At my children's schools there are a few families who are seriously loaded; old money, new money, lots and lots of money. And then there are a handful of households whose youngest members come to school not hungry to learn, but hungry. Most people, though, live in a pretty nice house with an eye-wateringly large mortgage, have two cars, a second bathroom and, if they're lucky, a cleaner. Few children have to share their bedroom, and overseas holidays are, if not routine exactly, then far from exceptional. People talk about wanting, nay needing, two living spaces, a double garage, a pool.
I was introduced to a woman at a party recently. We exchanged small talk. Searched for common ground. While in my neighbourhood there is a tendency to follow up any comment which could be construed as greedy with a wry "First World problems", as if by signalling our privilege we can somehow negate it, I was taken aback by how freely and unself-consciously this woman spoke of her expectations and aspirations. Of the extra-curricular schedule of self-betterment her children are signed up to, of "this year's trip of a lifetime". She carried herself with the brashness of someone who has pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and was proud of it. I want the best for my kids, she said. Of course, I murmured, because who says actually I was hoping for something a little more inferior for mine? But how, I asked, ever burdened by middle-class guilt, do you teach them how lucky they are, just how good they have it? How do you bring them up not to be entitled when weekly horse-riding lessons and regular dinners out are their normal? She looked at me as if I were stupid. Work, she said. You make them work.
My background is wildly different to my husband's, yet similarly financially modest. From a young age we both held down part-time jobs, both understood if we needed new jeans but wanted the label ones, we would have to fund them ourselves. Aware that part-time work is harder to come by these days — that's like so crazy, say our children when we tell them bottles of fresh milk were once delivered to your gate by kids pushing trolleys — we were nonetheless on the same page that, as soon as he was able, our eldest should get a job. So a few years ago we urged him to apply for a paper round. He got the position, was told the leaflets would be dropped to him every second Tuesday, that he would need to sort and deliver them by the Thursday, and that he would be paid by weight. We advanced him the money to buy a little handcart and helped him plot his route. That first night it took him five hours to divide them into bundles; our living room floor a mess of circulars and blue strapping tape. Four times the next day he returned home to replenish his supply. As the sun went down he was in tears and still not done. Stuff this, I said to my husband under my breath. It'll be worth it on payday, we told him. The following week the grand sum of $8.48 was deposited into his bank account. Pah, he said, it's hardly worth it! The next Tuesday there were no leaflets. I emailed his boss. Ah, yes, she said, that round has stopped. It would have been nice if you'd let us know, I said. Sorry, she replied, we might have a weekend round available soon, though? I told my son. No way, he said, I'm not working weekends. And off he went. A few moments later he was back. I've been thinking, he said, shouldn't I get like a payout or something?
Last week I admitted, despite feminist misgivings, I'd kinda enjoyed the film I Feel Pretty. Barbara shared this anecdote: "I was making inquiries about having my large earlobes reduced to pre-empt the inevitable sagging as they aged even further. Then my Chinese neighbour visited with her non-English speaking mother and they exchanged excited comments in Cantonese. I asked for a translation. 'My mother thinks you are very beautiful because you have such wonderful big ears, which is very important in China.' Well that changed my whole attitude to my body, and, going from tip-to-toe, I realised there was probably a culture that would celebrate every part of my healthy anatomy."