On a paper-thin adhesive chalkboard piece stuck to the wall of our apartment, my roommate and I have compiled a satirical list of "possible thesis topics." We've been jotting them down throughout the year as a way to lighten the pressure surrounding our actual senior thesis topics, and we usually laugh out loud as Julie's scraggly handwriting spells out something borderline ridiculous with a stub of blue chalk. Some of my favorite topics include:
(For the record, the only topic I can answer for sure is the second one. You're trying to tell me that Helen Keller learned how to READ and WRITE even though she was DEAF and BLIND?! Yeah. Ok. I gotta call bullshit on this one. I can barely load the dishwasher without calling my mom for help, but sure. She did THAT. Whatever. I'll move on before someone gets appropriately mad at me.)
Months ago, Julie and I also wrote on our chalkboard the phrase, "ed sheeran domesticity double standard," mostly to make fun of all my talk about feminism and pop culture. (I finally caved to downloading Apple Music yesterday and within 25 seconds a playlist was recommended just for me: "Essential Feminism Songs." I have extremely mixed feelings about this.) The domesticity double standard we were talking about when we wrote down that topic was a reference to something that's tangible all over Ed Sheeran's latest record and in plenty of the interviews he's given since 2014. He walks through his hometown showing journalists the real-life castle on the hill he wrote about on track 2 and citing his humble beginnings and decidedly un-famous childhood friends as the reason he's able to keep his priorities in check and stay grounded. In his lyrics, he mourns the pain that comes with a life of touring and sings to his girlfriend about the children he wants to have with her. He even knows the rural England town where he would like to raise them. His albums sales, he insists, will mean nothing if he isn't settled down and happily raising a family within the next few years.
Ed's longing for a wife and children is something Julie and I have come to expect from him. And his attitude is endearing—we let out a collective awww immediately after hearing him daydream about true love and a modest lifestyle and at times I can't help but think he's got it all figured out. His down to earth attitude is an integral part of his artistic persona, and we have always accepted his sincerity without much hesitation.
Then there was a night when I questioned how the public would react—how we would react—if a female singer-songwriter were longing for the same things Ed Sheeran is. Picture a woman who was dominating the charts in 2017 talking about how anxious she is to put her career aside to have a traditional family life. And picture the reaction we'd have to a woman discrediting her own career success because she does not have a husband and children. Think of the feminist think pieces people (like me) would write.
Originally, this topic was on the same level as, "The Speech Teacher Power Trip: Calm the EFF Down," which doesn't make all that much sense even to me when I walk past it now. I didn't decide to really write about this pseudo-topic until I felt it becoming more and more relevant in my own life. (Did I mention I like to write about my feelings?) This is how our awww turned into a topic turned into a blogpost.
I am graduating from college in less than a month. I will receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication Studies plus two minors. I've been consistently employed since I was a freshman in high school, I've had my writing published in magazines and a literary journal, I've traveled to Italy, Greece, and France, I started taking the New York City subway by myself when I was eighteen years old and never looked back. I've done all of the things that Modern Young American Middle Class Feminist Women In 2017 are supposed to do. I've done all of the things that were denied of the people who raised me.
Neither of my parents have Bachelor's degrees and neither pursued careers outside of parenting that they were truly passionate about. My mom always wanted be home to raise her children, and my dad was willing to work as hard as he possibly could to make that feasible. They haven't traveled like I have, haven't earned the degree that I will, didn't move to New York City when they were still basically kids like I did. They didn't do any of the things that they taught me to do. Instead, my sisters and I are their success stories.
Because of a combination of my race, gender, socioeconomic status, and the area in which I grew up, I feel like I am supposed to do all of the things that my culture has classified as markers of success. I can easily list a handful of the expectations I feel are set for me as a Modern Young American Middle Class Feminist Woman In 2017: I have to get the degrees, get the job offers, get the publications, refuse to settle for anything, always chase my dreams (but still be practical), travel as much as possible (but live with a constant awareness of what a privilege that is), know what I want to be when I grow up (but still be open to change), make a lot of money quickly (but preferably stay in school for as long as possible), be single to achieve career success for a few more years (but not too many more years), want to have exactly 2 or 3 children (but not before I'm thirty), and don't you dare doubt for a second that you're smart enough to get a doctorate degree in your field.
My life is already different than my parents', and I know I want my life to be different, just like most people want to make different choices than their parents did. But I feel a complexity that comes from my blue-collar roots. I am supposed to remove myself from the lives my parents built for themselves in order to fulfill my destiny of doing "better" and "more" than they did, but doing so requires me to distance myself from my upbringing. How can I remove myself from everything that made me exactly who I am today? Sometimes vouching to have a life nothing like my parents' in order to cross a class line feels like I am dismissing our culture, our values, the endless sacrifices they make for me and my sisters, and everything I know and respect and appreciate about my parents, because I'm supposed to do and have "more."
For me, the concepts of "more" and "better" are defined by the accomplishments that I feel Modern Young American Middle Class Feminist Women In 2017 are supposed to check off their lists. This year, my university was ranked number 2 in the nation for the most upward class mobility of its students. But my parents seem happy. And there are days when all I want to do in this life is adopt a beagle and learn to play piano and grow a nice tomato garden. Is it possible to really have it all?
When my sisters and I were growing up, annual family vacations were never expected. If we were lucky, some years the five of us would pile into the Ford Windstar and drive all the way from eastern Long Island to southern Florida to visit my mom's sister and her family for Easter. One day I'll tell my grandchildren about the 21-hour drives we spent playing mancala and twisting pipe cleaners around our fingers. I do remember one incredible year when my dad lugged the tiny television from the bedroom Kellie and I shared into the Windstar. He hooked up the TV through the cigarette lighter and we brought a stack of VHS tapes to watch in the built-in VCR. We were over the moon and completely convinced we had time traveled straight into the future. There was also a less glamorous year when our minivan broke down somewhere around Georgia. I have a very vague memory of standing in a purple hoodie at a gas station in the rain, listening to my dad swear he would never buy another Ford as long as he lived. He owns only Toyotas now.
With the days of mancala long behind us, my sisters and I have traveled a fair share throughout college and after. My oldest sister, Melanie, was the first in the family to leave the country. I still remember her calling home when she landed at Heathrow exhausted and hungry, with a panic in her voice that was audible through her tears as she begged my mom to go get a passport just in case anything went wrong. We went to the county center the next day. Melanie spent that summer in London, living out an English major fantasy that none of us really knew could come true until she did it. Sometimes it feels like my sister Kellie is in Central America more often than she's not, on her plight to learn as much as she can about the Spanish language and Latin culture. I went to Italy for a semester in an attempt to fulfill a fantasy I began dreaming up on the first day of seventh grade Latin class, and I was surprised and slightly disappointed when I realized not all of Italy looks like textbook pictures of Pompeii.
Between the three of us, we've opened zero interest credit cards, gotten a Fulbright scholarship, and taken out a student line of credit, respectively, in order to travel because traveling is a part of the life we've been taught to seek. It is one of the many things on our list of requirements for Modern Young American Middle Class Feminist Women In 2017. But all of us have experienced similar feelings of guilt while abroad, wondering why we deserve to see and experience such beautiful things when our parents haven't yet. We were also raised to believe that the people you experience things with are more important than the experience itself, so we are supposed to travel as much as possible but we are also supposed to stay close to home and remember the importance of family. I am not sure it is possible to do both. Your sisters will be your best friends for your whole life, my mom would always say.
In recent months I've had conversations with my sisters about where we'll all end up living in the future. Like I said, I am (unwillingly) graduating next month, and I have the freedom to look for jobs that I like enough just for now—I'm not looking for a stable union job to support a family like my dad was when he was in his twenties. Kellie loves teaching elementary school more than anything and she's working to figure out where her passion will best be able to grow. Melanie has finally found a job where she can utilize her experience in writing and academia, plus she's got a husband, a dog, a one-bedroom house, and an amazing Korean restaurant waiting for her in Rhode Island right now. We want to live near each other—this much we know for sure. We are trying to plan our lives around each other but also are aware that this is virtually impossible right now. Kellie once picked up and moved to Ecuador for a year. Melanie will have to take into consideration her husband's job opportunities when he graduates from Brown University with a PhD. My dad keeps pushing back the year he's going to finally retire, and he and my mom want to retire in places with opposite climates. Our grandmother, Nanny, will remain around the corner from the house we grew up in, and we can't imagine ever not having her as a home base. We were raised to believe that staying close to family is essential, but to still be eternally willing and excited to travel independently at the drop of a hat for the sake of a job or educational opportunity, because that's what Modern Young American Middle Class Feminist Women In 2017 do. I have no idea how to balance being willing to travel anywhere at any time and staying close to family.
My plan as of tonight is to apply to graduate schools in the future and I know I will have to be willing to move to whatever town has a program and an acceptance letter and hopefully a stipend available for me. Sometimes I find myself wearing the brave and independent and determined face of the perfect Modern Young American Middle Class Feminist Woman In 2017 when I say I'll go to school wherever is best for me regardless of location. Realistically I know that if I'm halfway across the country on the day my nieces or nephews are born I'll be crushed. I love those kids already—maybe even enough to drive 21 hours in a Ford Windstar to spend a holiday with them.
Together, Melanie, Kellie, and I like to call ourselves the Schuyler Sisters, in a reference to the lead female characters in the musical Hamilton. Ironically, as Eliza, Peggy, and Angelica Schuyler of the late 18th century, respectively, we make up an incredible team of Modern Young American Middle Class Feminist Women In 2017. This post is not a criticism of feminism (sorry, misogynist readers, if any have made it this far), but rather an examination of the ways all of the elements of our upbringing and our positions in this society have shaped the decisions we make and the expectations we have for ourselves, our futures, and our own families.
I don't have a brother, as you may have noticed. But I have to wonder: if I did, would he be struggling with the same impossible task of staying close to the family values that raised him while being expected to build his own entirely different set of values? Perhaps, and maybe he would be here writing a similar post on a site called Jack's Review instead. Or maybe he would be free from this bind in the way that Ed Sheeran seems to be. The personal is political, of course, but sometimes I think maybe it's just me who can't figure this all out. I may have earned more degrees than my parents but there is still so much I don't know.
I do know that on the last day of my spring break, I hugged Nanny goodbye in my driveway, feeling guilty that the twelve-hour days I spent writing my thesis weren't spent hanging out with her. She was proud of how hard I was working, and assured me that it would all pay off in the long run and we could spend more time together during my next school break. I watched her try to get into her car quickly, hoping I wouldn't catch her eyes filling with tears as we parted ways. I walked back into the house and did the same to her.
Maybe I should just get bangs again.