Friday, March 12, 2010

Adventures in Real Parenting: Awkward

One of the many things I'm learning through this household financial shift (I can't think of a pretty term for it) is that the basic middle class assumptions are blown full of holes. To wit:

As mentioned in an earlier post, Sophie was awarded at the county level for a story she'd written. On Monday, we attended the school board meeting where she received a certificate and had her picture taken. It was very nice and the woman who organizes the Young Authors program for the county was brimming over with enthusiasm for it. I loved to see that.

Sophie and I got into the car to go home and someone rapped on the car window. It was Sophie's principal. I took a deep breath as Soph cranked down the window. (I'm borrowing Chloe's '95 Celica since my car was repo'd last spring.) Sophie's principal makes me tense. I don't know what it is about her - her condescension, her fake sing-songy way of speaking, but something about this woman puts me on edge.

She very nicely congratulated Sophie for her award winning story and said again how proud she was to have had a second Golden win this title. (Nate won when he was in the fifth grade, too.) I smiled and waited for Sophia to thank her, which she did, but with the same kind of tight-lipped smile that reflected the growing tension in my own chest.

"So, Mom, where are you taking our girl to celebrate?" Principal leaned down to address me through the window.

That deer caught in headlights cliche? Sometimes it is perfectly apt. I know that I hesitated, unable to speak. Sophia was staring at me, her eyes huge. Principal waited.

"I, uh.... I...." shit! I had exactly $3.58. That wouldn't even buy a Happy Meal, would it?

The Principal blinked her large brown eyes at me and her smile was clearly frozen. The image of a marionette flashed before me and then was gone.

"I, um...well...."

Sophia cleared her throat. I glanced at her. She was looking ahead.

"You see, I'm not sure about a celebration tonight. I, um, I was laid off a couple of months ago and money is kind of tight." Well now, it was done. Sophie looked at me and I gave her a weak smile and a shrug.

Principal's smiled disappeared. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize...."

We spent some time backtracking on that conversation and all I wanted to do was get the hell out of there so I could talk to Sophie and gauge her reaction. Principal said something like "Well, then, I'm sure you're going to take her home and make her her favorite meal." Without pausing she asked, "What is her favorite thing that you make?"

Did I mention that contact with this woman makes me a little crazy? I squeaked out something about how Soph's favorite thing to do lately is come home, make herself a hot dog and then crash on the sofa. I ask you, is it any wonder I'm not this Principal's favorite example of Mamahood?

"A hot dog? Oh." This is the part where I think crestfallen or maybe stunned is the best adjective to describe how Principal looked.

"Hit it, Mom," Sophia yelled and I threw the little white car into reverse and squealed tires getting out of there.

We drove for a few moments in silence. Finally, I couldn't take it any more. "I'm sorry, baby. I totally botched that conversation. I don't know what it is about her, but Principal makes me nervous. I never know what to say."

Sophia laughed and rifled through my purse. "Don't worry. She makes me nervous, too. I don't understand what she's saying half the time in that baby voice of hers. I just smile and nod." She waved the stick of Teaberry gum she'd found in its secret hiding place. "Want half?"

I thanked her for the gum and chewed for a moment while I thought about what had just happened. I felt like a jerk for having put Principal on the spot for assuming that we'd be doing something to celebrate, but I was also annoyed to have been placed in such an awkward situation to begin with.

"Phia, I'm sorry that I don't have money to take you out."

"It's okay. "

"What is it that I cook that you like?" I've been cooking more than I did when I worked outside the home, but I hadn't really thought about favorite dishes. Crazy kids all have different things they like. I'm supposed to keep track?

"I like your cheesy chicken. And the beef stew. And your lentil soup with rice. And pretty much anything you make." Okay, I take back calling her crazy. She's brilliant and wonderful. So what if she puts barbecue sauce on everything?

"Thanks. And I am sorry. I'm an adult. I should be able to talk to your principal without peeing my pants."

"You peed your pants?"


"Crazy lady. Can we stop for a Frosty? I already had something real to eat anyway. I'm not that hungry."

"A Frosty? I can manage that...."

So all those old assumptions about what it means to be what we appear to be are gone. I hope that in the future, I'll be more careful, too, not to assume that everyone is in a position to go out to dinner whenever they feel like it or have money to go to Hobby Lobby and buy things for school projects or have fundraising money or class picture get the idea. I've mentioned that I'm going to write a piece about how schools don't make it easy to pinch pennies for those of us in the New Poor category. I'm still turning it over in my mind, but this tiny incident reminded me that it's those assumptions that some (not all) of us either grew up with or developed that make it just a little harder to fully embrace this new place on the socio-economic spectrum.


  1. Lisa, my daughter is taking a "food technology" class for her GCSEs. Every week they have to do a cooking project and the kids have to bring in EVERY ingredient, including cooking oil, salt and pepper. It typically costs at least 15 pounds (more than 20 dollars) in groceries, and they waste a lot of it. It really pisses me off.

    If that principal has any sense or grace at all she will be feeling more uncomfortable/awkward about that conversation than you do. And you know what? Most of the time, kids really don't need more than a Frosty . . . or a half-stick of gum.

  2. I used to chew Teaberry gum. I was probably the only kid around who chewed Teaberry gum.

    I still HATE one word you used.

  3. If more people were brave enough to talk about this, maybe schools would realize.

    I can share this because my husband doesn't have time to read blogs, so...

    My mother-in-law doesn't get it. She doesn't understand that my friend has to come do his laundry at our house every so often because he doesn't have quarters. Or if he does, he needs them to take the bus to work.

    She doesn't understand that we don't have money. She doesn't understand that my brother-in-law and his wife don't have money.

    She gets facials and mani-pedis and goes out to lunch with her friends pays full price for clothes at Coldwater Creek and doesn't understand that she's got money that other people don't have.

    When we were both caught speeding on vacation (she was coming with us; yes, feel sorry for me) she told the cop "Give the ticket to my son; he's got more money than me." She tells that story to as many people as she can, in front of us, and I seethe inside thinking of how we had to put groceries and car insurance on our credit card because we didn't have money after paying that $200 ticket.

    Meanwhile, she freaks out when one of her savings accounts in under 4 grand. Her house is paid for.

    Sorry, this is your blog and I wrote too long a comment. But some people in this world need to get a fucking clue about how the rest of us are hanging on by the skin of our teeth.

  4. This isn't new to me. Unfortunately, this has been my entire life as a working class person, first as a kid and then as an adult.

    You ever want to commiserate, you know where to find me. Here's one thing I want to say, though.

    It's grinding if you allow it to be. Don't let it grind you into being a person that is bitter or stressed all to hell all the time or always on edge or early old age or goddess forbid an early grave because it can. The worry of it can stress you out to the point where you're getting sick all the time and you're a pill to be around. You have to stop and say "fuck it" and have some fun and release the tension. This is an absolute must. You *have* to do this.

  5. god, Lisa, for as awful and awkward that was for you and Sophia, I hope that woman freakin got the damn picture. Not that she should have pity on you or anything, but that she may pay a bit of attention to what is happening around her, in her school, and in the lives of the children under her wing--because even though your situation sucks, I'm sure there are families there dealing with worse financial crises and putting up a good front.

    and the truth is, yeah, a Frosty is a great way to celebrate!!

  6. It really shits me to tears when people pry and then I am in the position of telling them what they think they have to know, and then it embarrasses THEM. I don't care, see. I am who I am and I am pretty darn pleased with that 99% of the time. And fact of the matter, Sophie knows herself and knows you, and she knows there is nothing to be ashamed of. You're raising a great kid there. And kudos on her award.

  7. What Sara and Christine said.

    We too are the new poor - from nearly 6 digits to not many at all. It pains me to hear my friends talking about vacations and new cars and clothes for their kids and remodeling projects. But I have nothing to be ashamed of and neither do you. We're all in this together. What matters is your character.

  8. Sophia is a very cool daughter and you are a cool mom; she and you responded perfectly. And it is a nice plus that you have now found out she really likes your cooking!

    The Principal is the one who should feel awkward. And I see why she gets on your nerves.

  9. First, this was perfectly written, funny, relatable, endearing.
    Second, I'm sorry you are going through this economic hardship. (you know I care) It blows. Big ones. But I'm proud of your honesty, your willingness to talk about it, to go there.
    Third, I have no idea what teaberry gum is...does it taste like tea? Berry?
    4) I think you should send in a letter to the principal about the cost of projects etc.--in this economy, she needs to direct her staff to be more sensitive to cost.
    Lastly, mad love for Sophia, mad love.


  10. I love the conversations you have with your kids.

    And hilarious about Sophia putting bbq sauce on everything. She and Jason need to get together and form a club. She could be an honorary Aussie.

  11. Tell Sophie I love her too. She's so smart, just like her mama. I love that you're keeping it real in the face of idiots like Principal who don't really know what the word authentic means. I'm hoping she learned something. And I love teaberry gum too.

  12. So what's so important about telling busy-bodies the truth? Tell her you are celebrating by cooking some fewsh roadkill or you're vegetarian and plan on grazing at the local nursery. Or, suggest in her joyousness that she invite your family to her house for a party ... and you'll bring the bath tub gin and your bother is harmless since he's on his meds.

  13. I think that "the principal" has no clue about the family's at her school. But I do think many school's are aware of the money problems of their students and they just don't know how to deal with it because there are so many oblivious people out there.

  14. I kind of feel sorry for people like Principal and Ubermilf's MIL, because they're so profoundly deficient in imagination. They are also the people who would crack like eggs if they ever found themselves in a similar bind. Good for Sophia.

  15. I nearly wrote "Fuck!" to start with because that was so damned good. I know, it doesn't make sense to me either.

    I just hate the presumptuous should be/would be/ could be shit that this world turns on and that people with reality genes missing impose on others. I'm sorry you were tongue tied; I wish I'd been there to sort the woman out. But I loved the simple closeness of the shared gum and Frosty.....that's the nicest exchange between a mother and daughter I've read in years...

  16. btw Ubermilf? I don't mean to lean to violence, but your mil needs a frikkin' slap. I'm available. Sounds like a bit of slapping needs doin' over in them there parts....

  17. You are not alone. Your honesty and willingness to write about the reality of what your family and mine and so many others are going through is what inspires me to go on a lot of days. *hug*

  18. First, Congrats to Sophie! She must be so proud, seeing the pride in your and Mathman's eyes.

    As for the financial side of things, I can relate - my younger daughter was just socked with an unanticipated school bill for $5,700 and really needs my help, but I'm unable to pitch in at this point.

    A year ago I couldn't have imagined such a helpless feeling, being unable to help my kid in a time of need. I'm expecting the situation to improve soon, but there are no guarantees, and it won't come soon enough to stave off the effects of this unpaid bill.

    What a mess - so many of us in similar situations, swimming upstream, gasping for air as the "haves" tisk and roll their eyes at our fiscal ineptitude.

    Your handling of this situation was more gracious than I might have managed just now, and I thank you for your example of civility.

  19. Great post, great kid, great mom, pissy principal.

  20. On the principal - adults who address other adults the way she does need to smacked, hard.

    Second, you need feel neither guilt nor shame for facing what millions of Americans are facing right now - tight belts and thin wallets thanks to a bad economy. Should have asked her if she was going to contribute to Sophia's "celebration" if she thought she deserved something special.

  21. Should have told the principal that you guys were cannibals and that you would be stopping by later at her place for dinner.

  22. Wow.

    I feel bad for all of the kids [and staff!] at Sophia's school. It sounds like she's trying (in her own weird way), but she's awfully socially awkward.

    Having said that, your Sophia is a true gift. Does she have a particular favorite kind of BBQ sauce? I will shop sales and MAIL some to her!


  23. Lisa; this was an awesome post!

    I could just see the burning rubber as you two exited the school parking lot; Thelma and Louise-style! You ladies rock!

    This will be a fond memory for mother and daughter for years to come.

    Tell Sophie great job for me.

  24. Lisa, isn't it awful to feel put on the spot to say something............and then I never actually like the reality or want to share it. I'm fairly adept at saying crap like, oh we really haven't decided yet,and then semi politely getting the hell out of dodge.
    I have to be honest to my kids too often to explain that we can't afford everything,that we can't afford every camp or trip or whatever that comes up that some of their friends get to do. Some days I feel bad, others I just feel irritated about.
    Schools are financially mismanaged IMO, no tax rolls are down because homes are sitting empty,and few of us have extra $$ laying around. It's a damn ugly circle!

  25. Lisa, your daughter demonstrates your great parental skills. She takes after you.

  26. Thank you for your honesty. Sadly, your financials are not an isolated case these days. I work, but being single, live paycheck to paycheck, as does most everyone I know -- even people who were previously doing extremely well. I have to believe that things will get better for all of us, and it would be really nice if that could be SOON.

    Congrats to your daughter. A Frosty is a treat around here.

  27. I could have sworn I offered a comment on this post a few days ago but I was struck low by a cold of all things, dammit. I certainly can't remember what I said that hasn't already been more than better written by everybody else.

    The idea that we're all supposed to be middle class and above the ordinary fray has done more to damage this society than any other piece of propaganda we've been force fed. In Europe after wwII everyone realized they were all workers and thus, things are somewhat better there in general.

    You and Sophia did wonderfully well and I hope the Principal gets a clue about the falsity of her assumptions.

  28. Listen, I'm a teacher and there is certain type of woman who wants to be an elementary school principal. I don't know what it is about them but they tend to be stiff and fake and condescending.

    She's probably assuming that to have beautiful, talented children like yours, you have to be middle-class, like her. Ugh.

  29. I think you handled this one pretty well. Sure it would have been fun to serve it up right back at her--

    "Um well we have not decided if we are going to the food stamp office, or the unemployment office.... which do you recommend?"

    This kind of thing will come up again....

    We haven't decided yet is a good one....

    or build the mystery....

    We have super secret plans we can't divulge....
    (if we told you, we'd have to kill you)...

    Hmm that might come across as a bit threatening.

    What did she expect you to say??

    We are going to the swankiest place in town & YOU , Ms. in our face principal, are invited!!

    Maybe the next time you can signal the window is stuck closed & you can't hear her.
    It would seem kind of obvious if you had an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper stating both items.


  30. I raised 4 children by myself (ages 2, 2, 3 & 10) starting during the recession of '82. I'd tell people I was broke and couldn't any longer afford to [go out to dinner, get a mani/pedi, take a day trip] and they thought I was just choosing not to spend what I had instead of the reality of I had been cooking out of a hole dug in the back yard for more than a year because the electricity was turned off due to non-payment in my all electric house.

    I like my husband [yep, remarried after 15 years of raising those kids by myself] and how he handles such situations...every time - with a joke. He would have told the principal that he was so glad she had approached the car - he was just about to go and find her - he wants her credit cards - all of them - he is raising Sophie to be high maintenance so she can aspire to be a principal too - he needs the credit cards to reward Sophie and celebrate. Then, he would say, "and don't give me any of those cards with low credit approvals - Sophie is worth the high dollar cards - we'll need one of those platinum cards with the 100k approval"...

    IOW, a joke that turns the attention away from your business and to the business of the "asker"...

    There is no sin and therefore, should be NO shame in being broke. You've done nothing wrong, you just don't have money. Some things you just need to wear as a badge of honor and dare people to expose their hateful sides to the rest of society. Don't worry, hateful people only pick on those they think are weak. If you look them in the eye with no shame, they will know you are not weak.

  31. Thank you for a lovely post. Your daughter sounds like a gem. She must have a fantastic mom! Your mention of Teaberry gum brought back many childhood memories of rummaging through my mom's purse for change. I'd always find a stick of Teaberry in there somewhere! I haven't seen that gum in 20 years...

  32. The very people who denied my husband a raise (while they gave everyone he worked with 10%) actually have the nerve to tell me to go on Craig's List to buy hundreds of dollars worth of items they think I need to further my career . . . I suppose they think they're being all thrifty since they're suggesting second hand instead of retail.

    I've told each of them "I don't have the money." And I enjoy that there is a socially awkward pause.

    Two birds with one stone. Stop telling me what to do. And, yes, there are consequences to your denying my husband his well-deserved raise. (Especially considering he raised every single penny of the money they gave to others and denied him.)

  33. Well written. Sophia sounds like a cool kid. That principal - yikes. "Let's take a socially awkward situation, and double down!"

  34. You felt like a jerk for having put the Principal on the spot?

    Please banish that guilt! You didn't do anything wrong - nothing to feel like a jerk about!

  35. You know, I think it was kind of a perfect conversation, actually. Not that I wish this awkwardness on you, of course. But SHE put it on you - it doesn't have anything to do with your responses.

    Also, I love teaberry gum!

  36. I am total agreement with you - people do need to recognize that times are lean and quit with the assumptions. Cripes, how many recession news stories do we need to hear - for, what, like the 3rd year now? - before people get it?

    I feel really bad sending out wedding invitation to some of my relatives. One uncle and aunt are both laid off, with a mortgage and two kids, and I know they can't afford a wedding gift and will RSVP "no" because they can't afford it. And I just want them to come and eat and dance and have a good time - I don't want any gifts. But I don't know if I can say that to them, because I'm making my own assumptions. So we're stuck in these stupid old social/behavioral norms that really need to change with the times.

    Ubermilf's comment reminded me of Thanksgiving '08. Dave's family cornered him into hosting dinner (which, in their family the host pays 100% - no potlucks for them). I was FREAKING OUT because between the two of us we had $180 in the bank, yet we were expected to host 12 adults for dinner. When I expressed anxiety on my blog, his cousin forwarded it to the entire family and family friends. So, not only did their dinner go on the Discover card, I was vilified. (Then my future mother-in-law essentially told me that I'm fat. The end. Sorry for the long comment!)

  37. I think many of us can relate to your story. I also think that the Principle was a bit of a jerk and a tad bit condescending, but that is a judgement made from only a few paragraphs of context so...I could be way off the mark.


And then you say....

(Comments submitted four or more days after a post is published won't appear immediately. They go into comment moderation to cut down on spam.)