Tuesday, June 7, 2011
Pennies Under The Rug
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.