I grew up poor in a family with no meaningful life connections. My mother was mentally unstable and my father was a registered sex offender and felon. I spent most my life stressed out and not sure where my family would end up. While I was growing up I worried more about surviving into the next month or week or year, rather than planning for the distant future. My parents didn’t plan for their own retirement and certainly didn’t plan or save for their children to go to college. The way I was raised I wasn’t really meant to make it anywhere.
So when I decided to go to college it really changed my vision of the future. Before that decision, I only ever saw myself being a wife and staying in the same blue collar community. Maybe I’d stay at the grocery store I worked at in high school and work my way up to middle management. I pictured myself being in an unhappy marriage like my parents and grandparents. After all, this was the only life I was ever exposed to. When I decided to go to college there was suddenly a ray of hope that this didn’t have to be my future.
I made this decision at the end of my Junior year. I saved every penny my parents didn’t take from me and worked 30 hour weeks while attending high school. I increased my grades and started volunteering in my spare time. I went from smoking pot and drinking everyday to being sober for months so I could focus on my future. For a girl who thought of suicide for much of her life, I felt I finally had something to live for.
Growing up with friends who had parents who actively planned and supported their future, I often felt like I was working twice as hard as them only to have half as much. Somehow, I thought college would be different, but it wasn’t. Most my college friends had their parents’ credit cards and didn’t have to work. They got to focus on partying, and didn’t really care about their grades because college was a given for them. It wasn’t a shining opportunity for a better future, it was a guarantee that they would have at least an equally comfortable life as their parents. Even if they didn’t have the best grades or any work experience, their parents could easily get them a job through connections. I didn’t have any of that and I didn’t know anybody else like me.
I worked up to 60 hours a week while attending the most difficult classes I could, because I felt I should get the most out of my education. I knew I’d end up in debt, and the more I was prepared for the work force the better off I would be. There was a time I went 5 day without eating because I had no money and my parents refused to help me. There were times when I’d get 4 hours of sleep each night because between work and maintaining a high GPA, I just didn’t have any more time. It wasn’t easy, but I climbed, scratched and bit my way to graduation with a relatively high GPA and related work experience.
I made it, and it wasn’t a guarantee or something that was handed to me; it was a feat.
The thing about making it, in this scenario, is that I was alone. Everyone else I knew who graduated college were expected to do this from the time they were born. Their parents and grandparents opened college savings accounts for them, and they graduated with relative ease. Getting into the workforce made it even worse. Everyone I was hired with at the beginning of my career could pinpoint the exact connection that got them there. They were all from the same few wealthy suburbs. College was the best years of their lives because they took easy classes, slept in and partied the entire time.
It wasn’t that I blamed them for living those lives, because I didn’t. It was the fact that I had never known a life like that and I knew I would never. I was on my own in a city where I had no family, and had been working so hard for years to end up in the same place many of these people had handed to them. Even after school I was struggling to pay off student loans and save enough to build a future. It was just hard. They couldn’t relate to my life. I was the same age as them, yet felt like I was in a completely different generation.
Since then I’ve been promoted to a better job, bought a house that I’ve been renovating myself and have continued on my journey of self improvement. I know the advantages my upbringing gave me: I’m strong, resilient, hardworking and I am more motivated than anyone I know. These things make me a better person, but I feel as if I will always be alone. The people with an upbringing like mine don’t make it out the way I did, and the people where I am certainly didn’t have an upbringing like mine.
I find myself lying about my childhood, even laughing about jokes coworkers make about families similar to my own. It’s easier to pretend to fit in than it is to refuse to be a part of it. Yet, I know, I will always be an outcast. I won’t find love this way, I won’t make real friends this way and nobody will ever know me this way.
Then there is the family that I left behind. They resent me, because they think I’m too good for them. Why would I abandon them, for the “other” life? The neighborhood I live in now looks like the communities on the HGTV shows we watched during my childhood. When I come home to my family I feel like an outsider. I don’t belong there anymore.
I know I’m not the only one who worked hard during school, or the only one with a bad family background. Maybe the rest of the people are just pretending like me and I can’t pinpoint them. Maybe they refuse to live a life like mine and have found another way. What I know is that no matter where I go I feel alone and I’m not sure if anything will ever change that.