It’s raining today so it’s time for me to tell this story.
Four days into the new year, I got an email from my son with a link to a laptop backpack he wanted on Amazon.
I rolled my eyes to the heavens. The idea of spending any more money that soon after Christmas was the last thing I wanted to do. His big gift was me going in on a laptop with him.
I started a tirade in my mind: This kid has a lot of nerve asking for this at this time! Doesn’t he realize how much money I just spent and how much work it is for me to put on Christmas? Because I didn’t see anyone else putting ornaments on the tree or even helping me get decorations out! Never mind all the shopping, planning, wrapping, and so on. It must be nice sleeping in on Christmas morning and waking up to cinnamon rolls, coffee, and a fun treasure hunt to find your gifts. No way am I buying another thing until I figure out how to pay off the holidays! I traveled down the dark path of indignance for a minute or two.
Then I thought, Okay, calm down. Take the emotion out and just stick to the facts. I’ll just explain to him that he can either buy it himself or wait for another occasion like his birthday or graduation. He had a perfectly decent backpack. He just wanted one that he could carry his new laptop in, in case he ever brought it to school, which I don’t think he has.
Later, when I was doing dishes at the kitchen sink, he brought up the email.
I said, “About that, honey…I didn’t click through the link yet. Now is not a good time for me to be spending…”
“No, no, no,” he cut me off. “I’ll pay you back.”
I was glad I’d had time to rationalize a calm response. I didn’t have anything to apologize for.
“Hon, that’s why we just set you up with a checking account – so you can use your debit card.”
“Well, you have Amazon Prime – I thought you could get it faster.”
“Not anymore, Prime was a gift last year and I didn’t renew it.”
So, he ordered the backpack himself, with his own trial of Amazon Prime. I suggested he set a reminder for himself to cancel it if he didn’t want to pay for the service. He may or may not have done so. It’s his bank account and his business and his lesson to learn if he forgets.
I remember when I was a kid, maybe 9 or 10 years old, and I needed a new pair of rain boots. There was a considerable amount more walking and being outside when I was a kid than there is today. Plus, we actually dressed for the weather, unlike today how kids wear shorts and sneakers three seasons out of the year and never wear a winter coat (maybe okay in Florida, but we live in New England).
I didn’t want yellow galoshes. Those were for babies. Instead, I wanted some “big-girl boots” with low heels. They were still waterproof rubber boots, but they were made to look like leather. So grown up, I thought, and stood up as straight as I could after I’d slipped my feet into them, even taller with the little heels.
My mother said no. We couldn’t afford them. “Get those off right now. Who do you think you are!?
"You’re going to get the yellow boots, same as your brother!” She shut me right up and down.
Tears welled up in my eyes and my shoulders slumped. I couldn’t look the sales clerk in the eye when she was ringing us up. I thought bitterly, Of course I should have the big-girl boots. Why would they come in my size if they weren’t made for girls like me?
On the way home I leaned against the car door and looked out the window, watching the raindrops slide down. A tear trickled down my cheek in unison.
My mother must have snuck a glance in the rear-view mirror because she started justifying her mandate about the yellow boots.
"Blah blah blah," was all I heard.
"Blah blah blah," was all I heard.
“I won’t wear them," I stated blandly. "I’m too grown up for yellow rain boots.” It wasn’t even defiance as much as a simple fact, with which my mother must have secretly agreed, because,
“Fine!” she hissed. “I’ll exchange them for the other boots.”
I don’t think we got them that day. I don’t really remember.
All I do remember is that I felt so ashamed and selfish for wanting the big-girl boots that I never wore them, either. Every time it rained, my feet were wet and cold all day at school (or wherever I was), and I was forced to think about what a selfish person I was who surely wasn’t as grown up as she thought she was and didn’t deserve the big-girl boots but had them anyway, at the great expense and sacrifice of the family. The guilt was such that I couldn’t even look at the boots and they remained in the back of my closet.
As an adult, I know what it feels like not to be able to afford things for my kids, but I tried never to say “We can’t afford it.” Instead, “It’s not in our budget right now,” or “We can afford x if we forego y.” Children don’t need to be aware of adult problems.
For example, the food pantry was a fun place to go because I called it “The Special Food Place,” and you never knew what kind of “treats” you might get. Some people might have donated Lucky Charms cereal. Or there might have been almost-out-of-date-code bakery items from the local supermarket. There was usually a movie for kids on in the waiting room, and later when the pantry was moved to a bigger location, there was a play area and a room for clothes shopping. It was very special indeed.
It was only when my kids got older and we participated in the Good Friday Walk for Hunger that I explained to them that it was to benefit The Special Food Place, and they learned that the food pantry was for people who didn’t have enough to eat and needed other support services. I doubt they ever felt the crippling insecurity I felt as a child, who never had a lot of confidence that things were going to be okay.
As an adult, I understand that my mom did the best she could.
At the same time, I cannot continue to justify that behavior because it invalidates the feelings I had as a child. Sometimes a parent’s best IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
What if my mom had said any of these things?
- “I really wish I could give you those boots."
- "I’d love you to have them. You’re getting so grown up."
- "It’s not in our budget this week (or month), but we can get them next week (or month).”
Something I’ve done with my boys when they want the high-end athletic shoes is: “I’ll pay x amount, and you can pay the difference,” which is a great deal because it also teaches them about the difference between needs and wants, as well as empowers them to participate in the decision-making process.
I imagine if I had heard those messages as a child, I would not be thinking about this particular incident at the shoe store in Middleton, R.I., decades later.
To my inner child: it’s okay to want – and have – nice things.