Thursday, June 11, 2015

When we want what we can't have

When I was growing up we lived in a house I absolutely adored. It was very small brick house with green shutters and overflowing with beautiful trees, big and small. I had my own room with all of my favourite things tucked away in their place, a kitchen filled with delicious food, and a quiet street that was always available to play on. It was a great life, and most days it didn't seem to matter that almost all of my friends had more. My friends loved visiting our house.

But most of my friends had enormous houses, filled with rooms we could explore for days. Some of them had pools, garages filled with ski equipment, pianos in the living room, and what seemed like an endless number of toys. (One friend had Cabbage Patch Dolls in the double digits. Can you even imagine?) There were kitchens with two fridges to hold all of the food and bathrooms with cavernous jacuzzi tubs I secretly always wanted to try. Many friends had nannies at home with them, or women that cleaned their house every day. They went on trips to Disney or Whistler every year and spent summers at their cottages.

I was different from these other friends and I always knew it. What I can't remember is how it felt to be different. Is it because of these big houses and expensive clothes that I never felt popular? Is it a coincidence that my closest friends, friends I still hold dear, had families more like mine? I do remember coming home from days spent at my friends' houses or stables (yes, some of them owned their own horses) and going on and on to my mother about all the things my friends had. But was I upset with my parents for not giving me these things, too? Did I ever resent the middle-class-ness of my family? Was I grateful for the things I had?

I had plenty in my life. I had pretty clothes, ballet lessons five times a week, and books and toys for days. But did it feel like enough at the time? I just can't remember. I remember feeling envy sometimes, that seems perfectly human of me. But did I struggle with it? Because Alyce does, and it is eating away at her. 

Alyce is seven and generally loves everything about the world. She's shiny and bright and still skips or bounces as her primary mode of transportation. But lately she's been struggling with her second grade world. Like my family growing up, we are middle-class parents, earning enough to pay for the things we need, but not often enough to pay for all the things we might want all the times we might want them. We are an amazingly fortunate family. We eat good food, buy clothes when we need them, pay for medications when we need them, and we rent a home that is warm and comfortable. I have gratitude for miles and miles. 

Yet at school Alyce sees a world with so much more. So much. We live in a very wealthy part of Toronto and Alyce attends school with the kids of my own childhood. They take regular trips, have extra-curricular activities every night of the week, and I could go on and on about the things they have or do that we don't. I know these things because Alyce won't stop complaining about it, and of course, I see it, too. She feels very deeply that we belong to the have-nots while her friends have, have, have. Why don't we ever get to fly on a plane? she bemoans. Why don't we have stairs in our house, or a basement filled with toys? Or a trampoline or a cottage? she cries. She tells us that she hates our house. She asks me how much money we have in the bank. (One of her little friends walked into our house for the first time and asked me the same question.)

She wants things she doesn't have, no big surprise. Don't we all want things we can't have? I think these thoughts as I try to talk with her about her feelings, as we try to show her the meaning of gratitude and contentment for the things we do have. I try to channel the language of all those minimalist living blogs I read all the time, but I don't know if she hears a word we say in these moments. It wasn't until today that I realized why. 

At the end of the day I think Alyce is unhappy because she feels different, and feeling different can hurt. In a world filled with seven-year-olds trying to negotiate social status and the (unfortunate) hierarchies that develop, Alyce feels alone. She watches her friends find familiarity in the things that they share and she feels excluded. I get that. Sometimes I feel excluded when I think about other families that have more financial security, own their own home, or go on regular vacations. There are days I long for these things, too, except most days (not every day) I return to a place of gratitude for the life we have because I love it. Comparing ourselves to others is a normal human exercise, but it rarely feels good.

How do we learn to be thankful for the things we have? How do our kids learn to feel comfort and gratitude for the life they are living? (Someone please tell me.) The truth is I know what to do. I can't force Alyce to feel grateful, I can only help her to practice it a little bit every day. Each night before bed we all share one thing for which we are grateful, and sometimes Alyce contributes and sometimes she doesn't. (Shira is usually grateful for either me or candy.) We talk as a family about the different lives people live here in Toronto, that not all children attend a school like hers. Once I explained that there are children in our city who don't have enough food to have breakfast in the morning. That one seemed to sink in. 

At the end of the day all this practicing gratitude will slowly help to strengthen her, but it won't fix her feelings of being different now, and that's what so hard as her parent. I want so desperately to make her feel better today. I want to run out and buy her things and take her on airplanes. But I can't and I won't, not for these reasons. I want to let her know her feelings are normal without confirming her belief that she is always going without.

Any suggestions? 

Be well.

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