I was relaxing in the living room with my daughters a few days ago. It was the tail end of a monster week and we were all kind of needing to recharge our batteries and just veg out for a while. My husband wasn’t home, so I had control of the remote (bonus) and chose to zone out to a little HGTV. They were in the middle of a House Hunters marathon and the girls and I were tuned in to the people that were relocating, either in their own neighborhood or across the globe. We all love to guess which house the people are going to choose. Will it be the fixer upper with the big backyard? The well appointed townhouse with the ocean view? Or the turn-key ranch in a great location?
We were in the middle of a House Hunters International episode where the family was packing up and moving some 4,800 miles away to start fresh and give their kids access to more diverse cultures and better schools. They were looking at houses to rent that were upwards of $6,000/month. I made a comment to nobody in particular, akin to, “I don’t think I’d pay that much for only two bedrooms and one bathroom.”
As she tucked the blanket up under her chin, my daughter responded with a quiet and seemingly harmless, “well, that’s because we’re poor.”
It was said without malice and was almost completely devoid of emotion, but it FELT like that sentence was a crushing blow to my esophagus. Words: the ultimate sucker-punch.
The weight and discomfort I felt after that statement was palpable. So, I did what any self-respecting, forty-something, mother of two in the 21st century would do: I buried my head in my laptop and muttered a haughty “No, we’re not” under my breath.
That one little sentence set off all types of inner-critic alarms, and my shame sensors were firing off full throttle. At first blush, I felt this stinging sense of humiliation that my daughter thinks we are poor, when we are more categorically a moderately comfortable middle class (*I suppose if you want to split hairs, it can probably be considered the same thing in the US — but that’s a topic for another blog post). Either way, we are nowhere close to the top 2%, or the top 20% of the country for that matter — which I typically don’t give a rat’s patoot about. But hearing THOSE WORDS said in THAT WAY from my daughter stung in a way that I cannot adequately articulate with words. I felt bad. I felt inadequate. I felt like I had, perhaps, let my children down silently, unintentionally.
I felt LESS THAN.
I wondered; are my kids interpreting things like grocery shopping at Market Basket and telling them they do not need iPhones at twelve and nine years of age as signals that we are poor? Do they understand that it’s not that we can’t give in to their every consumer whim, but we quite frankly choose not to? Haven’t we done a better job articulating that we simply have different values around how we spend our disposable income? Do they spend a lot of time secretly comparing themselves to their friends from more affluent towns/neighborhoods? Does having only one bathroom and a crappy builder’s grade kitchen make them that angsty? Don’t they even know what poor really means?!
As I sat on the couch, with my nose buried in my laptop, I subconsciously started comparing myself to the people we know, which is something I never do because I know comparison and envy result in a special kind of self-imposed hell. But, I found myself doing it anyways and I created a virtual ticker-tape of LACK in short time. For the five to ten minutes that I allowed myself to participate in such useless behavior, I felt positively diminished and absolutely wretched. It was E-X-H-A-U-S-T-I-N-G!!
What I SHOULD have done in those few minutes was this:
- Ask my daughter for clarification. “What exactly do you mean by that, sweetie?” And we should have had a really up-front and honest discussion based on her response. It was a teachable moment that I totally missed cashing in on. But, if I could go back and do the moment over again, I would explain to my daughter that wealth comes in many different forms, most of them non-monetary (I know, I know…such a typical middle-class liberal thing to say).
- I would gently reiterate that, for most people, being “rich” simply means that you have a full tummy each day. Wealth can come in an abundant supply of unconditional love surrounding you, clothes on your back, and a warm bed to lay your head every night. I would share with her how good health is a luxury not afforded to many, yet we’ve quite fortunately hit the mutherload in that category. And, if I was having a hard time driving the point home or if I felt it wasn’t sinking in, I might mention that if we were actually, really, truly poor, we wouldn’t be paying $200 dollars a month for cable so we could watch envy-inducing shows like House Hunters International, thank you very much.
- I would talk to her about values and roots and sacrifices and priorities, and what those mean in our family. Gratitude trumps its shit-bum cousin, Comparison, any day of the week, so I would work with her to set up a gratitude practice, where she can tally up all the things she is grateful for on a daily basis. Then I would request she frequently celebrate the fact that her wealth might be different than others’ wealth, but it is no less valuable.
I’m pretty sure she already understands that true wealth doesn’t lie in square footage or Beats headphones or Porsches or homes on Nantucket (she is our daughter, after all). You can definitely file the aforementioned things under “nice to have” (I think about a house by the beach every.single.day.) but they don’t fall under “would die without” and that’s the kind of wealth that truly matters. To me, anyways. It’s always nice to have that reminder.
I’m vowing to do some things differently from here on out. First and foremost is to outwardly express more of my own gratitude: for our health, for togetherness, for the material things we are so blessed to have, and even for the quaint place we chose to lay down our roots. It’s not perfect, and it definitely ain’t grandiose, but it’s ours. According to MSN Money, “if you have any money saved, a hobby that requires some equipment or supplies, a variety of clothes in your closet, two cars (in any condition), and live in your own home, you are in the top 5% of the world’s wealthy.” We thankfully fit that profile, and that’s a lot to be grateful for right there.
This was a good reminder and reality check for me, too — and my initial first-world reaction to a simple ‘we are poor‘ is an indicator that I really needed it. I uncharacteristically dropped the ball on this one…but we will revisit this conversation, I will pick the ball back up again and do better next time. You can bet your fixer upper with the big backyard on it!
*Share what you are grateful for in the comments. I’d love to hear from you. XOXO