I’m Glad I Listened to My Adoptive Mom and Not the Luxury Belief Class
Poor families can't afford to cultivate entitled self-importance.
When I saw this tweet from the wealthy and talented actress Alyssa Milano, a story from my life came to mind. A story I briefly mentioned on Bari Weiss’s podcast a few months back.
After never knowing my father, being taken from my mom after she became addicted to drugs, living in seven different foster homes, and then being abandoned by my adoptive father, all I wanted to do was get high and get into trouble with my friends. But by age 13, my adoptive mother and her partner, Shelly, had created a relatively stable life for my sister and me. Between eighth and ninth grade, I was walking home from school and saw a bunch of guys outside of a neighbor’s house doing construction. Some of them were carrying sheetrock, tools, and other equipment.
I saw that their trucks were dirty from all the dust around. I asked if I could wash their cars for six dollars each. They looked at each other and shrugged, “Why not.” I did a good enough job that some of them hired me later to stack wood for the upcoming winter. I also raked leaves, cleaned gutters, and helped them haul heaps of garbage and old appliances to the local landfill. I made a few hundred bucks that summer. I started to understand that there were reliable connections between good choices and good outcomes and bad choices and bad outcomes. It had taken a long time for me to internalize these connections because outcomes were so often delayed.
Mom and Shelly bought some lumber from these guys when they learned that heating a house with firewood was less expensive than central heating. I woke up at 5:30am every morning to build a fire so that the house would be warm by the time my moms got up to get ready for work at 7:00am. I did this all winter, when temperatures would dip into the low thirties—frosty weather for Californians.
At first, I argued with them about my new chore. Shelly sat next to me and replied that she and Mom worked all day to pay the bills, and it was the least I could do as “the man of the house.” I couldn’t argue with that. I’d always thought of chores as something imposed on me, like a punishment or something. Maybe a holdover feeling from one of my homes in the system, where my foster mother made me do chores for three or four hours a day on school days, and longer on the weekends.
After that talk with Shelly and Mom, I grew aware that I had an important role in the family and household. They told me I was getting older, and that it was time for me to take some more responsibility. Shelly treated me like an adult, which I found both gratifying and annoying.
So I’d wake up bleary-eyed and ensure the home was warm for my moms so they could get ready for work. One time I got up at half-past five, barely conscious, and built a fire. Then I walked into the bathroom, thinking about what school assignments I had due that day, and I realized it was Saturday. I groaned as I brushed my teeth, then put out the fire and went back to bed.
Milano’s comment is a picture-perfect example of a luxury belief: Ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while inflicting costs on the lower classes. Saying “take care of your mother while I’m gone” isn’t insinuating that women can’t take care of themselves. It’s a reminder to boys that they have a duty to their families. It’s a cue to young males—who have a tendency to be self-obsessed—to think of someone other than themselves. It is intended to suppress entitlement.
Maybe rich families can afford to let their kids be self-centered. They can literally pay people to do things. Poor people don’t have that. If they’re lucky, they have families they can rely on. But the luxury belief class doesn’t like the idea of poor people getting an ounce of enjoyment from things money can’t buy. Like strong relationships with other people. Maybe because so many members of the luxury belief class are unhappy, and they want to spread their misery.
For some kids, we didn’t have a father to tell us to “take care of your mother while I’m gone.” Some dads never tell their kids they’re going to be gone. Some of us never met our fathers. We had to learn to take care of ourselves before learning we also had a duty to take care of our mothers who couldn’t take care of us.
If it was up to the luxury belief class, fatherless sons would disregard their mothers the way that I had as an immature teenager before coming to my senses. I am grateful to have had guidance from my adoptive mother and her partner. And not a rich and famous person like Alyssa Milano, who grew up in an affluent family with a mother who worked as a fashion designer and a father who worked as a music editor.
But she is not the only one.
I have lost count of the number of affluent people I have met from stable, two-parent families who are doing all they can to destroy the familial bonds in poor and working-class communities.
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I particularly appreciate two points you bring up in this:
1) It's a luxury to allow your kids to languish in a carefree life. I grew up in an affluent family and area, and even from the inside you can see a distinction between the people different parenting styles produce. Obviously, in a situation of affluence, the way you raise your kids has to be a conscious choice of whether or not you choose to give into that luxury.
Often those that had expectations—regardless of their income—of their kids to do housework, get jobs, follow rules, and be a fully contributing member of the family turned out pretty well. That did come with a hint of "Take care of your mother when I'm gone". On the other hand, I also grew up with families whose philosophy was that it was the kids' job to play and explore, and the parents' job to work. The kids' lives were often devoid of meaning. As you can imagine, these people made difficult college roommates, and later, work colleagues.
2) Have you read Warren Farrell and John Gray's "The Boy Crisis"? You say a few things that remind me some of their analyses. Perhaps Milano doesn't fully understand the issue she's addressing is so much more complicated, but I think we've reduced men's role in the world to a single function: To bring in resources and money. That—along with the assumption that dad is obviously dying first since he's working himself into an early grave—actually seems more disconcerting for me.
I think your story about your taking care of your moms is a good example of not only the sense of responsibility you cultivated as a teenager, but also that your value in your home was more than just financial. Your contribution actually helped your family and made your home a more pleasant place for your moms to wake up, so they could provide for you. It's a credit to them that they raised you that way.
Thank you for the concept of luxury beliefs, its good to have this category, like a drawer to keep all our ‘nice’ things. A place to put them and hopefully forget them!