Not Quite the Opposite of Spoiled

Not Quite the Opposite of Spoiled

By Francie Arenson Dickman


“Is there anything else you guys need for camp?” I asked into the rear view mirror of my car. We were on our way home from toiletry shopping. Piles of white bags from Bed, Bath and Beyond covered my backseat. Amid the piles, sat my daughters. One of whom answered my question with, “I need sushi.”

I answered her with, “You need what?”

“Sushi,” she hollered, as if my confusion was simply auditory.

“I heard you,” I said. “I just don’t understand how ‘need’ and ‘sushi’ end up in the same sentence.”

“I won’t be able to eat it all summer,” she explained. “I need to have it before I go.”

Let me back up to explain that this conversation marked the culmination of a week long field day for my kids, a free-for-all of financially clueless thirteen-year-olds on the loose, making plans to go for lunch, to the mall, the movies, the amusement park, dinner. On one occasion, they even made reservations. All with a few taps on a screen and a click on the send button yet not an ounce of awareness as to the reality that not only did they need the assistance of parents to drive them to their destinations but to help fund them.

I’ve always known that I was going to drop the ball in some parental regard, and during the week between school and camp, it became evident that I had dropped the money ball. Clearly, I’d spent too much time over the years reading Charlotte‘s Web and Harry Potter and not enough time talking about taxes, return on investment and the value of a dollar. Not that I was unaware of these concepts, but I was hoping my daughters would pick them up by osmosis. Like I did.

Growing up, we never had formal financial programs like those Ron Leiber suggests in his book The Opposite of Spoiled, such as the Wants/Needs Continuum, which entails the charting of would-be purchases on a graph according to cost and something else. In our house, we simply had scare tactics.

“Money never burnt a hole in anyone’s pocket. Keep it there ’cause you never know when the banks are going to go bust,” my father, a child of the Depression, would tell us. He didn’t own a credit card, he didn’t miss a day of work and he didn’t need a Wants/Needs Continuum because to him, there were no such things as Wants.

My friends’ financial situations were as simple as my own. In middle school, we’d scrape together ten cents from the bottom of this backpack, a quarter from that, until we had enough money to buy an order of eggrolls at the Chinese place on our walk home from school. Two eggrolls split three ways. Who the hell even heard of sushi? We were, by virtue of our time and place, the opposite of spoiled.

But times have changed. My children are products of their time, and their time is filled with, well, products. Stuff abounds. As does access to it and awareness of it. My children’s estimation of their mother’s value of a dollar is diluted by Instagram, H&M and those God-for-saken Kardashians.

“Oh, we NEED antibacterial gel,” they said as they pushed through the aisles. They also “needed” Airborne, Boogie Wipes, nail polish remover pads, a hairbrush that magically detangles and defrizzes, a solar powered clock as well as a shelf on which to put the solar powered clock. I said yes to Bed and Bath products and no to everything Beyond. My daughters didn’t fight me on my decisions. I didn’t expect that they would. Neither of my two children are spoiled—they don’t ask for much, they don’t protest when the answer is no. But, they aren’t the opposite of it either.

I read The Opposite of Spoiled, hoping to center my girls’ perverted relationship to material things. But while full of great insights and ideas, I don’t have the methodological or mathematical skills to put them into place. If I did, I probably wouldn’t need the book in the first place. Take the aforementioned Wants/Needs Continuum. Even if I had fully visualized the Continuum (which I don’t doubt makes perfect sense) I can’t see it happening, at least in my house, where we barely have time to plan dinner. Generally speaking we buy on the fly as we dash between one activity and another. Not to mention, many of our “teachable moment” conversations occur in the car which is no place to start graphing.

I admit, it’s no place to start Googling either, but I did. In the Bed, Bath and Beyond parking lot, I googled the word “need” from my daughter’s iPhone (an oxymoronic act if there ever was one). “A need is a thing that is necessary for an organism to live a healthy life,” I read and then paused for the words to wind their way through the bags of junk and into their ears. “I don’t think that sushi falls under the umbrella of need.”

I tossed the phone back in my daughter’s lap and continued to drone as I drove, repeating cliches used by parents since the beginning of time, like “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” and “Super Loofah Body Scrubbers don’t buy happiness.”

After a few minutes they said, “Okay, Mom, we get it.” And I felt good.

Until yesterday when a letter arrived from my daughter—the same one who needed the sushi—explaining that she now “needs” return address labels for her letters. If you are wondering why she can’t address them with the same pen she used to ask for the labels, you’re not alone.

I thought one of the purposes of overnight camp was to bring it back to basics. Even Ron Leiber recommends overnight camp because camp reminds children of all that they have that they don’t need. He references air conditioning—but I’m thinking sushi. As far as all the stuff they don’t have that they also don’t need—I’m thinking labels—I guess I’m the one to remind my kids of that. And I suppose I’m also the one to remind them of all they don’t have that they actually do need—here, I’m thinking jobs.

I know two 13-year-olds who are free to babysit come fall. Message me, if you are interested.

Francie Arenson Dickman is a contributing blogger to Brain, Child. Her essays have also appeared in The Examined Life, A University of Iowa Literary Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and Literary Mama. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and twin daughters and is currently completing her first novel.




By Garlia Cornelia Jones-Ly


Times being tough is an understatement, but how I manage has gone from a question, to a state of panic, to an action. It is what we do. Manage.


The first time my daughter received hand-me-downs, I washed them, pressed them and voila, they were like new. Friends with older daughters were eager to give away the clothing they had collected over the years, and my being in an unexpected position of need both economically and as a first time parent, I was happy to have them.

I was raised middle to upper middle class in Detroit. Instruction and private lessons in an array of classical art forms (violin, dressage, flute and ballet) turned me into the artist I am today, but art alone doesn’t automatically surrender a comfortable living. With multiple graduate degrees in tow, Sallie Mae has me on speed dial and every month I feel as if I rob Peter to pay all 12 Apostles. Times being tough is an understatement, but how I manage has gone from a question, to a state of panic, to an action. It is what we do. Manage.

It hasn’t always been like this, but since my entire child rearing experience has taken place during a time of economic upheaval in our household, I often find my parenting stifled. I am unable to be the mother I want to be 100% of the time because of the looming financial responsibilities dampening my daily situation. The embarrassment of being a millennial not financially secure and overwhelmed with debt is suffocating as my Facebook news feed overflows with the happiness of other people’s lives. We know not to compare, try not to compare, but on some level the comparisons are always there.

There are times I feel unsettled, as if my life never “began”—not that I didn’t want to be a mother, but what have I experienced that I could teach another person? What can I give a child when I have “childlike” sensibilities?

I had to sink or swim with my immersion into parenthood; I thought I’d be in a far better economic situation. In 2013, about a year after joining what felt like a natural position as “mama” and naturally never being afraid to try new things, I began to explore new ways to make money, especially from home. It was then that I joined a pyramid scheme after googling “How to make money from home.” It was a rather desperate time as I struggled to build a photography business to make ends meet. A few months later I laughed about the whole crazy thing, because after nearly 10 years at Gap and opening hundreds of credit card accounts, I was terrible at offering Motor Club memberships to people, no matter how wonderful it appeared. The few friends and family I told about my “new venture” was through a mass of laughter and embarrassment because I couldn’t believe I had fallen so low. I made a total of $80, and suspended selling and marketing activity after two months.

My patience is often thinner than it should be as I get through a 7-10 hour period with two children—a baby and a toddler—while my husband is at work. The moments where I want to sit and bask in their development: new sounds, new words, and an understanding of concepts are often spoiled by the realities of unpaid bills or dreams deferred.

I’m a writer. I have an MFA in Playwriting, and even more, I am an Obie award winning Theatre Producer—an award I won with the Producing collective Harlem9, 1 week before giving birth on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building in Harlem. While my career accomplishments exist, there still lives an anxiety because of financial instability. A life in the arts with children is more than economically unpredictable. Most theatres are not-for-profits and therefore do not have the funds to allocate towards childcare, although many parents are beginning to fight for that right. With a spouse not from the arts world, my main struggle has been justifying that my creative work at all hours of the night is part of a standard family model.

I am imprisoned by my lack of financial freedom. In the deepest moments of my frustration, I coddle less and teach my children to get back up “after a fall” more. I have walked out of a room with a crying child in order to finish something that may never get done. While I want to sit and cuddle for hours, time is sometimes money, and there is never enough of either.

Parenting without financial comforts or stability does not allow me to approach parenting with ease. I often feel there is something I am not doing if I cannot focus on my children’s education or other social opportunities because I am overwhelmed with ways to make money to afford those experiences.

Between attempting to be supermom and super-wife, I am drowning in a mound of half completed tasks, feeling less than accomplished in the home.

I worry for the social lives of my children and find as many free opportunities for classes at local bookstores or concert halls. Recently, I signed up for IDNYC as a way to take the children to multiple cultural institutions free of charge or at a discounted rate. In this city that seems to cater to the rich and discard the poor with every passing day, I often wonder, would we be happy elsewhere?

When my children are asleep, I take the opportunity to write—in my notebook… on the subway… I write for that one job, the one break that could mean a more focused and attentive mother, changing our status, removing the economic burden. No longer managing or thriving, surviving … but being.

Garlia Cornelia Jones-Ly is a writer, OBIE Award winning theatre producer and newly Licensed Real Estate Salesperson. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and A mother of two, she lives in Harlem with her family. Follow her on Twitter/ Instagram/ Facebook @garliacornelia

Photo: gettyimages   

Something To Think About: A Poverty Roundtable

Something To Think About: A Poverty Roundtable

Nutshell logoIn a culture where the Horatio Alger myth is alive and well (you know, penniless but plucky kid makes good by dint of hard work and optimism) poor people get blamed for their poverty all the time. But it’s hard to make good long-term decisions when you’re poor particularly because financial poverty also means poverty of choice.  You can’t buy in bulk when you’re getting to the grocery store on a bus. You can’t grow your own organic veggies when you’re living in a one-bedroom basement apartment. And you may end up owing $100 after being ticketed for a broken headlight because you didn’t have an extra $16 to fix it.

Now research shows that the stress of poverty itself can actually cause cognitive deficits, which also contribute to budgeting mistakes and bad decision-making.  According to the researchers, trying to get by when there isn’t enough money is a little like trying to walk through life while simultaneously trying to pat your head and rub your stomach.

I gathered three creative moms who have lived or are living poor and had something to say about the experience.

In alphabetical order, the roundtable participants:

Ariel Gore is the founder of Hip Mama Magazine and the author of seven books including The Hip Mama Survival Guide, Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness and How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead. She’s also a mom to two. You can find her at

Liz Henry is a former teen mom who writes about politics, pop culture and feminism. She has been featured in The New York Times, Jezebel and iVillage and also appears in the forthcoming book, The Good Mother Myth. Her family recently relocated to Atlanta from Philadelphia. Her site is

Elisabeth Warner is a single mom to a teenage daughter living in Central Ohio. She keeps very busy staging and organizing homes, working as a virtual assistant for local businesses and serving as the outreach coordinator for the Clintonville Community Co-op. Her website is

Ariel: There’s a widespread belief that dysfunction causes poverty and it’s really the other way around. If we’re SO stressed about survival issues it becomes hard to have the mental space for much else.

Elisabeth: I am acutely aware of what happens when even one of the dozens of juggled balls get dropped.

Liz: Every second of every day I have thought about the cost of everything. I see privilege everywhere and my anger seethes. More than anything, I rarely see myself in someone else’s story. The inability to see your own trajectory kills your spirit.

Ariel: I remember when I was a young writer mom on welfare I read a Gertrude Stein quote, “It takes a heap of loafing to write a book.” I do believe that creative genius requires some down time, which requires some freedom from financial stress. That said, I think it’s also true that people who have never wanted for anything or never had to get creative to pay the bills aren’t usually the sharpest tacks.

Liz: I think of poverty like Dante’s Inferno, which is to say there are circles and levels. Desperation, at least to me, is the second to last circle of hell. It’s the level right before Desperation where I can still be creative and work through the soul-crushing, mind-warping anxiety that comes with thinking about every single dollar I have ever spent or where I will get another one or what could I have done differently. In the Third Circle of Poverty Hell, you can quiet the inertia of poverty anxiety until the work is done.

Elisabeth: I have always felt that everything is a series of trade-offs. For me, it was choosing the stress of poverty over the stress of professional engagement, or choosing to stay home with my child over a fulfilling romantic relationship. With my set of values, the choices at hand felt pretty similar, which has sometimes felt empowering and sometimes incredibly depressing.

Ariel: It actually got harder when I had a partner because she had her own financial problems and I stayed in “mama mode” and the habit of bottom-lining everything. As a single mother I found it a little easier to kind of take a bath and alleviate the stress of poverty even if I hadn’t yet alleviated the poverty. It’s easy to convince a little kid that everyone lives without electricity sometimes. When you have other adults the magical thinking doesn’t go as far.

Elisabeth: I hear you about the comfort of autonomy. The irony for me was that I stayed in terrible relationships because I was so afraid of deepening my poverty, when in fact I’ve done better financially alone than when I was partnered. Part of that was having a young child with whom I very much wanted to stay home, which exacerbated the feeling of stuckness, but I also just couldn’t figure out how I would be ok without someone else’s income. It took me way too long to figure out I was capable enough on my own. I’m generally a lot more confident that things will be ok than I was 10 or even 5 years ago.

Ariel: The thing I find heartening is that the brain drain doesn’t last. When we are able to move out of poverty and have a little bit of loafing time to chill we can return to a life of the mind.

Liz: Rather than be sad 99% of the time—which believe me I can be—I get angry.  When I’m on the phone with a random caseworker quizzing me about needless information, I get combative. I walk around thinking that others shouldn’t be inconvenienced by my shitty mood and I’m a general pleasure, but when it comes to bank employees, my unsupportive family, unhelpful caseworkers, I lose it. I’m not supposed to get angry and storm into a bank and say, “How much is enough for you people?! $500 in overdraft fees?”

Elisabeth: Oh, the impotent fury of overdraft fees and restoration charges. I call it the poor tax.

Ariel: I really thought of myself as an artist and valued that my kids were going to be raised in a bohemian kind of a way. And I’m not talking about that post-hippie-selfish-wander-off-artiste-mama archetype, but keeping our overhead lower than most American households meant our poverty-stress threshold was lower, too, and therefore easier to handle. In American culture it’s really difficult not to get sucked into having a very high overhead. But if you are going to be an artist or a writer, you have to be able to allow for a feast-or-famine personal economy.

Elisabeth: How we personally define poverty differs considerably depending on our own experience. By most American standards, I would be considered pretty poor—I make less than $12,000 a year, live paycheck to paycheck, my daughter and I receive food stamps, and I am hyper-aware that even a small financial set-back could mean serious crisis. But I also feel like I live pretty well. We live in a safe and even charming neighborhood, own our house and car, eat well (in no small part because I work at a food co-op that provides me with a generous discount), have Wi-Fi (most of the time!), etc. It could be a lot worse.

Liz: We have an “enough” problem. It’s not enough that you have a home; you have to have the three-car garage. It’s ridiculous and disgusting and I get angry about it and that anger fuels the best of what I write. Almost always.

Have you struggled financially? What are your thoughts? We’d love to continue the conversation in the comments below.

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