Five years ago, my husband and I were just starting out. We lived in a small apartment just outside of Boston. We had good jobs. I worked as a technical writer, and my husband had just started flying with the military. We had no debt, and no children. We were saving aggressively but also enjoying our single life. On our days off, we would ride the subway into the city and eat at the best places in town. Later on in the evening, we’d sit on the couch in our underwear and eat the leftovers. Life was perfect.
Then one morning my cell phone rang. My father had experienced a heart attack. Three days later, he died, leaving my mother with a sizable mortgage, a small pile of debt, and no life or health insurance. She tried selling the house, but she wasn’t able to get an offer for the amount she needed to pay off her mortgage and buy something affordable. Without a job or any real professional skills, she couldn’t earn enough to make a substantial difference in her finances. Suddenly, our roles were reversed. I was now the one who needed to look out for my mother.
Several months later, my husband and I bought her 1,700-square-foot, two-bedroom house. My dad had partially renovated the old 1930s building before he died, but it still needed a lot of work. The roof was leaking, and there were termites eating through the support beams in the basement crawl space. Those repairs had to wait, though, becuase we used most of our savings, along with a home equity loan, to build a detached in-law apartment for my mother. This gave us enough room in the main house so we could start our family. We had two daughters in a row. They now share the large bedroom upstairs.
Then, last month, we brought home a new baby, a boy, and it hit home just what a tight spot we’re all in. With three children ages four, two and four weeks, a ninety-five pound golden retriever, my husband, myself, and my sixty-one-year-old mother, things certainly feel cramped. The new baby is sleeping with us in our bedroom. When he gets older, he’ll move to a fifty-square-foot room that now serves as an office space.
Living with my mother and feeling responsible for her financial future often feels like an overwhelming burden. Instead of saving money for my children’s education, traveling as a family, or even going out to eat, my husband and I spend our money on the hefty mortgage. We’ve talked about selling, but between the weakening economy and our need to house so many people, it’s not a viable option for us. Not only do we fret about our children’s future, but we worry about my mom’s as well. With no retirement funds to live off of, her financial future is in our hands.
Mom contributes what she can. She works a few days a week in a small boutique, and every month she writes me a small check to cover utilities. Sometimes I want to ask her why she’s not working more, but the words never come out. As her daughter, I feel as though she’s earned the right to work less now that she’s raised a family. But as the adult who’s responsible for three young children, as well as for her, I wonder if she should be doing more.
She does help with the kids. There are many mornings that the girls and I walk across the driveway, still in our pajamas, and ask if she wouldn’t mind babysitting for a few hours while I write or clean the house. The girls dance up and down on her front porch, peeking their heads into her doorway. “Please, please,” they chant. “Grammy” truly is their favorite person. She’s always willing, but I feel as though I’m imposing.
Sacrifices make me feel resentful, not only of my mom, but of my father for leaving us in this mess. Although we’ve never been careless with our money, the current economic climate has us stretched beyond our means. Though we get by, we barely have enough to save at the end of the month. As I contemplate Christmas this year, I realize I won’t be able to get everything on my daughters’ ever growing wishlists. Julia, my oldest, has been begging us for dance lessons for the last year. We were finally able to sign her up for a five-week session, but we’re not sure if we’ll be able to let her continue after that. It’s sacrifices like these that make me feel occasionally resentful, not only of my mom, but of my father for leaving us in this mess.
The other morning, Julia was drawing at the dining room table. When she was finished, she called me over to see her creation. “Can you tell who everyone is?” she asked. I identified each member of our family correctly. At first she smiled, but then frowned. “You forgot Grammy!” she exclaimed. She was right. I skipped the petite stick figure with curly hair and round glasses. My omission wasn’t purposeful, but it was telling. There are times I would like to forget the predicament we’re in. I would like to move to another house without my mom and live the life I used to imagine. But I do value what this experience has taught me: to be more responsible than my own parents were.