The Joy and Shame of Christmas

Only my close friends know my background story. They know how my family, through most of my life, hovered around the poverty line, sometimes above, sometimes well below. But this isn’t something I’ve shared with people I’ve met during my adult life. For reasons of my own, I’ve always been a little wary of sharing those details, afraid I or my family would be judged harshly. Afraid of the pity that often comes with sharing details about a situation most can only imagine and are glad they never experienced. I’ve shared my growing up on a need-to-know only basis. And I’m ashamed of doing that. I’m ashamed of hiding my family as if they are a disease. And I’m setting out to end that right now, as scary as it is even now as I literally type these words.

Much of my childhood is stuck in my head in the form of Christmas Days. Christmas always had a special magic to it despite knowing my family’s life was very different from those of my friends. Not my entire life, mind you, but most of it. And it was on Christmas that it was especially obvious.

The youngest of four kids, my mother staying home until I was about ten, and my dad experiencing hardships in his employment, I was always acutely aware that our life wasn’t easy. I didn’t always understand why or what was going on; but, I knew that my parents struggled.

It wasn’t always like that. I remember as a very young child my dad drove trucks for a company called Dowd. I remember him being happier, my mother being happier, us being happier. I remember birthday parties at our house; ordering pizzas for dinner; having friends and family over for get-togethers. I remember riding backwards in the way-back in our station wagon, a special privilege that as the youngest, I almost always won with my pleading. I remember spending a long, probably expensive day at Darien Lake every year, playing numerous games, eating over-priced food, and never caring about a thing.

I also remember my dad being laid off. I remember walking with my mother to pick up our food stamps. I remember my father being miserable at home for months, seemingly forever in my childish mind. I remember my mother crying once to complete strangers about her inability to find work and not knowing what she was going to do. All of these memories are fuzzy. I don’t quite understand the context to many of them. But I remember the emotions. I remember seeing my parents looking helpless, hopeless, broken. I remember feeling alone because no one else’s family seemed to be this way.

I don’t know exactly how long my dad was unemployed, but I know it was long enough to put a dent in our family’s finances. And I know that when he did find another job, it was low-paying and it was with a heavy heart that he accepted it. It was a slightly demeaning job, but he wanted to do what he could for our family. I’ve always marveled at my parents’ determination to do what they needed to do for the sake of us. The personal sacrifices they made to ensure our happiness. They are better people than I am because I don’t know if I would have been able to endure all they did as gracefully as they did.

To add salt to this wound, my grandfather passed away sometime during the time my father started to rebuild our lives. This was oddly a blessing and curse. It became obvious that my parents were struggling to maintain our needs on their own, and my grandmother living alone made no sense. So, all six of us moved in with her. All seven of us then lived in a four bedroom 1200 square foot duplex. My oldest brother had his own room as he was leaving for college within a few months. My other two brothers shared a 10×10 bedroom. My parents shared a 9×9 bedroom, and my grandmother and I shared the other 10×10 bedroom. I was eight. This arrangement remained until I was 13 when two of my three brothers were only home on college breaks.

As awkward and uncomfortable as this was at times, financially it made more sense. We could begin to enjoy life a little bit more. But because my father’s job would never be a lucrative one, we didn’t own a car from the time I was eight or nine. I pretty much grew up never knowing what it was like to be driven to a friend’s house, or the mall, or on a family trip. When we did go somewhere out of walking or public transportation range, we took a cab or rented a car.

In so many parts of this country, owning a car is seen as ridiculous. But in Buffalo, it was practically a necessity. And the lack of a car is seen as one of the most glaring signs of poverty. “Wow, you guys don’t even have a car?” As if you can get one from a gumball machine. So, this was something I tried to hide with all my might. I was the master of excuses and fabrications at a very young age.

And the thing is that not a single one of my friends, my true friends, ever said or implied anything derogatory about my life. It was always me who carried around this self-imposed shame about it. I tortured myself. I was so convinced that if they knew the truth, they wouldn’t want to be my friend anymore. Somehow I’d gotten it in my head from watching tv, watching others be picked on in school, or hearing others revel in their financial comfort, that that was what brought you happiness and acceptance. And so I put myself in this prison of avoidance to make sure no one ever really found out my secrets.

These fabrications were especially creative on Christmas. Of course every child asks their friends what they received and shares the stories of their bounties as well. My friends and I were no different. The only difference is that they were telling the truth while I was only partially doing so.

But here’s where it gets complicated…as if it wasn’t already… The truth of this is that I always loved Christmas. I always looked forward to it. Our family always decorated the hell out of the house. And because of my being the baby of the family or my innate bossiness, I always got to organize the branches of the artificial tree and arrange the nativity scene on the fireplace and snowy village beneath the tree. It seems perhaps silly, but these were important, coveted jobs. And they were always something I took great pride in.

December was never a month of sadness in our house, no matter how bad it got. My brothers and I never doubted waking up on Christmas Day and finding gifts under the tree or having a big breakfast and dinner. This was always a given. I honestly don’t have a single Christmas in my recollection that this wasn’t the truth.

Now as an adult I can only imagine at what personal cost to my parents this must have been. I have no idea what sacrifices they made, what financial miracles they worked. I know it must have been great. I know this must have been damn near impossible for them at many times. But I also know they never let on. They never put that burden on us kids. We never opened our presents with grim reluctance because of knowing the hardships it imposed upon them. We were always happy and appreciative, and my parents always beamed with satisfaction, though maybe weary satisfaction, at providing us one more Christmas.

Just to reinforce, I never felt slighted or unhappy about my gifts. I never wished for more because I knew my parents had gotten us what we wanted and to the best of their being able to do so. It was never until after talking to friends about the enormous amount of things they got that I started to wonder if what I had wasn’t good enough. But this is not the fault of my parents. This fault was within me. My doubts. My overly sensitive, and probably incorrect, assumptions of what it meant to have a merry Christmas. And so I lied to my friends. I claimed to have received extra gifts, gifts no one would ever come to see. But gifts that I knew they would never ask me to bring over. Simple things like: markers and sketch pads, socks and underwear, jewelry that couldn’t be taken out of the house, books. And in everyone’s excitement over their own gifts, they soon forgot what I’d said anyhow. It was just enough for me to have claimed these other gifts’ existence. And then I could go happily back to enjoying the real gifts that short hours before had produced so much joy for me.

Flash forward to my adulthood. Having grown up poor–yes, poor, not middle class–I swore I’d never find myself in that predicament in my adult life. I went to college to become a teacher, not only because it was a dream of mine, but because (at the time) I knew it would be safe, steady income. And I did find adequate employment in this field for a few years. But then the hubs and I decided to have a baby. And perhaps in some people’s eyes I was too young. I was just under 24 when we made the decision, and just after turning 24 that I got pregnant with Lily. Josh and I both worked full-time throughout my pregnancy, saving money as we could. And because it made the most sense at the time, I quit my job when I had her, went to grad school, stayed home with her, and lived off of Josh’s income and my student loans. We weren’t rich by any means, but we weren’t wanting for anything either.

But the job market took a shit and it was nearly impossible for a teacher with so few years experience to find a good job when so many other formerly tenured teachers had been laid off. I worked long-term subbing positions, a short stint in Buffalo Public, and just kept living off grad school loans. It was fine.

But by the time Lily was three, and I wanted to have another baby, the job market was no better, and Josh was now working part-time while pursuing his degree. Things were getting dicey, but we didn’t expect it to get much worse than it had ever been. So I got pregnant a second time while per diem subbing to make up what was lost by Josh student teaching. We scrimped and saved and made it through to Ollie’s birth ok. This was partly in thanks to both of our family’s encouraging us to apply for WIC, which we did and received.

Shortly after his birth, however, it became clear that nothing was getting better anytime soon, and that we had to do something. Something I’d fought so long and hard to avoid. We applied for social services. In addition to the medicaid we were receiving we also received over $400 in food stamps per month. It was like Christmas receiving that money, but also one of the most heart-sinking feelings for me as well.

I’d go shopping at Tops through the self-checkout so that no one would see me using my benefits card. Or we’d shop at Wegmans in Cheektowaga where we were sure to not know anyone.  Josh honestly couldn’t have cared less, but it was at my insisting that we do this. I just couldn’t bear anyone knowing we’d fallen so low. That we couldn’t take care of ourselves and children. That we were perpetuating the cycle. It just hurt me, hurt my ego really, too much. And it’s not something I share with pretty much anyone. It’s a part of my past I gloss over. It’s just not mentioned.

Thankfully this assistance was only from about May 2011 to September 2011 when I received my first paycheck from the school I teach at now.

But that’s all it took to bring me back to the times in my childhood that I knew were really hard. Thankfully my kids were far too young to remember any of this, and I swore when we canceled our benefits that they never would. They would never want for anything, nor would they ever wonder if we were poor.

And so far I’ve been able to keep this up. Whenever they need something, they get it. If they want to participate in an extracurricular activity, no problem. Family trips happen every year. And if birthdays seem excessive, you should see Christmas. We overdo it every year.

And I mean overdo it. To the point where I’m not sure they’ve even played with or used everything we’ve bought them over the years. And while they are largely well-behaved children who appreciate much of what they have, I’m starting to think because they have so much, they’re losing the appreciation I think they should have. I think they should be grateful and happy to care for everything as if it’s all they have. They should be grateful to even have these things when so many go without.

But how can they possibly know this? We do our best to educate them on people who are less fortunate, including my and Josh’s own experiences as children. But they have absolutely no firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to truly want something they can’t have. They have no knowledge of what it’s like to covet something so badly that you take care of it like it’s worth millions of dollars. They have no idea what it means to be poor. And wasn’t this my intention? Wasn’t this my goal?

I in no way want to subject my kids to these feelings. But at the same time am seriously questioning our practice of buying and buying and buying for Christmas. What is it serving them? Are we doing the right thing? When is it too much? What is this going to mean for their futures?

I have no answers to these questions. All I know is I continue to do my best. I try to do my best to make sure my kids never know the difficulties of being poor. And I do my best to help them to understand it anyhow. Maybe they will never be able to truly empathize with others who are less fortunate; but, if I do things right, I hope they’ll at least know how fortunate they really are and will be able to help others when they can.

Because if they someday unfortunately find themselves in a situation like my own, I hope they will understand that their memories and the love they have is worth more than the weight of all their material possessions in gold. It took me way too long to truly embrace that, and I’d hate to impose that upon my kids.

Christmas should be a time of joy, of togetherness despite anything else in one’s life. Despite hardships, illness, fear. There should be no shame in poverty.There should be no shame in being different. And Christmas is the time, to me at least, that I can instill this is my children. I look at their smiling faces, their genuine surprise and thrill, and I can’t help but feel like it’s all worth it. I have my doubts up until that moment when they just can’t contain themselves for their elation. I imagine this is likely what my parents felt too. That their hard work and hoping paid off. And it’s at this time that I most hope I’m doing it right. And I hope I’m making my parents and my past proud.