I’m spoiling my daughter because I grew up poor.
No, I don’t feel bad about it.
Let’s start by clarifying a few things. We are not rich. We have a very comfortable suburban midwestern two-earner lifestyle. We can afford most of what we want and need. By want — I mean $15 bottles of wine, not $100 bottles. We drive Volkswagens, not BMW’s. We live in a very nice house in a nice neighborhood We don’t struggle to pay the mortgage or buy groceries. We work in the privileged part of the economy that has been able to weather the pandemic with remote working and minimal impact on our financial lives.
A long time ago, I was poor. Welfare, food stamps kind of poor.
My parents divorced when I was 9. My father took his good union job and health insurance with him when he left. After the divorce, my mother struggled to find regular employment to pay the bills. I remember spending Sunday mornings as a 10-year-old, reading the newspaper’s classified section looking for jobs for her. I’d calculate the hourly rate, and fantasize about how my life would be different if she could just get that job. The job she’d usually get was low-paying with long bus rides to the city each day. We had a car but it was old and often broken with no money to fix it. The image of my mother sobbing alone in her bedroom after she found out the transmission went out on our ‘76 Chrysler Cordoba has never left me in over 45 years.
When my brother broke his nose playing football in high school, I remember sitting in the ER with my mom and her frantically explaining to the nurse that my brother absolutely could not stay overnight in the hospital. So — we walked my groggy brother, bandaged and bruised to the car, and drove him home. As I sat in the back seat, I could hear the blood dripping from his nose into his hands as we pulled into the driveway.
As a child, my awareness of being poor was overshadowed by my feeling of helplessness.
My mother referred to neighbors with the disclaimer “well, they’ve got good jobs” to explain why we couldn’t fix the dryer and needed to hang our clothes outside on the clothesline. By “good jobs” she meant union jobs with pensions. It took me years to realize that these neighbors just had regular blue-collar jobs. They were mailmen and bus drivers, not doctors and lawyers. But they had steady, predictable incomes that could be counted on every two weeks. Something that we never had.
After my parents divorced, my sister got pregnant and married at 17. Shortly afterward, my brother joined the Navy. For the next 6 years, it was just my mom and me. I spent a lot of time alone during those years while my mother worked long hours in the city. Sometimes, I’d watch the family that lived next door to us having dinner together at their kitchen table. I’d heat my Swanson’s TV dinner, sit down at the kitchen table and scoot my chair to line up with their reflections in the window and pretend that I was having dinner with them too.
Yes, we were poor but being lonely was much worse.
Summer was my least favorite time of year. I hated summer. My stomach would turn in knots as soon as the thermometer hit 75 degrees. Summers in my childhood meant that all of my friends would leave for their cabins up north or go on vacations with their families. For me, it meant three months of soap operas, Dukes of Hazards reruns, and hot sleepless nights with no air conditioning.
These memories of growing up poor are always with me. The feeling of wanting things that we couldn’t afford defined my adolescence.
Almost 50 years later, I still feel like that poor, lonely kid inside. I struggle with imposter syndrome at work and with new friends. I worry that people will figure out that I don’t have the skills or money needed to fit in — even though I do.
I marvel at my 14-year-old daughter and how she has none of my money issues. She decided last week to change her bedroom “aesthetic” for the third time this year and quickly began filling her Amazon cart with Pinterest decor ideas, confident that her items would arrive within 1–2 business days. She doesn’t miss a beat switching from her ski friends to her soccer friends and then jumping on a Zoom call with her cousins. She’s making plans to ski the Swiss Alps on her 16th birthday. She orders the $17 rib platter at Portillo’s even when everyone else is ordering $3 hot dogs. She doesn’t worry about money or where it comes from. She lives in a worry-free bubble that I’ve curated for her.
I love that money hasn’t made her feel bad about herself compared to her friends or believe that her dreams are beyond her reach. Is she spoiled? Probably. But she works hard at school, gets straight A’s, and wants to be a doctor when she grows up. She’s a nice, thoughtful girl and I’m grateful that her childhood hasn’t been filled with worries. She doesn’t limit herself in any way and she believes everything is hers for the taking and working. I believe the world will try its best to knock her down and tell her she’s not rich enough, smart enough, or pretty enough all on its own. I want to fill her up with as much confidence as I can before I’m not the only person she looks to for guidance.
Raising her in a different way than I grew up has taught me a lot about money. Being able to give her things that my mother never could give me has helped me to calm my own money anxieties and heal the wounds from the past.
My daughter has taught me so much about love, patience, and kindness. But most of all, my daughter has taught me to love summer!
Right now her Amazon cart is filled with 6 bikinis, 3 beach towels, and a mermaid tail.
Seeing her happiness and joy as she looks forward to the long lazy days of summer by the pool makes me smile inside — and that makes me feel richer than I could have ever dreamed.