“Kevin’s parents sold their house and made $400,000 in profit,” my eldest son tells me as I drive him to school. Kevin is his best friend. Apparently, Kevin’s parents had bought their house for a million and sold it for 1.4 million. Hence, they made $400,000.
I respond that their profit probably amounted to a little less than that. A percentage of that $400,000 surely got sucked up in the closing costs. And what about the money they had to pour into the house to fix it up before selling? They probably made something more like $350,000 in profit—maybe even less.
My son remains stubborn though. Kevin’s parents are now $400,000 richer than they already were before the sale of their house.
“Well, where are they living now?” I ask. “They had to buy a new house. They may actually be in debt.”
I have to show my son the reality of money. People will brag about their good fortune but so often there’s something they’re hiding. They’re just not quite as rich as they say they are.
And then I realize I’m doing exactly what my parents did when I was growing up—I’m trying to detract from someone else’s financial success all because of my own insecurity. I had many conversations like this with my parents as a kid. I’d relay some story about how well my friends’ folks were doing and my own parents would find some way to put them down.
Those parents had to be living above their means. Maybe they were outright lying! They couldn’t be all that rich.
I never realized that my parents lacked confidence because they wanted to be wealthy themselves. As a way to mitigate their own sense of shame, they'd disparage my friends' families.
They’d even come up with their own brags. The parents of these friends of mine couldn’t possibly be as smart as my folks were. Those people might have money but they were dumb, unlike us!
I feel it on the tip of my own tongue right at this moment. I’m about to say something along those lines to my son. Though Kevin’s father owns a successful T-shirt printing company, he never went to college. He doesn’t have a master's degree like I do. He may not have even graduated high school. He’s an uneducated guy who happened to build a company and make it successful. But he’s not classy and educated like I am.
I stop myself. I know exactly what I’m up to. I’m acting like a conceited snob because I’m trying to downplay Kevin’s parents’ success, then attempt to pump myself up by comparison. I want to put down Kevin’s dad because I’m jealous.
I have to be honest with myself. I’m burning with envy—the same envy my parents had for other people’s wealth. The truth is I feel inferior in comparison to Kevin’s parents.
In my case, my situation is even more embarrassing. I’m not just envious because I’m simply “middle-class” as my parents were. I’m ashamed because I’m poor.
And worse–I’m divorced. I’m a single mom. The truth makes me feel even more inferior.
I feel this way around most of my son’s friends' parents. These people not only have much more money than I do (they live in big houses and drive new cars) but they are still married. I’m the divorced freak in the bunch.
What’s more horrific? My divorce or my poverty? In tandem, they both point to one thing: I’m pathetic.
“Can we move to Kevin’s neighborhood?” my son asks me moments later.
What should I tell him? No, because I got an M.A. in English instead of an M.B.A. And instead of getting a “real job” after that, I decided to become a writer. Then I married your father and dedicated myself to you. I was a stay-home mom. I never expected to have to support myself but your dad and I divorced. Now I’m a financially destitute, middle-aged single mom. It’s hard enough to afford life in our tiny rental while attempting not to go back on welfare. Buy a house in Kevin’s neighborhood? I could never afford that.
I don’t say any of this though. I simply say: “I don’t have the money for that.” And I feel the humiliation wash over me, the sense that I’ve failed my son. But at least I’m not trying to act superior to his rich friends’ parents because I have an education.
When I pick my son up from school in the afternoon, he doesn’t mention Kevin’s parents again. But I remember our conversation, mainly because that evening, I’ll have to drive back to his school for a parents’ event. I’ll probably see Kevin’s parents then.
When I do drive back to his school in the evening, I park my old, used car into a space next to a much newer, luxury car. I already feel the shame creeping back. I look at my car in comparison to the other cars in the parking lot with their shiny paint. The paint on my car is chipping. I smell the burnt oil reek my car gives off because there’s an oil leak that I’ve been putting off fixing because it’s expensive.
I slouch as I walk onto campus. I’ve left my son at home as the event is for parents only to meet with the teachers. I always feel a connection with my son’s teachers. (I was good at school! I’m so educated!) I feel no connection to these other parents though. The moms have Botox faces and carry Louis Vuitton purses and the dads wear pressed, tucked-in shirts and expensive driving loafers.
As I wander stupidly amid these wealthy, successful, married parents, trying to find my son’s first-period classroom, I’m hoping desperately that I don’t run into Kevins’ parents. That’s when something comes over me. I push my shoulders back.
I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished since I left my husband. My kids are safe in our small but clean apartment. I’m not just living off a man. I’ve created my present reality for myself.
I’m not exactly where I want to be in life, but I’m having more success now than I was before I left my husband. Yes, I wish I had more money. I’d love to buy my kids a house to live in—a big house. I’d love to make $400,000 with its sale. But I’m still worthy even if I don’t have that, even if I don’t have a lot of money, even if I’m divorced.
This sense of worth is something that I can't derive from the outside–from money or a marriage.
I’m good enough; I finally feel it.