The Wealthy Suburban Upbringing and the Longing for Home
Jesse Fried • Jun 14, 2017
To grow up in a high-income good-school suburb generally means to be brought up in the "achievement culture," as a friend of mine liked to call it. Your childhood has a goal: success. The stress and challenge of a packed schedule of activities, mountains of homework, various kinds of competitions, etc. serves the purpose of preparing the child for a fast life. The considerable parental resources, financial and otherwise, put behind this lifestyle also contribute to a sense of obligation to do well.
This lifestyle has proven results producing highly successful adults. It cultivates confidence, discipline, and a feeling of opportunity in those who embrace It. It instills a deep optimism that one can go out in the wide world (or, more specifically, New York City), excel, and carve out a big, fulfilling life for oneself and one's family. It teaches hard work to get what you want (when, incidentally, you had a lot to start out with). It is also obviously a pipeline to acceptance into the nation's leading colleges and universities, advanced degrees, career tracks, etc. etc. etc.
Most people understand that getting everything you want is not enough to make you happy. I'm not sure what the route to a good life is, but I do know that the forces in the universe beyond the self are by far the most powerful. It is evident that the upper-middle-class suburban upbringing leaves the child uniquely ill-prepared for engaging with this other side of human experience. Our lifestyle empowers us to have influential careers that can engage us and mean a lot to us, and to fiercely pursue our personal/creative goals, and opens many worldly satisfactions to us. However, it actually makes it hard for us not to do these things. It's more natural for us to lead extravagant lives than humble ones.
A large component of the built-in extravagance is the imperative to leave home. Speaking in terms of both financial and social pressure, for a native of a wealthy suburb it's an uphill battle for a native of a wealthy suburb to make a decent life for themselves in their hometown once they leave their parents'. The world we've known collapses when we leave home, and we are must accept a faceless cosmopolitanism as adults.
A feeling of home is important. Many of us from the wealthy suburbs love where we are from. Maybe not everything about the culture or all of the people, but the feeling of comfort and safety and ownership when walking the streets, the orange clouds blowing past the oak trees at night, the beauty of the land in which we came to consciousness, the uncomplicated connection we feel to it. Nothing I know of in life can replace this organic embeddedness in a aplce. Its loss is especially painful because we had no choice in the matter of giving it up for "better things."
The East Branch of the Rahway River flowing silently underneath the bridge at the bottom of Cypress Street. The ridge of Watchung Mountain No. 1, accessed via the water company property on Sagamore Rd. The tall Tulip trees in backyards and parks. These are all still there, but the cultural context around them has collapsed. Seeing them now is mostly looking into the past. Not to be melodramatic, but this change feels to me like an irreparable spiritual loss. It denies us the possibility of being whole, letting us live, at best, interesting but broken lives.
Writing from a cramped apartment in a neighborhood of New York that is as unquestionably interesting as it is not mine, I can only hope to recover the richness and connectedness I remember in some aspect of life, someday. I also understand that it's true, perhaps even universally, that you can't go home again.