At tumbling class, I try to ignore the fact that the little girls are in new, professional-style leotards while my son wears third-generation hand-me-down sweatpants. We moms hang out and chat in the hallway, as moms do, complimenting each other’s sweet little ones who are too young for gym class. We are all very different but have a lot in common, too; we connect talking about green smoothies and how whiny 4-year-olds can be. Our interactions grow more comfortable as the weeks go on, a few of us open up about serious health issues. I find myself wondering why it’s easier to talk about your infertility or anorexia than to say you have $2 to your name.
I was open with them about not having a car (in a pretty suburban area), but after the last class, a mom who hadn’t been around for that conversation invited us all out for cupcakes. I had no problem thanking her and saying we couldn’t because we were walking. I left out the part about the bus and the empty wallet. Was it guilt? Embarrassment? We can all talk to acquaintances about sucky marriages and the poop habits of our children, but behind the tales of dirty diapers are a lot of moms struggling to pay for them. Why is that so taboo?
It’s small things like the cupcake gathering that frequently make me think about what my children are missing in life. It’s the tangible difference in lifestyles between the working poor (lower-middle class) and middle-to-upper class. Would my kids have more friends in our new town if we had a vehicle and could afford to go out for impromptu gatherings? Of course. Would having more social time and less solo hours spent in our small apartment have long-term benefits for them? Likely so, and I often feel at fault for it.
Then there are big things like travel—even the zoo and the beach are off limits to us. We can’t even begin to think about traveling out of our time zone! Realistically, I know these are not the most important parts of life. However, mom guilt is real and I can’t help but worry that my children are missing out on some childhood rites of passage, or at the very least, some delightful and educational fun.
There are any number of out-of-your-control situations that could land you and your family in a tough spot financially. From job loss to divorce to health issues, the possibilities and combinations leading to financial problems are endless. With each circumstance comes a separate set of worries for the kids who depend on us as adults for stability. With those worries comes the weight of guilt for not being able to provide for them the way we believe we should.
The guilt is hard to shake. It may jump out at you in your child’s secondhand pajamas or thrift store toys. It may seize you as you debate on paying co-pays for non-emergency pediatrician’s visits over filling your grocery cart a little more. The guilt may grab you when it seems as though every other 4-year-old in the country is signed up for soccer this spring, but you can’t swing the registration fees. It will completely overwhelm you as you tone down or altogether do away with birthday parties—just until you get back on your feet.
It is important for every mom to realize that her success as a parent isn’t based on her circumstances. We rise. We fall. Sometimes we fall some more. But we haven’t lost the battle as long as we pick ourselves back up again. Our children may feel effects of our struggles, but they will also have the motivation of watching us overcome. As moms, we teach them in our actions, our handling of stressful situations, our will to do better.
I challenge moms in strained financial situations to strive to replace the feeling of guilt with one of pride. Every day that your kids are clothed, fed, watered and held, you are making it work. Every week that goes by and there have been smiles on their faces and joy in their daily actions, you are succeeding at not letting them down. Every month that the bills are more caught up than not and their bedrooms are warm when it’s freezing at night, you are providing exactly what they need.
Every time you are tempted to feel down on yourself and riddled with money-based mom guilt, every time you are embarrassed by the truth of your hardships, remind yourself that guilt has no chapter in the story of your family. But pride, optimism and love can be the whole book.