One of my most painful childhood memories is of something that occurred in 7th grade.
That was a tough year for me anyway; my parents had split up and we had to go from living in a nice house to an apartment. My mom, who had always been able to stay home with us as kids, took a job that had her working up to 50 or 60 hours a week. My dad changed jobs several times, and all of a sudden, there wasn’t money to do a lot of things. Oh, and I was going through puberty. I had braces on my teeth, a bad perm, and enormous insecurity.
One day during this time, I wore a hand-me-down sweater to school—an off-white number a babysitter had given me that I thought was cool. The only problem was that it had a small hole on one of the cuffs, which I had thought was unnoticeable until, while waiting for our teacher to arrive and start class, a cruel girl asked me loudly, for all to hear, “What are you, on welfare? Nice sweater. Did you get it at the Salvation Army?”
I turned deeply red in my shame. And when I got home, I put the sweater in the back of a drawer, from which it never emerged again.
And though I’m now almost 30 years older, issues about money—in particular, people knowing I don’t have any—continue to haunt me.
Now that I’m a mom, I want to spoil my daughter rotten. As her 5th birthday approaches, I want to throw her a huge party, just like the ones her friends have thrown.
And I’m realizing that this is just the beginning of a lifelong problem: the feeling that I need to spend a lot of money on my kid in order for her to fit in. Actually, let me amend that: in order for ME to feel like I fit in.
Bottom line, our money is tight. As lucky as I am to be able to do what I love—work as a freelance writer from my home—the money is unpredictable at best. We live paycheck to paycheck, and there always seems to be more month than money. And while my daughter’s not yet old enough to understand money problems (she still forgets to use her piggy bank and instead will throw coins like they’re rocks), I struggle with the fact that I’m driving a 9-year-old car with 110,000 miles on it. I constantly compare myself to others, friends who seem to all have bigger houses and nicer cars and fancier vacations than we do.
Despite what I know about the level of debt in this country, I still often feel like we’re the only ones who need to make $70 last two weeks, or the shame and feelings of failure that I have about it. And I worry that my anxiety will rub off on my daughter.
So I’m practicing counting my blessings, and naming them for her often. Our families (my husband’s and mine) are extraordinarily generous; she had three Christmases this past year. My daughter’s favorite activities – playing at the park, coloring, having a dance party at home – are absolutely free. And, as I’m realizing, $5 shirts from Walmart can be the coolest thing going at preschool. We’re all healthy. And we have each other, the most important thing.