Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Some Thoughts on Limbo, Having Finished It

Now that I've finished Lubrano's book, I want to post about it, in part because it really is good enough to be worthy of a lengthy post. As I wrote when I first began, I really do think it offers valuable insight into some of the internal conflicts that arise with class mobility, and it really highlights the way that education changes a person. But I'm not going to sing the praises of the book in this post (because I'm contentious like that). Instead, I want to do a post that talks about some of the things that I think Lubrano's book glosses over or just misses completely. Again, this isn't to take away from the book - but rather to say that it's not - at least to my mind - the last word on working-class upward mobility in America.

In Lubrano's book, the stories that he focuses most attention on seem to be about children who grow up in the following circumstances:

  1. Their parents are married, and often the mother stays at home to raise the children.
  2. The family has no more than five children. (In most cases, it seems like there are two or three children per family.)
  3. The father generally has a "good" blue-collar job - he's a union guy, a gold watch at retirement guy. These are people who have enough money to move out of the neighborhood when they retire. These are people who own their homes.
  4. There is a lot of emphasis on the role of the father as the center of the family, as the role model for what work means, and the mother seems to stand in the shadows cooking pasta or something, and even for the female interviewees seems to stand for a way of life that girl- and boy-children alike reject.
  5. As somebody in the comments to my earlier post about the book noted, the book is very interested in a masculine model for working-class-ness, and I would argue that even the stories of female interviewees are shaped in the book to fit into the values that come out of that masculine model. And at least in some cases, I think the book gets some things wrong for that reason, at least as I've experienced growing up not-in-the-middle-class.
Why do I write that in such a clunky way - "growing up not-in-the-middle-class"? Well, it's because this book has made me question whether there's a difference between growing up blue collar and growing up poor. The kinds of families that are described in Lubrano's book don't really look like my immediate family or my parents' immediate families - they look like the "snootier" branches of the extended family headed by great aunts and great uncles that had already moved to the suburbs by the time that I was a kid. My grandfather "worked on the boats," and so was gone for months at a time. My grandmother would proudly describe how she would take all of the kids (they ultimately had ten) with her down to the docks and make him hand over his paycheck. And if she missed him there, she'd go to the bar and take his money from him. My grandmother worked once the first five of the children were school-aged. These were "working" people. But they had ten children. They never owned a home. Neither of them drove. In contrast, my grandmother's sister was a stay-at-home mom - still drives at 88, her husband worked at the Ford plant, and they had just two children, one of whom is my godfather, who was a construction worker, while his brother did go to college and become a journalist. So. Either that branch of the family (and others) was just a generation ahead of mine, but all count as "working class" experience, or my family was actually poor when my mom was growing up ("the working poor"?) and my mother and some of her siblings became working class in the 1970s, and only with my generation is a transition being made to middle class?

One of the reasons that this is so difficult to pinpoint is because people in America don't readily acknowledge being below middle class. I remember asking my parents when I was in elementary school what class we were, and they told me we were "lower middle-class." I should note that when I asked this question my mother was working part-time only, my father had been laid off from his union job and so wasn't working at all, and we were surviving on government cheese and things like potatoes and eggs. We lived in a really horrible neighborhood in inner-city Cleveland (one time when my mother told a co-worker where she lived, the co-worker exclaimed "Isn't that the neighborhood with wild dogs that run through the streets?!"). That said, I went to Catholic school (one thing Lubrano gets right: overt racism is pretty common in blue-collar circles, and my parents sacrificed to keep me in Catholic school not because of deep religious commitment but instead to make sure I "wouldn't be bussed with the blacks"). I also did have things like ice skating lessons and dance lessons (but working-class dance lessons - tap-dancing primarily). I was an only child. They could scrape to give me some things that they didn't have growing up. (My father was one of seven, and his parents were divorced when he was 11 or 12 and his father died when he was 13 or 14. So much for the "father as role-model" bit upon which Lubrano insists.)

So one thing that Lubrano doesn't talk about at all is birth control. How much of class is related to how many children one has? How much of class is related to access to reliable birth control as well as to the belief that using birth control should be a priority? I'm sorry, but people don't have only two children without some family planning. Whether a couple just stops having sex, whether they use "rubbers" (one time, my grandmother's brother tried to press some into her hand - I think this was when she had just 5 children - and told her to make my grandfather use them), whether the woman uses a diaphragm, or, later, the pill. The fact of the matter is that a lot goes into a person using birth control consistently, and a lot of that is cultural. Lubrano mentions birth control not even once in the course of the book. Nor do any of his interviewees that he quotes - except for one "straddler" who has moved into the middle class who vaguely mentions only wanting to have as many children as she can afford. This is astonishing to me. I don't care how hard a person works, how thick one's father's callouses are on his hands - if you've got seven or ten kids, that's a whole different kettle of fish from what Lubrano most frequently describes in the book.

Another issue that is glossed over is how divorce affects one's class status and one's family situation. While some of the interviewees are described as having been raised by a grandmother or an aunt or as having come from single-parent homes, the stories that we read that are given the most space and detail are stories that feature families with intact marriages, families who sit down to "supper" every night. Lubrano seems to valorize the working classes as being all about "sticking together" and as valuing family above all else - in ways that are primarily positive, even if it does mean sometimes holding children back in order to keep them in the fold. What I've experienced doesn't really reflect this. While it's true that family is at the center of my working-class experience, many times that is true for negative reasons. Late night calls about somebody needing to be bailed out of jail. Frantic requests to borrow money because the phone/electricity/gas is about to be shut off or because there's no food in the house. Negotiating childcare when one can't afford daycare or a sitter. Getting rides for those who don't drive to wherever they need to go (grocery store, medical appointments, cemetery, whatever). Needing to help people move house with very little notice. This is a burden, not a blessing. And it has nothing to do with working-class people being more committed to their families than middle-class people, and it has nothing to do with working-class people having better values than middle-class people. It has to do with survival, and survival isn't something all rosy and pretty and to which to aspire.

Finally, the stories that Lubrano includes about women who grow up working class don't really reflect what I've experienced. First, there is the idea that daughters don't need to be educated. In my experience, and in looking at the experiences of male friends and family members in my generation, the inverse is true. Whereas my mother pushed education as the key to me not ending up a pregnant teenager (as did every single other of the girls in my elementary school class), the boys I knew were expected to go it on their own and to start earning as quickly as possible. My gradeschool boyfriend dropped out of high school and was working in a factory when last I talked to him when I was 16. My First Love was cut off at 18, and he paid his own way through college with no help from his parents, in spite of the fact that financial aid awards are figured with parents' income included. My cousin only finished one year of college because he had no support from his parents and couldn't afford tuition without working, and working full time meant he couldn't do his schoolwork. His brother dropped out of high school, as did another male cousin (both of whom are younger than I am). No one seems to think that this is that big of a deal in the family, as long as they're earning. On that side of the family, I'm one of 13 grandchildren, five of whom are girls. Of the five girls, three have college degrees, one is still in high school, and the other got her GED and was in community college the last I heard. None of the boys has a college degree. Obviously these aren't some sort of universal statistics, but I see similar trends with my students. I've got a lot of non-traditional female students who've gone back to school while their husbands work. I've got a lot of traditionally aged college students who are supported by their families to get an education, and the primary motivation for that support, it seems, is that families don't want their daughters to get stuck with a bunch of kids before they're grown up.

This isn't to indicate, however, that anybody expects the girls to do great things with the educations that they receive. The thing to remember, and that Lubrano does not acknowledge, is that there's a strong tradition in our culture of women "marrying up" and of pulling themselves up out of lower-class status not through hard work and achievement but by "catching a man" who can confer higher-class status upon them. (A great book that looks at this is Carolyn Kay Steedman's Landscape for a Good Woman.) I vividly remember conversations with my paternal grandmother when I was in college in which I would try to tell her about what I was learning or what my goals were after college and she wouldn't listen at all. Instead, she would ask not what I was majoring in or what I planned to do but rather what my First Love was majoring in and what he planned to do. At first, this totally confused me. I suppose that the expectation was that I'd marry him, and that whatever I was learning was just to bide my time until I got that brass ring - the wedding ring. The expectation was not that I would be a high achiever, but rather that I would choose a major and a profession that would be good enough until I decided to have kids. Something that would allow me to move in the circles of my newly middle-class husband without embarassing myself, but that wouldn't really take any attention away from him. (I should note that First Love followed me to college, where I was an honors student and he was not, where I graduated with honors and he did not, and where I was admitted to various honors societies and such and he was not. But I wasn't supposed to outshine him, oh no sir!)

As much as my maternal grandmother did seem to get it more, and really wanted me to excel, she, too, seemed to fear that I was signing on to be a "career girl" and that meant that I would lead a life of quiet and lonely desperation because "nobody wants to marry a girl who's smarter than he is." There was absolutely no model for combining academic and professional achievement with a personal life. (And you wonder why I write about all this stuff on my blog: that's got to be a big part of it, I'm thinking, that I want to construct such a model, even if the model I'm constructing is kind of lame, I admit.)

But so if all this is left out, what is left in the book that made me feel such a strong sense of recognition, a strong sense that this was, at least in some ways, my story? You know, there were random things. Like talking about how blue-collar people yell and wear their hearts on their sleeves whatever their emotions. I'll never forget my confusion when a middle-class boyfriend scolded me for screaming at him when I was pissed off. Not that screaming at a person is necessarily attractive, but to me, that's what you do when you're pissed off. He never got it. And like Lubrano's interviewees, I know I say too much at work in meetings, and in "telling it like it is" I probably do put myself at risk in ways that I probably shouldn't. We ate "supper" when I was growing up - not dinner - and I always understood how much things cost. I worked from the time I was 15. A telling conversation between my working class mom and the mother of my middle-class best friend from high school, Heather:

Heather's Mother: "Oh, Heather won't work this summer because I really want her to travel. I only want her to work at some point in college for the experience of working."
Crazy's Mother: "Oh, Crazy's going to work. And she won't work for the experience; she'll work for the money."

That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? But you know, the story that hit me the most was when one of the female interviewees described her experience of reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time in a college class. She described disliking the book, and she described commenting in class that she'd go crazy if she had to read about one more ball. Her professor asked her whether she grew up working class, and this was the first time that she realized in a concrete way how she differed from her middle-class counterparts in the class, who seemed intuitively to get the necessity of balls and to like the idea of them and to be able to relate to the book in ways that she couldn't.

My own first time through Pride and Prejudice, in high school, I hated it for similar reasons. And I wrote scathing commentary in the margins about how ridiculous the book was and I didn't think it was funny or charming at all. When I was assigned it again in college, after a couple of years as an English major, I couldn't get past my former self screeching in the margins, and I actually went out and bought a new copy so that I could read it again with a fresh eye. I loved the book the second time. I got it. I always thought the reason I didn't enjoy it the first time was because of my age - because in high school I wasn't yet "ready" for Austen. It occurred to me, as I read the story in Lubrano's book, that my problem wasn't one of age. My problem was one of class. When I read that book for the second time, I was already assimilating. I was learning how to move within middle-class culture and I was seeing myself as a middle-class person.

So I think I'm pretty comfortable with my status as a "straddler." I don't feel much anxiety about class these days, and I think this has to do with letting go of a lot of stuff when I was in grad school because I just didn't have the energy for it. Also, I think that working at my current institution is a good "fit" for me because I really do teach students who come from very similar backgrounds to mine, so it's easier to admit to that part of myself in this context. I don't have to pretend to be something I'm not. So I'm both things. I'm a person who has working-class roots and who now has moved into the middle-class. For me, there's just not much conflict in that. I don't worry about what forks to use anymore, and I've learned how to cook some things that would satisfy middle-class foodies. I've learned a bit about wine. But when I serve dinner at home there's just one fork (even on thanksgiving), no meal is more comforting than campbell's tomato soup from a can, a grilled cheese sandwich, and a dill pickle, and the wine I usually drink is cheap and nothing to brag about, and when I'm out I'm more likely to order a beer or a jack and coke. So that's me.

And as much as Lubrano gets right, I feel like he doesn't necessarily show that experience.

16 comments:

ceresina said...

Y'know, I think you've hit on something very interesting about discussing class. My first reaction to your last paragraph was that you're describing more upper-middle class people (or aspirants) than solid middle class. But I come from somewhere in that range. That is, maybe it's hard to talk about because there isn't a general definition that everyone uses.
(Besides that little problem of the general population, at the very least as represented by the media, not wanting to admit poor people exist, of course. But that's quite minor.)

Emma Jane said...

Wow! Thank you for writing this.

Responding to one small point, and not as directly as I should: have you read Dalton Conley's The Pecking Order? I think I remember one of the basic points being the only systematic differences between outcomes for siblings in different places in the family (oldest, second oldest etc.) (no matter what Frank Sulloway says) are that being in a big family can be sucky for all the the oldest few and the youngest few.

Otherwise the book is about how even in small families, differences in circumstances (e.g., age at the time of a divorce) can lead to huge differences in the siblings' lives.

gwinne said...

Really interesting post. When she was little, my mother's family was somewhere between "working class" and "poor," and she likes to talk about how "we were ALMOST on welfare" when I was a kid (some odd badge of courage for her, that it was ALMOST true but not, while she was divorced from my father). And yet whatever amount of money she/we had in the bank (and at this point, my mother is solidly upper middle class) she was always middle class identified. Makes me wonder how much of what we call "class" is ideological code for something else, whatever the monetary "reality" might be...

kermitthefrog said...

Just a note to say I really appreciated this post.

Allie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
adjunct whore said...

i read this a few hours ago and so my response is not fresh, but i wanted to say wow also. great fucking mind. great fucking post. i will spare you the parts of my own past that intersect with yours, but will only say this: yes to your astute analysis, yes to the class-coming-of-age aspect, and maybe most importantly, yes to the beer and comfort food. campbell's tomato soup and grill cheese sandwiches for me.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ceresina, I totally take your point on that one. I will say that part of the reason that I characterized the "middle class" as I did was because it's the way that Lubrano characterizes it (the forks, the food, etc.) I don't necessarily think that this characterizes all middle-class life. A question would be, though, are there any middle class people who DON'T aspire to being upper-middle class? (That's a real question - I really don't know the answer to that.)

Emma Jane, I've not read "The Pecking Order," but what's interesting is that my mother is the only of the ten in her family who graduated from high school, and she's solidly in the middle (#7). My mom is one special lady, though, so it might not ruin the theory about oldest and youngest having the most opportunity :)

Gwinne, class in this country clearly isn't just about money. It's about oh so much more. Money is... I guess I'd say, the catalyst to all the other stuff. One can't be upper-class or middle-class without money, but what "working class values" encompass have to do with a lot more than tax bracket.

To all of you who've thanked me, just, well, you're welcome. I'm glad that something I said spoke to you.

gwinne said...

Perhaps tax bracket is to class what sex is to gender. (To either the essentialist or the constructionist.) Just musing.

lgainor said...

Perhaps because class is so invisible in this country, distinctions within the "working class" are rarely made. Julie Bettie's "Women without Class: Girls, Race, and Identity" describes working class lives as "Settled" and "Hard Living."

"Settled" = lives that are orderly and predictable, characterized by relatively secure, higher-paying jobs, sometimes health benefits, and sometimes ownership of a modest home.

"Hard-Living" = lives that are chaotic and unpredictable, characterized by low-paying, unstable occupations, lack of health-care benefits, and no home-ownership.

I haven't read "Limbo," but it sounds like Lubrano's "blue-collar" corresponds to "settled." I think the sort of lives/jobs that Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in "Nickel and Dimed" might be described as "hard-living." As might "Being Poor" http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/003704.html

Sisyphus said...

Interesting! I loved this post and will save these reading suggestions for my (ever growing) list.

Another couple things I'd add to nuance the idea of class would be: time period ("working class" in the fifties boom is very different from the 70s deindustrialization is still different from the 21st century when what's left of the social safety net has been shredded)

and region --- my parents grew up working class (by some definitions) in the Midwest and so much of their cultural assumptions about class and lifestyle are different from those of my siblings (raised mostly east coast) and me (raised on the west cost). The idea of aspiring to have a yard, for example, or ideas about wine and gourmet food vs. box wine and canned food.

And what are the attitudes of different classes to divorce? Does Lubrano's book not mention it much because it is scandalous and hidden?

Oh, and there was a PBS documentary on Class in America that my friend uses in her writing course. It spurs some _very_ interesting discussions with our demographics of students.

Someday PhD said...

I've been lurking here for a while. This post couldn't have come at a better time for me. Halfway through my own phd, I'm struggling with staddling class in a way. Certainly as a graduate teaching assistant, I don't make near enough money to be upwardly mobile, but just the act of getting educated can be enough to separate you from your roots.
I plan to read Lubrano's book, but judging from your comments another book needs to be written about the experiences of academic women.

History Geek said...

I forwarded this on to my mother, who came from working class but raised me middle class (not to mention has her MBA)

Great thought provoking post.

Doctor Pion said...

Wow. Don't apologize for the length of an article that I just read from top to bottom without a break, and then all of the comments as well. Thank you for your insights into another part of the story.

I definitely have to read this book, and I should print your comments and keep them with it, for perspective. I see a lot of my students in the comments about your background and the goals that came with it, although I also see plenty of those "hard living" cases mentioned in the comments.

(What can you say about someone whose hard life actually rated a made-for-TV movie? Not enough, but nothing here.)

I'd offer the thought of "working middle class" for a category where you might be college educated and still need to squeeze the dimes to have some of those extras that define middle class. That might explain why this son of an engineer also smiled at your mention of Campbell's Tomato Soup and grilled cheese, although these days I eat it with takeout sushi for Saturday lunch.

Karet said...

Great post! I too have a lot of non-traditional female students (at a regional campus of a big state school), but I sense that they are very practical and serious about their degrees -- Almost all are education majors, which is by far the most popular degree for women of any age at my small campus. I don't get the sense that these women are looking for a wage-earning man. When I was in college, I think my (upper-middleclass) parents didn't care much what I majored in (not a peep of protest over my English major) because they assumed I wouldn't be supporting myself, but these (mostly first-generation, rural) college students seem to be much more practical about their education (it's not just an "experience" for them: it's job training).
I wonder if there's a distinction to be made between rural and urban experiences?

Comet Jo said...

Great post, a bunch of really interesting questions/observations on differences with the "not middle class" -- you might be interested in checking out work by the anthropologist Sherry Ortner, who has done quite a bit of writing on this. Lubrano seems to be writing about not only a particular kind of working class-ness, but also about a particular kind of "urban village" working class world that may be very rare these days. I'm tired and away from home but will track down the Sherry Ortner refs at some point

Dance said...

I'm sorry I'm a week late to this conversation, but it inspired a reflection on my own newish blog, which might be interesting to Dr. Crazy and others.