“Mommy, can we go to McDonald’s?”
I quickly try to figure out if I have enough money in my checking account for some fries and a couple drinks and an ice cream. I open the McDonald’s app on my phone and see if there are any coupons that we can use. Money is tight this week, and unfortunately, I just don’t have the spare seven bucks.
“Sorry kiddo, not tonight, Mommy can’t afford McDonald’s. We’ll go next week, okay?”
It breaks my heart that I can’t afford some fries and a juice box for him, but that is the harsh reality of being a parent who is hovering just above the poverty line. I can usually scrounge up a couple bucks to make sure that he can get an afterschool snack, even though most of our meals are eaten at home. I’m lucky though; because I make my own work hours, I can cook at home, which isn’t always easy for low income people who work outside the home.
As a single parent, money (or the lack thereof) is always at the forefront of my mind. My first priority, of course, is keeping a roof over our heads, and that’s where the bulk of my paychecks go. I try to keep my bills low, we don’t eat out much, and I’m also lucky enough to qualify for SNAP (food stamps), so my food bills are covered. In my line of work, I need to be plugged into the news constantly, so some things people see as a luxury — like internet and streaming services — are a necessity. I’m fortunate and grateful that my parents pay my phone bill since we’re on a family plan.
My son’s dad helps out where he can financially, but he’s a freelancer too so money is tight for him as well.
My son has no idea that we’re poor. Sure, we may not have McDonald’s or take an Uber often, but I bust my ass to make sure he can have as normal of a childhood as possible. Ninety percent of my wardrobe is older than my son, but he’s always one of the most stylish kids at preschool. I wait on haircuts for myself until my friend has time to do it for free, but I spend money on his haircuts at the kiddie salon. He doesn’t know I buy everything on sale. I grew up poor too, and I’m making the sacrifices for him that my parents made for me. Sure, it takes a huge emotional toll on me sometimes, but I’m doing what I have to do so that we can survive.
I am lucky to have a support system; I wouldn’t be able to do it without them. My parents graciously let us live with them for three years while I slowly grew my career. My mom will find things that my son likes and sends him surprises in the mail, which he loves. I have friends who happily come to my house to hang out, or they pick us up and take us to their houses for dinner and quality time. They always make my son feel loved and included and spoiled.
This past Christmas, I was so broke that I couldn’t afford any presents for my son. My amazing co-workers (who are also some of my best friends) pooled their money together and got us an Amazon gift card so that he could get presents, and I could treat myself too.
As my son gets older though, it gets harder. He’s expressing interests in so many things, and I am struggling with the fact that we probably won’t be able to sign him up for baseball or soccer or dance lessons. He is so smart, and we would love to sign him up for language immersion classes, but those are ridiculously expensive.
Right now, I have to work from home because he only goes to preschool part time. We were lucky to find the Head Start program, where he goes part time, because private preschool can be upwards of $800 a month. A MONTH. And daycare isn’t much better. I’d rather get to spend that quality time with him reading books and playing trains.
Sure, it’s depressing when I see my friends going on family vacations, or knowing that they don’t worry about every single penny they have. I would love to have more than a dollar in my savings account after I pay my rent every month.
I know none of this really matters to him, because he’s four and as long as he has his fruit snacks, a couple trains and his momma, he’s content. But I wish I wasn’t always so frazzled, and that we could do simple things like go to McDonald’s now and then, even though the PlayPlace makes me want to curl up into the fetal position. I know it’s about being a present parent for him, but I would love to whisk him off to a fun-filled day at the amusement park without having to save up for it for a year, ya know?
I’m sure that when he looks back at his childhood one day, it won’t be all the material things that he’ll remember, but those special moments when we did something cool, or the mundane things like eating dinner together every night. And it’s that hope that keeps me going every day.