"Dad, are we poor?"
The question itself doesn't bother me one bit. It's an honest and insightful question that comes from a place of innocence and genuine curiosity often inhabited by 5-year-olds. It was the anxiety-riddled expression that my son wore on his face, and the hint of fear buried just below the inflection in his voice that did me in.
I should've seen this coming.
When my oldest posed this question, we were just about to have another baby and with that comes expenses. We've mitigated the new baby costs as much as possible by using hand-me-down baby clothes, second-hand car seats, Will's old crib, etc. But when you factor in diapers, nursery furnishings, and the cost of the hospital stay (even with insurance), you quickly realize it's impossible to bring new life into this world and not incur some new debt. That's in addition to the old debt, which doesn't care about the fact that you're about to become a parent for a second time.
Also, Will made a lot of friends in preschool and now at summer camp. Those friends have birthday parties and cookouts and get-togethers at their houses -- which is great. I love that he has wonderful friends. And since we live in an affluent town, many of these friends have absolutely beautiful houses with equally beautiful cars parked in well-manicured driveways. Inside there are toys -- awesome, kick-ass toys that are the envy of every 5-year-old around the block. And I love that Will gets to hang out with great kids from awesome families in super-ridiculously cool houses. But it's led to a bunch of questions that -- as his father -- I have some difficulty (and shame) answering.
He justifiably wants to know why our house isn't as big as the others on our street. As he so aptly pointed out, some people have basements and toy rooms as big as our 1,200-square-foot duplex. So why, with all these big houses out there, don't we get one?
I won't lie, I feel ashamed that we're not in that big house. It's not that I don't want it, believe me. I do. I want what every parent wants: a better life for my kids. I've had to talk to Will about money, jobs, salary and living on a budget. And for the most part he gets it and he's great about it. He's far more understanding than most 5-year-olds I know. But every once in awhile I see that look in his eyes and I feel like the biggest deadbeat on the planet.
But that's fleeting and I'll tell you why.
We aren't rich and we never will be. Hell, we'll probably never even make it to upper-middle class (mainly because the middle class no longer exists). MJ and I work hard but no matter what happens, we'll likely be in a place where we have enough to get by and never enough to get ahead. Will is going to grow up in a house that pinches pennies and clips coupons, opting for the things that are on sale instead of the stuff we really want. He has already been subject to terms like "foreclosure" and "bankruptcy," and he'll see his parents constantly struggle to make ends meet. While others use their tax returns and bonuses to go on vacations that require airplanes instead of cars, he'll see us use that money to catch up on the never-ending debt that seems to attach itself directly to our paychecks.
Occasionally he'll go without and he'll think it's unfair. I don't blame him for that.
But in the midst of the struggle, he'll see a few other things too. He'll learn the value of money and the importance of hard work to earn enough of it to get by. He'll also learn to stop envying what other people have to the point you forget to appreciate the things you've already got. He'll see that sometimes less truly is more, and you almost always have more than you think.
And, if I'm any sort of parent at all, he'll come to realize "the biggest" and "the best" are not designations that correspond to material belongings, but to the wealth we create in our personal lives. Because truth be told, in time I probably could earn enough to get that big ass house and the cool car. It would take total dedication to my career, and putting in 70-80 hours a week at work instead of the 45-50 I currently clock (not including my freelance gigs). That means no family dinners, no working from home and missing all the tee-ball and soccer games.
But you know what? That's a price I'm unwilling to pay.
Not because I'm lazy or I hate my job -- far from it on both counts. It's because I've established my priorities and I'm not going to waver. What good is a fancy car if you only drive it to the office and back? What's the point of buying your kids all the best toys if you're not there to play along with them? And what good is that huge house if you're never home to dance with your wife in the kitchen or chase the kids around that gargantuan playroom? Do I want that house someday? I won't lie, it'd be nice. But it's all a matter of perspective.
Some people might look at our meager home in the shadow of colossal colonials and ponder the same question my son asked. Are we poor? Well, I guess that all depends.