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Posts Tagged ‘Middle class’

The $10.32 loaf of bread

In behavior, business, children, culture, domestic life, family, life, Money, parenting, politics, US on October 22, 2012 at 1:49 pm
2001-2006 Mini CooperS photographed in USA. Ca...

2001-2006 Mini CooperS photographed in USA. Category:BMW Mini R53 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s the price of a loaf of Eli’s Bakery walnut and raisin bread in my town.

I don’t live in some remote Arctic village where everything must be flown in, inflating prices to a crazy degree, but a suburban town 25 miles north of New York City.

$10.32.

For bread.

I asked the men who own and run the store, one they spent $600,000 to expand and renovate recently — who can afford this bread? How many are they selling each week? (Five.) Sometimes they get an order for ten at once. $100, for bread.

Then I went out for lunch with my softball team, a co-ed group I’ve known for a decade. One of them says his teen-aged son refuses to drive one of the family’s two cars, a Toyota Corolla, because it’s “a cleaning lady’s car.”

Excuse me while I shriek: What the fuck?

My town, and county — reflecting the income divide that is deepening and widening in this country at warp speed – are becoming a place I no longer recognize.

The cars in our town’s parking lots now are shiny new Mini Coopers, Range Rovers, Audis and BMWs, not the dusty econoboxes I used to see. There are three art galleries selling garish, huge paintings of dubious beauty.

The median income in my town, in 1989, was $40,000, then $60,000. It’s now, I believe, about $80,000. That sounds like a fortune depending where you live.

But it doesn’t buy you much around here.

And the sort of hyper-competitive materialism my friend despairs of in his own son is normal amongst his status-obsessed peers, in a town far wealthier than ours.

Over lunch  — wondering, as we all are, who will become the new President in two weeks and what our world will look like if uber-rich Romney wins — we had a long and impassioned discussion of the rich and the poor and the disappearing, desperate, job-seeking middle class.

Why do so many rich Americans not give a shit about those lower down the socioeconomic ladder?

“They’re losers!” said one, a retired iron-worker. He doesn’t think that, but many rich people now do — if they live in a big house and drive a shiny new Beemer and their wife wears designer clothes and their privately schooled kids are headed as legacies for an Ivy school and grad school, why, they deserve it!

And anyone who’s failed to scale the greasy pole of material success at their speed and height does not. Poor people are shiftless, lazy, poorly educated, unwilling to work hard. So goes the mythology.

It must be all their fault.

The two largest sources of new jobs in the American economy are part-time, pay minimum wage and offer no benefits. Slinging burgers at McDonald’s or folding T-shirts at the Gap will not, contrary to any Republican fantasy, help propel the hardest worker on earth into the middle class. These are working class jobs.

I know. I worked retail for 27 months, then wrote my book “Malled.” I saw firsthand the disdain the wealthy have for those who serve them.

Romney’s contemptuous remark — that 47 percent of Americans, those paying no federal income tax, are leaching off the rest of them, the productive ones — revealed a raw, vicious and useful truth. Many of this economy’s winners, gloating on third base, are convinced they hit a triple.

The rest of us can go to hell.

Here’s a recent New York Times piece about minority kids who get into top prep schools but can’t relate in any way to the privilege therein:

WHEN Ayinde Alleyne arrived at the Trinity School, an elite independent school on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, he was eager to make new friends. A brainy 14-year-old, he was the son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, a teacher and an auto-body repairman, in the South Bronx. He was soon overwhelmed by the privilege he saw. Talk of fancy vacations and weekends in the Hamptons rankled — “I couldn’t handle that at that stage of my life,” said Mr. Alleyne, now a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania — and he eventually found comfort in the school’s “minority corner,” where other minority students, of lesser means, hung out.

In 2011, when Mr. Alleyne was preparing to graduate, seniors were buzzing about the $1,300-per-student class trip to the Bahamas.

He recalls feeling stunned when some of his classmates, with whom he had spent the last four years at the school, asked him if he planned to go along.

“How do I get you to understand that going to the Bahamas is unimaginable for my family?” he said in a recent interview. “My family has never taken a vacation.”

It was a moment of disconnection, a common theme in conversations with minority students who have attended the city’s top-drawer private schools.

There was once a very clear understanding of noblesse oblige — that the privileged owe a responsibility to help those less well-off. No longer.

Increasingly, Americans have a servant class and a class that ignores them, until it needs their kids cared for or their doddering mother attended or their cars washed or their groceries delivered. They live in different neighborhoods, attend different schools, shop in different stores. They do not attend the same churches or share a bus, train or subway car. Rich kids think being “poor” means driving a car costing less than $75,000.

I watch it in dismay and wonder where, truly, the United States is headed as a nation, a polity, an identity in which to take pride. Social mobility is now at its lowest in decades.

From Foreign Policy Journal:

During the second half of the 20th century, the United States was an opportunity society. The ladders of upward mobility were plentiful, and the middle class expanded. Incomes rose, and ordinary people were able to achieve old-age security.

In the 21st century, the opportunity society has disappeared. Middle class jobs are scarce. Indeed, jobs of any kind are scarce.

Are you seeing this growing divide in your own schools, neighborhood, life or work?

How — if at all — is it affecting you and your kids?

Does your spouse vastly out-earn you? Does it matter?

In aging, behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, family, journalism, life, love, Media, men, Money, women, work on August 30, 2012 at 12:07 am
united states currency seal - IMG_7366_web

united states currency seal – IMG_7366_web (Photo credit: kevindean)

Maybe it’s your wife who’s out-earning you, a trend in the United States, where one-third of women now make more money than their husbands.

Here’s today’s New York Times Magazine cover story on the subject, by Hannah Rosin, about the new “middle class matriarchy.”

What we’re really talking about is income disparity, a proxy for the very real issue in every marriage — power: who has it, who has more of it, who uses it and some who, in a nasty fight, abuse it.

Marriage, to me, ideally means two people helping one another to shoulder their burdens, but is it anymore?

Here’s a recent blog post by a fellow freelance writer on this subject:

I realize that I don’t really want to “have it all.” Or, rather, the phrase “having it all” is different for everyone. For me, it means having a balanced life, as a writer and wife and mother and woman. A high-powered career doesn’t interest me, though I wouldn’t want to stop working completely.

Michael and I have always wanted the same, basic things: marriage, children, a house, fulfilling careers. When I was 5 years old, I wanted to be a writer. When I was in college, I wanted to be a writer. Now? I’m a writer…

But then I think about how Michael’s carrying me. How he’s carrying us. And not wanting “it all” (in the conventional six-figure sense) makes me feel guilty.

This writer says she makes about $30,000 a year, working mostly part-time.

That’s a fortune to some people, but not in many parts of the United States, unless you own your home outright, pay almost no property tax and feed your family from your own food production.

Without a significant additional income from your spouse, you’re going nowhere fast.

And husbands know it.

Her post spoke to me because my annual income for two years, also as a freelance writer, was less than $30,000. Things have improved for me since then — my income doubled between 2008 and 2009, and I’m up 11 percent over 2011, with four months’ additional earning power before year’s end.

I still earn far less than my husband — who, thanks to his newspaper union, is stuck with measly 3 percent raises year after year.

So, who’s more “successful”?

Is money our only, our most accurate, measure of worth?

Ask a teacher or those working at lower wages doing essential work…

I began writing for a living in 1978, in my final years of college. Back then, $1/word was normal pay. It was also plenty — my share of the rent was about $300/month and my only other bills were food and phone. Today, costs are way up, I want to retire, (i.e. must save a ton of dough), and many editors pay the exact same wage. Many talented, experienced writers are hustling harder than ever for less money than we made a decade ago.

But many of us, watching some of our peers hit the Today show or best-seller lists, also feel driven to make big bucks, with or without kids, because we can. Our incomes prove our bona fides as smart, ambitious, driven, feminist.

What if we don’t want to?

That’s a pretty radical statement for women daily exhorted on all sides to Do It All. As many women doing it all know, (those without 24/7 nanny care or family support), it can be a recipe for exhaustion.

We don’t have kids, (by choice), nor must we support broke parents; my father and mother are well-financed and Jose’s parents long dead.

So whatever income we scrape together is up to us to negotiate. In our early years, we had some very bitter fights over my inability to earn a lot more than I do. Now Jose gratefully accepts what I earn, even if it’s less than my income from 2000, when we met, and I had a $1,200/month client for about a year. I recently — after many tough years without one — snagged another.

It’s difficult not to feel really frustrated sometimes. We’re in our 50s, not 20s or 30s with decades ahead of us in which we want to workworkworkworkwork.

Like many people our age, and in our industry, we’re both doing our best to adapt, but we’re weary of trimming our sails or savaging one another for our stagnant/falling incomes. It’s been too easy to turn that frustration on one another.

From The New York Times:

In the first quarter of this year, per capita disposable personal income was up just 4.7 percent from four years ago. That is the smallest such gain since the late 1940s, when the number was influenced by the fall in government spending after World War II. Adjusted for inflation, the average American now has income that is 2.1 percent lower than four years ago.

Do you significantly out-earn your husband or vice versa?

How’s that affecting your marriage?

The C-Word We Avoid — Class

In behavior, business, culture, entertainment, Money, movies on December 29, 2010 at 2:14 pm
Working Class Hero

Image by christian.greller via Flickr

Finally!

Even if it’s only in the entertainment pages, we’re talking out loud in the U.S. — land of the mythical meritocracy — about social class and who’s rising, who’s (much more likely now) falling, and who’s most terrified of sliding from “middle” (defined as…?) to lower or working class, words used more easily in nations whose central identity doesn’t rely as heavily on the idea of equality and assured social mobility.

In a recent New York Times piece by film critic A.O. Scott:

The idea of the universal middle class is a pervasive expression of American egalitarianism — and perhaps the only one left. In politics the middle has all but swallowed up the ends. Tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and social programs that largely benefit the poor must always be presented as, above all, good for the middle class, a group that thus seems to include nearly everyone. It is also a group that is, at least judging from the political rhetoric of the last 20 years, perennially in trouble: shrinking, forgotten, frustrated, afraid of falling down and scrambling to keep up.

In the movies, which exist partly to smooth over the rough patches in our collective life, the same basic picture takes on a more benign coloration. Middle-classness is a norm, an ideal and a default setting. For a long time most commercial entertainments not set in the distant past or in some science-fiction superhero fantasyland have taken place in a realm of generic ease and relative affluence. Everyone seems to have a cool job, a fabulous kitchen, great clothes and a nice car. Nothing too fancy or showy, of course, and also nothing too clearly marked with real-world signs of status or its absence.

Last year I viciously mocked “It’s Complicated” in this blog for the absurd affluence of a divorced woman character, played by Meryl Streep, who lives in a $5 m home, runs her own bakery business and wears impossibly lush clothing and jewelry. Most women divorcees fall far and fast from their married affluence, if they had any, drained from the start by legal fees.

It’s a mug’s game to try and pinpoint “middle class” in New York, where I live in a a suburban town, when a 1,000 square foot shoebox of a 60-year-old house on a postage stamp lot runs $400,000 with $12,000 a year in taxes — barely affordable on an income of $100,000 to 150,000 a year.

In New York, you can make six figures and not have someone snort in derision for calling yourself “middle class.”

Fact is, anyone paying $30-50 per trip by (subsidized) commuter train into the city to work or look for a job, struggles hard here on an income of less than $50,000 for one, let alone $40,000 or less trying to raise a family.

Only now are we seeing films address how we really feel about money and what we really feel about who has it, who doesn’t and what we’re willing to do to get and keep some.

In the New York Post, critic Kyle Smith writes:

Without ever saying so, “Blue Valentine” is centrally about class, and class, in America, anyway, is centrally about much more than income — it’s about tastes and values, as we see when Dean’s idea of a healing getaway means a cheesy lovers’ motel. It seems obvious that if Dean had arranged such a trip with cool irony instead of urgent eagerness, Cindy would have accepted it in a larky spirit. And if Dean painted canvases instead of houses, his lack of accomplishment wouldn’t be an issue.

American filmmakers largely avoid class, which is fine because virtually all of them were well-born and tend to portray their inferiors as piteous, comical or (especially when they’re minorities) as sprites whose magical simplicity can be used to cure the angst of therapy-needing professionals.

As someone whose own income plummeted by 75 percent after losing my last full-time job in 2006, this is no idle fantasy. When I went to work as a sales associate for $11 an hour, no commission, at a mall, I began to understand the extraordinary income inequality that is increasingly defining life in the United States.
Our mall attracted the hedge fund guys and their size 0 wives tending their 10,000 square foot Greenwich mansions.
Such attitude! Such entitlement! People who think nothing of snapping their fingers in the faces of the growing servant class.
You and me, babe!
From the Huffington Post:

Income inequality in the United States is at an all-time high, surpassing even levels seen during the Great Depression, according to a recently updated paper by University of California, Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. The paper, which covers data through 2007, points to a staggering, unprecedented disparity in American incomes. On his blog, Nobel prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman called the numbers “truly amazing.”

Though income inequality has been growing for some time, the paper paints a stark, disturbing portrait of wealth distribution in America. Saez calculates that in 2007 the top .01 percent of American earners took home 6 percent of total U.S. wages, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2000.

As of 2007, the top decile of American earners, Saez writes, pulled in 49.7 percent of total wages, a level that’s “higher than any other year since 1917 and even surpasses 1928, the peak of stock market bubble in the ‘roaring” 1920s.'”

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Is Being A Parent Truly That Miserable?

In behavior, parenting on July 11, 2010 at 2:37 pm
Sleep Like A Baby

Image by peasap via Flickr

The endless drama of modern urban parenthood continues as the blogosphere dissects a New York magazine article about why so many parents are miserable:

Somewhere along the line, having a baby has stopped being an inevitable part of the life cycle and started to be one of those things-to-do-before-you-die, like climbing Machu Picchu or running a marathon. Basic aspects of the mothering experience, like labor and breast-feeding, took on a spiritual significance. Now, as we prepare to make the many sacrifices necessary to become parents, we anticipate nothing less than enlightenment in return.

But being a parent isn’t about getting a happy ending. There is no ending. As soon as your child is born, the profound truth hits you: this is forever. And yet, if New York magazine is to be believed, modern parents never stop obsessing about whether they’re doing everything they can to make their children the most accomplished little people they can possibly be. It’s as if they’re expecting to cross a finish line any day and be showered with confetti. And in the meantime, they don’t realize that they’re missing out.

If you’re having a baby for reasons of self-gratification, of course you’re going to be miserable. Becoming a parent is less about enriching your life than it is about up-ending it entirely to make room for another human being. And that’s what Senior’s article is missing: the fact that children are people, and having a child is about forging a relationship. Take this quote from a sociologist Senior interviewed about why parents are so disgruntled: “Middle-class parents spend much more time talking to children, answering questions with questions, and treating each child’s thought as a special contribution. And this is very tiring work.” Funny, that doesn’t sound like work; that sounds like having a conversation. The true reward of parenting isn’t looking back with nostalgia, as Senior concludes; it’s getting to watch a baby turn into a fully realized person. It’s hearing the thoughts and opinions of somebody who didn’t exist until you brought them into the world. It’s a humbling, daunting, awesome experience — and it’s hard enough without the added pressure of making every moment enriching and significant.

I chose not to have kids, thereby placing myself — and my partner, who feels the same — into a distinct minority, about 20 percent of the population.

You won’t hear us hand-wringing endlessly about ohmygod, my career. I am so tired! It’s so hard! OMG! Or, the aging, ill distant parents — plus the career/job/school/whatever. A life decently lived is, de facto filled with responsibility to and for the health and happiness of other people, not just getting and spending.

Which can be hard and endless and filled with ambivalence, along with love — for work or your Mom. Not just your offspring.

You want kids? Have ‘em. You don’t want them — don’t.

But spare us the endless narcissism of questioning and second-guessing your reproductive choices.

Of course having and raising healthy, responsible children is a shitload of work.

Who told you otherwise?

When The Customer Is Totally Wrong

In behavior, business on June 21, 2010 at 7:10 am
Fast food in Tashkent, Uzbekistan

Don't yell at him! Image via Wikipedia

Loved this rant in The New York Times:

Let’s face it, folks. The customer is not always right. In fact, some are just plain old abusive, cheap and crass. I say this not as a salesman but as a dyed-in-the-wool middle-class consumer.

I’m waiting in line at a fast-food restaurant while a coupon fight goes on in front of me, delaying me from my sweet, sweet weekly communion with a Southern Style Chicken Biscuit. No, the coupon does not say that you are entitled to a free iced latte. You show it to me as if I’m your lawyer, and it states plainly, “A free cup of coffee.” And, no, they are not the same thing.

Do you read? Do you think complaining loudly in front of others and belittling the teenage cashier is going to improve your situation? Why do you need a manager to come out and tell you what you already know, that you’re wrong?

I’m finishing my retail memoir this week and payback is a bitch — I’ve got a whole chapter devoted to the worst customers I endured in my time behind the register. I had a hit parade of the top five and it took some doing to make it into my short list. The champion was the woman my age who whined that I was being hostile.

I told her her she really had no idea what hostile really looks like — and quit two weeks later.

I think things are simply getting worse and worse. We live in a time of such staggering income inequality that some shoppers, people who have an entire army of the docile at their beck and call, are convinced that everyone, everywhere is their personal servant. I had customers (women were the worst, always!) demand I watch their purse while they walked away and hold down their T-shirt while they removed a sweater. What are you — three?

So I completely identified with this interview from The New York Times with the owners of Great Lake, a popular pizza house in Chicago:

Q. In online reviews, some customers have complained about rudeness or arrogance. Where do you think that perception comes from?

Mr. Lessins: I think that perception of arrogance has to do with the sense of entitlement and a lack of respect for someone wanting to do their job. We’re just trying to do the job the best we can. We’re trying to provide a quality experience for everyone who comes in. In the food service business, it’s assumed that the customers have a set of God-given birthrights when they come into an establishment. It’s like they’ve been wronged in a lot of parts of their lives, and this is their chance to even the score.

What’s the worst of this you’ve ever heard? Were you serving — or being served?

Did you say or do anything in response?

Pull Up Your Pants, Bro! British Man (Barely) Avoids Prosecution For Saggy Trousers

In Crime, Fashion, men on May 10, 2010 at 8:15 am

Moments like this, you think, good thing I live in “the land of the free” — a British man narrowly avoided getting an ASBO (anti-social behavior order) for wearing his pants so low you could see his ass. Pretty standard stuff (sorry to say) where I live; I saw a guy looking like this last week on the train.

From the Guardian’s comment page:

Ellis Drummond was last week spared an Asbo for “wearing trousers so low that the public are able to see his underwear” after a judge suggested it was contrary to his human rights. Here some of the Observer’s finest minds debate the implications for Britain’s sartorial standards.

Euan Ferguson

…an Asbo for stupidity.

Kevin McKenna

The wise ones also say that a man’s kingdom is his trousers. Where I grew up, some of us were so poor that wearing trousers that fitted one properly was a luxury. Therefore, I feel that to wear trousers in this way celebrates the poor working classes who often had no choice in the matter. I remember there was a lorry that came round each week full of discarded clothing from the Romanian middle classes. You were lucky if anything fitted. In Cameron’s New Britain, wearing your trousers halfway down your arse may be the only means of protest against the Bullingdon club influence on our life. Their use of braces to control the natural movement of trousers is redolent of Oxbridge privilege, a paradigm of social control. We must retain control of our trousers…

Euan

Remarkably restrained. I wondered how long before the money/class argument would be wrangled in. But that doesn’t hold, not unless you’re seeking to persuade us that the subtext of any gritty working-class mantra was, actually: “We were poor but we were stupid.” Euan Kev, I know you’re haunted by class: I remember you quoting some definition of a gentleman as “anyone who gets out of the bath to take a pee”. Brain-wise, think of this. The low-slung look derives from people in evil penitentiaries in America’s deep south who had their belts removed. They wanted nothing more than to, in random order, a) have a belt to keep their trousers up; b) live in a kinder place with a job, or benefits, and always chances; and c) not be in the electric chair the next morning. For someone with all of the good things above, to actually want, when there are so many good looks available – tweed, I say, always have; tweed and knitted ties – instead to dress as if he seriously wants to be a hot crying man in a dirtyard on the last day of his life? Actionably stupid. Criminally so. Asbo.

The whole idea of an Asbo is so fundamentally un-American — where you get to let it all hang out, whatever it is, most of the time. It’s always a little weird to those of us who grew up in more restrained, less individualism-obsessed societies.

The laws came in in 1998 and have been controversial since: they can be used against anyone over the age of 10 whose behavior is deemed offensive or damaging to larger society. (I blogged last year about a British couple whose sexual activity was so loud it won them an Asbo from their weary neighbors.)

I hate the baggy pants thing, but maybe that’s just my narrow, priggish point of view.

Seems we’ve got a million potential Asbos on this side of the pond: walking while staring into a phone or PDA, driving while texting, reallyloud cellphone conversations in enclosed (or not) spaces, people who leave gym equipment all gross and sweaty…

Does this “style” offend you as well?

Would you vote an Asbo for the uninvited sight of some guy’s ass?

When Volunteering Fails: A Cautionary Tale

In behavior, US on January 10, 2010 at 9:44 am
Helping Hand

Image by Jeff Kubina via Flickr

Fellow T/Ser Michael Salmonowicz blogged recently about the need for, and the power of, volunteerism. There’s no question that choosing to offer your time, skills, intelligence and compassion to someone in need — and that someone might be, or have been, you as well — is the right choice.

It’s the moral choice. What if it doesn’t work out?

My goal is not to dissuade anyone from doing it, but my experience of being a Big Sister was sadly instructive and left me very wary of making such a commitment again. That quite likely deprives me, and others, of some good results.

We rarely hear about the ones that don’t work out because, after all, the idea is to encourage volunteerism, not scare people off.

I became a Big Sister in 1997 or so, handed into a relationship with a 13-year-old Hispanic girl I’ll call Pilar. She lived in a small, crowded, squalid house in my county, a mere 15 minute drive away but might have been in another country. Her mother had disappeared five years earlier and she and her younger brother were being raised by their grandmother, a woman of astonishing ability to lie, spin, deceive and manipulate. But it took me a while to learn this.

I liked Pilar from the first minute we met. Feisty enough to be fun but sweet enough to be likable, she said she wanted to become a writer. We spent about a year and a half together, seeing one another every three weeks or so, as mandated by our agreement.  I took her sailing with friends — her first time on the water, she learned quickly and eagerly. Same thing on the squash court. God bless her, she was game for all sorts of new WASPy adventures.

Sometimes we’d hang out at my apartment or go for drives or just talk.  I took her to her local library one day to work on homework, but she had no idea what a librarian was or how she could help.

By the end of our time together, I decided one way to help her escape the craziness of her home life — lots of shouting, a mother who’d returned suddenly a week after our match and now lived in the basement watching videos all day, junk food, nowhere quiet to read or study — might be boarding school, at a prep school near me that accepts full scholarship students. We went for the meeting, Pilar in her best clothing, her manners eager, awkward. I didn’t even think, I’m ashamed to admit, she’d need coaching for that interview.

They agreed to let her sit in on a full day of classes, to see if there was a fit. She never called, never showed up. I never got an explanation from her family or caseworkers. I had started calling her three days beforehand to help her choose her clothes and talk the day through. No one returned my calls and at 10:00 p.m. the night before, her brother casually mentioned she was at a a relative’s house.

Had she lied to me about her grades? Her eyes lit up when she saw the grounds and buildings of the prep school. “I’d love to go here,” she said that day.

I was, clearly, naive and idealistic. The more I got to know and like her and see her potential, the more I wanted to do to help her get a great education, make new friends, work with her athletic potential, get into college. My family had warned me from the start that this sort of aspirational intrusiveness was dangerous territory.

Her family wanted her as is, even if her granny made a habit of poking Pilar’s belly in front of me, barking “Are you pregnant?”

Only half-way through this increasingly challenging relationship did the caseworker finally admit: “This is one of our toughest families.” You think? Her therapist told me she thought Pilar one of the most manipulative girls she’d met.

Great — liberal, middle-class optimism/guilt/hope meets…what?

Volunteering demands humility. You have no idea, often, what effects — if any — your relationship has on this other person. Should this matter? Matter a lot?

Maybe you teach them a new skill and you can see that happen. But maybe not. If you are a goal-oriented person, this can be confusing.

I often think about Pilar and wonder who and how she is. She’s now in her 20s. Did she ever go to college? Avoid early single motherhood? Is she happy?

I wish I knew.

Here is Michael’s essay in Good magazine.

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