Something happened the other day that made me realize how much I beat myself up for not being able to match my wealthy ex-husband financially, the wealthy ex-husband who doesn’t pay child support.
Franny came back from a week with her dad’s family and announced that her grandmother had given her a thousand dollars as a holiday present.
In case you missed that, let me say it again, for emphasis. My former mother-in-law gave my 11-year-old daughter A THOUSAND DOLLARS to spend on whatever. Chew on that as you will.
So Franny decided she wanted to buy the latest iPhone, the 5s, and jettison the archaic flip-phone I got her just for calling and texting, because I really don’t want her to have internet access on her phone. She asked me what data plan she had. Of course, I had no idea. So I called AT&T and learned that I would have to add a data plan for her phone, which is under a family plan, which would increase my monthly bill.
I felt my heart race and my eyes almost pop out of my head: the bodily sensations I get when I’m stretched seemingly beyond my limits, which is pretty much all the time these days.
The refrain, “I can’t afford this but I have to pay for it!” jolted around in my head. And as I sat on my bed wheezing and sweating and mentally cursing the “fact” that I had to shell out an extra $50 a month to support Franny’s new phone, I had an epiphany. And this is what the ephiphany said:
I don’t HAVE to pay her phone bill. I can say no. I can put down a boundary.
So I told her I couldn’t afford a data plan for her iPhone, that an iPhone was never part of her phone bargain with me. I told her she would need to ask her dad to pay for it if she wanted to get an iPhone.
Confession: I didn’t say it that calmly. I believe I might have sighed profoundly, perhaps sunk my head into my hands, and mentioned, with a tinge of bitterness, one or two things about the gaping chasm between her dad’s and my financial realities.
I’m not proud of bleeding out in front of Franny. But the financial hemorraging of the last year has taken a toll on me. Part of the reason it’s taken a toll is that I haven’t set proper financial boundaries where my kids are concerned. And part of the reason I haven’t set proper financial boundaries is that I feel ashamed for not being able to keep up with Prince’s deep pockets. The fact that both Prince and Luca berate me for not being able to split things — private school, swanky summer camp — 50/50 hasn’t helped.
But that shouldn’t matter. The only thing that should matter is my financial reality. And until I sweep away my perfectionism and the ludicrous shame of being unable to split costs with a zillionaire, I will keep busting my own boundaries and saying completely inappropriate things in front of my kids.
My own mother struggled to set down boundaries. She was a powerhouse music teacher who kept the family afloat when my dad was out of work for two years. She veered from being uber-high-functioning to a sobbing wreck, holed up in bed with a one-pound bag of Peanut M&Ms and Bonanza blaring in the background. We grew up in a hoity-toity town, and she taught at my hoity-toity school, and it could not have been easy on her when I came home talking about the mansions my peers lived in, and their closets bursting with Fair Isle sweaters and Izod shirts and clogs.
Instead of telling me a new Fair Isle sweater was not in the family budget, she would get it for me, and then take to her bed with M&Ms. This was a very confusing message. She moaned about not having enough money but took me on shopping sprees. She told me how happy she was being my mother but erupted in sobs when I asked her seemingly innocuous questions, like what are we having for dinner? She told me daily how much she loved me, but her love often felt like an albatross.
I get my mother’s histrionics now. I have buckets of empathy for what she must have gone through, and buckets of terror for what I might put Franny through if I don’t woman up and lay down my boundaries.
The best way to keep from turning Franny into a junior therapist is for me to start saying no. No, I’m not paying your phone bill. No, I’m not buying you those brown Doc Martens. No, I’m not treating you to an afterschool Frappuccino.
Changing my mindset about boundaries feels about as effortless as moving tectonic plates. But I figure if I force myself to say no more often, I’ll stop feeling so bad about it, which means I’ll stop resembling a shrill harpy, which means Franny will learn that having boundaries is actually a good thing.
And maybe she’ll grow up feeling entitled to say no.