No, Mom, I Won’t Ask Dad

Photo credit: Mark Hillary, CC BY 2.0.

Like many a middle-class matriarch, my mom projected a lifestyle where shopping was always quality mother-daughter time. On the way to the store she would wax nostalgic about how she’d once introduced herself to a college roommate. Taking a drag on a long, slender cigarette, she cooed, “my boyfriends don’t like me to smoke,” drawing out the ‘s’ in boyfriends for effect. I wanted to be just like her.

On this particular trip we were on the prowl for beach wear. A shiver went up my spine as I stood in a shimmery swimsuit in the over-air-conditioned dressing room. My mother called over the stall, “let’s see how you look.” She wiggled the door open and peered into the glare of a three-way mirror, fawning over me. I was thrilled. Imagine my surprise when she then casually demanded I pay her back for the very suit she’d picked out for me. I was 10.

I knew the suit had a price tag, that it cost money. I knew because the tag dug into my back in the dressing room. Couldn’t she afford it? I had stolen glances at her checking account balance slips when we’d visited ATMs. Her balance never sunk below $3,000. Seeking her sage advice on how to reimburse the expense, she blew off the seriousness of my question. “Ask your father,” she quipped. It took me longer than it should have to realize that she was actually suggesting I get the money from him, a man whose mantra was, “when there’s money, buy books; when there’s no money left, buy food.” I never paid her back. It was the first and only loan I’ve ever defaulted on.

In my family, money wasn’t discussed until it wasn’t there—and when it wasn’t there, it was my dad who would go in search of it. Now that I’m older, I can trace the lines from one misguided decision to the next, converging in divorce court. When I was 10, all I knew was that my parents were splitting up.

The metallic midnight one-piece sat in a drawer, a secret I kept from my father. One night I overheard that my mother had emptied my college savings. I wondered if she’d racked up a considerable credit card debt, and if I was to blame. How much was the interest on that bathing suit? Some children fault themselves for their parents’ separation. I wondered if I wouldn’t soon be blaming myself for their bankruptcy. My mother had worked, off and on. What was hers was hers. What was my dad’s she’d share with me. I didn’t understand why she also needed my college savings.

Some parents say “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” My dad told me after the divorce was finalized: my college savings had been squandered on a divorce lawyer who had convinced my mother he could net her more of his hard-earned income in the settlement. Instead, the court awarded him primary custody. Mom got a modest alimony.

After a flurry of first dates my mother settled into another relationship, securing herself additional financial support and eventually, a second husband and part-time job. I saw her every other weekend. Pressed to pay part of her own expenses, money was now all too often a topic of conversation. Could we rent two movies for the price of one on Saturdays? Is that on sale? How much did your aunt send you for Christmas? It made me uneasy. Would she demand I pay her back for other purchases, ones that I didn’t remember? She didn’t, but I developed a habit of putting money on the table before her all the same. Money I’d saved by not paying for a school lunch. “When there’s no money left, then you can buy food,” I told myself.  

Meanwhile, my dad descended into financial ruin. As he filed for bankruptcy, a realization struck me cold: those college boyfriends, whose wishes my mother had always pretended to coolly disregard, she had taken full financial advantage of.

I resolved to stop trying to be anything like her. Instead, I became like my father: a workaholic, eager to please. Those tendencies, though harmful in a one-sided relationship, helped me to build a life that I could be proud of. But there was something missing: savings.

Saving wasn’t a skill I inherited from either parent. I felt selfish opening a savings account when both of my parents needed money, but impoverished when I had to pawn a ring to pay for gas. I didn’t want to ask for help, and I didn’t want to appear without. I wish I could outline the process through which I changed my mind, my “eureka” moment when I understood I had to start saving money, but I don’t recall it. I only remember when I decided to start socking $400 a month into an emergency fund. That was 2010. I told my dad, who was proud. I didn’t tell my mother.

Seven years later, my fiancé and I entered into our engagement with healthy savings accounts. Employed full-time in my field for over 10 years, my earning power had increased exponentially, and with it, my savings. Upon learning I was to be married, my mother excitedly reminded me that it’s traditional for the bride’s family to pay for the wedding. I almost fell out of my chair when she followed that with “so you should ask your dad for money.” I explained that we had saved up the funds to pay for everything ourselves, but two weeks before the wedding we received a check in the mail from her. It was written out for roughly the amount she received each month from my father’s pension.

Anonymous and her mother once had matching pleather jackets and have accepted that this might be the only thing that they ever have in common.  

This story is part of The Billfold’s Parents Month series.

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