One of my favorite Sufi tales goes something like this: there's a man and his beard. It is a long beard, and he's very vain about it. Someone tells the man that he's so vain that even when he prays to Allah, he's thinking about and combing his beard. The man is horrified when he hears this and promptly begins to tear out his beard in order to remove the source of his vanity. He is then told that even as he was tearing out his beard, all he could think about was his beard. Every now and again I find myself saying, “Stop pulling out the beard. You're still obsessing over the beard.”
For me, the beard is usually money.
It's 2015 and I'm still paying off my son's kindergarten private school tuition. He starts second grade next week. Like most people, I can look back on a childhood tragedy to understand why even at 30 — that magical age when you’re supposed to have your stuff together and never get low-balance alerts from Chase — my relationship with money is still so incredibly flawed.
The story goes something like this: my adoptive mother dies of cancer when I'm 15. After some bouncing around from Boston to North Carolina, I settle in Cleveland, where my mother grew up. In 10 months I went from attending a good public high school in Somerville to studying at an amazing private school down South (Carolina Friends School) to getting into a well-known magnet school, Cleveland School of the Arts, in one of the worst school districts in the country. In my memory, the halls were dark, the ceilings in the classrooms were falling apart and, as if I had moved to a foreign country, I couldn’t understand a word anyone said to me for the first couple of weeks. I’d always been accused of sounding like a white girl, but in a school where even the white girls sounded more like the black girls than I did, I really stood out, so I tried to lay low. That wasn’t the hard part, though.
The hard part was going from being the daughter of a professor who never, ever talked about money with me around to living with a loving uncle who’d cuss me out if I turned up the thermostat, then with two aunts who also adored me but never allowed me to throw out food. To this day, I struggle with dumping my kids’ remaining tilapia in the trash because Aunt Grace will kill me.
I graduated from high school while living on Kinsman and 116th. It wasn’t a pretty place, but I never felt unsafe, and every time I hear Jeezy’s “My Hood,” I feel like I can relate just a little. Two months after I turned 18, I got my first apartment of my own, which felt like a great achievement—this beautiful one-bedroom right on Shaker Square, but just within the boundaries of the city so that I'd still pay Cleveland rent. The few friends I had were envious; they championed my bold decision. I thought it signified my grown-ass woman status (which I sought desperately), but really, it was the first major financial mistake I would make as an adult. I couldn't really afford my apartment, but I insisted my emotional well-being depended on it. Like most 18-year-olds, I was dramatic and stubborn (“I will die if I have to keep living with my aunts”), and what’s worse, I didn't have anyone to stop me.
It’s easy to make decisions like that when retail therapy is completely acceptable, even common, as a healing process. It's the American way, with everyone and everything reminding you how good it feels to buy things. This mentality is especially affirmed in the rap music I love, where excessive retail therapy is often celebrated. It’s only “fair”— people who grew up hungry or riding up pissy elevators in the projects have earned the right to ball. At least that’s what we’re told, and sure, after my own trauma, I could justify spending on myself, too. Kanye West might have been the first to critique this mentality: “single black female/addicted to retail and well / it all falls down.” And was I ever "addicted to retail," to ridiculous extravagance — Versace shades and Juicy jeans while I was still in school, and working at Express part-time? Sure, totally logical — but being broke with expensive taste, to quote Azealia Banks, didn't start to really cost me until I got pregnant in college.
Here's the thing about starting your whole baby-making adventure when you're still finishing up undergrad: it's a bad idea, even if it results in some good-looking children with whom you can now read Dr. Seuss and sing Fetty Wap songs. And it has a uniquely complicated effect on you if, say, you're a single black woman who doesn't believe in being a cliché or a statistic. I studied literary and cultural theory at Sarah Lawrence — there’s nothing like a little Nietzsche “Beyond Good and Evil” to make you terrified of being a commoner.
In many ways, my first two children were a direct response to the loss of my mother — I was determined to re-create that mother-daughter bond. It doesn’t work, by the way — especially if the universe decides to grant you three sons instead. But the one thing I knew I could do just like my mom, I told myself, was put education first for my children.
But this is where things can get tricky—what exactly does that mean? Does that mean making the home environment an educational environment? Does it mean being involved in the school and communicating with teachers on a daily basis? Joining those stay-at-home moms who have too much time on their hands, coming up with elaborate, incredible ways to raise money? (Spoiler alert—I totally did this.) Does it mean buying all things Little Einstein and LeapFrog? I decided it definitely meant enrolling your children in the best school around, no matter the cost.
Friends and family members — especially on my sons' father's side — guffawed at the tuition costs when I first enrolled my 4-year-old in a Montessori school for three days a week, three-and-a-half hours per day (they called that a half-day). As much as I speak out against it now, my own warped sense of respectability politics allowed me to defend my choice. I even congratulated myself on my selflessness (oh, the irony). After all, the people who criticized me the most were the same people who bought my son Jordans when he was 3 months old — they weren’t professors like my mom who, I’d convinced myself, would be totally proud of me. The mistakes some of them made — having children before graduating from high school, spending ridiculous amounts of money to look good to the outside world — I hadn't make those mistakes. Sure, I’d had a child kind of young, but at least I was at a good school when I got knocked up. All of this respectability allowed me to focus — not on my finances, but on cultivating and performing the image of the well-educated black woman, sacrificing all so that her children could be well-educated, too.
And just like everyone out there performing an identity, there was a strangeness to my life. At one point, I was paying my son’s tuition with as much regularity as I could manage and trying to pay back my own student loans while also applying for food stamp benefits. Clearly, at some point, I'd messed up. And knowing that I'd so clearly messed up meant that I let things go pretty far before I finally applied for assistance. I’d eaten ramen for two weeks straight and was breast-feeding, and finally thought it might be better to swallow that pride, face my reality and ask for help.
I felt like a failure, but that was almost entirely because of my warped perception of people on food stamps. Food stamps, I thought, were for people who were elderly, disabled or grew up in the projects. I’d only spent a couple of years on Kinsman and 116th. It wasn’t that I thought I was better; I knew I had been given better. Someone who’d been out of the country multiple times before she was 12 had clearly squandered all opportunity if she was 24 and on public assistance. I was supposed to be in a better position in life because of my privileged upbringing, even if some of that privilege fell away with my mother’s passing. I was not supposed to be heading to the Department of Social Services, a place that disgusted me because I had very early memories of visiting the Boston office with my birth mother. DSS was not a place I ever wanted to return to. But two weeks of ramen leaves a funny taste in your mouth, so I put that all aside. I needed actual food in the house. It was the right choice.
Another smart choice would have been enrolling my child in a more affordable preschool, but that choice was not so simple for me. Like many suffering from chronic broke-with-expensive-taste disease, I still desperately needed to look like I was doing well. For some, that means dressing a certain way, buying a the right car, or living in one neighborhood over another. For me, it meant enrolling my son in a private school and proudly dropping him off with all the white moms, and the one Latina mother. See? I wasn't like other single black moms, I told myself. I might have been broke, but my baby went to Montessori.
This madness went on for three years. Sometimes I received food stamps, other times I made enough in the uncertain market of freelance writing (and saved enough when I lived with my sons’ father) to get by without them. And while there were people who tried to talk sense into me (people I waved away with all my liberal arts knowledge; with all that différence and all those signifying monkeys), I also got a lot of support from people who didn't know how much I kept pulling at my own beard, obsessing over the money I kept pretending wasn’t a big deal at all.
Some praised me for making sacrifices so that my children got the best education at the point when it’s most crucial. Even if the decisions were financially stupid, they looked smart from the outside, partly because we are constantly told how imperative it is that our children get The Best: The Best education. The Best organic snacks. The Best toys that are also educational and will make your babies smarter than the other babies. So yes, I bought the damn Your Baby Can Read set, and enrolled my kids in Montessori, and I'm still paying for it.
Like most parents who invest in their children's education, I have few regrets. The schools were everything I hoped for, and as my two oldest boys start (public) school this fall, I'm grateful for the unique preparation they both received. Any school centered on the idea that a child is capable of developing his or her own curriculum based on his or her interests is always going to be my favorite kind of school—The Best kind of school, if you ask me.
But one thing I’m only just now beginning to accept is that my children would have been fine without The Best. I should have considered the theory of the Good Enough Mother, which my philosophy teacher imparted to me when I told her that, although I was pregnant for the second time in three years, I was still going to be The Best student, The Best mother to my 15-month-old, and The Best pregnant woman. There was absolutely no reason to strive for all of that, she told me. Being Good Enough would suffice for the kids, and for me. And although now, after seven years of mothering, I have more experience performing The Best mother than practice being a Good Enough mother, I know that she was right—and that Good Enough is also always better for the budget.
The metaphorical beards we worry over are so often unnecessary. Without considering the fact that my mother worked hard for that lifestyle she gave us—first for her Ph.D., then with an adoption agency to find me when she was in her 40s—I assumed I could give my children the same with far less education, far less earned wisdom and without the added bonus of skipping over the infant stages and starting off with a 7-year-old, as she did. I wanted a professor’s life on a freelance writer's budget—and never thought about why my mother didn't enroll me in private schools when I was a child. The hilarious fact is that she probably couldn't have afforded it. So instead of giving me The Best (and tearing out her own beard in the process), she gave me Good Enough. And that’s exactly what it was.