Middle class mum

Amity Lawrence searches for meaning over money.

Growing up middle class in Australia during the 1970s and ‘80s was reassuringly predictable. Fathers worked a five-day week and were home in time for dinner. Mothers were the stay-at-home kind, or took a part-time job with school hours to help save for the next holiday in the Viscount caravan.

As children, we wore hand-me-downs, ate minced meat and rode our bikes until we grew so tall our  knees touched our elbows. Trips to the Easter show every two or three years were a luxury and big-ticket presents were saved for birthdays and Christmas.  We didn’t expect much and we didn’t feel like we  were missing out.

In the cycle of the Western world, each generation yearns for a more financially buoyant existence than the one before. In the case of my parents, they’d recount stories of their post-war childhoods with reference to how easy we had it now. Rats as big as cats scaling drainpipes and school tunics made from a ruined woollen suit. Like sepia-tinged passages from Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South.

As an adult, I too desired more, to journey away from my bourgeois childhood. Urban abode, chic ensembles, cocktails and dinner parties were all paid for by my labour and ambition. After becoming a parent, I never yearned to slow down the course I was on.

While pregnant with my second child, I accepted a managerial role I’d been working towards. I had the utmost faith that this was fate and I could do it all.

The hours were long and emails constantly pinged on my phone day and night. Juggling home and work life was near impossible. Children were bundled off to day care and if they were too sick to attend, I’d spend a huge portion of the day with one eye on a mobile device and the other on the thermometer. My success felt hollow.

Tired from a long week, I’d fill my spare moments shopping for ‘pick me ups’ to reward myself for surviving the all-consuming machine that was my life. Caffeine-fuelled mornings and dreaming of a glass of wine on a mid-week drive home. To balance my motherhood guilt, I’d find myself coming home at least three times a week with ‘something special’ for the kids too: a small toy, an item of clothing or ice creams from the service station.

Weekends were a tenuous balance between where we needed to be and wishing my husband would take the children out for a bit so I could switch off, be quiet and let the world be still for a time. I knew something wasn’t right, but I forged ahead. I joined a gym in order to get ‘healthy’. With dogged fervour, I juggled cardio, dance, personal training and yoga classes to bring me to a place of Zen. When the workout circuit lost its allure, I joined life-drawing classes, wrote short
stories and tried to run as far away from my work life as possible.

It never really occurred to me that changing careers was even an option. Surely by the age of 40 I knew what I wanted? At work, my mind had started to drift. Always known for patience under pressure, I found I couldn’t tolerate fools and rudeness the way I used to.

Then, a job ad posted on a networking site caught my eye. A friend working in an industry I’d long been fascinated by posted the ad. On a whim, I sent her
a little “Um, this might come from left field, but I may be keen?” email. To my surprise, she was very interested. Now came the blow I naively should’ve seen coming: with the potential change of career came a significantly lower salary. I felt sick with guilt and worry. Did some sort of inability to master my career now mean my next option was to put my family’s lifestyle in jeopardy? This wasn’t just a choice between Veuve Clicquot and Yellowglen, but whether we could actually pay the mortgage.

On the flip side, there was a catalogue of benefits. A significantly shorter commute, set working hours, no after-hours responsibilities and, the clincher, being paid to be creative with a team of like-minded individuals passionate about what they do every day.

My moment of truth arrived when the job offer actually came through. All the questions slid away and the doubt was replaced with a burning desire to head in this new direction. As for the income, I had no choice but to change my perspective and adjust my thinking to parent with less tangible means. Replace toys with time, money with moments.

The biggest shock of all was how the change has barely registered in our household. We live simpler lives and spend much more time together. The shift sits so comfortably with our family it’s like we’ve always lived this way. We cook at home together and watch old movies on DVD while the kids bounce around making craft. I have time to listen more to my family and to myself.

With $30 to spend after the end of a week of bills, instead of regretting what I don’t have, I found myself excited to take in a 10am movie session on a Saturday with a little left over for popcorn. The children have stopped asking for presents but instead suggest we spend Saturday nights around the table with a meal of their choice, which is often spaghetti.

The other day, I noticed a little poster hidden behind postcards and children’s drawings amongst the inspirational images on my new office wall. It simply says, “Its Okay to Live a Calm Life”. I don’t know the journey of the person that posted it there, but I know exactly how they feel.