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What Being A Paycheck-To-Paycheck Mom Is Really Like

I take my anger out on my kids. How dare they ask for ice cream sandwiches?

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illustration of mom in grocery store with kids pulling at her
María Hergueta
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I desperately want to be the quintessential Sunday-afternoon, suburban-mom grocery shopper who stocks up on everything from the softest, two-ply toilet paper to the individually wrapped (for lunchbox-packing convenience) goldfish. You know, the moms who walk around the grocery store with their freshly waxed eyebrows and beautifully manicured nails, wearing their Hunter rain boots and carrying their Scout bags? I want to be them. They have things that I don’t, like savings accounts, credit cards and husbands. They shop without guilt and fear, and they look good while doing it. Me? I shop in fear of not having enough money, my goodwill boots and the bitterness that accompanies the experience that is grocery shopping as a paycheck-to-paycheck mom.

When I go shopping, I almost always have my three kids in tow, and they sneak things in the cart and ask for things like candy and ice cream that I simply can’t afford. What ensues is a mental tug-of-war that is oftentimes more painful than one might imagine.

“Can we please get ice cream sandwiches, Mom? It has been so long since we had them.”

I want to say yes. I think ice cream sandwiches are great and a nice treat for my wonderful kids. But I can’t say yes until I calculate the price of everything that already sits in the cart and compare it to the amount of money in my Bluebird Amex fake-ass checking account (because I can’t get credit approval for a real bank account).

“No!” I snap loudly. “I don’t have the money for that. Put them back right now!” I snatch them out of my son’s hands and throw them next to the meatballs in the freezer as I hurry away from the frozen, expensive temptations.

Without even knowing it, I take my anger out on my kids as if, how dare they ask for ice cream sandwiches?

I immediately regret my tone. As I walk down the remainder of the frozen food aisle, I beat myself up: It’s not their fault you don’t have money. Why did you just snap like that? It’s not fair to them. They don’t need to know why you are saying no. Next time just say, Not today, sweetie.

“Mom, I love these protein bars!”

“Yeah, well I don’t have $8 to spend on four bars, Molly.”

Damn. I snapped again. The guilt grows. What is wrong with me?

“I didn’t even ask you to buy them, I was just saying I like them.”

She offers me this explanation because she knows she caused me stress. Because she knows there isn’t enough money, and she feels bad.

I want to say I’m sorry and explain to my kids that everything in me wants to say yes to every single request — and carelessly throw all the items in my basket. Just once, I want to go shopping and say yes, yes, yes! But this isn’t my reality, and each week I struggle to find the patience and acceptance to make shopping a pleasant experience. I wish I could explain it to them better, but I can’t. This financial struggle is mine, not theirs. It is all part of my journey, as if it has been handpicked to teach me the lessons I need to learn most in life: patience, gratitude, self-control, acceptance and humility.

When we return home and the bags are unpacked, my mind stops racing and obsessing over money as I cook up a mean meal of Ramen noodles and garlic bread. We enlist the help of “Hey Google” to play our favorite tunes, and in that kitchen, as the water boils and the stove preheats, we dance. We laugh. We act silly. My sweet Nora tickles her brother, who exclaims that he is going to wet his pants. Molly sings so loudly that I am certain the neighbors can hear her. In this moment, after all the noes and the mom-guilt, the money issue is completely gone.

Suddenly, no one really cares about the ice cream sandwiches or the damn protein bars, because we have each other and a home and a “Hey Google.” Sure, I hope to get the Hunter rain boots one day, but for now I remain grateful for the universe’s handpicked lessons. I promise myself I will keep learning.

One of the greatest lessons is to remain humble and grateful, and in that grocery store I almost always lack both. But in that kitchen, as we dance and laugh, I wonder what I did to deserve such an amazing life. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. When I have learned the lessons the universe it teaching me, I will bring that gratitude and humility with me to Stop & Shop. I am just not there yet, and that is OK.

I am pretty sure, however, that there are plenty of people in the world who are wishing for enough money to buy a “Hey Google” for their kitchens. And so just for today, I am grateful for our “Hey Google.”