pea in the city too, which will be different.

bubandpie said...

Social class posts are always so fascinating. I'm in the same boat as Beck - grew up in a very affluent environment, but have spent my entire adult life as a starving student (first me, then hubby). In a year or two, that may change significantly - and that kind of freaks me out too, the idea of being a grown-up (for me, affluence and grown-up-ness seem to go together: as long as I'm too poor to own a dining room table, I don't feel like I have to host family dinners).

Mimi said...

Thanks everyone for sharing your stories! Absolutely fascinating. I'm surprised that this struck everyone's fancy -- I mean, we hear so little about this sort of thing in the popular media I thought I was the only one who thought about it (shoulda know the blogosphere would, too, though).

I think it's especially hard to talk class in North America, because we spend so much energy proclaiming ourselves a class free society. But we all seem acutely aware of our place in the pecking order.

I've moved up and down and up and down in my own life--most recently a big jump UP when I got my full-time tenure track prof job and Pynchon jumped into white collar professional work. We suddenly had more money and more 'cultural capital' and that change was really jarring.

We all seem to be moving up, in the long term, which is reassuring, I guess (even you Beck, because you are able to make deliberate choices about what's important to you, and that's a luxury too, right?)

This deserves more thinking, I think ...

Oh, The Joys said...

Hmmm. Alot to consider. Great post.

gingajoy said...

As always, you've made me turn around and think about the same questions in regards to my own life. Our two paths are so so similar (both my Huz and I are first generation College, let alone PhDs). I have so much to say on this, but no time now. Brain's a-steamin' though.

nomotherearth said...

My parents were actually horrified that my Theatre School would garner me a mere diploma instead of a degree. They supported me but I knew they didn't like it. They are IMMENSELY happy that I'm turning that diploma to a degree now.

But I agree that the Boy will be growing up in a different social standing than I did. From Spam and Kraft Dinner to Starbucks and fine wines.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

My husband's family used to be rich. I always feel like I've married into an antebellum family. Over the years the money has (uh) dispersed, and my hub inherited more stuff than money. We have beautiful furniture that we can barely maintain...

My parents were both dirt poor but my dad worked hard & got lucky and now they own two houses etc etc.

My hub and I are solidly middle class but we'll never have the kind of money that our parents have. My thoughts on this matter center around my feeling, with both sets of parents, that I'm still a kid. I'll never be grown up, never their equal, no matter how many family dinners I host.

It's a good kind of problem to have, I guess.

Mad Hatter said...

ditto except that I wasn't so far up north, I was only 1 generation removed from outhouses and illiteracy, and my daughter will have a longer walk to the Starbucks. Oh and the other big difference? I did leave the PhD program because of it all. Class and entitlement: two of my favourite topics.

Omaha Mama said...

One of my biggest goals in life is to not raise snobs (hence my jackass comment on my latest blog post). I grew up in a tiny town where the middle class were the upper class and you could tell who that was because the paint wasn't all chipped of their homes and their cars weren't rusting out. I now live in one of only two cities in our entire state and we are surrounded by affluent people. We live in the 'burbs. We work for a very well-off school district. The kids we teach are spoiled brats (not all, but a good portion). They treat school personnel as an annoyance. My husband wants to be a head principal. He is currently in a lower rung of school administration. I teach. I struggle with the same things regarding raising my kids in a higher class than what I came up in. Raising principal's kids? That is so not where I came from. And like I said, a big goal for me is NOT RAISING SPOILED JACKASSES. It's so foreign to me. If you figure it out, please do share.

cinnamon gurl said...

I came back because I didn't say how disappointed I am to be so middle class, just like my parents. I wanted to be all bohemian... I even wanted to be an alcoholic recluse in a shack with nothing but a typewriter and my words... but here I am, solid paycheque, which I like because then I don't have to worry about buying groceries like I used to, and I can pay someone else to wash the kitchen floor.

Mimi said...

CG -- I'm working out in my head a series of posts on 'how on earth did I turn into my parents', because, like you, I have, in many many ways, PhD notwithstanding.

Mad -- It stinks. If getting a PhD is in part all about learning how to inhabit the role of professor, they should be up front about that, and teach it explicitly. Oh wait. That's my job now. Something to think about.

Omaha Mama -- I'm so with you! How to not raise an entitled jackass? I'm sure I'm just two or three sentences away from figuring it all out ;-)

Beck said...

Mimi, you're right about this being about the luxury of choice. My husband and I feel privledged enough, safe enough, to choose to be poorer than our families. Of course, I'm talking about middle class bohemian poverty and not actual poverty, and it's a sign of how bourgois I actually am that I take a strange pride in it.

Alpha DogMa said...

Yes, I am (LIKE ALWAYS) exactly like Beck. The Omega Man and I think we're all boho with our funky second hand furniture or Value Village clothes or vacations in a 20 year old tent trailer, but really we're not 'poor' by necessity. We're just making different decisions then those of our parents with regard to jobs, childcare and location.

My mother's family was upper class (insofar as that exists in Newfoundland) and my father was the lowest of low class (which in Newfoundland means extreme poverty of a soul crushing nature). They went on to earn university degrees (no tuition fees at Memorial Univ in the 60s!) and professional white collar careers that afforded us a high standard of living in an urban enviro.

I am one generation away from a substance existance on my father's side (he was 12 when he first saw any form of indoor plumbing), but on my mother's side I'm way below par as I've no servants.

Also it is 2 hours to Starbucks. Or maybe 10 feet - cos I buy the beans in bulk when we goes to da big city!

Bon said...

just found you by way of a meandering path i have now forgotten, but...wow, i hear you. i'm a sessional prof just finished mat leave and trying to figure out what to do next in an economy that really doesn't offer a lot of options...we're never going to be poor. we may not have much money for a while. but my child's parents both have masters' degrees (never did quite finish that Ph.D), in a province where finishing high school is still a big deal. the class context i grew up in as the child of a single parent in the 70s is just not going to be his context. he can read Deleuze at home if he so chooses. if he goes to university, the social terrain, as you put it so nicely, will be second nature to him.

then i wonder, what on earth will he turn to in his rebellion, if he needs one?

kittenpie said...

I've thought a lot about how education has undergone inflation in our family. My grandmother got to grade 8 in a one-room schoolhouse. My mother went to university, and I have a master's. Another layer very generation. Will that mean pumpkinpie will have to get a PhD? Or won't feel right if she doesn't choose to get a masters? Who knows. I know Misterpie will have a rupture of some sort if she doesn't go to university at all. My sister's nonattendance has been a tough pill for him to swallow, but she's doing fantastically in an industry that doesn't require or eally put value on an education as much as experience and talent. It's how he was raised, and so was I, really. Funny, though, while my family is proud of me for that, my sister's accomplishments are at least as talked up, especially now that I've been done school for some time and it's not news any longer. So maybe you accept these things in your children anyhow, when you see it's working and they're happy. God, I'm rambling way off topic. Shut up now, kittenpie.