Candace Ganger
December 16, 2015 10:11 am

From the outside, it may appear as though I have it “all.”  My husband, two small children, and myself, live in a spacious two-story home in a small, quiet town with a good reputation. We drive a nice car that doesn’t break down like our old one used to. Our kids want for very little; we always have food on the table. When I leave the house to go out (super rare), I can pull my look together like a boss, and you might even see me participating in races on the reg. But the truth is, all of this is a complete and total fabrication, or skewed version of my actual reality.

Yep—lies. The truth is, our house is rented (as were the previous 4), we still owe a TON on our [very necessary + only] car, our kids get most of their things from family, and we receive food donations or gift cards from friends or the local outreach association. I have been sponsored or given free entry to races, and I have exactly two “going out” outfits I alternate between (so if I pass on a hang, it’s either my social anxiety or my only pieces of semi-nice wardrobe are dirty).

You might think “they can’t be struggling that much.” And you’d be partly right. We’re a working, middle-class family with a lot more than some. Things we’ve collected over the years or toys given by others. We aren’t starving or homeless. We manage to make ends meet, however hard at times. Things could be a lot worse. But most of my life is spent trying to conceal the fact that we do, in fact, live paycheck to paycheck and we are always one sick day/tragedy/broken car away from losing it all. Thus, I carry a lot of shame and embarrassment—something I remember my single mother feeling when I was the child.

I come from a split household, primarily raised by my mom. She put herself through college late in life and struggled to provide for my younger brother and I once she and my dad divorced. We were often left with babysitters so she could make ends meet and sometimes, no matter how she tried, they just didn’t. We lived in one great neighborhood and one really bad one. There were times she counted change to pay for food, late rent payments, and the same microwavable meals night after night because it was all she could afford. I knew we were struggling even then, so somehow, though I’m not much more well off than she was, I find myself trying to keep up with the lie that I am better off than that. I know my mom felt shame and embarrassment asking for help or hiding the fact that another bill was late. I decided I never wanted anyone to see me feeling the same way, no matter how much I had or didn’t have.

Eventually, when I married and settled down with two young children, my husband and I decided it best for me to stay home with them. I can do my job as a freelance writer/editor from anywhere, however inconsistent or unreliable the money, so it made sense. In turn, he took a job with long hours to ensure the bills get paid, even though it means we don’t see him as much as we’d like. He’s a good, hard-working man whose self-esteem relies heavily on how others perceive him, and now, I totally get it.

As we’re deep in the thick of the holidays, I find myself completely and utterly exhausted. While this time of year should be about togetherness and holiday spirit, I’m stressing about all the gifts to buy or bills already overdue. I normally hide our struggles by either buying whatever I have to and dealing with the mess later, or crafting gifts or coupon books (or whatever is closest to free) and passing it off as thoughtful and creative.

But with children, it’s a lot harder to pretend. They know. By the presents under the tree. By all the things their friends get. By the way their clothes may not fit anymore. They always know. In years past, I’d shirk responsibilities in order to give my kids the Christmas they deserve, even if it meant creating more debt, and more problems. But I knew this couldn’t go on. It was killing my relationship with my husband and more than that, hindering any chance at learning how to actually learn the skills to fix what’s wrong. Like there really is a difference between what they want and what they need. It’s a difficult lesson, but very necessary if we’re to ever come out of it with any sense of freedom and pride.

While it’s embarrassing to admit we don’t have it all, it’s even harder to pretend we do. I want to live an authentic life. One where my children learn all the tools needed to be better than me so when they finally leave the nest, there’s no pretending. We aren’t made of luxury. So what?  My husband and kids are thriving and more than that – loved (and totally awesome, btw). Keeping up with other people’s ideas of our life isn’t a way to live. If anything, it created more stress. I never said I was perfect. I’m flawed and broken and trying to navigate life so that my family gets the best of it, and me. I’m a work in progress. But what I’ve learned is, that’s okay.

[Image via iSTock]

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