The Discomforting Compulsion of Making Comparisons in Your 30s
It’s a strange feeling to walk into the million-dollar home of a close friend.
I’ve experienced this a few times, and I’m ashamed of my reaction. I notice with an almost greedy wonder the smooth hardwood floors, the fancy kitchen appliances, the comfortable dimensions of the space. I imagine having a dedicated office and a dining table with enough room for six or more people to sit around comfortably. If these all sound like innocuous enough observations, the emotions that accompanied them weren’t. Each time I’ve self-consciously choked out genuine expressions of awe because I struggled to be completely happy for my friends. I was jealous, and jealousy is voracious; it eats everything.
Socioeconomic status is something I’ve always been been attuned to. I attended a small private elementary and junior high school, where many students seemed to lead very different lives than I did: posher, with fancy addresses; buildings with doormen and freight elevators, in apartments that took up entire floors. Some had courtside season tickets to the Knicks, or held birthdays parties at amusement parks and invited our whole class.
I’m generalizing, of course, and I don’t want to misrepresent my own circumstances. I had everything I needed and more. I was at this same school, after all. I had loving parents and a home full of art supplies, music, pets. I got to go to summer camp and take trips abroad. But I lived in a not very nice apartment building with no doorman, we did our laundry at a laundromat, and our windows looked out at the walls of other buildings, not roofs and sky. In the rarified world of New York City private school, I felt several classes below most of my peers. I hated that I let that experience make me feel less than. But there it is: I focused on the people who had more.
This feeling lessened somewhat when I reached my teenage years. I attended a public high school in Queens, one of the most diverse places on earth, and my classmates came from all kinds of families. There were still obvious socioeconomic differences (did you have a pager or didn’t you?), but in the big scrum of kids these little details felt less intrusive, less present. By college, at an Ivy League school, the wealth was back, but more hidden. It was no longer cool to flaunt privilege or disclose whether and how much of your education was being paid for. Everyone was playing at being adults, whether it was true or not. We all behaved like we didn’t have much money, which is just a way of saying that it was easier to ignore. Many of us entered our adulthoods in the same spirit, with crummy apartments and budget-conscious habits. Our circumstances were never identical on paper, but there was a shared sense of trying to make it on our own.
I’m now in my early 30s, and suddenly, my friends and peers and I are experiencing the accumulation of 10 years of decisions about what jobs to take, whether to go to graduate school, where to live, how many roommates to have, and whether to stay single or marry. Some always had family money, some have married into wealth. Some have built up savings as a result of hard work, help from family, smart financial decisions, or some combination thereof. Some are still paying off debt from grad school, college, or credit cards.
We have already made some of the decisions that are defining what kind of lives we can lead, and the sum of these choices is expressing itself again, now as adults, and in big ways. Some people are buying beautiful apartments in expensive cities and starting to have kids. Others are deep into careers where they don’t—and won’t ever—make a lot of money. The lifestyle differentiation invites uncomfortable comparison. Am I making enough? What is enough? Am I where I thought I’d be?
At my five year college reunion, one woman wore a shirt printed with a “life checklist” similar to this one. The items on it were very standard, very expected: advanced degree, husband, house, kid. I found the shirt ridiculous, initially from an outsized sense of defensiveness: Those were not the things that mattered to me (never mind that I also didn’t have any of them). I still think it’s obnoxious, but I also recognize how unapologetically it presented the private comparisons that I think we all engage in. That checklist is the opposite of my beliefs about building satisfaction and contentment, but the desire for socially recognized status symbols is real and universal. The secret equation of how we attain them, the dark arts of family money, salary, spending habits, and debt, is less clear. The shirt was easier to brush off at 27 than it is at 32.
Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at smallanswers.us.