Middle Class Illusions

How do American couples make it work? By working. The income gap between those on the lower rungs of the income ladder and those on the higher rungs has been increasing over time and is now the greatest that we’ve seen.

Yet we haven’t shed our sentiments about the American middle class and making it. We get educated, go to college and start looking for a mate. If you’re Catholic you may throw a year or two of “discernment” in there, which means, for some, wandering around waiting for God to tell you what you are meant to do, and for others, active exploration of the priesthood or religious life. Quite likely we all went through a little of both stages, I think.

And then if God calls you to marriage and you meet the mate of your dreams (or your greatest compatibility, perspective changes depending on your personality) then you date or court, engage, and tie the knot. My guess is that at this point it is common for both spouses to start this adventure off with two jobs, two incomes. Readiness and ability to have children varies by couple, of course.

A heavily criticized trend when the economy took a nosedive was the bad habit of Americans to live outside their means. Did anyone else out there grow up with a family that praised middle class lifestyle, saving, preparing for retirement, owning a home, not overusing credit cards? So let’s suppose you’ve played it smart, got married, and lived totally within your means. You’re achieving your dreams. It works great.

So supposing you’ve followed the standard path, the ideal path. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes…

Now what? We’ve set ourselves up with a lifestyle that requires two incomes but then a baby comes. Now either it goes down to one income or one of those incomes get seriously depleted by childcare expenses…or…the extended family gets involved.

There are many different experiences out there. In my upbringing, nether the concept of the grandparents watching the grandchildren nor was one parent staying home imaginable. Paid childcare was the option that fit the image of middle class lifestyle with which I was raised. Because you have to keep working in order to save for retirement and buy your own home, right? You have to do it independently, on your own two feet, right? Owe nothing to anyone.


But now, as a family, we aren’t doing it this way.

For the perspective of my upbringing, we are flipping it on its head. I work half-time. My husband works half or three-quarters-time. One of us is always home with the kids. His goal is to have enough students to provide all our income. I’m not sure yet what I want to do. We rent. But we rent from my parents who bought a second home, so it’s like our home. Is this uncommon? An Indian friend tells us in his culture it’s quite common. It is not so common here, although anyone I talk to who is my age agrees its fantastic because in our professional fields at our age owning a home and having kids is a pipe dream.

How is society structured? With the nuclear family far away from the extended family, living their life, making their decisions, finding fulfillment. We move to big cities, art and culture, have one or two children and make a decision to stop there and celebrate ourselves and the life we’ve built up. It was counter-cultural to me that we should choose to come back, live in a small town and be happy. Our lifestyle isn’t possible because our life is intertwined with my parents. They are a regular part of my children’s lives.

And its’ neat.

So we are low income, but it doesn’t feel like we are because we have help and resources located within the larger family network.

For many Americans, this is impossible. Which is why I found this article by Artur Rosman so fascinating, calling parishes to step up and fill in the gaps left by absent or distant extended families through free childcare, food and monetary assistance. Tying that together with this concept of the “lying in” period of women postpartum assisted by community women or family members and the whole lifestyle, to me, makes sense.

Without this help I just can’t see how a family can raise their children and be able to see them more than just an hour or two each day and on weekends. It’s sounds difficult and painful to me.

I also grew up in surrounded by conservative Republican messages. It is hard to me to empty my mind of the criticisms of receiving free handouts. But I have to. Because I see that we are happy, terribly happy and feel a sense of balance I imagine is lacking for those who have to go the other route of doing it all on their own. I don’t think we were meant for that, but unfortunately it’s been held up as a virtue to do so. The rugged, individual, isolated American. It’s something we desperately need to learn from other cultures during those diversity seminars and celebrations.

Let’s build a better community. Let’s use the Church to do it. And let’s accept help knowing it doesn’t have to hurt our pride because it’s in us integrally to be part of a community. The middle class is a fading illusion. And the happy family? There’s still hope for that. I do believe there is. But it takes a village to make it work.


Postscript: please note: I am not in any way calling on the government to step in and be the extended family. If family in Washington State can’t do it, I just don’t think there’s any way strangers in Washington D.C. can do it without reducing the person to an object/number and diminishing their dignity.

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