Monday, June 9, 2008

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!


Kat said...

Mary Alice, I so appreciate this post and it is very timely for our family, as we are also about to transition OUT of life with one of us in grad school. Like you, I went straight from college to grad school, and then when I was finished ET began grad school right away...So we are just about to enter into life with neither ET nor I in school, and it's a bit scary!! I love hearing your thoughts on this, and I'm sure that I'll have plenty of questions and comments of my own once me move.

For the next couple of weeks, please forgive me while I enjoy life "inside the bubble" for the last time :)

Kat said...

B-Mama, I also meant to say that I'm totally going to be there with you in a couple of weeks in terms of transitioning to a new community...And I am already feeling intimidated! Will I fit in? Probably not at first, but as my mom has reminded me, there are always like-minded people in any community that you move into, and it just takes a little bit of time to find them. I value this advice, since my mom has done her fair share of moving in her lifetime! Actually, I also remember feeling intimidated about going to Princeton (moving from Atlanta), and had all sorts of ideas in my head about what people would be like. Of course, most of my ideas were not correct, and I found a wonderful community of people that formed me and made me a better person, more than I could have hoped for.

Carolina Girl said...

Hello all! First, I guess I should say I'm a CO friend of B-mama's (just so you won't be wondering...who is this chic?).
My husband is in the ARMY and much like in the collge world, in the Army world, it's just easier to make friends. Everyone is in the same boat and people seem more willing to make an effort to meet the new neighbors and welcome them to the community. I say all of that to say this...although still in the Army, my husband has been granted the awesome opportunity to get his MS degree at the Univ. of Arkansas. We moved here last summer and I'm still struggling to make friends. We're not the typical grad school family b/c he still makes his army salary and his grad school program is mostly comprised of working professionals who work all day and go to school at night. So, we find ourselves doing well financially, but not so much socially:)
So, after getting unpacked and finding a local church to attend, I joined a Bible study right away. And although the people are great and awesome, I didn't find anyone in the group who was going through the same things that I was. You see, I was in my first trimester of pregnancy and didn't know a soul in town! So, we would talk at church and at bible study, but not really in between. Everyone had there lives already established it seemed. Fast forward to son is 3 months old and still my "best" friend here is the 92 year old lady I picked up for bible study!! :) BUT, as of last week, I have HOPE!!! I joined the MOMS group in town, without knowing anyone in it, and I think I might have already found a friend! She's new to town and has a 2 month old daughter and is also a first time mom. The conversation came with ease, which is not always the case with me. I'm kind of on the quiet side. Now, i just have to be persistent. Anyway, I just wanted to suggest to you all (as was suggested to me by our dear friend Rachel) who are moving and who have already moved, to go to the International Moms Club website to see if there's one in your area. You know you will at least have one thing in common, motherhood. Perhaps it will be a place to make life long friends!!

I did find I had to be a little persistent to get the info on how to join once I initially contacted the group, but hopefully that was just a glich in this group. Once on board though, everyone has been super friendly.

B-Mama said...

Mary Alice, your post hits on SO many of my current sentiments!!!

There is so much being processed in my brain right now, so many different insecurities, I'm amazed at how they so easily came tumbling out in a stupid posting on strollers!

Not to mention I also struggle with the happy medium of materialism, which you discussed so vividly in your post, MA. How does one live in the world, but not of it? How does a mother negotiate quality over quantity and with the right motivation? How really does one avoid the temptation of the Joneses?

Tough stuff! I look forward to exploring some of these questions with you, ladies, sometime in the near future. I especially would love insight into incorporating Christ into the material world surrounding me... Yet I don't know if I'm ready to don the habit! :)

MA and Kat, prayers for smooth moves in the next weeks! Though largely "settled", our family is still very apparently adjusting. The boys' room sharing is going alright, but with less sleep for everyone. We are all a little cranky these days! GG couldn't believe I had written the Maclaren post with such animosity! What has become of me? :)

Blessings to you all...

Right Said Red said...

Beautiful thoughts MaryAlice! I can really relate to much of what you are writing, and we have been living in our town for 3 years (and our new house for over a year). It just takes time to REALLY settle. A couple of years doesn't really do it. I'll be praying for all you ladies with transition and moves ahead. It is an exciting, but also trying time.

Bethany said...

I never realized how many of you all are in transition, both physically and emotionally/psychologically in your lives. As someone who made the transition from full-time working mother to SAHM two years ago, as well as preparing for our third move to a third state in three years (we close on a house tomorrow), I completely understand where you all are coming from.

My husband accepted a position as the Director of Catechetical Ministries and Education for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, and while this position came with a (very) modest raise in salary, the higher cost of living (we currently live in a small town in Iowa), taking on a mortgage, sending our oldest to Catholic school, and higher costs of medical insurance, it looks like I may have to take on a part-time retail job a couple of evenings a week to help make ends meet.
I feel very fortunate that we have been able to afford me staying at home without going into too much debt. But living in this small town where the cost of living is next to nil is going to be usurped in favor of my husband's dream job.
I am thrilled that he has been able to find a job that will bring him so much joy and utilize all of his talents, but that doesn't mean that our financial situation will be easier. I take solace only in the Prayer of Serenity.

God, grant me the ability to accept the things I cannot change...
the courage to change the things I can.....
and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

God will provide. I have witnessed this first hand many times. So I wish you all good luck as I continue to clean our rental house... they load the truck on Wednesday.

k said...

B-mama, don't be too hard on is so easy to feel those insecurities and discombobulation have it come out in more strongly then you is those times when my humor always seems to come out wrong and my foot enter my graciously retracted, so I imagine that you are moving quicker onto a more comfortable and stable path then you realize.

Alice, I so relate to this post, even though I have been in this suburban world for over 5 years now (scary) and in my current home for over 2 years. It is still a struggle to find and keep company with the type of people who nourish my mind and soul and help me to be a better, less materialistic, more mindful person. I still have people I socialize with regularly who don't do that, and yet I spend time with them is just nice to have "friends"?

The good news is I am getting better at it, I made the wonderful realization that most people who I truly enjoy, have at least a few friends who I will also truly enjoy, and thus a community is built.

I am also getting better at realizing that my friends might take on different forms from where I am in my life, older/younger, more kids/no kids, yuppies/farmers, and that this is not only ok, but stretches me to find connections with them and thus new things about myself. No 92 yr old ladies in bible study like CarolinaGirl yet...have to work on that one!

a friendly reader said...

Mary Alice, I understand alot of the feelings you discuss in this post, but believe me, you have not "done things backwards," you've done them exactly the right way! I have had many moments when I wished my six, messy, homeschooled kids looked like something from a Hannah Andersson catalog. I have to remind myself that getting married and starting a family before you are finacially "set" has many advantages. One, the "double income, no kids lifestyle" doesn't teach a person about sacrifice or any of the virtues one really needs to be open to life. Second, the road to being "finacially set" can be a long one, and some people wait too long to start and end up sad that they couldn't have more. Most importantly, if your broke, you can't spoil your kids. You save them from getting used to material thing and convenience items that may get in the way of their vocation later. It's an oportunity to teach them about the simple things without the temptation to spoil them.
We now have it much easier than we did in the early days of our marriage, but I'm grateful for those harder times because they forced me to grow up quickly.
By the way, being a tired looking mommy has its apostolic side, too. It gives you an opportunity to be someone to whom the other tired looking mommies turn.

Kat said...

Friendly Reader, I love your comments, thanks so much for your encouragement!

Ann said...

Great post Mary Alice. I have been out of college - married with children for about 7 years now. I still struggle with balance... A LOT. Sometimes I want to have an interior designer come to my house and the next day I won't shop anywhere but Aldi. lol Somedays I feel pretty crunchy and conservative and the next day I feel down right liberal! (and I'm not)
I don't have "super-girlfriends" - you know the friends that you know can help you out with anything at the drop of a hat - you can call them anytime. You call them to come over when you are doing bad and you house is a wreck - not just when you are having a dinner party!
I have gym friends and we talk about diet and exercise. I have homeschooling friends and we talk about.... homeschooling. They all fall under "the worn out mom" category. (Where I honestly feel like I have been lately because it's "easier". So sad.) I have neighborhood friends who are not Catholic/Christian, but someone to atleast talk with. We talk about the next big ticket items everyone is going to buy. ugh.
I have a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson in my kitchen. It says, "A friend is a person before whom I may think outloud." I really like it.
The only people in my life right now that fall under that definition of a friend are my three sisters. So as I continue to have children... we are at 3 girls and one boy...I get excited each time I find out I am having a girl knowing that I am giving them "built in" girlfriends. I hope they get along as well as I do with my sisters.
Please don't feel bad B-mama. You were just thinking out loud. I have had the same thoughts before.... I have also had a designer stroller and my kids dressed to the nines. ;) We just have to find that balance and I think we will.
You all let me know if you find out the secret before me!! =)

ps. We are ALSO moving within the next three weeks so keep the prayers coming!! Thanks! =)

AR's & J's mama said...

I think most women struggle with this no matter what their situation is. Our society almost demands that women are dressed in designer clothes, wearing full make up and perfect hair, with all the accessories. When was the last time you picked up a magazine and saw women in their "natural" state? I don't know how some women do it...I have a family member who looks beautifully perfect every day. She does not leave the house without full make up and hair done, and her wardrobe is adorable. When we spend time together I think "I need to look better." (I don't wear make up very often...and when I do, it's minimal). But when I'm getting ready to go out the door, I just don't think it's worth the time it takes to do all that. Why do I need to wear make up or have perfect hair or the perfect outfit? My answer is usually vain in nature. Yes, it makes me feel good, but usually I do it so maybe other people will think I look nice.

I think it's ok to want nice things. I also agree that not having those nice things makes you appreciate them that much more. I've been married to my husband for 4 years now, and each year we do a little bit better, but I cherish our time we spent in a one room apartment. We watched a 13 inch TV with an antenna, sitting on the 20 year old mattress my husband owned! (At the time I didn't think it was great! ;) )

I just want to say that I really appreciate this blog. I feel like I've met some new friends! It seems harder and harder to find and make and keep strong connections. I find it's even harder to find strong Catholic women to connect with. So thank you for allowing us into your lives! It's great! a.

ejhickso said...


As someone who has settled into a regular pattern of moving countries each time I seem to be developing a few close friends, I also wanted to comment on this issue of transition.

At the risk of sounding like a hermit... I have realized that these periods of being in a new place without a network of friends and family close by has also pushed me to be more comfortable with the idea of just "being" with myself. I miss the companionship of others during these periods but have also learned to (at least try to) enjoy the opportunity to turn inward to be a better friend/counselor/critic/etc. to myself.

Anonymous said...

I know that this is all incredibly relative, but some of the recent posts have come across sounding as though you are not self-conscious of how privileged you all are. The vast majority of Americans do not have fathers and grandfathers who were attorneys (the majority in fact do not have parents who even attended college). The vast majority did not attend Ivy League schools, and shooting for "Ann Taylor" instead of "Chanel" is laughable-- I strive for "Target" but because I can't afford it, I usually hit resale stores. Many of us live with three or four children in 2 bedroom apartments, so "only" being able to get a house "a few levels above a starter" sounds whiny. I guess when you are rich, and surrounded by people who are even richer, it can seem hard- again, I know it's all relative. But to put it in perspective, I think many of your readership lives off incomes under $50,000; many Catholic families I know live paycheck-to-paycheck, and buying airline tickets to attend a wedding is simply out of the question. Compared to mid-America, playing the "po" card because you can't afford luxury vacations might not elicit sympathy so much as eye-rolling. I am not trying to pick on anyone, just to gently remind you that you are all in a very, very tip-of-the-bell-curve group, whether you realize it or not, which might call for some measure of sensitivity towards those who are in the center.

B-Mama said...

Anonymous, your gentle reminder is taken to heart and extremely poignant, as it is easy for many of us to forget how *truly* blessed and privileged our lives really are.

Such thoughts are why I am so grateful for the Catholic Church and the emphasis it places on praying for the sick and reaching out to the poor. It does not let its flock stray to a self-centered life, but instead, builds Catholic charities, international missions, Hope houses for pregnant women...

Most Americans are incredibly spoiled, especially by the world's standards. Just being able to shop in a grocery store, no matter how budget-restricted, is an absolute blessing for us. The have food at one's fingertips is something most of the world does not know.

We can all do a better job of realizing the blessing of our current situation and continuing to reach out to those in need.

As bloggers, we will continue to keep in mind the vast differences among those who read the blog. Our hope is to be life-giving to all. Blessings to you.

Mary Alice said...

Hicks! I can't believe that you are reading this all the way over there! Thanks for the advice, I hate being alone and some interior life is certainly worth cultivating.

Alice Gunther said...

I loved this post and I hung on every word, because I understand it all so well.

You are going to be so missed here! I'm so sad that you've moved.

By the way, you always look beautiful; you're children are always well behaved; and they all have great haircuts!