Daily Archives: February 11, 2010

Walking The Fine Line Between Need And Want

I had a “Hey! That reminds me…” moment today. WackyMummy shared an experience with her child that got me thinking about my own up-bringing….

I remember a time when all four of us slept in the same room. All girls, ages 4, 2 and 1-year-old twins. My parents slept in the living room on a pull-out couch. Then we moved to a big house. It had 3 bedrooms. My sister and I shared one. The twins shared the other. And my parents slept on the same pull-out couch in the den. They couldn’t afford a nice bed. My mother made most of our clothes. We only received gifts (and not many) on Christmas and birthdays. Our meals rotated between pork and beans, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and spanish rice with a little ground beef thrown in. I remember I loved going to my grandparents houses where there were salads and fresh fruit, juice and soda.

My parents were struggling financially. They were young and Dad was trying to make a name for himself at his company. My mother desperately wanted to be a nurse so she was going back to school. With one income, four kids and college tuition, it was a stretch for them.

But I didn’t feel poor. We lived in a Detroit suburb. A blue-collar neighborhood. Everyone else was in the same boat. Television commercials were mostly about laundry detergent and breakfast cereals. The fancy cars lived in the fancy neighborhoods. Only the rich and famous could afford designer clothes. Designer anything didn’t exist for the common folk.

Then my dad received a huge promotion. My parents moved us to a very wealthy area. They bought the biggest house they could afford in one of the nicest areas and best public school districts in the state. Suddenly, we were all too aware what kind of cars our neighbors were driving. And our neighbors didn’t work on assembly lines – they owned the assembly lines. Or they were doctors and lawyers. And the kids in the neighborhood were expected to achieve. Ninety-two percent of my graduating class went on to college. In my old district, less than 10%. We were in the big leagues now.

Our lifestyle had changed and so had the times.

My defining moment was when I was in the 7th grade. My sister and I each wanted a Sir Jac jacket. You remember (that is, if you’ve over 35 you might)….they came in all colors with the red plaid lining? Angela, the coolest girl in the 8th grade, had the pale yellow one. She was at my bus stop and she barely knew I existed, even though we were the only two at the stop. I wanted a jacket just like hers.

We begged my dad and he found a store that carried them.  Even though it wasn’t Christmas or our birthdays he said we could each have one. We walked into a discount store, Meijers. But we didn’t care. We were getting our jackets! New clothes. Not hand-made or hand-me-downs. Not anymore. They weren’t “Sir Jac” but they looked just like them. I took the classic khaki and my sister wanted powder blue. We were thrilled. We tried them on right there in the store. Suddenly we heard giggling. We turned to see who was there. No one. We told our dad how much we loved them. We heard noises again. This time they were high-pitched voices ooohhh-ing and ahhh-ing over the jackets. And then we saw them. Two boys, from my sister’s 5th grade class.

My faced turned beet red. My sister was angry. My dad? The look in his eyes. It was the first time I have ever seen shame in my father’s eyes. He looked quickly down and asked if we wanted to leave.

 “No,” my sister said defiantly, “We love these jackets. Can we still have them?”

My dad smiled and walked proudly to the front of the store. Those horrible boys followed us, chanting about the poor kids buying poor imitations. I’m ashamed to say I would have loved to dump the coats right there and never come back.

But we weren’t poor kids. We lived in a huge house with five bedrooms and four bathrooms. My parents had nice cars. We ate out at restaurants a few nights a week. We bought our clothes at Jacobson’s and Pappagallo. We had a “kid’s phone line” in our home. We belonged to a swim and tennis club. Why were they calling us poor?

Because the boys ridiculing us in front of our father lived in even bigger houses with elevators and a cleaning woman. Their moms weren’t nurses who worked 12 hour shifts to be able to afford nice clothes. Their moms played tennis and bridge. Had their nails done. The ladies who lunched. They took trips out of the country for holidays. They were given a car at age 16.

I went to school that Monday and, even though my sister was in grade school, word had traveled to the middle school that I was wearing an imposter. I’d forgotten that one of the boys teasing us at Meijer had a big brother in my grade. I was teased and ridiculed. I hid the jacket in my locker and wadded it up in a ball for the bus ride home.

Suddenly, I was thrust into the world of want. Wanting the best. Needing designer clothes. Knowing the brand names. The cost. I learned the rules of never buying on sale, only shopping certain stores and that no one who is anyone buys imitation.

The times had changed on television, too. Commercials pushed more than soap and soup. And television shows were getting into the act. They pushed a lifestyle to maintain. Clothes, hairstyles, vacations, jewelry. The difference was clear between the haves and the have-nots. And I wanted to be a have.

We strive as parents to provide our children with the best. My parents wanted the best for us. They wanted us to live comfortably. Enjoy new things. Receive a good education. It’s the same I want for my children. But at what cost? How do you balance having with appreciating? Satisfaction with envy?

It’s difficult when we live in a culture that looks to their neighbor to see how they live. When television and print ads bombard us with what we need. How do we teach our children, despite all the distractions, that what we need is safety, comfort, integrity, love and support? We need to pursue professions we love, in spite of the salary. We need to surround ourselves with people who love us and accept us for who we are, not what we wear.

After all, designer labels and trends change with each decade. The need for each of us to be valued and loved for who we are remains constant.


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