by Katy Read
The words surprised even me, tumbling from my mouth before my brain had a chance to process them.
“If you quit asking me for money for clothes for the whole school year then I’ll, um … okay, next summer I’ll take you to the European city of your choice, for a week.”
“Are you serious?” my son said.
On that night last fall, my son wanted a new shirt. I wanted peace. Both of my sons, at seventeen and eighteen, have higher sartorial standards than my budget allows—just one of many catalysts for the wearying intergenerational conflict familiar to parents of teenagers. No doubt I could have gotten him to drop the subject for the moment. But drop it for a whole school year? In eighteen years of parenthood, I had not found a way to achieve that. Clearly, it would take a bribe. A big bribe. A bribe so huge it would cost about twenty times more than the price of a few wardrobe updates.
“Let me think about it,” I backpedaled.
I thought about it, discussed it with others. Family and friends encouraged me, in the way of loved ones who like to imagine you having a delightful time overseas. My ex-husband had a different reaction, in the way of an ex who likes to imagine you paying your share of the college bills.
“Oh. My. God,” he said.
Let me be more explicit about my financial situation, indelicate a task though that is, because this is the sort of story that certain internet types tend to dismiss as just another privileged person whining about her overblown problems. Fair enough, if your definition of privileged encompasses the middle class, including those of us who have slid down the ladder in recent years but are still clinging to a rung.
Yes, I know there are more harrowing recession narratives out there than “I stressed over whether to take the kids to Europe.” But this isn’t a tale of woe, really. It’s a tale of recklessness, a tale of casting aside common sense, a tale of shelling out money to buy something intangible and possibly foolish, and hoping desperately that it was not.
For most of my life, I have occupied the reasonably comfy middle of the middle class. I have acquired—through a combination of effort, luck and, okay, privilege, not necessarily in that order—typical middle-class advantages and buffers: a college degree, job skills, a resume, some savings. These can be parlayed, at least theoretically, into moneymaking opportunities not available to those who lack them. I live in the city, in a neighborhood of tidy little houses and gardens, trendy cafes, lush parks that I go out of my way to drive past when commuting to work to remind myself how good I have it. By national standards, I’m doing okay, at least for now. By global standards, I’m positively swimming in luxury. The fact that I can physically scrape together the means to pay for a trip to Europe—while others lose homes or shoulder crushing medical bills or line up at dawn to collect their family’s daily bucket of fresh water—unquestionably proves me fortunate.
It’s just that I’m not quite fortunate enough to afford a trip to Europe.
The past few years have left me, along with many of my middle-class cohort, financially bruised. My ex-husband and I split up just as the recession hit. For the previous twelve years, I’d been a freelance writer and at-home mother, developing my writing career in exciting ways but never earning close to enough to live on. I had some savings, mostly invested in mutual funds and whatnot, which collapsed by about a third in the fall of 2008. Meanwhile, my former employer, the newspaper industry, was not only not hiring; it was shedding jobs as fast as it could.
I desperately needed a steady paycheck. And it appeared to be the worst possible time to look for one.
I sold pieces of writing here and there, mostly for sums that wouldn’t have impressed a freelancer time-traveling from the 1970s. I slung sweaters at Macy’s for a dollar above minimum wage. For a few dollars more, I worked shifts monitoring online newspaper comments and deleting the vilest ones. My combined paychecks approximately covered our grocery bill. Child support and a little spousal maintenance covered the mortgage and utilities. For everything else, I liquidated investments at recessionary lows. I was so scared to even look at my bills they sometimes piled up unopened—never a smart strategy for establishing financial health.
Finally, after three years of job-hunting, I got hired as a staff writer for my local newspaper. It’s a fun, creative job and I’m thrilled to have it, but my financial problems aren’t over. The job is part-time. Nearly half my income comes from child-support payments, which will be going away before long. My retirement savings are a fraction of what financial experts say you need —and that sum is more than twice what I will gross, at my current salary, over the next two decades. Retirement is a dot on the horizon, a distant posse in an old-fashioned Western, inexorably crossing Monument Valley as a silent cloud of dust kicked up by thundering hooves.
This was hardly the time to be jetting off around the globe.
Unless … unless it was exactly the time.
My older son would be leaving in the fall for a college across the country. The younger would be a senior in high school. They would soon move past the stage of their lives—so endless while it’s happening, so telescoped in retrospect—when taking a big trip with one’s mom is a culturally approved option. They were almost grown men, and the image of a grown man traveling with his mother is considered so ridiculous that Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand mined it for laughs in The Guilt Trip. Since long before Kerouac, young adults have hit the road with their peers. A young person’s travel is a proclamation of maturity and independence, an act of mastering the challenges of adulthood, a quest with solidly mythological underpinnings—concepts squarely at odds, in other words, with our cultural views about attachments to one’s mommy.
Said mommy, of course, holds a different perspective. Listen, I believe teenagers are programmed by evolution to drive their parents crazy—if they didn’t, we’d never let them leave, and the human race would die out. My kids are admirably fit, in that Darwinian sense. But lately, the surges of annoyance had been accompanied by twinges of foreshadowed loss. Already, I was too aware of the sound my footsteps made in an empty house.
So as I mulled over Europe, certain stock phrases kept floating through my head. This would be the Trip of a Lifetime. It’s good to Live in the Moment. I won’t regret it On My Deathbed. Besides, Anything Could Happen: I might get hit by a bus or win the lottery (note to self: buy a ticket). And especially, What Is Money For?
Financial advisors would call these terrible arguments. I’ve written some personal-finance articles, so I’ve interviewed a bunch of them over the years. One time I made a bad joke about how I’d be living in my car someday. Politely but firmly, the financial advisor told me that’s the way people talk when they haven’t faced facts.
What is money for? Why, it’s for security, these smart experts would counsel. It’s to save for a rainy day, to replace a blown hot-water heater, to ensure a comfortable old age.
But what about the age I was right now? What about the ages that my sons were about to leave behind?
It’s on, I told my son. We’re going. And I offered the same deal to his brother.
I rented an apartment at a great price from generous friends-of-friends in Paris who were serendipitously leaving town for a week. First, we spent three days in Barcelona, thanks to a travel agent who explained that buying three nights in a hotel somewhere in Europe would cut the cost of our plane tickets, oddly, by more than the hotel would cost (if you glean nothing else from this essay, remember: always check hotel-airfare packages).
Barcelona was sunny and warm and relaxing. My older son practiced his impressive Spanish. My younger son rode his skateboard and took hundreds of pictures. In the afternoons, I left the boys to mingle with other teenagers on the beach while I wandered further down the sidewalk, past the huge glittering Frank Gehry fish, to a seaside café with wireless. I spent the afternoon of the solstice sitting beside the Mediterranean, reading and eating tapas (and posting on Facebook that I was spending the solstice on the Mediterranean, reading and eating tapas). In the evenings, the three of us ventured out for sightseeing and gazpacho, pan tumaca, paella, more tapas.
In a poetic way, I felt we were traveling back in time. When my sons were little and we spent most days together, I took them around to beaches and playgrounds and sliding hills and apple orchards. When they entered their teens and started hanging out with friends, those outings receded into the past. The boys hardly remember them now, and to them it’s almost as if they’d never happened. But I remember them. And now we were enacting a brief, improbable echo of those long-ago adventures, with tapas filling in for Happy Meals.
Paris was cooler, cloudier, more contentious. It was June, but the air felt, at times, almost autumnal. I broke out my creaky high-school French. We saw Notre Dame, Château de Vincennes, the Louvre, Versailles. We browsed in a fashionable clothing store my older son somehow knew about. My younger son took hundreds more pictures. We climbed l’Arc de Triomphe’s 284 steps. We ate escargots and cassoulet and pate and lamb confit and pastries. We sat up late around the kitchen table, discussing sights we’d seen and people we’d met, good-naturedly debating politics or culture, showing each other YouTube videos we liked.
We fought twice. The first time was mild. My older son complained of boredom after a couple of hours of aimless strolling around Île de la Cité. After seeing my feelings were hurt, he apologized. From that point on, both boys showed apparently genuine interest in every painting and statue and gargoyle.
The second fight was bitter. The boys were roughhousing in the garden at Versailles and I got angry. I was spending thousands of dollars on this trip, I scolded, and the least they could do was knock it off when I say so. The fight escalated through the evening until my older son swore not to speak to me for the remainder of the trip. Fine, I told him, I would leave his pre-purchased Louvre ticket on the table and he could do whatever the hell he wanted. He announced he would not be going to college after all because he could not stand to live his entire life with his mother constantly reminding him how much he owes her.
The next morning, as the boys slept in and I drank my coffee, I saw that he had a point.
My anger over the misbehavior was reasonable. But it stemmed, I realized, less from the money I was spending than from the emotions I had invested. I feared any conflict could mar our Trip of a Lifetime. Now here we were, in danger of ruining the whole thing.
So when he got up, I pretended the fight had never happened. My son followed suit. From then on, all was friendly and peaceful, or close enough. The fight didn’t wreck the experience but became just another piece of it—another echo of what, frankly, things were often like when they were little and our days were punctuated with slammed doors and “you’re the worst mom in the world”s, eventually followed, usually, by an olive branch from one side or the other: “Clean slate?”
A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay complaining about having had to sacrifice financial security in order to stay home with my sons. I criticized American cultural and workplace structures that tempt parents to reduce paid work to raise their children, but deny them a financial safety net, and even resist letting them back in the workforce afterward (a major contributor to poverty among older women). Some commenters and bloggers missed my point, thinking I regretted having spent the time with my sons (“Let’s hope they never read this and find out how much she hates them,” one hissed). And more recently, other writers have begun publishing high-profile pieces expressing regrets at having opted out.
The fact is, I don’t regret those at-home years. Especially not now, as my sons prepare to leave home. My neighborhood attracts a lot of young families, with its elementary and middle school, playground, and starter-size houses. When I’m out for a walk and pass little kids with their parents, I sometimes feel a stab of nostalgia. Then I remind myself that, though those years are behind me, I made the most of them while they were happening. However financially risky, that time was priceless.
Oh, I’d be much more financially comfortable if I had kept my full-time newspaper job all these years (although that’s far from certain, given how many reporters I know who’ve lost theirs, including half the staff at the last place I worked). The idea of living in my car someday would just be a bad joke for a financial planner, not a sort of real, if remote—knock on my particleboard desk—possibility.
In my mind, I liken being a part-time stay-at-home mother to taking a long vacation I couldn’t really afford. Not the relaxing kind, with umbrella drinks by the pool—more like an arduous trek through the jungle. But still, an expensive luxury.
Now here I was on a literal vacation, taking another ridiculous financial risk, for much the same reasons.
The analogy isn’t perfect. I’m not blaming cultural pressures for my taking the trip, nor asking society to make it more affordable. (Come to think of it, though, that would be awesome; I’ve saved receipts!) The connection is that I did both things—two costly, possibly foolish things—ostensibly for the boys’ sake but really more for my own.
Kids, as a group, are resilient and resourceful. I imagine my sons would have been fine in daycare. And someday, they’ll probably manage to get to Europe on their own, if not too burdened with college debt.
But just as I wanted time with them when they were little, I wanted this last adventure, this last opportunity to just hang out, in a relaxed way, and do fun stuff together. What, in the end, is money for? In this case, it was for enriching my own personal Trip of a Lifetime. Not the eleven-day one to Europe, but the big one, the trip that takes you through childhood traumas and dumb mistakes and jobs that suck and ill-starred romances and unforeseeable crises … and, when all goes well and you grab the opportunities as they come, some excellent experiences and wonderful memories.
On the plane home, we sat apart: the boys side by side, me a couple of rows behind them. I was absorbed in Life of Pi when my older son stood and twisted in his seat to get my attention. Look out your window, he gestured.
I opened the shade and almost gasped. Below the plane, the world was all white. It wasn’t clouds. It was snow. Stretching to the horizon, for dozens if not hundreds of miles, nothing but blowing, vacant snow.
I put the movie on pause, unable to pull my gaze from the view. I squinted against the sunlight angling off that stark but dazzling land, a part of the world that I had never expected to see.
KATY READ (at Twitter here) has published essays and articles in Salon, Brain Child, Brevity, River Teeth, More, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly and other places. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including the Chautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons. She won a 2013 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and is working on a collection of essays about the culture of motherhood.