I want to take you back to the 1970s and 80s and reminisce about what it was like to grow up somewhere on the spectrum between poor and blue-collar in Upstate, New York, where I grew up. Back to the days when it was common to see a 1971 Plymouth Baracuda cruising down the streets of Syracuse, windows open, driven around by a guy in a dark blue uniform with a name-tag, blasting “Free Bird” or “Stairway to Heaven.” Maybe there’s a cigarette dangling from his dirty/greasy hands, hands that are hard to get completely clean.
Maybe there’s a little blonde-haired girl in the back seat with him, looking out the window, hoping the smoke will stop blowing into her face.
That little girl was me, and I want to share with you my perspective of what it was like to grow up in a blue collar single-parent family — both the good and the bad— and what I have learned since then. I will also share how I have changed (or not) since transitioning to a white collar marriage several years ago.
Here is my super quick back-story:
I grew up the child of a single working mom after my parents’ divorce at the age of four. My dad worked at a local car manufacturing company and we didn’t see him very much because he was always working (overtime, double-time, and other terms his union negotiated for him), and did not consistently seek out a relationship with my sister and me. There were also some dysfunctional elements of my childhood in the mix as well. My single mom was poor, and we (my sister, mom, and me) survived on her small secretary’s salary. Child support was very low back then so I always noticed how hard she struggled. Our small family of three drove around in a brown pinto and didn’t go out to eat much because we couldn’t “afford it.” On hot summer days, we would beg my mom to stop at Arctic Isle (the local ice cream stand) for a $1.00 soft serve ice cream cone and the answer was always “no, it’s too expensive, we have ice cream in the freezer at home.” My mom was very cheap and often said no to buying almost anything that wasn’t a necessary item.
Not having a lot of money growing up made me take a good, hard look around me and make some serious inner vows. Vows such as:
“I will work really hard, go to school, and make good money so I won’t have to struggle.”
“I will marry an awesome guy and we will NOT get a divorce.”
“And if don’t get married, fine. I will do really well in my career.”
“I will show everyone that I am not a loser and will make something of myself.” (Not sure exactly where that one came from, but I think it stemmed from some deep-seeded self-confidence issues.)
With those inner vows in the back of my mind, I started babysitting at 11, worked my way through high school and college (clocking in between 20 and 30 hours per week as a waitress during college), and then landed a professional job in my early 20’s. I eventually got married and ended up in what I call a white-collar marriage. On a side note, I was also very picky about the guys I dated, making sure I wouldn’t end up with a “creep,” a “perv,” or a “loser.” Bottom line? I didn’t go on many dates.
Below is just a portion of the more difficult aspects of growing up in the poor/blue collar income bracket. Perhaps you can relate to some of these?
- …First, I remember all the CIGARETTE SMOKE. Smoke in the house. Smoke in the car. Smoke in a tree. (How can that be?) I have so many memories of just sitting in front of a various TVs that sat perched on the green living room carpet, watching maybe Star Trek, Evel Knievel, or Scooby Doo while someone smoked behind me in an easy chair, reading a newspaper. Growing up in a smoke cloud gave me (subconscious) permission to begin smoking myself very part-time through high school and college. I finally quit in my early 20s.
- …We MOVED a lot. I have many fond/not so fond memories of various apartment buildings, houses we shared with other friends, and yes….I even spent some time in the coveted trailer park. I will never, ever forget how tiny those little trailer bedrooms were, and the trailer closets were ridiculous. On an up note, I was able to share a house (different units) with my best friend Hillary, who was also in a single-parent home, which was awesome. We also lived in the same apartment building a couple of times.
- …We had NO MONEY. I heard “we can’t afford that” about 1000 times. Want to stop at McDonalds? Nope, not gonna happen. If you want money, you had to get your butt off the couch and go earn it, all by yourself. So that’s exactly what I did. I have never stopped working and to be honest, it’s so strange for me to not work in a way that earns an income to this day (more on that later). I am still so grateful that my grandparents were so generous with my sister and me — they provided everything from new Trapper Keepers for back to school (remember those?), to new clothes and shoes, to very generous Christmas gifts.
- …As mentioned above, I didn’t see much of my DAD. Early in life, I developed some father-figure issues and ended up crushing a lot of older men, and men in positions of authority over me. However, I did appreciate his hard work ethic. He even built our house from scratch and much later, my mom moved back into it and still lives there to this day. We now have a great relationship (as adults), but again, he wasn’t around much growing up and that was hard for me.
- ….Finally, I struggled with some TOUGH EMOTIONS. I often felt ashamed of my clothes, house, and cars. I felt insecure and unworthy of love. I feared rejection. There were some things that happened that caused some deep wounds, that I have (thankfully) since healed from. But they were very hard to go through at the time.
But growing up blue-collar was also a blessing in many ways. Here are just a few of the positive elements of growing up in a blue-collar family:
- First and foremost, I developed an amazing WORK ETHIC. I have no problem with doing “real work,” “physical work,” and “working with my hands.” Because my grandfather was in the farming business (he built silos) and also we lived near a farm, I actually have helped neighborhood kids with their farm chores. I have also actually picked the following: rocks in a huge farm pasture/field, tomato horn worms off of tomato plants, and weeds from my mom’s garden. I mowed the lawn consistently (when not living in apartment complexes). In fact, I still happily mow my own yard here in Suburbia while my neighbors watch me curiously from their windows. Bottom line? I am not lazy and I’m not afraid of real work.
- Secondly, I KEEP IT REAL with no BS. You will always get the real deal from me. I will always shoot 100 percent straight with you. I don’t like to lie; it makes me uncomfortable. The only lie I will tell you is if you ask me directly if you look fat in that dress, and if you do, I will feel bad, and I will lie and say no. You have been warned. But that’s about the only lie I feel okay about. Sorry not sorry.
- Thirdly, I will never be pretentious. I will never think I’m better than you. I will always treat everyone THE SAME. And I will always be generous. I will always over-tip waiters and waitresses, and I will always say “hi” and “thank you” to all the people who make my life easier. Why would I be snooty with waitresses and maids? I actually did both of those jobs for many years to earn a living. Those are my peeps.
- Lastly, I developed an appreciation for the CLASSICS, and no I’m not talking about classical music or classical home-schooling eduction. I’m talking about Classic cars and classic rock, baby. Whenever I go back to Syracuse I still see folks driving around in a classic car blasting classic rock. I just went to one the Eagles’ final concerts last summer before their lead singer passed away. It was a blast! (see photo below.)
So what have I learned since “moving on up” to a different income level?
First, I actually really appreciate money and where it came from. It is a blessing to actually have some of it. But here’s the deal: I never want to rely too heavily on money or grow accustomed to being upper middle class. Why? Because I developed a deep financial insecurity early on. I know deep in my heart that you can have money one moment, but then the next moment…POOF! It’s gone. And then you are back to square one. So I decided to not even leave square one in the first place.
Secondly, I am still cheap (especially with myself) and don’t like to spend money. I still clip coupons (if I feel like it, because coupons are really a pain), and try to limit my children’s material possessions so they don’t become “spoiled.”
Thirdly, I still feel weird about not working outside the home in a way that generates an income. I still feel a little bit like a “moocher” even though my husband assures me he is fine with me being a stay at home parent. I do plan to work again when my kids are older and after our next adoption, but I would prefer to work part time.
And on that note, I think that’s one of the best things money will buy you: options. I have the option of working part-time rather than full-time down the road. Our family has the option of spending our money on nice vacations (we have created memories for our kids and have taken them to some nice places). We have the option of buying my kids sneakers exactly when they need them, rather than waiting until the next paycheck comes in.
Fourthly, I have learned that money doesn’t buy happiness or inner peace. However, it does buy time and convenience. It’s either time or money. Either you spend the time on something and save the money, or spend the money on something and get back some of your time. So in that way, it’s a lot easier to exist in a white-collar world.
Finally, the number one reason I believe God has blessed us with a little bit of extra income is a. because God is good and He just chooses to bless us in this particular way, b. we both worked very hard to get here, c. to afford to adopt our children, because adoption is expensive, and d. so we can be generous with other people, and also with ministries and other worthy causes that need financial assistance.
Bottom line? I believe money is a gift to help support and enhance human relationships and to support worthy causes. If you have money, chances are, God wants you to help others in need.
So why did I choose the title of this blog? Honestly, I’m not really “trapped”in a white-collar marriage per se, but I feel as though I really don’t belong some elements of this world, deep down. One night we spent time with another couple who are also in our income bracket. Both the husband and wife were very cultured and came from solid families, and they had lived all over the world. Both of them had PhDs from prestigious universities. As they shared about their childhoods and current successful careers, I felt like I just couldn’t relate to them. I felt like I had to impress them with something about my life, but I just couldn’t think of anything to say. I also didn’t feel like I could be completely myself around them. (Qualifier: most white-collar folks are super, duper nice and not pretentious at all. Maybe they’re a lot like me and didn’t grow up that way. But if they did grow up with wealth, they seem to have a certain self-confidence about them that poor kids lack. I think I sense this subconsciously and feel I cannot relate.)
In closing, Oprah Winfrey once said that obtaining money just makes you MORE of something. So if you are kind, you become more kind. If you are generous, you become more generous. If you are an arse, you become more of an arse. I agree with her assessment.
Since transitioning income brackets I have become the following:
More cheap (with myself)
More generous with others
More hard working
More efficient with my time
More grateful for money, but knowing it’s limitations
I am grateful to be where I am today, but I will never forget where I came from. My childhood made me into the person I am today, and I am grateful for all the lessons it taught me. Blue-collar workers truly do make the world go round, and I am proud to be counted among them.
So if you see a suburban woman driving around a really nice convertible, blasting the Eagles, drinking coffee from a coffee mug from home because she didn’t want to stop at Starbucks because it’s too expensive, all the while thinking about how she needs to mow her lawn when she gets home, well…that would be me.
I’m teetering between the two worlds, not really fitting into either one at this point.
But that’s ok, because that old saying is true:
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
So while I may be in a white-collar marriage, I’ll always be the same blue-collar girl, deep inside.
PS: Stay tuned for a future post: Raising Blue Collar Kids in a White Collar family.
Thanks for reading!!