Normal is not something to aspire to, it’s something to get away from.
– Jodie Foster

 

I’ve been hearing the phrase, ‘the New Normal’ lately.  Apparently it means that Americans will continue to suffer financially, have high unemployment and slow growth.  

Recently ABCNews.com asked readers how they’re adapting to today’s economic conditions.    The article leads off with:

The worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and the ensuing recession [has] forced Americans to change their lives in ways large and small. It’s a world of “new normals,” with more belt-tightening, less income and, in many cases, a newfound gratitude for the most basic human comforts: family, home and health.

Readers responded with tales of cutting discretionary spending, clipping coupons, foregoing vacations and purchases of big-ticket items, moving in with relatives, and sacrificing to keep businesses afloat and kids in college.   

In putting an extremely positive spin on the new normal, a columnist for the Daily Journal of Commerce Oregon says:

In the new normal, people will think and plan differently for the future.

There is a sense that the worst is over and a kind of pride in surviving the worst of times. There is a satisfaction that comes from emphasis on real needs, simple pleasures and a focus on managing what one can control. People are taking pride in their shopping skills. Shopping at thrift stores is no longer just fun and funky; it just makes more sense, in most cases, than buying new.

I’ve seen family ties that have been strengthened. In times of financial crisis, many families are forced to communicate. Even divorce rates are falling.

These articles made me think of something a friend recently said.  The current recession doesn’t have the visual impact of the Great Depression with the bread lines and hobos or the recession of the 1970s with the endlessly long gas lines.  Sure there seems to be an increase of homeless on street corners with the ubiquitous ‘Anything Helps’ signs, and more foreclosed homes on the market, but to her it appears that most people she knows are just going about their lives.  

Today we see the recession in the statistics on the news – the upward spikes in unemployment, the flat line of growth, the downward curve on the earnings statement from your retirement plan.  Many members of the middle class – particularly those who have been in their homes for years, kept their jobs and aren’t on the doorstep of retirement – have been relatively insulated.  Those people probably are watching their spending, and focusing on ‘simple pleasures and real needs.’  

And even the many, many people who have been more dramatically affected by this recession are responding in ways that aren’t so obvious to people on the outside.  If they clip more coupons or vacation closer to home, or shop the clearance racks, or put the mortgage payment on a credit card, it’s not something their neighbors are likely to notice.  These aren’t images that will illustrate a book on the Great Recession ten years from now.

Our own new normal isn’t nearly so invisible but at the same time a lot of people who ‘know’ us aren’t aware of our desperate circumstances.  Although I haven’t hidden our situation, outwardly, away from the trailer, we still model the old normal.  The kids participate in school events like theater and choir and extracurricular activities like basketball.  Scholarships are invisible. If we don’t purchase the team photos or if they have to share balls or uniforms; their teammates don’t have to know. When the kids go through the cafeteria line no one knows they are getting a free lunch.  Their clothes are clean, and we aren’t the only family by far to be wearing fashions from Target or Kohl’s instead of trendy designer clothing.  We don’t line up at food banks for our food or flash a food stamp card when purchasing groceries.  Digital coupons are invisible and if we use a donated gift card, well, lucky us!  Parents who see me dropping off and picking up the kids or at the PTO meeting assume I’m a stay at home mom (which I am, I guess). 

For the kids’ sake I’m glad we don’t wear our unemployed/alternatively housed state like a neon sign.  I want their lives to be as ‘normal’ as possible.  But like other families who are privately wrestling with the effects of the recession our outward life doesn’t mirror the inward one.  When I’m out in public, even if I’m shopping at a thrift store, I feel like I’m putting on a façade, playing a part.  At home in our trailer I struggle with ways to make it to the end of the month or deal with unexpected expenses (and btw- we really appreciate those of you who provide donations that help me to do that).   The dissonance between the outward and inward lives causes constant stress.  Some days I just want to drop the pretence and wear a t-shirt that pictures a homeless person holding a sign and below the photo says “I’m with him”.

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