They tell us their house is underwater while we sit outside in the summer dark, drinking margaritas on the back porch. There are kids’ toys scattered in the yard, leftovers from the day’s hard play. The children are all tucked in upstairs, their collective weight hovering above us, temporarily suspended. The air is warm on my shoulders as I sip tart cocktails made from the juice of many limes, squeezed one by one.
Mike laughs ruefully. “We tried to refinance to fix our roof but we can’t get any money out. Our house is worth less than we bought it for.”
“It’s OK, though,” Sonja chimes in. “We don’t need to sell it. We aren’t trying to leave.”
Mike and Sonja bought their house in 2005, just blocks from where Sonja grew up. It’s a Cleveland neighborhood of old trees and solidly built houses, the kind of neighborhood where people stay for 30 years. When they bought the house, they were still in law school, but they imagined careers, community work, and children tucked into beds under the eaves. The fact that they now have these things hasn’t prevented their house from losing its value.
They tell us that their house is worth $50,000 less than they bought it for — just one of the millions of houses that are underwater, the tide still rolling out from the latest housing crisis. In some ways, these numbers are real, and in some ways they are imaginary. The buckets catching drips in the office and the nursery are real. But since they don’t need to sell their house, they won’t actually lose money on it. They can bide their time, waiting out middle age and school-aged children and raises and the vagaries of the market. They can survive underwater.
They can bide their time, waiting out middle age and school-aged children and raises and the vagaries of the market. They can survive underwater.
My husband and I met at Mike and Sonja’s wedding. It’s the kind of story people love to hear, a dinner party staple. Mike and Sonja are our closest family friends, forever intertwined because a twenty-five-year-old ecology grad student from Oregon looked up several rows at a church wedding and saw my hair falling out of its inexpert bun and curling at the nape of my neck.
Or maybe the story we tell should start earlier, the night before, when I first met that ecology grad student. Sonja introduced him to a group of my friends. I had just been complaining about a lingering break-up when he waved desultorily at our crowd, flashing his long-lashed blue eyes, and I smiled up at him with the full force of my youthful charisma and thought, “Yes, him.”
Or maybe the beginning is earlier than that, when Mike and Sonja had met in an airless dorm room, or perhaps even earlier than that, when Mike and Steve, my ecologist husband, had ridden big wheels around their Des Moines neighborhood.
Each of those beginnings feels idiosyncratic, evocative, and portentous. But this is not a story about beginnings. It’s a story about what happens when those beginnings shade into the middle, into repetition and sameness, into synched calendars, automatic debit payments, drop-offs and pick-ups, phone alarms and meal plans. No longer beginning something new, Steve and I are partners in routine.
Middle-class family life should begin with investments of feeling, this suggests. But a cash infusion can help that investment grow.
We exchange texts throughout the day, and my fingers can generate some messages on auto-pilot. “This morning was crazy” after I get everyone ready for the day and drop off the girls; “How was dinner?” on my nights to work late; “How was bedtime?” when I teach my night class. Some return messages capture fleeting experiences: a meal when Matilda laughed so hard she fell off her chair or a bedtime when Harriet gave her first night-night kiss. But taken in the aggregate, they constitute an endless, head-down slog of slathering peanut butter, school drop-offs, and reading Hop on Pop. They are made possible by careful planning and adherence to the schedule.
Many nights, when I sit down to help my six-year-old with her homework, she resists, exhausted from a long day of following directions and walking in a straight line. Often, I cannot find any compelling reason that she should practice her spelling words, should write her letters in small boxes, one after the other, Monday through Friday.
William James, the nineteenth-century father of psychology, argued that we cannot understand individuals and society without routine. In Principles of Psychology, published in 1890, he wrote that habit “alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance.” For James, routine is an incredibly powerful social force, the thing that keeps us all going on a single path. It works because it gives us fortitude: “it alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted.”
But routine can also keep us caged in: “it dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice.” If, when we get to middle age, James says, and find that we’re unhappy, routine will trap us there. The middle is not just one stop in the forward motion of narrative; it is the foreclosing of possibilities, the narrowing and hardening of a life.
To get past the beginning to the middle means investing love and capital, accruing interest over time, and suffering the vagaries of the market.
James identifies middle age as the time when we lose the ability to start over, to imagine ourselves anew. Instead, he argues, we must “make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted.” From boundless possibility to the slow acceptance of a blinkered life, powered by habit but dogged by fears that the sacrifices haven’t been worth it. At this very point, James concludes, “it is too late to begin again.”
The summer before I leave for college, I swim the length of the lake behind our house. My dad drives slowly next to me in our motorboat, cutting the engine periodically to wait for me to swim by. Music rolls out from the boat’s speakers and sometimes cigar smoke, interleaved with the slapping and sloshing of the water. The sweet taste of lake water in my mouth; its cold, vegetal smell. The work isn’t that difficult, but it’s long: pulling myself, hand over hand, three miles across the warm upper layer, just barely skimming over the cold, dark water underneath.
Afterwards, my dad takes me out to Mr. Slow’s to celebrate, a combination gas station, sandwich shop, and bar at the edge of our small town. I lift my Reuben with tired arms, farms and fields all around us. My dad marvels at me from across the table. I try to explain how much farther and longer I swim almost every day at practice, but for him that doesn’t compare to this swim, our lake, our outing.
“The thing is, Meg, you put in the work, and it really paid off,” he says. “I didn’t know how to work hard in high school like you. I had to figure it out later.”
Homeownership is one of the most established means of upward mobility in the U.S.
I nod and eat some fries.
“You know,” my dad says, “when I was your age, I was a real screw-up. I –”
“Failed four quarters of Latin,” I finish his sentence. “And you were impeached as class secretary,” I smile at him. I know these cautionary tales.
I can tell he is trying to tell me something important, to give me something to take with me when I leave for college in a few weeks. But I don’t think I need what he’s giving me.
“I had to find something that I really cared about enough to want to work for it. I couldn’t study hard just for a grade — I had to care about what I was learning. Then it was all worth it.”
I look around us, at Mr. Slow’s, at the lake, at my parents’ stultified marriage, at a town so small that you go to the same place to gas up the car and do a shot. And I offer up the quintessential adolescent prayer: let my life be different.
I think that because I already know how to work hard, how to show up every day and take notes and swim hard, that I do not need what my father is offering me. That I have already imbibed the dogma of routine, that I already taste and smell the undertow of sameness.
“Sure, Dad,” I say, feigning inattention. I can’t bear to watch him offer me the thing I already have when there are so many things that remain mysterious, unyielding in the face of my dogged pursuit. The life that I crave seems evanescent, shimmering in the future. The space between Mr. Slow’s and that life is vast.
My dad catches my eye. “I’m so proud of you.”
It’s something that he’s repeated so many times that I almost don’t hear his words. I think their repetition makes them worth less, but later I will change my mind about that. Repetition accrues value.
I don’t yet know that those words have already made a bulwark — shaky but resolute — against my insecurity, self-doubt, and fear. I don’t yet know how long life can be.
Once in college, I fall in love with the Victorian novel, a genre devoted to living underwater. Often running to eight or nine hundred pages, Victorian novels are almost all middle, chronicling the courtships, debts, and inheritances of sprawling middle-class families. The clockwork plot is often in tension with the novel’s charge to depict everyday life, the desire for change and growth pitted against the expectation to “dine well and punctually, every day,” as the newlywed bride of a Dinah Mulock Craik’s novel exclaims incredulously.
Upward mobility depends on literal mobility: moving to where the work is; withdrawing equity to invest in kids’ education; decamping from an unsafe neighborhood. Moving - people and money - is as important as earning.
Money and family are the twin threads running through the Victorian novel’s many pages. The son of a debtor who famously spent a period of his childhood working at a factory, Charles Dickens, was intimately aware of the financial pressures on family life. Yet, in typical Dickensian fashion, his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend, insists on the corrupting influence of wealth — not poverty — on creating a family.
In this vision, it is romantic, even desirable to begin with very little. For instance, the avaricious Bella Wilfer proves her moral worth when she marries the poor-but-promising John Rokesmith. They live in the “charm-ingest of dolls’ houses, de-lightfully furnished,” an economical, adorable launch into adult life.
It’s middles, not beginnings, that the novel insists require wealth. Crammed into a few rooms so that they can rent out the rest of their house, Bella’s parents parody the benefits of marital longevity. They celebrate their anniversary, but it is a “rather a Fast than a Feast,” a somber occasion upon which Mrs. Wilfer laments how her choice of mate has turned out. If they have a domestic routine, it consists only of disparagement. Mrs. Wilfer belittles her husband for earning so little money, and he meekly accepts this treatment as his due.
William James, the psychologist of habit, may have had the Wilfers in mind when he darkly predicted the trap of middle age. He wrote elsewhere that Dickens “gives a twist to our sentimentality,” a twist that skewers the domestic ideal. Deprived of a retreat, Mr. Wilfer’s only pleasure is to remain at the office at the end of a long workday:
“ ‘Sometimes I put a quiet tea at the window here, with a little quiet contemplation of the Lane (which comes soothing), between the day, and domestic — ’ ”
Mr. Wilfer breaks off there, unable to articulate what, exactly, greets him when he leaves work and heads home.
His daughter, Bella, suggests that “bliss” should be the word to follow.
Mr. Wilfer agrees, his defeat its own form of irony.
Nonetheless, Our Mutual Friend paints a glowing future for Bella and her husband, who marry on a salary more meager than her father’s. Their beginning, in fact, is auspicious; because there is no money, they must be marrying for love. If the Wilfers are a cautionary tale about the privations of the middle, Bella and John are a fantasy of increased value. After her affection is certain and they have begun a family, he accepts a large inheritance, guaranteeing that they need never wallow in disappointment. Middle-class family life should begin with investments of feeling, this suggests. But a cash infusion can help that investment grow.
The formation of middle-class family life depends upon enduring the risk of going under. To get past the beginning to the middle means investing love and capital, accruing interest over time, and suffering the vagaries of the market. Being underwater is the very condition of possibility.
Homeownership is one of the most established means of upward mobility in the U.S. It’s how my family accrued wealth; when I was growing up, weekends were often spent drywalling or painting our latest house. “Home improvement” meant not only making our home more comfortable but making its value increase. Each time my dad got a new, better job, we’d sell our house and move on.
In the midst of the mid-2000s housing recession, homeowners with houses that were underwater were often counseled to walk away. Financial advisors call it “strategic default,” a term that suggests choices, plans, and tactics.
As a white, middle-class family, we could hop from house to house, sometimes taking a hit but more often upgrading. Upward mobility depends on literal mobility: moving to where the work is; withdrawing equity to invest in kids’ education; decamping from an unsafe neighborhood. Moving — people and money — is as important as earning.
In the midst of the mid-2000s housing recession, homeowners with houses that were underwater were often counseled to walk away. Financial advisors call it “strategic default,” a term that suggests choices, plans, and tactics. Despite the immediate hit to credit scores and savings accounts, it was better, in the long run, to be free of a house that was losing value with each passing day. Not to get stuck.
As the housing market has rebounded, though, it’s become clear that, given enough time, most underwater houses regain their value, while short-selling or declaring bankruptcy causes lingering forms of financial damage. Sociologists have pointed out that those most affected by the recession were the buyers, largely Latinx and African-American, who couldn’t afford to remain in their devalued homes. Buyers who needed to move, without any strategy other than defaulting. As Daren Blomquist, senior vice president at a real-estate data firm put it, “If they could have just stuck it out, they would have built wealth.”
In other words, the only way to survive underwater is to stay down. As long as you don’t drown.
On Saturday mornings, I take my daughters to the pool. In the winter, I often have to scrape ice off the windshield before we can go swimming, my husband radiating silent bemusement. Swimming, to him, is a summer activity, best undertaken infrequently and only in warm weather. To me, swimming is a metaphysical activity, best undertaken frequently, regardless of the weather. Like most differences that a marriage accommodates, we rarely discuss this.
Instead, he helps me strap the girls into their car seats before hurrying back inside to his warm and dry Saturday flurry of chores. My own flurry occurs in the locker room, where I balance Harriet on a bench that bisects the tiny room and position Matilda in front of a locker. The close space is filled with women’s bodies, wet skin, laughter, desultory chit chat, steam, and the rake of combs through dripping hair. We’ve arrived just as water aerobics has ended.
I strip off Harriet’s clothes and my own, prod Matilda to put her clothes in the locker, and pick up her swimsuit off the floor. I shepherd our exchange of down coats and boots for one-pieces. My movements are efficient and many. The women from water aerobics, in their 50s and 60s, move much more slowly. I imagine that they can remember when they, too, were responsible for three bodies, three swim suits, three sets of clothes, and three towels. Their movements now have the largesse of autonomy, the kind of completeness that says, “I can leave this towel on the chair for a moment. I will not forget it. I have nothing else to keep track of.”
In other words, the only way to survive underwater is to stay down. As long as you don’t drown.
“C’mon girls. Hop in the showers. Just for one minute, just to rinse off. This way, Tilda. No, don’t go into that door — it’s this way to the pool. Holds hands, it’s slippery. OK, let’s get on your floatie. C’mon, Harriet, I need to you stand still for just a sec. Flip flops over here. Let me help you. We can get in at the steps.”
With these and other pecking reminders, we make our way through the two doors and fifty feet from the locker room to the water lapping at the edge of the pool. Once we’re in, they squeal with delight and cold. Neither of my daughters can really swim yet. Matilda, cautious, dog-paddles persistently back and forth across the same five-foot stretch. Harriet, heedless of any danger, bicycles her legs furiously, delightedly, buoyed up by a band of Styrofoam around her middle. I let my feet sweep out from under my body, hands paddling, skin turned to liquid. My body is suspended in just three and a half feet of water. This is why we came.
We play ring-around-the-rosy and motorboat. We hold onto the side and kick our legs. I throw Harriet in the air and trail Matilda on my back. I try to cajole Matilda into putting her face in the water and fail, as I always do.
“It’s really fun once you can go underwater,” I promise her. She looks at me, eager and skeptical at once.
I sink down and look up at them, my two daughters. I see them differently from here: one pale and thin, extending up, reedlike, from the pool floor; the other one round and dangling from the water’s surface. I exhale and watch as bubbles fan out between us. Matilda reaches for my hand and I withdraw it, fully submerged, not even floating anymore but using my arms to stay down, alone, in this silent underwater world. Down here I feel a clarity that I never feel on land. My hair waves like weeds and I am part mermaid, part sunken treasure, part shipwreck. In a moment, I will have to come up for air and Mama and play-motorboat-again, and then there will be showers and soap in the eyes and combing tangled hair and riding home in a cold car, wet heads and breath hanging visible in the air.
But here, underwater, there is no next thing. Only my breath, my skin, indistinguishable from water everywhere. I let my feet slip from the pool’s tiled bottom until I feel myself, at last, floating.
Photo by Victor Zastol’skiy/Adobe Stock