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Rich Mom, Poor Mom

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Dear Marjo,

When my husband and I got married, we made a “life plan.” We call it “People, Places, and Things,” and that’s exactly what it is: the people we want to be, places we want to live and travel, and things we want to do. Kind of a marriage bucket list.

One of the “people” on that list is me being a stay-at-home-mom. We didn’t have kids for a while, so we had time to save money, line up decent insurance, and buy a house in one of the places we want to live. So when my daughter was born I did what we had planned and happily quit my job.

What we didn’t plan for was my husband losing his job. It wasn’t his fault—he was laid off—but it’s still surprising and also kind of embarrassing. So we haven’t exactly broadcast the news. But it’s getting harder and harder to keep up appearances, and I’m starting to feel like an imposter. My friends are doing Mommy and Me Yoga, sending their two-year-olds to Mandarin classes, and cooking all organic all the time. Meanwhile I’m secretly shopping at thrift stores and cooking a lot of spaghetti. Being a SAHM is great, and I love my new friends, but I just can’t keep up, and I’m so discouraged. How can I stay afloat socially, even if I can’t financially?




Dear Drowning,

Boy howdy have I been there. It’s hard, hard, hard to keep an embarrassing secret to yourself while everyone around you is living a sunny and open life. I imagine that you’ve called yourself “Drowning” because that’s how it really feels, like your friends are building sandcastles and laughing merrily as the tide washes them away. Meanwhile you’re out to sea, going under, like the tide is washing you away. It’s terrifying when your feet can’t touch bottom, your hands can’t grab hold, and no one is reaching out to save you.

I felt that myself when I had a big health scare a couple of years ago. My secret wasn’t embarrassing, but it was private, and no way, no how, would I tell anyone except my husband. I hated the thought of people gossiping about me, and I didn’t think I could deal with a constant stream of sympathy from other moms, no matter how well intended. I wanted to cook my own meals, drive myself to doctors’ appointments, and keep the right to be a bitch instead of a saint.

Little by little, though, my secret came out. First I found out there was a genetic risk, so I had to tell my sisters. Then my doctor had my driver’s license suspended, so my husband had to take over my school carpool duties. But when his work schedule made it too hard, I had to fess up and ask the other moms confidentially to cover my shift for a few months at least. Then, finally, I told my two closest friends. I needed some support after all.

That’s when the puppy dog eyes started. The other moms were sooo nice to me. They never asked about it, and only once did someone offer to cook for me. But their tones were gentle and their eyes were kind, and I found myself grateful for their softness. I was scared about my health, I did need help with driving, and yeah—my family was tired of take-out.

Drowning, I bet your mom said something like this (because all moms do): If your friends are being mean to you then they aren’t really your friends. But guess what? I’m not going to say that to you, not this time anyway. Because I’m not convinced that your friends would be mean to you. Maybe you’re being mean to yourself. Maybe you’re underestimating them.

I know it’s tricky when money is involved. It would feel awful if invitations stopped flowing your way because people weren’t sure you could afford it, and I’m sure you don’t want unsolicited advice about cutting coupons. At the same time, your family finances are no one’s business. I bet none of your friends knows how much your husband made at his old job, and they probably don’t know how much you spend on mortgage, cars, and food. So if you’re discreet about those things during good times, wouldn’t you keep those numbers to yourself during bad times? It’s not about being embarrassed. It’s about boundaries. And if you have to decline the occasional invitation or—gasp—shop on eBay, who cares?

As for your husband’s job, it’s possible your friends have already heard about layoffs, or might have put two and two together when they noticed that your husband is home an awful lot. So confide in a couple of friends with a calm “Paul got caught up in the layoffs at the plant. Isn’t that crazy?” The news will spread all by itself, and when people ask about it, just say, “I know—can you believe it?” and change the subject.

And while we’re on the subject of working, getting a job yourself could buy you some time, which seems like a bargain to me. And—bonus!—free childcare! Dad and daughter will probably even forge a tighter connection, which (trust me) is good for all of you.

Finally, Drowning, I’m so inspired by your ability to plan ahead. A marriage bucket list? What an idea! I’m already thinking about what I’ll suggest when I spring it on my husband. But remember that plans do go awry. It’s called life, and it has a funny way of interrupting just when we think everything is under control. It’s as predictable as the tides. If you’re swept up in them, you don’t have to drown. You can swim! Reach out, grab the lifeline your friends throw to you, and laugh once you’re safe on dry land.



Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.

Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.

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