Reading a friend’s memoir feels a bit like voyeurism. Reading a friend’s memoir of their husband, whom you have never met, feels a lot like voyeurism. When my friend Ericka Andersen sent me her new book Leaving Cloud 9, about her husband’s childhood and journey into adulthood, I let it sit on a shelf for months. It felt strange delving into his world in this way; a man I have only seen photos of over the last decade or so of their relationship.
While I was on vacation last week, I brought Ericka’s book with me after listening to her and one of my best friends, Mary Katharine Ham, discuss it on The Federalist podcast. Ericka’s husband Rick’s childhood sounded like mine in a lot of ways, and I was incredibly curious how someone like Rick ended up with someone like Ericka. Ericka, like my husband Seth, had a freakishly normal and loving childhood, and I admired her, as I admire Seth, for jumping into a relationship with someone with as much baggage as a 747.
Like Ericka, Seth was raised in an intensely normal and loving home. Seth and I had different childhoods in many ways: his parents are still married, mine divorced when I was a toddler; I grew up poor, he was upper middle class; he grew up in a committed Jewish home, we were a vague mix of Catholic and Reform Jewish; I bounced around from apartment to apartment and eventually to a trailer park every six months, his parents still own his childhood home. Like Ericka and Rick, you could never imagine the two of us getting together. In Leaving Cloud 9, Ericka explains the social science research indicating how increasingly rare it is for people of Ericka and Seth’s socioeconomic background marrying people like Rick and me.
Like all marriages, ours isn’t perfect. Yes, we have a podcast together, we tweet each other jokes constantly, but like all couples, we have our ups and downs. We have the same stresses as everyone else; it’s probably a good thing that Seth’s stresses are not mine, and my stresses are not Seth’s.
Last night at 1:30 am, I came out into our living room to confess to Seth I’m intensely stressed out about our finances. We’re not poor by any means, we’re living a comfortable middle-class life in the suburbs of New Jersey on a tight margin, but we’re doing fine. I can’t help but feel that we should be doing better; I look around at friends with homes valued over half a million dollars with taxes upwards of $15,000 per year; sending their kids to schools that cost $30,000 per year, per kid; going on exotic vacations or making major renovations to their homes. We’re comfortable in the three-bedroom apartment we’re in, but we’re not financially capable of doing any of those things. What are we doing wrong?
Seth assured me we are not frivolous and we’re not destitute, and yet, I couldn’t help but cry in frustration. Money gets me stressed like nothing else on Earth, while Seth is cool as a cucumber about it. Reading Ericka’s book made me realize why. She wrote,
It’s tough to shake that feeling of possible homelessness, especially after having lived from motel to motel for weeks at a time as a young boy. Today, even with a great family and a relatively high two-person income, Rick will still say things like, “I am imagining having to live in my car” or “I just don’t want to end up homeless.”
The fear is very real, even when it’s irrational, as nearly anyone who has lived it can tell you. And there’s something especially terrifying about going it alone, without the backup of parents or siblings or even friends. The sense of walking a tightrope with no net persists even when you’ve long left the circus and are walking on solid ground. To rid oneself of those fears is a monumental task—one that Rick is still working on.
Reading those paragraphs made me cry. That’s exactly how I feel about money, despite the safety nets we have in place and the careers we’ve built.
People always assume growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household and a fairly secular mix of Catholic and Jewish is the greatest hurdle Seth and I face in our married lives. I have always said, and Ericka’s book reminded me, it’s the financial differences in our upbringings that make the most significant difference and causes the most problems between us. Growing up poor and rich is (I considered anyone with a home rich growing up, even if they were solidly middle class like Seth’s family are), and probably always will be, our greatest challenge.