Unfortunately, The Problem Isn’t Rich New York Moms
On the deliciously deluded wealthy and the search for a bathtub of one’s own.
Oh but it is so delightful to hate-read about the wealthy and their ridiculous problems. Is there anything more delicious? Taste it: that contented feeling of pity for someone who seems to have so much and is, by all accounts totally, miserably oblivious. Mmm! This is why, of course, we love White Lotus and why we laughed out loud when The Menu’s psychotic chef sentenced that Brown graduate to death for not having student loans. (“Student loans?” “No.” “Sorry, you're dying.” LOL.) But isn’t it even better when it’s real life people we can be pleasingly, justifiably outraged over? That is why the sudden swerve taken by the Discourse™ about Fleishman Is In Trouble, the novel and TV show by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, has been so scrumptious.
In a nutshell, for those just catching up: this week The Cut published The Fleishman Effect, detailing how certain aspects of the show have struck a certain kind of rich New York mom right in the feels. In the article — go ahead and read it if you haven’t, it’s a treat — one mom owns an apartment in an “affluent Brooklyn neighborhood” as well as a vacation home, but has Brownstone envy; another “sends her kids to one of the city’s most prestigious private schools” where, she is dismayed to share, the “go-to bat mitzvah gift of the moment is a Cartier bracelet;” and a third seems to spend every waking hour hating everything about her life, wherein she earns $300,000 a year working 12+ hours a day and dreams of being able to afford some type of attic renovation entailing an elusive bathtub that will then be the “one thing I enjoy in my life” — trapped as she is in the suburbs. They all talk honestly about the way in which the TV show rings their own bells of envy, frustration, and questioning: is all their striving worth it when there is always someone just above them on the ladder of privilege and wealth?
I still feel envy. I covet! I feel frustration and worry, feel the strain and the dissatisfaction of having reached just this far and no further.
The article comments are delectable, and the Twitter responses even better. “The saddest thing I’ve read in years.” “Very rarely do I feel that visceral relief of ‘I'm so glad I'm not like this’ but man do I feel that re: every person in this article.” (Same!) “Rich people’s problems read like satire.” (They do!) More than a few people pointed out these rich people problems would be solved if they just sent their kids to — gasp — public school. And, succinctly: “capitalism be kicking y’all ass.”
It was as if we’d all been longing to have a conversation about aspirational parenting and status anxiety and New York City real estate, but had been too busy worrying about our withering democracy and Ozempic face.
I myself have “liked” several clever Tweets over the last few days, each time with a little zing of pure schadenfreude. It’s satisfying. And it has reaffirmed for me that age old truth that money doesn’t buy happiness.
I kid, obviously. If my salary suddenly quadrupled tomorrow and then my husband came into a surprise inheritance, I know I’d be happier. I would fucking LOVE IT. And I would certainly never find myself comparing myself dejectedly to my new Brownstone neighbors, who not only could match my salary but had an additional trove of family money and ancient investments and a cherished family vacation cottage in Nantucket and no concept of never having had money. Right? I, personally, would have the wisdom and inner resources to understand that more than plenty is enough. Not only would I laugh in the face of anyone who suggested I go in on a group Cartier bracelet for a 13-year-old, I would never even think about purchasing a pair of Golden Goose sneakers.
I think here is the part where I tell you that I grew up with no money. No money as in: young single mom without a college degree. As in: food stamps, roommates, no car, the year we couldn’t afford even a small Christmas tree, that time I left my only pair of shoes on a bus. By my early teens, things had improved. My mother, remarried, worked with her husband in their small business. I owned several pairs of shoes! I finagled my way into a fancy private high school in Marin County, where, as a scholarship kid from way up the highway in what was then basically the sticks of Sonoma County, I was among the wealthy but never of them.
I was happy enough to borrow my best friend’s clothes and cosplay like I belonged in her milieu; I knew I did not.
I truly do not recall being overly covetous of what my classmates had — their beautiful backyard pools in Mill Valley, their walk-in closets in Russian Hill, their fathers with jaguars and their mothers who took them out on afternoon trips just to go clothes shopping. Like, as a fun activity! It was all so completely alien and astonishing to me, and there were other things that made the school an oasis. Smart teachers, an amazing theater program, genuinely great friends, the sense that I was working toward my own future, full of possibility. Yes, there were times when the huge disparity in our circumstances stung, but generally I was happy enough to borrow my best friend’s clothes and cosplay like I belonged in her milieu; I knew I did not.
It’s not that I never felt envy. In elementary school, for example, I very much did envy the girls with Jordache jeans. I envied my best friend in third grade whose kitchen was always comfortably stocked with pre-packaged snacks. I still recall how viscerally I hated Becky Brecht, who sat across from me in seventh grade math, wearing the white Reebox high top sneakers that I wanted so badly. These things — these lives — I could envy because they seemed attainable to me if somehow we could just shift circumstances a little bit.
Reading Brodesser-Akner’s novel back in the pre-Pandemic Times of the late Trump administration, I don’t remember thinking as much about the setting or the wealth of the characters. She had put into words — funny, sharp, hit-you-in-the-gut words — what makes motherhood and marriage and being a woman in this world (of a certain age or not) so incredibly difficult and complicated. She wrote about the traumas of childbirth, which not even wealth and privilege can protect you from; the ways in which we lose ourselves once we have children; the constant questioning and struggling and negotiating, even for those of us who (truly) love being mothers more than anything; the stupid, stupid question of whether we can have it all.
I found so much of Fleishman relatable — the frustration of striving and dreaming as a mother and a person; the absolute limits of a society without structural supports for parenting; Libby’s sense of missing out on everything now that she’s stuck in the burbs (or now that she’s not her 25-year-old self, or now that her kids are growing up, or now that her marriage isn’t new, or all of the above and more and more and more.)
But the visual medium of TV of course throws the setting into focus, which brings us back to those poor Real Rich Moms of NYC (and the hinterlands of suburbia), who see themselves in the shots of the 92nd Street Y and the gleaming kitchen appliances and the private school fundraisers, and who are, apparently, finding it to be a “wakeup call.”
And I ask myself: If I turn the dial way down on their money, and if I am really honest, can I see echoes of their frustrations in my own? What is the common thread for those deluded Upper East Side/Park Slope ladies and the scrambling middle and working class moms of, oh, everywhere else?
I’ve often thought that if my younger self could see my own daughter’s childhood bedroom, she would be in awe — the American Girl dolls, the endless art supplies, the drawer full of socks. I know all too well that my life has afforded me many opportunities and advantages — being born white in the last quarter of the last century, being book smart enough, being loved, always — and I’m grateful for the life, the family, the home I have built. I’m grateful I can give my daughter many of the things I once longed for.
What seems to elude the woman dreaming of a bathtub of one’s own is that what might save us is not a shift up the next rung of the ladder, but the shift in circumstances that makes any of us feel less stuck.
But I still feel envy. I covet! I feel frustration and worry, feel the strain and the dissatisfaction of having reached just this far and no further. Before our baby turned 1, my husband and I bought a house in a solid school district, but it wasn’t where I really wanted to move (the much cooler neighboring Montclair, aka the Park Slope of New Jersey!); we couldn’t afford the tuition to the prestigious private colleges she got into last year; I feel anxious every time I think about my pitiful 401K and my credit cards; I very well may die with student loans (!!!!). I have many friends and colleagues and acquaintances who seem just a little bit more comfortable, just that much more secure, and if I am honest, I wish I could join them.
Towards the end of the novel, Libby takes stock of her life and the identity crisis that’s been unfolding alongside the twin stories of Toby and Rachel Fleishman. “I would wonder, globally, how you could be so desperately unhappy when you were so essentially happy,” she says.
What I really think Fleischman is about, what seems to elude the woman dreaming of a bathtub of one’s own, is that what might save us — or at least make us feel better — is not a shift up the next rung of the ladder, but the shift in circumstances that makes any of us feel less stuck. Libby is stuck, Rachel is stuck. Most of us, eventually, will scrabble ourselves to the maximum of our options, and then we will look around.