Live Through This

Racked With Guilt

I thought going to a fancy store betrayed my mom’s very existence.

Illustration by Maria Ines.

Illustration by Marjainez.

When I was growing up in Wyoming, my mom and I weren’t POOR, exactly: We had subscriptions to magazines like Elle, Vogue, and Architectural Digest, but their contents were nothing more than pretty fantasies—I couldn’t fathom that people actually lived the luxurious lifestyles portrayed in them, and I couldn’t imagine how much the things in the photographs might cost. That was before I learned to read the credits, where the prices are often listed, and way before I ever met anyone who could live like that.

Then I moved to New York (aka the holy land for $800 shoes and $1,200 gowns). One afternoon soon after my arrival, two new friends who worked in fashion invited me to hang out. We walked around Soho, dipping into and out of expensive clothing stores like A.P.C., Miu Miu, and Marc Jacobs. It had been one thing to admire, catalog, and dream of high fashion in the pages of a magazine, but it was quite another to be in proximity of the clothing, to touch its impossibly luxurious fabrics, to eye and finally register its even more impossibly exorbitant price tags. There weren’t any fancy department stores like Barney’s or Bergdorf Goodman in Wyoming—there, the wealthy people were ranchers who sprung for higher-end Western gear like elaborately embroidered shirts and fancy cowboy boots.

As my new friends and I approached the Marni shop, its door guarded by an imposing security guard, I became increasingly uncomfortable. It was Saturday afternoon, which meant that back in Wyoming, my mother was at work, printing out bets for gamblers playing the off-track horse races. This was her only workplace at the time, but when I was little, she always had at least two jobs at once. She worked hard to make sure we could live modestly, but comfortably. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt standing in front of the Marni store—even though it had been one of my favorite fantasy labels—as I thought about the hardships my mom had endured so I could have a nice life. My moneyed friends were used to strolling around checking out $800 dresses. How could they ever understand my upbringing—how could they possibly understand me?

That’s what I was thinking outside that store that day as I felt my chest tighten in what I’d learned to identify as the beginning of a panic attack. “I can’t go in,” I told my friends. “Okayyy,” they said, looking momentarily confused. They went in without me; I lingered on the sidewalk, looking at the security guard, who stared at me through the store’s glass front wall. And in that moment my situation was made clear to me: I felt like I related to the security guard more than I did to my friends. I assumed his background was closer to mine than theirs were. (Who knows if I was right, but I was going through a thing.) I felt acutely something that would continue to haunt me for the rest of my life: that I didn’t “belong” in places like Marni or Miu Miu or Marc Jacobs. I wasn’t supposed to have “nice things.”

When I was in seventh or eighth grade, a brand-new teenager with a burgeoning interest in tennis, I dragged my mom to the Foot Locker at our local mall and begged her to buy me a T-shirt screen-printed with a picture of my favorite player, Andre Agassi, and the punny line ACE OF HEARTS. It cost $20—not astronomical for a middle-class family in the 1990s—and I needed it. “It will inspire me on the court!” I pleaded. But my mom wouldn’t budge. “You already own too many white T-shirts,” she said.

What kind of ridiculous argument was that? Sure, I owned a couple of white T-shirts, but neither of them were blessed with the glorious face of Andre Agassi! My mom stuck to her argument, which made zero sense to me, and we ended up in a terrible fight. I cried the whole way home.

A few days later, it dawned on me that our argument wasn’t actually about the number of white T-shirts in my dresser. My mother was trying to avoid the humiliation and guilt of admitting that she didn’t have the money to buy me that Agassi T-shirt. (I have since asked her if this is true, and she confirmed it.) This realization led, dominos-like, to others: She didn’t take that second job at the off-track betting place, nor the third one selling costume jewelry “just for fun” or “to socialize,” like she told me. She needed to work three jobs to cover our the bills and put food on our table. She was shielding me from how much she was sacrificing to give me a better life than the one she had, because she didn’t want guilt or anything else to keep me from being successful.

Her plan worked, because at the age of 26, I got to move to New York and follow my dream of being a professional writer. I write mainly about music now, but in the beginning, I wrote about whatever, including fashion. As a fashion writer, I worked for some of the same magazines that I mooned over as a kid, and I hung out with people who shopped at the stores that advertised in them. That was the first time I realized that such people were real, which was the same moment I realized how different I was from them, and in what specific ways.

Wyoming was so sparsely populated that, in my tiny high school, the poorer kids generally intermingled with the richer ones (even though the most popular cliques consisted of kids whose parents could afford to buy them fancy cars and brand-name clothes). But in New York, wealthy neighborhoods are separated by distinct geographical boundaries, and the richest New Yorkers send their children to fancy private schools, where they never have to interact with those in lower class strata (barring, say, their nannies and housekeepers). You can live your whole life here and never befriend anyone on the opposite end of the financial spectrum.

I wondered what my mother would think of this new world I lived in. I imagine it would be unrecognizable to her. A few days after my window-shopping identity crisis, I called her and told her what had happened. I told her that it felt like just walking into that store would have been an affront to the modest life she worked so hard for us to have. It’s supposed to be the American dream for children of immigrants to do better than their parents, materially speaking, but no one talks about the guilt attached to that notion. That they worked so hard so that we could casually run our hands over racks of $1,000 blouses—that their sacrifice bought our entitlement—is something I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to reconcile in my head.

“I’ve always been so proud of you,” my mother told me on the phone. “I worked very hard, but everything I did, I did for you. And everything you get now, you deserve, because you work hard and are so talented.” I know that she means that. It’s something she’s said to me many times over the years. I’m trying to believe it too. Sometimes I can.

Like just now, as I was writing this very essay, and I FOUND THE BYGONE AGASSI SHIRT that I pined for so deeply as an adolescent on Etsy! I quickly bought it for $35, not much more than it cost in the ’90s. I was completely beside myself that after 20 years, the shirt still existed somewhere—and that now, thanks to my mom’s hard work in supporting me, I was in a place in my life where I could afford it. When it came in the mail, it was full of moth holes, but extremely soft, like any T-shirt that’s been well-loved, and I felt more excited and rich than my friends with all the Marni in their closets. While I’m sure the shirt would have made me happy if I had owned it as a teenager, there’s no way I would have cherished it as I do now. It’s more than a T-shirt to me now: It’s a magic totem with the power to dispel my fears of ingratitude and to remind me that my professional or financial success doesn’t negate anything my mother did or does for me—it’s a tribute to all of her hard work. I’m not leaving her behind, I’m bringing us both us.

When I called her to tell her about the T-shirt, she didn’t remember it as well as I did, but she laughed when I repeated her “too many white T-shirts” line. She finally admitted that her reasoning there was absurd and hilarious, as far as excuses go.

Nowadays, I still can’t afford really buy fancy clothing unless it’s second-hand or on sale, but I also know that it’s OK to enjoy those things without feeling like I’m renouncing my mother’s determination, the sacrifices she made on my behalf, or the experiences that fundamentally made me me. And neither does she! When my mom visits me in New York, she, too, likes to window-shop in fancy stores! And, every holiday, I send her the prettiest, most bejeweled clothing I can afford. She deserves it. ♦

19 Comments

  • Estelle April 22nd, 2014 5:10 PM

    :’)

  • plutosproject April 22nd, 2014 5:16 PM

    As a daughter of immigrant parents, I totally understand that whole anxiety situation of not having money. I used to make excuses to avoid shopping at the mall or even visit the theatre. I remember being such a brat when I couldn’t get the electric tooth brush and now I know that my parents financially couldn’t afford those little things. Still, I’ve been blessed with such an awesome childhood and hey, I think it’s good to treat ourselves once in while, but maybe not always.

  • Gabby April 22nd, 2014 6:10 PM

    <3

  • marineo April 22nd, 2014 6:25 PM

    these aren’t tears nopeee :”"”]

  • honorarygilmoregal April 22nd, 2014 7:33 PM

    A+ essay.

  • martinmorning April 22nd, 2014 8:59 PM

    Aww man this makes me appreciate my mum so much more. She never let us indulge in brand name clothes. But every cent of her income went to our education and for us to eat. When she resigned from her job of 17 years and we migrated to Australia, she paid for our first car and the down-payment of our house with the cash she saved up all those years.
    Sure, we never had a pricey label slung over our shoulders or other materialistic things, but that never equated to being deprived. Thanks for this Julianne, this was beautiful.

  • spudzine April 22nd, 2014 9:13 PM

    I also feel guilty when I fawn over expensive clothing because I know for a fact that my dad cannot possibly afford any of it. None of my friends have to go through feeling guilty because, well, they’re loaded. But my dad’s an immigrant, so the guilt is heavy. Realizing that I’m not the only one who feels this way resonates with me.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Inaurate April 22nd, 2014 10:23 PM

    My tears! So well written and relatable. You seem like a very interesting person and have an amazing voice, Julianne. I look forward to seeing more of your written work :) x

  • phileda07 April 22nd, 2014 11:49 PM

    I really enjoyed this piece. It speaks to so much guilt that I, and many “rising” young people have. Even beyond our relation to our parents who’ve worked so hard for us, there’s also a relation to the “poor” we don’t have to encounter. With your purchase of even something as “inexpensive” as a $500 bag you could feed 100 homeless people a hot lunch. Sometimes they’re even begging nearby or down the street from the place you bought the bag.
    Againl, the touching relationship between the author and her mother shows true self-reflection and I enjoyed reading it.

  • Sofia April 23rd, 2014 4:51 AM

    Once again Rookie, you’ve managed to throw out an eerily relevant and beautiful piece into my path! Gosh, the tears.

    Just yesterday, commencing the hunt for an elegant but thrifty formal dress together, my mum recounted how my parents and brother immigrated to Australia. They were absolutely penniless for over a month, how they had no cutlery or crockery, no car, TV or radio in the house, and how the first time they went into a supermarket here they wondered around the tiny place for hours, mentally enjoying all the foodstuffs they long wouldn’t be able to afford.

    Mum quietly assuring me that she would buy the $540 dress that I had tried on at a fancy boutique left me at once guilty, sick, and feeling repulsively superficial. But as Julianne said, our parents toiled (and moved to the other side of the world) so their children could lead the comfortable and successful lives they never had the chance to.

    Thanks for this lovely written work; I too look forward to one day repaying my parents with beautiful and expensive things, and making the most of the opportunities their sacrifices have afforded my brother and I.

  • obeykid April 23rd, 2014 10:40 AM

    I think being denied certain things when we are young makes us appreciate better things when we are older.

    I was the kinda kid that would cry in stores but as I got older it made less sense to buy a whole bunch of things when you can make the most out of a few things.

    When I go to stores I would rather buy this really good item despite the cost than a whole bunch of things that will break or go out of style soon.

    http://www.etsy.com/shop/obeykid

  • anasaywhat April 23rd, 2014 3:29 PM

    I can definitely identify with this so much. As a daughter of immigrant parents, who have sacrificed so much for my siblings and I, I feel that I shouldn’t buy things that I feel are too expensive. Simple things such as paying more than $10 for a shirt can be hard for me (Cheapo, I know). But I know now that this sacrifice that is mutual and will eventually benefit all of us in the long run. Thank you for bringing this to light! I know I am not alone.

    Abrazos,

    Ana

  • Brodie April 23rd, 2014 7:49 PM

    Damn, Julianne, this is for real. I could never articulate the feeling I got the first time I went to Opening Ceremony, on my first day in New York, and held those Rodarte x Nicholas Kirkwood heels in my hands after obsessing over them online for so, so long. I felt like such a fakester! When the sales assistant asked if I wanted her to help me try them on (v strappy, v difficult) I practically yelled, “NO! I’M NOT WORTHY!” and left immediately. This is 100% how that felt, though!! xxx

  • blueolivia April 23rd, 2014 10:56 PM

    i recently let my dad buy me a $98 prom dress and i’ve been, well, racked with guilt! this made me feel better, at least i’m not the only one ♥

  • cristal22 April 23rd, 2014 10:57 PM

    I feel this guilt especially when my parents buy me expensive things, they bought me a new car this year and I felt so much guilt because I felt that I didn’t deserve it.My parents were so poor growing up in Mexico (they didn’t even have shoes) they have struggled so much achieved so much and I feel as if I haven’t. Growing up we weren’t as financially stable and lived very modestly the anxiety of not having enough money for stuff has stuck with me. Thank you Julianne for writing this piece

  • Krista April 24th, 2014 11:49 AM

    Ahhh I loved this! Thank you for naming and explaining this feeling so beautifully<3

  • Nobre April 24th, 2014 7:24 PM

    Love the illustration

  • April 25th, 2014 10:59 PM

    This reminds me of a conversation I had during the semester I spent in Italy, during which a bunch of kids in my program suddenly started talking about how unfair it seemed that they had worked hard their whole lives and we, in our late teens and early twenties, had the amazing privilege of all this time abroad. So this post really resonated with me.

    I’m still definitely working on these feelings — for instance, study abroad was one thing because my parents were encouraging about that…but what if I want to take advantage of another economic-privilege-based opportunity that they don’t approve of? What if I want to follow a career path that’s not likely to let me give my kids the same standard of living that my parents gave me? It’s really complicated, and I love how this article gets at that.

  • HollyMargaret April 26th, 2014 4:04 PM

    What a beautifully written piece; this actually made me cry! I always feel so guilty when my mum buys me something, even things I need like a bed! Thank you so much for this, Julianne.