“It’s hard to be brilliant and stunning and still feel lower class – even when you aren’t really.”
Those words knocked the wind out of me. I was gchatting about Eve Peyser’s essay on Daddies with my, well, my Daddy.
Our current conception of “daddy” is, in part, derived from “daddy issues,” a pejorative way to categorize a certain type of unmanageable woman, as in, “She’s a crazy slut because she has daddy issues.” The concept of “daddy issues” stems from from Jung’s Electra complex, a feminized Oedipus complex. The trope appears again and again in pop culture, used to identify the root of psycho-bitch promiscuity. By the mid-aughts, it became ubiquitous, frequently referenced on the bro-beloved sitcom How I Met Your Mother by its most misogynist character, pickup artist BarneyStinson.
If you grew up with an absent father like I did, hearing boys and bros describe daddy issues as the cause of any bad girl’s slutty or unhinged behavior — and malign her for said issues — always stung deep.
“I do not sense that our particular kink together comes much from actual things about your father,” he said to me.
Yes, and no.
My father (and mother) gave me the world all the most important ways. The thing they could not give me, however, was a comfortable sense of place. I grew up between two worlds, one I rejected, and the other I felt rejected me.
People don’t like it when people try to claw outside their place. It makes them uncomfortable.
We like to pump up people who’ve done it, who’ve made something of themselves, who’ve overcome the odds through hard work and sheer determination. Because once someone is there, it’s clear they belong. But we don’t like it when someone who probably doesn’t belong tries to elbow their way in.
Watch someone’s face when they see the elbowing happening in real-time. When someone with less power asks the powerful for a favor, an introduction, a contact. If you manage to get there, you’re a hero. But it’s all so distasteful when it’s happening. While you’re clawing your way up, you’re a wannabe. Striving isn’t a good look on anyone.
It’s not like the people at your level are necessarily any more supportive. “Who does she think she is?” “You think you’re better than me?” Even now I struggle with this. I feel two conflicting things.
It’s hard to admit that yes, I do think, all else equal, richer is better than poorer, more influence is better than less. But at the same time, I believe that preference is entirely subjective. Who the fuck am I to judge?
I am not better than the people I grew up with. But they are not the people I aspire to be.
The shame of placelessness
Having divorced parents felt shameful to me in late-90’s, early-aughts Alabama. Which on the one hand is odd because by then divorce was hardly rare, even among churchgoing folk like us. But common doesn’t equal acceptable, see premarital sex.
What I didn’t realize until I was well into adulthood is that while divorce was common, my situation was still odd. First, my mother had some college and my father had a Master’s degree. Theirs was a solidly middle-class marriage, the kind which is statistically less likely to end in divorce than the marriages of poorer folks. Further, the vast majority of solidly middle class mothers choose to remarry after divorce.
It was nearly vanishingly uncommon to be raised by a single mother among the demographic to which I would have otherwise belonged. My parents’ divorce moved me from middle class to poor. The move was both symbolic and literal. We went from a big, beautiful brick house in a nice neighborhood to a two-bedroom rental with burglar bars on the windows and trailers on three sides.
My parents’ divorce turned me into white trash.
What’s odd is that I got this without it having to be explained to me. In fact I could not have explained it if you’d asked me. I didn’t understand why I didn’t feel like I fit in with the kids who were, in many ways, very much like me. Their dads were also highly educated, well-paid engineers. They were also definitely going to college after high school. They were also book smart and nerdy.
I thought then that they were boring, narrow, and conventional. I thought it was stupid that they took advanced-placement classes. It was just more work for the same degree.
What I realize now is that I was rejecting them before they rejected me. I knew I couldn’t reciprocate their invitations to come over because I was too embarrassed by my house. I couldn’t afford to join them on the trips they went on. The dinners out. The movie tickets.
I never saw these other kids as representing any sort of upgrade over the friends I had. We watched boys we liked play basketball at the rec center and skateboard at the halfpipe and in the driveway. We jumped on my friends’ trampoline. We snuck into Kids’ Kingdom at night to make bongs out of apples. I whiled away hours in my friends’ small, messy, smoke-filled houses and apartments.
But there was still a tension there, a divide. In middle school a few friends tried to make “dictionary” stick as a nickname because I liked to use unnecessarily big words. When I joined JROTC freshman year, it was to meet boys. My friends were in it because they hoped the Army would pay for college.
My mom expressed relief that I made it to college. I found her relief insulting. I scored very highly on standardized tests. My grades were fine. I even got a (very, very small) academic scholarship.
None of my close friends went away to college immediately after graduating. I didn’t know at the time how rare what I did was. I didn’t know the stats on how many people go to college when none of their close friends do. I didn’t know the stats on how many people from single-parent homes go to college. I didn’t know the stats on the correlation between depending on food stamps growing up and obtaining higher education.
Mom would say, in her usual hyperbolic style, that her goal was to make sure my sister and I didn’t become drug addicted prostitutes. (I’m not going to go into how funny that is now.) But I see now, much more than I did then, what she meant.
“It’s hard to be brilliant and stunning and still feel lower class – even when you aren’t really.”
What’s hard is feeling angry when people who grew up solidly middle-class tell me about poverty. It feels like they’re taking something they haven’t earned. My feeling is: Until you’ve felt your stomach twist up in knots thinking about leaving your father and friends and moving in with your grandparents, until you’ve come home to a dark house or picked up a phone with no dialtone because apparently those bastards insist on being paid, until you’ve felt the shame of churchgoers buying your Christmas presents, until you’ve not asked your mom to buy something you wanted because you didn’t want to feel guilty when there wasn’t enough money for groceries at the end of the month, don’t fucking talk to me about poverty.
At the same time, I don’t even get to be proud of having pulled myself up from difficult circumstances and overcome great challenges to get where I am today. What I’ve learned since high school is that while we lacked nearly all of the superficial markers of a middle-class existence, I had every advantage that mattered.
A mother’s education is one of the best predictors of a child’s education. My mother earned her degree. And I have mine. Another great predictor of a child’s future verbal skills is how many words a child is exposed to in the first few years of life. My mother read me Shakespeare. It’s come out that childhood nutrition has a major impact on adult IQ. My mother forced me to drink fish oil as a baby. And early stress is a major contributing factor to a child’s mental and physical health. While truly poor kids had to fear the foster system if their mom gave up, I had two sets of grandparents and my dad ready to take me in.
Pulled in two directions
It’s been only recently that I’ve fully let go of the fear that my sex-obsession results from “daddy issues.” It’s been even more recently that I’ve realized that I was right to reject the idea that I felt abandoned by my father. But that this doesn’t mean I wasn’t wounded.
It didn’t hurt me that my dad moved thirty minutes away and remarried, because he never abandoned me in any way. What wounded me was having to abandon feeling like I was part of the middle-class.
In the most important ways I grew up in jaw-dropping, extraordinary privilege. Better-than-average vocabulary exposure, nutrition, and family safety nets aside, the greatest blessing my parents bestowed upon me was their expectations.
My parents expected me to work really hard, be honest, and help other people. They taught me that I was absolutely smart enough to support myself and have enough surplus to give back, and that I was expected to do so. They taught me that while there would be roadblocks, none of them were insurmountable. That if I worked hard I would be a net benefit to society.
Truly poor people aren’t taught these things because for truly poor people they are not true. Poor nutrition, a high-stress home, a poorly educated mother who doesn’t have time to read to you will cap your potential in ways that simply cannot be overcome by sheer force of will. These hurdles standing between poverty and the middle-class are very real and powerful.
I’m sure you’ve heard “champagne taste on a beer budget.” I think what I felt was bougie values in a white-trash life. I knew college was for me. I knew earning good money was for me. I valued those things, because my parents taught me to value them. But my parents couldn’t maintain the lifestyle associated with these values after they divorced.
What I knew in my heart, but could not articulate, or admit, was that I felt like middle-class was better than lower-class, and that I was lower-class.
I am grateful. But I also feel awkward. Because I still feel an acute disconnect between what I am and what I aspire to be.
I’m not worried my relationship with my Daddy results from my relationship with my father. What makes me feel ashamed is how my relationship with my Daddy results from my relationship with class.
The thing about aspiration is that if you get to be picky about how you get something done, it wasn’t really much of an aspiration for you. A goal is probably not much of a stretch goal for you if accomplishing it never requires you to violate the bounds of socially acceptable behavior.
The right way to make connections is through your family, alumni association, church, or volunteering. The wrong way to do it is through one of the men you’re fucking. That’s what makes the “daddy” jokes so funny. We’re all so uncomfortable with ambition. And it’s what makes the “daddy issues” insults so potent. No one wants to have to help a damaged woman.
The world’s oldest profession is also the most common and classic way for a low-born woman to reach the upper echelons. I would say besides marriage, but I don’t recognize a meaningful difference. But, once again, ubiquity does not equal acceptable. We all know that no matter who she meets and impresses, no matter how hard she works, and no matter how smart and deserving she proves herself to be, the stench of her origins will forever linger on such a woman. No one will let her forget that because her father wasn’t a big enough deal, she had to find a Daddy.
I don’t have daddy issues in the sense of neglect. My father is a wonderful, doting father, and a brilliant man besides. I am not ashamed of our relationship, nor do I feel it’s negatively impacted me in any way.
I have daddy issues in the sense of class. My dad isn’t a big enough deal in the circles to which I want to belong to make it easy for me to make the connections I need to get there.
I’ve spent too long feeling ashamed of wanting more than I have. I have felt ashamed of not having it already. And I’ve felt ashamed of feeling like what I have isn’t good enough.
I’m not better than the kids I watched make apple bongs at the playground. I struggle with the fact that I am, in every practical way, that asshole who leaves Alabama and then makes jokes about the deep south. Who leaves and then never checks in on anyone. But it’s not because I think I’m better. It’s mostly because I’m bitter. I’m selfish and lazy and felt deeply alienated when I was growing up and in early adulthood, because I never felt like I belonged, until, ironically, right before I left.
I’ve felt ashamed of being a striver. I’ve felt ashamed of my naked (no pun intended) ambition. I’ve internalized the discomfort I assume others feel about me. But now I realize that there is no way to get above my (very privileged) raising without making people afraid. I now realize that my ambition, any ambition, strikes fear into the hearts of those who at their core don’t believe anyone belongs anywhere other than where they began.
I am grateful to my parents, and grateful to my community. I’m grateful to my mother, who understands the importance of walking the line between ambition and humility. Occasionally she’ll ask me, “Are you trying to get above your raising?” I don’t remember learning that the correct answer is yes. “Good!” she always says, turning the idea into a self-deprecating joke.
There is nothing inherently better about where I want to go than where I came from. I’m not even sure where that is. But, I do know I’m not there yet. And I know that I’m ready to work on shedding the awkwardness I feel about my ambition and the shame of striving.
The best thing about my Daddy is that he, too, is a striver. His naked ambition is far more targeted than mine. His biggest benefit to me isn’t anything as practical as introductions, though he’s offered plenty. What I get from him is that I get to watch him up close. I get to see him negotiate deals and manage his time. I get to understand how his brain works. I get to watch his habits. I hear his assumptions and see him test them and measure the results.
“Daddy issues” is, as Peyser described, “a pejorative way to categorize a certain type of unmanageable woman.” Unmanageable is another way to say effectively ambitious. My Daddy loves that I’m unmanageable. He cheers me on. And he lets me know, without ever having to say it, that he agrees with my mother. There’s nothing shameful about trying to get above your raising.