Words

Yesterday afternoon, in the space of maybe five minutes, I was served with two reminders both of how loaded words can be and how difficult it is to navigate our lives without letting our assumptions—and our experiences—unintentionally collide in hurtful ways.

Upstairs, I was working—an hour when babysitter was “on”—and in wrapping up, I checked Facebook. I read a friend’s update about having tried to get rich slow, and dreaming now of getting rich quick. That phrase—the get rich quick—sparked kind of win-the-lottery-buy-big-boats-and-big-cars image for me.

The day before I’d read—and been wholly knocked out by—Barbara Ehrenreich’s terrific piece for Sunday’s New York Times, “Too Poor to Make the News.” As she did in her 2001 book, "Nickel and Dimed," a few years ago, she named a poverty working people endure, one that from a privileged background, is completely foreign. Her frame for starting this long opinion piece was the idea of “recession porn” being “in” (quote from the introduction named this as “the story of an incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal jets; the upper middle class cut back on private Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo vacations and evenings at Applebee’s. In some accounts, the recession is even described as the ‘great leveler,’ smudging the dizzying levels of inequality that characterized the last couple of decades and squeezing everyone into a single great class, the Nouveau Poor, in which we will all drive tiny fuel-efficient cars and grow tomatoes on our porches). Ehrenreich wrote about what the recession is doing to people who were already poor, detailing the kinds of burdens now placed upon people already on the edge, including families taking each other in so that rather than four people in a two-bedroom apartment, now there are eight. She explained how that kind of overcrowding increases incidences of domestic violence, domino effects I simply hadn’t been considering (while thinking more about tomatoes on the porch). Ehrenreich writes: “But the outlook is not so cozy when we look at the effects of the recession on a group generally omitted from all the vivid narratives of downward mobility — the already poor, the estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the population who struggle to get by in the best of times. This demographic, the working poor, have already been living in an economic depression of their own. From their point of view “the economy,” as a shared condition, is a fiction.”

I can see, quite being flip—as people often are when jotting brief responses to their friends’ often breezy sounding updates—I wrote back something about how I thought if any of us read the Ehrenreich we could not feel poor; this comment completely—and understandably—offended my hardworking friend, who I know—from reading her very fine writing—works extremely hard to support her family, and is both proud and grateful to be able to do so. I wasn’t aware enough at that moment of how much privilege I injected into my statement. Words like “poor” and “rich” are so loaded, something I know, yet took for granted in that breezily made comment jotted as I was about to return to my kids.

Barely a moment later, my eleven year-old appeared in tears. He and his friend had returned from a bike ride to find his older brother and friend playing croquet on our neighbor’s very flat front lawn. To the extent I could grasp his narrative, his brother kicked him out of the game and called him stupid. A little later, as the eldest and I walked with the baby to get the smallest brother, I heard the story another way. From my eldest: “Lucien was losing and we told him not to play and he threw a croquet ball at my head. I don’t know why.” We spent the next twenty minutes (and in more iterations the rest of the afternoon) mulling the idea that the eldest sibling has inherent power simply due to birth order. I’m the eldest in my family, and tried hard to explain the double-edged nature of this privilege, more than anything trying to get him to appreciate his power and wield it responsibly (quote from me to him: “your saying L is stupid actually makes him feel—for a split second—like you must be right; he must be stupid,” and his response, abject refusal to believe this because the notion itself, of his believing him was so, well, stupid). Suffice to say, it was a very, very long afternoon. As a mother, you know you’re in difficult territory when you find yourself saying to your kids how Israel and Palestine remain locked in struggle because no one will let go of anything, urging, begging, and even pleading with your kids to enact real and lasting peace. Eventually, the two big brothers worked it out themselves—something about a show on the Food Network served to re-bond their ties, as did the mashed potato the eldest asked his next-youngest brother (and resident chef) to make for him—and peace was (thankfully) restored in the household.

Beyond a brief, instant apology, I walked away from the virtual offending remark and thought about all of this. I thought about how when I put myself out, I risk saying hurtful things without intending to, as a writer, as a Facebooker, as a person with privilege, as an oldest sister, as a mother. I thought about how many times this can be true.

Today, in my small city, voters are weighing in about an override, which will mean that services—police and fire, teachers’ jobs—will either be strained terribly or strained even more terribly. I published an opinion piece in the local paper a month or so ago in part about bullying, and a friend wrote me upset that I’d possibly inadvertently implied bullying was more likely in a public school than a private one and given the override, this was a worrisome notion to put forth. If I’d implied that at all, I was mortified; nothing in what I thought I was writing implied that (although I could reread it and see how one could draw that inference). Just last week, a friend had me read her opinion piece about the override before submitting it to the paper because she wanted to be sure it wouldn’t offend (at least too much) parents who’d opted for private school. At different times, we worry about stepping on toes, or we don’t worry and we step on toes, or we worry and still step on toes…. After making my inadvertently thoughtless comment, I starting thinking about how in the community of adoption, words are also loaded and how since adopting a child, all kinds of things remind me of how different the lens on what is essentially often the same experience—parenting—can be. For example, changed is that notion breast is best or the word, mother, or even reading picture books I’ve known my whole life, like, "Are You My Mother?" That innocent question asked of cat and giant shovel from the baby bird sounds really different to me with Saskia on my lap, because I worry that one day sooner than I am imagining, she’ll be asking that same question (ours is an open adoption, so answers—and visits—are readily accessible).

Things that once seemed benign or just true can get more complicated in an instant. It’s that instant complexity, seemingly unbidden, that of course makes life interesting and meaningful and well, rich. And it’s that same complexity that I need to be reminded of in order to try to walk with respect for all through my days, knowing that inherent to my experience, will be missteps in all directions.

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Author: Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser's work has appeared on the New York Times, Salon, and the Manifest Station amongst other places. Find her on Twitter @standshadows

Share This Post On

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest stories and posts from the Advocate. 


You have Successfully Subscribed!