Posted on

On Privilege Guilt: My Fraught Path From Foster Care To Luxury High Rise

flickr/Andreas Wecker

Without remembering, I’m just another career-oriented White girl who wants a gym in her building. And I hate that girl.

“I want to make sure we have good light for the plants,” I tell my boyfriend of nearly four years. “So there should be big windows.”

make a mental note of the granite bar in the open kitchen, the dishwasher, the circular basin bathroom sink, the rooftop deck with the living wall, and the shiny people at the juice bar — the juice bar — in the lobby.

I’m looking for my first real (read: not sharing with roommates) apartment, and when I’m not careful, I forget who I am and where I come from. This is dangerous. Without remembering, I’m just another career-oriented White girl who wants a gym in her building. And I hate that girl.

When we see the bedroom — which is technically a home office in New York City, per its lack of windows — we wonder how the darkness will affect our sleep cycles. But in the back of my mind I’m reminded of my teenage bedroom in the port of Newark, New Jersey, where one night my best friend and I tried to hair-spray the cockroaches away, only to make matters worse.

I slept in the center of my room on a mattress on the floor, as did my younger brother. I would sleep with the window open in the summer, while friends slept in cool, three-story homes on the better side of town. Our dinner was funded by food stamps; we washed the plates immediately lest the roaches come. The memories are of my little brother’s bedroom.

This room was the saddest of all. It didn’t have a window, and it was always dark, always filled with the sound of him playing by himself, a static television. I think now of the little pale boy, alone after school, sitting on his broken bed on the floor. How he didn’t know of the lack. How my mother took the living room couch as her bedroom. And the television with the aluminum foil.

Without remembering, I’m just another career-oriented White girl who wants a gym in her building. And I hate that girl. Click To Tweet

But we did have long white curtains, and if I closed my eyes just slightly, they seemed beautiful. Like the balcony apartments on Riverside Drive where writers in movies always lived.

When I finally signed our lease, I felt guilty. Guilt that I left behind those days of poverty and had all that I do now: my own sauna, the cobblestone square and its French wine bars outside, the option to have things I want. Mostly, I was mourning the loss of the 14-year-old girl who never wanted anything but to write and to be happy. Who wanted her mother to have another work shirt, a dinner that didn’t come from the bodega. That 14-year-old shaped me. But here I have the 30-year-old with the fancy job and the gone-into-debt credentials. I can never let her shape me.

When I told my partner this, he said, “That’s fucked. You worked yourself to death for this this. You work more than anyone I know. You put yourself through six years of university. You sacrificed everything, and we’re still paying more than we probably should be. We’re pushing our limits.”

What we’re paying is three-and-a-half times the amount that my mother — after she got custody of us again — paid to live in a small house in the rural hills that had enough bedrooms for everyone. Put that into perspective.

It takes a certain level of privilege to even get to a place where I can pay my rent as a writer and editor. As I look out at the financial district from the seventh floor, I take measurements for the window seat and think about how my partner could be right.

I went into extreme debt, worked countless jobs and had no parental help, no safety net — nothing but my own resiliency. All I wanted was stability, and so my work-hard strategy has been advantageous.

This gives me a distinctly giddy feeling, like I felt when my mother wasn’t evicted. It’s a sort of, see, we’re normal, too! feeling. It all goes back to accepting that I’m worth it. If I was the apple, and my mother was the tree, then it’s a lonely life, rolling away.

Weirdly, all of this makes me less inclined to invite my mother over to my new fancy apartment, as if now I’ve changed, am entitled to these luxuries, as if I’ve forgotten about being chased by the pretty girls after school because I wore brandless sneakers. I don’t want my mother to think I’m other now. I have not forgotten where I’m from, I tell her, but good god, I don’t want to wax all Jenny from the Block here.

My mother wants me to have everything and has never, ever implied anything else besides sheer exultation. But her just-don’t-be-like-me only makes me feel guiltier. I think of her in her tiny New Jersey apartment. I think of how hard she works for less-than-enough.

My path from rags to more-than-enough has been strange, punctuated by privileged variables.

When I was 16, we ended up in foster care. My mother couldn’t afford to care for us because of an addiction to hard drugs and bad men, and so we were sent away. First we lived with family, then we lived with people we didn’t know; my brother and I were separated.

This is, ironically, how life got better.

My boyfriend at the time didn’t want me lost in the system, and so his family, a couple of New York City artists, rifled generously through their rolodex. They knew of an older couple in New Jersey who owned their own esteemed theater company. They’d taken in foster kids before, and so I moved in with them one sunny day. I still remember the fancy rotary phone in my new bedroom sitting painting-like on the white oak desk at the window.

The couple were quirky, intellectual, fiscally Republican, and they lived in an affluent town, Westfield, where the high school was jokingly referred to as Westfield University.

There, I could take an English class about existential literature, so I was 17 reading Camus. I would think about how I am an agent of personal responsibility. And then I’d walk back to my upper-middle-class foster parents’ house. A big blue house. Furniture no one sat on. Constant vocal technique practice. (Think Running With Scissors, Broadway-style.)

And me, the dirty foster kid, putting on my airs, staying tucked away.

Actually, I blossomed. Their rigid expectations meant I would go to class, and I would pass the class. They got me a job at the local newspaper. They taught me about cuisine and art. They decorated with Degas. And so, I had my experience with privilege, and because of that (and my own desire to not recreate my mother’s life), I got into college and later, into graduate school.

If I didn’t have all of that, I wonder if I would have had what I have now. I might have failed all of my classes in a depressive anger, suffering from separation anxiety and PTSD. Even though my dream was to write and edit, I would likely be the person wishing fucking hard for it, not the person negotiating for more money because I can.

But in this disparate new life, I feel my past-self is more real. Going from foster care to a luxury high rise is not lost on me. I can’t enjoy the steam room without thinking too hard, because normalizing privilege is dangerous to community and to the nation. Maybe I’m a poor girl at heart? Maybe the answer is to take what I have and share it with others, helping other women empower themselves to do better, be better, and take care of themselves.

And whether or not I want to admit it, my body is part of the privileged class, even if my heart isn’t. It’s tough to swallow, tough to convey, and I’m always checking myself and remembering myself.