by Janis Gaines
I’m currently taking a memoir writing class taught by Sam Uhl of The Cheerful Word. Our homework this week is to write about money. This is somewhat difficult for me to write about with transparency, but here goes. As Elizabeth Gilbert says at the front of her memoir Eat, Pray, Love: “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.”
I grew up in a middle-class family. I didn’t always have the latest and greatest, but we always had vacations and I was blessed to travel quite a bit from a young age. I was very grateful for this experience. My parents bought my first car and paid for my college expenses beyond what any scholarships would cover. I never had the sense that my parents struggled for money. At one point, my mother worked from home part-time to be able to send my brother to a private school. I also never felt spoiled or indulged.
Growing up, I worked as soon as I could. I enjoyed the freedom of having my own money and paying for my own things. I made $4.00/hour to start. At age 19, I remember working one summer before going on a study abroad program in college. I had saved up $2,000 for six months worth of spending money. I made this last the whole trip. I tend to be frugal and responsible with my money. Later, my parents went to Europe for two weeks and, of course, spent way more than that. To this day they wonder how I lived on such a “small amount.”
When I got married, my life switched from one of middle-class to poverty. We had three children within four years. My ex was a painter and I stayed home with the kids. We struggled constantly just to survive. I did not know how to be poor — and it is something you have to learn, if you’ve ever been anything else. My ex was not very financially savvy and that was a cause of constant argument and frustration within the marriage. He would charge things on my credit card without me knowing. He would lie about money he had spent. He would buy foolish things for himself, like an extra gun for hunting, while the kids and I needed new shoes. This was very difficult for me. I became someone I did not recognize. I did feel ashamed not to have nice things, nice clothes. I was never able to decorate a baby room. I believe the lack of money did effect my self esteem. This was quite the switch from being the world traveler to someone shopping at Goodwill.
Of course, after the marriage ended, it was no picnic being a single mom of three. I had an English degree and taught full-time. Even then, I often worked a second job: coaching soccer, freelance writing, and yes, even a burger joint. My ex was a “deadbeat”. I hate using that term, but it fits. He rarely paid child support. One time when I dropped off the kids to be with him, I handed him $100, so he could do something fun with the kids. I resented the fact that he would spend money on alcohol, but not his kids. I would beg him just to send me $20 a week — anything would help — but he never did. The man could barely take care of himself. Last I checked, he owed over $50,000 in back child support, which I ultimately decided to “forgive.”
One of my biggest regrets is that I was not able to give my kids more of the life that I had growing up. While I think that they never did without, they never had the vacations or ease of life that I knew. I wasn’t able to buy their first car or pay for their college. And they have held this against me, which has both surprised and hurt me. They have no idea of the personal sacrifice and great accomplishment it was just to keep them fed and clothed with a roof over their head. They have blamed me and not their father, which I have never understood.
At age 17, my oldest left home and when I asked why she would not come back, the main thing she complained about was the money. This was probably the hardest emotional hit I’ve ever had to face. I had worked as much as humanly possible and had given all I had for her benefit. To not be acknowledged or appreciated was tough. We have since reconciled, and I think she sees more now, but it may be years and she may have to be a mother herself before she fully understands.
I have been very sad that my parents have not done more to help us when they are in a position to do so. They have a three-story home in Atlanta. They take luxury trips frequently; last summer they were in Dubai and last week they were in Honduras. My mom will change the wall paper or carpet just because she gets tired of looking at it. They have done a few things to help with the kids, but it has always felt like a band aid over a bleeding artery. When my oldest daughter left home and they heard about the situation, they were like “We had no idea.” I said when your daughter takes on a second job at a burger joint, that’s a clue! They did know, but they never took my struggles seriously. I don’t think they ever understood how difficult things were. Truly, I felt like they just didn’t really care. I had specifically asked for help and they had said no. Eventually, I lost a home and filed bankruptcy.
That has been many years ago, and since then, I have worked hard to become stable financially. Things have been easier now that the kids are mostly grown and gone. I feel like I spent my 20s digging a big hole. I spent my 30s climbing out of it. And now in my 40s, I’m just starting to create the authentic life that I want for myself. I live a modest life and keep money in the bank. I don’t have to shop at Goodwill unless I just want to. I rarely run into a financial emergency that I can’t handle myself. I never ask my parents for money. I never use credit cards. I enjoy being in a position to help others when needed. I enjoy being generous with gifts. I can easily splurge on a night out on the town — or a fun writing class. Three months from now my Jeep will be paid off, and I will be completely debt free. For this, I’m very grateful and happy, and the future is bright!