Mom is sitting at the smallish, built-in shelf of white Formica that serves as what I thought of, as a middle-schooler, as “the place where the phone is.” (Now, as a middle-ager, I realize that was Mom’s desk.) That’s the only space in the house that is hers, although each of us sits there whenever we make calls. Her checkbook is made of light-blue paper nestled in a small plastic folder of a darker shade of blue. She’s paying for my share of a youth group’s pizza party and talking about the amount of cash she runs through each month.
I leap into the rare opening. “How much?”
She puts down her pen and looks at me. “Your father gives me a certain amount of money at the beginning of each month. What I do with it is up to me.”
“Like, you get an allowance?” I snort, then cover my mouth, but it’s too late. She glares at me, then turns away. I hear her pen scratching across the paper.
Note to self: When you grow up, men will dole out cash.
I’m in my early 20s. I exit a cement stairwell, my sneakers silent in a long hallway. Ahead, I hear the murmur of voices punctuated by the clatter of something metal hitting the floor, followed by a shout of laughter. My stomach tightens with each step. I remind myself to release my jaw; I grind my teeth in my sleep, and each morning a band of tension runs from just below my cheeks to behind my ears and up the sides of my head. As I walk forward, I stuff my hand into my front right pocket, fingering the four dollars I tucked into my jeans this morning.
Should I or shouldn’t I?
By the time I get to the door, my indecision is making me so queasy that I lean on the doorframe a moment.
Wow. Were you going to learn the results of a biopsy or confront a cheating partner or something? Nope!
I am in law school, taking a break from classes to grab a sandwich. Money is tight, and buying lunch makes me tense. I still go ahead and do it, though. I mean, I suppose I could find a less expensive source of nutrition or a more lucrative source of income.
But I don’t.
This is not an essay about rational decisions. Because in that period of my life, I addressed my financial anxiety by not buying myself a drink. A soda.
That was your grand plan for saving money? Beverage management?
Yes. Somehow, gagging on a dry sandwich was the pebble in my shoe that both freaked me out and calmed me down. The drier my mouth became, the looser the tension in my shoulders. I couldn’t remember dealing with anxieties any other way.
I grew up in a tidy subdivision in a Connecticut suburb, a newly constructed center-hall colonial that looked exactly like the other five on our cul-de-sac, albeit all with varying colors of siding and shutters. My sisters and I took a shiny yellow bus to the local public school. Mom didn’t work outside the home, and Dad earned enough to keep us kids in summer camps and take us on the occasional trip to Disney. But because he ran his own one-person law firm, he wasn’t on a salary, so his income fluctuated. Even as a child, I knew there were times when he felt flush and months when he was tense.
Despite his emotional swings, I now understand that money was never truly sparse or, frankly, even close to it. We went out to an Italian restaurant on Sunday nights, and Mom bought me new clothes every season. We were solidly upper-middle class.
You’d think that, growing up in a house where money was mostly plentiful, I would have developed a financial acumen, or at least a basic understanding of a checking account. But my parents’ budget was both shrouded in secrecy and laced with power dynamics. What I learned about money had more to do with control than with spending or saving.
A few months into my own marriage—I was 23—my husband and I each began law school as full-time students. While he worked part-time to bolster our income, remarkably, my parents provided most of what we lived on. I say remarkably because now, decades later, I’m astonished not only at their generosity but also at my own breathtaking lack of self-reliance.
My parents structured my husband’s share of our “income” as a personal loan and mine as an outright gift. We must have discussed our rent and living expenses to determine those sums, but I don’t remember doing so. Once the arrangement was set, though, I had glimmers of remorse under all that entitlement. But I interpreted my discomfort as anxiety over how much of their money I spent. That fall, I knew I had a safety net, but I feared falling on it too hard. Instead, I did this weird quasi-self-deprivation thing.
Why didn’t you get a part-time job to take the pressure off yourself, your husband, and your parents? Did you even consider brown bagging a PB&J and a juice box, Buttercup?
There’s a trope about watching movies through partially covered eyes, as if only seeing flashes of the murder scene is somehow less affecting than watching it head on. That was me and money. Fingers splayed, palms flat in front of my face, maybe batting them around a bit to make the images in front of me flicker like an old-fashioned film strip.
This continued into my marriage. Both the products of “traditional” households (men work, women tend home and hearth), my husband handled our finances. He downloaded bank statements, created spreadsheets, and ran scenarios detailing what would happen if we spent X or saved Y.
At least, I thought that’s what he did. Honestly, it’s hard to be sure, because over the years, the few times I looked at his documents, it was through my peripheral vision. I’d tilt my head away from the screen, trying to read through my lashes.
I remember him sitting at a desktop in his study. “I ran the numbers again,” he says. He’s referring to our upcoming renovation; we’re in our early 40s, and our kids are bursting the house at its seams. “We can do it. We can. It’ll be okay. It’ll work.”
I know he’s reassuring himself as much as me. I walk around behind him to rub his tight shoulders.
“Are you sure?” I hate how small my voice sounds.
I stare at the back of his neck so I can’t see the computer screen and its spreadsheet, numbers crawling across its rectangles like termites in a tunnel.
He sighs. “Yes, Amy. I’m sure.”
I notice that my fingers seem unable to release the tension in his muscles.
You knew you were acting like a child, right? Or, more accurately, that you still hadn’t grown the f*ck up?
Before I start high school, we move to a bigger house. Mom’s new desk anchors the end of another white Formica kitchen counter. We have more phones in this house, so she’s the only one who sits there now.
I come downstairs from an afternoon of singing along to Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin. I think I know things. I lean against Mom’s desk, fold my arms, and ask how much money we have. I see her back stiffen.
She exhales. “I really don’t know, Amy. Your father has never given me a straight answer about that.” She gestures for me to move closer, whispering, “That’s why I keep a little slush fund. Every month, I move a few dollars into my own account. Because, well, you never know.”
She gives me what I think is supposed to be a meaningful gaze. I’m not actually sure what she’s trying to say.
As family lore goes, Mom grew up in the Leave it to Beaver 1950s, where, I imagine, white SAHMs wore poodle skirts and kitten heels as they whizzed vacuums around already-pristine living rooms, pot roasts timed to be ready when the dads came home for dinner from their 9-to-5 jobs as accountants or pharmacists. It’s not that the world then was all sunshine and unicorns—the Black struggle for civil rights was in full swing, and the nation was gearing up for the Vietnam War—but rather that Mom lived in a world closer to a sitcom.
I wonder why Mom and Dad lived as they did. If Mom was raised in a glossy bubble, what would it have taken to pop that? Did either of them want to talk, or were they both satisfied with their financial arrangement? Did Mom want Dad to handle their finances because she had complete faith in him or because she didn’t trust her own skills? Was he being gallant, or did he think she couldn’t manage money beyond a basic household budget? And why did she feel she needed to squirrel away a nest egg, to mix metaphors?
I don’t know. On the one hand, their decisions are probably not my business. On the other hand, their choices shaped mine, at least when I was younger. Dad died recently, and Mom and I don’t tend to dig into thorny topics.
Regardless of why they behaved as they did, I suspect that the decades of not knowing details about long-term savings or short-term expenses kept Mom off balance. Without a grasp on what they had, she was left guessing at the severity of his income’s ups and downs. And therein lay anxiety.
Imagine Dad gave her X dollars each month. Then one day he gives her X-minus-Y dollars. Would that mean they were in trouble? Would he tell her if it were serious? What would serious look like, if it were? Would she even want to know?
I doubt Mom pushed Dad for details. When he felt attacked, his words could be brutally cutting. I suspect Mom felt it safer to lower her budget, shopping for cheaper cuts of meat and off-brand crackers rather than “pestering” (his word) him about their future.
I picture her rubbing her arms against the chill in the freezer section at the local Pathmark, examining the differences in prices per pound between chuck steak and stew meat. Maybe she chewed the inside of her cheek. Probably her stomach roiled, sickened at the tremendous weight of the smallest savings.
My mind catapults me back to my law school cafeteria. Choosing to make fractional savings based on free-floating anxiety rather than to take meaningful steps to understand and address what is real.
I am my mother and she is me. Saving up that soda money.
So many years of making myself thirst for something that wasn’t liquid at all.
[Three slow claps.]
Brava, Princess. Dots connected.
Now what? Do you still need an inner monologue to goose you into actual, responsible, self-reliant adulthood?
In those old horror movies, when we learn that “the call is coming from inside the house,” we know that the hero’s about to confront the villain.
I no longer need you, nasty voice in my head. I don’t need—want—to belittle myself anymore. You made some valid points, but you undermined your own utility. You coated your comments in shame, so I thrust them away, unthinking.
These days, I handle my own finances, with clear eyes and relative calm. I’d like to say that my growth is the result of a middle-aged epiphany or some kind of shining life lesson. It’s not. What actually happened is that ten years ago, my marriage ended, which simultaneously ended my ability to shunt fiscal accountability to someone else.
Finally confronting my fears has felt good. Like so many anxieties, when you trot them into the sunlight, they tend to shrivel. I still don’t get a soda when I go out for lunch, but only because I don’t really like soda anymore. I’d rather order water, even if I have to pay for it.