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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Oh So Po'

I was reading Toddled Dredge last night and Veronica talked about being poor and having children. It got me thinking, first about my own childhood (I've been thinking about that a lot lately anyway) and the impact of poverty upon it, and second about the norms and dictates of American society.

We were quite poor when I was a child, not initially, but by the time I was 7 my father's alcoholism had taken whatever means and trappings we'd begun with and reduced us to squalor, for lack of a better word. I mean, I had friends and classmates who had dirt floors and some who had no shoes; we had more than that and what we had looked good, thanks to my mother, but, still, we were pretty darned poor.

We lived in a small southern town, primarily black, and very, very poor. Our house bordered the black side of town, i.e., our side of the street was white and the other side black, and if the white side of town was considered a step up economically and socially, it was a barely significant one. The whole town, with the exception of a handful of old houses on the main street, was bleak and ugly. Our house, a saggy shotgun house that has since been demolished (as has the house we lived in after), was infested with fleas, doily-size wood spiders, palmetto bugs, and rats, probably roaches, too, but I can't remember for sure. The spiders are indelibly imprinted and I have an enduring terror of them. We ate a lot of beans, the bag kind costing pennies a package that you have to soak and cook all day for them to be edible. This was my kind of poor, not we can do without it poor, but frozen shampoo in winter poor.

Still, we had our mitigating factors: my mother came from class (class, baby, real class), both my parents had at least some college and, presumably, both were intelligent (I have my doubts about my father, but, of course, by the time I could really make an assessment, his brains, such as they were, were quite pickled), and my sisters and I were all of above average intelligence and fairly cute. The cute part shouldn’t make a difference, but in our world it does, so I list it as a redeeming attribute here. Most important, my mother loved us, had a great sense of adventure and play (even given the rather dire circumstances), and she had fantastic taste. She was also truly an expert on the English language. She later became an editor and an award winning reporter. Her skills did much to alleviate the substandard education we received.

While the poverty certainly had an impact, most notably on our education, the much greater determinant of the wholeness of our psyches was my father’s alcoholism and propensity for beating and degrading his family. Had it not been for that, I could have been perfectly content with my lot in life. Ultimately, poverty did no lasting damage. Perhaps my sisters and I would have attained much greater status given greater advantage, but we’ve all managed to become successful enough regardless.

As for my own parenting decisions relative to economics, we have decided to forgo financial advancement in favor of time with our children. While we are not poor, exactly, we are close to it. We go backward almost every month, taking from our savings to pay the bills. I chose to leave what could have been a satisfying and lucrative enough career path to stay at home with my children. I know our lifestyle would probably be an unexpected choice given my history, so it proves the greatest illustrator of what impact poverty ultimately had on me personally.

Maybe I’m a dreamer, but I have hopes that it may turn out even better for me career-wise doing what I want to do from home. My husband is working as little as possible, too, so he can hang out with us. We’ve talked about it at great length and many times and we’d rather spend the money on quality time with our children, especially during these formative years, than at retirement. We figure our prime earning years are still ahead (hopefully). There’s plenty of time to make money, if that’s what we choose. Our children’s childhoods will never come again. We cannot make up for lost time – and lost opportunity – with them. I have confidence, perhaps unreasoning but I don’t think so, that they will be more than able to get as good an education as their intelligence and innate abilities permit when the time comes.

While thus far my childhood scars have prevented me from being the kind of parent I would really like to be, I think I’m getting better at the job. Even with my personality glitches, I believe my children are going to have a better childhood than most of their peers in our materially preoccupied society. I know that my children know they are loved and even perfect strangers have remarked upon their confidence and wisdom, traits I believe stem from their secure positions as the centers of our universe.


liz said...

Beautiful post.

12:08 AM  
Veronica Mitchell said...

I understand completely. Choices you will not regret later in life.

11:47 PM  
Chrissie said...

Women don't get feminist praise for CHOOSING to stay at home and invest in their children. It's seen as weakness, betrayal of one's gender and, most recently, has been labeled outright to be a detrimient to a woman's overall societal contribution. For all the decades of feminist blatting about choice, it seems that feminists have abused those of us among their ranks who don't make the "right" choice. It's sad what we do to one another, all the while calling it progress. Perhaps I'll expound on this later, since it's something I've been reflecting upon for some years now. Love you. And what's more, I admire what you do.

10:25 AM  
Oh, The Joys said...

It sounds like you're doing a great job. Really.

2:58 PM  

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