Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pennies Under The Rug

Last night I had a short, intense exchange with Sam on the issue of finances. Mine, not his. The dialogue was prompted by my asking him his financial status, as Sam's dad had just asked me to contribute more to Sam's monthly expenses. Sam immediately asked why we were even having that discussion without his involvement.

Good point, Sam. And thank you for making it.

Emails about money from my ex-spouse, no matter how well meant, always cause my stress level to jump way into the red. Because of the long and often difficult history between us, including major struggles on financial issues, I cannot read any inquiry from him as neutral. This one was no exception.

To reply to his email required much agonizing over words. As I labored through a draft, I cried out "I can hear Doug [my brilliant therapist of yore] talking to me!" Warren, who was providing moral support and a listening ear, asked me what Doug was saying.

"Stop thinking that telling your story means it is heard."

Doug was right. My long, labored explanation added nothing to the discussion and only made me feel worse. I trimmed my reply considerably, reined in my feelings, wrote that I was already doing all I could do, and would stretch more when I could. Then I hit "send."

But not before Sam and I had our quick exchange. And not before I assured Sam that he was not the source of financial stress in my life.

I grew up in a hardworking, blue collar family where my parents made it clear from grade school on that they would support and provide for my brothers and me until we graduated from high school. After that, we were on our own and either had to join the military, get a job, or go to college. If you chose college, good for you, but it was on your own dime. After my parents drove me to Chicago in the fall of 1974 and unloaded my suitcases, their obligation ended. It was my scholarships, my loans, and my meager savings that got me through that first year and the years to follow.

Having gone to college on the sink or swim financial plan, I have always felt strongly about helping my children through college. What I hadn't planned on was Life, in the form of a major illness and an extreme and permanent reduction in income, messing up my plans.

I struggled my way through the responses and the guilt last night. I did not want to turn my back on Sam, and while I "knew" I wasn't doing that, I didn't accept that I was not. I "know" I am doing what I can to help him achieve his education. Is it all I want or hoped it would be? No. But I have to accept that my means are far more limited than in "the old days" and I am doing what I can. I can only shave pennies so thin, no matter what my desires for my children. And at this point, all my pennies are pretty thinly shaved. (Confession: I did just start a "getting away" account, but with my opening deposit being a whopping $96.33 and a third of that being spare change and another half being rebates and coupon savings, I don't think I am being selfish at the expense of a college education.)

For me, the big issue is changing my mindset that spending money equals love and that the only way I can prove myself as a good and loving parent is to overextend myself financially. As I told Warren, I could move this amount from here to there (because I also pay some other bills for Sam), but I was really just playing a shell game. Spread the dollars as I might over my budget, there are still only a given number of dollars.  Like resolving to buy the gift I can afford versus the splashier, pricier gift I can't, I have to work through my feelings and accept that it is okay to say "I can't do that amount, but I can do this amount."

I have to accept that about myself: that I am doing all I can. I have to give myself permission that "all I can" is a loving response.  

My friend Arlene recently shared her memory of her mother helping her with her college education: How well I remember my mother's jar of dimes. I still have tears when I think of the morning she rolled back the worn rug and removed enough nickels, dimes, and pennies to pay my first quarter tuition at OSU.

It is a beautiful story and one I thought about last night as I struggled with my desire and my inability to provide everything I would like for my children.

Sam will be home in four weeks for a visit and a brief respite from school. He'll have a chance to talk; I'll have a chance to listen. We are both looking forward to cooking together and recently talked about some of the dishes we want to try. And perhaps we'll have a chance to roll back the rug and find treasures underneath.


Terri said...

I have moments of similar feelings. Several years ago, my youngest daughter got herself in a financial mess with her car. As I deliberated what to do, it was decided that the car needed to dispensed with. We sold it to CarMax, but the difference between what they paid and what she still owed cost DH his secret "new pickup" account. The daughter knows this...and has not asked for another penny.

Sharon said...

It's so telling in your post that your parents raised you to be a strong woman. Part of that was letting you figure how to pay for college, and work hard. My parents paid for some of my college, but certainly not all of it. I was responsible for most of it, including my spending money. It was the way everyone's family did it where I lived, I didn't expect more. But you know what? I survived and thrived. Our parents lived within their means, and LOVED us no matter what. I don't know why I feel differently about it. I want to give my kids more. But are we really doing them any favors? If I pay for everything now, they most certainly will need to take care of me in retirement.

You need to look after yourself, April. Sam has many, many years to repay back loans, and make money.

Don't for one minute feel guilty about your "beach" fund. You work hard, and some of it should come back to you.

And, as far as your ex? No response was necessary. Why don't you block him from your e-mail address so you don't have to stress over any future correspondence? If he really needs to get in touch with you, he can call. (And Warren can answer). Unfortunately, I had similar experiences with this, but since I've done that, life has been so much better!

Sending {{hugs}}!

I am the working poor. said...

Please don't allow someone in a better financial position guilt you into doing more than you can. It sounds as if Sam knows what's up, from his comment. We, as parents, can only do as much as we can reasonably afford to do. Sometimes we reach a point where we do too much and lose a bit of ourselves. Keep your vacation fund and lose the guilt. You must have something to look forward to in your own life as well. There's nothing wrong with helping out when you can, but don't sacrifice yourself in the process.

April said...

My friend Arlene, whose story I borrowed, left me this message on FB: ***Just love technology... I wrote an extensive comment to your post... but cyber-gremlins ate it ... Mother's many sacrifices and wise decisions set me on a path that allowed many of my dreams, as well as her dreams, come true. I became the English teacher she wanted to be... how fortunate my dream matched hers. What a great lady she was... what a wonderful classroom teacher she would have been. She tended livestock rather than students... Life lessons have taught me that she was the greatest teacher I ever had. How I wish I could instill in my kids all that she taught me. Her jars of dimes, the bowls of pennies, and coins taped on the back of the living room rug bought lots of extras... her parents' grave markers, shoes, fabrics, coats, a couple of beat up old cars, some chickens, feeder pigs... a look at some of my old photos reveals much of our life style. Whatever else, Mother gave us love and laughter. I am so pleased you liked our little story.***

Thank you, Arlene! (And now I know why and how the coins were under the rug!)