I hung up the phone and collapsed on the floor in tears. $3,000. We were three months behind on our mortgage, and this is what the bank was demanding in back payment, late fees and interest. Pay it, or they’d foreclose on our house.
How were we going to come up with $3,000? We were behind because we didn’t have the money—how did they expect us to come up with it in just one month? If we had it, we would have paid it, right?
The truth is, we did have it. Originally. We just used it for other things. Like Christmas gifts and a birthday party at a water park. We’d spent our money on fun-filled weekends with friends and family instead of our mortgage—it was too embarrassing to admit we couldn’t afford to go away with them for the weekend. I’ve always judged myself by how successful I was in my career, how much money I made, what kind of a house I lived in. I wasn’t striving for something bigger and better—I was trying to outrun my shame.
My early years had been nothing but embarrassment. I dropped out of college. I married at 19, had my first child at 21, my second three years later. I returned to college, but it took me seven years to complete a four-year degree. Every decision I made, it seemed, was the “wrong” one.
Even though I had a loving husband, three beautiful boys and a challenging career I enjoyed, I worried that people would look at my life as one big mistake, and I thought my boys would be similarly judged, humiliated or left out. It wasn’t enough that I could put food on the table, clothing on their backs and a roof over their heads. I needed to give them the world.
Or at least everything their friends had.
It was incredibly hard to keep up with other parents. Other kids had $80 jeans and $100 basketball shoes. They wore $60 sweatshirts and brought Smucker’s Uncrustables and Welch’s Fruit Snacks in their school lunches instead of a regular sandwich and an apple. They threw amazing birthday bashes, went to the movies every weekend and gave my boys expensive birthday gifts. These parents set the standard sky-high, and while we were “doing well,” there was no way we could keep up. But I tried.
I felt like, if I was a good mom, I should have been able to give my boys $20 to buy a birthday present for their friend. I should have been able to buy school and athletic pictures. If I was a good mom, I should have been able to send them with money for after their basketball games, when the team stopped at McDonald’s. What kind of mom can’t feed her son?
These things never bothered my husband. I worried about humiliating my boys; he worried about paying the bills. And although we never really argued much, there was some tension around handling the finances. In the end, I was left in charge because he worked longer hours.
I tried everything I could to make ends meet. I didn’t buy myself new clothes or household items. I relied on hand-me-downs for the boys while they were too young to care about fashion, and when they got older, I shopped off the clearance racks. I bought groceries on sale and with coupons. I had a huge garden and baked cookies instead of buying them.
But I refused to admit that we could not afford to do the things our friends could do. So I often skipped out on paying the bills. I rationalized that the electricity bill and the mortgage could wait. What my son really needed was a fancy birthday party. He only turns six once, after all.
It was hard, finding the money for all those extras. But I didn’t really know what hard was. Not until I had my sixth child. When we found out I was pregnant—with twins—when my fourth child was only a year old and the other three were 9, 13 and 16, I decided it was time to stay home to raise this brood, and we went from barely making ends meet to barely putting food on the table.
In a world where smartphones and Under Armour gear are practically viewed as necessities, I find myself not being able to give my little boys a dollar for popcorn at their big brother’s basketball game. I often don’t have the gas to get to the basketball game myself. And from time to time we still struggle to pay the bills. But not because I refuse to admit that we are not financially well off. It is easier to admit that now. With six mouths to feed, everyone already assumes we struggle.
We did come up with the money to repay that $3,000, but it was crushing. We were forced to admit our deficiency and asked a family member for assistance. It was a tough lesson, but a necessary one. I’ll never risk our house for the sake of my ego again.
Yes, their clothes are hand-me-downs, garage-sale specials and Christmas gifts. My oldest boys don’t have gorgeous athletic clothing. They are lucky if they get basketball shoes. There is nothing left to give.
But it doesn’t matter to the boys (well, not that much, anyway) that they don’t have an iPhone X. They don’t care if they have to pack a lunch for their game. And they are proud of their mom when she finds a good deal on an Under Armour sweatshirt at a garage sale.
I see—and my boys do, too—what our financial struggles have taught them. In a culture where everyone is scared to be left behind, they have learned to be comfortable with what they have. They have a maturity level and wisdom that most kids their age do not possess. They have learned valuable lessons that their friends have not had to learn yet. My boys have a strong work ethic. They don’t expect anything to be given to them and are ready to work hard for whatever they want.
Now, when I pack sandwiches for their basketball game and apologize for not having enough money for concessions, my 17-year-old will shake his head, wrap me in a big bear hug and say, “Mooom,” (in that drawn-out way that only teenagers can do). “It’s OK. This is healthier anyway.”
They are comfortable with who they are in a way that I never have been. Their identity is not wrapped up in how much they have, how much their parents make or what their parents do for a living. They are not humiliated by a lack of money. Their identity is exactly what they set out to make it.
And that is amazing.
Because I could no longer keep up that image of success, I could no longer protect my boys from humiliation and hurt. They had to feel what it felt like to go without. They had to show up at a friend’s birthday party and be embarrassed because they couldn’t offer a gift. And they had to watch their friends eat Big Macs while patiently waiting to return to the bus so they could eat their sandwich.
But they also felt the surge of pride and confidence that comes with working hard toward something and succeeding. They know what it feels like to get up in the morning and do something, even though they don’t want to, because the reward will be greater than the feeling of discomfort. They know persistence, discipline and perseverance.
In watching them grow, I have slowly learned to let go of my old definition of success. My boys have taught me that money is just that—money. It is simply a tool I can use to clothe them, feed them and keep them warm. But it is just a tool. It has nothing to do with who they are or who I am as a mother.
I now know what is important. It’s letting my boys experience all of life, including the painful parts. It’s spending time together, as a family, in any way we can. It’s loving each other for who we are and who we will become. I am a good mom. My boys taught me that. And that is liberating.
Shannon Lambert is a freelance writer, who works for nonprofits and human services professionals. She is a mother to six boys and blogs about building strong relationships with your children at www.makingmommas.com.
Originally published February 2019; Updated February 2020.