I Can’t Give My Children Everything My Parents Gave Me

And I spend a lot of time thinking about what they’re missing.
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Today, because my kids’ childhood isn’t as shiny as mine was, it feels like we’re just scraping by. But I know we still have more than most. 

Photo by AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

Earlier this year, my husband and I moved our kids, ages 6 and 9, from private to public school. We were receiving financial assistance and probably could have afforded only one more year. My parents had sent me to private school for 13 years, but it became clear that my husband and I, given our household income, would not be able to do that for our children.

I’m hard on myself for not being able to give my children everything my parents gave me. And I’m not alone. Millennials are the first generation of Americans expected to do worse financially than their parentsAn analysis of Federal Reserve data by the advocacy group  Young Invincibles found that millennials, despite being better educated, earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at the same stage in life, have half the net worth, and experience lower homeownership and higher student debt.

Many Gen Xers, like my husband and I, have found ourselves in this situation, too.

While I wasn’t spoiled as a kid, I didn’t want for much. My friends had bigger houses, nicer cars, and larger wardrobes, but I don’t remember being jealous or feeling deprived. I was grateful for what my family’s middle-class lifestyle afforded me, including amazing trips as part of my father’s job. I was encouraged to attend any college I wanted.

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I don’t know what we’ll be able to contribute to our kids’ college expenses. We certainly don’t have the means to expose them to the kind of travel I did when I was their age. We can’t afford to be a single-income family, so there are also nonmaterial things we can’t do.

I miss most soccer games when I’m at work. Our kids are at school from 7:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. most days because we’re not available to pick them up when school lets out. While I grew up in walking distance from both sets of grandparents—who watched me when my parents couldn’t—my kids are an unaffordable plane ride or a half-day drive from all their relatives.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what they’re missing.

A few months before my husband and I got married, my father asked me how we were going to support a family. He wasn’t trying to make me feel bad; he said he was only asking because he thought he was supposed to.

“It won’t look like how you raised me,” I said. “But we’ll be OK.”

At the time, my husband was starting graduate school, and I was working at a nonprofit in New York City. We could barely afford our apartment, but we were relatively young, and kids were a long way off.

It was earth-shattering to realize my childhood was something even my parents couldn’t actually afford.

Maybe because my dad was just looking to check a box, or maybe because he knew nothing would change my mind about my husband or my career, he let the subject drop.

I have no idea what it cost to give me the upbringing I looked back on so fondly. I didn’t know to what extent I had been on financial aid at my private school. I had no idea what, if anything, my grandparents had contributed to our daily expenses. And I didn’t know that my father had been involved in identity theft, using other people’s credit to augment his college administrator salary and feed his gambling addiction.

Years later, it was earth-shattering to realize my childhood was something even my parents couldn’t actually afford. While my dad’s criminal activities make my experience an extreme example of setting unrealistic expectations, I know from past jobs in the private school financial aid field that many people go into credit card debt and take second or third mortgages to chase lavish lifestyles—debt they hide from their families.

Today, because my kids’ childhood isn’t as shiny as mine was, it feels like we’re just scraping by. But I know we still have more than most. Besides our mortgage, we have no debt. This is mostly an accident of sheer luck and the fact that our parents paid for our undergraduate degrees. In months when both our cars need work and our expenses exceed our income, we can pull from savings we put aside before we had kids. Occasionally my father-in-law helps us out. I’m all too aware that many people don’t have these options, but I still feel like I’m letting my kids down.

I’m comforted by the fact that they might not see it that way.

My older child was 5 when she told me a girl at her private school claimed to be “rich.” I asked my daughter what “rich” meant, and she said that the girl’s family probably had a lot of money. Surprised to be having this conversation with my kindergartner, I encouraged her not to talk about money at school.

“People’s feelings could get hurt,” I said.

“Because people who have all the money will feel bad that other people don’t?” she asked.

Just because my kids’ childhood doesn’t look like mine did, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. 

I was taken aback by her response, grateful she thought such a thing, but sad her worldview was so far from my lived experience. Complicating the whole conversation was the fact that I knew the girl she was talking about—her family was receiving financial aid, just like we were. Was the girl claiming to be rich to make up for what she didn’t have, was she unaware of her family’s circumstances, or did she truly feel rich? So often, our perceptions of our kids’ lives are not the same as theirs.

My family has a smaller house than the one I was raised in, but my husband and I give our kids many things we never got. We take them to rallies, canvass for candidates, and discuss racism, sexism, and oppression. We aren’t perfect parents, but without the option of throwing money at our problems, we’ve had to be creative, and so have our kids.

Last month on Halloween, I realized we hadn’t gotten around to carving our pumpkins or roasting the seeds like my mom did when I was a kid. I was silently berating myself for not making the time for this moment of ready-made nostalgia when my 9-year-old came outside, a marker in her hand.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“We didn’t carve the pumpkins, so I thought I’d draw some faces.”

Of course she did. Because she’s not comparing her childhood to mine, she’s just living her life. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want the Barbie airplane that wouldn’t fit in her room, even if we could afford it. But it does mean we’ve talked to her about the difference between wants and needs, and why we make the decisions we do.

I’m not advocating for ignoring kids’ needs so they figure out how to take care of themselves. I am saying that just because my kids’ childhood doesn’t look like mine did, it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Parents raising families on tighter budgets than they were raised on can choose to reset their expectations and look harder for silver linings. That’s what I’ve had to do.

By rejecting my parents’ measures of success—even if the decision was spurred by necessity—I’m trying to give my kids more reasonable, meaningful goals. As adults, if they chose to parent, they may want to replicate their childhood or forge their own path. I hope they’ll find peace on their journey.

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